Imaginary problems, real laws, real victims

In red states, a barrage of new laws are diminishing freedom, violating parents’ rights, and mandating that schools teach conservative dogma. It’s not clear what real problems these laws are attempting to solve, but it is clear who’s being hurt.

This week, Tennessee passed a law banning drag shows in public spaces, or anywhere else they might be seen by children, and NBC reports that 15 states are considering similar laws. The state also passed a law banning gender-affirming medical care for minors, and permitting minors to sue their parents if the parents authorized such treatment. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law says 15 states have either already passed similar laws or are considering them.

One proposed Florida bill goes even further: It legalizes a parent kidnapping a child from another state and bringing the child to Florida in order to “protect” the child from gender-affirming care, and orders Florida courts to ignore any other state’s child-custody rulings in such cases. [1]

A court may not treat a parent′s removal of a child from another parent or from another state as unjustifiable conduct or child abuse if the removal was for the purpose of protecting the child from one or more of the prescriptions or procedures referenced in paragraph (a) and if there is reason to believe that the child was at risk of or was being subjected to the provision of such prescriptions or procedures. … A court of this state has jurisdiction to vacate, stay, or modify a child custody determination of a court of another state to protect the child from the risk of being subjected to the provision of sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures as defined in s. 456.001. The court must vacate, stay, or modify the child custody determination to the extent necessary to protect the child from the provision of such prescriptions or procedures.

Last year, Florida’s legislature began an effort to turn its schools into indoctrination centers with the Parental Rights in Educationt Act (a.k.a. Don’t Say Gay) and STOP WOKE Act that banned the teaching of specific lists of ideas and caused entire counties to remove books from their classrooms. [2] Several states have passed similar laws, and a national Don’t Say Gay bill (the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act) has been introduced in the House. A new bill in Florida would expand the restrictions of Don’t Say Gay from third grade to eighth grade. [3] Another new bill would expand Governor DeSantis’ power to give ideological marching orders to the state universities.

In an administrative move, Alaska’s State Commission for Human Rights has downgraded “sexual identity and gender orientation” from the list of always-illegal bases for discrimination to the list of discrimination that is illegal “in some instances”. According to Pro Publica and The Anchorage Daily News

it began refusing to investigate complaints. Only employment-related complaints would now be accepted, and investigators dropped any non-employment LGBTQ civil rights cases they had been working on.

The onslaught of such legislation is so intense that I’m sure I’ve missed something important. But let’s take a closer look at a couple of these bills.

Controlling Florida’s universities. This year the top-down effort to control what is discussed in Florida’s K-12 classrooms is being extended into the state universities. (To a certain extent it was already there in STOP WOKE.) Governor DeSantis has used his administrative power to appoint a new board to govern New College in Sarasota, with the expressed goal of turning it into an academic center of right-wing ideology similar to Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is privately funded and explicitly Christian. [4]

A bill currently in the legislature would impose similar controls on the state university system as a whole: It adds a new mission to the university system “the education for citizenship of the constitutional republic”. [5] It instructs each “constituent university to examine its programs for the inclusion of any specified major or minor in critical race theory, gender studies, or intersectionality or any derivative major of these belief systems, that is, any major that engenders beliefs in those concepts defined in [STOP WOKE]” and to submit documentation of “the university’s process to remove from its course catalogues any specified major or minor” in the same subjects.

Each university’s board is empowered to review the tenure of any faculty member at any time, and power to appoint new faculty members is centered in the board, which is explicitly “not bound by recommendations or opinions of faculty or other individuals or groups”. No money — not even private donations — can be used for any programs that “that espouse diversity, equity, and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric”.

Previously established programs at University of Florida and Florida State are now expanded into “colleges” that can hire faculty and enroll students. These colleges appear to have a Hillsdale-like purpose resembling the ideological mission DeSantis has given New College.

This bill so far has just been filed and the legislature has taken no action, but it looks serious. Similar bills are filed in both the House and Senate, and it seems like a fulfillment of DeSantis’ previous statements. Inside Higher Education says:

The bill mirrors much of the governor’s recent rhetoric and revisits draft legislation from DeSantis that never made it into the 2022 legislative session.

Tennessee’s anti-drag law. This one leaves me (and, I suspect, a lot of other people) shaking my head. Men dressing as women is a comic trope that goes back more-or-less forever. Shakespeare is full of gender-switching roles, and if you go back far enough, every female role was played in drag, as putting women on the stage was considered inappropriate.

Governor Bill Lee himself (who signed the bill) dressed in drag for his high school yearbook, something he has dismissed as a “lighthearted school tradition” that bears no resemblance to the “obscene, sexualized entertainment” the law restricts.

But if that’s true, his critics argue, then why is a new law necessary? Tennessee already has laws against obscenity and public indecency. So what is it about cross-dressing that should bring additional rules into play? If an act is too pornographic for male or female impersonators to perform in front of children, does it become OK if the performers wear gender-appropriate costumes instead? Conversely, if a dance routine is acceptable for, say, the Tennessee Titan cheerleaders (who I assume are women) would it suddenly become obscene if it were performed by a man wearing the same outfit?

Like the Florida education laws, the anti-drag law takes advantage of vagueness. In the key phrase “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest”, the term “prurient interest” is never defined, and is largely in the eye of the beholder. (Do the Titan cheerleaders “appeal to a prurient interest”? Sometimes, I guess, maybe. I’m not sure.) The upshot of that vagueness is that promoters will be afraid to schedule drag shows, no matter how benign their content might be. Similarly, Florida teachers and professors are afraid to say anything about race or gender. Nobody wants to be sued, even if they believe they would ultimately win.

Conversely, vagueness gives conservatives cover: Ron DeSantis can deny that he told any teacher or librarian to ban any particular book. All he did was sign a law that might get them fired or sued if they leave the wrong books on the shelf.

The issue of “obscene, sexualized” drag shows also demonstrates a common propaganda technique: Something widely considered unsavory or disreputable becomes a special problem requiring special action when an out-of-favor group does it. The classic example is how the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter focused on the issue of “Jewish crime”. Jews are people and people commit crimes, so the VB didn’t have to invent Jewish crimes (though it probably exaggerated a few). The propaganda element was the implication that “Jewish crime” was a special problem that needed a special solution, as opposed to just better law enforcement generally.

In the 1980s, there was a national panic about gay high-school teachers seducing their students, as if this problem had nothing to do with straight high-school teachers seducing their students. More recently, the Trump administration ran the Nazi play almost move-for-move when it established the Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE), as if the victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants were somehow different from other crime victims.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but clearly it does: It is not a crime for a man to cross-dress. And an otherwise legal action should not become a crime if a cross-dressing man does it. So there is no need for a special law.

Why now? To my knowledge, there has been no drag-queen crime wave. So why do legislators in 15 states find it necessary to pass anti-drag laws their states never needed before? The answer has more to do with changes in Republican politics than changes in American society.

The elections that have followed Donald Trump’s yuge 2020 defeat [6] have given Republicans a lot to think about, both positive and negative.

Negatively, they have learned that a pure backward-looking Trumpism weighs down their candidates; it only works in places where a more traditional Republican would win easily. In New Hampshire, for example, a Reagan/Bush Republican like Chris Sununu won the governor’s race by over 15%, while MAGA Republican Don Bolduc lost the Senate race by over 9%. Arizona’s 2022 Republican candidates were all-in on election denial, and got swept by the Democrats. Candidates closely identified with Trump lost winnable Senate races in Pennsylvania (Dr. Oz) and Georgia (Herschel Walker). And while J. D. Vance did win in Ohio, he ran well behind the far less Trumpy Republican Governor Mike DeWine, who cruised with a 25% victory margin.

More positively, in 2022 crime and inflation were issues Republicans could win congressional races on. But that’s a lesson with a limited shelf life, given that Republicans have no policies to address either one, and inflation is likely to fade on its own by 2024.

But Republican wins in two governors’ elections stand out as possibly repeatable examples: Glenn Youngkin’s 2021 victory in Virginia and Ron DeSantis’ 2022 Florida landslide. Both largely ignored typical kitchen-table issues like jobs or health care to focus on a much vaguer anxiety about our changing society. Both talked a lot about education, but not in the usual sense of raising test scores or creating opportunity. The next generation needs protection, they claim, but not against observable threats like mass shootings or scientifically predictable threats like the looming catastrophes of climate change. Instead, the villains of this narrative are undefinable boogeymen like “critical race theory” and “wokeism”.

In essence, CRT and Wokeism, like “cancel culture” and “political correctness” before them, are Rorschach tests: If you are afraid of some societal trend, you see it those shapeless blobs.

And if you poke at any of that too hard, you have to invent conspiracy theories with improbable villains: Teachers are conspiring to turn your kids gay or make them hate America. Parents are pushing gender changes onto their children, who go along because everybody else is doing it. Rich Jews are convincing Guatemalans to leave perfectly fine lives so that they can steal jobs from all the good Americans who want to clean our toilets and pick our tomatoes.

Why drag queens? Back in 2015, when famous Olympic champion Bruce Jenner came out as trans and announced a new name, Caitlyn, I introspected and got philosophical about my own discomfort. (In hindsight, that article is clumsy in a lot of ways, because I still had a lot to learn. But I stand by the flow of ideas.) In essence, I decided, I was responding to my own insecurity and denial. The human mind can’t handle the task of conceiving the Universe as it is, so we collect real objects into categories and treat similarly categorized objects as if they had a unity they don’t actually have. Hence man/woman, Christian/Muslim/Jew, gay/straight, rich/poor, Black/White/Asian/Hispanic and so on. But all those categories are just arbitrary markings on a continuum. Deep down we know we’re telling ourselves a story, and that knowledge makes us anxious.

If you think seriously about how flawed the fundamental building blocks of our thinking are, it’s scary. At any moment, some part of the Universe you’ve been assuming away could come back to bite you. That’s the human condition.

That’s why we get such an oogy feeling whenever we see an example of something we were raised to think didn’t exist: an effeminate man, two women kissing, a child with dark brown skin and frizzy red hair. It’s a reminder that we don’t really grasp the Universe; we just apply kludgy notions that more-or-less work most of the time.

… At its root, social conservatism is a way to deny that fear and transmute it into anger. Conservatism reassures us that the categories in our heads are real. We didn’t make them up; God created them. They’re natural.

Drag is specifically designed to get into the boundarylands where our usual categories fail. The illusion is designed to be imperfect. A man who managed to be indistinguishable from Liza Minnelli might as well be Liza Minnelli; he wouldn’t be doing drag any more.

That lingering in the boundrylands is precisely what many people find scary about drag: It points out that while your sexual organs are real, your gender is a performance that could fall anywhere on a continuum from he-man to girly-girl. The people you meet are not necessarily one thing or the other. The world is more complicated than you usually allow yourself to realize.

But that boundaryland experience is also why some parents want to take their children to drag shows. (And why it’s a violation of freedom for Tennessee to tell them they can’t.) Some children may want to be told what their roles in society are, so that they can get on with learning to play them. But others experience the most common roles as oppressive. Seeing someone smash through those roles demonstrates that life holds more possibilities than just the obvious ones. It’s liberating.

[1] I often warn people not to get upset about bills that have no chance to become law. This bill might be in that category, but I can’t tell yet: It has only one sponsor, who introduced it this week. No committee has heard it or voted on it. Even if the bill passes, I suspect there are constitutional issues here having to do with the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

[2] DeSantis insists this is a “fake narrative”. Of course he does.

[3] Think about what that means. By eighth grade, students often know (or at least strongly suspect) who in their class is gay or trans or contemplating a gender transition, and bullying is already well underway. Under the proposed bill, it would be illegal for teachers or administrators to recognize potential problems or take steps to deal with them through classroom instruction. Any effort to teach 14-year-olds to accept or tolerate one another’s gender identities or sexual preferences would be illegal.

The same bill would also declare — as a matter of state law — that “it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex” which is “an immutable biological trait”.

[4] DeSantis-appointed trustee Chris Rufo (arguably the architect of the crusade against “critical race theory”) is very explicit about his goals:

We will be shutting down low-performing, ideologically-captured academic departments and hiring new faculty. The student body will be recomposed over time: some current students will self-select out, others will graduate; we’ll recruit new students who are mission-aligned.

I went to a state university (Michigan State) in the 1970s. Michigan had a Republican governor at that time, but I don’t recall ever having to worry that I might not be “aligned” with his “mission” for the university, or that any member of the university’s governing board was hoping I might “self-select out” because of my political views. This kind of ideological repression is new in America.

Today’s NYT notes a similar ideological battle over North Idaho College, which may lose accreditation as a result.

[5] That mission may sound benign until you realize how it’s going to be defined and interpreted. “Performance metrics and standards” for achieving such goals are to be part of a strategic plan the law instructs the DeSantis-appointed Board of Governors to write. Previously, the missions of the university system were apolitical ones, like “the academic success of its students”.

[6] Even reality-respecting Republicans who don’t claim massive fraud in 2020 often falsely portray the 2020 election as close. But it wasn’t. In terms of raw vote totals, Trump came within 500 votes of breaking Herbert Hoover’s record for the biggest loss ever by an incumbent president. Trump was 7,059,526 votes behind Joe Biden, while Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 by 7,060,023 votes.

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  • donquixote99  On March 6, 2023 at 1:22 pm

    Thank-you! The discussion of human-made categories and the anxiety sometimes created by their imperfect map of reality is, I think, vitally important to a well-adjusted understanding of the turmoil now taking place. And I love the excellent reducto-ad-absurdium in your observation that the current moral panics require viewing millions of good people as evil conspirators out to corrupt our youth!

  • susanmbrewer  On March 6, 2023 at 2:58 pm

    Shouldn’t “Hinsdale” be “Hillsdale”?

    • D granke  On March 6, 2023 at 3:43 pm

      Came here to say this.

    • JTF  On March 7, 2023 at 2:33 pm

      Yep. I even double checked to make sure there wasn’t a “Hins…” also.

    • weeklysift  On March 8, 2023 at 6:27 am

      Thanks, everybody. I fixed it.

  • hiltonbill  On March 6, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    I appreciate the summary of freedom-restricting actions by state legislatures, for I live in CA. And I find the actions scary for the future of democracy in America. I attended grad school Labor Relations at MSU in the late 1960s; while there was “concern” that the program was biased in favor of unions, I went on to a career working in Human Resources in corporations. I have always been grateful that the Masters’ program engaged me in different perspectives conveyed by faculty and fellow students. I could not have imagine then, nor can I now, a university “aligned with” the political mission of a state governor.

  • Edward Haines  On March 6, 2023 at 5:25 pm

    Comparing the number of votes that Hoover lost by with the number that Trump lost by is misleading as to the size of victory. There were only a little more than 38.5 million votes cast in the Roosevelt/Hoover election and Roosevelt won with 57.5 percent. There were 155.5 million votes cast in the Biden/Trump election and Biden won with 51.3 percent. That is far too close a result for anyone to believe Trump was trounced. It is also far to close a result for anyone to believe that either Trump or a Trump clone may not very well take over in the 2024 election and push through many of the disastrous projects of Trump and his ilk.

    • weeklysift  On March 8, 2023 at 6:29 am

      Of course Roosevelt’s win is more impressive. But the point is that seven million votes is a lot of votes. This was not a close election.

  • Ed O  On March 8, 2023 at 2:11 am

    True enough, Edward. But just for the record, checking the definitive source of historical election data, (wikipedia got its 1932 vote data from them back in 2005 and hasn’t updated it since), the current numbers show that Biden beat Trump by 539 *more* votes than Roosevelt won by in 1932. So by raw votes, Trump’s loss in 2020 actually was the biggest ever.

  • Roger  On March 16, 2023 at 12:52 pm

    Interesting sidebar: Hampshire College announced its commitment to offer admission to all New College of Florida students and to match their current cost of tuition.


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