Speaking of Sexism..

Yesterday, I took Senator Lindsay Graham to task for his sexist response to a speech by Elizabeth Warren. Whether you agree with her positions or not, Sen. Warren is indisputably one of the most thoughtful and informed members of Congress.

But then there are people like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. If those are the sorts of women with whom Senator Graham regularly interacts and upon whom he bases his judgments, perhaps I was too hard on him.

Let me share a portion of Bachmann’s  “farewell” speech (a farewell for which all sentient beings are profoundly grateful).

“And as I look about this chamber, we are ringed with the silhouettes of lawgivers throughout history,”

“And yet only one lawgiver has the distinction of not having a silhouette, but having the full face be revealed by the artist. That lawgiver is Moses. Moses is directly above the double doors that lead into the centermost part of this chamber, and in the face of Moses, his eyes look straight upon not only our nation’s motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ but Moses’ face looks full on into the face of the Speaker of the House. Daily, the Speaker of the House as he stands up in his authority and in his podium recognizes that he is a man under authority, just as Moses was a man under authority.”

“Because you see, Mr. Speaker, Moses is given for the full honor of the greatest lawgiver in this chamber, because he was chosen by the God that we trust to be entrusted with the basis of all law. The ‘basis of all law’ as was written by Blackstone, the famous English jurist, was the Ten Commandments, that were given by none other than the God we trust on Mount Sinai,”

“We know those laws, those laws are the fundamental laws of mankind, and here in the United States, the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses is the very foundation of the law that has given happiness and the rise of the greatest prosperity that any nation has known before.”

“Mr. Speaker, it could be no coincidence that this nation, knowing and enjoying the heights of such great happiness and such great prosperity, that it could be built upon that foundation of the Ten Commandments and of the law given by the God in whom we trust.”

Bachmann never did understand the difference between the Bill of Rights and (her version of) the Ten Commandments. Science and medicine–not to mention logic– likewise eluded her.

Defeating sexism clearly requires more than the elevation of more women into positions of authority. It isn’t a numbers game; quality counts. That said, no one suggests that Louie Gohmert is a representative example of all men….


The Mystery of Michelle

So Michelle Bachmann isn’t going to run again.

I won’t add my voice to the chorus of those speculating about the reasons for her decision to quit. I don’t really care whether it was poll results, one of the federal investigations, or a personal message from Jesus.

I’m also not going to join the chorus of those who will miss having Crazy Eyes around—who are bemoaning the loss of a perfect Tea Party specimen to whom they could point and laugh (albeit despairingly).

What I want to know is how this embodiment of everything that is ludicrous and embarrassing about American politics ever got elected in the first place.

The feminist part of me suspects looks had something to do with it. A friend of mine maintains that no one would ever have heard of Sarah Palin if she looked like Janet Reno, and that is probably true of Michelle as well. If you don’t look at the eyes, she’s very attractive.

But surely, at some point, voters actually listened to her.

What did those voters think about her charge that Congress was filled with “anti-American” fifth column members? About her bill to allow light bulb “freedom of choice”?  About her rejection of evolution and climate change?  About her accusation that Hillary Clinton’s aide was a Muslim terrorist? (Cleverly married to a Jew, to throw us off the scent…)

One would think that voters who agreed with her bigotry and extremism would at least be embarrassed by her aggressive ignorance. But she was elected. To the Congress of these United States. Three times.

If that isn’t evidence that America is doomed, I don’t know what is.


Michelle Bachmann in Pants

It’s two and a half months until the election.

Anyone who may have been harboring a forlorn hope that Mitt Romney might revert to the persona he wore as Governor of Massachusetts can “fuhgeddaboudit,” as they used to say on Seinfeld. He’s not using that famous Etch-A-Sketch to shake up his newfound Tea Party allegiance; to the contrary, with his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, he has signaled his complete capitulation to and identification with the furthest reaches of the Right.

What does Romney’s doubling-down tell us about the choice facing the country—and especially the choice facing those of us who aren’t old white heterosexual males?

Let’s look beyond issues of character and personality. Let’s ignore suspicions that Romney has lacked the savvy to assemble a competent staff. Let’s choke down the bile that we taste when we look at his “team,” composed of George W. Bush’s worst leftovers. Let’s even ignore his proposal to end Medicare.

Let’s just look at the policies that Romney and Ryan (the “Rolls Royce” team) explicitly support.

Perhaps you’ve heard, as I have, that Ryan’s voting record is substantially identical to that of Michelle Bachmann. Allow me to share some of the details of that record.

  • Ryan opposed the DREAM Act–legislation that would have allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the US as young children to remain in the country, and provided them with a path to citizenship. Instead, despite his professed identity as a deficit hawk, he supported spending millions to build a border fence to keep “them” out. (Hint: the fence wasn’t between us and Canada.)
  • In addition to his desire to privatize Social Security and eliminate Medicare, he has proposed to give Medicaid back to the states. This would almost certainly mean an end to the payments that currently keep millions of seniors in nursing homes after they have gone through all their assets and savings.
  • The Ryan budget proposes to gut programs that support neighborhood health clinics, to eliminate most student loans, and to slash funds for elementary and secondary education.
  • Ryan wants to de-fund Planned Parenthood, criminalize abortion, and grant “personhood” to fertilized eggs (a measure that would outlaw most popular forms of birth control). In a particularly egregious vote, he supported a bill allowing hospitals to refuse to perform abortions even when those procedures were necessary to save the life of the mother.
  • Adding insult to injury, Ryan has voted against equal pay for women.
  • On GLBT rights, the story is the same. Ryan opposes same-sex marriage and voted twice for a constitutional amendment prohibiting it. He voted to keep same-sex couples from adopting children in Washington DC. He voted against repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And while the Log Cabin apologists will point out that he once voted for ENDA (the Employee NonDiscrimination Act), he later reneged on his promise to do so again, saying he saw no need for “special” legislation.
  • Mr. “Fiscal Conservative” would abolish taxes on Capital Gains—giving wealthy individuals a windfall—and would recoup the lost revenue by cutting programs that benefit the poor and middle class.
  • Ryan also agrees with Romney that we don’t need to fund Amtrak or PBS (bye-bye, Big Bird…), but we cannot take a penny from the Defense budget, or allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

That is what the Rolls Royce team has to offer. It is as mean-spirited and radical a set of proposals as we have seen in my lifetime—not to mention thoroughly unworkable and unrealistic. (When Paul Krugman and David Stockman agree that Ryan’s package of proposals are a “fantasy” and wouldn’t begin to balance the budget even if enacted, that’s a pretty good sign that it isn’t a serious effort.)

So we have a choice: “Mitt the Twit” running with Michelle Bachmann in pants, versus Obama and Biden.

I’m hiding under my bed until it’s all over.


Tales of the Times

When I settled down this morning with the Sunday New York Times, I couldn’t help but be struck by two totally unrelated stories that seemed–at least to me–to summarize the choice we face as a nation. These stories weren’t momentous public events by any means; they were more like indicator lights on your car’s dashboard.

The first was the front-page coverage of the (non-binding) Iowa straw vote. Michelle Bachmann (anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, anti-evolution, anti-environment) came in first, with Ron Paul (“we don’t need no stinkin’ government”) a close second.

The second story was from “Vows,” the Times’ weekly wedding feature. It focused upon a wedding conducted just a few days after same-sex unions became legal in New York. In the large photo accompanying the story, two elderly men in wheelchairs are holding hands; the accompanying text explains that the two had been admitted to the hospital together–one with leukemia and the other with advanced Parkinson’s. “Faced with the prospect of their own mortality and separation after 39 years together, they asked the doctors to postpone Mr. Beaumont’s chemotherapy until–in a last grand gesture–they could get married.” The hospital staff provided white smocks, an Episcopal Priest performed the ceremony, the hospital’s chef baked a cake. Friends sang love songs.  I’ll admit it–the story brought tears to my eyes.

So–here are two vignettes of our  possible futures. We can express our fears and frustrations by flocking to the banner of people who deny complexity, reality and humanity, or we can act on our better natures, recognizing that the human family–just like our own families–is composed of many different kinds of people, all of whom are entitled to respect and affection.

We can live by slogans and ideologies, or we can try to understand the world we occupy. We can reject reality, wrap ourselves in self-righteousness and insist that others live by the rules of our particular gods, or we can admit (to ourselves as well as others) that we don’t have all the answers, that our common life is messy and times are tough, and that the only certainty is that human compassion and kindness will serve us better than denial and intolerance.

Yesterday, in Indianapolis, there was a terrible accident at a State Fair concert. A stage collapsed, pinning the front rows of the crowd under massive girders and equipment. Out of all the coverage, perhaps the most poignant picture was one showing how many of the other people in attendance rushed to help–a picture of dozens of hands trying to lift the debris so that the injured could be rescued. No one stopped to ask the politics, religion, race or sexual orientation of those who were pinned beneath the rubble. No one stopped to ask whether they “deserved” assistance. They were fellow humans who needed help.

What I want is a future and a country that nurtures that instinct.


Climate and the Culture War

A recent profile of Michelle Bachmann included several past statements in which she explicitly rejects the Enlightenment, which explains a lot.

The Enlightenment (dubbed the “new learning” in the colonies) ushered in a new sensibility, a new way of seeing the world–it substituted empirical observation for biblical “truth,” and thus made science possible. I’ve often thought that what today’s culture warriors really want is to reverse the Enlightenment; if that’s true, it’s ironic, in view of their constant references to the Constitution, because the Constitution was a direct outgrowth of Enlightenment philosophy. (Think John Stuart Mill, Montesquieu, Hobbes, Voltaire, and–above all–John Locke.)

As historians explain the paradigm shift that accompanied the new way of understanding our world, before the Enlightenment, you began with biblical “truth” as that had been interpreted by religious leaders, and education was the process of fitting what you saw into that pre-existing framework. If something didn’t fit, you ignored it. After the Enlightenment, you began by observing your surroundings, and when you had sufficient data, you formulated a theory to explain it. If subsequent observations called elements of that theory into question, you modified the theory. Today, we call that the scientific method. (It is in this scientific sense that evolution is a theory–not in the sense the term is often used in casual conversation–i.e., a guess.)

As Edward McMahon, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, has recently written,

“Despite overwhelming scientific consensus and mounting evidence all around us, why are so many elected officials unwilling to accept that climate change is a serious threat that demands immediate attention? One theory is that climate change is now “part and parcel” of America’s “culture wars”. Similar to abortion, gay rights, school prayer and other social issues, climate change has become a partisan political issue.

This might explain why earlier this summer, House Republicans pushed legislation to overturn a 2007 law, signed by President George W. Bush, that would gradually phase out old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs in favor of new energy efficient bulbs. “Having to buy energy efficient bulbs is an affront to personal freedom”, they said; never mind the fact that the average homeowner would save almost $90 a year by switching to the energy saving bulbs, and also never mind that the law, once fully implemented, would eliminate the need for 33 large power plants, according to one estimate.

A Gallup Poll conducted earlier this year found that a majority of Americans support the energy efficiency bulb law and that most Americans have already switched to more energy efficient bulbs. So what else explains why some politicians’ views on climate change are so out of sync with our scientific community — or for that matter, with the rest of the world? A cynic might say that fossil fuel interests, like coal companies, have used the tobacco industry’s playbook: disinformation, high priced lobbyists and their own so-called “experts” to confuse the public and delay action. However a new study published in the Spring 2011 issue of Sociological Quarterly suggests another reason. It finds that “conservatives’ failure to acknowledge the real threat of climate change, has more to do with its implications rather than skepticism of scientific facts.”

Conservatives believe in small government, reduced spending, and a go-it-alone foreign policy. But solving climate change will undoubtly require robust government, increased expenditures, and a great degree of international cooperation. People will go to great lengths to rationalize their deeply held beliefs. Science and logic are a lost cause in the face of ideological rigidity. To accept climate change is to question the wisdom of some people’s core beliefs.”

Questioning and testing the wisdom of our core beliefs was what the Enlightenment was all about. It was what the American Experiment was all about. And at the end of the day, that’s what our culture war is all about. Will we return to a time when the answers are handed down by a deity (and if so, whose?), or will we continue to question, learn and grow?