Short takes on politics, culture and life.
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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org and the board at email@example.com. 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.