barack obama

Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?

So, I was going to stay out of this one. It’s a complicated mess, and I think on many points both sides are talking past each other.

It started — well, no, it’s barely even meaningful to talk about where it “started”: the roots of the issue stretch back well before the founding of the United States, and threads are woven throughout our culture and history. But the current blagowebby eruption of this normally-subterranean-from-the-white-liberal-point-of-view conflict was kicked off by Melissa Harris-Perry’s column at The Nation, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” First Joan Walsh responded at Salon; then Harris-Perry wrote a followup blog post; then David Sirota mixed reasonable points about historical comparisons with nasty, condescending personal swipes and counterclaims as overreaching as he insisted Harris-Perry’s claims were.

There were and have continued to be, of course, many parallel and concurrent discussions, debates, and arguments over these posts on Twitter, where in particular Sirota has been prone to undermine what good points he made by adopting a taunting, sneering tone.

But even Sirota’s nastiest jabs seem to have faded to the level of background noise at this point, thanks to Gene Lyons, who penned (and, inexplicably, got Salon to publish — leading me to wonder on Twitter, “maybe Sirota slipped some web intern at Salon an unmarked envelope: ‘hey…make me look reasonable by comparison, eh?'”) “Obama’s bridge too far: When the president gets tough, the tough start whining.” In this gem of a column, Lyons dismisses the entire notion of applying the lenses of race and gender analysis to our history and politics with a “[y]ada, yada, yada”; characterizes Harris-Perry as “a left-wing Michele Bachmann”; and describes her worldview as “a photo negative of KKK racial thought.”


He wrote that.

So, you know, maybe Mr. Lyons just doesn’t quite realize the import of what he wrote; maybe he just figured, well, the KKK think about race a lot, and Harris-Perry thinks about race a lot, so…sure, why not compare them?

As a public service to Mr. Lyons and anyone else who might be thinking about employing a Ku Klux Klan comparison — and as a humble, clumsy homage to ebogjonson’s classic post, with my apologies — allow me to offer this handy spreadsheet: “Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?”

A flowchart to determine whether comparisons to the KKK are appropriate. Spoiler alert: probably not.

Please refer to this as often as needed. Click through for full size.

(Flowchart built with Creately. Edit: forgot to say in the initial post, the flowchart graphic is under a CC-BY-SA license. Feel free to share and adapt it under those terms; a link to this post is sufficient for attribution.)

Nouning, Again: The Crux

About a year and a half ago, I wrote this:

Recent discussion … has reminded me, too, that this doesn’t apply solely to negative descriptions like racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.  If it were more normal to use “feminist” (for example) as an adjective, a mostly fruitless debate over whether Barack Obama is “a feminist,” which tends toward devolving into people claiming their set of views is what defines “a feminist” and anyone who doesn’t quite match up is “not a feminist,” we could be discussing how feminist he is[.]  These things are matters of degree.

In the time since then I’ve continued to think about the issue, and I suspect that I missed an important point in my original post — even though, with the Neal Stephenson and Jay Smooth citations, it was staring me in the face.  It’s still important to think about “isms” in terms of degree rather than as simplistic, binary oppositions.  But another, probably equally important way to see it is that nouns tends to be about identity, while adjectives are more easily applicable to action.

The original “Nouning Considered Harmful” post was, in part, inspired by debate over whether Barack Obama was or was not “a feminist.”  Now, some sixteen months later, a similar debate is occurring over Sarah Palin’s description of herself as “a feminist,” and the larger attempt by conservative women to “claim” (or “reclaim”) the term “feminist” to describe their generally anti-choice, anti-marriage-equality, pro-capitalist, pro-traditional-patriarchal-family policy positions.

(My responses to this are mainly 1) to note that attempting to co-opt progressive language for anti-progressive policies, or to smear progressive policies with anti-progressive labels, is standard right-wing newspeak procedure; and 2) to quote this excellent Bitch, PhD post: “My point is that it irritates the hell out of me when I see an argument about feminism in which neither side seems to actually remember that feminism isn’t about what women or men ‘choose’ to do: it’s about the way society is structured.” (emphasis mine)  That is, to claim your policy positions are feminist, when you’re actually advocating against structural changes in society that would improve the socioeconomic status of women as a class, is an absurdity.)

But the question of whether a specific person “is a feminist” or not is the wrong question, I think; it’s either a meaningless question, or it’s a meaningful question asked in a counterproductive way.  As I understand it, it’s a basic tenet of anti-oppression thought that people get to define their own identities.  And this can be kind of tricky, it turns out, and lead to some pretty fraught discussions of appropriation and self-definition, when someone like Sarah Palin calls herself “a feminist.”  Because to claim to be, or not to be, or that someone else is, or is not, “a [noun]” is a claim about identity.  People really, really don’t like to be told their identity is something different from what they themselves say it is, and people who subscribe to progressive views tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone else “no, your identity is X, no matter how much you say it’s Y.”  Identity is personal and internal, it resides in the mind — and no one but me knows my mind, so how can anyone else contradict my claims about my own identity?

So this is the crux of the nouning issue, then: if I say “you are a racist” or “you are a feminist” I’m making a claim about your identity, and in some sense that’s just not a claim I’ve got the right to make.  If I say “I’m not a racist” or “I’m a feminist” I’m making a claim about my identity, which I’ve got every right to do, but the validity of which no one but me has any way to evaluate.

If, on the other hand, I say “the policies you support would tend to keep the political, social and/or economic status of women as a class lower than that of men as a class,” or (equivalently) “the policies you support are un- or anti-feminist,” I’m making a claim that can actually be evaluated, because it’s a claim about actions and effects in the world, not thoughts within someone’s brain.

Some further reading, from which you’ll be able to click through to all sorts of blog posts about whether Sarah Palin is a feminist, should you be so inclined: Pilgrim Soul, Kate Harding.

Quick Hit: Hospital Visitation Rights

President Obama has finally taken a significant, positive step on LGBTQI rights.  And he’s done it in a way that benefits everyone who goes to a hospital.  The news coverage I’ve seen so far (Washington Post, New York Times) emphasizes that the new rules Mr. Obama has directed HHS Secretary Sebelius to implement will ensure that people in same-sex relationships will be able to visit and, if necessary, make decisions for their partners in hospitals.  But the actual memorandum specifies this not in terms of recognizing same-sex relationships, but in terms of respecting patients’ rights to designate who should be able to visit and/or make decisions for them.

This applies to people who would prefer that their closest platonic friend make decisions if they’re incapacitated, rather than their family; to people trying to escape abusive familial or spousal relationships; to people like me in different-sex relationships who choose not to marry; and, of course, to people in same-sex relationships who aren’t able to marry yet.  The memorandum also includes language explicitly stating that hospitals “may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability,” which is, sadly, probably necessary.  But the conceptual framework it applies is not one of slightly expanding the allowed relationships to include not only blood relation and marriage, but “marriage-equivalent” relationships; it’s a more drastic change, which rejects the assumption that blood relation and marriage are always the best proxies for patient wishes, and instead respects patient autonomy.

This is in line with the approach favored by Nancy Polikoff, who hasn’t written about it yet but, I would guess, probably will soon: it makes marriage as a cultural formalism matter less, and instead tries to do a better job of accommodating what patients’ lives are actually like.

So I’m very glad to see this — although I’m still not extending much credit, this is an excellent move, and I’d like to hope that it’s the start of better things to come.

Update: Sure enough, Dr. Polikoff has a post up now about the memo.

Quick Hit: Health Care Reform

Well, it’s done.  The House has passed the Senate bill, and the package of reconciliation fixes.

There are a bunch of good things that kick in quickly, and that’s a big plus.  Some thirty-odd million more people are going to have health care coverage, and insurance companies will (at least in theory, though I expect they’ll find whatever ways around this they can) be prohibited from denying coverage to or retroactively rescinding coverage from sick people.

There’s no long-term solution to rising costs, and the Democrats’ — from the President on down — betrayal of their own party platform, which says “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right,” is craven, disgusting, and disheartening in the extreme.  And this is an absurdly industry-friendly bill, carefully tailored to maintain insurance company profits, and to not introduce any measures, such as genuine competition from a public option, optional earlier Medicare buy-in, removing their anti-trust exemption, or new, robust regulation, that would come close to bringing American per capita health care costs in line with the rest of the developed world, who spend much less for care as good or better than ours because single-payer systems are more efficient.

So in short, the Democrats remain a party largely under the influence of corporate money and the inbuilt misogyny of our social structure, while the Republicans are not only completely and happily under those influences but actively seeking at all times to expand them.  D. Aristophanes’ graph, thus, applies pretty well both to the HCR bill and to the parties themselves.

In other news, as Paul Krugman notes, Newt Gingrich is now attacking the HCR bill by comparing it to LBJ’s civil rights legislation.  Hey Newt, your mask is slipping.

On Not Getting Fooled Again

(Update: apparently I forgot to linkify things that were supposed to be links!  I was sure I had done.  That’s what I get for posting on only one cup of coffee.  Fixed now.)

As most people probably know by now, on Friday President Obama accepted an invitation to speak to and answer questions from the Republican caucus at their annual retreat — on the condition that the news media be allowed and the speech and Q&A session be broadcast live.

And as most people probably know by now, the Republicans are almost certainly thinking to themselves, “how could we have been so stupid?”  (The answer, I think, is that they got so used to the lies they use to keep the rubes voting for them that they kind of forgot they were lies, and they honestly believed their sad little talking-points recital would leave Obama transfixed and tongue-tied, and he’d eventually have to break down and admit they were right about everything.)

If you haven’t seen the video, you should try to find time to do so — it’s a bit over an hour, but it’s pretty remarkable.  Each time someone asks a question, it’s clear they think they’re scoring a major point, and that there’s just no way the President can refute their argument.  And each time, he calmly, reasonably, cuts their head off.  You can see the whole thing at Shakesville (with links to more discussion), and TNC provides the soundtrack, but I’ve provided some highlights below the fold.


Quick Hit: Spending Freeze

So apparently President Obama is planning a freeze on all new non-defense discretionary spending.  That leaves out, as far as I can tell, current funding levels, additional DoD funding, and anything to do with Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.

The left-wing/liberal/progressive blagoweb pretty much thinks this is stupid.  Jeff Fecke provides a partial defense, which to Fecke’s credit doesn’t descend into “he’s playing 37-dimensional chess, you just have to trust him!” but still rests on too many hypotheticals for my comfort.  Krugman takes a gloomier view.

Here’s my thing.

Politically, I don’t see this working well.  Liberals think the last thing we should do is freeze spending on “discretionary” domestic programs like, oh, say, education.  Conservatives, and moderates who have been bombarded for generations with conservative messages about how government deficits are terrible things, will find plenty of ground to accuse the administration of flim-flammery if Fecke is right and the freeze is aimed at providing deficit-hawk-ish cover for passing health care and jobs bills, and if not they’ll just hang the failing-to-substantially-improve economy around his neck (actually, they’ll probably do that no matter what).

And as policy, to be blunt, it’s shit.  It has no significant impact on actual deficits — according to tonight’s Marketplace report, it will cut “only $250 billion over 10 years, but that’s out of a $3.5 trillion budget every year,” — but it cuts funding from areas where we really need more investment (like education and environmental programs), hurting people who need help.  (And, cf. LGM, ignores the areas of real waste.)

So, I mean, maybe tomorrow night’s State of the Union turns it all around — maybe President Obama lays out a bold new liberal vision for the country, inspires the people to rally behind it, and shames recalcitrant Democrats into pushing forward a progressive agenda; or if that’s too fanciful a dream, maybe at least he proposes policy initiatives that make the current situation look less dire.  Maybe.  I’ll wait and see.  But it doesn’t seem likely.

Update: I just got an email from the Washington Post with the subject line “Breaking News: Obama to promote more education spending in State of Union speech” — how does that square with this “spending freeze”?  I don’t know.  FWIW, here’s their story on the subject.

(What Does It Take For CNN To) Fire Lou Dobbs

As folks like the indispensable Dave Neiwert have amply chronicled, CNN’s primetime star Lou Dobbs has long provided a mainstream loudspeaker for radical racist/xenophobic nativism, and contributed to the atmosphere of paranoia about “illegals” that leads to the murder of 9-year-old-girls.  His vicious, fact-free anti-immigrant ravings alone should have prevented him from ever being allowed a spot on a major news network.

But now he’s picked an additional target, and a new set of paranoid fantasies: President Obama and the Birther cause.  It’s hard to imagine how he could get any farther beyond the pale at this point.

Media Matters’ press release covers the essentials and links to a number of their other posts on the subject.  Ta-Nehisi and tristero are all over it too, and make very good points, as usual.

CNN needs to either fire Dobbs, or drop the “News” from their name and give similar amounts of coverage to every equally plausible conspiracy theory: the moon-landing-hoax theory, for example, and the Roswell coverup, and of course the 9/11 Truthers while we’re at it.  Maybe throw in a special on how no one really knows for sure whether the Freemasons secretly control all the governments of the world.  Rehire Glenn Beck, why not?  He’s no crazier than the Birthers.

Dobbs is an embarrassment, CNN.  Dump him: your credibility’s on the line.