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Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.

In his recent Senate campaign in my state, Scott Brown talked a lot about securing the border. That’s the southern border, the one with Mexico, the one that’s over 2,000 miles away from New Hampshire. He connected the border issue to both terrorism and Ebola, neither of which we have here. And it almost worked. As a carpetbagger from Massachusetts, running against a likeable woman we’ve been electing governor or senator since 1996, in a state Obama won twice, Brown nearly pulled it off, losing 51.6% to 48.3%.

This happens at a point in the economic cycle when things are looking reasonably good: Unemployment, GDP growth, and the federal budget deficit have all escaped from the scary territory they were stuck in for so long after the housing bubble popped, and all are trending in the right direction. The stock market is at an all-time high. American combat troops are almost out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the country is as close to peace as it has been since 9-11. And while Fox News has managed to create a series of faux scandals to excite its viewers, by the very real measure of indictments and convictions, the Obama administration has been the cleanest one we’ve seen in a long time, comparing very favorably with, say, the Reagan administration.

Compounding the mystery, Brown’s near-miss is a rare failure in the national Republican trend. Their victory doesn’t just bring control of the Senate, but sweeps into office some pretty radical folks, like Joni Ernst in Iowa, another state Obama won twice. Sam Brownback, whose tax-cutting mania has pretty well wrecked the fiscal health of the state of Kansas without providing any of the private-sector economic boost he promised, got re-elected governor.

Meanwhile, voters were making some liberal choices on ballot measures: Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all legalized marijuana; Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota raised the minimum wage; Washington tightened gun control; and Colorado defeated a personhood amendment to limit abortion. And the national brand of the Republican Party, as Rand Paul put it, “sucks”. A pre-election poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal showed the party’s favorable/unfavorable rating far underwater: 29%/47%, as opposed to the Democrats’ narrower 36%/43% split.

So there’s no real evidence that the public is getting more conservative, or seeing Republicans in a better light, but still they’re electing more and wackier Republicans. What’s up with that?

The City on a Hill. I was home sick on Wednesday, so I spent the day reading a short new book called Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Mayer is a professor at Duke and the book is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s more academic than popular. But it is readable and has a clear point: Political scientists like to talk about voters who rationally weigh their interests, and tug-of-war struggles between institutional powers like unions or the Chamber of Commerce or the NRA. Meanwhile, pundits and campaign consultants like to talk tactics: ad buys and gaffes and moving the conversation away from your opponent’s issues and towards yours. But they all underestimate the power of stories to evoke a public response and channel that response into actions like contributing and campaigning and voting.

Mayer begins and then later concludes with the story-telling in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King never comes out and says, “I have a story to tell”, but his speech revolves around an implicit story I might retell like this:

From the beginning, the reality of America has been trying to catch up with the dream of America. From Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal” but continued to own slaves; to Lincoln, who won a war to end slavery, but could not deliver full freedom; to the civil rights movement of King’s own day, which had its victories, but still left much to achieve; to the future that King could see in his dream, and would later see from “the mountaintop“, in which the promise of equality would be fulfilled.

The story of America was the story of progress towards an ideal. That story connected to a great past, was continuing right there in Washington where King was speaking, and would carry forward to a successful conclusion in the future. It was mythic, it was inspiring, it was motivating. And today’s Democrats have nothing like it.

Republicans do. Like King, they don’t say outright, “Once upon a time …” and start telling their story explicitly. But it’s always there in the background. It can be hard to pick up on, because most speakers just allude to the story rather than re-tell it, assuming that their supporters and potential supporters already know it. I’d tell it like this:

American is and always has been the “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan talked about.* Its Constitution gave the world a model of liberty. Its free society gave opportunity to immigrants whose path to success had been blocked by the class system of Europe. Its capitalist economy and the industrious virtue of its citizens gave the world a new model of productivity and prosperity. The heroism of its soldiers and the determination of its statesmen saved civilization from both fascism and communism.

But now, the City on the Hill is threatened by barbarians at the gates. If the City were focused and united, no horde could stand against it. But the virtue that still exists in many of its citizens is mixed with corruption. Many have lost sight of the golden vision of the Founders and have forgotten the glorious history that followed. Many have lost the virtues of industry and self-reliance, and have no ambition beyond soaking up the productivity of others. Many do not understand the uniqueness of the City and why its values must be defended.

The City needs a renewal within and a crusade without, led by those who understand the world-historic significance of the City and its ideals. Without such a renewal and such a crusade, it will fall, and the light it brought to the world will be extinguished. But with such a renewal, its virtues can be restored, its enemies can be routed, and its golden past can live again.

[* I’ve described before how Reagan altered the city-on-a-hill image that goes back to the Mayflower.]

It’s easy to poke holes in this story, but before we do, let’s take a moment to appreciate its sheer diabolical beauty. For example, the story itself contains no prejudice other than nationalism, but it easily adapts to whatever bigotry a listener brings. Those lazy citizens who expect someone else to support them, do they have a certain complexion? The threatening barbarians, is that Arabic they’re speaking? Spanish? The corrupt citizens, might they be gay? Or atheists? Or Jews?

Maybe. Maybe not. Bigotry is harnessed, but deniable.

Similarly, the story can unite people who disagree, because the renewal it calls for can be anything. Does the lost vision the Founders include a fundamentalist style of Christianity? Or a robber-baron style of capitalism? Or what the League of the South calls “Anglo-Celtic culture“? Maybe some of that lost virtue is sexual: Men are having sex with other men, and women don’t know their place any more. They want to be free to have sex with whomever — barbarians, even — and escape the consequences of their sin through birth control or abortion.

No wonder the City is in danger.

What it explains. It’s only in the context of the City/Barbarians story that you can really understand the intensity rank-and-file conservatives feel about issues that (at first glance) have nothing to do with their lives. Why should straight people care so much about whether gay people get married? Or New Englanders fear Guatemalan children? Why do so many people have an opinion about academic theories like American exceptionalism? Why should well-fed families begrudge a poor family its Food Stamps? Why do people without young children feel such strong hostility towards public schools and their teachers? Why are those ISIS beheadings so much more horrifying than the beheadings that are normal Saudi executions? Why did the Ebola panic get so out of hand?

These things are not issues in the usual political sense. They are signs of the corruption of the City, omens of the barbarians’ arrival, and warnings of the havoc they’ll unleash if they get here.

The story also explains the bizarre animus people feel towards President Obama, and their willingness to believe absolutely anything about him: He’s Kenyan, he’s Muslim, he’s gay, he pals around with terrorists, he’s Marxist, he wants to kill your grandmother, and on and on. Obama’s fundamental sin is that he’s not one of us. He wants to open the gates and invite the barbarians in. Fox News’ “psychologist” Keith Ablow laid it out:

[Obama's] affinities, his affiliations are with them. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. … We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.

Sure, you can go all academic-historian and explain why the story isn’t true. You can explain that the City was always corrupt, that its prosperity depended as much on slavery and genocide as on virtue and Godliness. You can point to the virtues of the people the City wants to exclude, or the ways they have been exploited, and the debts to them that a just city would want to honor. And it won’t matter. Because a story like this doesn’t have to be true, it just has to feel true.

And if you come from a certain segment of American society  — the one I came from, for example — it does.

The lost age of upward mobility. I grew up in that segment of the white working class that expected to move up. Our expectation rested on a bunch of things that don’t exist any more.

To start with, there was my father’s job. He worked in a locally owned factory that wasn’t unionized, but had to compete for workers with factories that were. So a man who worked there (they were nearly all men in those days) could support a family and have a little money left over. Education wasn’t required; Dad had a high-school diploma, but others didn’t. And yet his job was secure in a way that is hard to imagine now. The factory itself was stable from one decade to the next — no thought of robots or China, or a junk-bond deal to liquidate its assets. So if you were reliable and worked hard you could do what Dad did: keep that job until you were ready to retire.

At every stage in my young life, I knew that if I was successful, the next stage would open up. If I did well in high school, I could go to college. It didn’t require luck or massive family savings or big loans. Community college was practically free, and the state university system was barely more expensive. You could just about work your way through college with a part-time job during the academic year and a full-time job in the summer. At worst, you might have to take a year off to work and save (at a working-class job that paid enough to let you save). So if college was part of your plan, money wasn’t going to stop you.

Once you got to college, if you chose a reasonable major and did well, you’d get a job when you graduated. Not delivering pizzas or telemarketing, but a real white-collar job with a career path. Or maybe you’d go on to graduate school and train for a higher profession. In a lot of fields, you could again work your way through. (I got a math Ph.D. by teaching calculus and getting a fellowship from the NSF. I came out debt free.) Or maybe you’d take on some debt to become a doctor or get an MBA, but that was an investment; it would pay off in no time. Once again, if you did well, there were jobs. The economy moved slowly enough that the job you’d pictured when you started grad school would still exist when you finished. And you could imagine (falsely, as it turned out) that it would still be there when you retired.

Life had what the stock-market analysts call visibility (“the extent to which future projections are probable”). You could make a plan and carry it out.

Undoubtedly, things were less certain if you weren’t white or spoke with a foreign accent. And women were just entering a lot of professions in those days, so they had no idea what to expect. But for a native-born white man, the good life was there for the taking. Nobody was exactly giving it to us — at each stage we had to work and succeed, and some of us fell by the wayside. But if you did succeed, the prize would be there. You could count on it.

None of that is true any more.

Today. As I write this I’m in my late 50s, watching my friends limp towards the end of their careers. A lot of them are one re-organization or one leveraged buyout away from unemployment, with no guarantee anyone would hire them at this age.

And their kids … I have no idea what to tell them. Even the most brilliant and energetic can’t predict where they’ll be in a few years. States have gotten out of the business of providing inexpensive high-quality higher education. There are no “safe” majors any more, no degrees that will guarantee a good first job, or even just one that will cover student loan payments. And the jobs themselves … even if you get one and everything seems fine, it can vanish like smoke. Maybe the office will move to Bangalore, or your whole profession will be replaced by an iPhone app. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard-working or well qualified you are. You could be scrambling for survival by this time next week.

Exactly whose fault this is … that’s a complicated question. Maybe the 1%, or the politicians, or technology, or globalization, or just the faceless forces of History. When the average person tries to figure it out, he just throws up his hands. Why? He doesn’t know why. But he knows this: It just feels wrong. And it didn’t used to be this way.

We used to be safe in a City on a Hill, but now there are barbarians at the gates. …

It feels true. That deep anxiety that never quite goes away. The sense that everything you’ve relied on could go “pop!” at any moment. That’s just how you’d feel in a city that was about to fall.

Nothing in the Democratic message addresses that.

What Democrats lack. Everything the Democrats support is on the wrong scale: We want to raise the minimum wage, and subsidize your health insurance, and pay women the same as men, and cut back the war on minor drugs, and create jobs building infrastructure, and put a little less carbon in the air. All good stuff. If you can get it isolated in a ballot question, it will probably pass. But none of it says, “Those are the people I want running things. I’m going to go out and take action to see that they do.”

George Lakoff summarizes the current Democratic strategy like this:

Use demographic categories to segment the electorate, categories from the census (race, gender, ethnicity, age, marital status, income, zip code), as well as publicly available party registration. … Poll on which issues are “most important,” e.g., for women (or single women), for each minority group, for young people, and so on. This separates the issues from one another and creates “issue silos.” … Assume that people vote on the basis of material self-interest and design different messages to appeal to different demographic groups.

What that misses is precisely the caring-about-things-that-don’t-directly-affect-you that the Republican story inspires. If you make minimum wage, then vote Democrat, because we’ll give you a raise. If you’re a poor woman who might get pregnant, we’ll defend your access to abortion. If you’re gay, we’ll support your right to fair treatment. If you’re Hispanic, we might not deport your nephew. If you’re young, we’ll help you deal with your student loans. But if you’re none of those things — or if you are, but not identifying strongly with your categories today — why should you care? What binds all those people together with all the other Democrats and offers them a role in the drama of history?

That’s the kernel of truth behind the charge that Democrats want to “divide America“, or that they try to win by offering “free stuff“. In one sense, those charges are laughable; it’s Republicans who have the big Us-against-Them story, and they are no less willing to offer free stuff to their constituencies. But Democratic strategy and messaging atomizes America. We may have a message for you as a unique combination of demographic categories. But we don’t have an identity to offer you as an American.

Even Lakoff’s proposal doesn’t really fix that problem. He offers a more unified set of principles and ways to advocate them, but the narrative element and the connection to our underlying anxiety is still missing. You can’t fight a story with principles, any more than you can fight it with facts or debunking or appeals to demographic interests.

You fight a story by telling a better story, one that does a better job of ringing true both factually and emotionally, one that draws people in and makes them want to tell that story to others. At the moment, we don’t have a better story. We’ve just got facts.

After you lose, you ought to spend some time in the wilderness, rethinking how you got here. During my time in the wilderness, these are the questions I’m going to be thinking about:

  • What is the real story of America? the one that’s based on actual history rather than fantasy?
  • How is that story playing out here and now, in the lives of everybody?
  • How do we want that story to come out?
  • What would it mean to be on the right side of that story, playing a role you’ll be proud to remember in your old age?
  • How can we offer Americans that kind of role?

The Case For Voting Democrat

I live in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional district, so most of the political ads I see are negative. Maybe that’s true everywhere, but it’s very obvious here: I’m told not to vote for Senator Shaheen or Rep. Kuster because they support President Obama too much. I’m told not to vote for their opponents because Marilinda Garcia is “too extreme” and Scott Brown is “working for the Big Guys, not New Hampshire“.

And while I recognize that it’s important to lay out the stakes of increasing the power of Republicans in Congress — do you like what they’ve been doing? they’ll do more of it if they have more power — I also think it’s important to close a campaign positively: Forget the other guy (or gal), why should people vote for you?

Allow me to explain by looking at the major issues: the economy, climate change, inequality, immigration, protecting our rights, ObamaCare, and war.

The economy. Under Democratic leadership, the economy has been getting slowly but steadily better in just about every way. Since Inauguration Day, 2009: Unemployment is down.

Screenshot 2014-11-01 08.07.16

GDP is up.

Screenshot 2014-10-31 10.54.28

The budget deficit is moving towards balance.

Screenshot 2014-10-31 10.32.26

The stock market is up.

Screenshot 2014-10-31 10.39.17

And inflation has stayed low.

No one denies that the recovery has been slow. That’s the difference between the old-style inventory-correction recessions and the bubble-popping recessions we’ve seen lately, as I explained in 2011. (Short version: In an inventory correction, the business cycle can return to its previous high as soon as retailers work through their excess inventory. But when a bubble pops, the previous high was based on a fantasy.) The 2008 housing-bubble downturn is the third consecutive bubble-popping recession, after the savings-and-loan bubble in 1990 and the dot-com bubble in 2000. All three led to what were described at the time as “jobless recoveries”. The 2008 bubble was bigger and and the corresponding recession deeper than the other two, so it has taken even longer to come out of.

All through the Obama years, the economic argument has been between Democrats who wanted more stimulus — maybe by doing something about our crumbling infrastructure or upgrading our antiquated electrical grid — and Republicans who wanted to cut spending. The result has been moderate stimulus — not nearly what economists were calling for.

What would have happened if we’d gone the Republican route? History doesn’t allow do-overs, so it’s impossible to say for sure. But one comparison says a lot: Europe and the UK suffered the same recession we did, and implemented the austerity program that Republicans wanted here. It didn’t go well. (The graph below was the best one I could find, but it only goes to 2012. The U.S. advantage only grows after that. In the most recent quarter, the American economy grew 3.5%, compared to 3.2% in the UK, and growth in the European Union has been stuck below 1%.)

Climate change. The environment used to be a bipartisan issue. Republican President Teddy Roosevelt was a proud environmentalist; Richard Nixon established the EPA; and as recently as late in 2007, conservatives like John McCain were campaigning on environmental issues. “Climate change is real,” he said at a New Hampshire rally I attended, and he proudly described the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan to cut carbon emissions.

But today, climate change is a party-line issue. If you agree with the scientists who study the topic that climate change is happening, is caused by burning fossil fuels, and that something should be done about it — in other words, if you hold the 2007 McCain position or anything stronger — you should be a Democrat. Otherwise, you’re with these guys:

Cap-and-trade passed the House when Nancy Pelosi was speaker, but fell to the threat of a Republican Senate filibuster in 2010. (McCain had turned against his own idea by then.) When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, the possibility of passing anything through Congress ended. Because there is no Republican climate-change plan that Democrats could compromise with or even surrender to. The Republican position is that climate change is just not a problem.

The only Republicans willing to talk about climate change at all are the ones claiming it’s a hoax created by a conspiracy of liberal scientists. Sarah Palin says: “More people are waking up to the global warming con” and goes on to compare concern about climate change (“hysteria”) to eugenics. You might say Palin doesn’t matter, because she isn’t in office. But the Republican chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology recently sounded similar in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Its final paragraph begins:

Instead of pursuing heavy-handed regulations that imperil U.S. jobs and send jobs (and their emissions) overseas, we should take a step back from the unfounded claims of impending catastrophe

That leaves the executive branch to take action on its own, which is always going to be a second-best option. We’re still a nation of laws, so if you can’t change the laws your hands are tied. Nonetheless President Obama and the EPA have taken a few small steps towards mitigating the very real disaster we keep marching towards. (2014 is looking like it will unseat 2010 as the hottest year on record.) Fuel economy standards on cars and carbon-emission standards for power plants have been raised.

But Mitch McConnell is promising to undo Obama’s executive actions if he becomes majority leader of the Senate. So we’ll be back to doing nothing.

Inequality. The old slogan was “A rising tide lifts all boats.” In other words, if the economy became more productive, rich, poor, and middle class would all benefit alike.

That stopped being true right about the time of the Reagan Revolution. Since then, we’ve cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, raised payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, made it all but impossible to start a new union, drastically limited the enforcement of antitrust laws, and made students pay for more and more of the cost of a college education. The results have been predictable.

I wish I could say Democrats were fighting to reverse all that, but they’re mostly just trying to keep it from getting worse. ObamaCare was a step in the right direction, and so was the tepid increase in the top tax rate in 2013. Meanwhile, Republicans are full steam ahead: even lower top tax rates, less regulation, less support for education, and more union busting.

Immigration. The Senate immigration reform bill is one of the rare examples of bipartisanship in the Obama era, but Republicans in the House blocked it without passing any alternative, or even bringing one to a vote. The House passed the DREAM Act back in 2010 when the Democrats were in control, but it died in a Republican Senate filibuster.

Like climate change, immigration is another issue where President Obama — recognizing that Congress is stuck — has tried to do what he can without new law. He has moved DREAMers to the bottom of the deportation priority list, and has implied that he will do more after the election. Republicans have threatened to impeach him if he does.

In the 2014 cycle, immigration has been a prime focus of Republican demagoguery. “Secure the border” is the refrain, and it connects to whatever fear-object is currently available: ISIS, Ebola, or unemployment. Meanwhile, they provide few details about what a secure border would look like or how it might be achieved. More and more, “our Mexican border is insecure” looks like one of those permanent ideological fixations that needs no supporting facts — similar to “we need to cut spending” or “voter fraud is rampant”. It will always be true, no matter how many walls we build or border agents we hire. And it will always be a reason to do nothing about immigration.

Protecting our rights. Both parties think the other side is attacking basic American rights. However, they disagree on which rights are in danger.

Democrats are trying to defend these rights: The right to vote without paying a de facto poll tax or jumping through partisan hoops. The right to marry the person you love. The right to decide for yourself whether to carry a pregnancy to term. The right to be treated fairly by police, even if you are poor or non-white. The right to equal pay, regardless of gender. The right of women to have their health problems taken as seriously by insurance as men’s health problems.

Republicans are worried about these rights: The right to carry a loaded rifle through the aisles of Target. The right of businessmen to refuse service to people they don’t like. The right of employers to decide what health coverage their employees can have. The right of Christian pharmacists and health-care workers to put their religious beliefs above your care. The right of corporations and billionaires to spend as much money as they want on political campaigns — and to do it anonymously.

Which set of rights you think are really important and actually in danger should tell you something about which party to vote for.

War. In the last year of the Bush presidency, 314 American troops died in Iraq. So far in 2014, there have been two. In Afghanistan, the total went from 155 in 2008 to a high of 499 in 2010, and this year is down to 49. Meanwhile, President Obama has resisted calls to put troops on the ground in Syria or return combat troops to Iraq, and continues to resist pressure to attack Iran. Like every president since Truman, Obama has failed to resolve the Israel/Palestine problem, if you want to criticize him for that.

ObamaCare and public health. There was a time when Republicans were planning to make this election a referendum on ObamaCare. But they dropped that plan, because more and more obviously all the time, ObamaCare is working: The number of uninsured people is down everywhere, but especially in states that accepted Medicaid expansion. Healthcare inflation is down. None of the sky-is-falling Republican predictions have come true. (They’re still predicting disaster, but more and more they resemble a religious cult predicting the End of the World: It’s coming, but the date keeps sliding for some reason.)

As I explained in more detail last week, public health in general is a Democratic issue. It’s fundamentally a we’re-all-in-this-together issue rather than an every-man-for-himself issue. In a genuine epidemic like the 1918 flu, your neighbor or your nanny or the janitor at your office getting sick is a problem for you; you want them to be diagnosed and treated as efficiently as possible. You don’t want them staying out of the system because they don’t have health insurance, or because they don’t have papers and are afraid of being deported.

The Ebola panic has pointed out something else as well: Public officials should keep their heads in a crisis, and not play on people’s fears for political gain. The Obama administration and Democrats generally have provided the calm, fact-based, science-based leadership this country needs.

 

That’s true across the board. If you want leadership that is based on facts, on science, and on the way reality actually works, you should vote for Democrats.

Vote. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something.

If you’ve got friends who think they’re “protesting” by not voting, send them this from the Young Turks:

And while we’re on the subject, let’s address the “Both parties are owned by Wall Street” or “neither party represents me” argument: It’s true. There’s lots of stuff I want out of government that neither party is even proposing: single-payer health care, ending the perpetual war, reining in the NSA, enforcing the antitrust laws,  … I could go on.

What that proves isn’t that voting doesn’t matter, but that voting is not enough. In addition to voting, we need to be educating ourselves and our friends, challenging cultural assumptions, mobilizing support around an agenda for more radical change, launching primary challenges to get better Democrats on the ballot, pushing better forms of voting (like instant runoff) and more.

We need to use the political process, and we need a movement like Occupy … plus whatever else you can think of. Not one or the other. Both.

Not voting isn’t a protest, it’s a retreat. Not voting means abandoning the small amount of power the system allots you.

You have a choice tomorrow. There’s one party with a way-too-small response to global warming, and another that that says climate scientists are part of a global conspiracy; one party that keeps the perpetual war simmering reluctantly, and another that would eagerly boil it over; one party that sells out to Wall Street on certain key issues, and another that is 100% owned and operated by Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry; one party with a half-hearted response to economic inequality, and another working to increase inequality; one party that won’t stand up to the theocrats, and another that stands with them. In the near term, one or the other is going to control the government. Which should it be?

Would I like a different choice? Sure I would. But in the meantime I’m going to make the choice I have. Because this one’s simple: Do you want more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs on the Supreme Court or more Anthony Scalias? That decision is going to be made by voters. So don’t you want to be a voter?

Vote. It’s not nearly enough. But it’s something.

7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola

Disease should make us think like a species, not like rugged individualists.

One perverse aspect of the public reaction to Ebola is the way it seems to be playing politically, at least in the short run. Ebola is making people afraid, and pushing them towards the party whose central narrative is about fear and anger: the Republicans.

Republican politicians are certainly playing up this angle: exaggerating the threat, and calling for xenophobic actions to combat it — cut off contact with Africa, seal the border against … well it’s not clear against who. Candidates have been amalgamating all the current fear-objects into one nightmare narrative: ISIS terrorists are going to infect themselves with Ebola, then sneak across our southern border to spread it here.

Senator Ron Johnson and Rep. Joe Wilson have put it most bluntly, but Republican Senate candidates around the country — Scott Brown, Thom Tillis, Cory Gardner — have been highlighting the pieces of this dark fantasy and hoping voters will assemble it for themselves: Ebola, ISIS, southern border.

Like most nightmares, this one evaporates as soon as you look at it by daylight: Ebola sucks as a bio-weapon, because it’s so hard to spread, and by the time the carriers were contagious they’d mostly just want to sleep; they certainly wouldn’t be able to swim the Rio Grande or hike the Arizona desert. Except in fantasy, no one has found any links between ISIS and Mexico. And unlike Texas, Mexico has no Ebola cases so far; if anybody should want to seal the border, it should be them, not us.

But nightmares — even very, very unlikely ones — raise fear, and fear makes people vote Republican. Or at least that’s what Republicans believe.

A rational person, though, ought to become more liberal when they think about Ebola, not more conservative. Here’s why.

1. Ebola points out why we need government. Libertarian rhetoric about sovereign individuals has a lot of superficial charm. But biology knows nothing about that; humanity is a species, and sometimes we have to act as a species. We do this through government.

If you want to get some distance on these issues, I recommend reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza, about the 1918-19 epidemic that killed as many as 100 million people around the world. The cities that did well with that plague were the ones whose governments were most draconian about it. As you read, try to imagine a plague hitting Galt’s Gulch, where each sovereign ubermensch would do his own research and make up his own mind about the disease and how to handle it. I don’t think they’d do very well.

There’s a lot of thankless, profitless work involved in controlling Ebola. For example, tracking down all the people who have been in contact with an infected person, and testing or quarantining them. It’s hard to imagine a free-market system that would do this well. The most obvious libertarian system would make individuals responsible for tracking their own exposure, and if some more complicated system created a profit motive for controlling a small outbreak, waiting until it’s a larger outbreak would be even more profitable.

2. Ebola points out why we need a fully funded government. When there’s no immediate threat of disease, government agencies like the CDC look like bureaucratic waste. When Rand Paul put out a “Tea Party budget” in 2011, it included a big cut in the CDC, and virtually no explanation as to how this would affect its mission. As I explained at the time:

sometimes you don’t get even that much justification, and the cut seems to be based on little more than an ideological assumption that waste must be in there somewhere. Take the CDC again. It’s our front line against plagues and epidemics, the folks we depend on to helicopter down in astronaut suits if SARS or ebola breaks out or drug-resistant tuberculosis gets out of hand. It has a total budget of $6.342 billion in 2011, so $1.165 billion represents a 28% cut for the final 2/3 of the year (assuming Paul’s bill could be passed immediately).

How should the CDC fulfill its mission with 28% less money? Given how disastrous a mistake could be, you might hope for some kind of expert justification, maybe a new strategy based on a medical study or two. Nope. The overview just suggests “focusing on domestic priorities rather than spending billions on overseas initiatives.” So basically, the CDC should stop worrying about plagues in other countries, and wait until they show up here. In Rand Paul’s world, that kind of thinking saves money.

I quote from my 2011 article to make this point: Hindsight wasn’t necessary to grasp how misguided this was.

NIH Director Francis Collins has speculated that we’d have an Ebola vaccine by now if not for the budget cuts that did get made: The $37 million we spent on Ebola vaccine research in 2010 was down to $18 million by 2014. Various other people have pushed back against that speculation. (And then Mike the Mad Biologist pushed forward again.) But the bottom line is simple: If you could reach back in time and reverse those cuts, wouldn’t you?

Now ask yourself: How many other cuts are like that? How many other agencies not currently in the headlines are we looking at as “wasteful spending” when it’s just that we don’t personally need them right now? And is it possible that events might make us wish we’d spent more before the emergency hit?

3. Ebola points out why we need a fully staffed government. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a surgeon general about now? (Just as it would have been nice to have had an ambassador to Russia when the Ukraine thing broke out or a Turkish ambassador as we were trying to get Turkey’s cooperation in opposing ISIS.) As former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin put it:

The surgeon general is America’s doctor. Delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand. Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.

But we don’t have one because of the NRA. President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy back in March. But it turned out that Murthy views gun violence as a public health problem. (So does the AMA.) That makes him unacceptable to the NRA, so the Senate has been unable to confirm him (and a recent Supreme Court ruling prevents Obama from installing him as a recess appointment).

It wasn’t so long ago that the Senate believed in staffing the government, without making every appointment into a political football. But today’s Republicans have blocked Obama’s appointments on principle, even when they have no issue with the nominee. If they get control of the Senate in the upcoming election, expect the government to remain understaffed at least until the next administration.

If you’ve ever worked in an understaffed department, you know what that means: Stuff falls through the cracks. When that inevitably happens, Republicans will blame “government” rather than the true culprit: understaffed government.

4. Ebola demonstrates why we need to fund foreign aid. Foreign aid is one of the most unpopular parts of the federal budget (possibly because Americans grossly overestimate how much we spend on it). But viruses point out that the world is more interconnected than our political systems account for.

Bush administration officials used to tell us that we had to fight terrorism “over there” or else we’d eventually have to fight it over here. That’s debatable when it comes to terrorism, but it’s absolutely the fact when you talk about contagious diseases.

Ebola is controllable — previous outbreaks have been controlled, and the world has gone entire years without new cases. But ultimately it has to be controlled at the source, in west Africa.

Now widen your view a little: Anyplace in the world where people are living in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions, the next super-bug might be evolving. Any population that is “off the grid” of the global medical establishment might where a pandemic gets rolling before anyone notices.

5. The specter of a deadly infection demonstrates why we need universal health care. Conservative rhetoric revolves around individuals, and in particular how wrong it is to “give” individuals benefits — like health care — that they haven’t “earned”. Such individuals become “dependent on government” and take money away from “job creators”. It’s even worse if some of those benefits reach people who entered the country illegally or stayed past the expiration of their visas.

But when an infection gets loose, you want everybody who might be sick to seek treatment. You don’t want them to stay away from doctors because they can’t pay, or avoid the emergency room for fear of being deported, or not tell anybody about that undocumented cousin they might have infected.

I’m still not terribly worried about the spread of Ebola in the United States. (The number of cases and the likelihood of spreading the infection are both low.) But we might not be so lucky with the next disease. That’s why we should all be tremendously grateful that (so far) ObamaCare has gotten health insurance to ten million more people, and we should be working to plug the holes in that system rather than tear it down.

If a real epidemic got rolling, where would you rather be? In Massachusetts, where the model for ObamaCare, RomneyCare, became law in 2006, and only 1.2% of the population lacks health insurance? Or in a conservative wonderland like Texas, where 24.8% — probably including the Hispanics who clean your office or work in the kitchen at your favorite restaurant — are uninsured?

6. The Ebola panic demonstrates the danger of legitimizing conspiracy theories. During a plague, you need affected people to cooperate with the containment plan — seek treatment, accept quarantine, and report all their contacts truthfully — while unaffected people stay calm rather than doing panicky, stupid things. That’s when it’s important that the country trust its scientific establishment and its government.

Now of course it is important that the media and the political process police the trustworthiness of both those institutions. On those rare occasions when scientists fake data, they should be exposed. When the government lies, the media should investigate and seek the truth.

But what we’ve been seeing inside the conservative news bubble during these last six years goes way beyond that. Political opportunism has been seeking every opportunity to tear down public trust, even when — maybe especially when — the accusations are baseless.

And so, much of the public believes that the scientific community is involved in an elaborate conspiracy to promote a climate change “hoax”, or to destroy the Christian religion via the theory of evolution. So how can we believe what the doctors are telling us about Ebola?

And the Obama administration? If President Obama faked his birth certificate to hide the fact that he’s not really eligible to be president, if he’s been plotting to destroy the U.S. since he was a student, if he has a gun-confiscation plan that’s always just a month or two from implementation, if he is funding “death panels” that will decide whether your life is worth saving, if he has a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview, if he “hates white people” or “has a deep-seated hatred of white people or the white culture” … why would his administration tell us the truth about Ebola? Fox News’ resident psychologist Keith Ablow lays it out:

[Obama's] affinities, his affiliations are with [Africans]. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.

This is irresponsibility on a grand scale. Every era has a lunatic fringe with paranoid notions. But this kind of stuff comes from governors, members of Congress, a news network, and lots of other folks who seem to be part of a trustworthy establishment. And major national leaders — I’m looking at you, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell — sit at the same table and humor the purveyors of this destructive nonsense.

So it’s no wonder we’re seeing all kinds of weird behavior out there: Like the school in Maine that suspended a teacher for 21 days (the incubation period of Ebola) because she’s been to Dallas. Her hotel was less than ten miles from the hospital where two nurses got infected, so how can we have her in the same room with our children? (The local news report on this mentions a local parent who believes the government has “downplayed risk factors”. I wonder where he gets his news.) Thursday, several entire schools closed in Texas and Ohio because of Ebola contagion fears.

What would happen if we were having a real epidemic? I think mobs would be roaming the streets, burning down the houses of suspected carriers — all because the conservative movement and the Republican Party have prioritized destroying Obama over maintaining public trust in trustworthy institutions.

Pandering to people’s worst instincts may seem like a political freebie. But it isn’t. There’s a big social cost to this kind of stuff. But “social cost” is one of those things that conservatives are trained not to see. And that’s a 7th reason why you should be a liberal.

Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?

I hated last summer’s Windsor decision. That is, I loved the result — the Defense of Marriage Act overturned — but I hated Justice Kennedy’s mushy legal logic. What did the decision mean? How would it apply to anything beyond the specific case in front of the Court? How would it apply to state bans on same-sex marriage?

Lower-court judges wondered too. As he was striking down Oklahoma’s ban in January, Judge Terence Kern placed a subtle barb into his decision:

This Court has gleaned and will apply two principles from Windsor.

I unpacked that statement like this:

Ordinarily, a lower-court judge just “applies” principles from a higher-court ruling, rather than having to “glean” them first.

Nevertheless, judges all over the country were managing to glean something similar out of Windsor. In one federal district after another – Indiana, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin — state same-sex marriage bans were going down. The states were appealing those decisions to the Supreme Court, but the Court did not necessarily have to make a ruling, because so far the appellate court rulings were unanimously against the state bans. If one district found them constitutional and another unconstitutional, the Supremes would have to step in. But so far that hadn’t happened.

On Monday, the Court announced that it would take advantage of its right to remain silent: It was refusing to hear the appeals. That instantly established marriage equality in the appealing states, and made virtually automatic its extension to other states in the same appellate districts: Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (The near-automatic ruling in North Carolina happened Friday. Thursday, West Virginia officials dropped their case rather than waste time losing.)

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which comprises much of the Northwest, will hear cases involving Idaho, Nevada, and Hawaii soon. Alaska’s ban went down Sunday, so it might be added to that hearing.

When the dust settles fairly soon, gays and lesbians will be allowed to marry in 30 states — 35 if the 9th Circuit joins the appellate-court consensus. Can anything stop its extension to the whole country before long?

The politics of the Supreme Court. One of the intriguing facts about the Court’s non-decision is that hearing an appeal only requires the approval of four justices, not the five it would take for the appeal to succeed. The Court’s four most conservative members — Roberts, Scalia, Alito, and Thomas — all dissented in Windsor and presumably believe in the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans. If they had stuck together, they could have agreed to hear the appeals. That would have stopped the spread of marriage equality at least until the Court ruled, maybe as late as June.

The only reason not to take that course is the fear that they would lose, and that Justice Kennedy would join the Court’s liberal justices — Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan — in establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Similarly, the four liberal justices could have accepted the appeal and gone for the win rather than for the sizable advance the non-decision represents.

All the justices — especially Kennedy — might want the battle for marriage to play out in a more gradual, more organic way, rather than ending it in a quick thrust with the Court’s fingerprints on the knife.

And both sides can keep their victory scenarios alive, though the conservative victory scenario is shakier: If they can’t convince Kennedy to join them, the conservative justices have to hope a Republican wins the White House in 2016 and has a chance to replace Kennedy or a liberal judge with a conservative.

Nationally, marriage equality has substantial momentum, so a decision upholding it becomes less controversial by the day. And if the Court never decides, in the long run the political process will.

The legal debate. Reading the post-Windsor lower-court decisions, one conclusion is inescapable: The anti-gay side has run out of ammunition. In case after case, they have had no better strategy than to trot out the same arguments all the previous courts rejected, and hope that this judge will be more sympathetic to their cause.

Way back in Lawrence, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that mere moral disapproval (without any substantive injury to those disapproving or to society in general) was an acceptable basis for making a law (against sodomy, in that case). So “I think two men kissing is yucky” is not a rational basis for banning same-sex marriage. Similarly, “The Bible says it’s wrong” doesn’t cut it, because the Bible has no legal standing.

Since those are the actual reasons people oppose marriage equality, the legal arguments against it have always been facades. More and more, they have looked like facades, and judges have routinely knocked them down: There is zero legitimate evidence that letting same-sex couples marry harms heterosexual couples, or the children being raised by either same-sex or opposite-sex couples, or anyone else.

Looking back at the Goodridge decision (that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003), it’s striking how little has changed on the anti-gay side. The arguments that were unconvincing a decade ago are still the only ones they have.

The political debate. My prediction after Goodridge has been borne out:

Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson’s predictions, on the other hand, have not fared nearly so well:

Barring a miracle, the family as it has been known for more than five millennia will crumble, presaging the fall of Western civilization itself.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in my state (New Hampshire) for almost five years. And I live just across the border from Massachusetts, where it’s been legal for a decade. If the family or Western civilization is any closer to crumbling here than in heterosexual-marriage-only states like Texas or Alabama, the signs are escaping me.

Scare tactics like Dobson’s are an all-or-nothing gamble. If you can frighten people out of trying something, they’ll never find out that your visions of doom are baseless. But as soon as somebody does try it, then the sky either falls or it doesn’t.

The sky isn’t falling. The more states that implement marriage equality and the more same-sex couples that are visibly pursuing their chance at marital happiness, the more obvious it becomes that the sky is not falling. Little Bobby’s friend Susie has two Dads or two Moms, and it’s just not a problem. You’ll never be able to explain to Bobby why you want the government to break up Susie’s family.

That’s why the poll results are so age-determined. The main people against marriage equality these days are the grandparents, who don’t have to explain stuff to Bobby.

So here’s what I expect to happen as a result of this latest expansion of marriage equality: The opposition will harden in the states affected, but it will also shrink. More and more people will have a chance to observe first-hand the absurdity of the “pro-family” scare tactics.

Here’s what I don’t expect to happen: The Republican Party will not launch a crusade to get this reversed, or play up the Republican-president-appoints-an-anti-gay-judge scenario in 2016. Because nationally, that’s a losing issue. The public has turned.

The last-ditch resistance. In “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I defined the Confederate worldview like this:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

On the national level, conservatives can’t win this battle either legally or democratically any more, and the number of states where they could win democratically is shrinking every year. More and more, the national Republican leadership wants to talk about anything else — Ebola-infected ISIS terrorists crossing our Mexican border, maybe.

Republican strategist Alex Castellanos put it like this:

Increasingly, there is less room in the GOP for ‘big-government’ social conservatives, i.e., social conservatives who believe in using the power of the state to tell people whom they can love or marry. Instead, there is growing agreement, in an ever younger and increasingly libertarian Republican party, that the role of the state in prohibiting relationships should be minimized.

And northern Republican governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie are happy to leave the issue behind.

But that pragmatic approach to politics doesn’t sit well with the older Confederate types. Mike Huckabee is threatening to leave the party if it doesn’t fight this. Other voices are calling for civil disobedience, though it’s not clear what form that would take.

The most outrageous response came from Pat Buchanan, who recalled resistance to an earlier act of “judicial dictatorship”:

In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of all public schools. But when the court began to dictate the racial balance of public schools, and order the forced busing of children based on race across cities and county lines to bring it about, a rebellion arose.

Only when resistance became national and a violent reaction began did our black-robed radicals back down.

Again, it’s not clear what specific acts of violence he’s calling for.

I also cited the reaction to school desegregation as an example of Confederate tactics in the modern era. And Buchanan apparently sees that relationship too (though he views it positively). He ends his article with a quote from Robert Lewis Dabny’s 1867 book A Defense of Virginia.

American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. … Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious, for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom.

Buchanan is arguing against conservatives who believe that the debate about same-sex marriage is over. Dabny was arguing — after the end of the Civil War — with those who thought that the debate about slavery was over. Dabny was a prophet of the insurgency that ultimately won Reconstruction for the South and established Jim Crow.

And he’s an example that Buchanan wants to emulate.

Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam

The argument about Islam between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time brought to mainstream attention a phenomenon that’s been simmering for a long time: Islam brings out something ugly in many of the most vocal atheists like Harris and Maher.

Part of the problem is obvious in the staging: Maher has arranged the show in such a way that the onus of defending non-jihadi Muslims falls not on some prominent Islamic leader, or even on a rank-and-file Muslim, but on Ben Affleck, an actor who (as far as I know) has no connection to Islam. Affleck occupies a position that I occasionally find myself in (usually with regard to political issues like Birtherism) and thoroughly hate: He recognizes that the conversation is taking an ugly turn, and he’s completely unprepared to respond to it, but everyone else is just letting it go. He boils over not because he thinks he is the right person to have this argument, but because he’s the one who’s here.

Probably this post has already gotten three comments from people who have read no further and are shocked that I’m taking Affleck’s (and Islam’s) side over Harris and Maher. The Weekly Sift has a substantial atheist/agnostic readership, and for good reason: I’m a consistent defender of the wall of separation between Church and State, and I fight back against the attempts by right-wing American Christians to subvert concepts like religious freedom. Whether or not I am an atheist myself depends on your definitions, but a major theme of my explicitly religious writing and public speaking (like this recent example) is how someone with a secular worldview can get the benefits claimed for traditional religion (serenity in the face of death, for example) without accepting its doctrines.

Plus, I’m usually a Bill Maher fan. (Though don’t expect me to defend him segueing out of a Sarah Palin joke with “speaking of dumb twats“.) I’ve linked to a number of his New Rule rants, and used a Maher quote to lead off the Sift as recently as September 29.

So, Harris and Maher might ask, what’s up with me? Why do I have what Joseph Farah has called the “liberal blind spot on Islam“? Here’s how Harris made that case on Real Time:

We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people.

Maher had introduced the segment like this:

Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles. … Like freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion you want without fear of violence, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, equality for minorities (including homosexuals). These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say “In the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking” — then they get upset.

The discussion that follows largely misses what I think is the main point, and in that sense it resembles those why-don’t-you-care-about-black-on-black-crime discussions that followed the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Statistics are quoted (“78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonist should have been prosecuted”, much like “[blacks make up] 50% of homicide victims in this country, and 90 percent of those victims are killed by other black people.”), and many true facts are stated — but stated within a frame that already embodies the offensive content. “This is based on reality, Ben,” Maher insists. “We’re not making this up.”

Nicholas Kristof does push back in the right direction:

This does have the tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African Americans.

But, like Affleck, he isn’t prepared well enough to unpack that idea.

Let me give it a shot. The problem here is the one that Edward Said wrote the entire book Orientalism about: The privileged outsider encloses some large group of diverse “others” inside a conceptual fence, gives the enclosure a name like “the Orient” or “the Muslim world”, and then takes it on himself to pronounce what the defining essence of that fenced-off region is.

Remember when Cliven Bundy said, “I want to tell you one thing I know about the Negro”? It doesn’t really matter where Bundy goes from there. The racism is already built into the idea that there is such a being as “the Negro”, and that a white man like Bundy is qualified to make pronouncements about the defining characteristics of “the Negro”.

Now look at what Harris snuck into the Islamophobia quote above: “the doctrine of Islam”. To Harris, Islam is not a cacophony of people who have been arguing with each other since the 7th century. It’s one thing. It has a unified body of doctrine, and Harris can tell you what that doctrine is. And if there are people who consider themselves Muslims but disagree with whatever Harris defines from the outside as the essence of Islam, well, too bad for them.

Harris’ rhetoric is shot through with this orientalist framing. Elsewhere in the conversation he maps it out:

Just imagine some concentric circles here. You have at the center, you have jihadists. These are people who wake up in the morning wanting to kill apostates, wanting to die trying. They believe in Paradise. They believe in martyrdom. Outside of them we have Islamists. These are people who are just as convinced of martyrdom, and Paradise, and wanting to foist their religion on the rest of humanity, but they want to work within the system. They’re not going to blow themselves up on a bus. They want to change governments. They want to use democracy against itself. Those two circles are arguably 20% of the Muslim world. … But outside of that circle you have conservative Muslims, who can honestly look at ISIS and say: “That does not represent us. We’re horrified by that.” But they hold views about human rights, about women, about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.

Look what he’s done there: Jihadists are the real Muslims. They’re at the center. The further you are from being a jihadist, the fringier your Islam is.

So the question of who is a real Muslim, and what makes someone a real Muslim — that’s not something for Muslims to wrangle out among themselves, it’s for a hostile outsider to pronounce. That’s where the bigotry is. Statistics about how many people fall into Harris’ concentric circles are irrelevant. The bigotry has already been baked into the circle-drawing itself.

In case that point went past you, Harris underlines it later on:

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So if you think you’re a Muslim, but you don’t support ISIS or want to kill apostates, your Islam is just “nominal” and you “don’t take the faith seriously”. It doesn’t matter if you’re an imam and have devoted your life to your vision of Islam and your relationship with Allah; you’re not “serious”. Because it’s up to Sam Harris to decide what “serious” Islam is. And, like a colonial governor of hostile natives, he’s going to “prop up” the people he has identified as not “serious” about the native culture.

Harris ought to be old enough to remember the final decade or so of the Cold War — the era when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance — when similarly vicious framing was used against atheists: Soviet Communists were the real atheists. Secular humanists might nominally be atheists, but they were just fellow-traveling dupes of the Soviet Communists.

If you lived through that, you shouldn’t want to do it to anybody else.

Such manipulation of categories and essences is a fundamental flaw in all of Harris’ writing, as I pointed out when I reviewed The End of Faith for UU World magazine in 2006. He implicitly assumes from the outset that fundamentalism is the essence of religion. This isn’t a conclusion he draws from facts, it’s the a priori conceptual framework into which facts are placed.

The End of Faith presents contemporary religious debate as an argument between fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson and atheists like Harris. Everyone else is a “moderate” — wishy-washy people who don’t have the intellectual integrity to choose between fundamentalism and atheism. The message of The End of Faith is that “moderates” need to get off the fence; by continuing to support theistic religion in any form at all, they’re empowering the fundamentalists.

When Harris argues that “moderates” do not represent the essence of their faith, he quotes scripture — just as a fundamentalist would. He accepts without question or examination the fundamentalist assertion that a faith is defined by a literal interpretation of its scripture.

A more mature view of religion is contained in another book I reviewed for UU World: James Carse’ The Religious Case Against Belief. To Carse, Christianity is the conversation that Jesus began, not a belief system laid down by Jesus and recorded once-and-for-all in the New Testament. Likewise, Islam is not the Quran, it is the sum total of conversations the Quran has inspired. The Bible and the Quran are central cyclones of mystery that over the centuries have spun off any number of belief systems, each of which has its day in the sun and then eventually crashes, as all human belief systems must.

This is not some bizarre notion unique to Carse. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Penitent, the novel’s ultra-orthodox narrator announces a similar opinion: that the highest form of Judaism was not the one Moses brought down from Sinai with the Torah, but the Judaism that developed after millennia of discussion about the Torah.

Harris’ failing isn’t that he has gotten the essence of Islam (or of religion in general) wrong. (This is another key point of Orientalism.) It’s that religion is a complex human phenomenon that can’t be reduced to a single essence. There is nothing to know about “the Negro” or about the Orient or Islam or Judaism or religious people in general. These are all conceptual fences that enclose diverse populations, not natural categories that each have a unique Platonic essence. So you can quote all the statistics you want about, say, the size of Jewish noses. But that caricature of the big-nosed Jew is still anti-Semitic.

So finally, what should we make of the claim that “you can’t criticism Islam” or “you can’t criticize religion”? First, note it’s resemblance to the common claim by white conservatives that they can’t criticize President Obama without being called racists. If you look at the specific instances they point to, it’s usually not that hard to see something racist going on. And the airwaves seem to be full of criticism of President Obama; lots of people manage it without sounding racist. Conservatives should learn to see what separates racist criticism of Obama from non-racist criticism of Obama, not squawk because somebody thinks they’re racists.

The reason to pause before you criticize Islam or religion isn’t that these topics are or should be surrounded by some special aura of protection. It’s that there’s really no such thing as Islam or religion, at least not in the sense that most critics would like to assume.

Want to criticize something that people do, like when families murder their own girls in “honor killings“? By all means criticize that. Want to point out that many such murderers justify themselves by pointing their Muslim faith? That’s fine. (Of course, you might also point out that the problem appears in other religions too, and that many other Muslims disagree with the killings.) What you shouldn’t do, though, is set yourself up as the Pope of Islam and pronounce that the killers are the “real” Muslims and their critics are just “nominal” Muslims.

Vlad Chituc, who writes for a very good secularist blog called NonProphet Status, has an excellent set of suggestions for criticizing religion effectively and without orientalizing it. One of them resembles what I’ve been saying here:

You also have to be appropriately specific: if you say that Christianity is sexist, and your friend practices a form of Christianity that isn’t, then there is a discrepancy you need to address. Is it the Bible that is sexist? Or just certain passages? Are they being interpreted in the same ways? Suddenly the conversation gets more productive and detached from a facet of their core identity.

… I occasionally hear various sorts of essentialist arguments where it’s claimed that religions just are their holy books. That seems obviously wrong to me: no one would say that Christianity is anti-fig because Jesus cursed a fig-tree in Mark, and no one would say that a pro-fig Christian isn’t even really Christian because of their position on figs. I don’t see why we ought to treat passages about homosexuality any different.

A Conservative-to-English Lexicon, 2nd edition

Preface to the Second Edition

The popularity and inadequacy of the First Edition led its readers to submit many terms which had unfortunately been overlooked. While still far from complete, the Second Edition (I hope) will make far more Conservative speech comprehensible to non-residents of the conservative echo chamber.

But before listing the terms new to the Second Edition, other comments motivate me to say a few words about the origin and intentions of the Lexicon.

Origin of the Lexicon. While researching “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I discovered many examples of language drift among conservatives. The great majority of the new usages are transparent, and can be easily understood by readers without my help. (When, for example, Paul Ryan says “inner city” he means “black”.) But confusion became likely when the drifting terms began to interact.

One example in particular required unpacking, because it was key to the Tea/Confederate identification: Many in the so-called Tea Party talk about their “Second Amendment rights”, by which they mean their right to the means to resist or even overthrow the government of the United States, if it should become “tyrannical”.  By itself, this seems a reasonable — some might even say laudable — goal, one in line with their identification with the original Tea Party protest against the tyranny of George III.

However, when I then looked into the current conservative usage of tyranny, I discovered that it has virtually nothing to do with George III, or even with the more recent Hitler/Stalin models that most Americans picture when they hear the word. Instead, tyranny refers to the implementation of any progressive policy at all — ObamaCare, immigration reform, cap and trade, taxation with representation, and many others — even when that policy is enacted via the constitutional process of our duly elected representatives passing legislation. Tyranny even includes any proposed gun control measures, no matter how slight, which completes a vicious cycle: We can’t have gun control, because we will need our guns to overthrow the tyranny of gun control.

Fully translated, then, the Tea Party’s Second Amendment rhetoric amounts to: We need the means to resist or overthrow the government of the United States, in case liberals win too many elections and start implementing the agenda they were elected on.

That sounds a lot different.

Intention of the Lexicon. Some of the First Edition’s commenters seemed to be interpreting the Lexicon as a work of mockery, born out of frustration, bitterness, or anger. This response was independent of ideology: Some conservatives felt themselves victims of a bitter, angry attack, while some liberals expressed satisfaction with an expression of their own frustration and bitterness, which I presumably shared.

This is a misinterpretation. The Lexicon should be read as a light-hearted presentation of a serious message. If, while reading, you find yourself feeling bitter or angry — either at me or at conservatives — I recommend taking a walk. The extreme strain of conservatism found in America today is only one of life’s many absurdities. If the absurdity of life makes you angry, let me suggest that you are suffering from what the Buddhists call attachment. Life is life; your anger is irrelevant to it. (If you are monotheistic, let me put it differently: God clearly tolerates life’s absurdity; you should too.)

However, the light-heartedness of the Lexicon doesn’t mean that it is nothing but a joke. A non-bitter, non-angry response of: “Wow, this is way more fucked up than I thought!” — similar, I imagine, to how biologists felt when they discovered the platypus — is completely appropriate, and mirrors the attitude I had while compiling the Lexicon.

Seriousness of the Lexicon. The light-heartedness of the Lexicon should not be misread as mere mockery, in which the mocker attaches to his target whatever negative images might stick. The Lexicon is serious. The intention of the definitions is to match the actual usage of terms within the conservative echo chamber, thereby interpreting conservative statements in ways that are more coherent, more comprehensible, and more likely to be true than when those statements are interpreted in standard English.

For example, the frequently uttered syllables, “Obama is a Marxist” are gibberish if Marxist is interpreted in the literal English sense of “a proponent of the philosophy of Karl Marx”. Actual Marxists believe that Obama represents their eternal enemy: the Wall Street capitalists. Just this week, I found this Obama-resenting comment in The Socialist Worker:

If liberals learn anything from the bitter taste Obamaism left in their mouths, it should be that ‘progressive’ and ‘populist’ talk from politicians is cheap–especially when they’re running for office.

However, if you look at the full usage of Marxist among conservatives and consider what all the people they classify as Marxists have in common — Elizabeth Warren, Jim Wallis, Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman, Harry Reid, anybody involved in Occupy Wall Street, etc. — you get the definition I presented in the First Edition: “one who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth.” Using that definition, “Obama is a Marxist” is coherent, comprehensible, and probably true.

This combination of light-heartedness and seriousness has a fine tradition, going back at least to Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary from 1906. Look, for example at Bierce’s definition of aboriginies: “Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country.” Or peace: “In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.”

Bierce was not simply trying to be funny. He was pointing to incongruities between the definitions in a standard dictionary and the actual usage of words in his era. So am I.

Terms New to the Second Edition

The Second Edition incorporates all the terms found in the First Edition and adds the following:

Activist judge. A judge who applies the Constitution and other laws, rather than the Bible or the Constitution written by the Founding Fathers.

Amnesty. The basic English meaning is unchanged since Bierce: “The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.” In conservative usage, amnesty is an abandonment of all moral standards if applied to undocumented immigrants, but “makes perfect sense” when applied to corporate profits held off-shore to avoid taxes. To spin amnesty positively, use holiday. Example: a tax holiday, but not an immigration holiday.

Bankrupt. Requiring taxes that the wealthy do not want to pay. Usage: “The government is bankrupt.”

Celebrity. A disparaging term applied to a liberal who can draw a crowd. Usage: Barack Obama “is the biggest celebrity in the world.” Not to be confused with a politician who is popular in Real America, like Sarah Palin, or with statesmen like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan.

Class warfare. When the 99% fight back against the 1%. Usage: “Obama’s priority is class warfare.  That’s why he relentlessly denounces job creators as ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ That’s why he demands that they be punished with higher tax rates.”

Collateral damage. Humans whose deaths would rattle the conscience of a nation not blessed with American exceptionalism.

Common sense. The opinion of the People, as opposed to the opinion of experts who have devoted their lives to studying the subject. See: science, junk science.

Common sense solution. A (usually unspecified) way to make a problem vanish without inconveniencing any job creators or real Americans, or making them pay taxes. Usage: “All across this country, women are standing up and speaking out for common sense solutions.”

Contract. An inviolable pledge, except when made to a union.

Dividing the country. Starting a class war by encouraging the 99% to fight back. Usage: President Obama “won by dividing the country.”

Elite, Elitist. Those who challenge common sense by insisting on facts. Usage: “The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society.”

Family. A group of people related by blood to, and under the control of, straight white man wealthy and powerful enough to protect and control them.

Holiday. A temporary suspension of tyranny. Usage: “tax holiday

Illegal immigrants (or illegals). Hispanics. Usage: “the more illegals that vote, the better the Obama administration thinks it will do.”

Impeachable offenses. Anything President Obama does or fails to do.

Impeachment. A means of reversing elections, when voters mistakenly choose Democrats. Established by the Constitution, impeachment requires impeachable offenses.

Junk science. Research not funded by a corporation whose profits depend on the outcome. Examples: climate research not funded by fossil fuel companies, tobacco research not funded by cigarette companies, etc. All you really need to know about the term is that JunkScience.com is run by Steve Milloy, who is also Director of External Policy and Strategy for Murray Energy, the largest privately owned American coal company. Usage: “It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life. I’ve never been for any [greenhouse-gas reducing] scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole [climate change] narrative.” See sound science.

Lucky Ducky. Anyone whose income is low enough to escape the punishment of income tax. Collectively, lucky duckies are known as “the 47%“. Usage: “Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education.”

The People (or We the People). All real Americans, considered collectively. Usage: “I believe Owen Hill is one of those future leaders and must be supported by ‘we the people’ to take back our country and to restore our constitution as the law of the land.”

Personhood. A quality shared by fertilized ova and corporations, but not by Afghans, Iraqis, or Pakistanis who become collateral damage. Usage: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Punishing success. Restoring upper-level tax rates to their levels during the Clinton administration, a dark time of peace and prosperity when no one bothered to become rich because it was too painful. Usage: “If you want to punish successful people, vote for Democrats.” Synonym: punishing job creators. Usage: “We shouldn’t be punishing job creators.”

Rammed through Congress. Passed by majority vote, without granting a extra-constitutional veto power to the conservative minority. Usage: “Senate Democrats rammed through what would later be called ObamaCare … The vote on Monday, in the dead of night, was 60 to 40.”

Rammed (or forced) down the throat of the People. Any government action taken against the will of a majority of real Americans. Usage: “They’re going to do what they have to, the Democrats are, to force this [ObamaCare] down our throats.”

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

Science. 1. A religion devoted to conquering the world in the name of the No God it worships. Usage: “Science, like God in the Old Testament, behaves jealously against any other religion. So science will say to its followers: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. If you have any doubts, try asking an audience at a scientific convention to join you in a prayer.” 2. A conspiracy to impose world government through hoaxes like global warming. Usage: “Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere.”

Social justice. A plot to turn mainstream Christian denominations Communist. Usage: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”

Sound science. The opposite of junk science. Coined by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, “a front group set up by Philip Morris in 1993 … to question the science showing detrimental effects of cigarette smoke.”

States rights. 1. The belief that the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” was never intended to be taken seriously. Usage: “I believe in states’ rights … and I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” — said by Ronald Reagan near the site of the KKK’s Mississippi Burning murders, which were solved by federal investigators after being covered up by local police.

Take back our country. Restoring the dominance of the People. As Hank Williams Jr. sang in “Take Back Our Country“: “Move over little dog, cause the big dog’s moving in.” Usage: “It’s time to take our country back.”

Thug. 1. Young black male. Usage: “Trayvon Martin was a thug. His parents know that, you know that, I know that.” and “The Ferguson thugs aren’t alone. The overwhelming majority of violent crime across America is conducted by young, black males.” 2. An agent of government tyranny who might descend upon real Americans at any moment. Usage: “”jack-booted government thugs [who have] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” 3. A union organizer.

Traditional marriage. The type of marriage commonly portrayed in the media when the speaker was a child. Does not include common features of marriage from earlier eras, such as the inability of the wife to own property, the impossibility of divorce (except by act of the Pope), the right of the husband to beat his wife, or the right of the husband to take multiple wives. (Biblical marriage may not have been Adam and Steve, but it was Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah. Don’t think too hard about why the link also has a picture of a sheep.)

Classism and Corporal Punishment

The Adrian Peterson controversy started a national discussion about parental discipline techniques. What Peterson did is obviously over-the-top and deserves the condemnation it has gotten. But I understand why there has been push-back. The argument has focused mainly on racial differences in discipline styles, but to me this seems more like a class issue.

I fear to tread here, because I have no children myself and my position is complicated. I grew up in the white working class, where it was assumed that all families spanked. My parents stopped when I was four, not because they were against the practice in general, but because it didn’t seem to work very well on me. I have no memories of being spanked. (I’ve heard my father tell the story of the last time he spanked me. He seemed more traumatized by it than I was.)

Having watched most of my professional-class friends raise children without spanking, I think that’s what I’d recommend if anyone thought my opinion was worth seeking out. But I’m appalled at the level of classism I hear whenever this issue gets discussed. Lots of otherwise thoughtful people talk as if working-class parents routinely beat their kids up for amusement.

Here’s what I observed growing up: For the vast majority of the households I knew, spanking was part of a well-thought-out system of discipline. It was rare — used only when a series of lesser punishments had failed — and relied more on its symbolic value than the physical pain inflicted. It was not supposed to be done in anger. (That was the whole point behind, “Wait till your father comes home.”) My friends were not going to the emergency room or showing up at school with visible welts and bruises.

Child abuse seems to me to be something else entirely, and it happens in families across the class spectrum. Slapping your toddler’s hand when he reaches for the burner on the stove is a completely different thing than breaking his collarbone because you had a bad day. It’s not a difference of degree.

In every era, the upper classes rationalize why they are better and more deserving than the lower classes. Usually there is some core of truth behind their justifications. (In Victorian England, the upper classes could quote fine poetry, sometimes in Latin or Greek, which is an admirable skill.) I-never-raise-a-hand-to-my-child has taken on that role in our era. There’s a core of truth; in general, professional-class discipline probably is better for the child than working-class discipline. But this class virtue is being exploited for the sinister purpose of justifying class differences in general: Those working-class barbarians. No wonder they live in squalor.

A Conservative Lexicon With English Translation

Yes, you can understand what conservatives are saying.


Liberals and moderates often find statements by conservatives to be nonsensical or even incomprehensible. Sarah Palin, just to name one example, is frequently accused of speaking in “word salad“, a style in which terms are thrown together without apparent attention to syntax or meaning.

I have come to believe that this view does conservatives an injustice. What has actually happened is that conservatives, like tribes marooned on inaccessible islands, have developed what is essentially a new language. While language-drift in the wild may take generations or even longer, conservative word use has diverged from English far more quickly due to (1) the speed of modern communication, (2) the very tight circles of conservative discourse (sometimes described as an “echo chamber”) in which outside input is discounted or viewed as sinister, and (3) the neologisms of conservative candidates facing election, who often need to seem to be saying something different than they actually are.

Consequently, the new Conservative language outwardly resembles English, but its terms have been redefined and repurposed in ways that create the seeming unintelligibility. For example, statements like “Voter ID laws are necessary to reduce voter fraud” may seem delusional to someone who interprets voter fraud in the standard English sense of “votes cast by people legally ineligible to vote”, since this very rarely happens, and (when it does) happens in ways voter-ID laws would not affect (i.e., absentee ballot fraud or hacking vote-counting machines). But once you understand the true conservative meaning of voter fraud (“votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic”), the statement makes perfect sense.

In a similar way, seemingly bizarre utterances like “Obama is a Marxist” or “Fox News is fair and balanced” are perfectly coherent, understandable, and even true once you have access to the proper definitions.

Previous lexicons have been attempted (here, for example), but I don’t think they have captured the systemic nature of Conservative, i.e., the way its terms interact to describe a complete worldview.

And so, in hope that Americans of all political persuasions will better understand what conservatives are really saying (rather than write off their statements as harmless nonsense), I present this incomplete Conservative-to-English lexicon.

American exceptionalism. The belief that the United States is exempt from all legal and moral standards. Example: Waterboarding is a capital crime when done to Americans, but legally and morally acceptable when practiced by Americans.

Appeasement. Hesitating before attacking or overthrowing the unfriendly government of an oil-rich nation.

Balance. 1. Providing Democrats as well as Republicans the opportunity to criticize President Obama. 2. Providing blacks as well as whites the opportunity to indict black culture. Usage: “Fox News is fair and balanced.”

Color-blindness. Fighting racial injustice by refusing to see it, much as an ostrich avoids danger by sticking its head into the sand.

Confederacy. An early attempt to restore the freedom envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Still an object of nostalgia in the GOP’s southern base.

Constitution. A holy scripture written by the Founding Fathers. Like the Bible, it means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text. The Constitution, for example, protects corporate personhood, and the near-infinite powers it assigns to Republican presidents vanish when a Democrat takes office. Unlike the real-life Constitution, the Constitution includes the Declaration of Independence, and so really does mention God.

Controversial. An adjective applying to any fact or set of facts that conservatives don’t want to believe. Examples: evolution and climate change. Once facts have been labeled controversial, stating them as facts is evidence of liberal bias.

Dependent on government. Anyone receiving welfare, encompassing retirees, students, and the disabled. Usage: “there are 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Europe. A hellish dystopia governed by liberals, where people belong to unions, have guaranteed health care, and earn high wages with long vacations. Soon to be overrun by Muslims. Usage: “I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.”

Fair. Favoring the wealthy. Usage: “A true free market is always fair.”

Fascism. An insult with no meaningful content, similar to “bastard” or “asshole”. The previously well established Mussolini/Hitler sense of the term –  a militarist, nativist, corporatist style of totalitarianism claiming to restore a nation to the greatness of its mythic past — is now archaic, having been successfully jammed by tangential usages like Islamo-fascism and oxymorons like liberal fascism.

Founding Fathers. Loosely based on the American generational cohort that fought the Revolution and wrote the Constitution, the conservative Founding Fathers are heroes of a great mythic past constructed by pseudo-historians like David Barton. Divinely inspired, the Founding Fathers intended to create a non-denominational Christian theocracy, but inexplicably failed to mention God in the Constitution. They were implacably opposed to Big Government, even as they were writing a constitution that vastly extended the powers of the national government beyond those laid out in the previous Articles of Confederation. They “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, while owning hundreds of slaves themselves, and without actually ending slavery until long after they were all dead.

Free market. A system of decision-making based on the only fair principle: one dollar, one vote.

Freedom. 1. The ineffable quality that exempts the United States from all moral standards. (See American exceptionalism). Usage: “They hate our freedom.” 2. The right of the powerful to use their power as they see fit. Usage: “The minimum wage is a freedom killer.” 3. The right of job creators to use public infrastructure without paying taxes, or to exploit common resources (like air, water, or public land) without regulation. Example: Cliven Bundy.

Freedom of religion. The right of conservative Christians to shape society and define social acceptability. Intended by the Founding Fathers only to protect expressions of religion, not atheism or Islam.

Freedom of speech. 1. The right of a conservative to speak and write publicly without criticism. (See persecution.) Example: Sarah Palin’s objection in 2008 to the characterization of her charge that Barack Obama was “paling around with terrorists” as “negative campaigning”. “If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.” While no one had disputed Palin’s right to say what she said, the fact that she faced criticism for it violated her freedom of speech. 2. In election campaigns, the right of the rich to drown out all competing voices.

God. Jehovah, the father of Jesus, as revealed by a literal reading of the Bible. Non-Christians do not believe in God, but in other supernatural beings like Allah. Some liberals claim to believe in God, but they use the word incorrectly.

Hate. Criticism of conservative ideas or disputation of facts alleged by conservatives. See persecution.

Innocent human life. The unborn, who possess souls of infinite worth. At birth, a child inherits the soul-value of his parents, which — if they are black or poor — does not amount to much. Consequently, abortion in the United States is a moral crisis equivalent to the Holocaust, while our third-worldish infant mortality rate (34th in the world, just behind Cuba) is no big deal.

Job creator. A wealthy person, who may or may not be an employer, and who may even have become wealthy by firing people or shipping jobs overseas. Usage: “Let’s cut taxes for job creators.” Does not apply to public works, public schools, or any other government program, no matter how many Americans such a program might productively employ.

Judicial activism. When judges rule against corporate interests or white supremacy, or in favor of separating Church from State.

Liberal media bias. The fading tendency of certain portions of the journalistic establishment to require supporting facts before promoting a conspiracy theory. For an example of the frustration this causes conservatives, consider the following quote from Jonah Goldberg shortly before the 2012 election: “If you want to understand why conservatives have lost faith in the so-called mainstream media, you need to ponder the question: Where is the Benghazi feeding frenzy?”

Marxist. One who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth. Unrelated to any theories contained in the writings of Karl Marx. Usage: “Elizabeth Warrren, who has almost confessed to her Marxist views”. (Synonyms: communistsocialist, liberal.)

Persecution. (1) Denying conservatives the special rights they believe they are entitled to. Example: The War on Christmas, in which conservative Christians are persecuted if they are not allowed to dominate all public space for the month of December. (2) Criticism directed at conservatives. Example: If a conservative says something racist and you point that out, you are persecuting him. (See freedom of speech.) (3) Enforcing laws broken by conservatives. Example: Dinesh D’Souza.

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Poor. Lacking in gumption or virtue, undeserving, black.

Racism. Calling attention to racial injustice with an intention to rectify it. Also called “playing the race card”. (See color-blindness.) Example: the Fox News commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists.”

Religion. Christianity, not including degraded liberal variants that accept evolution or gay rights.

Second Amendment rights. The right of whites, Christians, the wealthy, and other traditionally privileged groups to commit violence when their privileges are threatened by democratic processes. (People not from privileged groups may be gunned down by police — with full conservative support — if they are even suspected of being armed.) Best expressed by Sharron Angle in her 2010 Senate campaign: “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Also by Virginia Republican Catherine Crabill: “We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that’s the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.”

Taxes. A method of stealing money from job creators and giving it to poor people. Unrelated to Social Security, Medicare, roads, schools, lowering the deficit, or any other useful goal.

Terrorist. 1. A Muslim. 2. Any violent person conservatives don’t like. Cannot be applied to violent anti-abortionists, white supremacists, or tax resisters. (See Second Amendment rights.)

Tyranny. When a Marxist gets elected and then tries to carry out the platform the people voted for. Example: ObamaCare.

Values. Beliefs that condemn gays or promiscuous women. Usage: the Values Voters Summit.

Voter fraud. Any votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic, i.e., blacks, Hispanics, or students. Alternate form: election fraud. Usage: “Obama likely won re-election through election fraud.”

Welfare. Any payment from the government, including (when convenient) Social Security, unemployment compensation, or student loans. Usage: “Unemployment compensation is just another welfare program.”

While far from complete — please suggest additional entries in the comments — I hope this lexicon will make conservative speech more comprehensible to the general public, and persuade voters that the apparent gibberish spoken by conservative candidates actually expresses a unified worldview that should be taken more seriously.

Is Ray Rice’s Video a Game-Changer?

The reality of domestic abuse gets harder to deny.


Star NFL running back Ray Rice’s assault on his then-fiancée/now-wife is old news. He was arrested in February, and plea-bargained from criminal charges down to court-supervised counseling. (Emily Bazelon explains: “when a victim refuses to cooperate with the prosecution, the calculus for prosecutors shifts away from trial and conviction.”) Way back then, TMZ released a video showing Rice dragging the unconscious mother-of-his-daughter out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.

The NFL suspended him for two games, a punishment that raised a furor in light of the season-long suspension of receiver Josh Gordon for “substance abuse”, presumably marijuana. The NFL claimed it was bound by its previous policies, which it changed so that any future domestic violence incident would draw at least a six-game suspension. (But abusers keep playing while their cases work through the legal system.)

The Rice family.

None of that is new. But this week TMZ released a video of what happened inside the elevator. In it, we see Rice throw the punch that knocked Janay Palmer out. In an abstract sense, the new video didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: We knew he knocked her out, we just hadn’t seen him do it. It shouldn’t have changed anything.

But it did. Almost immediately, the Baltimore Ravens released Rice, who otherwise would have been their main ball-carrier when his original suspension ended next week. The NFL then made his suspension “indefinite”, and New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft speculated that Rice would never play in the NFL again.

One of the most striking reactions came from ESPN analyst and former player Mark Schlereth, who nearly dissolved into tears as he imagined a player in his own locker room, someone he would have identified with and felt loyal to, doing such a thing. It’s worth watching.

[The video] put a face to domestic violence. I’m not saying Ray Rice’s face, I’m saying the act of domestic violence. Because it was so shocking. And as the father of two daughters, and the [grand]father of a granddaughter, it was frightening for me to see that. The violence that occurred, the callous nature with which that violence occurred … I guess I had never really gone through that mentally before, to really understand what that looks like. And that put it together for me, of how vicious in nature this is.

I’m sure a lot of women are shaking their heads in a well-duh sort of way: You discovered that domestic abuse is callous and vicious? Your Nobel Prize is in the mail, Mark.

But if Schlereth is typical of a larger group of men — and I believe he is — then the Rice video may be a tipping point in the public discussion of domestic violence. Until now, when men have heard accounts of domestic violence, a lot of us have at some level empathized with the abuser, as if he might be like us on a really bad day. Just as an ordinary man might snap in the middle of an argument and say something he doesn’t mean and later regrets, or maybe act out physically by slamming a door or punching a wall, maybe an abuser does something reflexive that — unintentionally, almost accidentally — results in physical harm.

That’s obviously not what happens in this video. Rice just decks his fiancée. Yeah, they are tussling physically, but the much larger and stronger Rice could easily have fended off Palmer’s blows or held her wrists and waited for her to calm down. Instead, he knocks her out, then looks down at her limp body as if he’s seen all this before.

Witnessing that reality could significantly change the way men listen to accounts of domestic violence. Like Schlereth, many men had “never really gone through it mentally before”, and now they have. Now they understand viscerally that this isn’t something any man might have done on a sufficiently bad day. The man in this video doesn’t deserve a single ounce of our sympathy.

Related short notes

Not to say that there aren’t still some men who will make excuses for Ray Rice. And even some women.


Meanwhile, women have been writing about Janay Palmer, who is now Janay Rice. An anonymous writer on The Frisky wrote “Why I Married My Abuser“.

when I saw the footage of ex-Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, I wasn’t surprised that she was now his wife. It isn’t — as many of the commenters on the original TMZ video have said — “all about the money,” or “she doesn’t care about taking a punch,” and it’s especially not that “she is telling all women it’s okay for your man to beat you.”

… It’s beyond silly to say that any woman who is getting smacked around thinks it’s acceptable to be smacked around. No one knows better than a woman who is being abused that it is wrong. Not leaving isn’t the same as consent. I stayed because I was traumatized and isolated. I believed that Hank really loved me and that no man with less passion/ anger (those words were conflated for me) would ever love me like him.

There’s a whole Twitter feed of stories like this: #WhyIStayed. And a companion: #WhyILeft. As with #YesAllWomen, it’s not abstract argument, it’s people telling their stories. The sheer accumulation of them is hard to explain away.


The NFL and the Ravens came out looking really bad — more interested in managing a PR problem than anything else. They claim they didn’t see the inside-the-elevator video until it became public, but that seems doubtful. Schlereth certainly didn’t buy it:

A Rice souvenir repurposed.

Protecting the shield means that we’re supposed to honor and understand the privilege of playing in the league, not supposed to cover up our mistakes and accept those. And that’s where the NFL in my mind is really letting me down, and let every guy who plays in this league down. Because I can’t imagine saying “No, we don’t have access to that video” and you saying, “OK, well, that’s good enough for me. We’ll move forward.” That’s unacceptable.

And besides, what the video changed is the depth of the public anger, not our factual understanding of what happened.


Jon Stewart’s reaction is also worth watching.


If you’re looking for a male hero in this story, I propose this girl’s Dad.

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