Tag Archives: bigotry

In Defense Of Political Parties

When I first became politically active, political parties were far stronger than they are today. (Granted, that observation is much truer of the GOP than the Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats, a far more diverse assemblage, have traditionally engaged in intra-party fratricide.)

There are a number of reasons for today’s weakened GOP.  A prominent one is the ability of candidates to raise money via the Internet–they no longer have to depend upon the party elders to endorse and direct contributions.

Then there’s gerrymandering.

Thank to the Republicans very skillful and successful national gerrymander in 2010–a redistricting that created a large number of deep-red Congressional districts– a number of candidates who won those districts no longer saw any reason to cooperate with national party figures, or work for the party’s national priorities.. Those Representatives (dubbed the “lunatic caucus” by former Speaker John Boehner) knew that the only real threat to their re-election would come from being primaried by someone even farther to the Right, and that they would pay no price for ignoring the over-arching needs of the national party.

The significant erosion of partisan authority has had some positive aspects, but I want to suggest that the negatives have far outweighed the positives. For one thing, in the world I formerly inhabited, lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene and unashamed bigots like Paul Gosar (and so many others) would never have gotten the nod.

I thought about that erosion of partisan authority when I read a post-midterm essay from the Brookings Institution. The author was speculating on the lessons each party should have taken from those surprising results–if they retained the ability to learn and adapt.

Put bluntly, it is difficult for the contemporary parties to learn anything. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are not the coherent institutions they once were, with active local chapters that held meetings and powerful national institutions that held the purse strings. As political scientists have come to describe it, the parties today are “hollowed out”: amorphous ideological groupings populated by media organizations, consultants, issue advocates, and donors.

The hollowing of the parties is very bad for our politics, not least because it makes it hard for parties to learn from electoral experience—mistakes and successes—and shift gears to win more votes. The direction of the contemporary Republican Party is chosen to a meaningful extent by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, and those media are, in turn, driven by their bottom line. Outrage and conspiratorial thinking sell, whether or not they win elections. On the Democratic side, the preoccupation of the donor class with high-profile national races has long left down-ballot races desperately underfunded—even though a vast amount of our politics is determined in states and localities. These are obvious electoral liabilities, but because strategic decisions are not made within a robust party structure, it is very hard for the left or the right to adjust course.

So, neither party is actually well positioned to learn anything from the election, simply because neither party coalition is institutionally strong enough to act as a party. But, given this major limitation, what might the partisan coalitions learn this year?

The author went on to suggest what lessons ought to be learned: certainly, on the Republican side, the need to run higher quality candidates. (I would add to that the need to have a platform, rather than dispensing with policy preferences in favor of running only on a promise to “own the libs.”) The lesson for Democrats is the “need to continue the  vital work of preserving election integrity– shoring up election administration and protecting voting rights.”

Parties should respond to an election by considering how to be the choice of more of the voters. But lessons are hard to learn in politics, and our parties today are exceptionally weak institutions. Under these conditions, the plausible but dangerously wrong lessons of 2022 may well be, for the right, a more palatable authoritarianism, and for the left, a new complacency.

Implicit in this analysis is an even more important lesson: a healthy democracy requires at least two respectable political parties run by grown-ups able to moderate the influence and prominence of the party’s whackos and bigots.

Including the influence and prominence of former Presidents…..

Identity

I still remember when I first recognized the extent and reality of racism. I was in middle school, and I thought, well, when enough people have intermarried to make the whole world more or less the same color, that would take care of the problem.

At that age, I was blissfully ignorant of the tribalism that would make mankind unlikely to reach that simple “solution”–or the likelihood that if we were all the same skin color, we’d find other ways to distinguish between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the suspect “others.”)

What made me recall the naïveté of my long-ago “insight” was a really fascinating essay in the Hedgehog Review, titled “My Identity Problem.” In it, Alan Shapiro–a poet and professor of English– muses about his lifelong experience of “belonging, yet standing apart.” Shapiro focused on the relationship between his Jewish-ness and his American-ness, and  explained how that experience affects his approach to contemporary arguments about cultural appropriation: is a given example an exercise in empathy, or an unjustified (and inevitably inauthentic) intrusion into someone else’s culture?

That led him to a consideration of the way group identities serve us, and then to a really wonderful anecdote from one of his classes that–at least for me–illustrated the impossibility of avoiding “appropriations.”

A student of Japanese and Latino descent in one of my classes pushed back strongly when I advanced that line of reasoning: “That’s different,” he said. “Black and brown people can write from a white perspective because they aren’t part of the white power structure. When you do it, it’s cultural appropriation. We should just focus on our own culture, and not raid someone else’s. It just isn’t kosher.”

I thought at first that he was joking, using the word kosher. But no one laughed, and he wasn’t smiling. I said, “That’s an interesting word, kosher. A hundred years ago it was a word only Jews used, and only among each other. Now it’s so mainstream it’s hardly even a Jewish word.” I wanted to ask the student what he meant exactly by “white power structure,” but frankly, on this occasion (as on others), I was afraid to give offense.

Still, I continue to wonder: By “white power structure,” do people mean redlining and other unfair lending practices, police brutality, or biased hiring? Does it also include the cars we drive, the latest devices we avidly consume, the huge chunks of time devoted to social media, selling ourselves and our enviable lives to thousands of “friends” we’ve never met? Is anybody pure? Is any culture? Even while we’re all caught up in various systems of power, and despite the rigid monolithic metaphor—white power structure—the systems that make up our social life are neither fixed nor fated, but are constantly in flux, emerging and dissolving unpredictably.

And though it may seem like a small thing, I was deeply touched and heartened by how “naturally” a word like kosher had been assimilated from “my” culture into the American speech of a gay man whose father was Japanese and mother Latina. What better evidence of both the assimilationist metaphor of the melting pot and the identity-driven metaphor of a tossed salad. The exchange with my student seemed proof to me of just how impossible it is to privatize culture, how culture is not a thing or a piece of property you can build a wall around. Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.

As Shapiro writes at a later point in the essay, our group identities are an inescapable part of who we are–but only a part.

In an America where most of us identify as members of many “groups,” (what sociologists and political scientists call “cross-cutting” identities), being a member of any particular one–even a particular marginalized population–doesn’t determine how we think or act. We all take different parts of ourselves from the various communities to which we all belong–a reality that prevents us from being wholly defined by any specific one of them.

That reality is ultimately why bigotry–racism, Anti-Semitism, etc.– is so stupid.

At its core, bigotry is the belief that group identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion or sexual orientation all share essential characteristics that distinguish “them” from “us.” It is a worldview that refuses to see people as people—as individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals.

It just isn’t kosher.

 

 

Shades Of Gray

Among the many, many things that worry me about America’s contemporary tribalism is a concern about the conduct of our overdue arguments over inclusion and diversity. I worry because those conversations have displayed a tendency to become “either/or”–you are either pure in word and deed or you are a bigot beyond the pale–and as a result, we risk losing our ability to see shades of gray, to distinguish between the genuinely offensive  and the merely tone-deaf.

There is a very significant difference between Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken, to cite just one example, and blurring that distinction actually inhibits efforts to combat misogyny and sexual assaults.

Every so often, I’m reminded of a joke incorporating a cautionary lesson that my mother used to tell. There used to be a radio station on the top floor of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. There also used to be people who were elevator operators  (you incredulous young people can google it). One day, a man entered one of the elevators and the operator asked which floor; the man–stuttering badly–said “t-t-the r-r-radio station.” They were the only two on the elevator, and the man further offered that he was “a-a-applying f-f-for a j-job as an on-air radio an-an-announcer.”

As luck would have it, the same operator had the same passenger about an hour later, and once again they were alone in the elevator. The operator couldn’t resist asking how the interview had gone, and the stutterer replied “T-t-terrible. T-t-they hate Jews.”

The (obvious) moral of the story is that not everyone who dislikes me is an anti-Semite (I clearly have other qualities that can put folks off…) and not every thoughtless or stupid remark signals racism or homophobia. Not every female professor denied tenure was the victim of sexism (although some clearly were). Etcetera.

I thought about the lesson embedded in my mother’s joke recently, when a friend of mine resigned her position after being accused by her co-workers of homophobia. The media account I read didn’t include a description of the incident or incidents that triggered that accusation, but I know that her best friend of many years is an out and proud gay man, and in the years I’ve known her, I’ve never heard her utter a disparaging word about LGBTQ people–or for that matter, about any minority.

These days, such accusations are flourishing and damaging, and although many are well-founded, others are not, and telling the difference is important.

If we are going to root out genuinely toxic and bigoted attitudes, we need to recognize that we all see life through the “lenses” we’ve developed during our unique experiences, and we need to take care that those experiences don’t distort our perspectives. Another friend of mine–herself a member of a minority group–once opined that humanity was a lot like a pecan pie–the nuts are pretty well distributed throughout. Every group–every slice of the human pie– contains exemplars of the group’s most hurtful stereotypes, and every group contains wonderful, caring, talented people.

I’m not saying it is always easy to tell the difference between bigotry and cluelessness. If you are a member of a marginalized group–especially if your own “lens” has been formed by personal experiences of bigotry–a negative reaction (or over-reaction) to a hurtful remark or unfair rejection is very understandable. I’m not counseling silence in such situations, but I am cautioning that painting with a too-broad brush ends up trivializing precisely the behaviors we need to condemn–and can push away people who might otherwise be valuable allies.

We absolutely need to call out bigoted and hurtful behaviors, especially in the workplace. But when we fail to distinguish between truly reprehensible attitudes and behaviors and occasional unthinking reflections of social attitudes that are–thankfully–now being examined and rejected, we retard, rather than encourage, social progress.

We lose the Al Frankens.

 

The “Good Republican” Dilemma

Michael Gerson is one of the many prominent former Republicans who are horrified by what the Grand Old Party has become. In a column earlier this year for the Washington Post he wrote that

A political movement will either police its extremes or be defined by them.

Disapproval from opponents is easy to dismiss as mere partisanship. It is through self-criticism that a political party defines and patrols the boundaries of its ideological sanity.

The column was triggered by the overt racism of Senator Ron Johnson and the reaction–really, the lack of a reaction–by Johnson’s Republican colleagues, who (once again) proved unwilling to “patrol the boundaries of ideological sanity.”

There have always been bigots with access to a microphone. But in this case, Johnson did not face the hygienic repudiation of his party. Republican leaders preferred a different strategy: putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly. Republicans have abolished their ideological police.

The reason is simple. After four years of Donald Trump, Johnson’s sentiments are not out of the Republican mainstream. They are an application of the prevailing Republican ideology — that the “real” America is under assault by the dangerous other: Violent immigrants. Angry Blacks. Antifa terrorists. Suspicious Muslims. And don’t forget “the China virus.”

Gerson concedes that Trump didn’t somehow create those views out of whole cloth. But  he points out–as many others have–the fact that Trump normalized these sentiments to an unprecedented degree.

Under Trump’s cover, this has been revealed as the majority position of Republicans, or at least engaged, activist Republicans…

Our country faces many crises. But our nation’s politics has a single, overriding challenge: One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.

In the column, Gerson describes the effect this has had on him, personally; he now considers himself politically homeless. As he says, as an Evangelical Christian, he has difficulty with several aspects of Democratic policy goals. Despite his own discomfort, however,

I could not advise an idealistic and ambitious young person to join today’s GOP because her ambition would be likely to destroy her idealism. Most Republican leaders can no longer be trusted with the moral education of the young on the central moral challenge of our history. Elected Republicans who are not bigots are generally cowards in the face of bigotry. And that is a shocking, horrible thing.

Gerson is far from the only former Republican adrift in a political no-man’s-land, confronting a once-typical political party that has embraced anti-intellectualism and abandoned policy prescriptions in favor of waging culture war.

I have many friends with whom I served in a very different GOP, and most of them are struggling with a similar personal dilemma. These aren’t simply people who once voted Republican and have decided to no longer do so–they were what you might call “professional Republicans,” people who spent the greater part of their careers in political activity and public service. They include former office-holders, several of whom were quite prominent, a collection of state and county elected officials, a few former city-county counselors, and a number of high-level Republican lobbyists.

Most no longer consider themselves Republican, and several have publicly announced that fact. Others are convinced that necessary change will only come from within–and although I disagree (I think it’s too late, that the party is too far in the thrall of the know-nothings and bigots) I understand their reluctance to “pull the plug” and pronounce the patient dead.

There are many kinds of homelessness. For good people who are intellectually honest, political homelessness is–at best– purgatory.

What’s worse, however, is that the American political system is deprived of the benefit of principled, reality-based debates over the way forward–debates that require honorable and thoughtful political debaters. The ultimate decisions made by politically homeless former Republicans–create a new party? fight to regain control of the GOP?– will determine whether those discussions can ever resume.

 

The Hate Eruption

Asian women have been mowed down in Georgia. Unarmed Black men continue to be killed or maimed by police and self-appointed “good guys with guns.” Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents have proliferated. A new report links these eruptions to a surge in White Supremacy propaganda.

Not even a once-in-a-century pandemic could prevent white supremacist groups from deluging American cities with extremist propaganda in 2020. Banners were hung from freeway overpasses. Stickers were slapped onto street signs. Fliers were dropped onto the windshields of parked cars.

An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) study published Wednesday recorded 5,125 incidents of white supremacist physical propaganda last year, marking the highest level of cases reported since the non-profit began tracking such data five years ago. The findings average to about 14 incidents per day—and are nearly double the 2,724 cases reported in 2019.

The data highlights the stunning growth of new splinter movements that did not exist when President Donald Trump took office. At least 30 white supremacist groups disseminated propaganda in the U.S. in 2020, but three of them—Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association and Nationalist Social Club—were responsible for 92% of the activity, according to the ADL. All of them were founded within the past three years.

This research gives us a lot to unpack.

First and foremost, these findings support the accumulating evidence that the Republican Party, now for all intents and purposes the Trump Party, has become little more than a White Supremacy Party. The politicization of hate–the partisan retreat into full-scale culture war–is incredibly worrisome. Equally troubling, the language of hate is amplified daily by media outlets that can only be considered GOP PR appendages rather than genuine journalistic endeavors.

Those of us who insist that language matters–that “mere words” may not be the sticks and stones that break your bones but nevertheless can incentivize actions inflicting bodily harm–find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Giving government the right to suppress any idea (even, in Justice Holmes’ memorable phrase, the “idea we hate”) would be incredibly dangerous and even counterproductive. The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment was based upon recognition that giving government that power would be more dangerous than even the expression of truly horrible ideas, and efforts at suppression more often than not simply give oxygen to such materials.

That leaves those of us who are horrified by the surge in hateful incitement with only the tool of social opprobrium, often derided as “political correctness” or even “cancel culture.” Although in the age of social media, criticism of language deemed bigoted or stereotyping can certainly go too far (in the jargon of the day, be too “woke”), expressing disapproval is arguably less damaging to the social fabric than ignoring the dissemination of hateful and hurtful characterizations.

Perhaps, in a weird way, the increasingly overt expressions of animus and bigotry may force us to confront some unpalatable realities. Surface niceties allowed many of us to assume that we’d made much more progress than we had. Just as the Trump presidency reminded Americans that the absence of honest, competent governance really hurts us all, the explosion of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and other hatreds reminds the rest of us that we humans have to live together on a small and endangered planet, and that we need to find ways to cooperate and co-exist.

You can’t lance an invisible boil, and you can’t solve a problem until you recognize how extensive it is.