Saturday, April 6, 2019

Language of the Times III

The Death—and possible rebirth—of discourse

I’ve written here about language before—typically screeds lambasting the cooptation of perfectly good words and phrases like faith. But I’m switching gears this time, writing about an crafty verbal stratagem that might just save American political discourse. My Aunt Monessa Overby, who I’ve written about before, was born on the same date I was, 27 years before me. It’s a unique connection that has kept us close over the years. On the phone the other day, she shared this advice: “What I’m trying to do,” she said, “is avoid saying ‘I am a Democrat.’ Instead, when asked, I say, ‘I tend to vote for Democrats.’” She went on to tell me that she had, in fact, voted for at least one Republican: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now, I’ve never voted for a declared Republican, but there have been Republicans who, if they had decided to run, would have gotten considerable attention from me. The point being, we express our political affiliation in this country as though we’re describing some in-bread, inextricable part of our identity. “I am a Republican,” we say. Or, “I am a Democrat.” But in reality, neither is true, ever, and, in fact, neither ever could be true. And that is simply because the Republican and Democratic parties have both evolved over the years (Republicans: party of Lincoln. Democrats: Home for decades to vile southern racists.) And, in fact, they’ll continue to do so. (I doubt my aunt could ever conceive of voting for anyone in today’s Republican Party.)

But how does this save discourse? Well, I shifted things a little in that conversation with Monessa. I said, “Think what a different impression you’d make if you used that phrasing when starting a conversation—like, ‘How do you tend to vote?’ instead of ‘Republican or Democrat?’” She hadn’t thought of that, but it resonated with her, and I now put it to you: We all—particularly us late boomers—have those people in our lives who we know have different, and sometimes opposing, political views, so we either avoid political discourse with them at all costs, or find ourselves in debates that are either useless or emotionally scarring, and typically both. Political polarization gets personal sometimes, unfortunately.

So, for those friends, and even acquaintances, of opposing political persuasions, try this new way of asking, and even more than that, try this new way of thinking, about political affiliation. Because we don’t vote for a particular political party because of flowery, often equivocating sentences in campaign speeches and party platform documents: We do it for human reasons. We do it because we see underprivileged people in our communities and beyond, and we want to help them. We do it because a close relative or neighbor was killed in a war, and we want to know why, and we want their families to be cared for. We do it because we’ve seen both arrogant opulence and brave, completely unnecessary poverty. Any of these feelings, impulses, and attitudes might be shared by the person you’re talking to. And I think we can all assume—particularly in this polarized age—that this approach has a better chance than starting with, “Republican or Democrat?”

Sunday, February 3, 2019

To David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez: Our Deepest Apologies and Regrets


Why Brett Kavanaugh is the worst thing that has happened to America since Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell is undoubtedly the worst thing that has happened to the United States of America in the 21st Century—until now. Wait, you ask, what about the Bulbous Orange Baby? To which I say, Sorry, but without McConnell, the Idiot-in-Chief is nothing. He is a blob of human waste that hasn’t had a salient thought in his entire painful existence. With McConnell stroking his shaft, however, he’s the Messiah. He is the purveyor of policies (he doesn’t understand a single one of them) that McConnell enshrines into law. He is the champion of constituents (he doesn’t give a flying fuck about a single one of them) in McConnell’s coal-producing southern state. And most importantly, he’s the nominator of judges (he’s never heard of a single goddamn one of them before) who are summarily “vetted” and approved by McConnell’s ill-reputed house of Senatorial prostitution. In short, the Drumpführer is the puppet’s puppet, McConnell is the puppet, and the Kochs, the Adelsons, and the Mercers are the puppeteers.

But now, McConnell has outdone, and, in a sense, replaced himself. He is no longer the most dangerous man in America. That title now falls to his latest creation, the pasty-faced, beer-slamming, sexual predator now known as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. We’ll call him Wah-Wah!

 The unmitigated American apocalypse that is Wah-Wah! is all laid out in painful detail in a pair of unrelated articles in this week’s New Yorker.

In the weekly Comment (“Will the Supreme Court use a New York City Regulation to Strike Down Gun Laws?”), Amy Davidson Sorkin describes the case of New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York, which the U.S. Supreme Court—now with Wah-Wah! on board—is about to hear. The case challenges a New York City gun regulation that prohibits the transportation of firearms outside of a home for any purpose other than a visit to one of the seven NYPD-licensed gun ranges within the city’s limits. The regulation means gun owners cannot take their guns out of the city or, if they have multiple residences, they cannot move their guns from one house to another. Even someone who favors stronger gun laws might consider this law restrictive enough that striking it down doesn’t sound like a big deal. But that’s not how the Supreme Court operates. As Davidson Sorkin explains, the case will very likely build on recent precedent set in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Heller essentially emasculated the “Well Regulated Militia” clause of the Second Amendment, and McDonald ruled that that standard applied to all gun control laws enacted by the states. Enter Wah-Wah!, whose views on these matters couldn’t be clearer. As Davidson Sorkin explains:

As an appeals-court judge, [Wah-Wah!] wrote, in a 2011 dissent, that the District of Columbia should not be allowed to ban semi-automatic assault rifles, largely because they were “in common use.” He added that asking people to register their guns is unconstitutional.

So, game-set-match, Wah-Wah! is just the dude the NRA has been looking for to, as Slate put it in a recent piece, “make every state’s gun laws look like Texas’.”

But with Wah-Wah!, the bad news gets worse, and Louis Menand gives a vivid illustration of why in his piece, “The Supreme Court Case that Enshrined White Supremacy in Law,” a review of several recent books on the landmark 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, which provided the legal basis for institutionalized and publicly sanctioned racism in the U.S. In the piece, Menand describes an America in which a succession of post–Civil War Supreme Court majorities, sometimes with detached ambivalence and at other times twisting itself up in knots, perpetuated racist practices like segregation, voter suppression, and redlining, while tacitly approving more beastly practices like lynching, all the while using Plessy as its legal foundation. The legacy of Plessy couldn’t be clearer:

  • There were 130,334 African-Americans registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896, the year Plessy was decided. In 1904, eight years later, there were only 1,342. In Virginia that year, the estimated black turnout in the Presidential election was zero.
  • In a 1927 Supreme Court case that ruled against a Chinese family in Mississippi whose daughter had been expelled from school on racial grounds, the unanimous opinion was delivered by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, a former U.S. President, and among the Justices who heard the case—and voted with the majority—were the American legal giants Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis.
  • Institutionalized, legally sanctioned racism lasted for a full century after Plessy: It wasn’t until 1995 that Mississippi became the last state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery.
Menand’s account of how these things can pan out over long decades of legal precedent, combined with Davidson Sorkin’s explanation of what’s at stake in the New York case, all adds up to this: With Wah-Wah! on board, we’re looking ahead to decades of living in cities overrun by successive generations of increasingly deadly and barbaric weaponry, all fueled by unfettered capitalism, social unrest, and ignorance, none of which seem to be in short supply these days.

So, in a utopian progressive future, when a President Kamala Harris and a Senate Majority Leader Corey Booker work with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices from nine to seven, to banish Neal Gorsuch and Wah-Wah! to obscurity, and to start the process of returning sanity and reason to American jurisprudence, do not be surprised, do not be aghast, do not suddenly start clinging to comforting tradition. There’s no time for that anymore.

Just be thankful.