Why All the Bush Nostalgia?

It’s not President G. H. W. Bush himself that I miss. It’s an era of public trust in a shared reality.


It was weird, wasn’t it? Watching and listening to all that nostalgia for George H. W. Bush and his presidency?

I know, this is what we do when somebody dies: We retell his story to display him in the best possible light. We did it with John McCain just a few months ago. We do it all the time.

But even so, wasn’t it a little extreme? Bush, after all, was never particularly beloved when he was active. He only made it to the presidency by hanging on to Ronald Reagan’s coattails, and he always gets second billing when people recall the Reagan-Bush Era. He served only one term. When he stood for re-election in 1992, he was challenged in his own party by Pat Buchanan (the ancestor of today’s American First xenophobes), and got only 37% of the general election vote (the worst incumbent performance since Taft in 1912).

The Soviet Union fell on his watch, but hardly anyone believed then or now that he caused it. (It’s equally absurd to claim that Reagan caused it, but that’s a different argument.) The accomplishments he was lauded for at the time look worse in light of subsequent events. His greatest triumph, putting together the coalition that won the Gulf War, (which temporarily zoomed his approval rating up to 90%) turned out to be the prelude to his son’s disastrous Iraq invasion. His $100 billion bailout of the bankrupt savings and loans became a model for the much bigger and less popular bailout of the big banks after the real estate bubble of 2008. His pardons of the key figures in Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal are precedents that I’m sure Trump’s people are studying. He is also remembered for his “No new taxes” lie, the racist Willie Horton ad, and the appointment of Clarence Thomas.

So what was all the nostalgia about? A number of writers have tried to explain it, some more convincingly than others.

The Un-Trump. It’s not like Bush left his eulogists nothing to work with. In many ways he was an admirable guy: After enlisting in the Navy on his 18th birthday, he flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He went on to live a life of public service: as a congressman, diplomat, Director of the CIA, vice president, and then president.

He was a family man, married once and for life to Barbara, with whom he raised another president as well as a governor. His personal demeanor was friendly and gentlemanly. One word nearly everybody uses to describe him is decent.

Those qualities led to the first and most obvious theory: That praising Bush the First was a backhanded way of criticizing the current president, who so obvious lacks all those virtues.

Bush could be testy, but was never cruel. He was intelligent, courteous, careful in his speech, and distinguished. His patrician upbringing and overall success in life gave him a secure ego, so he could respect expertise, let someone else be the smartest man in the room, and take seriously the findings of scientists. In the light of the current crises of democracy and the environment, even a liberal like me can look back at Bush and think “If only we still had Republicans like that.”

The last of his kind. But more than the man himself, there is something about his era that we would like to have back. But exactly what it is isn’t so easy to put your finger on.

In “The Last True Republican Presidentrecites a litany of “lasts”. Bush was the last president who

  • was shaped by the distinctive culture of the New England WASP upper class
  • came from the so-called “Greatest Generation” that was forged in the fires of depression and world war
  • was alive during World War II
  • fought in any war at all
  • represented Eastern establishment values of prudence, pragmatism, tolerance, measured judgment, and internationalism
  • got more than 53% of the vote (in 1988)
  • was a moderate Republican
  • had significant experience in foreign policy
  • seriously believed in the Republican Party’s legacy of fiscal conservatism

Legitimacy. That list points in two directions that two other writers pulled apart: Peter Beinart called attention to Bush as “the last person to occupy the Oval Office whose opponents saw him as a fully legitimate president.”

That’s because in the contemporary United States, presidential legitimacy stems from three sources. The first source is democracy. Although America’s system of choosing presidents has many undemocratic features, many Americans associate presidential legitimacy with winning a majority of the vote. The second source is background. Throughout American history, America’s presidents have generally looked a certain way. They’ve been white, male, (mostly) Protestant, and often associated with legitimating institutions such as the military, elite universities, or previous high office. Americans are more likely to question the legitimacy of presidents who deviate from those traditions. The third source is behavioral. Presidents can lose legitimacy if they violate established norms of personal or professional conduct.

George H. W. Bush was the last president who could not be impugned on any of these fronts.

Bill Clinton never got 50% of the vote (because he ran in three-way races with a Republican and independent Ross Perot), and was characterized as a “draft dodger” who would be incapable of commanding respect as commander-in-chief. George W. Bush was installed in office by the Supreme Court after he lost the popular vote. (Though Bush’s re-election campaign got 50.7% in 2004.) And Barack Obama may have won handily twice, but his race made him unacceptable to a large number of white Americans (who sought out bizarre theories like Birtherism to justify their rejection in terms that weren’t explicitly racist). Donald Trump not only lost the popular vote by a wide margin, but since taking office his actions have been anything but “presidential”. (Just to pick one example out of many, it’s impossible to imagine GHWB publicly distorting an Democratic congressman’s name into “little Adam Schitt“.)

Whether you liked Bush-41 or not, he was the president and everyone knew it. That didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but after a quarter century without that kind of universally accepted legitimacy, we miss it.

The WASP aristocracy. Ross Douthat picked up on Bush’s WASPiness: The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, he claims, may not have been fair or representative of America, but it simply did a better job than our current “meritocratic” leadership class. He describes

Bush nostalgia as a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

The new ruling class, Douthat claims, is as “self-replicating” as the old one, but since they have fooled themselves into believing they earned their places at the top of the pyramid, they have less of a sense of responsibility towards those beneath them. (Chris Hayes makes this point better and at some length in The Twilight of the Elites.)

Douthat goes on to claim (and this is where he goes off the rails in my opinion) that we need an aristocracy, and that the current one needs to gain self-consciousness and become “a ruling class [that] acknowledge[s] itself for what it really is, and act[s] accordingly”.

Fareed Zakaria, who knows he would have no place in a WASP-dominated world, lauds the old establishment’s “modesty, humility and public-spiritedness”, noting how many of the powerful men on the Titanic let women and children board the lifeboats.

The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured.

In my terms, they felt like the owned the country. Today’s CEOs and political leaders are just renting America — and seem likely to trash it before their lease is up. Zakaria calls on today’s upper crust to recognize how much accident and luck is involved in their ascendancy and “live by one simple old-fashioned, universal idea — rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.”

I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that. But even so, I don’t want the WASP aristocracy back. There’s got to be something else.

Shared reality. Strangely, the moment when I finally started to feel like I understood Bush nostalgia was when I listened to a discussion that didn’t mention Bush at all: Chris Hayes’ conversation with environmental writer David Roberts on his Why Is This Happening? podcast.

What they talked about instead was what Roberts has called the “epistemic crisis” in the US. In other words, due largely to right-wing propaganda that shapes the worldview of about 1/3 of the population, we have lost our ability to form a public reality.

Roberts, who was a graduate student in philosophy before turning to journalism, found himself wandering back into epistemology (the branch of philosophy that studies how we know things) because of what he was seeing in his coverage of climate change: The science is clear, the problem is urgent, and the solution (drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels) is obvious, but nothing happens because it no longer seems possible to turn scientific truth into the kind of public knowledge that produces political action.

Instead, people who live inside the right-wing bubble are told that the scientific community is corrupt. (Trump responded to a recent government report on climate change by saying that climate scientists have a “political agenda“, and Trump supporter Rick Santorum expanded on that comment by saying that “A lot of these scientists are driven by the money they receive.” If climate change weren’t real, he says, they’d be unemployed.) Similarly, they are told that fact-checkers at the major news-gathering organizations produce “fake news” and academic research is left-wing propaganda. (The Washington Post Magazine recently featured a profile of a leading voice in the pro-Confederate movement. The fact that academic historians uniformly disagree with his version of the Civil War does not bother him in the slightest. “A lot of people think if you have half the alphabet after your name, you’re automatically right on everything,” he says.) When every economic model showed that the Trump tax cut would balloon the deficit, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin simply asserted that it would cut the deficit, as if one opinion were no better than the other.

“Call it 30% of Americans,” Roberts estimates, “have basically hived off from mainstream institutions of knowledge creation and knowledge verification, and have created their own hermetically sealed world.”

To me, this is the basis of the other Bush nostalgia explanations. President Obama won clear majorities twice, but acceptance of his legitimacy couldn’t penetrate the conservative bubble. The WASP aristocracy was able to accept and promote a public version of reality that today’s leaders either can’t or don’t want to deal with. As a result, Bush had go back on his “no new taxes” pledge because reality and consistency with his other values demanded it: He was against deficits, and taxes have to be part of any realistic deficit-reduction plan. So he proved faithless to conservative orthodoxy, but faithful to reality. He couldn’t simply assert that the deficit would go away because he wanted it to. (Trump, on the other hand, is talking about “paying down debt“, but also about more tax cuts, not cutting Social Security or Medicare, and raising defense spending.)

That’s the big difference between politics in the Bush Era and today: 25-30 years ago, political debates took place inside an arena of shared reality. You could have your own opinions, but you couldn’t have your own facts. Now, if you’re a conservative Republican, you can. Reality is whatever the Leader says it is.

That common reality is what I miss. Not the Bush administration, not the WASP aristocracy, and not even George H. W. himself, no matter how great a guy he may have been. I miss a sense that I live in the same world with all my fellow citizens, that facts about that world can be determined by trusted institutions committed to objectivity, and that ultimately all our opinions and predictions will all be judged according to what really happens.

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Comments

  • Dennis Maher  On December 10, 2018 at 9:29 am

    Thank you for naming the decline of “public reality” as perhaps the root of many of our political problems today. As I think about the 1950’s of my childhood and the decades since, I see more and more the disintegration of commonly accepted reality in Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22 (icons of the 60’s “counter-culture”) and in the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. So many things have happened in my lifetime to challenge reality by left as well as right. I have a 60 year old bumper sticker on my wall that says “Question Authority.” I used to think that an unqualified good, but was I participating in the destruction of reality when I thought we were creating it?

    • Guest  On December 10, 2018 at 11:51 am

      The joke is probably as old as the slogan but maybe we need to treat the one word response to the “Question Authority” command (namely: why?) as less tongue-in-cheek and more of a practical concern!

  • The Serapion Brotherhood  On December 10, 2018 at 9:38 am

    You must be aware of Bush’s role in Iran Contra, which could have been reasonably prosecuted as treason, his suborning of the perjured Nayirah testimony to justify the Gulf War, the attacks on civilian targets (including air raid shelters, during the war, his roll of sending thousands of young black men to jail for the same involvement with marijuana as thousands of young white men whom the police never touched?

  • Lori Flanagan  On December 10, 2018 at 10:45 am

    One other thing we’ve recently learned about the deceased that got ignored in his eulogy. His method of putting “women at ease” through groping.

    • weeklysift  On December 10, 2018 at 11:34 am

      I had heard stories from recent years, but attributed them to creeping senility. Are there older stories?

      • Diana Whitney  On December 10, 2018 at 1:18 pm

        A summary is available here: https://www.vox.com/2018/12/1/17274466/eight-women-george-hw-bush-touching-inappropriately-metoo-legacy

        As reported in this Vox article, there are several credible complaints from when he was plenty spry.

        Also please keep in mind that women seldom made formal complaints of sexual harassment (especially against powerful men) when he was younger. Why? Perhaps see Anita Hill v. Bush Appointee Clarence Thomas.

        This does not negate your view that facts seemed to mattered more in the past.

  • Creigh Gordon  On December 10, 2018 at 10:51 am

    “The Soviet Union fell on his watch, but hardly anyone believed then or now that he caused it.”

    The Soviet Union wasn’t defeated by soldiers or politicians, it was defeated by rock and roll and blue jeans.

  • Guest  On December 10, 2018 at 11:39 am

    I’d like to offer something of a counter-point, Doug, in that this entry reads to me like a moderate liberal version of the MAGA sentiment. Rather than a past shared or common reality (back when America was great) it seems what’s being mourned or missed is the dominance of a story about reality made by and serving the interest of economically comfortable moderate white folks. It was less shared than imposed. Serapion and Lori have touched on some serious crimes that flourished under that “shared reality” and their notes are far from exhaustive. The victims of those crimes were never a substantial part of that “shared reality” by design. The voices of those victims and those who would work by their side for justice and progress were given lip-service at best, and were otherwise dismissed as the “shared reality” took precedence. As is the case with the red hat MAGAs, it feels like you are missing an illusion or fantasy that falls apart the more it is examined.

    But kudos to you for having the good sense to not want to go back to the “WASPy aristocracy.” Perhaps ironically, the “fractured reality” of today may be closer to life as it’s lived on the ground than a white-washed “shared reality” where the status-quo as defined by those in power is always good enough.

    • weeklysift  On December 10, 2018 at 3:52 pm

      I think I stand by my point. In any society with a collective vision, some people will get left out. But a society with a vision can come to see that as a problem and work on it, while a society without a collective vision can’t work on any problems at all.

      The Hayes/Roberts conversation starts off talking about climate change. We aren’t doing anything about that problem (and are hurtling towards disaster) because we can’t establish any facts in the public mind. So there’s no basis for action.

      That happens on social justice issues too. If you think about how any social justice has ever come about in America, it’s because a disadvantaged group managed to get itself seen, and to add its point of view to the collective vision. But if there is no collective vision, that doesn’t happen.

      For, say, Black Lives Matter to make progress now, it needs to be able to establish that there are facts about how blacks are treated by our justice system, and that there are moral principles of fairness and equality. But if none of that exists, if one person’s desire to believe that the police are acting justly is every bit as valid as as another person’s videos of unarmed blacks getting shot, or one person’s belief in white supremacy has just as much claim to morality as someone else’s belief that all people are created equal, then how does anything ever change?

  • L F File  On December 10, 2018 at 11:56 am

    “He was against deficits, and taxes have to be part of any realistic deficit-reduction plan. So he proved faithless to conservative orthodoxy, but faithful to reality. He couldn’t simply assert that the deficit would go away because he wanted it to.”

    Funny thing is the deficit probably would have gone away more quickly without his tax hike! GDP growth is what increases revenue and drives down the deficit not increased taxes. Tax hikes just took money out of the hands of consumers which pushed down demand and dampened GDP growth.

    • GJacq726  On December 10, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      How is government deficit reduced without taxes? Please help me understand.

      • L F File  On December 10, 2018 at 3:54 pm

        Pulling money out of the economy via a tax increase as GHWB did during a recession worked against lowering the deficit because less money was spent – and so taxed – in the resulting smaller GDP. This is the Keynesian explanation so don’t confuse it with the GOP Laffer/Supply Side nonsense. The article refers to cutting taxes when the economy is already growing. These cuts – especially to the higher income brackets – don’t have the same effect as cuts during a recession. They don’t boost the economy enough to make up for the fall in revenue. But deficits are not all they are cracked up to be anyway. Here is a good article on how to think about them.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On December 10, 2018 at 2:25 pm

      Yes, the old “Laffer curve” that works great in theory, but has never worked in practice. Cutting taxes without cutting spending leads increases the deficit, regardless of any growth in the GDP. Otherwise, we’d be paying down the deficit right now instead of ballooning it.

      • L F File  On December 10, 2018 at 3:41 pm

        Well first of all GHWB didn’t cut taxes he raised them and during a recession at that. Deficits naturally increase during a recession because as GDP shrinks so do revenues. Cutting taxes or increasing government spending puts more money in the hands of consumers who spend it resulting in higher GDP and higher tax revenues. How much GDP growth you get varies but during a recession $1 of government spending or tax cuts should result in about $2 of GDP growth. Pulling money out of the economy via a tax increase as GHWB did during a recession worked against lowering the deficit because less money was spent – and so taxed – in the resulting smaller GDP. Since the government does not run like a household it should not budget like one. Here is why deficits matter much less than most Americans think.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On December 10, 2018 at 4:35 pm

        The belief that cutting taxes increases revenue by stimulating economic activity borders on magical thinking, from the libertarian idea that taxes are always a bad thing and should be as low as possible. It’s also more effective to cut taxes on low income earners, as they tend to spend all of their wages and plow them back into the economy, unlike the wealthy who either save their extra money or shelter it.

      • L F File  On December 10, 2018 at 4:52 pm

        Actually, cutting taxes in a recession to stimulate the economy is standard Keynesian economics. It stems not from any Libertarian idea about taxes but about using the Keynesian multiplier to increase demand and therefore GDP growth with tax cuts or increased government spending. Government deficits are much misunderstood though. A good recent read on this is here -> https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/opinion/deficit-tax-cuts-trump.html

    • jh  On December 12, 2018 at 12:38 pm

      well, the bigger problem is this. A tax cut on poor/working class/middle class incomes – the majority – would have been a boom for the economy. But, as is typical of conservative economic buffoonery, the tax cuts disproportionately benefit the group that has the least impact on the economy. I mean – how many gallons of milk can the wealthy household consume as opposed to the millions in the economic classes below them can purchase and consume? 1 gallon purchased by the rich contributes something like 3 dollars to the economy. 1 million gallons purchased by middle class households contributes 3 million dollars to the economy. That means more cows, more processing plants, more distribution centers, more check out lanes, more stores and more employees.

      Instead, we get this lie that the rich produce and stimulate the economy and the lie that businesses actually impact the economy. How many rich people create businesses? Compare that to the beginnings of many of the major corporations (say a Facebook which was made by a kid from a very middle class background) which were started, like Apple or Microsoft, in the family garage. And if businesses need tax cuts to make money, isn’t that a flaw in their business model? When a business can make a billion in sales and not have to pay a single dime in taxes, we have a problem. When we give billions in corporate welfare subsidies to big agra, we are harming the smaller farmers and just engaging in a wealth extraction bid where the stock holders and the c-class execs get cushy checks at our expense. When a business gets away with a tax strategy of putting a ghost corporation in Ireland or another tax haven and get the lower tax rate by claiming the earnings under Irish tax code but an American citizen is taxed on global income no matter if they haven’t been to the US in years via the US tax code for expats… well, we have a problem.

      BTW – trickle down has been a failure for at least a hundred years. It was called horses and sparrows, and like it’s renamed trickle down product, it was a resounding failure. But tell that to a conservative who thinks that’s just an opinion.

  • GJacq726  On December 10, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Something about your musings made me think of this conversation. May be of interest to you and others:

    https://onbeing.org/programs/anand-giridharadas-when-the-market-is-our-only-language-nov2018/

  • KJR  On December 10, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    The epistemic crisis is not only on the right. Witness the anti-vax movement, or the current claim that one’s sex is not a biological or social reality, but an inner feeling (and you are a transphobic bigot if you say a uterus is a female characteristic).

    • weeklysift  On December 10, 2018 at 9:46 pm

      Anti-vax is actually a good example of why the epistemic crisis IS on the right. It’s pretty easy to find debunkings of anti-vax stuff in left or center-left publications, and it has never been more than a fringe position in the Democratic Party. (The only presidential candidate I can remember pandering to anti-vax parents was Chris Christie, a Republican.)

      That situation is nothing at all like climate change denial, which can’t be debunked by right-wing publications, and is a Republican Party orthodoxy.

      As for the trans position, there’s nothing inherently anti-factual about distinguishing between biological facts, like whether or not you have certain organs, and social roles, like which gender you identify with. When people take some position too far, they can be debunked within the liberal community. (See Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger. Fact-checking statements by other left-of-center folks is a left-of-center value. Not so on the right.

      The point isn’t that nobody on the Left is ever wrong, or ever gets blinded by their own zeal. Of course they do. But fact-checking and truth-seeking continues to be a value, and other people will debunk them.

      • KJR  On December 11, 2018 at 12:26 am

        I don’t think you have studied the trans issue very closely. For many on the left there is an epistemological claim not that a trans individual indentifies as their non- biological sex but that they actually “are” the other gender. And many on the left will threaten harm to women who claim a distinction between how a person feels and what a person actually is. There is a big split on the left between whether being trans is being one gender but identifying and wishing to assume an identity of the other gender or whether a trans person actually is their preferred gender. The city of Baltimore recently took the latter position and removed the sole non- trans woman from the city’s LBGT panel. Basically the claim is that a person’s sex is not a varifiable fact but a subjective feeling. Thus there is, for those people no area, even reproductive discussions in which women are distinguishable from men. One doesn’t have to agree with the right’s view or be for denying accommodation to most of the special needs of trans people not by the whole ideology that there is no objective basis on which to define being a woman. Most vocal people on the left deny there is an objective standard for what sex you are. That seems even sillier than climate change denial, but the cost on the left for even saying their claims can be argued, is higher than for conservatives who believe in Climate change.
        And while of course the left as a whole doesn’t take an anti-van positions I think there are more public figures and private citizens on the left who eschew vaccinations than on the right. It is not the mainstream left like the issue of a subjective standard for biology.

      • JME  On December 11, 2018 at 9:57 am

        1) Your response uses “gender” and “sex” interchangeably, which you should not do if you want to have credibility in conversations about trans people. The reason you say things like “the claim is that a person’s sex is not a verifiable fact but a subjective feeling” is because you are conflating the two. As a very rough summary:

        Gender is about norms and expectations imposed on a person by society, and that they typically come consider a part of their identity – either by acting on them or resisting them. These norms and expectations include what clothes to wear, how they are raised and expected to conduct themselves, how they are percieved by other people in society, etc. The set of norms and expectations that are imposed on someone typically depends on what sex is attributed to them, but there is no necessary reason for that to be the case.

        Sex is attributed to a person based on a number of physiological markers (sex organs and capacity to bear children primarily, but also hormones, chromosomes, secondary sexual characteristics like breasts or facial hair, etc.) It describes biological facts about a persons phenotype (physical attributes) and genotype (genetic material).

        2) You also talk about how there is an objective standard for determining what sex you are. That is true to an extent, but it’s not actually that clear cut. Sex is an imperfect categorization, because your attributes don’t always match up or fall into one category. That’s why you have women with beards, or people born with an XY chromosome who don’t have a penis. The most noticeable way that this occurs is people who are born intersex (they have functional sets of both sex organs) – there is no reason to attribute either binary sex to that person, yet typically doctors will do surgery (often with harmful results as I understand it) to force these individuals to conform to one of the two binarized sexes.

        I have more to say – but I have to go for now. I will return to talk about 3) the legitmate claim that people who have a sex of female imposed on them have shared harmful experiences, and 4) the wildly different consequences that the discourse around transgender people has from climate denial that makes the trans conversation completely ok and climate denial deeply dangerous.

      • KJR  On December 11, 2018 at 7:39 pm

        Your description of “gender” is what is defined in common parlance as “gender identity”. I quite realize that some trans people and allies prefer to conflate the two but in the dictionary, which describes common usage, gender and sex are synonyms. Gender identity is different from gender and can be different from a person’s gender. Gender identity falls into various categories: female, male, both, neither, and other variations. The phenomenon of people having a different biological gender than the gender they prefer to identify with is a provable, scientific, phenomenon. Assertions made beyond that are generally ideological but they often pretend to be factual. The social issue is how to accommodate those “trans” people whose gender and gender identities don’t match, in the few places in which men and women are separated: sports, shelters, some dorms, some social groups, bathrooms, locker rooms, and affirmative action slots. This can’t be solved if there is not a common understanding from which to problem solve. While I agree that Climate Denial is a bigger problem than Gender Denial, people who deny climate change are not nearly as threatening and aggressive individually towards their friends and neighbors who believe in the phenomenon of climate change as the people who deny a biological and/or socialization basis for sex are towards those who disagree: they will dox, deplatform, threaten violence, etc. towards those liberals and radicals who claim there is a difference between those who are biologically and socialized as male or female and those who identify as male or female. Currently, there are few venues on the left that allow for civil conversation on this issue. As a liberal, I find this illiberal attitude and practice on this and other conversations of concern. There has been a movement in recent years on the left to be ideological to the point of violence towards certain persons with whom they disagree, and even more often to prevent them from expressing unpopular views.

      • JME  On December 11, 2018 at 11:39 am

        Before I continue – a note. I am not claiming that no-one who advocates for trans people / no trans people are taking a more extreme or less defensible position. I’m saying that you should engage with the strongest version of an argument you disagree with. Mine is not that, but it will have to do because I can’t currently do better.

        I’ll also point out that part of our problem here is that the language we are using does not fare well when you separate sex and gender in the way you have to in order to have a conversation like this because the words we use for sex and gender are often the same (due to the historical failure to differentiate between them as concepts). As such, you might be thinking “a uterus is a characteristic of the sex

        Also – I meant to write “typically come to consider” in my second paragraph above. Apologies for the typo.

        3) There is a very valid claim to historical (and present) inequity that is specific to people that society decides are “female” (usually without regard to the sex/gender distinction) from birth. In the US and Canada, people who are raised/identified by society as women are treated differently from people raised/identified by society as men, and usually in ways that are restrictive or harmful to them. This extends past childhood into treatment in school (where they are punished more for being willful and encouraged to pursue different areas of interest/careers), and the workplace (where they are subject to more harassment, culturally pushed away from certain high paying industries, and typically have their labour undervalued relative to people that society identifies as men).

        This is something that is important to talk about, and very few people who advocate on trans issues will argue with it. I’ve seen it referred to as an experience of people who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) or people who are “feminized” by society (e.g. presumptively placed in the gender role of a woman). If you want to get their engagement on it though, you need to recognize that they are going to be hostile to the use of language like “real women” or just “women”. Of course they are – you are presuming the invalidity of their position with your statement, even as you look for them to agree with you on something else.

        4) Lastly, I want to point out the absurdity of comparing discussion of trans issues to climate denial or anti-vax ideology. There’s simply no comparison in terms of the negative consequences that arise, or the absolute settledness of the science we’re relying on.

        Questions about whether greenhouse gasses cause climate change are settled. We know the answers. Same with questions about the health benefits of vaccines in general. There are still real scientific questions in this field, but nobody who is a climate denier or an anti-vaxxer engages with those. And denying climate change, or refusing vaccines, has huge (possibly civilization-destroying) consequences for people other than the climate denier / anti-vaxxer.

        Questions about the relationship between sex and gender, and about scientific categories of sex, etc., are very much unsettled. Like I said, the science shows that sex is not a complete binary, and it’s unclear how extensive the flaws with our concept of sex are. Same with the ideas we have of gender, it’s not a fully understood idea, and we are still trying to articulate clearly what we mean and develop language that appropriately articulates the multiplicity of human experiences on the topic. Some of the best science supports the ideas espoused by many trans advocates (although everyone agrees we need more research). And, probably more importantly, the consequences for people who disagree with trans people or trans advocates do not include the collapse of civilization, or dying from a previously eliminated disease. By acting on the views I have about sex and gender, no one is exposing you to a chance of death. No one is exposing you to rising sea levels or droughts and crop failures. Whatever your view of my position, you have to recognize the vast gulf between it and something like climate denial or anti-vax ideology.

        Last note – I am not trans. I am an ally and am speaking from personal experience with family and friends that I care about. I don’t want to be seen as speaking for trans people as a whole, this is just my expression of my best understanding derived from my own research and from talking to people who are trans. If I got something wrong in this discussion, anyone reading should feel free to let me know – I’m always trying to learn and be better in anything I talk about.

        Apologies for the long post – I wanted to set out my thoughts relatively completely, because it’s a hard subject to talk about concisely since there isn’t even basic agreement on the terms we use.

      • JME  On December 11, 2018 at 11:42 am

        Last comment – it seems like half a sentence in the second paragraph of the above reply got deleted as I typed. I was writing the following:

        As such, you might be thinking “a uterus is a characteristic of the sex female” and might be heard to be saying “a uterus is a characteristic of the gender female”.

        Those are two different statements, but they are very difficult to disambiguate. Some people will disagree with both, but many people will accept the first (with some qualifications) and disagree with the second entirely.

  • Meg LeSchack  On December 10, 2018 at 8:18 pm

    That’s what I miss too. A lot .
    It’s tiring to keep putting the day’s news together into some comprehensible shape . And it’s frigging scary.

  • Madelon Wilson  On December 10, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    GHWB died at just the wrong time for me. Truthfully, he dropped off my radar when he left the White House. In listening to Rachel Maddow’s podcast “Bag Man,” episode 4 in particular, I was shocked to find out the role he played in the Agnew scandal. First the revelation of criminality, then his death. The first made all the accolades I was hearing seem thin at best.

    I can listen to Rachel tell stories from history any day of the week, and “Bag Man” is worth a second listen.

    • telzeyamberdon  On December 10, 2018 at 11:20 pm

      What blows me away is that the people who did the research for “Bag Man” discovered GHWB’s criminal foray into obstruction of justice mere days before he passed on–it was not previously known information. If only this information had been uncovered when he was running for president. We might have been spared his presidency, or even better, the presidency of his feckless son, who managed in to tank the entire planet’s economy only a few years having come into office on a surplus.

      What struck me is that the Republican party has not changed in all these years: still nominating and electing grifters, bullies, and extortionists willing to commit the basest crimes for money and power, or to protect themselves, at the expense of the truth and to the detriment of their country.

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