Wisdom from RuPaul

Time Magazine recently published an interview with RuPaul, the celebrated drag star, and one exchange in that interview struck me as particularly perceptive and politically relevant.

The interviewer had noted that millennials “take a harder line on issues of identity” and are “a bit more affronted by the sort of wordplay and free-associative identity play central to drag.” RuPaul’s response wasn’t only wise and adult, it also put into words the proper approach to an issue that has been increasingly nagging at me.

I think the Trump era will wipe that out. To be that particular about words, you have to be in a place where you’re not under attack. I believe that those same people, right now, are so under attack that ain’t nobody got time to be dealing with “Did you call me a he or a she?” That is going to change real fast. When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies. And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident. The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, “Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?” That’s how you differentiate. That’s the real thing.

Pick your battles. When you fight everything, you win nothing.

I am a “mature” (okay, old) Jewish woman. I went to law school and entered the profession at a time when women lawyers were rare and anti-Semitism (while somewhat more genteel than the “alt-right” variety that Trump has encouraged) was common. What I learned was what I will hereafter call the “RuPaul” lesson: there is a difference between unintended offense that is a result of being socialized at a different time, or into a different set of cultural expectations, and bigotry.

As the first woman hired at a large law firm, I experienced plenty of insensitivity–comments that today, those same people would see as cringe-worthy. I also encountered  misogyny. There was a difference.

The same distinction applied to anti-Semitism. Most people who used phrases like “he jewed me down,” for example, were simply unaware of how offensive that phrase was, how much it incorporated hateful stereotypes.

If I had failed to differentiate between behaviors and attitudes that were a result of ignorance or insensitivity and those motivated by misogyny or prejudice, I wouldn’t have been a very effective lawyer–or member of society. More importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to educate people who inadvertently gave offense–to explain, nicely, just why that phrase or that stereotype might be sending a message that I knew they really didn’t intend.

I mention my own experience, because I think it speaks to the emergence of what I would characterize as identity politics on steroids. Women and minorities of all kinds are increasingly quick to take offense, quick to lash out angrily against real or asserted examples of privilege, “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.” Often the criticism (if not necessarily its tone and volume) is warranted. Often it isn’t.

The issue of privilege is real and important. Pointing it out is legitimate. (My jury is still out on the contemporary frenzy over “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.”) But whatever their merits, I can’t help thinking that these battles aren’t the ones we should be picking while Trump and his enablers are looting our country and trashing our Constitution.

Here’s the thing: right now, nothing is more important than ejecting Republicans from Congress in 2018. If Democrats take the House in 2018, they can halt the daily assault on economic and environmental regulations and civil rights laws, begin to reverse America’s ignominious performance in world affairs, and elect a new Speaker to replace Ryan.

If that doesn’t happen, the damage done by 2020 may well be irreversible.

Right now, Democrats, liberals, moderates and sane Republicans need to focus on the big picture. We need to remember the old admonition not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We need to stop criticizing people on our side for inadvertence or insensitivity or less-than-perfect policy preferences, and save our ammunition for the people whose animus is intentional–people who pose a clear and present danger to American values and institutions.

We need to listen to RuPaul: When you’re under attack, when it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies.


  1. Very insightful answer from RuPaul and thank you for sharing it and reminding us that we really do need to pick our battles. I have actually been trying to be mindful of doing this since the election and inauguration.

    I have witnessed a lot of silence about trump from the masses who voted for him, bit there are still those that are so full of hatred that they cannot stop themselves from trying to keep their allies upset. The extreme trump supporters that are left seem to be yelling louder and louder as their fellow voters drop away.

    Kind of reminds me of the extreme evangelicals that keep doing the same thing as they lose their sheep. They use fear even more frequently than they had been just to try to maintain their power over others. It doesn’t work in the long run.

  2. Amen, and we need to assess the damage already done and focus on what is possible from where we are.
    We are in a much different place than we were before the election and the speed of change is much more a factor.
    There are many times during the history of civilization that one can point to where change did not come through politics and this beloved country of ours seems to be approaching its first.

  3. But pick your allies carefully. Most true Progressives aren’t just picking any Democrat that comes along, and I think most people, Progressive or not, are sick of having to vote for the lesser of two evils. We will never find perfect, but Democrats can do much better than they have done.

  4. Why is this country, especially “our” government officials, so obsessed with sex – in any and all of it’s forms? I have often hoped for the opportunity to ask a homophobe outright; “What is your preferred sexual position, were you a virgin when you married, do you watch porn, do you masturbate, do you have sex outside of your marriage or your same-sex relationship?” If the sex life of others is deemed to be the business of others making judgement calls and “our” government passing laws against any select group of sexually identified individuals – their full sexual identification, preferences, history and current sex lives should be our business. Sauce for the goose – sauce for the gander.

  5. And when democrats retake the reins of government, they must reject the style of leadership that appears to many as if they are trying to govern on eggshells. Recent democratic administrations have permitted their fear of injuring micro-elements of society to seem to totally paralyze government. Often leaders must choose policies that have rough edges, and deal with the few unintended consequences later. When citizens perceive that their leaders are letting the phantom perfect legislation get in the way of real problem solving, they will eventually revolt, which is my analysis of what happened in the election of 2016.

  6. when we vote today its mainly on a pet issue,and sans the rest,.maybe too focused on words,and ideals.Sure we have been electing offcials who use words carefully,and with caution. heres where we miss the between the line answers. we need to have a page where theres no mistake on intent. When a person wants to join office, heres the questions,in a form,with answers in long hand by the person seeking office. no come ons,no wordspeak,,,,,the answer.if you have watched trumps spew about draining the swamp in washington,he never did say who or what the swamp was,and now its obvious,we were the swamp. Im sure were all tired of electing people,who today enter office with a chip on their shoulder and a mind given them that the voter picked me because I,can decide the answer. Heres where we failed to keep the elected official in check. democracy,you work with the majority of your constituents and vote to OUR majority in congress. The Iraq war would have never happened. again,we the people lost our voice to politicians,and our own country. These few words, seem so far gone,”we the people”. we need to elect people who will return us to the progressive society we are,and sans the words of ignorance. Make it imperitive that the person entering the halls of congress never give a generic answer to a constituent,(we never had a generic reply from a politician,right?) make them tow the line,and answer in a real time. I write my legislatures here in NoDak, they honestly believe they have no accounting to the people,other than the grandstanding with the few,over the needs of the many. Our legislature both senate and congress in washington are a prime example of how to loose the people,and support the corprate needs of any state.all with a few cheap words. we really need a way to have these people answer questions in real time,and vote as a majority rule,as the reps here have only voted for north dakota,and screw the rest of America. Our senate will be all red next election because our lone democrate used cheap words to capitalize on the DAPL pipeline by saying,this protest is not in the spirit of of north dakota. I wrote and reminded her, shes right, its not in the spirit of NoDak its in the spirit of America….the money,the news media,corprate america and the like have been trying to take this spirit away from us,and now all we have left,is the streets…. shes complaining about only winning by 3000 votes to get her seat,im sure theres many more Native American votes than 3000. her stand on the issues,and words have made her,her own enemy. Actions and words? Im not supprised by the election in Montana recently, Most of the voting was in via mail long before the attack on that journalist. Even said, im sure the locals in Montana would have still pushed for thr red side of the isle. like us here in NoDak, its a diffrent set of words here,and few of them are progressive…

  7. “…you don’t pick battles with your allies…”

    Trump’s latest pick to battle our newest ally, Cuba, took me back to the Kennedy days of the Bay of Pigs standoff with Kruschev and Russia. Fortunately, Kruschev blinked; we might not be so lucky this time with Putin in charge. Does Cuba still have the Russian-Communist connection; why would Trump want to alienate the nearest foreign country – and a virtual neighbor to his Florida White House – at a time when he is being investigating for his Russian connections? We know the man is a total fool; this, to me, is the most blatant evidence that his primary aim as president is to undo and repeal any and everything accomplished by President Obama and hard fought for by the Democrats against Republican majority. His alienation of our most important and staunchest allies world-wide is a grave danger but his latest action has alienated our closest ally – approximately 100 miles from the Florida coast – and newest – a matter of months – which opened tourism and trade beneficial to both countries in many ways. Before you start screaming; there are drawbacks to everything but we haven’t had time or opportunity to learn what diplomatic relations with Cuba will bring.

    Someone should remind Trump of that old adage, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” He has a lot to lose with his actions; he is his own worst enemy – and ours.

  8. Professor Kennedy,
    Amen to the pick and choose your battles and we must stop the damage being done by replacing our current members of the Republican Congress!!

  9. Those people who voted for 45 are not my enemies. They are, in fact, their own worst enemies. When I speak with them, I only speak in terms of ideas. We have much in common when it comes to what we want our country and our world to be, but they live in their “fake news” bubbles and don’t see the harm being done to them by the current administration. To borrow a phrase from 45, “Sad!”

  10. I suppose the future depends on finding likely candidates, but maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse. Maybe the Democrats need to have a “concept convention” before various candidates can be found. What I don’t want to see is the debilitating scrapping among candidates that makes the Democratic Platform something to be ripped apart from one “debate” to the next. Such has been the result in previous elections and one way (among many) that the Tea Party, et al, has managed to put some truly unhealthy candidates into office to wreak havoc on our country internally and as an important part of the world, both politically and ecologically. If this requires a rethinking and renovation of the DNC then so be it.

  11. To Neal Smith

    “Most true Progressives aren’t just picking any Democrat that comes along, and I think most people, Progressive or not, are sick of having to vote for the lesser of two evils. We will never find perfect, but Democrats can do much better than they have done.”

    On the other hand, the professional Republicans have disaffected us, the people, in order to drive many of us away from the polls on election day by decrying the futility of it all. Trump is very clever at this ploy even depressing his own supporters with scare tactics.
    I, for one, DON’T vote FOR the “lesser of two evils”; I DO vote AGAINST Trump and his sycophant generation of fellating vipers.

  12. Becoming Your Enemy

    When you fight someone, you take on that person’s qualities. You become that person. You become your enemy. And your enemy wins because now there’s another one of him in the world.

    If your enemy uses sarcasm, you will start to become sarcastic yourself. If your enemy distorts, exaggerates, conceals — you’ll start to rationalize such behavior of your own. If your enemy is mean and personal and insulting and rude, you will start to act that way, too. You think you’re resisting your enemy, but actually you are yielding to him — not on the points under discussion but on the subtext, the attitude, the stance.

    Turning the other cheek or using a gentle answer to turn away wrath is not pie-in-the-sky idealism but practical advice for personal relationships. I’m not saying it would work in a war or a battle with terrorists or criminals, but in situations where the stakes are nothing more than victory in an argument, the best strategy is to smile and walk away.

    Thinking you have to convince or defeat your enemy makes him the most important thing in your world.

    And fighting someone engages your ego — all your left-brain hypervigilant defensive skills. The voracious ego will eat you up if you let it.

    Besides, fighting the enemy is what the enemy wants. The enemy is defined by battles and struggles. If you define yourself the same way, then you are becoming your enemy.

    What your enemy does not want is for you to say politely, “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.” This is the ultimate putdown. It means, “I don’t care enough about your opinion to bother arguing with you.” More succinctly: “I don’t need to think about you.”

    Argument breeds anger and eventually hatred. Your enemy stews in his own juices thinking of ways to humiliate you. You stew in your own juices thinking of ways to humiliate him. You have become your enemy.

    And since you can’t actually take out your anger on your enemy, you take it out on yourself. You create tension and fatigue in your own body. You turn against yourself. You literally treat yourself as an enemy.

    Time that could be spent positively, constructively, creatively, or just restfully, is spent on anger and fantasizing and strategizing. Scheming replaces creative thought. Revenge fantasies replace healthy imagination. Your enemy becomes your whole world. You see him everywhere, even in the mirror. He’s always with you. He’s part of you. He is you.

    In most arguments you can never win. You can only lose. And you lose by becoming your enemy. That’s what he wants.

    By Michael Prescott

  13. Louie; here is my personal, condensed version of what this country is dealing with today and what makes our future appear to be in jeopardy: Republicans are poor winners, especially their leader.

    I must admit that Sean Spicer has guts to go before the American and international public and speak the truth about the president; “Trump’s Tweets speak for themselves.” Indeed they do; Spicer is not agreeing, upholding or denying the evidence of Trump’s lack of qualifications for the presidency…”Trump’s Tweets speak for themselves.” Has Trump yet figured out Spicer is pointing his finger at our problem? I doubt it; I’m sure he sees this as Spicer giving him full and impartial support.

    Spicer is picking his battles carefully with that repeated statement…but I wonder if HE is astute enough to be aware of what he is doing, he isn’t hiding in the bushes.

  14. To me the brand sold by the alt-right to those who fall for such is extremism. I don’t see it as different than the training received by “radicalized” terrorists. It’s a brand that is both sold by and includes big helpings of fear and anger.

    The surprise to everyone is how effectively it has worked. How powerful a Ministry of Truth in every living room is.

    Now what?

    There is a noticeable movement of the left to follow what’s working for the alt-right and it seems to me some of the alt-right are noticing for the first time how they are perceived by others and it’s uncomfortable. We have to be careful of the degree to which that happens. If it makes the alt-right aware and uncomfortable it’s good but it can easily morph to extreme polarization which does nobody any good.

    We are the adults and we need to manage the tone of political conversations but there is evidence that they way we have done that in the past was ineffective in blunting it.

    We need to be honest and straightforward about our view of the dysfunction extremism causes but remind people of the alternative to extremism, a middle of the road conversation recognizing the validity of both left and right viewpoints emphasizing the dysfunction of hardened stances.

  15. Pete, there were some great adults at the time of the French and American Revolutions and in our race, class and labor movements. Many were inhibited in their resolve by loyalists with other agendas but the adults had had enough.
    I fear that many of “us” may join “them” and neutralize our revolutionary impulses.
    Your post is rational as always but we need your voice for help with change for the better.

  16. While we discuss how to engage without rancor those on the alt-right, some on the alt-left are being showcased by the conservative media as the likely cause of the violence and murder that occurred in D.C., forgetting that Ms. Giffords was shot more than 6 years ago at a meeting with her constituents. The shooter was apparently offended that Ms. Giffords had failed to answer a question of his, to his satisfaction, at a past meeting. He picked his battle and brought a gun.

    While I recognize privilege, especially white privilege, I also am old and a woman and a Catholic. In my lifetime, white privilege did not do a lot for me except put me into categories that were not included in the privilege that white Protestant males enjoyed. Yes, I could vote, but the assumption by most male politicians was that my political stances, thus my vote, would follow that of my spouse. No, I could not get credit without a male co-signer. Yes, I was told that I would not be hired for a job for which I met all qualifications but one; I was an unmarried Catholic woman, who was asked if I intended to marry and have children by the interviewer. When I declined to answer, I was told that I would not be hired. Yes, I was derisively singled out for my religion by an elementary school teacher in 3rd grade for failing to recite the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer. (In that public school, we recited the Pledge and the Lord’s Prayer every morning.)
    Had I been a white, Protestant male, I would not have had any of the above experiences.

    Lots of battles have resulted in many changes to our society. Many minorities communities are faced with battles that my white privilege now allows me. My chosen battle is redistricting reform. Allowing everyone the right to vote in a contested election, to have fair and equal access to that right seems to me to be a basic goal to change for the better for everyone. When all have equal opportunity and access, there will be fewer occasions for battles. We can do more than hope. We can engage in the battle.

  17. Great post today Professor and the comments are just as thoughtful. Really appreciate everyone’s viewpoint.
    Louie, that comment makes me want to post it on facebook. Cheers.

  18. Thanks, Sheila for the right-on RuPaul quote. Thanks, too, for what his liberating words
    brought out from you.

    I was “taken” by the expression “jewed down”. This was a favorite expression of my mother’s family, Italian, but almost certainly also Jewish Conversos. We used the term mostly to say “I jewed so-and-so down.” There was jewish admiration there , not anti-semitism.

    Not so long ago, in a relaxed conversation with my daughter, I used that expression. My daughter really pounced on me, expressing shock and dismay at my lack of sensitivity, etc., etc. I was as surprised as she was at the fact that this expression from my childhood had escaped my mouth. (I am one to think before I speak, at least most of the time, I hope. I intend never to do any person harm.)

    I must confess that the occasion mentioned was not the first time she had caught me in a pet phrase out of the past. What I must do now, more than ever, is never to let my guard down in ANY conversation, even a private one with my own child.

  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been making this argument and have actually lost friends over it. But I would expand the argument to say that in fact the Democrats, particularly Bill Clinton but also to some extent Barack Obama, have used our preoccupation with relatively petty matters to distract us from warmongering and neoliberalism. We as progressive need to pull our heads out of our politically correct asses and start fighting for peace and economic justice, as they are the foundation that will allow us to address the other issues. But first we MUST find ways to discipline the political activities of Democrats to utterly defeat the ghouls who have captured the GOP and effectively outwitted half the population and who are, quite rapidly, replacing our republic with a corporatacracy.

  20. Case in point: Bill Maher. To Bill, stop saying stupid things that offend people and serve no purpose in an actual reasoned argument, please. To Democrats, he is a freaking ally, for God’s sake! Republicans, who are actual bigots and are not even expressing any sort of sincere arguments, but who merely tell lies and feign offense to best advantage, are your real enemies. Focus on the actual psychopaths, please.

  21. I enjoy following election trends and results in Virginia simply for the reason that I lived there for 28 years of my adult life in the Tidewater, VA/Hampton Roads, VA metro area in Virginia Beach, the state’s most populous City. On June 13, Virginia held its gubernatorial primary which some viewed as a political laboratory testing how the two political parties handle their respective divisions since Trump’s 2016 election. As an aside, I should mention that the current VA Governor is Democrat Terry McAuliffe and the Lt Gov is Ralph Northam, Democrat.

    Lt Gov Ralph Northam, the establishment candidate, won the Democratic nomination for governor by a wide margin (55/44) against former Congressman Tom Perriello, the progressive candidate who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Valerie Jarrett, and 30 former aides to President Obama including White House Senior Advisors David Plouffe and Dan Pfeiffer. The Virginia Public Access Project shows that 59% of Perriello’s campaign donations came from donations greater than $10,000 with the Soros family making the largest combined donation at approximately $700,000.

    The establishment Democrats dominated in this primary election, and I’d imagine we should keep our eyes on the current VA Gov Terry McAuliffe, an establishment Democrat, who’s likely to toss his hat into the ring for the 2020 Presidential Election. A political strategist has best described him, “Terry McAuliffe is Bill Clinton without the women.” I can think of far worse candidates than a “Bill Clinton without the women”.

    I’m with RuPaul’s common sense approach. Stop picking battles with every Democratic potential candidate. Go with the candidate who can win. You can’t make progressive policy changes if you don’t win!

  22. “We need to listen to RuPaul: When you’re under attack, when it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies.” Let’s just hope that the Tea Party or the Conservative Republican Caucus doesn’t do the same thing.

  23. @Rena, I suspect Trump won the 2016 election because Republican voters, both the mild, the moderate, and the conservative, realized that electing a Republican (of any ilk) was more important to their survival than quibbling over purity or litmus tests. Maybe they were right, and maybe they were wrong; however, they won and are now engaging in their ex post facto quibbling over this and that.

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