Thoughts on Life, Love, Politics, Hypocrisy and Coming Out in Mid-Life
Saturday, March 11, 2023
DeSantis Lies About His Book Banning
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants you to know he’d never dream of engaging in mass censorship. He held a recent event challenging criticism of his classroom book restrictions as a “hoax,” releasing a video suggesting only “porn” and “hate” are targeted for removal.
There’s a big problem with DeSantis’s claims: The people deciding which books to remove from classrooms and school libraries didn’t get the memo. In many cases, the notion that banned books meet the highly objectionable criteria he detailed is an enormous stretch.
This week, Florida’s Martin County released a list of dozens of books targeted for removal from school libraries, as officials struggle to interpret a bill DeSantis signed in the name of “transparency” in school materials. The episode suggests his decrees are increasingly encouraging local officials to adopt censoring decisions with disturbingly vague rationales and absurdly sweeping scope.
Numerous titles by well-known authors such as Jodi Picoult, Toni Morrison and James Patterson have been pulled from library shelves. The removal list includes Picoult’s novel “The Storyteller” about the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor who meets an elderly former SS officer. It contains some violent scenes told in flashbacks from World War II and an assisted suicide.
“Banning ‘The Storyteller’ is shocking, as it is about the Holocaust and has never been banned before,” Picoult told us in an email.
A coastal county in the southeastern part of the state, Martin County is heavily Republican. Picoult said she’s puzzled by the ban, because she does not “write adult romance,” as objections filed against her books claimed. “Most of the books pulled do not even have a single kiss in them,” Picoult told us. “They do, however, include gay characters, and issues like racism, disability, abortion rights, gun control, and other topics that might make a kid think differently from their parents.”
“We have actual proof that marginalized kids who read books about marginalized characters wind up feeling less alone,” Picoult continued. “Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them.”
[T]he county’s removal directive cites guidance from Florida’s Department of Education. It directs educators to “err on the side of caution,” urging them to nix material that they wouldn’t be “comfortable reading aloud.”
The state’s absurdly vague directive seems almost designed to invite abuse, not only by school officials making the decisions, but also by parents who call for removals. Underscoring the point, documents obtained from the county by the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which were shared with us, cite one person as the primary objector to virtually all of these books.
That objector? Julie Marshall, who in addition to being a concerned parent also heads the local chapter of Moms For Liberty, a group that pressures school boards and officials to remove all kinds of materials that violate conservative ideology on race and sexuality.
Then there’s “Drama,” a graphic novel about a school play in which a boy who wears a dress as part of the production has an onstage kiss with another boy actor. Just wait until these parents hear about “Twelfth Night.”
Those last two books are apparently being removed only from elementary schools. “But if the rationale to remove the books is as thin as it seems, that alone is egregious,” Jonathan Friedman, who oversees PEN America’s tracking of book bans, told us. “You can’t just remove books from schools because one person objects. That’s absurd. Unfortunately, that’s what seems to have happened here.”
[T]he multiple new laws DeSantis has signed combine deliberately vague directives with the threat of frightening penalties to create a climate of uncertainty and fear. This appears deliberately designed to get school officials to err on the side of censorship, and to get teachers to muzzle themselves to avoid accidentally crossing fuzzy lines into violations of orthodoxy. It invites lone activists to designate themselves veritable commissars of local book purging.
In Martin County, this strategy is unfolding exactly as intended.
No One Hates Ordinary People like Elites on the Right
Fox News will likely never face any real consequences for the biggest scandal in the history of American media. But will Republican voters finally understand who really looks down on them?
Last month, I wrote that the revelations about Fox News in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit showed that Fox personalities, for all their populist bloviation, are actually titanic elitists. This is not the elitism of those who think they are smarter or more capable than others—I’ll get to that in a moment—but a new and gruesome elitism of the American right, a kind of hatred and disgust on the part of right-wing media and political leaders for the people they claim to love and defend.
Greed and cynicism and moral poverty can explain only so much of what we’ve learned about Fox; what the Dominion filings show is a staggering, dehumanizing version of elitism among people who have made a living by presenting themselves as the only truth-tellers who can be trusted by ordinary Americans.
But even beyond talent and ability, I do in fact firmly believe that some opinions, political views, personal actions, and life choices are better than others. As I wrote in my book at the time:
Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s. This is the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense. It is a flat assertion of actual equality that is always illogical, sometimes funny, and often dangerous.
In this, elitism is the opposite of populism, whose adherents believe that virtue and competence reside in the common wisdom of a nebulous coalition called “the people.” This pernicious and romantic myth is often a danger to liberal democracies and constitutional orders that are founded, first and foremost, on the inherent rights of individuals rather than whatever raw majorities think is right at any given time.
The American right, however, now uses elitist to mean “people who think they’re better than me because they live and work and play differently than I do.” They rage that people—myself included—look down upon them. And again, truth be told, I do look down on Trump voters, not because I am an elitist but because I am an American citizen and I believe that they, as my fellow citizens, have made political choices that have inflicted the greatest harm on our system of government since the Civil War. I refuse to treat their views as just part of the normal left-right axis of American politics.
Trump voters have no trouble looking down on their opponents as traitors, perverts, and, as Donald Trump himself once put it, “human scum.” But they react to criticism with a kind of deep hurt, as if others must accommodate their emotional well-being. Many of these same people gleefully adopted “Fuck your feelings” as a rallying cry but never expected that it was a slogan that worked both ways.
In 2016, I believed that good people were making a mistake. In 2023, I cannot dismiss their choices as mere mistakes. . . . I believe that today’s Trump supporters are people who are making a conscious, knowing, and morally flawed choice to continue supporting a sociopath and a party chock-full of seditionists. . . . But whatever my feelings are about the abominable choices of Trump supporters, here is the one thing I have never done that Fox’s hosts did for years: I have never patronized any of the people I disagree with.
Unlike people such as Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, I have never told anyone—including you, readers of The Atlantic—anything I don’t believe. What we’re seeing at Fox, however, is lying on a grand scale, done with a snide loathing for the audience and a cool indifference to the damage being done to the nation. Fox, and the Republican Party it serves, for years has relentlessly patronized its audience, cooing to viewers about how right they are not to trust anyone else, banging the desk about the corruption of American institutions, and shouting into the camera about how the liars and betrayers must pay.
Fox’s stars did all of this while privately communicating with one another and rolling their eyes with contempt, admitting without a shred of shame that they were lying through their teeth. From Rupert Murdoch on down, top Fox personalities have admitted that they fed the rubes all of this red, rotting meat to keep them out of the way of the Fox limos headed to Long Island and Connecticut.
You can see this same kind of contemptuous elitism in Republicans such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Elise Stefanik. They couldn’t care less about the voters—those hoopleheads back home who have to be placated with idiotic speeches against trans people and “critical race theory.” These politicians were bred to be leaders, you see, and having to gouge some votes out of the hayseeds back home requires a bit of performance art now and then, a small price to pay so that the sons and daughters of Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Stanford, can live in the imperial capital and rule as is their due and their right.
Some years ago, I was at a meeting of one of the committees of the National Academy of Sciences. The conferees asked me how scientists—there were Nobel laureates in the room—could defend the cause of knowledge. Stand your ground, I told them. Never hesitate to tell people they’re wrong. One panel member shook his head: “Tom, people don’t like to be condescended to.” I said, “I agree, but what they hate even more is to be patronized.”
Friday, March 10, 2023
The Right’s Obsession With "Wokeness"
Leonard Leo, a leader of the right-wing Federalist Society, an extraordinarily effective legal organization, is broadening his ambitions. Leo is hoping to transform American culture the way he transformed the judiciary. In the words of an investigative report produced by ProPublica and Documented, he aims to build a sort of “Federalist Society for everything,” devoted to helping reactionaries consolidate power in realms like Wall Street, Silicon Valley, journalism, Hollywood and academia.
I just said to myself, ‘If this can work for law, why can’t it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?’” That includes “wokeism in the corporate environment, in the educational environment,” biased media and “entertainment that is really corrupting our youth.”
Given Leo’s past success, he should be taken seriously. As Donald Trump’s adviser on judicial nominations, he helped put Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, all of whom have close Federalist Society ties, on the Supreme Court, making him central to the demise of Roe v. Wade.
But while Leo’s grandiose project could pose a danger to liberalism, it can also be seen as a sign of existential crisis on the right. It demonstrates how conservatives are relying on fantastical ideas about wokeness to tie together a movement that has otherwise lost much of its raison d’être. . . . . Hatred of wokeness is a brittle foundation for political identity, but it’s almost all that’s left.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, declared during his January inaugural address that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state and a possible presidential candidate, recently tweeted, “Our internal threats — especially those trying to corrupt our kids with toxic wokeness — are more serious than our external threats.” . . . . Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said, “Wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic.”
Given that the Covid pandemic has already killed over a million Americans, this is transparently insane, even if you find much of what falls under the rubric of wokeness annoying. Such threat inflation is best explained by the right’s desperation for a unifying enemy. But to support the weight they’re putting on wokeness, conservatives have had to create a hallucinatory conspiracy theory about how progressive social change works.
Baehr seems to believe that cultural edicts can be handed down as imperiously as judicial opinions, so a handful of well-placed apparatchiks can redirect the zeitgeist. The Federalist Society project was fairly straightforward: Replace one set of judges with another. Trying to turn back social change across American life is a far trickier thing, especially when you don’t understand where that change is coming from.
None of this is to say that the war on wokeness can’t do enormous damage. Laws are being passed all over the country targeting trans people, particularly trans kids, and the right’s language has turned openly eliminationist. (One speaker at CPAC said, “Transgenderism must be eradicated.”) America is enduring a wave of hysterical censorship. In Oklahoma the State Senate just passed a bill banning material with “a predominant tendency to appeal to prurient interest in sex” from all public libraries, not just those in schools.
But I’m skeptical that anti-wokeness can be the basis for a durable mass movement. . . . The Federalist Society trained many young meritocrats who were willing to devote their lives to fighting legalized abortion. It’s hard to imagine the battle against neopronouns and the 1619 Project inspiring the same sort of single-minded intensity. Ronald Reagan used to describe conservatism as a three-legged stool, comprising social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. These days it looks a lot more like a pogo stick.
Glenn Younkin's war on abortion and LGBT Virginians may play well with devotees of The Family Foundation - one of Virginia's leading hate groups with antecedents in opposition to desegration - but if properly exposed will likely not be attractive to a majority of Virginians, much less all of America.
Thursday, March 09, 2023
The Political Right’s Long War on the Truth
Not long after Fox News correctly called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, a senior Fox Corp. executive privately lamented that the network’s brand was “under heavy fire from our customer base.” The executive suggested Fox viewers might “feel like they have been somehow betrayed.”
This fear — that viewers might see telling the truth about Donald Trump’s loss as betrayal — was widespread inside the network, according to newly released texts among Fox News figures. In the texts, they fumed that candor about 2020 was driving the audience away, prompting viewers to defect to competitors who offered a more comforting cocoon. On the air, some of those personalities kept doling out what they privately admitted were lies.
This is one of the most extraordinary scandals to ever buffet a major American network. But it also points to an even bigger story: The right wing media’s long war on the truth. For decades, conservative media outlets have expressly sought to build and capture an audience that would accept only their version of events, and would be cordoned off to place them beyond the reach of mainstream news sources entirely.
“Right wing media have been engaged in a 70-year project to ensure that their audiences only trust conservative news outlets,” Nicole Hemmer, who tells this story in “Messengers of the Right,” her excellent history of conservative media, told me. “They’ve worked to discredit other sources of more-objective information, so that their audiences are unwilling to trust outlets more rooted in reality.”
The success of this project is illustrated by the texts, which were released as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox News. . . . the hosts saw the truth as a threat to their hold on their viewers.
This bid to capture millions in a bubble of falsehoods was also acknowledged by the news side, when a top news editor called the constant lying an “existential crisis” for Fox News ’s journalism. But as Matthew Gertz of Media Matters notes, the prime-time personalities had a clearer read than the news operation on the real source of Fox News’ success: its role as a “propaganda machine that accumulates money and power by lying to its viewers.”
Hemmer traces the genesis of this broader ideological project to the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the time, she tells me, leading figures on the right made a concerted decision to “create their own media outlets” in the form of periodicals such as Human Events, while spreading “the message that all non-conservative media are deeply biased.”
This intensified during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, who turned Vice President Spiro Agnew loose to make snarling speeches attacking the television networks, which were growing in power. . . . . The influence of right-wing media intensified in the late 1980s with the explosion of talk radio. This capture of conservative audiences was aided, Hemmer notes, by the success of Rush Limbaugh and others who made the message about biased mainstream news “entertaining and profitable.”
Enter Fox News, which was founded in the mid-1990s and attained its commanding heights in the right-wing information ecosystem in the early 2000s. Behind Fox News’s “We report, you decide” slogan, Hemmer says, lurked its real message: “You should trust us, and not other outlets.”
That message worked, and the scandal is, in a way, the result of right-wing media’s grip on its audience. In late 2021, polling data showed that consumers of Fox News and other conservative media were overwhelmingly more likely to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. This came after those sources relentlessly bombarded their viewers with that message.
But now the audience’s captivity to an alternate version of events is blowing back on Fox News. Over the years Fox News’s audience has rebelled over other things, Hemmer recounts, such as Hannity’s championing of immigration reform, which incited a backlash from his viewers.
Nothing, however, has compared to the current scandal. “It’s a pretty clarifying moment,” Hemmer told me. The network’s own personalities, she concluded, have now admitted that “we have to tell our audience not what happened, but what they want to hear, or we’re going to lose them.”
I hope Fox loses big time in the libel suits.
Wednesday, March 08, 2023
Countering the Lies of the Post Truth GOP
Excerpts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Passages from Christopher Columbus’s journal describing his brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples. A data set on the New York Police Department’s use of force, analyzed by race.
These are among the items teachers have nixed from their lesson plans this school year and last, as they face pressure from parents worried about political indoctrination and administrators wary of controversy, as well as a spate of new state laws restricting education on race, gender and LGBTQ issues.
The quiet censorship comes as debates over whether and how to instruct children about race, racism, U.S. history, gender identity and sexuality inflame politics and consume the nation. These fights, which have already generated at least 64 state laws reshaping what children can learn and do at school, are likely to intensify ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
A study published by the Rand Corp. in January found that nearly one-quarter of a nationally representative sample of 8,000 English, math and science teachers reported revising their instructional materials to limit or eliminate discussions of race and gender. Educators most commonly blamed parents and families for the shift, according to the Rand study.
Greg Wickenkamp began reevaluating how he teaches eighth-grade social studies in June 2021, when a new Iowa law barred educators from teaching “that the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”. . . She continued: “To say ‘Is slavery wrong?’ — I really need to delve into it to see is that part of what we can or cannot say. And I don’t know that, Greg, because I just don’t have that. So I need to know more on that side.” . . . Wickenkamp left the Zoom call. At the close of the year, he left the teaching profession.
The piece is frightening and an eye opener as to the intensity of the effort to censor schools and colleges. How does one counter the lies and censorship and intentional effort to dumb down students and the country? Another column in the Washington Post looks at public attitudes and offers a suggestion:
President Biden’s speech on Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., covered everything from voting rights to his economic plan. His most important remarks, however, did not concern a specific policy, but, rather, a critical message in the battle to defend the United States’ pluralistic democracy.
“The truth matters — notwithstanding what the other team is trying to hide. They’re trying to hide the truth,” Biden said. “No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should learn everything — the good, the bad, the truth — of who we are as a nation.”
He returned to that message later in his address: . . . “You can never know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,” adding: “We know where we have been.” . . . In pushing back, Biden was channeling the views of the majority of Americans who overwhelmingly say that they want their kids to be taught about the complete story of America, including race.
According to a study by the group More in Common, “Most Americans (81%) regardless of demographics and political affiliation believe that the history of minority groups is an integral part of American history.” In addition, “8 in 10 Americans (84%), including Democrats (91%) and Republicans (77%), believe that it is important for students to learn the history of different racial groups.”
However, it is not “merely” that the Republican base wants to excise non-Whites from U.S. history and absolve the United States of racism. There is a full-court press to create a fact-free universe in which politicians — not scientists, educators, doctors and a free media — tell us what is true and what is not. . . . This is an attempt at information control, a dangerous tool in the hands of a movement that repudiates democracy.
Call it gaslighting or propaganda or “alternative facts,” but the concept is the same. If a government can control facts and obliterate objective measures of truth, leaders can no longer be held accountable.
Present-day defenders of democracy, therefore, would do well to get off defense when faced with a MAGA movement dependent on conspiracies and deception. Democrats and their allies should not be afraid explain that covid denial, book bans, teacher censorship and Fox News (be it the network’s election denial or “Great Replacement” propaganda) are all from the same authoritarian playbook.
In short, instead of scampering around to debunk each new outrageous claim or tactic, pro-democracy forces should return to an historically powerful message: A party that will tell you 2+2=5 is out to quash democracy itself.
Biden was on to something: Better to be on the side of truth.
Tuesday, March 07, 2023
It's Time to End Tolerance of Religious Based Bigotry
When one of my kids was 12, he was invited to join an esteemed local choir, one of the crown jewels of Albany’s Episcopal Cathedral of All Saints. Although he was an atheist, he didn’t object to singing Christian music — years in children’s choruses and “holiday” concerts had accustomed him to that.
But as I, high on maternal pride, was calculating how I’d get him to two rehearsals a week, he asked me whether the church condoned same-sex marriage. I said I didn’t know. He said, well, if they didn’t, he wouldn’t join.
I checked: They most emphatically did not. When I told the choirmaster why my son was declining the invitation, he responded that progressive forces inside the church were working toward change. I wished him well. Even if their efforts succeeded, the change would no doubt arrive after my son’s tenure as an angel-voiced advertisement for a discriminatory institution.
Are you impressed by the moral clarity I expressed … after having been schooled by a seventh-grader?
I thought of this moment when I read that last month, Pensacola Christian College in Florida had disinvited the King’s Singers — an a cappella group visiting campus — two hours before their scheduled performance. The college canceled, it later said, “upon learning that one of the artists openly maintained a lifestyle that contradicts Scripture.” In other words, because one of its members was gay.
In fact, two are. The King’s Singers knew about the college’s position on homosexuality when they agreed to play there, but as they explained in an Instagram post: “Our belief is that music can build a common language that allows people with different views and perspectives to come together.”
It’s an extremely gracious statement. Yet I have to ask them, as I belatedly asked myself years ago: Why so tolerant of bigotry?
Are we just so accustomed to the anti-LGBTQ stances of conservative religious institutions that they don’t even register? Are we so used to church-sponsored homophobia that we ignore the vast, forbidding landscape of prejudice while celebrating the tiniest signs of change?
It made the news, for example, when Pope Francis told the Associated Press recently that homosexuality should not be criminalized, as it is in 67 countries, and urged bishops around the world to recognize everyone’s dignity. Amen.
He noted, however, that homosexuality is still a sin. The Catholic Church will keep calling it a sin, and urging sinners to repent, and it will keep refusing to recognize same-sex marriage or to condone adoption by same-sex parents, but in a way that also totally recognizes their dignity!
(Not for nothing: Where does the pope think those countries first got the idea that homosexuality should be a crime?)
In January, the Church of England apologized for its treatment of LGBTQ people while clarifying that such people would not be allowed to marry in the church. “For the times we have rejected or excluded you, and those you love, we are deeply sorry,” the pastoral letter reads. And for the times we will continue to reject or exclude you, we are so deeply sorry for those, too!
These official church statements represent genteel, soft-spoken prejudice in God’s name. For a more brutal version, take a look (if you can stomach it) at Hemant Mehta’s recent roundup of “Christian hate preachers,” each opining on video that gay people should be executed.
The Episcopal Church, for example, now officially sanctions same-sex marriage. And the Albany diocese — well, it’s working on it. A statement on the Episcopal Church website notes: “As with all spiritual journeys, everyone walks at their own pace. Some Episcopal congregations are actively involved in LGBTQ ministry and their arms are open wide; others are more reserved, but their doors are still open to all; some are still wrestling with their beliefs and feelings.”
Fair enough, right?
Now, let’s pretend that instead of talking about LGBTQ people, the church was talking about congregations “wrestling with their beliefs and feelings” about Black people. Would our spirit of patient forbearance extend to that?
Not too long ago, many American Christian institutions defended slavery, pointing to Bible verses such as Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your masters.” They then battled integration and interracial marriage, arguing that God meant for the races to be separated.
One day, maybe, the Catholic Church and the Church of England will treat its LGBTQ congregants as equals. Maybe even Pensacola Christian College will evolve. In the meantime, let’s not be fooled by the “religious belief” talk: It’s just old-fashioned bigotry.
Monday, March 06, 2023
The GOP Is Fanning the False "Groomer" Myth
In December 2016, with the world still reeling from Donald Trump’s surprise victory against Hillary Clinton just weeks before, Edgar Welch, a North Carolina native, opened fire inside a popular pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., Comet Ping Pong. Welch had gone down a social media rabbit hole and convinced himself that a ring of predators, led by Clinton, was abusing and trafficking children inside the pizzeria.
As the political columnist Jonathan Chait observed, back in 2016, “the pedophilia charge was confined almost entirely to QAnon. … And while some of the details produced by its theories would find their way into the minds of Trump and his inner circle . . . . the broader narrative that American politics was a fight over pedophilia remained marginal.”
No longer so. Conservative politicians and commentators loosely and frequently accuse opponents of being “groomers” and “pedos.” It’s an ugly slur that conservatives use to target gay and trans people, and really, anyone who advocates for gay and trans rights, or simply a more civil and open society in which gay and trans people can live their lives openly and freely.
It’s not just the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world. It’s the editor of the Federalist. Leading figures inside the Manhattan Institute. Fox News Host Laura Ingraham. Rep. Jim Banks, the former head of the Republican Study Committee. Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Sen. John McCain, and herself a conservative pundit. Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, whose own tweets as of late would suggest a sharp turn to the right. And countless local and state elected officials and activists.
If this all seems unhinged, it’s not unprecedented. In the 1960s and ’70s, conservative opponents of school integration, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights coalesced around a similar narrative. They wrapped concerns about social and cultural change in a grim warning that America’s children were the target of gay people who aimed to “recruit” and abuse them. In many cases, it worked. It set back LGBTQ rights in many states and localities and effectively stalled efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.
It’s a cautionary tale. Some conservative politicians and pundits surely know that they’re spinning fantasies in the service of scoring wins. But as the Comet Pizza shooting demonstrates, too many people believe those fantasies and are willing to act on them.
When conservatives targeted LGBTQ Americans in the 1970s, their intended target, ironically, was not always or necessarily gay people. The debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s is a case in point. . . . In its final version the amendment read simply that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” . . . It seemed likely if not inevitable that the ERA would quickly win approval by the requisite 38 states and become a permanent fixture of American jurisprudence — until Phyllis Schlafly intervened.
Schlafly found a sympathetic reception among millions of women who agreed that the traditional family was “the basic unit of society, which is ingrained in the laws and customs of Judeo-Christian civilization [and] is the greatest single achievement of women’s rights,” and that the ERA was “anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion.”
ERA opponents warned that the amendment would have far-reaching consequences, denying divorced women the right to alimony or subjecting women to the draft. But in language that seems eerily familiar today, they also claimed the law would compel schoolgirls and schoolboys to use the same restrooms — a charge that many feminists suspected of appealing to fears that white schoolgirls would be forced to use the same toilets as Black schoolboys.
Critically, children — and alleged dangers to children — lay at the heart of the anti-ERA movement. By making the amendment synonymous with LGBTQ rights, STOP ERA struck at fears of mixed bathrooms and “homosexual teachers.” The amendment would “legalize homosexual marriages and open the door to the adoption of children by legally married homosexual couples,” according to literature distributed by a state-level affiliate in Florida.
[O]pponents of the ERA knew what they were doing. They were creating a problem that did not exist to resist social changes that many white conservatives deeply resented.
Take, for instance, racial integration. In Florida, where the movement gained early traction, many activists associated with Women For Responsible Legislation (WFRL), the state’s leading anti-ERA organization, were veteran organizers against school desegregation and, in the 1970s, active participants in the anti-busing movement. In one breath, they warned that the ERA would create gender mixing in “gym classes,” “college dormitories” and “rest rooms.”
The anti-ERA forces continued to build on this well-established nexus between LGBTQ rights and school desegregation. In 1956, two years after Brown v. Board, the Florida legislature created the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee to stymie efforts to desegregate public schools. By the early 1960s the committee broadened its scope to probe the purported dangers that school children faced from gay men and, to a lesser degree, gay women.
The report focused largely on schools, where closeted gay teachers supposedly harbored a “desire to recruit” young boys, as “homosexuals are made by training rather than born.” It described an unnamed “athletically-built little league coach in West Florida” who “lived at home with his mother” and “systematically seduced the members of the baseball team into the performance of homosexual acts.” . . . . The homosexual’s goal is to ‘bring over’ the young person, to hook him for homosexuality.”
In much the same way that conservatives today see a far-reaching conspiracy to groom and traffic schoolchildren, a special investigator who cooperated with the committee lamented that “the homosexuals are organized . . . . Ten years later, as they organized against the ERA, conservative activists in Florida and elsewhere well understood how to crystalize opposition against school integration and LGBTQ rights into grassroots opposition to women’s equality. They understood it because so many of them were pioneer organizers in all three efforts.
Florida was hardly the only state to give rise to anti-integration, anti-ERA or anti-LGBTQ activism. Boston, the cradle of liberty, was arguably the poster child for the anti-busing movement, and in 1978 California nearly passed a ballot initiative that would have barred gay teachers from employment in public schools.
But Florida seemed always at the center of the fight. In 1977, country and western singer Anita Bryant, a resident of Miami, Florida, spearheaded a successful effort to pass a referendum overturning a city ordinance extending standard civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. . . . Bryant denounced a “life style that is both perverse and dangerous” and won plaudits from other conservative Christian leaders for her efforts to “stop the homosexuals in their campaign for equal rights.”
Critically, children — and made-up threats to their safety — were at the heart of Bryant’s campaign. Her organization, after all, was named Save Our Children (SOC). Claiming a fundamental threat to her right to dictate “the moral atmosphere in which my children grow up,” she presaged today’s activists in portraying schools as the front line of the era’s culture wars. . . . Unsurprisingly, many of SOC’s leaders were veterans of the state’s anti-busing and anti-school desegregation movement.
[C]onservative activists, . . . . were successful at creating a bogeyman that focused the fears of many middle-of-the-road voters. That bogeyman was the child predator — gay, prurient and dangerous. He turned schools and libraries into recruitment (aka, “grooming”) forums. And he had to be stopped.
That’s roughly where we are today, as local and state governments from Tennessee and Idaho, to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to Ohio and New York, seek to ban or restrict public drag shows, remove books addressing LGBTQ-related topics from schools or restrict what teachers can say about sexuality or race in the classroom. As in the 1960s and 1970s, the voices warning of predatory grooming are often the same ones opposing other bogeymen, like “Critical Race Theory.” Then as now, the opposition nexus unifies broader concerns about the pace and nature of social change.
History does not inevitably repeat itself. This moment could prove fleeting. But conservative success in the 1970s in fabricating threats to children, then rallying people to organize around them, offers cold comfort to those who view this form of retrenchment with a worried eye. And as Comet Pizza should have taught us, when you play with fire, people can get hurt.
Sunday, March 05, 2023
Today's GOP: A Study in Hysteria
About two weeks ago, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia kicked off a conversation about a “national divorce,” and it hasn’t really stopped. Greene says she doesn’t mean a true national division, but rather an extreme form of federalism, in which red and blue states essentially lived under completely different economic and constitutional structures while maintaining a nominal national union.
The very idea is absurd. It’s incompatible with the Constitution. It’s dangerous. It’s unworkable. It would destroy the economy, dislocate millions of Americans and destabilize the globe. . . . There is only one way to describe an actual American divorce: an unmitigated disaster, for America and the world.
It could also happen. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and we should take that possibility seriously.
To be clear, it’s not because secession makes sense. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie noted in an eloquent column last month, the very idea that red states or blue states represent ideologically coherent communities is completely wrong. Every red state has bright blue counties or cities, and every blue state has red precincts as well. How do you split up a nation when red and blue are so thoroughly intertwined?
Take my home state, Tennessee, for example. In 2020, Donald Trump won the state by 23 percentage points. Yet Davidson County, home of Nashville, voted for Joe Biden by a 32-point margin, and Shelby County, home of Memphis, voted for Biden by 30 points. Every other county in the state (with the exception of tiny Haywood County) was red.
Does the concept of national divorce allow for a divided Tennessee? Or is the answer simply that the red parts of Tennessee would rule the blue?
But why should we think that reason will win the day? I’m haunted by James McPherson’s account of the prewar period in his seminal work, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.” Describing the South in the run-up to secession and war, he says it was possessed by an “unreasoning fury.” . . . . Southern paranoia was so profound that Texas’ secession declaration even included claims that Northern “emissaries” were distributing “poison” to slaves for the purpose of killing white citizens.
The South separated from the North and started a ruinous and futile war not because of calm deliberation, but rather because of hysteria and fear — including hysteria and fear whipped up by the partisan press.
America’s recent history makes me worry, and if we doubt that concern one need only point back to Jan. 6, 2021, and indulge in a single, simple thought experiment: What if Mike Pence had said yes?
And where are we now? Has the fever passed? Not by a long shot. America is in the grips of a simply staggering amount of partisan animosity. As I wrote in my newsletter last week, overwhelming majorities of Republicans and Democrats believe that their opponents are “hateful,” “racist,” “brainwashed” and “arrogant.” . . . A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 34 percent of likely voters (including a plurality of Republicans) think red and blue states need a national divorce.
Animosity is the enemy of American liberty. It is hard to muster the will to defend the rights of people you despise. But it’s also the ultimate enemy of American unity. Hatred and fear are the foundation of “unreasoning fury,” and the fury that divided us once before may well do so again.
Florida: A Frightening Warning to Virginians
Florida legislators have proposed a spate of new laws that would reshape K-12 and higher education in the state, from requiring teachers to use pronouns matching children’s sex as assigned at birth to establishing a universal school choice voucher program.
The half-dozen bills, filed by a cast of GOP state representatives and senators, come shortly before the launch of Florida’s legislative session Tuesday. Other proposals in the mix include eliminating college majors in gender studies, nixing diversity efforts at universities and job protections for tenured faculty, strengthening parents’ ability to veto K-12 class materials and extending a ban on teaching about gender and sexuality — from third grade up to eighth grade.
The legislation has already drawn protest from Democratic politicians, education associations, free speech groups and LGBTQ advocates, who say the bills will restrict educators’ ability to instruct children honestly, harm transgender and nonbinary students and strip funding from public schools.
Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, warned that the legislation — especially the bill that would prevent students from majoring in certain topics — threatens to undermine academic freedom.
“The state telling you what you can and cannot learn, that is inconsistent with democracy,” Mulvey said. “It silences debate, stifles ideas and limits the autonomy of educational institutions which ... made American higher education the envy of the world.”
Sen. Clay Yarborough (R), who introduced one of the 2023 education bills — Senate Bill 1320, which forbids requiring school staff and students to use “pronouns that do not correspond with [a] person’s sex” and delays education on sexual orientation and gender identity until after eighth grade — said in a statement that his law would enshrine the “God-given” responsibility of parents to raise their children.
Even before Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) landslide victory in November, very few Republicans pushed back against his policy proposals, instead crafting and passing bills that align with the governor’s mission to remake education in Florida from kindergarten through college.
This year’s crop of proposed education bills accelerates those efforts, expanding on controversial ideas from the past two years and adding a few more. Tina Descovich, co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty and a Florida resident, said her group backs the DeSantis education agenda “100 percent" — and that she thinks his policies are catching on outside the state.
The bills in Florida come as at least 25 states have passed 64 laws in the last three years reshaping what children can learn and do at school, according to a Washington Post tally. Many of these laws circumscribe education on race, gender and sexual identity, boost parental oversight of school libraries and curriculums or restrict the rights of transgender children in classrooms and on the playing field.
Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, said the bill will compound damage already wrought by the “Parental Rights in Education” act.
“That resulted in book banning, eroding supportive guidelines and led teachers to leave the profession,” Maurer said. “This doubles down.”
House Rep. Adam Anderson (R-Palm Harbor), who sponsored the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida legislators have introduced two other pieces of similar legislation: the near-identical Senate bill filed by Yarborough and House Bill 1069, brought by Rep. Stan McClain (R-Ocala). The latter bill requires that students in grades 6-12 be taught that “sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth.” It also grants parents greater power to read over and object to school instructional materials, as well as limit their child’s ability to explore the school library.
Another bill on the table is House Bill 999, targeted to higher education and introduced by Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola), who did not respond to a request for comment. The bill outlaws spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, says a professor’s tenure can come under review at any time and gives boards of trustees — typically appointed by the governor or Board of Governors — control of faculty hiring and curriculum review.
It also eliminates college majors and minors in “Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality.” It says colleges should develop general education courses that “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents.”
“It’s a complete takeover of higher education,” said Kenneth Nunn, who stepped down earlier this year from his role as professor of law at the University of Florida — in part because of the politics in the state. The “attacks” on higher education "reduce the reputation and perhaps the accreditation of the state institutions.”
Organizations focused on civil liberties also objected. PEN America, which advocates for human rights, said the bill would impose “perhaps the most draconian and censorious restrictions on public colleges and universities in the country.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said the bill is “laden with unconstitutional provisions hostile to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
A sixth education-related bill, House Bill 1, co-introduced by Rep. Kaylee Tuck (R-Lake Placid) and Rep. Rene “Coach” Plasencia (R-Orange County), renders all parents eligible to receive state funds to send their children to private school, stripping away a previous low-income requirement. It comes as the school choice movement is surging nationally, with Republican-led states passing laws that grant state funds to parents who can spend the money on religious and private schools.
Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, said this bill is the one that hurts most. “We’re not very well funded in public education in Florida to start with,” she said. “And their answer to that is to funnel money away from public education?”
DeSantis recently said the legislature “is going to look to reevaluate” whether the state should offer any AP courses, as well as the SAT exam.
We cannot allow this fascism and censorship and gutting of public education to come to Virginia.