ALSO IN SHOW BUSINESS…

The past week’s Slate Culturefest podcast had an interesting discussion of what Ricky Martin coming out suggests about progress in gay male celebrities’ ability to come out of the closet (what it’s like for women is of course an equally complex topic), but I think it’s too too sanguine about how far we’ve come. I’m glad that at the end of his career, Ricky Martin finally feels free to share who he is, but as they discuss, he’s made a point of evading it with reporters in the past (to the point of talking to reporters about ex-girlfriends) in a way that makes it hard to read the timing as coincidental – unfortunately I think it says more about the maturation of his career than the maturation of our culture.

It’s great to see Neil Patrick Harris’ success, and like Martin’s choice to come out it’s a sign of progress, but it’s also bounded progress – there’s a big difference between an openly gay guy playing a hetero-lothario stereotype in a TV sitcom and a gay guy playing a hetero romantic lead.

And the culturefesters got the chronology wrong on T.R. Knight – he didn’t come out until after his co-worker called him a “faggot.” Speaking of which, in googling to confirm that I found Knight’s quote about it:

I’ve never been called that to my face. So I think when that happened, something shifted, and it became bigger than myself…I could’ve just let it slide and not said anything, but it became important. It became important to make the statement.

It may be Knight really came out because he thought the story would get out anyway, but his quote rings more true to me than the things people are expected to say to the effect that it’s no big deal and the issue just never came up before – which as the culturefesters note, tends to have a real ring of protesting too much. I suspect the motivation for celebrities to stick with these “oh by the way” coming-out statements is some combination of not wanting to say you were concealing anything before and not wanting to suggest your hetero colleagues (or fans for that matter) are complicit in creating a homophobic environment that makes people worry how coming out would affect your career.

THINGS I’VE BEEN WONDERING (NON-SNARKY, EARNEST EDITION)

Points for answers. Extra credit if you can identify the podcasts I’ve been driving with recently.

Do GOPers make their global warming messaging about attacking Al Gore because they think he’s unpopular and they want to discredit science? Because they think he’s popular and they want to discredit him? Or just because they want to change the topic?

If Barack Obama combined a blue ribbon panel with a moratorium on firings of service members for being gay, how many Democrats in Congress would back him up?

Does having Democrats running the federal government make people who don’t like abortion but want it to stay legal feel more (not 8%, but maybe 1%) comfy identifying themselves “pro-life” without worrying about an abortion ban?

How do thousands of already-and-now-permanently married same-sex couples affect the fight for equal marriage rights for everyone else in California?

When will America have its first Supreme Court nominee who’s open about having had an abortion?

Is Obama serious about using our leverage to push Bibi?

Is Bruce Springsteen the only liberal immune from being tarred with the “elitist celebrity” brush? If so why?

PAGING FEDBLOG

Last week marked the first firing of a gay linguist for violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the Obama Presidency. At the same time Obama has disappointed many equality supporters by not rising to the defense of service members attacked for their sexual orientation, his appointment of John Berry as director of the Office of Personnel Management opened the door wider to greater equality for other LGBT employees of the federal government. As my friend Alyssa Rosenberg wrote at the time, Berry is not just the highest-level LGBT federal appointee in our history:

During his time at Interior, Berry worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service’s law enforcement standards — including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees…Leonard Hirsch, international liaison at the Smithsonian Institution and president of Federal GLOBE, which represents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, said in a January interview with Government Executive that he thought Berry would reverse OPM’s benefits policy.

I was reminded of both of these stories today after a co-worker brought up Ronald Reagan’s firing of the Air Traffic Controllers a quarter-century ago, a poignant reminder of the power a president’s handling of the federal workforce can exert for good or ill for workers across America, politically and culturally as well as economically. What could a progressive president do today with an equivalent impact?

Another question, as I contemplate the prospect of federal employees gaining domestic partnership benefits while service members continue being fired for having domestic partners: How are the rights and benefits of service members affected by those of the federal workforce? What about vice versa? (As Thomas Frank discusses in The Wrecking Crew, the disparity between public and private sector pay is a battleground in fights between liberals and conservatives over the role of government). Is there a relationship between the pensions of the military and civilian folks working for our government? While soldiers forfeit various rights of other Americans, I wonder how the conditions of the federal workforce affect their social and economic entitlements. And do organized federal employees speak out on these issues? Alyssa?

THE THOUGHT POLICE STRIKE AGAIN!

Check out this graph from the NYT review of 24:

But “24” also jukes to the far side of political correctness and even left-wing paranoia. In two different seasons, the villains seeking to harm the United States are not Middle Eastern terrorists but conspirators directed by wealthy, privileged white Americans: in the second season, oil business tycoons tried to set off a Middle East war, and last year, Russian rebels turned out to be working in cahoots with a cabal of far-right government officials.

Then riddle me this: In how many places in America are you likely to avoid criticism/ seem more enlightened/ charm those hated liberal professors/ earn a glowing profile from those hated liberal journalists/ make friends by suggesting that what look like terrorist attacks by foreign enemies are really engineered by big business and/or the GOP?

Not many.

Which just goes to show how vapid a term “politically correct” is. It serves two related purposes: first, to reinforce an idea that the left is made up of rigid illiberal thought police; and second, to earn awful ideas consideration from reasonable people on the grounds that to dismiss them out of hand would be politically incorrect.

I once watched an episode of Politically Incorrect where someone suggested bombing all the Arab countries in order to scare off terrorists. He then said something like “Don’t ignore my idea just because it’s not politically correct.” The reason to reject that idea is that it would be unjust and calamitous. The irony is that when Politically Incorrect got booted off the air, it wasn’t for taking on a sacred cow of the left.

The term was popularized in the first place by Dinesh D’Souza. Then he wrote a book arguing that racism is merely “rational discrimination” by whites with a justified fear of “black cultural defects.” Then he got hired as a political analyst by the supposedly all-too politically correct CNN. For his next trick, he’s written a book arguing that conservatives can best discourage terrorism by allying themselves with radical mullahs against gay parents and women who have abortions.

But don’t dismiss his ideas out of hand! That would be political correctness.

GOD FORBID

Just finished David Kuo’s Tempting Faith, his account of how he came to doubt George Bush’s commitment to making real investments in his much-touted faith based initiatives, on which Kuo had come to work in the White House. The White House approach, Kuo contends, prioritized polarizing votes to discredit opponents over building consensus around fighting poverty. But while Kuo criticizes the White House’s use of the faith-based initiatives as a political bludgeon and criticizes the push for discrimination based on religious practice, he is unrepentant in his support for government-subsidized discrimination based on religious identity.

My junior year at Yale, Kuo’s boss Jim Towey came to campus and pledged that he “strongly believes” in the constitutional separation of church and state. He was working, he pledged, to “end discrimination against faith-based organizations.” The next morning, the White House called on the House to stop amendments to the Community Services Block Grants Act, H.R. 3030, which would have required faith-based agencies receiving federal funding to comply with federal civil rights standards. The “Statement of Administration Policy” went so far as to threaten a veto of any bill amended to require federally-funded agencies to obey federal non-discrimination laws. It didn’t come to that: all three amendments to ensure that funding from all Americans is tied to equal treatment for all Americans went down to defeat.

On the same day Towey was at Yale touting the constitutionality and compassion of the administration’s agenda, Kuo’s friends at Focus on the Family sent out an activist alert warning that if proposed amendments to H.R. 3030 passed, “Christian charities interested in accepting federal funds would be required to ignore religious conviction in hiring — even if potential employees practiced Islam, Judaism or no religion at all.” God forbid.

WHO’S BARRING WHOM?

Seeing Asheesh allude to his disagreement with “progressives who think military recruiters should be barred from targeting students on campus,” I have to ask: Who is barring military recruiters from targeting students on campus? Because if he’s referring to the legal battle between several universities and the Defense Department over the Solomon Amendment, it’s worth noting at the issue at stake is whether the federal government can force private universities receiving federal money to provide military recruiters with access to students as great or greater than that available to other recruiters. The question is not whether universities can bar military recruiters from the premises. The question is whether the federal government can force universities to invite military recruiters to university-sponsored career fairs.

While conservatives will tell you that these cases are all about communist academics purging institutions they don’t like (watch your back, Central Intelligence Agency), what kept the US military out of the rarified air of the college career fair was its unabashed policy of discrimination against gay people. It’s because of the military’s discrimination against a class protected by many universities’ non-discrimination policies that those universities have chosen not to invite them to use university-sponsored events to recruit only heterosexual students.

I can’t speak to other universities, but at Yale you can frequently spot recruiters in public spaces on campus. We get Jews for Jesus, too. On some occasions, recruiters have even set up shop in the same indoor space where friends of mine who were Yale students at the time were detained by the police for leafletting. They were not detained by the police.

Are other universities driving military recruiters off their streets?

Look, I know one or two people who were classmates of mine who believe that military recruiters should be physically barred from all university property. I think they’re wrong. And I think some of the left-of-center supporters of the Solomon Amendment are right to be concerned about the division between attendees of elite universities and enrollees in the US military. But it’s hard for me to see how forcing open the doors of college career fairs to military recruiters who will only consider heterosexual college students will spark an influx of those students into the service. If that’s the goal, forcing open the doors of the military to enrollees of all sexual orientations would be a good start.

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

Guest-blogging over at Ezra Klein’s site (mazal tov!), Dan Munz is suggesting the possibility of a Mfume v. Steele Maryland Senate race as a chance for Democrats to take on and shoot down the GOP argument that Democrats take Black voters for granted. I think Dan’s absolutely right that a concerted, rigorous response from the Democrats is long overdue. I’d say part of the problem, though, is that the Democratic party establishment does indeed take Black voters for granted, in much the same way it takes most chunks of the party’s base – union voters for example – for granted, and in a way the GOP simply doesn’t treat it’s own base. Wherever one comes down on the Katha Pollitt vs. Thomas Frank debate on whether or not evangelicals who vote Republican to erode reproductive choice get their money’s worth, the Republican party makes a serious, year-in and year-out campaign of selling itself to its base while the Democratic party more often treats its base like the weird uncle who always shows up drunk to Thanksgiving (the pundits who complain about how short-sighted the NAACP is for wanting Democrats to swing by when the NRA doesn’t ask the same of Republicans might spend their energies better considering why the parties’ records might leave NAACP members with more concerns about how loyal the candidates they vote for will be).

Granted, President Bush’s appeal to Black voters to better defend their interests by spreading their votes more evenly is pure condescending silliness (I’d like to see him apply the same logic to, say, Enron executives: “As long as you all keep voting for us, what incentive do we have to keep giving you those invisible handjobs?”). More fundamentally, of course, the problem with Bush’s case is the idea that Democrats brazenly push forward with liberal policies they know are bad for their Black constituents. The reality, unfortunately, is that Democrats tend not to do nearly enough brazenly pushing forward with much of anything. The problem isn’t that the Democrats are too far left; the problem (I know I know, I’m the guy with the hammer, and look – it’s another nail!) is that the Democrats are failing Black constituents, as well as White ones, by not offering a program or an approach that’s progressive enough. The Republicans are hard at work rolling back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Democrats, even when they had branches of government of work from, have shown precious little initiative in extending them. Republican national candidates have mastered the art of the coded appeal to racist voters, while Democratic candidates remain anxious about looking like they’re trying too hard to attract Black voters (or, god forbid, “dependent” on them).

What might an aggressive Civil Rights agenda look like? An aggressive push for comprehensive voting reform, including a constitutional individual right to vote, uniform standards for ballot access and machinery, paper trails, and abolition of felon voter disenfranchisement. An aggressive push to transform the crimminal justice system into one which takes seriously the equal protection rights of Americans of different races and classes and which rehabilitates rather than stigmatizing those who pass through it. An aggressive push for drastically increased investment in education at all levels. An aggressive push to raise the minimum wage and strengthen the right to organize. An aggressive push to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. An aggressive push for universal health care. An aggressive push for real affordable housing. That would be a start. Some of these areas have attained greater prominence in the Democratic party’s agenda of late, to a lot of people’s credit; others are still waiting. As Dr. King observed not long before death, the reforms that will achieve real progress in Civil Rights will cost billions. All of these reforms are changes in which Americans of all races have a stake, and which could be achieved such that the great majority of Americans would benefit. And this summer in Florida, I had infinitely more conversations with African-Americans reluctant to register to vote because of the party’s silence or meekness on continuing the progressive work of the Civil Rights movement than because they wanted school vouchers or felt demeaned by affirmative action or were scared of gay people.

So yes, the Democrats need better answers to the Republicans’ cynical appeals to Black voters, and they need candidates who are better at articulating them. But any message which boils down to “No, Democrats don’t take [you/us] for granted, they care about [you/us] very much” is doomed to fail. What the Democrats need, as Al Sharpton put it several times during the Presidential debates, is candidates who can give the donkey the kick it needs (not something Sharpton accomplished a great deal at). And the most powerful kicks tend not to come from candidates at all. As much as Dan talks about a “traditional” relationship between Democrats and Black voters, the tradition is fundamentally one of tension and contestation, one which envelops both Jack Kennedy’s supportive call to Coretta Scott King and Bobby Kennedy’s call to John Lewis pleading him to cancel the freedom rides. As with so many other cases, the job facing the leaders of the Democratic party is as much about improving its record as defending it.

Too often lost in the debate over whether the Boy Scouts have a constitutional right to be an exclusive, discriminatory, intolerant organization is the more salient question of whether the Boy Scouts should be an exclusive, discriminatory, intolerant organization subsidized by the government. Across the country, the Boy Scouts of America cash in on their “Good House Keeping Stamp of Approval” as a wholesome, patriotic outfit to make out like bandits in tax breaks and free or low-cost renting of public facilities (the case that comes to mind for me is the rental of a marina – yes, a marina – from a local government for a few dollars). One of these preferential leases – which amount to your (if you, the reader, pay taxes in one of the localities in question, that is) money subsidizing the Boy Scouts’ exclusion of atheists and homosexuals – is about to end thanks to rebellious lawyering by the ACLU. Say goodbye to the Desert Pacific Boy Scout Council’s preferential lease on Balboa and Fiesta Island Aquatic Parks. As the local ACLU legal director observed:

San Diego has finally taken itself out of the business of endorsing the exclusion of many of its residents from their own city parks,” said Jordan Budd, Legal Director of the local ACLU. “While, it is unfortunate that it has taken an adverse court ruling to get the city on the right side of this issue, the end result is a victory for every San Diegan who cares about tolerance and equality.

And as one of the attorneys put it:

The Boy Scouts cannot have it both ways. Having gone to great lengths to establish that discrimination against gays and non-believers is essential to their mission, and therefore protected by the First Amendment, they cannot now turn around and ask the people of San Diego to foot the bill for that discrimination.