Dispatches from 2020: Be Careful of a Damaging Primary

Because I like creating series on this blog, and because I’m very invested in the outcome of the 2020 election (aren’t we all?), I’ve decided to start a new series entitled “Dispatches from 2020,” which will feature commentary on issues that we should pay attention to as the campaign heats up, as well as strategies that we may want to adopt if we want to halt the descent into madness and fascism that seems to characterize so much of American politics.

Because, I don’t know about all of you, but I’m already becoming very stressed out about 2020. Many Democrats at all levels of the ticket are squabbling and sniping at each other, while Trump continues to be himself, even as his poll numbers have recently ticked upward. Recently, he’s made it abundantly clear–if there were any remaining doubt–that the 2020 election is going to be all about white grievance and straight-up racism.

At the presidential level, the leading Democratic contenders (with the possible exception of Joe Biden) are moving leftward, which may (heavy emphasis on that word) pay dividends with young voters and progressives but may run a significant deficit in the general, particularly in those moderate states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) that were such a pivotal part of Trump’s victory. And Sanders, and some of his supporters, continue to insist that he is the only one that can possibly lead the Democrats to presidential victory, and so they are unwilling to accept the possibility that he might legitimately lose.

And, of course, everyone is taking aim at Joe Biden.

Don’t get me wrong: I totally understand why many voters, especially younger ones, find a lot of fault with Biden, both for his record and for his age. If I had my druthers, he’d not have run, leaving the field open for a younger crop of candidates with a progressive vision. For there can be no doubt that his long record in public service is increasingly proving to be a handicap with the left wing of the party, and it doesn’t help that he seems chronically incapable of actually defending (or at the very least explaining) why he took the positions he did.

Nevertheless, we have to accept that, for the moment, he is in the race, and he does poll remarkably well against Donald Trump. FFS, even Fox News recently released a poll that shows Biden leading Trump. I, for one, do wish that he would get back onto his game and start drilling down into policies, specifying the exact ways that he’ll right this ship of state that has gone so dreadfully off course. While I doubt that most of those policies won’t be nearly as aggressive as I personally would like, they would probably poll well in exactly those parts of the country that we’re going to need in November 2020.

I worry that whoever emerges as the 2020 victor may be irreparably damaged by their primary fight, and we know how that turns out. There’s no doubt (in my mind, at least) that Hillary was irreparably damaged by her primary fight in 2016, and while there is of course no single cause of her defeat, it seems patently obvious that the sorts of attacks used against her by those on the left–including and especially Sanders and his supporters and Jill Stein–depressed turnout on the Left. If we learned nothing else of 2016, we should remember that sometimes it’s okay to pull the punches and that we cannot (cannot) lose sight of the future in the pursuit of an immediate political victory.

For make no mistake: for every blow that lands on the eventual frontrunner–whether that’s an indictment of Joe Biden’s legislative record, Kamala Harris’s time as a prosecutor in California, or Elizabeth Warrens’ foolish decision to claim Native American ancestry–the Right will turn it into a vicious attack ad. We have got to get two important facts through our heads. One, the right is deeply cynical, desperate, and power-hungry. They know that their policies are widely unpopular, hence their willingness to resort to use dastardly methods to get what they want. They know, all too well, that many on the Left are just looking for a reason to stay home on Election Day, and they will act accordingly.

Just as importantly, however, we have to remember that bad actors outside of the United States are also looking for any opening to continue sowing discord in our electoral process. Attacks that land on any of the candidates will give them yet more weapons in their arsenal, and they certainly make good use of them.

All that said, I do think that the primary is a good time to iron out exactly what it is that we stand for as a party. We must remain aware, however, that we need a message that will resonate in all parts of the country, not just in the base states of New York, California, etc. A relentless pursuit of ideological purity, and a punishment of any who don’t tow the lie, could very well saddle us with four more years of this hellish nightmare.

If we want to have any hope of seeing even a vague resemblance of a progressive agenda get put forward–let alone see our republic saved from the slide into despotism that it seems to be in–we need to do two things. One, we need to make sure that we pull some of our punches during the primary (as tempting as it is not to do so), and we need to unite–absolutely and unequivocally–behind our standard-bearer as soon as possible. As we go into the next round of debates, I hope that the candidates, and their supporters, take those needs to heart.

Now, I know that will not sit well with a lot of people, especially since it continues to look like Uncle Joe might actually end up winning the primary. Of course, a lot could change between now and the finish line. But I’m telling you right now that if Joe Biden wins, I’ll support him 110%, just as I will every other candidate.

And if you care about our republic, you should, too.

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Reading History: “Starstruck in the Promised Land” (by Shalom Goldman)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book for review.

From its founding, Israel has had a particularly strong relationship with the United States, and it has, throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, become increasingly critical to American foreign policy in the Middle East. While it was, at first, praised by those on the left, as the plight of the Palestinians became more of an issue in the international community, the stance of both American popular culture and (to a lesser extent) political culture changed, so that it was those on the right who championed Israel and those on the left who sharply criticized (and often condemned ) its actions.

While numerous books have been written about the relationship between the United States and Israel, less examined has been the ways in which various figures in popular culture–singers, actors, and writers–have played a key role in the formation of such attitudes. That’s where Shalom Goldman’s Starstruck in the Promised Land comes into play. Drawing on a wide variety of documents and evidence, Goldman convincingly demonstrates how key popular culture has been to the ways in which Americans think about Israel.

Even before the founding of Israel as a state, Americans were obsessed with the Holy Land. Throughout the 19th Century, American literary figures from Herman Melville to Mark Twain visited the region, and though they were hardly positive in their commentary, they nevertheless revealed how key the Middle East was to the American psyche. For Christians, especially those of a more apocalyptic bent, the region was a key part of their theology and their vision of the world.

As Goldman moves into the 20th Century, we see how more and more literary and artistic figures took up the cause of Israel. These ranged from composers such as Leonard Bernstein to authors such as James Baldwin. Bernstein in particular would become a key figure in Israel, often staging concerts for Israeli soldiers. As a scholar of film and popular media, I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Goldman interweaves the politics and history of the modern state of Israel with some of the key figures and texts of the era. Films like Exodus and singers like Johnny and June Cash were especially vital to the Israeli cause, the former by figuring the Israeli founders as freedom fighters not unlike those in many western films (the film’s leading man was Paul Newman) and the latter by continuing to highlight the integral relationship between Christianity (particularly of the evangelical variety) and Israel.

Goldman also demonstrates the extent to which American political stances on Israel–as well as those of our popular culture figures–have mapped quite neatly onto the cultural wars. Just as evangelical Christianity became a dominant political force in the latter half of the 20th Century, so they saw an embrace of Israel as key to their own cultural and social beliefs (hence the trips that the Cashes, devout Christians, made to the Holy Land). At the same time, as civil rights became a stronger current on the American left, it became more and more common for American entertainers to take up the cause of the Palestinians.

Just as importantly, Goldman discusses his own biography and how that has shaped his own stance on the subject. It is sometimes easy to forget that politics, for all of its ugliness, actually involves real people whose lives and identities shape how they think about and engage with the thorny questions associated with this troubled region.

Overall, this book is a strong contribution to our understanding of the deep history of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Goldman writes with erudition and nuance, recognizing that there are no simple solutions in the dilemma of Israel, and that the relationship between the United States and one of its key Middle Eastern allies has been and may always be complicated and messy.

This book is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to gain a nuanced and balanced understanding of this particular aspect of foreign policy. Given the extremes of emotion that Israel tends to arouse in both those on the left and the right, this book’s equanimity is a gift indeed.

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Chosen” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Darcy and Winters

It’s a very rare thing for an author to follow up a delicious first novel with a sequel that is just as satisfying.

Well, Jacqueline Carey has done it, giving us Kushiel’s Chosen.

The novel picks up right after the end of the previous one, where Phédre attempts to discover the whereabouts of the traitor Melisande Shahrizai, the woman who very nearly brought about the end of the kingdom of Terre D’Ange. In the process, she encounters not only the viper’s nest of Serenissima, but also falls in with a pirate, a priestess, and a terrible confrontation with her own guilt. In the end, Phédre must come close to sacrificing everything she holds dear to save the country she loves.

Melisande continues to be one of the most compelling, exquisite, and yet utterly repelling creations in all of fantasy literature. Her cunning and her utter ruthlessness draw the reader as…

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Big Daddy’s Little Lady” (S2, Ep. 6)

For today’s installment of the ongoing marathon of The Golden Girls, we come to another of those episodes that has become iconic. In the episode, Blanche has to contend with her father’s decision to marry a much younger woman, while Dorothy and Rose decide to enter a songwriting contest and, in the process, create one of the most iconic moments in the entire series.

This episode has some of the most memorable (and quotable) moments in the entire series. Whether this is Rose and Dorothy’s banter about whether “thrice” should be used in a word, or their attempts to find a word that rhymes with Miami (Rose suggestions include a skewed pronunciations of salami, hootenanny, and mammy). To my mind, this is some of the most brilliant writing in the entire series. Just as importantly, it also allows Betty White and Bea Arthur, so opposite in temperament and personality, to really spark off of each other. The result is pure comedy gold.

In the end, of course, the two of them do end up producing a song, one arguably as memorable as the theme itself. And, though they don’t ultimately get win the contest (coming in second place and, as Dorothy says, treated badly), they do get to perform it for our pleasure and their own. Indeed, the resulting number–which features all four of the women singing together–is one of those moments of pure, unadulterated joy that The Golden Girls seems to have had a particular knack for creating. If you don’t emerge from that finale with a smile on your face, then I think you might want to confirm that you are actually human.

On the more serious side of things, Blanche’s grappling with her father’s marriage to a younger woman reveals a great deal about her relationship with her father. This Big Daddy is a very different iteration than his appearance in the first season, in which he was much more the rascally old man that is such a key part of many of Blanche’s stories about him. David Wayne’s portrayal gives Big Daddy a certain gravitas that he lacked, and this makes him a perfect incarnation of the southern gentleman. It’s clear from the outset that he dotes on Blanche and that she, likewise, idolizes him. At least, she does until his new bride-to-be shows up, after which she (once again) tries to reign in her father’s behavior.

Of course, Blanche’s response to her father’s amorous adventures make sense, even if she does go about expressing it in a very abrasive and disrespectful way. Who wouldn’t feel at least a little bit suspicious if their elderly parent was marrying a much younger person? As always, I find it striking that it is Blanche of all people who takes it upon herself to judge what other people do sexually. It’s a big part of what makes her such a rich, complex, and compelling character.

This is one of those episodes of The Golden Girls that stands the test of time, one of those that you can watch again and again and have it be just as funny as the first time that you watched it. Next up, we get to meet Dorothy’s son Michael, as well as Rose’s daughter Bridget.

Weekly Rant: Every Republican Must Be Driven out of Office

I say this with a heavy heart. The GOP is done.

In the aftermath of Trump’s racist tweets this past Sunday, his doubling down on them, and his truly frightening incitement of a rally chant of “Send her back!” regarding Ilhan Omar, the fact that so many Republicans across the country have not vociferously condemned should disturb each and every one us. More than that, it demonstrates, once and for all, that the GOP has nothing to contribute to American political life.

Oh sure, most of them gave at least some measure of a mealy-mouthed condemnation of what he said. The ever-spineless Susan Collins said that he should delete the tweet, and sundry others have offered faint condemnation, first of the original tweets and then of his incitement of the chant in North Carolina (for more on the latter, see this Slate article). Others, such as Andy Harris of Maryland (my own congressman, Andy Harris, bent himself into mental pretzels trying to say how Trump’s tweets weren’t racist at all).

Far too many, however, prefaced their remarks with full-throated condemnation of the congresswomen: Susan Collins, for example, said that she fundamentally disagreed with with the four congresswomen. John Kennedy of Louisiana hyperbolically referred to them as the “four horsewomen of the apocalypse.” Most infamous was the truly disgusting and sycophantic Lindsey Graham, who decried the four women as communists who hate America, even though he told Trump that he should challenge them on ideology rather than launching personal attacks.

Grammatically speaking, these comments indicate where the true emphasis of their condemnation lies: with the Squad. From Susan Collins to John Kennedy, all of them imply that it is these four women’s fault that Trump went after them with racist tweets so staggering in their vitriol that it caused even cynical me to take a step backward. This really shouldn’t surprise us, however. The Right has a history of justifying their bad behavior toward people they disagree with by pinning the blame on the opposite party. However, the fact that they would so transparently cave to Trump’s racism, even knowing how dangerous it is to do so, is truly breathtaking.

Given that fact, we must finally admit what has been staring us in the face for some time now: the GOP is an active menace to American society. I know this might seem like an outlandish claim, analogous to their strategy of painting anyone who criticizes the U.S. as somehow not worthy of American citizenship or respect. However, it’s clear that, if the GOP isn’t driven out of elected office, the tide of white nationalism will only continue to grow, emboldened by Trump and by his party’s refusal to condemn him.

Indeed, total annihilation at the ballot box is the only thing that will convince the Republican Party to abandon its tolerance (and often outright support) of racism and white supremacy. If they can’t even muster the wherewithal to join in the House resolution condemning the original tweets (with the exception of four of their number), why should this country’s most vulnerable populations think that they will go to bat for them if things get even worse? One has to wonder if there is anything, literally anything, that today’s Republicans will do in defense of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ from those who would eliminate them.

Let me be clear, I mean that we must do everything in our electoral power to sweep them from office from the top of the ticket to the bottom, from the presidency to the town council, from the U.S. Senate to the local dog-catcher. Because, when you get right down to it, electoral defeat is the only language that these corrupt cowards can understand. After all, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the reason they don’t challenge Trump is because they’re afraid that they will either lose a primary or general election. Well, then, let’s show them that there are also consequences for standing up for Trump.

This will, of course, require a great deal of heavy lifting on all our parts. The GOP has shown itself ready, willing, and able to suppress the votes of anyone they think will vote against them, and with the Citizens United and gerrymandering cases having already been decided in their favour, they now have almost limitless power to do so.

Nevertheless, there are signs that their power is not infinite. The improbable victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in Alabama–largely as a result of the massive turn of black women–revealed that there is hope in this country. It will take a hell of a lot of work, and it will require that we all do our part. We must have important conversations, with those on the right, the left, and the middle, even when it’s difficult, even when causes strains between us and our family and friends. We must all do our part to show them that there is more at stake than tax cuts and deregulation and conservative justices. We need to remind them that, if they care about the most vulnerable people in their life, that they’ve got to put their votes where their feelings are.

I truly believe there is no other way to restore this republic to the health and vitality that it once enjoyed. The GOP has proven, unequivocally, that it doesn’t have either the ability or the willpower to stop our downward slide into fascism and tyranny nor the desire to do so. Their continued enabling of Trump and their willful ignorance of the growing tide of white nationalism, racism, and white supremacy should scare us all. If we, collectively, want to restore even a modicum of health to the body politic, we must show the GOP that this will not be tolerated. They must endure the same sort of period in the wilderness they endured after Nixon’s downfall, but this time it must be true everywhere on the electoral map.

They wanted to “take their country” back? Well, now it’s our turn.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)

Everyone so often, you watch a film from classic Hollywood that is truly staggering in its ability to speak to the present. Such is the case with Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.

The film focuses largely on two characters, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) and Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith). When Marcia discovers Lonesome and his phenomenal music talent, she gets him a spot at the radio station, where he quickly becomes immensely popular and influential. She thus sets in motion a chain of events that sees Lonesome grow ever more powerful, until he stands at the pinnacle of political power. However, as it turns out, his fall ends up being as precipitous as his rise The film ends with him screaming for Marcia to return, as she drives away with the better man, Mel (Walter Matthau).

Thematically, of course, the film expresses a profound skepticism (I might even go so far as to say hostility) to the everyday Americans that Lonesome appeals to with such panache. These are, as the film takes pains to depict, housewives and workers of all sorts, and their essential gullibility–they become almost like the rats to Lonesome’s Pied Paper–is truly staggering. Of course, this animosity toward any sort of populism shouldn’t surprise us, given Kazan’s own avowed hostility toward communism, but it is still rather shocking how dismissive the film is of ordinary citizens.

Cinematographically, A Face in the Crowd is trademark Kazan, particularly in its gritty realism and sometimes disconcerting camera work. There are times when it is almost possible to forget that one is watching a drama film and not a documentary, and this gives the film a crackling energy and a visceral intensity that underscores the disturbing nature of its narrative (which is all the more disturbing given the world we now inhabit).

What really makes the film, however, is Andy Griffith’s demented turn as Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith takes no prisoners in his performance, dialing up the intensity to almost unbearable proportions. It is not, to put it mildly, a subtle performance, but it is decidedly effective. Sometimes, the camera manages to capture a particularly manic glint in his eyes and, whether it is a trick of the light, Griffith’s command of his own performance, or some combination of the two, it is truly frightening to behold. It’s especially disconcerting given that Griffith would use that folksy charm to very different ends with his persona of Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show and as Matlock decades later. As Lonesome, however, he reveals not only his own incredible talents as an actor, but also exposes the uncomfortable truth that even the most seemingly authentic of people can hide a truly terrible darkness within.

Props also go to Patricia Neal, who somehow manages to grab at least a little of the spotlight for herself. I’ve always found Neal to be a very charming and underrated actress. In this film, she possesses the same sort of folksy charm as Lonesome, but in her it is genuine, and she ultimately comes to serve as the moral conscience of the film. Though she loves Lonesome, she ultimately comes to know him for what he is and it is she, more than anyone, who brings about his downfall when she manipulates the sound system so that Lonesome’s brutal dismissal of his followers is broadcast all over the country.

Much as I enjoyed the film, I do tend to agree with Bosley Crowther, who suggested that Griffith’s performance tended to overwhelm both the other characters and the story. The film doesn’t really give us enough evidence to explain why it is that Lonesome has such an irresistible influence on the people of the country. For that matter, his fall reads as just a little too easy, a little too abrupt to really land.

In an era in which populism and demagoguery have become ever more common–and ever more violent–A Face in the Crowd serves as a disturbing cautionary tale. After all, we live in a world where a man very much like Lonesome–right down to the lechery and the penchant for young women–now holds the highest office in the land. And he is just as Lonesome does, our very own egomaniacal huckster holds his own followers in contempt. The only difference is that we have yet to see him tumble from his perch into well-deserved political oblivion.

One can only hope that, in this case at least, life really will imitate art.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Isn’t it Romantic?” (S2, Ep. 5)

“Isn’t it Romantic,” the fifth episode of the second season of The Golden Girls, is one of the most famous (and, for some, infamous), since it deals with lesbian desire. In the episode, Dorothy’s college friend Jean (played by the warm and divine Lois Nettleton), reeling from the death of her partner, finds herself falling in love with Rose.

First of all, let’s talk about Lois Nettleton. For years before she guest starred in The Golden Girls, Nettleton was a well-regarded character actress, appearing in a wide variety of television series throughout her long career. As a result, she brings to Jean an earthiness and a warmth that renders her utterly believable as a woman who has lost the love of her life and is trying to find a way of moving forward. It would be very easy to make her an object of pity or ridicule, but the writers, and Nettleton, chose instead to portray this is a very human response to grief. Nettleton has an effortless charm that allows her to inhabit the role, and you find yourself loving Jean from the moment she appears on screen.

Some, I’m sure, will feel uncomfortable with the way in which the series plays into the myth that gay people are always aiming to seduce straight people. Others have also criticized the episode for reaffirming Rose’s heterosexuality. These critiques, in my view, grossly overlook what the episode actually accomplishes. It allows us to see Jean as fundamentally human, as prone to mix-ups and awkward feeling as the rest of us. More importantly, in my view, it also gives Rose the chance to talk maturely and seriously with Jean about her feelings. Although, she says, she doesn’t understand these feelings, she tries to imagine what it would be like, and she tells Jean that she would be proud that she was the recipient of them.

It’s important here that it is Rose, simple, naïve Rose, with whom Jean falls in love. Of all the women, it is Rose who seems to have the best heart and the sweetest nature, and it is exactly these things that allows her to respond to Jean’s overtures not with disgust but with warmth and love and generosity. This response fits in with the overall ethos of the episode, which can be summed up in Sophia’s pithy remark that she’d rather live with a lesbian than a cat, which is not only funny but a remark strikingly ahead of its time.

But of course, no discussion of this episode would be complete without the incident in which Blanche confuses “lesbian” with “Lebanese” (when told that Jean is a lesbian she responds, “Isn’t Danny Thomas one?”) For Blanche, the more upsetting part of the entire revelation is that Jean prefers Rose over her, and her histrionics are yet another testament to how profoundly talented Rue McClanahan was as a comedic actress.

All in all, I tend to come away from this episode feeling positive about the ways in which it affirms the power of acceptance. For a show produced in the 1980s, when the religious right was on the ascendant and a staunch Republican was in the White House, this was more than a little radical. That’s why, even all of these years later, I still find its message of warmth and generosity so powerful, so moving.

Next up, we get to meet (again) Blanche’s father Big Daddy, and Dorothy and Rose pen one of the series’ most famous songs.

Reading History: “The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality” (by Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein)

Ever since I read David McCullough’s magisterial biography of John Adams many years ago, I’ve always thought it was a shame that the second president and his son have never received the sort of approbation and celebration that their contemporaries have. Adams is almost always overshadowed by his frenemy Jefferson, and Adams is usually swept aside in favor of the towering might of Andrew Jackson (as well as, to a lesser extent, figures such as Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, who were also his contemporaries).

In large part, as Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein claim in their dual biography, this is because the two of them largely eschewed the trappings of celebrity, not only because it would have ill-suited their temperaments but also, and just as importantly, because they saw those who did so as caving in to the worst sort of impulses. To them, the rise of men like Jefferson and Jackson–one the frenemy of the senior and the other the victor over the latter–revealed both the dangers of parties but also the unpredictability (and thus the inherent danger) of the tide of popular opinion. For both father and son, democracy was a good thing in moderation, but throughout their lives they both entertained a health skepticism about the passions of the people.

Throughout this dual biography, Isenberg and Burstein situate the two Adams presidents not only in their political milieu, but also amid the intellectual life of the age. Both John and John Quincy were heavily influenced by the ancients, in particularly the Romans, and especially Cicero. To them, the ancient Roman Republican thinkers were the paragon of intellectual and moral achievement, and both saw a little of themselves in the doomed orator, who was one of the sole voices that stood out against the rise of tyranny in the form of Julius Caesar and his successors.

Isenberg and Burstein also note some of the two presidents’ less attractive qualities. Both of the Adams men were prone to bouts of melancholy and to self-pity, and both were often inflexible when it came to matters of conscience. The elder Adams in particular could be very waspish with his tongue, and he could often come across as a little self-pitying when he felt that his own contributions to the founding of the country were overlooked. JQA, for his part, was a stern moralist and became something of the conscience of the House, particularly given his staunch opposition to slavery.

That being said, they also reveal that John Quincy was probably slightly savvier as a politician than his father. When he saw that the Federalists were doomed–thanks in no small part to the machinations and later death of Alexander Hamilton–he joined the enemy and served in the administrations of both James Madison and James Monroe. Some thought him a traitor to the principles that he supposedly espoused, but in reality he knew that he was called to serve, and he wasn’t one to let party affiliation get in the way of his duty.

Throughout the book, we get a strong sense of just how raucous and acrimonious politics could be, both during the Founding era and in the generation that followed. These were men (and they were exclusively men, though women like Abigail Adams were profoundly influential) were men of towering intellect, fiery ambition, and they could often be quite cruel to one another. Indeed, the book points out that it is precisely this volatility that was both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the emerging republic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed The Problem of Democracy. As with many other popular history books produced in the last several years, the authors implicitly draw connections between our own political moment and that of the Founding Fathers. Much as we might like to think that we have moved beyond some of the darker and less pleasant parts of our collective history, Isenberg and Burstein reveal that we must still contend with the shortcomings of the popular will and those who would manipulate it for their own advancement. As the rise of Trump and a particularly violent and dangerous strain of nationalism have made clear, there is still much we must do to keep this republic. Hopefully, we can solve this seemingly intractable problem before it’s too late, and the American experiment goes up in flames.

Regarding the Death of Others

Warning: The following post may be troubling for some readers.

I’ve been struggling with my thoughts and feelings about that viral image of Oscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter Angie Valeria, who drowned in the Rio Grande in an attempt to reach a better life. I’ve cried bitter tears as I’ve reflected on the various aspects of this story, and I cannot look at the photo without feeling them come again. I weep not just for such a senseless loss of life, but also because we know live in a country where the lives of those seeking terrible conditions are viewed as expendable, just another outrage, to be chewed up and spewed out and left behind by the relentless media machine.

I’ve also struggled with the ethics of showing (and viewing) the image. On the one hand, I completely agree with those who argue that the nonstop sharing of this image serves to repeatedly traumatize the communities of color who are already feeling terrorized by this administration and its actions. There is no question that we as a culture do not publicize white bodies in nearly the same way as we do bodies of color, and it is true that the visual exploitation of black and brown bodies has a long, deep, and vicious history in this country (lynching is but one example of this grisly phenomenon). We should always be conscious of this when we see this photo, and we should demand more sensitivity from our media outlets when it comes to publicizing the deaths of minorities.

On the other, I also believe that it is important that this image be shared, that it call us all to account for what is being done in our name. For, like it or not, it is our elected officials who are allowing this to happen. It is our elected officials, particularly the Republicans, who are responsible for their deaths. If nothing else, it is my hope that this image will convince us of the need to get people, particularly young people, motivated to get out to the polls and vote. If we have anything less than absolutely phenomenal turnout, then we will have only ourselves to blame if deaths like these, as well as the continued imprisonment of children in what have rightly been called concentration camps (or, for the more squeamish, detention centers).

The more I gaze at that image–and trust me, it is incredibly difficult for me to do so–the more I feel its ethical pull on me. There’s just something…wrenching, I suppose you’d say…about it. Though their faces are (blessedly) not visible, I still feel part of me break every time I look at them, their legs so neatly in line, as if they merely waiting to be awakened. I feel the life that no longer inhabits those bodies, and my mind cannot help but imagine, with an almost unbearable clarity, the terror of their final moments. Their bodies, though no longer alive, call to me, and I yearn, with a bone-deep ache, for the ability to save them.

One would think that the sight of such an image would touch at least a few conservative hearts, or at the very least would call forth the empathy and embodied sympathy that is so much a part of the Christian experience. But, alas, such does not seem to be the case, for many Christians on the right, adopting a pose similar to that of Jeff Sessions, seem to believe that because “those people” attempted to come here illegally, that they are to blame for their fate. Not only does this conveniently ignore and misstate the facts–that seeking asylum is perfectly legal–it is also a fundamental betrayal of the injunction to hospitality and compassion that was such a key part of Christ’s message to this fallen world.

Of course, it’s also true that we live in a world where Trump, the ostensible leader of the free world, reacted not with empathy but with blaming as soon as he was asked about the image. It still boggles my mind that our president is a man so utterly devoid of any streak of human feeling or emotion that he cannot even utter a single coherent sentence that does anything other than continue to cast blame. Is this really the best that we can do as a country? Don’t we deserve to have as our leader a man who heeds the call of empathy, of sympathy, and of common human decency?

It’s hard not to feel a sense of despair at the evidence that we now live in a country where regarding the death of a father and his daughter fails to ignite absolute outrage. If, as Adam Serwer noted in The Atlantic, the cruelty is the point, where does that leave us? What hope is there for a country where so many people can look at an image of a father and daughter who drowned trying to reach a better life and find within themselves nothing but a renewed hatred for the stranger? We can, and we must, expect and do better.

If anything, these tragic, needless deaths are a potent reminder to us that we need to do everything we can to sweep these monsters out of office in 2020. And I’m not just talking about the presidency, though obviously getting Trump out of the White House is absolutely vital if our democracy and our country is to survive. I mean that we need to get Republicans out of office wherever they are found. If we, collectively, have any desire, any desire at all, to see our republic restored to some semblance of its past goodness (however flawed it might have been), then we must all do our part to heed the call of that image. We must all reach inside of ourselves and recognize that part of ourselves that responds with embodied sympathy to the pain and suffering of others.

If we do so, and if we act to make that sympathy a part of our politics, we might just be able to remake our politics. If not, I fear for the future. And for our collective soul.

Weekly Rant: On Queer Progress, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about the dangers of downplaying all of the progress that we have made in the fifty year since Stonewall. As I noted, queer people now enjoy unprecedented legal, political, and cultural representation. Companies now court us openly, popular culture shows us ourselves (in some forms, at least), and politicians talk about us on national stages (and one of us is actually running for president!) While this is a mixed blessing, it is nevertheless a sign of just how far we have come, and how powerful the campaign for visibility has been.

Now, I’d like to talk about the flip side of that equation, about just how endangered we are, and how fragile are the gains that we have made. There is no question that now, in the era of men like Donald Trump and Mike Pence, that queer people are in increased danger. For many, it is literally a matter of life and death.

Since I wrote that earlier piece, I’ve come to NYC for the celebration of World Pride and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. While wandering through the exhibitions of Stonewall at the New York Public Library and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, I was struck by the power of what I was seeing. These were the people who sacrificed a great deal, who fought tooth and nail for their equal rights, and I was sometimes moved to tears at the bravery that it took for them to do so.

What really stood out to me, however, was how very quickly the clock seems to be turning back, how the the hard work that those brave people put in is being jettisoned. For make no mistake, it is as bad as you’ve been to believe, if not worse.

We now live in a world where, according to recent polls, people are increasingly willing to express their distaste for queer people. A new Harris poll, for example, showed that even among millennials a startling number of people would be uncomfortable learning that a family member of teacher was LGBTQ. Another recent poll by the PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) revealed a staggering number of people were willing to accept that small business owners should be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people if doing so was in accordance with their religious beliefs. If we thought that the arc of justice bends inexorably toward justice, and if we thought that we had won the war of public opinion, we were very much mistaken. There is much work that we have to do if we do not want to lose the progress that we have made in terms of public acceptance.

We now live in a world where a tragic number of LGBTQ+ youths seriously consider suicide. What kind of country are we building if so many of our young people no longer consider their lives worth living? How can we live with ourselves, if we know that our queer children see no place for them?

We now live in a world where trans women of color are murdered at a truly alarming rate. The fact that this isn’t cause for outrage, that we are not out in the streets every day demanding justice for these women, says something very depressing about how we, as a collective, devalue their lives. People are dying, and it is incumbent on each and every one of us to not only remember their names, but to fight for justice.

We now live in a world where the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted queer people the right to marry, is in control of the conservatives and where one of them has publicly hinted that he thinks that Obergefell should be overturned. Given the fact that the Trump administration–aided and abetted by Mitch McConnell–has radically reshaped the federal judiciary, and given the unrelenting assault that Republicans across the country have lodged in an attempt to undercut marriage equality (to say nothing of access to reproductive care), it is not hard to imagine a future in which same-sex marriage is once again a state issue. In fact, though it might be a bit alarmist, it’s not hard to imagine a resurgent far-right movement attempting to codify their anti-LGBTQ+ animus in law.

So, what’s to be done?

2020 is hurtling toward us like a freight train. If all of us–old and young, queer and straight, moderate and radical–join together to cast out this crop of Republicans who have done so much to turn back the clock. For make no mistake. If Donald Trump wins again in 2020, and if the Republicans maintain their control of the Senate (to say nothing of state legislatures and governorships and the House), we could very well see the complete and total unraveling of everything that we have worked so hard to gain. And if you are foolish enough to think that things can’t get any worse, let me assure you that they most definitely can. When Trumpers scream “Make America Great Again!” they mean nothing less than that they want to see us shoved in the closet. Or, in the darkest scenarios, obliterated entirely.

Fifty years after Stonewall, we have much to be proud of, but there is much that we have yet to do. The most vulnerable among us are daily battered by the awareness that the state and our culture are gradually turning against them, and it is up to those of us who occupy positions of privilege to continue speaking out on behalf of those who do not have that privilege.

However, as I stood outside the Stonewall Inn tonight, on the fiftieth anniversary of that momentous event, I was overcome with feelings: of hope, of joy, and of fierce pride in what we’ve done and what we can do. These are dark days, and we shouldn’t hide from that, but we can bring light back into the world. We must always remember that we are powerful, and we can do anything.