No nuance for Mayim Bialik?

I’m lying in bed at 3am sick to my stomach over how many of our listeners might react to our conversation about Mayim Bialik’s Times editorial. I cannot bear the thought of hurting those already traumatized further with our conversations about sexual assault. And I have real questions and concerns I can’t shake about the effects of our misogynist culture that I don’t know how to ask without it being seen as victim-blaming.

What I’ve tried to convey (unsuccessfully) from the beginning is that I don’t believe human beings are evil and I do believe that portraying them as such is harmful. I regret now our “No nuance for Nazi” tagline that has now grown into “No nuance for the NRA” and even “No nuance for Mayim Bialik” - who for all her flaws seems a long way away from a Nazi. What we were trying to convey is that nuance doesn’t mean moral ambiguity - some acts and beliefs are wrong and immoral and even evil without equivocation. 

However, I’m afraid that “No nuance for ….” has morphed into “There’s no room for conversation or questions.” I believe where a situation contains another human being there is always room for conversation - even if that person is a Nazi or Harvey Weinstein. We share 99.9% of our DNA with each other and that means we are more alike than we are different. No matter how heinous the act, I don’t believe anything is gained by putting the actor in a box labelled “Other” and telling ourselves we would never do that. Rather, I believe it’s important to acknowledge that given the right circumstance we could and ask ourselves, “Why?”

i keep thinking about what I believe to be the most brilliant pieces of media produced in the past decade - OJ: Made in America. I find OJ Simpson to be abhorrent - a murdering egomaniac without remorse or regret. In fact, were I to believe in evil I’d certainly apply it to him. However, it would be a short and unsatisfying documentary if Ezra Edelman had said, “No nuance for OJ. The end!” Instead, he spent 467 minutes asking questions about OJ and not always providing answers. And yet nobody thought Ezra Edelman was blaming Nicole Brown Simpson or Ron Goldman for their own deaths. 

The idea of victim-blaming itself seems to have taken on a life of its own and morphed into a purity test of sorts. I do believe Mayim Bialik was asking interesting and important questions about the complicity of an industry built on the sexual objectification of women, even if she did not do so in the most graceful way. I also believe she was arguing she feels empowered by her choices regarding modesty and sexuality. There are many, many women who feel the same way and I do not believe they should be shamed for those beliefs. I also don’t think it’s not a bridge too far to cross to decide a self-described feminist with a PhD in neuroscience - no matter how inarticulately she explained herself - would never argue that women can protect themselves from sexual assault through the clothes they wear. 

That is not to say she got it all right. She very clearly did not. In fact, she seems to be making the mistake I’ve made over and over again - which is attempting to deal with a fraught subject matter in too few words or in too short of a time. However, making a point inarticulately does not mean you deserve to have the worst motives possible ascribed to you. When you publish an essay in the Times, you open yourself up to criticism (obviously). But let’s make the criticism count. Let’s move the conversation forward - not shut it down by shaming her. 

P.S. About the First Amendment

We are receiving messages and comments about the First Amendment in relation to our Charlottesville discussion. They're fair questions and comments. 

Here's what I want to quickly share with y'all, in the spirit of love and transparency: 

  • I believe in the First Amendment. I believe in the right of people to peacefully express even the views I find most repugnant. 
  • I believe that culturally and civically and then judicially, we need to have a conversation about what "incitement" to violence means. 
  • I also believe that just because you can speak, it doesn't mean you should. Do Nazis and Klans-members and white supremacists have the right to assemble at confederate monuments? Yes, unless and until that assembly crosses the incitement line. However, politicians, businesses, and those of us who fervently oppose them should condemn them for doing so. 
  • I think it is beyond past time for conservatives to stop shrugging their shoulders and essentially saying, "that sucks, but First Amendment, right?" And that's my intention. The tepid reaction to Charlottesville by the President was not about the First Amendment. The "but Antifa" reactions are not about the First Amendment. I'm not going to pretend otherwise. 
    • Side note: we'll talk about Antifa sometime soon. There are problems there, to be sure. We're not going to do it in a "but Antifa" way. There is, for me, no moral equivalence. 
  • My constant refrain: you're free to speak. You aren't free to speak without consequences. 
  • Plenty of people are willing to use their platforms to emphasize freedom of speech and assembly. In this moment, in this instance, I'm not willing to use mine that way. My voice, my work is to say, "that's wrong. That's unacceptable in America in 2017, and our businesses and politicians and families must say so in both words and actions." 
  • I always feel that we are in relationships with our listeners. I hope that our relationships can withstand disagreements about the issues that we prioritize and the ways that we choose to use our voices. As in all relationships, there are defining topics and moments -- bottom lines are critical. For me, a bottom line is to ensure that I never use Pantsuit Politics to intentionally hurt people. I think that meeting the news out of Charlottesville with a lengthy dialogue on the rights of  white supremacists would cross that line. I hope you understand. 

Reconciling Southern Pride, Complicated History, And Rejecting The Alt-Right

Editor's note: Danny Hughes is a good friend of mine, and a restauranteur in Gainesville, FL, a town I lived in for 6 years and of which I have deep ties. I found his response to the tragedy personal, nuanced, and genuine, so I wanted to share it with y'all. Danny has always been somewhat of a community helper. If there's a charity that needs a venue to host a fundraiser, he lends his bar. If there are stray dogs on the street, he'll try to find them good homes. If you need school supplies for your kids and are hard up on cash, Danny will do what he can to make sure your kids have what they need. If you need a job, he'll find extra work at his restaurants for you to do. He's the embodiment of "southern hospitality." Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak at the University of Florida in Gainesville in September, and Danny along with some other business owners and artists in the community are trying to organize an alternative event to drown out the publicity of Spencer coming to town. It's not a protest, but an event designed to run directly alongside Spencer that celebrates unity, community, love, and acceptance. I think it's a brilliant idea that still holds free speech up, but chooses to direct attention away from hate and to more productive and socially harmonious ideas. 

Danny's post:

I watched the news last night and I cried. I didn’t cry on 9/11. I didn’t cry about the Oklahoma City Bombing. I was jarred, I was afraid, and I was angry, but I didn’t cry. On Saturday, I cried. I watched my fellow Americans carry torches, dressed in body armor and chanting hatred and bigotry at other Americans and people all over the world because they believe - deep in their hearts - that they are superior, in every way, to anyone else who isn’t a white Christian.

They were marching to protest the removal of a statute of General Robert E. Lee.
I am by no means a student of Robert E. Lee, but I know enough about him that I don’t think he would have stood with the white supremacists marching on his behalf on Saturday. They were on the wrong side of history and I believe Robert E. Lee would have agreed with that.

I am the son of a white southerner, born in the south. My father was raised in northern Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. I have an autographed picture of George Wallace, addressed to my father, in my office at home and I really don’t know what to do with it. (Short story, dad invited Wallace to his high school graduation and Wallace sent back that picture in response). I don’t want to hang it up, because his career in politics was…ahem…checkered, but I don’t want to get rid of it because frankly I find it interesting. (Side note- there is a lot more to the story of George Wallace, but that's another time).

As an American, white supremacists hurt me. In the deepest part of my being I am jarred by their very existence. As a southerner, it gets a little more complicated. Southern pride is something that is going to and has been questioned many times. How can someone have southern pride and not be a racist? It’s actually really easy. I choose to promote and embrace every part of my heritage and culture EXCEPT those parts. Southern hospitality, 'yes ma’am' and 'no ma’am', rock & roll and blues, country music and southern rock, fried chicken and cheese grits, cheap beer and Coc-a-Cola, bourbon, fresh Florida tomatoes and oranges, tree ripened Georgia peaches, slow southern drawls and Appalachian gibberish. Hell I don’t even hate NASCAR. But to accept white supremacists ideologies as something inherently southern - I just can’t do it. There are too many good people here. People who were born here. People who are 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation southerners (and beyond) who are beautiful, amazing, progressive people who just want EVERYONE to get their fair shake in life, and ensure that EVERYONE gets the same chances, and that NO ONE is less important or less valuable just because of who or where they were born.

Many of you are aware that I am a huge Drive By Truckers fan and those gentlemen are the type of southerners I aspire to be. Many of their songs are poignant after the events in Charlottesville, but I think The Southern Thing is probably the most apropos to my feelings in this matter.

“Ain't about no hatred better raise a glass
It's a little about some rebels but it ain't about the past
Ain't about no foolish pride, Ain't about no flag
Hate's the only thing that my truck would want to drag

You think I'm dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the southern thing”

The south doesn’t have a monopoly on racism anymore than Arizona has a monopoly on droughts. It is truly everywhere you go. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The only way to over come it, is to be louder, be smarter and be better.

To my Virginia friends: I’m sorry for what your state had to deal with this past weekend. I’m sorry to every man, woman and child - regardless of their skin color, religion, sexual orientation or anything else - that you had to turn on your TV in 2017 and see what you saw. I’m sorry for anyone that feels scared or less important or in anyway demeaned by what you saw.

I will not apologize for where I was born or to whom, but I will stand together, with anyone who will stand with me, to fight and defeat the ideals of anyone who thinks they are better than anyone else just because of where they were born or the color of their skin.

Myself and some like minded individuals are organizing an event in response to Richard Spencer’s planned speech here in Gainesville on September 12. Lets show the rest of the world how to respond to hatred. Lets be bigger than suppression. Let's be smarter. Let's be better.

Let’s get loud.

Be nice to one another, we’re all we got.
Cheers, y’all.
DH


 

Sarah from the Left and Adult Friendship

Tomorrow is Sarah's birthday, which seemed like a good time to say this: Sarah from the Left teaches me more every day about the power of friendship between adult women. 

It's hard to prioritize non-crisis friendship when you're working and raising a family and struggling to schedule time for tooth-brushing. Most of us have many beloved friends for whom we'd do anything. If it all hits the fan, we're there for you with pie. You need this shirt? It's yours. But time gets away  when you're focused on all.the.things. Soon it's "let's plan that trip [someday]," "let's have dinner [someday]," "let's have a conversation about our cosmic raison d'etre [someday]." 

Sarah is a pro at adult non-crisis friendship. She's a resource sherpa -- you have a problem or thought or dilemma, she has a link that guides you to the promised land. She gives insightful advice that will push you to be better. She listens. She's funny. She not only makes time for the cosmic raison d'etre conversation; she REQUIRES it. Sarah doesn't care how your day was. She cares how your soul is. 

Best of all, Sarah invites you be a friend back. She reaches out and by doing so gives you permission to do the same. She takes advice as well as she dishes it out and by doing so shows you that she values you. If something's irritating or off, she'll text and by doing so makes space for a random and life-giving outlet. She doesn't make polite conversation waiting for a convenient time to insert her thoughts. She rolls in and takes the floor. It's refreshing and honest and a wonderful, generous recognition that while we don't have all kinds of time, we can still have all kinds of fun and support and comfort and truth. 

Everyone needs a Sarah from the Left friend, and I'm so lucky to have her. Happiest birthday, Sarah, and cheers to many more. 

Listener Feedback On Our Antitrust Episode

Editor's note: This is a submission from our listener Louis Rovegno

I love that you did an episode on anti-trust. It's such an important issue and dangerously under-enforced. I did want to share my perspective on some of the things you said about the tech sector.

You mentioned that Google is a free service, so therefore examining it through the lens of price fixing doesn't make sense. In fact, you are not Google's customer. You are its product, which it delivers to its true customers: advertisers. There is a whole world of fee structures, pay-per-clicks, ad placement, analytics to measure your website's performance, and other tools which are enhanced by Google's ability to get people to use its services so eyeballs will see advertisements. The prices we should care about are the ones charged to advertisers, because we all pay for advertising when we buy advertised products. 

I also want to make the case that Google earned its spot and not because of first mover advantage like Facebook had. There were plenty of search engines in the 90s - Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos, aggregators like Metacrawler, and so on. Google beat them all by having the most streamlined search page, the best algorithm, the best integrated services like email and mapping, and marrying all this to a fast and efficient browser. It cornered the market on advertising too, allowing it to emerge as by far the dominant search engine. Google's only competitor is Bing, and Bing only exists because it had the massive financial backing of Microsoft. 

A few words on startups being bought out: I wouldn't shed any tears for these people! It's a huge payday, and the developers just leverage the accolade into another startup or great job. Maybe they could have gone on to be billionaires, but they more likely would have plodded along or run out of money. This is the red flag: that companies like Google and Facebook are so big, they can afford to buy every startup that seems even remotely promising, just to avoid competition. And worse, we let them.

Ultimately, though, Google is a monopoly. So what do we do? As you said, we want to maintain incentives for companies to be the best. Companies shouldn't be punished for bettering their competitors. But they also shouldn't be allowed to use their success to prevent any future competition or gouge consumers. Fortunately we already have the laws in place to deal with this, we just need to enforce them. We can more aggressively enforce antitrust laws against mergers and acquisitions. It's ridiculous that so many big companies are allowed to keep consolidating, regardless of whether it's tech, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, resource extraction, or what have you.

We can also sue them. Clever economists can estimate the prices that would be charged in a fair market and compare to the presumably higher prices of the monopoly. The difference is called monopoly rent, and it's illegal under the Sherman Anti-trust Act as an exercise of monopoly power. If the monopoly rent is sufficiently high to demonstrate purposeful rent-seeking, there should be a lawsuit and it should be huge. Compliance needs to be cheaper than non-compliance or the laws are meaningless. 

There are solutions. We just need our elected officials to carry them out! That they have been so woefully inadequate in doing so, and the reasons behind that, are fodder for a lengthy and sprawling discussion that touches on regulatory capture, campaign finance, and our societal mores on how we treat white vs blue collar crime. 

The German Election and What it Means for Europe and the World

Editor's note: This piece is a contribution from listener Max Lein

On 24 September the citizens of Europe's most populous country will be called to the ballot boxes, and Angela Merkel is vying for re-election for a fourth term as Chancellor after 12 years in office. Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is leading the “Great Coalition,” so named because the CDU forms a government with its junior partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) which has received the second-most seats in the German Bundestag.

The next German government will have a full plate. On the European level, it will have to contend with difficult Brexit negotiations, find a new direction on how to evolve the EU, tackle the refugee crisis, and think of ways to deal with the erosion of democratic norms in countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. It will also have to re-think its relation to the United States after President Trump has canceled the free trade deal with the EU in its current form, exited the Paris Accords, and put the US's commitment to NATO in question.

Fortunately for Germany, it can enter negotiations from a position of strength: Europe's largest economy is currently in good shape, it is outperforming its big European neighbors, it has a budget surplus, and France - Germany's closest partner in the European Union - has just elected a Europhile President who has the backing of the French parliament.

The German Political Landscape: Consensus

According to recent polls, 80 percent of Germans think that the EU should fill the void left by the US in international politics, and 93 percent favor stronger collaboration in defense matters on the EU level. Here, the distinction between Europe and Germany is crucial. Independently of the political bent, Germans strongly support the European project — not just as an economic union, but one that aims at furthering the political integration of the member states. This commitment is partly rooted in the shared suffering during the two World Wars. The inner logic of a lot of European politics reveals itself when viewed through the lens of post-WW2 politics. The Euro, for example, was France's asking price for the German reunification and any increase in Germany's military spending is seen very skeptically by its European neighbors. Therefore, Germany's strategy is to push for more collaboration on military spending on the European level,.

There is also overwhelming consensus when it comes to how President Trump is viewed: according to Deutschlandtrend his favorability rating is at a staggering 5 percent. Polls by Pew similarly show a precipitous drop in trust since Trump took office, not just in Germany but worlwide with the exception of Russia and Israel. Trump's numbers compare very unfavorably even to Theresa May's who polls at 22 percent despite her push for a hard Brexit. Trust in the US as a partner has fallen from 59 percent in November 2016 to 21 percent in June 2017; the US is now tied with Russia. These numbers should not be simplistically interpreted as anti-Americanism, but correlate strongly with Trump's pre-election behavior and post-election policies. More on that will be discussed below.

Domestically, Germany's single payer healthcare system (which Germany has had since the 1880s!), the existence of global warming, shutting down all nuclear power plants by 2022 and the move to renewable energies are not political demarcation lines.

One topic that could have been a major difference between the ruling CDU and the other parties was the full equalization of homosexual civil unions and heterosexual marriages. Since all potential coalition partners of Merkel's CDU promised that this would be a non-negotiable item of any coalition agreement, Merkel decided to allow parliament to vote on it, and a mere week later, the Bundestag voted for full equalization with a comfortable 63 percent majority. (A vote in parliament without the CDU's placet would have meant the SPD had had to break the current coalition agreement, thereby triggering a governmental crisis just before the election.)

There are differences on policy details, of course, such as how to best switch to renewable energies and how to adapt the health care system to the demographic change and the retiring baby boomers in particular.

Points of Separation: An Overview of the Party Landscape

There are currently 7 political parties which are likely to enter the next parliament. The two with the most seats, the Christian Democrats (CDU and the Bavarian CSU) and the Social Democrats are considered the “big parties”, because they would be the ones who would lead a coalition with one or more parties. The other parties, the Liberal Democrats (FDP), the Green Party, the Left (yes, that is their actual name) as well as the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) are smaller parties. Traditionally, the Chancellor is the party leader of the strongest party and the Vice Chancellor the leader of the junior partner.

The dynamics between larger and smaller parties is a staple of German politics. Typically, smaller parties have a sharper profile and gather votes on a few select issues. The Green Party in the mid-1990s pushed very hard for phasing out nuclear power plants in Germany and for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Once these then-fringe issues have become main stream, that small party would often experience a slump in the polls until it found its next issue. Apart from injecting new topics into politics, small parties allow voters to express displeasure with their preferred party without “wasting” their votes. In an election year where a coalition between the CDU and the FDP looks likely, a CDU voter could vote for the FDP if he or she is unhappy with the state of the CDU but would still like to ensure that a coalition of the two comes to be.

To understand which space each party occupies on the political spectrum, especially the FDP and the Green Party, it is necessary to go beyond the one-dimensional left-right axis that might be useful for countries with few parties. Moreover, one should not use the political demarcation lines of US politics to decide which party is on the “left” of the spectrum and which is on the “right.” Universal healthcare and acceptance of global climate change are not divisive issues, and therefore do not serve to meaningfully distinguish between political ideologies in Germany.

The Two Big Parties Occupy the Center

The Social Democrats moved towards the center in 1998 with Gerhard Schröder who became Chancellor in a coalition with the Green Party. A lot of their policies still echo almost 20 years afterwards, including abandoning nuclear power in favor of renewable energies, civil unions for homosexual couples and fundamental reforms of the social security system (dubbed Agenda 2010). With Merkel, also the Christian Democrats moved towards the center by abandoning many unpopular policy stances (e. g. support for nuclear power and mandatory military service). As a consequence, both parties fight for the same voting blocks in the middle and programmatic differences between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have become harder to discern.

One of the main issues is how to best deal with the roughly one million refugees currently residing in Germany, and what kind of immigration law to adopt. The CDU wants to introduce yearly caps which on the one hand do not seem particularly relevant, and on the other might be unconstitutional (the right to seek asylum is enshrined in the German constitution). Another issue is what to do with the budget surplus: the CDU wants to prioritize tax breaks while the SPD wants to increase investments in public infrastructure.

This “lack of distinct political profile” has led to fractures in the traditional voting blocks. In 2005 the “Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Equality” was formed by members of the left wing of the Social Democrats who were unhappy with the SPD's move to the center. The CDU is facing a similar movement with the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) who is also appealing to conservative voters for whom Merkel has too readily abandoned certain policy positions. This split has affected the SPD in particular as it has lost a significant voting share since then. It remains to be seen whether the AfD is a lasting phenomenon, and will take a significant vote share from the CDU.

The Small Parties as a Corrective

Christian Social Union

The C*D*U appears only on the ballots of 15 of the 16 states, in Bavaria people can caste their vote for the C*S*U (Christian Social Union). While CDU and CSU are two different parties, the see themselves as “sister parties” which have been in a *de facto* permanent coalition since 1949. Bavaria is a very independently-minded state, the German analog of Texas perhaps, where the inhabitants tend think of themselves as Bavarians first and Germans second. Unlike the name might suggest, the CSU is much more conservative than the CDU at large and sees itself representing Bavaria's interests on the federal level, and is so successful in elections that it can govern without a coalition partner. 

The Liberal Democrats

The oldest small party in post-WW2 Germany are the Liberal Democrats (FDP) who traditionally have a libertarian bent and have appealed to well-educated, middle class voters (disparagingly called the party of doctors and lawyers). They used to be strong on the protection of individual freedoms and privacy, with an emphasis on personal responsibility, the rule of law, free trade, and education. However, as of late the party has been in a bit of a philosophical crisis after narrowly missing 5 percent of the votes in 2013 which are necessary in order to enter parliament. The FDP's marquee issue in this election is to improve education. To quote the party's official program, they want to lead a “man to the moon” project in order to give Germany the best education program in the world. Another key issue is improving the conditions for founders of new companies as well as small and medium businesses.

The Green Party

The Green Party  was born of various political movements from the late 1970s and early 1980s that were against nuclear power, in favor of laws protecting the environment, feminism, for pacifism and a New Left. There was also a significant conservative element as the pacifism and environmentalism movements included a lot of Catholics who saw the world and the environment as part of God's creation that deserved protection. Many of the views that once were radical have since become main stream, e. g. the push for renewable energy and gay rights can be attributed to the rise of the Green Party. The Green Party has entered coalitions with the Social Democrats and, more recently, also with the Christian Democrats. The Green Party has long become fully main stream, it is currently a member of 10 out of 16 state governmental ruling coalitions. In one quite conservative state, the Green Party has become the party with the most seats and replaced a conservative Christian Democrat as the state's prime minister. The Green Party's main principles, social progressivism coupled with (financial and environmental) sustainability, have proved attractive to especially urban voters of all stripes as it promises to combine social progressivism with financial conservatism. The main campaign issues are abandoning coal power plants until 2030 and the switch to all-electric mobility (e. g. from 2030 all new cars sold have to be electric). Other promises include a commitment to a multicultural society, better integration of refugees, imposing stricter privacy protections for consumers and a push for net neutrality as well as a better way to mitigate negative side effects of global trade.

The Left (Die Linke)

The Left  is the union of two rather distinct movements: left-leaning former Social Democrats in the former West of Germany and left-over communists in former Eastern Germany. This schism becomes visible on many policy positions, because German Social Democrats are very distinct from what many Americans might consider socialist or communist parties. (The SPD (founded in 1863) predates Karl Marx's “Das Kapital” from 1867, the manifesto that socialism and communism as we understand it now are based on.) The Western wing of The Left as well as all other main stream parties are very critical of the Eastern wing's tendency to be uncritical of the crimes committed during the East German dictatorship. For these reasons the SPD on the federal level and in the formerly West German states are currently not open to a coalition with the Left; in the East they belong to 3 out of 5 state governments. Its policy ideas are quite traditional, critical of global trade, against military interventions and using the taxation system to redistribute the money from the affluent to the poor.

The latest addition to the German political system is the Alternative for Germany (AfD). None of the established parties are open to a coalition with the AfD. It feeds of the same trends and fears that are attributed to the rise populism in the US with Donald Trump as well as other Western countries: skepticism towards the European Union and multiculturalism (Islam in particular), a renewed focus on the nation state and the Germans as a people, and distinctly against refugees and asylum seekers. Amongst all main stream German parties, they are also the home of a lot of climate change skeptics — something rather unusual in Germany. The AfD supports a strong social safety net, although it wants to offer this safety net only to Germans. They reject what is viewed as “immigration into the German social safety net”. A lot of the AfD's policy positions oscillate between neoliberalism and arch conservatism — and further than that. There have been numerous scandals where party officials have been anti-Semitic and espoused right wing extremist and Christian fundamentalist ideology.

Potential Coalitions

Alternative for Deutschland

Of those six parties, only four are open to coalitions as the Left and the AfD intend to stay in the opposition. And they would not be able to find a partner willing to enter a coalition with them either.

Judging from current polls, the CDU will remain in power. So let us start with possible CDU-led coalitions. A very likely option is a continuation of the center-right/center-left Great Coalition between CDU and SPD. Other likely combinations are a coalition of CDU and FDP or the so-called Jamaica coalition between CDU, FDP and Green Party (since the colors associated to those parties, black, yellow and green, are found in Jamaica's flag). A traffic light coalition between SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and Green Party is also an option.

The German-American Relationship and How It Will Be Affected by the Election

For decades Germany's most important partner outside of Europe has been the United States. And while the friendship has been strained over the last decade-and-a-half, skepticism of US administrations and their policies should not be conflated with anti-Americanism. While anti-Americanism certainly exists to a certain degree, from the German perspective the growing distance between the US and Germany is the result of a number of policy positions and decisions by various US administrations.

Merkel's change in tone represents a sea change in the attitude towards the US that will have long-lasting effects on the trans Atlantic partnership. The reason being that both of the major parties, including the more US-friendly conservatives, will treat the US with more skepticism, less like a friend and close ally, and more like a business partner. Therefore, independently of what coalition will be elected to lead Germany for the next four years, its stance towards the US will likely be very similar. Where previously there might have been an implicit trust in diplomatic dealing, in the future the German side will proceed with much more caution.

It is important to not just blame this on Donald Trump, the estrangement between the US and its traditional allies in Europe has started in the George W. Bush years. The Bush Administration has pushed for a number of policies, chief among them the invasion of Iraq that much of the population of European countries were strongly opposed to, but skepticism towards climate change among other things should also be mentioned. Initially the CDU was still willing to join the US-led coalition into Iraq. In fact, it cost the CDU an electoral victory in 2002 when the conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber would not rule out that German troops participate in the war in Iraq in a TV debate with Gerhard Schröder. Contrast this to the close relationship between Germany and George W. Bush's father whose role was pivotal in the German reunification just a decade earlier.

Donald Trump's behavior pushed even the German conservatives over the edge: From the vantage point of Germany, the most important political issues are preserving the European Union, fighting global climate change and stemming the rising tide of autocratism in Turkey and Eastern Europe in particular. Donald Trump has openly supported Brexit and criticized the EU, abandoned the Paris Accord and claimed the treaty's intent was to harm the US, and seemingly used every opportunity to say nice things about various autocratic leaders while chiding its European allies (and Germany in particular). This is in addition to Trump's thinly veiled anti-Semitic, racist and sexist overtones, many of which would have permanently ended his career if he were a German politician.

Also behind the scenes the relationship has taken a turn for the worse: on several occasions German diplomatic efforts were stymied by the sheer lack of people in the US's State Department — on several occasions German diplomats literally had no one to talk to about important issues due to the plethora of unfilled positions in the State Department. President Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to Germany and the European Union, for example, and during low-level diplomatic meetings on Germany's trade surplus the US counterparts were reportedly ill-prepared. This makes maintaining proper diplomatic relationships very difficult.

For many international initiatives, the US won't be part of the discussion — not because it is being excluded by its partners, but by its own choice. And if the world's no. 1 economy decides to step aside, then no. 2, 3 and 4 will naturally fill the void. That is why there is are more eyes on Chancellor Merkel than ever, and Germany as the West's largest economy has to step up.

It is not all bad, though. In a recent campaign speech for the Social Democrats their candidate Martin Schulz called for Germans to take a page from American virtues and be more daring and that young people should have to courage to try new things. While this was just a campaign speech, the mere fact that this characterization of Americans was included in the campaign speech of a center-left politician is telling. The American people are still admired, envied, for their optimism and can-do-anything attitude, despite the facts and naysayers. That is how the US sent men to the moon within a decade, relying on less computing power than the smartphone we currently carry in our pocket. That is why it is home to Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook. However, this great strength can turn into weakness if the US decides to move down the wrong path, undeterred by the warnings of friends and allies.

Insights On The Eve of The GA 6th Special Election with Kim Mellen

Editor's note: Like all political junkies, I woke up today with a keen eye on the final movements of what can only be described as the most visible House of Representatives race I can ever remember in Georgia's 6th District, and the most expensive House race in history. I know from ongoing conversations with our listener and Atlanta native, Kim Mellen, that she's been heavily involved in the GOTV effort for Jon Ossoff, so I touched base with her today to get her thoughts going into voting day. 

This race is incredibly close. I've been following the coverage and it seems as if the enthusiasm for Karen Handel is tempered at best from a national standpoint. What are you seeing in the district? Well, she's had Trump, Pence, Tom Price, and the Perdues campaign for her and Senator Johnny Isakson has radio ads endorsing her. So she's got national support, but I'm not convinced that they care about her as much as they care about retaining her seat. When I was canvassing, the Ossoff yard signs were 12:2. There is a lot of excitement in the district about Ossoff and excitement is coming primarily from women and younger people. The campaign office I worked out of was (literally) run by high school kids led by a young man named David who just graduated college. Ms. Handel has run for every office north of dog catcher and has not been very successful in terms of legislation or policy in any office. 

The knock on Ossoff has been his national support, that he's only gaining traction because of Hollywood and outside money, so you're saying that in the district that bears out a little more normal to what we'd see in a typical congressional race? No, the energy and attention is like nothing I've ever seen in the 30 years I've been following state races. It's through the roof. The energy for Handel is muted and not nearly as enthusiastic from what I've seen. Of course, I am not likely to be closely related to her orbit, so her supporters may be enthusiastic. but it's not visible to me. She is at best, a tepid politician with a dangerous anti-gay, anti-women agenda who will be a rubber stamp for the Trump agenda. 

What would you say are the key issues in the district, the stuff that doesn't necessarily fall under the national platform umbrella? Healthcare and jobs. People here want to keep the ACA and make it better. Ossoff also has a vision to make Georgia 6th into the Silicon Valley of the southeast, investing in technical jobs and enticing large tech companies to come to Georgia. 

So the AHCA is a central issue to voters you've talked to in the district. What would you say you've learned knocking on doors? Honestly, That Dems, Independents, and moderate Republicans are all concerned about the same things. The older Republicans are concerned about "experience" which is ironic given who they elected to the presidency, and that Ossoff is one of "them" (other, Millennial, Jewish, progressive, etc). All these things seem threatening to older Republican voters here. 

What was your most surprising encounter knocking on doors? The most surprising (and encouraging) thing I've encountered since March has been the absolute dedication of women (several liberal Mom groups have spring up in the district) and young people. Specifically, teens not yet of voting age. They are knocking on doors, going to campaign events, phone banking, writing post cards, getting their parents involved, etc. Being in the campaign office is inspiring. Every canvas effort from Chamblee has had no less than 30 people in the room for the brief before going out. The Latino community is heavy in this area of the district and the Latinas are out in force as well. 

When you said earlier that Dems and moderate Republicans were concerned about the same things, what are those things? Aside from healthcare and jobs, which you mentioned. Issues that are paramount besides the ACA/AHCA and jobs are women's reproductive health, protecting Planned Parenthood, the environment, Trump's ties to Russia, education and infrastructure. Recently more people are talking about America's reputation in the international community. The ICE raids have been a big deal too. 

And you said you heard these issues come up with moderates as well as Democrats? Yup. I grew up in the 6th. For it to potentially go blue is both incredible and very exciting. 

Does it concern you that so much national attention and money (from both sides) is influencing a House race? Nope. Elections have consequences. Rebekah and I have sent money to Democratic candidates all over the country and will continue to do so. I am considering going to California to work against Darryl Issa. The way people vote affects us directly - especially in national office. It feels very disingenuous for Rs to specifically call out national money as an issue give the money they pour into local, state, and federal races for PACs, etc. Most of Ossoff's money has come in the form of donations of $50 or less and they've been raised locally. But I'm not mad about out of district money on either side. Rs are mad because it seems Dems are spending like them, and it's taken the RNC by surprise and it's making a difference here. I can't overstate how big it will be if Ossoff wins tomorrow. 

You said earlier if the 6th "finally" goes blue. Finally implies it was trending there. What factors would you say have influenced that trend? Finally may have been the incorrect word. Actually turn blue would be more appropriate. 

Well, what factors would "actually" make it happen? The 6th is very red, and contains a large portion of metro Atlanta's wealth. I believe that the growth of Atlanta's economy regionally has contributed to the influx of younger, more socially progressive people. I also think that the women in the district have finally had it. Hillary's loss and Trump's rhetoric against women are directly responsible for the grassroots women-led efforts occurring in the 6th. 

 

Pulse: A Year Later

We tend to frame big moments in history, big moments in our lives, in “where were you?” terms. The big ones for generations past were, “Where were you when JFK got shot?” “Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon?” “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” or “Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?” Obviously for the modern era there is “Where were you during Columbine?” “Where were you on 9/11?” Unfortunately, June 12th for everyone in Orlando, everyone in the global LGBTQ community, and millions more around America will now live as a “Where were you?” moment.

I remember where I was. It was 5 a.m., I was in bed with my wife, and the TV was on. I normally play golf on Sundays and get up around 6, but it was still too early for my alarm. Through almost-shut eyelids I could see police lights flashing on the screen from what looked to be a fleet of cruisers. Just hours earlier, there had been a tragic shooting at the Plaza Theater, a music venue just a few miles from my home. Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on The Voice was shot and killed by a fan after her performance. It was the big news of the night, so when I woke up I figured it was ongoing reporting from that incident. I asked Laura, “Are the police still there?!” She said “No, another shooting. At Pulse.”

Orlando, at least during my lifetime, has always been a pretty gay friendly place. Pulse wasn’t one of those places people went to in hiding. It wasn’t a secret. Pulse was out in the open, on the corner of Kaley and Orange Ave, just south of the heart of downtown, less than a mile from where I went to high school. The club, like the Orlando LGBTQ community, was out for all to see, and everyone embraced that. Until June 12th. As soon as I heard my wife say, “at Pulse” my heart sank. I feared the worst. The chryon on the local news was reporting 9 dead. Horrific. The both of us sat and watched the news in disbelief that not, one but two public shootings had struck not just our town, but our neighborhood in less than 24 hours.

As the morning went on my phone was flooded with texts. None of them were good. “21 dead.” “Over 30 now.” The last text to hit my phone as I drove my golf cart up to the 12th tee box didn’t even seem real. I thought it was a typo. “50 dead.” Later that number would be retracted to 49 (we don’t acknowledge the shooter). Golf at that moment seemed so utterly pointless and stupid. The weather was classic Florida, sunny and beautiful, but it was impossible to enjoy. The breaking news seemed unimaginable. At this point it was about 10:30 a.m. Nobody knew a motive, although knowing the prominence of Pulse in our town it wasn’t hard to add 2 + 2. Outside of 9/11, it was one of the most painful, bewildering, helpless days I can ever remember. That comatose stare that you get when your brain can't quite process reality and when your heart feels like it's been punctured? I couldn't shake that stare. I’d later learn that my cousin was one of the first OPD officers on scene. The shooter was still armed and in the building. Luckily he and the other first responders made it through the morning safely. I’d never been one degree of separation from terrorism before, and the reality was sobering.

For the Pulse 49, their families, friends, coworkers, loved ones, life would never be the same. Worlds shattered. Lives ended. Families torn apart. For the survivors, wounds would be dressed, long roads to recovery both physically and mentally lied ahead. For a Central Florida community, especially the tight knit LGBTQ community in Orlando, unspeakable heartache and vulnerability arose. But in spite of all that, Orlando came together. We persevered. We mourned together. We helped each other. Millions of dollars were raised. Gallons upon gallons of blood donated. Countless memorials were held. Murals went up. The city turned rainbow, and if you have the pleasure of driving around our great town you’ll see that it still is.

Pride Month and the most gruesome American tragedy aimed at LGBTQ people are forever linked. It sickens me to know that 49 people were taken from this planet simply for celebrating their existence. It sickens me to know that some people in the wake of this tragedy, because it happened at a gay club, felt the victims deserved it. It sickens me that then candidate Donald Trump used it as confirmation for his disgusting worldview that terrorism is something he should gain credit for constantly fearing, and by proxy – predicting. It sickens me that one of the few beacons of the LGBTQ community in my city is currently non-operational. I remember seeing an interview with a trans woman who performed and worked at Pulse. She was choking back tears talking to Don Lemon, just steps from the crime scene, as she lamented that Pulse was one of the only places a person like her could hold a job. And now it's gone. 

But it strengthens me that those who needed Pulse the most, those who lost the most on June 12th, those who saw evil come after them and take their brothers and sisters – they stared it right back in the face, joined hands, and said “Fuck you.” It strengthens me that I can truly say my hometown, the place where I was born and where I live today, set an example for the rest of the world to show that unity and compassion are what make up a place, not buildings and attractions. It strengthens me that this month millions around the world will celebrate people’s right to exist as whoever they are, to live their truth, without judgment from society, religion, or government. It strengthens me to know the Pulse 49 will never be forgotten. They are the embodiment of Pride and they should be remembered as such.

June 12th will always be a “where were you” day and also a day to remind the world, we’re still here, and we are still standing – with Pride.

R.I.P.

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20 years old

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22 years old

Luis S. Vielma, 22 years old

Kimberly Morris, 37 years old

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25 years old

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50 years old

Amanda Alvear, 25 years old

Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35 years old

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25 years old

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31 years old

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26 years old

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40 years old

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old

Cory James Connell, 21 years old

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37 years old

Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25 years old

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31 years old

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24 years old

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez, 27 years old

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33 years old

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49 years old

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28 years old

Frank Hernandez, 27 years old

Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old

Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old

Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25 years old

 

Reflecting on Terror

We arrived in London on Monday. We flew into Gatwick and took trains to London Bridge station. From the underground station, we walked to Southwark and checked into Citizen M hotel, directly across from Borough Market. We spent three nights there, walking the streets, eating in the pubs, having picnic breakfasts beneath the trees. On Friday, we took a train to Edinburgh, Scotland. There, we learned about the attack via late-night text messages from friends and family asking if we were safe. 

We're taking a train back to London now. The train is quiet--our compartment nearly empty. As I watch sheep and countryside roll by, I can hear my thoughts: Why Southwark? It's lovely. The people were so kind. We were just there. It could have been us. I'm nervous to go back to London--maybe we should skip it and head south. What if something else happens? 

I don't ask myself "why Kabul?" I don't think about the architecture in Egypt's Minya Governorate. The kindness of strangers in Tangi never occurs to me. Do I really need to have just been in a place to feel, in a real and present way, sickness and sadness? Do I really need to assess the familiarity of a culture to care about what happens to it? Do I need to apply my own lens of worthiness to people to grieve their murders? That is not the heart I want to have. 

It could always be us. That's the nature of terror. There are people nervous to go back to work today, to walk outside their homes. They don't get to opt out. Something else can always happen, and perhaps our best expression of solidarity is carrying on. 

I am not an expert in safety, a politician, a pundit, or a policymaker. I wish I had ideas to deter those seeking infamy and justly punish those who aid in their plans, to thwart radicalization and end extremism. I don't. The only heart that I can improve is mine. In the wake of this latest attack, improving my heart means sitting in the most vulnerable answers to the questions I'm asking. It means saying yes, we could have been there. Yes, something else could happen. Yes, I have grieved attacks on the western world and become numb to violence elsewhere, and no, that's not who I want to be. It means believing that we can probably do more to ensure our safety while knowing that there has always been and will always be evil in the world. It means carrying on, and carrying on with a little more kindness than yesterday because it's all I know to do. 

 

 

 

How we view Memorial Day

Editor's note: Jason Baker is an occasional contributor to the Pantsuit Politics blog. As an Air Force Officer, he inserts his usual disclaimer here that he does not speak for the Air Force, or the Department of Defense and all views expressed are his own.

Without fail; every year on Facebook, Twitter, or in person; someone thanks me for my service on Memorial Day.  I hear radio commercials giving the “holiday weekend” weather and then reminding you to “thank a service member.” Today I was getting ready to write this article and when I typed in “Memorial Day” Google suggested finishing it with ‘sales’ and ‘deals.'

It would seem that a lot of misinterpretation, even confusion, surrounds this American holiday. This might have been most evident to me in the checkout line at the grocery store this weekend. The cashier saw my military ID while I was taking out my card to pay, and thanked me for my service. “I appreciate that” I said, giving my usual answer.

“It’s Veteran’s day this weekend, we’re having a big sale. No wait, Memorial Day? Which one is it?” she looked at the grocery bagger who nodded a look of having no idea.

“It’s Memorial Day” I interjected, calmly, knowing that my fiancé’ was giving me the ‘don’t make a stink’ eye.

“Yeah that’s it, well we’re having a big Memorial Day sale to honor the troops.” I nodded and finished paying, remarking to myself that those for whom Memorial Day honors will not be available to take advantage of the sale. I rolled the grocery cart silently out to my truck, and while we were putting the bags in my wife to be quietly said “she meant well, she was just confused.” She had seen this play out before and the frustration it causes me and other members of the military. For us, it’s not the “same thing.”

Once sorted out from Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day is often associated with ease by many, as the day to honor the men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice for this country. People conjure up images of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the World Wars, and probably Vietnam. These were the big American Wars fighting for freedom and American ideals. As President Ronald Reagan so elegantly said of our killed in action troops “their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno, and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.”

We are indeed indebted to these great Americans, and the places they went, the things they did, and the sacrifices they made.  What I believe we have begun to miss; however, is that their lives also ended (and continue to end) in places like Fallujah, Marjah, the Korengal Valley, and Marib Province.

When Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed in the Marib Province of Yemen earlier this year, most Americans had no idea we were even involved in any conflict in the small nation bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. (With knowing where Saudi Arabia or Oman being a different, but related issue.) The Korengal Valley of Afghanistan saw 54 US casualties, with 45 more in the Helmand Province town of Marjah. Do Americans know what they are memorializing with these losses? Even the novice history buff could associate Reagan’s list of locations with the war, and the objective; but that second list I’m not so sure.

The issue is that we have grown numb to the casualties of war. After almost 16 years of constant fighting, people have lost track of what is what, or perhaps have grown weary of keeping track—and who could blame them? I fear; however, that there is a bigger issue: We have become a society that is afraid to apply any critique to these deaths, as though we are then not honoring the dead. We have become a society of supporting the troops and “thank you for your service” almost to the point of detriment. Good natured, well intentioned, Patriotic Americans are demonized for questioning what the sacrifice of a service member meant. 

In my mind; however; there is no better way to fully honor these men and women. We should tell their stories for sure, but we should also know what their sacrifice was for. The American people deserve to know the clear and specific objectives being sought after as citizen soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines put their lives on the line. It then goes without saying that the families of these men and women deserve to know what cause it was that their husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters gave up their lives for.

When we remember our war dead as simply “people who died fighting” we do their service a dis-service. Remembering where and why is just as important as who. For 241 years, brave men and women, called to service, have answered when their nation called and served with honor. It is we who must now honor them. Questioning the why when we do not understand; is exactly as important as embracing it when we do.

This Memorial Day, when you want to thank a service member the day honors, just look for the flags in a local cemetery. Those are the people we honor this day.

Pantsuit Politics talks LGBTQ Politics with Kim Mellen

Editor's note: A long time ago Kim Mellen, a devoted listener and activist, reached out to the show and offered her perspectives if we ever wanted to discuss LGBTQ issues. I decided to take her up on it. Last week, while everyone was freaking out over the firing of Jim Comey and the Yates/Clapper testimony, Kim and I had a long chat on the phone about the past and future of LGBTQ politics in America, where the next fights are, how age shapes your political vigilance, and where conservatives fit into the social policy equation. This is part of our conversation. 

Do you think that LGBTQ people by nature are more politically active than your average citizen? Do you think activism is a necessity for LGBTQ folks? Or conversely, is inactivity viewed as a luxury?

100% I think we’re more politically active. We have seen an uptick in people’s engagement, and donations to organizations protecting LGBTQ rights. I don’t see that going down anytime soon. Locally in Atlanta our Human Rights Campaign chapter has endorsed John Osoff in the 6th district. There is a lot of support behind organizations and candidates fighting for LGBTQ rights. You see information getting passed around and it starts linking into every community. The thing about our community is it’s truly representative of the entirety of our populations. We’re men and women, rich and poor, black, white, hispanic. It really covers the spectrum. There is a lot of community engagement and there is a lot of fear in the community right now, and that in turn spawns engagement. You see that in other groups too. Professionally you’re seeing lawyers organize, which is crazy.

But to me personally, engagement isn’t new. I have always been politically engaged. The first time I went to D.C. I cried as an adult, it was kinda dorky. The last two election cycles have in particular really provoked a big uptick for me. After the Supreme Court passed Obergefell v. Hodges, the marriage equality measure, in our local and state groups we started looking at the shifts in local policies because that’s where the real damage was being done. I remember when Act Up got started in the Reagan era, and Harvey Milk, and representatives in the political space being recognized and listened to. It breeds a culture of activism. We have to be active. If we’re not, we get nothing. Even with marriage equality. In North Carolina, and Tennessee, and Texas, and Mississippi, the legislation that happens at the local level is really what will affect and impact your life. People are paying attention. With the wave of younger progressive people coming into the political space, it’s been an interesting time to watch that come together. The energy, Dante, it just feels different. Just talking to people in the neighborhood. It’s always present.

Do you find there to be an age disparity with LGBTQ folks fighting for their rights? And what I mean is, for younger people who have grown up in what is a nowhere near perfect, but more demonstrably progressive America, does the fight not feel as real or as urgent as say, someone who grew up in the height of the Christian Right in the 80s?

Yes, definitely. I see that even with my wife Rebecca and I. We are 14 years apart. She grew up knowing a more open society, her generation, they started that big shift. They are all gender fluid and all that stuff. I graduated high school in 1986, knowing what it was like to drive to a bar and know that you might be arrested. I’ve been run off the road for holding hands with my girlfriend in a car when people saw us at a stoplight. I’ve been pulled out of a car by young guys thinking I was a guy, and when they saw I wasn’t they just kind of let me go. Everything now feels like a physical blow, and it’s just different. When Rebecca and I talk, I’ll explain it to her and she’ll say stuff like “That actually happened to you?” There is a difference generationally in how people are feeling this in the community. It doesn’t detract from any age group getting into the fight. People telling their stories like they’re hearing now. Those who lived through the Reagan era, and the AIDS crisis. I never thought I’d see marriage equality in my lifetime and if I did I thought it wouldn’t happen until very late in my life. It doesn’t make the progress less tangible. But I think the young people are seeing that the fight is never really over, and there’s still so much work to be done.

What do you say to straight people or people outside the LGBTQ community that have viewed the incoming Trump era and said, you know I don’t know what they’re so afraid of?

My emotional reaction is not very nuanced. It’s a big fuck you. And that’s from my gut. I would point people to all kinds of places you can find news in the LGBTQ community. There are links on the HRC’s website. The ACLU has information on cases that I’ve been involved in. Source your own research but here is where you can go to find it. Ten trans women of color have been killed just this year due to hate crimes. TEN. The hate, and the danger, it’s around you everywhere you look. It impacts my life every single day. You things that most people don’t even think about my wife and I have to think about, like whether she can make medical decisions with me, not even talking about children and parental rights, just making medical decisions together.

It’s one story at a time and one person at a time. I keep watching all these things happen and the only way I’ve ever made an impact with people is to sit and talk to them and meeting them where they are and not apologizing for that. After talks it’s usually, I understand you a little bit better and I hope you understand me a little bit better. I have a boring mundane life. I am married to the woman I love. I go to work, pay my taxes. You know it’s basically the same as everyone else’s, but sometimes it takes real conversations to get people to see that.

LGBTQ for a long time has, from a national politics perspective, been focused on sexuality. But now it seems more and more the gender portion of the acronym is moving into the spotlight. Gender is a really tough thing for people to wrap their heads around, is it like that even for folks within the community?

I think there are some people in the community that struggle to understand that experience. Even if you don’t fully understand it, protecting their rights becomes about appreciating someone’s right to exist as they are. Transgender people, there’s so much to unpack there. I can’t fathom the experience they have or that they go through. But I can understand what it feels like to be different, and viewed as “other” and not fit in and not feel comfortable as myself because I couldn’t be my true self. I couldn’t imagine my entire life, as an open and out lesbian, under that weight. I don’t need to experience being transgender to know that weight, and fight for people to never have to live with it.

Where is the next fight for LGBTQ rights?

It is definitely in the area of trans rights. It’s the bathroom bills that are coming out. At the state and local level is where it gets really scary and the feds have basically passed these issues on to the states, and at the local level discriminatory legislation can happen much quicker. Adoption is now on the table. Tennessee just signed into law the invisibility law, NC is trying to work on the repeal of HB2. Texas has lots of adoption laws on the books. It’s definitely centered around trans and family and keeping the more “traditional” definition of what a family is and getting it enshrined into law.

What do the words religious freedom mean to you?

It means you have the freedom to practice a religion unencumbered by anyone or government. Practicing your religion means gathering in your church, or mosque, or synagogue. It doesn’t to me mean that if you run a business, that you can use scripture to discriminate against people. Practice your religion. Then when you step into the public space you can’t deny people coverage, or service, or anything based on religious freedom just like you couldn’t based on the color of their skin. The religious freedom argument is a license to discriminate and there is no other way to look at it.

Why do you think religious freedom has been used as a weapon, even as its legal justification to discriminate keeps getting challenged. Socially and economically too, we’re seeing more and more activism against religious freedom bills that aim to discriminate.

Freedom is to be free of that kind of discrimination, really. But when you say religious freedom it feels like something that is being taken away. It immediately positions it as a removal of freedom. It’s all about things being taken from you by the “other.” At the heart of it, it’s racism and sexism and homophobia, and xenophobia driving that sentiment in the GOP. There’s always this concept of the “other.”

It seems to me though, that the party shift under Trump might draw some focus away from LGBTQ folks as the "other." Trumpism to me is more of a nationalist movement, so is there an argument to saying that there is less of a stereotypical social conservative bend to this administration and its supporters?

Well, there is the David Duke segment of that base and there’s obviously the alt right, but you’re probably talking about the Fox News watcher. They just have a different enemy. They’re riled up about Muslims, or illegals. They have bigger “others” to deal with at the moment. It just happens to be our turn not to be in that crap pile for that segment of the population.

Who are the political heroes and heroines in the LGBTQ community?

Barney Frank. Tammy Baldwin. Barack Obama. Although he’s not really in the party right now. The progressive caucus is leading there, but getting more people at the table is happening slowly but surely at the federal level. But it’s going faster at the local and state levels. In ATL we have 3 openly LGBT people in city commission, we have an openly LGBT mayoral candidate about to run in Atlanta. That campaign is set to start soon. I realize Atlanta is a bubble comparatively in the South, but it’s happening. That race is going to heat up. We’ve got some old time Georgia candidates, some black candidates. It will be an incredibly diverse race.

If you don’t have a seat at the table you don’t have a voice, even though you have people advocating for you. Those are two very different things. It’s all about perspective right?  We have Tammy Baldwin in the Senate. There is a guy in the house, but his name is slipping me at the moment. There might be 2 openly LGBTQ representatives at the federal level, and 2 out of 535 is pretty poor. One openly sitting Senator. I think that is starting to shift. Maybe not at the federal level, but it’s coming.

Do you think we’ll see an open president?

Not in my lifetime. It make me a little sad to say it but I don’t think so.

You’ve categorized a lot of things tonight in terms of your lifetime. Considering the gains that have already been made and what you’d like to continue to see, if at the end you could give a recap, what would a lifetime of progress look like for you?

The further away I get from it, I think it’s really gratifying to see how the community itself has grown and changed and embraced the more marginalized sections of even our own community. I think it’s only going to continue, and as we get coalitions built with other marginalized communities. Now you’re going to get into my liberal Democratic side where we’re all one and everyone is beautiful, but you know I really believe that! Seeing a younger generation coming into life without the same hang ups that I have has been a wonderful thing to see, you know? Just people being more comfortable with who they are and being able to live as they should - that and a female president are things that I would look back on and feel very proud of. I’d also look back on two political moments, and they are both Obama inauguration speeches. When he said we’re looking forward to welcoming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters so they can enjoy equal rights, and when he said Stonewall to Selma my jaw dropped. To hear that in the inaugural, it was unbelievable to someone like me.

It’s common to associate LGBTQ folks with the Democratic Party, but we know there are conservatives too. What do you see as the future of the conservative movement within the LGBTQ community? And moreover, conservative politics in relation to it? There is a lot of talk that young cons are really not as concerned with some of the social aspects of the last 30 years of GOP politics. Could you see a shift that brings the country closer together on social policy?

There’s continued talk of that and I would love a movement. The younger conservatives are what might ultimately save the party. They really are talking about policy issues not social issues, and policy issues should really define a party. I think I would like to see that. It’s a truer representation of what government would be and what governing is. The conservative movement within the LGBTQ community will always survive, and unfortunately it presents itself in some ugly ways. You obviously still have the dominant white male and everything that comes with that, even in the gay community. You still have elements of sexism and racism and all that. People that are born and raised in these gentile environments - which is my experience in the South - they really believe they’re better than people. They believe that I’m white so I’m important or I’m a man and people are interested in what I have to say. It tends to coalesce around a certain kind of individual, and it tends to be white men. I think there are a lot of people really concerned with government and not social issues. Democrats can get there too. We have a lot of policy points that have nothing to do with who you love or who you marry. It will be interesting to watch, to see the younger conservative members of our community and their evolution.

My last question. Are we doing a good enough job of covering LGBTQ issues on the show? And if we’re not, what would you like to see us cover?

Y’all do a great job of bringing issues to light and talking about the social fabric of politics. Of course it’s always done in a fair and loving way. I’ve never felt left out listening to the show or participating in the community. Something I would like to see though, The Democrats have just reintroduced the Equality Act, maybe do a show on what that means? The Equality Act basically inserts sexual orientation and gender identity into the civil rights protected classes and grandfather’s us in so we don’t have to fight these constant battles to get the next protection on the books.

Would it essentially be a re-shaping of the 14th amendment?

Well the 14th amendment says you can discriminate based on race, religion, etc. so yeah, in essence we are talking about adding to the 14th amendment. It expands the categories of public accommodation. It amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexuality among the prohibitive categories. That takes all these discriminatory cases running around in cities and states and throws them right out the window.   


 

Digesting the Democratic Party with Bryn Behrenshausen

Editor's note: Bryn worked on the Hillary Clinton GOTV effort in the 2016 campaign, is an active participant in North Carolina state politics, and is one of Pantsuit Politics' most devout followers. He and I have often had short Twitter conversations about the direction of the Democratic Party and different ideas of what liberalism is or isn't in the modern era. I wanted a conversation that spanned more than 140 characters so I called him this week to chat. 

If you were a doctor, how would you assess the health of the Democratic Party right now?

I’d say we are pretty much healthy, we’ve got high cholesterol and some other things that we need to address immediately - we’ve got some things we need to work on. This conversation is going to happen any time you lose a presidency to another party and you’re recovering afterwards. I think people are over playing this. We don’t have one central figure to lead the party, but I am also of the mind that we don’t need to have one central leader. I think we need a couple leaders and those are emerging. Keith Ellison and Tom Perez are trying, and they don’t always go about things the way I would but they are making an effort to get out there and talk to people and that’s a good start. I think they need to get some more diverse people in that ring, I saw a lot of push back about them running around with Bernie Sanders because he’s not technically a Democrat. It’s a lot easier to move the furniture when you’re inside the house instead of shouting about where it needs to be from the outside. He needs to shit or get off the pot. You can’t use the Democratic apparatus - and I was sucked into that message of screw the Democrats – and not be trying to move the party in a positive direction. I’ve had some time to realize that that’s not productive.

I know you were one of the show’s most devout Bernie Sanders supporters early in the 16' campaign. Obviously that feeling has changed. Was this the first time you’d voted in a national election? What was your tie to the Democratic Party prior to 2016?

I voted before this election. I voted out of civic duty and wasn’t engaged. It was the 2012 election. Unfortunately I did not vote for President Obama in 2012. I voted for the Libertarian candidate in 2012. In order to understand how I became a Bernie supporter is to understand my background. My dad is a staunch libertarian and my mother voted with my dad. She was the stay at home mom, took care of the kids. They used to joke that she was internal affairs and he was external affairs. Neither of them ever had a good thing to say about Dems or Republicans, especially the Clintons. But obviously I got older and started questioning my beliefs about my own morals and beliefs on religion. I wouldn’t even say that was college that did it, my college wasn’t political. Everyone talks about liberal colleges; I went to a hick school in Central, PA. I took a class in state and local government and had a fantastic teacher that really brought home bi-partisanship, she was middle of the aisle. As I started getting more into the issues I started to form more liberal ideals and Bernie Sanders came along and being on Twitter and seeing the post of him taking the really brief press conference stuck with me. He came out and said “I’m running for president, Ok now I have to get back to work.” I started seeing other friends sharing posts, and I thought “He’s talking about all the things that I care about!” I was so pre-disposed to being against the Clintons and I failed to take it upon myself to learn about Hillary. I was drawn into that whole “against the establishment mentality.” All I heard growing up was nothing works. They’re all corrupt. They all suck. That’s quite a hill to get over when you are trying to vote into one of the parties. It resonated with me.

There’s so much talk of Sanders’ role in the future of the party because of this “Bernie v. Hillary" split. What, if anything, comes of that fissure? Do Democrats have to fix it, or bring along those folks for future success?

What I have come to realize is that we are a two party nation, and it’s going to take a significant amount of other things to happen to make that not the reality. In the immediate future if we want progressive ideas and progressive policies that the Democratic party is the best apparatus for that. I am no longer for this notion that he is going to be an independent. People can debate his effectiveness in office, but he does have the energy. We need to make sure that as Democrats that we have a message of things that we are for. I am very much against Trump. I spend a considerable amount of time criticizing Trump but that isn’t going to win us the election. That is proven. I did an exit interview when I worked with the Clinton campaign, and I said that I felt too much of our time was spent being against Trump, especially people who are engaged. The last thing people want to hear is “This guy sucks, vote for me.” And I think targeted messaging is important. We want a platform of Democratic ideas that can benefit everyone but things need to hit harder for certain groups of people. Talking about raising minimum wage in middle class suburbia doesn’t really resonate. When you have a town hall of all white people in middle America, a message of the importance of diversity isn’t going to hit home. It will carry more weight in those diverse areas.

What policies, not ideals or values, policies, are at the heart of the Democratic Party?

What the top priority should be is jobs, but you know so many things are interlinked. Being the clean energy party, being the next generation jobs party. Being the economic party of the 21st century. How do we face unemployment, and low income jobs, and this growing economy where automation is an increasing reality? I think it’s important to understand that to say “what is next?” Trump convinced people that they were losing their jobs to immigrants, and to get more jobs we’ll just control immigration. For Dems we need to figure out what is our plan for providing jobs or income. Do we need to explore UBI to ensure everyone has their needs met, as we enter this next round of work? Does a job look like 40 hours a week? At least have that conversation within the party. There is a candidate that is running for congress in Mass, her name is Brianna Wu, and her big platform is we need to focus on jobs and how to handle jobs in the face of automation. I’m not the one who has the solution to this, but smarter people need to talk about it. We need to find a message for how are we going to get people jobs. With clean energy, here are all these jobs we can provide. If we can give people jobs and feel like people are getting something from it, hopefully we can get a win there.

How do you reconcile the idea that if jobs are at the heart of the party, it seems the dividing line, or the litmus test for what it means to be a Democrat or a progressive always seems to come down to social issues. One break from the party line on a social issue can really cause trouble from the tribe, so it if all the issues are weighted equally, can we be a party of tiered values?

We’ve had these discussions. If we could drop the social issues from politics, I’d love to have discussions about economics and foreign policy. If you care more about the social issues but are economically conservative you have no party, but what I want to see Is if you’re going to run as a Democrat, you’ve got to be pro choice. It needs to be firm, do you support a woman’s right to choose? It has to be yes. I don’t think it should be the central issue of anyone’s campaign really, if you are personally pro life, great, but it’s not the government’s role to limit a woman’s right to an abortion. You don’t have to be out there every day talking about it. It shouldn’t be this hard. Bernie has all these litmus tests for himself with Wall Street, and you’re not a real progressive if you don’t scream about Wall St. all the time, but when it comes to a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, he says maybe we can be lax on that. I am trying to get better about diversifying along race lines and gender lines. When they hear that you’re willing to compromise on their rights, that’s a real affront to them. I would love to be cheering for Bernie, but when he does this, he has such a narrow set of issues, but everything else is “I don’t really care about that.” There are issues that he missed. Anyone can be a Democrat. There is no litmus test to being in the Democratic party. But if you’re going to run and get the financial backing and the grass roots energy from the party, but you’ll at least have to be pro choice.

Do we as liberals have an exclusivity problem?

We are seeing that in both parties right now. Within the GOP they are fractured on the Healthcare bill. Democrats are having the same problem legislatively. It would be interesting to see healthcare being debated as like one wing of the party being staunch single payer and the other wanting minor reforms to Obamacare. Part of the problem is everything is a national issue right now. All of these house races and special house races everyone is focused on them because it’s the next way to resist Trump and so everyone is still campaigning for their issues instead of listening to the district. Let’s have their representative respond to them. It’s this challenge of having a national platform they’re trying to move forward with while balancing that locality reality. Can we have a Bernie Sanders style candidate win in Montana or Kentucky? Probably not. It depends on the issue. I was saying today that I wish less focus was put on abortion. If you are not a real staunch and loud supporter of a woman’s right to choose and that we are going to shut you down.

Oh I don’t necessarily mean within the party, I mean culturally. I’ve noticed a lot of infighting because of stuff like what companies people patronize or where people eat. I’ve literally seen friendships end because one person found out the other ate at Chick-Fil-A. Is the list of rules to be a “good” liberal too long?

This is something I am challenging myself on. I am “woke” enough to not take offense to people saying you’re doing this wrong, or you’re using the wrong phrase. We should not be just destroying people for not being “woke” enough. I’m not the person who is going to say “You still eat at Chick-Fil-A? Well screw you.” I get it, they are a conservative company that I have problems with but if a buddy wants to get lunch at Chick-Fil-A, I’ll probably go. If it’s really an issue someone can always say, “Hey maybe we can eat somewhere else because I have a problem with this.” I don’t like Wal-Mart. I don’t like their corporate culture and they don’t treat their employees well. My wife, she shops there, I’m not going to tell her where to shop, but I don’t shop there. It’s up to you if you want to make that call. Everyone has their passions. Some people are more worried about Walmart, or using a credit union over Wells Fargo because they fund the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our problem is that we shout at people instead of explaining. Twitter is a big cause of that. It’s easy to bang out a snarky response to someone on Twitter rather than having a long conversation. I can have five tweets to explain my point or I can just say fuck you and move on. We have lost this kind of ability to discuss in better.

Yeah, where I view the disconnect is that as a culture, liberals have lost their sight of government. Because really that’s what all of this is about right? The idea that my party is in favor of a certain role for government. Where I’m trying to get is how do we transform back to a party that used to have a concrete idea of how government ought to run, and less on how people should think, or believe? Getting out of the idea of a right and wrong way to live, and more of a right and wrong way of governing. There are ways to continue to espouse a value system, but it has to be through government, not in spite of it. In my experience, what someone’s cultural values are have less bearing on how they may view government that most liberals tend to believe.

Many of the reasons I am a Democrat or a liberal is because I have a real problem with conservative ideology and specifically religious ideology. I don’t think we’re going to abdicate our social responsibility as a party to equality, to gender equality, LGBTQ equality, race equality, etc. As long as there is the religious right that is going to want to discriminate against those groups, the progressive left are going to be the warriors against that. Until the right side of the country grows out of some of those ideals, the left are not going to go back to just being a party of social safety nets. The word is that younger conservatives are more socially liberal. I would challenge that with some of the things I’ve seen, but if that holds true, the great because as soon as we get the right side more socially liberal then we won’t have to fight all the time. Democrats are focused on the people, and equality, and that is the main focus right now of the party. I don’t see that going away or not being a significant part of the party’s platform until we stop having to defend equal pay legislation, having to defend anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation. Trump is planning to sign some executive order on religious freedom in a nod to Mike Pence.

How do we get those conversations back to government related conversations though? Because they aren’t always that, the “Deplorables” line comes to mind.

She quantified it. And that rubbed people the wrong way, including people in my own family. She wasn’t talking about half of the Republican party, she was talking about the alt-right, Pepe types on Twitter. But she quantified it. Democrats believe in government solutions for a lot of things, we believe in protecting its citizens including discrimination.

I think a lot of the conversation is what as a society we deem right and wrong, and if you want to be an advocate for a societal change, put it in the context of government. We spend too much time saying, this is what we’d want the government to do, or what we’d want the government to look like. The smug liberal article, I had problems with it when I read it. I think there were some important points to take away from it. You are right in that we like to watch the late night comics who are shitting on Trump on backwards conservative ideology, and I consume quite a bit of it. If we want to start winning again we have to put that on pause and I want to represent what we want legislatively. That is something that liberals need to get better at. Republicans aren’t really any better about it. Donald Trump sure wasn’t talking policy on the campaign trail. I am in the camp that considers his election a fluke and not the norm. People are really pissed off at the government and try some crazy out there person. People want to hear specifically what you’re going to do. Here’s how we want you to change your life.

Conservative media tends to be the poster boy for tunnel vision attitudes toward politics. The ultimate echo chamber. What would you say to someone who say liberals also have a media problem?

Liberal leaning news outlets like MSNBC, the New York Times, etc go out of their way to bring in conservative voices, Trump alternate reality voices. They’ve hired Megyn Kelly, they have some conservative hosts. Look at NYT’s issue with the climate stuff. Liberals go out of their way to give alternate voices, even if its at the detriment to their own interests. Putting Jeffrey Lord on CNN, or hiring Corey Lewandowski. That is not raising the level of debate. That is just increasing the drama or peddling lies or half truths. Every news agency is going to mess up, but having people who are intentionally out there who are ignoring the truth or the facts giving them those voices, it just goes to show how liberal news outlets are trying. I see Joe Scarborough as a reasonable voice of what you might call a traditional Republican. I don’t have a problem listening to Joe Scarborough talk about policy. But when they have Trump die-hards coming on to spout this and that, their audience is not Trump supporters, they aren’t going to pick up viewers there. Liberal leaning news agencies don’t suffer the same level of bias that Fox News or Brietbart might suffer from. If we want to pick on places like HuffPo or the Daily Beast, those are absolutely liberally bent. If you read it with that understanding then that’s fine. The NYT, and the Post make conscious efforts to have moderate voice. You know the thing about the “liberal” news media is that facts aren’t liberal conspiracies. They report the news. Is it a reality that more of the people in the media lean to the left? Probably. I don’t think they’re starving for conservative voices. I don’t see the news as liberal news. MSNBC, Larry O’Donnell is very left. But again you have Brian Williams who is fawning over military weapons during the coverage of the Syria attack. Anyone who calls MSNBC a liberal news network when they are potentially going to bring on Hugh Hewitt to me is overstating it. Katy Tur, Kasey Hunt, their anchors are pretty straight up. Katy Tur was under attack by Trump and kept it professional. But not in the way that Fox News feels like state TV. You’ve heard Obama staffers say time and time again “we didn’t have a great relationship with the press either.” The press, if you’re a president, is  there to be hard on you. They aren’t just out to make conservatives look like idiots unless they say idiotic things.

The victimhood propagated by conservative media is troubling too. With the media diet I have, I never feel like an immigrant coming into this country is hurting my chances of moving up, or making my money, I don’t feel like someone practicing Christianity is somehow restricting my ability to be an atheist. I don’t feel like because people of other religions exist that I feel threatened. They already feel victimized. You are the victim of liberals. You are the victim of immigration. You are the victim. I don’t feel like MSNBC perpetuates that idea.

Are there conservative viewpoints that you find compelling?

I have been raised to fend for myself. I have personally conservative fiscal values. I pay for what I need to. Anything left over I put into savings and divvy it up however I want. I have good money practices in general. I don’t know if it’s conservative or liberal, but personal fiscal responsibility is something I lean to. And when it comes to foreign policy it’s a little hard to figure out what the go to is. I am not an isolationist, but I am not an interventionist. Square that, I don’t know? I might have some more conservative views like having an adequate military. Jill Stein wanted to cut the military down to a quarter of its size, I think that’s crazy. I think the military expansion that Trump and McCain are calling for isn’t really necessary. I believe in government. But I’m not a big government person, I’m an efficient government person. I would be open to closing agencies that aren’t needed anymore with a compelling argument. I am for trimming government waste. When I hear about the amount of money that gets dumped into the Pentagon simply for bureaucracy. I will give credit to conservatives, they want to trim government waste. But I don’t think that means simple talking points, just slashing away at budgets haphazardly. It kind of depends on the issue. The roles are reversing right now. The Dems are heralding in states rights, and Trump is talking about sweeping federal policies when it comes to enforcing immigration with local police forces. Fed government shouldn’t be telling them how to police. I like nationwide standards for things. I am a big public education proponent. Do I think we maybe need some more tailoring to neighborhoods and states or whatever to make sure education is applied properly at the local level? Someone in FL shouldn’t have a fundamentally different education from someone who lives in Maine, or Wisconsin. It’s all different levels of what is state controlled and what is not. I don’t think discrimination laws should be states issues or marriage laws should be a state issue. Some states just abdicate their responsibilities.

What do you want your party to look like in 2018 when the midterms roll around?

 I want a party that is organized and running candidates in every house race that we can. I want a fund raising apparatus that supports all those candidates that are running. We have to put our resources and distribute them smartly. Anyone that runs as a Democrat, if they can meet those certain criteria to run they should get funding. Distributing info on who is running and where, so that we have the best chance of picking up more seats. We are hurting at the state level too. We need to take back state houses. Less infighting in 2018 within the party. I would like us to put away the 2016 primary. If I have to have one more argument over Bernie and Hillary. Hillary is done. She ain’t running anymore. Josh Barro pisses me off so much about the Clintons. We have other people to focus on. What I really want to see is turnout. We need to accept that our generation is failing its civic responsibility to be engaged and informed and vote. We need to put pressure on our friends and peers to be informed enough to vote. Are you registered to vote? We need to start making it more of a social faux pas that you didn’t vote than it is to talk about politics. Our generation takes for granted our democracy. I know I did. People say “I don’t want to read the news, it’s too depressing. I don’t need to be bothered with that.” Life was simpler and more enjoyable when I didn’t care. The hardest thing was arguing Samsung vs. Apple. You don’t need to be an activist but you need to be engaged. Don’t take it for granted. When I see 25% millennial turnout when all of us are complaining about Trump. I’d like to see 90% millennial turnout. Realistically it would be nice to see 40 or 50%. The pressure needs to be on, high voter turnout in the midterms. If we ever had a better catalyst than Trump I can’t think of one.

 

 

What the hell is going on with journalism? I wanted to know, so like a good reporter, I asked.

Editor's note: Dr. William McKeen is an American author and educator. He is a professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, and was formerly a professor and head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, where I served as his student and teaching assistant. Dr. McKeen is also a noted biographer of Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist that broke all the rules. There's nobody I know better qualified to speak about the current state of the media, so I called him. We spoke for about an hour on Trump, journalism, why reporters are having trouble understanding America, and Hunter. Here is part of our conversation. 

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the media’s overall coverage of the Trump administration through 100 days? Does it meet your journalistic standards? Who is doing the best job, in your opinion?

It’s so inconsistent, I’d probably say 5. Some publications have done a wonderful and fierce job and those are the usual suspects – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, etc. I was glad to see The New York Times broke its practice of never using the L word (lie). They finally said it’s not a euphemism, it’s a fuckin’ lie. One of the more exciting things to watch these days is the Washington Post. It’s really been reinvigorated. I have some friends that are working there that are over the moon excited by what The Post is doing. The morale is high. What is really worrying me is that he’s being covered these days by, mostly television, as a normal president. He’s not a normal president. He’s an aberration. He is dangerous. He is a demagogue. He is proof that you don’t need to be very smart to make money. I don’t think he has any real depth of understanding about our political system or our foreign relations. We had some of that kind of coverage, at the beginning, and directly after the election. Now it’s been 3-4 months and now the press is kind of covering it as if it’s normal. I get the Times at home every day and the Boston Globe. The Globe has been doing a great job of covering the nuts and bolts of government. It reported that Trump has only actually nominated people for something like 1/6 of the positions in the cabinet, and we’re at the 100 day mark. Why is this happening? I see that in the Times and the Post and the Globe, and I don’t see that across the board. That ought to be the lead story across the nightly news. I see I think what we are seeing is when normalizing, they are doing their regular agenda based coverage. The 'what is happening'' instead of the overall story, which is the incompetence of the government. If it’s not along the usual lines, then the press kind of falls flat and doesn’t know how to behave.

One of the main criticisms leveled at journalists in the current era is bias, favoritism, pushing a clear agenda. Can you describe for our community exactly what lengths journalism academia goes to to ensure that stuff isn’t the case.

Well the adage has always been that we train people or reinforce the idea of getting both sides, but more and more we have to realize there are many sides. One of the news values that draws people to storytelling and journalism is conflict. The political conflict now is between the president pushing a certain agenda and the opposition pushing back. At a certain level you have to cover that. But traditional news values aren’t working with this administration, because it’s such an aberration. People think the press is out to get him. I do know that’s not the case. What I do believe is that he’s his own worst enemy, with his disregard and arrogance and such. And I think that needs to be shown. If people who voted for Trump don’t like the way he’s being treated, they should look at what is upsetting them, and that’s that journalists are reporting what they’re seeing and observing. I understand how people feel about that, if I was on the outside of it maybe I couldn’t see the truth.

Speaking of truth, what is your take on the truth? How do we know a good source anymore? How do we recognize the truth?

We’ve been dealing with that this whole semester. I doubt we’ve gone a period of two weeks without some kind of major convocation out-of-class to focus on helping people recognize truth, vs untruth. We flew in the editor of Politifact to describe their fact checking process. We had Sopan Deb, a reporter, come in and talk about being arrested at a Trump rally. We had women reporters talking about the danger they feel in covering Trump. It’s energized journalists but now we’re also painted as the enemy. So a lot of it comes down to skepticism. Being online if you see this particular statement, don’t believe it, don’t accept it as fact. Finding out fact vs. fiction is going to involve research which people are really not willing to do. I have done it too. I have passed along information that was untrue. I’ve been fooled. And when it has happened I immediately delete the post and tell people I’m sorry. I think there will be more and more fact checking sites. If you can’t verify a statement, you can approach a site like Politifact and ask them to check it out – that’s what they do and they have a transparent process. What I’m advising is we have to use much more caution, but are people really going to do that? When an untruth is discovered we have to do our best as journalists to quickly either lay claim one way or another whether it’s true or not. I don’t really understand the motive behind sites posting deliberate untruth, possibly because I believe that people are good.

Do you think news outlets, especially print outlets have a greater responsibility to educate their readers on the firewall between the newsroom and the editorial board? When I see people use the bias or fake news attack, they typically point out opinion pieces. But there seems like there’s a disconnect between the two sides of the media coin?

That’s long been a problem. People would refer to a column I wrote and call it an editorial. We take for granted that the audience understands our jargon and what we do as journalists. To somebody who has no background in journalism they have no clue what an op-ed piece is. News outlets need to keep people informed on what we as journalists do. The NYT has changed the 2nd and 3rd page of its A section to be not only an index of what is in the paper, but there is a piece in there and a blog that goes with it, a podcast, that explains the reporting of this particular story or the background and the decisions that were made. I wish more people would notice that. I don’t want us to become only this inward looking, self-centered institution. But we do need more explanation. This goes into the press’ inability to see what was happening before the election. I went on a trip this summer to the Midwest with my sons. I am one of those people who just starts talking to strangers, and the whole way I felt that I was reporting. I came back and said to my friends, Trump is going to win. And to the outside world he was imploding. In the liberal fortress of Massachusetts, the thinking was “no way in hell.” I think part of the problem is journalists only talk to each other. They’ll get the quote they want, but they won’t understand the person they’re talking to. And they only interview the usual suspects, people that hold office, people that have status, people in positions of power. I would make the reporters work out of little store front offices, and live in the community. Journalists only talking to other journalists is a big problem we have right now. They talk to the same people who reinforce their own beliefs. Part of journalism is providing an account of living.

Name one quality you think is necessary for the survival of journalism? What is the biggest problem you see in the industry?

There is more to journalism than just covering speeches and meetings. One of the overlooked components is observation, but we are too much in this stenographic mode. We need more interviewing, getting different points of view. The press needs to become more reflective in terms of diversity, gender diversity, minority diversity. We’re not really reflective right now of our society. That’s a fundamental change that needs to happen no matter what. As a consequence of that change we’ll have better reporting about “real people.” That sounds like a Trump thing to say, but there were people in this election who voted for change no matter what the cost. I heard so many times on the road ‘We need to shake things up in Washington.’ I think Hillary had the intellectual capabilities and was much better prepared, but we never got a pulse on that fear. That’s not what all those people out there wanted. They wanted a bull in a china shop. They wanted to destroy the status quo. There are certain elements of the status quo that are working, and if they are going to be changed they need to be changed in a more fluid and gradual manner. The press needs to be better prepared to cover society. One of the tenants we try to teach is not to ignore people. Irritate, infuriate, and inform. That’s our motto as journalists.

Will we ever get back to a place where the media is trusted again? Were we ever there?

Just this week I did a lecture about CBS News and Walter Cronkite and while he was on the air he was the most trusted person in America, even more than the president. Journalists are never going to win a popularity contest because by our nature we are always going to bring the bad news. We’re interested in aberration, and we’re interested in things that are odd or different. There is a natural tendency for the public to figuratively kill the messenger or blame the messenger. We can’t counter this by just replacing bad news with happy news. Our job is to look at the problems and what a reporter ought to do is point out a problem. What an editorial writer ought to do is point out a problem and propose a solution and point a finger at the person who can affect that change. A columnist like Thomas Freidman, every mover and shaker reads his column, so journalists do have a function in the opinion side of the equation. One of the most ferocious journalists right now is Charles Blow of the NYT. He’s just been eviscerating the president. We don’t want to be beloved, but we do want to be trusted. If we can show that it was done with care, and precision, and that it’s verifiably true – people will accept it. We can be respected for that ability. People say, ‘These must be terrible times for you?’ I see in students, the ones that are really serious about it, they have an almost ministerial view of journalism, like this is “my calling.” There’s almost a fervor to it. I sense that in my favorite news sources and it makes me very proud to be part of the tribe.

The current political battle, to me anyway, seems to be less conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat, and more establishment vs. anti-establishment. Are the legacy journalism outlets by default elitist? Is legacy more of a hindrance than a help in this era?

That’s a very good question. I do think that doing what I do, we’ve “academ-icized” journalism. When I started reporting early in my career in the 70s, there was only one person in our newsroom who had actually taken a journalism class. But post Watergate everyone wanted to be like Bernstein and Woodward and topple governments. But before that people came from all sorts of backgrounds. We have produced generations of journalists who are kind of out of touch with the typical average American in the Midwest or the Southwest or what have you. We’ve produced people who are extremely well educated and adept, but they go out on the streets and don’t know how to talk to people. I would never want to slam a generation because if anything the generation that needs to be slammed is mine. But if there was one knock on this generation it’s they’re afraid to talk to people. There is too much of a fraternization between journalists and the government when their allegiance is really toward the governed.

A medium is a way of conveyance. What we are talking about are institutions who have decided the they are going to pass on information. The internet has leveled the playing field. To be a voice in the marketplace of ideas even 20 years ago went like this: Do you have something to say? Ok now, do you have 30 million dollars? It got to be such an expensive enterprise. The internet was a leveling of the informational playing field, and the bad thing was that it leveled the playing field. Consuming information, especially today, It requires a savvy. But to the unsophisticated internet consumer sources like Breitbart and the NYT have the same level of legitimacy. When you have legacy media, you know the process. I know that someone researched it, wrote it, passed it to an editor, people fact checked it, made decisions on whether to publish it, so when it reaches me I can reasonably believe it’s accurate. I don’t know how to do this, but somehow we have to educate consumers on what is trustworthy. I don’t understand why people want to believe things they know are wrong.

If Hunter S. Thompson were alive today, what would his role be in the Trump era? I believe you’re one of the few people uniquely qualified to give this answer.

First of all if Hunter S. Thompson were alive today he would kill himself. One of the things that drove him to commit suicide, among other things, was that he was so depressed following the election of president George W. Bush, he chose an irresponsible way to alleviate that misery. I would want to know what he had to say. His muse in his lifetime was Richard Nixon, and his greatest writing was his revulsion for Nixon. It didn’t have to do with his personality which is what some people believe, you know, despite his image HST was extremely patriotic. He loved the documents that preserved freedom and any time he saw someone insulting those documents it infuriated him. Nixon violated the law but it was behind closed doors, but Trump does it in public. Hunter would have despised this president. You can tell by the way Trump treats people in his life. When he is somewhere with Melania, he doesn’t have any regard for her, walks in front of her, he has no courtesy, no manners, no couth. And when it comes to his political ignorance there are so many things Hunter would be compelled to comment on. People always ask me what Hunter would say and my answer is ‘Who knows?’ Deep down he was a good ol’ Southern boy. He wasn’t as enlightened as some of his followers would expect, but if he chose not to kill himself I think you’d see the journalistic equivalent of Nero setting fire to Rome. He’d untangle a wire clothes hanger, take some weenies, put them on a stick and enjoy the barbeque and the fall from grace that is currently happening.


 

 

A Response to Christopher, Who Says We Are Fake News

Hi Christopher, 

You've written a message to me that is similar to messages I've received from others, so it felt like a good time to respond. Since you take the time to listen to every single podcast of ours (understanding that you are not a fan), I'm going to take the time to respond to every point you've raised here. 

Let's start with your subject line: "you are fake news." Actually, Christopher, we aren't news at all. We are two people expressing opinions on the news. Separating opinions from fact is really important. We do our best to discuss the news as responsibly as possible based on all information available to us, but we are doing so from disclosed positions of bias. 

I'm not sure what false narratives we are putting out like clockwork the days after they are debunked, but I can assure you that is not our intention. Certainly, the news changes and situations evolve between the time we record our podcasts and the time they air. But, we are never trying to espouse information that is false. If you also take the time to look at our show notes, we link to sources we are citing for the propositions we're discussing. I'm making an assumption--perhaps an unfair one--that the sources we cite, such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Politico, Vox, and the National Review, all qualify as fake news in your mind. We cite those sources because we believe the journalists at those outlets check their sources and do their best to print accurate, if not always unbiased, information. It's the best we feel we can do. 

Christopher, listen to this point because it's very important: it crosses my mind on a daily basis that all the things that create fear in me about President Trump are exactly why you voted for him. I'm not confused in any way about that. 

I assume on the "known criminal" point you are referring to Hillary Clinton and that the deaths that you're citing refer to Benghazi. While we are discussing debunked false narratives, maybe you'd be interested in checking out this, this, this, and this. I don't like what happened in Benghazi. I grieve for the loss of life, and I am saddened by the failures that contributed to this tragedy. I also do not agree with your characterization. 

Let's talk about Russia. We believe there is ample evidence that Russia aided in a propaganda campaign designed to influence our election. We believe there are concerning ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. We have not talked about it recently because the FBI is investigating the matter quietly, as is appropriate. The House has not held public hearings. The Senate is working out the staffing and resources it will devote to an investigation. We will talk about it again when there is something for us to discuss. Again, we aren't reporters, so we are not in a position to provide updates on ongoing investigations until those stories are written by multiple outlets.  

We also recognize that there is tension between the Trump administration and the Russian government over certain foreign policy issues. That Russia could have wanted Trump to be president and have tension with President Trump can both be true. As a listener, you might be familiar with this kind of theme from us--nuance is our deal. I'm not sure to whom or for what you think we should apologize, but we're not going to be doing that. We will provide updates on this situation as more information is available. I sincerely hope that those updates will sound something like, "actually everyone, there WAS lots of smoke but no fire." That would be best for America, and I am keeping my fingers crossed.

Finally, if two women talking politics from the houses in which they raise children, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities as well as they can is "irresponsible and dangerous to our nation," I have to question what kind of nation it is that you're interested in living in. Regardless, we share it with you. So, I'm acknowledging your views, and you can continue to acknowledge mine. Or not. That's the beauty of America. 

Take good care,

Beth

 

An update on Syria from Kerry Boyd Anderson

On Friday's show, Beth spoke Kerry Boyd Anderson for a discussion of the humanitarian, military, and political crisis unfolding in Syria. Here are Kerry's updated thoughts on the most recent developments, which we will be discussing more in-depth on Tuesday. 

The Trump administration has done a 180 on its attitude toward the Assad regime. The same officials who last week said we need to accept the political reality of Assad in power are now saying he needs to go. On the one hand, I'm thrilled that they now understand the brutality of the regime and its role in driving the conflict. At the same time, I'm stunned that they seem to have just discovered this. While this week's chemical weapons attack was a particularly large one, it was not the first chemical weapons attack (nor the first apparently to use sarin) and is certainly not unique in terms of the regime's targeting of civilians and brutality against them. Surely, the president, the secretary of state, and the ambassador to the UN are not just now learning that the Assad regime systematically targets children after six years of such behavior, which has been well publicized.

In terms of military action, I'm still digesting the news on this. I was probably wrong on Tuesday when I said that I expected little response from the administration, but still we should be careful not to get wrapped up in the administration's particular form of drama. Little may come of this - a couple missile strikes on some minor Assad targets wouldn't be a huge deal necessarily, if that's what they do. On the other hand, a lot may come of this, given that the Russians are involved, and any action against the Assad regime would be a huge policy change. It's very possible that I'll feel supportive of whatever the administration chooses to do, as I think the US should have acted more resolutely against the regime before. At the same time, I'm deeply concerned about the incredibly fast change in policy on risky, complex issues. The administration is behaving as though there is suddenly new information about the Assad regime and now the US has to respond, when in fact the regime has been incredibly brutal and violating international law all along. What has changed is the Trump administration's view, which was directly in contradiction last week, and I'm still trying to figure out why.

Meanwhile, I wonder if we're now going to let some of those "beautiful little babies," as our president accurately calls them, into the US as refugees. 

More Perfect Unions

The capacity of the human body to function despite being a collection of individual cells, organs, and systems is amazing. We walk around, tens of thousands of organisms working together as one, collections of nerves and fragility and power. 

Marriage is much like a body. Individuality and collective oneness coexist. Things like our shared sense of humor and curiosity about the world around us form the heart space of my marriage, our shared sense of responsibility the head. Our divergent feelings about money and how to load the dishwasher are more intestinal in nature. 

The body is also an apt metaphor for workplaces. There is circulation, the flow of energy, inputs and outputs. Like muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues, different departments working together accomplish impressive feats, wield unknowable power, and suffer tremendous pains. Just as in the body (and as in marriage), seemingly unrelated parts profoundly influence each other and the whole. 

Which brings me to Mike and Karen Pence. The Washington Post profiled the Second Lady, reprising a 2002 report that Vice President Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.” Predictable controversy ensued, which Sarah and I dismissed on the podcast. We agreed that this practice, while not for us, is standard evangelical fare and none of our business. I also pointed out that judging people based on religious practices such as this one could lead to dark places because of the way we impose our personal beliefs—even and especially those born of ignorance—onto one another. 

The majority of listeners who have weighed in fervently disagree, pointing out, in a nutshell: 

  • that practices like Mike Pence’s limit the professional opportunities of women in the workplace 
  • that given Mike Pence’s role, he needs to have a high degree of flexibility to take private meetings with women 
  • that this practice reflects an attitude of objectification towards women that is problematic

I concede all points (especially the last point—and I find the attitude it expresses toward men equally troubling; if women are nothing but sexual objects that men find constantly and inescapably tempting, then men must be no greater than their desires and utterly incapable of self-control, in which case, I’d prefer they not run our country…but that’s another blog post), and I understand why our listeners are upset. I also remain unwilling to be outraged by the choice the Pences have made in their marriage and how those choices impact others. 

The workplace is always plagued by small and large illnesses, injuries, and discomforts that arise from people’s idiosyncrasies. Even the most high-functioning office has its equivalent of mild osteoarthritis—you mostly feel good, but then it rains, and the same pain that you’ve dealt with hundreds of time before returns. 

Of course the Karen Pence Rule impacts the women in Mike Pence’s workplaces. Workplaces are rife with exclusive behavior caused by the peculiarities of their inhabitants. An executive's smoking habit disadvantages the non-smokers who aren’t bonding with him during afternoon breaks. People form important business relationships over religion and the absence of religion, over having or not having children of certain ages, over the love of sushi or not. Some men will only meet with women behind closed doors, which can go wrong very fast and also be completely innocuous. Some men will never meet with women behind closed doors for fear of accusations of misconduct. Highly confidential information is discussed in bathrooms. Imagine being the non-drinker in environments where happy hour is code for strategic planning.

What we believe are individual decisions, personalities, and experiences dramatically change what happens around us. Bitterness about a botched performance review turns to a broken arm. A dispute over the unpleasant aroma of burned popcorn turns into a department’s flu. Egos can be cancerous. As much as we think we can wall off our impact, we unintentionally and substantially and often unfairly alter the experiences of those around us.

That unfairness often requires those on its receiving end to make adjustments. Like everyone else, I’m reacting to the Pence drama from my lens of experience, as a woman who has worked in a high-stress, male-dominated professional environment for my entire career. Dining alone with men and attending events where alcohol is served without my husband have been important to my career. If my male boss could not meet with me alone behind a closed door, it would be difficult for both of us. But, we would figure it out…just like people figure out the smoking and the drinking and the bathroom meetings and the burned popcorn every single day. We would go on as we go on with hundreds of non-ideal impositions created by the humanity of the workforce.

Recognizing and accepting imperfection doesn’t mean we abandon efforts at creating more inclusion and fairness. There are some behaviors and traits so corrosive that they violate true, universal non-negotiables, and we should constantly try to bring awareness and sensitivity to the rest. But perspective is important. I can imagine highly-marginalized individuals laughing at (or disgusted by) the superficiality of some of the slights I’ve described as workplace problems. This is why I think it’s so important to triage issues while thinking daily about the exercise and nutrition and care we’re providing for our bodies, marriages, and organizations.

I’m not outraged by the Pences because there will always be unfairness and inconveniences and all-out toxins in the workplace. I’m also not outraged by the Pences because I’ve never seen outrage solve a problem in the body, in my marriage, or in a workplace. In all of these organisms, outrage seems to exacerbate pain and facilitate disconnection. What has solved problems is a sense of oneness. Recognizing that my rights end where someone else’s begin, recognizing how a policy change in the IT department will make life harder in Accounting, recognizing how the frustration I carry home from the office impacts my husband which impacts my children—in every way that I look for unity, I find more perfect unions. So I won’t judge the Pences. I will hope instead that they can recognize the ways in which their personal beliefs, decisions, and actions impact others and make a little more space for beliefs, decisions, and actions that they don’t quite understand. 

 

 

 

Borrower Beware: The Risks Of Federal Student Loan Forgiveness

Editor's note: This is Laura Lima's first contribution to the Pantsuit Politics blog. She is a Doctor of Physical Therapy who specializes in women's health in Orlando, FL. 

In 2009 I was accepted into the Duke University Doctor of Physical Therapy program. I knew I’d be incurring a large amount of student loans but I felt comfortable in my decision because I knew that this was an investment in my future. After all I had graduated debt free after going to state school on scholarship. I felt empowered to take on more sizable debt. I had the fortune of coming from a financially stable family with good role models. My older sister had also chosen to go to a private university for graduate school and borrowed from the federal government to be able to do so. I had inherent comfort and knowledge in the pros and cons of this decision. However, unfortunately not everyone can be so lucky. There was absolutely no pre-loan counseling offered when taking out the $56,000 dollars per year over 3 years I’d need to complete the program plus living expenses. But that was OK, I knew what I was getting myself into because people close to me had experience with borrowing large sums of money. I was prepared to pay half of my salary to loans for an indefinite period of time. I was investing in my career and a future that would be free of financial stress. I will never forget one of the last days of grad school when a financial counselor came to our classroom and handed out our final loan statements. Etched in my memory is seeing multiple classmates begin to cry at the six-figure number that stared back at them. It was a sobering moment to say the least. We all should have been happy to be finally completing our doctorate and begin our lives as professionals.  We couldn’t help but think “Oh God, what have I done?.”

But then there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, was enacted. Essentially, if you worked in a public service job, which included a variety of non -profit organizations and government entities, for 10 years while making qualifying payments to the program, the balance of your loan would be forgiven at the end of that interval of time. This was the only option for some of my classmates. It was either enroll in the program or spend over $2000 per month in some cases repaying their loans for the next 30 years. I have to say this sounded like a pretty attractive option. In our case, a “qualifying payment” meant enrolling in something called income driven repayment. In short, you would pay a substantially smaller monthly amount based on the amount of money you made. Instead of spending thousands per month on loans, the number would dwindle to only hundreds.

Taking the plunge

So with all of our futures ahead of us. We all started to make decisions about our career paths. Many of my friends chose to forego higher paying jobs in private institutions for positions which qualified for the loan forgiveness program. I actually did end up taking a job in a non-profit organization in Orlando, but I never enrolled in the loan forgiveness program. In many of our cases, our debt was so great that enrolling in income based repayment meant that our prescribed monthly loan payments wouldn’t even be enough to cover the monthly interest on our loans. Essentially this meant that my principal amount would grow over the life of the loan. I just was not comfortable with the idea of my loan growing. In the back of my mind I was fearful that something wouldn’t work out and I’d be left with an astronomical amount of student loans. I thought about worst case scenarios. What If I got injured and was unable to work? What if something happened that made it impossible for me to meet the requirements of the program?

My fears were validated by a recent article in the New York Times. Since the program was enacted in 2007 and required 10 years of service, the first potential beneficiaries are getting ready to see the Department of Education make good on their promises. Unfortunately in some cases they are being told that the requirements for qualification are actually more subjective than originally advertised. The article cites a lawsuit in which institutions that were previously compliant with the program requirements were retroactively deemed unqualified.

Well there goes that plan. Thousands of borrowers made big decisions as new members of the workforce banking on this program and quite literally put their future in the hands of the federal government to give them ultimate financial freedom. It wasn’t just a matter of choosing where we worked. It was a time commitment as well.  I immediately thought about how this would affect my ability to start a family, to save for a home, my ability to find a job that didn’t just meet requirements but also fulfilled my aspirations which led me to this career path in the first place. I personally know several people who have also felt geographically limited because a place where they would love to live doesn’t have any jobs which qualify.

Unfortunately this is a risk that many people simply have to take and the uncertainty of this federal program is likely to adversely impact some of the borrowers with the most to lose. I was lucky to be able to begin paying down my loans through traditional methods but I fear for my colleagues and future borrowers, some of which could be burned if the program either ever goes away entirely or changes its requirements.

When it comes to loans, knowledge is power

As a new mom of a beautiful 6 month old boy, I think about how I will coach him in the future when he is thinking about his educational choices and later his career options. With the great recession, many of the members of my age group were encouraged to stay in school, pursue advanced degrees, and in too many cases take on unsurmountable amounts of debt in the hopes of getting better jobs and increasing our earning potential. The days of working through school are over so the only option for many people to pursue their dreams and earn advanced degrees is to commit to this unfortunate reality. This doesn’t just affect those in my profession. I know physicians, lawyers, and businesspeople who have all found themselves in the same boat. Recent revelations about the federal forgiveness program puts a new spin on the politics of personal responsibility. The educational and professional decisions my generation has and will make have potentially dire, unintended consequences. Will the sacrifices we’ve made be rewarded? Can we rely on our government to keep its word? Is our post-recession generation being served by public service? These answers are becoming increasingly unclear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Justice of a Peanut Butter Sandwich

Editor's note: Katy Stigers is a listener and first time contributor who grew up a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, swerved left, and ended up somewhere between Sarah and Beth. 

My least favorite food in the entire world is a peanut butter and honey sandwich. In fact, when my husband first offered to make one for me, I looked at him as though he’d offered to smash one in my face like a cream pie.

My three younger sisters also despise these sandwiches. We aren’t allergic to peanuts or honey or gluten. It’s because when we were in school, that’s what the cafeteria served when your lunch account had too many “charges” on it.

Last September, a cafeteria worker in a school near Pittsburgh resigned when she was required to take a lunch away from a child at her school because of the policy where students with balances over $25 were served a substitute lunch. (Those children will someday refuse to eat a cheese sandwich on untoasted bread.)

I wasn’t upset at the school system because Wylandville Elementary will have to pay for the food somehow, just like my old school did. If there is any sort of accountability, many parents, if they can, will figure out how to pay for the lunches. But, some of those kids’ parents can’t pay. Those parents are probably working, like mine were. They may not qualify for reduced price or free lunch because they actually have jobs, and have stretched their budget as far as it will go to purchase housing in a great district so their child (me) can go to a great school, instead of one that’s on the verge of collapse. The result is that sometimes the lunch account gets behind.

Peanut butter and honey sandwiches didn’t ruin my life (which is great, by the way, thanks largely to my excellent education). But they do give me a small window into he gaps between ideology, policy, and people’s lives.

There’s nothing wrong with eating a cold sandwich once in a while. I knew why my lunch was different, but no one ever shamed me. I like to think it’s because we had a sense of community, of neighborliness, of simply all being in the same boat. The worst thing that happened is I really don’t like honey on peanut butter, but blackberry jam is just fine. And it was just—in the sense of “justice”—for the school to substitute a less expensive option for the hot food.

That’s what our government owes us, justice. We can’t expect more from law. Because if the woman holding the scales is not actually blind, she’s certainly a candidate for Lasik.

If we want to be seen, we need neighbors. From them we might hope for mercy, compassion, and grace. Not because we’re entitled, but because somewhere we’ve all had or will need it given to us.

Despite the thick skin I earned eating a different lunch, what actually formed my character was the kindnesses of people who gave me what I couldn’t earn in compassion, dignity, and sometimes a pair of shoes or a book at the book fair, as well as the knowledge that my parents were doing everything they could to take care of me and my sisters.

Abraham Lincoln’s Brother

Abraham Lincoln’s relationship to his step-brother illustrates what conservatives idealize as appropriate social care. Lincoln once turned away his step-brother for $80 (about $3000 today). He wrote to him that he’d not ever seen him do “a good whole days’ work in any one day.” And so he says no to yet another loan. But he offers his brother John a chance. He says, for every dollar earned in the next year “either in money, or in your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar.” (Letter to John Johnston - http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/to-john-johnston-december-24-1848/ )

One of the reasons this example comes across as compassionate, not cold, is because Lincoln knew his brother. They grew up together. They stayed in touch. Lincoln cared about his nephews. (Read the letter, he tells brother John to look for work that is close to home, to stay clear of get-rich-quick-schemes, and cautions that the young boys are learning from their father each day.) Lincoln was a progressive micro-financer.

An intensely relational effort by faith-based groups is what I suspect George W. Bush had in mind when he was advocating compassionate conservativism. Or, to paraphrase Bush 41, a thousand points of Lincoln. I’m not yet convinced that scaling that kind of help, or addressing the myriad structural issues facing the poor, isn’t too much to ask of the faith-based or non-profit sector. Many organizations are already trying to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while helping others do the same.

I think healthcare is the best example of the conflict between justice, mercy, and grace in our administrative, technologically-enabled, age of dislocation. Kafka would surely recognize the insanity of the labyrinth that the hospital statement, provider bill, co-insurance requirements, and patient responsibility reminder sent to a patient with a high deductible may literally be the death of them.

When my coworker, who prides herself on common sense, “no-waste” thinking about government ponders welfare fraud (in the generic way that many of us lump social assistance programs together as “welfare”), she doesn’t have a stereotype in her mind. The person working the system is her relative, whom my colleague knows from childhood. A person she believes (probably correctly) is unwilling to work and has found a doctor willing to diagnose a disability. This is one of many examples my coworker has in her mind of those who aren’t deserving of assistance because they won’t lift a hand to make things better. When she thinks of “the people the program helps,” she knows she herself has overcome poverty and difficulty “without the system.” Devising a matching-grant scheme like Lincoln’s isn’t her solution. Who has the resources for that? Besides, it wouldn’t be fair.

My parents really disliked the word fair. “You don’t want fair,” they’d scold. However, it’s one of the watch words of our time. Fair gets you rules, and myopic Justice-lady, and not a whole lot of what anyone actually needs, because we’re so worried about those who don’t deserve any help we miss those for whom it would be life changing.

With our justice glasses we can’t see the people who live next door are our neighbors, and we can’t imagine that other folks might be our neighbors (in the Biblical sense) too.

Trying To “Tough Love” Our Neighbors

The weight of J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy has moved many who, until now, couldn’t understand the point of view of rural voters. Perhaps similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, has shared another facet of African American life otherwise unknown. But for quite a few there isn’t any need to read Vance or Coates because they are living those lives themselves every day.

Where I see the gap between theory and practice is that we’re making policy for those we think we know, using the blunt force of law’s heavy scales. But we aren’t thinking about those we don’t know, who might just do better with a bit mercy and grace.

Both progressives and conservatives have to deal with the fact that some of us are watching John Johnston’s in our own lives and expecting them to measure up to our own inner-Lincoln. Living just on the rough edge of rural Appalachia my friends and neighbors have seen all the misuse of Medicaid, disability, and so forth that they can stomach. They don’t want to pay for it anymore. If we use the coercive power of the government to move resources around, surely it makes sense to keep those closest to the problems eagle-eyed on the implementation. But, on the other hand, some communities are overwhelmingly poor and need folks on the other side of the country to fund their solutions. How big is our boat?

A few months after the Pittsburgh cafeteria storm, during the silly season of judgment in the internet echo chamber, a member of the Twitterati had a brilliant idea. The school couldn’t provide mercy but Ashley C. Ford could (http://www.today.com/parents/tweet-inspires-thousands-pay-school-lunch-debt-t107730_). She tweeted out to her followers that “a cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off.” Approximately 20,000 retweets later, hundreds of thousands dollars have been paid on overdue lunch accounts. That helps kids, and balances school budgets with no slack.

The Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible (which starts off with the law…) speaks of this as a jubilee.

Who knew your neighbors were on Twitter?

When your neighborhood is small enough you have a sense of who needs those peanut butter and honey sandwiches, who doesn’t, who would benefit from a Lincoln-esque matching program, and who needs a kick in the pants. It’s a real shame that by unleashing the power of capitalism to enable coast-to-coast commerce we’ve had to unravel the fabric that, as least in our historical imagination, held us together like a warm blanket. Jobs will leave coal country. San Francisco will be expensive as heck. Our neighborhoods now are just subdivisions or mid-term investments, not anything like communities. There are great big challenges. It might be a start to try and perceive where our neighbors might need us. Try and think about what a big difference it might make to pay of the lunch account of a kid you don’t know, but who might be living a lot like you did. And, perhaps, there’s a bit of grace that we can use Twitter, of all things, as a tool for mercy.

5 Wednesday Observations From An Already Wild Political Week

photo credit: The Associated Press

photo credit: The Associated Press

1. The White House and Republican lawmakers like Devin Nunes really need to stop pretending they don't know who Roger Stone, Mike Flynn, Carter Page, and Paul Manafort are, or downplaying their involvement with the Trump Campaign. The facts are the facts. Carter Page worked as a foreign policy advisor to the campaign. General Mike Flynn also worked closely with the campaign and practically never left Trump's side for many months before being appointed to NSA. And despite what Sean Spicer would like us to believe, Paul Manafort ran the Trump campaign for 122 days, including at the time of his nomination at the RNC. Managing a campaign is not a "limited role" and 122 days is not a "limited" amount of time when you consider Bannon was campaign CEO for just 82 days. (More on Manafort below). C'mon y'all. We're smarter than this. You're smarter than this. It might be best to just keep quiet at this point and let the investigation run its course. 

2. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said earlier this week that Judge Neil Gorsuch should be confirmed "100-0." While I don't necessarily agree that he should be unanimously confirmed, I've listened to most of the hearing to date and must say aside from a couple of key philosophical differences on some of Gorsuch's past decisions, the Democratic opposition to Gorsuch took a big hit this week as his interview wore on. Gorsuch has been calm, warm, articulate, and independent. He's practically tripped over himself to distance his ideologies from Trump, to prove his allegiance to the rule of law, to put the constitution above politics, and to prove he's an impartial adjudicator. Here's the thing, the Democrats have to be very careful here, because on its face Ben Sasse's statement is more true than false. Gorsuch is qualified, experienced, and he's crushed his hearing. The only obstacle to his appointment at this stage would be the Merrick Garland grudge, and that grudge is looking less and less valid as the hearing wears on. Plain and simple, the Democrats gave Gorsuch a hearing, so they should go ahead and give him a vote, too. How that vote shakes out remains to be seen, but I would think it unwise to drive the stake too far into the ground on this particular nomination, especially with all the chances to capitalize on the unforced errors that loom with the Trump administration. Chuck Schumer has suggested delaying a vote until the conclusion of FBI investigation. That move hedges too much on a Democrat-friendly finding in that investigation. Follow the process. Show you value norms, and vote on Gorsuch, Dems. 

3. Donald Trump is losing his bully status - and fast. Director Comey and Admiral Rogers this week essentially made Donald Trump's wiretapping claims a cold case. That was significant for two reasons. One, it proved the president once again ran down a rabbit hole that reeked of conspiracy only to find nothing. And two, because Comey and Rogers publicly and authoritatively discredited Trump - along with the Intelligence committees in both houses - they defanged his Twitter bite. Republicans aren't scared of his weaponized Tweet storms anymore, and they showed it on Tuesday. Freedom Caucus members were threatened, and they promptly called the president's bluff. The AHCA is likely to be Trump's first major policy failure (I'm not counting the EOs on travel because they haven't included Congressional input). He can't bully his way out of a bad bill, and he can't Tweet away the seats of Republican lawmakers he doesn't like. Healthcare, as expected, is an albatross. Healthcare, as expected, is an issue that perks the eyes and ears of voters. It doesn't just pique their interest, it has their full attention. As Rep. Thomas Massie from Kentucky said yesterday, he got 274 calls from constituents asking him to vote "no" on AHCA, and 4 to vote "yes." A bill that unpopular will never be undone with brute force. You're in Washington now Mr. Trump, not a boardroom, and lawmakers answer to their voters. We may be reaching unprecedented levels of cynicism that push us farther and farther away from actually believing that fact, but occasionally it's redeemed. The AHCA opposition is proving it.

4. I'm no expert in optics or public relations, but if you're the Rex Tillerson and the State Department it's proooobbbably not the best idea to cancel a meeting with NATO and replace it with a nondescript trip to Russia the same week the FBI confirmed the Trump campaign is under investigation for possible coordination with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Just sayin'

5. Expect the investigation to take a while. There's going to be a pressing urge from media and Democratic lawmakers to "Maddow" any and every detail that drops from now until the conclusion of the probe. As content consumers we can't bite. This is going to be long. It's going to be thorough. And above all else, it's going to be close to the vest. If Comey's testimony taught us anything, it's that 6 months is short in the grand scheme of counter intelligence investigations, and he's not gonna say jack squat about it. That means media outlets and investigative reporters are going to try their best to fill in the blanks, i.e. today's AP report on Paul Manafort. Is it important information? Sure. Should we be consuming it? Absolutely. Is it going to lead to some monumental breakthrough in the investigation? Probably not. I guarantee you if the AP knows it, the FBI knows it too, and if it was the missing piece to break the case wide open, we'd know about it. Get comfortable in your seats, y'all. Grab some non-perishable snacks. Get some beers on ice.  It's gonna be a while. 

Letting Maddow Marinate: Some Substance Behind The "Non-Story"

Last night was perhaps the most significant insignificant live TV moment to date in the Trump presidency. Everyone tuned in. Everyone waited patiently for Rachel Maddow to take a leisurely, Maddow-like stroll through the cliff's notes of her months-long reporting on Trump's possible Russian ties. And everyone (mostly) left feeling like they'd just sat through every M. Night Shyamalan movie not named The Sixth Sense, i.e. overwrought plot, no big payoff. 

This column will not comment on the merits or faults of Maddow's execution, timing, hype, general show format, or any other litany of rapid-fire criticisms hurled at her throughout Tuesday night's broadcast. We're less than 24 hours out from the live event and that territory has already been slashed and burned. Instead I wanted to share what kernels of insight we can take away from the otherwise unpalatable nothingburger that was the 2005 1040 reveal. I stumbled upon a thread that brings up some valid points if you strip away some of the far-reaching logic peppered in. Sam Abramson is a columnist for Huffington Post Politics, so as always, consider the source. 

Point #1, though it fails to clarify that there is still no evidence Trump did so willingly, is valid. The statement released by the White House prior to the MSNBC broadcast essentially verified the authenticity of the documents, and leads to points #2, #3, and #4. The WH when given wind of breaking news has shown a propensity to immediately comment (see 9th Circuit decision). Those comments in turn prove that Trump's excuse for not disclosing his taxes is and always has been a front. We also now know that it's likely more tax info will "find its way" to news outlets and they are emboldened to run with it. Point #5 is more speculative than genuine, but we are in an era of feelings, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Trump's skeptics will lean on this return (whether correct or not) as the first crumb in the trail leading to nefarious places. 

Point #7 is interesting because it does raise the concept of the Alternative Minimum Tax, "a supplemental income tax imposed by the United States federal government required in addition to baseline income tax for certain individuals, corporationsestates, and trusts that have exemptions or special circumstances allowing for lower payments of standard income tax," into the national conciousness. Why is that important? I'm not sure people care so much as to whether he paid it or not in 2005, but more the important question would be in point #8, or how it could affect his tax policy making. If the public knows his tax plan, which advocates for the removal of the AMT, could directly benefit his personal wealth in drastic ways, could it put more pressure on Congress come tax reform time? That remains to be seen. 

This run of tweets I find particularly poignant, mostly because they categorizes the event for what it will mean, not necessarily what it meant. What we learned from Maddow's break was actually kind of good for Trump. We learned he actually paid taxes, and in a larger percentage than public perception would suggest. Overall that's a win for Trump. BUT, Maddow's show did bring Trump's taxes from the sidelines back to center court. Both Maddow's blog and David Johnston's sites crashed due to traffic volume. People want to know, and now Trump can't dismiss that. The White House also perhaps made the knee-jerk misstep of responding too quickly and defensively to the breaking news, inadvertently validating the documents and setting the precedent that any further documents will also require public comment. That begs the question, "Can you pick and choose when to lend credibility to tax documents when they leak, especially when the credibility of the president and staff has already been challenged in numerous, verifiable ways? Can the WH control the tax narrative?" 

The answer in the short term is "No, it cannot." And that's a big problem going forward. It's reasonable to believe the pressure will increase on the administration to answer more questions about Trump's taxes. It's also reasonable to believe more details/leaks will likely complicate the nature of the answers the administration can give. Last night was a softball over the plate for the White House, and it made a timid, jerky swing and was able to foul tip it safely away. But what happens when the sharp curveball comes? We'll need more than a haphazardly drafted statement and contradictory morning tweets from the president to clarify those records. Eventually if records are released, with no avenue for WH recourse, Trump will be in a war of attrition. Either pull back the curtain of transparency, or have it nibbled away bit by bit by ravenous lawmakers and voters. This story might not have been the whopper Maddow & company hoped for, but they got the pilot light on the grill lit. Now we just have to wait and see how hot it gets.