Friday, February 22, 2019

Robert Kuttner on the North Carolina Election Mess

I just got this e-mail from Robert Kuttner, editor of The American Prospect magazine. What he doesn’t mention -- and what almost nobody commenting on the North Carolina Congressional election mess has, either -- is that the law the Republican Congressional candidate is accused of violating was originally passed by Republicans to stop ministers and others in African-American churches from collecting absentee votes for their parishoners and thereby increasing turnout in the Black community. — Mark Gabrish Conlan


FEBRUARY 22, 2019

Kuttner on TAP

About that North Carolina Do-Over Election. As you have probably read or heard by now, the ballot fraud in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional district was so brazen and so toxic that even the Republicans on the state election commission felt compelled to order a new election.

Think about this for a moment. For years, Republicans have been justifying voter suppression measures on the bogus premise that ballot fraud was rampant among Democrats. A presidential commission on the subject, headed by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Vice President Mike Pence, was abruptly shut down because, despite heroic efforts, no fraud was found.
Well, the Kobach commission was looking in the wrong places. The fraud was on the Republican side.

And consider this. Ballot fraud of the sort that was rampant in North Carolina’s Ninth is the flip-side of voter suppression. You can actually go to jail for stuffing ballot boxes, but nobody goes to jail for suppressing the right to vote—even that steals votes just as surely as ballot tampering.

Indeed, if North Carolina were not one of the champion voter-suppressors, that election would not have been close. Now, with the Republicans having been caught red-handed, the Republican candidate shamed and the whole world watching, the Democrat might even win. ~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

States of Emergency


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose — and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us” but he will say to you “Be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

— Abraham Lincoln, letter to William Herndon, February 15, 1848

The salient characteristic of Donald Trump throughout his entire life has been his uncanny ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He did it in 1991, when he was about to lose his Atlantic City casinos in a spectacular bankruptcy filing when his creditors decided to bail him out, on the ground that the casinos would be worth more with Trump’s name on them than without it. He did it again in 2003, when according to New Yorker profiler Patrick Raddon Keefe ( Trump “had become a garish figure of local interest — a punch line on Page Six.” Trump hooked up with TV producer Mark Burnett and starred on The Apprentice, a “reality” competition which ran for 12 seasons and convinced much of America that Trump was the most brilliant and most successful capitalist who had ever lived.
Trump did it again and again in his 17-month Presidential campaign, where gaffes that would have finished a less mythic figure — from denouncing Mexican immigrants en masse as murderers, rapists and criminals to insulting war hero John McCain, ridiculing a disabled reporter, calling on Russia to hack his principal opponent’s e-mails, being exposed as someone who not only forced himself on women but bragged about it, and saying he could shoot someone in cold blood in broad daylight on New York’s Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t budge his poll numbers — just added to Trump’s raw, nervy, punk-like appeal.
And he’s done it again and again in his Presidency as well, where despite a paucity of actual achievement — the only bill he’s successfully pushed through Congress is a massive tax cut for the rich, and given that making the distribution of wealth and income more unequal is boilerplate Republican ideology that was a slam-dunk with the GOP in both houses of Congress — millions of Americans remain convinced that he is a God-inspired figure saving America from foreigners, women, people of color, Queers, socialists and environmentalist zealots who want to put the auto, steel and coal industries out of business.
So rule number one of the Trump years in American history is: Don’t Bet Against Donald Trump. He seemed to suffer a huge defeat last November, when American voters by a 9-percent margin decided to put control of the House of Representatives in the hands of the Democratic Party. Instead of trying to conciliate with the opposing party, as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama had in similar circumstances, Trump doubled down on his agenda, demanding $5.7 billion for a wall across the U.S-Mexico border and shutting down the government for 35 days from December through February when he didn’t get his way.
Trump’s standing in the polls nosedived during the shutdown, which kept going as long as it did only because Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow any bill to reopen the government to come to a vote unless Trump swore a blood oath he would sign it. The result was a face-saving “compromise” that reopened the government, but only for three weeks, and Trump said he was fully prepared to shut down the government again if the conference committee negotiating the budget for the Department of Homeland Security didn’t put in at least $5.7 billion for the wall. When the committee reported out a bill with even less money for border barriers than the one Trump had rejected in December, it looked like Trump would have to go ungently in that good night, admit defeat, lick his wounds and carry on.
But ol’ rope-a-dope Trump had another trick up his sleeve: a “declaration of national emergency” through which he could divert money Congress had allocated for other things and use it to build his wall. He’d started mulling over the possibility of an “emergency” declaration almost as soon as the Democrats actually took control of the House on January 3. Though more sober, fact-constrained observers questioned whether there’s really an “emergency” situation on the U.S.-Mexico border that calls for drastic unilateral action by the President, Trump argued that the “caravans” of would-be asylum seekers from central America were cover for drug smugglers, human traffickers and hardened criminals, and if we didn’t do something drastic to stop them — like building a wall — we’d all be murdered in our beds.
When the conference committee report was ready to be voted on by the Democratic House and the Republican Senate, Mitch McConnell all but endorsed the “national emergency” declaration on the Senate floor. He thereby gave Republican Senators the political cover and quasi-official permission they needed to vote for the bill to keep the government open: “Don’t worry that there’s only enough money to build 57 miles of wall. Ol’ Massa Trump will just declare a ‘state of emergency’ and spend whatever he wants to on it.”

Can He Do It? Yes, He Can!

Trump’s announcement that he was declaring a “national emergency” came on February 15, in a bizarre press conference in the White House Rose Garden. After jumping around from topic to topic he delivered a curious sing-song chant — reminiscent of the line in Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth in which the Beatty character delivers a lame recitation in rhythm and one of the Black characters comments, “I guess that’s how white people rap” — in which he predicted that his action would be challenged in court, he’d lose in the 9th Circuit (a long-time bête noire of Right-wing activists because it’s housed in San Francisco, it’s generally the most liberal of the federal court circuits and it’s frequently been overruled by the Right-wing majority of the U.S. Supreme Court) but he’d “get a fair shake” with the Supremes.
What isn’t generally realized is that “national emergency” declarations by Presidents of the United States are nothing new. In fact, they’re routine. In her December 8, 2017 Lawfare article, “Emergencies Without End” (, Catherine Padhi noted that at the time she wrote there were 28 national states of emergency. Today, according to Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg (, there are 31.
What’s more, most presidential declarations of national emergencies aren’t particularly controversial. As Trump said in his Rose Garden remarks, “There’s rarely been a problem. They sign it; nobody cares. I guess they weren’t very exciting. But nobody cares.” New Yorker columnist Amy Davidson Sorkin noted that most of the presidential emergency declarations “involved measures, such as dealing with foreign sanctions, that Congress simply hadn’t acted on.” Rarely, if ever, has a President acted the way Trump has — first lobbying Congress to give him money to do something, and then boldly running roughshod over Congress’s authority and spending the money anyway.
Indeed, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who just filed his 46th lawsuit against Trump in his two years in office over the emergency declaration, emphasized that point when he announced the lawsuit publicly. The suit, filed by California in coalition with 15 other states (Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Virginia), says, “Contrary to the will of Congress, the President has used the pretext of a manufactured ‘crisis’ of unlawful immigration to declare a national emergency. … Congress has repeatedly rebuffed the President’s insistence to fund a border wall. … Use of those additional federal funds for the construction of a border wall is contrary to Congress’s intent. … The thwarting of congressional intent to fund a vanity project … cries out for judicial intervention.”
But it’s not so clear that Trump doesn’t have the authority to issue his emergency declaration and move money around the federal budget to build his wall. Law professor Jonathan Turley, generally considered a liberal, published an article on the Web site The Hill on January 2 ( saying basically that Trump has the power to declare the emergency and get the wall built because Congress has given him — and all previous presidents since 1976 — the power to do so.
Turley argued that Democratic Congressmembers like House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-California) were relying on the 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer, in which President Harry Truman declared a “national emergency” and seized control of the U.S. steel mills to make sure the U.S. military got continued supplies it needed to fight the Korean War. The Court ruled this unconstitutional, but according to Turley, 24 years later Congress voluntarily gave up its power to block such presidential declarations. As Turley wrote:

More than two decades later, Congress expressly gave presidents the authority to declare such emergencies and act unilaterally. The 1976 National Emergencies Act gives presidents sweeping authority as well as allowance in federal regulations to declare an “immigration emergency” to deal with an “influx of aliens which either is of such magnitude or exhibits such other characteristics that effective administration of the immigration laws of the United States is beyond the existing capabilities” of immigration authorities “in the affected area or areas.” The basis for such an invocation generally includes the “likelihood of continued growth in the magnitude of the influx,” rising criminal activity, as well as high “demands on law enforcement agencies” and “other circumstances.”
Catherine Padhi’s Lawfare article puts Turley’s argument in context. She notes that, despite Truman’s loss in court on the steel seizure in 1952, the 1950 national emergency declaration he had issued to fight the Korean War was otherwise still in effect in 1972 — and still being used, this time to fight the war in Viet Nam. “By 1973, Congress had enacted over 470 statutes granting the president special powers in times of crisis,” Padhi wrote. “These powers would lay dormant until the president declared a state of emergency, at which point all would become available for his use. And at the time, the president could declare an emergency as he alone saw fit: no procedures or rules constrained his discretion.”
According to Padhi, the 1976 National Emergencies Act was actually designed to limit the Presidential power to declare emergencies unilaterally. “First,” Padhi explained, “the act revoked (two years after its enactment) any powers granted to the president under the four states of emergency still active at the time. Next, it prescribed procedures for invoking these powers in the future. No longer can a president give force to the hundreds of emergency provisions by mere proclamation. Instead, he must specifically declare a national emergency in accordance with the act and identify the statutory basis for each emergency power he intends to use. Each state of emergency is to end automatically one year after its declaration, unless the president publishes a notice of renewal in the Federal Register within 90 days of the termination date and notifies Congress of the renewal. Finally, the act requires that each house of Congress meet every six months to consider a vote to end the state of emergency.”
But the act’s limits on presidential power have never been used, Padhi said. What’s more, in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled part of the act unconstitutional. The way the law was originally written, either house of Congress could vote to overrule the emergency declaration, and if both houses passed resolutions by majority vote to end a state of emergency, it would end. The Court found that an unconstitutional limit on Presidential authority and said that resolutions to end a Presidential state of emergency had to be treated like any other piece of legislation: the President could either sign or veto it, and it would take two-thirds votes in both houses to override a veto.

Hypocrisy on Both Sides

Not only is it virtually inconceivable that Trump’s “national emergency” declaration on the border could be overruled by Congress, it’s highly unlikely that it would get even a majority vote in the U.S. Senate. Though it’s likely to sail through the Democrat-controlled House, and according to the 1976 Act Senate leader Mitch McConnell would have to let the Senate vote on it — he can’t just refuse to schedule it the way he’s done with any pesky piece of legislation he wanted to make sure didn’t get Senate approval — it’s virtually certain that the Senate, with 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, will vote more or less along party lines to sustain Trump’s action.
The entire history of the Trump administration has seen, over and over again, a pattern of Republican Senators and House members privately telling their Democratic colleagues about their misgivings on one or more of Trump’s proposals, sometimes even making veiled public statements containing mild criticisms of Trump. As Amy Davidson Sorkin noted in her New Yorker piece, “Before Trump made his declaration, various Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Ted Cruz, of Texas, said that they hoped he wouldn’t do so, or at least that they had concerns about his doing so.
“But, just before the Senate voted on the budget deal, McConnell announced that he would go along with such a declaration,” Davidson Sorkin added. With only a handful of exceptions — notably the late John McCain casting a dramatic deciding vote against the “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare” — the Republicans in both houses of Congress have voted in lock-step with Trump on everything he’s wanted them to do. Indeed, as I argued above, the budget deal might not have passed at all if McConnell hadn’t stood up on the Senate floor and all but promised Senate Republicans that Trump would declare the emergency and build the wall anyway, so they wouldn’t have to fear angry Trump supporters and possible Right-wing primary challengers saying they “really” weren’t for the wall.
Nor is the challenge to the emergency declaration likely to prevail in the courts, either. As Trump noted in the Rose Garden, the court cases are likely to go the way they did on the Muslim travel ban and the ban on Transgender troops in the U.S. military. Lower court after lower court issued decision after decision rejecting these executive orders expressing Trump’s hatred and bigotry — but the Supreme Court, solidly “packed” with a virtually unshakable 5-4 Right-wing majority (courtesy of Mitch McConnell, who wouldn’t allow Obama’s last Court nominee to be voted on and made sure the vacancy left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia would be filled by Trump), will give Trump what he wants.
Make all the abstract arguments you want about overreaches of Presidential power: they won’t matter a damned bit. Indeed, one feature of our highly polarized politics is the degree to which both major parties have adopted an almost reflexive, automatic hypocrisy. If a Democrat is in the White House, especially if he faces a Republican Congress, the Democrats will be arguing for an expansive view of Presidential power and the Republicans will say that a runaway “Imperial Presidency” threatens the basic system of checks and balances established by the Constitution. Once the President is a Republican and Democrats control one or both houses of Congress, both parties shift sides as easily and routinely as football teams switch their direction of play at the end of a quarter.
The kind of intellectual honesty shown by Jonathan Turley on the Left and Jonah Goldberg on the Right ( is all too rare among American politicians and political commentators today. In a column published in the February 19 Los Angeles Times, Goldberg called Trump’s emergency declaration “an act of weakness, not strength,” and added, “When Barack Obama used his pen to give ‘Dreamers’ [undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children] a reprieve from prosecution, it was an act of weakness, too.”
Goldberg might have been better off using the word “laziness” than “weakness,” because his argument is that genuinely strong Presidents govern by persuading Congress to vote for their proposals, not ignoring Congress and enacting them by proclamation. “Powerful presidents enact their agendas through Congress, not executive orders,” Goldberg wrote. “It’s why they usually manage to get their big-ticket items passed shortly after an election, when they can declare a mandate. Executive orders aren’t as lasting, because they can be overruled by Congress and future presidents.”

So we can expect Trump’s executive order declaring a “national emergency” on immigration to sail through the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court because the Republicans who control both those institutions will uphold them on a party-line vote. Indeed, our only real hope for blocking the “national emergency” is if the people suing to overrule it can keep the cases going in the lower courts for the next two years — and then hope that the American people have the good sense and common decency to vote Trump out of office in 2020, so when the Supreme Court finally issues its decree legitimizing Trump’s “national emergency,” he’ll be out of office (or shortly on its way out), the incoming Democratic President will rescind it, and the issue will be moot.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

61st Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, CBS-TV, aired live February 10, 2019)


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 61st annual Grammy Awards two nights ago, a musical spectacular I make a point of watching every year, and there had been the usual controversies swirling around it even before it happened. Some major artists who were invited to perform, including Ariana Grande and Kendrick Lamar (though I regard Kendrick Lamar’s “music” as total shit, even more obnoxious than the common run of most rap, and especially annoying in that his records are so overproduced you can’t even make out what he’s saying — and one would think in rap, which has embraced only words and rhythm and thrown out melody, harmony and all the other traditional aspects of music, the sine qua non would be that at least you should be able to hear the words!), declined. That meant I didn’t have to endure either one of Lamar’s repulsive production numbers in the show itself or the reviewers afterwards inexplicably hailing it as the greatest thing on the program, whereas my reaction to Lamar’s uncool extravaganzae in 2016 and 2018 was just to hold my nose and wait for them to be over. (The 2016 one was especially sickening because it was slotted right after a remote telecast from New York of the Hamilton cast on Broadway doing that show’s opening number, and just as Lin-Manuel Miranda and his crew had convinced me that rap can be beautiful and even moving, and express a higher artistic purpose, on came Kendrick Lamar to remind me of the garbage rap usually is.)
Ariana Grande — who I must confess I wasn’t all that interested in until her concert in Manchester was attacked by a terrorist bomber who killed 23 people, and she responded with real class by scheduling another concert in Manchester, a benefit for the families of the victims, and not only was it telecast internationally but she ended it with a beautiful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” — clashed with Grammy telecast producer Ken Ehrlich because he wanted her to perform a song off her last album, the one that was in Grammy contention, and she wanted to sing something from her new album, which is being released this week. The show that did air began with a hugely overproduced version of a song called “My Heart Is In Havana” (at least I think that’s what the title was: most of the songs weren’t announced) by a cast of “B”-listers including J Bolian (no period after the initial), Camila Cabello, Arturo Sandoval (the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie discovered in Havana in the early 1980’s and sponsored his immigration), Ricky Martin (the most famous person in this cast, at least to me, though his 15 minutes expired years ago) and a rapper called Young Thug (whenever anyone asks me why I don’t like rap, one of the reasons I give is the extensive glamorization of crime that runs through most of the genre and leads to performers taking street names like “Young Thug,” as if being a young thug is something to be proud of). It was a loud, obnoxious, messy and way overproduced number and a bad omen for what was to come — though I did like the extra in the number who was holding a newspaper that said on its big headline, “Build Bridges, Not Walls.”
There wasn’t much of the overt politicizing that we’ve seen on other awards shows, but there was enough to indicate that the music community — or at least that part of it that gets nominated for Grammy Awards — is part of the half of America that rejects Trump and everything he stands for. The point was also made by the surprising appearance of Michelle Obama on stage next to host Alicia Keys — and I liked the fact that an actual musician was hosting the Grammys instead of a comedian peppering the ceremony with bad jokes — though the former First Lady wasn’t introduced. She was just standing on stage in a black leather pantsuit (not the way we’re used to seeing her dressed) and looking like yet another Black soul diva up for an award, and Keys’ costumes were even sillier. Just about everything she wore showed as much of her breasts as they could get away with on network television and looked like a “wardrobe malfunction” waiting to happen.
Next up on the entertainment program — Ken Ehrlich has gone so far in reinventing the Grammys as a musical variety show (with all too little variety — just about all the music last night was in the dance-pop genre that has become the default popular music of today; there were a couple of rappers but none of the brief acknowledgments of classical and jazz that used to turn up on previous Grammy shows) that only nine awards were actually presented during the program — was a song by Shawn Mendes, the Canadian singer of Portuguese ancestry who’s apparently (at least according to Charles, who’s read quite a few tweets about him from young Queer men) become something of a sex symbol in the Gay male community even though he’s either not Gay or not “out.” (Troye Sivan, who is both Gay and “out” and is a similar “type,” both physically and musically, to Mendes would seem a better candidate for this sort of adulation among young Gay men.) I thought the song was called “Help Me” but according to its Wikipedia page its real title is “In My Blood,” and it was genuinely moving for the first chorus — in which Mendes simply sang and played piano — but became just another slice of power-pop once he brought in a band for the rest of the song, albeit with an unusually sensitive lyric that chronicles Mendes’ own struggles with anxiety.
Next up was “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves, a country artist who would go on to win Album of the Year; I liked the song but it was pretty much your standard smiling-through-adversity number and didn’t sound really special to me. Things got better, though, with the next number by Janelle Monáe from an album called Dirty Computer; the song she was performing appeared to be called “That’s Just the Way You Make Me Feel” and from the rather jerky motions she and her chorus line did to it — as well as her opening the song playing electric guitar as well as singing, though she quickly ditched the instrument — it seemed like she was trying to reinvent herself as a female version of Prince. Then someone called Past Malone came out with the Red Hot Chili Peppers — whose lead singer, Anthony Kiedis, is getting to be just a bit too old for the shirtless bit — doing something it was hard to tell whether it was one song, two or three; the titles I scribbled down as my guesses as to what the songs were called were “Don’t Count on Me to Explain” and “Dark Necessities.”
Things started looking up with the next segment, an awesome tribute to Dolly Parton with an all-star country cast featuring Maren Morris (a great singer who’d be the perfect choice to play Janis Joplin in a biopic if anyone would cast her in it while she’s still young enough for the role), Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry (whose voice was surprisingly soulful), Kacey Musgraves and the band Little Big Town. The medley focused on Parton’s late-1970’s crossover hits — “Here You Come Again,” “Jolene” and “Nine to Five” — though it also included a song that appeared to be called “Look at Mother Nature On the Run in the 21st Century” and a new song called “My Red Shoes” that’s sort of a follow-up to Parton’s mega-hit “Coat of Many Colors” — once again she’s flashing back to an impoverished childhood when she was teased for something she wore that wasn’t shiny or new. This number reached exalted status when the singers were joined onstage by … Dolly Parton herself. Most of these medleys feature the honoree sitting in the audience looking nervous while others cavort on stage to her songs. Not this one: Dolly came out onstage, and from the moment she walked out there, opened her mouth and revealed a voice that’s held up spectacularly well, she took over and never let go. It was an exalting moment — I dashed to my computer during the next commercial break and posted to Facebook how much I’d liked it.
Fortunately, the next number was not the anticlimax it could have been: it was the modern-day R&B singer H.E.R. Her real name is Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson, she’s part Black and part Filipina, she’s from the San Francisco Bay Area (as am I!) and she released her first single at age 14 in 2014 under her real name before adopting H.E.R. as a stage name. It’s supposedly an acronym for “Having Everything Revealed,” but it’s pronounced simply “Her.” By any name she’s a quite remarkable singer, a descendant of Odetta, Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman among Black women singers with deep contralto voices and powerful deliveries; her song was “Caught Between Your Love and a Hard Place” and reflects a dilemma often faced by women these days and frequently dramatized in their songs: stay with a man and accept being diminished and not allowed to be yourself in the relationship, or be single and accept loneliness as the price of independence and freedom. The song was a bit overarranged and it was hard to make out some of the lyrics, but it didn’t matter because what you could hear of the words, and H.E.R.’s impassioned delivery of them, were powerful and emotionally moving.
The next performer was rapper Cardi B — her name looks like a weight-loss plan involving both diet and exercise — making little impression on me, which given how much I actively dislike most rap (if Big Brother ever puts me into Room 101 he could do worse than feed me an incessant playlist of rap “songs”) is actually an improvement. After that came the host herself, Alicia Keys, doing a medley of songs she said she wished she could have written herself — starting with an instrumental version of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” then segueing into “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” “I Want You to Forget Me,” “Unforgettable” (fortunately she resisted the temptation to have Nat “King” Cole’s and Natalie Cole’s voices spliced in to change the song from a “ghost duet” to a “ghost trio”), “I Can Use Somebody,” “My Feelings,” “That Thing,” and closing with a song she actually did write, the surprisingly somber “New York.” (Most songs about New York are openly celebratory — Bernstein’s “New York, New York,” Kander and Ebb’s “Theme from New York, New York,” Billy Joel’s “New  York State of Mind” — so Keys’ was a surprise, though it worked beautifully when she performed it at the end of the benefit for Hurricane Sandy relief in December 2012.)
Then it was time for another country segment, Dan and Shea doing a duet on a song called “Tequila” — not the classic early-1960’s instrumental by the Champs but a vocal number which is pretty typical of the drowning-my-sorrows-in-alcohol sub-genre of country music but at least has the novelty of the substance being something more outré than the usual beer or whiskey. The next showcase was a tribute to Diana Ross on her 75th birthday, looking  utterly stunning — though she trotted her nine-year-old grandson out to introduce her and one wonders why she made the poor kid wear his hair in a big Afro that made him resemble Michael Jackson at his age (remember that Jackson’s first album was called Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5). She did two of the sappiest songs she ever did as a solo artist, “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” but her voice was as spectacular as ever (between her and Parton this show was a great advertisement for properly trained septuagenarian singers) and so were her looks.
Next up was Lady Gaga doing a solo version of her song “Shallow,” co-written with Bradley Cooper for their film together, the umpteenth remake of A Star Is Born (it’s actually the fourth version — fifth if you count the predecessor, 1932’s What Price Hollywood? with Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman; the other “official” A Star Is Borns are the 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, though lists three others: a 1960 Korean film, a Filipino version from 1973 — shot in Tagalog — and a 2010 music documentary from Hungary), and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song (an honor the big songs from the Garland and Streisand versions — “The Man That Got Away” and “Evergreen,” respectively — both won). Gaga’s voice showed off her soul chops and her remarkable ability to sing virtually anything — if she’s announced as Brünnhilde in a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen I won’t dismiss it out of hand — and if anything the song sounded better as a solo than it did with Cooper’s non-voice croaking out a duet part.  Then came another medley with Travis Scott, Philip Begley and Earlyne Wright doing three songs that weren’t familiar to me — my guesses at the titles were “Trouble,” “Flight Path” and “The Party Never Ends.”
Then came what became the most controversial number on the show, a 75th anniversary tribute to Motown Records which began with Motown veteran Smokey Robinson and Alicia Keys warbling a bit of his old hit “Tracks of My Tears,” but went downhill from there. It was billed as a number involving Robinson, Black neo-soul singer Ne-Yo (his name keeps fooling me — I expect him to be a rapper, but he isn’t, thank goodness) and Jennifer Lopez, Instead Ne-Yo got crowded out of the picture and it turned into a pyrotechnic feature for Lopez, one of those annoying personalities I can’t stand (I’ve seen her on TV twice performing her preposterous song “Jenny on the Block,” which attempts despite all evidence to convince us that despite her riches and fame she’s still the plain ol’ girl from the streets of the barrio where she grew up). She’s a good, if aggressively acrobatic, dancer, though her movements had little to do with the tight precision choreography of the original Motown acts (taught them by the man Motown founder Berry Gordy — still alive and in the audience for this — hired for that purpose, the great Black tap dancer “Honi” Coles) and the song choices — “Tracks of My Tears,” “Dancing in the Streets,” “Please, Mr. Postman,” “Money (That’s What I Want)” (interesting that the Grammys’ Motown tribute featured two songs in a row that the Beatles covered), “Do You Love Me?,” “Save It, Baby,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “War,” “I’m Taking Love” and “For You” — were good except they ignored a lot of Motown’s legacy and in particular omitted completely probably the two most creative artists who ever worked for the label, Stevie Wonder and the late Marvin Gaye.
Part of the controversy centered around the way the tribute to Motown was built around a non-Black artist — though at least Lopez is a person of color and Robinson made the rather lame statement in her defense that “Motown made music for everybody” — but what really put me off about the number was the sheer over-the-topness of it, with Lopez flipping herself around in space and more fireworks going off behind her than were probably set off by everybody who did fireworks on the last Fourth of July. Fortunately, the show got better and finished strong: the next performer was Brandi Carlile (she doesn’t use the silent “s” that’s usually part of that name — maybe she decided it was redundant, the way Barbra Streisand was originally named with the normal spelling of “Barbara” but decided the middle “a” was redundant), who along with H.E.R. turned in the most wrenching performance of the evening by a current artist. Her song was called “The Joke,” and it was similarly themed to H.E.R.’s number: a woman declares her determination to leave a man who constantly belittled her and does so with her head held high and tells him that the joke’s on him now. It’s a great message and fortunately Carlile wrote a great song around it — and in this era of collaborative songwriting I give her a lot of points for writing “The Joke” and the rest of the album it’s on, By the Way, I Forgive You, all by herself.
Afterwards a new Black R&B duo, Chloe x Halle (that’s how it’s officially spelled!), did a duet on the old Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit “Where Is the Love?” that was quite impassioned and just as good as the original — though the song takes on a quite different affect when performed by two women instead of a man and a woman — it seems odd that Donny Hathaway’s daughter Lalah wasn’t invited to perform her late dad’s big hit (or anything else on the program — maybe they should have given her the Motown tribute — even though she’s a recording artist in her own right and she was nominated in the R&B categories). After that came one of the highlights of the program, St. Vincent and Dua Lipa — those are both individuals, not groups — looking so much alike they could have done the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup — doing a medley of two songs apparently called “Bright Seduction” and “One Kiss Is All It Takes.” Dua Lipa won for Best New Artist, and while I’d rather have seen that award go to H.E.R. (but then H.E.R. has been recording since 2014 and so calling her a “new artist” is a bit of Grammy Newspeak) or Chloe x Halle, she’s clearly a formidable talent and I look forward to hearing more from her.
The closing number was an inevitable tribute to the late Aretha Franklin and was done the way the Motown tribute should have been: three Black singers with Aretha-esque voices, Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia, and just one song, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a superb performance that showed off both Aretha’s gospel roots (the song was written for her by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin, and in an interview just after Aretha’s death King recalled that as soon as Goffin came home with the news that they had been hired to write a song for Aretha Franklin the first thing King did was go to her piano and start hammering out gospel chords) and the way her style has been extended into the future. The show ended with the announcements of Record (i.e., one song — what they used to call a “single”) and Album of the Year: the Record of the Year was “This Is America,” a politically themed rap number by Black TV comedian Donald Glover (no relation to Danny, as far as I know) performing under the name “Childish Gambino” (and once again, a rap artist shows the basically anti-social and pro-crime nature of the form by taking a stage name from one of the five New York-based crime families that historically ruled the U.S. Mafia), and the Album of the Year was Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.
That was a bit disappointing — if the Grammy voters had wanted to give the big award to a country album it should have been Brandi Carlile’s! — but it’s not a bad choice, and while for years the Los Angeles Times has been bitching that the Grammys have never given Album of the Year to a rap record, that’s just fine by me! The Grammy Awards were a rather lumbering spectacle — even with Ken Ehrlich cutting the number of awards actually given out during the telecast to just nine, the show overstayed its official 2 ½-hour running time by 13 minutes and seemed to go on forever — but there were enough exalting performances both by veterans (Dolly Parton and Diana Ross) and relative newbies (particularly Brandi Carlile and H.E.R.) to make this show “special” and one of the best Grammy programs in recent years. If nothing else, the 2019 Grammy Awards show documented how much women have taken over the top of today’s music scene both creatively and commercially: not only did a woman win Album of the Year but women dominated the musical program as well as the awards themselves. Maybe the U.S. isn’t ready for a woman President, but it is ready for powerful women’s voices to sing to us and make us feel their music and their inspirations!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Left-Wing McCarthyism in Virginia


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“McCarthyism” is a term of art in American politics. Coined during the ascendancy of U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) between 1950 and 1954, it originally meant targeting politicians, government officials, celebrities, educators and others with flimsy, out-of-context evidence to indicate they were either active participants in or unwitting dupes of the “international Communist conspiracy.” McCarthyism actually pre-dated McCarthy. Republican politicians had been attacking Franklin Roosevelt’s and Congressional Democrats’ New Deal programs as Communist-inspired since the late 1930’s. The end of World War II, the almost simultaneous start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the abrupt switch in the U.S. government’s “party line” in which the Soviets morphed from valiant wartime ally to bitter enemy of all we believed in and held dear just added fuel to the fire.
Though McCarthy died in 1957 and the “international Communist conspiracy” died with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Right-wing McCarthyism is alive and well. We saw quite a lot of it in the 2016 Presidential campaign and particularly in the conspiracy-mongering around Hillary Clinton, who was portrayed by her opponents as so unremittingly evil the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs looked like Mother Teresa by comparison. But there is also a Left-wing McCarthyism, which uses the same tactics as the Right-wing version — conspiracy-mongering, guilt by association and reaching into the farthest-back records of their targets’ behavior to slam them no matter how remote this may be to who they are and how they behave now — and, if anything, is even less fair and more destructive to its victims than the Right-wing version.
As I write, Left-wing McCarthyism has virtually destroyed the Democratic Party in Virginia. The flame was lit, ironically enough, by a Right-wing blogger, Patrick Howley, who as a former editor and reporter for the Daily Caller and Breitbart News is the sort of person who’s keeping the flame of Right-wing McCarthyism alive. Howley was determined to find something on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, to stop Northam’s attempt to liberalize Virginia’s ultra-strict abortion laws. Under its previous Republican government, Virginia had gone so far out of its way to stop women from having abortions that they had passed a law requiring any woman seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive transvaginal exam first. Northam was determined to end this nonsense and restore reproductive freedom to Virginia’s women — and Howley and other Right-wingers were equally anxious to find dirt on Northam and other elected Democrats to stop him.
Howley got his chance when someone — “a concerned citizen, not a political opponent,” he told Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi for a story published there ( and in the Los Angeles Times February 3 — sent him a copy of a page from Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook, published in 1984. The page contained a photo of two figures, a young man dressed in blackface and one in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, complete with hood covering the head. The text on the page didn’t explain the context of this image or what it was intended to convey.
But it sparked precisely the reaction Howley was undoubtedly hoping for when he released it. The head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other prominent African-American political and community leaders immediately denounced Northam as a racist and called on him to resign. So did a lot of other people, including white Democratic politicians in Virginia and nationwide. The gravamen of the charge against Northam seemed to be that posing in blackface for a college yearbook photo irrevocably marked Northam as a racist, and was so far beyond the pale that nothing he’s done in his life since could atone for it.
One Black woman on MS-NBC said that by posing for that photo, Northam had not only associated himself with but taken personal responsibility for every horrible thing that white Americans have done to African-Americans since first bringing them to this country as slaves exactly 400 years ago. Another commentator, an African-American man, compared Northam’s photo to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, an aesthetic masterpiece (easily the finest film ever made to that time) and a political horror which portrays the Black politicians who came to power in the South during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period (1865-1877) as incompetent drunks and louts manipulated by unscrupulous white Northerners, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroes riding to the rescue of the decent (white) South and taking the votes and the guns away from the terrible Black monsters (all of whom were played, by the way, by white actors in blackface).
Northam’s response to the accusation didn’t help. At first he did the right thing: on the afternoon the scandal broke, February 1, he owned up to it and said he was “deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” The next day, though, he gave a bizarre press conference, flanked by his wife, in which he said he wasn’t either of the two people in the photo, though he said that he had worn blackface on another occasion, a party in 1984 in which he darkened his skin to participate in — and win — a Michael Jackson impersonation contest. (I couldn’t help but savor the irony that he darkened his skin to look like Michael Jackson, given Jackson’s own well-documented racial transformation in the other direction.) He even offered to show the reporters his rendition of Jackson’s famous “moonwalk” dance, until his wife blessedly talked him out of it by saying it would be “inappropriate.”

The Right Scores a Second Scalp

At the time, some of the people leading the charge against Northam — mainly the Black ones — said it didn’t matter politically if Northam resigned because there was a fine, intelligent, popular, charismatic leader in line to succeed him: Virginia’s African-American lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax. But then Right-wing blogger Patrick Howley struck again and nailed a second Virginia Democrat’s scalp to the wall. On February 4, he released another bombshell, this one attacking Fairfax and claiming that he had sexually assaulted a woman at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“Imagine you were sexually assaulted during the DNC convention in Boston in 2004 by a campaign staffer,” said the post on Howley’s Big League Politics site, attributing the quote to the alleged victim, Scripps College professor Vanessa Tyson. “You spend the next 13 years trying to forget it ever happened. Until one day you find out he’s the Democratic candidate for statewide office in a state 3,000 miles away, and he wins that election in November 2017. Then by strange, horrible luck, it seems increasingly likely that he’ll get a VERY BIG promotion.” The Big League Politics post didn’t mention Fairfax’s name as Tyson’s assaulter, but it contained enough biographical details it wasn’t hard to figure out he was the accused.
Fairfax immediately denied the accusation, saying that he and Tyson had had sex but it was completely consensual. Tyson appeared publicly and said that when Fairfax started kissing her it was consensual, but he then forced himself on her against her will. Then another alleged victim, Meredith Watson, released a statement through an attorney that said Fairfax had out-and-out raped her when they were both students at Duke University in 2000. Unlike Tyson, Watson had contemporary corroboration for her story: Kaneedreck Adams, a neighbor of Watson’s in 2000 who told the Washington Post that Watson had disclosed the rape just after it happened. “She was upset,” Adams said. “She told me she had been raped and she named Justin.”
Coming on top of the attacks against Northam, the charges against Fairfax put the Virginia Democrats in much the same position the Republican caucus of the U.S. Senate was in when allegations of sexual assault surfaced against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The Republicans in the Senate basically rallied around Kavanaugh and voted to confirm him. But Democrats, far more reliant on the support of women and people of color than Republicans, face a very different political calculus.
As Vox reporter Anna North summed it up at the end of her February 4 article on the Fairfax scandal (, “Historically, Democrats have responded far more aggressively to allegations of sexual misconduct than Republicans have. But this situation is new, and it is unclear how the party will respond. Whatever happens, however, will set a standard for how Democrats confront sexual misconduct accusations even when they come from an adversarial source — and when they concern a rising star who looked like he could help lead his party out of a crisis.”

Dems’ Virginia Success Turns to Ashes

It’s harder to dismiss the charges against Fairfax — and the calls from Virginia legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, for him to resign (and face impeachment if he doesn’t) — as Left-wing McCarthyism as it is the ones against Northam. Northam is accused of pulling a stupid, racially insensitive prank in his college years, while Fairfax is accused of serious crimes against actual, identifiable victims. But the result could be to strip Virginia Democrats of their historic victories in the state’s last two elections and hand control of it back to the Republicans.
If both Northam and Fairfax resign or are removed from office, the third in line for the governorship of Virginia is the state’s Democratic attorney general, Mark Herring. But he has recently admitted that he donned blackface during his college years. If he goes, too — and it’s hard to believe that he can survive in office if Northam resigns for doing the same thing — the fourth in line and the person who will become Virginia governor is Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates — a Republican.
One tragedy in all this is that until the scandals broke, Virginia had been one of the Democrats’ few recent success stories in the South. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, Virginia stood out as a stark contrast to the shellacking Democrats were getting through the rest of the South. Tim Kaine easily won re-election to the U.S. Senate from Virginia even as incumbent Democratic Senators Bill Nelson in Florida and Claire McCaskill in Missouri (a state that didn’t secede during the Civil War but is still sociologically and ideologically “Southern”) were voted out of office. While Beto O’Rourke was losing his heavily hyped challenge to Texas Senator Ted Cruz by a double-digit margin and African-American Democrats Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams were narrowly losing their gubernatorial bids in Florida and Georgia, Virginia voters elected Democrats to statewide office and narrowed the Republican majorities in the state legislature from 2-1 to virtual ties.
Indeed, one state legislative race in Virginia was so close it literally was a tie. Kirk Cox got exactly as many votes for the Virginia House of Delegates as his Democratic opponent, and he was literally elected by the toss of a coin. Now, thanks to the Left-wing McCarthyist attacks on Democratic Governor Ralph Northam and the sexual assaults allegedly perpetrated by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, the Republicans are likely to take over the governorship and resume control of Virginia’s entire state government. What’s more, the phrase “Virginia Democrat” is becoming a national laugh line and the prestige of the Democratic Party in Virginia has suffered a blow from which it will probably take a decade or more to recover.

Just How Bad Is Blackface, Anyway?

One of the key elements of the Left-wing McCarthyist attack on Ralph Northam is an hysterical, ahistorical condemnation of the whole idea of blackface. Northam’s critics are speaking and acting as if Northam actually joined the Ku Klux Klan or led a lynch mob. To understand what blackface really means you have to look at it in historical context. It was part of a wide variety of ethnic stereotypes comedians and entertainers in the U.S. trafficked in from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. Look at the products of classic Hollywood and you will see comedians who specialized in playing stereotyped Germans, stereotyped Swedes, stereotyped Irishmen, stereotyped Jews and stereotyped Blacks.
The Marx Brothers began their careers playing ethnic stereotypes: Groucho was the “comic Jew,” Chico the “comic Italian” and Harpo, until he gradually got fewer and fewer lines of dialogue until he stopped speaking on stage at all, was “Patsy Brannigan,” the “comic Irishman.” Since the Marx Brothers actually were Jewish, modern audiences watching their movies tend to regard Groucho as the most “authentic” of them — but the people who went to their vaudeville appearances, their Broadway musicals and the initial releases of their movies saw Groucho as just another ethnic comedian playing a Jew.
There’s evidence that at least some blackface performers regarded their work as a genuine, heartfelt tribute to authentic Black music and culture. One of the most interesting documents of this is the 1934 film Wonder Bar, in which Al Jolson — whose star power and status as the first person who played the lead in a successful sound film kept blackface and the minstrel-show tradition it sprang out of going for about two generations after it would have otherwise died out — has two large production numbers.
On his whiteface number, “Vive la France” (the film is set in Paris and casts Jolson as an American entertainer who owns a nightclub there), Jolson sings in a high, rather whiny tenor with a fast, irritating vibrato. On his blackface number, “Going to Heaven on a Mule,” he drops his register, sings from the chest instead of the throat, slows his vibrato and achieves a sound surprisingly like that of the genuinely African-American concert singers and Broadway performers of the time. The number itself, directed by Busby Berkeley, is a conglomeration of just about every racist stereotype you can imagine (which probably kept this film from being revived in the early 1970’s with Berkeley’s other major films), but Jolson’s sincerity and soul transcend the minstrelsy conventions and are genuinely moving.
But McCarthyism of both the Right and the Left has a total disregard for historical context. If we consider it wrong today, it must always have been wrong. In a recent Los Angeles Times article on the problems various potential Democratic Presidential candidates are having with the “#MeToo” movement (, Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio and a long-standing Democratic Party activist, is quoted as saying, “I think what has been acceptable in the past is not going to be acceptable in this cycle. And you’re seeing that bear out.”
Another characteristic of both Right-wing and Left-wing McCarthyism is its reluctance to consider a person’s total historical record. To a McCarthyite, on either end of the ideological spectrum, you are the worst thing you ever did — forever. Local Democratic party organizations throughout the U.S. used to hold major fundraisers on what was called “Jefferson-Jackson Day.” No more: the two founders of the modern-day Democratic Party have both been ruled out of its pantheon, Thomas Jefferson because he was a slaveowner and Andrew Jackson because he not only was a slaveowner but pursued a genocidal policy against Native Americans.
The fact that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, with its flat-out statement that “all men are created equal” and are entitled to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” has been flushed down an Orwellian “memory hole” by the Left’s modern-day McCarthyites. More sophisticated historians might look at Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and participation in the plantation system that exploited them as signs of his human complexity and his inability, all too typical of our species, to live up to his noblest ideals in his personal life.
They might also look at the positive aspects of Jackson’s record, including his fierce opposition to secession (Donald Trump made an arguable case when he said that if Jackson had been around in the 1850’s there might not have been a civil war) and his attack on the Bank of the United States, a leftover from Alexander Hamilton’s desire to put Northern financiers in charge of the American economy forever. (The Bank of the United States got effectively revived in 1913 with the creation of the Federal Reserve, which subcontracted America’s monetary policy to the financial elites who make it up.) But they don’t because to a McCarthyite, Right or Left, you are the worst thing you’ve ever done and nothing else matters.
Yet another problem with Left-wing McCarthyism, even more than the Right-wing variety, is a bizarre lack of concern with the aftermath of bringing down elected Democrats and allowing Republicans to take power. Do the people who are working so hard to drive Ralph Northam out of office really think that the cause of African-Americans in Virginia will be better off if Republican Kirk Cox becomes the state’s governor? Or, more likely, do they care?
San Diegans have an object lesson in what happens when Democrats gang up on a Democratic politician and force him out of office so he can be replaced by a Republican. In 2013 newly elected Mayor Bob Filner, the first Democrat to be Mayor of San Diego in 20 years, was brought down by a coalition of Democratic activists concerned about his lewd and salacious comments towards women in his office. They eventually got rid of Filner and forced a special election to replace him — which was won easily by moderate Republican Kevin Faulconer.
Had the parties been reversed — had Filner been San Diego’s first Republican Mayor in 20 years — the Republicans would have rallied around him as they did nationally around Brett Kavanaugh (and Clarence Thomas before him), and he’d probably still be in office. But Filner had the bad luck to be a Democrat, a member of the party crucially dependent on the votes of women and people of color to make up for their ongoing disadvantage among white men, and therefore he had to be sacrificed — as did U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), New York governors Elliot Spitzer and Eric Schneiderman, and other politicians who have, justly or unjustly, run afoul of the Democrats’ sex police.
At least Filner was held to account in 2013 for things he actually did in 2013. Ralph Northam is the victim of a concerted campaign by fellow Democrats to push him out of office over things he did 35 years ago. But that’s yet another aspect of both Right-wing and Left-wing McCarthyism: not only are you the worst thing you’ve ever done, you’re the worst thing you’ve ever done no matter how long ago it was or how much you’ve changed since. The folks leading the charge against Northam are utterly uninterested in how he’s grown or changed, or whether the ambiguous photo in that medical-school yearbook (even if he’s in it we don’t know whether he’s the figure in blackface or the figure in the Klan hood) reflects how he feels about racial issues now.
In 2017 Northam was forthright in his denunciation of the racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and said that white supremacy had no place in his home state. That was a highly gutsy move for a candidate who was running as a moderate and hoping to peel off some crossover Republican votes in his campaign. It was also just two years ago. Reason and good sense would suggest that the Northam of 2017, the one who denounced the violent white supremacists in Charlottesville, is more likely to be the Northam of today than the Northam of 1984 who blacked himself up for a Michael Jackson impersonation contest and put a stupidly insensitive, racist photo on his college yearbook page.
But McCarthyism, on either side of the ideological aisle, has nothing to do with reason. The Right-wing McCarthyites, including McCarthy himself and the members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, didn’t just ask people if they were Communists. They said, “Are you now or have you ever been … .” What’s more, they didn’t just ask people if they were or ever had been Communists, they asked them about a whole variety of progressive and liberal organizations and movements because their real intent was to destroy America’s progressive and liberal political ideologies by associating them with our Cold War enemy, Communism in general and the Soviet Union in particular.

No Compassion, No Redemption

Indeed, one crucial difference between Right-wing and Left-wing McCarthyism actually makes Left-wing McCarthyism look worse. Right-wing McCarthyites, perhaps influenced by the Christian religious doctrine of sin and redemption, at least offered its victims a way out. Just as Jesus Christ told the woman taken in adultery, after he saved her from being stoned by the mob, “Go and sin no more,” Right-wing McCarthyites offered an elaborate ritual for its victims to escape its clutches and go on about their careers.
The ritual was humiliating. It involved not only accepting a public shaming but feeding the McCarthyites more victims by “naming names,” denouncing your friends and others who’d been in those dreaded liberal, progressive or Communist movements with you. Victims of the Hollywood blacklist had to appear before a number of highly placed figures in the Right-wing movement — newspaper columnists Sidney Skolsky and Westbrook Pegler, actor John Wayne, director Cecil B. DeMille, labor leader Roy Brewer (who as head of the motion picture projectionists’ union was the key figure who enforced the blacklist by ordering his members to refuse to show any film made with blacklisted talent) — and grovel enough until these people were convinced of the sincerity of their repentance.
The victims also had to give up any involvement in liberal politics, no matter how innocuous they would have seemed by today’s standards. If they pledged to donate in the future only to health charities and other innocuous causes, that was one step on the road to redemption. If they flipped their political views 180° and re-invented themselves as born-again Right-wingers, that was even better. The process of political rehabilitation for a blacklisted actor, writer, director, educator, businessman or clergy member was arduous and humiliating, but at least it existed.
The Left-wing McCarthyites of today offer no such process of rehabilitation. To them, there is no sin and redemption — there is only sin. People who have offended against today’s codes of conduct, no matter how far back it happened, are to be shamed, anathematized and driven from public life forever. When Kevin Spacey was revealed to have made unwanted sexual advances to aspiring males (one good thing the #MeToo movement has done is expose that the casting couch victimizes men as well as women), he was cut out of an already completed film, The Richest Man in the World, and replaced with another actor.
Movie stars and production officials who have attempted comebacks after falling from grace due to allegations of sexual harassment and assault have been ridiculed back onto the sidelines. They have also been the subject of calls from progressive organizations for the banning of their work. I have been sent e-mails asking me to sign petitions urging Spotify and other music streaming services to eliminate R. Kelly’s records from their playlists because of the allegations of child molestation against him. I’ve also been asked to sign a petition to the producers of the upcoming film Red Sonja to fire the film’s director, Bryan Singer, because he, like Spacey, has been accused of unwanted sexual advances towards young men trying to make it in the business.
I have refused to sign any such petitions because to me they are all too reminiscent of the tactics Right-wingers in the 1940’s and 1950’s used against progressive entertainers. If these people have committed actual crimes, they should be prosecuted. If their actions don’t rise to the level of prosecutable offenses but you disapprove of them on moral grounds, you can punish them by refusing to see Bryan Singer’s movies or buy (or stream) R. Kelly’s records. But I think it’s just as wrong for the Left to try to make certain people unemployable because of actions that now seem politically or socially unacceptable as it was for the Right to do that in the original McCarthy era.
Another tactic of both Right and Left McCarthyites is their utter lack of a sense of proportion. When the U.S. Senate was debating Al Franken’s fate, and his defenders were saying that all he had done to his alleged victims was put his arms around them and kiss them — whereas people like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were credibly accused of sexual assault and, in some cases, out and out rape — Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) made a statement that the mere act of saying there should be distinctions made between levels of sexual misconduct was itself sexist and reprehensible.
The Los Angeles Times article cited above about Democratic Presidential candidates’ struggles in the “#MeToo” era to deal with their pasts offers plenty of examples of Left-wing McCarthyism. One of the interviewees, Sarah Slaman, an activist in Texas who worked for Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 but since turned against him because she felt he had been too dismissive of women’s complaints of sexual harassment from some of his male staffers, said that despite Sanders’ recent apologies “I don’t think that Sen. Sanders has changed much of his mindset.”
Another interviewee, National Organization for Women president Traci Van Pelt, said of former vice-president Joe Biden, “It’s hard for me to forgive him” for having chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when it considered Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and dismissed allegations of sexual harassment against him by his former staff member Anita Hill. Van Pelt was asked if Biden’s sponsorship and success in pushing the Violence Against Women Act through Congress in 1994 mitigated his record in the Thomas hearings. Her answer was basically no: “He’s done a lot of good with the Violence Against Women Act, there’s no question of that. But I just think maybe it’s time for new thinking.”
Another potential Democratic Presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), is facing a scandal the Sacramento Bee broke last December over her former staff member Justin Wallace’s record of sexually harassing women in the workplace. Wallace’s assistant Danielle Hartley sued him and the state over Wallace’s alleged treatment of her. Harris publicly insisted that she didn’t know anything about Wallace’s actions until the Bee reported them: “It was a very painful experience to know that something can happen in one’s office — of almost 5,000 people, granted, but I didn’t know about it. That being said, I take full responsibility for anything that has happened in my office.”
It’s typical of the left-wing McCarthyite mind-set that Harris’s aggressive questioning of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh over the allegations of sexual assault against him in his confirmation hearings is not being treated by Democratic activists and the media as a sign that her mind has changed or that having harbored a sexual harasser in her own office might have increased her awareness on the issue. Instead, she’s being denounced as a hypocrite. A Sacramento Bee editorial called Harris’s denial “far-fetched” and added that if it’s true, she “isn’t a terribly good manager.”
Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State, was one of the people interviewed for the Los Angeles Times article. He said that Harris, like Sanders and Biden, are being judged by today’s standards for behavior that occurred years or even decades ago. “It’s very hard for those folks to go back and undo what they did at a time when it wasn’t viewed as terrible as it is now,” he said.
The history of the original McCarthyist period offers some lessons the Left should be learning right now. Liberal Congressmembers and Senators who offered “compromise” measures against politically repressive legislation being pushed by Right-wing McCarthyites often found their proposals didn’t replace the original bills but just got added to them, making them even more repressive. Much of American political history consists of the Left pioneering strategies and tactics that the Right then adopts and uses against them. No matter what the motives of the Left-wing McCarthyites, their attempts to shame fellow liberals and progressives as secretly racist, sexist or not aggressive enough in their defenses of women and people of color are likely to backfire. The shame game is one the Right is simply better at than the Left.
Besides, as American liberals, progressives and Leftists fight each other and have nasty public spats over who’s the “purest” of them all, it will be the Right who triumphs. It’s an odd quirk of modern American politics that Democrats seem more obsessed than Republicans with the personal qualities of those they nominate and attempt to elect, while the Republicans — supposedly the party of evangelical Christians and their “family values” — couldn’t care less. Republicans keep their eyes on the ideological prize, voting for people (including Donald Trump) who promise them results — especially appointing Right-wing judges who will end all this “dangerous liberal nonsense” about women, people of color, and Queer people having rights.
Democrats need to learn to be a little less principled and a little more practical. They have to start asking themselves, before they launch McCarthyite jihads against elected officials like Ralph Northam over 35-year-old yearbook photos, if the causes they believe in — particularly civil rights for people of color and protection of women against sexual harassment and assault — really will fare better if they drive flawed Democrats out of office and replace them with ideologically driven Right-wing Republicans.