Saturday, December 16, 2017

Moore Down! Reflections on the Deep South Shocker

Editor's Note: The Latest Sedition would like to apologize in advance to the state of Alabama and all of its inhabitants, past, present and future. 

I was all gunned up to write a piece welcoming Roy Moore to the US Senate. An alleged teen-groper would fit in nicely with the current gang of geeks, con men and lizards--the missing piece of the puzzle, you could say. In a perverse way I was even looking forward to Moore's victory, which would vindicate my general perception that the state of Alabama was nothing but a source of bad news, and that the last good thing to come out of the Deep South was William Faulkner.

I was out picking up dinner when I saw the first returns on a TV in the restaurant, with Moore in a slight lead. I realized that it surely couldn't be a good sign for the lead to be that narrow already, but I figured he'd pull it off. Alabama electing a Democrat seemed like something too removed from modernity to be realistic. The Democrats that Alabama liked back in the day were mean bastards like George Wallace, and I knew nothing about Doug Jones but I doubted he'd stood in any schoolhouse doorways recently.

Moore was still in the lead by the time I got home, and his lead seemed to be getter wider if anything. I didn't keep the election coverage going while eating dinner. The thought of some deranged theocrat goblin like Moore getting elected did not help my appetite. It wasn't until maybe an hour later that I checked my phone and saw Moore's lead had narrowed to half a percentage point, with still a decent chunk of precincts left to report. The idea of some recount nightmare like Minnesota 2008 must have come into my head at that point, but nothing more. I got decidedly more interested and kept closer tabs until my phone died. I was occupied with other things so I decided to let the chips fall. But within maybe an hour, I was informed of the news: the New York Times had called the race for Jones. A quick check on CNN's website confirmed they had too.

Suddenly the night was much more interesting. The unhinged goon in the White House and the RNC had thrown their support behind that fanatic Moore, just to see it blow up in their faces. Doug Jones's name meant nothing to me, but the fact he'd embarrassed these miserable assholes and kept a mall-pervert fascist out of the Senate even in a state like Alabama made him a hero for the night in my book. I caught a few moments of his victory speech. Perhaps it would have struck me as platitudinous on another night, but the ecstasy of seeing Moore humiliated was too great for me to care right then.

Moore's speech was the one I was really interested in, anyway. I was unsurprised when I heard he wasn't conceding. The kind of arrogant self-appointed Grand Inquisitor who would try to implement God's Law from the bench of the Alabama Supreme Court wouldn't be deterred just because the voters didn't want him in the US Senate. I watched from the sofa in my living room as his campaign chairman (or someone like that) babbled incoherently about mandatory recounts when the margin was within 0.5%. Nevermind that Jones was in the lead by three times that much, as Jake Tapper pointed out right afterward. Christ, I thought, are the poor bastards too dumb for grade-school math? Had we really gotten to a point where the best and brightest minds in a senatorial campaign were unable to make a basic calculation? Or had the Republican denial of reality gone so far they would actually go full-on Orwellian and claim 2+2=5 with a straight face?

Moore's speech did not raise my hopes. "Judge" Moore--who has been suspended from the bench twice for trying to force the Will of God on the people--came onstage to assure everyone that It's Not Over, which the crowd of All-American bottom-feeders readily cheered and applauded. (Where do they find these people?) He prattled on for a bit about how God is in control, and even quoted the Scriptures. If Jesus had been there, even he wouldn't have hesitated to kick Moore straight in the nuts. Fuck turning the other cheek, even Messiahs have limits, and I don't know who could have stood having his name dragged through the mud by being associated with a creep like Roy Moore. 

Right. And the poor, sick SOB still hasn't conceded, even after the billionaire rich-kid president offered Jones a limp congratulations on his victory. Who cares? Let him prance around and pretend he's still got a chance. Meanwhile, Alabama's got a new senator that supports LGBT rights and prosecuted Klansmen for murdering black kids. Weird, especially at a time when the president is a bloated throwback to the worst and ugliest times in US history. But lest we start feeling too optimistic about the state of race relations in the Deep South, it's worth remembering that the vast majority of white Alabamians voted for Moore. As a white American myself, I'm starting to reach the regrettable conclusion that it would be better for the species if we could put strict limits on our reproduction rate to keep the amount of damage we do in check. Just until we figure out what the hell is going on, as Trump would say. 

In any case, we can certainly use as many Democrats in the Senate as we can get. The Democratic Party is a pretty sad spectacle for anyone who really wants to aggressively tackle the problems of the day--racism, poverty, and the reckless plunder of the environment--but they at least provide some amount of protection from the old-fashioned fascism Trump would readily usher in if he could. Especially with the Republicans ready to put the finishing touches on their monster of a "tax reform" plan, designed to shower their biggest donors in riches and shaft the rest of us. Not to mention how the FCC, led by corporate lackey Ajit Pai, just voted to deregulate the corporate behemoths that give us access to the Internet. 

We are still in some deep shit, but the Alabama senate race provides at least a little catharsis, and we can hope it means the Grand Old Party will get flogged at the polls next November. God knows the fiends deserve it. And on that note, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Trump's Presidency Vindicates the GOP's Harshest Critics

Left to right: Noam Chomsky, Hunter S. Thompson, Gore Vidal (Chomsky: AP, taken from bostonmagazine.com; Thompson: Neal Haynes/Getty Images, taken from nbcnews.com; Vidal: Maxppp/Landov, taken from cnn.com)
In a 2009 interview with The Times, the controversial author and public intellectual Gore Vidal stated: "the Republican Party is...a mindset, like Hitler Youth, based on hatred — religious hatred, racial hatred. When you foreigners hear the word ‘conservative’ you think of kindly old men hunting foxes. They’re not, they’re fascists." Vidal's assessment, while acerbic in his typical fashion, was not one that was unique to him.

Years earlier, Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson had been even blunter than Vidal was: 
Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up for refusing to kill gooks. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us; they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis. And I am too old to worry about whether they like it or not. Fuck them.
More restrained than these assessments, but ultimately similar to both in its conclusions, was Noam Chomsky's comment on right-wing media (Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, etc.) that "The memory that comes to my mind — I don’t want to press the analogy too hard, but I think it’s worth thinking about — is late Weimar Germany. There were people with real grievances, and the Nazis gave them an answer." This assessment, like the previous two, was made back when Donald Trump was known as a real estate mogul and host of "The Apprentice."

So what do we make of comments like this now that Trump is the president of the United States, thanks to the Republican Party? That we have a Republican president who assures us that some of the people at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville were "fine people?" Who ran on a platform that included banning people from entering the United States based on their religion? Who harshly condemns athletes who kneel during the national anthem but struggles to find a bad word to say about flagrant racists, and who himself has a long history of racist statements?

One approach is exemplified by Bill Maher, who commented that "liberals made a big mistake because we attacked...Bush like he was the end of the world. And he wasn't. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way...Mitt Romney wouldn't have changed my life that much...Or John McCain," and that liberals "cried wolf and that was wrong." Naturally, on the other side of aisle, this is a popular notion, and an article in National Review, written by Charles C.W. Cooke, argued that "when a fine man such as Mitt Romney is given the Hitler treatment too, it becomes difficult for that message to resonate."

That's one approach--to claim that Donald Trump invalidates earlier criticisms like those quoted above by showing us what a real fascist looks like. And Trump does seem more dangerous and less qualified than previous Republican presidents and nominees, not to mention far more personally repugnant. But there's no point in kidding ourselves by pretending Trump is some terrorist who hijacked the Grand Old Party and steered it away from its venerable tradition of Compassionate Conservatism and Limited Government and into the swamp of All-American Fascism. The Republican Party sowed the seeds of the poisonous weed that Trump is, and even "honorable" Republicans like Romney and McCain bear their share of the blame for what we have right now.
    For starters, Romney might not like Trump now, but he had no problem kissing his ass in 2012, when he gushed that "being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight" at a news conference with Trump. Sure, that was years before Charlottesville, the Muslim Ban, and so forth. But not before the racist witch-hunt Trump encouraged over whether the first black president had really been born in Hawaii. Or before Trump had made many other racist comments, and had been sued by the Nixon administration for housing discrimination. 

    And let's not forget McCain's helpful contribution of choosing Sarah Palin, who has since called Black Lives Matter protestors "thugs" and "rioters," defended the arrest of a Muslim student for bringing a homemade clock to school, and endorsed Trump. Even in her time as McCain's running mate, she falsely accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." The Saturday Night Live skits and numerous laughable comments may have brought attention to how much of an imbecile Palin is, but she's not a joke, and never was. Her disturbing, continued relevance even after Obama handily won the election was because she tapped into the same bigotry and anger that Trump later rode to victory on. McCain, it's worth noting, also endorsed Trump for president, only withdrawing his endorsement after the infamous Access Hollywood tape came to light.

    Trump is not some kind of freak accident, nor is he the result of some extremist constituency storming the Republican Party by force. He's what the Republican Party has been heading toward for decades, going back to Nixon's Southern Strategy, into Reagan's race-baiting and close relationship with the Apartheid government of South Africa, and continuing with the racist pandering against Obama by too many Republicans to name. The Republican Party has been goose-stepping toward Trumpian fascism since at least 1968.

    I realize it isn't very Politically Correct to attack your political opponents as some kind of cryptofascists. It borders on what some would (wrongly) call a violation of Godwin's law. But so what? I don't think the civilians killed in Fallujah or by Reagan's terrorists in Nicaragua felt much relief that they were shot or bombed rather than gassed. And frankly, I find it hard to give a damn whether I'm being too nasty to the people who have had no problem being much crueler for far worse reasons. When Republicans fought tooth and nail to keep gay couples from enjoying the same benefits and protections as straight couples, and right-wing twerps like Ben Shapiro (an anti-Trump conservative, for whatever that's worth) can devote considerable time to otherizing and demeaning transgender people, I don't really care if I'm violating some idiot conception of political decorum.

    And, sure, plenty of Republicans--the everyday people who vote Republican, not the politicians--are nice enough people. But so what? The road to Trump was paved with good intentions, and the personal benevolence of some Republican voters doesn't change the fact that the people they've voted for have been monsters who've wreaked havoc on vulnerable populations around the world. And let's not pretend that even Hunter S. Thompson's biting description quoted above doesn't apply to plenty of the people who supported Trump. Political differences don't have to ruin friendships or create animosity, but there are a significant number of people in America who have despicable views and deserve to be called out for it. Hillary Clinton's infamous "deplorable" comment, while clumsy in her typical fashion, wasn't entirely off-base.

    In short, no apology is owed to the Republicans, anti-Trump or pro-Trump, for the criticisms that have been thrown their way in the past. No, what they deserve is a congratulations. Intentionally or not, they helped pave the way for an American president stupider, crasser, and more openly sadistic than almost anyone had imagined could be elected outside of the grimmest dystopian fiction. It's an impressive accomplishment, and they deserve all the credit for it. 

    Sunday, September 3, 2017

    We Won't All Survive This

    "We will survive this," the title of a recent Garrison Keillor piece tells us. In it, Keillor proceeds to talk about how Donald Trump being president isn't actually that big of a deal. Life is still good, he tells us, as he writes about his high school reunion, the lives his former classmates are leading, and fresh tomatoes. Trump may be an idiot, but it will pass. Life goes on. Why sweat it?

    From whitehouse.gov
    If we take an existential nihilist point of view, Trump's presidency doesn't matter, true. Neither does AIDS, the Holocaust, or the fresh tomatoes Keillor is so fond of. That doesn't seem to be his argument. Rather, I suppose he's telling us not to get too bent out of shape because it's not like Trump can do that much damage, right? That's an appealing thought. We should all relax a little bit, and--most importantly--keep in mind that as bad as things might seem at first blush, everything will turn out okay.

    The only problem is that it's totally wrong. Garrison Keillor may well survive Trump's presidency--and if he doesn't, it probably won't have anything to do with Trump--but many people will not, and many people have already died. That is because Trump's presidency is not simply an embarrassment or a spectacle, though it is undoubtedly both--most of all, it's an atrocity, precisely because of how many people will not survive it, or will suffer tremendously if they do.

    One of the people who won't survive the Trump years is Heather Heyer, the protestor killed just a few weeks ago by James Fields, reportedly a Nazi sympathizer and Trump supporter. Trump wasn't driving the car, and has issued the politically required condemnation of Fields' terrorist attack, but given how he's helped promote bigotry and racism from a high-profile platform for the past two years and has often encouraged violence from his supporters, it's hard not to wonder if she would still be alive if it weren't for the monster in the Oval Office.

    Nor will the 2,000 civilians reportedly slaughtered in the air war against ISIS survive Donald Trump. In his recent speech about Afghanistan, Trump boasted that he has "lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy." It's hard not to wonder what the correlation is between whatever changes Trump has made and the sharp uptick in civilian casualties that has already happened under his administration.

    Trump's Affordable Care Act repeal plans have been thwarted for now, but should he succeed, there is no doubt that many people will not survive his administration as a result of that, as well. In short, "we" will not survive this, if "we" is supposed to mean everyone who could have expected to survive if it weren't for unholy creature that inhabits the White House. But then, maybe Keillor means "we" in a broader sense--not we as individuals, but we as a country, will survive this.

    For some of us, that idea is hardly a comfort. The last thing we are looking for is some sort of preservation of the current system. But even putting that aside, Keillor might still be wrong. Trump represents the reaction of a disturbingly large portion of the country to the progress that's been made in moving toward greater racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and gender equality. That's not to say those are the motivations of everyone who voted for him, but those are the people who have rallied behind him and been all the more energized by his open displays of bigotry. They are uninterested in accepting the rights of people unlike them, and it's an insult to ask the marginalized groups they detest to try to offer them some sort of compromise. With a president that actively makes these divisions worse and shows no regard for any sort of limitations on his or his allies' power, who's to say that this will all blow over and things will go back to normal? Not that "normal" was that desirable to begin with.

    In a time as politically ugly as this, retreat is a tempting option. And only the most steel-willed can do without taking some sort of temporary escape from this hideous nightmare from time to time. But adopting the comforting notion that if we go inside and close the doors, the storm will blow over, is a major mistake. The only way to minimize the negative impact of the disaster that's unfolding is to stay active and stay vigilant. People are dying, and they will continue to die. If you find that idea less comforting than Keillor's feel-good piece, that's good, because there's nothing to feel comfortable about right now.

    Saturday, August 12, 2017

    The Unwelcome Return of Cold War Liberalism

    The title of this post might be a misnomer. I don't know that Cold War Liberalism ever really went away. After the end of the Cold War, maybe it only mutated into the pro-Big Business, war-friendly centrism of the Clintons and of Obama's presidency. Just how much of a line can be drawn from the Hubert Humphreys and Scoop Jacksons to Bill Clinton's bombing of Kosovo and Barack Obama's embrace of the War on Terror is a question worth asking, but not one I feel equipped to answer, or inclined to examine right now.

    Regardless of the answer, though, it's clear we're seeing a rebirth of old-fashioned Cold War Liberalism in the wake of the allegations of Russian meddling in the last election and the ongoing investigation thereof. The wild claims being hurled out are straight from the Joe McCarthy playbook: "Russians may be controlling our government"! "The Communists are now dictating the terms of the debate"! And, one of the best of the gibberings, from MSNBC's inimitable Joy Reid: "Donald Trump married one American (his second wife) and two women from what used to be Soviet Yugoslavia: Ivana-Slovakia, Melania-Slovenia." (Yugoslavia was never part of the Soviet Bloc, Slovakia was never part of Yugoslavia, and Ivana is from what is today the Czech Republic. Reid corrected one of these errors (the last one), but if she's corrected the other two or apologized for the xenophobia, I am unaware of it.)
    Screenshot of a tweet by Keith Olbermann, taken from a tweet
    by Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC), showing an image
    from The Closer with Keith Olbermann

    We shouldn't pretend that it's without its precedent. McCarthy may have been a Republican, but that does nothing to erase Harry Truman's loyalty oaths, Humphrey's proposal to hurl subversives into detention camps, the Kennedy Administration's spying on suspected Communist sympathizer Martin Luther King, and the bipartisan legacy of COINTELPRO. Feigning piety and acting surprised that Democrats would turn to red-baiting is pointless, given their history. To engage it long after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and against the most right-wing president we've seen in at least decades, though, is especially stupid and outlandish.

    We now know that Donald Trump, Jr. was ready to accept dirt from the Russian government (even if there was none to be had), and Trump may have some sort of financial connection that he doesn't want unearthed. God only knows what the connections may be, and what collusion, if any, may have happened. But we know that Trump hasn't governed as Putin's puppet. He bombed an airbase in Syria--a Russian ally--and now signed a bill with new sanctions targeting Russia. Whatever Russian meddling happened, and whatever misconduct Trump engaged in, conspiracy theories about Putin being the puppet-master pulling the strings in the Trump administration seem to be flatly contradicted by the reality in front of our faces.

    Putin, though, in the neo-Cold War Liberal mind, is the Big Villain--instead of a second-rate Russian strongman, he's a Bond villain with a master plan to conquer the world. Of course, Putin himself would surely be flattered that anyone thinks he could be that cunning and ingenious. Even Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the infamous Pussy Riot, who Putin locked up for "hooliganism," has come out and stated that she thinks that Putin is being used as a scapegoat and that the focus on him goes beyond all reason. (Of course, she was probably subjected to merciless, ultra-effective brainwashing during her time in prison, turning her into nothing but a sock-puppet for the Putin regime. Or, perhaps they killed her and replaced her with a double. The possibilities are endless.)

    Nonetheless, the hysteria continues. When Trump ended a program to arm the Syrian rebels (one of his only good acts so far), that was inevitably spun as a gift to Russia. In reality, the program has poured money into a hole and has little to show for its efforts--and, of course, was a violation of international law to begin with--but those facts are too mundane for our darty-eyed tinfoil hat brigade. When Trumped bombed an airbase in Syria, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell even concocted an absurd theory that Putin had approved the gas attack that precipitated it to give Trump a pretense for the strike. Some "mastermind" Putin would be to betray an ally to a president who's done nothing for him.

    What really bring the neo-Cold War element to the front is the bizarre conviction on the part of these prattlers that Russia is still Communist. Ex-DNC chair Donna Brazile recently called Russia "The Communists" in a tweet, Joy Reid has likewise tweeted about "communist Russia," and on the show The Closer with Keith Olbermann (now titled The Resistance with Keith Olbermann), as a preface to a rant by the truly unhinged Keith Olbermann, a picture of Trump superimposed over a large hammer-and-sickle was brazenly displayed. Putin, for anyone curious enough to do a minute's worth of research, has aligned himself with a number of right-wing and conservative political parties since the fall of the USSR, has collaborated closely with the Russian Orthodox Church, and enacted a flat tax. The attempts to link to Communism seem to rely on him having once been in the KGB, despite the fact that there were many Russians in the KGB and since the end of the USSR they've gone onto various different walks of life. The other, more subconscious justification, seems to be that anything expansionist, Russian, and authoritarian must be Communist, a notion no doubt birthed by Cold War propaganda and its lasting effects. Perhaps trying to link Trump to Communism is an attempt by liberals to be cute and turn around all the far-right accusations that Obama was a Communist. For those who appreciate the evils of the Cold War--coups, blacklists, surveillance--it's less than charming.

    Worse than all of this, though, is that the Russia Connection goes beyond Trump and the Republicans--far beyond, naturally, into the depths of the evil Far Left, naturally enough. So we have Howard Dean wondering openly if The Intercept is funded by Russia, Reid calling followers of Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald (or maybe WL and Greenwald themselves--unclear from the context) "Putinites," and the leet-speaking Twitter lunatic Eric Garland going on a typically unhinged rant denouncing Bernie Sanders as a traitor for voting against the recent Russia sanctions bill (Sanders voted against it because of the sanctions on Iran--he actually voted to support sanctions on Russia). Some neo-Cold War Liberals have also promoted Louise Mensch, a warmonger who has accused Sanders of being "in league" with Putin and whose Russophobia penetrates so deep that she refers to The Intercept as "The Ivancept."

    Mensch is a former Tory MP, and hardly the only person on the right that the new Cold Warriors have embraced. No surprise: neoconservatism can trace its intellectual roots to the anti-communist wing of the Democratic Party, so the alliance is natural. It's unsurprising to see the new Cold War Liberals embracing the likes of David Frum, who helped write Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech and blames the Iraqis for the failure of the Iraq War. Glenn Greenwald has written in detail about how the "Alliance for Securing Democracy," a new policy group populated by both Cold War Democrats and neocon Republicans, is only one of the latest efforts by the former to rehabilitate the latter.

    It's pretty clear at this point that the Russia investigation has done not-insignificant damage to Trump, and most Americans seem to be suspicious of Trump's conduct with regards to Russia. So be it. I'm not about to complain about anything that damages the Hatemonger-In-Chief's standing or makes us even marginally likelier to be rid of him soon. But only six percent percent of the respondents in a recent poll ranked relations with Russia as the top issue the country faces, and even after the Don Jr. revelation, doubts about any serious collusion still remain. The people are not ready to believe just any crackpot theory spat out by Democratic Party hacks and their MSNBC-spawned mouthpieces, and despite harping on Russia plenty, Hillary Clinton still lost in 2016. The Democrats need a real message and an actual platform, not some garbage left on the cutting-room floor by Reagan's "Evil Empire" speechwriter. Chuck Schumer, as much of a party insider as anyone, seems to have picked up on that. Anyone who fails to do so at this point has already sacrificed their relevance to the gods of Good American Patriotism and Commie-Bashing.

    Thursday, July 6, 2017

    Why Does Freedom Of Speech Matter?

    Freedom of speech is under serious threat in the United States. The threat comes from various angles --not surprisingly, mostly from people in power. It was dealt a serious blow under the Obama administration when the Supreme Court ruled in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that the government can ban advising terrorist organizations on how to nonviolently resolve conflicts. There were a number of other actions under the Obama administration that threatened a free press--the listing of a journalist as an unindicted co-conspirator, the attempt to force journalist James Risen to testify against one of his sources, and the seizure of AP reporters' phone records, to name some of the more extreme examples.

    President Trump, unlike Obama, has taken an openly and transparently hostile attitude to the "Fake News Media" and, during the campaign, floated the idea of "open[ing] up" libel laws so he could sue press outlets that criticize him. Already, we have seen his administration attempt to bully the press and his critics from his position as president (exactly as he has done many times in the years before his presidency), and his attorney general has stated that arresting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a "priority." We are very likely to see more, and worse, abuses from the Trump administration as his presidency goes on.

    The United States Bill of Rights
    (National Archives--Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
    To address a much-discussed but far more minor issue, we have also seen a number of instances of attempts, some successful, on college campuses to prevent disagreeable people from speaking on campus--Ann Coulter, Charles Murray, and others. The reasons to object to such speakers' ideas are innumerable, but the attempts to prevent them from speaking on campuses is dangerous and misguided, even if it is only a marginal concern compared to the much greater threat to freedom of speech from other sources.

    So far I have been deliberately America-centric in my focus. That is because, compared to the rest of the developed world, the United States has actually done an impressive job of providing legal protection for freedom of speech. In other highly developed countries, there is much less protection for freedom of speech enshrined in the law--there are laws against hate speech, Holocaust denial, and so forth in many highly developed countries. Of course, in less democratic countries, the restrictions on freedom of speech are far more extreme.

    It is clear that the idea of freedom of speech, old as it is, has a long way to go before becoming universally accepted. For all of the actions that threaten freedom of speech, there are many who will defend them. It is a disheartening fact that opposition to freedom of speech comes from people across the political spectrum. Many, of course, would not openly say they oppose free speech, but they support restrictions on speech that, in my opinion, cannot be justified. On the right, we see support for bans on flag desecration and pornography, and censorship of "offensive" art (in the 1990s it was Marilyn Manson and gangsta rap, now it's Shakespeare In The Park's performance of Julius Caesar). On the left, we see support for bans on "hate speech," and support for violently dispersing right-wing and fascist marches and rallies. Quite recently, a figure no less mainstream than Howard Dean argued that hate speech is not a constitutionally protected form of free speech:

    All of this raises some questions: What speech really should be tolerated? What reason do we have to tolerate hate speech, or false claims, or flag burning, or anything else that we think is offensive and lacks any intellectual merit? Which brings me to the purpose of this post.

    I believe strongly in freedom of speech for every conceivable view and opinion, regardless of how despicable and offensive. I am not necessarily an absolutist with respect to free speech, as I do believe that some speech should be criminalized and sometimes censorship could be justified (I will discuss this later), but these instances are narrow and very specific. In my view, Nazi hate speech, flag-burning, and flagrant lies are all generally protected under the banner of free speech, and should be.

    It is pretty easy to make the case against some of the more extreme forms of repression and censorship that occur in less democratic countries, where criticizing the government and the figures within it can incur criminal penalties. Obviously, to have a functioning democracy, we must be able to debate government policy and criticize those within the government. That is what makes Donald Trump's longstanding vindictiveness toward anyone who criticizes him so troubling. Democracy can only function if the populace is able to make well-informed decisions, and attempts to squelch out criticism of those in power means we only hear one side of the debate.

    More complex are situations like what we have in many highly developed parliamentary democracies, where, as mentioned, there are laws against hate speech, Holocaust denial, and other extreme and offensive forms of speech. To be certain, speech of that nature seems vastly less worthy of defense than criticism of government policies and officials. But, in my view, protecting those forms of speech remains important.

    It is worth acknowledging, for one thing, that the burden of proof ought not be on those who argue against bans on offensive speech, but rather on those who argue for them. The assumption for any restriction on freedom should be that it is unjustified unless proven otherwise. It is dubious that society would be much worse for wear if we were to collectively abandon drinking alcohol and watching reality TV, but we can easily see why laws against doing those things are objectionable: freedom means the freedom to do things that are not especially good for oneself or society as a whole, and if we were to ban every extraneous thing that people do, we would be living in a very oppressive society.

    So, then, what are the arguments for banning offensive speech--what separates it from non-offensive speech? The most obvious answer, and a strong factor in many restrictive laws and instances of censorship, is that, of course, it offends. Without a doubt, the reason many people support restrictions on offensive speech--whether it's racist hate speech or flag-burning--is that it offends them, plain and simple. That, of course, is a terrible argument for banning anything. It is entirely subjective what is and isn't offensive, and if we were to ban everything that offends anyone, very few things would be allowed. Many works of literature we consider classics now were considered offensive--obscene, even--and faced censorship accordingly. At one point in time, the assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not vice versa, was obviously seen as offensive.

    A stronger argument comes from a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed:
    Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies. Exposure to racial slurs also diminishes academic performance. Women subjected to sexualized speech may develop a phenomenon of “self-objectification,” which is associated with eating disorders. 
    These negative physical and mental health outcomes — which embody the historical roots of race and gender oppression — mean that hate speech is not “just speech.” Hate speech is doing something. It results in tangible harms that are serious in and of themselves and that collectively amount to the harm of subordination. The harm of perpetuating discrimination. The harm of creating inequality.
    Being exposed to pervasive hurtful speech can certainly have real negative effects on someone. So, then, is that not grounds to ban hateful speech? I do not think it is. It's impractical to criminalize something on the basis that it causes emotional distress. Certainly, hate speech can be extremely hurtful to groups who are the target of it, but it's impractical to try to prevent anyone's feelings from being hurt, or even to try limit it, through the use of law. It is a noble goal to try to limit the amount of emotional distress people feel, and certainly a worthy goal to try to make society less of a hurtful place for disadvantaged minorities. However, the idea that the way to do that is by criminalizing that which causes emotional distress, is fundamentally misguided. And, of course, criminalizing hate speech doesn't do anything to address the underlying hate. 

    From the conservative side, the argument is made that there is some kind of higher ideal that certain forms of speech violate, and that this is a reason to ban them. Certain types of speech are profoundly immoral to the extent that the only course of action is to ban them--they have a corrupting influence on society by spreading disrespect for sacred ideals. This is the argument used to support bans on flag desecration, and moral censorship of music, television, etc. While it is generally an argument used by conservatives and rightists, it could just as easily be used by leftists for their purposes--that racist and other hateful types of speech are immoral and deserve to be banned.

    The problem, of course, is that the idea of what is and isn't moral is not easy to answer, because there is no empirical way to get an answer to the question. Even in cases where there is agreement about the fundamental source of morality--such as among Christians, who regard God as the source of morality, and the Bible as the word of God--there is still enormous debate over what is and isn't immoral. And we are thoroughly justified in asking why it makes sense for the government to make it its business to force people to be moral. Unless we can discover some real, tangible harm done by the supposed immorality, what business is it of the government to force people to be moral?

    We may also run into the argument that restricting speech is necessary as a preventive measure--if we penalize certain utterances, we can catch wrongdoers before they have a chance to commit more serious crimes. This idea is offered on the left with respect to fascism: by preventing fascists from holding rallies and marches in the first place, we prevent them from organizing and thereby causing greater damage in the long run. This seems to be a very dubious prospect to me. Fascists (and anyone else) could simply meet in private to surreptitiously plan their activities. And, in point of fact, hate speech restrictions do not seem to have been especially effective at squelching out fascism and racism, given the rise of far-right parties across Europe. On these same grounds, we can dismiss the similar argument that by banning the incitement of hatred, we will reduce hate-fueled violence.

    The argument for banning lies may seem the most persuasive, but it is still troublesome. It is fair to ask why the government (or anyone) should have the right to decide what is the truth, and punish those who challenge it. Of course, we have libel and slander laws so that damage caused by lies can be addressed in civil court, but the idea that lies should be treated as a criminal offense means letting the state dictate what the truth is, rather than allowing it be decided through rational debate.

    I am unaware of any argument against freedom of speech that does not fall into one of these categories, which means that we should conclude that restrictions on speech (barring a few instances which I'll get to later) are unjustified. But suppose we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some reason we should lean toward restricting hate speech (or obscenity, or whatever your least favorite form of speech is). Is there any compelling reason we can come up with not to do it? In my view, yes: there are several.

    As the great philosopher Baruch Spinoza (an early defender of freedom of speech) wrote, "All laws which can be broken without any injury to another, are counted but a laughing-stock, and are so far from bridling the desires and lusts of men, that on the contrary they stimulate them." That is, restrictions on certain types of speech run the risk of lending them more legitimacy than they deserve. Resorting to force and coercion to try to eliminate certain utterances seems very much like a confession that one lacks any rational argument against such utterances. If we have convincing arguments against the claims espoused in hate speech, obscenity, etc.--or if the speech in question is so transparently anti-intellectual that it should convince no one--why try to censor it?

    Censorship and punishment further lend credibility to claims of victimhood that often come from groups like fascists and Nazis, and merely inflame outrage from the people who are inclined to be sympathetic with such groups. (If we extend censorship even further, as some leftists would like to, to more mainstream conservatives, the argument becomes even stronger.) The same argument applies to the people rightists would like to censor, naturally: censorship very much runs the risk of being counterproductive (look at how many books have been banned throughout history and ask how successful those bans were). 

    There is further a moral question to address: is responding to words with force really justified? The rhyme we always use on children, "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me," is an oversimplification, of course, but it isn't without a great deal of truth. Fining or imprisoning a person damages them in a tangible way; words do not. Again, I am fully aware of the emotional distress words can cause, but trying to create a world in which no one is ever upset by anything anyone else says is neither practical nor desirable. 

    Facing offensive speech head-on offers a clarity that censorship cannot: it allows us to figure out why these utterances are so repulsive to us, rather than simply attacking those who make them. Further, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." If the government punishes people for their speech, does it not encourage intolerance and force over rational debate? 

    I fully realize that not all ideas deserve debate. Even engaging in debate about whether or not the Holocaust really happened or is just a Zionist hoax is enough to cause us to lose our humanity, as Noam Chomsky put it. But allowing people to come to their own conclusions about the validity of arguments for repulsive positions such as racism and Holocaust denial allows them to realize the insanity of those arguments, rather than simply being forced to trust that the government has good reasons for banning such arguments. In this post, I have been deliberately taking on the strongest arguments I can find against free speech, because debunking those arguments is the strongest way to defend free speech. The strongest way to debunk Holocaust denial, racism, etc., is to let the supporters of those positions make their strongest arguments and then debunk them--not to prevent them from making those arguments in the first place. And if their hateful utterances fail to even take the form of arguments, that only exposes the people making them as irrational and monstrous. 

    If nothing else, pure self-interest should be a motivating factor for the support of freedom of speech. Violence begets violence, hate begets hate, and censorship begets censorship--by eroding respect for the idea of freedom of speech, one opens oneself vulnerable to censorship. Some leftists may be thrilled with France's anti-hate speech laws, but they may be less thrilled with France's crackdown on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement under the pretense that it is hate speech. Not surprisingly, giving those in power permission to censor certain viewpoints means they are likely to use that power to censor the viewpoints they dislike. Similarly, conservatives who have argued for censorship are in a weak position to object when college students try to prevent right-wing figures from speaking on their campuses. As a leftist, I have to note that it is stunningly shortsighted of my fellow leftists to support giving the government the power of censorship while expecting it not to be used against us.

    "But wait!" many will argue, "I don't support government censorship like you're talking about, I support action by private citizens to keep fascists from organizing, and to deny people with bad views a platform." The same arguments apply to these tactics: trying to shut down right-wing rallies runs the risk of being counterproductive, and erodes the respect of freedom of speech that is crucially important for a free society. Having to fear violence or harassment from private citizens is no less of an impediment to free speech than having to fear punishment from the government. In some cases, it is more so. 

    As for the idea of "no-platforming," part of the problem the left (and other unpopular, non-mainstream viewpoints) have faced is media marginalization (how many times have you seen Noam Chomsky on CNN compared to Newt Gingrich? How much attention did the media pay to Bernie Sanders as compared to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?). Attempting to marginalize other viewpoints by denying them the same platform we ask for our views not only revokes our right to complain about such marginalization, it makes it more likely to keep happening. Further, many of the previous arguments still apply: no-platforming gives the target the opportunity to (rightfully) claim they're the victim of intolerance, and deprives us of the clarity that could exist if they were allowed to make their arguments (if they have any) and their opponents were allowed to rebut them. It is very seriously worth asking what the no-platforming movement has so far achieved, and whether its main accomplishment is providing its ideological opponents ammunition.

    So what exceptions should there be to freedom of speech? In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that speech directed at inciting "imminent lawless action" could be criminalized, which seems a reasonable standard from my perspective: if a person is calling for a crime to be committed in the immediate future (e.g., to borrow Glenn Greenwald's example, telling a mob of people wielding torches to burn a house down), it seems reasonable for that to be illegal. What distinguishes that from other advocacies of criminal activity (which are not designed to incite imminent lawless action) is that those may be more abstract, e.g., at some point in the future this action should be taken, and it is valuable to be able to discuss whether certain illegal acts should be carried out (democracies have been founded through what started as illegal acts, and the Civil Rights movement achieved a great deal through civil disobedience).

    It also seems reasonable to treat direct threats of harm toward specific people as criminal acts, given the intended effect of threatening another person's security--death threats, for instance, are a serious crime in many jurisdictions. What separates this, again, from blanket threats is that those can be of some value in discussion (e.g., "we will riot if these oppressive laws are not repealed.").  Being personally threatened is different than simply hearing a threat directed at a broad group that one falls into.

    Further, restrictions on freedom of speech that would normally be unacceptable may be acceptable in extreme circumstances; for instance, I am open to the idea that at least some of the restrictions on free expression during the American Civil War were justified, given the ongoing armed rebellion and the precipitous situation with the border states. However, we could certainly not accept the idea that any war, no matter how far away, that the government enters into could serve as an excuse to curtail free expression, given that the United States has been engaged in war for almost sixteen consecutive years now, and has spent much of its existence involved in wars (often unnecessary).

    The freedom to speak one's mind is undoubtedly a crucial right in any genuinely free society. There are few things that come more naturally to humans than speech, and punishing a person for expressing their opinion--however heinous that opinion may be--is a serious enough restriction that there must be a strong justification for it. In my view, there are very few instances where it is genuinely justified to do so. As old as the idea of freedom of speech is, it is not a right that is safe today. It is the responsibility of all people who believe in liberty to defend it. 

    Sunday, June 11, 2017

    Mere Anarchy: A Look at the World As It Stands Today

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer...


    Unending chatter about Russia. What will the investigation find? Will there ever be a smoking gun? Democrats have been afflicted with nonstop Russia hysteria for months upon months, mauling anyone who criticizes them, calling out supposed Russian plants. But despite their mania they may not be all wrong about Trump and Russia. He could have fired Comey to try to hide something. Or maybe the child-president simply lacked the self-discipline to let the investigation exhaust itself. Anything is possible these days. Comey had no bombshells to drop in his testimony but only reminded us that the president is a serial liar--something that might have been shocking at one point but now is so obvious it almost feels insulting.

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...


    Meanwhile in the Middle East, destruction from the new regime. Civilians killed in shocking numbers that make Obama's escalation of the drone war look modest in comparison. The Mother of All Bombs dropped in Afghanistan, airstrikes in Syria--not just the ones a couple months back on an airbase, that strained relations with Trump's supposed friend Putin; now new ones against pro-government forces. As we hit at a Russian client state, it's fair to wonder what that will mean for the already precipitous relations with a nuclear-armed power. "Putin's puppet" might be pushing us to the brink of a nuclear war with Russia at the same time that he's plagued by accusations of Russia ties at home. The irony is too bitter to be delicious. 

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.


    But nuclear war is not the only threat to the species that seems to be increasing. Trump's abandonment of the Paris Accord--a vague agreement that lacked enforcement mechanisms to begin with--only indicates what we already knew. His administration will push the climate closer to the tipping point, the Point of No Return, and toward the grim future that looks increasingly inevitable--melting icecaps, rising oceans, flooded shorelines. American Exceptionalism rears its head once again, grinning its sharp, demon grin as the most powerful country walks away from virtually the rest of the world.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.


    And, Across the Pond--a hung parliament! Not long ago Labour was certain to be destroyed, but nothing can be counted on anymore. "Socialism or barbarism," Luxemburg said. The Brits seem to be looking more toward the former option as their bastard children across the Atlantic embrace the latter. There may still be good and justice in the world, but the pressing question is whether they can actually come to power and do anything before it's too late. There are only a few grains of sand left in the top half of the hourglass. Corbyn dealt a blow to the savage would-be tyrant May, but the beast she represents has not yet been slain. 

    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle...


    There is no knowing what to expect next. Even guessing is less of a science and more of a game. Will Trump be impeached? Thrown out? What can we expect from a President Pence? That stern-faced Christian zealot, wielding the power of the state--would it even be better? Who can know at this point? And we haven't yet even touched on North Korea--an issue that was huge a few months ago but seems to have faded now, likely to come back again before long. Everyone goes about their daily lives like diligent worker ants as the world looks to be devolving before our eyes into pure disorder and mayhem--the Law of Entropy playing out in fast forward. Even as we must do what we can, we are little more than spectators to the free-for-all struggle that will determine our collective future.

    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


    Credit to W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" for all italicized text.

    Friday, April 28, 2017

    Trump in the K-Hole: Big Don Exposed as Ketamine Addict

    Ketamine’s ability to produce hallucinogenic effects within minutes after administration has led to its abuse as a recreational drug. The dissociative effect of ketamine that is produced by high doses is often described by recreational users as the “K hole”—a separation of the mind and body, or a hallucinatory “out of body” experience. Ketamine is known by various street names, including K, special K, jet, super acid, and cat valium. It may be snorted, injected, or taken orally, and its effects may last from 30 minutes to more than an hour. However, for one or more days after taking the drug, users may display symptoms of amnesia, schizophrenia, impaired judgment, and lack of coordination. In addition, long-term abuse can lead to paranoia, depression, and other evidence of cognitive dysfunction.

    (From Encyclopedia Britannica's article on ketamine) 
    Ketamine was introduced by God to give dead people a means of communicating with us, the living. 
    --David Woodward 
    With all the focus on supposed Russian ties as well as the chaos he's already stirred up as president, it's no wonder that the ketamine stories have fallen between the cracks. The media may have turned from their Objective Journalism in the age of Trump, but outing the president as an unhinged dope fiend is far too Politically Incorrect for even the more liberal-leaning press outlets. Presidents have had their secrets for a long time: FDR was a paraplegic, JFK had Addison's disease, Obama was a secret adherent to the LaVeyan Church of Satan (nevermind the Muslim rumors), and now we have the Donald--no surprise that a man with enough money to goldplate every room in his mansion would end up in the tantalizing and dangerous world of drug abuse.

    While mainstream outlets have maintained total silence about it, perhaps out of fear of the hell it could unleash, it's undeniable that Trump is a grade-A ketamine addict. Ketamine, for the uninitiated, is a Schedule III drug, used for anesthesia and pain relief, with a long and storied history of being used as a hallucinogenic and a club drug. Under its influence, John C. Lilly became convinced he was being contacted by space aliens, and that they had removed his penis. How Trump came to be addicted to it is anyone's guess; perhaps, in the midst of failing casinos and bad press, he turned to a new way to treat the inevitable migraines, and soon enough found himself a crazed junkie. Ketamine is a prescription drug, and with the sort of doctors Trump finds, it's no surprise if he's been able to get a regular prescription to fuel his dependence.

    Speculations have run rampant about Trump's mental health, but few people have been able to deduce what I can state confidently now: Trump's strange and unsettling behavior is not just the product of growing up under the thumb of a eugenicist real estate tycoon or of some natural chemical imbalance. Ketamine is capable of inducing the raving paranoia we've seen as Trump tweets wildly about being wiretapped by Obama and about Democratic conspiracies to sabotage his presidency. These are not simply bones he's throwing to his base of Klansmen and gay-bashers, nor are they just a way to soothe his wounded ego as he watches his approval ratings dip; in the throes of the mania that a chronic ketamine abuser will stumble into, Trump surely believes with all his heart and mind that even the wildest conspiracy theories he vomits forth are the Gospel Truth.

    The delusions of grandeur, too, are just another effect of rampant ketamine abuse. As Trump stood in the tower that bears his name, announcing his candidacy, and told the audience that he would the greatest jobs president that God had ever created, he may well have believed that God himself had given him that message just moments before. The "many people" that he consistently turns to as a vague way to source his claims could be anyone you can imagine: Abraham Lincoln; Ronald Reagan; Joseph McCarthy; even Jesus himself. Under the spell of a powerful hallucinogenic, Trump has probably had meetings with all of them. His unshakable self-confidence almost certainly comes from a belief that he's been chosen by some set of powers, extraterrestrial or maybe divine, that regularly communicate with him while he's in the so-called k-hole.

    Given his erratic behavior, Trump must be using ketamine on almost a daily basis at least. It's all too likely that in meetings with his closest advisors, he pulls out a syringe or pours out a line on the presidential desk and doses up to deal with the stress of his newfound power. "Steve," one can imagine him screaming at Bannon, "holy shit, Steve, your eyeballs are on fire! Don't you feel it? They're burning right out of their sockets!" It's no wonder that the agenda of the Trump presidency so far seems largely shaped by people other than the president himself. There is no way that those around him are unaware of his dangerous habit, and he surely spends too much time incapacitated to do the job himself.

    This is all speculation on my part, you may say. But I see only one alternative, and it is far too absurd to seriously consider: that Trump maintains this level of insanity and instability without the help of any drug. We have reached the point where it is a bigger leap of faith to cling to that innocent notion than to admit the obvious truth that our president is hooked on Special K--which, there can be little doubt, is the reason why he ever thought of the deranged idea to run for president in the first place. The accusation may seem incredible, but the alternative is entirely impossible to believe.

    Monday, February 20, 2017

    Six Albums to Listen to in the Trump Era

    "Without music, life would be a mistake," Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote. Indeed, music is an extremely powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful. No wonder, then, that people often turn to it in times of strife and turmoil; even people reduced to the lowest level possible have turned to music--slaves working in the fields, prisoners working on chain gangs, and other oppressed groups throughout human history have used music as a sort of spiritual manna. In the worst period in American politics for many years, it's no wonder I've found myself thinking about what music is appropriate to turn to--what can offer the most solace, the most strength, the most hope, and the most understanding.

    To be clear, I am not trying to be objective with this list. These are the albums that strike me as particularly relevant right now, meaning that they're all from artists that I like and listen to relatively frequently. So this is a list shaped a great deal by my personal tastes and what resonates with me rather than what I would select if I were trying to pick the most relevant possible albums and a give a fair representation to different genres, different time periods, different cultures, etc. For that reason, please don't tell me that I unfairly excluded some album--but do feel free to leave a comment listing some of the albums you think are relevant. These are just my contributions, and I'd be very interested to hear others.

    I limited myself to one album per artist so this list would have greater variety, and have picked out a lyric from each album that strikes me as particularly noteworthy given the current situation as well as one track from each album just to give a sample of what they're like. These are not ordered with any regard to which are most relevant or my favorites (those would be difficult things to decide with these albums). With those disclaimers made, let's get to the list!


    Rage Against the Machine--Rage Against the Machine 
    Rebel, rebel and yell
    Cause our people still dwell in hell...
    Now freedom must be fundamental
    In Johannesburg or South Central
    On the mic, cause someone should tell em
    To kick in the township rebellion
    Okay, I know this isn't a particularly original choice and that Rage Against the Machine are, yes, so over the top it's easy to laugh at them or parody them, or just write them off as the music of a stereotypical wannabe rebel. But their songs aren't just a bunch of angry, adolescent rebellion anthems, whatever their critics might say. This is an album that addresses issues like systemic racism, Eurocentrism in school curriculum, consumerism, COINTELPRO (read about it if you don't know what it is--seriously, please do), Apartheid, US foreign policy--the list goes on. Point being, this is an album that's a prolonged, bitter attack on a lot attitudes, policies, and phenomena that are still hurting many people today. In "Killing In the Name," the band's signature song, frontman Zack de la Rocha sings "Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses," which, in live performances sometimes becomes "Some of those who burn crosses are the same that hold office"--a statement that's uncomfortably salient, given Donald Trump's history of racism and the power that Steve Bannon currently holds in the government.

    But as relevant as some of the lyrics may be, I won't pretend that they're the sole, or primary, reason that gets this album on the list, considering that I admittedly can never catch more than half of them when I listen to the album. It's because--appropriately, given the name of the band and the album--it's an acerbic, angry, battering ram of an album that viciously denounces injustice and oppression and, musically, sounds exactly how it should, given what it's doing. De la Rocha delivers every lyric with conviction and outrage, and the aggressive rap/funk metal sound that each song has makes this an hour-long adrenaline rush. I don't think there's any album that makes me feel as eager for revolutionary action as this one does. And no, I don't think that a violent revolution is the answer to our problems, but having the energy this album brings certainly doesn't hurt.





    Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) --Marilyn Manson
    But I'm sorry Shakespeare was your scapegoat
    And your apple's sticking into my throat
    Sorry your Sunday smiles were rusty nails
    And your crucifixion commercials failed
    But I'm just a pitiful anonymous
    Manson's most political album (and my personal favorite), this is a concept album like the two albums preceding it were--and together they form a trilogy, told in reverse order. But explaining that in detail would take far too long here, believe me. This is an album that was written largely as a response to the blame that was placed on Marilyn Manson for the Columbine massacre; Manson has described the album as a "declaration of war." It functions as a sort of polemic against a culture ridden with celebrity-worship, religious hypocrisy, and censorship. The front of the album shows Manson crucified with his lower jaw ripped off--a reflection of attempts to scapegoat and silence his band after Columbine.

    One of the key phrases that recurs in some form on the album (and which the tour supporting it was named after) is "guns, God, and government"--the second track on the album, sardonically titled "The Love Song," compares America's fixation with these three items to a love affair. We still see that today: large swaths of the population view any attempts at gun control with paranoid suspicion, our vice president, Mike Pence, is a religious zealot who's backed gay conversion therapy, and Donald Trump is drooling at the thought of expanding government powers so he can censor his critics and keep out the undesirables.

    The album portrays a city called "Holy Wood," that faithfully adheres to a religion called "Celebritarianism," that views celebrities as saints of some kind, with John F. Kennedy elevated to the level of a messiah. According to Manson, Kennedy, Jesus, and John Lennon suffered the same phenomenon--after violent, premature deaths, they were turned into mere symbols to be used by the Establishment and blindly worshipped, with their actual ideas and preachings fading into the background. It's particularly easy to see how this happened with Jesus, as we watch self-proclaimed Christians, often those who are thoroughly pious and vehemently religious people, completely ignore the actual teachings of their Savior. And in a day and age where the president is a former reality TV star and a billionaire who's long been famous for being famous, the idea of Celebritarianism seems even closer to a reality than it did when the album was made.

    Oh, and this isn't really related to Holy Wood, but right around Election Day, Manson released a promotional video for the band's next album where he decapitates Donald Trump. I thought that was worth mentioning.





    The Ghost of Tom Joad--Bruce Springsteen
    From the Monongahela Valley
    to the Mesabi Iron Range
    to the coal mines of Appalachia
    The story's always the same...
    Once I made you rich enough
    Rich enough to forget my name
    Bruce Springsteen has long spoken out in sympathy for the downtrodden and mistreated, such as in the much-misunderstood "Born in the USA." He has already been active in speaking out against the Trump administration and is, in general, a very politically outspoken artist. The political issues of the day have been major themes on a number of his albums, but this one strikes me as particularly relevant now. It focuses a great deal on poverty in America and in Mexico. The title track, and first track of the album, is told from the perspective of a narrator observing a scene of homelessness and despair who feels filled with the spirit of Tom Joad, the character from The Grapes of Wrath:
    Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me Mom I'll be there/Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/Or decent job or a helpin' hand/Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free/Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me.
    "Youngstown" (whose lyrics I quoted at the top of this entry) tells about the deindustrialization of Youngstown, Ohio, and the devastating effects it had on the working class there. Especially important in the Trump era, several songs express sympathy for Mexican immigrants, including "The Line," which tells of a Border Patrol agent who ends up helping a woman get across the border (illegally) into the US, where she has family, with her child and younger brother. To me, what this album represents most of all is an effective alternative to the far-right populism that Trump espouses; it takes the side of the oppressed regardless of skin color, religion, or nationality. It addresses the plight of the white working class, but instead of trying to turn them against immigrants or minorities, it unites them in a struggle against injustice, as the monologue from Tom Joad expresses.




    The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin'--Bob Dylan
    A South politician preaches to the poor white man
    "You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
    You're better than them, you were born with white skin," they explain.
    And the Negro's name
    Is used it is plain
    For the politician's gain
    As he rises to fame
    And the poor white remains
    On the caboose of the train
    But it ain't him to blame
    He's only a pawn in their game
    Yeah, okay, I broke my "one-album-per-artist" rule here, but Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so excuse me if I had to make an exception for him. Honestly, I did start with the intention of choosing just one Dylan album, but it seemed wrong to omit either of these from the list. Many of the songs on these albums were intended to address the issues of the day, back in the turbulent 1960s, but the issues remain relevant--have a renewed relevance now, even. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan opens with one of Dylan's most famous songs, "Blowin' in the Wind," which is, of course, a lamentation about the persistence of intolerance and injustice in the world--an all-too-relevant song right now.

    From there we get the viciously acerbic "Masters of War," attacking war profiteers in the harshest terms ("I hope that you die, and your death will come soon"), "A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall," which ponders the wonders and injustices of the world and serves as a call to action of sorts, and the surreally comical 'Talkin' World War III Blues" (timely given the Cold War in the '60s, also disquietingly timely now given that the Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight it's been since 1953). The Times They Are a-Changin' starts with its prescient title track, also giving us the bitingly satirical "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game"--a song about the use of racism by the ruling elite to distract poor whites from their economic condition.

    These songs are, of course, interspersed with other less political songs, some of which rightly rank among Dylan's best-remembered work as well, such as the classic "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Dylan would go on to have a long career after these two albums (obviously), and deliberately eschewed the sort of protest songs that these albums are both filled with; he would also branch out musically, causing enormous controversy by going electric (which now seems like a pretty inane thing to be controversial, I know). Certainly some of his later albums (of which there are many) may be better than either of these, but I doubt any of them are more appropriate right now.



    Who You Selling For--The Pretty Reckless
    They're dropping bombs on all of my friends
    Every time I turn around they're blowing up again...
    I'll try to avoid it
    Try to avoid this
    This vulture at my door
    And I'm living in the storm
    This is (in my judgment) the least overtly political album on this list. It's also an unlikely choice, I will acknowledge. Love them or hate them, every other band or artist on this list can boast of being outright legendary in one way or another, whereas The Pretty Reckless are a band fronted by a former actress best known for playing Cindy Lou Who in the weird, unsettling live-action version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and Jenny Humphrey in "Gossip Girl." So why exactly am I putting them among the likes of Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine in terms of essential listening in the era of Donald Trump?

    There are a few reasons. Firstly, Taylor Momsen, the frontwoman, represents post-Trump America in several ways: she's young (a "Millennial"), an assertive, independent woman, socially liberal, and skeptical of organized religion. For her, as for many others like her, Trump looks like a throwback to an unenlightened era that was thought dead for good. I assume that, at least, given that, although she generally seems to avoid speaking out on specific issues or candidates, she has made it clear she is horrified by Trump.

    But obviously the band's lead singer is not the only reason I've selected this album. It strikes me as an album that captures the chaos and shock that are reigning right now; it came out only a couple weeks before Election Day, and the timing could not have been better. The first track of the album commands, "when they come to hang you/Stand straight, brace your neck, be strong, daughter"; that same feeling of struggle carries over into the second track, "Oh My God," which plays at a frantic fever pitch while the singer wishes to be anything other than what they are, asking for a return to the innocence of youth. Later we get slower, downbeat songs including the album's title track, which wistfully looks forward to a better future. The most relevant track, though, is "Living in the Storm," which is about being surrounded by vacuousness, cruelty, and violence. For what it's worth, it also has a great guitar solo.

    Unlike the other albums listed, this one does not so explicitly examine the problems that led to Trump's rise or that are embodied in his presidency, and it doesn't clearly propose a way forward; but I do think that it serves well as a catharsis for all of the confusion, dismay, and terror that people are rightly feeling right now. It is an album full of sadness, desperation, and anger, which makes it perfect for a time full of sadness, desperation, and anger.



    So those are my selections; like I said before, I would be thrilled to hear what albums you think are right for the Trump years (if he actually manages to last that long), so feel to comment. Until then, happy listening, and stay vigilant. 

    Friday, February 17, 2017

    "Womanhood Redefined": A Response

    "Womanhood Redefined" by Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a wretched, doublespeak-laced chore of a read that I don't encourage anyone to suffer through. It puts forward one offensive claim after another, each time skittering away afterwards with enough qualifiers to try to appease anyone that could call it bigoted or hateful. It takes two steps forward, one step back, and a few steps side to side for good measure, and does that over and over again for five thousand words, dragging us along for the entire experience. But I guess I should actually address what it's saying instead of just how it's written.

    First, let me address the issue that I, as a male, am critiquing this article about feminism: I don't care. I will put forward a series of arguments in this post. They might be good. They might be bad. But either way, they are good or bad totally irrespective of who's making them. I fully understand that I don't know what it's like to be treated as a woman by society, and just looking at the statistics is enough to give a good knowledge that it obviously comes with many unfair disadvantages. But this article isn't about the disadvantages that women face--not really, anyway. It's about how transgender people aren't really the gender they identify as, and how the transgender rights movement has gone too far, or something like that.

    We first get several paragraphs about how the theater board of Mount Holyoke, a women's college, decided it would not be holding a performance of The Vagina Monologues because it is supposedly transphobic, given that it is about women with vaginas, which of course excludes some trans women. I agree that deeming it transphobic because of that is shortsighted and wrong, and that it doesn't deserve to be consigned to some dustbin of theatrical history just because it wasn't written to be inclusive to women without vaginas. Starting with this example, which many would find hard to argue isn't going too far, the article is just trying to warm us up to the idea that maybe a lot of the transgender movement is going too far. Maybe the whole idea of transgender is going too far. Or maybe not. You'll see what I mean.

    Next, we hear about how Mount Holyoke is now admitting "men who [do] not have vaginas but nevertheless identif[y] as women"--Vargas-Cooper's cringe-inducing way of referring to trans women. "And that’s fine," she assures us. "Young people who have insisted that we treat those who are different with more acceptance and tolerance have tended to be on the correct side of history." Yes: trans women are really just men, but it's "fine" if women's colleges want to admit them, Vargas-Cooper generously grants us. Inclusivity and all of that.

    She also admits that the "realistic aims" of the transgender movement--"access to sex-reassignment surgery and access to hormones...the ability to use the bathroom of one’s chosen gender; bureaucratic institutions issuing a preferred M or F on documents; and to be treated with the overall dignity a civilized human being should expect"---are "easy enough" to accept, offering all the enthusiasm of a friend agreeing that, yes, it is your turn to pick the movie, so we can go Fifty Shades Darker if that's what you'd really like. But now we hit the meat of her objections: "when we are told to concede that womanhood is a construction and not a matter of biology; that surgical mutilation is brave; that men who decide to become women are immune from criticism after they’ve taken a certain amount of estrogen; that expression of discomfort is bigotry; and that the cause of women’s political and economic liberation is somehow hindered if we alienate transgendered women or if we discuss the realities of women’s biology."

    The lack of support for trans people begins to come through strongly here. Sex reassignment surgery becomes "surgical mutilation," and we're led to believe that the transgender movement is championing the idea that "men who decide to become women" (to use the author's gauche phrasing) are expected to become "immune from criticism." Who has argued that? No one--it's just a convenient straw man. And, just maybe, the argument against alienating trans women should be that they deserve to be included in the feminist movement too. Isn't that what social justice movements are supposed to be for? Do they really deserve to be called social justice movements if their only interest in including certain marginalized groups is pure expediency? Whether or not women's liberation is hindered by alienating trans women, it seems worth avoiding for the same reason one should avoid alienating any other group of women--a desire for fairness and inclusivity.

    Vargas-Cooper goes on to puzzle over how "it’s unacceptably radical to believe that biological males who use hormones or surgeries, or who simply have an overwhelming desire to be women, are not automatically women" and that "having a vagina is an essential part of womanhood." Here is a curious thing: a man whose view of women puts a great deal of emphasis on their genitalia is likely to be considered an objectifier and a sexist, not without reason. Yet somehow it's empowering to view the possession of a vagina as an "essential part of womanhood." It encompasses, Vargas-Cooper helpfully explains, experiences such as "pregnancy, menstruation, abortion, adoption[!?], miscarriage, clitoral orgasms." These are not even things that all women with vaginas experience. Vargas-Cooper knows this, of course, but deliberately overlooks it.

    The real problem, she contends, is "a strain in leftist utopian thought that biology is largely a myth or, in college dorm parlance, 'a construct.'" (I am not sure of how many college dorms have conservations about "constructs," but all right.) After quoting an article from BuzzFeed that argues that "woman" is "a made-up category, an intangible, constantly changing idea with as many different definitions as there are cultures on Earth," Vargas-Cooper deems it "the product of too much French post-modernist theory, not enough common sense, and a blatant denial of the constant biological war women are conscripted to wage."

    What is that war, exactly? The war to not become pregnant, from what I can gather. Pregnancy, Vargas-Cooper says, is uniquely female. As per usual when it comes to trans-unfriendly feminists, she ignores the fact that trans men can become pregnant, and that they generally do not want to be considered female. To the question: "Do you only support women who bleed from their monthly cycles?" Vargas-Cooper responds: "That blood is a symbol of women’s ongoing war with nature. They use hormones, condoms, copper devices, and all manner of contraception to deny nature’s plans for them. When after 28 days they see their period, they know that they won that month." I do not think I have encountered many women who view their menses as a time of triumph, but I am glad for Vargas-Cooper that she apparently feels victorious about it. But what about women who don't menstruate, just by nature? What about, for instance, "Caster Semenya, who competed in the women’s 800 meter race, [and] was born with a vagina but no womb, no ovaries, and functional but undescended testes that produce testosterone"? Where did I get that quote about Semenya? From later in the article.

    Vargas-Cooper goes on to argue that, in fact, transgender people are simple reinforcing gender. "Trans activists," she tells us, "insist that they be identified as either strictly male or strictly female." Curiously, the BuzzFeed article she was quoting (and attacking) is called "How to Be a Genderqueer Feminist"--genderqueer meaning, by definition, not exclusively male or female. Trans people, she says are "dreadfully serious...about their identities." Why can't they be "like the hijra of India, or...androgynous gender renegades like David Bowie, Patti Smith, RuPaul Charles, or the stone-cold butch lesbians of the ’70s who had zero regard for looking feminine yet did not opt for double mastectomies and testosterone infusions"?

    Some of the hijra, in fact, are transgender--and there are (even aside from the hijra) transgender people who do identify as a third gender, as Vargas-Cooper so admires the hijra for doing. As for asking why transgender people can't be like Bowie, Patti Smith, or RuPaul--maybe because none of them are transgender. In fact, all of them are (or were) performers. Transgender people are not attempting to put on a show or make a statement, they are attempting to be comfortable in their own bodies.

    "Once they’ve transitioned to their preferred gender," gripes Vargas-Cooper, "it’s considered a serious act of hostility to refer to them by their former pronoun. Style guides for news outlets like the Associated Press and Reuters instruct reporters to refer to people by their chosen pronouns. Meanwhile the New York Times is even willing to indulge those who use made-up pronouns like they/x (in place of he or she)." But this, too, is "fine," she grudgingly admits. "But," she asks, "why such dour emphasis on gender identity when it is somehow both arbitrary and sacrosanct?" No one has said that gender identity is arbitrary; it's a reflection of a person's deepest feelings about themselves. Not unreasonably, they ask those be respected by others. One is idly curious about how Vargas-Cooper would feel if everyone started referring to her as a man and using the pronouns "he" and "him."

    She wrongly concludes that "part of the reason why trans men and women take their identities so seriously is the great lengths they go to in altering their bodies." No, the reason that (some) trans men and woman go to great lengths to alter their bodies is because of how strongly they feel about their identity, not vice versa. She compares sex reassignment surgery to a black man bleaching his skin so he can be white, or a housewife who's insecure about her aging body, or an anorexic girl starving herself to reach the weight at which she won't see herself as obese.

    There is an interesting point to be made here. It does seem desirable that all transgender people should have the opportunity to resolve any dysphoria and feel secure in their own bodies through means less costly and with fewer risks than surgery or hormone treatment, at least in their current forms. What we know for now, though, is that there are many people for whom one or both of those options are the only way for them to feel entirely okay with their own bodies. Stigmatizing those procedures by calling them mutilation or comparing them to an anorexic girl starving herself does nothing to help those who need them. And it should be obvious that people who insist--like Vargas-Cooper does--that having a vagina is an essential part of being a woman are just reinforcing the societal norms that make trans women feel the need for sex reassignment surgery, so they can have vaginas and be "real" women. When not having surgery leads to a greater likelihood of being seen as a phony and having it means getting accused of self-mutilation, we've hit a real point of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" for the transgender community.

    We then encounter the now-obligatory Rachel Dolezal comparison. Which does, to its credit, raise another interesting point. The difference is that I don't think there's any evidence that everyone forms a racial identity by a young age, whereas experts have said that everyone forms a gender identity early on, nor is there a long history of many people identifying as a race other than the one they were assigned at birth. Used here, the example is not an attempt to provoke any serious thought about the comparability of race and gender, though. It's merely a gimmick intended to throw doubt on the idea that we should take transgender people any more seriously than Rachel Dolezal was widely taken, and to (perhaps not unfairly) chastise trans activists who wanted to "disembowel" her.

    "Perhaps the biggest criticism that can be leveled against trans assimilation," Vargas-Cooper writes, in the beginning of the end of an article that makes five thousand words feel longer than the entire length of War and Peace, "is how strangely conservative and individualistic it is...Once the trans woman or trans man gets his or her surgeries, has the proper pronoun stamped on his or her driver’s license, and gets to stroll through the “gendered” department store aisle without curious glances … then what? What has been achieved? How has society improved?"

    This is a strange question indeed. It's a little like asking, "once black people sit at the front of the bus, how has society improved?" Society improves by letting people do what they want without placing arbitrary and unfair barriers in their way. But, Vargas-Cooper lectures us wisely, "Ultimately, to pass as one’s chosen gender is a selfish pursuit." Which is also "fine." Yes, I suppose wanting to pass as one's "chosen gender"--or simply be recognized as being the gender one identifies is--is a "selfish pursuit." But, in that sense, isn't wanting access to abortion a "selfish pursuit?" Isn't wanting to be paid as much as men a "selfish pursuit?" In fact, what social justice movement hasn't been focused on some group's "selfish pursuit" by this definition?

    "Giant collective movements for wealth redistribution and a strong welfare state have been supplanted by a diffuse, leaderless network of online grievances that typically center on issues of language (e.g., the use of pronouns, a celebrity saying something racially insensitive, books read in a college course) and mass media (the Academy Awards having no black nominees, few strong female leads in television shows, advertisers’ unrealistic beauty standards, etc., etc.)," Vargas-Cooper complains. This is presenting a false dilemma: support transgender rights or support leftist economic causes. There is absolutely no reason one has to pick between the two.

    She concludes her article: "In her interview with Diane Sawyer, Caitlyn Jenner proudly declared, 'what I’m doing is going to do some good. And we’re going to change the world.' Changing the world is a good project. It’s also a very difficult project, in which details like genitals don’t matter." An ironic way to end the piece that declared that having a vagina is an essential part of being a woman.

    This is a truly dismal piece of writing, in every way. It makes no attempts at logical consistency, instead relying on chicanery to try make you think it has a point when it doesn't. Over and over again, it throws out clearly stigmatizing language--"mutilation," "men who did not have vaginas but nevertheless identified as women," "selfish pursuit"--just to declare those things "fine" right afterward as a weak attempt to cover up the clear disdain the writer has for sex reassignment surgery, the transgender movement, and ultimately, transgender people in general. I had to restrain myself from picking out every bit of asininity in this article and dissecting it here. Be glad--if I'd done that, this blog post would be as long as War and Peace.

    NOTE: Originally this piece simply stated that the hijra are transgender; I have altered it to be more accurate. Further, I made some changes in the paragraph about hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery to be more sensitive about those topics.