Sunday, August 30, 2015

Donald Trump: What If He Wins?


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In Latin America, they would call him a caudillo. The term literally means “man on horseback,” and it’s a product of the 19th century. People in the newly independent countries of central and south America who were trying to put together democratic governments had to deal with the threat that some general or other would either sweep out the government and stage a coup d’état or appeal to a large number of people, convince them that representative government was unworkable, and take over in a revolution. The military leaders who took power that way came to be called caudillos — since 19th century generals usually did ride into battle on horses as a symbol of their leadership authority — and the whole system of dictatorship they embodied became known as caudillismo.
The 20th century was full of caudillos, and the plague of dictatorship they represented spread far beyond Latin America into countries long considered too civilized to succumb to it. Sometimes the caudillos were just thugs (like Saddam Hussein), but sometimes they identified themselves with particular ideologies. On the Left there were Lenin in Russia in 1917, Mao in China in 1949, Kim Il Sung in North Korea after World War II, Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959 and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999. On the Right there were Mussolini in Italy in 1922, Hitler in Germany in 1933 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. Some of the caudillos, like Juan Perón in Argentina in 1945 and 1972 and Muammar al-Quaddafi in Libya in 1979, invented their own ideologies from a smorgasbord of Left and Right ideas.
But wherever the caudillos ruled, and what excuses they put forward as justification for their dictatorial rule, they had one thing in common. They all took power in countries that were heavily divided politically, in which the established democratic parties had essentially deadlocked and the government was barely functioning. And whatever their claimed ideology, they basically presented the same appeal: they would sweep out the established politicians, take over and be men of action who could get things done. They also generally offered convenient scapegoats on which they blamed all their countries’ problems. The Leftist caudillos blamed property owners, corporations (including outside investors) and rich people in general, while the Rightist ones usually made their scapegoats racial instead of economic. But all said that their country had ceased to be one its citizens could be proud of, and they offered themselves as the saviors who could “Make ________ Great Again.”
Until August 20, 2015 I wasn’t thinking of Donald Trump as a potential American caudillo. I had pretty much bought into the conventional wisdom that he was a politically inexperienced blowhard who would self-destruct under the weight of his sheer outrageousness and overweening pride. I was sure that sooner or later the Republican primary voters who have given Trump such a strong lead — though still only about 25 percent of a pretty small sliver of the total American electorate — would come to their senses, decide they’d made their point and coalesce around someone more “electable” in normal political terms. Then I watched Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN August 20, and Rachel Maddow’s on MSNBC just after it, and all they could talk about was the polls that showed Trump actually broadening his lead after gaffe after gaffe that would have sunk a more ordinary politician.
Trump zoomed to the top of the crowded Republican Presidential field when he said that Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to this country and therefore we had to stop “illegal” immigration. Trump attacked John McCain’s military record and snottily said he preferred war heroes who hadn’t got captured — and his poll numbers went up. Trump responded to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s “gotcha” question on the first Republican Presidential debate, calling him on his record of making openly sexist and blatantly sexual slurs about women, with an openly sexist and blatantly sexual slur about her. Not only did his poll numbers go up again, he had an even greater margin of support among Republican women than Republican men. What’s more, even the dwindling numbers of Republican voters who still support someone else as their first choice for the nomination overwhelmingly name Trump as their second choice — and the actual number two candidate in the most recent polls is Ben Carson, an African-American and a former doctor who, like Trump, has never held elective office and is therefore not considered part of “the system.”
What I gathered from those polls, and from the enthusiasm that both Trump and his Democratic opposite number, Bernie Sanders, are stirring up in their followers — Trump and Sanders have both had to move their rallies to bigger venues because the places they booked originally haven’t been big enough to contain the crowds — is that a lot of Americans have given up on “democracy” as they’ve experienced it in the last quarter-century. They’ve seen their politicians, whatever their party label, become so dependent on campaign donations from rich people that the only policies that get seriously considered are ones that make the rich richer and the rest of us poorer. They’ve seen their home values destroyed by a devastating recession, their jobs swept away by corporate restructurings and “outsourcing” to foreign countries, and in the seven years since 2008 the economy go through a so-called “recovery” whose benefits have gone almost exclusively to the top 1 percent of Americans while everyone else is either not working, working well below their potential, or scared shitless every day that their job will be taken over by a Mexican, a Chinese, or a computer.
They’ve given up on their country’s existing government’s ability to protect themselves against threats from abroad. They can’t help but wonder why, despite the U.S. maintaining a bigger military than the next 25 countries in the world combined (and spending that much more on it, too), we’re getting pushed around in the world by Russia — the country we supposedly won the Cold War from — Iran, China and North Korea. They’re perplexed that after all the U.S. servicemembers who were killed in Iraq and all the blood and treasure that was spent there, Iraq is now the home base of the murderous medievalist thugs of Islamic State. And if they think about it at all, they’re probably wondering why all the pro-corporate “free trade” agreements pushed through by presidents of both major parties only make it easier for businesses to shift jobs overseas and shaft American workers.
What the people who’ve underestimated Trump until now (including me) haven’t realized is just how far the U.S. is on the path towards the people losing faith in the entire idea of “democracy” and desperately seeking a caudillo who can rule with an iron hand and make it all better overnight. When anybody bothers to ask the people who are supporting Donald Trump why — as Republican pollster Frank Luntz did in a focus-group meeting in Alexandria, Virginia August 24 — they get quotes from Paddy Chayevsky’s famous line from the movie Network: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” They get brickbats aimed equally at President Obama — whom they don’t believe actually likes the U.S. — and the Republican-dominated Congress, which they call “useless,” “irrelevant,” “lame” and a few other epithets that can’t be printed in a mainstream U.S. newspaper.
One woman at Luntz’s focus group on Trump said of mainstream politicians, “It’s been years and years of feeling like you’ve been lied to. Nothing getting better; everything, across the board, getting worse.” Another attendee, a middle-aged man, said, “We grew up in an America that was the leader of the world. Today, we’re quickly becoming a Third World [country]. … As a power, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin slaps us around like we’re Tahiti. Nobody respects the United States as an authority on anything.”
Asked what they like about Trump, Luntz’s focus-group participants talk about two things: his success in the private sector and his willingness to say things mainstream politicians consider too in-your-face or electorally toxic. “There’s something about Trump,” said one woman in Luntz’s group. “He looks you in the face. He doesn’t care what you think of him.” Another woman said, “He’s successful in this country just like we want to be.” She added that she didn’t mind his boasting because “he’s proud of his success,” which she felt Mitt Romney hadn’t been. “I like the confidence,” a third woman said. “It makes me feel confident.”
Luntz came away from the meeting he’d organized shaken at the depth, scope, power and seeming unshakability of Trump’s support. “Nothing disqualifies Trump,” he said. Though Luntz had worked for the 1992 independent Presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who like Trump had come out of virtually nowhere, shaken up the race and ultimately got 19 percent of the vote, better than any third-party Presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Luntz said the Trump phenomenon was “stronger … far more intense” than Perot.

The Cult of the CEO

In another country, or maybe even another historical era in the U.S., the broad dissatisfaction with the way things are going, and in particular with an economy that serves only the rich and a foreign policy that has left us looking weak to the rest of the world, might have inspired large numbers of people to turn Left. But the American Left has done such a good job in the last 50 years of shrinking both its numbers and its influence to total irrelevance, while the Right has come back from seemingly crushing defeats to grow its electoral and ideological hegemony, that it’s not at all surprising that the man millions of people are turning to as their political savior is presenting himself as a Right-winger who blames “illegals” for virtually all his nation’s problems in much the same reflexive fashion Hitler blamed everything wrong with his country on “the Jews.”
I don’t want to suggest that Trump’s politics are comparable to Hitler’s, but it’s indicative of how he’s using undocumented immigrants as an undifferentiated scapegoat that Trump even said the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore over police killings of African-Americans were the fault of “illegals” and that he’d end such civil disturbances by deporting their practitioners. “When you look at Baltimore, when you look at Chicago, and Ferguson, a lot of these areas, you know, a lot of these gang members are illegal immigrants,” Trump told a talk-radio host in Mobile, Alabama August 14. “They’re gonna be gone. We’re gonna get them out so fast, out of this country. So fast.”
If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, it won’t be the first time the GOP has tried to reclaim the White House by putting up a corporate CEO with no political experience. It happened in 1940, when the Republicans saw their hopes of ending Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, with its domestic New Deal and its aggressive challenge to fascism abroad, in industrialist Wendell Willkie. Had the 22nd Amendment been in effect in 1940, Willkie could well have won the election, especially if there’d been a typical fratricidal war for the Democratic nomination between FDR’s conservative vice-president, John Nance Garner of Texas, and the progressive FDR actually wanted to be his successor, agriculture secretary Henry Wallace. But with FDR eligible to run for a third term and many Americans still associating CEO’s in general with the business practices that had sunk the American economy a decade earlier, Roosevelt beat Willkie — not by as much as he’d beat Herbert Hoover in 1932 or Alf Landon in 1936, but enough to win comfortably.
Since 1940, there has been a sea change not only in the way Americans view their government and political system, but the way they feel about businessmen. The original caudillos were military leaders — indeed, that’s where the term came from — but with the demise of the draft, which has led most Americans to think of the military as something “other” people do, military experience has virtually faded completely from the list of virtues Americans look for in their prospective leaders. The last U.S. President who was a general was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left office in 1961, and the last President who served in the military at all was George H. W. Bush, who left office in 1993.
Instead, thanks to a highly successful propaganda campaign waged by corporate America and the politicians and academics they funded, the cult of the general has given way to the cult of the CEO. The Republican Party is now totally governed by a libertarian ideology that holds that the people who run companies succeed because they’re better, more capable humans than anyone else, and therefore they ought to have the right to run things as they please and any attempts to tax them to help those below them on the socioeconomic scale are not only bad policy but downright immoral. This ideology was expressed in the popular novels of Ayn Rand, whose most important book, Atlas Shrugged (1957), is generally named by Republican activists as the second most significant work of political philosophy ever written (next to the Bible).
At the end of the 19th century, many progressive reformers — Republicans as well as Democrats and independents — believed that private ownership of the financial system, the energy industry and basic utilities like gas, electric, water and public transit was inherently oppressive. Throughout the country so-called Municipal Ownership Leagues were formed to buy out the private owners and make the big utilities publicly owned and therefore more responsive to the people. Even people who stopped short of calling for public ownership still felt the corporations ought to be regulated, and anti-trust laws should be enforced to keep companies from getting so big that they monopolized whole industries and got so rich they used their fortunes to buy control over the political system and shield themselves from public accountability. The basic attitude of the progressives of that era was summed up by activist attorney and, later, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, when he said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
But that view, along with the government regulations, anti-trust laws and other attempts to curb corporate power — including protecting the right of workers to form labor unions — has become, as George W. Bush’s attorney John Woo said about the Geneva Conventions, “obsolete and quaint.” As the governments in the Soviet Union, China and the other countries that claimed to be putting the philosophies of socialism and communism into practice turned into oppressive tyrannies, the American Right was able to argue that this proved that any controls on corporate power, any government interference in the economy, would generate similarly tyrannical results. As memories of the Great Depression faded, corporate CEO’s themselves and their hired propagandists were able to create the cult of the CEO. Self-glorifying autobiographies by people like Trump, Lee Iacocca and General Electric CEO Jack Welch (who became known as “Neutron Jack” because one of his key strategies for building up his company’s stock value was firing large numbers of workers) became best-sellers.
Today the idea that “the private sector” is inherently more “efficient” than the public sector is so widespread in the U.S. that it is taken as an article of faith. Given the opportunity to vote on whether public services should be offered to the private sector, most American electorates overwhelmingly endorse the idea — even though the only ways a private company can deliver a service more cheaply than the government, and turn a profit doing so, is either to cut the wages of the workers or lower the quality of the service, and in real-world privatizations they usually do both. The cult of “the private sector” has reached such dimensions that even the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government agency charged with administering public radio and TV in the U.S., calls itself “a private corporation funded by the American people.”
So with the adulation of CEO’s having reached cult-like status, and with the myth of the super-CEO utterly embraced even by many Americans who have personally suffered from it in lost jobs, lost homes, work-related injuries, environmental devastation and higher taxes, it’s almost inevitable that in a time of public disgust at the way the U.S. is being governed, many Americans are willing to put the presidency in the hands of a CEO and say, “Here. Clean house. Do what you have to do.” They were almost ready to do that in 1992, when H. Ross Perot ran and came a lot closer to being elected President than most people realize. If it hadn’t been for his spectacular psychological meltdown in public, which led him first to withdraw from the race (after he’d spent millions just to get on the ballot in all 50 states) and then to re-enter it, Perot might well have carried enough states to squeeze out an electoral victory in a close three-way race.
And it’s looking more and more like large numbers of Americans are disgusted enough with their so-called “democracy” that they’re willing to see their salvation in Donald Trump. His support so far cuts across all the so-called divisions within the Republican party. Though he hasn’t really talked much about the “social issues” that motivate evangelical Christians and the religious Right in general, and, as Frank Bruni pointed out in an August 25 New York Times column, Trump’s own life hardly makes him the poster child for religious-Right values (“If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America,” Bruni wrote, “I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed? Seems to work for Donald Trump”), he’s leading among Republican evangelicals just as much as he is among the rest of the party.
What’s more, Trump’s appeal extends beyond the Republican Party. Some of the participants in Frank Luntz’s focus group of Trump supporters had voted for Barack Obama. And while the Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, could hardly be more different from Trump on the surface — a self-proclaimed “socialist” instead of a capitalist, a community organizer who eked out a victory in a close race for the mayoralty of Burlington, Vermont in 1981 and has held public office ever since, and someone who’s not only not rich himself but who proudly boasts that the average donation to his campaign is $35 — he’s making a similar appeal to voters disgusted with business as usual in Washington, D.C. and who want an alternative. Frankly, many voters attracted to Sanders in the Democratic primaries will have a hard time accepting Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or some other old-line pro-corporate politician as the ultimate nominee, and despite Trump’s business background and frankly racist platform on immigration, may vote for Trump just because they think this country needs a shake-up and they’ll see him as the man who can deliver it.
It could be that there may be something out there that will prick the Trump balloon, just as the bizarre scandal about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server for State Department business has metastasized and stripped her of the aura of “inevitable Democratic nominee” she once possessed. But more and more, it’s beginning to look like the normal rules of politics don’t apply to Donald Trump — just as the normal rules of business success haven’t applied to him in the career that got him the riches, name recognition and don’t-fuck-with-me reputation that are his principal assets as a politician. It may seem ironic that a country full of people on tenterhooks about how much longer their jobs will last would elect as President a man whose main public presence has been on a “reality” TV show in which he humiliates people and tells them, “You’re … FIRED!,” but when a country’s people feel that their so-called “democracy” has failed them, they’re fair game for a caudillo, a man who can ride in on horseback (or, in Trump’s case, on a state-of-the-art helicopter emblazoned with his name): a Lenin, a Hitler, a Mao … or a Trump.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Bernie Sanders for President!


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Bernie Sanders: Zenger’s Newsmagazine cover, March 1998

Bernie Sanders supporters in the rain at San Diego Pride, July 18, 2015

Crowd at “Bernie Man,” Observatory North Park Theatre, July 29, 2015

“Bernie Man” Merchandise Table, San Diego, July 29, 2015

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has long been one of my culture heroes. Ever since he emerged from the political wilderness of third-party politics and won election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, in 1981 I’ve been one of his fans. I cheered when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 as Vermont’s only Congressmember (the state is so small it gets just one) and when he won an overwhelming victory for Vermont’s junior U.S. Senate seat in 2006. In between the two, Sanders scheduled a speech in San Diego in 1998 and I grabbed the chance to do a phone interview with him to promote his appearance. He was the cover boy for Zenger’s issue 44 in March 1998, and the topics we spoke about in our interview — the vastly unequal distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. and the control of American politics and media by giant corporations and the super-rich individuals who own and run them — are the foundation of his Presidential campaign today.
But I hadn’t anticipated that I’d end up supporting Bernie Sanders for President. I came into the 2016 Presidential campaign — and it’s a measure of how absurd U.S. politics has become that the 2016 Presidential campaign is already in full swing nearly six months before anyone will actually have the chance to vote in it — expecting, reluctantly, to support Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. When progressive activists in the Democratic Party pressured Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) to run for President, I heaved a sigh of relief when she said no. When Sanders stepped in, with the air of an understudy filling in for the billed actor in a stage play — “Senator Elizabeth Warren is indisposed and will not appear tonight. Her part is being played by Senator Bernie Sanders” — I worried about whether or not this was the right strategy.
My assumption was that America is in the grip of a major ideological offensive by a far-Right Republican Party which already controls three-fourths of the federal government — both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court — and needs only the presidency to achieve total control. What’s more, they’ve made it clear what they will do with that control: reverse all the progressive reforms of the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s; abolish what’s left of the social welfare state, including Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare, Medicaid and, of course, Obamacare; end all meaningful regulation on corporations; privatize public education; nullify workers’ rights to organize into unions; enact huge tax cuts and rewrite the tax laws to benefit the rich; end all rules governing worker health and safety; end all laws protecting the environment; end all limits on media consolidation and turn the Internet into an exclusive preserve for pro-corporate and pro-Republican political views; severely restrict all immigration (not just so-called “illegal” immigration!) and make the immigrants already here permanent indentured servants to their employers; end women’s access to safe and legal abortion and contraception, making them permanent slaves to their wombs; and stay in power indefinitely by gerrymandering electoral districts and passing laws restricting the right to vote so people who would be inclined to vote against them will not be able to vote at all.
The Republicans want to do all this because they’re in thrall to an extreme Libertarian ideology that regards government’s only legitimate functions as national defense, maintaining internal order and providing a mechanism to resolve contract disputes between otherwise unfettered private businesses. The much-talked about “splits” in the Republican Party are not about the basic core of this ideology, but simply over how fast to push it through. We know that Republicans in total control of the U.S. government will push this agenda in as relentless, unscrupulous and authoritarian a fashion as possible because that’s what they’ve done in states in which they had the governorship and both houses of the legislature: Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, Rick Snyder’s Michigan, John Kasich’s Ohio, Bobby Jindal’s Louisiana, Sam Brownback’s Kansas, Rick Perry’s and Greg Abbott’s Texas.
What’s more, the historical odds in 2016 overwhelmingly favor the Republicans. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1947, which limited the president to two terms, only once has the same major party won three Presidential elections in a row — the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush in 1988. The parties come into 2016 on the heels of an economic debacle in 2008 and an anemic “recovery” whose benefits have overwhelmingly gone to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population. Though a lot of the blame for this can be traced to Republican policies and priorities, both major parties are dependent on financial contributions from wealthy individuals and corporations — the Republicans a bit more so than the Democrats — and therefore both parties, as Sanders said when I interviewed him and is saying again in his speeches, have passed laws and policies that benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else.
Nonetheless, because Barack Obama has been president since January 20, 2009, it will be the Democrats — not the Republicans — who will suffer at the polls for the fact that so few of the fruits of the so-called “recovery” have trickled down to ordinary middle- and working-class Americans. The Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 largely through faux-populist appeals stating that the Democrats had skewed America’s economy in favor of the rich and it was only by voting Republican that working- and middle-class Americans could put the balance right again. It worked because, as the late political scientist V. O. Key said, Americans do vote on issues, but “retrospectively and negatively” — that is, they vote against what hasn’t worked for them in the past, not on what candidates and parties are promising to do for them in the future.

Hillary Will Self-Destruct Again!

I entered 2015 feeling reluctantly resigned to Hillary Clinton — with her awesome name recognition and well-stocked, corporate-funded war chest — as the only Democratic candidate for President who could beat the post-1947 historical jinx against either major party winning three presidential races in a row. It was certainly a lesser-of-two-evils choice, but as I argued with my friends who’ve long since departed the Democratic Party (as well as my husband Charles, who has never been a Democrat — he registered with the Peace and Freedom Party as soon as he was old enough to vote and he’s been with it ever since), sometimes you have to vote for the lesser evil because the greater evil is so evil. This was the case in Germany in the early 1930’s, when the pointless and self-destructive conflicts between the Social Democrats and the Communists allowed the greater evil, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, to come to power. And it is true in the U.S. today, with the Republicans pushing an agenda so insanely destructive of basic human values and civil rights that it has to be stopped at all costs, no matter how many compromises we have to make to do so.
So why did I change my mind and endorse Bernie Sanders? Partly for the same reason I endorsed Ralph Nader in the 2000 Presidential election over both George W. Bush and Al Gore: I had a hard time sitting on the sidelines and making historical analogies — excuses, really — for not supporting a candidate who was saying so much of what I believe. Partly for personal reasons: just before the Pride events, my husband Charles came back from a vacation in the Bay Area, in which he visited the memorial museum to socialist author Jack London and came back fired up with radical pride and a determination that our participation in this year’s Pride Parade should be with an openly radical political contingent. And partly because the way the campaign has been playing out, I’ve re-evaluated my original analysis that Hillary Clinton was the Democrats’ best hope and have decided that she is simply unelectable: her nomination will consign the Democrats to electoral oblivion in 2016 and ensure the victory of whatever crazy Republican survives their marathon-dance nomination process.
I soured on Hillary Clinton big-time after the atrocious meeting of the San Diego Democrats for Equality, a club originally organized in 1974 to push for Queer rights within the Democratic Party and get local Democrats to support Queer issues, on June 30. It was one of the club’s marathon meetings, lasting four hours, and the main agenda of the club’s leadership was to shove through an endorsement of Hillary Clinton no matter how many dissenting members they had to alienate or how many pretzel shapes they had to bend the club’s rules into to do it. The meeting attracted a lot of Sanders supporters, but many of them are not registered in the Democratic Party and therefore weren’t eligible to vote in the club’s endorsement process. (Under California law, many of them won’t be able to vote for Sanders in the state’s presidential primary, either, since they’re registered in alternative parties like Peace and Freedom or the Greens.)
With one significant exception — Andrea Villa, who opposed all the election endorsements that night on the ground that was simply too early to be making endorsements for 2016 in June 2015, months before the period for candidates to file to run even begins — the club’s current and former presidents, David Warmoth, Craig Roberts and Doug Case, formed a solid phalanx behind Clinton. There were two votes on whether the club should endorse for president at all, and both of them were ties; Warmoth used his chair’s prerogative to break the ties and push through the endorsement. He also prevented people who weren’t club members from participating in the debate, even though at previous meetings non-members have been allowed to speak once all the members who wanted to talk had been heard. Roberts, with a tinge of panic in his voice, said, “We’ve got to get this done before Pride!” Though the in-person vote on whether to endorse at all had been virtually even, Clinton won the endorsement by 50 votes to 21 for Sanders and 12 for no endorsement, mainly because club members had been allowed to show up, cast ballots and then leave — and Clinton’s supporters in the club had obviously done their get-out-the-vote work well and turned out most of the voters who didn’t stay.
Why the big push? Because, as Roberts and other Clinton supporters in the room said, her nomination is inevitable anyway and if the Democrats for Equality want to retain any credibility with the party, they’ve got to get on board the bandwagon before it leaves without them. When it was my turn to speak, I said that if we’d debated a presidential endorsement in 2007, we’d probably have heard the same thing: Hillary Clinton will be the nominee. She’s got the major party leaders behind her, she’s got the big money, she’s got the campaign organization. But the true progressives in the Democratic party had other ideas; instead of accepting Clinton as inevitable, they rallied behind a young, inexperienced Democratic Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama and he became the next president.
Obama won partly because he worked harder than Clinton did — that’s what happens when you’re the scrappy underdog instead of the establishment favorite — partly because he put together a larger network of small donors, partly because he had Clinton’s horrendous mistake on the war in Iraq to help him (she voted to authorize Bush’s war in 2003), and partly because Hillary Clinton is simply a terrible politician. She’s been able to conceal this for a long time because she’s married to a great politician. But on her own, Hillary Clinton can be counted on to self-sabotage every campaign she gets involved in. She did it in 2008 and she’s doing it again. What’s more, polls show that 45 percent of the American people simply don’t trust her — and while the ongoing scandal about her use of her private e-mail server to conduct official government business as Secretary of State isn’t all that important intrinsically, it is reinforcing voters’ basic distrust of her.
Hillary Clinton didn’t come up from hardscrabble roots in Arkansas like her husband did. She was born to a well-to-do family in Illinois and her public persona just drips with a sense of entitlement, a sense that she deserves things just because of who she is. If she’s the nominee, we can expect months of Republican propaganda skillfully reminding voters of the gap between who they are and who she thinks she is. Much of it will be unfair, and no doubt some of it will be out-and-out lies, but it will work. Bill Clinton famously claimed that as President he would “feel your pain.” It’s impossible to imagine many Americans — except maybe other married women whose husbands can’t or won’t keep their dicks in their pants — who would think that Hillary Clinton could feel their pain.

Bernie Says What I Believe

Bernie — like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, he’s almost invariably referred to by his supporters with only his first name — officially kicked off his campaign with a nationwide video event July 29 called “Bernie Man.” (His supporters seem addicted to bad puns on his name; at the merchandise table for that event were T-shirts with a cartoon drawing of him and the slogan, “Feel the Bern.”) The idea was to use the modern technology of Internet video streaming to broadcast Sanders giving a short speech at locations throughout the country. In San Diego, the campaign chose the Observatory North Park Theatre at 29th and University — and Charles, recovering from an appendix operation, and I chose to attend as our first public outing since his surgery. It was that important to us to be there.
The theme of his speech was, “Enough is enough.” Americans, Sanders said, have had it with a ruling elite that grabs more and more of this country’s — and the world’s — wealth and income for itself. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that there is something immoral when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; when almost all of the new income being created in America is going to the top 1 or 2 percent.” (When I interviewed him in 1998 his lament was that the top 1 percent of Americans owned almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; that’s an indication of how an already severely unequal distribution of wealth and income has worsened in the last 17 years.)
“The American people understand also that it is simply not right that major corporation after major corporation, many of whom are making billions of profits, pay nothing — zero — or, at most, very little in taxes, because they stash their profits in the Cayman Islands,” Sanders said. “We have got to reverse the decline of the middle class over the last 40 years. People are asking how does it happen, with all of the new technology out there, with all of the increase in productivity that workers are producing, that millions of people are working longer hours than ever before?” And that, of course, is if they’re lucky to have a job at all; as Sanders said, America’s actual unemployment rate is not the “official” 5.3 percent, but 10.5 percent — a statistic you can expect to hear a lot of Republicans cite next year, even if their policies would likely only make it worse.
“One of the great tragedies we are experiencing, that we do not talk about at all, is youth unemployment,” Sanders said. “A recent study came out that said kids between the ages of 17 to 20 who have graduated from high school have an unemployment rate of 33 percent — if they’re white. If they are Hispanic, it’s 36 percent. If they’re African-American, it’s 51 percent. In other words, we are turning our backs on an entire generation of young people. And if anyone thinks it’s a coincidence that we end up having more people in jail than any other country on earth, you would be mistaken. It seems to be that instead of having 5 ½ million young people throughout this country who have no jobs and no schooling, maybe it makes a lot more sense for us to be investing in jobs and education than in jails and incarceration.”
Sanders’ comments on race — particularly his acknowledgment that, as badly as white people are being screwed by an economy run for the benefit of corporations and the rich, it’s even worse for people of color — are especially important given the fraught relations between him and the African-American community in particular. For some reason, when the “Black Lives Matter” movement decided to start disrupting Presidential campaign events, the first candidate they picked to go after was not any of the Republicans (for whom Black lives really don’t matter because Blacks — if they vote at all — overwhelmingly vote Democratic anyway), nor was it Hillary Clinton. It was Bernie Sanders, at the Netroots Nation conference of on-line progressive activists June 18.
They were demanding that Sanders give them time on the podium — which he was willing to do, though the audience vetoed it — and that he speak the name of Sandra Bland, the latest victim of the police onslaught against the lives of African-Americans. A 28-year-old African-American woman who had already collected videos of police abuses and posted them online, Bland was stopped by state trooper Richard Encinia in Prairie View, Texas July 10 for failure to signal a lane change. After the two got into an argument, Encinia pulled Bland out of her car, threw her to the ground and arrested her. She was held in jail for three days and found hanged in her cell on July 13; the authorities claim she committed suicide, but the incident sparked nationwide protests by activists convinced she had been murdered.
Judging from his comments on the “Bernie Man” video, Sanders got the message loud and clear. “All of us are tired, sick and tired, of seeing institutional racism at work; of seeing Black people handcuffed and thrown to the ground, as in the case of Sandra Bland,” he said. “People should not die because they didn’t put a signal on. We need significant criminal justice reform. We need to deal with a whole lot of issues, but the bottom line is we cannot and should not lead the world in the number of people who are in jail. We should lead the world in having the best-educated population.”
Sanders has also been criticized by some progressives for a mixed record on gun legislation — he’s voted for some restrictions but not others, reflecting the large hunting community in Vermont — and for not taking a strong enough anti-war and anti-imperialism stand in his current campaign. An August 4 e-mail from RootsAction urged recipients to sign an appeal to Sanders to add anti-war points to his platform. “Militarism and corporate power are fueling each other,” the RootsAction e-mail said. Sanders has a strong anti-war record in Congress. In 2003 he spoke against then-President Bush’s request for Congress to authorize the Iraq war, and in 2006 he criticized the “outing” of Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent.
“The revelation that the President authorized the release of classified information in order to discredit an Iraq war critic should tell every member of Congress that the time is now for a serious investigation of how we got into the war in Iraq and why Congress can no longer act as a rubber stamp for the President,” Sanders said on the Plame matter in 2006. But as of August 16, the “Issues” list on his Presidential campaign Web site,, lists “Income and Wealth Inequality,” “Getting Big Money Out of Politics,” “Creating Decent-Paying Jobs,” “Racial Justice,” “A Living Wage,” “Real Family Values,” “Climate Change & Environment,” and “Reforming Wall Street” — nothing about militarism, imperialism or foreign policy in general. And the “Bernie Man” speech also avoided foreign issues except for a brief reference to “the military-industrial complex” — a phrase coined in 1961 by former Republican President Dwight Eisenhower — towards the end.
Nonetheless, Bernie Sanders remains a bright light in a depressing Presidential campaign otherwise containing either dim bulbs or potentially destructive fires. He’s a candidate with a long-standing commitment to progressive issues, not another Bill Clinton or Barack Obama seeking the progressive community’s support and then selling us out once he’s been elected. In some ways he’s the Left-wing version of Donald Trump, saying what the other politicians fear to say and articulating the real ideals of their respective parties’ bases. But while the multibillionaire Trump is unwittingly laying bare the true ugliness of the Republican party and its ruling ideology, and his main campaign backer is himself, the non-rich Sanders is articulating a hopeful, optimistic progressive vision from what the late Paul Wellstone called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” What’s more, he proudly boasts that in the era of unaccountable “super-PAC’s” and the other well-heeled beasts let loose by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the average contribution to Bernie Sanders’ campaign is … $35.
Whether Bernie Sanders wins the nomination or not, the massive attendance at his rallies and his upward climb in the polls will hopefully end the collective paralysis of Democratic activists in the face of Hillary Clinton’s so-called “inevitability.” Though the optimal goal of supporting Bernie Sanders is to get him nominated by the Democratic Party and elected President, his campaign will be at least a partial success if he either moves her closer to the Left (and she’s been making more populist, more anti-corporate speeches since he entered the race and began to steal her thunder) or paves the way for another Democrat who might defeat Clinton and stand a chance at winning the election.

Read the original 1998 Zenger’s Newsmagazine interview with Bernie Sanders (copyright © 1998 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine) below:

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

“B” — The Forgotten Letter


Copyright © 2012, 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On the eve of San Diego’s Queer Pride celebration — known, as has become the regrettable custom, by the ugly and risible acronym “LGBT” — I can’t help but think of an article I recently downloaded from the Internet, a report of a study from Rice University in Houston, Texas which, according to the university’s July 1 press release (, shows, “Bisexuals tend to have worse health than Gay men and Lesbian women.”
According to the study, 19.5 percent of Bisexual men and 18.5 percent of Bi women rated their own health as “poor or fair.” By contrast, 14.5 percent of straight men, 15.6 percent of straight women, 11.9 percent of Gay men and 10.6 percent of Lesbian women said their health was “poor or fair.” The study found Bisexual respondents were less likely to be college-educated or earn more than $25,000 per year. It found that Bi people were more likely to smoke cigarettes: 23.8 percent of Bi men and 21.9 percent of Bi women smoke, compared to 14.9 percent Gay men, 16.6 percent Lesbian women, 11.1 percent of straight men and just 8.3 percent of straight women.
Justin Denney, assistant professor of sociology at Rice and director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Urban Health Program, argued that Bisexuals have poorer health and lower income prospects because they’re “minorities within the minority and experience unique and more extreme forms of discrimination.” That’s an academic’s understatement if there ever was one. Despite the sham inclusion of “B” and “T” (Bisexual and Transgender) into the name of virtually every organization serving the Queer community or every event it puts on, Bisexuals remain the odd men and women out of the Queer community, at best paid lip service and at worst openly derided, mocked, ignored or denied altogether.
And this is the case even though, ironically, more Americans identify themselves as Bisexual than as Gay, Lesbian or Transgender. A report issued in January 2011 by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s LGBT Advisory Committee included a study, published the previous year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, that showed 92.7 percent of adults surveyed — 92.2 percent of males and 93.1 percent of females — identified as heterosexual. The percentages of people identifying as Gay or Lesbian were 2.5 percent of all adults, 4.2 percent of men and just 0.9 percent of women. The percentages identifying as Bi were 3.1 percent of adults, 2.6 percent of men and 3.6 percent of women — indicating something I’d long suspected from anecdotal evidence: women who have sex with both women and men are more likely to acknowledge their desires for both and less likely than men to decide that one same-sex encounter or relationship brands them as “Queer for life.”
Among adolescents, the numbers were even more striking. In the survey, 93.5 percent of adolescents — 96.1 percent of men and 90.5 percent of females — identified as heterosexual. Just 1 percent of adolescents identified as Gay or Lesbian (1.8 percent of men and only 0.2 percent of women), versus 4.9 percent who identified as Bi: 1.5 percent of men and 8.4 percent of women. Another poll, taken in 2007 by Hunter College of City University of New York (, showed similar numbers. Focused exclusively on people who identify as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual, its tally indicated that among the men, 33.4 percent said they were Gay and 15.4 percent said they were Bi — but among the women, 33.5 percent said they were Bi versus only 17.8 percent who said they were Lesbian. Yet another survey, from the U.S. government in 2002, said that 56 percent of all Americans who say they’re Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual identify as Bi rather than Lesbian or Gay.
“Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored, discriminated against, demonized, or rendered invisible in both the heterosexual world and the Lesbian and Gay community,” said the San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s report. “Often, the entire [Bi]sexual orientation is branded as invalid, immoral or irrelevant. Despite years of activism and the largest population within the LGBT community, the needs of Bisexuals still go unaddressed and their very existence is still called into question. This erasure has serious consequences on Bisexuals’ health, economic well-being, and funding for Bi organizations and programs.”
Bisexual invisibility turns up in some of the oddest places. One year I was volunteering at the Bisexual Forum booth at the Pride Festival, and a man came up to the booth wearing a T-shirt with an alleged list of “Famous Gay and Lesbian People in History.” With a disbelieving air, he asked the people staffing the booth, “Are you really Bisexual?” “Yes,” I said, grabbing the teachable moment, “and so was just about everybody listed on your T-shirt.”
More recently I found myself incensed by a retrospective article in the July 7, 2015 Rolling Stone ( on the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer and one of the principal songwriters for the rock band Queen. The author, Mikal Gilmore, acknowledged that “Mercury sustained a passionate relationship with his partner of many years, Mary Austin, a glamorous young woman he met at Biba, a London fashion house. … Mercury would remain close to Austin for the rest of his life, employing her as his personal secretary and adviser, and despite his numerous subsequent relationships, he referred to her as his common-law wife.” Later, Gilmore said, Mercury had another “passionate relationship” with German actress Barbara Valentin — but, despite these and the other female lovers Mercury had, because he also had sex with men Gilmore referred to Mercury throughout his article not as Bi, but as “Gay.”
In a recent commentary for the British Queer publication Attitude (, James Dawson listed a number of the enduring prejudices Gay men in particular have towards Bisexuals: “Bisexual men can’t be trusted in relationships; they will always want the other sex.” “There’s no such thing as a Bisexual.” “I wouldn’t date a Bi guy because there’s too much competition.” What unites these stereotypes is the sense that Bisexuals aren’t “really” part of the Queer community because they can always “run for cover,” always duck into the seeming safety and protection of dating opposite-sex partners, and therefore they don’t have as much at stake as we do. Yet at the same time they’re considered interlopers in the straight community as well — and the advent of AIDS ramped up the level of Biphobia among straights by stoking a fear that Bi men would be the “vector” that would poison straight women, and ultimately straight men as well, with the “Gay plague.”
The anti-Bi stereotypes Dawson cited — and attacked — have a few needles of truth concealed in haystacks of prejudice and bigotry. Many Gays and Lesbians (including this author) have briefly claimed a “Bisexual” identity as a sort of way station between a heterosexual lifestyle (including a serious relationship with an opposite-sex partner) and a final Gay or Lesbian identity — leading to yet one more sour anti-Bi joke: “Bi now, Gay later.” And in a community whose most recent political priority was winning marriage equality for same-sex couples, the fear of Bisexuals and the whole idea that they can’t be content with one partner — or even one gender — at a time runs counter to the message from our community leaders that in order to win marriage equality, we have to prove ourselves worthy of it by committing exclusively to our same-sex partners and not “cheating” or “straying” (words we’ve imported from the heterosexual community, along with the vicious moral judgments they imply) with anyone else.
But I’ve long thought there’s an even deeper reason for the fear and prejudice many Gay men and Lesbians feel towards Bisexuals. The official leadership of the Queer community has for decades rested much of its case for equal rights on the idea that sexual orientation is “immutable” — that, like one’s racial identity, it can’t be changed. We’ve attacked so-called “reparative therapy” programs, not on the basis they deserve to be attacked — they’re generally sponsored by anti-Queer religious groups who put psychological pressure on people to “change” their sexual orientation from Queer to straight by threatening them with eternal damnation if they stay Queer and offering them eternal salvation if they date and marry someone of the opposite sex — but on the demonstrably false idea that people never change their sexual orientation.
Nonsense. There are plenty of people in the world (including, once again, this author) who lived for years in a relationship with an opposite-sex partner and then said a sad farewell to that person in order to live as an “out” Gay or Lesbian. Why should we assume that it never happens the other way — that a person who has lived for years as Gay or Lesbian might find and fall in love with an opposite-sex partner and want to live with, and even marry, that person? I remember vividly the fracas Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon went through when, after a 15-year marriage to a man, she started a relationship with a woman in 2004. Eight years later, in an interview with Alex Witchel of the New York Times Magazine, Nixon went afoul of the Queer Thought Police big-time.
“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a Gay audience, and it included the line, ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been Gay, and Gay is better,’” Nixon told Witchel. “They tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my Gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered Gay and who is not.”
Nixon didn’t stop there. Witchel described her as waving her arms and turning red in the face as she expressed her antagonism towards the “born this way” orthodoxy of the Queer community. “Why can’t it be a choice?” she said. “Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was Gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.” Later she back-tracked, saying that it had been a choice for her because she is Bisexual, but she had still “chosen” to be in a relationship with a female partner. (See my commentary from 2012 at
What’s scary to me is that the Queer leadership has staked so much on this nonsense about “immutability” and has built so much of the case for our civil rights around it that our adversaries on the Right, especially the radical religious Right, think that if they can prove it isn’t so they can invalidate our claim to equality — “See, they can change! Therefore they’re not being discriminated against and they don’t deserve civil-rights protection.” As much as I applauded the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges establishing a federal Constitutional right to marriage equality, I must say I got upset when Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion that the same-sex couples bringing the suit deserved to win because “their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.” Read literally, that would mean that a state couldn’t deny marriage equality to Gay and Lesbian people but could deny it to Bisexuals because same-sex marriage would not be their “only real path” to the “profound commitment” of being married at all.
I don’t for a moment believe that anybody’s sexual orientation — including mine — is “immutable.” I was gifted (though some people would believe it was a curse) with a primary attraction to members of my own sex, and I recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of my relationship with my husband and the seventh anniversary of our legal marriage. I don’t for one minute believe in the opposite of the “immutable” myth — the idea that I or anyone else can change our sexual attractions as easily as we can change our shirts — but I do believe that nature may deal us the cards of what sorts of people we’re attracted to but it is we who decide how we will play that hand. And since we’re human beings who move about in a social world, the happenstances of who we meet, when, whether we’re attracted to them and they’re attracted to us determine how we express our sexuality as much or more than whatever we’ve been handed in the gene pool.
One of the reasons I’ve been so appalled at the “LGBT” designation for the Queer community — aside from the simple fact that it’s ugly, and it’s all too easy to ridicule (Queer humorist David Sedaris has said it makes us sound like a sandwich) — is that instead of rethinking the fundamental assumptions under which the Queer movement was founded and has been operating for decades, we simply stuck the letters “B” and “T” onto the end of everything. We didn’t think that the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people gives the lie to the whole silly idea that Gays and Lesbians are “born this way” — which is a great Lady Gaga chorus line but lousy science.
The existence of Bisexuals threatens the whole idea that sexuality is immutable — that we are biologically limited in our attractions to one and only one gender — and the notion we’ve picked up from the straight community that not only should we limit ourselves to one and only one gender but the ultimate sign of our sexual maturity is to limit ourselves to one and only one partner in a marriage. And the existence of Transgender people makes the “born this way” notion even harder to defend. After all, it’s hard to think of a more “immutable” characteristic a person could have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female — but if the Trans community has taught us anything, it’s that the physical configuration of their body doesn’t necessarily determine a person’s psychological sense of gender as male, female or — increasingly — something new, strange and wonderful in between the extremes of the gender binary.
This odd situation — the community’s official acceptance of “B” and “T” as part of its identity and the real struggles actually existing Bisexual and Transgender people face overcoming the prejudices of Gays and Lesbians, as well as straights — is evidence that the sexuality-as-race metaphor we’ve embraced for decades has reached its limits. Instead I’ve long thought the more accurate metaphor for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is religion, not race. The U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to believe in whatever they want in matters of faith — including, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “20 gods or no god” — even if it’s not only not the religion they were raised by their parents in but is diametrically opposed to it. The New Age movement of the 1970’s taught us that we were “body, mind and spirit”; the First Amendment historically granted Americans the freedom of mind and spirit, but it has taken until the 21st century and the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges decisions to extend that to the freedom of body.
America’s Queer community, in its 65th year of continuous equal-rights activism (there was an ongoing Queer equality movement for at least 19 years before Stonewall!), has gradually evolved from a celebration of people’s right to express themselves in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity however they liked, as long as they didn’t harm or infringe on anyone else, to a narrower view in which we proclaim ourselves identical to heterosexuals except for who we love. I rejoice in the success of the marriage equality movement — after all, my husband Charles and I took advantage of it ourselves — but I also find myself concerned that by setting marriage as a goal for all Queer people, we’re putting Queer folk who either can’t find a partner for a long-term committed relationship or simply don’t want one at risk of the same social ostracism the heterosexual community has long imposed on straight people who can’t or don’t want to get married.
Yes, we as Queer folk and our allies should defend the right of Queer people to marry same-sex partners “because of their respect — and need — for its privileges and responsibilities,” as Justice Kennedy wrote. We should also defend the rights of Queer people who don’t want to get married, don’t want to commit to one person, don’t necessarily want to commit to one gender of partner, the right to express themselves sexually with whomever they wish as long as it doesn’t involve coercion or underage partners. And we should defend the right of people to live as men or women regardless of the hand their DNA dealt them — and indeed, as a small but growing minority of Transgender people are doing, to reject the male-female gender binary altogether and live somewhere in between, or apart from, the two. A full acceptance of Bisexual and Transgender people by the Gay and Lesbian community leadership means a movement that defends and expands people’s options in how to live and express their sexual orientation and gender identity — not one that locks them into a “you’re born this way” orthodoxy and tells them biology has choked off some of those choices forever.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Supreme Court Finally Does the Right Thing

Marriage Equality Decision Tops a Roller-Coaster Week


Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Standing-room-only celebration at the San Diego “LGBT” Community Center, June 26, 2015

As I’m writing this, it’s been one week since June 26, the day the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, making marriage equality for same-sex couples the law of the land nationwide. Today is Friday, July 3, the eve of the seventh wedding anniversary of my husband Charles and I. We got married on the Fourth of July, 2008, partly because we liked the symbolism of making America’s Independence Day our own Interdependence Day; partly because the room we wanted — the Joyce Beers Community Center in the Hillcrest shopping mall then known as the Uptown District and now called The Hub — was available; and partly because it was a pretty good way to ensure that we would never forget our anniversary.
When I first met Charles in 1982 I was living with a woman (who’s still one of my closest friends and was a witness at our wedding) and neither of us knew the other was Gay. We met at a political reception — which ought to have been a warning of what our lives together were going to look like — and Charles recalls that that night I seemed more interested in talking to his mother than to him. A few months later I had come out as a Gay man and Charles and I briefly saw each other, albeit non-sexually. Then I lost track of him until we suddenly re-met in 1995, began dating, got serious … and have been together ever since.
I first found out about the Obergefell decision on Friday morning, June 26, as I was checking my e-mails and writing my journal as I got ready to go to work. The outcome was hinted at in the subject lines of some of the e-mails in my inbox, and with a certain degree of trembling in my heart I started opening them to see if it was true. Later I logged on to and downloaded the decisions — all 103 pages of them, containing not only Justice Anthony Kennedy’s luminous opinion but the four, count ’em, four dissents the Republican-appointed justices on the losing end had penned.
Those four dissents are perhaps the most remarkable part of the decision. While the Democratic-appointed justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — all joined Kennedy’s majority opinion, the ones on the losing side all felt an urge to write themselves. It’s as if the four dissenters — Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — needed to play a one-upsmanship game with each other: “You think you hate them? Well, I hate them more!”

Scalia’s Venom

Not surprisingly, given how the Court’s three previous decisions vastly expanding the rights of the Queer community (and I’ve long preferred the still inclusive term “Queer” to the hideous neologism “LGBT,” which Queer humor writer David Sedaris said makes us sound like a sandwich) went, with Kennedy writing the majority opinion and Scalia writing a flamingly rude and sarcastic dissent, Scalia won the one-upsmanship game. Deriding Kennedy’s statement that “the nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy and spirituality,” Scalia writes, “One would think freedom of intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask any hippie.” Just what decade does Scalia think it is?
Scalia’s statement at the start of his dissent that “the substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me” is belied by the sheer venom of what he wrote. “When the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, every State limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so,” Scalia said. “That resolves these cases. … Since there is no doubt whatever that the People never decided to prohibit the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples, the public debate over same-sex marriage must be allowed to continue. But the Court ends this debate, in an opinion lacking even a thin veneer of law. Buried beneath the mummeries and straining-to-be-memorable passages of the opinion is a candid and startling assertion: No matter what it was the people ratified, the Fourteenth Amendment protects those rights that the Judiciary, in its ‘reasoned judgment,’ thinks the Fourteenth Amendment ought to protect.”
It gets worse. Scalia dismisses the court on which he has sat for nearly three decades as “only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast states. Only one hails from the vast expanse in between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). … But what really astounds us is the hubris reflected in today’s judicial Putsch.” For some reason, any case upholding equality for Queer Americans seems to evoke from Scalia German words used by such defenders of liberty and individual rights as Bismarck and Hitler. When he dissented from Kennedy’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas opinion striking down laws criminalizing sex between same-sex partners, Scalia wrote that the court majority had “mistaken a Kulturkampf [culture war] for a fit of spite.”
And in the final paragraph of his dissent, Chief Justice Roberts seemed bound and determined to match Scalia in sheer snottiness. “If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” Roberts wrote. “Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

“Original Intent” vs. “Living Constitution”

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion answers Roberts’ preposterous charge that the court’s decision has “nothing to do with” the Constitution. “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times,” he wrote. “The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”
It’s a debate that’s been going on both in and around the United States Supreme Court virtually since the Court’s first justices were appointed by President George Washington. Scalia’s so-called “original intent” or “originalist” view argues that the court should base its decisions on a strict reading of the actual words written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers and the people who came after them — including John Bingham, the Republican Congressmember from Ohio who was the principal author of the 14th Amendment. Since it’s highly unlikely anyone in the Congress that passed the 14th Amendment, or the states that ratified it, even thought about Queer people as a class (the term “homosexual” as a name for something a person was, rather than for sex acts a person did, wasn’t coined until 1865), much less thought that the 14th Amendment would protect the right of men to marry men and women to marry women, Scalia and his fellow “originalists” said the court was prohibited from construing it that way now.
Kennedy’s opinion is an example of a contrary view of constitutional interpretation called the “Living Constitution.” It argues that as our understanding of the world around us and of our own natures grows and changes, what we think of as fundamental freedoms also must change. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that imposing segregation on African-Americans — forcing them to study in separate schools, eat in separate restaurants, pee in separate bathrooms and travel on separate railroad cars — didn’t violate their right to “equal protection of the laws” as long as the facilities were equal (though in fact they weren’t). In 1954 the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that this was hogwash, that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” What changed? Our understanding of the impact of racial segregation on the people subjected to it, white as well as Black, and an increase in our overall level of compassion as a society that made segregating African-Americans seem as indefensibly evil as enslaving them.
Not, of course, that this change in understanding and compassion was at all spontaneous. It was well planned for, organized and fought for by activists, white as well as Black, who joined together to challenge the idiotic prejudices behind segregation and push both government and private businesses to treat people equally, regardless of color. Indeed, the most intense period of civil rights activism in U.S. history came in the 10 years between the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling in 1954 and the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act in 1964. African-American leaders — including some who distrusted and even hated each other — knew that the Supreme Court had not given them equality. At best it had given them a hunting license for equality; it was up to them to bring down the beast of racism and turn equality from a judicial promise to an on-the-ground reality.

Reality and the “Brandeis Brief”

Closely allied to the idea of the “Living Constitution” is one first propounded by attorney Louis Brandeis, who from 1890 until 1916 (when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court himself) radically changed the idea of how appellate courts in general and the Supreme Court in particular should handle cases. In addition to being the first attorney to argue that the U.S. Constitution gave people a “right to privacy” — which would later become the heart of Court decisions allowing women to use birth control and abortion — Brandeis said that justices shouldn’t base their decisions on crabbed, restrictive readings of the founding documents. Instead they should look at how their rulings played out in the real world.
A typical “Brandeis brief” — a phrase which entered the legal vocabulary to denote cases presented this way long after Brandeis himself died in 1939 — might have a page or two on his legal theory of the case, and hundreds of pages of social-science research and other hard evidence of how workers’ health and safety, the environment or civil rights would be affected by the Court’s ruling. The fact that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision is called Obergefell is itself an example of the Brandeis tradition. Though the case the court ruled on was consolidated from four lawsuits, each brought in a state that didn’t permit same-sex couples to marry, James Obergefell was picked as the lead plaintiff because he had the most moving backstory — and the most compelling one in terms of demonstrating the evil of barring same-sex couples from marrying. As Justice Kennedy put it in his opinion:

Petitioner James Obergefell, a plaintiff in the Ohio case, met John Arthur over two decades ago. They fell in love and started a life together, establishing a lasting, committed relation. In 2011, however, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. This debilitating disease is progressive, with no known cure. Two years ago, Obergefell and Arthur decided to commit to one another, resolving to marry before Arthur died. To fulfill their mutual promise, they traveled from Ohio to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. It was difficult for Arthur to move, and so the couple were wed inside a medical transport plane as it remained on the tarmac in Baltimore. Three months later, Arthur died. Ohio law does not permit Obergefell to be listed as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate. By statute, they must remain strangers even in death, a state-imposed separation Obergefell deems ‘hurtful for the rest of time.’ … He brought suit to be shown as the surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate.

That’s about as heart-rending a story as you could imagine — and as vivid a justification for ruling that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of “equal protection under the law” and “due process of the laws” require American states to give legal recognition to the marriages of same-sex couples. Ohio basically said to James Obergefell that he had no legal right to his relationship with John Arthur — not as his husband, and not as his widower either. I think much of the abrupt turnaround in public opinion on marriage equality has come from just such stories: not only the Ohio couple whom the state insisted in separating not only in life but even in death; the Michigan plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, who out of both love and public spirit took children with “special needs” into their home and then found that they could not legally adopt them as a couple; and Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Ijpe DeKoe, who fought for the U.S. in Afghanistan and then found that his husband, Thomas Kostura, whom he’d married in New York before DeKoe was deployed, ceased to be his husband — or any legal relation at all — when they returned to DeKoe’s home state, Tennessee.

A Beginning, Not an End

It’s indicative of how quickly Americans’ attitudes towards same-sex marriage have changed in little over a decade: from 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s ruling for marriage equality became a cause célèbre and the Republicans pushed through state bans on same-sex marriage and called for a Constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman; to 2015, when polls show 62 percent of Americans support marriage equality and Wisconsin Governor (and undeclared Republican Presidential candidate) Scott Walker’s call for a Constitutional amendment banning it sounds very much behind the times. Even I, a long-time activist on this issue as well as part of a married same-sex couple, didn’t realize we’d come so far that on June 26, 2015 only 13 states still banned Gay and Lesbian couples from marrying.
What makes that even more ironic is that on the date the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, in 29 states you can still be denied employment, housing, public accommodations or other civil rights for being Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual, and in 32 states you can still be denied these rights for being Transgender. The Queer community celebrated the lifting of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on Queer people serving openly in the U.S. military — but the ban was only lifted for Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, not Transgender people.
It’s important that Queer people, and especially Queer community leaders and activists, commemorate Obergefell v. Hodges as a beginning, not an end, and that we follow the example of the African-American activists who waged their most intense nonviolent direct-action campaigns for civil rights in the decade after Brown v. Board of Education because they realized (as the feminists who worked so hard for Roe v. Wade in 1973 did not) that U.S. Supreme Court decisions are not self-executing. Not only do court decisions expanding the civil rights of oppressed minorities (or, in the case of women, an oppressed majority) happen only when an activist movement has created the groundwork for them, they take full effect only when activists keep up the pressure and force both government and the private sector to live up to their obligations under the law.

“Bitter-Enders” and Corporate America

There’s another parallel between Obergefell and Brown: the bizarre bitter-ender reaction of state authorities, especially in the South, who seem to think they can evade the Court’s decision by sheer force of will. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (R-Arkansas) made a bizarre statement that almost seemed to be a call for treason against the Constitution: “The Supreme Court has spoken with a very divided voice on something only the Supreme Being can do — redefine marriage. I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat. … The only outcome worse than this flawed, failed decision would be for the President and Congress, two co-equal branches of government, to surrender in the face of this out-of-control act of unconstitutional, judicial tyranny.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton seemed to be channeling Alabama Governor George Wallace’s defiant attack on the U.S. government in his 1963 inaugural — “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” — when he told all the county clerks, justices of the peace and anyone else involved in his state government’s marriage process that if they didn’t want to marry same-sex couples and had “deeply religious” reasons for their distaste, they didn’t have to. Paxton, who according to a recent Raw Story dispatch ( is facing first-degree felony prosecution for alleged securities law violations, told refusenik clerks that “numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro bono [free] basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”
Of course, there’s the little matter of the oath all public officials in Texas, from county clerks and judges to Ken Paxton himself, have to take to support and defend the U.S. and Texas Constitutions before they can assume — and get paid for — their jobs. But this so-called “moral exemption” is the next step the radical “Christian” Right is pushing to try to blunt the effect of court rulings upholding Queer rights: just because you may have a right to get married, adopt children, buy or rent a home together or do any of the myriad things married couples, straight or Queer, do, doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific person who works for the government is obliged to help you. Legislatures in Indiana and Arizona actually passed bills carving out “moral” exceptions to the civil rights laws so government officials with “deeply religious” objections to homosexuality don’t have to serve Queer people on the same basis as everyone else — but the Arizona bill was vetoed by that state’s Republican governor and the Indiana bill had to be modified because, not progressive advocates, but corporate America rose up against them.
Frankly, that last one scares me. As a long-time democratic socialist, I’m scared when corporations start telling governments what they may and may not do. That’s why, in a week when I was heartened by the Supreme Court’s rulings not only on marriage but the Affordable Care Act as well (John Roberts upheld a badly drafted portion of Obamacare on the basis of a common-sense reading of what the whole bill meant, not a typically crabbed Scalia “originalist” reading of a few words), I was also disgusted by the race-motivated shootings in a Black Sunday school in Charleston, South Carolina and by Congress’s vote to give the president so-called “fast-track” authority to pass “trade” treaties that are really blueprints for a future in which corporations routinely tell governments to what extent they may regulate the economy, the health and safety of workers and consumers, or the environment.
That’s what I meant when I said in my subhead to this article that the week of June 19-26 had been a roller-coaster — so I’m not heartened when companies like Coca-Cola, Maytag, Kellogg’s, Jell-O, Proctor and Gamble, AT&T, Smart Cars and American Airlines attack states that pass “moral exemption” bills and, in some cases, threaten to boycott those states. I’m as scared by that kind of corporate power when it’s being used on behalf of causes I support as I am when it’s used to push causes I oppose, like wantonly polluting the environment, destroying all legal protections for workers and eliminating their right to organize unions.

What We Do Next

So Charles and I move into the bright new world of nationwide marriage equality, joining the U.S. to such traditionally morally conservative nations as Ireland (my father’s ancestral homeland) and Spain. I think we, the Queer community, will do about as good a job with marriage as straight people will have. Some will marry in haste, some will marry for pecuniary instead of romantic reasons, some will marry on whims and divorce almost as fast — and some will form beautiful, enduring relationships.
One thing I hope — and this is a concern that kept me from fully embracing the marriage equality movement for some years — is that we won’t attach the same kind of social opprobrium to Gay and Lesbian people who choose not to marry that straight people who choose not to marry have had to deal with for many years. If people don’t want to form long-term committed romantic relationships — or if they do, but they choose to do without the benefits of marriage, social as well as financial — that’s their business. I still remember New York comedienne Fran Lebowitz joking decades ago that the only people left in the U.S. who wanted to join the military and get married were Queers!
What do we, as a people, as a community, as activists, do next? One thing is to start taking more seriously the idea that we are indeed a community not just of Gay men and Lesbians, but of Bisexual and Transgender people as well. Transgender people have been stuck 30 years behind the social progress made by Gays and Lesbians; they’re still routinely bullied at school, bashed both by criminals and police, discriminated against in housing and employment, made miserable on a day-to-day basis by social prejudice and, all too often, killed just for being who they are. And Bisexual people suffer shameful levels of stigma not only from straight but Queer America — see James Dawson’s commentary, “Gay Men and Biphobia: It’s Real and It Needs to Stop” ( for an especially good commentary on the persistence of anti-Bi prejudice among Gays and Lesbians as well as heterosexuals.
Indeed, one of my personal prejudices against “LGBT” as a designation of our community (aside from its ugliness) is that instead of re-examining some of our foundational assumptions about who Queer people are and how they come to be that way, we simply stuck the letters “B” and “T” on the end of all our organization names without looking at how the very existence of Bisexual and Transgender people challenges the essentialist “born this way” idea of sexual orientation and gender identity. Even Justice Kennedy fell for that one when he wrote in his opinion about the “immutable nature” of Queer people, which “dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment.”
I don’t for a moment believe that the reason people should be able to marry others of their own biological (or psychological) gender is that they couldn’t be happy with an opposite-gender partner. All too many Queer people, including me, have lived in reasonably happy long-term relationships with members of the opposite sex, and if it’s possible and legitimate for someone to have a long-term relationship with an opposite-sex partner and then end it amicably because he has realized he’s Gay, or she that she’s Lesbian, why can’t the opposite happen? Why can’t a person who’s lived for years with a same-sex partner meet, fall in love with, and seek to be with — and to marry — an opposite-gender partner instead?
Some of the tasks that remain for the Queer movement include winning the same basic protections the 1964 Civil Rights Act established for other socially oppressed groups — which is what the Federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would do. Some of our unfinished agenda includes reaching out to, and fully signing onto the struggles of, our Bisexual and Transgender brethren and sistren (and anything-in-betweeneren). Some of the tasks involve broadening our own understandings of ourselves and each other, and being more compassionate not only to the straight majority but to our own. Now that we have been entrusted not only with the rights of marriage but also its responsibilities, we need to be as good as we can be in making our own marriages work, and at the same time acknowledging that marriage equality also means marital diversity and not all married Queer couples are going to look like a same-sex version of a 1950’s sitcom.