Age Appropriate

Josie was six when she met Mark and Philly.  Was it too soon?

Lynn and her daughter Marian (Josie’s mom) had a conference in Maui.  Josie and I tagged along. It was our usual arrangement, me tending to the grandkid while they took care of whatever the business required.  Mark and Philly were living on the Big Island in those days.  We took a puddle jumper over and stayed with them for a couple of nights.  Mark met us at the airport, we had lunch, then swung by to pick up Philly for some sightseeing.  Josie’s always been an open and friendly kid, but you’d’ve thought she’d known Philly forever.  We stopped at a Quick Mart so he could pick up snacks and bottled water.  Josie said, “I’ll go!” and we watched them walk in hand in hand.  Mark said wryly, “Looks like your six year old and my six year old are getting along just fine”.  Philly was genuinely interested in Josie, no condescension. Treated her like the full human being she was. Some adults have a hard time doing that.  Josie recognized a kindred soul.

Mark and Philly had been married seven years by then (I’d been the best man, back in Boston) and together nearly ten years before that.  They had a pretty little house on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano.  There were feral kittens in the yard and we talked with Josie about what their names might be.  One night we all went outside and watched the Perseid meteor shower, an explosion of lights and drama that we’d never be able to see in Alabama.  We looked into the caldera of Kilauea and went swimming with the sea turtles at Waikōloa Beach. 

I think Philly’d had some sort of high-powered job when I first met him (insurance? finance? something lawyerly? I never paid it much attention), but on Hawai’i he’d settled into early retirement and domesticity.  He and Mark had an easy, teasing rapport, the patterned rhythms of two quite different people who’ve been making a life together for a long time; Mark, the entrepreneur, the instigator, the innovator, the adventurer, the social director; Philly, a little shy, perpetually bemused smile, alert to the sensibilities and sensitivities of the people around him.  It was easy to be there.  They liked having guests, knew how to tend to their comfort without any undue fuss.  One night Philly fixed a fabulously elaborate dinner while Josie followed him around, ostensibly helping.  He gave her little tasks, praised her, listened to her.  She was content, happy, secure and at home.  When Mark drove us to the airport, Philly stood on the doorstep sobbing while Josie waved goodbye out the back window snurfling her tears.

A year later (2012), Mike Huckabee organized “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and Josie’s dad & step-mom (she was spending every other weekend with them) were eager to show their support for the corporation’s anti-marriage equality stance by joining the throngs getting sandwiches.  Chick-fil-A was one of Josie's favorites and they offered to take her even though it was mid-week.  Marian asked her, “Do you know why they’re having a special day to buy Chick-fil-A?”  “Because they love the food?” said Josie, a little puzzled by the question.  “No, it’s because they don’t think people like Mark & Philly should be able to get married because they’re both men.”

Josie was shocked.  “But they love each other!  They belong together!” she sputtered, outraged at the wrongness of it.

She was in 2nd grade.  Imagine, if you will, that Alabama’s HB322, signed into law in the spring of 2022, was in place back then.  It commands that teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade “shall not engage in classroom discussion ... regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate...”

Picture her talking with her friend Troy, expressing her outrage, but to her surprise, Troy says, “Two guys can’t be married!  Jesus says so!”  “Does not!” says Josie, stung, although now she’s not sure.  They go running to the teacher.  “Miss Emily!” says Josie.  “Troy says my friends Mark and Philly can’t be married, but they love each other!”  Troy interrupts.  “Tell her it’s bad, Miss Emily!  My Dad told me!”

What is poor Miss Emily to do?  What can she say that’s “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate”?  She’s diligently combed through the Alabama Core Teaching Standards and the Alabama Educator Code of Ethics as instructed by the State Board of Education. No clear guidance there.  What she knows very well, however, is that if a parent complains, disciplinary action with the very real possibility of being fired is likely.  Perhaps it’s safest to derail the topic entirely.  “That’s not something we talk about in school.”  Maybe that’s the best she can do.  Maybe it’s what she believes anyway.

The kids will talk, of course.  They’ll fill in the gaps as best they can, aware they’ve touched on something forbidden and not quite sure what to make of it.  Josie’s confused now.  Has she done something wrong?  How is it possible that her teacher could think there was something wrong about Mark & Philly, something so bad that it can’t even be talked about?

These laws (Alabama’s is based on Florida’s) are billed as protecting parents’ rights, but which parent’s rights being violated now?  Marian wants her daughter to grow up to be loving and accepting and supportive of people who are trying to make their way through a complicated world.  Doesn’t she have a right to expect the public schools to reinforce this?  Why are the rights of the parents who want to shield their children from even knowing about the existence of homosexuality more important and worthy of being enshrined in law than Marian’s? 

Was it developmentally inappropriate for Josie to get to know a married gay couple when she was in the first grade?  It’s true that this exposure had a big impact on her.  Having spent a couple of days in Mark and Philly’s company, for ever after it will be impossible to convince her that there’s something wrong about two men who love each other being married.  Is this what the law is trying to prevent?  Is this what those parents are afraid of?

“Age Appropriate”.  Such a loaded phrase.  What does it mean?  Educators spend a lot of time examining the research on child development, psychological and physical, to make recommendations about what sorts of material across all subjects is “appropriate” for kids at different ages.  But the freaked out parents and the politicians who pander to them aren’t looking at research and they certainly don’t trust education experts.  Who knows better than me what’s best for my kid? 

The fundamentalist Christian belief train runs something like this:  Sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Children are impressionable, easily tempted to do the wrong thing.  Tell them not to do something and that’s what they’ll want to do.  Tell them about sex at all, and about deviant sex in particular, and they’ll want to try it out.  It’s the wickedness in their natures.  At home, the parent can at least try to control what they hear and see.  (For digital natives in 21st century America this is, of course, impossible, but parents have always been good at fooling themselves about the control they have over what their children know).

Is the fear that if a teacher speaks approvingly of a homosexual relationship it will somehow entice the child to become gay?   Or is it more insidious – that the teacher secretly wants to turn the kids gay and is seductively nudging them into it. They’re groomers!  It’s the homosexual agenda.  They can’t have kids of  their own so they have to take ours!  Groomers are everywhere!  (Three years ago, Twitter averaged 940 “groomer” mentions a day; by the time the Governor of Florida signed his version of the bill it was up to 11,000; a week later, 80,000.)  Does it seem strange that these parents have so little confidence in their children’s sexuality that they believe the kids can so easily be turned?  If you need to try that hard to keep the kids properly rooted in their assigned gender with the proper opposite sex attraction, doesn’t that imply it’s not all that hard-wired to begin with? 

There’s a bit of sleight of hand in the way the law is phrased.  It seems to say that discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity is allowed, as long as it’s done in an age appropriate or developmentally appropriate way.  Isn’t that reasonable?  But the people behind the law are more straightforward – Senator  Shelnutt, who introduced the amendment, said, “We don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about homosexuality and gender identity in schools, they should be learning about math.”  Not appropriate ever.  Which keeps the decision making easy and unambiguous.

The only sex education that Alabama’s ever required is that at some point between 5th and 12th grade kids have to be told about HIV/AIDS, presumably for the purpose of terrifying them that sex equals death.  Beyond that individual school systems are on their own.  Up until 2021 it was required that if there was any sex education it must emphasize abstinence and stress that homosexuality is socially unacceptable and illegal in the state.  That latter point has not been true since the Supreme Court ruling in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas) but the law stayed on the books.  The clause about homosexuality was finally removed when the law was revised to require students to use the restrooms of their assigned birth gender.  Grandmotherly Kay Ivey, who’d been Lt. Governor before being propelled to the Governor’s chair when the previous occupant was kicked out due to a sex scandal, said, “There are very real challenges facing our young people, especially with today’s societal pressures and modern culture. I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.”  It’s that revised law to which Senator Shelnutt attached his amendment.

All of which makes me think I’ve been asking the wrong question.  I wanted to understand better what these parents are so afraid of, but maybe that’s not it at all.  These parents aren’t just motivated by an irrational fear of what might happen to their darling children, they’re responding to an unquenchable determination to do what’s right.  And not just for their kids, but for all kids.  For the good of the nation.

The Christianist (Christian nationalist) tendency has always been strong in this country, particularly here in the South, but it is now in the ascendent nationwide, more overt than ever.  Here’s Colorado Representative Boebert, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk. ... The church is supposed to direct the government.  The government is not supposed to direct the church.  That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it." 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," says the Constitution, and how very difficult this has turned out to be in practice.  The Christian High School coach who performatively prays on the 50-yard line after each game and invites any student who wishes to join him is ostracizing those who refuse the invitation, but the Supreme Court ignores what that does to their right of free exercise. The secular humanist expects the state to be neutral.  It expects that the governor should not let her very strong belief on the nature of boys and girls lead her to sign laws infringing on the rights of those who believe differently.  The Christianist thinks such neutrality is absurd, ungodly, dangerous.  There can only be one truth.

In Miami-Dade County the County Citizens Defending Freedom has successfully led the drive to revoke the approval of two sex ed textbooks for middle & high school.  The CCDF is a fledgling Christianist organization determined to “empower citizens to defend their freedom and liberty, and place local government back into the hands of the people.”  The sentiments sound lofty, but in practice it's all about sex and what kids are exposed to in schools and libraries.  Particularly critical is making sure there is no mention of abortion or homosexuality.  What is especially chilling, and revealing, is that the CCDF leadership either homeschool or put their kids in private school.  So they’ve already got their own kids protected.  Miami-Dade has an opt-out policy for any parent who is uncomfortable with any portion of the approved sex ed curriculum, but CCDF’s defense of liberty and freedom does not extend to empowering parents who want their children to get an education the CCDF leadership disapproves of.  They’re determined to protect all the children even if the kids’ own parents won’t.  Similar actions are occurring all across the country as Christianist activists take over local school boards.

There was an essay recently in the NYT about the importance of good sex education throughout grade school.  The authors describe the research, all the data showing how teen pregnancy is reduced, domestic violence and bullying are less frequent, people are happier and healthier, society as a whole is improved.  They’re not wrong, but they're missing the point.  They’re presuming a shared interest in the outcomes.  The Christianist is focused on keeping their child (and yours) from sin.  All that other stuff is distraction.

People like me want Miss Emily to say that what Mark and Philly share is just as good and valuable as what any other happily married couple have.  That’s all.  But Troy’s father is determined to see that Troy grows up believing the opposite.  He can’t protect Troy forever from “today’s societal pressures and modern culture” but he is damned well going to try.  That’s his job as a good dad.

Every parent wants to protect their kid, wants them to grow up to do what’s right.  Troy’s father wants him to be a good Christian.  Marian wants to protect Josie from the meanness that comes from intolerance.  They both know that homosexuality exists.  Troy’s father wants to protect him from that knowledge as long as possible.  Marian wants her daughter to know it’s okay.

There isn’t any way to reconcile these.  A more modest Christianity remembers Jesus’ admonition to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the thing that are God’s” and thinks it means being mindful of the two separate realms (this is how I was taught it in Catholic grade school).  The Christianist rejects this interpretation utterly.  There can be no compromise on the things that are God’s.

In the world the Christianists are trying to create there are no blurry edges at the borders of a binary sexuality.  There is no ambiguity about right and wrong.  People understand what their place is and the only legitimate use of government is to enforce the rules of behavior.  Troy’s dad wants his son to grow up straight and true.  But much sooner than he imagines, the boy will see the disconnect between the real world he lives in and the world his parents wish it to be.  The books he’s not supposed to read, the videos he’s not supposed to watch, the people he’s not supposed to meet, all will show him a real world that is far more complex, strange, and wonderful than the narrow world of his father, tightly bounded as it is by fear, anger, self-loathing and hate.  He’ll have to learn to deny one or the other. What will that do to his sense of self, of family, of how he ought to behave with other people?  How will he try to protect his own kids, if that time ever comes?  And from what?

Josie is a senior now and encouragingly sane.  She’s been doing some work for me afternoons this summer, so we talk.  “Are you sure you’re not hiding some deep trauma,” I tease?  She laughs and assures me she’s fine.  Asked how she’d like to be described she says, “optimistic”.  She prides herself on being a good friend.  She’s the peacemaker among her group of Southern girls.  She tells me how she and her friends use social media, as an enhancement of their IRL relationships, not a substitute.  They stay away from the drama and the hateful stuff.  She keeps her phone nearby but never makes me feel I’m competing  for her attention.  I ask what kind of sex ed she’s gotten, and she says, “The basics, in 5th grade.”  A bit in a hygiene class when she was a freshman and there’ll be a bit more this year.  Never a mention of contraception or homosexuality.  But in a world awash in sex and romance and pornography she thinks that she and her friends – male and female – have a pretty accurate and healthy knowledge about sex, “about how people ought to treat each other.”  She has high standards for relationships, won’t put up with disrespect or deceit from the boys she’s been involved with.  Where did this knowledge come from?  She’s thoughtful.  “I don’t really know.  It’s just... there.”

A great deal from her Mom, for sure.  Some from me and Lynn, who’ve been with her since the day she was born.  And certainly some has roots in a pretty little house on the slope of a volcano where she met her friends Mark and Philly at such a terribly inappropriate age.


White Guilt

You’re not being asked to feel guilty over things that you haven’t done.  No need to get your back up.  You're hollering that your ancestors came from Europe after the Civil War.  They never enslaved anybody.  I get it.  They were immigrants who worked hard to pull themselves up.  You’re grateful for their sacrifice.  You’re a good guy and you’ve always tried to play fair with everybody.  It’s not your fault!  I get it.

“To whom much is given, much shall be required.”  You’re not being asked to feel guilty.  You’re being asked to make a difference.  Well, okay, the demand from the street is stronger than that.  You are required to make a difference.  It’s an old biblical maxim, repeated again and again throughout history.  Nobody makes it on their own.  Everybody has an obligation to lend a hand up.  Why so defensive?

The street isn’t saying that everything bad is the fault of every individual white person.  But you can’t shirk your responsibility by claiming it’s not your fault.  That’s not the point.  If you are white, you benefit from a society that has been designed, in some cases very explicitly, to maintain white supremacy in economic, political, and social matters (check out the 1901 constitution of the state of Alabama, among others – the documentary trail is exhaustingly long).  Maybe you don’t feel that you benefit very much, but ask yourself this (and try to be honest), would you readily change your white skin for a black skin if it came with a 50% increase in your income?  Would the extra burdens of being Black be worth the tradeoff?  You seem to be squirming.  Is this making you uncomfortable?  That’s good.  It should make you uncomfortable. 

Those feelings of guilt that you have (if you didn’t have them you wouldn’t be protesting so strongly) aren’t arising from something you didn’t do a century and a half ago.  They’re the faint stirrings of your conscience telling you that you’re not doing enough right now.  That’s your better nature tugging at your own complacency.  Better listen.

It’s Huck Finn lying to the men in the skiff when he has a chance to give Jim up (chapter 16).  He feels terrible about it.  He lies in order to help a runaway slave!  He’s “feeling bad and low, because I knowed very well I had done wrong.”  But he just can’t help himself.  He knows he should turn Jim in, he knows he shouldn’t’ve lied.  Have all of Miss Watson’s efforts to teach him right from wrong been a miserable failure?  But he realizes that doing what he’s been taught was right wouldn’t make him feel any better.  He’s too young to make sense of it, so he decides he’ll just follow his innocent American heart.  He doesn't know he's a hero.

Nobody is telling you to feel guilty over the things that were done by others in the past.  What matters is how you live up to being an American right now, here on the raft that's carrying us all down the river somewhere there might be freedom.  You don't have to atone for what people did that was wrong; you have to live up to how much they did that was right.  We hold these truths…

 


The problem isn't bad cops

For a few minutes, Rayshard Brooks might have thought he was going to make it, that the cops were going to let him go to his sister’s house, pick up his car the next morning.  There’d be hell to pay and he’d have to deal with that, but he knew it was his own damn fault.  At that moment, the cops could've walked him to the sister’s house.  They could have given him a ride.  But they brought out the cuffs.  And he panicked.  We can’t know what he was thinking, he’d been in trouble before and it’s no stretch to imagine him thinking of other black men beaten and killed once they were handcuffed and put in the back of a patrol car.  So he panicked, he fought back, he grabbed the taser.  And he ran.  At that moment, he was done for.

Former DC cop Ted Williams was interviewed on Fox explaining why this was a pretty clear cut case for the justification of the use of deadly force.  I am very much afraid that he’s right.  Suppose that Rolfe isn’t a bad apple, isn’t a rogue cop.  He did what he was trained to do.  He started to arrest someone for a misdemeanor.  That person resisted, took one of his weapons, struggled, ran, fired the weapon at him, and at that point everything in Rolfe’s training said to take him down.  He did what he was trained to do.

This is why the entire edifice of standard policing in the United States has to come down.  No amount of additional training, no body cameras, no transparency in disciplinary reports, no banning of choke holds would have changed this.  We sent heavily armed men, whose primary tool is the use of force, to address a minor problem.  Subdue and arrest.  Dominate the situation.  The system worked exactly as designed.

Then Rolfe is fired and the police chief resigns.  Why fire Rolfe?  Immediate scapegoat.  A clear signal to the community that this was only a case of bad cop.  The chief resigns because she hasn't done a good enough job of weeding out bad cops.  

There’s no way to tell if the outcome would’ve been different if Brooks had been white, but it’s hard not to imagine so when there are so many cases on record where a white perpetrator is subdued without grievous harm and so many cases where a black person dies. But the racism that pits the edifice of policing against the community isn’t a problem of rabidly racist cops hating black people.  The structural racism that insists on using force to dominate and control will always result in the deaths of those we keep at the margins.

The images of impassive Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd was the spark that ignited simmering rage and protest around the world.  It should outrage you.  But what should engage your determination, what should make you join cause to insist that we rethink what we pathetically refer to as “public safety” are the two bullet holes in Rayshard Brooks’ back.


Remember Becket

I wasn’t surprised when the carrier captain was fired.  Sure seemed like a hasty, knee-jerk response, but we should be used to that.  But I was shocked by the diatribe that Acting Secretary Modly flew 8,000 miles to deliver.  I’ve never served in the military so I hesitate to critique military decisions, but leadership is something I do know something about.  Such a glaring lack of it startled me.

I'd been moved by the video clips of the crew seeing their Captain off.  Apparently Modly was as well.  How long does the flight from DC to Guam take?  Picture Modly, with his Eraserhead hair, seething that entire time.  How dare they!  He’d show 'em.  Question his decision, do they?  His anger simmers.  Next to it, his fear.  All during the flight, he’s checking his twitter feed.  The President backed him up right away, so that was good.  But the winds can shift.  He needs to show the boss that he’s tough.  Not going to put up with insubordination.  “Cap-tain, Cro-zier!  Cap-tain, Cro-zier!” the sailors chanted as he walked down the gangway.   Modly can’t get the sound out of his head.

Trump’s critics often accuse him of actively being behind every loathsome decision, as if he'd called Modly himself and told him to fire that damned captain.  He doesn’t need to do that.  Once the bus is running and a few high-profile minions have been ground under the wheels, the problems take care of themselves.  “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” says Henry.  Becket dies.  Modly himself told WaPo’s David Ignatius that he was thinking about his predecessor who’d been fired because he “got crossways with the president … I didn’t want that to happen again.”

Survival in Trumpland requires demonstrating unending loyalty to the boss, the ability to anticipate what might set him off, and then take care of it.  There’s a little room for missteps because, ironically, Trump actually hates to fire people straight out.  He’d rather belittle and insult them.  Eventually someone else will pick up the hint.

Trump has many people who are now in “acting” positions (the jokes write themselves).  He says he likes “acting.”  He doesn’t have to send them to the Senate for confirmation and they’re easier to get rid of when he tires of them.  So they’re all dancing on thin ice, anxious to please the audience of one.

The role model is VP Pence, who understands that whatever he’s talking about, every other sentence needs to praise the President.  Pence is lucky though; as VP, he doesn’t really have responsibility for anything.  The various secretaries and under-secretaries have actual jobs to do, decisions with consequences.  You can use pleasing the boss as your lodestar for decision-making, but what happens when you guess wrong?

Poor Modly overreached.  He’d probably have kept his job if he’d just stayed home and ridden it out.  But he was afraid his decisive firing of the captain might not be enough.  That chanting!  So he had to go and berate the crew in person.  Show Trump just how tough he can be. 

Defense Secretary Esper tried to save him by giving him a chance to apologize.  And then he mucked that up as well. “I believe, precisely because he [Crozier] is not naive and stupid, that he sent his alarming email with the intention of getting it into the public domain in an effort to draw public attention to the situation on his ship. I apologize for any confusion this choice of words may have caused.”  Nobody hearing it was confused.

It was over by then anyway.  Trump was backtracking from his initial support.  He’d heard good things about Crozier.  “So, I'm going to get involved and see what is going on there because I don't want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”  He hates it when he sees somebody being treated badly.  He didn’t need to say anything else. 

 


Who is that (un)masked man?

I was sure that the holdup on the mask recommendation was because Trump didn’t want to wear one.  Sure enough.  “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I don’t know.  Somehow, I just don’t see it for myself.”  Erratic his judgment may be, but his narcissistic vanity is unwaveringly consistent. 

It’s not as if he’s got a steady stream of dignitaries coming through the White House these days.  But it could happen.  And one wants to look one’s best for the dictators of the world.

Seems to me it would’ve been a great opportunity to start up a cottage industry in red MAGA masks.  Put your MAGA where your mouth is.  A counterpoint to all those pussy hats that infuriated him so. 

He soothes his annoyance at being talked into allowing the mask recommendation by firing a couple of inspectors general.  Rooting out disloyalists always makes him feel better. 

The language on the Strategic National Stockpile website was quickly changed to reflect the nonsense that Jared was spouting about “our” stockpile.  And people say that this administration isn’t efficient. 

Here in Alabama the governor finally issued a stay at home order.  I don’t expect to see her wearing a mask either.  Her explanations for waiting were pretty vague.  “We’re not California.  We’re not New York.”  Quite true.  But we could be! Give it another week or so.  She was one of the last holdouts.  Even the governor of Georgia beat her to it and he had the excuse of not knowing asymptomatic people could be contagious.  When he found that out on Tuesday of this week, he said it was a game changer and issued the order.  Then yesterday he overruled some of the local jurisdictions and re-opened the beaches.  He’s confident people will follow the social distancing guidelines.  Of course.  Because that’s so obviously what people have been doing in the absence of the stay at home orders.

I completely understand that in the press of their daily lives many people don’t have time to keep up with the latest expertise on this fast moving crisis.  Alexandra Petri does an excellent job of explaining why so many people are willing to believe Trump’s statements that he always knew this would be a pandemic and he was just trying to give people hope.  There’s a lot going on in our lives!  But I’d’ve thought (speaking of hope) that a governor would’ve been paying enough attention to what the public health experts were saying two months ago to know a little more about the mechanics of the spread. 

Now that Trump has undercut his own recommendation I don’t expect to see a lot of mask wearing down here.  That’s the whole point of leading by example, but he doesn’t quite get it.  You can tell that the people around him have been trying to feed him the right lines, get him to make the right gestures.  Exercise leadership in a time of crisis.  And he tries.  But the words don’t feel right in his mouth.  It’s an effort for him to say that Cuomo’s latest comments were “okay.”  But he can’t keep himself from saying, “But they weren’t gracious.”  It enrages him that some of the governors aren’t as appreciative as he feels they ought to be.

We had drinks over FaceTime earlier today with our friends in Cyprus.  We had bloody marys before brunch while they were having wine after dinner.  They go out twice a week now for groceries and essential healthcare.  They need to text the local authorities to let them know they’re leaving and where they’re going and when they’ll be back.  Imagine how that’d be received here.  There’s a vocal subset of Americans, particularly here in the South, who are already screaming about the unconstitutional assault on their civil liberties. The luxuries of ignorance.

Have no fear.  Your President will not force you to wear a mask.  He’s made sure that the gun shops are essential services.  He’s still encouraging people to go to the churches next Sunday.  Other than that, he’ll leave it to the governors.

If I were the praying kind, I’d just as soon do it from home.  A church full of evangelicals with guns scares me much more than the coronavirus.  

 


Such Convenient Accusations

I feel kinda sorry for Joe Barton.  Time was, a guy with a sleazy personal life and multiple affairs could become Speaker of the House.  It’s not like Barton was accused of actually assaulting or even harassing anybody.  (Although I did feel somewhat assaulted after seeing the photo that did him in).

In the current climate you just can’t get away with things. It’s not just assault or harassment that’ll bring you down.  Now the catchall term “sexual misconduct” is in vogue.  The fact is, Barton just wasn’t useful anymore.  He didn’t retire politely when he lost his committee leadership post. He kept hanging around.  And he wasn’t doing a very good job managing the GOP baseball team.  A pissed off former girlfriend and a grotesque nude selfie was exactly what the Republican leadership needed.  So long, Joe.

They haven’t been as lucky with Roy Moore.  Barton was apparently capable of being embarrassed.  Not our Roy.  (Remember, I live in Alabama.)  The tortoise from Kentucky was quick to believe the women this time.  But Mitch hadn’t ever wanted him in the Senate.  Big Luther was reliable, he could be counted on.  But who knew what the Judge might do? 

Coming from Alabama himself, Mitch can’t really be expected to be that offended by a 30 year old dating teenage girls.  But the 14 year old – that’s a story you can use.  It’s not Weinstein worthy, of course, and there haven’t been any tales of salacious behavior after Moore’s marriage (to a woman 14 years younger), but Mitch is an expert at spin.  Riding the current wave of cultural disgust was easy as pie.  Does anyone imagine that he actually gives a damn about the women?

I am a little puzzled, though, by Moore’s tactics.  Why come out so strong and claim that he doesn’t even know them?  Certainly he’d have to deny the story about the 14 year old and the one from the woman who accused him of physical assault, but those’d be easy to brush off.  Why bother to deny his dating history when it’s so easy to check?  That wouldn’t have bothered his voters.  Debbie Wesson Gibson was one of the women in the original story.  She said she’d dated Moore when she was 17 and he was 34.  She never accused him of anything inappropriate.  It was a happy memory.  She’d invited him to her graduation, they exchanged Christmas cards after she got married.  So she was shocked and hurt and angry when Moore started claiming that he’d never dated any of the women, didn’t even know any of them.  I guess he figures that in the current fact-free political environment a vehement blanket denial is a more effective tactic even when it’s easily shown to be false.  He’s probably right.

What is truly outrageous about the whole Moore thing is that the Republican establishment didn’t oppose him for twice defying the Supreme Court when he was Alabama's Chief Justice. They didn’t find it problematic that he thinks Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress and that there are whole communities in the Midwest currently under Sharia law.  His venomous hatred of same sex couples, his insistence that the first amendment only protects Christians, and his belief that his Bible supersedes all laws wasn’t sufficient to raise an eyebrow among the leaders in Congress.  Apparently these are all acceptable views for a Republican Senator.  Or at least acceptable enough.  But “sexual impropriety” – now there’s something they can work with.

It still hasn’t been enough, though.  And they need that vote.  So Trump’s endorsed him and the RNC is back to pumping him with cash.  The most important thing is to make sure the Democrat doesn’t win.

But McConnell’s still not quite giving up.  Even though he’s leaving the matter “up to the voters of Alabama” he’ll start an ethics investigation if Moore gets elected.  That might give him what he needs to push Moore out.  Then he’ll have Governor Ivey appoint a safe replacement.  Probably Big Luther.  The tortoise will have what he wants.

And then Moore will run for governor of Alabama.  He’ll probably win.

 


What Does His Daughter Think?

"I want my daughter to grow up in a country, she's 15 years old, where she is empowered and respected wherever she goes and wherever she works in whatever she does."  That's Paul Ryan, in an interview with Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition that was aired last Friday morning.  I had just dropped my 12 year old granddaughter off at school.

Inskeep has just asked Ryan about the charges of sexual harassment that are being made against members of Congress and Ryan's coming out strong on the absolute necessity of holding people accountable.  "[N]owhere should that be more obvious and apparent than working here in Capitol Hill," he says.  "[W]e should set ourselves to standards that we expect of other people and we should set high standards for ourselves so that we can be role models and set examples..."  That's the kind of thing you want to hear from the Speaker of the House, isn't it?

Inskeep mentions that Ryan called on Roy Moore to withdraw from the Senate race.  Ryan is quick and firm in his response, "That's because I believe those allegations are credible."  And then, of course Inskeep says (and didn't you see this coming, Paul?), "What is the difference between his case and the case of President Trump, who was also accused by a number of women and also denied it?"

Ryan stutters, slightly, but recovers quickly.  He's focused on Congress, he says.  He hasn't spent time "reviewing the difference" in the two cases, he says.

Inskeep presses, referring to a speech Ryan gave in 2012, supporting Mitt Romney and talking about his high character being above reproach.  Inskeep wants to know if Ryan believes the President is meeting that high standard.  But Ryan's back on firm ground now.  He says it's no secret that he's had his differences with the President,

"But what I see is a president who is fighting for the things that I'm fighting for. I see a president who's fighting for an agenda that will make a positive difference in people's lives. Is this president unconventional? No two ways about it. He's very unconventional. But if we make good by the American people by actually improving their lives and fixing problems and finding solutions that are bothering them, that's a good thing."

The strong comments about setting high standards and being role models and being held accountable have wisped away as if they'd never been said.  Trump is merely "unconventional."  And since he's helping Ryan get what Ryan wants, a little "unconventionality" is just fine.

He's certainly setting an example.  So is his President.

I wonder what the 15 year old thinks of her Dad when she listens to him dodge and dissemble like that.

I wonder if he worries about it.


Making History

"The permanent arrival of Europeans to the Americas was a transformative event that undeniably and fundamentally changed the course of human history and set the stage for the development of our great Nation."  You could be forgiven for assuming this is Richard Spencer talking during his brief Charlottesville 3.0 demonstration.  It's not, but it undoubtedly cheered him and his companions when they read it in President Trump's Columbus Day proclamation.

Here's what Spencer did say on Saturday:  "We care about our heritage, we care about who we are, not just as Virginians, not just as Southerners, but as white people. ... You'll have to get used to us... We're going to come back again and again and again."  They sang "I Wish I Was in Dixie."  They chanted, "You will not replace us," and "The South will rise again," and "Russia is our friend."

In his Charlottesville Statement, posted back in August, Spencer says,“'European' refers to a core stock—Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic, Latin, Nordic, and Slavic—from which related cultures and a shared civilization sprang." For the White Nationalists, this is the true and only foundation of the United States.  It's the perceived erosion of that primary culture into a multiracial, multiethnic, egalitarian society that does not privilege any group over another that they find so threatening.  The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, and the tortuous history of our country has been the struggle to figure out how to extend that promise to all people.   This the alt-right can't abide.  When Trump proclaims that the permanent arrival of Europeans was the transformative event that led to the development of the United States, he is explicitly telling them that he stands with them.

In Indianapolis on Sunday, other postures were taken.  Many of the 49ers took a knee, of course.  VP Pence, knowing that would be the case, told the press detail not to bother coming in to the stadium.  He knew he wouldn't be there long.  The Colts wore shirts that read, "We will stand for equality, justice, unity, respect, dialogue, opportunity."  Pence walked out, making it clear where he stands.  It was a great weekend for the alt-right.

History is made from our choices.  How we choose to view the past, how we choose to act in the present.  Where, and with whom, we choose to stand.  What we choose to stand for.  

 


Trustworthiness in the Post-Fact World

How long will it take for the Trump voters to realize they've been conned?

Among the most confounding items in the avalanche of pre-election polls was the finding that Americans viewed Trump as significantly more trustworthy than Clinton. For those of us still living in the fact-based world, this was incomprehensible. Trump's penchant for brazen lying has been well documented. His willingness to say things that are clearly not true, even when there's easily controvertible video evidence baffled observers who looked to past campaigns and saw how quickly a candidate foundered when confronted with misstatements far less blatant than those Trump makes on a daily basis. Clinton, on the other hand, was rated the second most truthful politician of the dozen or so that Politifact rated over the course of the long campaign.  Despite the non-stop chanting by Trump's supporters, Clinton's lies were far, far fewer and of much less consequence than Trump's.  How could it be that most Americans viewed Trump as more trustworthy?

Elizabeth Kolbert pointed the way in a piece in the New Yorker. We now live in a post-fact world (as Ron Suskind explained when reporting on the Bush White House more than a decade ago).  Facts are mushy, malleable things.  Everybody lies and everybody throws "facts" around as weapons to prove their own points of view.  All media are biased, so you're foolish to take at face value anything that you see.  You can't base your trust on "facts."

You go with your gut.  When Trump contradicts himself, it still feels like he means exactly what he says in the moment that he says it.  It doesn't matter if he says something different the next day or the next hour.  Those are just "facts."  His willingness to say horrifying things is evidence that he "tells it like it is."  He's not going to modify his language to appease some PC norms about what it's okay for a candidate to say.  Clinton, on the other hand, appeared to be always hedging, always carefully thinking about the impact of what she was going to say before she said it.  Even if she was saying true things, how could you tell if she really believed it?  And that's what counts -- belief, not facts.  Belief is all you can trust.

On the internet, an article in the New York Times and a piece on Breitbart carry the same weight.  How do you choose?  Whose biases line up with your own?  Who gives you more comfort and reassures you that they see the world the way you do?  "Trustworthiness" in the post-fact world has nothing to do with an adherence to things that are true.  What matters are the words that justify and confirm.  Trump has been so good at that.

So how long will it take for the Trump voters to realize they've been conned?  The Donald is loading his transition team with the Washington insiders, lobbyists and plutocrats he railed against (along with his adorable children, of course).  Drain the swamp?  Hah!  McConnell's cynical strategy appears to have worked.  The Kentucky Tortoise smiles his oily smile at the President-elect and thinks, "You're my bitch now."

The Republicans aren't going to allow 35% tariffs on companies moving operations out of the U.S.  They have corporate profits to protect.  Coal is not coming back unless natural gas production is squelched.  The markets won't let that happen.  Now Trump thinks some pieces of Obamacare are worth keeping.  He says he hasn't given much thought to a special prosecutor to lock up Hillary.  He won't answer questions about banning Muslims.  Parts of the wall will be a fence and he's going to start discussions with Mexico on how it'll be paid for.  He might deport as many undocumented as Obama has, but he's not focused on that right now.  So how long will it take for the Trump voters to realize they've been conned?

That Trump won't be able to actualize some of his most egregious slogans should give comfort to no one.  The viciousness that he's unleashed won't be easily restrained.  When the WSJ asked him if some of his campaign rhetoric had gone too far he said, "No. I won."  He tells Leslie Stahl that he's "surprised" and "so saddened" to hear about the violence committed in his name.  But hatred works for him.  And when the Trump voters finally do realize they've been conned and try to call him to account, he'll turn the blame elsewhere.  His failures have always been someone else's fault.  He'll resort to stirring up the rage and resentment that has worked for him so well this year and direct it at those who've been his targets all along.  He's very good at that.

He's betting that in the post-fact world he can keep saying the things that energize his supporters and garner him the praise and adulation he seeks above all else, no matter what his administration actually does or doesn't do.  He might be right.

I'm not giving up on facts.  But with Bannon in the White House the American Experiment has a fierce and formidable adversary.  Facts won't be enough.  We need to tell better stories.  Trump will rely on hatred and fear because that works for him.  Those who oppose him have to be better than that.  The opposition stories have to speak to what is best about America.  Stories that are true.  That greatness comes when we lift each other, when we listen to each other, when we take each other in.  I still believe that the arc of history bends toward justice.  But it demands that we work for it.

 


One Day At A Time

I empathize with the shock and anger of the many who say they are determined to oppose everything that President Trump does.  I get it.  He's demonstrated over and over again that he's a ghastly human being.  He has the potential to do tremendous damage to everything I hold dear about the American experiment.  I expect that I will vigorously oppose most of what he tries to implement.  But vow to oppose him on everything?  I'm not going to go there.

When Mitch McConnell announced his determination to make Obama a one-term president and quickly made it clear that he would lead the opposition to everything Obama proposed, (even if, like much of the initial healthcare proposals, those policies were rooted in ideas that Republicans had long favored), Democrats and those on the left howled that he was abdicating his responsibilities.  Rather than governing, he was acting solely in favor of his parochial political interest.  We were right to do so.  The unyielding blanket opposition to everything Obama did was shameful.  We shouldn't let our anger and fear bring us to the same low point.

Part of what is trainwreck fascinating about the Donald is that we really have no idea what he will actually try to enact.  He has contradicted himself so many times that any attempt to discern actual policy proposals from his statements of the past year is a fool's game.  Yesterday he praised Hillary for her campaign.  This morning, at the White House, he spoke of his great respect for President Obama (I note that he did have a bit of a deer in the headlights look at finding himself finally in this position).  Does that mean he won't appoint a special prosecutor to Lock Her Up?  Has he changed his mind about Obama founding ISIS?  I don't believe what he said yesterday or today any more than I believe anything else he's said during the campaign.  And that's the point.  I won't know what to oppose until he actually, finally, has to do something.

Here's one example -- he's talked about a massive infrastructure overhaul to create jobs and refurbish roads and bridges.  This is something we've desperately needed for many years.   If a solid sensible proposal that looks like it could get through Congress and actually accomplish something were to appear, I'd support it, even if it originated from the Trump White House.  I'd expect Chuck Schumer to lend his weight in getting it through.

I don't expect there to be many opportunities like that.  I expect that most of what he tries to enact will require my full-throated opposition.  But I'm not going to declare my "principled" opposition to everything he might do just because I'm horrified that we elected him.  

We've had eight miserable years of obstructionist politics.  I'm sick of it, and I won't be a part of it.