Republican Presidents Say the Darndest Things!

February 11, 2017

[Alternate Title: Open Letter to Senators Who Sat and Listened to Donald Trump call Elizabeth Warren Names]

Dear Sens. Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Jon Tester, Lamar Alexander, Chris Coons, Shelley Moore Capito, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Joe Donnelly and Michael Bennet:

Today’s news includes a story that you attended a meeting yesterday with Donald Trump that was intended to canvass your support for his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Gorsuch. During that meeting, according to several reports, Trump referred to Elizabeth Warren, once again, as “Pocahontas” in the midst of one his tirades about voter fraud we all know didn’t happen.

The lies about voter fraud are one problem, but at least those can be investigated and dismissed by anyone actually willing to believe that such things as evidence and truth exist. I’m much more frustrated by your failure to respond to the name-calling. In hopes that nobody has to explain why it’s so problematic for him (anyone) to call (her) or anyone a name that he clearly intends to be an insult, let’s fast-forward to what I would hope is the obvious response when somebody with so much power and authority says such a thing.

Stop. Right there. You cannot talk like that about another human being, much less one of our colleagues. Until you apologize and agree to stop saying it, we’re not listening to anything you say.

Or.

Bye, Mr. Trump. We’re done here.

Every time people with the kind of stature and authority you have let him get away with acting like a petulant six-year-old racist, you make it that much harder for all the rest of us to stop him. And if this seems a trivial matter to you, think about this: if you found out one of your kids (or nieces or nephews or a friend’s kid or whoever) had called one of their teachers a name like this, you’d be appalled and embarrassed, wouldn’t you? (Or would you? I guess I’m making the assumption that you’re offended by outright racism.)

It would have taken only one of you to make the point loud and clear: people at your campaign rallies might have eaten that up; the “liberal media” might have amplified your racism for the sake of profits; but if you’re going to talk to grown-ups, you have to be one.

Let’s chalk this up to a missed opportunity. Next time try a little harder, OK?


Open Letter to Senator Patrick Toomey about your vote to confirm Betsy DeVos

February 3, 2017

Senator Toomey:

Just a few minutes ago, I was finally able to stomach reading your statement explaining your Yes vote for Betsy DeVos’ nomination to serve as Secretary of Education.

I’ll set aside my substantive disagreements with your claims about her. I think you’re wrong about every one of them. And you know that, since you sent me a letter almost two months ago making essentially identical claims, to which I responded substantively.

What’s more important at this point, as far as I’m concerned, is to call attention to what many Pennsylvania citizens must recognize as a simple truth–your constituency voiced strong and sustained opposition to this nomination, which you simply refuse to listen to, or even to acknowledge. Social media documents thousands and thousands of phone calls, letters, tweets, office visits, faxes, and more to make clear that we wanted you to vote against Betsy DeVos. Of course, neither does your statement acknowledge the more than $60,000 in campaign contributions you’ve received from the DeVos family, or the fact that you were away from town last weekend in Florida collecting massive amounts of money at a Koch Brothers’ organized event.

It’s clear who you believe butters your bread, Senator Toomey, but it’s time for you to start wrapping your head around this: we will not forget this. We will not forget that you hung us out to dry in favor of serving your paymasters, that you made a profoundly reckless decision about one of the most important positions in this country, and that you pretend not even to know how wildly unpopular that decision is.

Or put another way, if you’re waiting for the Memory Hole to swallow this moment, you’d better think again about that. We won’t forget.

Seth Kahn, West Chester PA


When you complained about “the government,” you asked for this

January 29, 2017
     I sincerely hope that any one of you who, over the years, has lobbed generalized complaints about the ineptitude of “the government” understand how your empty generic complaint has enabled exactly what the Trump regime is doing right now.
     Trump’s entire campaign was built on two precepts: (1) outright racism and bigotry in all its vile glory; and (2) an assertion that anyone who actually understands government is corrupt. Maybe a third, too: that anyone who observes the connection between the first two is just being “politically correct” (excuse me while I take a break to wipe the vomit off my chin at actually having typed that phrase, even in scare quotes).
     They were able to capitalize on 50 years of whining about inept “the government” (as if it were a unitary, consistent institution) in order to pull that off. Not only have people been making that argument for them for decades now, but it also provides cover for the bigotry of these anti-government-until-they’re-in-charge faux libertarians.
     So yes, Trump has thrown open the door to the hallways of power to outright white supremacists and white nationalists and anti-Semites (and LGTB-haters and and and and….) because he’s vile bigot, AND ALSO because none of them has the first or last idea what they’re doing. In other words, Steve Bannon (for example) and Betsy DeVos (for example) are products of the same logic. Their bigotry and their incompetence aren’t separate problems–they’re mutually reinforcing qualifications. And they’ve been able to win that argument because you’ve helped them by complaining every time a government agency didn’t do something as quickly or efficiently as you’d have liked.
     Thanks!
     [UPDATED FRI FEB 3: (1) One of my favorite bloggers, Mike the Mad Biologist, is fond of this line and it’s perfect for this moment–“It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.” (2) Another piece of the discourse that’s gotten us here is the “disruptive innovation” trope, which almost always brings along with it a tacit assertion that expertise in an area makes experts unlikely to be receptive to change. Of course what advocates of disruptive innovation fail to recognize is that sometimes rejecting change happens because the ideas suck. And we know that because we’re freakin’ experts.

On free speech and hate

January 27, 2017

Before anybody rushes to remind me that there’s already scholarship, legal theory, and jurisprudence on these issues–I know. I’m not making a legal argument.

Two precipitating events have me thinking about this topic.

The other day, our colleague and friend Sid Dobrin posted a photo on Facebook of somebody with a swastika armband bicycling around the University of Florida campus. He came back yesterday and drew a crowd. The swastika-wearing cyclist swears (O! Dear me! How could anyone think I have bad intentions?!?) the “protestors don’t understand my intentions” and that he doesn’t “mean to hurt anyone.”

Yesterday, at West Chester University where I teach, two “preachers” showed up on campus (this happens periodically) spewing incendiary bigotry at anyone and everyone within shouting distance. Unfortunately, a couple of students reacted strongly enough that they were arrested and are likely to be charged with assault.

So here’s the thing.

I understand what the First Amendment says, and that the jurisprudence around free speech has historically protected groups like the KKK and their right to speak. I understand as somebody who studies rhetoric and activism that sometimes groups need to create very uncomfortable spectacles and situations in order to mobilize people on behalf of issues. As somebody who was deeply involved in organizing our faculty strike last fall and has been doing activism of various kinds for 30+ years, I get it.

But I want to challenge people who defend the Nazi-bicycle-guy and the two “preachers” (who I refuse to acknowledge as Christian based on how explicitly hateful they are) to explain something to me.

The presumption free-speech laws and jurisprudence make is that such speech is necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. Explain to me how riding a bicycle around a campus with one of the largest Jewish populations in the country, waving a swastika around at people, is positively contributing to democracy. Explain how we’re advancing public deliberation about, um, anything at all by standing in the middle of WCU campus telling women that they’re sinning just by being at college, or that calling people “faggots and whores” accomplishes anything useful at all. And “because if we don’t use our free speech rights, we lose them” isn’t an answer. And “because they can” isn’t an answer either. The question is: what do those hateful incendiary utterances do to advance public discourse about anything at all?

I’m listening.


Why I Support the WCU Sanctuary Campus Letter

November 30, 2016

Ten days ago, out of concern among WCU students and faculty that the post-election wave of violence and threats against marginalized people will likely our campus, a group of faculty decided to join a nationwide movement called #SanctuaryCampus that calls on colleges/universities to become havens for community members who may be in danger under the new political regime. Among other provisions, the campaign asks campuses to declare their unwillingness to participate in sweeps or raids fishing for undocumented people.

I helped to circulate the letter and organize this effort–i.e., I didn’t just sign but have recruited other signers–not because I want to “tell the university to break the law” or “demand non-compliance with federal policy” or other such nonsense, but because I want the university/system leadership to take a proactive stance on behalf of threatened populations before a new administration tries to execute policies that would harm people we’re supposed to support.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think the letter asks the university to break any laws–and it certainly doesn’t demand anything of the sort. The letter does ask the university to resist efforts at harming our students as strongly as we can–or more to the point, it asks the university’s leadership to commit to not enabling miscarriages of justices that we fear are likely given the campaign and post-election ethos. PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall (who lost my trust based on his active propagation of disinformation during our contract negotiations and strike) thinks it might.

That’s what dialogue is for, y’all. If the university/system made the case that they can’t commit to certain terms in the letter but can do ___ instead, I think most of us are listening.

I also support the campaign because it asks for other commitments from the university as well, largely redoubling our commitments to diversity and inclusion in ways that are more than hortatory. There are students and staff and faculty who feel directly endangered, and we need to make sure they feel as safe as we can make them.

Yesterday the West Chester Daily Local ran a story about the sanctuary campus effort. Dr. Nadine Bean, who did most of the drafting of the letter, was the only faculty member who spoke to the reporter and has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of predictably nasty troll attacks against her as a result.

I’ve looked at the comments, one of which I responded to (the commenter “wondered” how Dr. Bean would feel when one of those “rapists” attacked a female student: I replied that his comment demonstrates precisely why we needed to do this), but anybody who’s been publicly visible for doing any kind of social justice work has probably been here or nearby before. Getting flamed sucks. People who are willing to say the things those folks say (usually behind a wall of pseudonymity, which is probably a conversation for another day) are usually pretty good at being intimidating–which is what they’re trying to be.

If you read this blog back in 2007, 2008, you’ve seen what this kind of flaming looks like. I learned then, especially as it relates to threats about my job, that the best response for me was to invite flamers to watch my teaching and read my scholarship. If any of you trolls wants to scare me by threatening to “turn me in” to WCU and PASSHE bigwigs, they already know who I am. They know what my politics are. They know I’m a union thug. Now they know I’ve not only signed the Sanctuary Campus letter but helped to circulate it. If you want to have a conversation about how well I fulfill my professional obligations, let’s do, but you have to play by my rules:

  1. It happens here so it’s visible and archived for anyone who wants to see it.
  2. You know my real name, so I get to know your real name too. If you say the nasty things, you have to own them.
  3. I get to decide if you cross a line such that I won’t approve a comment. It’s my blog. If you want to say something I won’t publish, start your own blog. It’s free and easy.

 


Why I’m OK with this version of the Safety Pin

November 15, 2016

The debate over wearing safety pins as a sign to potential victims of racial/anti-woman/anti-LGBTQ+/religious violence that the wearer is willing to intervene on their behalf has largely undone what I saw as a powerful opportunity. Not the first time something I thought was a good idea got washed away, not the last. So it goes.

I have to admit I had some trepidation about wearing the pin in public, which was inchoate until I read this piece (“So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin”), in which the author makes a strong case that even (especially) if the symbol communicates what was its primary message (not a generalized anti-bigotry message, but a much more targeted message to potential victims that they can count on your help if they need it), wearers need to be sure they can deliver what they’re promising. That might include putting yourself in physical danger, might even entail participating in violence if that’s what it takes. I was already having a hard time reconciling my own pacifism with that possibility, realizing both that it’s a deep personal/philosophical/political commitment and an expression of privilege that I get to decide whether to fight back, but the person who sees me wearing the pin on the bus doesn’t know that’s a complicated question.

I saw enough argumentation about how fraught the symbol has become–and arguments coming from the populations who I would be supporting by wearing it–that I decided not to wear one on my person. As one Facebook friend put it, no matter what I mean to be saying, I (and others, obviously) have lost control over that meaning, particularly in public settings where there’s not going to be time to talk about it.

However, I have decided that in conjunction with the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus, I’ll use the image designed by friend and comrade Kevin Mahoney as a signal to students, staff, faculty, and other members of our campus community that I’m doing more than announcing how anti-bigotry I am.

14980826_10101641746154607_9155585935161283640_n.jpg

By posting this image as a sign at my office and having it visible in as many places as possible, I want community members to know that I’ll help them with anything they need in the event of a threat or act of violence or harassment–filing reports, finding a place to hide out, organizing public responses, talking to Public Safety or police, confronting bigots face to face, helping to raise money for anti-violence groups, helping to organize bystander training, and so on. I’ll do as much of that as I can without waiting for people to ask, but this sign tells them that they can ask without having to wonder how I’ll respond.

If there are members of the community who find it an empty gesture, so be it. I hope they’ll tell me that so we can talk about what would serve as a more meaningful contribution. In that case, it will still have accomplished something useful.

 

 


Why your violent racist joke isn’t funny

November 10, 2016

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory, incidents of racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic nastiness are increasing. I’m seeing people reporting on Facebook that their kids are witnessing other elementary schoolers taunting Hispanic kids (“You’re gonna get deported! You’re gonna get deported!”). I’ve seen news stories showing swastikas painted on shop windows in downtown Philadelphia. A colleague just told me that a student got spit on and told, “I hope you they send you back to your own fucking country soon” when she jokingly said, “Merci” to somebody who held a door for her.

I’m willing to accept that there are people who voted for Trump who are appalled by the direct expression of bigotry coming from some of his supporters. I hope that in very short order, those folks will begin confronting the bigots and racists forcefully. If you see somebody in a MAGA hat waving a Nazi flag around, SAY SOMETHING! If you see people bullying a woman in a hijab, or somebody in a turban, or a wheelchair, or…, SAY SOMETHING! If you want to dissociate from that crowd, you have to do more than say “Not it!” and run away. Over here on the left, lots of us are working to fight back against that kind of hate and violence. You’re welcome to join us.

To those of you who have done or said things that advocate or normalize violence (like the t-shirt advocating the murder of journalists; the Obama in a noose costume at the U of Wisconsin football game the other weekend; etc), and then when called out respond that they’re “just joking,” that people like me “should lighten up” and “stop being so politically correct”: there are two reasons why those kinds of “jokes” [sic] are bad. First, they’re just plain offensive. Second, and more significant, if you’re nervous about the increasing likelihood of violence post-election, it becomes impossible to tell when a threat is real when it’s among a bunch that (you claim) aren’t.

How am I (a Jew) supposed to know that your Nazi flag is “just a joke?” How am I supposed to know that the neighbor who’s waving it (no–I don’t really have this neighbor, but some of you do) doesn’t actually want to kill all my people? Why would my Hispanic neighbor believe that whoever spray-painted “Make America White Again” on a dugout at a nearby park doesn’t mean it? As more people report acts of real violence, how are we supposed to know who might really do it and who’s just kidding?

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Atlanta. Some people in the neighborhood were actual concentration camp survivors/escapees (tattooed ID numbers and all), I’d guess as many as 30-40.

Around 1980, a bunch of local teens cruised the neighborhood one night painting swastikas on mailboxes–not all of them, just a seemingly random bunch. Imagine being one of those concentration camp survivors, walking down your driveway at 7 am to pick up the morning paper, and seeing a swastika painted on your mailbox. Or the one right across the street. Just take a second to imagine that. I’ll wait.

No big deal? Tell that to the the concentration camp escapee who had a heart attack and died on the spot.

Because of a “joke.” He should have just “lightened up,” not been so “politically correct.”

You may not mean to hurt anyone when you trivialize hate and violence. But chances are, it’s not trivial to people who see it. And it becomes increasingly difficult to discern real threats from “just kidding” when the people who pose them don’t know or care about the difference.