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.


This Deadly Simplicity

Ambiguity is tough for a lot of people.  They crave the bright lines that separate good and evil.  Wrestling with moral questions is frightening and hard and you’re never sure you’ve gotten it right.  Who’d want that?  Much more reassuring to have simple and unambiguous principles to determine your decisions.  Hence the moral rectitude of the anti-abortion activists.

It is only when we inject into the issue questions of subjectivity (like wantedness) or religions (like ensoulment), existential ones (like sentience), theological ones (like human dignity) or sociological ones (like quality of life), that we find ample room for uncertainty and disagreement. These are important, enduring questions. But they are not questions upon which the basic, inalienable right of an individual life should depend.

But why not?  This is from an NYT opinion piece celebrating the downfall of Roe v. Wade.  The writer (a research professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary),  believes “that abortion unjustly ends the life of a being that is fully human, a life that exists independently of the will of the mother, is self-organizing and unique, developing yet complete in itself...”  She comes to this belief by explicitly refusing to consider any of those subjective, religious, existential, theological, or sociological questions that she rightly says might cause uncertainty.  On what does this “basic, inalienable right of an individual life” depend?  She doesn’t feel the need to say.  For her, it is so clearly and comfortingly obvious that it completely eliminates any need to consider those challenging questions (important and enduring though they be).

What fascinates me even more than the incoherence is the blinding arrogance.  Having clarified that her belief is not subject to questions subjective, religious, existential, theological, or sociological, she is nonetheless so committed to the truth of it that she has no hesitation in calling on the full weight of the secular state to enforce the consequences of her belief upon the majority of people who do not share it.  What a comfort it must be to have such an unassailable moral core.  But how intellectually weird.

“If you believe as I do...” she says, the chain of consequent actions is clear.  But what if we don’t believe as you do?  On what basis does your belief carry greater moral weight than mine?  She doesn’t appear to grasp that this could even be an issue.  She’s been liberated from ambiguity.

Their opponents accuse the anti-abortion activists of hypocrisy.  “If your dedication to the sanctity of life were as fundamental as you say it is, you’d be objecting to capital punishment and war and advocating for more comprehensive gun control with just as much passion as you bring to marching back and forth in front of abortion clinics.”  They smugly think they’ve won a point.  But I understand why the activists won’t take those issues on.  They don’t provide the clear freedom from ambiguity that saving those innocent babies does.

The woman who chooses abortion also chooses to accept the moral responsibility for the consequences of ending the potential of that human life.  She accepts responsibility for weighing the difficult questions and making the best moral choice she can.  Does the anti-abortion crusader accept responsibility for the wrecked lives her successful campaign will result in?  More women will die.  More children will be born into poverty and misery.  More will spend their blighted childhoods in the over-burdened foster care pipeline.  More healthy, happy babies will not be born because an abortion that would have given a young woman a chance for a secure and successful life was denied her.  The crusader chooses not to live with any of those consequences.  She can lay the responsibility off on the poor choices the woman made in the first place, or the family that didn’t step up, or, if all else fails, the surety that “God has a plan”. 

She's absolved herself from considering those uncomfortable subjective, religious, existential, theological, and sociological questions.  She keeps her thought processes clear.  She keeps her focus narrow.  She’s saving babies.  That’s what matters.  God will sort the rest out.  It is all so unambiguously clear.


Carbon

She was dazzled by the carbon paper.  "I don't understand how this works!" she said, running her finger down each side.  I showed her how to put it between two clean sheets of paper in order to make a copy.  She's fascinated.  Astonished.

It's the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school.  She had a month between commitments so I hired her to help me sort through old files.  We got into a cabinet that I haven't opened since moving it into the keep-out room 22 years ago.

There was a fat file labelled "poems in redundant drafts."  Many versions of poems I was working on in the mid-eighties.  (Why I felt compelled to keep all of the drafts is a question I don't feel qualified to answer.)  "I wrote on a typewriter," I told her.  "Typed out a poem, and then I made revisions in pen or pencil and then I typed it again."  Three or four versions in a day, according to the dates at the top of each sheet.  I used carbon paper to keep a copy of the one I mailed to the magazines.  She can't quite visualize it.  The unconnected world.

I tell her about traveling with a heavy portable (luggable) computer back in 1990.  About modems and phone lines and disk drives that had their own power supplies.  "You don't know what a floppy disc is, do you?"  She shakes her head, trying to peer through me into the distant past.  I tell her about taking the silver dip pen and a bottle of ink and a volume of Tom Jefferson's complete works into the class I was teaching about the internet and copyright.  That was in 2000 and the students were in their late teens. The kids passed the pen and bottle around and gingerly wrote their names. I held up the book, "Now imagine using that to write all of this." They were impressed, but they still had bits of memories of a pre-internet world.  But Josie was born in 2005.

Carbon paper.  Typewriters.  I didn't attempt to explain a mimeograph machine.  She'd had a similar reaction a year and a half ago when her Mom gave her a Crosley turntable and a vinyl record for Christmas.  She'd turn the record over.  "Why does it have two sides?  I don't understand how it works!"

In my study, with the amazing carbon sheet in hand she said it again, but then, "But my phone, the CDs, DVDs, I don't understand how any of it works!"  She's brilliant at using the devices in her world, of course.  But she has no comprehension of how they work.

I turned her age in 1971.   When my Dad told me about the world he lived in as a boy, thirty-five years earlier, I could understand how it worked.  We lived in the same electro-mechanical world, principles established during the industrial revolution.  Television wasn't around yet, but you could imagine it as an extension of the radio.  When it arrived, he knew how to tinker with it.  Jet engines were built from the same underlying dynamics as automobile engines.  Things got faster and more efficient from his boyhood to mine, but the technologies were fundamentally the same.  He understood how the things in my boyhood worked, and I knew the same about his.

The half century following the invention of the moveable type press is the incunabula period, European civilization being reshaped by the impact of inexpensive, uniformly replicable books, and the technological and cultural transformations they set in motion.  Our Gutenberg moment, analogous to the days those first printed books went on sale, occurred in the fall of 1994 when Netscape was released -- the first widely available graphic internet browser. 

By 1500, printed books were no longer curiosities, game attempts at emulating the handmade books of previous centuries.  They were the standard means of knowledge transmission, with dozens of printers and publishers across Europe vying to tap into the new markets.  Among the crucial innovations was the widespread adoption of the size called octavo – a book that could easily fit into a saddlebag.  New knowledge spanning the continent as fast as a rider could take it.

Our incunabula period ended when the iPhone launched, barely a dozen years after Netscape.  Now Josie carries the internet in her hip pocket.  That feels natural.  A world of carbon paper and typewriters is nearly inconceivable.   I straddle the two worlds, writing in my leather-bound journal with a good fountain pen, then shifting to my laptop to write things I can easily share.  I'm not nostalgic for the world we're leaving behind.  I feel lucky that I get to taste them both and that I can tell Josie tall tales about the ways of the world before.

 

 

 


Enough of us

What an audacious, reckless, foolish, improbable, brilliant, and beautiful thing this American experiment is.  As if one needed reminding (and maybe we did), the inauguration day events, very much including the Parade Across America and the evening’s Celebrating America, made it abundantly clear that nowhere else on the planet, now or in history, has something this radical been attempted.  Nowhere else could the great dream of Democracy be celebrated as it can be here.

The day exposed the great MAGA lie, that America’s greatness lay somewhere in the past, and we needed to return.  The day revealed the simplistic fallacy of those who complain that "liberals" are always apologizing for America.  They fail to grasp the great paradox -- that America, in its aspirations, is great, and we can humbly take pride and joy in that, even as we acknowledge our many failings, even as we are ever rededicated to our "unfinished work".  It is the greatness of our aspirations, and our Sisyphian determination to live up to them, that makes us a symbol for the world and that must be the mirror that we use to guide us.  On Rough and Rowdy Ways, Nobel laureate Dylan echoes Whitman saying, “I contain multitudes.”  On Inauguration Day, multitudinous America was very much the evidence of the day.

Lynn and I have been reviewing the transcript of our MLA oral history and feeling quite proud of our professional accomplishments.  We are quite aware, as well, of our failings, of all the times we didn’t do as well as we should have.  We mentally play the do-overs.  I’d never say, “I did the best I could,” if I thought that meant I didn’t think I could have done better.  I know too well the times that I could have, should have.  But just as my pride in my accomplishments doesn’t absolve me from taking responsibility for my failures, neither does my acknowledgment of those failures diminish the good that I managed to get done.  At the core of Trump’s pathetically shriveled sense of self was his terror of ever admitting mistakes or showing any weakness.   He transferred that insecurity to his MAGA mythology and managed to get millions to go along with it.  But I have no trouble carrying the complexity.  I happily contradict myself.  I contain multitudes, too.

These last few weeks I’ve been reading my way through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (with a copy of Sikoryak’s Constitution Illustrated near to hand for reference).  Eerie to be reading Tocqueville’s explication of the relative powers of the legislature, the President, and the judiciary on those late December days when the tensions among those powers made it feel as if the whole thing might blow apart.  Frightening to be reading Tocqueville’s analysis of how democratic excess can lead to despotism as readily as to equality on the days when the mob attempted to stop American democracy once and for all.  America’s failure to live up to what he hoped for wouldn’t surprise him.  He was very clear about the dangers that beset democracy from all sides.  He was hopeful that we could avoid them, but he knew it was far from a sure thing.  The Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, the emergence of the US as a mega superpower, the bitterness of the Civil Rights movement, the nearly fatal partisanship of the Trump years – all of this could be foreseen in his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the American experiment.  He would have been saddened by our failures, but not surprised.

But he would have been astounded by the Parade Across America.  He believed that the shared Anglo heritage of the colonists, and the mores they derived from that heritage, were an essential part of what might hold America together.  The Indians, he believed, were destined to die out within a few decades at most.  And the Black and White races would never be able to live together (although he believed in the positive impact of interracial marriage).  The best thing would be to enable the Blacks to move to the newly established African country of Liberia, where they could take their American ideals with them and live in peace, but that was impractical.  Eventually the evil of slavery would tear the South apart.  

And yet, there on our screens, were dozens of Indigenous, dancing in all their finery; and Pacific Islanders chanting, and Puerto Ricans singing and dancing, and small town residents and big city dwellers celebrating the many ways they reach out to help their neighbors.  There was hip-hop and grunge and country and a beatific Yo-Yo Ma.  There was Lin-Manuel Miranda reciting Heaney's magnificent "The Cure At Troy".  And there was Amanda Gorman:

In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,

our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

And there was Kamala Harris, whose inauguration was an American hat trick of the finest kind, being sworn in as the Vice-President of the United States. 

Tocqueville didn't think such a thing was possible.  No idea could possibly be strong enough to take all these people, coming from all over the world, determined to preserve all their own beloved customs and traditions, each so exotic and unfamiliar, and bind them together in the belief that they are all Americans.  Even for all his devotion to the power of liberty and equality and democracy, Tocqueville wouldn’t have imagined that this America could come to be.  Even he didn’t know how powerful that American idea, bringing to life the land of hope and dreams, would turn out to be.  And yet, here we are.

Biden didn’t say, in his plea for unity, that all of us would come together.  His idealism is tempered with a large dose of pragmatism.  What he did say is that in our most dire moments “enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward and we can do that now.”  Enough of us.  Think about that.  Enough of us, to carry all of us.  Even those who don’t agree with us, who are fearful, and distrustful, and resentful.  Millions of Americans will spend the next four years raging about how Biden is destroying America.  Most of them won’t be persuaded otherwise.

That’s okay.  Enough of us will persevere.  Biden said, “The battle is perennial and victory is never secure.”  But as I wept my way through the catharsis of the day, I was reminded again and again of how powerful the American idea is.  Once again the American experiment has been tested.  Once again we are called upon to give the full measure of devotion.  Once again I'm willing to believe.

 

 


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.


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.  

 


"Put Hope Away"

It’s usually one of the last things I hear before heading into bed at night.  I’ll be sitting at the antique rolltop, sorting out my pills for the next day, dropping them into the appropriate compartments of my Mad Hatter pillbox, and Lynn will be calling, in her sing-song encouraging voice, “Put Hope away…!”

I grimace and shake my head because it seems all too appropriate for the political times we find ourselves in.  Thankfully, she isn’t talking to me.  She’s talking to Jemma, the golden retriever.  It’s part of their nightly routine, as Lynn coaxes Jemma to put the day’s toys back in the toybox.  “Jemma, get red ring.  Put red ring away.  Good Jemma dog!  Now put green ball away.  Put green ball away.  Good dog!  Now put Hope away…”

A plush white rabbit.  A Christmas gift for Jemma that arrived with a silver medallion around the neck that said “Hope.”  Not long after, word came that the Trump whisperer was leaving her job at the White House.  So we now refer to the bunny as Hope Hicks.  “Put Hope Hicks away…”  She’s just landed a job as chief communications officer for New Fox.

There was a despairing column in the NYT a few days ago, “How Do I Explain Justice Kavanaugh to My Daughters?”  Jennifer Weiner feels crushed by the vicious reactions of Kavanaugh’s supporters.  Blasey Ford bravely testified and it didn’t matter.  Weiner writes,

Our girls will learn to police their clothes, their words, their drinking, their behavior, their choices, because they’ve been watching, and what they’ve seen is this: If you get hurt, it’s probably your fault, and if you tell, probably no one will believe you, and even if people do, probably nothing will happen.

But maybe our daughters are smarter than that.  Perhaps they’ve seen more than that. 

The chances of Kavanaugh not being confirmed were ever miniscule to none.  Nothing short of a convictable offense was going to change that.  But it is far from true that nothing happened.  Young women were watching all of that, too.

They saw the floodgates of stories open.  Women who’d locked up their own stories for years and decades discovered they could finally find it in themselves to testify, too.  They found empathy and support.  Some called them heroes.

Monica Hesse wrote a brilliant column explaining why so many women hadn’t, and haven’t, told their fathers about their own assaults and many fathers were rattled by those revelations.  They struggled and questioned and thought and re-thought their own behavior.

Young women saw that they’re not alone and the voices proclaiming, “It’s not your fault,” echoed loud and long.  Young men questioned their own behavior and wondered about the kinds of men they want to be and how to become them.  Discussion shifted from the privileged power dynamics in the workplace to the conditions that give rise to men behaving that way in the first place.

People looked for better ways to talk about what happens.  Catharine MacKinnon wrote:

Culturally, it is still said “women allege” or “claim” they were sexually assaulted. Those accused “deny” what was alleged. What if survivors “report” sexual violation and the accused “alleges” or “claims” it did not occur, or occur as reported?

And looking at the bigger picture, there's this, from Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code:

...the girls of this generation are as passionate and unapologetic about what matters to them as any in history. They display a sense of moral clarity, an instinct for inclusiveness, and a commitment to making the world a better place for people of all ages and genders. The rest of us should follow their lead.

Times Up isn’t going to eradicate workplace harassment, but it is giving people the tools, psychological and practical, to resist and to fight back.  The walls of the patriarchy didn’t come tumbling down on the strength of Dr. Ford’s testimony.  But more cracks appeared.  Young people watching saw all of that, too.  One woman came to DC and told her truth to the Senate.  Millions watched.  Sure, Kavanaugh was confirmed.  But so much else happened as well.

On any given night, weary of the tumult and anger and bitter frustrations of the day, we put Hope away.  Every morning, full of energy and glee, Jemma shakes her loose again.


Veracity

How about a presumption of veracity? 

What does it mean to "believe women"?  Start by believing they're telling the truth.  That they, too, are "innocent" -- innocent of deceit or misjudgment.   The presumption that they're telling the truth should be exactly as strong as the presumption of innocence we give the accused.

Reasonable doubt.  Is the story of the person proclaiming their innocence true?  We start with the presumption that it is, and we hold to that presumption until the weight of evidence carries us to the point where we can no longer believe what we started out believing.

If we apply that same standard to a presumption of veracity, instead of just one story, now we have two.  Only one of the stories can be true, but now we have to weigh them equally. 

In the case of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, what evidence do we have?  Their histories, the testimony of people who know them, bits of documentation (her therapist's notes, his calendars).  The psychology of trauma and memory.  The motivations that might move them to tell their differing stories.  All of it counts.

To disbelieve Blasey Ford requires concluding, beyond a reasonable doubt, that either the assault never happened or she is mistaken about the perpetrator.   The gaps about time and place in her story are explained by the psychology of trauma.  The delay in telling anyone about it is, we know, quite typical in cases of assault.  None of this is sufficient to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that her story isn't true.  

Kavanaugh's story is weaker.  The testimony of people who knew him, the record of the bar fight when he was at Yale, the physiology of alcohol induced blackouts, all indicate that the picture he presents of himself as a young man isn't accurate.   But this still isn't enough to judge him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. (Not "innocent," remember.  Just not guilty.)

So the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard isn't going to help us if we apply it equally.  But we don't need to hold this as the standard.  This isn't a criminal trial and his story isn't the only one that matters.  We're not facing a question of imposing criminal penalties. We don't need to conclude that he's guilty of that particular assault beyond a reasonable doubt.  We need to decide if all of the facts that we have create sufficient doubt about his character to appoint him to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Whose story seems less likely?  Everyone needs to come to their own conclusion, but if "believe women" is going to mean something seriously, if we're going to correct the state of affairs in which the woman's story is automatically cast in a shadow of doubt, with all of the life ruination and miscarriages of justice that's caused, we need something like the presumption of veracity to correct the balance.  We'll still need to struggle with how to apply it in case after case.  But in this case, I doubt the man. I believe the woman.  

 

 


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.