We Can’t Achieve Equality through Disdain

We need a new word. I’ve noticed a preponderance of a phenomenon that is something more specific than racism or sexism. Unless someone can think of something catchier, I propose a German-style mash-up to get at the heart of the idea. Let’s call it “equality-through-disdain.” And let’s put an end to it.

Black History Month has come and gone. The Violence Against Women Act has finally passed out of the House and will be signed into law again. Over the last month, I’ve engaged in arguments about both. At first, I was completely flummoxed. Who could possibly be against Black History Month? What would motivate anyone to oppose The Violence Against Women Act? As I’ve been repeatedly told by conservative friends and the right-wing punditocracy, my liberal brain is just too naïve and too closed to comprehend the opposition’s point of view. If I could only open myself up to modern conservatism, walk a mile in those expensive loafers, I would see that the other side makes a persuasive case. So I tried to be persuaded. Instead, I found a kind of contempt born of resentment and masquerading as virtue: Equality through disdain.

The first revelation that came out of my attempt to understand the conservative positions was that the opposition to Black History Month and The Violence Against Women Act was not, in fact, two separate arguments, but one. Black History Month, I was told, divides us. It forces us to focus on one portion of our population. This division is unhealthy. If we could simply teach History, I was told, rather than any particular group’s history, then we would be better off. Similarly, The Violence Against Women Act divides us. It forces us to focus on …well, on a majority of our population, but a slim majority. This division is unhealthy. If we could simply focus on preventing violence against everyone, then we would be better off.

This argument is wrong factually, and it’s wrong morally. I’ll let you decide which of those is most important.

Factually, Black History Month does not make us focus on a portion of our population. An historian cannot tell the history of Black America without telling the history of all Americans. It’s a lens. Eight months of the year, schools teach “American History.” It’s the story of the (predominantly white, male) leaders who accomplished noteworthy things. Depending on your point of view, it’s the history of the winners or the history of the oppressors. Both those labels are loaded, and both are true. Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to reexamine our nation’s history through the lens of an oppressed people. That can be the story of striving, of overcoming obstacles, of breaking through seemingly impenetrable barriers. Or it could be the story of atrocity upon atrocity. Too often, in our schools, it’s the false story of an anodyne version of Martin Luther King Jr. who didn’t say anything that would still challenge us today. Still, the willingness to reexamine our history so that it’s more than the story of military battles and electoral victories is not divisive. It’s more inclusive.

Now, the conservatives I argued with said, “Why not Mexican American History Month? Why not Japanese American History Month?” (One wrote, “Why not Jamaican History month?” Um, two reasons come immediately to mind. First, Jamaica is a sovereign nation, and we generally don’t teach the history of other countries for a solid month in an American History class. Two, Jamaican Americans are Black.) To this I say, “Absolutely!” Why shouldn’t our history be taught in a thematic way, focusing on various groups who made contributions? Perhaps, if we are bound to the idea that history must be taught chronologically, we could divide Black History Month throughout the year. And we could sprinkle the stories of other groups in, too. And do you know what would happen? Unless a history teacher had figured out a magical way to rush through all of American History in nine months, when things had to be cut, they would almost inevitably decide that those stories would end up on the cutting room floor. Is this racial bias? No. It isn’t. I can say that categorically. History teachers, regardless of their races or racial biases, have to pick and choose. There simply isn’t enough time in the year to teach all the relevant material. It’s an impossible job. So they teach about leaders like presidents because presidents are important for students to know about. They teach about wars because wars are important for students to know about. They struggle to teach students about persistent institutions because concepts like “slavery” or “Jim Crow” or “Civil Rights” are abstract and difficult, and not limited to a day or an election or a year. Are those concepts essential to understanding American History? Absolutely. But they aren’t easy to teach or understand. Events like Black History Month aren’t evil mandates. A history teacher can choose to ignore Black History Month or she can attempt to spread it throughout the school year. Black History month is a gift teachers can choose to accept; it gives teachers permission to take the time to put things into a different context.

Similarly, the argument that The Violence Against Women Act only helps women is patently false. About four second of research reveals that the VAWA protects the victims of spousal abuse even if they are male, and increases funding for law enforcement programs which target abusers, even if those abusers are female. One could argue that the title of the bill is the problem. "The Violence Against the Victims of Domestic Abuse" would be better. For that matter, "An Attempt to Prevent Domestic Violence and Increase Penalties for Abusers After-the-Fact" would be much more accurate. The acronym AAPDVIPAAF is a bit unwieldy, though. The concept behind the actual title of the bill is largely correct, though; the vast majority of domestic abuse cases involve victims who are women. If that fact is divisive, the fault lies with the domestic abusers. 

[Side note: This false argument is not the reason the VAWA languished in Congress for so long. Opposition to the VAWA was politically toxic for its (uniformly) Republican opposition, and those politicians are all smart enough to know that the bill strengthened protections for victims of demostic abuse regardless of their gender. They didn't oppose it because they hate women. The story that my conservative friends seem to have missed is that the newest version of the bill extended protections to victims of domestic abuse who were LGBT, illegal immigrants, or Native American. The Republicans who opposed the bill had almost unanimously voted for it before those groups were added. Their much touted “War on Women” wasn’t focused on promoting the domestic abuse of most women. It was focused on cutting the funding for women's healthcare clinics if those clinics also provided abortions, or on making women undergo unnecessary medical procedures to shame them out of getting abortions, or on making medical doctors say patently untrue things to patients who might be considering abortions, or making women wait longer and longer to have an abortion while also limiting how long they could wait to have an abortion. Really, the “War on Women” was about abortion. Until the women being beaten up were illegal immigrants or Native American or gay. Then the “War on Women” extended to them, too. Make of that what you will.]

Now, the moral counter-argument in favor of Black History Month and the VAWA might seem to be obvious. The story of African Americans should be taught. The victims of domestic abuse should be protected. But it goes a lot deeper than that. The people who opposed Black History Month were, in my experience, uniformly white. The people who opposed the VAWA were uniformly men. That’s not to say that a black woman couldn’t oppose either one. It’s just that her arguments would have been different. I’m also not saying that the people who opposed Black History Month or the VAWA were overt racists or sexists. Instead, they were practicing a kind of unconscious racism or sexism that comes from the dangerous combination of good intentions and hurtful ignorance born of unacknowledged privilege. On the good intentions side of the ledger, they want everyone to be treated equally. That sounds great. Who is against equality? But, if you are a white male, your ethnicity and gender are rarely acknowledged. Nobody says, “Good for you, overcoming the obstacles that come with being white and male.” So, in a perverse way, it seems logical to these folks that we will achieve equality when no one acknowledges the race or gender of anyone else, either. In essence, the reasoning goes, if one person is not allowed to be proud of being white, the others should be prohibited from being proud of being black. If one person cannot enjoy the history of male oppression, another shouldn’t be allowed to gain confidence from the gains of feminists. Sounds fair, right?

But that’s not equality. It’s disdain. Oppressed people take pride in their categorizations because they come from a category which has, historically, overcome oppression. White men don’t get to take pride in their history of overcoming because, as a group, we haven’t had to overcome in the same way. So, for white men to try to deny anyone else the ability to be proud simply because we can’t be proud of our white-ness is another kind of oppression. The way to morally level the playing field is to lift people up persistently and systematically. The goal should be that being from any group other than white men is not a hindrance and hasn’t been for so long that the relationship between the oppressed person and their descendants diminishes with time. I can be proud of my ancestors’ struggles against poverty in Ireland, the anti-Semitism they survived in Eastern Europe, the second-class status they weathered here in America. It will be a marvelous day when a woman’s experience of sexism is just as removed from her life as I am distant from the hardships my immigrant ancestors faced, and when a black person is just as many generations removed from any experience of racial prejudice as I am from my ancestors’ experiences fleeing the Nazis. But we’re not there yet. (And don’t get me started on poverty. Americans aren’t even allowed to discuss the struggles they face due to our wide and growing income inequality without someone screaming “Class Warfare!” and mixing up socialism and communism while frothing at the mouth. Poor People’s History Month must be in July, because we don’t focus on that at all.) A white male telling anyone else that they shouldn’t have their experience recognized in a special way is just articulating a rough translation of “I still don’t get it.” 

Black History Month has come to an end, and now the Voting Rights Act is before the Supreme Court. The most likely outcome is that Section 5 will be invalidated. That’s the portion that says that specific parts of the country with a history of racial segregation have to check with the Department of Justice before they can change their voting laws. Now, a very good argument could be made that this section is unfair to those parts of the country, and should therefore be expanded to every state and locality to prevent things like racial redistricting or voter ID laws that target minorities. Another worthwhile change would be a recognition that most, if not all, voter laws are now motivated by political partisanship rather than race (thought race is sometimes a means to a partisan end), so perhaps changes in voter laws should be run by the Department of Justice to make sure they don’t favor a particular party rather than a particular race. But those were not the arguments made before the Supreme Court, and those will not be remedies the Court will consider. Instead, the Court will uphold or strike down Section 5 based on the argument that institutional racism is now so distant in the history of Shelby County, Alabama (the plaintiff) that the law no longer applies. But according to the Huffington Post, “The most recent census found that the city is 63 percent black, but the majority of the city council’s seats are held by white politicians who live in largely white sections of town.” One of Shelby County’s residents, Jerome Gray, said, “Listen, it’s plain to see that when Shelby County decided to take up this fight, they didn’t ask anybody who would be in a position to know if there are still real problems.” 

This attempt at equality-through-disdain isn’t limited to something as toothless as Black History Month, or even something as important as the VAWA. It goes all the way to the heart of the argument which may decide if some people maintain their enfranchisement in a democracy. So the next time someone says, “Why do we always have to focus on our differences? Why can’t everything just be the same for everyone,” please tell them that differences diminish in importance when people are lifted up, not when the simple acknowledgment of difference is treated with contempt.

A Debate About the Hatred, Intolerance, and Misogyny in the Religious Right

My friend Scott, commenting on my dissemination of an article critical of the role the Religious Right is playing in our country's politics, challenged the assertion that the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. He acknowledged the zealotry of fringe elements, but challenged the notion that the mainstream of the Religious Right is hateful or intolerant. This is an excellent illustration of a kind of inside-the-bubble thinking that is causing the conservative movement to lose touch with the American mainstream.

I do not believe that right-wing evangelicals, conservative Catholics, conservative Mormons, or conservative Jews hate gay people. I don't think they hate African Americans or Hispanics. I don't think they hate women. But if they can't see that their marriage to the Republican Party and its platform will cause them to be associated with policies that are hurtful to those groups, they will not be able to build a winning coalition on a national level.

Back in the days of slavery, masters did not necessarily hate their slaves. Even in the days of Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws, conservatives who wanted to "preserve traditional marriage" did not necessarily hate black people. Now, I know these examples will immediately infuriate conservatives who don't want to be compared to slaveholders or racists. I'm certainly not saying that opposing gay marriage or immigration reform are one-to-one equivalents to slavery. But the comparison is fair in the sense that modern conservatives look back at that kind of racism and see it as hateful and intolerant, but cannot see their own policies in the way they will be perceived by the effected parties now, or by the way they will be viewed by our grandchildren in generations to come.

To the gay couple who wants to be married, the personal feelings of a right-wing Christian are irrelevant. The policies advocated by the Religious Right are themselves hurtful. Furthermore, because they are based on a view that an important part of a gay person's self-identity is immoral, the policy is hateful.

To the Mexican-American (or any other Latino mistaken for a Mexican American), policies of self-deportation that cause them to be harassed, that cause employers to hesitate when considering them for employment, that cause them to worry that their government is going to be rounding up millions of people who look and speak like them and send them over the border... These concerns are far more relevant than the personal feelings of the religious conservative. The objective fact that vitriol towards Mexican immigrants has led to a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes directed at Mexican Americans, regardless of their documentation, is far more real and immediate than some distant pastor's hedging from the pulpit about how we should love our brothers and sisters while trying to round some of them up in cattle cars and send them over the border.

To a woman who is told that, if she is raped and decides not to keep that child, God wanted that to happen (or at least allowed it, though it's an unfortunate tragedy), that good can come from that pregnancy, that because someone else believes this she has no choice in the matter, and that her rape probably wasn't really rape since she allowed herself to get pregnant, that right-wing evangelical's love for her is less than meaningful. More insidiously, when she’s told she doesn’t need any legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to assure her a chance to get into the courthouse if she’s discriminated against because she can depend on the goodwill of CEOs, she knows she’s being dismissed. And when she’s told that her desire for birth control makes her a slut, and her desire to have a health clinic nearby which offers affordable medical services is unacceptable if that facility also offers abortions, she knows her concerns are not valued. Finally, when she’s told that the religious affiliation of her employer trumps her own judgment about what healthcare she needs, she knows the party defending some religious board members does not care about her. That’s hurtful. And the notion that she can’t evaluate these things properly because she’s a woman, and a man or a group of men should get to decide is a textbook example of misogyny. (Oh, and then there's this.)

As for intolerance, not only is the religious right intolerant, but it should be. Intolerance is not always wrong, and tolerance is not always a virtue. Religions get to be intolerant. Furthermore, they get to be intolerant regardless of popular opinion. If a religion dictates that abortion in a sin, it should refuse to tolerate it within its own membership. While American Christianity is busy pulling that mote out of its own eye (because there are a lot of Christians who have had abortions) it might also want to take a hard look at Jesus’ teachings about wealth. He wasn’t a big fan. I would be very interested to see how the Religious Right would implement a systematic intolerance of the service of Mammon within its own ranks.

The problem with the Religious Right's intolerance isn’t that it’s drawing lines in the sand and deciding to take a stand based on its particular interpretation of scripture. That’s the prerogative, if not the responsibility, of religions. The problem is where they’ve drawn those lines. Nations states also have a responsibility to be intolerant to some degree, but they must look to a different authority than a religion. While people of faith can look to a text or a religious leader to tell them what or who to tolerate and what or who not to tolerate, democratic governments must look to their voters. In this country, that means the government will be responsive to Christianity in proportion to the voting habits of Christians and non-Christians. But the Religious Right has so wedded itself to the Republican Party that it dictates the party’s platform. Even that is fine. If a large enough constituency of any party draws its lines based on a shared religion or principles which join the members of its party, that party’s platform should reflect those principles. The problem pointed out by the article is that the Religious Right’s principles are out of step with Biblical Christianity and the American electorate.

Now, since I’m no longer a Christian, I can’t really weigh in on the debate about the principles of the Republican Party and their relationship to Biblical Christianity. When I was a Christian, they didn’t seem to fit the Bible I was reading. I’d hear the claims made by religious figures speaking in the name of the religion I claimed, and, no matter what translation they cited, I felt like they were reading a completely different book. I kept on trying to redefine Christianity, pushing back against the right-wing version I couldn’t square with the version of Jesus I found in the Gospels. More and more, I felt like I was saying, “I claim the label X, but I redefine it as Y. X means something completely different for me, but I hold on to it and believe all those who don’t accept Y are wrong.” People who do this are either dynamic leaders who move organizations to their positions, or they are crazy people. I felt overwhelmed, and it pushed me out of a feeling of brotherhood with the larger Church, or at least the American variety. I stuck around because I attended a wonderful church (shout out to the greatest congregation and greatest pastoral staff in the world at Newberg Friends). Eventually I abandoned the claim to the label for theological reasons. (To be more precise, it was for epistemological reasons.) The loss of a firm belief in an all-mighty deity and in an afterlife, and my reluctant embrace of agnosticism, was quite a blow. The loss of my congregation still hurts. But losing the broader American church? No skin off my nose. They kicked me out. Or maybe I pulled away. Ultimately, that’s six of one or a half a dozen of the other. If the church would recognize the kind of loving, tolerant Christianity described by Frank Schaeffer in the article in question, I think that would be great for our country. That’s why I posted a link to the piece in the first place. Whether it would be good for Christianity is now a debate from which I have recused myself.

But Schaeffer’s second point, that the Religious Right’s positions are out of touch with the American mainstream, is clearly true. When polled, Americans do favor comprehensive immigration reform over policies of forced or self-deportation. We have come around when it comes to gay marriage. And we want to leave reproductive choices up to individual women, especially in cases of incest and rape, which means the Republican Party’s stated platform (not just some fringe kooks’ poorly worded statements in debates) is out of touch. And while the conservatives convince themselves that they are not in the thrall of the Religious Right because they nominated a (conservative) Mormon, their willful ignorance of the way their policies will be received by the American mainstream aren’t just a lesson for religious leaders who want to be politically relevant, but for the whole conservative movement. Conservatism, according to William F. Buckley, is the political philosophy that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop[.]” Unfortunately, in marrying itself to right wing Christianity, it’s held hands with people who demanded that it stop in a place where the majority of the country does not want to be. It can stand there and reject the idea that it’s hateful and intolerant all it wants, but if the majority of the country says that’s a hateful and intolerant stand to take, the conservative movement will soon find itself standing on the fringe, trying to redefine the term “American” as the vast majority of Americans wander off toward progress, shaking their heads and shrugging about the crazy guys they are leaving behind. Trust me. I know how that feels.

William F. Buckley also warned that, “Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” As a progressive liberal who wants a great deal of change, I firmly believe in the value of conservatives. We need the intellectual counterweight to make us stop and consider and we push toward progress, even if it means we push more slowly. But, as they protect the status quo, if the conservative movement can’t recognize that its intransigence will open itself up to charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny until the day when we achieve a society devoid of systematic injustice, that’s a kind of intellectual sloth that will prevent them from doing the job this country needs them to do. The degree to which those charges of hatefulness, intolerance, and misogyny stick relates to the movement’s willingness to shift its priorities and focus, but ultimately it’s just not up to them. When America wants to move, it will move.

Why Does the Right Hate Obama So Much?

I don’t get it. Maybe it’s because I’m one of these wide-eyed, naïve, hopey-changey liberals. Fine. But if we can get past the obligatory name-calling, I really wish someone would explain it to me: Why do conservatives seem to regard the President of the United States with the kind of passionate spite normally reserved for pedophile clergy, genocidal dictators, and malarial mosquitoes?

The other day I got an offer from CafePress offering me free bumper stickers. I like free. With shipping and handling, it’s almost down to my price-range. So I clicked and looked at the “Humor: Political” stickers. What I found would have made a Fox News pundit blush. All the anti-Bush “Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot” stuff paled in comparison. It was like Obama sat in the front row and decided to heckle Don Rickles, with the occasional rebuttal tossed in by Michael Richards on his absolute worst day ever. Some examples: “A Taxpayer Voting for Obama is like a Chicken Voting for Col. Sanders” and “Who Would Have Thought the Biggest Threat to America would Be Our Own President?” Hilarious, right?

Now, people can slap whatever they want on their cars. You want to put a confederate flag on your bumper? Hey, they’re your slashed tires, buddy. Besides the free speech argument, I don’t expect bumper stickers to make nuanced policy arguments. If the colonists had only had a 3 by 8 inch sticker that had to be read by the guy on the horse behind them, the Declaration of Independence would have said, “Hey George! Next time we shove the tea up your ass!” But those colonists did have specific, clear, and demonstrable grievances. Those grievances related directly to the way the behavior of the British affected their daily lives. They didn’t just shout ad hominem attacks across the Atlantic.

So here’s my genuine question: Conservatives, what’s your beef? What has President Obama done to threaten America? What has he done that makes him as lethal to you as Col. Sanders is to chickens?

Please don’t tell me what you think Obama is. I am a firm believer that we are what we do. What has Obama actually done that inspires such hatred?

Some more ground-rules: I don’t believe conservatives are racists. Don’t prove me wrong.

Try and avoid knee-jerk ad hominem attacks. I enjoy some good smarm, but since I’m genuinely trying to understand, try to be factual with me.

Liberals, feel free to fact-check any claims made here, but let’s allow some conservatives to make a case. That’s the point after all.

And nobody mention Kool-Aid. It’s irritating. And don’t call Obama the messiah and think it’s sarcastic and clever. Only conservatives call him that. Liberals have plenty of disagreements with Obama’s policies. I could give you a pretty long list. But my quibbles are because he’s too centrist and too willing to compromise with a political Right.

I believe the Right hates him irrationally. Convince me I’m wrong about that. Tell me what he has done to you to earn your hatred. Help me understand.

The Narcissism of Great Powers

This last week I read an article in Slate about how as much as 6% of our population has NPD, or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and rates for our children may run as high as 10%. I also listened to one of the Sunday morning talk shows where three prominent politicians went on and on about how great America is and how we'll come through this economic crisis better then we were before. Essentially they said we should all adopt the position of the thief on the cross next to Brian in Monty Python's The Life of Brian and "Look on the bright side of life" simply because we're American and we've got this great history which dictates our invincibility. I found myself wondering, without that history, did the founding fathers believe that Americans could weather any storm by the simple virtue of their nationality? In contrast, did the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, The Romans, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the British all go through periods late in their empires where their leaders told them they needn't worry about looming disasters simply because of their countries' respective histories? And, if so, is it likely that, had the diagnosis been available, some 10% of those countries' populations might have suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Now, for the record, I'm not saying the American Empire is doomed. Or, to be more specific, I'm not saying it's necessarily doomed quite yet. Maybe we've got another three hundred years left in us, maybe a thousand. But empires come to an end. If we're going to take heart from the history of America's rise to prominence, we have to temper that with a recognition that history also teaches us about the inevitable demise of empires.

More specifically, if our own history is going to tell us we're great, it should tell us why. If America rose to become the global super-power because of its people's industry, I fail to see how narcissism will take the place of hard work. Personally, I'd like to believe that what has made the United States special are our ideals of liberty, our respect for law, and our progressivism. These seem to be the forces which called people from all over the world to cross oceans to become Americans. If this reading of history is correct, then looking on the bright side of life will not make up for a bullying foreign policy, the use of torture, or the doctrine of preemptive war. Too many of us have become too fearful; we're afraid of everything from terrorism to immigration to socialized medicine to stem cell research to gay marriage. William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism, famously described the job of modern conservatives as standing "athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!'" If "Stop!" is our only answer to this crisis, or if that is only qualified with Bill Kristol's advice to Republicans, "Obstruct and delay," then the past victories of the United States will not compensate for our current intellectual and moral weakness.

I take no joy in watching the people of my country suffer, regardless of their political stripes. Schadenfreude quickly comes to an end in times like these. But where derision provides no solace, at least there's the consolation of this accidental camaraderie. I'm at that age when a person discovers that his favorite athletes are younger than he is, that he is now older than some of his favorite musicians were when they killed themselves in one way or another, and that some of his dreams might be just as dead as those rock stars. I take a perverse comfort in the fact that life tries to beat some measure of humility into individuals and nations alike. Whether we prefer our comeuppance in spoonfuls or inundations, the universe gives us our medicine in the quantities it sees fit.