Tag Archives: bigotry

Shades Of Gray

Among the many, many things that worry me about America’s contemporary tribalism is a concern about the conduct of our overdue arguments over inclusion and diversity. I worry because those conversations have displayed a tendency to become “either/or”–you are either pure in word and deed or you are a bigot beyond the pale–and as a result, we risk losing our ability to see shades of gray, to distinguish between the genuinely offensive  and the merely tone-deaf.

There is a very significant difference between Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, to cite just one example, and blurring that distinction actually inhibits efforts to combat misogyny and sexual assaults.

Every so often, I’m reminded of a joke incorporating a cautionary lesson that my mother used to tell. There used to be a radio station on the top floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. There also used to be people who were elevator operators  (you incredulous young people can google it). One day, a man entered one of the elevators and the operator asked which floor; the man–stuttering badly–said “t-t-the r-r-radio station.” They were the only two on the elevator, and the man further offered that he was “a-a-applying f-f-for a j-job as an on-air radio an-an-announcer.”

As luck would have it, the same operator had the same passenger about an hour later, and once again they were alone in the elevator. The operator couldn’t resist asking how the interview had gone, and the stutterer replied “T-t-terrible. T-t-they hate Jews.”

The (obvious) moral of the story is that not everyone who dislikes me is an anti-Semite (I clearly have other qualities that can put folks off…) and not every thoughtless or stupid remark signals racism or homophobia. Not every female professor denied tenure was the victim of sexism (although some clearly were). Etcetera.

I thought about the lesson embedded in my mother’s joke recently, when a friend of mine resigned her position after being accused by her co-workers of homophobia. The media account I read didn’t include a description of the incident or incidents that triggered that accusation, but I know that her best friend of many years is an out and proud gay man, and in the years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her utter a disparaging word about LGBTQ people–or for that matter, about any minority.

These days, such accusations are flourishing and damaging, and although many are well-founded, others are not, and telling the difference is important.

If we are going to root out genuinely toxic and bigoted attitudes, we need to recognize that we all see life through the “lenses” we’ve developed during our unique experiences, and we need to take care that those experiences don’t distort our perspectives. Another friend of mine–herself a member of a minority group–once opined that humanity was a lot like a pecan pie–the nuts are pretty well distributed throughout. Every group–every slice of the human pie– contains exemplars of the group’s most hurtful stereotypes, and every group contains wonderful, caring, talented people.

I’m not saying it is always easy to tell the difference between bigotry and cluelessness. If you are a member of a marginalized group–especially if your own “lens” has been formed by personal experiences of bigotry–a negative reaction (or over-reaction) to a hurtful remark or unfair rejection is very understandable. I’m not counseling silence in such situations, but I am cautioning that painting with a too-broad brush ends up trivializing precisely the behaviors we need to condemn–and can push away people who might otherwise be valuable allies.

We absolutely need to call out bigoted and hurtful behaviors, especially in the workplace. But when we fail to distinguish between truly reprehensible attitudes and behaviors and occasional unthinking reflections of social attitudes that are–thankfully–now being examined and rejected, we retard, rather than encourage, social progress.

We lose the Al Frankens.

 

The “Good Republican” Dilemma

Michael Gerson is one of the many prominent former Republicans who are horrified by what the Grand Old Party has become. In a column earlier this year for the Washington Post he wrote that

A political movement will either police its extremes or be defined by them.

Disapproval from opponents is easy to dismiss as mere partisanship. It is through self-criticism that a political party defines and patrols the boundaries of its ideological sanity.

The column was triggered by the overt racism of Senator Ron Johnson and the reaction–really, the lack of a reaction–by Johnson’s Republican colleagues, who (once again) proved unwilling to “patrol the boundaries of ideological sanity.”

There have always been bigots with access to a microphone. But in this case, Johnson did not face the hygienic repudiation of his party. Republican leaders preferred a different strategy: putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly. Republicans have abolished their ideological police.

The reason is simple. After four years of Donald Trump, Johnson’s sentiments are not out of the Republican mainstream. They are an application of the prevailing Republican ideology — that the “real” America is under assault by the dangerous other: Violent immigrants. Angry Blacks. Antifa terrorists. Suspicious Muslims. And don’t forget “the China virus.”

Gerson concedes that Trump didn’t somehow create those views out of whole cloth. But  he points out–as many others have–the fact that Trump normalized these sentiments to an unprecedented degree.

Under Trump’s cover, this has been revealed as the majority position of Republicans, or at least engaged, activist Republicans…

Our country faces many crises. But our nation’s politics has a single, overriding challenge: One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.

In the column, Gerson describes the effect this has had on him, personally; he now considers himself politically homeless. As he says, as an Evangelical Christian, he has difficulty with several aspects of Democratic policy goals. Despite his own discomfort, however,

I could not advise an idealistic and ambitious young person to join today’s GOP because her ambition would be likely to destroy her idealism. Most Republican leaders can no longer be trusted with the moral education of the young on the central moral challenge of our history. Elected Republicans who are not bigots are generally cowards in the face of bigotry. And that is a shocking, horrible thing.

Gerson is far from the only former Republican adrift in a political no-man’s-land, confronting a once-typical political party that has embraced anti-intellectualism and abandoned policy prescriptions in favor of waging culture war.

I have many friends with whom I served in a very different GOP, and most of them are struggling with a similar personal dilemma. These aren’t simply people who once voted Republican and have decided to no longer do so–they were what you might call “professional Republicans,” people who spent the greater part of their careers in political activity and public service. They include former office-holders, several of whom were quite prominent, a collection of state and county elected officials, a few former city-county counselors, and a number of high-level Republican lobbyists.

Most no longer consider themselves Republican, and several have publicly announced that fact. Others are convinced that necessary change will only come from within–and although I disagree (I think it’s too late, that the party is too far in the thrall of the know-nothings and bigots) I understand their reluctance to “pull the plug” and pronounce the patient dead.

There are many kinds of homelessness. For good people who are intellectually honest, political homelessness is–at best– purgatory.

What’s worse, however, is that the American political system is deprived of the benefit of principled, reality-based debates over the way forward–debates that require honorable and thoughtful political debaters. The ultimate decisions made by politically homeless former Republicans–create a new party? fight to regain control of the GOP?– will determine whether those discussions can ever resume.

 

The Hate Eruption

Asian women have been mowed down in Georgia. Unarmed Black men continue to be killed or maimed by police and self-appointed “good guys with guns.” Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents have proliferated. A new report links these eruptions to a surge in White Supremacy propaganda.

Not even a once-in-a-century pandemic could prevent white supremacist groups from deluging American cities with extremist propaganda in 2020. Banners were hung from freeway overpasses. Stickers were slapped onto street signs. Fliers were dropped onto the windshields of parked cars.

An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study published Wednesday recorded 5,125 incidents of white supremacist physical propaganda last year, marking the highest level of cases reported since the non-profit began tracking such data five years ago. The findings average to about 14 incidents per day—and are nearly double the 2,724 cases reported in 2019.

The data highlights the stunning growth of new splinter movements that did not exist when President Donald Trump took office. At least 30 white supremacist groups disseminated propaganda in the U.S. in 2020, but three of them—Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Nationalist Social Club—were responsible for 92% of the activity, according to the ADL. All of them were founded within the past three years.

This research gives us a lot to unpack.

First and foremost, these findings support the accumulating evidence that the Republican Party, now for all intents and purposes the Trump Party, has become little more than a White Supremacy Party. The politicization of hate–the partisan retreat into full-scale culture war–is incredibly worrisome. Equally troubling, the language of hate is amplified daily by media outlets that can only be considered GOP PR appendages rather than genuine journalistic endeavors.

Those of us who insist that language matters–that “mere words” may not be the sticks and stones that break your bones but nevertheless can incentivize actions inflicting bodily harm–find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Giving government the right to suppress any idea (even, in Justice Holmes’ memorable phrase, the “idea we hate”) would be incredibly dangerous and even counterproductive. The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment was based upon recognition that giving government that power would be more dangerous than even the expression of truly horrible ideas, and efforts at suppression more often than not simply give oxygen to such materials.

That leaves those of us who are horrified by the surge in hateful incitement with only the tool of social opprobrium, often derided as “political correctness” or even “cancel culture.” Although in the age of social media, criticism of language deemed bigoted or stereotyping can certainly go too far (in the jargon of the day, be too “woke”), expressing disapproval is arguably less damaging to the social fabric than ignoring the dissemination of hateful and hurtful characterizations.

Perhaps, in a weird way, the increasingly overt expressions of animus and bigotry may force us to confront some unpalatable realities. Surface niceties allowed many of us to assume that we’d made much more progress than we had. Just as the Trump presidency reminded Americans that the absence of honest, competent governance really hurts us all, the explosion of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other hatreds reminds the rest of us that we humans have to live together on a small and endangered planet, and that we need to find ways to cooperate and co-exist.

You can’t lance an invisible boil, and you can’t solve a problem until you recognize how extensive it is.

 

 

Don’t Rest In Peace

A witticism attributed to Mark Twain has always resonated with me. (I tend to be bitchy.) Twain is quoted as saying “I’ve never wished for a man’s death, but I’ve read several obituaries with pleasure.”

Precisely my reaction when I learned of Rush Limbaugh’s demise.

There has been no dearth of columns/obituaries marking the death of this truly horrible man, and ordinarily I wouldn’t bother to add to their number–had I not been in the middle of The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, and had I not come across this article from Vox.

I referred to The Sum of Us a few days ago, reporting on Michelle Goldberg’s column describing the book. I can now attest to its importance; McGhee paints an absolutely devastating–and overwhelmingly documented–picture of the ways in which racial animus has hurt not just the Black and brown objects of that animus, but everyone else. Racism, as she amply illustrates, is why Americans “can’t have nice things,” the none-too-veiled reason for the country’s disinvestment in public goods and refusal to construct an adequate social safety net.

Limbaugh, of course, was one of the loudest and most effective purveyors of that racism–along with generous amounts of misogyny, homophobia and Christian Nationalism.

Which brings me to the Vox article, which traces the considerable role played by “Christian” radio stations in abetting Limbaugh’s rise. The article reminds readers that Limbaugh “didn’t emerge from a vacuum.” He and his toxic message were part of a “Christian-based radio ecosystem” that promoted his message and allowed it to thrive.

The late Rush Limbaugh’s far-reaching and toxic impact on conservative America and the Republican party is well-known and well-documented. Still, there’s one aspect of his legacy, specifically his cultural dominance in the 1990s, that’s difficult to convey in the post-internet era: Limbaugh’s pivotal role in the ascension of conservative talk radio and the pivotal role that conservative radio played in emboldening modern conservative populism.

For many years throughout the Clinton era, Limbaugh’s daily radio program, The Rush Limbaugh Show, was synonymous with conservative political media and part of a larger burgeoning conservative radio ecosystem. The show, which aired for three hours each afternoon across America, began syndicating nationally in 1988 — incidentally the same year that famed evangelist minister Billy Graham delivered the benediction for both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. If you can’t imagine that happening today, it’s due in large part to the political polarization Limbaugh himself helped engender. In fact, Graham’s brand of evangelical Christianity spread across many of the same airwaves that also aired Limbaugh’s brand of toxic conservative bigotry.

That radio ecosystem also featured Dr. James Dobson’s daily Focus on the Family spots,  promoting “pro-life,” creationist, and anti-gay political opinions. Dobson was then the head of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as an extremist group.

It was within this pervasive atmosphere of pumped-up, aggressively combative evangelism and overtly polarizing political messages that Rush Limbaugh gained popularity. His show was another piece of the rapidly coalescing image of America’s new conservative — one in which Limbaugh’s lack of Christian empathy somehow became a feature, not a bug, of the modern conservative movement.

For at least three decades, Limbaugh and his ilk have been the public face of conservative “Christianity.”  It took a long time for those I consider to be authentic Christians to speak out–to publicly reject the hateful and aggressive politicized version of the religion that was repelling young people and Americans of good will. Those dissenting voices have become stronger, but whether they can counter the appeal of the White supremacy/Trumpian version of Christianity remains to be seen.

As the Vox article makes clear, the effect of Christian conservative radio on America’s political discourse has been profound– well before the 2016 election, the format played a huge role in shifting the views of once-centrist Republicans toward the far right. As the author notes, “Many of us haven’t listened to Rush Limbaugh in decades, but we’re all still feeling his influence daily, like it or not.”

His voice will most definitely not be missed.

 

The New Confederacy

Little by little, as media sources obtain access to previously unavailable information, Americans are learning the true extent of the criminal and racist activities of the Trump administration–and far more concerning, we are now seeing how far gone, how amenable to those characteristics, today’s QOP remains.

One example among many: in the final, lame-duck days of the administration–after the election but before Biden’s inauguration–the Justice Department moved to undo what the Washington Post called “decades-long protections against discrimination,” by
moving to change the interpretation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Title VI bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by recipients of federal funding.  The rules apply to the recipients of some six billion dollars of annual federal aid, and provide that actions will be considered discriminatory if they have a demonstrably discriminatory effect on protected groups. That’s what’s known as a “disparate impact.”  Under the new version, only intentional discrimination would be prohibited.

Intentional discrimination is incredibly difficult to prove, as lawyers who bring cases under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment can attest. (In order to succeed, challenges brought under that clause must show evidence that at least a part of the challenged law or action was intended to be discriminatory.)
 
According to the Post’s report, the Trump administration had been considering the change for over two years, but had waited until its final weeks to try to put it into effect. It was one of William Barr’s last efforts before his welcome departure as Attorney General.

And as usual, the Trump administration ignored the required procedures for making  significant policy changes.

Typically regulations of this magnitude are published first as proposals and the government collects public comment before publishing its final version. It would be unusual to publish a final regulation — particularly one of this magnitude — without going through that process, but the document says that its proposal falls under an exception and therefore the administration is not required to seek public comment.

Conservatives have long argued that allegations of discrimination should require proof that any disparate effects were intentional. If this argument is accepted, it allows the defense to deny the existence of structural racism: if person X doesn’t have a conscious animus, then what he does isn’t racist. So the bank officer who declines a mortgage under his bank’s redlining criteria, the police officer who participates in “stop and frisk” activities only in “certain” neighborhoods, the HR department that hires applicants based upon “cultural compatibility,” the City Council that paves streets far more frequently in the “nicer” areas of town–all are off the hook.

If no one is burning a cross on a Black person’s lawn, or screaming the “n” word, there’s no racism.

The Trump administration’s effort to bolster structural barriers to equality is just one of many examples of what has become distressingly clear during the past four years: today’s QOP is our contemporary version of the Confederacy. It is dominated by White Christian male supremacists intent upon doing whatever it takes to protect their historic hegemony–intent upon ignoring/excusing the operation of systems developed and maintained over the years that lock in White advantage without demonstrating cruder, more obvious bias.

It is not a coincidence that those willing to engage in that cruder racism–the “out and proud” racists of the KKK and Proud Boys and neo-Nazis– flocked to Trump and today’s Republican Party.  The efforts of more “respectable” members of the party to maintain plausible deniability–to distance themselves from their Confederate motives– is increasingly unconvincing.

The problem, as I have repeatedly noted, is that a two-party system needs two adult parties. It will be interesting to see if the embryonic efforts to form a new center-right party to replace the cult that is the current QOP go anywhere….