Can We Ever Lance This Boil?

One of the people whose writing I very much admire is Phil Gulley. I first encountered his essays in The Indianapolis Monthly, but I subsequently learned that he contributes to a number of other venues, and recently I came across a really profound piece he wrote for Salon.

These paragraphs, particularly, struck me:

The merit of a position can be gauged by the temperament of its supporters, and these days the NRA reminds me of the folks who packed the courtroom of the Scopes monkey trial, fighting to preserve a worldview no thoughtful person espoused. This worship of guns grows more ridiculous, more difficult to sustain, and they know it, hence their theatrics, their parading through Home Depot and Target, rifles slung over shoulders. Defending themselves, they say. From what, from whom? I have whiled away many an hour at Home Depots and Targets and never once come under attack.

What drives this fanaticism? Can I venture a guess? Have you noticed the simultaneous increase in gun sales and the decline of the white majority? After the 2010 census, when social scientists predicted a white minority in America by the year 2043, we began to hear talk of “taking back our country.” Gun shops popped up like mushrooms, mostly in the white enclaves of America’s suburbs and small towns. One can’t help wondering if the zeal for weaponry has been fueled by the same dismal racism that has propelled so many social ills.

Although I agree with Gulley about guns, I think I responded so strongly to these  paragraphs because I have become increasingly despondent about the unbelievable (at least to me) resurgence in overt racism since the election of Barack Obama.

Let me get a couple of caveats out of the way first: yes, it is perfectly possible to disagree with President Obama without being a racist. Not every such disagreement, or strong criticism, is fueled by racist animus. And although the election of a black President is not, unfortunately, a sign that we are a post-racial society, it is a sign that America has made progress.

That said, after Obama’s election, and before he even took office, the rocks lifted and what crawled out should shame us all.

It began with internet “jokes” about watermelons and “uppity” African-Americans, with Fox News “commentators” charging that Obama was the “real racist” and vast amounts of similar garbage that fed the accusations of the “birthers” (a black man by definition couldn’t be a “real American”). Long-time bigots like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had a field day, as we might have expected, but the pushback we also should have expected wasn’t exactly resounding.

It has become acceptable again to share racist sentiments in “polite company”–to tell “jokes” or make aspersions that had previously (and thankfully) gone underground.

And so here we are.

A California man claims he was defending himself last year when he ran over a black man, killing him, following an altercation outside McDonalds.

Joseph Paul Leonard Jr. burned rubber for 23 feet before crashing into 34-year-old Toussaint Harrison during the June 6, 2013 incident, reported the Sacramento Bee.

Leonard, now 62, got out of his pickup and kicked Harrison several times in the head with his steel-toed work boots, authorities said.

“Just because we got Obama for a president, these people think they are real special,” Leonard said after his arrest.

These people.

When the President nominated Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder, twitter feeds exploded with racist comments. White supremacists recently rallied outside Dallas, “to protect the American way of life.” George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missiouri.  A noose around the neck of a statue of a famous civil rights figure at the University of Mississippi. The list could go on for pages–indeed, examples routinely dot my Facebook feed, as friends post everything from insensitive behaviors to horrifying incidents–most accompanied by sentiments like “words fail.”

Words do fail.

I understand that people resent losing privilege and hegemony. I recognize that social change can be profoundly disorienting, and that the gun-toting, race-baiting bullies are frightened and lost. But ultimately, the bullies aren’t the problem. The “nice” people who forward the emails, who chuckle approvingly at the “jokes,” who claim to hate the President because he’s an unAmerican Nazi-socialist and not because he’s black, the elected officials who have made it their sole mission is to keep this President from achieving anything, no matter how good for the country, no matter that their party thought of it first–those people are the problem.

And Houston, we really, really have a problem.




Watch Out for the Backlash

When people talk about “backlash,” they are generally referring to a reaction to something–an effort to undo or reverse a previous change.

Backlash is thus the proper term to apply to the movement that began in the mid-1960s, in reaction to social disruption caused by anti-war activism, feminism and the civil rights movement. Middle-class whites, especially but not exclusively in the South, resented the erosion of their social dominance and banded together to fight what they saw as the increasing secularization and liberalism of American society.

Paranoid fringe groups like the John Birch Society and similar “patriot” and  “Christian” groups gradually took over the national GOP. Political scientists tell us that Reagan’s election in 1980 solidified right-wing conservative efforts to transform the political landscape of America. Since 1980, the GOP has become less and less genuinely conservative—and more and more radically reactionary.

African-Americans understand the implications of this takeover (much more on that in tomorrow’s blog). I’m not so sure that LGBT folks do.

After all, although the racism at the heart of the backlash has become impossible to ignore,the  LGBT community is celebrating years of increasing acceptance. Same-sex marriages are widely if not universally recognized, and a majority of Americans support them. Popular culture is inclusive and affirming. Civil rights are being extended, albeit slowly.

As a recent post from The Daily Beast noted, “Today, unlike ever before, most Americans have openly gay friends, colleagues, and family members, and most approve of same-sex relationships. Young people are overwhelmingly gay-friendly, leaving little doubt which way the trends are going.”

So, as Alfred E. Neumann (Google it) used to say, “What—Me Worry?”

As the Daily Beast and other sources have reported, however, this rosy picture has plenty of thorns:

  • The Texas Republican Party has officially endorsed so-called “reparative therapy,” a quack regimen that reputable psychiatry roundly condemns. (How considerate! The Texas GOP wants to ensure the availability of “therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.”)
  • In Oklahoma, a conservative candidate for the state House of Representatives, has quoted Biblical passages that (he says) prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals. On a Facebook post, he wrote “I think we would be totally in the right to do it.”
  • Mississippi just passed a measure being considered in several other states that would “protect religious liberty” by allowing people to act on their “sincere religious convictions” by refusing to do business with gay clients or customers.

More disturbing, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently broke what had been a string of pro-equality federal appellate rulings and upheld state bans on same-sex marriage, giving hope to those who want to roll back the clock on LGBT rights.

As I look out at our increasingly contentious, toxic political environment, I see a distressing number of frightened, old, furious, deeply threatened white heterosexual males. On my good days, I interpret their hysterical reaction to social change—their racism, their homophobia, their sexism—as the “last throes” of the old order of things. A backlash with unfortunate but ultimately temporary effects.

On my bad days, I worry that the vast amounts of money they are spending, the religious “authority” they are wielding/perverting, and their fanatic persistence will carry the day.

Progress is not a given.


Beating That Dead Horse….

I know, I know….this blog has become a venue for breast-beating and hand-wringing and other elements of my increasingly curmudgeonly analysis of our collective civic IQ. (Ironically, if the people who comment here are representative of those who read my rants, they don’t need the lectures. I guess it’s the ultimate “preaching to the choir.”)


A reader sent me a link to an NPR story that makes a really important point about the content of civic knowledge.

According to the National Council for Social Studies, the goal of social studies is to promote civic competence, or the knowledge and intellectual skills to be active participants in public life. Yet, engaging with the most complex public issues of our time—biodiversity, climate change, water scarcity, obesity, energy, and HIV/AIDS—also requires a deep understanding of the scientific process.

I’d settle for a cursory understanding of what science is. And isn’t.

Turn on your television, or even worse, read the letters to the editor in your local paper, and you will encounter–ad nauseum–mindless repetition of the “evolution is just a theory” meme, displaying total ignorance of how the use of the term by scientists differs from its use in everyday language. Ask students what falsification means, and you will get blank stares.

Ignorance of the most basic definition/methodology of science may not have been problematic back when most Americans were still on the farm, and the policy issues we faced did not require a working understanding of things like net neutrality, climate change, the human genome, etc. It is more than problematic now.

And scientifically illiterate voters have just empowered a bunch of aggressively scientific illiterate politicians to decide those policies and make those decisions.

It’s truly terrifying.

What Is Wage Theft?

I will admit that until very recently, I’d never heard the term “wage theft,” but it’s a term that I’ve come across fairly frequently in the context of the current debate over raising the minimum wage, so I consulted Dr. Google.

Basically, “wage theft” applies to situations where an employer doesn’t follow applicable wage and/or hour laws–either paying an employee for less time than s/he worked, or at a rate below the legal minimum.

A landmark survey survey of thousands of low-wage workers in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago found that 26 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage the week before they were interviewed. According to the 2009 report by the National Employment Law Project and two other groups, 76 percent of the workers who put in more than 40 hours did not get paid or were underpaid the required time-and-a-half overtime rate. About 17 percent of the workers put in unpaid time “off the clock” before or after their shifts, another violation. In the three cities alone, the study estimated, low-paid workers were losing more than $56.4 million per week to wage theft.

As one reporter noted, the central problem in enforcing wage and hour laws is that they are basically driven by the filing of a complaint, and most people earning less than minimum wage are understandably unwilling to risk their jobs by complaining, even assuming they know they have that right.

The impact of even a little “skimming” by employers can be significant.

The Economic Policy Institute calculates: “When a worker earns only a minimum wage ($290 for a 40-hour week), shaving a mere half hour a day from the paycheck means a loss of more than $1,400 a year, including overtime premiums. That could be nearly 10 percent of a minimum-wage employee’s annual earnings—the difference between paying the rent and utilities or risking eviction and the loss of gas, water, or electric service.” Overall, according to projections based on surveys of low-wage workers, “wage theft is costing workers more than $50 billion a year.”

In our downsized, privatized, anti-government environment, I guess having adequate personnel to enforce wage laws is just too much to expect.

Why is it I think that if pervasive theft was hurting employers rather than workers, the response would be different?


Worse Than I’ve Been Telling You

There’s a jaw-dropping video making the rounds of Facebook, Twitter, et al. It shows several Texas Tech students being stopped on campus and asked questions that any American should be able to answer. In our sleep.

Who won the civil war? Who is the Vice-President of the United States? From whom did the U.S. win independence?

I know I get tiresome on the subject of civic ignorance, but these students–college students at a reputable university–are so embarrassing it is hard to believe this wasn’t staged (and even harder to understand how they gained admittance. Evidently, Texas Tech is not what you’d call selective.)

Not only were the students unable to answer the simplest questions about American history (one of them, upon being asked who’d won the civil war asked “who fought in that war?” Another asked “was that in the 1960s?”), but–to add insult to injury–they could all give the names of both actresses Brad Pitt had married, and the name of the television program on which someone named “Snookie” had appeared.

This does answer a persistent question of mine: namely, what kind of people elect buffoons like Louis Gohmert?

And it certainly explains why Texas is my go-to source when I need examples of stupid public policy to use in my classrooms.

As uninformed as many of my undergraduate students are, I truly do not believe that a similar effort on the IUPUI campus would yield such a collection of pitifully ignorant and utterly shallow responses.

I hope to hell I’m right about that, because otherwise, America is over.