For the last 10-15 years, people who brought polygamy into a discussion were usually talking about something else. Polygamy was supposedly the next stop on the slippery slope we would step onto if we legalized same-sex marriage: Once you start fiddling with the definition of marriage, the doomsayers prophesied, there is no clear place to stop. In the Supreme Court's recent marriage decision, Chief Justice Roberts brought that argument into his dissent:
One immediate question invited by the majority's position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.
Slippery-slope arguments are often a way to create flashy distractions from the issues that are actually present: If you have no coherent case to make about why a loving, committed same-sex couple shouldn't be married, you talk instead about legalized polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. Maybe no one is actually making those proposals yet, but they could at some point down the road.
On the other hand, some slippery-slope arguments actually are prophetic. In hisLawrence dissent in 2003, Justice Scalia warned:
This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Twelve years later, here we are.
And sometimes, when we look back on prophets of doom, our modern eyes see them as unintentional prophets of progress. The downward slide they feared, we recall proudly. For example, shortly after the Civil War, Rev. R. L. Dabny published a retrospective justification of slavery and secession: A Defence of Virginia. In it he warned the North of the horrors its abolitionist notions would ultimate bring to pass:
But other consequences follow from the abolitionist dogma. "All involuntary restraint is a sin against natural rights," therefore laws which give to husbands more power over the persons and property of wives, than to wives over husbands, are iniquitous, and should be abolished. The same decision must be made upon the exclusion of women, whether married or single, from suffrage, office, and the full franchises of men. … But when God's ordinance of the family is thus uprooted, and all the appointed influences of education thus inverted; when America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!
Wives owning property! Women voting and running for office! Surely society must collapse from the unnatural strain of such abominations. Why didn't we listen when Dabny warned us? If only we'd kept blacks in slavery, we could have avoided all this.
[You knew that was sarcasm, right?]
So OK: But for a few dead-enders, same-sex marriage is a done deal now. So polygamy's usefulness as a slippery-slope horror is over. But are the predictions correct? Is that where we're heading next? And if we get there, will it be a downward slide or an upward climb?
In Politico Magazine, Fredrik deBoer got right to work with "It's Time to Legalize Polygamy". Jonathan Rauch then answered with "No, Polygamy Isn't the Next Gay Marriage". And deBoer responded on his blog with "every bad argument against polygamy, debunked". Another worthwhile piece promoting polygamy (with a better collection of links) is William E. Smith's "Who's Scared of Polygamy?" on Religion Dispatches.
I'm not going to take a pro or con position, but I would like to shape the discussion a little.
If you're worrying (or hoping) that some judge will legalize polygamy next week, stop. Think about how hard it would have been to implement same-sex marriage during the Washington administration: At the dawn of the American Republic, men and women had different legal rights, and husband and wife were unequal legal roles. Same-sex marriage would have been absurd then, because women were legally incapable of playing the husband role, and before they could become wives, men would have to give up inalienable constitutional rights. To make same-sex marriage legal then, the whole legal relationship of men and women — which was embedded in countless laws — would have had to change.
But everything was different by 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered the question. Massachusetts had passed an Equal Rights Amendment into its Constitution in 1976, so men and women were equal under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out Louisiana's Head and Master law in 1981, so husband and wife were legal equals. All that really had to happen to make same-sex marriage a reality was to change the forms from Husband and Wife to Spouse and Spouse.
(You can accurately describe American marriage after 1981 in a lot of ways, but "traditional marriage" is not one of them. I don't know of any traditional society where husbands and wives have been equal under the law.)
Polygamy today resembles same-sex marriage in the Washington administration. Changing the forms to allow an indefinite number of spouses wouldn't come close to defining it. Are we talking about Biblical (or Mormon) polygamy, where one man marries several women? Jacob and Leah and Rachel, say, or Solomon with his "seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines"? Or a group marriage where everybody listed is married to everybody else? Or maybe a chain marriage, where Bob marries Carol marries Ted marries Alice, but Bob and Alice are just friends? Or is some central couple the prime relationship, with other spouses secondary? The possibilities are endless, and the law would have to account for them.*
However you picture it, giving polygamy legal recognition would mean establishing legal infrastructure to answer questions that don't come up in binary marriages. In a group marriage, can one spouse divorce the others, or does the whole relationship dissolve and need to be reformed? What's the property settlement look like? Do all spouses have equal rights and responsibilities regarding the children, or do biological parents have a stronger legal bond? In a Biblical polygamous marriage, are all the wives equal, or does the first wife have a special role?
In any of the polygamy models, it doesn't take much imagination to spin out questions that may not be unanswerable, but aren't answered in any obvious way by current law. Such questions go all the way down to the most trivial level: What fee should a clerk charge for a plural marriage license? Are current fees based on per-person or per-marriage logic? That question never comes up as long as all marriages are between two people, but someone would need to decide God-knows-how-many minor issues like that.
Consequently, a court can't simply order to a county clerk to issue a three-person marriage license. The judge would have to rewrite big chunks of the legal code, which a judge is not equipped to do, even if one thought he or she could get away with asserting that kind of power.
Is polygamy a legal right? A somewhat more realistic fantasy/nightmare goes like this: A judge might find that three or more people have a right to the legal advantages marriage offers, even if the judge can't say exactly how that right should be implemented. That would have to go through a legislature, which isequipped and empowered to rewrite large chunks of the legal code.
So a judge could order the legislature to rectify the situation within a specified time. The legislature would probably refuse, and then the judge could assess damages against the state, which the governor could refuse to pay, and from there who knows where it all goes.
A key part of that scenario, though, is that the legal argument for a right to polygamy is sitting there inside the same-sex-marriage jurisprudence, waiting for some bold judge to notice it. In spite of John Roberts' dissent, I don't think that's true.
In order to have this discussion, though, we need to set aside the particular opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, which really is as bad as the dissents claim. (I covered thatwhen it came out.) It's not at all typical of marriage-equality opinions, and it contains little in the way of a legal framework that could be extended to polygamy or anything else. I suspect it will have the same kind of influence that Kennedy's similarly mushy DOMA opinion had: In subsequent lower-court decisions, judges made their rulings consistent with the outcome of the DOMA case, but didn't attempt to apply Kennedy's reasoning, such as it was.
The way pro-marriage-equality judges other than Kennedy have approached the issue is through the equal protection of the laws, a position I summarized in May: The opposite-sex marriage laws create an advantageous institution (marriage) and extend its benefits only to opposite-sex couples, when same-sex couples could be included by simply editing the license form, and no credible evidence suggested that negative consequences relevant to the mission of the government would ensue. (The possible offense to God claimed by anti-gay activists is not something the Constitution instructs the government to take notice of. Read the Preamble.) Under those circumstances, there's really no way to claim that gays and lesbians are being granted the equal protection of the laws promised by the 14th Amendment.
What lies in the background of that argument is that the separation between gays/lesbians and the benefits of marriage is not something the affected individuals can easily fix on their own. Sexual orientation may or may not be innate, but it is not generally changeable in adulthood. And while legally, a gay or lesbian person could enter into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex, it's hard to see that as a satisfactory solution. Consequently, because of who you are, you might be unable to take advantage of the marriage laws.
That argument is much harder to make for polygamy, which feels more like a lifestyle choice than an innate orientation. The government set up an advantageous path hoping to induce you to live one way, but you decided to live another way. I would defend your right to make that choice, but I don't see how it gives you a right to the advantages of the other lifestyle.
Maybe some other legal argument for a right-to-polygamy is possible, but I don't know what it is. I think you'd need to show that favoring binary relationships is an irrational thing for the government to do, and can't conceivably lead to any social benefit the government might reasonably want to achieve. Constructing such an argument would be much harder than just cutting and pasting from the same-sex marriage arguments.
If polygamy isn't a right. If polygamy isn't a right inherent in the laws currently on the books, then if people want it, they need to convince legislatures to pass new laws. And that means convincing a large chunk of the electorate (who may or may not have polygamous fantasies) that a society that openly includes polygamous households is better — or at least no worse — than the society we have now.
If we're debating in a legislature rather than before a judge, then I think the burden of proof shifts a little on both sides. To win in court, a polygamy supporter would need to show that banning it is completely irrational. To win in a legislature, they'd just need to argue that allowing it makes more sense than banning it. deBoer sums up:
my argument for polygamy is that there are people in the world who want it, and I recognize the inherent and total equality of the dignity and value of their relationships in comparison to two-person relationships.
As in same-sex marriage, we're talking about real people doing real things. What's our basis for telling them not to? I'm not saying there is no basis, I just can't explain what it is off the top of my head.
On the other side, a legislature would have to debate a real proposal, not just an idea. Exactly what relationships are we giving legal form? How do all the details work? In particular, a law shouldn't create holes in the system, which would be easy to do. (If my health insurance plan covers my spouse, maybe I could establish universal health care by marrying everybody. Or maybe I could solve the immigration problem by marrying all of the undocumented immigrants. Yes, those examples are ridiculous. But it's not hard to imagine more realistic unintended scenarios, where groups might redefine themselves as marriages to take advantage of a poorly phrased law.) deBoer argues that the difficult logistics of polygamy isn't a reason not to do it. But a real proposal would have to deal with those logistics.
In short, I would tell both deBoer and Rauch the same thing: I'm convincible, but I'm not convinced. The anti-polygamy argument isn't sharp enough, and the pro-polygamy argument isn't detailed enough. But however the issue eventually comes out, it will do so on its own merits, and will not follow automatically just because gay couples or lesbian couples are getting married.
* I've questioned whether I should even use the word polygamy to cover all these possibilities, since it often refers specifically to Biblical polygamy, with polyandryreferring to a woman with many husbands. But the articles I've referenced are comfortable with that usage, so I have reluctantly followed it.
Whether you love him or hate him, it doesn't matter. He's bluffing.
After John McCain showed the bad judgment to make Sarah Palin a national figure in 2008, every few months a flurry of excitement/panic about Palin's political future would erupt in the media. She was anointed the early Republican front-runner in the 2012 presidential cycle, to the point that Ross Douthat devoted a whole columnto denying her front-runner status. When that speculation faded (because by the spring of 2011 she'd made no moves to build an organization in Iowa or New Hampshire), she went on a national bus tour to fan the flames again. She didn'tofficially bow out until October, 2011.
Then she was going to run for the Senate in 2014, but that didn't pan out either. This January she said she was "seriously interested" in a 2016 run, and proclaimed herself "ready for Hillary" at the Iowa Freedom Summit. But in a year when it seems that every Republican with a pulse is running for president, Palin isn't.
I'll take some credit for seeing through the Palin hype. After the 2010 mid-terms, I looked ahead to 2012:
Sarah wants to be famous and make a lot of money and not work very hard. (If that's a vice, a lot of us have it.) Teasing about running for office served those goals well, but actually running would require effort, not to mention answering the lamestream media's gotcha questions, like "What newspaper do you read?"
And that brings me to Donald Trump.
Trump is not exactly Palin — he loveshostile questions, for example — but the same phenomenon is at work. He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won't be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don't waste your energy.
Like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump lives off his image. That image is all about leadership, so of course he wants to be seen in terms of the ultimate leadership job, President of the United States. If you buy Trump's image, you think he'd be a great president: making the tough decisions, banging heads together until everybody gets in line, cutting through the BS of the vested interests, and doing the common-sense things we all know need to get done. Who wouldn't want to call up ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and say, "You're fired"?
It's a great fantasy. But actually being President? What a headache that would be. Even the Donald's hairpiece would go grey.
In previous cycles, bluffing about running for president has served him well. But Trump understands something that seems to have escaped Palin: To keep people interested, you have to keep raising the bar. Except for a small group of rabid fans, the public has lost interest in Palin, because we've seen it all before. So she can hint about running, but until she starts acting like a serious candidate — building an organization, appearing in debates, pushing some signature issues beyond the buzzword stage, and so on — nobody is going to pay much attention.
If Trump hinted about a 2016 race and then backed away from it, nobody would pay attention to any future bluffs. So he raised the bar: This time he actually declared his candidacy, and he's giving speeches and interviews. He's still not building an organization in primary states or raising money for a serious campaign, but he's on top of the recent polls (with 18% of Republicans in a very divided field), and he'll probably be on the stage in August when the first debate happens. Chances are good he'll get a lot of attention during that debate and be in the headlines the next morning.
And that's where the bluff is going to break down. The kind of campaign he's run so far — flying around and giving speeches — isn't very expensive. The big money in primary campaigns goes two places: Early, it goes into hiring staff and opening campaign offices in early-primary states, and then later it goes into TV advertising. He's not doing either.
The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He's building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he's run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.
By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.
That's not an investment any more. It would take maybe $100-200 million to win the Republican nomination, and even more to run a serious third-party campaign in the fall if he isn't nominated. That's money he can never get back.
And I don't even believe he has it. Trump's empire has always been a precarious structure built on debt. (That's why he's been involved in four bankruptcies.) Whatever he might be worth on paper, he doesn't have hundreds of millions of ready cash available to blow on a whim.
So this campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he's run in previous years, but it's still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.
I'm back after my week on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. (Give yourself credit if you knew that New Hampshire had a coast.)
There will be two featured posts this week. The first, "Trump is the New Palin", makes a bold prediction: Donald Trump will leave the race for president before he has to spend more money than the publicity is worth. I'll guess that to be sometime in December, when candidates need to buy ads on Boston TV stations to stay competitive in New Hampshire. I expect to post that article soon, probably before 8 EDT.
The second, "So What About Polygamy, Anyway?" picks up on an argument between Fredrik deBoer and Jonathan Rauch. All through the same-sex marriage debate, we kept hearing that we were on a slippery slope and legalized polygamy would be next. Well, is it? Should it be? Along the way I'll take a look at some slippery-slope predictions of the past, including some that in retrospect look more like the march of progress than a slide to perdition. Expect that by 10.
The weekly summary has two weeks to cover, which includes the Iran deal, the Greek bailout, the Chattanooga shooting, and a bunch of other stuff. (Honestly, I didn't believe the Iran deal was going to happen.) And I'll close with a picture of a good prank.
No Sift next week. The next new Weekly Sift articles will appear July 20.
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.
— Rev. Jerry Falwell
"Segregation or Integration: Which?" (1958)
Savannah Guthrie: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
Ted Cruz: There's no religious backing for that.
— The Today Show, 6-29-2015
Today's featured post "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot" puts those quotes in their proper context.
It's kind of ridiculous what's been happening to this blog's traffic. The Sift had 228K views in June, compared to 13K last June and 215K in all of 2013. Runs like this always end eventually, but usually traffic recedes to a higher plateau than before. I hope some fraction of the new readers become regulars.
This week everybody was still reacting to marriage equality
I discussed this to a certain extent in the featured post. But Mike Huckabee's op-eddeserves some further attention. This is how the Huckabee administration will respond to the "religious freedom" issues raised by the same-sex marriage decision. (I use the scare quotes because the traditional meaning of religious freedom is very different than what Huckabee has in mind. He's practicing a kind of Newspeak.)
The whole piece is full of Religious-Right jargon, so I may have to decrypt it in some future Sift.
I have a certain respect for the Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. If your conscience won't let you do your job, resign in protest. There's a fine tradition there. Imagine if, say, Colin Powell had resigned as Secretary of State rather than take the Bush administration's bogus case for invading Iraq to the UN. Resigning in protest makes much more sense to me than the Texas clerks who want to keep their jobs, but not do them.
That said, I hope Decatur County replaces its clerks with people who want to serve the whole public, rather than just the people they approve of.
and talking about Greece
Greece soundly defeated a referendum to accept the new bailout package offered by the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund (collectively known as "the Troika"). Nobody really knows what happens now: Will the Greek banking system collapse? Will some new deal get negotiated? Will Greece end up abandoning the euro? I could speculate, but The Guardian and The Atlantic probably speculate better.
As for how the euro figures in the development of the crisis, this Vox video explains it pretty well.
Remember a few years ago, when some people still didn't realize that President Obama was shrinking the deficit he inherited, and Tea Partiers were predicting a Greece-like debt crisis for the U.S.? With a few more years of perspective, it's clear that there is a lesson for the U.S. in the Greek experience, but it's the exact opposite of the one the Tea Party wanted to teach us: Keynes was right. When you get into a deep recession, the government needs to spend more, not less.
Recessions always balloon the deficit: Tax revenues go down and safety-net payments go up. Governments can react in two ways:
- austerity: Cut government spending wherever possible to get the deficit back under control.
- stimulus: Increase government spending to get the economy moving again.
In their responses to the deep 2007-2008 recession, the world's advanced economies created an accidental macro-economic experiment: In spite of intense Republican opposition, America went for stimulus, while Europe chose austerity. Within Europe, the healthier economies like Germany, France, and the UK had their austerity moderated by democratic opposition. But Italy, Spain, and Portugal had credit problems, so they had to ignore popular opposition and impose the harsher austerity bond markets demanded. Greece was in a class by itself: Needing bailout money from the Troika, it had to take the extremely harsh terms the Troika imposed.
Here's what happened:
The U.S. came out of the recession fastest, followed by the European countries that practiced moderate austerity, followed by the harsh-austerity countries, with Greece trailing far behind. (The graph would show a more dramatic U.S. advantage if the base point were the start of the recession rather than 2010. Ireland and Germany are only slightly behind the U.S. at the end of the graph, but they were far above us at the beginning of the recession.)
The Troika-imposed austerity was supposed to close the Greek government's deficit, restore market confidence in Greek debt, and cause a rebound in the Greek economy (through a macro-economic mechanism Paul Krugman calls "the Confidence Fairy"). Instead, it accelerated the deflationary cycle, shrunk the economy further, and increased the deficit — which of course required more budget cuts.
Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz comments:
The disparity between what the Troika thought would happen and what has emerged has been striking — and not because Greece didn't do what it was supposed to, but because it did, and the models were very, very flawed.
University of Maryland economist Peter Morici agrees:
Already, the Troika, … has imposed five years of budget cuts, higher taxes and labor market adjustments. The Greeks have endured a 25- percent contraction in GDP, 25-percent cut in private-sector wages and 25 percent unemployment.
Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio has soared to 180 percent from 130 percent of GDP, and that is an impossible burden to repay. … Another round of austerity would only further pummel the Greek economy, and impose economic deprivation that European leaders should be ashamed to engineer.
So, has the Tea Party learned anything from this? Don't be silly; their economics is faith-based, not evidence-based. In his announcement speech, Bobby Jindal promised:
I will grow the private sector economy by shrinking the size, scope, and reach of the federal government
Jindal, in other words, wants to go the way of Greece.
and still the Confederate flag and racism
It's hard to satirize some people. In an effort to defend the idea that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern heritage rather than hate, the KKK is having a rally at the South Carolina capitol.
Bianca Campbell makes Georgia's open-carry law real, describing her recent trip to the bookstore.
The idea of openly carrying a gun to protect myself has never been a realistic option—only when I'm imagining myself as Storm from X-Mendismantling oppressive systems with Black feminist thunderstorms and a small silver glock just in case. In reality, if the cops saw me with a gun, a bag of Skittles, or even a loosey cigarette, they would probably shoot me and ask questions about my permit later. [my note: She's only slightly exaggerating what you can see in this video.] As a Jamaican-American whose parents had to navigate the country's unjust immigration system, I've almost always known that papers and permits don't save dark-skinned people.
And so now, Georgia's open carry policy, the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the whole foundation of America's justice system works as it was always intended: allowing certain people to feel safe at the expense of others existing in fear. I was without arms and face-to-face with a man who may or may not have wanted to kill me—and a man who had the freedom to make that decision without repercussions.
Here's how to show that Negro president that whites are still on top in Tennessee:
and the unending tide of Republican presidential candidates
Chris Christie announced. Donald Trump surged in the polls after describing Mexican immigrants as "rapists".
President Obama was in La Crosse this week, and he previewed how an anti-Scott-Walker general-election campaign might go:
We've seen what happens when top-down economics meets the real world. We've got proof right here in Wisconsin. There was a statewide fair-pay law that was repealed. The right to organize and bargain collectively was attacked. Per-student education funding was cut. Your minimum wage has been stuck in place. Meanwhile, corporations and the most fortunate few have been on the receiving end of hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax cuts over the past four years…
What happens when we try middle-class economics? Just across the river, it's a pretty interesting experiment. In Minnesota, they asked the top two percent to pay a little bit more. They invested in things that help everybody succeed, like all-day kindergarten and financial aid for college students. They took action to raise their minimum wage and they passed an equal pay law. They protected workers' rights. They expanded Medicaid to cover more people.
Now, according to Republican theory, all those steps would've been bad for the economy, but Minnesota's unemployment rate is lower than Wisconsin's. Minnesota's median income is around $9,000 higher.
and Bernie Sanders
- In national polls, Sanders is still way behind, and most of his recent rise mostly comes from consolidating the left, not making inroads on Clinton supporters. When you take Elizabeth Warren out of a poll — as most have done by now — Sanders' support increases without hurting Hillary.
- In New Hampshire polls, the ones that have Sanders within striking distance of Clinton usually list Joe Biden as a candidate, which splits the establishment vote. If you assume Biden isn't running — which seems likely — Clinton's lead increases.
- Sanders has yet to draw much black and Hispanic support. Non-white voters aren't a big factor in New Hampshire and Iowa, but they are a huge chunk of the Democratic coalition nationally.
That third point is interesting. As a group, minority voters are highly pragmatic. They have a long, sad history with guys they never heard of (especially white guys) saying stuff that sounds good. So they tend to stick with candidates they know and have come to trust.
In hindsight, we think of Obama as naturally being the favorite-son black candidate, and he did eventually get enthusiastic black support. But in the 2008 cycle blacks were slow to get on board. (Obama's earliest supporters were young whites who resented Clinton's vote to authorize the Iraq War.) He had to prove himself as a viable candidate with white voters before many blacks would take him seriously. Hispanics got behind him even later.
Sanders has a good record on racial issues, but he represents an overwhelmingly white state and (whether the perception is fair or not) is not the first person you think of when you remember important civil rights battles. The non-white vote is not lost to him, but he will have to work to win it.
That said, I have to shake my head at how much effort pundits devote to discounting Sanders. Networks give serious attention to Republican longshots like Santorum or Perry, but can't seem to mention Sanders without pointing out that he can't possibly win. As someone — I thought Andy Borowitz, but now I can't Google up a reference — put it:
Someone needs to tell the millions of people about to vote for Bernie Sanders that no one is going to vote for him.
And when somebody does notice the Sanders phenomenon, the narrative usually then shifts to "Is Hillary screwing up?" not "What is Sanders saying to raise such enthusiasm?"
Interesting article on ISIS and Islam:
Dalia Mogahed suggested that the relationship between Islamic texts and ISIS's brutality is actually the reverse of what both ISIS and many of its enemies claim. It's not, she said, the group's interpretation of Islamic texts that drives its brutality—it's the group's desired brutality driving its interpretation of the texts. "We start at the violence we want to conduct, and we convince ourselves that this is the correct way to interpret the texts," she said.
That's long been my theory about American social conservatives and Christianity. The political positions come first, and they drive the Biblical interpretation. I mean, why take literally some obscure Leviticus text condemning homosexuality but not "Sell your possessions and give to the poor"?
I have ambivalent feelings about Bill Maher, particularly when he talks religion. But when he's right, he's right. In this video, he wants to know why the Democratic Party or the "liberal media" get all the credit for heaping scorn on Christianity, when he's the only one actually doing it.
And here, Maher points to the House vote to let meat companies refuse to tell us what country their meat comes from. Bill combines the two goals of "erasing meat labels and repealing the estate tax" into a single slogan for the Republican Party: "Eat shit and die."
Here's a package of underpants. There's a label on it, tells you where it's from: Honduras. … Here's a pound of ground beef (or whatever). Where did it come from? Fuck You is where it came from. … Shouldn't you be able to know that? Next time you hear Republicans say they want to "protect" you from "burdensome regulations", this is what they mean. But this isn't really de-regulation; this is reverse regulation. Regulations are supposed to protect people from corporations, not corporations from people.
and let's close with a visual pun
Social conservatives were all over the airwaves and print media this week, explaining how and why the battle over marriage equality is not over. The Supreme Court may have spoken, but the other branches of government, they promised, could still step in somehow, if we elect the right people. Or county clerks could justrefuse to issue licenses. Or ordinary people could practice civil disobedience in some unspecified way. There are, Glenn Beck has promised us, ten thousand pastors willing to "go to prison or to death" over this issue (though exactly what charges will brought against them or who might try to kill them is a bit vague).
To me, the most revealing moment of this Alamo-like refusal to surrender came when Texas Senator Ted Cruz was interviewed by Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show. Cruz was defending the "religious freedom" of Texas clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, when Guthrie made an analogy:
GUTHRIE: If a state clerk refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, would you agree with that too?
CRUZ: There's no religious backing for that.
Religion and interracial marriage. To anyone who remembers the 1960s or has read the history of interracial marriage (or civil rights in general), Cruz' response is simply ridiculous. Opposition to interracial marriage was constantly expressed in religious terms.
For example, the reason the Supreme Court had to decide Loving v. Virginia, the case that legalized interracial marriage nationwide in 1967, was that when Richard and Mildred Loving tried to get their conviction for miscegenation overturned (so that they could legally come back to Virginia), Judge Leon M. Bazile was having none of it:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.
Judge Bazile's decision says nothing about hating black people or even interracial couples. Yahoos on the street might have taunted Richard Loving as a "nigger lover", but the judge did no such thing. He just saw the sense in a Virginia law that upheld God's plan for the races.
Segregation. Opposition to school desegregation could be similarly respectful and devout. In 1958, Rev. Jerry Falwell preached a sermon "Segregation or Integration: Which?". (Like all of Falwell's pro-segregation sermons, this one is sadly unavailable online. Perhaps Liberty University might want to rectify this.) In it, he expressed his religious objection to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.
If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God's word and had desired to do the Lord's will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn the line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.
That polite-but-concerned religious defense of segregation goes all the way back to 1867, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court OK'd segregated passenger trains. Chief Justice Daniel Agnew wrote:
We declare a right to maintain separate relations, as far as is reasonably practicable, but in a spirit of kindness and charity, and with due regard to equality of rights, it is not prejudice, nor caste, nor injustice of any kind, but simply to suffer men to follow the law of races established by the Creator himself, and not to compel them to intermix contrary to their instincts.
Slavery. Even slavery had religious justifications, and the breakup of the Union was presaged by the splits in major religious denominations between Northern churches who found slavery immoral and Southern churches who taught that it was part of God's plan. AsJosiah Priest wrote in 1852:
"If God appointed the race of Ham judicially to slavery, and it were a heinous sin to enslave one, or all the race, how then is the appointment of God to go into effect? …. God does never sanction sin, nor call for the commission of moral evil to forward any of his purposes; wherefore we come to the conclusion, that is is not sinful to enslave the negro race, providing it is done in a tender, fatherly and thoughtful manner."
Hatred of men, or love of God? Like most people who oppose marriage equality for gays and lesbians today, past opponents of racial equality were not necessarily the screaming haters we see in the more dramatic videos from the civil rights movement. Far more were sedate and thoughtful people who were not aware of hating anyone. They just held a sincere belief — "in a spirit of kindness and charity", they would tell you — that blacks were an inferior race who were better off among their own kind, or perhaps under the "tender, fatherly and thoughtful" guidance of a white master.
Most believed that God agreed with them, and could cite you chapter and verse to prove it. Freeing the slaves, desegregating the schools, allowing interracial marriage — at the time, those changes were all seen as aggressions against the religion of large numbers of American Christians.
And it is a mistake to think that such beliefs are dead relics of an era long past. There are still white supremacist churches today. As the web site of Thomas Robb Ministries in Harrison, Arkansas puts it:
For the mission God has bestowed upon His chosen people, the white race, he requires their separation. They must honor their heritage, not despise it. Other races must honor their heritage as well. In a well ordered world, this is God's way.
Granted, such groups are small compared to the Catholics or Southern Baptists. But your First Amendment rights don't depend on the size of your congregation. If the religious freedom Ted Cruz wants for himself applies to Thomas Robb's parishioners as well, then of course the county clerk must be able to refuse a marriage license to an interracial couple.
Conservatism and progress. It's not hard to see why Cruz doesn't want to remember or identify with the historical tradition of social conservatism: When we look back from today's perspective, we see that the slavers and segregationists were wrong. Most of them were probably very nice people if you met them in the right circumstances, but they were wrong. They had sincerely held beliefs that were firmly anchored in their understanding of Christianity, but they were wrong.
So hardly anybody wants to claim their legacy today.
That's the general pattern of social conservatives and progress: Eventually, progress catches up to them as well, so they can look back and see that theprevious revolution in social practices and public morality was justified. The slaves should have been freed. Blacks should have been served at the Greensboro lunch counter. Women should be allowed to vote and run for office and enter the professions. (I didn't get into the religious arguments for keeping women in the kitchen, but trust me, they were plentiful, and are also still with us.)
But this time it's different! It always is. With no one left to defend them, our memory of the social conservatives of the past reduces to Simon Legree, KKK lynch mobs, police unleashing dogs and fire hoses against peaceful marchers, and the white rabble screaming obscenities at little black girls on their way to school. The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs.
Consequently, in every generation, the well-considered, devout bigotry of nice people is presented to the world as a new thing. They're nothing like the villains we recall from past social-justice movements. This time they have good reasons to block progress. They have looked deep into their souls and read their Bibles and taken it to the Lord in prayer. They don't hate anybody, they just believe that the world as it was when they were growing up was endorsed by God, and they want to stop today's amoral radicals from upsetting God's appointed order.
In other words, they are just like every generation of social conservatives before them. The analogy with Josiah Priest and Chief Justice Agnew and Judge Bazile and the young Jerry Falwell (who later reversed himself, removed his segregation sermons from circulation, and quietly pretended he had never believed anything else) could not be more apt.
Bigotry is not the same as hate. Bigotry just means believing that certain groups of people do not deserve the same kind of consideration you want for yourself. Their suffering and distress doesn't count, or they must have brought it on themselves in some obscure way. You don't have to hate those people any more than you hate your dog when you keep him penned in your yard, or hate your children when you make them eat something they hate. (The analogy of parents and children, in fact, was often applied by pro-slavery writers to the master/slave relationship. Husbands, similarly, needed to make decisions for their wives, because women were pure but unworldly creatures. That's what men loved about them.)
I don't know precisely why Ted Cruz or the four dissenting judges in Obergefellbelieve that gays and lesbians don't deserve the equal protection of the laws, but I doubt hate has much to do with it. It doesn't have to. The Tennessee clerks who resigned rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses — I'll bet they're nice people with sincere beliefs. But they're also bigots.
Conservatives blanch in horror at that word, when someone applies it to them. In Justice Alito's dissent, he imagines this dystopian future:
I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.
How unfair, that those who find their neighbors' relationships unworthy might themselves be examined and found wanting. How unfair, that they might be lumped together with the past bigots they so closely resemble. Don't we understand that it's different this time? That these are nice, thoughtful people of sincere beliefs?
We understand quite well.
Hidden residue. On the surface, bigotry against gays and lesbians may seem unrelated to racial bigotry. But when you deny your unattractive roots rather than repent and atone for them, their influence can linger in the back of your mind, occasionally peeking out at inopportune moments.
In an Alternet article picked up by Salon, Tim Wise called attention to the lingering racial bigotry implicit in some prominent denunciations of the recent marriage-equality ruling. Congressman Louie Gohmert, for example, warned of divine retribution:
God's hand of protection will be withdrawn [from America] as future actions from external and internal forces will soon make clear. I will do all I can to prevent such harm, but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.
Gohmert is far from the only person to make this point, and his statement contains no overt racism. But think about its implications: God kept the U.S. under His special protection and showered us with blessings while we committed genocide against the Native Americans and enslaved Africans by the millions. But as soon as we celebrate people of the same gender living together in loving, committed relationships, He's done with us.
I don't see an alternative to Wise's interpretation: Gohmert's statement only makes sense if you assume that the suffering of non-whites is beneath God's notice.
Wise goes on to discuss another Ted Cruz interview, this one with Sean Hannity. The Obergefell decision coming so closely on the heels of the Court's refusal to gut ObamaCare made for "some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation's history". ("I couldn't say it more eloquently," Hannity responded.)
Put aside the many-people-died events in American history (like Pearl Harbor or 9-11 or the bloodiest battles of the Civil War) and just restrict your attention to Supreme Court history. Cruz graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law, so I assume he knows about the Korematsu decision that OK'd putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps; and Dred Scott, where the Court declared blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect"; and the 1883 decision in the Civil Rights Cases, which gave the green light to Jim Crow. To be some of the darkest 24 hours in the Court's history, preserving ObamaCare and establishing marriage equality has to rank with those.
Again, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the suffering of non-whites just doesn't count. Wise draws his conclusion:
Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse.
You don't have to hate anybody to be bigoted against them. Believing that they don't count is more than enough.
Summing up. There's nothing new about nice, salt-of-the-Earth people who sincerely believe that certain other people are undeserving of empathy or respect or fair treatment. There's nothing new about those beliefs being expressed and justified in religious terms, or put forward by ministers and theologians.
Quite the opposite, that's the normal situation. Throughout American history, most people have been pretty nice — even the bigots. America has seen nice slaveholders, nice segregationists, nice male chauvinists. And from the beginning, we have been a religious people, who could not have lived with ourselves if we couldn't justify our bigoted beliefs in religious terms.
So we did, and we do. It's normal.
Bigotry has a long history in the United States. And while that tradition includes haters, they've never been the majority. Today's non-hateful bigots, with their sincere beliefs and their Biblical justifications, stand in a line that goes back to the beginnings of our nation. But the people in that line have consistently been wrong, and eventually even the people further up the line see it.
That's why they never claim their legacy or own the authenticity of their place in that line. But the rest of us don't have to humor their historical blindness. Bigotry today looks no different than bigotry 50 or 100 or 200 years ago. There's no reason to call it anything else.
What I paid the most attention to this week was the continuing backlash of social conservatives against marriage equality. One moment that stood out for me was when Ted Cruz was asked whether the "religious freedom" to resist same-sex marriage (which he was promoting) also could be used to resist interracial marriage. Outrageously, he replied that there is "no religious backing" for opposition to interracial marriage.
That sent me to the history books, including a fascinating recent one on how interracial marriage became legal, called Almighty God Created the Races by Fay Botham. The parallels in the arguments are quite striking, as Botham herself recognizes in the final chapter.
So why, I wondered, are the Ted Cruzs so resistant to claiming their social-conservative heritage? And why was Justice Alito so concerned that his fellow marriage-equality opponents might be called "bigots"? And I came to understand the reason: Our image of the bigots of the past is that the were all haters, like the mobs being held back by federal troops in Little Rock while they yelled obscenities at the little black children going to school. No wonder Ted Cruz and Sam Alito are offended to be lumped together with them.
But when you look back more thoroughly, you find that the vast majority of segregationists and male chauvinists and even slavery defenders were just like the marriage-equality opponents of today: not conscious of hating anyone, but sincerely believing — usually for reasons rooted in their religion — that certain people shouldn't be treated fairly, and that everyone will be better off if they remain unequal. In other words, most of the bigots of the past were probably nice folks, if you met them under the right circumstances — a lot like Ted Cruz and Sam Alito.
The result of that history project will be this week's featured post "You Don't Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot". It should be out around 9 or 10, EDT.
The weekly summary covers yesterday's referendum in Greece, which launches me into a reflection on how the we're-turning-into-Greece line the Tea Party was pushing a few years ago had the economics exactly backwards. There are still more Republican presidential candidates, and pundits are finding new reasons to ignore the huge crowds Bernie Sanders is drawing. Confederate flag defenders came out in force, but I don't think they did their cause much good. I quote a first-person response to Georgia's open-carry law, and a couple of great Bill Maher riffs. I'm still looking for a closing. So let's predict that to appear around noon.
The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.
— David Graeber, The Democracy Project (2013)
Both the country and the Sift had an amazing week. What was amazing for the country is outlined below. As for the Sift, it had the most page views of any week ever — more than 150K — led by a surge of interest in last August's post "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party". (Being extensively quoted at FireDogLake may have had something to do with that.) That article got more than 120K views this week, rocketing past "The Distress of the Privileged" to become the most popular post in Weekly Sift history. (Between them, those two posts account for slightly over half of the traffic since the Sift moved to WordPress in 2011.)
This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court
Thursday, the Court refused to gut ObamaCare, and Friday it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. I broke off one piece of my Court analysis into its own article: "Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy". Gay-rights advocates loved the rhetoric in Kennedy's majority opinion, but his reasoning was mushy and convoluted. He provided justification for the criticism that he was redefining marriage according to his own values, and he didn't establish a more general gay-rights precedent that was there for the taking in some of the lower-court rulings.
Roberts and polygamy. I was a little surprised that Chief Justice Roberts went for the polygamy cheap shot.
One immediate question invited by the majority's position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people. Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective "two" in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one.
If you've lived anywhere that allows same-sex marriage, you've seen that it's barely a leap at all. All the legal structure remains exactly the same, you just allow more people to access it. Polygamy OTOH opens up all kinds of complications, like: How does family health insurance work if you can add as many people to your family as you want? They may not be insuperable difficulties, but there's some thinking to be done.
But what really amazed me was that Roberts learned nothing from Justice Scalia's dissent in Lawrence, the case that threw out laws criminalizing sodomy in 2003. Scalia made a reduction-to-absurdity argument, claiming that the Court's reasoning would lead to same-sex marriage; since that would clearly be absurd, the Lawrenceruling must be absurd also. But instead, his dissent has been quoted again and again in subsequent years, making Scalia the inadvertent prophet of marriage equality.I don't expect to see legal polygamy anytime soon. But if it does happen, Roberts will be its inadvertent prophet.
Obamacare. For the second time — the first was three years ago — the Supreme Court refused to kill ObamaCare, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the opinion once again. This time he had Justice Kennedy with him, adding to the four liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor) to make a 6-3 decision. The far-right faction of the Court (Thomas, Alito, Scalia) united around a dissent written by Scalia in his trademark everyone-who-disagrees-with-me-is-an-idiot style (maybe best rendered as an emo song).
[BTW: I'll take some credit for being right about the outcome. When I examined this case last summer, I wrote: "I don't think they'll overturn the subsidies. The Roberts Court practices conservative activism, but prefers to do it by stealth. … I can imagine Thomas, Alito, and Scalia going that way, but Roberts and Kennedy will be reluctant."]
Like the previous legal attack on ObamaCare, this one was basically absurd. (In the 2012 case, a new legal theory was invented precisely for the purpose of killing ObamaCare, and got four justices to endorse it. Salon's Andrew Koppelman wrote: "The constitutional limits that the bill supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written." In fact, it gotfive justices: Roberts endorsed the theory, but re-interpreted the Affordable Care Act to avoid applying it.)
This challenge was more of a legal "gotcha" attack, claiming that the way one sentence was worded, the law didn't mean what everyone involved in the legislative process thought it meant and intended it to mean. As I explained last summer, the sentence establishing the subsidies to help people pay for health insurance refers to "exchanges established by the State", while 33 states let the federal government set up a healthcare exchange for them. So the plaintiffs in King v Burwell argued that the subsidies weren't valid in those states. As Roberts observed in his opinion, this would likely have started a "death spiral" of health insurance in the federal-exchange states: Without the subsidies, the individual mandate wouldn't apply to a large number of people, who then would wait until they got sick to get insurance. Insurance companies would raise their rates to compensate, pushing even more people out of the market, and so on.
According to former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who was lobbied heavily by the administration but ultimately voted against the ACA, the interpretation pushed by the plaintiffs was "never part of our conversations at any point". She attributed the disputed sentence to "inadvertent language".
Back when we had white presidents, Congress handled this kind of thing without getting the courts involved. It's not at all unusual to discover after a law is passed that some part of it isn't worded quite right. But these drafting errors are just fixed by new legislation, which usually passes without noticeable opposition. (No one has come up with an example of a major pre-Obama law that got skewered because of inadvertent language.) Similarly, it's typical for a complicated piece of legislation to need minor fixes to its procedures, and Congress used to simply recognize that the fixes made the law better, rather than seeing this as a chance to refight the original battle and scuttle everything.
But in Obama Era, Republicans in Congress practice an unprecedented scorched-earth opposition, and have abandoned all previous standards of fair play. So there is no chance of getting amending legislation passed. (This is also why Obama has had to do so much through executive order. No matter how sensible a procedural change is, Congress will not pass it. Obamacare delenda est!) So the law Congress originally passed is the one the Court has to work with. Like Obama, the Court had to decide whether to take on a larger role to compensate for Congressional dysfunction.
Fortunately, Roberts and Kennedy did the sensible thing. Looking at the option of canceling the subsidies in 33 states and throwing their insurance markets into chaos, Roberts wrote: "It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner."
And it is. No one who voted for the law has come forward saying s/he thought it meant what the plaintiffs claimed. And when the state legislatures were deciding whether or not to create healthcare exchanges, nobody argued that they were risking their citizens' subsidies.
Roberts' interpretation has an added bonus: One way the case could have come out (the way one of the appeals courts ruled) is that the sentence in question is "ambiguous", and so the Court would defer to the IRS' interpretation. But that would allow the next president to order the IRS to interpret the law differently. By finding on his own authority that the sentence means what the Obama administration has been saying, Roberts avoided that scenario.
So maybe now we can just let the law operate as intended. It seems to be doing pretty well.
and symbols of the Confederacy
When I wrote "Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag" last week, I had no idea how suddenly the ground would shift. I expected South Carolina's Republican majority to rally around that flag, leading to further protests like flag-burnings.
Well, within hours after I expressed that expectation, not only did Governor Haley ask the legislature to remove the flag from the capitol grounds, but a groundswell began to remove Confederate symbols across the South.Alabama Governor Bentley removed Confederate flags from a memorial on his state capitol's grounds. Tennessee started talking about removing the bust of KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest from its capitol. Mitch McConnell called for moving the statue of Jefferson Davis in Kentucky's capitol to a museum. Several governors said they'd eliminate the option of putting a Confederate flag emblem on state license plates. Statues people had been walking past obliviously for decades suddenly became issues in places like St. Louis and Kansas City.
On Facebook and various other forums, I've been amazed how quickly Confederate defenders jump to charges of "banning" Confederate symbols, which I don't think anybody is asking for, and which would violate the Constitution anyway. What we're asking is that governments stop endorsing the Confederacy, and that individuals and private institutions that endorse the Confederacy face criticism. It's your First Amendment right to fly any flag or put up any statue you want, but it's my First Amendment right to point out that you're promoting and celebrating racism.
The encouraging thing is how quickly the country seems to have lost patience with the mythology of the Confederacy's noble Lost Cause. President Obama summed it up in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Removing the flag from this state's capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America's history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.
The Confederacy fought to keep millions of African-Americans in slavery. There was no nobility to that cause. It was immoral and does not deserve to be remembered kindly or proudly. For decades, American leaders have tip-toed around those truths for fear of offending white Southerners — that's the real political correctness in this issue. Maybe that's over.
As for what to replace those Confederate monuments with: There's a real shortage of monuments to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped their masters and joined the army of the United States. No doubt every Confederate State has such a black hero. You can impugn the motives of many of the Northerners who fought, but these Southern blacks were the real freedom fighters of the Civil War.
Let's not overestimate the importance of these symbolic moves. But they seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. As David Graeber has said (see quote above), political common sense can change very suddenly. It gives me hope for issues that seem hopelessly jammed today, like serious action on climate change.
and you also might be interested in …
It's really hard to imagine how Obama could have picked up all that Christian theology at his madrassa in Indonesia. But seriously, I think people who assume authentic Christianity belongs to conservatives will be stunned.
I'll be interested to see if we hear more of this change: Where presidents have been ending their speeches with "God bless America", Obama ended this one with: "May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America." It is a more humble usage, less amenable to American exceptionalism.
Ted Cruz is calling for Texas clerks to express their "religious freedom" by not processing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Hmmm. Would he support a clerk expressing his religious freedom by refusing to process gun-owner licenses?
Now that they're not allowed to discriminate against gays, at least two Alabama counties have stopped issuing marriage licenses entirely. Good luck with that. I'm sure this principled civil disobedience will bring gay rights advocates to their knees. Personally, I am quivering at the thought that opposite-sex Alabama couples who can't get married will blame me rather than their local officials.
I have already expressed my sympathy with the Bernie Sanders campaign. But if you are tempted to forward some of those anti-Hillary social media messages, you might want to explore where they come from. You might be carrying water for some right-wing group that is trying to turn Democrats against each other.
and let's close with a inter-species musical jam
Who knew elephants could boogie? Actually, elephant intelligence is remarkable, and ought to be studied further. For example, elephants are one of the few species that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror. Unfortunately, elephant labs tend to be rather expensive, so for the foreseeable future we'll understand white rats a whole lot better.
Here's a question somebody ought to know the answer to: If elephants have a sense of rhythm, does that mean they'll get in step with each other on long migrations?
Maybe the best treatment of racial slurs ever to appear in a movie was this scene from the 2006 film Clerks 2. Randall, a fast-food worker, can't understand whyporch monkey is racist: When his non-racist grandmother used to say it, he claims, she just meant "a lazy person" not "a lazy black person". After a black customer (played by Wanda Sykes) freaks, Randall's friend Dante finally convinces him thatporch monkey really is a racial slur (and maybe Randall's grandmother had more racial prejudice than he remembered). But then Randall decides he's going to "take it back"; he's going to keep saying porch monkey, but reclaim it by using it in a non-racist way. A frustrated Dante explains to Randall that he can't reclaim porch monkey, "because you're not black!"
"Well listen to you," Randall responds. "Telling me I can't do something because of the color of my skin? You're the racist."
Randall's obtuseness and Dante's exasperation are funny, but Randall's view is not that different from a lot of white men: Why are the rules different for us? Black rappers say nigger all the time, but when we do it's racist. Meredith Brooks can name a song "Bitch" and Christina Aguilera can up the ante to "Super Bitch". But when a guy says "bitch", it's sexist. A female writer like Lisa Miller can title her New York Magazine article "Hillary Clinton Finally Has Permission to be a Bitch" and it's supposed to be, like, liberating or something. But when Glenn Beck referred to Clinton — the same woman! — as a "stereotypical bitch", that was objectionable.
What's up with that? When blacks and women can say and do things that white men can't, isn't that a double standard? And as Randall says, aren't the liberals who promote that double standard the real racists and sexists?
In a word, no. But in real life — particularly when an example springs up unexpectedly, like Randall's porch monkey — explaining why can be frustrating. A whole branch of the media is devoted to promoting what I have elsewhere calledprivileged distress, the feeling among white men — and Christians and English-speakers and the rich and every other privileged class in America — that they are really the persecuted ones. Their supporting examples and arguments and ways of framing the situation come easily to mind, while the explanations of why that's the wrong way to look at it require some thought.
So let's do some of that thinking.
Banter or insult? When blacks say "Hey, nigger" or "What's up, nigger?" to each other, that's banter. But if a white man like me walks up to a black and says, "What's up, nigger?", it's an insult — even if I'm smiling and friendly when I do it. Why? There's actually a color-blind rule here that's fairly simple: An insult can be friendly banter if it can be thrown right back at you.
The reason it can be banter when one black guy says nigger to another is that the other guy can respond, "Who you calling nigger, nigger?" That doesn't work when the white guy says it.
It's not a double standard, because the same rule applies to me in exactly the same way. At my 40th high school reunion last fall, we were constantly making fun of how old we've gotten. Picture me with a too-full beer stein, and a classmate saying "Hey, old man, you sure you can lift that? Don't want to hurt yourself." It's banter, and everyone laughs, because we're all the same age.
But now imagine that the handsome and athletic young guy tending bar says the same thing to me as he serves the drink: "Hey, old man. You sure you can lift that? Don't want to hurt yourself." Now those are fighting words. He's thrown an insult at me that I can't throw right back. Now I've got something to prove.
The same rule applies all over: Fat people can kid each other about their weight. Tyrion Lannister can tell dwarf jokes. It's not a double standard.
There are no white male equivalents. Sometimes you'll hear people banter, not by throwing the same insult back and forth, but by using insults that are more-or-less equivalent. Picture two white guys at a bar, taunting each other in a friendly way with dago and pollock.
Some white guys think they should be able to use nigger the same way. The other guy can throw honky or cracker back at us, so it's all good. Here's the problem:honky and cracker are in no way equivalent to nigger.
If you just look them up in a dictionary you might think they are equivalent: honky is a racial slur directed at whites, nigger at blacks. What's the difference?
Nigger has centuries of usage behind it, and the connotation of that usage is that blacks are a subhuman race. Nigger evokes a detailed stereotype — lazy, stupid, violent, lustful, dangerous — while honky just says you're a white guy I don't like. For centuries, niggers weren't really people. There's no equivalent word for whites, because whites have always been seen as people.
If that example of the importance of usage doesn't ring true for you, look at a different example: cow and bull. If you had recently arrived from Mars, where you learned English out of a dictionary, you might think that cow and bull are equivalent insults for women and men: Each compares a human to a bovine of the same gender.
But those words have centuries of usage behind them, and so they connote very different different ideas. Calling a woman a cow implies that she's fat, lazy, and stupid, probably good for nothing but whelping and suckling babies. Calling a man abull, on the other hand, is a compliment. He's powerful and headstrong. A running back can bull his way over the goal line, while someone who gets intimidated out of making a legitimate claim has been cowed.
Likewise, a Martian might think that prick and cunt are equivalent insults: They each identify a person with his or her genitalia. But a prick is a minor annoyance, while acunt is a subhuman who is only good for sex. You might have an argument with aprick, but talking to a cunt is just stupid.
In short: No way, no how can white men banter with nigger. Neither the word itself nor any equivalent insult can be thrown back at us. Ditto for bitch or cow or cunt. A woman can shoot back with prick, asshole, bastard, or jerk, but it's just not the same.
Taboos vs. stereotypes. White guys like Rush Limbaugh treat slurs as if they were taboos — words we're not supposed to say just because we're not supposed to say them, like shit or fuck. There's no reason for it, it's just a rule. Worse, it's a rule that's not applied fairly: Only white guys get called to account when they break it.
Consequently, white guys make slurs the object of bad-boy humor. Limbaugh thinks he is being brave and daring when he calls Sandra Fluke a slut. And he thinks he's being clever when he finds ways to come as close as possible to saying nigger without actually saying it. (It's like those I-didn't-really-say-a-bad-word jokes we told in grade school: "What did the fish say when he swam into a concrete wall?" "Dam!")
That's what white guys — and a few non-white guys who are trying too hard to fit in — mean when they brag that they're "not PC". It's a James Dean pose: I'm a rebel. I can't be bound by your arbitrary rules about what words I can or can't say.
What's wrong with that attitude is that society's distaste for slurs is not a meaningless taboo. There are at least two good reasons for it:
- In any disagreement or discussion, using a slur is cheating: You're hitting your opponent with a club they can't use to hit you back.
- Every time you use a slur, you perpetuate the stereotypes it invokes. Calling a black person a nigger raises the notion — whether you're thinking about it consciously or not — that blacks are subhumans who don't deserve equal treatment. Calling a woman a cunt reinforces the idea that women are just good for sex, and don't have to be treated like thinking beings.
The various disadvantaged communities are all debating whether or not it's ever OK to use the slurs themselves. Some argue that when black rappers use nigger, they jam the stereotype rather than perpetuate it. Some women believe that sayingbitch is liberating, because it shows the word doesn't scare them. Others disagree, believing that any use of a slur promotes its stereotypes.
I think this: Those issues are for those communities to figure out. In the unlikely event that they ask my advice, I might give it. But until then, my opinion as a white guy doesn't and shouldn't matter.
Words as words. Now, somebody is bound to point out that in my discussion of why white guys shouldn't use nigger, bitch, and cunt, I've used nigger, bitch, andcunt. Isn't that liberal hypocrisy? Aren't I just waving my liberal privilege in Rush's face, saying "I can say it but you can't!"?
I plead not guilty. There is a difference between using a word and referring to a word. I haven't been talking about "the niggers", I've been referring to the wordnigger.
Why is that OK? Once again, these are not taboos. There's no dark magic in the letters that is unleashed whenever they are put together. The power is in the use, not in the pronunciation.
That distinction is too complex for children, so we teach them not to use the words by presenting them as taboo. And this creates problems for children, as when the tattle-tale blurts out: "Teacher, Billy said shit."
Likewise in the mass media, where children might be listening and might regard the speaker as an authoritative example — "But Mommy, the man on the radio said it." — we insist on circumlocutions like the N-word. But when adults talk to other adults as adults, we need to be able to name the words we're referring to. Otherwise you wind up in situations like the stoning scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Obama on WTF. So now we come to President Obama's interview on the podcast "WTF with Marc Maron", where he said:
Racism, we are not cured of it. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.
It was disappointing to say the least to hear such a vulgarity come out of the mouth of the leader of the free world.
But there you have it folks – this is man who was supposed to usher in the post-racial America. This is the man who was supposed to unite, not divide.
What President Obama said is indefensible. It soils the dignity of the Oval Office.
That's a reaction to breaking a taboo: It would be appropriate if Obama had saidfuck or shit. We don't want our president saying crap like that.
But look at it in light of my previous analysis: We have a black man referring to the N-word in a forum not intended for children. It's fine.
Fox' David Webb raises this question:
Could you imagine if a Ted Cruz or somebody on the Republican side used it, in the same context, what the reaction would be.
You mean referring to it, in a discussion of racism intended for adults? I'd be fine with it.
Glee. What I'm not fine with is what Ted Nugent did: Use Obama's example as an argument in favor of slurs and offensive symbols in general.
What sort of politically correct zombie could actually believe that the elimination of a word or a flag would reduce the evil of racism?
What sort of goofball could possibly believe that certain words are OK for one group of people but forbidden by others?
That, by the way, is the definition of racism.
I'm sure Ted and Randall could have a long talk about that, but no, it isn't.
There's something gleeful in Nugent's usage of nigger, and that right there is the final test I'd recommend to any white person who's thinking about saying it: You might think you're referring to the word in the analytic way I have endorsed. But while analysis may at times be satisfying or even fascinating, it is almost never gleeful.
So if the word tastes delicious in your mouth, if saying it feels like a forbidden pleasure, something else is going on. Maybe you should reconsider.
By all means, celebrate. But, looking to future gay-rights cases, Justice Kennedy gave us more rhetoric than precedent.
Friday, the Supreme Court ended the decades-long legal debate on marriage equality, making same-sex marriage legal for the entire nation in Obergefell v Hodges. Across the country, supporters of gay rights were jubilant as they read to each other delicious paragraphs out of Justice Kennedy's majority opinion. But I have a complaint: Justice Kennedy got the right result for the wrong reasons, and that will eventually cost us.
Not in other marriage cases — that's over, just like everybody says. But Kennedy's soaring rhetoric about the dignity of gay relationships wasn't supported by a sound legal framework that we can use in, say, employment equality cases.
The DOMA hangover. As regular Sift readers know, I have mixed feelings about Justice Kennedy, particularly on the subject of gay rights. He tends to rule the way I want, and he's often the swing vote that puts my position over the top. But being the swing vote, he usually ends up writing the majority opinion, and he writes it badly. That's what happened when the Court threw out the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) two years ago, which I covered (along with Chief Justice Roberts' hamstringing of the Voting Rights Act) in an article I demurely called "This Court Sucks". And it happened again Friday.
The reason Obergefell came to the Court in the first place was that lower courts could not follow Kennedy's mushy reasoning in the DOMA case. The Supreme Court is supposed to do more than just decide the current case, it's supposed provide interpretive frameworks for lower courts to apply, so that future cases can be decided without involving the Supremes again. But when Judge Kean was throwing out Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriage, for example, he wrote that he had "gleaned" — not quoted, gleaned — two principles from Kennedy's DOMA opinion. Other courts gleaned other principles and disagreed, so the highest court had to sort it out.
This time, Kennedy has made marriage equality the law of the land, but he's done it with another piece of mushy reasoning that is a poor climax to the distinguished series of lower-court decisions supporting same-sex marriage, going all the way back to the 2003 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts. Instead of following the compelling logic laid out by one lower court after another, Kennedy's opinion looks like exactly what critics of marriage equality say it is: a judge redefining marriage according to his own values. His ruling is full of beautiful tributes to the dignity of same-sex couples, but short on the kind of step-by-step legal thinking you can find in the lower-court rulings, which I summarized last month.
Due process isn't enough. Every pro-marriage-equality judge I know of, other than Kennedy, has centered the argument on the 14th Amendment's guarantee of "the equal protection of the laws". As I summarized:
In practice, that phrase has been interpreted to mean that if the government treats some people differently than others, it has to have a good reason. The more significant the discrimination, the weightier the reason needs to be.
That's why laws that provide a marriage option to opposite-sex couples but deny it to same-sex couples are in trouble: because it's increasingly hard to say what legitimate reason the government might have for that discrimination.
… So the claim that gays and lesbians want to "redefine marriage" has it exactly backwards. During the last century-and-a-half, marriage has already been redefined. And in marriage as it exists today — rather than during the Revolution or the Civil War — what's our justification for refusing its advantages to same-sex couples?
Instead, Kennedy focuses on the 14th Amendment's due-process clause, and finds a fundamental right to marry in the word liberty. His rhetoric is inspiring if you already agree with him, but if you don't, his reasoning isn't compelling. The dissents by Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Alito eviscerate his argument, and rightly so.
Kennedy's biggest problem is that the Constitution doesn't require governments, either federal or state, to recognize marriage at all. (If Oregon wanted to become "the free love state" and stop performing marriages entirely, that would be up to Oregonians.) Liberty traditionally means being left alone by the government, not that the government must help you in some way. So Roberts makes an argument that appears in some form in all the dissents:
Our cases have consistently refused to allow litigants to convert the shield provided by constitutional liberties into a sword to demand positive entitlements from the State.
The question Kennedy should have raised is: Once the State has defined the "positive entitlement" of marriage for some people, what's its justification for denying those benefits to others? But that's an equal-protection issue, not a liberty issue.
In short: the ruling came out the right way, but the people who still want to hold out against marriage equality feel vindicated in their view that the Court has usurped the power of the legislative branch by "redefining marriage". It didn't have to be like this. Why, oh why, couldn't Justice Ginsburg have written this ruling?
Why it's important. The lower courts nearly all used the equal-protection framework: Define a level of scrutiny appropriate to laws that discriminate against gays, and then examine the government's reasons for discriminating under that level of scrutiny. One of the issues to decide, if you go that way, is whether gays and lesbians are a class that has traditionally faced discrimination, and so how much benefit of the doubt a legislature or electorate should get as to its motives.
Racial discrimination, for example, faces the highest level of scrutiny. As a matter of judicial precedent, laws that discriminate against traditionally disadvantaged racial groups are inherently suspect. Similarly, laws that discriminate against women are inherently suspect. It's possible that some particular race- or gender-discriminating law can be justified, but a court will not give the government any benefit of the doubt.
The traditional discrimination against gays and lesbians certainly would justify giving laws against them some heightened level of scrutiny, but the Supreme Court has never done so. Kennedy doesn't do so either.
Pro-marriage-equality judges who don't invoke heightened scrutiny are forced to give the legislative branch the benefit of the doubt. And so they end up having to argue that same-sex marriage bans are completely irrational. That argument has been made, and was sitting there for Kennedy to endorse. He didn't.
Going either way would have established a precedent for fighting other anti-gay discrimination: Either anti-gay discrimination would face heightened scrutiny in the future, or there would be a precedent for saying that certain kinds of anti-gay discrimination are irrational.
Instead, Justice Kennedy gave us just this result, justified by a lot of effusive rhetoric that has no further legal consequences.
The "threat to American democracy". All four dissents lamented a judicial usurpation of powers properly belonging to the democratic branches — which is in fact a fair criticism of the argument Kennedy made. The place for flowery rhetoric is in the legislature or on the campaign trail. But it wouldn't have been a fair criticism of the equal-protection argument Kennedy avoided.
Dahlia Lithwick raised the right question:
And all I could keep thinking was, "Where was all this five unelected judges chatter when you all handed down Citizens United? Or Shelby County? Why does this rhetoric about five elitist out-of-touch patrician fortune-cookie writers never stick when you're in the five?"
The most-quoted Roberts line was:
Indeed, however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause.
If you're a straight person very distant from the gay community, this might sound convincing. But if you imagine yourself in the place of a same-sex couple, it isn't convincing at all. Would you rather have widespread social approval ten years from now, or the equal protection of the laws today? The answer is pretty obvious.
The comparison to interracial marriage is apt. XKCD draws the chart:
Our fellow citizens are being persuaded of the justice of marriage equality — not, for the most part, by referendum campaigns, but by living in society with same-sex couples. That process will continue apace.
In these the-sky-will-fall-if-we-allow-this situations, most people have to see something in action before they realize the panic-mongers are conning them. As I predicted back in 2003:
Personally, I expect the same-sex marriage issue to follow the same course as interracial marriage. After a few years of Chicken-Little panic, the vast majority of Americans will recognize that the sky has not fallen, and that the new rights of homosexuals have come at the expense of no one.
Today, no one cares how interracial couples got the right to marry. Most young people have trouble believing it was ever an issue. (Have you ever tried to explain to a teen-ager why his friend's parents' marriage would have been illegal 50 years ago? I have.) So it will be for same-sex marriage.