Our entire country, with the exception of legislators under the financial thrall of the NRA, has been moved by the high-school students’ walkouts and demonstrations, and I’m no exception. But I wanted to listen to the students more closely, and to think about their cause, which really is about more than gun reform. It’s about having a voice.
As I’ve grown older, ageism has come to be defined in my own reality more as discrimination against older people (yes, Tip O’Neill was right: all politics are local). But of course ageism runs both ways. Ageism is expressed by those who scoff at these young citizen-demonstrators, those who dismiss their naïveté or, contrarily, their audacity—or both. Yet the kids continue with their principled, peaceful, political determination, which at heart is about being denied “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Then I remembered that years ago I had called for lowering the age of suffrage eligibility, in my book The Anatomy of Freedom (now available in all e-book formats). I took it down, read that chapter, “Public Secrets,” and was shocked to find that what I had written in 1981 was deplorably relevant. I’d love to think that I was prescient and ahead of my time, but the more accurate reason is that some things have changed so little. In fact, I believe that such current issues as persistent voter suppression and increased gerrymandering have intensified reasons for the expansion of the electorate I proposed.
Here are extracts from that chapter, which was inspired by conversations with my son, at the time of that writing 12 years old. This is from a section about the ignorance-is-bliss indifference of those who have power.
Let’s take as an example the issue of children’s suffrage. Yes, the right of the child to vote. This right is denied to children on a number of grounds, all of them specious:
1. The Cuteness Defense. “No child, e.g. citizen below the age of 21 [in 1988 the Twenty Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18] has the maturity to vote.” Whoever puts forth this argument must be measuring maturity in terms of height or reproductive capacity, because any other measurements (well- rounded education, financial independence, emotional stability, intellectual and political acumen, knowledge of civics, government, and democratic systems, etc.) do not describe the current average voter anywhere in the world.
2. The Dependency Defense. “No child is autonomous enough to make her/his own voting choice; a child merely will act as a pawn for the parents, voting the way they tell him/her to vote.” This defense ought to ring familiar warning bells in every woman’s head, since a twin reason (husband’s influence) was hammered for 50 years as an excuse for denying the vote to women. It’s an example of the self-fulfilling property concept: First, rob someone of autonomy and make this person an item of property; then deny the person rights on the grounds that a piece of property wouldn’t know how to exercise such rights. The response in terms of children’s suffrage might be identical to that made by formerly enslaved, emancipated Africans and by women: “In the privacy of the voting booth, who knows how we might choose? We may well educate ourselves. Husbands [parents] may influence us, and then again you might be surprised at how quickly we can balance that influence with our own thoughts and desires, once we have the option. Besides, your argument is a priori. A human right is a right, basic and unqualified by credentials allowing one access to that right.”
3. The Innocence Defense. “No child is well-informed enough on the issues of the day to make reasonable voting decisions, unless, of course, parents do the informing—in which case they’re influencing, and that’s unacceptable, too.” This argument has a Mad Hatter quality of logic so debilitating it makes one wish, like the dormouse, to go back to sleep in the teapot. First, the average adult voter is as “well-informed on the issues of the day” as a groundhog on weather currents in the upper atmosphere. In fact, those in political and economic power positions do their best to keep the average voter in just this uninformed state, despite contrary efforts by a free press. Second, a child can become better informed on the issues in the same way that adults do-–by reading newspapers and magazines, watching television journalism, and monitoring coverage of candidates [and nowadays by being more savvy than adults about news sources on the Internet].
4. The Playfulness Defense. “Children wouldn’t be interested in newspapers and current events. They’d be bored. Why burden them? They want to play and have fun.” Let us leave aside for a moment the fact that the majority of adult voters are bored by current political practice; in 1980 almost half of the U.S. potential electorate didn’t vote—out of disillusionment and boredom. [Today, in 2018, 4 out of 10 eligible voters still don’t vote.] As for children, the truth is that they play very seriously. It’s how they learn, in fact. Play isn’t frivolous or foolish; it’s a life-sustaining creative activity. (When adults engage in it they’re called artists, and are frequently mistaken for children.) Children are quite capable of being fascinated with the news of our times, and of understanding how deeply it affects them, not only right now but in the tomorrow they will inherit. And if political rhetoric is impenetrable to a child, what an easy solution there is to that one! In order to equip this new voter with the facts, such mystification must be simplified and clarified! Think how this would alarm those in power—and relieve the average adult voter who also, as we know, cannot penetrate political obfuscation. What a benefit to all would result! The Emperor, in other words, would have to get decently dressed. As for “burdening” children with rights, how that smacks of the Ye Olde Paternalism: “the white man’s burden,” stereotypes of happy carefree slaves on the plantation, and sweetly silly childlike women.
5. The Divide and Conquer Defense. “But where do you draw the line? Should everyone over age 16 be enfranchised? Over 12? Six? Are you going to oppress toddlers—ha ha ha—by excluding them? Once you start with this, you’re lost! Don’t you see the impossibility?” Ahh, the Slippery Slope or Domino Argument. How reminiscent of the 19th Century position that it was alright for black men to vote, but not for any woman—or that it was acceptable for white women to be enfranchised but not black [or Native] women. Surely a simple standard like functional literacy might be a guideline, thus setting the voting age—at least to begin with—at 15 years old. Then, once the idea is established, children themselves, along with the rest of the electorate, could debate the practical feasibility of enfranchising even younger citizens. A literacy standard can be misused, of course. Although literacy itself is an objective good, it is fair as a credential only when all have equal access to it, and when tests are free of cultural values and assumptions and are multilingual.
6. The Comic Defense. “Well anyway, it’s ridiculous. I mean really! Kids voting! How absurd!” This argument too is a familiar one to women: ridicule. When pseudo logic fails, resort to mockery, derision, scorn. Racial, sexual, and ethnic ”jokes,” humor that targets the physically disabled, all are part of this tactic. When oppressed peoples cease chuckling amiably at jokes that degrade their own dignity as human beings, then they are accused of having lost a sense of humor. Apparently, nobody in the power class stops to think of what a deliciously sharp sense of humor the oppressed have when alone and not being overheard—but those jokes happen to be about the oppressor. As the poet Alice Meynell noted, “The sense of humor has other things to do than to make itself conspicuous in the act of laughter.” To see children’s suffrage as hilarious is as ignorant and arrogant a reaction as it was when proposals for non-property holders’ suffrage, ”Negro” (male) suffrage, or women’s suffrage were viewed as comparably hilarious. Such laughter is the giggling of the morally and politically bankrupt—and of the scared.
The example of children’s suffrage is vital in itself but also indicative of the way children are really regarded in a culture that purports to adore kids, Disneyland style. The truth about how Americans regard children is ugly. Whole housing projects and entire townships deny tenancy to families with children; children still do manual labor here in the richest superpower in the world—as migrant farm workers, sharecroppers, and in some mining communities; children as a subclass within racial minorities suffer higher mortality rates, lack of minimal nutrition, clothing, and education; the growing statistics on sexual abuse of children are horrifying. Meanwhile, fundamentalists—religious and political—passionate in their defense of the fetus and their own narrow definition of the family, are unconcerned about what happens to children once babies are past the delivery stage. In fact, they don’t even care about a healthy fetus, because that would mean ensuring good healthcare, diet, and clean air for even the poorest pregnant woman. The right wing has shown its love for kids peculiarly, by avidly supporting corporal punishment in the schools and at home, denouncing child-abuse studies and shelters as “subversive of the American family,” lobbying to deprive public-school students of free lunches and religious freedom (by requiring prayer in the classrooms), and much more.
How I would love to let loose a children’s electorate on them!
P.S. How I would still love that, now more than ever! Wouldn’t you?
So I was thinking about silence, and the breaking of it.
I was mulling how, barely ten seconds after Me Too got started, there were already people claiming it had gone too far, would turn people off, was too loud, too strident. I was noticing the shock with which West Virginian politicians reacted to the teachers’ strike. I was pondering how commentators discussed the Florida high-school student activists with such surprise, exclaiming over their being “So articulate!” And I recalled Joe Biden’s appalling 2007 remark about an up-and-coming young Senator from Illinois named Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man!” It isn’t only Trump who needed reminding that he should act sympathetic when meeting with the high-school kids, who needed to carry a notecard prodding him to say now and then, “I hear you.”
When teachers first unionized in Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century, 97 percent were women, and they were paid about the same as house maids. Two years ago, The Washington Post ran a long piece about West Virginia, titled “How the birthplace of the American Labor Movement just turned on its unions.” It was about the process following the Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2014, after which West Virginia passed a so-called right to work law prohibiting mandatory union dues. The state also repealed the law mandating that workers on public construction projects be paid prevailing industry rates. Strikes by teachers are actually unlawful in West Virginia. Moreover, their unions lack collective bargaining rights so, having no agency, now shrug and don’t even try to defend their members. This is why it was all the more wondrous that the teachers and some other school employees in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties struck, and continued striking when offered vague promises that this issue would be addressed, and still continued striking until lawmakers passed a 5 percent raise and a commitment to addressing rapidly rising health-insurance premiums. Since state-wide teacher strikes are extremely rare anywhere, people were astonished, despite the fact that West Virginia teachers’ pay ranked 48th in the nation. How could the teachers be rebelling! And now teachers in Oklahoma mobilizing to perhaps do the same thing! What’s going on?
Is the secret ingredient really such a secret?
I didn’t see any coverage noting that over 80 percent of teachers in this country are female.
It just happens that 80 percent is also the number of Indivisible.org members who are women. You know, those plain folks, ordinary citizens, first-time-ever activists who have been flooding into town-hall meetings, picketing outside their local Congressional reps’ offices, and sitting in outside Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lavish Senate suite and that of House Speaker Paul Ryan—the ones chanting “This is what democracy looks like.”
No one has done a gendered head count of the high-school students in Florida and now across the country who are tired of getting killed and are mobilizing and marching for sane gun policies. But just from the visuals, those protesters seem at least half female and half male, and that’s certainly true of their spokespeople.
There’s a fresh wind blowing across the purple mountains and fruited plains: the spirit of rebellion. Some say it began with the stolen non-election of Trump. But that actually was followed by weeks of stunned national depression.
I’m not just peering through a “feminist lens” when I notice some facts: that this volcanic energy began to rumble with the first Women’s March and intensified with WeAreMarchOn.org. It’s not coincidental that women are leading Indivisible.org, that women are leading the teacher strikes, that women are exploding bombshell after bombshell in the Me Too and Time’s Up movements. For that matter, it’s not just happenstance that well before the Women’s March, women created Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name and Voto Latino. Nor is it a coincidence that young women are an equal presence in the leaderless national activism of high-school activists.
Just as repression is contagious (populist, nativist authoritarianism rippling around the world) so is the insistence on freedom and democracy. We catch fire from each other. It’s the human hand: five breakable fingers and a breakable opposable thumb that aren’t so breakable after all, when brought together in a fist. It’s what I call the “You too?” moment in feminist consciousness, realizing that you’re not alone and you’re not crazy.
You can break all the ceilings imaginable—brick, glass, celluloid, whatever—but none of that can happen until you break the silence.
Even then, you have to keep saying it, saying it, saying it; writing it and screaming it and whispering it and drawing it; miming it and dancing it and singing it and posting it and signing it and shouting it over and over and over until you almost despair—and some do.
You get a lot of practice. But they finally have to hear.
And that’s when they’re surprised that you’re “so articulate!” Which means they simply hadn’t been listening.
Last week, I referred to the genesis of the Second Amendment, and its original intent. The volume of listener response, stunned at hearing facts I mentioned in passing, made me realize it was time to revisit this subject in greater depth. I’d done just that a few years ago, but there are lots of new readers on this blog post, and besides, in this “information age,” facts can get buried under so-called information.
Some scholars still disagree with aspects of this finding, but it’s pretty well-documented history, thanks to the work of Roger Williams School of Law professor Carl T. Bogus in 1998, as well as that of historian Richard Hildreth as early as 1840 (on the antebellum South), and in 1995 of Clayton Cramer, on the Second Amendment basis for the Black Codes adopted after the Civil War, requiring emancipated Africans and African Americans (but not whites) to obtain a license before carrying or possessing firearms.
By now, we all have the words of the Second Amendment hammered into our brains: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
But do you know the real reason the Second Amendment was created and ratified? And why, by referring to “state” it means state and does not mean “country”? Let’s take them one by one.
It was created to preserve the militias in the Southern states—and was a demanded promise to get Virginia’s vote for the Constitution. Founders Patrick Henry and George Mason made that a condition—and were backed by the “father of the Constitution,” James Madison.
The South’s state militias also had another name. They were commonly called “slave patrols,” and they were decidedly “well regulated,” by the slave-holding states. For instance, Georgia had laws requiring all plantation owners or their male white employees to be armed members of the Georgia militia, and “to make monthly searches of all Negro houses for offensive weapons and ammunition” and “administer twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.” This was deemed necessary to preserve the institution of slavery.
Today, history-deprived citizens may wonder why the enslaved population seemed so “passive,” because we were never taught anything else, but the truth is that by the Constitution’s ratification, hundreds of uprisings by these enslaved people had already erupted across the South. Historian Hildreth observed that violence was frequently employed in the South, both to subordinate slaves and to intimidate abolitionists, as well as being an approved way to avenge perceived insults to “manhood and personal status” (manhood is usually in there somewhere). The enslaved always outnumber the enslavers, so such a system requires relentless enforcement—precisely the role of the “well-regulated militias.” Indeed, if those militias were to be disbanded or relocated, the economic and sociopolitical structure of the South would have collapsed.
No wonder such Founders as George Mason (owner of over 300 slaves) insisted on the Second Amendment. So did slave-holder Patrick Henry, a Southern evangelical Christian theocrat (more on him below).
The Southern states feared that Article 1, Section 8—which empowered the federal government to raise and supervise a militia for the general defense of the country—would permit the swallowing up of their state militias, absorbing those local bodies from slavery-enforcing private armies into a national military, and they feared that such a national military would constitute an army that might someday free slaves, and would even permit service by slaves. Their terror about possible Emancipation was paranoid yet prescient about what would, a little more than half a century later, break into open Civil War.
At the 1788 ratifying Constitutional Convention, Patrick Henry said all this, flat out: “If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it. . . . In my state [Virginia] there are 236,000 blacks, and many in several other states. But there are few or none in the northern states . . .” Alarmed that government power over the state militias could be used to strip the Southern states of their slave patrols, Henry added, “Have they [the government] not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery?”
Madison, a slaveholder himself, then revised the relevant amendment, changing the word “country” to the word “state”—meaning “state,” not as a synonym for “nation” but literally as in “one of the United States”—thus ensuring that the South could maintain its slave-patrol militias.
Oh, yes, and Patrick Henry? He had fought Jefferson bitterly over the Virginia Act of Religious Freedom, a document Jefferson wrote which, separating church and government, became the model for the Constitution’s First Amendment. Henry openly wanted a Christian theocracy. And one thing more. The “Give me liberty or give me death” guy not only was a slave-owner, but he also imprisoned his wife, Sarah, declaring her “mad,” and constraining her for the rest of her life in the cellar of his plantation manor. This he announced was a “merciful alternative” to putting her in an asylum. It appears, from spotty reports of the time, that her “madness” was simple “melancholia.”
Meanwhile, here is a different Founder on ownership of firearms, albeit one employing, of course, the use of “man” as the generic:
“To suppose arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion, except in private self-defense, or by partial orders of towns, countries or districts of a state, is to demolish every constitution, and lay the laws prostrate, so that liberty can be enjoyed by no man; it is a dissolution of the government.” That’s John Adams, in his A Defence of the Constitution of the United States 3:475 (1787-1788).
So much for rabid right-wing interpretations of the Second Amendment as being our mythicized defense against British tyranny. In actuality, it had nothing to do with the war for Independence, but it had everything to do with tyrannizing the abducted and enslaved African population.
Knowledge is power. Shove that up your barrel, NRA.
Last week, appalled and disgusted after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, I wrote that I had nothing more to add to what I‘d already said and written about guns, and god knows we’re all tired of repeating ourselves on an issue that should have been dealt with intelligently ages ago. But I’m not done, after all.
School shootings are currently the focus, and terrific kids in high schools across the country, catching inspirational fire from the Florida survivors, are leading the way. Maybe I’m crazy, too, falling for yet another hope that this time, this time, perhaps we have momentum. On the off chance that we do, I want to add to it by reminding us about what guns do to women.
I know, I know, some women like guns and own guns. OK, fine. But I haven’t yet heard of a woman going on a rampage and mowing down people with a semi-automatic rifle just for the hell of it. The numbers tell the story: 62 percent of gun owners are male, and white men are particularly likely to own guns. One woman in five (22 percent) owns guns, and women do so for different reasons than do men. Women cite protection and personal safety as their reasons, not hunting or sport or being a collector, and only very few see themselves as part of a gun culture (gun shows, periodicals, shooting ranges, clubs, etc.). But when it comes to the harm guns can do, women top the charts, as victims.
Domestic violence in America is to a significant degree a problem of gun violence. Over the past 25 years, more intimate partner homicides in the United States have been committed with guns than with all other weapons combined. In an average month, 50 women are shot to death by intimate partners in the U.S. America’s gun homicide rate is more than 25 times the average of other high-income countries, and more than half of all women killed by intimate partners in the U.S. are killed with guns. An analysis of gun homicide rates in developed countries—those considered “high-income” by the World Bank— found that the United States accounted for 46 percent of the population but 82 percent of the gun deaths.
In nine of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern American history the gunman had records of threatening, stalking, or physically abusing loved ones—almost always women. Boyfriends are nearly as likely as husbands to be perpetrators, according to FBI data. Every Town For Gun Safety, an advocacy group, found that 54 percent of mass shootings were connected to family violence; in fact, most mass shootings—defined as shootings of four or more people—are episodes of domestic violence. In cases where relationship can be determined, 93 percent of women were killed by someone they knew, with researchers finding that up to 80 percent of intimate partner homicides involved a couple where the man had previously physically abused the woman.
Before there were school shootings, or church shootings, or massacres at dance clubs or concerts, domestic violence was already epidemic. It occurs every day, in every class and ethnic group, everywhere. It doesn’t get “Breaking News” interruptions on TV or major headlines the way other shootings do. But it provides the reliable background, the steady beat to the more dramatic foregrounds, like Parkland.
Myself, I really don’t believe there’s “common ground” in discussions of this. I know the history of the Second Amendment, and it is clear in restricting gun ownership to a “well regulated militia.” I also know that the Amendment was inserted at the demand of the slave-holding states, to protect their local posses that hunted down escaping enslaved Africans. Nevertheless, I understand that incremental change is probably the only way this country will eventually adopt the civilized mindset of every other industrialized, advanced country on the planet, and by so doing, vastly diminish the number of guns and vastly decrease the number of deaths.
There are so many things that could be done. One recent suggestion by Andrew Ross Sorkin, who covers economics for The New York Times, has already gained traction. He proposed that the finance industry—credit card companies like Visa, MasterCard and American Express, credit card processors like First Data; and banks like Chase and Wells Fargo—refuse to allow their services to be used for the sale of firearms. He noted that PayPal, Square, Stripe, and Apple Pay announced years ago that they would not allow their services to be used to buy firearms. Just within the past few days, starting with the Bank of Omaha severing its credit card association with the National Rife Association, we’ve seen a gathering momentum as car rental companies, hotel chains, and other businesses, in response to consumer emails and tweets and letters and calls, have ended their own NRA affiliations.
Then there’s the 1996 so-called Lautenberg amendment, named for the senator who proposed the bill—that those who commit violence against their own families should lose their Second Amendment rights forever; it passed almost unanimously in the Senate in 1996. It needs updating, since it covered only batterers who lived with their spouses or had children with them. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minnesota) has introduced a bill, cosponsored by Representative Debbie Dingle (D., Michigan), that would close some of the loopholes, would include current and former dating partners, and would strengthen laws to keep guns away from those convicted of stalking. Justice Department statistics show that 76 percent of women killed by their partners had been stalked before their deaths.
Extreme-risk protection orders could make a huge difference. Extreme-risk orders allow law-enforcement agencies and immediate family members to petition the court to temporarily prohibit a person’s access to firearms by showing he is a danger to himself and others. That seems mere commonsense. Oregon just this past week approved this law. Twenty-two states and Washington DC have laws that go beyond the federal limits for restraining orders, and their rate of partner homicide with firearms has dropped 14 percent. Four of those states prohibit gun possession by anyone convicted of a violent misdemeanor regardless of the victim’s relationship to the offender—and this has led to a 23 percent drop in intimate partner homicides. In Connecticut, a recent study found that over a 14 year period, extreme-risk protection orders prevented one suicide for every 10 to 20 guns seized; in other words, these orders could affect not only family violence but suicides and broader mass shootings as well.
Blaming this shoot ‘em up culture all on mental ill health is, well . . . crazy. Americans are not more mentally unstable than populations of other countries (although some days I confess I have my doubts about that). It’s just that we’ve allowed the NRA to control one of our two great parties for far too long. So while amping up the pressure on Congress—and making damned sure we flip Congress this fall—why not take our demonstrations and pressure to the source? Why not stage picket lines and rallies and die-ins round the clock at NRA headquarters itself?
Their address is conveniently displayed right on their website: National Rifle Association of America, 11250 Waples Mill Road, Fairfax, Virginia. What a perfect place for the executives and lobbyists, day after day, to hear chants of “Hey hey, NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” and “Hey hey, NRA, how many women did you kill today?”
It’s a teeth-gnashing decision when major news breaks just as you’re on deadline with another story, but if you don’t somehow squeeze the latest in, a whole week will have elapsed before you can address it.
As I began writing this blog post, news broke about the Florida high school shooting, and also about the indictments of 13 Russians for infiltrating our social media and affecting our electoral process in 2016. I’ll return to my original planned subject below, but first:
In the wake of the latest school shooting, I realize that I actually have nothing left to say after so many repetitions of this murder-by-political-cowardice-and-gun-culture, nothing except a list of words this country is now sickened by: thoughts and prayers, hugs, trauma, healing, grief counseling, memorials, closure, politicize—and National Rifle Association. Last year there were 18 school shootings in total around the world. This Florida tragedy is the 18th school shooting in the United States since January 1, and we’re only halfway through February. The hypocrisy rises like a stench from Republicans in Congress, Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, and victim-blaming Trump, as they express sympathy while doing everything to further the proliferation of guns in this country. The students are now organizing for their very lives, and they vow they’ll forge a different future for this country, a prophecy that is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. But they can’t vote yet; that’s up to us. On this and so many other issues, people, we have got to flip Congress this fall.
Then there’s the Special Counsel investigation’s latest proof of how crucial Mueller’s work is. It’s laid out in the new indictment in painstaking detail: how Russian operatives spent an impressive $1 million a month budget to flood Facebook with anti-Hillary agitprop, particularly in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the very swing states HRC would later lose. The surprises, though, included learning that the Russians actually had boots on the ground, touring the US, organizing Tump rallies, and fomenting attendance at and Hillary-hatred during rallies for Senator Bernie Sanders and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. (Am I the only one who remembers that the photo of Mike Flynn sitting at a banquet table with Putin also unnervingly shows Jill Stein at the same table?) But it was no surprise that Trump, tweeting out from his megalomaniacal universe, ignored this “incontrovertible proof“ that the Russians attacked the US in “an act of war,” as his National Security Advisor General McMaster put it; instead, he was busy raining tweets with his “no collusion” mantra. Not a word about the nation having been attacked. This is equivalent to the president/commander in chief responding to Peal Harbor by saying, “Well, don’t look at me! My yacht was sailing down the coast!”
Mr. Mueller, we know you’re being meticulous, and we predict that you’ll deliver the truths that will save us—a wishful prophecy on which we stake the Republic. But hurry up, please hurry up.
So back to what I had originally planned for today’s blog. You may have read or heard that journalist Joshua Green, author of a book on Steve Bannon, watched the Golden Globes ceremony on TV with Bannon, hoping to come away with some interesting new quotes by him for a forthcoming paperback edition. He sure got them. As the men watched the awards show—with women wearing black in solidarity with the MeToo movement and Oprah Winfrey getting sustained applause for her speech about Time’s Up, Bannon couldn’t contain himself.
“It’s a Cromwell moment!” Bannon reportedly exclaimed, “It’s even more powerful than populism. It’s deeper. It’s primal. It’s elemental. The long black dresses and all that—this is the Puritans! It’s anti-patriarchy. If you rolled out a guillotine they’d chop off every set of balls in the room. You watch. The time has come. Women are going to take charge of society. And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch. This is a definitional moment in the culture. It’ll never be the same going forward . . . The anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo 10,000 years of recorded history.”
Later, watching the State of the Union speech with Bloomberg Views reporter Michael Lewis, Bannon went on another rave: “The top seven stories today are all guys getting blown up— and these are not small guys. I think it’s like the Tea Party, only bigger. It’s not just Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement! Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real!”
Well, well, well.
Now, first we must leave aside the Cromwell reference, which is pretentious and inaccurate whether referring to Thomas or Oliver. Next, we must leave aside the Puritan reference, a dreary cliché of a simile trotted out whenever women insist on being regarded as more than inflatable sex dolls existing for men’s pleasure—and which is also a false portrayal of the original Puritan (and Pilgrim) communities, who were not anti-sex but were pro-egalitarian; he even gets the color of their attire wrong: women wore gray, men wore black, as a sign of equality and a rejection of superficiality. In other words, we must ignore whatever pretends to be historical fact in Bannon’s reported statements and focus only on his opinions; if we do that, they’re rather perceptive quotes.
Of course, it’s also necessary to leave aside Bannon’s solipsistic egotism that assumes the singular fixation of the world’s women is with his and other men’s testicles, because his belief that they dangle at the center of the cosmos is, frankly, one no woman shares. On the contrary, the preoccupation many men have about their genitalia is a source of bewilderment to women, and of pity (how awkward it would be to have one’s ovaries drooping outside one’s body!); sometimes, it must be confessed, women even find this a subject of considerable merriment, even hilarity.
But generally, women aren’t into real or symbolic castration the way that men and patriarchal traditions are. For instance, I’m encouraged by a new feminist movement of women in Conservative Judaism, women who are not circumcising their sons. This parallels an American trend since the 1970s against universal newborn circumcision. That to me rather barbaric and traumatizing rite, based on Abraham’s mythic Biblical almost-sacrifice of Isaac, was thought at one point to reduce some sexually transmitted and/or urinary tract infections—until scientists pointed out that simple improved hygiene would solve that. After all, you could say the same thing about ears as sites for possible infection, but no one is suggesting amputating ears. Personally, I’ve always been a bit mystified by some feminists who campaign against FGM (female genital mutation) yet circumcise their sons for religious reasons or under their husband’s pressure. Ah, the power of religion, and of family peace-making . . . at what cost!
But back to Steve Bannon. Let’s not forget that he was an early Trump-regime harbinger of guys into domestic violence. There’s so much awful about the Trumpists that fresh horrors avalanche in daily and we forget the old ones buried underneath. Bannon was charged in February 1996 with domestic violence, battery, and attempting to dissuade a victim from reporting a crime. The case was dropped when his (second) wife, Mary Louise Piccard, didn’t show up in court. In court records, Piccard later claimed that Bannon ordered her to leave town to avoid testifying. She said he told her that “if I went to court he and his attorney would make sure I would be the one who was guilty.” Bannon’s lawyer, she said, threatened her, telling her that if Bannon went to jail, “I would have no money and no way to support the children.” Piccard said that she complied, fleeing with the two children “until his attorney phoned me and told me I could come back.” The couple divorced shortly afterwards. Reportedly, Bannon had been angered by Piccard’s having enrolled their children in a kindergarten that also accepted Jewish children. It fits neatly with his anti-Semitism. It all fits.
I could write a book about why some men are so pathologically insecure about the possible loss of their manliness as to think it will be restored by committing violence against women. Then again, I’ve already written that book, The Demon Lover: The Roots of Terrorism, so why repeat myself? Instead, I’ll address the one statement in Bannon’s recent wail of fear that is correct.
The uprising of women in this country is like the tea party, only bigger. It is bigger than populism. What’s more, it’s global.
A truism known to students of history is that at moments of accelerated change, only adversaries really comprehend the truth about each other. For example, during the Civil Rights movement, we foot-soldiers discovered that in many ways it was easier to deal with the honest racism of Southern whites than the masked hostility of Northern liberals. You knew where you stood. On the other hand, hostile Southerners recognized that an empowered population of people of color threatened their white supremacy in lasting and important ways, whereas Northern whites denied that but sensed it nonetheless. Similarly, albeit through his own fog of penile obsession, woman-hater Bannon senses what’s coming.
It’s been coming for a long, long time. The great cathedral of Chartres was built over centuries, with generations of stonemasons and artisans living, laboring, and dying, on its scaffolds, each contributing one small part of the great work from 857 CE through the 19th Century. Building a movement to change consciousness takes even more time. Building a movement from the smothered and suffocated voices of half the human species takes millennia. Building a movement through collecting and connecting similarities from the vast array of differences plus enforced separations among half of humanity takes time. Only with sufficient progress established to make possible the emergence of feminist historians willing to dig for unbiased truths would we learn about early matrilineal and matriarchal societies and the patriarchal overthrow and eradication of them. Only then could we uncover truths about the waves of erasure and recurrence of revolts in every culture on earth: the convent rebellions and Beguine movement in Medieval Europe, the women who fought back during three Inquisitions, the Dahomean Amazons in Africa, the 12th Century harem revolts in what is now Turkey, the 40 armies of 2500 women each fighting for women’s rights during the 1851 Tai Ping rebellion in China. And so much more.
And always it was complicated, because women also had to fight for our children, usually first.
And always it was complicated, because women also had to fight for our men, usually first. Only then could we risk fighting for ourselves—even, if necessary, against those same men.
Sometimes, the task has felt so overwhelming that women dared not acknowledge it in its enormity. But a few in each generation have glimpsed it. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, 19th-Century suffragist, wrote, “Do we fully understand that we aim at nothing less than an entire subversion of the present order of society, a dissolution of the whole existing social compact?”
So Steve Bannon is actually correct about something for the first time in his brutal, pathetic life. You watch. We will no longer let them shoot down our children in our schools and streets. This is out to undo 10,000 years of patriarchal history. We will no longer suffer the beatings, the broken bones, hearts, minds, spirits. It will never be the same going forward. We will no longer tolerate their corruption of our democracy. Women are going to take charge of society.
I have been virtually inarticulate with anger, nauseated with rage, over the revelations that Rob Porter, White House secretary and special aide to White House Chief of Staff Marine General John Kelley, had a long history of apparent violence against women.
A former wife. Two ex-wives, in fact. Two ex-wives plus a former girlfriend. As I write this, news breaks that a fourth woman may have come forward.
I’ve been so livid over this, and over the White House reaction, that I couldn’t find my way “in” to write about it. So many, too many, elements of disgust. Some commentators focused on Porter’s lack of a security clearance despite his handling of the most sensitive classified documents—because the FBI wouldn’t grant clearance to a man with a history of such violence. We now know the White House knew about Porter months ago. This man is now dating Hope Hicks, a former fashion model who is now “communications director.” (en garde, Hope Hicks!)
Then there was the Orrin Hatch angle, since Porter had once served as an aide to Hatch. The seemingly senile senator from Utah, who is nothing if not consistent, earned his first national notoriety for denouncing women who tell the truth with Anita Hill; now he leapt in to attack the women who came forward in the Porter case, without knowing them, the details, or anything—except that Porter was a Mormon and an excellent man of great integrity. (The wives were Mormon, too—but sequential, not concurrent.) The Church of Latter-Day Saints has been suddenly silent on this scandal. At least Hatch followed his gushy statement on Porter with the cautionary hedge “I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence is any form is abhorrent and unacceptable.” That statement from Hatch looks almost feminist compared to Trump’s.
Trump, when he finally said anything at all, focused sympathetically on Porter, with not one word about the women or even a general statement condemning domestic violence. Expectable, after all, since Trump has previously expressed sympathy for and belief in the “innocence” of Roy Moore (child sexual abuse), Corey Lewandowski (physically attacking a female reporter), both Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (former CEO and anchor of FoxNews, respectively; serial sexual harassment and serial sexual assault), former President Bill Clinton (when under impeachment for lying about his abuse of Monica Lewinsky); and even Mike Tyson (who served prison time for rape). Trump himself has been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by at least 22 women, and infamously bragged about himself as a sexual predator—on tape.
But then there’s John Kelly, once regarded as the “grown up” who could control Trump, who turned out to be as staunch a bigot and liar as the worst member of his co-worker menagerie. Kelly, who lamented publicly that when he was growing up “women were held sacred,” who then proceeded to lie about and attack Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D. FL), with racist and sexist insults for which he has never apologized, despite his accusations having been publicly proven inaccurate on every count. Kelly really went to the mat for his buddy Rob Porter, praising Porter’s integrity, denouncing women who would “smear him,” and refusing to believe such accusers. This, despite one ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, having obtained a restraining order on Porter, and the other ex-wife, Colbie Holderness, having presented a photo of her battered face with a swollen black eye courtesy of Porter. When the picture of her pulped flesh went public, Kelly was forced to backtrack and claim shock—but leaks from inside the White House noted that Kelly had known all along and, once the story broke, still tried to keep Porter from resigning. As of this writing, although Porter has formally resigned, he still is working at the White House, and still without security clearance. Both Kelly and Porter should be ridden out of town on a rail—Kelly en route to a dishonorable discharge and Porter en route to prison.
On the heels of all this came yet another departure, Trump speechwriter David Sorenson, whose ex-wife, Jessica Corbett, told FBI agents doing their background check of him that during their marriage he had run over her foot with their car and extinguished a cigarette on her hand during an argument.
Both Porter and Sorensen had been pressuring their ex-wives to lie to the FBI and not divulge what happened in their marriages. In other words, both men pressured their wives to commit a Federal crime.
Well, you see my problem. I ramble, I repeat what you probably already know, I careen from one aspect of this to another. I babble with fury about these cruel, controlling men, and about the White House response to survivors who are speaking clearly of having endured verbal, psychological, emotional, and physical violence.
So I decided simply to let one of the women speak for me—and for herself. On April 24, 2017, Jennifer Willoughby wrote a blog about her marriage to Rob Porter, but did not name him. She wrote about their relationship with such scalding honesty, detailing the intimate outlines of her suffering in such a classic description of domestic violence that there is no possibility she hadn’t learned those particular stations of the cross from his having carved them into her flesh. Porter called her last year when he was hoping to join the Trump regime, and demanded she take down her blog posts. Nevertheless, these are her words.
The first time he called me a “fucking bitch” was on our honeymoon. (I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.) A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. We bought a house to make up for it. Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.
Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real. And yet I stayed.
When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career. And so I kept my mouth shut and stayed. I was told, yes, he was deeply flawed, but then again so was I. And so I worked on myself and stayed. If he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would have been easier to leave. But he could be kind and sensitive. And so I stayed. He cried and apologized. And so I stayed. He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling sessions and therapy groups. And so I stayed. He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence. And so I stayed. I felt ashamed and trapped. And so I stayed. Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed. I was pregnant. And so I stayed. I lost the pregnancy and became depressed. And so I stayed.
Jennifer Willoughby finally chose not to stay. She chose to live. She left Rob Porter.
The day after the Porter story broke, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D. CA), took to the floor of the US House of Representatives to speak. But then she stayed.
She is 77 years old. She had been the first woman Speaker of the House in the history of this country, second in line for the Presidency, and she may well be so again. Raised to dress “like a lady,” she wore a (skirted) suit and four-inch-high heels, on which she stood, perfectly still. For 8 hours and seven minutes. She looked fragile, she spoke softly but intensely, she never raised her voice. But she stayed.
“Oh no, Mr. Speaker,“ she smiled, around the third hour. And the fifth. And the seventh. “No,” she smiled, “I’m not ready to yield the floor.”
The Senate has a filibuster procedure, but the House does not, although she invented it on the spot. She knew her parliamentary rules inside out, and she simply was availing herself of the privileges afforded to leaders of the party caucuses, she was just giving a speech, that’s all.
Except she stayed. She wouldn’t stop. It didn’t end. It went on and on. She would not yield the floor.
What did she say for more than eight hours?
She told stories about the Dreamers, the young people brought here as babies by immigrant parents desperate to come to the shining dream that was America. They had been far too young to know what was happening, but they’d grown up feeling they belong here, because this has been their only home, because in their memories they had never seen Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador, never known China or Uganda or Libya. The foods of such places tasted foreign to them, despite their parents wheedling them to “please, at least just try it!” They’d grown up on Raisin Bran and pizzas. In their memories, they’d never fled juntas or drug lords or totalitarian governments. They studied hard and worked hard and planned to become teachers and doctors, poets and painters, engineers and farmers. They were Americans. That’s what they’d thought. That’s what they’d been told when the Obama Administration created DACA: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that let them come out of the shadows and live openly, working toward full citizenship—until Trump demolished the program.
Pelosi talked about Dreamers she had met and spoken with and cried with and embraced when they trembled in terror of deportation. She read their letters, one after the other. She read their diary entries, with their permission. She read their report cards and college applications and grad school dissertation abstracts and employer references.
Probably not since the founding of this country, since the earliest convocations in that House chamber, have the words of those who fervently wanted to engage in this great experiment been so clear. In her quiet voice, Nancy Pelosi stayed on her feet, giving voice to those words.
Seventy-seven years. Eight hours. Four-inch heels. Not a single sip of water.
Her forehead became beaded with sweat. She implored the current Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, to pledge that the GOP-controlled House would in fact take up and resolve, compassionately and fairly, the status of the Dreamers. Her normally well-powdered face was shiny with exhaustion now, and slick with sweat. Her skin was gray. But not a hair was out of place. Nor did her voice waiver, nor was she ever impolite. “No, Mr. Speaker,” she smiled again, “I’m still not done yet.” And she stayed.
I’ve never forgotten that when Pelosi first took a stand for the right of a woman to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy, her Italian-American Roman Catholic mother refused to speak to her for six years. Yet she stayed with that position. I’ve also never forgotten her kind pretense that she remembers me whenever we meet.
Pelosi is as short as I am, 5 feet tall. I recognize the judicious use of added height, no matter how painful, when it’s imperative to act with power, and I know the cramping that follows, sometimes for days. But I’ve never worn four-inch-high heels for eight hours. She’s my age, too, and I doubt I could have stood that length of time in those shoes, or talked that long without one sip of water.
I have sometimes disagreed with Nancy Pelosi, who is more of a pragmatic pol then I am——my luxury, her burden. Yet watching her perform this extraordinary act was thrilling: watching her model for younger people how leadership really works, watching her embody the strength of women, the strength of old women, watching her defy both ageism and sexism, defy cynicism, even defy pragmatism for once, since the pundits immediately proclaimed, “But the speech will have no effect or real impact.” It certainly had none on the Republican members.
And as I watched her, I loved her passionately. Because she stayed. Because standing there, she embodied the last words of Susan B. Anthony: ”Failure is impossible.” Because she made me remember that though neither Nancy Pelosi nor I will live to see it, Anthony was right.
Because together, Jennifer Willoughby’s refrain and Nancy Pelosi’s actions charged the connection that lit my brain and gave me the way in, the path to write these words. Because why you choose to stay makes all the difference.
Then, realizing that, I could finally let my incoherent anger go, my resolve return, and my tears fall.
On January 22, the world lost a great writer. That word, ”great,” is tossed around like cheap confetti, but in this case it’s the unadorned truth. This country, too, lost one of its sharpest consciences, a citizen who ceaselessly reminded us that freedom was everyone’s birthright and fighting to keep it was our job, yours and mine. This writer was political in the deepest sense—not through jargon but through her own esthetic genius and the sweat of her craft.
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. She died at age 88 in Portland, Oregon, where she had lived for many decades. She’s survived by her husband of 63 years, historian, writer, and superb gardener, Charles; and their three grown children, two daughters and a son. She’s also survived by 23 novels, 12 collections of her more than 100 short stories, five books of essays, 13 books for children, nine volumes of poetry, and four books of translation, including the selected poems of Nobel Prize Literature Laureate Gabriela Mistral of Chile, and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching—a warm, sexism-free, profound rendering of the Tao. Her own works are translated into virtually every written language. Among her numerous honors are the Hugo, Nebula, and National Book Awards, PEN-Malamud, Library of Congress Living Legend, the National Book Foundation Medal, and being voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Those are the surface facts.
But if we were to rummage through, let’s say, the capacious sewing basket of her imagination, we would find a rich, orderly confusion of scraps used and reused.
She had been influenced by a happy childhood. Her parents, Theodora Kracaw and Alfred Kroeber, were intellectuals who introduced her early on to the realms of myth through James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and literature (and feminism) through the works of Virginia Woolf. The Kroebers, themselves anthropologists, became known for their ground-breaking work in making first contact with Ishi, the last survivor of the indigenous Yahi people, eradicated during the 19th Century California Genocide. In the 1920s, Ishi emerged from a Stone Age existence hiding from the modern world in the Northern California mountains. There was no one left alive who could understand his language. The Kroebers took him in and managed to learn that language. They built a special habitat for him, and he lived under the protection of this adopted family until he died of natural causes. Theodora wrote a best-selling book about him, Ishi of Two Worlds, which is still in print and deeply moving. “Ishi” means simply “man,” and was the name given to him by the Kroebers, because his tradition required him not to speak his own name until formally introduced by another Yahi—but there were none of his people left alive to do so. Naming is a signature chord in Ursula’s work; in her story “The Rule of Names”; in the Earthsea series, where knowing the true name of something or someone is to have power over them; Le Guin said more than once that if she couldn’t get the name of a character just right, she wouldn’t have the story.
Another “scrap” in this metaphorical sewing kit—creased in many folds, beautiful, worn almost to transparency—would be Ursula’s long marriage to sweet Charles Le Guin, from their first romance in Paris where both were on Fulbrights, to the closing years when they would sit in silence on their small back porch, gazing out at their large, rambling garden and beyond, to Mount Saint Helens, sipping Wild Turkey bourbon, and listening to Schubert. The current cats—there were many cats over the years, litters of scraps in themselves—would weave between the ankles of their two persons and a fortunate guest.
A wealth of scraps. Motherhood, and its complexities. Feminism: how it changed over her long life, and how it changed her. The commercialization of literature, which, along with the categorization and arbitrary ranking of different forms of writing, depending not on their quality but on their popularity, were targets of her anger lifelong. The vulnerable state of freedom, her basic theme. Her rage over what is happening right now, in the White House, in Congress, in America. A Taoist, after all, she believed it would eventually pass, if we worked at it hard enough, and she believed that writers must remember to be the keepers and propagators of freedom—as if freedom endured in contraband heirloom seeds we would need to resow through books, articles, poems, stories, blogs—in any form through which words can spread and take root.
But always the scraps reassembled into one pattern, words. The center to which all her paths led, the reason she was on this planet: writing. She wrote in every genre, spilling like white water over boundaries, furious when anyone tried to contain her. She maintained her own balance of excellence across categories. But she was undeniably at her finest as a storyteller, the greatest of her age. Her science fiction works, notably The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, are embedded in the canon of American literature. Her so-called fantasy series Earthsea, has been rightly called the heir and equal to Tolkien. Her so-called “realistic” fiction is brilliant, compassionate, severe. Her “children’s books” are sophisticated delights. Her poetry is memorable; her essays pithy, generous, wise. I’m not the only reader to feel she should have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. When asked, “But what does she really write?” by ignorant categorizers, I would tend to snap, “Literature.” She would respond to their querulous list “Sci fi? Realism? Stories? Poems? Magical realism?” with a more compact “Yes.”
We met when she graciously introduced me before a speech and poetry reading I’d been invited to give at the University of Oregon in the early 1990s. She displayed the same down-to-earth humor and honesty that illumine her words on the page. I then interviewed her on four different occasions for my radio program and podcast, “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” and I was nervous, reverent, a little awed at first; you can hear it in my voice. But as the years went on and we became friends, as we began exchanging work in manuscript and commenting on drafts, as we enjoyed long personal conversations by phone and some memorable visits in person, the fear melted away and what remained was laughter and love. “You live too far away, Robin,” she groused.
So I became another scrap, a very small one, in the sewing basket: one of her rapt readers who was privileged to be a personal friend. I loved her work. I loved her. As Yeats knew, it’s never possible to separate the dancer from the dance.
We spoke by phone not long before she died, already ailing and, as she chuckled, “So lazy now! I shuffle from room to room like an old hound dog.” She said she had gone on the Women’s March last year, and lamented being probably too tired to go this year. But the revival of grassroots activism gladdened her, as did the Me Too movement. She wanted to know what I was writing. She was working on new poems—“No more physical strength left for long forms, stories or novels.” She treasured her women’s poetry workshop group that had been meeting for years, as her goad and discipline. She sounded utterly unafraid of death.
In fact, in that last call we spoke about death, and about our mutual impatience with people who try to stay perpetually young. “Arrested development,” she snorted, and I added, joining her in irritation, “Oh, forgodssake, it’s just death, after all.” At that, she began to giggle, and her laugh was infectious. I joined in, and we laughed for maybe a full minute; later, my ribs ached.
Eleven years older than I, she was my lodestar, the intelligence I went to for advice or stern admonition, my Elder. I have no real Elders now: a lonely space. To my concern, I find that others, younger, regard me as such—as if I knew anything at all. (I suddenly see what she meant when she said that about herself.) Ursula is being eulogized now, recategorized and reclaimed and renamed: as an environmentalist, a Western writer, a fantasist, an anarchist, a “genre writer.” My turn to snort, Ha! She was all that and more. Her art—available to all of us–was a sublime visitation of imaginative consciousness, alchemized into art by craft. And her friendship was an unexpected gift. This world is a little dimmer and colder, because Ursula K. Le Guin has left the planet.
Still, as she said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” She was right, of course. As usual. But I will never be able to stop missing her, for whatever remains of my own journey.
The other journey continues, nevertheless, streaming, unstoppable—scraps, names, stories, atoms—dancing out into the multiverse, immortal: the words, the words, the living words.
Did you find yourself aghast recently, stunned by the brazen hypocrisy of “Reverend” Franklin Graham and his fellow religious-right sin-denouncers who followed their endorsements of Alabama’s Roy Moore with the bestowal of a “do-over” for their darling Donald?
These fanatics thunder hellfire threats at lesbian and gay lovers, at women who disobey, use contraception, or terminate unwanted pregnancies, at people of other faiths, agnostics, freethinkers, and nontheists. But regarding Trump’s three wives, history of sexual predation and porn stars, lies, greed, bigotries, even language? Hey, praise the lord and give the guy a Mulligan. Were you staggered by such cognitive dissonance? Even some evangelicals relocated their principles and were staggered, publicly lamenting that they had lost all credibility for a generation.
Well, stagger no more. It’s politics.
In early January, an excellent op-ed piece in The New York Times cleared my sinuses and straightened my posture. It was written by Katherine Stewart, author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right Stealth Assault on America’s Children. The piece warrants more attention. It sent me off in search of further information to trace the ripple effects of Stewart’s research.
Stewart was writing about the Museum of the Bible, which has planted its flag at the corner of 4th and D. Streets S.W. in Washington DC, a few blocks southwest of the US Capitol. The museum hosted Revolution 2017, a recent gathering of those bent on “transforming nations by igniting a holy reformation in every sphere of society.” It views itself as the “Ark of the Covenant,” as waging a long-term campaign to embed certain specific assumptions in the essence of our government, to the exclusion of all others.
For instance, last fall, Ralph Drollinger, founder and president of Capitol Ministries and a highly influential evangelical, held a training conference for 80 international associates at the museum on the topic of “creating and sustaining disciple-ship ministries to political leaders.” In his book Rebuilding America: The Biblical Blueprint, he’s quite up-front about his beliefs: social welfare programs have no basis in scripture, Christians in government have an obligation to hire only Christians, women should not be allowed to teach grown men, and the institution of the state is and must be an “avenger of wrath,” because its “God-given responsibility is to moralize a fallen world through the use of force.” Drollinger was an early, passionate supporter of Trump.
Fringe views, you think? So extreme they’re not likely to have much serious impact? Maybe you’d better sit down. Or if already sitting, lie down.
Drollinger communicates these views in weekly Bible study groups—not just to any old believers but to certain select folks. The participants in Drollinger’s Bible study groups include an outhouse full of mid-level and senior officials in the Trump regime. But the most elite Bible study group of all includes Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education; Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and Vice President Mike Pence.
Drollinger plans to institute similar groups in all 50 U.S. state capitals, and he claims to have planted 24 operations overseas, as well as hoping to create 200 ministries in 200 foreign federal capitals. His group was invited to found such a ministry in Belarus in 2015, and his wife Danielle attended as a representative of the museum. She promised the attendees that the museum’s Bible curriculum would soon be translated into Russian.
If their blueprint strikes you as a plan for turning Meg Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from fiction to breaking news, understand that you are not paranoid, and that none of this is coincidental or accidental. Steve Green, the museum’s founder, is also president of the Hobby Lobby Crafts Store chain. Surprise! This is the man who became an extreme-right-wing hero thanks to the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court who, in 2014, gifted Hobby Lobby with the unconstitutional right to withhold federally mandated reproductive healthcare coverage from its female employees. The museum’s donor wall also boasts a dozen or more foundations from the militant Christian right, including scads of Amway money, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. (Has anyone mounted a boycott of Amway, by the way?)
So are you now glimpsing why Donald Trump gets a “do over” for his sins? After all, Cindy Jacobs, a leading figure of charismatic Christianity, predicts that “Trump will be seated and mantled with the power of God.” Cindy also describes the museum as “God’s base camp.”
Now perhaps your brain, frantically trying to steer out of having braked and skidded into a spin on the verge of a flip over, is trying to reassure your pounding heart that this well-financed, carefully plotted strategy is nevertheless incapable of corrupting the multiple layers of law and government our Framers deliberately established as pluralistic and secular. Well, your brain needs to steer faster.
Gretchen Borchelt of The National Women’s Law Center has already sounded more than one alarm: “This administration is focused on recognizing one set of religious beliefs. It’s going to do whatever it can to violate or reshape the law to do that.” Example: Deanna Wallace of Americans United for Life has said how “it’s so encouraging to have The Department of Health and Human Services on our side this time!” “On our side” is an understatement. Charmaine Yoest, former head of Americans United for Life, is now the top spokesperson at HHS; she steers the agency’s messaging. Example: Roger Severino, a Christian-right, anti-choice lawyer who now runs the HHS Office of Civil Rights, has created a “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division to establish new protections allowing health-care workers with objections to abortion to opt out of this Constitutionally protected, federally mandated procedure. Example: Matthew Bowman, now HHS deputy general counsel, is helping to roll back the same birth-control protections that he once argued against before the Supreme Court. Example: Valerie Huber, an advocate for sex-abstinence education to replace contraceptive information, is an emerging power in overseeing HHS Title X programs, which (used to?) include funding for contraception care.
Meanwhile, over at the Department of Homeland Security, we find Frank Wuco, senior adviser with a direct line to the White House. Wuco is executive director of DHS’s Executive Order Task Force, which was organized to implement Trump’s Muslim travel ban. He’s also a birther who believes President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and he has a long, foul history of anti-Muslim remarks, including his certainty that every Muslim is out to humiliate and destroy Christians. Wuco has also declared all same-sex lovers “faggots.”
I could continue, U.S. agency after agency, but I want you to steer your brain out of that skid safely instead of intentionally crashing yourself into the nearest brick wall in despair. Instead, check out the current state of struggle against this terrifyingly rich and organized extreme religious right by supporting organizations with a commitment to pluralism and to the separation of church and state—organizations that fight this American Taliban every day, with lawsuits, education campaigns, lobbying efforts, and apparently inexhaustible courage. My favorite (for its wit, and its strong feminist bent) is The Freedom From Religion Foundation. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Paine, were they alive today, would be proud to be supporters. You can find more resources in my book Fighting Words: A Tool Kit for Combating the Religious Right.
And if you’re feeling strong enough to see for yourself, next time you’re in Washington DC, why not stop in at the museum and leave some kind of . . . message in the guestbook?
This weekend, the Trumpists shut down the U.S. government, but the people were on the move. Women and also men of conscience across this country and the world celebrated the first anniversary of the Women’s March, the demonstration that, in part because it took place just as Trump ascended office, was the single largest protest in the history of this country—and possibly the planet. But last Tuesday, a front-page article in The New York Times by Farah Stockman reported fractures in the Women’s March action plans. Women’s March Inc. (yes, they’re now incorporated, probably for fund-raising purposes), the high-profile group formed by organizers of last year’s Washington DC event, have since then focused on national actions, while women across the country have been mobilizing locally, with their emphasis on this fall’s elections—particularly those in red and purple states.
Now at first, months back, I naively thought What’s the problem? Think global, act local! So I kept my silence, not wanting to feed any rumored divisions. But now, The New York Times front page. Oh dear. Time to speak up.
So, full disclosure: I admit to having wished Women’s March, Inc. hadn’t spent time and energy on yet another national conference, and my teeth did grind when they invited Sanders, but not Hillary, to be a major speaker. But lots of feminists made it known that their teeth were grinding, and the well-meaning organizers had the grace to back away from that invitation. I also admit to having quietly supported behind-the-scenes feminist advisers to Women’s March Inc., in urging them not to mount the Day Without Women, known as the women’s strike. To ignore history is to repeat it. A number of countries including our own have tried less than successfully (with the exception of Iceland) to mount such strikes. For one thing, women won’t just walk out on their kids; for another, striking is a impossible luxury for women in low-paying jobs—which means most women.
Well, okay, so Women’s March organizers made some mistakes. That’s normal. But they had pulled off something huge. So then they basked a little in being honored on magazine covers and by women’s groups, then got some flak for that, then felt wounded by the flak considering that they had been working until their eyeballs bled, so then got defensive. I really do understand, having played every position along that progression, and only wish there were some better way to download experience without sounding like a preachy feminist Elder.
Meanwhile, back at the grassroots, activism has been spreading like kudzu, and I tell you: it makes my heart sing. Isn’t this what we wanted to happen? Unlike the organizers of Women’s March Inc., who had experience with mostly progressive groups other than feminist groups, the newbies in Mobile, Alabama, and Oklahoma City, and Berea, Kentucky, had formed local women’s marching groups and, working with tools from Indivisible.org, have in the past year protested at town-hall meetings, demonstrated for abortion rights, sat in at local congressional offices, and rung doorbells to defeat Roy Moore in Alabama. Some of them are planning to run for office or already running.
But then they found themselves unwelcome to advertise their events on the Women’s March Inc. website. So these women all over the country networked and formed another group, also interracial and inter-everything else, called March On, online at WeAreMarchOn.org. (This is not to be confused with MoveOn.org—a generally progressive but not particularly feminist group. All these folks could use some help with clarity in naming). Amber Selman-Lynn, who organized last year’s march in Mobile, used online tools from March On, then learned she had to reprint her banner to satisfy Women’s March Inc. She was quoted saying, “It’s kind of silly. We are clearly the women’s march in Mobile.” And Lindsey Kanaly, who organized last year’s march in Oklahoma City, said, “We can march and yell about all the stuff we want to change, but unless we’re getting people elected to office who are going to make those changes we’re not really doing anything.” She’s now a March On board member.
Women’s March Inc., and March On or WeAreMarchOn.org . . . oh good grief, let’s just term them Inc. and Org for shorthand, OK?
Well, the response from Inc. did not quite glow with feminist diplomacy. Their patronizing statement said they wanted to “welcome the group [Org] to the Resistance”—uh oh—but “wanted to make sure groups have distinct branding and messaging that is specific to them and doesn’t appear as if it is directly women’s march related.” Owwww. Male-movement central-committee-style rhetoric, with a dash of corporate lingo to boot. So Org—the March On women—responded, rather humbly admitting that most of them had never done this before and they needed all the help they could get, but also noting that they knew their own communities, and that Inc. often used its powerful platform for issues and actions that didn’t necessarily work in their neighborhoods. The women’s general strike, for example, fell flat where women depend on hourly wages and have no union protections. (Tried to tell ya that, Inc.) In Oatmeal, Texas–you read that correctly–Melissa Fierro, who organized 100,000 people last year in Austin, feels that the goal of promoting peace in Syria is perhaps a wee bit less attainable by this autumn than promoting candidates for local office who support a woman’s right to choose, which is constantly under assault in Texas. She’s now with Org (March On).
Some Inc people went a tad MeanGirl and criticized Org as “an ill-conceived attempt at cooptation,” although it could be argued it’s the other way around, with Inc picking up their Power to the Polls voting emphasis from Org. But a good idea is a good idea—let it free!
However. It must be admitted that Inc really did blow it with our sisters to the north. Canadians had held marches in solidarity with us last year, but then were (not surprisingly) furious when New York-based Inc. registered the name Women’s March Canada and appointed a board—all without consulting them. Oh wow. Hurts my heart. Being Canadians, they wrote a nice protest letter, still urging solidarity and unity. But after getting no response, even Canadians get cranky, so they went militant Mountie, renamed themselves March on Canada, and created the hashtag #DontTrademarkTheMovement. They are now affiliated with WeAreMarchOn.org.
All this sadly reminds me of a group of French women who decades ago tried to copyright the name Mouvement des Liberation des Femmes, and then sued other groups who used it. They did not end up well and are remembered, if at all, wincingly, avec merde.
No one asked me, but if they had, this Elder would beg the Women’s March Inc. people to please not repeat the same proprietary mistakes of some earlier feminists. (In 1968, certain activists were appalled that hundreds of excited new women showed up at previously small-group meetings after the first Miss America Pageant Protest made news. Why? Because the activists didn’t yet have action plans to tell those women what to do. “Those women” managed quite nicely building a women’s movement without top-down orders, thank you. ) So I would say please follow the wise example of Indivisible.org, and don’t try to control the enormous energy out there right now. Forget optics, branding, and messaging. You already have access and press and funding, so just equip people with information and solid how-to organizing tools. They’ll do the rest. They know their own issues and what works best in their communities. Especially, for godsake, do not be condescending to activists in other countries, apparently having learned little from the past-50-year effort to build global feminism and instead being perceived as acting like ugly Americans.
Listen, Inc. sisters. I know you’re good-hearted women, and I know you’re exhausted from sustaining last year’s miracle, that you initiated. I know you understandably feel resented and unappreciated, and perhaps now panicked that things so swiftly grew beyond your control. But your success last year was truly historic, and it was based on inclusiveness, remember?—so don’t let the glitz and hoopla go to your otherwise intelligent heads. Please remember, too, that “class differences” are not just an abstract Marxian concept to toss around with unproductive guilt or unproductive anger, that in practice the Org women are working their butts off with little or no funding, press, or “optics”—although when you have their energy-levels of vision, pissed-offness, and elbow grease, to hell with branding and messaging.
I’d also say, to the Org women, Go For It! But please don’t blame New York for these problems of perceived arrogance; I live in New York but know from experience, with the scars to show for it, that to organize in Kentucky and Oklahoma and everywhere else you are is frontline feminism, real Women’s Movement leadership.
The good news is that none of this apparently dampened enthusiasm for demonstrations this weekend. Most people don’t know or care how many devils of division dance on the head of a pin. Also, most movement schisms are not only ho hum predictable—grrrrrls, you don’t want to be a cliché—but in time groups grow up and inch grudgingly back toward each other, at least in the Feminist Movement. Perspective is one benefit of age.
For those of you who are unaffiliated and ecumenical, just keep in mind both links: WomensMarch.com, and WeAreMarchOn.org. Or start your own. The more the merrier. Don’t be afraid to split off to work freely because you can then always work in coalition. We have serious save-the-world work ahead of us, and not a moment to waste on picking at each other. This time, women are leading the revolution, so we damned well have to do a better job than the guys ever have.
Personally, I have to admit: I really do sympathize with my New York-based sisters—but my money’s on the women of Oatmeal, Texas.
The misuse of language induces evil in the soul. That’s a statement attributed to Socrates, and you may have heard or read me quoting it before. It bears repeating.
The etymology of the English word “language” tells quite a story. It stems from the Old French langage: “speech, words, oratory; a tribe, people, nation”; from the Latin vulgate linguaticum, from Latin lingua: “tongue,” also “speech, language,” from the pre-Indo-European root dnghu– “tongue.” Interesting how closely related it is to “tribe” or “people,” isn’t it? You are what you say.
The ultra-right’s assault on language has escalated to a linguistic battle–now being waged even across official Washington—in an attempt to shift public perception of key policies by changing the way the federal government talks and writes about climate change, scientific evidence, disadvantaged communities, and other issues.
Surely we remember George Orwell’s chilling novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the totalitarian state’s mottos were “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery.” Many of us recall the real-life motto posted above the gates to Dachau, the Nazi extermination camp, to disguise it as a “labor camp”: Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free). And we’re already accustomed to consistent violence against words practiced by Fox News and other Murdoch owned media that refer, for example, to distinguished special counsel Robert Muller as a traitor, that denounce any investigation of Trump campaign conspiracies with the Russians as a “left-wing coup.” The playbook must be “accuse the other of what you are actually doing yourself.”
But now it’s a battle in official Washington. The CDC—The Centers for Disease Control–received a list of forbidden words, including diversity and fetus (for the latter, apparently “unborn human” would be preferred). In some instances, the CDC was brazenly told alternative phrases to use. Instead of evidence-based or science based, the preferred phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”
Think about that one.
How about “The CDC bases its recommendations about drinking rat poison on science in consideration with community standards and wishes of the pesticide industry”?
At the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), employees are being instructed to “avoid such words as vulnerable, entitlement, and”— there it is again—“diversity” when they are preparing requests for the 2019 budget. That is, “except when the terms are referenced within a legal citation or part of a title”— which are hilarious exceptions when you dwell on them. Agencies under HHS include the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health Care Research, and Medicare and Medicaid, among others. Oh yes, and also the medical standards for all hospitals in the nation. Feeling ill, are you?
Health and Human Services spokesman Matt Lloyd confirmed that agency officials made such recommendations but claimed they didn’t ban any words outright or formally prohibit employees from using certain phrases. Instead, Lloyd claimed that employees had “misconstrued guidelines provided during routine discussions.” But HHS career officers said the message was clear. A group of 315 public health organizations also sought an explanation regarding the CDC word list, declaring: ”As the nation’s premier public health agency, the CDC cannot carry out its mission of improving the health and safety of all Americans when its staff are urged to avoid using basic phrases intrinsic to public health.”
But what if health is being defined by subjectively determined “legality”? Late last summer, the office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a “core language guidance document” to employees and contractors, with a column of words and phrases to avoid alongside a column of acceptable alternatives. The document recommends using “all youth” instead of “underserved youth,” referring to crime as a “public issue/public concern” rather than a “public health issue/public health concern,” and describing young people who commit crimes as “offenders” rather than “system-involved or justice-involved youths.” The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, also orders avoidance of the term “substance abuse disorder” in favor of “substance abuse issues.” This runs in blatant opposition to efforts by medical experts to cast substance abuse as a disease, but is to “better reflect Justice Department priorities.”
The Justice Department’s move to censor the discussion about juvenile justice has alarmed advocates, who note that only referring to youths who have committed crimes as offenders ignores the fact they are still legally minors and literally children. But the new emphasis is already having an impact. In 2016, solicitation for proposals to provide mentoring to child victims of sex trafficking specifically cited LGBTQ youths, who make up a significant portion of the trafficked population. But in 2017 a similar solicitation for proposals contained no such mention.
As for climate change? That’s been a linguistic minefield. References to it have been purged repeatedly at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and at the Department of the Interior. The term “climate change” has been banished from 2019 budget discussions across all departments. One small example of the trickle-down effect: a Colorado College environmental science professor was to teach an “introduction to global climate change” class at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument—but then was informed he would have to revise his syllabus because it had to be sent to the National Park Service climate change office in Fort Collins for review and the NPS had been told climate change must not be part of the message. The professor threatened to pull out and tell the press, but his hosts ultimately relented and he continued with his class. Nevertheless, climate-related documents continue to vanish from the Department of the Interior website. The links to 92 National Parks climate action plans have been totally erased.
Barry Bennett, a GOP consultant who advised Trump doing his campaign, says, ”The administration correctly understands that they are battling a hostile bureaucracy.” Well, let’s hear it for a hostile, gutsy bureaucracy that refuses to substitute fiction for fact, that knows words matter.
Speaking of which, as I was writing this blog post, news broke over Trump’s appalling comments about, well basically, every country with a largely black or brown population—although he made a point of singling out Haiti, Central America, and all 54 nations on the African continent. That should no longer surprise us, coming from him. What’s surprising is that it got leaked, verbatim. What’s surprising is that the TV news and the print press quoted the remarks verbatim. What’s surprising is that some Democratic senators, notably Dick Durban of Illinois, and sort of one or two Republicans, including Haitian American Congresswoman Mia Love of Utah, flatly denounced his statements as racism. But what’s shocking—and literally nauseating—is how many Republican elected officials and spokespeople are daring to argue that “this doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is a racist.” My god, what will it take?