Saturday, November 20, 2021
From the start, the events that led to Rittenhouse fatally shooting Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and injuring Gaige Grosskreutz, are incomprehensible without considering the role of race in how things unfolded. The shootings occurred during protests after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, on August 23, 2020. The United States was already in the midst of huge protests following the May murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. But the case could never serve as a plain assessment of race in America, in part because the three men Rittenhouse shot were all white.
The most striking element of Rittenhouse’s experience, and one of the reasons it became such a focal point for national attention, was the way he was treated by police. Rittenhouse was 17 when he self-deployed to the streets of Kenosha, not far from his home in Illinois, carrying an AR-style rifle. Just a few minutes before he shot the three men, footage showed police greeting Rittenhouse and giving him a bottle of water. After the shooting, he then went home, where his mother persuaded him to turn himself in. At the police station, detectives cut off his interview when he plainly did not understand Miranda rights.
[A] young Black man in the same situation would almost certainly not have been afforded all—or perhaps any—of these indulgences. The Second Amendment may be written in a race-neutral way, but in practice Black Americans do not have the same rights that their white compatriots do. A Black boy might never have had the audacity to go to protests with a rifle on his back. If he had, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to waltz past friendly police, turn himself in on his own timeline, and have his rights so carefully protected. But this injustice was outside the scope of the trial.
A group of conservatives, largely of the MAGA variety, have chosen to make Rittenhouse into a hero. That’s disgraceful, and not merely because much of the effort has been shameless profiteering. Rittenhouse’s choices during the summer of 2020 aren’t something that anyone should emulate. Even if you are more sympathetic—if, for example, you found yourself moved by Rittenhouse’s apparent breakdown on the witness stand during his trial—you should object to the commodification of the worst moment in a teenager’s life.
In fact, 17-year-olds shouldn’t even possess rifles. That’s not a normative statement; it’s a description of federal law (albeit with a few exceptions). Rittenhouse initially faced a charge of unlawfully possessing a dangerous weapon, but the judge tossed that charge in an arcane dispute over the length of the gun. The larger and more socially important matter of whether 17-year-olds—or anyone else—should be acting as a vigilante defense force is not strictly a legal question, but a political one. No judge or jury can resolve that.
[S]elf-defense laws are being stretched to their limits by the number of people carrying guns in the United States today. Going to a protest armed may be a stupid and provocative thing to do, but it is not (necessarily) an illegal one, and the legal parsing of self-defense does not take prior wisdom into account, but begins at the moment of conflict. A reasonable jury might have reached a different conclusion on these charges, but its ambit was always going to be narrow.
Over time, the repeated failures to convict white defendants erode trust and legitimacy. A functional justice system will produce both convictions and acquittals, but the disproportionate burden borne by Black Americans is a sign that our justice system is not a functional one.
A similar theme is found in the Washington Post column that express fear over future vigilante actions. Here are excerpts:
The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse was no bolt-from-the-blue surprise, but I worry about what it portends — and potentially encourages. I fear that other self-appointed, heavily armed vigilantes will take this verdict as a green light to act out their bloody fantasies.
The jury accepted the defense’s claim that Rittenhouse . . . . was acting in self-defense. Perhaps his tearful histrionics on the witness stand were convincing. Perhaps Judge Bruce Schroeder’s long-standing reputation as a jurist who tilts the scales toward criminal defendants was a factor. Perhaps prosecutors should have put on a more coherent, less disjointed presentation from the beginning . . .
Rittenhouse ended up killing protesters Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding a third person, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26. One of the men tried to take Rittenhouse’s rifle, the defense argued; another tried to attack him with a skateboard; another pointed a gun at him. In each instance, defense lawyers claimed, Rittenhouse had reason to fear for his life — and therefore had the right to fire in self-defense.
The issue had become whether, in the split-seconds before firing, Rittenhouse genuinely felt he was in mortal danger — rather than how Rittenhouse had created danger in the first place by needlessly inserting himself, and his loaded rifle, into an already tense situation.
My fear is that the verdict will encourage like-minded yahoos to take it upon themselves to act as guardians of law and order. In a nation where there are more firearms than people, no good can come of such vigilantism. For proof one need only look to Brunswick, Ga., where the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black jogger, are on trial for murder — also claiming they were acting as guardians of their community, and also claiming they acted in self-defense.
[A]ll the principal actors in the Rittenhouse case — the defendant and his three victims — are White. But since the Kenosha protest was about racial justice and police violence against Black Americans, race was very much the subtext of the Rittenhouse trial, too. Rittenhouse became seen as an avatar of White grievance and anger.
He [Rittenhouse] is a “victim” only to the extent that he might have bought into some apocalyptic fantasy of “the real America” being under siege. The protesters in Kenosha that night in 2020 — Black, White, Hispanic, Asian — were real Americans, too. The streets belonged to them as much as to Rittenhouse and his fellow vigilantes.
There is a distinction between being “not guilty,” which the jury declared Rittenhouse, and being innocent in the moral sense. Friday’s verdict cannot be allowed to blur that line.
Friday, November 19, 2021
Joe Biden came to the White House at a pivotal moment in American history. We had become a country dividing into two nations, one highly educated and affluent and the other left behind. The economic gaps further inflamed cultural and social gaps, creating an atmosphere of intense polarization, cultural hostility, alienation, bitterness and resentment.
As president, Biden had mostly economic levers to try to bridge this cold civil war. He championed three gigantic pieces of legislation to create a more equal, more just and more united society: the Covid stimulus bill, the infrastructure bill and what became Build Back Better, to invest in human infrastructure.
All of these bills were written to funnel money to the parts of the country that were less educated, less affluent, left behind. Adam Hersh, a visiting economist at the Economic Policy Institute, projects that more than 80 percent of the new jobs created by the infrastructure plan will not require a college degree.
These gigantic proposals were bold endeavors. Some thought them too bold. Economist Larry Summers thought the stimulus package, for example, was too big. It could overstimulate the economy and lead to inflation.
For over a decade I have been covering a country that was economically, socially and morally coming apart. I figured one way to reverse that was to turbocharge the economy and create white-hot labor markets that would lift wages at the bottom. If inflation was a byproduct, so be it. The trade-off is worth it to prevent a national rupture.
The Biden $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed and has been tremendously successful. It heated the overall economy. The Conference Board projects that real G.D.P. growth will be about 5 percent this quarter. The unemployment rate is falling. Retail sales are surging. About two-thirds of Americans feel their household’s financial situation is good.
But the best part is that the benefits are flowing to those down the educational and income ladder. In just the first month of payments, the expanded Child Tax Credit piece of the stimulus bill kept three million American children out of poverty. Pay for hourly workers in the leisure and hospitality sector jumped 13 percent in August compared with the previous year. By June, there were more nonfarm job openings than there had been at any time in American history. Workers have tremendous power these days.
The infrastructure bill Biden just signed will boost American productivity for years to come. . . . Federal infrastructure spending will be almost as large a share of annual GDP as the average level during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Americans are exhausted by a pandemic that seems to never end. And they are taking it out on Democrats. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll revealed that voters now prefer Republican congressional candidates in their own districts by 51 percent to 41 percent.
If presidencies were judged by short-term popularity, the Biden effort would look pretty bad. But that’s a terrible measure. First-term presidents almost always see their party get hammered in the midterm after their inauguration. That’s especially true if the president achieved big things. Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossmann looked at House popular vote trends since 1953. Often when presidents succeeded in passing major legislation — Republicans as well as Democrats — voters swung against the president’s party.
Presidents are judged by history, not the distraction and exhaustion of the moment. Did the person in the Oval Office address the core problem of the moment? The Biden administration passes that test. Sure, there have been failures — the shameful Afghanistan withdrawal, failing to renounce the excesses of the cultural left. But this administration will be judged by whether it reduced inequality, spread opportunity, created the material basis for greater national unity.
It is doing that.
My fear is not that Democrats lose the midterms — it will have totally been worth it. My fear is that Democrats in Congress will make fantastic policies like the expanded Child Tax Credit temporary to make budget numbers look good. If they do that the coming Republican majorities will simply let these policies expire.
If that happens then all this will have been in vain. The Democrats will have squandered what has truly been a set of historic accomplishments. Voters may judge Democrats harshly next November, but if they act with strength history will judge them well.
Thursday, November 18, 2021
As an ordained minister trained at an evangelical seminary, I find that motivation to fight for the least of these within what is called the "social justice gospel." In recent years, however, that gospel has been twisted by the evangelical Republican machine, which now seeks to instill the belief that social justice is the gospel of godless socialism and communism.
Over the last few years, the evangelical movement has gone to great lengths to vilify any message coming out of any church that connects with the social justice movement. In a brief statement widely circulated in the evangelical world, prominent Christian leaders and pastors have claimed that the social justice movement is a danger to Christians, "an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ."
The problem for evangelicals is that the Bible is quite clear around the issues connected to social justice. Ignoring these issues requires completely ignoring the teachings of Jesus. It is fascinating to me, in a grim way, that the very people who claim to be holding onto the true form of Christian faith are in fact committed to destroying it.
Connecting the social justice agenda to socialism is an intentional lie . . . . The Christian faith pushes its followers to fight for equality of opportunity, and teaches a belief in the possibility for every individual to be better, if given the chance. Our faith calls for providing every human being a chance to succeed while offering the basic need of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love.
No one exemplified this calling more than a dear friend of mine who died a couple weeks ago. Her name was Gale Hull, and she created the finest example of a mission organization I have ever come across. Her organization, Partners in Development, started its work in Haiti and brought its mission to Guatemala, Peru and rural Mississippi. Her beautiful idea of "whole-person change" provided the opportunity for thousands to have a better life and inspired thousands more to be better people.
Gale understood that people needed an opportunity. Through a mortgage program, micro-business loans, child sponsorship and free medical care, families thrived. People within the program pay for their own homes with money they earn from their own businesses while having their basic needs of education and health met. That is the type of social justice that lies at the foundation of the Christian faith.
How is it that using the Christian faith to serve the poor, heal the sick and welcome the foreigner is destroying America — in the minds of far too many evangelicals — but manipulating the Christian faith to condemn women as murderers and condemn LGBTQ people to hell is somehow proper Biblical teaching?
The truth is that the Christian faith should be used as a shield for the oppressed and a sword against the oppressors. The working poor have been completely ignored by the evangelical movement and it's time for people of good faith to find themselves some new leaders. Preferably among people who want to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, not the teachings of Donald Trump.
My dream is that people of faith and people of conscience, especially if they have voice, power and influence in our society, will begin to align with the idea of equality of opportunity. That would be doing God's work for real.
Wednesday, November 17, 2021
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Virginia’s Spotsylvania County School Board this week voted unanimously to have books with “sexually explicit” material removed from school library shelves. For two members of the school board, this didn’t go far enough; they wanted to see the books incinerated. “I’m sure we’ve got hundreds of people out there that would like to see those books before we burn them,” said one of the members, Kirk Twigg. “Just so we can identify, within our community, that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”
This was just one example of an aggressive new censoriousness tearing through America, as the campaign against critical race theory expands into a broader push to purge school libraries of books that affront conservative sensibilities regarding race and gender. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told me that during her 20 years with the organization, “there’s always been a steady hum of censorship, and the reasons have shifted over time. But I’ve never seen the number of challenges we’ve seen this year.”
Public schools in Virginia Beach have pulled books including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” out of their libraries pending the results of a challenge by conservative school board members. Schools in North Kansas City, Mo., have done the same with books including the acclaimed memoir “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a book of essays about growing up gay and Black by George M. Johnson. In Flagler County, Fla., a member of the school board filed a criminal report over the presence of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” in her district’s school libraries, claiming it violated state obscenity laws.
With the rush to ban critical race theory, conservatives already gave up posturing as defenders of free speech. Still, this sudden mania for book banning is striking. It’s part of a broader attack on public schools, one that draws on anger over critical race theory, mask mandates and sometimes even QAnon-inflected fears about pedophile conspiracies.
The transgressive nature of some recent young adult literature, however, isn’t enough to explain the current nationwide campaign to cleanse libraries of works seen as unwholesome. For one thing, at most schools, parents can already block their own kids’ access to books they object to. And many of the works the right is now up in arms about have been out for years. The Texas lawmaker Matt Krause recently sent school districts a list of around 850 books that he wants information on. Among the titles to be investigated are William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Middlesex.”
Ashley Hope Pérez’s award-winning “Out of Darkness,” about a romance between a Mexican American girl and a Black boy set against Texas’ 1937 New London school explosion, came out in 2015. . . . . The group No Left Turn in Education, which was founded last year to fight critical race theory in schools, has it on a list of books that are “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”
In September, a Texas anti-mask activist named Kara Bell read a passage from “Out of Darkness” at a school board meeting. The scene she chose was one in which a gang of racist white students sexually demean the Mexican heroine. . . . . Video of Bell went viral, and Pérez was deluged with furious and sometimes violent messages, often accusing her of promoting pedophilia. Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, told me he was accused of being a pedophile simply for defending the presence of “Out of Darkness” in school libraries.
This spreading moral panic demonstrates, yet again, why the left needs the First Amendment, even if the veneration of free speech has fallen out fashion among some progressives. Absent a societal commitment to free expression, the question of who can speak becomes purely a question of power, and in much of this country, power belongs to the right.
“What we’re seeing is really this idea that marginalized communities, marginalized groups, don’t have a place in public school libraries, or public libraries, and that libraries should be institutions that only serve the needs of a certain group of people in the community,” said Caldwell-Stone. The fight about who controls school libraries is a microcosm of the fight about who controls America, and the right is on the offense.
Monday, November 15, 2021
After narrowly winning the Virginia gubernatorial race over a week ago, governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) has begun naming officials to his transition team as he prepares to take the oath of office on January 15.
Youngkin, who has already declared that he opposes marriage equality, has already chosen numerous anti-LGBTQ conservatives to ceremonial and official posts who will shape his agenda and staff before he takes office. One of his transition’s top officials wrote the legislation that outlawed marriage equality in Virginia for a decade, and the other has helped build the careers and reputations of anti-LGBTQ conservatives such as Mike Pence and Amy Coney Barrett.
The transition is being led by Jeff Goettman as Director, but as American Independent details, several other anti-LGBTQ people are involved in the operations as well. The transition is co-chaired by Kay Coles James, who is the former president of the Heritage Foundation, and state Sen. Steve Newman (R), formerly president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate.
James led the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank that routinely organizes against LGBTQ rights. Under her tutelage, countless former Heritage staffers swelled the ranks of the Trump administration, and the group’s far-right policy suggestions became the administration’s positions. With Trump occupied insulting people on Twitter, then-Vice President Mike Pence used the opportunity to push his religious right agenda.
The Heritage Foundation claims laws that protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity are unjustified, saying they “do not protect equality before the law; instead, they grant special privileges.” Transgender people have been specifically targeted, based on the group’s claim that “[W]e are created male and female and that male and female are created for each other.”
In addition to Pence, other anti-LGBTQ conservatives that the Heritage Foundation helped bloom into stars on the right include current Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett, Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia, and Trump aide Roger Severino, who helped shape anti-LGBTQ policies in the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department under Trump.
Before she left in March, James led the organization’s efforts this year to oppose pro-LGBTQ legislation in Congress, support anti-LGBTQ legislation across the country, and continue voter suppression.
Prior to working at the Heritage Foundation, James was a Reagan administration official who rose to prominence on the right herself by becoming a vice president of the Family Research Council (FRC), now designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Newman has been in the Virginia Senate since 2006. Despite the state slogan, “Virginia Is for Lovers,” he has ran on opposing LGBTQ rights successfully since the 1990s. In his first year in the Senate, co-authored and sponsored the now-invalid amendment to the state’s constitution that banned marriage equality. . . . Equality Virginia gave him a 9% rating this year, while the Family Foundation of Virginia has given him 100%.
Youngkin’s campaign hasn’t stopped there. They have named several “honorary” transition co-chairs, starting with former Virginia Gov. George Allen . . . . as Governor, Allen not only lobbied against LGBTQ rights, but claimed homosexuality was not “acceptable behavior.” He called for homosexuality to remain illegal and said the government should not “condone that sort of behavior.” In 1997, he also signed a law “defending” the “traditional” definition of marriage at the time.
He became a Senator in 2000, with Kay Coles James serving on his staff, and during his time in Washington he sponsored a constitutional amendment that would have banned marriage equality nationwide. Allen also supported Newman’s similar amendment in the state legislature, which proved successful.
He lost reelection as Senator in 2006 in large part due to a video that recorded Allen calling a campaign employee a racist slur. When he ran again in 2012, he once again proudly declared his opposition to LGBTQ rights, pledging on his campaign website that he would not vote in favor of making anti-LGBTQ bias qualify as a hate crime . . . . He also lobbied against LGBTQ people being allowed to openly serving in the military or receive protections from discrimination at work.
Youngkin’s transition being heavily influenced by anti-LGBTQ advocates follows a trend set by his campaign. The private equity fund CEO was heavily focused on attacking school boards and educators, while trying to avoid association with Donald Trump and admitting that he opposed marriage equality.
Trump endorsed and campaigned for him anyway, and Youngkin admitted days before the election that he is against same-sex marriage, although he pledges he “will support” that right when he is in office.
He repeatedly denigrated trans people, referred to trans youth as “biological males” who are “not fair” for trying to participate in sports, and was honored at a gala by an anti-LGBTQ group — which itself was supported by hate groups and Trump-affiliated organizations.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
John Henry Ramirez is going to die. The state of Texas is going to kill him. The question that came before the Supreme Court this week is whether Dana Moore, his longtime pastor, will be able to lay hands on him as he dies.
Given the grand, even alarmed pronouncements about religious liberty made by the right-wing justices recently, you might think this would be an easy decision. But at the oral argument, several of the conservative justices suddenly became concerned about whether Ramirez is sincere in his religious beliefs, or whether he is simply, in the words of Justice Clarence Thomas, “gaming the system.”
Justice Samuel Alito shared his fear that approving Ramirez’s request might produce “an unending stream of variations” from other condemned prisoners seeking religious accommodations. . . . . Similarly, Justice Brett Kavanaugh worried that if the Court ruled in favor of Ramirez, “then there will be the next case after that and the next case after that where people are moving the goalposts on their claims in order to delay executions.”
I’ve heard a lot of slippery-slope arguments in my time, and I confess that the possibility that the condemned might experience a brief moment of comfort before death has to be among the least frightening I’ve ever encountered.
As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern writes, the conservative justices’ novel concern with the potential that people might use their religious beliefs to get around the law is particularly jarring, given that these same justices have refused to consider that possibility in other cases. When the issue is businesses of public accommodation discriminating against customers on the basis of sexual orientation, or adoption, or contraception, or even vaccination, the conservative justices have refused to consider whether someone might seek a religious exemption in bad faith.
In the conservative commentariat, the mere suggestion that someone might do so is taken as evidence that conservative Christians are being persecuted. With any kind of exemption, there’s a chance that someone might try to claim one in bad faith. It’s not beyond the pale for the justices to consider that chance; it’s telling that they do so only under certain circumstances.
Many questions of religious liberty involve two parties who have reasonable claims that a decision one way or the other could violate their rights. Such cases are usually complex. But the extent to which certain justices take such questions seriously appears related to how politically sympathetic they are to a given party.
The justices who are so skeptical of Ramirez have not always been eager to question motives. In Ramos v. Louisiana, a case involving nonunanimous juries, Alito fumed at Justice Neil Gorsuch for pointing out that the history of such juries was tied up in an effort to “undermine African American participation on juries,” whining that the majority opinion, which held that the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous juries for conviction in criminal trials, reflected a modern discourse that “attempts to discredit an argument not by proving that it is unsound but by attacking the character or motives of the argument’s proponents.” That Louisiana’s 1898 constitution was a consciously racist document that successfully disenfranchised the state’s Black residents and purposely prevented them from serving on juries was apparently not germane, nor was the origin of Oregon’s similar law in an attempt to forestall “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities on Oregon juries.” Indeed, as Gorsuch wrote, “courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules.” Alito’s reaction to the facts of the case was what you would expect from an obsessive Fox News watcher, rather than the apolitical jurist he claims to be.
Similarly, in 2019, the Trump administration sought to use the addition of a citizenship question to the census to effect a nationwide racial gerrymander, a decision that was quickly challenged in court by voting-rights groups.
Questioning the motives of Republican officials—but only Republican officials—is apparently impolite, especially when they are obviously lying.
From 2018 to 2020, “civility” in politics was a constant theme in conservative media. Such calls for civility were, as I wrote at the time, less a demand for a political discourse rooted in mutual respect than a demand for submission to those currently in power. That the conservative justices would have the same political preoccupations as Fox News is not at all surprising. By the same token, however, the public is not obligated to humor the justices’ insistence on being seen as apolitical actors while they wage partisan culture wars from the bench.
These justices now echo the refrain that we should not question other people’s motives, that to do so is uncivil and undignified—except when they feel like doing it. As the record shows, holding motives above question is not a standard these justices adhere to; it’s just one they demand of others. You might ask whether it’s one they really believe in.