Short takes on politics, culture and life.
Remember 2004, when many a Democrat (and many more religious right demagogues) blamed gay marriage for John Kerry's defeat? Remember San Francisco, where Senator Dianne Feinstein publicly scolded Mayor Gavin Newsom the morning after for arranging those awful queer unions just in time to get Bush re-elected? No? Well, don't worry. Nobody at the DNC is very much eager to pull out that particular wedding album either. Since those days, California's Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage (prompting Newsom to claim "vindication"), and one--yes, just one--anti-gay marriage initiative was beat back at the polls (in Arizona in 2006) while several others have passed. Meanwhile, a federal marriage amendment--which Bush backs but McCain opposes--hangs over not the Democrats, but the Republicans--a nuclear option that not even Karl Rove seems particularly keen to use.
If gay rights (or opposition to it) is not quite yet a problem for the GOP, it has certainly shifted--rapidly and decisively--to a non-issue in the Democratic party. Indeed, it's become a point of pride for the party as a whole: Melissa Etheridge sang primetime at the DNC, Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin hosted a packed luncheon for LGBT delegates (at which Michelle Obama spoke) and speaker after speaker (including Hillary Clinton) has mentioned gays and lesbians at the podium.
That's not to say the party embraces everything many gay advocates would like ("full marriage equality," for example). But the Democratic platform this year is the most pro-gay it has ever been, calling for a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, employment non-discrimination legislation that includes trans folks, increased money to fight AIDS and opposition to the federal marriage amendment. There was some worry earlier this month by gay activists who noticed that the words "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" appear nowhere in the platform (unlike 2004), but that reflects a move toward using the terms "sexual orientation," "same-sex couple" and "gender identity"--expressions that have some legal teeth. As for marriage, not a single gay delegate I spoke with said it was a make or break issue for them. Most seemed content with the new détente--that the marriage battle is going to be fought out in numerous state referenda and, one day, the Supreme Court--a contentious issue still, but not the so-called determinative national culture war of '04 and nothing to risk a McCain administration over.
Indeed, gay leaders here seemed uncommonly focused on small-bore policy issues, the "gets" immediately possible under a Democratic president and Congress. Jon Hoadley of Stonewall Democrats pointed to getting domestic partnership rights for federal employees, legislation for which is "ready to go," he told me. Rhea Carey of NGLTF emphasized the Bush administration's quiet but thorough gutting of LGBT issues from federal grant guidelines, particularly at HHS, CDC and NIH, which a president Obama could reverse by mere executive order.
And then I met Amanda Simpson, a male-to-female transgender Obama delegate from Arizona who (and I don't think she'd mind me saying) has had about as much work done as Cindy McCain, but looks 100 times better. Simpson was introduced to me as a "rocket scientist," and indeed, she works in the aerospace industry but can't tell me exactly what she does without clearance. She breakfasts here in Denver with a retired one-star general and his wife, also delegates from Arizona, who according to Simpson think, like many military officers, that DADT is silly and outrageous. The specter of 1993, when Clinton pushed gay inclusion in the military too soon and too unilaterally, seems vanquished for the moment, in part at least by the soldier shortage in the war, an odd alliance of sexual politics and imperial necessity. But also, something has softened in the masculine anxiety of the Democrats and the culture at large. I see gays at the Blue Dog caucus, at faith-based events, at national security meetings of lobbyists. Something too, I suppose, has been lost in what being a political gay once meant.
Indeed, the sharpest moment I've encountered in my tour of Democratic homos is the Clinton-Obama divide. For some reason, gays (men in particular) just LOVE Hillary. Cougars may be well represented in the PUMA crowd, but so are twinks, daddies and bears. One delegate, a cute as a button 22 year old from New Mexico, spoke to me conspiratorialy about how none of the Clinton backers in his contingent applauded when Michelle Obama spoke. This seemed, well, bitchy to me. And then, as if on cue, Barney Frank addressed the Clinton die-hards.
"Will everyone else please stop bitching about trivia!" he exclaimed--a rather inopportune verb choice that had some gay PUMAs licking their fur off. Fortunately, Barney talks like he has marbles in his mouth, so his plea came out more like this: "Veel jevvryone else reees rop wristing arout Riviera!"
I thought, for a moment, he was talking about some fabulous drag-queen delegate who had found her name on a map of France. I wouldn't be surprised, here in Denver, if Riviera really were in attendance. And had voted for Hillary.
Standing in line outside the Pepsi Center last night, sandwiched in between a group of rowdy lobbyists from Tennessee and what appeared to be the boys choir of Minnesota, the thought occurred to me: I could really use a valium, maybe a tazer. And then, I had one of those galvanizing chance encounters that remind me why I went into this profession. I struck up a conversation with a Japanese journalist named Shigenori Kanehira who, it turns out, is the Director General of the US office of TBS News. No, not Ted Turner! That's Tokyo Broadcasting System, the largest commercial network in Japan.
Shigenori is here in Denver with 14 colleagues to cover the DNC for Japanese viewers. For the next hour (yes, it really does take that long to get past security), we had a fascinating conversation about how the election is perceived in Japan, US foreign policy, race, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith (he's a big fan) and a host of other issues. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Shigenori is studying evolving public opinion on the death penalty in the US because capital punishment is not only legal and practiced in Japan, but enjoys a 70 percent approval rating. The idea that someone could look at American attitudes to the death penalty with something approaching progressive political envy was staggering to me.
Less surprising, but gratifying nonetheless, was Shigenori's confirmation that George Bush is "the most hated American in Japan." Even Japanese conservatives loathe Bush, who Shigenori says is perceived of as "worse than Nixon." (Here I must say, it really helps to imagine Shigenori's quotes as uttered in the most charming Japanese accent). Barack Obama is wildly popular there, due in large part to the belief that he will change US foreign policy in "Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East and Russia," says Shigenori.
Shigenori's job is to explain the arcane US political system to his viewers, but one big question interests him more than any other. "Is America ready to elect a black man as leader?" Shigenori has been asking delegates this question all week, and he observes that most answer YES with wild enthusiasm. But "you can not just make believe it true," he says. I nod, and Shigenori goes on to tell me that some delegates have refused to touch the question, walking away when asked. I imagine being queried by a Japanese man followed by a Japanese camera crew might having something to do with that reaction, but Shigenori is also right to point out the tenderness of race here at the DNC.
I turn the tables and ask him--As a keen and long-time observer of US politics and culture, what do you think? Is America ready to elect a black man as president? Shigenori looks up, down, then grimaces and slowly shakes his head NO. This response depresses both of us, and we fall into silence and stare at the sky for a while.
During our conversation, Shigenori asks me where I work, and when I say I'm an editor at The Nation magazine, his eyes bug out. "The Nation!" he exclaims, clearly excited, "I am subscriber! The Nation my most favorite magazine! Most fortunate to meet you!" Shigenori peppers me with questions about The Nation, which I have to confess I found marvelously fun. For example, he asks about David Corn, and when I explain to him that David has moved on to Mother Jones but that we have a great new Washington editor named Chris Hayes, Shigenori treats this bit of news like a matter of high state gossip. "The Nation publish Open Letter to Barack Obama!?" he asks, even though he clearly knows the answer. "I agree with Nation policy," Shigenori says.
So folks at home in the office, please set aside some Nation t-shirts--probably size medium--for my new friend and our old fan.
I spent today with LGBT Democrats--it's very important here to say L/G/B/T or else someone will make a point, later on in conversation and not so subtly, of reminding you about a very important issue for the Bs or Ts (and sometimes Ls) that flies under the gaydar. I'll blog about those later tonight, but right now I'm heading off to the Pepsi Center for the second night and so, as mental armor, share my thoughts about the first.
The Pepsi Center is quite simply the biggest echo chamber I've ever encountered, not so much groupthink, but GroupFeel--an attunement of emotion that would seem overly choreographed (picture: Beijing Olympic ceremonies) if it weren't also visibly earnest. I watched Michelle Obama's speech next to a group of older women delegates, and by the end, all were openly weeping. Afterwards, the one question everyone got asked by everyone was--whaddya think of Michelle's speech?--by which they really meant--how much did you LOVE Michelle's speech? A lot or a lot?
For the record, I thought it was fine, as far as the odd genre of first-lady-in-waiting speeches go. But it's hard to discern, inside the bubble, just how it played to the outside. Wishing I had watched from a red-neck bar on the outskirts of the city, I made due and asked some friends at home who watched on TV like most Americans what the going read was. "Off-Broadway monologue," quipped one. "She seemed really black. I worry about racist backlash more than before," said another. These are not conceivable ideas inside Pepsi where the only other possible answer to--whaddya think of Michelle's speech?--is the kind of pundit neologisms that pervade electoral politics and in which, thanks to cable news, everyone is well versed. "She humanized Barack. Home Run!" and "She successfully beat back her negatives." Before these were heard on CNN, this blogger heard them on the floor.
I say this all because the power of group affect seems really key at this convention in particular. It's not like Boston and 2004, when Democrats were almost unanimous in their dispassion about Kerry. Without treading into the cult of personality meme about Obama, there is a very powerful pull to manifest belief here, to radiate, like everyone else, hope, cheer--Yes, we can. But there are a lot of people here who, quietly and almost secretively, can't go along for the emotional ride. Eve Fairbanks at TNR reported yesterday on a quasi-secret "safe space" for Hillary die-hards, a suite where PUMAs can go to vent about Obama-maniacs and watch Fox News. Her dispatch, and my talk today with some gays for Hillary (more about that later) made clear to me that whatever role the media has played in inflating the PUMA storyline, there is a legitimate kernel of interest in the matter. People need a "safe space" at a convention to discuss their political opinions? A roll call vote is going to destroy the party?
I thought I was at a political convention--you know, about politics and stuff. That Hillary Clinton's candidacy is the vehicle to remind us about the actual democratic function of democratic parties is, well, both ironic and imperfect. But there you go.
Jesse Helms' death on July 4 was read by many as the last gasp of a no longer breed of conservatism--the explicit defense of Jim Crow, the escalation of homophobic rhetoric to murderous levels, the hard-edge of red-baiting imperialism. But Helms was in many ways the epitome of the New Right, and his significance should not be dismissed as merely colorful commentary. I asked my friend, Lisa Duggan, professor of American Studies at NYU, how she'd characterize Helms' legacy. She's at work on a political biography of Helms. Here are her thoughts:
Jesse Helms, American Bigot
by Lisa Duggan
Did he plan it? Did he struggle on life support until after the midnight hour, timing his last breath? Or had he been dead for days, his associates keeping the body on ice for the holiday announcement? Jesse Helms, dead on the 4th of July.
Helms would have appreciated the symbolism, confirming the his own mythic identity as a Proud American, but Helms' other legacy as A Big Fat Bigot is well established. From his racist tirades on the radio and television in North Carolina during the 1950s and 60s, to his vicious homophobic rants of the 1980s and 90s, he left a highly quotable record of hate.
On the civil rights movement:"'Candy' is hardly the word for either the topless swimsuit or the Civil Rights Bill. In our judgment, neither has a place in America--unless we have completely lost our sense of morality."
"The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights."
On sexual politics and public health:"The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."
In death it's easy to dismiss Jesse Helms as a colorful buffoon or a relic of the bad old days of segregation and sexism, but that doesn't do Helms' bigotry justice.
Jesse Helms was an important bigot. He didn't just fume and huff. He used the language of cultural politics--called "morality" or "values" or just "freedom"--to shrink the state, reduce the social wage, enhance the interests of ruthless corporate profit mongering, and promote US military interventions around the world. He's the poster boy for how cultural politics works, not as an arena separated from the "real" political economy, but as the site of the language and emotion through which people live politics and economics everyday.
Helms began his political career in North Carolina as a reporter, with ties to the banking and tobacco industries. As a "newsman" on WRAL radio and television in Raleigh, North Carolina, he didn't just hammer opponents with red baiting accusations like every other demagogue, he laced his commentaries on radio and television with the kind of creative rhetorical jihads against the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement that later gave the Rovian Republican Party its bad name. But he didn't rest on his laurels as a rhetorician. He ran for Congress, built a record breaking Senate campaign war chest, and went on to become a central architect of the New Right network of corporations, foundations and committees.
Malicious rhetorician and image maker, major fundraiser and creator of the modern big money electoral campaign, networked right wing institution and movement builder–Jesse Helms was so much more than just another bigot. He was a stalwart supporter of anti-union policies, and active in US foreign policy debates. In his career on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he pursued US imperial policies both overt and covert. He supported inequality at home and violence abroad and gave it all the name Morality. He wasn't just that annoying Senator No, tying up the Congress and stalling judicial nominations and all that. He both reflected and shaped, and helped legitimate and enshrine, a metastasizing array of virulent anti-democratic forces in American politics in the post World War II period.
To paraphrase Gore Vidal's obituary for William F.Buckley, RIP JH–in hell.
If you haven't already, check out my colleague Betsy Reed's compelling account of how Hillary Clinton's campaign has deployed the racist playbook of the right against Barack Obama. As Betsy argues, Clinton has positioned herself to take advantage of the feeding frenzy around Rev. Wright, and her surrogates have portrayed "the black candidate" as less American, less patriotic and most importantly in what is now a race for superdelegates, less electable.
It's that last word--electable--that really rankles me because it imputes "electability" to the candidates themselves. It's as if "electability" were a personal quality--like integrity, compassion or in more biologized accounts, say, blonde hair--that candidates possess in varying degrees. All of this is absurd since "electability" is wholly determined by the voters, usually. (In 2000, George W. Bush didn't possess "electability" so much as he was gifted it by the Supreme Court.)
Now, in order to convince superdelegates to buck the will of the majority of Democratic primary voters, Hillary Clinton is arguing that she's the more "electable" candidate, and some of her surrogates are suggesting that Obama is not "electable" against John McCain. But just what is it about Hillary that makes her more "electable" than Barack? From reading the Clinton campaign's material, you'd never know it has anything to do with her race. Instead, they talk in euphemisms and codes. In a memo titled "HRC Strongest Against McCain," Clinton strategist Harold Ickes points to her superior polling in "swing states" and among "swing voting blocs" like "Catholics," as well as Obama's rising "unfavorables." Departed advisor Mark Penn has said that the working class is "a critical vote" that superdelegates should consider because "these are voters who in the past have gone either way in the general election."
Give me a break. We're not talking about swing voters, Catholics or the working class en masse. We're talking about the white, working class. As Mark Penn surely knows, it's not black working-class voters who "swing" the other way.
If you've cracked a newspaper once in the past few months, you already know this. Every pollster and pundit has overheated their logic boards trying to predict how the white working class--that ever elusive, ever mythic bloc--will vote. But the Clinton camp continues to play coy. They talk about bowling scores, shooting ranges and whiskey shots--as if these new-found hobbies account for Clinton's "electability." Even as they leak statistics like--HRC has beaten Obama among white, non-college-educated voters in 26 out of 29 states--they carefully avoid putting the words--"white voters" or heaven forbid "uneducated white voters"!--anywhere near her talking points.
So, in the name of another personal quality--honesty--I'd like Hillary Clinton to make the following statement: "Though my opponent has run a terrific campaign, in primary after primary, I have proven that I am the more electable candidate. I am more electable because I am white. Barack Obama--Wow!--he's certainly inspired a lot of hope, but as voters in Indiana and North Carolina make up their minds, as the superdelegates make up their minds, they should remember that Barack Obama is black. They should also remember that a whole lot of white working-class Americans are racists. White racists are an important part of the Democratic Party, and time and time again, they've supported me because I am white. I am ready on day one to govern as your white American president."
If this sounds--excuse the pun--beyond the pale, it's because it is. Or at least, it should be. But the alleged racism of white working-class voters has become, through her campaign's own actions, the last remaining rationale for Clinton's candidacy.
Are white working-class voters really racist? How many and where? If a significant number of them are, should Democrats really court them on the terms of their racism? These are questions worth asking since, apparently, a lot of Democrats think they're valid. But as long as the Clinton campaign continues to code the fact that it is counting on a base of white racist support, we'll never have this conversation. And as long as the mainstream media indulges the euphemism of "electability"--one that makes white racism seem like a personal deficiency of Barack Obama's--we'll be stuck mucking around in diffuse fears and anxieties that nobody, least of all Hillary Clinton, wants to name.
So here's my final suggestion: as long as Barack Obama is called upon to explain, denounce and reject black racism, let's have it both ways. Let's have George Stephanopoulos ask Hillary Clinton how she feels about the white racist vote?
The last two months have been rough for Barack Obama. He's been left-baited, race-baited, red-baited and tarred as an "elitist." Perhaps that's why he finally consented, after 772 days of holding out, to be interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News. It was a strong move from a defensive position, and Obama gave an agile performance on the whole, deftly parrying Wallace's efforts to nail him on Rev. Wright, Bill Ayers and the infamous oft-missing American flag pin. But what's up with Obama's shout-out to Republican ideas?
Pressing Obama on his credentials as a "uniter" and measuring his record against the alleged bi-partisanship of John McCain, Wallace asked: "As a president, can you name a hot button issue where you would be willing to cross Democratic party line[s] and say you know what, Republicans have a better idea here?"
Obama's response: "Well, I think there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea...on issues of regulation, I think that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of the way we regulated industry was top down command and control. We're going to tell businesses exactly how to do things. And I think that the Republican party...came with the notion that you know what, if you simply set some guidelines, some rules and incentives for businesses, let them figure out how they're going to for example reduce pollution."
Obama's comments echo remarks he made back in January to the Reno Gazette-Journal when he said that he thought Ronald Reagan "changed the trajectory of America" in a way that Bill Clinton had not. In that interview, Obama said that Republicans have been "the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time" and that Reagan "put us on a fundamentally different path because the country...felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."
John Edwards and Hillary Clinton jumped all over him for that one, and Obama's supporters leapt to his defense, claiming that "Obama didn't really say that Republicans had better ideas than Dems," and that he was being merely descriptive about recent political history.
Well, there you have it. Unequivocally, Obama has now said that "there are a whole host of areas" where Republicans have better ideas. What are these ideas? And what game is Obama playing?
In the Fox interview, Obama went on to advocate a cap and trade system for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, saying that it's a "smarter way" than "dictating every single rule that a company has to abide by" (read: carbon tax and direct regulation) which would create "a lot of bureaucracy and red tape" (read: FAILED, BIG government).
Then, unprompted, Obama took a nick at teacher's unions (who have endorsed Hillary Clinton) and advocated for charter schools and a version of merit pay for teachers.
In a response to a question from Wallace about judicial nominations, Obama touted his defense on Daily Kos of his Democratic colleagues who voted to confirm John Roberts (Obama voted nay). Obama then cited his support of a ban on "late term abortion" or "partial birth abortion," as long as there are "provisions to protect the health of the mother," as an example of his ability to cut through "polarizing debate."
But in this instance, Obama doesn't overcome the polarization of issues so much as try to play it both ways. NB: his use of both "late term abortion" and the right-wing slang "partial birth abortion" in the same breath. Obama describes Republican efforts to eliminate any consideration of the mother's health as a strategy to "polarize the debate" so that they could "bring an end [to] abortions overall" (true). But in the same sentence he says that he doesn't "begrudge that at all" and claims that anti-choicers have a "a moral calling to try to oppose what they think is immoral."
The fact is, on these and most issues Obama is little different than Hillary Clinton. Both of them are mainstream Democrats who are, in the case of abortion, trying to sidestep a contentious, culture wars issue. They both voted against the Roberts nomination--but Obama provided cover for his colleagues who voted the other way. Like Clinton, who lamented abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice," Obama adopts the language of right-wing anti-choicers, even as they both support pro-choice policies broadly. Both Obama and Cinton eschew a more stringent carbon tax and direct regulation plan in favor of a market-based cap and trade system that provides wiggle room for corporate polluters. Both support charter schools, but in one of the few policy differences between them, Clinton is against merit pay for teachers.
But it's not really Obama's positions on these issues that I find troubling, though I disagree with most of them. It's the political framework of his crushed-out props to the GOP (and to be perfectly clear, I find Clinton's history of triangulation even more worrisome). Both of them are pro-corporate, centrist Democrats trying to position themselves to win a general election. But while Obama's rhetoric of bi-partisanship, unity and reconciliation may help him win over stray Republicans and independents in November, he appears to have embraced the anti-big government paradigm that Republicans have used to strip regulations and roll back the welfare state. How much will Obama concede to this logic? This is a question that ought to worry progressives, not in 2009, but now.
This magazine has endorsed Barack Obama, a decision I agreed with then and still do now. But it defies logic and evidence to think that Obama is--as some conservatives fear and some progressives hope--a secret leftist in moderate's clothes. In helping Barack Obama get elected, the left must also create leverage within his grand coalition to advance its own agenda. As Obama pivots to a general election contest against McCain, the pressure on him to drift rhetorically and substantively towards the right will only increase--as does then our own duty to be a dry-eyed and pragmatic left. Hopeful, yes. But also free of illusions.
For all the sordid and developing details of Eliot Spitzer's rendezvous with a high-priced prostitute, go to TPM's excerpt of the actual prosecutor filings on Temeka Rachelle Lewis, "Kristen" and "Client-9." As I write, it's unclear if Spitzer will resign, but it seems unlikely that he has the political capital neccesary to gut this one out.
His chances of staying in office, however, would vanish if prosecutors charged him under the 1910 Mann Act--known at the time as the White-Slave Taffic Act. Passed at the end of the Progressive era during the height of a moral panic over alleged "white slavery"--the Mann Act banned the interstate transport of women for "immoral purposes." It's survived numerous court challenges and modifications by Congress over the years, but it's still on the books. Spitzer arranged for the prostitute's Amtrak ticket from New York to Washington (and her hotel room), so he could be subject to federal felony charges under the present day incarnation of the Mann Act. Indeed, the four defendants charged last week in the sting that swept up Spitzer were charged under the act.
One of the crowning accomplishments of 19th-century moral crusaders (along with the Comstock Act of 1873), the history of the Mann Act is drenched with racism and political intrigue--from the fantastic images of Arab harems and Chinese hookers used to sell the bill itself to Jack Johnson, the great black boxer, who was prosecuted under the Mann Act for sending his white girlfriend a train ticket. Johnson served a year in Leavenworth.
It's too soon to know, exactly, what Spitzer did and what criminal charges he faces, if any. But it's certainly clear that the former NY Attorney General's record as a public crusader is on the line. It would be a shame if his tough stances against corporate fraud and other white-collar crimes were forever tarred, but there is a cruel historical irony to all this too. The first Progressive era that birthed the Mann Act combined righteous campaigns against government and business corruption with zealous crusades against vice and immorality.
Until now, Eliot Spitzer represented the former, a present-day incarnation of the Progressive era's best reformers. And now, if only in an uncanny way, he represents the latter too--as one of its victims.
I won't attempt a grand summary of the late William F. Buckley's legacy. The man was undeniably one of the great political forces of the 20th century--so too were Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. But in seeking to capture the scope of his influence, writers on the left have taken to applauding Buckley's "brilliance."
My colleague John Nichols, for example, recently described Buckley as "intellectually bold and ideologically adventurous," and applauded his "political playfulness." John was writing about Buckley in the '60s, when he campaigned for mayor of New York City. But Buckley's so-called boldness and playfulness had an ideological flip-side: cruelty, pettiness and a tendency to embrace fascistic solutions in the guise of pragmatism.
Case in point, and as pointed out on Digby's blog, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Buckley suggested that "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."
Apparently, Buckley renounced this opinion after he discovered that his friend, McCarthy-ite and closeted homosexual Roy Cohn was dying of AIDS. But in 2005, Buckley relapsed. In a transparently homophobic article about a 26-year old, HIV-positive, drug-addicted sex fiend named "Tony Venenum" (I suppose in Bucklian parlance the pseudonym "Venenum" passes for wit), Buckley wrote:
"Someone, 20 years ago, suggested a discreet tattoo the site of which would alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned. But the author of the idea was treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration."
Buckley was writing in the wake of sensationalistic articles in the New York Times about a so-called "superbug" version of HIV. The story, as David France documented in New York magazine, proved more fantasy than science. But it sure did inflame the homophobic imagination. But this time around, Buckley had strange bedfellows: the gay historian Charlie Kaiser, whose suggestion that passing HIV to someone was akin to putting "a bullet through another person's head" Buckley quoted approvingly, and Larry Kramer--whose Cassandra-complex reached full flight in his rant The Tragedy of Today's Gays (see my review in Salon).
In the final analysis, Buckley thought that unprotected sex was the same as "committing murder" and that "murderers need to be stopped." Now, someone tell me how such Neanderthal views on public health pass for brilliance or wit? Is anyone laughing? Maybe Norman Mailer said it best when he called Buckley a "second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row."
Observing Barack Obama run for president has been like watching a home movie blown up into a glorious, IMAX blockbuster spectacle. It's been more than a little unnerving to see the thread of something so familiar writ so large. But there he has been on TV, in the newspapers and in front of stadium-size crowds, winning the lavish praise of white liberals (you don't get more lavish or more white liberal than Caroline Kennedy's endorsement). At the same time, he's patiently borne the skepticism of his fellow minorities, slowly garnering their support. Every day he risks igniting the wrath of either clan. Run too far away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons, and you get tarred a race traitor. Run without the Kennedy-liberal establishment, and you become nothing more than a race man, a mouthpiece for the ghetto. Suspicion abounds on all sides; trust is always hard-won. This is the gauntlet of American racial politics that Barack Obama has skillfully navigated to date, and every model minority knows the wily tricks he has had to use in this game of representation.
I won't go so far as to call Obama "the first Asian American" presidential candidate--though the metaphor might suit him just as well as Bill Clinton's coat of blackness once did--but he is our first "model minority" candidate if you consider model minority-ness a matter of situation. The term might just as well accommodate the pioneering black lawyer or the postcolonial subject on a special visa from the tropics. It is the racial other that both represents and transcends race itself [see Patricia Williams], and whatever the unlikelihood of blood relation, there is something that I (a "high-achieving," Korean American scholarship boy) recognize in him (the Kenyan American Senator with the Harvard JD). It is this recognition that both attracts me to and, frankly, repels me from Barack Obama as a presidential candidate.
At times I have watched him speak and been struck with awe--not at his eloquence or charisma--but at the sheer nerve with which he's executed the model minority role. Indeed, he has flaunted his racial virtuosity throughout his campaign--nowhere more so than in his South Carolina victory speech when, having turned the tables on the Clintons' race-baiting strategy and won with 24 percent of the white vote and 78 percent of the black vote in a state where the Confederate flag flies in front of the Capitol and blacks are far more likely than whites to be in jail, foreclosure or poverty, he had the chutzpah to say that he did not "see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina" but rather "South Carolina" while the mixed crowd below chanted "Race doesn't matter!"
What cunning! What mad skillz! You have to applaud the magician's sleight of hand, even as you wince at how easily, how desperately the audience suspended their disbelief.
But believe they have and in droves as Obama evokes race only to transcend it, indeed to attach its transcendence to his own political victory. Any minority who's tried to leverage their success on behalf of others might find a glimmer of recognition in this trick of racial rhetoric: what's good for me is good for other people of color is good for us all. There is always some lie, some whiff of venality in this equation--some uneasy way in which personal ambition, the politics of racial representation and the fuzzy unity of institution (or country) must be spoken of in one tongue. Obama has proven himself remarkably good at this alchemy. But his Kennedy-meets-King stylistics can only hold so much together for so long; at some point push must come against shove--and what will Obama do then? As much as I don't always trust myself in such situations, I also don't trust him.
Case in point: in yesterday's Slate the ersatz liberal Richard Kahlenberg made an appeal to Obama to win the working-class white vote by selling out blacks and Latinos on affirmative action. As Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, could an Obama presidency end affirmative action? Kahlenberg practically salivates at the possibility. It's a move, he argues, that would befit the "tough liberalism" of RFK--who took a "colorblind approach," opposed "racial preferences" and "called for a crackdown on violent crime." By ending race-based affirmative action in favor of class-based affirmative action, Obama could not only demonstrate that he is, once again, "forcefully reject[ing] identity politics" but also win over that key Hillary contingency--the white, working class.
As a matter of strategy, who knows if Kahlenberg is right; he's clearly masking an ideological agenda as merely savvy tactics. But it's not hard to imagine a scenario where President Obama is confronted with such choices. Already on the ballots this year are five state initiatives (in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma), to ban affirmative action. Modeled after Ward Connerly's successful backlash bids in California and Michigan, such measures are perfect wedge issues for Republicans. Indeed, in terms of peeling off voters from the Democratic party, anti-affirmative action initiatives hold much more promise than anti-gay marriage drives--which succeeded in turning out the evangelical base for the GOP, but not in making party converts. Let's say that Connerly is successful this year in getting his initiatives through. Aided by "tough liberals" like Kahlenberg, could 2010 or 2011 see a federal, anti-affirmative action measure? What about posing affirmative action as a kind of "litmus test" for judicial nominees?
Kahlenberg for one believes that Obama would support the end of affirmative action, noting with approval his reply to George Stephanopoulos' own race-trap question. Would Obama want his daughters to get into college on the basis of racial preferences? Obama's response: "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged...I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed."
It's a worthy duck on Obama's part, taking a page from John Edwards' economic populism while deflecting the matter of structural racism--as Obama has on other issues like criminal justice, the death penalty and sub-prime mortgages. But it does beg the question: what would Obama do when his own rhetoric of "race doesn't matter" comes back in the form of a civil rights backlash? Having built no groundwork for leading on racial justice--how long can he evade the race traps, not from the fringe-right, but from the center?
All this said, I'm going to vote for Obama today anyway. He's a better choice for progressives than Hillary Clinton (as others have laid out in this magazine). And moreover, I vote for him, at least in part, with admiration at the cunning and bravado with which he's played the game. I salute his audacity.
But hope? Hope for a day when the traps of race might not just be evaded, but genuinely, truly dismantled? For me, Obama does not offer that hope--only trepidation.
I don't know anything more about Leeland Eisenberg--the 40-something year old man who held Hillary Clinton's campaign office in Rochester, New Hampshire, hostage for several hours this afternoon--than what's being reported on network news. But the ordeal--which thankfully ended without any casualties--ought to focus attention on the dire state of mental health care in this country. More than a third of this country's homeless population have severe mental health issues, including schizophrenia and manic depression. At least one in every six inmates in America have been diagnosed with serious mental health conditions.
The gutting of public mental health services began with Reagan, first in California where he closed state-funded mental health facilities. As president he cut aid for federally-funded community-run mental health programs. The result: thousands of more homeless people in California and nationwide and a spike in the prison population. The New York Times recently reported that despite a rapid rise in the suicide rate in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city has half of its psychiatrists, social workers and mental health care workers.
Just this year, John Broderick, the Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, drew attention to this crisis when his son was released from prison. Suffering from depression and severe anxiety, Broderick's son injured him in a violent attack in 2002 and served three years in prison. As Broderick noted in a press conference earlier this year, only 1.5 percent of New Hampshire's prison budget went to mental health services.
Without appearing to capitalize on the situation, Clinton, and all elected officials, can and should take this incident as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of mental health services in any health care package, criminal justice reform, and indeed, in any vision of what a more caring, safer America looks like.