Tag Archives: culture wars

The Cleveland Indians/Guardians: a teachable moment?

One of the eight Guardians of Traffic on Cleveland’s Hope Bridge

Systemic racism might be easier to grasp in a setting that doesn’t threaten anybody’s safety or livelihood.


Next year, the Cleveland major league baseball team will begin calling itself the Guardians rather than the Indians. This is the culmination of a long process of protest and negotiation, and unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about it. But whether you love or hate the change, it pulls many of the issues surrounding systemic racism together into one easy-to-grasp package.

Unlike more fraught battlegrounds like policing or affirmative action, changing the name of a baseball team does not affect anyone’s safety or livelihood. No one will die because Cleveland calls its team the Guardians, or would have died if they had continued as the Indians. Feelings on both sides may be heartfelt, but they are clearly feelings rather than material interests. To steal a phrase from Thomas Jefferson, the logo on Shane Bieber’s jersey “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”.

That said, the next thing to acknowledge is that the feelings on both sides are easy to understand and even sympathize with.

This is especially true of the Native Americans who dislike being turned into mascots. Native Americans were minding their own business in 1915 when a newspaper contest picked Indians as the new name for the Cleveland Naps, who had just traded their defining player, Nap Lajoie, to Philadelphia.

Imagine being a Native American parent who is trying to instill a sense of cultural pride in your children. Now picture White people running around in headdresses and warpaint while they root for a team that (in most seasons) has no actual Native American players. Let’s just say it doesn’t help. After your kids see random people at the mall wearing the stereotyped Chief Wahoo logo, it’s going to be hard to convince them that their heritage is serious and worthy of respect.

Admittedly, this constant low-level ridicule isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to Native Americans. It’s not on the same scale as, say, genocide or having the continent taken from them by force. But like those injuries, it’s an imposition from the outside; they did nothing to invite it or deserve it.

https://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/10/cleveland-indians-fans-dressing-up-as-chief-wahoo-world-series-racist

Once you’ve pictured that point of view, you may be tempted to declare Native Americans the good guys and those who love the Indians the bad guys. But that oversimplifies the situation.

Instead, try stretching your empathy to encompass Indians fans without pulling away from Native Americans. Being a fan may not be as central or immutable as a racial identity, but after more than a century, it also is a heritage. To the team’s fans, the Indians are Tris Speaker and Bob Feller and going to extra innings with the Cubs in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. The Indians may be one of the few enduring connections you made with your Dad, something you can still talk about when you visit him in the nursing home. Maybe what you remember when you think of the Indians is being 10 years old, and sneaking a radio under your covers to listen to a west coast night game after you were supposed to be asleep.

And racism? The Indians became the first American League team to integrate when Larry Doby joined the team only months after Jackie Robinson became a Dodger. Doby and Satchell Paige were key players in the Indians’ last championship in 1948.

But now, it seems, people are trying to make you remember all that with shame rather than nostalgia.

https://theathletic.com/875177/2019/04/04/top-25-moments-in-progressive-fields-25-year-history/

Back in 1915, making a mascot out of Native American heritage was a sin of obliviousness, not malice. It wasn’t about insulting any actual tribes, it was letting yourself forget that the tribes still existed or might care.

What’s more, probably no one who participated in that newspaper poll is still alive. Everyone who feels attached to the Indians today came to love a team already in progress. Many developed that attachment when they were too young to understand stereotypes or racism. The Indians were the family team; Chief Wahoo was their symbol. That’s all.

Nobody consulted you about it. You never made a decision to root for the team with the racist trappings. You rooted for the team that your parents or big brother or friends at school rooted for. Years later, people started telling you that it was a disrespectful misappropriation of somebody else’s cultural heritage. But that’s never what it meant to you. So why do people want you to feel guilty about it?

Welcome to systemic racism.

The main thing to understand about systemic racism is that trying to assign individual fault and guilt misses the point. Saying that a problem is systemic means that it doesn’t reduce to good guys and bad guys. Something in the structure of institutions pits well-meaning people against each other, and there’s no way to resolve the issue without hurting somebody.

Good guys vs. bad guys is dramatic. Systemic racism is tragic.

So: A long time ago, things got set up so that the civic pride of Cleveland would conflict with the ancestral pride of Native Americans. That conflict is entirely artificial: There’s no inherent reason why saying “Yay, Cleveland!” has to carry a sense of “Boo, Native Americans!” Things just wound up that way. And while we could go round and round about the intentions of the people who started it all, that’s just a distraction, because they’re dead. We’re not a jury discussing their punishment; we’re heirs trying to sort out their legacy.

That legacy, though, is not dead and buried like the people who created it: It causes an ongoing injury. The most obvious ongoing injury is to Native Americans, but there is also an injury to Cleveland and its baseball fans. Those five-year-olds who love their Chief Wahoo caps and jerseys will one day be 15-year-olds who look back and say, “Wow, that’s really racist.” What should be purely warm memories of childhood and family will instead be tainted.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

And that’s a key lesson to learn about anti-racist activism: The point isn’t to assess blame or demand that people feel guilty or apologize. The point is to make the injustice stop. Change the structure of things so that well-meaning people are no longer drafted into an artificial conflict. [1]

So: Keep your fond memories of Sam McDowell’s unhittable fastball, or the incredible 1995 lineup of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, and Manny Ramirez, or even (if you go back that far) the amazing pitching rotation of Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. Nobody needs you to feel bad about any of that.

The activists who campaigned to change the Indians name don’t benefit from your shame. They just want to make the ongoing injury stop. And renaming the Indians achieves that goal, both for Native Americans and for Cleveland. Native Americans get back a chunk of their heritage. And the five-year-olds who receive Guardians jerseys next year won’t ever have to reassess what they mean.


[1] I am not trying to say here that all racial conflicts are artificial. Clearly, some people actively seek the benefits that come from white supremacy, and a smaller number glory in pushing other races down, even when they get no benefit from it. But we will have come a long way if we can eliminate the purely systemic racial conflicts, which individuals are often surprised to discover they participate in.

What makes the Cleveland situation a good example is that it is so purely artificial. Attachment to the Indians has very little to do with hostility to Native Americans.

In many other examples, teasing legacy systemic racism away from active malicious racism can be tricky. Take the response to President Obama, for example. Americans had never seen a Black president before, so no matter what he did, it looked “unpresidential” to a lot of people, even if his White predecessors had done exactly the same thing. The lack of any prior images of Black presidents is a systemic problem, but at the same time, malicious political operatives were doing their best to stoke the unconscious reaction that there was something vaguely wrong about Obama being president, like maybe he wasn’t really born in America or something.

Ordinarily, systemic racism is hard to separate from the active individual racism that builds up around it. But with the Indians, it’s not so difficult.

Critical Race Theory is the New Boogeyman

https://twitter.com/gathara/status/1400475732300677120

Conservatives can’t tell you what it is, but they know it’s destroying America.


As I’ve explained at length before, conservatives regularly create boogeyman phrases — strings of words that never get defined, but are somehow the source of the current evil: political correctness, socialism, cultural Marxism, cancel culture, and now critical race theory. [1]

The purpose of imbuing these scapegoat phrases with demonic power isn’t to debate a point, it’s to create a label and give it a sinister aura. Such a phrase is supposed to invoke emotions — to cast shame on liberals, and raise outrage for conservatives — not point to an idea. Rather than contribute to discussions, these phrases end them. And so, there is no need to consider the wisdom or folly of Medicare for All; it is “socialism”, so it is evil. End of story.

If the labels were defined, the corresponding concepts could become two-edged swords. Conservatives might, for example, have to explain why it’s not “cancel culture” to drive Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL. But being undefined, the boogeyman phrases simply have usages: Kaepernick isn’t a victim of right-wing cancel culture, because that’s not how the phrase is used. The conservative faithful can simply laugh when “cancel culture” is turned back on them, the way native speakers of English might laugh when a foreigner misuses some common word.

Like the other boogeyman phrases, “critical race theory” started out as an actual thing, which Education Week described like this:

The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. … A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.

Many of those red-lined areas continue to be segregated ghettos today, as is well described in The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

The Washington Post has a similar account of the actual critical race theory.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history.

But in its boogeyman usage, CRT applies to any notion that White people might participate in racism without consciously hating Black people. Refusing to allow the word “racism” to have any systemic content, the conservative account of CRT has it casting individual moral blame on all Whites.

So, in Education Week’s example of red-lining, the boogeyman usage of CRT would interpret it as accusing all the White loan officers who applied the red-lining rules of consciously hating Black people — which would obviously be unfair, if anyone were actually making that accusation.

That’s how Republicans arrive at the anti-CRT laws they are passing in the red-state legislatures they control. Fortunately, laws have to at least pretend to define the things they are banning. So Oklahoma’s anti-CRT law, which was signed by Governor Kevin Stitt in May, bans any “teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school” from teaching that

an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, … an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex, … an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex, … any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex

All these ideas are either gross distortions of anti-racist teachings, or appeal to subjective responses White students or parents might have, especially after Fox News tells them they should feel that way. (What if teaching Oklahoma high school students about the Tulsa race massacre causes some White descendant of the rioters to feel “guilt, anguish, or … psychological distress”?)


But an obvious question to raise at this point is: If that isn’t really what anti-racists teach, what’s the problem? The law just won’t apply. After all, the legislature could ban teaching that the Moon is made of green cheese without affecting any actual astronomy classes. Josh Marshall shrugs the issue off like this:

I’ve now reviewed a wide body of articles, news reports and legislative debates and I can conclude that the public/political debate [about] critical race theory is quite stupid and laws banning it may be hard to enforce since no one has a clear idea of what it is.

He was immediately answered by Jeet Heer:

Surely the goal is not to have enforceable laws but to intimidate teachers from talking about racism. A chilling effect.

A historical model here would be Tennessee’s anti-Darwin law of the 1920s, which led to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The law was indeed hard to enforce. (Scopes was found guilty, but the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside his fine on a technicality, and the state decided to drop the case.) But the sheer amount of hoopla that trial evoked — the fictionalized version Inherit the Wind is still streaming, and was remade for TV in 1999 — underlines Heer’s point: What teacher or school district is going to want to start something like that? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to leave out any racially charged interpretations of US history, and skip over historical events that might make White students uncomfortable? (Just about every state that is banning CRT has such an incident to sweep under the rug. Florida, for example, was the site of the Rosewood massacre in 1923. And lynchings, though concentrated in the South, happened almost everywhere.)

The Washington Post quotes sixth-grade teacher Monique Cottman from Iowa, where an anti-CRT law goes into effect on July 1.

I will say it’s already playing out. The White teachers who started doing a little bit more teaching about race and racism are now going back to their old way of teaching. I’ve had conversations with teachers who said things like, “I’m getting so much pushback for teaching Alice Walker, I’m going to go back to teaching what I used to teach.” So all the teachers who would have done a little bit of what I was doing — anti-racism work and culturally responsive teaching — they’re not going to do anything next year. They’re already declaring, “I’m not doing nothing,” or “It’s not safe,” or “I don’t want to lose my job.”

Nonetheless, some teachers are resisting. The Zinn Education Project organized a National Day of Action on Saturday, when

thousands of educators and others gathered virtually and in person at historic locations in more than 20 cities to make clear that they would resist efforts in at least 15 Republican-led states to restrict what teachers can say in class about racism, sexism and oppression in America. … Several thousand teachers have signed a pledge that says: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events — regardless of the law.”


The military is a second front in the Critical Race Theory war. Here CRT stands in for any form of diversity training. [2] The conservative Heritage Foundation is a source of rhetoric for both fronts, having published 17 articles on the topic since Biden took office.

The theme of military anti-CRT arguments is that the US military has been a paradise of racial harmony until now, when CRT-influenced diversity training has begun to stir up racial conflict.

Senior Research Fellow Dakota Wood, for example, is a White male who served in the Marines for 20 years. He didn’t notice any racism or sexism during that time, so obviously there wasn’t any.

The beauty of military service is that the uniform and common objective supplants grouping by individual identities of color, class, gender, or religion. …

What united everyone with whom I served was the singular identity of being a U.S. Marine committed to defending our country, a country comprising every sort of person from countless different backgrounds.

It didn’t matter where you came from. All that really mattered among Marines was whether you were competent in your job, committed to the mission, and were someone your fellow Marines could depend on.

Military service truly is the best example of America as the proverbial great melting pot.

And he repeats the standard conservative slander of what diversity training tries to accomplish.

Programs that emphasize differences among service members, that impose a demand for people to feel guilty about their identity and background, that elevate one group over another, or that seek to subordinate a group relative to another generate resentment, or a sense of aggrieved victimization, or entitlement to special handling.

Such initiatives destroy the fabric of military service that otherwise unites an extraordinarily diverse population in common purpose and identity. Identity politics is a cancer that corrodes good order and discipline and the necessary authorities inherent in a chain of command.

Senator Tom Cotton echoed these sentiments to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday:

Mr. Secretary: We’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago

Racism and sexism in the military! Who ever heard of such a thing before the Biden administration? Jeff Schogol, writing for the military-focused site Task and Purpose, answered that question.

Dog whistles aside, there is plenty of evidence that racism and sexism within the ranks actually predates the Biden administration. Task & Purpose has documented 40 cases since 2016 of service members and veterans participating in extremist organizations, such as white supremacist groups.

The Pentagon tried to bury a 2017 survey that found nearly one-third of Black service members who responded said they had experienced racism. Moreover, 30% of Black respondents and 22% of Asian respondents felt their chances for promotion would be harmed if they reported the racial harassment and discrimination that they endured. …

As for sexism within the military, there are many examples from before Biden took office in January of commands failing to protect female service members from sexual harassment. A review following the April 2020 murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén also showed that female soldiers at Fort Hood faced an environment so toxic that they constantly lived in “survival mode” 

But clearly, if the armed services just refuse to talk about these problems, they will go away. Diversity training is the problem, not racism or sexism.

So Cotton has proposed a bill to block such training. The press release announcing the bill cites two horrifying recent developments:

Last month, the Navy released a recommended reading list to facilitate the “growth and development” of sailors. One of the books on this list is Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller [How to be an Antiracist] advocating Critical Race Theory and discrimination on the basis of race.

Separately, the Navy’s Second Fleet created a book club for sailors to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a book that claims white people are inherently racist, whether consciously or subconsciously, and that race is the insidious subtext for virtually all human interactions.

Cotton would end such outrages.

This bill would prevent the military from including such theories in trainings or other professional settings, if their inclusion would reasonably appear as an endorsement. It also would prohibit the military from hiring consultants to teach such theories

His ban would extend to any notion that “The United States is a fundamentally racist country” or that “The Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution are fundamentally racist documents.”

As with high school history courses, you have to wonder about the chilling effect of such a law. What instructor would dare to point out, say, the implications of the Constitution counting a slave as three-fifths of a person?


Having given so much time to falsehood, I feel that I have to end by coming back to truth: What is it that anti-racist books and diversity trainings are trying to accomplish? If they’re not trying to convince us that “America is an evil, oppressive place” (as Cotton’s press release puts it), what ideas are they trying to communicate?

Having read a number of the books CRT critics object to, I would boil anti-racism down to a few points (which apply to sexism as well):

  • A culture’s fundamental assumptions get baked into institutions, laws, economic structures, and traditions that live on, even after those assumptions are no longer explicitly taught. [3]
  • For centuries, American culture explicitly promoted race-based rules and racial stereotypes that marginalized non-Whites, and made it either difficult or impossible for them to achieve positions of authority and influence, or even of equality with White Americans.
  • The structures created during those centuries are still with us, and participating in them maintains the effects of historical racism. Present-day Americans need not consciously hold racist beliefs to uphold a racist system.
  • Because their personal experiences do not confront them with the injustices of systemic racism, White Americans have a hard time noticing these injustices, which simply seem like “normal life” to them.
  • Unless systemic racism is brought to conscious awareness and actively countered, it will endure.

Put together, these points explain why the conservative notion of color-blindness, even if put forward in good faith (which it often is not), is inadequate for overcoming America’s racist heritage. None of this implies that “America is evil” or “Whites are inherently racist” or any of the other canards the Tom Cottons are pushing. But neither can we simply ignore racism and hope that it will go away.


[1] Something similar happens with people, who are demonized to the point that anything they might say is already discounted, and conspiracy theories targeting them need no evidence. Hillary Clinton is the longest-standing example. During the Trump administration, large numbers of FBI agents and officials were similarly demonized: Jim Comey, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. Simply mentioning their names evoked a dark conspiracy whose details never really came into focus. So far, Kamala Harris is the most prominent demon of the Biden administration. How dare she tell the country to “enjoy” the Memorial Day weekend!

[2] Trump ordered diversity training ended across the government, and even in corporations with government contracts, but a federal judge blocked his order, and Biden reversed it.

[3] In assembling these points, I have to note that racist ideas are still being taught in many places. The US has an active white supremacist movement, which many conservative politicians and media figures wink-and-nod at, even while professing color-blindness in public.

Red States Crack Down on Protests

https://jensorensen.com/2021/01/26/freedom-vs-freedom-2021-coronavirus-authoritarianism/

The GOP’s “freedom” rhetoric yields to its authoritarian agenda.


Standard conservative rhetoric treats the word freedom like partisan property: Republicans defend freedom, while Democrats are all Stalin-wannabees.

Usually, pro-gun rallies are where you see this trope in its purest form, but during the pandemic it has shown up in anti-public-health protests as well. Two weeks ago, we saw it in Congress, when Jim Jordan assailed Dr. Fauci with “When do Americans get their freedom back?” Occasionally, the two issues combine, as when armed protesters stormed the Oregon Capitol while the legislature debated anti-Covid measures.

Lately, though, we’ve been seeing how hollow the Right’s commitment to “freedom” is, at least when people use their freedom to support liberal causes. In previous weeks, I’ve talked at length about the anti-voting laws red-state legislatures have been passing in response to their dark-but-baseless fantasies about election fraud. But lately their focus has turned towards punishing liberal protest.

The latest push in red-state legislatures — Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Iowa so far — is for laws that criminalize protest and encourage vigilante action against protesters.

[Oklahoma] HB 1674, which Republican legislators passed earlier this week, grants civil and criminal immunity for drivers who “unintentionally” harm or kill protesters while “fleeing from a riot,” as long as there is a “reasonable belief that fleeing was necessary.”

Running over protesters is a long-standing conservative fantasy, which James Alex Fields Jr. carried out when he killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017. If I were a Democrat in one of these legislatures, I think I’d submit a motion to rename the bill “The Heather Heyer Had It Coming Act of 2021”.

At the end of last summer, USA Today reported:

There have been at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests from May 27 through Sept. 5, including 96 by civilians and eight by police, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats who spoke with USA TODAY this summer.

I have some sympathy for people who unexpectedly find themselves surrounded by protesters doing threatening things, like rocking the car or pounding on its roof. But I’m not sure how many cases, if any, fit that description. In this video, for example, the driver comes back for a second pass through the crowd.

“Unintentionally” sounds like it mitigates the harm, but it actually doesn’t, because intentionality is so hard to prove in court. And the “reasonable belief” standard in the Oklahoma law creates an opening for the same kind of racial bias we see in police-shooting and stand-your-ground cases: What if the driver’s impression of danger is based on the race of the protesters, rather than any threatening actions? Might a few white jurors sympathize with a driver who got scared simply because his car was surrounded by Black people?

These laws also give the government more power to clamp down on dissent. Florida’s law, which has already been signed by Gov. DeSantis, creates new crimes that you might commit just by showing up for what you believe to be a peaceful protest.

But opponents say it would make it easier for law enforcement to charge organizers and anyone involved in a protest, even if they had not engaged in any violence.

“The problem with this bill is that the language is so overbroad and vague … that it captures anybody who is peacefully protesting at a protest that turns violent through no fault of their own,” said Kara Gross, the legislative director at ACLU Florida. “Those individuals who do not engage in any violent conduct under this bill can be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony and face up to five years in prison and loss of voting rights. The whole point of this is to instill fear in Floridians.”

In addition:

If a local government chooses to decrease its law enforcement budget — to “defund the police,” as Mr. DeSantis put it — the measure provides a new mechanism for a prosecutor or a city or county commissioner to appeal the reduction to the state.

The law also increases penalties for taking down monuments, including Confederate ones, making the offense a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

As with the anti-voting laws, the justification for the Florida law is largely imaginary.

Speakers including the governor said the law would protect law enforcement and private property against rioters, despite acknowledging there was little violent unrest in Florida during last year’s protests over Floyd’s death.

… Echoing DeSantis, Republican state House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Attorney General Ashley Moody vilified other states and cities for their handling of the protests last year, some of which did turn violent.

State CFO Jimmy Patronis claimed that Portland, New York and Seattle “burned to the ground” last summer.

I’m sure that’s news to the residents of those cities. If there were vast refugee camps in New Jersey, across the Hudson from burned-out New York, I’m sure I’d have heard about them. The main studios of Fox News are on Sixth Avenue, so they would just have to point a camera out the window to show us the devastation.

An interesting question is how this law interacts with Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

In general, Floridians can defend themselves with deadly force if they believe they are in imminent danger or death — and not only when they are inside their homes. The person being threatened is not required to try to flee.

If I’m protesting peacefully, and a car is bearing down on me in a threatening way, can I just shoot the driver? If his fear justifies running over me, shouldn’t my fear justify shooting him?

Conservatives don’t ask these questions, because they know they are the ones who threaten deadly violence. In a relatively small number of cases, last summer’s George Floyd protests devolved into property damage and looting. But liberals didn’t get in their cars to mow down anti-lockdown protesters, and George Floyd marchers didn’t bring their AR-15s.

Another question conservatives like to avoid is: What if D.C. had such a law on January 6? Right now, the Justice Department expects to charge about 500 Trump cultists who trespassed into the Capitol after the crowd broke windows and pushed back police (injuring over 100 of them). But a law like Florida’s would justify felony charges against the many thousands of people from Trump’s rally who walked in the direction of the Capitol, not to mention Trump himself. By the new Florida standards, anyone who stood outside the Capitol with a Trump sign is a rioter, because they participated in a protest that had turned violent.

But for some reason, conservatives never imagine that the laws they support will ever aimed at them. Consider Thomas Webster, a retired NYPD cop who has been charged for his participation in the January 6 riot.

Prosecutors say that he “attacked a police officer with an aluminum pole and ripped off his protective gear and gas mask, causing the officer to choke.”

According to WaPo reporter Rachel Weiner:

Lawyer for Tommy Webster, retired NYPD cop accused of beating an MPD officer with flagpole on #J6, says his client is in a “dormitory setting” with people serving time for “inner-city crimes” – “for a middle aged guy whose never been arrested before this has been a shock for him”

Who could have guessed? You beat one cop with a flagpole, and suddenly people are treating you like you’re Black or something.

The anti-trans distraction

https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article250701264.html

When a political party has no solutions to real problems, it has to make up fake problems.


As I discussed in the previous post, and have covered in more detail before, the GOP is not a governing party any more. If you are concerned with any real problem facing America today, they have no plan for dealing with it.

When a party is in that situation, it needs to distract the public with phony issues and phony solutions. And so, Republican majorities in legislatures around the country are passing voter-suppression laws under the guise of solving an “election integrity” problem that doesn’t exist, and is based on the Big Lie that Trump had the 2020 election stolen from him.

Those laws are a serious threat to our democracy, but at least the threat is obvious to the general public, which can then organize against it. You don’t need any special experiences or insight to understand that Georgia Republicans did something underhanded when they made it illegal to give water to people waiting in line to vote.

But the second distraction is easier for most of the electorate to overlook, because it only affects a minority that is reviled by the conservative base and misunderstood by much of the rest of the public: transgender people.

Gender-affirming care. Two kinds of anti-trans bills are working their way through red-state legislatures, and some have already become law. One bans what is called “gender-affirming care”: medical interventions (like puberty-blocking drugs) that suppress the development of characteristics related to the gender the child wants to transition from or (like estrogen or testosterone) encourage the development of characteristics related to the gender the child wants to transition to. So even if a child, the child’s parents, and their doctors all agree on a course of treatment, the state makes it illegal.

To justify such laws, Republicans have spread a lot of lies and misinformation about what gender-affirming care really is, when it is recommended, and how it is carried out. Good sources of accurate information on these topics are this Harvard Review article and this resolution from the American Psychological Association.

As the HR article points out, anti-trans activists have changed their tactics, but not their goals. A few years ago, anti-trans “bathroom bills” were justified by painting trans youth as predators: They would invade your child’s gender-appropriate bathroom for nefarious purposes. The current wave of anti-trans bills paints them as victims: They need “protection” from the gender-transition “fad” sweeping their generation, and the predatory doctors who profit from it. But these contradictory messages are being pushed by exactly the same people.

Trans athletes. The second kind of bill bans trans girls from sports. The Guardian summarizes:

The youth sports bills, which claim to “promote fairness in women’s sports”, are based on a simple claim: that boys will be allowed to compete against girls and have an unfair advantage.

“They’re telling parents of cisgender children that you’re losing something by allowing transgender youth to play in sports,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBTQ+ rights group. “We’ve seen this playbook before – you’re losing something if you allow same-sex couples to marry, if you protect racial minorities in the workplace, if immigration laws are respected. It’s us v them.”

In the same way that the bills to “protect” gender dysphoric youth are promoted by groups that were never interested in them before, these bills to protect girls sports are championed mostly by legislators who have shown little interest in girls sports until now. (Like the bathroom bills and the bills banning gender-affirming care, many of the girls-sports bills have been written by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group motivated by conservative Christian religious views.)

The expressed motivation for such bills can be found in Florida’s “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act“:

It is the intent of the Legislature to maintain opportunities for female athletes to demonstrate their skill, strength, and athletic abilities while also providing them with opportunities to obtain recognition and accolades, college scholarships, and the numerous other long-term benefits that result from success in athletic endeavors and to promote sex equality by requiring the designation of separate sex-specific athletic teams or sports.

And that sounds marvelous, but for one fact: There’s no reason to believe that any of those opportunities for female athletes are at risk. As an ACLU report observes “transgender women and girls have been competing in sports at all levels for years”. In no state are girls sports events or teams dominated by trans athletes. Similarly, the WNBA, LPGA, and other professional women’s sports leagues have not been not overrun with trans women.

Across the country, girls participate in sports if they want to. They are not running into problems that a trans-ban will solve.

Occasionally, but not that often, some trans athlete is really good.

Running on the boys’ team as a ninth-grader in suburban Hartford, Terry Miller was an average track athlete, online records show, failing to qualify for any postseason events. But in 2018, Miller came out as a transgender girl. In her first season running against other girls, as a sophomore, Miller dominated. She won five state championships and two titles at the New England championships, beating the fastest girls from six states.

The next fall, as a junior, Miller won another four state titles and two more all-New England titles. In several races, she was followed closely by Andraya Yearwood, another transgender girl who had also won three state titles. … Girls who lost to [Miller] and their coaches complained that she had an unfair advantage. Parents of other girls started online petitions demanding state high school officials add a testosterone suppression requirement for transgender girls.

One measure of how rare such a situation is, though, is the number of articles that use this same example. (Anybody got a second one?) Retired high school coach Larry Strauss called competition from trans athletes a “non-controversy”.

Competitive equity is a beautiful and elusive objective for those of us who coach or oversee high school athletics. It is why we have junior varsity teams and freshmen and sophomore teams and why we try to match up teams that won’t slaughter one another. It often does not work out that way and we have all seen and heard about lopsided scores in high school football and basketball and pretty much every other sport. 

There are athletes whose physical gifts and athletic talent make them so dominant that it really doesn’t seem fair (I know firsthand, having coached against some of them). And does anyone believe there is any justice in the so-called “genetic lottery”? 

Scientifically, the jury is still out on when or whether trans girl athletes — particularly the ones who transitioned without going through puberty, or have received hormone treatments — have an advantage over cis girl athletes, and if so, how big that advantage is.

But what we do know is that girls sports are doing fine. To me, the right question isn’t whether trans athletes occasionally win, or even whether those victories violate some abstract ideal of fairness. The right question is whether including trans athletes ruins female sports programs for everybody else. That seems not to be happening.

In the absence of an identifiable problem, the point of these bills seems to be to harm and stigmatize transgender folk, not to protect impressionable teens or girls sports programs.

Trump Despises His Supporters Too

By privately insulting veterans and servicemen killed in the line of duty, Trump has raised a suspicion many of his supporters try not to think about: What does he say about them behind their backs?


He says what he thinks. When his supporters try to explain what is so appealing about Donald Trump, one point that almost always comes up is: “He says what he thinks.”

If you don’t like Trump, that line has probably never made sense to you, because a lot of what he says seems so nonsensical that he can’t possibly believe it. Surely he doesn’t really think he’s been treated “worse than Lincoln“, when Lincoln was assassinated in office, or that he has “done more for Black Americans than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln — nobody has even been close”. He was already an adult when President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, laws that made it possible for millions of Black Americans to vote and to begin living something that at least resembled a normal American life. Surely he doesn’t imagine that a few months of low Black unemployment compares to that, does he? Or that it balances his decades-long history of racism.

He doesn’t say those things because he believes them. He says them because he wants us to believe them.

But “He says what he thinks” is actually code for something else: “He says what I think.” People in Trump’s base, particularly older conservative Christian white men, have lived for decades under constant social disapproval for the little things they habitually do and the words that come out of their mouths. Put yourself in their shoes: Maybe you grew up saying the N-word — you didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just what Black people were called in your neighborhood. (I missed out on the N-word: I grew up in a time and place where good little children weren’t supposed to say it, and by the time I was an adult, no one was.) Maybe you said “fag” instead of “gay”, or referred to women in the workplace as “girls”.

Comments or pats on the butt that would once have been accepted as compliments suddenly because “harassment”. Overnight, jokes that everyone used to laugh at became offensive — racist or sexist or some other ist-word you’d never heard before. Affirmations of good Christian values became “homophobia”, and who knows what the heck “intersectionality” means? Every day there was a new set of toes you supposedly had been tromping on for years — so you’d better watch your step from now on. And it never stops: You can’t even make fun of transsexuals these days. Who knows what it will be next? You’ll never be free to just speak your mind.

And there was Trump, ignoring all those rules and not censoring himself. Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals and drug smugglers. America accepts too many people from “shithole countries” like Haiti or those places in Africa that were better off when the British or French ran things. When you thought stuff like that, you didn’t dare say so — but he did. That crippled reporter wrote bad things about him, so Trump just mocked him and his disability right out in front of everybody, with the TV cameras running. The Disability Police came after him with guns blazing, but did he apologize? No way. Women came out of the woodwork to say he harassed, abused, or even raped them. Did he let that intimidate him? Not on your life. He insulted them right back, said they were too ugly to be worth it. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”

What’s more, you would also love to deny that you ever make mistakes, to blame everything that goes wrong on somebody else, and to claim that everything you do or say or own is the biggest and best and most wonderful thing ever. But you don’t, because people would laugh at you. Well, Trump does that, and people do laugh at him, but he just doesn’t care. How can you not love that?

The liberal media and all the people who have been pushing the new standards, they keep trying to bring him down. But they can’t. They try to make him a villain, but he beats them.

And that’s why he’s a hero.

Mean girls. One stereotypic character of high school dramas is the Mean Girl: From her perch at the top of the social pyramid, she can say whatever she wants about anybody — and what she wants to say is nasty. The more cruel or unjust it is, the more it proves her power. She can say anything, and everybody else has to accept it, because if you object, she’ll turn her fire on you. And if you want to be popular like she is, you can’t just silently go along, you have to praise her cleverness and insight. If you want to stay in the Queen’s court, you have to repeat her insults and push the party line. She tells you who’s in and who’s out, and then sends you off to work her will.

Being close to the Mean Girl can be exhilarating. All your life you’ve had to repress your own cruelty, and now it’s an asset — as long as she approves. If you come up with a particularly biting nickname for some rival queen-wannabee or for some kid who thinks he or she can get along outside the social structure, maybe the Mean Girl will start using it too. You’ll never get credit for it directly, but maybe you’ll rise in her esteem, until you’re almost a Mean Girl yourself.

But no matter how close you get to the throne, you never stop wondering: What does that cruel tongue say about you when you’re not there to hear?

In their heart-of-hearts, even Trump’s biggest fans must recognize how much Mean Girl he has in him. That champion-of-the-common-man mantle has always fit badly on someone who lives in a gilded penthouse. Do you think anyone who isn’t rich or famous has ever set foot in his Trump Tower residence except as a servant, a workman, or for sex?

He didn’t make that money by working his way up from the bottom; he inherited hundreds of millions from his father. He’s always been rich, he’s always been on top, and he’s always been a bully. Those famous Twitter insults — Pocahontas, pencil-neck Adam Schiff, Crooked Hillary — that’s not the language of presidents. It’s the language of the Mean Girl.

So even if you’re the most rabid MAGA-hatter in the world, deep down you have to wonder: When he’s with his real buddies — the billionaires or reality TV stars or whoever he likes to hang with — what does he say about you? Does he make fun of how gullible you are, that you think he cares about you and you believe all the crap he tells you?

No matter how much you may try to deny that possibility, silently in your own mind you know he does.

Trump U. Before Donald Trump ever ran for president, he was the founder of Trump University. The target market for Trump U was all the people who admired the great businessman they saw on The Apprentice, people who bought The Art of the Deal and wanted to be like the guy it described. And they didn’t just admire Trump, they trusted him. If he was ready to tell people how to get rich the way he did — which wasn’t to inherit a real estate empire from your Dad — they were ready to pay money to hear it.

They weren’t the Enemy. They weren’t what’s wrong with America. They were his biggest fans.

And he scammed them.

Trump U wasn’t a good idea that got out of hand. It wasn’t a generous impulse that turned bad after he handed it off to a corrupt subordinate. Trump U was a scam from Day 1.

One of the company’s ads said of Trump, “He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth. . . . And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today’s once-in-a-lifetime real estate market.” The ad said that Trump had “hand-picked” Trump University’s instructors, and it ended with a quote from him: “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you.”

In fact, Trump hadn’t handpicked the instructors, and he didn’t attend the three-day seminars. Moreover, the complaint said, “no specific Donald Trump techniques or strategies were taught during the seminars, Donald Trump ‘never’ reviewed any of Trump University’s curricula or programming materials, nor did he review any of the content for the free seminars or the three day seminars.” So what were the attendees taught? According to the complaint, “the contents and material presented by Trump University were developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and Seminar and timeshare rental companies.” The closest that the attendees at the seminars got to Trump was when they were encouraged to have their picture taken with a life-size photo of him.

Trump U’s business plan was to constantly up-sell its marks. Drawn in by a free presentation, they’d be given a glowing description of everything they’d learn if they ponied up $1,500 for the three-day seminar. At the three-day seminar, they’d hear about the even more expensive “mentorship” program where they’d learn Trump’s real secrets.

There never were any Trump secrets in the program. He couldn’t tell them how to be born rich, he wasn’t going to tell them how to launder money for Russian oligarchs, and nobody wants to know how to go bankrupt running Atlantic City casinos — so there was really nothing to teach. Trump admirers paid upwards of $30,000 for that lesson, and Trump eventually had to give back $25 million to settle their fraud lawsuit.

Most of the victims of Trump U were people who couldn’t afford to lose that amount of money. But there was a hole in their lives that they thought they could fill by becoming real estate moguls like their hero Donald Trump. In other words, they were losers. And Trump was able to take advantage of their loser-ness (and their admiration of him) to turn them into suckers.

And if you think he’s only done that once, you’re wrong.

The Atlantic article. Thursday, The Atlantic published an article by its editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’“. The article made a number of startling accusations:

  • In 2018, while he was in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he cancelled a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, the grave site of 1,800 American Marines who died at Belleau Wood, because “It’s filled with losers.” He also described the Marines as “suckers” for getting killed.
  • When tortured Vietnam POW John McCain had died a few months earlier, he said, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”
  • When he accompanied his Chief of Staff John Kelly on a visit to the grave of Kelly’s son, a Marine who died in 2010 in Afghanistan, he said to Kelly “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A retired four-star general who is a friend of Kelly later told Goldberg, “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.”
  • After hearing Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford give a briefing, Trump said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”
  • When planning a military parade, Trump told his aides not to include amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

Immediately, the White House tried its standard defense: Fake news, put out by a failing magazine. The story is “totally false”, and the anonymous sources Goldberg quotes are made up.

That explanation broke down almost immediately when other news organizations — AP , The New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and The Washington Post — had little trouble finding their own sources, who may or may not have been the same ones Goldberg found. If someone is making these stories up, it’s not Jeffrey Goldberg.

Worse, there was one obvious person who could have blown the whole thing up: John Kelly. If his son’s memory is being used to smear his former boss, you’d think he might try to put a stop to it. He hasn’t said a word. Trump knows what that means. So he attacked Kelly Friday at the White House:

I know John Kelly. He was with me, didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out. He got — he was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted.

He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months. He was not able to function. He was sort of a tough guy. By the time he got eaten up in this world, it’s a different world than he was used to, he was unable to function. And I told him, John, you’re going to have to go. Please give me a letter of resignation. And we did that, and now he goes out and badmouths.

He has also lashed out at Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin, who corroborated some of Goldberg’s accounts via her own sources, and added this anecdote:

According to one former senior Trump administration official: “When the President spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker’.”

Griffin, Trump tweeted, “should be fired for this kind of reporting” and added “FoxNews is gone.”

Other pundits and talking heads have pointed out the obvious: The quotes in the Atlantic article may be new and more extreme, but they sound like Trump quotes we already know. Early in his term, he called the military brass “a bunch of dopes and babies“. One of Candidate Trump’s first political flaps came when he bad-mouthed John McCain’s service: “I like people who weren’t captured.” He publicly contradicted the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.  He attacked the Gold Star parents of slain Captain Humayun Khan. He dodged the Vietnam draft by claiming bone spurs, a diagnosis provided by a doctor who owed his father a favor. Michael Cohen quotes Trump saying, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam.” The only person in Trump’a family who did any military service was his black-sheep brother Fred Jr., who was in the Air National Guard. As President, Trump won’t even challenge Vladimir Putin for paying bounties to kill American soldiers. Putin counts; soldiers don’t.

So yes, it fits perfectly: He said these things. Trump and his flunkies can deny as vehemently as they want, but they’re not fooling anybody.

Why this story hit a nerve. Ever since he came down the escalator in 2015 talking about Mexican rapists, barely a week has gone by without some Trump-said-a-bad-thing story. They arise, people who never liked Trump anyway get upset about them, and they fade away in a day or two. Some political observers believe Trump uses or even engineers this process in order to distract the public from more damaging stories. For example, 1080 Americans died of coronavirus on the day the Atlantic article came out. What’s more important: a few quotes from 2018 or the equivalent of three simultaneous jumbo-jet crashes?

And yet, this time the story doesn’t seem to be going away. I think I know why.

Trump’s usual escape from he-said-a-bad-thing stories is to invoke tribalism. Both the people he insulted and the media that reported the insult are from the Other Side. Who are you going to believe: Trump or the New York Times? Whose side are you one: Trump’s or the Squad? Trump or some Muslim?

But the people he has insulted this time are in his own tribe, and even Fox News is reporting it. John Kelly was a good guy not that long ago, and he went away without making a fuss.

A key part of the Trump base are veterans, especially white veterans from the South or rural areas whose families have a tradition of military service. The kind of guy who goes to the cemetery on Memorial Day to put flowers on the grave of a father who died on D-Day or a grandfather who barely escaped from Belleau Wood — lots and lots of them are Trump voters. And he thinks they’re losers and suckers, just like the people he scammed at Trump U. Then he got his marks’ money, now he gets their votes. But does he respect them? Not at all.

And even if you’re not a veteran, or a veteran’s spouse or son or daughter, you have to know that your position in the Trump base is no more secure than theirs. If he talks that way about them, you know he’s talking that way about you too.

He’s not the hero you want to believe he is. He’s the Mean Girl who finds you useful as long as you do what she wants. He bears you no affection or loyalty, and the more you do for him, the more you convince him that you’re a sucker too.

The Cancel Culture Debate

Expressing views out of step with the common sense of your era has always been risky. But now, as cultural power shifts and common sense changes, it’s harder to know what’s safe.


It has long been a staple of conservative thought that good people should have nothing to do with bad people. The very first verse in the Book of Psalms says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.” And in 2 Corinthians 6:14 the New Testament echoes: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

This conservative idealization of purity is currently playing out in the treatment of the Never-Trump Republicans, who are seen as heretics rather than wayward brethren. Justin Amash had to leave the Republican Party. Mitt Romney was dis-invited from CPAC. Even Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz is under fire for her occasional criticisms of the Great Leader.

But those incidents are dogs biting men. What really has drawn public attention is the man-bites-dog phenomenon of liberals casting people out. Liberals define themselves as open-minded and tolerant, and yet now they are often the ones who get people expelled from social media or dis-invited from speaking engagements or even fired from their jobs.

Such incidents have led to much bad-faith criticism from conservatives, and the popularization of the label “cancel culture”. But it has also resulted in introspection among liberals, most recently and publicly in “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by around 150 intellectual heavyweights and published in Harper’s.

The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

This intolerant-climate rhetoric has predictably played into the both-sides-do-it narrative that mainstream media uses to establish its objectivity. But what exactly is the “it” that both sides do? The Harper’s letter is vague and sloppy about this, and the coverage the letter generated has often talked about “free speech”, when that is not the issue at all.

So let’s start at the beginning and try to get this right: What exactly is “cancellation”, and why might people of good faith want to do it?

When cancellation is merited. Judy Mikovits has a theory: She thinks Covid-19 was created in the United States by public health officials led by Dr. Anthony Fauci. They shipped it to Wuhan where it was either released or escaped, starting the current pandemic. Mikovits also holds Fauci personally responsible for destroying her career in science; she says he distributed millions of dollars to cover up the conspiracy that persecuted her. She has also made several other bizarre claims about Covid-19 in the video Plandemic, which went viral in right-wing circles until it was removed from most social media platforms: Flu vaccines have distributed coronavirus, which is activated when you wear a mask. Bill Gates was part of the plan to spread Covid-19, so that he can profit off the eventual vaccine. And so on.

Actual evidence for these claims is virtually non-existent.

So what should happen to Mikovits and her theories? In my ideal world, not much. She would be free to run around making whatever claims she believes, but no one would take her seriously, either. Groups would not invite her to speak. People who stumbled across her video online would say “Really?” and do some checking before deciding not to pass it on to anyone else. If Facebook, Twitter, et al. discovered “Plandemic” gaining popularity on their platforms, they would remove it, exactly as they did in the real world, but maybe sooner. And of course, being a distributor of wild misinformation about science would make Mikovits unemployable by legitimate scientific institutions.

In short, I think Mikovits deserves to be canceled — not imprisoned, not fined, not punished in any discernible way, just removed from the national conversation — not by government edict, but by the shared standards and good judgment of society in general.

Instead, Sinclair Broadcasting, the Trumpist network of local TV stations, decided to give her a platform. [1] Eric Bolling (who you may remember from his time as a Fox News host, until he left under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations) has a TV show America This Week, which Sinclair distributes to its stations. This week’s episode includes interviews with Mikovits and with her lawyer Larry Klayman.

For balance, Bolling also interviewed a Fox News medical contributor who describes Mikovits’ claims about Covid and Fauci as “unlikely”. But for much of the episode, the chyron asks the question: “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?” Many of Bolling’s viewers — especially the ones who might be cooking dinner or paying bills and only looking up at the TV occasionally — will probably come away thinking that “yes” is a plausible opinion, one that reasonable people should consider.

Is Sinclair’s decision to air Mikovits’ views a defense of free speech? I don’t think so. I believe it’s irresponsible and does a disservice to viewers who trust their local news stations.

Legal vs. acceptable. I bring Mikovits up not because I want to spend significant time debunking her, but for the sake of her example: Widespread rhetoric about “cancel culture” professes to be about “free speech” or censorship, but it really isn’t. [2] We’re not discussing what speech should be legal. We’re discussing what speech should be acceptable in various forums. And the answer to that question should not be “whatever anyone wants to say”. Failing to cancel someone can be irresponsible management of an information forum. [3]

The acceptability question is not absolute; it is forum-dependent. Suppose I agree with Mikovits and say so. What should happen depends on where I say it or try to say it.

  • If I’m talking to my friends at a bar (assuming it’s ever safe to go back to bars), they should scoff at me, but the conversation should move on with no further consequence.
  • If I submit an article to a general-interest newspaper or magazine, they should reject it; but maybe I could get away with raising the question of whether the virus was created in a lab, and suggesting that maybe it was.
  • If I’m writing for Scientific American or some other popular magazine with scientific respectability, I should only be able to make claims that I can support with significant scientific evidence. The created-in-a-lab theory probably couldn’t pass muster.
  • A scientific journal like Nature should require not just evidence, but proof. Otherwise, my opinion should not be heard.

If I am employed by Scientific American or a scientific journal, and I develop a reputation as a promoter of the Fauci-created-Covid conspiracy theory, they should fire me, because my reputation would conflict with the reputation the magazine wants to maintain.

None of this would constitute a violation of my free speech. I can say whatever I want, but other people are also free to react to what I say. No one has to offer me a platform or lend me their respectability.

Zack Beauchamp makes this point in more detail.

Contrary to the original letter signers’ claims, what’s actually happening here is more subtle than a war between free speech’s defenders and its opponents. It is, as the University of Illinois’s Nicholas Grossman writes, an argument over “drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” That’s not a conflict over the principles of a free society but the rules that govern its operation in practice.

Before we called it “canceling”. If there ever was a moment in American history when all speech was acceptable and any idea could be advocated in any forum, it hasn’t been in my lifetime. I grew up during the Cold War, an era when it went without saying that no major newspaper or magazine would have an openly Communist columnist. [4] Slightly before my time, the Hollywood blacklist banned movie people suspected of Communist sympathies. One famous victim was the black singer/actor Paul Robeson, who you may have heard sing “Ol’ Man River“.

The range of opinions acceptable on major-network TV may have expanded somewhat in the 21st century, but is still quite narrow. Bill Maher ran into the limits shortly after 9-11. At the time, he hosted ABC’s Politically Incorrect, a comic-but-serious discussion of the news similar to his current Real Time show on HBO. But Maher made the mistake of responding to President Bush’s characterization of the 9-11 hijackers as cowards by saying something fairly obvious:

We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.

Soon, local ABC affiliates were refusing to air Maher’s show and sponsors were dropping it. It was not renewed for another season, after having been on ABC for five years.

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks (now just “The Chicks”) faced retribution after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that the band opposed the upcoming invasion of Iraq: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In response

The Dixie Chicks were blacklisted by thousands of country radio stations. On May 6, Colorado radio station KKCS suspended two DJs for playing their music.

So “cancel culture” may be a relatively recent term, but the phenomenon is not at all new.

Moving the boundaries. If cancel culture isn’t new, why is it suddenly getting so much attention? It’s hard to argue with the assertion that something feels different now. But what and why?

For one thing, more and more people are unsure about where the boundaries are, and so they withhold opinions they might previously have expressed. In a poll by Cato Institute — not an unbiased source, but faking a poll is not their style — 62% of Americans agree with the statement: “The political climate these days prevents me from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive.” That’s up slightly from 58% in 2017.

The question is why. I think Beauchamp has this right: It’s not that the bounds of acceptable speech are getting narrower, it’s that the range is shifting. Activists on the left are succeeding in moving the range leftward, and some would like to shift it further.

That may sound partisan and even nefarious in the abstract, but there is justification for it: The range of acceptable speech has never been natural or God-given; it arises out of a society’s power dynamics. [5] We are emerging from a centuries-long era when power belonged exclusively to upper-class straight white Christian men. So the bounds we are used to — ones that seem “normal” to us — unfairly favor upper-class straight white Christian men.

Social justice advocates think the bands of acceptable opinion and arguments shouldn’t be narrowed, precisely, but rather pushed to the left — shifted to include formerly excluded voices from oppressed communities and to sideline voices that seek to continue their exclusion. Their critics think the traditional bands of debate are, broadly speaking, correct, and that we’d all be worse off if the social justice advocates succeed in moving speech norms in their direction.

Consider, for example, the Me-Too movement. Abusive men like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby used to be confident that their female victims would not be listened to or taken seriously, but now at least some of those voices are being heard. And if uncertainty about the new boundaries prevents men “from saying things I believe, because others might find them offensive”, that isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t doubt for a minute that Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida was saying what he believes when he called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes a “fucking bitch”. But if he restrains himself in the future (because he doesn’t want to be eviscerated again on the floor of the House), I don’t see the loss.

As a professional-class straight white brought-up-Christian man myself, I have often been corrected for running afoul of the new boundaries — by  commenters on this blog, for example. I have been called out for using the verb “bitch” for a certain style of complaining (done by men and women alike), or for referring to someone as “transgendered” (as if it were something that happened to them) rather than “transgender” (something they are). Occasionally someone observes that my attempts to write about privilege are themselves tainted by a privileged viewpoint. Of course it stings to be criticized for something I did without conscious malice, and that no one would have mentioned ten or twenty years ago. But I also recognize that a world where people like me get criticized for giving offense is better than one where the people we offend are not heard.

Who decides? A glance at the list of signers of the Harper’s letter reveals that they aren’t all upper-class straight white Christian men: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Michelle Goldberg, Khaled Khalifa, Dahlia Lithwick, John McWhorter, Gloria Steinem, Fahreed Zakaria, and many others. So why is this their issue?

For some, the motivation is obvious: Salman Rushdie had to spend years in hiding because his writings offended a powerful Muslim cleric. J. K. Rowling has faced a huge backlash to her opinion that transwomen are not “real” women. But not all the signers have some clear personal ax to grind. What’s up with them?

Let’s go back to Beauchamp:

What’s new in the modern era, according to [York University philosopher Regina] Rini, is that the mass public has gained an unprecedented ability to influence and reshape those rules [defining acceptable speech] — a process that used to be the province of the elite. … [Intellectual elites] believe that social media, and Twitter in particular, is starting to exercise a kind of veto over editorial judgment — running roughshod over editors and forcing journalists to be subject to the new activist rules of political discourse. The objection here is not just that activist speech norms are bad, but that those speech norms are being imposed on the intellectual elite by the loudest voices on social media — that a silent majority of conventionally liberal journalists are being silenced by radicals.

Here’s what the Harper’s letter says:

We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

A response letter from a collection of generally less famous intellectuals points out that the examples vaguely alluded to in the paragraph above are both less unjust and less representative than they appear.

The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. … Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.

For years, the people at the top of the intellectual pyramid have been insulated from the disapproval of the lower orders. [6] Now they are less insulated. Some problems may result from that trend, but it’s not obvious that the trend itself is a problem.

What is common sense? In David Graeber’s The Democracy Project, he defined the success of revolutions not by the the new governments they establish, but by “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. [7] We seem to be in such a revolutionary period now. Just a few months ago, for example, defunding or abolishing the police were ideas outside the bounds of acceptable discussion in most popular forums. Now the idea is openly discussed in The New York Times and other establishment forums. On the other side of the spectrum, the President is floating the possibility that he might refuse to accept an election that he loses.

No one can really say what “political common sense” means right now; it’s in flux. Similarly, “acceptable speech” is in flux. That is not the fault of anybody in particular. It’s just an uncomfortable feature of this historical moment.

In this situation, mistakes are going to be made. We’re all going to say things that we’ll regret after standards settle down. And some of our responses to other people’s transgressions will turn out to be inappropriate — sometimes too harsh, sometimes too lenient. It will be so obvious in hindsight.

What can we say? Recognizing that our current sight suffers fog-of-war-type limitations, how much can we say? Here are a few incomplete conclusions I’ve come to.

Disagreement is not censorship. Back on May 26, when Twitter attached a fact-check link to one of Trump’s lying tweets, the President tweeted back:

Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!

Trump was so stifled that a week or so later (June 5) he tweeted 200 times. But this complaint has a long pedigree in conservative circles. When she was John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Sarah Palin claimed that her rights had been violated by media accounts labeling her paling-round-with-terrorists rhetoric 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.

The same observation holds for liberals, moderates, or anybody else: If you say something and somebody disagrees with you, your rights have not been violated. If they label what you say as racist or sexist or some other ist-word, that’s their opinion and they have as much right to it as you have to your opinion.

Reserve your sympathy for people suffering real consequences. Someone surprised to be criticized for what he says or does should never be lumped together with others who have lost something real, like a job. If your house is getting vandalized and your inbox is full of death threats, that’s different that just “somebody called me a homophobe”. Hannah Giorgis made the point like this:

Facing widespread criticism on Twitter, undergoing an internal workplace review, or having one’s book panned does not, in fact, erode one’s constitutional rights or endanger a liberal society.

Michelle Goldberg objected:

This sentence brought me up short; one of these things is not like the others. Anyone venturing ideas in public should be prepared to endure negative reviews and pushback on social media. Internal workplace reviews are something else. If people fear for their livelihoods for relatively minor ideological transgressions, it may not violate the Constitution — the workplace is not the state — but it does create a climate of self-censorship and grudging conformity.

However, a review is not a firing. And that leads to the next point.

Responsibility belongs to the decision-makers. If you say something innocent that unfairly provokes (in the words of the Harper’s letter) “calls for swift and severe retribution” on Twitter, and then your boss fires you, the problem is with your boss, not with Twitter or the people who complained. Storms of public opinion are going to be a regular feature of public life, and institutions are going to have to learn how to weather them. People in positions of responsibility are going to need to have the courage of their convictions.

Universities are a good example: Students can ask for whatever they want; the university doesn’t have to give it to them. If some student group calls for the scalp of a professor who offended them by doing something that is well within the terms of ordinary academic freedom, and the university gives in, that’s on the university. Universities who make a habit of this kind of cowardice should be shunned by the kind of intellectuals they would otherwise try to recruit.

Saying anything substantive requires courage. This much has always and everywhere been true: It’s risky to express opinions that are out of step with the common sense of your time and place. [8] The problem now is that, since common sense itself is in flux, nobody can be sure what opinions are safe, or will continue to be safe when people a few years hence look back with new eyes.

This situation is regrettable. But at the same time, I have limited sympathy for intellectuals who are trying to be inoffensive and failing. The point of intellectual life should be to state your truth. If your truth turns out to be popular and make everybody happy, how fortunate for you. But nobody should go into intellectual life expecting that.

What goes around comes around. Everybody needs to remember that revolutions eat their young. Robespierre died on the same guillotine that he had sent many other people to. The more harsh judgment we build into the system, the more likely we are to be judged harshly when our time comes.

We need to always keep in mind the point of shifting the boundaries of acceptable thought: to bring in new voices, ones that the old distribution of power had shut out. Bringing in those new voices sometimes requires squelching old voices who are telling the new voices to shut up, or intimidating them out of speaking at all. Making new space on the platform may require asking some people to step aside. Creating a safe workplace or discussion space for a wider group of people may require that previously acceptable speech become unacceptable. [9]

But squelching old voices should never become an end in itself, even if they are obnoxious voices.

 

It would be nice to have a big finish for this post, but for all the reasons explained above, I don’t have one. As I said, someday (in hindsight) how we should have handled this will all be obvious. But right now, it isn’t.


[1] This description is based on the version of the episode that was posted online. After it caused an uproar, Sinclair decided to pull the episode back for re-editing to give it more “context. Presumably, however, its distribution to Sinclair’s stations has only been delayed.

[2] In the current news, I know of only one example of actual censorship: When Michael Cohen was furloughed from prison due to the risk of coronavirus, the Federal Bureau of Prisons conditioned the continuation of his furlough on an agreement not to write a book critical of President Trump. Cohen refused to sign and was sent back to prison, but was soon released by a federal judge. The judge said, “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this … unless there was a retaliatory purpose?”

Telling someone: “If you write a book you’ll go to jail” — that’s censorship.

[3] Another good example of a viewpoint deservedly canceled is Q-Anon.

[4] That’s still true today. For all the charges of “socialism” that get flung at pundits and politicians these days, when was the last time you heard somebody advocate public ownership of the means of production? That idea hasn’t gone away; you just don’t hear it.

[5] That’s the 21st-century version of Karl Marx’ dictum: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

[6] However, even world-famous philosophers have occasionally lost jobs because they were too liberal. In 1940, City College of New York tried to hire Bertrand Russell to teach classes on logic, mathematics, and the metaphysics of science — three areas in which he was among the world’s foremost authorities at the time. That appointment was challenged in court because of his criticism of religion and advocacy of unpopular sexual practices. (Wikipedia lists “sex before marriage, homosexuality, temporary marriages, and the privatization of marriage”.) Ultimately the New York Supreme Court ruled against his appointment, claiming that Russell was morally unfit to teach at CCNY.

[7] The French Revolution is a good example. The government it established was a disaster, but afterwards monarchy became hard to justify.

[8] Even if you were white, being an abolitionist in the Old South could get you horsewhipped.

[9] Sara Robinson pushed back against Cato’s implication that it was political bigotry to be skeptical of hiring Trump supporters.

As an employer, I have a legal obligation to provide my workers with a safe workplace where they can do their jobs free of harassment and bigotry. If I fail, I can be sued, so there’s serious liability attached here.

If I hire a Trump follower, that liability goes straight to 11. How can I convince my female employees that they’ll be safe if I hire someone who thinks it’s fine for a man to grab a woman by the pussy? How do I look my Iranian clients in the eye after I bring in an employee who approved of the Muslim ban? What can I say to reassure my Jewish staffers when I’ve put their futures in the hands of a supervisor who agrees that the Charlottesville mob included “some very fine people”? What do I tell our Mexican-American vendors when they have to deal with someone who’s cool with seizing their nieces and nephews and sticking them in baby cages? … You don’t need to be a bigot to steer clear of these people.

Back to Square One

This week the number of new Covid-19 infections spiked up to even higher levels than before the shutdown. Other governments have avoided this scenario, but ours has no plan for dealing with it.


What if we have a crisis? In one of the less-noticed parts of John Bolton’s new book, Chief of Staff John Kelly complains that he is frustrated to the point of quitting. “What if we have a real crisis like 9/11,” Kelly asks Bolton, “with the way he makes decisions?”

As Bolton — like so many other former Trump insiders before him — demonstrates with numerous examples, “the way he makes decisions” is to start from a place of complete ignorance. (Prior to his ill-fated Helsinki meeting with Putin, he asked aides whether Finland was part of Russia. He also seemed not to know that the United Kingdom has nuclear weapons.) Then he ignores the briefings that come from the intelligence community or other government experts, and doesn’t ask for any studies or position papers from people the government employs to do research like that. Instead, he spends hours each day talking to friends on the phone and listening to the pundits on Fox News. If he hears something he likes, maybe that becomes government policy immediately, or maybe it turns into a line he uses at rallies. If the rally-goers cheer, then that’s what the world’s greatest superpower will do.

If you think there ought to be a more rigorous process than that, you must be part of the Deep State.

This is how we got the border wall project. No one who studies border security for a living ever concluded that a wall between the US and Mexico was the most efficient way to accomplish some desirable goal. But Trump’s 2016 campaign advisers decided he needed a “mnemonic device” to get him to focus on immigration. Any realistic plan to deal with unwanted border-crossings is full of the kind of legal, diplomatic, environmental, and other details Trump hates, but “Build a Wall” was simple enough to hold in his head, and the crowds loved it — especially when he added the fantasy that Mexico would pay for it.

Those cheering crowds are why some adviser’s mnemonic device is turning into a physical wall that takes years to build, costs billions of dollars, and doesn’t solve any identifiable problems. We just lucked out that Trump wasn’t still holding rallies when the inject-yourself-with-bleach idea got into his head.

Own-goal crises. The reason Bolton and Kelly were having a what-if conversation rather than recalling an actual disaster is that until that point the United States had been having an extraordinary run of good luck. You may remember these last three-plus years as a high-wire state of constant national anxiety, but in fact the real world was unusually tame. Barack Obama had handed Trump a country in pretty good shape, particularly compared to the one Obama had received from George W. Bush. All the major economic trends were in the right direction, Obama’s light-footprint strategy to defeat the ISIS caliphate was working, and so on. Obama did leave behind a number of worrisome long-term challenges, like climate change, the ascension of China, nuclear proliferation, the decades-long decline of America’s middle class, and so on. But no one really expected Trump to make progress on any of that, and on any given day all those problems have been pretty easy to ignore.

Instead, what made the pre-Covid Trump years feel so tense were the crises Trump created himself: He ratcheted up his “fire and fury” rhetoric against North Korea to the point that war seemed inevitable, and then arranged a marvelous reality-show resolution when he “fell in love” with Kim Jong Un, a performance so compelling that Trump wanted a Nobel Peace Prize for it. Of course, nothing was actually accomplished by the whole up-and-down cycle (other than some great propaganda for the Kim regime), but didn’t it look grand on TV?

The low points in his approval rating were similarly self-inflicted: when he described the neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville as “fine people” or sided with Putin against the US intelligence agencies or couldn’t let go of a spat with a military widow. His China trade war spooked the markets and slowed the economy, but that was also something he brought on himself, so he could create good news whenever he wanted by tweeting about “progress” in the negotiations or delaying some tariff he had threatened to impose unilaterally.

Since those were all holes he dug himself, he could just stop digging, divert the public’s attention elsewhere, and wait for it all to blow over. Easy-peasy.

And then there was the ever-rising budget deficit, which would have been framed as an existential crisis for Obama, but became acceptable once a Republican was in the White House.

Before Covid, Trump only had to face two truly external problems: impeachment and his complete botch of the federal response to the Puerto Rican hurricane. Impeachment was never a big worry for two reasons: First, no matter how guilty he was, the Republican Senate was never going to convict him. (In the end, they decided that the House’s evidence wasn’t good enough to remove a president chosen by 46% of the people, and that if there was better evidence, they didn’t want to see it.) And second, the underlying offense (the extortion of Ukraine) didn’t really matter to Trump’s base. As for the Puerto Rican hurricane, well, that mainly affected Spanish-speaking people of color that the Trump base also didn’t care about. (Yeah, thousands of them are dead, but it’s not like they were ever “real Americans”, right?)

The virus is real. But Covid is different. There’s a real virus out there killing people. It can’t be intimidated by tweets or derogatory nicknames like “Wuhan virus” or “kung flu”. Even though it has been killing people of color at a rate disproportionate to their numbers, it kills white people too. And now it’s even spreading in red states (Texas) or purple states (Florida) that Trump needs to carry if he wants to be re-elected.

Trump has no plan to defeat the virus, but that’s par for the course. He doesn’t have a plan to deal with any of America’s problems. For example, he’s still promising a “FAR BETTER AND MUCH LESS EXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE” to ObamaCare, and to “ALWAYS PROTECT PEOPLE WITH PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS,ALWAYS!!!” But in the five years since he came down the escalator, he has not produced so much as a back-of-the-envelope sketch of a program to deliver on such promises. I’m sure the words in those capitalized phrases sound good to him and his fans, but as soon as the sound waves fade out the air is empty again.

Like his bromance with the North Korean dictator, Trump’s coronavirus briefings also made good TV for a while, but eventually they became embarrassing and he got bored with them. So he applied his usual crisis-control tactic: He congratulated himself for defeating the virus, which is “dying out“; flattered or browbeat Republican governors to reopen their states too early; stopped talking about the whole crisis, even as additional thousands of Americans continued to die each week; tried to divert our attention elsewhere; and waited for it all to blow over.

But here’s the thing: Reality doesn’t blow over. Covid-19 isn’t a PR flap or a misstep he can back away from, it’s a pandemic. For a short time, he may be able to get large segments of the public to “ignore that pile of dead bodies over in the corner” (as Bill Gates put it), but people keep dying even when everyone’s looking the other way, and eventually we start to notice again.

Comparisons. Covid-19 started out in China in December, and from there spread around the world, taking different courses in different countries. Some small countries with good leadership and a strong public spirit — New Zealand, Iceland, and South Korea pop to mind — reacted quickly, got the epidemic under control, and continue to hold it in check through a combination of testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and public cooperation in preventive measures like mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing.

A number of EU countries, beginning with Italy, had really bad outbreaks, but then shut down just about all activities other than food distribution and medical care, using their national wealth and strong social-welfare systems to keep individual and family budgets above water. After a month or two of extreme sacrifice, the number of new infections began to collapse, to the point that they can now make use of the tactics that the fast-reacting countries used.

And then there’s the United States, where Covid-19 became the kind of crisis Kelly had been worrying about. Here’s how our daily reported new infections compared with the EU and South Korea as of Saturday.

South Korea’s infections stayed down. The EU’s went up and came down. But in the United States infections went up, started to creep down a little, and then shot back up.

What did we do wrong? A lot of things. Thursday The New York Times presented an illuminating series of graphics describing about how the virus spread in the US.

At every crucial moment, American officials were weeks or months behind the reality of the outbreak. Those delays likely cost tens of thousands of lives.

A short list of early failings:

  • The CDC’s initial set of test kits were faulty, and tests were not imported to fill the gap, resulting in what the NYT described as “the lost month“. This was both a CDC failure and a White House failure, because it’s the role of the White House to keep tabs on the workings of the government and intervene when something important is falling through the cracks in the system.
  • As a result, the initial spread of the virus was grossly underestimated. The NYT article suggests that in mid-February, when the US had 15 known cases (that Trump said “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero“) there were actually around 2,000 cases spread across ten major cities.
  • Unlike other countries, the US did not use its lead time to build its stockpile of masks and gowns for medical personnel, as detailed by HHS whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright.
  • The federal government did not prepare the public for the sacrifices that would eventually be asked of it. Instead, officials from President Trump on down consistently reassured the public that the virus was “totally under control” and “the risk is low”.
  • Trump began politicizing the virus response early, charging on March 9 that “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

By mid-March, states began to respond, with Republican Governor Mike DeWine shutting down schools in Ohio, Democrat Andrew Cuomo closing businesses in New York, and local health officials in six San Francisco Bay counties issuing a shelter-in-place order. A national campaign to “flatten the curve” began. Even Trump got on board for a month or so, rewriting history to claim: “I’ve always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Undermining the national will. The number of new cases reached an initial peak of 33,000-a-day in early-to-mid April and then began to slope downward. But unlike Europe, the United States lacked the national will to finish the job.

That failure came from the top. As soon as it was clear a peak had been reached, Trump began pressuring states to relax restrictions and reopen their economies without waiting to achieve the milestones listed in his administration’s own guidelines.

Trump encouraged armed demonstrators to intimidate state governments. When protesters with rifles came to the Michigan statehouse carrying signs saying “Tyrants get the rope”, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”. He also encouraged “liberators” in Virginia and Minnesota. Without once calling for the protesters to disarm, he tweeted:

The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.

Michigan more-or-less held firm, but Republican governors in red states knew they could not survive a Trump tweet storm and could benefit from White House photo ops. Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona began to open their economies without achieving the statistical milestones laid out by the CDC. When the Republican members of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court invalidated the Governor Ever’s stay-at-home order and plunged the state’s gradual-reopening plan into chaos, Trump was jubilant.

The Great State of Wisconsin, home to Tom Tiffany’s big Congressional Victory on Tuesday, was just given another win. Its Democrat Governor was forced by the courts to let the State Open. The people want to get on with their lives. The place is bustling!

Meanwhile, he was campaigning against wearing masks, which nearly all public health officials recommend when people are unable to maintain social distance. He mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask in public, and for “cowering in the basement” rather than holding face-to-face events. Trump refused to wear a mask while touring a mask factory in Arizona, even as “Live and Let Die” played on the sound system.

Long after it had become clear that the reopenings were premature and cases were spiking, Trump pushed to hold dangerous large-crowd events in Tulsa and Phoenix. (Fortunately for the nation, the crowd in Tulsa was not nearly so large as he had expected.) In Tulsa, he discounted the rising case numbers, arguing (falsely) that they just reflect increased testing, and offering a 10-year-old with “sniffles” as an example of a case. He said he had asked his administration to “slow down the testing”, and later contradicted aides who tried to downplay that suggestion as a joke. “I don’t kid,” he told reporters.

This anti-social leadership has had its effect: Around the country outraged people, many sporting MAGA hats or Trump shirts, are refusing to abide by rules that mandate mask-wearing or social distancing. Michelle Goldberg summarizes:

This is what American exceptionalism looks like under Donald Trump. It’s not just that the United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths of any country in the world. Republican political dysfunction has made a coherent campaign to fight the pandemic impossible.

The viral resurgence. New infections have been rising sharply in precisely the southern and western states that have reopened quickly, refuting the theory (which Trump had long promoted) that the pandemic would fade in warm weather. Nationally, cases had flattened out at less than 20,000 per day in late May and early June. But they have been above 38,000 each of the last five days.

On the state level, the best measure for comparison is the 7-day-weighted-average of new cases per day per 100K people. Here are the most seriously affected states:

Arizona 44

Florida 30

South Carolina 25

Mississippi 23

Arkansas 20

Louisiana 20

Nevada 19

Texas 19

California also has an large number of cases, due partially to its size. Its daily-new-case-per-100K number is 12. New York, which was the center of the epidemic in April, is down to 3.

And as for Trump’s attempt to discount those numbers, 10-year-olds with “sniffles” don’t show up in the ICU. Hospitals are reportedly close to capacity in Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and perhaps other states getting less national attention.

The Washington Post assesses what went wrong in Arizona:

At critical junctures, blunders by top officials undermined faith in the data purportedly driving decision-making, according to experts monitoring Arizona’s response. And when forbearance was most required, as the state began to reopen despite continued community transmission, an abrupt and uniform approach — without transparent benchmarks or latitude for stricken areas to hold back — led large parts of the public to believe the pandemic was over.

And now, Arizona is facing more per capita cases than recorded by any country in Europe or even by hard-hit Brazil. Among states with at least 20 people hospitalized for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, no state has seen its rate of hospitalizations increase more rapidly since Memorial Day.

And Republican governors or not, Texas, Florida, and Arizona have all had to retreat on their reopening timetables.

Deaths haven’t turned back up yet, but they will. The one saving grace is that nationally, deaths are still declining. For weeks I’ve been commenting on the mystery of how the death rate could continue downward while the new-case rate flattened and then turned upward.

Med school Professor Florian Krammer points to the same three explanations I’ve given: more testing has raised the new-case rate (or more accurately, made it better match the actual spread of the infection); better care is keeping people alive; but most of all, that the age-distribution of the infected population is shifting to younger people who are more likely to survive.

But he then goes one step further: Something similar happened in Iran in May. The new-case curve had been dropping, but started going up again around May 1.

But deaths did not go up. People explained to me, that now mostly young people are getting infected so nothing bad would happen.

Deaths started going up May 25.

What happened? First, it takes time to die of COVID-19. Second, cases probably really built up in younger people. But they diffuse into older populations. And then the deaths rose.

Each state has its own version of the pandemic, and death rates might already have started upward in some of them, like Arkansas and Texas. (The curves are jittery enough that it’s hard to be sure.) But nationwide, the new-case curve started rising around June 10. That would suggest deaths will begin rising about July 4.

Similar ideas (with a similar timeline) show up on the COVID Tracking Project Blog.

New daily positive cases only began to exceed the plateau of the previous two weeks around June 18-19, which means that an increase in deaths as a result of the rise in new cases would not be expected to show up until July.

So where are we? In some ways, we’re back where we were in April, and in some ways we’re worse off. Except in the northeast, whatever we gained through the sacrifices of the shutdown has been frittered away by bad leadership.

So now John Kelly knows: What happens if we have a real crisis “with the way he makes decisions”? This.

What is needed at this point is another wave of restrictions, and every state that thinks it is about to reopen its bars or arenas needs to think again. The American people can’t be trusted in bars; that is now a proven fact, at least until we have a vaccine. But a second wave of stay-at-home orders is hard to feature given that most of the country has nothing to show for the first wave.

We also need the kind of public spirit we had in the early days of “flatten the curve”: We need to encourage each other to wear masks, avoid crowds, keep our distance, and in general use common sense. Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen now that flouting common sense is necessary to establish your identity as a Trump conservative.

As best I can tell, this hasn’t happened in any other country (except maybe Brazil, which is also in very bad shape). Things got bad in Italy and Spain, but taking stupid risks never became a political identity.

And that reminds me of another famous question, this one raised by Trump himself in the 2016 campaign. “What the hell do you have to lose?

Now we know.

The Evangelical Deal with the Devil

and why it won’t help them win the culture wars


When Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office, as “a matter  … of loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments”, it acknowledged an argument in his favor:

his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy

but it characterized those benefits like this

no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.

It worried that ultimately, as Christian leaders tie themselves to this “human being who is morally lost and confused”, Christianity itself will be tarnished.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency…. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel.

CT’s editor Mark Galli, who wrote this editorial, is too benevolent to use this term, but the Christian tradition (not the Bible itself) contains a perfect description of the kind of bargain he is describing, in which worldly advantage is obtained in exchange for moral corruption: It is a deal with the Devil.

You might think Trump would deny such an implication, but in his tweeted response, the Artist of the Deal emphasized the transactional nature of his relationship to Evangelicals:

No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage.

In other words: You got a good price for your soul, so why are you complaining?

The moral cost. An inescapable feature of a deal with the Devil is that there is always more to it than you bargained for. And so it is here. A simple votes-for-judges bargain might have made pragmatic (if not moral) sense for conservative Christians, and might even make it defensible (if distasteful) to “brush off … immoral words and behavior” when Trump or his policies are grossly incompatible with Christian ethics. But instead of just ignoring sin and injustice, Evangelical leaders have been drawn into actively promoting and defending it.

When the public became aware of the policy of taking children away from their parents at the border, some prominent Christian leaders stepped up to deflect blame away from Trump:

“It’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for these kids, who must be dealing with a great deal of pain and confusion,” [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins wrote in a June 15 statement. “But the origin of that pain and confusion isn’t U.S. law or the Trump administration. That burden lies with their parents who knowingly put them in this position.” …

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, acknowledged the plight of the detained and separated children, but said he backs the president’s policy.

“Anybody with an ounce of compassion has to be disturbed by the scenes we are seeing at the border,” Jeffress said. “The only thing more gut-wrenching than the children separated from their families at the border is seeing children like Kate Steinle separated forever from her family.”

Kate Steinle was 30, not a child, when she died, and Jeffress did not explain how Steinle’s death might have been prevented by taking immigrant children — some as young as four months — away from their parents, or (if it could have been) how a Christian might justify such a moral trade-off. (This kind of reasoning is the exact opposite of the argument abortion opponents make against a rape exception: The child-to-be should not be punished for the sin of the father. “You are valuable no matter who your parents are, no matter the circumstances of your conception.”)

After the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (in which a neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 28), Jerry Falwell Jr. invented reasons to defend Trump’s pandering to the white supremacists in his base, and vouched for his character:

Falwell, president of the Christian-based Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Trump likely had more detailed information on protesters when he described “fine people” on both sides.

“One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct, he says what is in his heart,” Falwell told ABC’s “This Week” program. “But he does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Think about that: Standing against Nazis is being “politically correct”, while defending them is not racist.

What about sex? You might at least expect Evangelical leaders to denounce Trump’s sexual offenses. After all, we all saw him on the Access Hollywood tape confess to a pattern of sexual assaults, after which two dozen women came forward with corroborating testimony. But Falwell heard only “somebody bragging in a locker room-type environment about something they never did”. Falwell could have stayed silent; he could have withheld judgment — but no, he actively stood up in defense.

When it came out that Trump had cheated on Melania with porn star Stormy Daniels, and then paid for Daniels’ silence just before the 2016 election (a campaign-finance offense for which Michael Cohen is in prison), Perkins thought Trump should “get a mulligan“, as if the entire sleazy mess were just a bad golf shot.

Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies and author of Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, remains unshaken:

I strongly disapprove of adultery and being unfaithful in marriage, but I still support [Trump’s] actions as president. I’m glad he’s president, and I would vote for him again.

Nancy Allen, a Baptist who wrote Electing the People’s President, Donald Trump can read the same Twitter feed that CT characterized as “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”, but somehow she has invented a New Trump, who (without confession or repentance) has been washed clean.

Donald Trump has changed. I believe that with all my heart. He has changed. He hasn’t had any more affairs. Now he’s not perfect, but there’s no perfect person. We know that there has been a change in his heart, and he respects our beliefs and values. And I believe he has some of the same beliefs and values.

Even Christian theology has been corrupted. Numerous Evangelical leaders have paved for Trump (and presumably him alone) an entirely new path of salvation from the one I learned about in Lutheran confirmation: He can be forgiven even while continuing to claim that everyone who accuses him is lying.

 

But why? By many accounts, the justification for the deal is a sense of desperation: Conservative Christians are losing the culture wars, and have to fight back harder. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

Perkins echoes this sentiment.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

You may find it bizarre that Obama, who (unlike Trump) was scrupulously polite to his opponents, is seen as “the bully”. As best I can tell, liberal “bullying” consists mostly of recognizing same-sex marriage, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and requiring Christian businesses to offer their employees a full range of healthcare benefits.

But in addition to these actual affronts to Christian dominance, an array of imaginary threats have been concocted: Christianity will be criminalized! There will be widespread violence against Christians! Civil war! Christians are “one generation away” from a Nazi-like oppression!

Where actual offenses are lacking, terrifying ones can be envisioned in the future.

Why it won’t work. Selling out Christianity for Trumpism might even be justifiable for Evangelical leaders, at least temporarily, if Trumpist “street fighting” did what the Falwells and Jeffresses want: turned the country back towards the kinds of values Evangelicals promote — strict gender roles that reject homosexuality and female promiscuity, and postulate male/female as an either/or fixed at birth.

But the deal with the Devil won’t produce this outcome, because it’s based on a false diagnosis. Evangelicals aren’t losing the culture wars because they haven’t been tough enough. They’re losing because they’re wrong.

At its best, morality provides a way to skip bitter experience, because it offers you the same conclusions you would eventually come to yourself after years of pain and failure. How many people look back on failed relationships, estranged children, lost friendships and think, “If only I’d been honest with everybody from the beginning.”? How often do people confront a tangled web of cover-ups and wish they’d never cut the corner that got it all started? How many grasshoppers reach middle age and envy the ants whose consistent application of higher values have produced thriving careers, loving families, and valued places in supportive communities?

But not all attempts at moral rules work out that way. Some moral rules are arbitrary and bureaucratic. You keep them or you break them, and (unless you’re caught) life goes on with no obvious difference. Other rules are perverse: breaking the rule is the decision you look back on with pride and satisfaction. The regret you live with isn’t “Why did I do that?”, but “Why didn’t I see through that sooner?”

That’s where American culture is with traditional gender roles. We can see this most clearly in the public’s sudden acceptance of same-sex marriage, which went from an absurdity to a majority position in a little over a decade. In most other ways, that decade (roughly the early Oughts to the early Teens) was not a time of tumultuous change in social mores and attitudes. Politically, liberal waves in 2006 and 2008 were followed by a conservative wave in 2010, while approval of same-sex marriage continued to rise.

What changed? As gays and lesbians came out of the closet, more and more straight Americans got to know something about their lives, and came to rely on their own judgments of real people rather than the scare-stories promoted by Evangelical preachers.

Same-sex marriage wasn’t “presaging the fall of Western Civilization itself”, as James Dobson proclaimed in 2004 (and I think as far back as 1998, though I can’t find the link). As real experiences replaced stereotypes, same-sex marriage became the two guys who were renovating the house across the street, or the lesbian couple whose kid belonged to your kid’s playgroup. It was the cousin who could start being herself, or the son or daughter who now felt hopeful about life. Gay and lesbian couples weren’t engaged in some horrifying sham whose purpose was to undermine marriage for the rest of us, they were seeking many of the same happily-ever-afters we all were.

The reason American young people in particular are so accepting of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations is that they have grown up with out-of-the-closet friends. (I love the unconflicted coming-out story the CW Network wrote for its new Batwoman character. In 7th grade, when Johnny told everybody Kate was a lesbian, “I said ‘So what?’ and punched him in the mouth.”) They have seen the reality of the situation, and so will never be convinced that their classmates are minions of Satan.

Occasionally I hear white racists opine that blacks were better off under slavery, but I’ve never heard an African-American make that claim. In the same way, I’ve never heard a gay person say, “I wish we were all still the closet.” The era when homosexuality was a shameful secret, like the era when women could aspire only to “ladylike” futures, was a Dark Age. Nearly everyone cares about somebody whose life would be ruined if we really did “Make America Great Again” by going back to the values of the 1950s.

And for what? What possible benefit to straight white men would be worth rolling back the liberalizing waves of the last sixty years?

If the majority of the American people have anything to say about it, we’ll never find out. Not because some demon has tricked them, because of the authentic morality their life experience has taught them.

Why does the Right hate victims?

Attack the Parkland kids? Of course they do.


We’ve seen this script play out before: One or maybe a small group of people suffer a tragedy in their lives, and it motivates them to speak out. They speak for themselves. They speak for those who didn’t survive. They speak for countless people like them who have suffered similar losses. Their voices ring with authenticity, and the public begins to listen.

And then conservatives try to rip the hell out of them.

That’s the story of Ann Coulter and the 9-11 widows. “I’ve never seen people enjoy their husbands’ deaths so much,” she wrote in her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism. “These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV … reveling in their status as celebrities. These self-obsessed women seem genuinely unaware that 9/11 was an attack on our nation and acted as if the terrorist attacks happened only to them.”

It’s the story of Donald Trump, his supporters, and the Khan family. Captain Humayun Khan had rushed at a explosive-laden taxi in Iraq. The driver then detonated prematurely, killing himself and Khan, but sparing the hundreds of soldiers in the mess hall the bomb had been intended for. Khizr and Ghazala Khan appeared at the Democratic Convention to tell Trump that Muslim families like theirs are also Americans, that many of them have paid a high price to be good Americans, and that they do not deserve his bigotry. Trump responded by demeaning their religion and their marriage, saying that Mr. Khan alone spoke to the Convention because “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” His supporters (like Roger Stone) went further, claiming that the Khizr Khan was a “Muslim Brotherhood agent”. The honorary Trump campaign co-chair for New York argued to Fox News’ Alan Colmes that Khan was a “terrorist sympathizer“.

It’s the story of Trump and all the women he has molested. They’re liars paid by the Democrats, and besides, they’re too ugly to be assault bait.

After Cleveland police gunned down Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in his own neighborhood — and did it within seconds of arriving on the scene — a story about his father’s “history of domestic violence” got shared on Facebook over eight thousand times. The Rices aren’t victims, you see, they had it coming.

And Trayvon Martin wasn’t just an innocent teen-ager shot down by an over-zealous neighborhood watch guy, whose death the police didn’t think was worth investigating until the community protested. He wasn’t just a victim of Florida’s ridiculous stand-your-ground law that promotes gun violence. He was a “dope smoking, racist gangsta wannabe“. Even his last purchase — Skittles and a soft drink from a convenience store — became evidence of a drug habit.

No victimization is too trivial to let stand. Remember Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old “Clock Boy” who tried to impress his teacher by showing her the electronic clock he had made, and wound up arrested on suspicion of building a bomb, or maybe a “hoax bomb”, or something? His experience drew attention to the excessive suspicion American Muslims live with every day, so he had to be taken down. The whole event was staged, the conspiracy theorists said. Ahmed intended to get arrested, you see. It was all a plot by his terrorist-supporting father to make their town (Irving, Texas) look bad, because its mayor had been outspoken against the Muslim threat. “For some reason Irving is important to the Islamists,” Glenn Beck speculated to the mayor, who did not dispute the point, replying only that “I would hate to think that’s true.”

If I included attacks on public figures, I could go on forever: John Kerry’s wounds in Vietnam were only “superficial”; that’s why delegates to the Republican Convention wore band-aids with purple hearts on them. Ann Coulter claimed Max Cleland was “lucky” that the accident that cost him three limbs happened in Vietnam, where it would make a better story for a political campaign. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, doesn’t “stand up” for veterans; when she argues, she “doesn’t have a leg to stand on“. On and on and on.

Sandy Hook. The most direct parallel to the Parkland kids are the Sandy Hook parents. They also were “crisis actors” participating in a “hoax” designed to take away Americans’ guns and pave the way to dictatorship.

Four years on, the genuinely crackpot notion that the attack was a staged hoax — that no one died — has persisted, and the harassment of victims and their families in the name of investigating the idea shows little sign of abating.

A recent Vice News report followed the administrator of the Sandy Hook Hoax Facebook page, as he toured Parkland and tried to project the same theories onto that shooting.

Did people die? I don’t know. But I don’t think what happened here is a genuine calamity. There was something perpetrated here that defies logic, that I think was something done deceitfully to bring about political change. It’s Sandy Hook all over again, if you ask me.

And Sandy Hook parent Lenny Pozner agrees: It’s Sandy Hook all over again.

There’s almost nothing different in the conspiracy theories relating to the Parkland shooting. The hoaxer playbook is immediately finding any inconsistency in any footage that’s being shown online, and then freeze-framing it, and drawing circles and lines and arrows on it, and claiming that this is faked, that’s staged, this person is practicing their lines.

The Parkland kids. So why should anyone be surprised to see them come after the survivors of the Parkland shooting?

Did you see the picture of Emma Gonzalez ripping the Constitution? Or David Hogg giving a Nazi salute? Did you know that Hogg wasn’t really at school during the shooting and made up everything he said about it? Did you see the videos where Gonzales is compared to the Hitler Youth and Hitler’s voice is dubbed over Hogg’s speech at the March for Our Lives?

On top of the fabrications were the insults. Gonzalez is a “skinhead lesbian“. Congressman Steven King went after Gonzalez for wearing a Cuban flag patch on her jacket:

This is how you look when you claim a Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense. [1]

An aide to a Tampa state representative emailed the Tampa Bay Times that Gonzalez and Hogg “are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.” They’re “poor, mushy-brained children” who are “liars” and “soulless”.

These kids have skills. To a surprising extent, though, the teens have been able to hold their own. Leslie Gibson, the Maine state legislature candidate who made the “skinhead lesbian” comment, also called Hogg “a bald-faced liar. Hogg struck back like this:

Who wants to run against this hate loving politician he’s is running UNOPPOSED RUN AGAINST HIM I don’t care what party JUST DO IT.

Maybe rivals just sensed his vulnerability rather than took orders from Hogg, but Gibson fairly quickly picked up both Republican and Democratic opposition, and then dropped out.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham also went after Hogg, needling him for getting rejected by four colleges (like that’s anybody’s business) and accusing him of “whining” about it. Hogg responded by tweeting a list of Ingraham’s largest advertisers. Advertisers started leaving Ingraham’s show, and then she gave a half-hearted apology. When that didn’t work, she took a vacation.

Probably the best response happened when The American Spectator blamed the Parkland kids for bullying the shooter, Nicholas Cruz. (See, they really did have it coming.) Isabelle Robinson wrote an op-ed in the NYT: “I tried to befriend Nicholas Cruz. He still killed my friends.

That kind of skill has just been making the attackers more unhinged. Paul Waldman quotes National Review editor Rich Lowry whining about “The Teenage Demagogues” and how sympathetic they are.

“It is practically forbidden in much of the media to dissent from anything they say,” Lowry says, claiming for the right the status of noble victims, brutally silenced by a system that forbids them to speak their opinions out loud.

But is that true? Tell me: What opinion on the subject of guns has been declared verboten in the current American debate, never to pass the lips of a conservative lest he be banished from the media forever?

… Despite what conservatives say, no one is going to criticize them when they disagree with the Parkland students on any substantive matter. If Rich Lowry argues that the students are wrong and goes on to explain why the minimum age to buy a rifle should remain at 18, no one will respond, “How dare you disagree with those lovely teenagers?”

No, what conservatives are really mad about is that the tactic of demonizing those they disagree with … has, in this case, been taken away from them.

Just politics. It’s tempting to say that this kind of thing is “just politics”. Politics, after all, “ain’t beanbag“. As soon as you step into the arena, you’re fair game.

But revictimizing victims is a strangely one-sided kind of politics. Did the 2008 Democratic Convention make fun of John McCain’s years as a POW? In fact, nobody did that until Trump.

Kate Steinle’s death and the murder trial of her shooter became a focus for anti-immigrant anger. A bill to deny federal grants to sanctuary cities became known as “Kate’s Law“. And yet, I can’t recall a single conspiracy theory about her. No one Trayvoned her, or went after her family for wanting her death to lead to political change. Not trusting my memory, I just googled “Kate Steinle smear” and “Kate Steinle conspiracy theory”. I found nothing. The Wikipedia section on the reactions to her shooting is all about policy, not about bizarre attempts to claim she had it coming, or is still alive somewhere, or maybe never existed in the first place.

Victims-of-immigrant-crime is in fact a whole genre in conservative media. I’ve never heard anyone argue that those victims (or their families) are crisis actors. We argue the statistics of immigrant crime, and question the appropriateness of the remedies conservatives propose. But we leave the victims alone.

So what’s the difference? Why is attacking victims such an important part of conservative rhetoric that when it’s taken away (by victims who are simultaneously too sympathetic and too skilled), they feel that they’re being silenced?

It’s simple: At its root, conservative policy is about giving the powerful even more power. So, by its nature, conservatism is constantly producing victims: When guns are everywhere, people get shot. When you take away health insurance, people die. When you rev up deportations, families get ripped apart. When you restrict food stamps, people go hungry. When you defund food inspectors, people get food poisoning. When you stop policing polluters, people get cancer.

Real people. Innocent people who are just trying to live their lives. People you would sympathize with if you met them.

To be a conservative at all, you have to live in denial of all this: There are no victims. Cuts in government spending don’t impact real people, they just prevent more money from swirling down a drain somewhere. There are no transgender soldiers who just want to serve their country. There are no committed same-sex couples who just want to get married like everybody else. There are no young black men getting shot by police for no reason.

When you deny something, and then somebody tries to make you see it, you get angry. That’s how people are: I was happy in my denial, and then these victims came along and screwed everything up for me. How dare they!

When people get angry, they want to strike back. They want to make the victims go away, or at least to make them stop showing up on TV where they’re hard to ignore.

The basic pattern — denial leads to anger leads to striking back at victims — is human. You can find examples of it across the political spectrum. But denial is much more central to conservatism than to liberalism. So victim-bashing has to be at the center of nearly every issue. When that rhetorical tool is taken away, or made counterproductive, they feel disarmed.


[1] This is bogus in numerous ways. First, Cuba’s gun control isn’t particularly oppressive. There are about 4.8 privately owned guns in Cuba for every 100 residents — not as many as in “free” countries like the U.S. (101) or Yemen (54.8), but more than in such despotic nations as Ireland (4.3) and the Netherlands (3.9). Second, the Cuban flag predates Castro, and is flown or worn by many Cuban Americans. And finally, King is making up special rules for Hispanics that no one applies to Europeans. When I raise a stein for Oktoberfest, nobody shames me for not speaking German.

Trump’s Evangelical toadies are destroying the Christian brand

From John the Baptist and Herod to Jerry Falwell Jr. and Trump is a very long fall.


In general, it’s been hard to raise much excitement over the Stormy Daniels story. OK, Trump had an affair with a porn star while his wife was home with a new baby. Ten years later, as the election approached, his lawyer paid six figures to hush her up. (And if you believe a Steve Bannon quote in Fire and Fury, she’s not the only one.) Assume all that is true: Does it change your opinion of Donald Trump?

I didn’t think so. As Shakespeare’s fool Touchstone says:

If you swear by that that is not, you are not forsworn: no more was this knight swearing by his honour, for he never had any.

Trump can’t lose his reputation for moral uprightness or even basic decency, because he never had one. The American public is well beyond being shocked by any new revelation about his character. A similar scandal about Obama would have been earth-shaking. But Trump? Not so much.

So if you want to get a story out of the Daniels incident, you need to widen your scope somehow, like ask where the money to pay her off came from, or look at somebody who still has a reputation to lose.

I think that’s why so much of the public outrage has shifted its focus from Trump himself to the self-styled moral leaders who defend him and the pitiful defenses they have mustered. The truly shocking thing about the Daniels story is the way that so many Christian leaders have been willing not just to debase themselves, but to spend down the moral capital of Christianity itself in order to protect the man they put in the White House.

Pious enablers. For Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, illicit sex is no more serious than golf — at least when Trump does it. “You get a mulligan,” he says. Presumably, this follows the mulligans he had already given Trump for all the women who accused him of sexual assault, or for his own bragging about assaulting them.

Franklin Graham, in a single interview, said both that “our country has a sin problem” and that Trump buying the silence of a porn star is not a big deal because the president isn’t expected to be “the pastor of this nation”. Robert Jeffress has been notably silent about the Daniels payoff, after defending Trump’s “shithole countries” comment two weeks ago: “I’m grateful we have a president like Donald Trump who … has the courage to protect the well-being of our nation.”

But the prize goes to Jerry Falwell Jr., who defended Trump by debasing the words of Jesus himself. CNN’s Erin Burnett had connected Stormy Daniels to the many women whose stories flesh out Trump’s boastful confession on the Access Hollywood tape, and then asked Falwell how many times Trump has to offend

before you say “This is a person who lacks character”?

In response, Falwell falsely claimed that Trump had “apologized” and “asked forgiveness” for his past wrongdoing. (If you’ve repented, you stop calling your accusers liars.) Then he asserted  that Trump is “not the same person now that he was back then”. (The Daniels payoff happened in 2016.) Then he capped his defense with this argument, which I’m sure Christian philanderers all over America are filing for future use:

Jesus said that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s the same as committing adultery. You’re just as bad as the person who has, and that’s why our whole faith is based around the idea that we’re all equally bad, we’re all sinners.

As I’m sure Falwell must know, the context of the Jesus quote was to call his followers to a higher standard, not the lower one Falwell is offering. What Jesus is saying in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is: Don’t just restrain yourself from murder, root out the anger and hatred in your heart. Don’t just avoid adultery, stop indulging your adulterous fantasies. Don’t just love your friends, love your enemies too.

But Falwell has turned Jesus’ message upside-down. Now it’s a blanket excuse for anybody to do anything, because everybody else is just as bad. If the thought of cheating on your wife with a porn star is already as bad as the deed, then why not just go ahead and do it? And if we’re all equally guilty anyway, then what basis does any pastor have to tell his flock to do or not do anything?

I’ve never been to Falwell’s church, but I guarantee you this is not a message he has ever preached from a pulpit. This is a special gospel that applies only to powerful men he has allied himself with, and whose approval he desires.

The truth-to-power tradition. But the Bible doesn’t offer a special gospel for the powerful; it points in the opposite direction. Moses doesn’t approach Pharaoh with praise and flattery, he announces plainly: “Let my people go.” The Prophet Nathan doesn’t offer King David a mulligan, he accuses David to his face and proclaims God’s judgment:

You had Uriah the Hittite killed in battle. You took his wife as your wife. You used the Ammonites to kill him. So warfare will never leave your house.

Elijah doesn’t go to King Ahab and say, “Hey, don’t sweat it, everybody worships a false god now and then.” His message was unequivocal.

I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.

And finally, John the Baptist, at the cost of his own head, tells King Herod that it was wrong to take his brother’s wife. Like Falwell, he could have said, “You know, everybody has imagined doing the same thing, and that’s just as bad.” Maybe that would have gotten him an appointment to Herod’s But he didn’t.

Nowhere in the Bible does a prophet say: “Maybe if I soft-pedal God’s message so that it fits what the King wants to hear, he’ll keep me around and I’ll be able to get godly judges appointed. Wouldn’t that do more good in the long run?”

But that’s precisely what today’s Christian leaders do, or at least the white evangelical ones.

“Just shut up.” I’m not the only one who has noticed this. I think former RNC Chair Michael Steele spoke for a lot of people when he requested that leaders like Perkins and Falwell “shut the hell up”.

I have very simple admonition: just shut the hell up and don’t preach to me about anything ever again. After telling me who to love, what to believe, what to do and what not to do, and now you sit back and the prostitutes don’t matter, the grabbing the you-know-what doesn’t matter, the outright behavior and lies don’t matter — just shut up! They have no voice of authority anymore for me.

Steele is coming out of a political worldview, but you can also hear the sorrow in his voice. This isn’t just about Republicans and Democrats any more, it’s about Christianity, a religion that he cares about.

Remonstrance. It’s also about Christianity for John Pavlovitz, the former youth pastor of a conservative megachurch in Charlotte and current youth pastor of the more liberal North Raleigh Community Church (whose web site says “We believe Christianity is worth saving“). On his blog Stuff That Needs To Be Said Pavlovitz posted “White Evangelicals, This Is Why People Are Through With You“. He argues that worldly power and white identity politics have replaced Jesus as the center of the white evangelical message:

They see your hypocrisy, your inconsistency, your incredibly selective mercy, and your thinly veiled supremacy.

He points to evangelical leaders’ demonization of President Obama, “a man faithfully married for 26 years; a doting father and husband without a hint of moral scandal or the slightest whiff of infidelity”.

They watched you deny his personal faith convictions, argue his birthplace, and assail his character—all without cause or evidence. They saw you brandish Scriptures to malign him and use the laziest of racial stereotypes in criticizing him.

But with Trump, everything is different.

With him, you suddenly find religion.
With him, you’re now willing to offer full absolution.
With him, all is forgiven without repentance or admission.
With him you’re suddenly able to see some invisible, deeply buried heart.
With him, sin has become unimportant, compassion no longer a requirement.
With him, you see only Providence.

And why?

They see that all you’re really interested in doing, is making a God in your own ivory image and demanding that the world bow down to it. They recognize this all about white, Republican Jesus—not dark-skinned Jesus of Nazareth.

Not just one incident. Christians who want to hang on to Jesus and his message have been writing similar remonstrances to their white evangelical brethren for some while now. In November, when white Evangelicals stood by Roy Moore in spite of multiple credible accusations of his predatory behavior, and in spite of (or maybe because of) his long history of anti-gay bigotry and putting Christian partisanship above the rule of law, Miguel De La Torre responded with “The death of Christianity in the U.S.“.

To save Jesus from those claiming to be his heirs, we must wrench him from the hands of those who use him as a façade from which to hide their phobias — their fear of blacks, their fear of the undocumented, their fear of Muslims, their fear of everything queer.

Evangelicalism has ceased to be a faith perspective rooted on Jesus the Christ and has become a political movement whose beliefs repudiate all Jesus advocated.

De La Torre’s article looks further back, to “Evangelicalism’s unholy marriage to the Prosperity Gospel” and those who “remained silent or actually supported Charlottesville goose steppers because they protect their white privilege with the doublespeak of preserving heritage”, as well as Christian leaders’ support for Trump in the 2016 election. “The Evangelicals’ Jesus is Satanic” he writes, and concludes by urging the followers of this perversion of Christianity to “get saved”.

Trump’s election was the occasion for mournful remonstrances like “Life After Evangelicalism” by Rachel Held Evans. Evans, who has taken refuge in the Episcopal Church after finding the conservative Christianity of her youth unsustainable, wrote to those Evangelicals for whom the election was a wake-up call.

There’s an op-ed out every minute urging the bewildered to get out of their bubbles and get to know some Trump supporters, but you don’t need to do that, do you?

These are the people you worship with each week, the people whose kids hang out with your kids, the people who brought you a chicken casserole when you had surgery, the people you call with good news, the people you’re now wishing you’d spoken with more bluntly, more honestly.

They aren’t strangers to you, are they? But suddenly, you are a stranger among them.

And she offers them hope that Christianity itself isn’t dead yet, even if their own Christian community has abandoned or marginalized them.

The good news is that Jesus is already on the margins. Jesus is already present among the very people and places our president-elect despises as weak. When we stand in solidarity with the despised and the suffering, Jesus stands with us.  We don’t have to abandon Jesus to abandon the unholy marriage between Donald Trump and the white American Church. In these troubled times, a prophetic resistance will certainly emerge, made up of clergy, activists, artists, humorists, liturgists, parents, teachers, and volunteers committed to partnering with and defending “the least of these.” I found my faith again in the margins—through the Gay Christian Network, for example, and among fellow doubters and dreamers who limp from their wrestling with God

A long time coming. A great religion can’t be corrupted overnight. To those who have been following more closely, evangelical abandonment of the Sermon on the Mount in favor of white identity politics is old news. Michele Goldberg relates some of the history, beginning with Jerry Falwell Sr.’s pro-segregation sermons in the 1950s. (I would have gone back further, to the Christian defense of slavery. That’s what put the “Southern” in Southern Baptists.)

“When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line,” he wrote, warning that integration “will destroy our race eventually.” In 1967, Falwell founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy — later Liberty Christian Academy — as a private school for white students.

What galvanized Falwell’s commitment to politics — and that of 1970s Evangelicals in general — wasn’t abortion, the cause usually cited, but the IRS’ denial of tax-exempt status to segregated schools. [1]

In the 1980 election, Falwell’s Moral Majority supported America’s first divorced president, Ronald Reagan, largely erasing the previous stigma of divorce. [2] Goldberg quotes historian Randall Balmer:

Up until 1980, anybody who was divorced, let alone divorced and remarried, very likely would have been kicked out of evangelical congregations.

Bending its “family values” to accommodate Trump, she says, is nothing new.

Trump has simply revealed the movement’s priorities. It values the preservation of traditional racial and sexual hierarchies over fuzzier notions of wholesomeness.

“I’ve resisted throughout my career the notion that evangelicals are racist, I really have,” Balmer told me. “But I think the 2016 election demonstrated that the religious right was circling back to the founding principles of the movement. What happened in 2016 is that the religious right dropped all pretense that theirs was a movement about family values.”

She concludes:

it seems absurd to ask secular people to respect the religious right’s beliefs about sex and marriage — and thus tolerate a degree of anti-gay discrimination — while the movement’s leaders treat their own sexual standards as flexible and conditional. Christian conservatives may believe strongly in their own righteousness. But from the outside, it looks as if their movement was never really about morality at all.

The price. For Americans who grew up before the advent of the Moral Majority, or before evangelical leaders became so nakedly partisan, Christianity largely retains an aura of wholesomeness and goodwill. But for younger Americans, this is vanishing. The 538 blog produced this graphic from data collected by the Public Religion Research Institute. Among Americans above 65, 26% consider themselves white Evangelical Protestants, nearly 80% identify with some form of Christianity, and only 12% say they are unaffiliated with any religion. But for those 18-29, 38% are unaffiliated, 53% are Christians of some sort, and only 8% are white Evangelical Protestants.

In 1987, 23% of white Evangelical Protestants were over 65, while almost as many, 20%, were 18-29. But by 2016, the 65-and-older cohort was dominating the 18-29s, 30%-11%. The Barna Group finds that among those born since 1999, 13% identify as atheists, compared to 6% in the general population.

In the prologue of her latest book, Rachel Held Evans recalls an attempt to explain younger people’s disenchantment:

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.

Authentic can be a hard word to define, but I can tell you very quickly what authentic Christianity isn’t: a set of soundbites that prop up a morally bankrupt president because of the favors he promises to Christian leaders and institutions.

The price of the corrupt bargain made by Perkins, Graham, Jeffress, and Falwell — what they have traded for their White House access and Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court seat — is the destruction of the Christian brand. Say “Christian” to a young adult, and the word-association you’re likely to get back is “hypocritical” or “judgmental”.

Columnist Michael Gerson (a never-Trump Republican) sums up:

When presented with the binary choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I can understand a certain amount of anguish. But that is not a reason to become sycophants, cheerleaders and enablers. Politics sometimes presents difficult choices. But that is not an excuse to be the most easily manipulated group in American politics.

The problem, however, runs deeper. Trump’s court evangelicals have become active participants in the moral deregulation of our political life. Never mind whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is of good repute. Some evangelicals are busy erasing bright lines and destroying moral landmarks. In the process, they are associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.

Christians like Evans, De La Torre, and Pavlovitz may be working hard to undo the damage the Trump toadies have done to the Christian brand. But it will be an uphill battle. For more and more Americans — especially young Americans — the word Christian itself is stained. Describing an idea, an institution, a speaker, or a political position as Christian no longer evokes a open, accepting attitude in American listeners. Quite the opposite, it puts more and more of us on edge; it signals that something dodgy is about to be presented, something that justifies existing oppressions, something self-serving, self-righteous, and quite likely hateful.

White Evangelicals would like to attribute this stain to the slanders of a hostile secular culture. But outsiders could never manage such a feat. The stain comes from the leaders that so many Christians have chosen to follow.


[1] At the time of Rowe v Wade, abortion was actually a debatable issue among evangelical theologians. Only after a political anti-abortion movement started to take off did opposition to abortion become a cornerstone of Evangelicalism. The religion did not lead the politics, it followed.

[2] Those who claim that the Religious Right holds true to traditional Christian principles will often cite its opposition to abortion and gay rights, as if these issues had been central to Christianity in any other era. Both abortion and homosexuality existed in Jesus’ time, and yet you will search the gospels in vain to find any mention of them; he appears not to have been all that concerned about them. Certainly he does not condemn either in terms that are nearly so direct and unequivocal as what he says about divorce in Matthew 19:

Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

It is currently beyond the pale for Evangelical churches to accept non-celibate gays and lesbians, ostensibly because they persist in their sin without repentance. But divorced-and-remarried couples are equally persistent in what Jesus described as adultery, and they are welcome.

As with Trump and Reagan, standards are infinitely flexible if a church likes you, but strict and literal if it doesn’t. The Bible has nothing to do with this.