Short takes on politics, culture and life.
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.
"WE DID NOT VOTE FOR BUSH." Those words were handwritten on the back of a menu by the US women's bridge team and held aloft during the award ceremony at the world team championships in Shanghai last month. The team had just won the tournament, destroying Germany in the final, and were making what they thought was a small political statement. It wasn't a particularly radical message (who else didn't vote for Bush?), and it was made spontaneously, in a moment of international goodwill and humor.
As today's NYT chronicles, the United States Bridge Federation was not amused. Its president, Jan Martel, and executive board are pushing for tough sanctions against the entire team--a one-year suspension, plus a one-year probation, 200 hours of bridge-related community service and a formal apology. Bridge Federation lawyer Alan Falk threatened team members with "greater sanction" if they reject the Federation's offer. Team members have been accused by other players of "treason" and "sedition," according to the NYT. On message boards they've been compared to the Dixie Chicks and Tommie Smith and John Carlos--US sprinters who raised a fist in salute to Black Power at the 1968 Olympics and were subsequently ejected from the games.
This is not your grandmother's card game! I've dabbled in the world of bridge myself, and as anyone who's played a tournament can tell you--bridge is ruthless. Little old ladies, so sweet pre-game, will mercilessly ruff you up once the cards are dealt. But what are the folks at the Bridge Federation thinking? The game's logic is punitive (you get spanked for bidding too high), but the game itself should not be--particularly on matters of free speech. Nothing makes the game look more backwards, small-minded and elitist than punishing a championship team for using their moment of glory to send a political message well within the mainstream of American society. What's next? Banning certain t-shirts? Buttons? Maybe bridge should only be played in uniform?
But take heart, the fabulous ladies at the center of this controversy aren't ready to make nice, and I'm glad they're putting up a fight. All across this country the common but courageous dissent of citizens is being censored and attacked. Anti-war vets calling for withdrawal from Iraq were banned from a parade in Long Beach, CA. High school students in Chicago are threatened with expulsion for staging a peaceful anti-war protest. More than a dozen anti-war protesters, fittingly wearing gags over their mouths, were arrested outside of Boston's city hall.
And the list goes on. As individual incidents, each provoke a momentary pang of sympathy, a head nod, maybe an exasperated email to your bridge buddies. But taken as a whole, I suspect it adds up to a more disturbing picture--of a nation that went quietly mad, except for a few who spoke up and were ostracized for it; of a country where politics became so estranged from everyday life, that the ordinary expression of it was called treason.
If you're mad as hell and want to support the US women's bridge team--email Jan Martel (President, United States Bridge Federation) at email@example.com and the board at firstname.lastname@example.org. Left-leaning, free-speech loving bridge players are especially encouraged!
UPDATE, September 1: Bowing to intense pressure from fellow Republicans, Idaho Senator Larry Craig resigned today. In a brief public statement in Boise, Craig issued a general apology, but admitted no wrongdoing.
August 31--One way or another, Larry Craig is a goner. Facing intense pressure from Republican party chiefs and the embarrassment of having audio of his arrest broadcast on national TV, Craig is expected to resign shortly. If he doesn't, the RNC is prepared to call for his head and launch an ethics investigation.
Personally, I'm hoping Craig digs in and forces the issue. I'd love to see Mitt Romney elaborate on what he finds so "disgusting" about "I'm not gay" Craig, or Mitch McConnell explain why admitted john David Vitter is still in the Senate or why crook Ted Stevens hasn't been stripped of his committee assignments. The mutually assured destruction of the party of piety and hypocrisy is the best-case scenario one could hope for here.
Not that it doesn't come with a certain amount of collateral damage. Since Roll Call broke the Craig story, mainstream media--from Slate's Explainer to the Washington Post--have seemingly "discovered" the strange mating rituals of male public sex. A Sacramento CBS news duo even took it upon themselves to reenact the scene, complete with toe-tapping and prop bathroom stall divider. "Sexperts" have been called upon to parse the difference between a tap-tap-tap that signals sexual interest and a tap-tap-tap that indicates a difficult bowel movement. Websites like cruisingforsex.com, which lists places where men meet for the former kind of toe-tapping, have had the most unlikely visitors from Newsweek.
Welcome America! Welcome to the world--not just of underground gay sex--but of law enforcement. The Minneapolis airport police have been slouching here for quite some time. Apparently, since May of this year, they've made 41 arrests like Craig's in an elaborate sting operation. Not to be outdone, the head of the Atlanta International Airport police boasted that they've arrested 45 men (take that Minneapolis!), including "a couple college professors" and "the CEO of a bank" (but alas, no Senators) in a similar sweep. As Doug Ireland reports over at Gay City News, Michigan police have them all beat; the Triangle Foundation reports "a caseload of 770 arrests in four months."
I didn't stress this in my last post on Craig--because I didn't think I'd have to--but such dragnets are not only motivated by homophobia, but are practically, if not technically, police entrapment. They're a legacy of a pre-Lawrence legal order that criminalized sodomy, and they endure to this day because gay sex, even and perhaps especially the suggestion of its solicitation, is still seen as violation of the norms of public life.
Heterosexuals routinely use public space and the internet to solicit sex from each other; sometimes this sex is among perfect strangers or in public (or quasi-public) itself. Unless they involve minors, none of these practices are the subject of undercover busts. Instead they're romanticized (teenage makeout sites), tolerated as nuisances (bad pickup lines, whistles, Lindsay Lohan) or generally treated as vital, sexy aspects of modern social life and economy.
Just once I'd like to see the script flipped. Why don't the Minneapolis police post undercover female cops at airport bars who gesture provocatively towards the bathroom and then arrest any man who follows? Using newfound, post-9/11 surveillance powers, law enforcement should determine the identities of everyone who posts details of their sexcapades on www.milehighclub.com. These are dangerous, lewd heterosexuals who have admitted to having had actual sex--not in the airport--but on the airplane! Baby-faced, 21 Jump Street-type cops should be assigned to every high school to offer blowjobs to jocks underneath the bleachers. Anyone who shows up at the designated coordinates should be arrested. Depending on the jurisdiction, some arrestees may even get their names permanently listed on sex offender registries! The entire city of Myrtle Beach should be staked out for the month of March. And don't even get me started on the subject of Craigslist.
These scenarios may seem outlandish and as long as we live in a straight world, they will never come to pass. But all the tools for their enforcement are already upon us. As Jack Dwyer points out in his excellent anatomy of police surveillance in a post-9/11 New York, the NYPD routinely uses undercover operatives to monitor gatherings as benign as bicycle rides and memorials. These techniques are rightly decried as infringements on the rights of citizens to use the public sphere to express themselves. When that expression is explicitly political, the left reflexively leaps to the fray. But when it comes in the form of someone like Larry Craig, we seem somewhat adrift (see the Slate editors). But nothing Craig did--he solicited, but did not have, sex in public--should be illegal. In fact, absent his hypocrisy, nothing he did should be objectionable either.
What's up with Republican politicos getting arrested by undercover cops for soliciting sex in public restrooms? First, Florida state representative Bob Allen, formerly John McCain's state campaign co-chair, was arrested in July after he offered a police officer $20 for the privilege of performing oral sex. And today, news broke that back in June, Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), long the subject of gay rumors, was arrested in a Minnesota airport by a plainclothes cop investigating lewd conduct in the men's bathroom. Both men are married--to women. (See Max Blumenthal at Campaign Matters for more details.)
The moment is so thick with irony, I scarcely know where to begin. But let's start with their incredibly lame attempts at damage control. Upon arrest, both Allen and Craig attempted to use their positions of power to escape charges (Craig handed over his US Senate business card to the officer and asked, "What do you think about that?).
Post-arrest, Allen, appealing at once to homophobia and racism, mounted a "black (gay) panic" defense. You see he wasn't really interested in giving head, he was just trying to save his neck. Apparently, the cop was "a pretty stocky black guy" and "there were nothing but other black guys around in the park." Fearing he was "about to become a statistic," Allen did what any other, rational, straight (straight!), white man would do if he just so happened to find himself cruising a public restroom full of black men: fork over a Jackson and drop to your knees.
Less hysterical, but equally flimsy, is Craig's story. Through his spokesman, Craig said that the whole incident was just a "he said/he said misunderstanding." Last year, when gay blogger Mike Rogers alleged that Craig had engaged in same-sex relations, Craig called the story "absolutely ridiculous, almost laughable." I wonder if Craig was laughing on August 8--when he plead guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges in a Minnesota County Court.
Of course, both Republicans have a long history of support for anti-gay legislation--in Craig's case votes for the Federal Marriage Amendment and in Allen's a court brief against gay adoption and authorship of a failed bill to ratchet up penalties for "unnatural and lascivious acts."
I'm sure as the press digests the Craig scandal, you'll hear a lot about "hypocrisy," "repressed homosexuality" and "internalized homophobia." Good enough, I suppose, for making a somewhat cheap political point and sweeping these undeniably creepy, tragic guys back into the Brokeback Mountain days from whence they apparently came. But I wonder if the GOP's burgeoning "bathroom problem" isn't reflective of something larger than just a bunch of conservative dudes who couldn't come out of the closet. There's something palpably sad to me about what happened to Allen and Craig too, something oddly touching about their misplaced faith in the fading world of secret, anonymous gay sex. That world--once found in bathrooms, parks, piers and adult bookstores; the furtive refuges of adventuresome queers, married men, the curious--has been swept away by so many police raids, privatization schemes, quality of life campaigns and internet dating services. But mostly, it's fallen away as gays have become increasingly integrated into the mainstream, and also, paradoxically, more marked than ever. "You're either gay or you're not" seems to be the equation.
Until someone like Craig, Allen, Mark Foley, Ted Haggard or Jim McGreevey shows up to ripple momentarily the waters of public discourse on sex. These guys have problems, no doubt. But we might also pause to wonder if there's some cultural knot that gay liberation--despite its original and best intentions--has left in place. At the very least the link between public power and domestic heterosexuality--with all the fetishistic displays of family life that entails--has yet to be completely severed. Just ask Rudy Guiliani, or Hillary Clinton! Moreover, that knot, perhaps best described as sexual propriety, is what fuels the moral campaigns against homosexuality that have become one of the Republican Party's identifying causes--loyally supported by the likes of Craig, Haggard, Foley, et. al. It's also what leads Bob Allen to the stunning and revealing calculation that it would be better to be seen in the public eye as an avowed racist than as someone who likes to have sex with men sometimes.
On Thursday night, Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sponsored a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson all participated. Columnist Margaret Carlson moderated the proceeding, joined by the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, HRC's Joe Solmonese and lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. Unlike the recent contretemps at the YearlyKos convention, this affair was decidedly more civil. It had to be. The candidates showed up, one by one, to chit-chat with Carlson and friends in a rather antiseptic, faux-talk show studio. The audience was small, peppered with B-list gay celebs and mostly quiet. The candidates never crossed paths, and so, there was never any real debate.
Nonetheless, there were some interesting moments: Bill Richardson's supposed gaffe in response to the nature vs. nuture question (are you born gay or do you choose to be gay?), Etheridge's attack on Hillary Clinton's record and the general, totally gay enthusiasm of Gravel and Kucinich. I sat down to watch and discuss the forum with queer critics Lisa Duggan, Tavia Nyong'o and Alisa Solomon.
Richard Kim: So what did you folks think? The Human Rights Campaign has been promoting this event as an "historic" forum, the first of its kind. Did it feel historic to you?
Alisa Solomon: I have mixed feelings about the forum. My attitude going in was kind of cynical, yet I found myself moved at some points. But not only is it not historic, because it happened before, but it's actually worse than the last one. [HRC hosted a similar event in 2003 on CSPAN, moderated by Sam Donaldson.] This forum was on a queer cable network. It's not even on a mainstream network. It didn't involve mainstream interviewers. It's much more ghettoized. With all of these forums and debates, it's great that supposedly there's an opportunity to ask the candidates to go into depth on specific issues, whether it's labor or African American issues or gay issues. But there's something really balkanizing about it too. It's the worst kind of niche marketing. Are candidates going to discuss LGBT issues only before a queer audience, labor issues only before an audience of union members, and so on? And are union members the only people who are supposed to care about labor issues, and so on?
Tavia Nyong'o: The forum was what I expected it to be--circling back and forth on the question of marriage equality with some minor excursions to other issues like healthcare or employment. But part of what I found moving about the event was the raw political need emanating from interviewer Melissa Etheridge. Counterbalancing the insistence on marriage was this more general hunger for public recognition. It was almost a subtext of the whole forum. Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge indicated that they've had these conversations about gay issues in private, that they have this ongoing relationship with Hillary, with the Clintons, with some of the other candidates, and it was like they wanted these inside conversation acknowledged publicly.
Lisa Duggan: I felt cynical about it too. It wasn't historic, and not only was it ghettoized in terms of its circulation and broadcast, but the definitions of "gay community" and "gay issues" have become so narrow. Marriage equality has become the absolute litmus test. It's like seeing the women's movement reduced to abortion rights. It's like marriage is the only question and the other questions were raised on the side.
RK: Well, how do you think the candidates did on the question of marriage? There seemed to be two camps--Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who support full marriage equality now, and the rest of the candidates [Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson], who want some form of civil union and perhaps marriage equality later on.
AS: I absolutely agree with Lisa that gay marriage has become a litmus test issue. But, even though it's not the major issue for me, and even though I don't share the view that marriage is the way to secure health and other benefits, when I heard the candidates dancing away from it, it pissed me off. You want them to stand morally for equal rights and then make the progressive analysis that would call for a different relationship between marriage and the state in general.
RK: What would that sound like?
LD: Well, there was no question about marriage in this forum. The only question was about gay inclusion in it. It was up or down on gay inclusion. Full inclusion now or some incremental progress to full inclusion later, but the desirability of one size fits all marriage, over and above any reworking of options, was completely unquestioned. It was only about who we let in or out. Only Obama suggested some readjustment in the landscape of possibility. The really amazing thing about his answer was the idea that civil unions should include full federal benefits, and that marriage should be considered a purely religious practice. He advocated separation of church and state; religion should be over there and federal civil unions should be over here…
AS: But only for gays and lesbians. There was no follow up question that said--Do you think that's how it should be for straight people too?
LD: Obama almost went there. He more or less said that marriage is a religious institution and that civil unions should have full federal rights. It had more of a progressive edge.
AS: Well, Edwards tried to go there when he said he wouldn't impose his faith on the nation.
LD: But his answer to the marriage question was the worst in some ways, totally self-contradictory. Clinton's answer was similar in content, but it was much more polished and practiced. She had clearly thought about how to respond and how her answer would be reported in the press. But Edwards seemed nervous, unthinking. It's like no one coached him at all. I was really sorry to see that because in some ways his positions, especially on poverty, are more progressive than the other candidates. His whole speech about homeless gay youth…
AS: That was pathetic! It's 2007, and it's like the first time he's ever heard of gay kids getting kicked out of their homes. Though I do give him credit for bringing it up --along with adoption and anti-discrimination in employment and other issues that the questioners weren't bothering to raise.
RK: What did you think about the way Obama addressed the analogy between marriage equality and the civil rights movement?
TN: I appreciated that he pointed out how gays are being scapegoated as a threat to the black family. Family values rhetoric resonates strongly in black political settings, and I'm thrilled Obama is willing to take it head on in venues like the Howard University debate, and not just in front of a gay audience. I also think he's figured out where the comparison between gay rights and civil rights falls apart and becomes unproductive. The whole tagline of "separate but equal" that the questioners kept bringing up, they kept talking about it as it if were just a tagline instead of a whole institutional structure of segregation.
LD: When the questioners asked Obama to compare marriage equality and civil rights, he first balked at the question, then he said we're not talking about Jim Crow here. We're talking about inequality, but we're not talking about Jim Crow, so he did reference the structural difference. But it's like people aren't familiar with the basic history of the civil rights movement, that there's a debate and discussion over the failure of purely formal civil rights to produce substantive equality. It's like the questioners were totally unaware of that discussion.
TN: In some ways nobody seemed to have watched the Howard debate because that was the context of the whole debate--the fact that formal quality doesn't match up to substantive equality. That's why we still need the black debate now, to address all the issues of racial inequality that are still around. That wasn't the language of the Howard debate, but that was the context.
AS: What did you think about Obama saying that if he had been counseling the civil rights movement at the time his parents got married, when they wouldn't have been able to do that in some states, that he would have advised that the more important issue was voting rights laws, not anti-miscegenation laws?
TN: I feel that he came up with that just to short circuit the comparison between anti-miscegenation laws and bans on gay marriage. He's been asked that question a lot because he makes his personal story so central to his own candidacy. He can use this personal narrative to diffuse the one-to-one analogy between marriage rights and civil rights.
LD: He's the one that gets pressured the most on that analogy. So he has to come up with a response to that analogy in a way that the other candidates just don't.
RK: There were a couple times in this debate where the Howard debate and the AFL-CIO debate were referenced. This debate could be seen as just another one in the identity politics primary. What do you think about that and the way gay issues play into identity politics? It's not clear to me that, in fact, this forum is the same as the AFL-CIO one, which has a real institutional base, or the Howard debate which had a constituency the Democrats really need.
LD: Labor politics can be translated into a kind of identity politics, as if it's a special interest politics, but it's not fundamentally. Meanwhile, the kind of sexual politics that exceeds the terms of identity politics--that wasn't represented at all tonight. The Howard debate had a lot of depth about economic issues intertwined with racial inequality issues. This one did not. The people who brought those structural issues up tonight were the candidates, not the questioners. And when the candidates were advocating employment nondiscrimination or improvements in health care, the questions would just come back to marriage.
RK: What did you all think about the way Bill Richardson answered the question, posed by Melissa Etheridge, about whether you are born gay or choose to be gay?
AS: I thought Richardson's failure to grasp that question was one of the most poignant moments of the entire forum. It honestly didn't matter to him. It just wasn't computing. Why would it matter? Why would protection from discrimination be appropriate for people who were born Jewish but not for people who converted to Judaism? It makes no logical sense whatsoever, and I think that's why it wasn't computing with him, and I found that kind of endearing and also heartening.
LD: I think it was the inadvertent best moment in the whole forum because his answer was basically so good. He said it doesn't matter, that equality isn't a matter of choice or biology. It's when he said, "I don't want to characterize people according to some standards of science that I don't understand."
AS: It was his least political, most direct answer. You could really see him processing the question and trying to think it through because for once, he didn't have a prepared answer. It was very naked and honest--and right-on.
LD: They pushed him on it over and over again. Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed. But he was clearly, absolutely resisting the language of choice versus biology. It's not clear to me why he was, but he was.
TN: That marks a certain political shift. I thought it was a positive sign.
RK: Do you feel like the questioners treated Clinton, Edwards and Obama differently than they treated the other candidates?
AS: I think HRC felt that with Gravel and Kucinich, they [HRC] were doing those marginal candidates a favor by letting them participate. Gravel even called Joe Solmonese on his decision to exclude him at first. But with the other candidates, the vibe was more that those front-running candidates were doing HRC a favor just by showing up--sort of feeding the tacit expression of need that Tavia mentioned earlier. Melissa Etheridge kept telling candidates how honored and grateful she was that they came, as if we don't have every right simply to expect candidates to show up.
LD: Kucinich went down the list of economic issues, peace and war issues, all the big issues in this election that matter to everyone. He went down the list of gay issues too, but he also mentioned universal healthcare. He used the words "not for profit" and "Medicare for all," and he was the only one to do so.
AS: Those were the points that got no applause. His answer to the question about health benefits for same-sex partners was that there should be healthcare for all. If he had said marriage rights, everyone would have clapped. But they didn't clap for universal healthcare. It was the same thing when he said he voted against the war. Silence.
RK: What did you think about the format of the forum? What about the audience?
TN: The audience was salted with former and current Logo talent and the cast of Noah's Ark. It's like, they didn't even go outside the building to get the audience. It was a talk show format instead of a political debate or discussion.
AS: There was no idea of collectivity or movement because of the format.
RK: Who do you think won?
LD: Substantively, I think Obama won. But in terms of positioning and media savvy, I think Hillary Clinton did.
TN: I thought Hillary was a clear winner in the Howard debate, which was surprising. She did so much better than Obama and Richardson, and she really connected with the crowd, which was huge there. Here there was no crowd, a tiny studio audience, so it was harder for her to do that. I thought she did well and was very polished, but I think the performances evened out here. She did better than Edwards. The hardest question for her to deal with was when Melissa Etheridge asked her why her husband had abandoned gay people in 1996…
AS: She said, "You threw us under a bus!"
TN: Right, it was the toughest question of the night because she has a record to stand on, when her husband was in the White House and her votes in the Senate. I think there's some kind of spell that Hillary Clinton puts us under. Because if you follow the logic of her reasoning, her narration is that we've been steadily moving along a progressive path since the ‘90s in this country, and that's totally counterfactual.
AS: I think what she said was more complicated and calculated. She said we had been in a horrifying moment, and when anti-gay politics was used cynically and viciously, and it got personal. It was ugly, and we really had to fight against that and it was a big setback for us. She used that description to define a difference between Democrats and Republicans as well as to excuse some of her questionable earlier support for such legislation as DOMA, which she characterized as a bulwark against the riled up pressure for a marriage amendment.
LD: What about when she was asked why, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, why she didn't introduce legislation to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
AS: You didn't find her answer persuasive?
AS: Why didn't you? Not that I did, necessarily. But where do you see the flaw in her being strategic as a legislator and asking--Why bother under a Republican Congress, under a completely hostile President?
LD: Because there are other reasons than winning to introduce legislation. If you accept her pragmatic terms, the kind of politician she is, then that's the answer. But if you were a different kind of politician, then there's another kind of answer.
TN: Bill Richardson tried to get domestic partnership rights in New Mexico. That's the one thing I really responded to in his attempt to say he has a progressive record. I found myself sympathizing with him when he said that he's been trying to get this done in a Western state, not Massachusetts, but spending political capital in this area. What irks me about Hillary's progress narrative is that it re-writes her own history. She could have actually taken a symbolic stand on a bill in the Senate to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But she's not prepared to do that kind of thing. Richardson was willing to call a special session and lose.
LD: Going back to the progress narrative…the problem is that it frames as inevitable something which requires political will. So rather than saying we need political will, we just say we should trust in inevitability or in the goodness of the American people. So it lets everyone off the hook in terms of the risks and efforts that are required to organize political will. One of the central tricks of American liberal discourse is to frame political progress as inevitable. So you let everyone off the hook.
AS: That's one way to read it, but another way--which the candidates at the forum also invoked--is to applaud the LGBT movement, to say what you are doing is admirable. You are on the streets. And I'm right there with you. Still another way of using the progress narrative is to stir people, to say that the train is going, and you should get on, and you should help push.
RK: Kucinich and Gravel said things similar to that…
TN: Here's where I miss Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton would have said, "I support gay marriage. I've performed gay marriage." But then he would have turned it around and made the conversation much more political. And I think, even Kucinich, he kind of resorted to a kind of "I love gays" argument.
LD: I miss Sharpton and Jesse Jackson too, because they were the kind of candidates who would turn things around and challenge the questioners and challenge the audience. They would turn around and say, "Well I'm for this, but what are you for? Are you standing up for other people too?" And none of these candidates did that tonight.
On Thursday at 9PM (ET), Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign are sponsoring a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack, Hillary, John, Dennis and Bill will all be there. So will some guy named Mike who was so poor loves gays so much that he originally wasn't invited. Margaret Carlson, Jonathan Capehart, Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge will pose questions. The whole queer klatch will be televised on Logo and streamed live at this website.
[Here at The Nation, we've lined up queer critics Lisa Duggan, Alisa Solomon and Tavia Nyong'o to watch the event from a safe, Melissa Etheridge-free location and comment. Their remarks will be posted after the forum.]
HRC (that stands for Human Rights Campaign in gaycronym, not Hillary Rodham Clinton) has been promoting the debate as an "historic" event, the "first time...the major presidential candidates will address a live GLBT television audience." As Chris Crain points out on his blog, this is a lie. In fact, HRC hosted exactly such an event in 2003, but this is presidential electioneering, so there goes accuracy.
Despite my qualms about HRC (again, that's the gay HRC, not the Wellesley graduate) and my general low expectations for the forum (marriage and gays in the military will likely dominate), I agreed to write up a short piece for Logo's website on what I think the most important issue in this election is for gay people. (Just to preempt sniping, I wasn't paid, and I was free to say what I wanted.) For those who've followed my take on same-sex marriage before, this will be nothing new, but it's cross-posted below.
From Visible Vote '08:
For years now, I've followed the plight of same-sex couples denied the right to marry. Many of their stories are heartrending. A lesbian couple was forced to sell their home in order to pay huge health care bills because one of them was in an accident and wasn't covered by her partner's health insurance. After his lover died, a gay man was evicted from his apartment because he wasn't on the lease, and even if he was, he couldn't pay for the place on his own. Elderly gays and lesbians have kept working long past the age of retirement, or even taken second jobs, because social security benefits and pensions aren't transferable and often don't cover basic necessities--food, housing, utilities, medication--in the first place.
The more of these stories I hear, the more they sound like the stories coming out of the "other America"--married, heterosexual America.
Take Donna and Larry Smith, featured in Michael Moore's documentary Sicko. Married for over 30 years, the Smiths worked hard and raised six children in South Dakota. They had each other, and they had health insurance, but that wasn't enough when cancer and artery disease struck. Facing massive debt from expensive medical treatments, they filed for bankruptcy, sold their home and were forced to move into a cramped storage room in their daughter's house.
Or take my grandmother. When my grandfather, her husband, died, she was entitled to his social security benefits. But still, as a single widow, her total household income shrank dramatically. For the last few years of her life, social security was the only check she got, and it wasn't enough at that. Her experience is common; women live longer than men and so often age alone. Almost a third of all unmarried elderly women rely on social security as their sole source of income, and if it weren't for social security, 54 percent of all elderly women would be living in poverty.
Whether from gay or straight, married or unmarried Americans, stories like these are powerful reminders of the human costs of growing economic inequality in this country. For the last 30 years, the incomes of the wealthiest Americans have skyrocketed while incomes for the bottom 50 percent have remained essentially static. According to 2005 IRS data, the top tenth of 1 percent of Americans (300,000) made almost as much as the bottom half (150 million). The income gap hasn't been this bad in our country since 1928.
All of this news is kind of a downer, and nowhere near as cheery as thinking about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards or any of the other candidates presiding over festive gay weddings or civil unions. But the hard-boiled economic reality is that as long as the class gap continues to grow in America, the rights of marriage will be of little consolation to the millions of gays and lesbians who find themselves unemployed, sick, downsized, outsourced, homeless or just plain down on their luck. After all, marriage didn't protect happily betrothed folks like my grandparents or Donna and Larry Smith from feeling the economic squeeze.
This is why, for me, the increasingly stark gap between the super rich and everyone else is the most important issue in the next election. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has talked about the "two Americas" in his 2004 campaign and now again in this election. Other candidates have piled onto the populist bandwagon, and most propose meager economic reforms (a slight increase in minimum wage, closing tax loopholes, college loan reforms). But in my opinion, none have announced a real economic agenda that would halt the widening gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us, much less begin to reverse the trend. It will be important to see which of them come closest.
I've argued in The Nation that gays and lesbians should think beyond the issue of same-sex marriage as a legal right and get at many of the underlying economic issues (healthcare, housing, job security) that make married and unmarried people alike vulnerable in the first place. According to recent census data, the majority of Americans now live in unmarried households. Some live this way because they are legally banned from marriage, but most people, including many gays and lesbians, do so by choice. Beyond marriage then, what are the economic policies that will help all households (including single people) live better, less deprived, less financially anxious lives?