All eyes on the prize: the midterm elections. It’s time to get practical.
A shift of fewer than 80,000 votes in three states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—would have made Hillary Rodham Clinton president (as the overall popular vote did, but never mind). That’s a shockingly small margin, leaving aside the issue of the Electoral College, which I’ll take up in a future post here. Remember that less than 80,000 number when someone tells you voting really won’t matter because there’ll be foreign intervention, or political conspiracies will rig it, or it’s all a lost cause anyway.
But we do face serious threats to our crucial fall elections. The American election system is actually made up of 50 different state-run elections, each with its own unique voting process, and each state has several procedures potentially vulnerable to interference, foreign and domestic. That somewhat chaotic system is the bad news. But that same individualized arrangement is good news: hackers and other disrupters have to devise 50 different means of doing their dirty work. U.S. intelligence agencies have definitively concluded (and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee strongly agreed) that Russia tried to throw our 2016 elections and might have succeeded. Electronic technology is responsible for most of these problems, though not all; election-tampering can take many forms.
We need to educate and protect ourselves, since the Trump regime has deliberately done nothing toward either. So here we go.
Generally speaking, if you can keep your registration and voting procedures solidly on paper, you are safer—but that’s not possible once you’ve cast your vote. Journalist Shannon Vavra of Axios compiled a list of the potential points of failure, and with thanks to her, I share it here.
Registration interfaces: When you enter your voter registration information online, any vulnerability on your devices could expose that information to potential bad actors. (Only your individual data should be at risk.)
Voter registration databases: Security measures like firewalls and physical network separation can protect these data troves, but no firewall is foolproof.
Electronic poll books: E-poll books are the electronic version of the books of voter records that poll workers refer to on Election Day at voting locations. In some instances, e-poll books can send live updates back to the county or state offices using active network connections. If the security on those networks fails, the information could be exposed.
Printed poll books: Some counties print their poll books using third-party printers, according to Maurice Turner, senior technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology. That could expose this part of the process to the Internet if the third party has weak security protocols or other vulnerabilities.
Voting machines: At DEFCON last year, hackers demonstrated that they could break into any voting machine with wireless connectivity or a USB port.
*In theory, it would be difficult to exploit the vulnerabilities physically, because someone would likely notice this kind of tampering. But it’s not unusual for people to take their time in a voting booth, and election officials can’t and shouldn’t observe every move voters make.
*Electronic vote tabulation: This can require data from electronic ballots to be transferred to an Election Management System (EMS). Any of the methods used to do that—USB sticks, email, or other Internet transfer—can expose the data to tampering if not properly secured.
*Optical scan vote tabulation: Scanners often tabulate paper records of votes, like a standardized test. But in some cases, these scanners may be rented from third-party vendors, which means they might have been exposed to tampering or bad security there.
*Election management systems: These systems, used in different locales to tabulate and store voting results, may be at risk of exposure to the internet as well, depending on the jurisdiction’s security protocols.
*Absence of paper trails: Most of these vulnerabilities are deepened by the lack of paper backups to electronic election systems. In five states—Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Delaware—there are no paper records of votes, and the paper record is spotty in nine others: Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi. If you live in one of the above-listed 14 states, you should raise a bit of hell, and you might consider voting via absentee paper ballot, although there’s no guarantee that your ballot won’t be scanned electronically after it arrives.
*Last, risks from human error, confusion, and doubt. Mistakes introduced through human error aren’t likely to affect an election outcome if they happen at a small scale. But they can add to the confusion in the context of other simultaneous efforts to undermine public trust in elections or to create chaos, and an adversary can still claim responsibility. This tactic—experts call it a “blended attack”—can cause as much disruption and doubt as direct interference. Most of what the Russians in 2016 did was probe voter registration records—and that still sparked a national debate.
What to do, then? Warning: it’s work. Like women, communities of color, immigrant communities, and disabled and elderly citizens, now none of us dare take our enfranchisement for granted anymore.
For starters, you can find out more regarding the above list. You want to know what systems are used for where you are and what if any are the paper trails for registration and for balloting; if third parties are contracted for voting machines, scanners, or electronic voting, and if so what are their security guarantees. You want to find out about disability-accessible polling places, information about early voting and absentee voting, about registration and voting for military and civilians abroad, and about how to volunteer as a poll worker.
Join or start a local group; divide up tasks; and start sleuthing. You have a right to ask what your local and state officials are doing to protect your vote. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, organize online petitions, campaign to attract press attention, and pester your mayors, governors, secretaries of state, legislators, and election officials.
Despite White House inaction, some of those blessed bureaucrats who actually care about their work in government agencies are already on the case—as are many city, state, and national nongovernmental groups. Here are resources for learning the current status of cyber threats and other election interference regarding your vote.
All states, and many cities as well, have their own voter guides. I urge you to spend an hour on your favorite search engine checking this out. It’s spine stiffening, too, to see how many specific constituencies are addressed. There are lots of Christian voter guides, anti-choice guides, pro-gun guides, and guides with fetching names like VoteUnderGod.com. But there also are voter guides from Planned Parenthood Advocacy Organizations Across America, and guides focused on concerns of ethnic communities, lesbigay rights, disabled citizens, older people, students, and so on.
Our federal government should be actively supplying us with such information, and supporting our right to enfranchisement rather than suppressing it and passively welcoming foreign interference in it. But that’s not the case these days. So we need to do it for ourselves.
Still, that can refresh the act of casting our votes. It can remind us that all women and that male citizens of color have been beaten, jailed, and killed to secure this right. Rather than the reliable, waiting-on-line, slightly obligatory duty it has been for tragically too low a percentage of Americans in the past, voting is now an act of radical defiance.
Where are the principled leaders who can help us through the crisis in which our Republic is flailing?
A few years ago, Nation Books published my little handbook, Fighting Words: A Toolkit For Combating The Religious Right, a compilation of quotes and documents from this country’s Founders and a cross-section of other intelligent Americans on the central importance of a secular, pluralistic society. The book is still in wide use, in both print and digital forms. Today, I want to return to the Framers of our Constitution in a broader context. Rather than spend space sourcing each quote, I assure you that some can be found in Fighting Words, many in the public record, and more in fine biographies on various Founders by Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, and others; most can easily be found online.
Let me state firmly that the Framers were not gods, sages, or fusty old men in powdered wigs. They were certainly imperfect—all of them white, male, and creatures of their times. But they were also complex human beings deeply influenced by the Enlightenment. Some were slaveholders; some were abolitionists; and some were actually, shockingly, both. They used the words man and men (and the thinking behind them) as the generic—although a few glimpsed this as wrong. Most were sexist and racist and some even leaned pro monarchist. Yet they were radicals to even imagine the idea of a secular, pluralistic republic, which they regarded as a Great Experiment. Benjamin Franklin, when asked what form of government had finally been decided on, replied, “We have given you a Republic—if you can keep it.” These flawed men shared an audacious, glorious vision. We—you and I—are it.
The readership of this blog probably includes some of the best-educated people in the country, and therefore possibly the world. Yet I’m continually surprised by the emails you send to my website, expressing your kind gratitude for learning facts from these posts—facts which, frankly, Americans (and all world citizens, actually) should already know as part of our common heritage. Except that such facts are not taught in schools, and they’re buried in history books. (These days we’re reading less anyway and using emoticons more; soon we’ll be back to hieroglyphics.)
What we don’t know includes such facts as these:
* The Constitution contains not a single reference to a deity—on purpose.
* Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence did not mention that men were “endowed by the Creator” but simply read that men were “created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derived in rights inherent and unalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and pursuit of happiness.” He was forced to revise it by theocrats from the Southern states.
* We assume that US law has Judeo-Christian roots. It doesn’t. We think that “In God we trust” was stamped on our coinage from the start, yet that began as late as 1908, after a long campaign by the religious right, over strong objections by then president Theodore Roosevelt who threatened to veto, and finally by an overriding act of Congress. The insertion of ”Under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance does not date from the pledge’s origin in 1892, but was inserted while Joe McCarthy raved against “Godless communism” in the 1950s.
As for the Framers themselves:
“The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” That’s George Washington, initiating the Treaty of Tripoli.
Here’s John Adams: “The United States of America have exhibited perhaps the first example of governments directed on the simple principles of nature, and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history . . . these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses, founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretense of miracle or mystery.”
Thomas Jefferson’s strongest influences were reason and science, so much so that his enemies publicly denounced him as an infidel. He advised: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”
James Madison, called the father of the Constitution, denounced the use of religion as an “engine of civil policy,” and wrote, “religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind.” The wording in his own draft of the First Amendment, delivered in his speech in the House of Representatives in 1789, was more specific and more inclusive than the final version: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretext infringed.” That wording also protected atheism and agnosticism—fitting, since most of the framers were atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, or deists who believed in divinity as a force of nature.
And here is Madison, who after all wrote the Second Amendment, clarifying its meaning for all time—despite the NRA’s powerful lobby. In a letter written at the same time he was drafting the Amendment and in very similar wording, he wrote, ”a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the best most natural defense of a free country.” (Italics mine.) Nothing about the individual right to bear arms—and when he was pressured to change the actual amendment, he also changed country to state, meaning literally state. But we haven’t been taught that, or that the amendment was forced in as a demand of the slaveholding states, where “militia” was synonymous with posses that hunted escaping enslaved persons and put down slave revolts. Without that amendment, the Southern states were refusing to join the nation. For more details, check out my March 5, 2018 blogpost The Hidden History of the Second Amendment in the online blog archives.
James Madison is, in fact, quite a surprising treasure to someone first looking into the Framers after focusing on the usual big three: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. For example, Madison volunteered, “I should not regret it a fair and full trial of the entire evolution of capital punishment.” Madison was short, quiet, brilliant, and married to Dorothea “Dolley” Dandridge Payne Todd, today known mainly for enduring having an ice cream named after her, who was herself a canny politician at whose dinner tables and teas the revolution was plotted and then the presidencies thereafter negotiated (with her present and speaking up, too). Probably this is why James Madison wrote, “The capacity of the female mind for studies of the highest order cannot be doubted, having been sufficiently illustrated by its works of genius, of erudition, and of science.” Pretty good, especially since John Adams was replying to Abigail that he would in fact not “Remember the ladies” in encoding rights: “I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient, that schools and colleges were grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. . . . Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
Most of all, the Founders were startlingly prescient about this moment in our history.
Trump calls the press the greatest enemy of the people. As if in reply, Madison wrote, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” Jefferson, writing to Lafayette, empasized that “The only security of all is in a Free Press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” On the same subject, here is James Monroe: “It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty.”
They bequeathed their counsels, these Framers, as if in a time capsule, against the future threats we face now. So the next time someone says you’re exaggerating the danger, let Madison answer for you: “We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.” And let Washington back you up: “The domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, . . . is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads to a more formal and permanent despotism.” He also warned us to “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
And in Washington’s great Farewell Address of 1796, stepping down despite others’ urging that he serve a third term or even be crowned king, he seemed to be foreseeing Trump and populism, and again warned about factions that have “an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of the party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community . . . . However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have listed them to unjust dominion.”
Samuel Adams said it more succinctly: “How strangely will the tools of a tyrant pervert the plain meaning of words!”
But wouldn’t the original authors of and signatories to the Constitution agree with the Supreme Court conservatives’ “originalist” argument for interpreting the Constitution only in terms of the era during which it was penned? No. Jefferson, among other Founders, took that one on. In an 1810 letter, he wrote, “Laws and institutions must go hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. Might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” That quotation alone should silence those who insist that the Constitution is a static, not evolving, document.
On fear-mongering against Muslims, Mexicans, “aliens,” and “The Other,” Madison wrote, “If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” And Ben Franklin warned that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
But on real and malevolent foreign influences, they were quite clear. As if he had been privy with foresight into the Russia probe and even into hired trolls manufacturing false news, Washington pleaded, “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.” He asked rhetorically how many opportunities are afforded foreign influence “to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the art of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence public councils?” Alexander Hamilton weighed in, in Federalist Papers Number 22: “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” So the Framers gave us a specific clause in the Constitution, one that Trump ignores but on which the Republican-controlled Congress refuses to call him: The Foreign Emoluments Clause, Article I, Section 9, Clause 8: No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
Washington was preoccupied with concern about divide-and-conquer tactics that set us against one another: “It is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your mind the conviction of unity, as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often and covertly and insidiously) directed.” And again, “factionalism agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.”
On corruption, Jefferson minced no words: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which today are all ready to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” And “Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours its own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general preying of the rich on the poor.”
The Framers weren’t big on war and militarism, much less the military parades for which Trump hungers. Washington, a lifelong military man (who, by the way, inveighed against chaplains in the military), also said, “Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to a republic’s liberty.” And James Monroe counseled, “Preparation for war is a constant stimulus to suspicion and ill will.”
As for Trump’s congenital lying individually and in policy, the Founders decried individual mendacity and were horrified at the idea of a nation breaking treaties and agreements: Jefferson noted that for those who would hold office, “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest”; in his second Inaugural Address, he warned “We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties; and history bears witness to the fact that a just nation is taken on its word.” Were the people to suffer manipulation into misconceiving the importance of the facts, he cautioned, “If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” And, as if in direct address to Trump and Trumpists, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth then he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
For the time being, let’s give Madison the last word, and let it be about the way the Framers regarded immigrants, among whom they counted themselves: ”America was indebted to immigration for her very settlement and prosperity. That part of America which has encouraged them most has advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture, and the arts.”
Friends, these quotes are mere samples of the guidance the Framers left us. I hope this whets your thirst for more. This is our heritage. Such voices can still serve to lead us through these wretched times, so let’s use these words against the profoundly anti-American statements and policies of the current regime: use these quotations in arguments, in political campaigns, when canvassing, when organizing, on social media, in op ed pieces and town meetings, in letters to the editor and emails to our elected representatives. These words tell us how enraged the Founders would be if they could witness our present political crisis. But remember that those Founders also would be awed and gratified that we still had a Republic at all—and they would be on our side fighting to keep it.
This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Capital Gazette journalists Rob Hiaason, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, and Rebecca Smith.
The headlines this past week have been devastating. For myself, not since the night of the election have I literally felt so physically nauseated all the time as I have this past week.
*The U.S. government offering a trade to immigrant mothers seeking asylum from terror: you can have your kids back if you will immediately self deport
*Three major disastrous decisions by the Supreme Court, on abortion rights, on Trump’s Muslim ban, and on organized labor, followed by
*The announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, then revelations that his son when at Deutsche Bank worked closely with Trump
*The perhaps less noticed but even more harrowing headlines that tropical forests suffered near record tree losses last year and Antarctica is melting at a much faster pace then predicted
*Topped off by the murder of five journalists at Maryland’s Capital Gazette by an angry white man with a gun and a history of violent threats, stalking, and sexual harassment.
We are critically ill. We are literally sickened by this enveloping toxicity. So I’m not going to be Chatty Cathy doll trying to cheer you up. I’m not going to add to the lies around us by saying I’m sure we’ll get through this, or that it isn’t as bad as it seems. I’m not sure, and it is as bad as it seems—possibly worse.
We can’t believe this is really happening. That’s part of the problem. Progressives, well . . . progress. We fight for something and when we think that’s won, we consider it a done deal and move on. Not so with our adversaries. They spend all their energy in staying at the same place however old a place that is and however much the world has changed around it and them. So we’ve always taken it for granted that time was on our side, which it is, and which is why the species has made any progress at all. Except that with Antarctica melting and the trees dying, time is no longer on anybody’s side.
Oh, we can believe the massacre of journalists, alright. Given the proliferation of guns in our society, plus a man occupying our White House who calls a free press the greatest enemy of the people, and given the statistics that some form of violence against women is almost invariably a red flag in the background of men who kill, I suppose it’s not surprising. But did you know that the Gazette is one of the two oldest newspapers in this country? It covered the Declaration of Independence—but on its second page, because local news as usual took precedent on its front page. Today, when we mourn the shrinking of local news coverage, we also literally must mourn the death of five reporters for simply doing their job.
The other headlines? Stunned disbelief. Because most of what’s happening is so illogical that the brain brakes and screeches as it goes into a skid of noncomprehension.
The sheer imbalance of the Court’s decision on abortion, for example: that licensed clinics providing the procedure must post signs informing applicants of such alternatives as pregnancy services and adoption–but even unlicensed pseudo-clinics that advertise misleadingly as crisis-counseling services yet offer false medical information and pressure applicants not to have abortions, they do not have to post signs about the alternative availability of safe medical procedures elsewhere.
Or, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her ringing, historic dissent, the pretense that the Court apologizes for the World War II Korimatsu decision that placed Japanese-Americans in internment camps, while at the same time the Court decides that intent no longer matters in the law, so all of Trump’s proudly anti-Muslim statements can be ignored regarding his Muslim travel ban.
Or the gutting of union rights after already-decided, long-established precedent—doubly dangerous because, as Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent, ”The majority subverts all known principles of stare decisis.” Which means that all previous Supreme Court decisions from Brown v. Board of Education (and earlier) through Roe v. Wade (and later) no longer need be respected as settled law. Roe is squarely in the crosshairs: 84 restrictions have already been enacted by various states since Trump took office.
We were counting on the courts—and in fact the courts have been coming through, upholding law and principles established by the Framers of the Constitution. Now we know that what we dreaded when cases reach the top was not excessive. For that matter, Trump has been stacking the lower courts with young right-wing judges who have been approved for life terms by the Senate in a swift, assembly-line fashion.
So what do we do. What do we do?
I can only offer you five tips about what I’ve decided to do, in the hope that this might be useful, adaptable by you for your style and circumstances.
1. It’s OK to despair. Face into the reality, no sugar coating. It’s OK to cry, and vomit, even turn off the news for a day. It’s OK that your hair’s on fire. Worry about your own humanity if it’s not. If any of the Framers were alive today, they might well despair. Remember that Ben Franklin said “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.” They regarded this new nation—more, the idea of this new nation—as a grand experiment, and right now we’re having an extremely bad period in the laboratory.
2. It’s OK to be bitter. I’m still angry that Obama didn’t appoint Merrick Garland as an interim appointment when he could have. I’m still furious at people who didn’t vote in 2016. I’m still livid at people who didn’t vote for Hillary because they didn’t like her voice, or why did she stay with him, or she wasn’t warm and cuddly enough or she was too much of a harpy or a feminist or not enough of a feminist or any other moronic reason. I still have fits of rage about the purists: the Ralph Nader voters who insisted there was really no difference between Bush and Gore, and their later incarnations, the Bernie Bros and the Jill Stein voters who insisted Trump and Hillary were just the same. For decades, I have begged such people, please just think about how the court choices alone show you the difference. But they were so interested in their own purity—some still are—they refuse to see it. Well, glance at the justices appointed by Bush who would have otherwise been appointments under a President Gore: Chief Justice John Roberts (2005), and Justice Samuel Alito (2006). And of course we now have Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump, instead of whomever a President Hillary Clinton would have nominated. Not to speak of whoever is coming.
3. It’s OK to blame yourself. Did you do everything you possibly could have done to avert this moment? Send money? Volunteer time? Join a campaign? March and march and march again? Did you do more than argue with relatives and feel superior, or unfriend people on Facebook? Did you do enough? Of course you didn’t. I didn’t, nobody has, not Obama, not Hillary, nobody. So go ahead and blame yourself. Then take a deep breath, look around you, and rejoice. Because the Sombrero Galaxy doesn’t give a damn. And you have a chance for a do-over.
4. It’s OK to forgive yourself for what you didn’t do or didn’t do enough or did wrong. It’s still not too late. But you’re exhausted. You’re bone tired from the 500-plus days of Trump and the continual knot of fury in your throat. So first, do whatever you have to do to feel even temporarily better—sleep all weekend or go for a hike, soak in a bubble bath, listen to music, garden, watch movies, eat ice cream—whatever works for you. And also buy a cheap little cactus plant, to remind yourself about endurance against the odds. It’s OK to stop and bandage your bleeding.
5. Set a timer. It’s OK to despair and be bitter, to blame yourself and forgive yourself—but set a timer! When it goes off, time’s up and break’s over. Mine is two days maximum, but I suggest not a day over a week. We have four months until the midterm elections.
The Founders of this Republic were flawed men with a crazy idea. This week on Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan I offer some of their words about that idea, words that were stunningly prescient, as if they could foresee this moment in future history. I’ll offer more of them here, too, in next week’s post.
Those Founders, the Framers of our Constitution, gave us three equal branches of government. At this moment, two of those branches are controlled by men trying to make deep, permanent, transformatively violating changes to the Republic’s idea itself.
But there is a third branch, and it’s ours.
Four years ago only 36 percent of the eligible electorate cast ballots in the midterms. If more people had voted, Mitch McConnell would not be Majority Leader and would not have been able to block Obama’s nominated justice, Merrick Garland.
Some things we already know.
*We know it is likely there will be some forms of interference from Russia or elsewhere in these midterm elections, and we know that the Trump regime has done nothing to protect us from that; on the contrary.
*We know that the Republican majority in the Senate killed the filibuster on Supreme Court justices, so a simple majority can approve one—and they have the votes.
*We know that women’s rights, the right to reproductive freedom, voting rights, marriage equality and other same-sex rights, racial and partisan gerrymandering, affirmative action, constitutional violations in the criminal justice system, corporate purchase of elections, immigration policy, and the erosion of the wall between church and state—all the core issues of democracy are now endangered, and openly so. They tell us what they want to do. Believe them.
But this we also know. We must be on the streets, yes, but especially in the voting booths. We must organize voting turnout as never before, in such numbers as to compensate for Russian meddling at the polls and for an energized Trump base.
The Founders gave us a system, and that system is being tested as it has been only once before. The executive branch has been stolen. The judicial branch has been kidnapped. Nor is there any clear leadership, as there was with Abraham Lincoln, to lead us out of the wilderness, even though that route led through a civil war.
It’s just us.
But perhaps that was inevitable. Because it means that what we face in November—and in our organizing, between this moment and November—is the absolute core of the idea of the Republic, the heart of democracy. It is the voice of the people. It is the cactus plant.
The United States has withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the world’s most important human rights body.
The US did so ostensibly to protest the Council’s frequent criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—although Israel itself still participates. The US now joins Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea as the only countries refusing to participate. Perhaps, given the events of this past week, on top of events of these past months, the withdrawal is tragically apt. We no longer deserve to be there.
Trump’s so-called executive order reuniting immigrant families was a photo op in response to pressure, an attempt to staunch the chaos his administration bleeds in all directions; an attempt to address the rising fury of most Americans at acts he commits in our name.
The “executive order” is not retroactive. There are no plans to reunite the illegally incarcerated asylum-seeking parents—for which read “mothers”—with the now almost 2500 children already scattered across the US. Furthermore, there is no effective tracing system for even locating them. On the contrary, Trump is ordering so called “tender age facilities” to be opened for infant inmates, including babies under one year old who have literally been seized from their mothers’ nursing breasts. Make no mistake. We are seeing only the tip of the horror to come. Most of these children are under the care of untrained, unlicensed caregivers who have not, for example, been vetted for pedophilia.
But here’s what happens when whistleblowers drown out dog whistles. Here’s what happens when a great free press does its job. The smuggled-out pictures of children kept in cages and audiotapes of their sobbing for their mothers woke up a nation.
So, after fulminating for days that he would never back down and be “weak,” after the Trumpists even cited the same Bible passage used during the Civil War to justify slavery, after insisting an executive order couldn’t overturn a “law” that actually didn’t exist, Trump capitulated. He bluffed his way through a signing ceremony, claiming his “personal compassion” had overridden others’ counsel. But he was still strong you understand, tough, still for zero tolerance. He hunched at a cabinet meeting in his familiar, fortress position: arms folded tight across his chest, body language reeking defensiveness and fear. He has reason to fear. He’s feeling the pressure. Pressure works.
His own party is in an uproar, with both House and Senate Republicans finally joining Democrats in protesting his policy. Starting with American Airlines, other carriers began refusing to fly children to facilities around the country since those along the border were already so crowded. Hundreds of employees at Microsoft demanded that the company sever its data-mining relationship with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Employees and TV and film creators at 21st Century Fox publicly denounced their corporate cousin, Fox News, for its deliberate lies in covering the border crisis. Governors—mostly Democrats but some Republicans as well—from at least eight states (and growing) announced they would withhold or recall National Guard troops from efforts to secure the border. Pediatricians, psychologists, nurses’ associations, teachers’ groups, and numerous other organizations began planning major demonstrations across the country and in Washington DC for this weekend.
We learned how to start, encourage, and join this snowball effect from the #MeToo Movement. A dazed nation is waking up. Pressure works. The more pressure, the more it works.
Still, a vast tent detention camp has been constructed in the desert, since the usual migrants-shelter hub in America—the four-county Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas—is jam-packed. Hey, it’s good for business! Or didn’t you know that the business of housing, transporting, and detaining migrant children along the southwest border is a billion-dollar business? BCFS, a global network of religiously affiliated nonprofit groups, has received at least $179 million in federal contracts in the last two years; one recipient is Catholic Charities, which sees its work as “nonprofit and humanitarian.” Several large defense contractors and security firms are also in the system, including General Dynamics and MVM INC., which, having previously contracted with the government to supply guards in Iraq, recently put up job postings “seeking bilingual travel youth care workers” in South Texas, to accompany the children as they are being scattered around the nation. The migrant shelter industry is booming.
Four American military bases in Texas and Arkansas have been ordered to prepare beds for sheltering as many as 20,000 “unaccompanied alien children,” which is what the kids are called after having been ripped from those who were in fact accompanying them. This is according to a Pentagon spokesman—though other federal agencies offered conflicting explanations about who would be housed there, e.g. detained families together.
The rules keep shifting; there is chaos on the ground. Volunteer lawyers are combing the system in search of migrant children, trying to reunite them with their parents. As for the rule of law, Trump is pumping up the prosecution while eviscerating the defense: He had Sessions secretly shave the budget for immigration public defenders before announcing this policy in the first place; and now he’s ordered the Pentagon to send 200 JAG lawyers (Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the legal branch or specialty of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and Navy) as prosecutors, though immigration prosecution is not their specialty. Is Defense Secretary Mattis going to act like the independently thinking “grownup” he was hyped to be, and join the governors in taking a stand that they won’t permit their National Guards to participate in this cruel, chaotic catastrophe? Will he dare say No, the job of American soldiers is not to build detention camps and prosecute immigrants? Don’t hold your breath.
But all is fine and dandy, since immigrant Melania Trump flew to Texas, had her photo op, visited with children catatonic with trauma, and was back on her plane within 75 minutes, wearing a jacket printed with white capital letters “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” Well, I don’t care whether this was stupidity, coarseness, oversight, a gross let-them-eat-cake moment, or a sadistic jab at those of us who do care. It puts her beyond pity.
We feel it. The tension building, the pressure. We yearn for November and the elections, yearn for Special Counsel Mueller to lower the boom, desperately yearn for this long national nightmare to be over. But we also dread facing each day with the knowledge that it will get worse before it gets better. Myself, I cling to both past and future in this hideous present.
I cling to the past because it helps us understand. Because history not only repeats itself, it stutters. The U.S. government tore Indigenous children from their homes and families, severed communication between them, and sent them to dreaded Government Indian Schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages and observe the belief systems of their peoples and nations. African children in the new America were often born of rape, born into enslavement, and were sold off separately from their parents at auctions and in private deals between plantation owners. The cries of women reaching for their children as those children, straining back, arms outstretched, screaming, are borne away—none of that is new, here in the New World, the land of the free.
I cling to the past because I can’t forget the famous quote from the Old World, during the Holocaust, the Shoah, from a nameless little boy maybe 10 years old, as he was being hauled away during mass arrests after the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. The child looked back over his frail shoulder and cried, “You won’t be forgiven. Not any of you. Not ever.”
Which is why I cling to the future. Because they won’t be forgiven. We, a free people, can see to that. We can refuse to despair, we can transfer the pressure that is suffocating us outward, into energy, into every demonstration and action we can think of and create. Pressure. More pressure. More pressure. Because pressure works.
I know I’ve been raving on about words even more than usual lately, but that’s because to abuse language is to abuse thought itself, and we are drowning in abuses of thinking. Rethinking refreshes the mind.
Here’s a recent example: A choir master in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region had teenage schoolgirls perform a nude “traditional” performance that then was widely shared on social media. He defended this as a “cultural” tribute to the Xhosa ethnic group, but it drew fury from women. Ironically, South Africa’s new constitution guarantees wide-ranging equality and shows signs of feminist consciousness—although that conflicts with the county’s high rate of sexual assault and violence against women. It also conflicts with the way many in South Africa regard tradition, and sometimes with a sensitivity (certainly understandable) about cultural issues. The choir master was quoted as saying defensively, ”We are proud of our Xhosa tradition.” But Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, said that educators “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage, but there was absolutely no need for these children to perform naked.” The “reed dance” is performed each year in rural societies in Swaziland and in KwaZulu Natal province. It is danced by teenage schoolgirls clad only in small aprons, with their breasts and buttocks completely exposed; it stems from a “tradition” of virgins dancing in hope of being chosen by the chief or king for his harem. A recent report published by the (Angie again!) Ministry of Basic Education noted that schools were grappling with the effects of racism, colonialism, and apartheid, but “little attention has been paid to gender issues. The previous emphasis on ‘Great White Men’ has simply been replaced with ‘Great Black Men.’”
Well, thank god for Minister Motshekga. Her voice echoes that of women from the Zulu ethnic group with whom I met at length when I visited KwaZulu Natal. Some of them had walked for three days to make this meeting, and one, Tozi—who smiled and introduced herself as an “unruly woman,” to applause—said she knew she’d be in trouble when she returned to her village. Although unlike the others she had no husband to fear, the village headman might have incited other men to burn down her hut again or steal her goat in her absence. Still, she felt it was worth it, because she wanted to tell this visitor about a new Zulu tradition that had arisen during the HIV-AIDS epidemic: the lie that if a man was infected, sleeping with a virgin would cure him. “This is killing our young girls,” Tozi said, and she was willing to risk her life to stop it. Another woman at the meeting, Zandile, said, “Zulu or Xhosa, all us women live lives bound by traditions—but whose traditions? Men’s traditions. We have never had a chance to establish our traditions, as women. But at least we can start by stopping—we can stop obeying traditions that are not ours.”
At the time, and today still, the profoundly radical wisdom in those words strikes me as central to the entire global Women’s Movement. Child marriage? Arranged marriage? FGM? Suttee? Sexual slavery? Tradition. Dowry? Battery? Purdah? Literacy (women and girls comprise two thirds of all nonliterate people)? Culture. Prostitution? Male majorities in congresses all over the world? Male heads of state the norm? Religious rituals and rules, damnations, hypocrisies? All cultural, all traditional.
Whose tradition, whose culture? From the Passover seder to the Catholic mass, from foot binding to the casting couch, from the concept of a male god to the concept of patriotism: all patriarchal. If aspects of some traditions and cultures feel meaningful to individual women or evoke their loyalty, that’s fine, and I support their right to observe them. I even support their right to try and reform them (the “feminist seder,” the “Jesus was a feminist” argument, etc.). But let’s not confuse cultures and traditions with anything generic, let’s not assume everyone had an equal say in the practice that formed them.
What if women, and men of conscience as well, were always to put the adjective “patriarchal” before the words “tradition” and “culture”? To start by stopping, which would probably begin with the naming, as usual. Then there might come a day when those who follow us would look back and wonder how we could ever have existed in such bondage, and they might celebrate our process toward freedom from it–which might become a tradition.
Here’s another example. At this moment, thousands (no one can get an accurate number) of children, including infants, are jammed into detention centers now so crowded that Jeff Sessions’ Department of Injustice is moving the kids into tent cities where the average day heat is 96°. They have been forcibly separated from their parents—for which, read “mothers”—with whom they were traveling to the United States, being “smuggled in,” according to Trump and Sessions. Many of these women were and are seeking asylum, so, by U.S. law, they are entitled to a respectful, thorough investigation of their situation by a court before any adjudication is made about their status. But Sessions has de facto nullified that law. Now, if you arrive claiming death and deprivation awaits you in the country from which you are fleeing—before you even have a chance to prove that—you are arrested, and your child is snatched from you and detained elsewhere. Even during the internment of the Japanese American population in virtual concentration camps during World War II—a lasting stain on this country’s history—families were kept intact. This sadistic policy has shocked most American citizens and even managed to disconcert a few Republican congressmen and senators.
Sessions has also changed U.S. practice on the definition of requirements for asylum, making it virtually impossible for asylum-seekers to gain entry by citing credible fears of domestic abuse or gang violence in their countries. In doing so, he reversed an immigration appeals court ruling that had granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had been sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by her husband. (Indeed, immigration court judges are stepping up to complain that Sessions is usurping their roles.) Few asylum-seekers are granted permanent entry into the United States, anyway. In 2016, for every applicant who succeeded, more than 10 failed. Domestic-violence victims gained eligibility after the 2014 case of a Guatemalan woman who had suffered a decade of marital abuse, including acid burns and punches while pregnant so severe that her baby was born with bruises. Under the Obama administration, more women were permitted to claim credible fears of domestic abuse–but that’s gone now. In his ruling, Sessions wrote that asylum claims pertaining to violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors would not qualify, that claims could no longer include victims of “private violence,” by which he means, basically, violence against women.
Private violence. It’s instructive to remember that just a few years ago, Amnesty International—that supposed beacon of freedom that now defends the rights of johns, pimps, and the sexual exploitation industry—held that same position about “private violence,” and Human Rights Watch shared that attitude. All through the 1970s and 80s we feminists pounded on the doors of A.I., which insisted that since virtually all persecution of women was not done by state actors, that was outside their concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union refused to act against battery, because that would be invading the privacy of the home. It took decades, but the growing pressure from women changed their minds. Why? Because women worldwide live in “the private realm.” We do most of the work in political protest movements, but rarely lead them, so the Putins and Erdogans and Kims don’t go after us the way they do oppositional male leaders. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is an exception: he seems to feel that it’s reasonable to charge women who want to drive with treason. But that’s rare. So if you restrict asylum to those being persecuted “by the state” you have neatly eliminated women.
Glance back at the above-listed atrocities perpetrated on women, defended as “culture” and/or ”tradition.” Add to that list economic impoverishment (the face of poverty worldwide is a female face), environmental disaster (women are the fuel gatherers and water haulers of the world, and 80 percent of Africa’s farmers are female), and war (women and children constitute 90 percent of refugee and displaced persons populations). All of these, now, are officially considered “personal matters” in the United States of America, “private violence.” In November if not before, we will have to force Trump and Sessions to revoke these morally sickening policies.
As things stand now, what if you’re a Central American woman who has suffered decades of shattered bones from a brutal husband? What if both your sons were forcibly recruited into a drug gang; one of your daughters was abducted by a gang to serve them sexually, the other was kidnapped and sold into sexual trafficking. What if, almost insane with desperation, you flee with your two youngest children, one only four months old, to the land of opportunity and safety. You claim a credible fear of return. But you are shackled, arrested without due process; your children are seized—one from your nursing breast—and taken away while you cry and beg and vomit from shock; you can hear them screaming for you in the next room, you recognize their voices and shout back but can’t get to them, and then you find yourself behind bars unable to learn where they are, waiting in terror to be sent back to your country, terror of being sent back without your kids or with them, sent back to your death. A sign on the wall reads: Welcome to the United States of America 2018. It should read The Personal Is Political.
There’s no way I could or would avoid addressing last week’s flap over Samantha Bee’s use of “the C word” about Ivanka Trump. My favorite responses to the outrage over the comedian’s use of the word were both by actors, and both showed wit. Minnie Driver tweeted, “That was the wrong word for Samantha Bee to have used. But mostly because Ivanka has neither the warmth nor the depth.” And my friend Sally Field tweeted, “I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. A cunt is powerful, beautiful, nurturing, and honest.”
Etymologically speaking, Sally is close to the mark. The word currently spelled in English c-u-n-t is actually one of the oldest words in the English language. Linguistic scholars believe it to be derived from Indo-European names for the Great Goddess, variously known as Cunti or Kunda, the Yoni (Door) to the Universe—the same root that gave us the words country, kin, and kind. Related forms were the Latin cunnus, the Old Norse and Frisian kunta, and the Basque cuna. It appears in Old English as cyn and in Middle English as conte or konte (usually spelled with a k), and is closely related to the words ken (to know something), count (numbers, and as in to matter, to have worth), and the words cunning, knowledge, conundrum (a puzzle). In her exhaustive work, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, scholar Barbara G. Walker noted that other cognates are cunabula, a cradle; and Cunina, a Roman goddess who protected children in the cradle. Our own word cunning originates with kenning and ken—knowledge, learning, insight, and wisdom—and is still in common usage in Scotland today, as in “Do you ken it?” We can also trace the relationship with concipient—which is related to conceptive, and conceiving. Not to be confused with concupiscence, which means intense desire (though I would wager there’s a connection in there somewhere. . . . ).
Cuneiform, the most ancient type of writing, derives from kunta, which meant female genitalia in Samarian, the language of ancient Iraq. Even today, kunta is “woman” in several Middle Eastern and African languages. It was also spelled quna, which is the root of queen. Since priestesses were known to be administrators and accountants at the Temple of Inanna around 3100 B.C.E. when cuneiform was first used, scholars think it likely that cuneiform was originally the sign of the kunta: the women who kept the books (clay tablets) for the temple in economy, and for the redistribution of wealth that evolved from communal economics in ancient mother-cultures.
Back in England, the Kennet River still flows near the Standing Stones of Avebury and Stonehenge. This river was holy to the Druids and even further back—to older, local, matrifocal religions. It was a symbol of the sacred female, because life (food from fishing, irrigation for crops, mobility and thence trade) came from the river.
The way words become “dirty” is actually through a sort of ossification, a lack of use; words regarded as the most unutterable ones are almost always the oldest and the least altered words in a language. The word “cunt” was free of negative connotations when it was used by Chaucer, but later fell into disuse, then virtually became unspeakable—although still intact. That’s the category it remains in today, and Bee decidedly used it as a pejorative term.
But if instead you choose to use it in a non-negative way, because you ken its real meaning, then you may, like me, delight in learning a real word that means the power of a woman: cuncipotence, with the second c variously pronounced as a hard or a soft c.
If you’re a woman, I heartily hope that you are cuncipotent. If you’re a man, I definitely hope you’re not afraid of cuncipotence.
Aren’t words delicious fun? Etymology is like tracking the spoor left from where human thought has passed through.
And I ask you: Really. Outside of academia, what other blog post would be mad enough to offer you the etymological and political background of the word cunt?
Recently I spoke with one of the gutsy professional cheerleaders who has registered a formal complaint with the EEOC regarding NFL sex discrimination. You probably have read about the horrendous treatment meted out to cheerleaders, by management and team owners, as well as by boozed-up, testosterone-poisoned fans at games.
She said something that particularly struck me as familiar. In dismissing the notion that perhaps sexism was inherent in cheerleading itself, she repositioned it as “dancing.” It actually is, of course, requiring dance training plus sometimes onerous gymnastics—but without the respect paid to the Rockettes as artists or to gymnasts as sportswomen.
Yet cheerleading isn’t simply dancing, and isn’t gymnastics. Cheerleading has been created, formalized, commercialized, and positioned by team owners and fans as sexist entertainment, and they treat it as such, despite the expertise of those performing the cheerleading. Strippers also call themselves dancers. But you don’t hear professional dancers calling themselves cheerleaders—or strippers.
What was familiar, however, was the “classing up” of a disadvantaged situation, by the disadvantaged themselves.
One sure way you can detect classing up is that it’s used by those who are still in a disadvantaged position—very rarely by those who have managed to escape that position. For example, women still working as cheerleaders are (at least publicly) opposed to any protest against their being treated atrociously, but women who are former cheerleaders and no longer vulnerable to losing their jobs are supportive of the formal EEOC complaint and often even eager to become involved.
It brought to mind the currently prostituted women who call themselves “sex workers,” while those who have managed to escape the sexual exploitation industry call themselves “survivors.”
It’s not only the fear of retribution—loss of employment or other kinds—at work here. Neither is it merely denial of what’s sometimes too painful to admit. It’s partly a gesture, however awkward, at gaining or retaining a sense of human dignity. And it’s partly aspirational—that is, identifying with the powerful instead of with one’s less powerful self, which requires acknowledging one’s own deliberately buried experience, authentic but likely bruising. It’s something that goes beyond blaming the victim, into self-blaming the victim.
It’s shaming the victim. The shame at being so victimized is a shame created, instilled, and encouraged by the victimizers to keep the victims silent. As if it’s her fault, as if her humiliation is deserved. This may be the most pernicious aspect of sexual crimes against women: the stealthily enforced enlistment of the victim into believing and even further propagating the so-called innocence of the perpetrator.
The rape victim who “asked for it”: I shouldn’t have invited him to my apartment. The sexual-harassment target who “wanted it”: Maybe I was wearing the wrong clothes. The domestic-violence survivor who stayed with him: I got this black eye or broken arm or concussion from walking into a door. Try imagining a white, straight man whose watch was stolen in a mugging, blaming himself, and you see the pernicious absurdity of this internalized shame.
It happens over racism: that’s what having “good hair” and what “passing” was about: classing up. It happens over the perception and self-perception of many biracial people who choose to class themselves as “white.” For godsake, it’s just easier.
It happens over homophobia: that’s what a different kind of “passing,” still ongoing in parts of this country, is about. Whole families, entire communities, collaborate in it, sometimes insist upon it, while everybody knows and nobody says—for shame.
Internalizing blame for one’s own oppression is something that happens in ageism as well, for instance when women especially are taught to lie about our age. It happens in terms of disability, depending on how much the disability or its effects are visible. Immigrants who Anglicize their names are classing up. The use of ethnic or racial slurs within specific oppressed groups may be claimed as a way of joking or a way to invoke solidarity, but it reinforces the terminology of those in power as well as the helplessness of the powerless. Children “class up” when they play grownup, because they see quite clearly that grownups have power over them.
And it happens over class itself. Lots.
The terms “Lower middle class” and “upper middle class” were coined precisely to aid and abet such distinctions. I can remember my mother saying she was a lingerie designer when actually she was a shopgirl who sold corsets in a chain store. Small details and large ones. I can remember her persisting in her claim that a necklace she gave me with orange plastic beads shaped like coral was the real thing from the Great Barrier Reef, and insisting that her grandparents had been nobles at the court of the Czar in Russia—when actually they were gutsy peasant “Shtetl” Jews scrabbling to stay alive at the border of Poland and Russia, despite periodic Cossack raids and the terror of pogroms. Classing up ensures that you admire the wrong people and adopt the wrong values.
I can remember myself as a teenager when, having discovered that in Europe there was a class called “the intelligentsia,” I instantly identified myself as part of that. It must be admitted that this was not only because I desperately wanted to become a writer, but also because it saved me from the uncomfortable decision to collaborate in my mother’s false origin story and her lies, or deny her, thus reject her, in stating the truth—which would also have included the truth that we were decidedly “lower middle-class.”
When the first fissure in that internalization cracks, it’s a moment of blessed, terrifying, liberating rage. The danger in that period is that the affirmation and rage can distort, turning solely outward, blaming others—any others—and blinding oneself to one’s own collaboration, even glamorizing one’s own oppression (e.g., many Trump supporters). Because only then does the real process begin: the daily application of burgeoning consciousness.
Then, accumulated acts of “noticing” require re-naming a lot of what had passed for your reality, and it takes quite a while until you can shift the responsibility onto where it’s deserved—onto the person, people, and institutionalized system that have their feet planted firmly on your neck.
What’s in a name?
The philosopher Susanne K. Langer wrote, “The notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that ever was conceived.”
I would add that giving something the precise, accurate name—even if that necessitates re-naming—is an act of courage.
Stubborn people, us feminists. We never give up on anybody or any group—particularly the women of any group. Latest evidence, the Irish referendum on a woman’s right to choose her reproductive life: I rest my case.
True, we may have fantasies of gently abducting some male-supremacy-defending women, whisking them to some idyllic place, feeding them homemade soup, and engaging in nonstop consciousness-raising together until the great Aha! You too! descends on us all in a blaze of insight. But in reality, we older feminists have seen a whole lot of women (starting with ourselves) come round over the decades, and have celebrated each one freeing herself from patriarchal blinders at her own pace. Lately, happily, that pace is really accelerating.
Can it be that now, Christian evangelical women—some of whom as individuals have already made their feminism admirably clear—are coming around in larger numbers?
Such profound changes don’t happen easily or all at once. Things get densely entangled, of course, when mixed with culture and with avidly conservative politics. If changes happen at all, they happen one seemingly nonpolitical issue at a time, one moment of insult so intense that a few women friends crack the silence, first with one another, then a few others . . . and then more start to speak through the crack, which widens with each additional voice.
That’s what seems to be taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims 15 million members.
In the 1970s, a conservative takeover of the previously middle-of-the-religious-road Southern Baptist Convention led to the adoption of certain pernicious resolutions. They included the belief that the bible’s inerrancy required a ban on female pastors and the teaching that women must be submissive to their husbands. That conservative takeover was engineered by Dr. Paige Patterson, then president of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and of late president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In between, he was president of the entire Southern Baptist Convention, and he remains a major figure in the Southern Baptist community.
You might recall that a few years ago, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter publicly left the Southern Baptist Convention because, despite their lifelong attendance and social participation in the church, Rosalynn was denied a deaconship by the all-male church leaders, since she was a woman.
But now, MeToo has manifested its energy, like a revelation.
It began with newly resurfaced videotapes of Patterson, which sent ripples throughout the entire Southern Baptist Convention.
The videos exposed how, in 2000, Patterson had told the story of a woman who’d been abused by her husband and had come to him for advice; he had told her to pray quietly beside the bed at night, though he also warned her to “Get ready because your husband may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” When the woman returned to him with a badly bruised face she said, according to Patterson himself, “I hope you’re happy.” To which he answered, “Yes, ma’am, I am. I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy because the husband had shown up in church that morning and asked for forgiveness.”
Patterson had also delivered sermons counseling battered wives to stay in abusive relationships and “be submissive in every way.” In one videotaped sermon, he told a story about boys leering at girls and mothers then scolding their sons—wrongly, he said, because “such a boy is just being biblical,” a quip that reliably invoked laughter from his audience. In 1997, Patterson made a disturbing comment for which he then refused to apologize for two weeks, until forced to do so. It was a comment in general about women: “I think everybody should own at least one.” Furthermore, a former student claims that back when Patterson was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and University, he discouraged her from reporting having been raped to police, and told her that she should forgive the rapist instead. She was put on probation for two years; the alleged rapist suffered not even a slap on the wrist.
Not that Patterson is the only such abuser of religious authority among evangelicals. On the contrary, there have been so many that the pattern gave birth to a fictional character, Elmer Gantry, a character that in itself became a stereotype.
For instance, Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of one of the most influential churches in the U.S., Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, had to resign recently after charges of improper conduct and abuse of power. Pastor Andy Savage resigned from his Memphis mega church after it came to light that he had sexually assaulted a high-school student years earlier. Les Hughey, founder and pastor of another mega church in Scottsdale, Arizona, resigned after several women accused him of sexual misconduct when he’d been a youth pastor in California decades earlier. And then there is the seemingly unshakable Christian evangelical support for Donald Trump, with his long, odious history of sexual misconduct and misogynistic attitudes—although recent polls have shown a slight but discernible slippage of approval for him among evangelical women.
All this has built up over time, and the surfacing of the Patterson remarks might have been the last straw. Keep in mind that evangelical women are highly capable people, many of whom have jobs outside the home as well as in it, run small businesses, and juggle all that with raising families, and creating church organizations, church suppers, community work, and so forth. As with the black church, it’s women who keep the wheels turning—but it’s men who get to ride.
So the revolt began with a few women, but soon more than 3,330 (and still growing) women affiliated with Southern Baptist churches and beyond signed an open letter calling for “decisive action” against Patterson. It read in part, “We are shocked by the video that has surfaced showing Dr. Patterson objectifying a teenage girl and then suggesting this is behavior that is biblical. We are further grieved by the dangerous and unwise counsel given by Dr. Patterson to women in abusive situations.” It goes on, rather blisteringly.
Well, Paige Patterson was ousted from his position, after those thousands of evangelical women began calling for his ouster. You go, girls!
Of course, he was actually demoted to “president emeritus,” with pay and free housing, as before. He’s slated to speak at the annual meeting of the Convention, although the pressure is on for him to decline. He was not fired, as the women had wanted, and I’ll wager that his cushy retention will be a radicalizing experience for some of these women. Judging from their quotes to the press, that’s already begun.
Of course, it can be said that 3,330 signatories out of 7.5 million Southern Baptist women is a fairly humble showing, but so were the “Minutemen” at the Battles of Lexington and Concord: less than 80 at Lexington, and not that many more at Concord—but Lord Percy, who led the British in retreat after his Concord defeat, wrote back to London, “Whoever looks upon them [the Rebels] as an irregular mob will be much mistaken.” Indeed, around 15,000 militiamen surrounded Boston in defense against the British the day after these two battles occurred.
So these evangelical women protesters deserve our respect and support, as well as recognition that they’re not totally alone in their seemingly closed world. Young evangelicals have been trying, and in some places, succeeding, in changing their churches to become more open politically, especially on race and on gender.
It’s a cheap shot to dismiss all evangelicals in one lump—and dismissing all of any group in one lump is dangerous in itself. Decades ago I wrote, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” Those four words still summarize a great deal of politics for me.
So if you are an evangelical woman reading this who has felt in the past that my writing has stereotyped you, I offer more than my apologies: my promise to try to break my own conditioning and never do so again. I will continue to vigorously defend my own feminist (and secular) positions, and I will remain intensely opposed to the extremely harmful and unConstitutional political positions taken by the Convention in particular and Christian evangelicals in general. But I can do that at the same as I listen for and respond to the voices of evangelical women—many of whom are bent, apparently, on reforming their church so it conforms more faithfully to a message of equality and inclusiveness. If you are at all like me, then perhaps the next time you encounter a woman who calls herself an evangelical Christian, you might look beyond the label (as you would hope she might do about you) and try to start a discussion, if you haven’t done so already.
The great strength of this country is its pluralism, as well as its separation of church and state (for the good of both). When women, the majority of the population, emphasize what we have in common with each other rather than how we are different, there’s no stopping us. MeToo is a starting place, and a brilliantly effective one for discovering and emphasizing those similarities.
It leads to a feminist epiphany. Or, as evangelical Christians might say, it’s a Come to Jesus Moment.
The key, I think, is to focus less on where a woman is coming from than where she’s going. And I for one trust women, once they dare to graze even the surface of their own anger, to recognize and respect each other’s righteous rage, to link arms, and to take it from there. Amen!
Since interviewing Maria Ressa recently for “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan,” I’ve been haunted more than usual by thoughts of my special sisters, women journalists. Ressa, a former CNN Bureau Chief, is one hell of a journalist, and founder of Rappler.com, an online news site under fierce attack by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian government.
Me, I’m a journalist, yes, but. I’m also an activist, who believes that “objectivity” is usually subjective. And I’m basically a writer, one all over the map. My foundational rock is poetry. But having fallen in love with the English language and decided I wanted to be a “woman of letters” when I was about nine, I grew up into someone who writes novels, stories, plays, essays, editorials, works of feminist theory, political analyses, polemics, and any other form of writing I can lay hands on—from grocery lists to broadcast/podcast commentaries to, now, blogs. So I doubt that I really qualify for the honorable title of journalist per se.
Women like Maria Ressa—single-minded, focused on news, targeting the story and following it against all risks, checking and rechecking and editing and paring and clarifying and finally publishing—to me, that’s a journalist. Women like Maria, who face death threats daily and must fight prison sentences for simply doing their job, getting the truth out by whatever means possible, are real journalists, newswomen.
This is not to ignore or disparage newsmen. A free press in general is the single most necessary ingredient for a democracy—which is precisely why it’s the first target for autocrats and authoritarians.
At least 42 journalists were killed last year, as reported by The Committee to Protect Journalists, and 19 percent were women, more than double the annual average of 7 percent. Of the total number of journalists imprisoned worldwide, 97 percent were arrested in their own countries and 8 percent were women, according to CPJ.
These women do their jobs by pushing against every hazard and obstruction faced by male journalists, as well as the additional obstacles and perils they had to face in getting the job and the assignment in the first place, plus all the other hazards that come just with being female in a patriarchal world. Sometimes, heartbreakingly, the harassment, threats, and sexual assaults they encounter come from their own male colleague journalists in the field or at home.
Lauren Wolfe, reporter, correspondent, and Director of the Women Under Siege Project of the Women’ s Media Center, has noted that often, those who are supposed to protect journalists in conflict zones, such as guards and drivers, can pose the biggest threats on the job. Sexual abuse is surfacing as one of the largest impediments to press freedom when it comes to women journalists—yet CPJ doesn’t track that in their annual reports. Online harassment is also experienced far more frequently by women journalists than by their male colleagues.
That fits into the pattern of online abuse of women in general, as documented and confronted by the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, which is dedicated to expanding women’s freedom of expression and curbing online harassment and abuse by offering information, tools, and resources. Ashley Judd—one of the earliest “mothers” of the MeToo Movement—is Chair of the Speech Project, and journalist and author Soraya Chemaly is the Director.
And now PEN, the international organization (with PEN America) has recently done a survey of 230 writers and journalists targeted by online harassment: Two-thirds reported severe reactions to being trolled, including refraining from publishing their work, deleting social media accounts, and fears for personal safety. More than a third reported avoiding certain topics in their writing. Writers were under assault for their viewpoints, but also based on their sex, race, religion, and sexual orientation. In response, PEN America has assembled an Online Harassment Field Manual, to equip and empower writers, journalists, and all those active online with tools and tactics to defend against hate speech and trolling.
These free, digital resources now exist—even if the solutions as yet don’t. As a co-founder of the
This week I want to focus on a small story that got insufficient coverage in the Trump glut of news, since it merely is about two of the most important founding principals of our Republic: freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
You may have heard that on April 16, Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced that Fr. Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest and the House chaplain since 2011, would be stepping down. A day later, it turned out that Conroy was not leaving voluntarily but that the Speaker’s chief of staff had told him to resign or be fired. Conroy duly tendered his letter of resignation, to take effect on May 24.
But then in strode Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader and former Speaker herself, to Conroy’s defense. Pelosi takes her Catholicism as seriously as her politics—yet she once endured a six-year estrangement from her mother, with whom she’d been very close, when her mother stopped speaking to her after Pelosi refused to abandon her pro-choice position. Now, Nancy was stubbornly fighting for Conroy, and as other members of the House, Catholic and non-, from both sides of the aisle, signed onto his defense, it became . . . well, a Thing. It seems that anti-Conroy feeling had been building for some time among Christian evangelicals in the House who felt that “this damnable priest” was embodying too well his Jesuit order’s reputation for being liberal and intellectual. For instance, the chaplain by tradition often invites members of other faiths to deliver the morning prayer in his stead, and Conroy had invited a Muslim imam not just once but twice. Gasp! Then, when the House was debating how to make their ultra-conservative tax bill even more conservative, Conroy had dared say in the morning prayer, “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.” After that apparently incendiary comment, Speaker Ryan warned Conroy, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”
Tell it to the loaves and fishes guy, Paul.
Anyway, at some point Conroy realized that he had been elected to the post by the whole House, and that Ryan couldn’t demand his resignation after all. So he promptly withdrew it, noting that if they wanted him out they’d have to actually fire him without his cooperation. (Ryan should have known better than to ever mess with the Jesuits; the Jeddies usually win.) The Speaker of the House backed down. Conroy was reinstated.
All of which would be a small, amusing story about hypocritical political religiosity. Except for a little thing called the Constitution, except for a small group of flawed but brilliant radicals called the Framers.
Freedom of speech does not stop at the doors of the House of Representatives. Freedom of religion, by the way, also means the freedom to follow no religion whatsoever. In a strange way, Ryan was right in saying that a churchman should “stay out of politics,” although of course he had very different reasons for saying that, reasons that did not include the principle of the separation of church and state.
In truth, there should be no chaplain in the House of Representatives or the Senate to begin with.
Most of the framers were in fact agnostics, atheists, unaffiliated “Freethinkers,” or “deists,” believing in a sacred force of science or nature, and they were obsessed with the separation of church and state. In my book, Fighting Words: A Toolkit for Combating The Religious Right, I quote the Framers at length, and their quotes are incredibly bracing.
For instance, James Madison, called the father of the Constitution, opposed all use of “religion as an engine of civil policy.” He accurately prophesied the threat of “ecclesiastical corporations,” and in his great essay, “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, and Ecclesiastical Endowments, circa 1817,” he writes, “Is the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative . . . the establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of constitutional principles . . . better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of chaplainships for the Army and Navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. . . . Religious proclamations by the executive branch recommending thanksgivings and fasts are shoots from the same root. . . . Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers . . . such acts seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. . . .”
George Washington was a Freemason and a deist, always carefully referring to divinity as “It” and never mentioning the name of Jesus Christ in any of his literally thousands of letters. He weathered heavy criticism for rarely attending church; when he did, he stood during prayers while others knelt, and he always made a point of leaving before communion. John Adams was a Unitarian deeply influenced by the Enlightenment; one of his most famous quotes in a letter to Jefferson, reads, “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!” Then there’s Thomas Paine: “My own mind is my church.” Ben Franklin, who called himself a deistic scientist, was memorialized by his close friend Dr. Priestly, who wrote of him, “It is much too be lamented that a man of Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever . . . and also have done as much as he did to make others unbelievers.” And of course from Jefferson, our legacy includes booksfull on the subject—including a razored and rearranged secular bible, The Jefferson Bible—all of which could be summarized by his simple directive, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”
How far, how tragically far, we have already fallen away from the vision of the Founders, when a Jesuit priest is censored for mentioning the rights of poorer citizens of the Republic—and when he does so as chaplain of the House of Representatives, a post that exists by now in habitual violation of the Constitution.