FIGHTING WORDS

Matt Taibbi: “Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat.”

Will: “At a bus stop in Surda an angry young man with a Palestinian flag on his T-shirt throws a rock at me and misses. Outside a pizza joint in West Jerusalem an angry young man with an orange ribbon on his backpack throws a bottle at me and misses.”

Geoffrey Stone: “A democratic society must protect itself against violent attack, but it cannot do so by preventing its citizens from hearing even sinister criticism that defends the use of violence.”

Katha Pollitt: “Exposing the constraints on women’s choices, however, is only one side of feminism. The other is acknowledging women as moral agents, trusting women to decide what is best for themselves. For [Feminists for Life] there’s only one right decision: Have that baby.”

The past few weeks have seen a good deal of sarcasm and indignation from various pundits, print and virtual, in response to criticism of the very real lack of women among the ranks of high-profile opinion journalists. As usual, we’ve seen conservatives and a fair number of self-identified liberals advocating blindness to inequality amongst groups as a sign of respect for individuals. And claims that if different women can have different opinions, then there can’t be any particular problem with having most of the opinions voiced prominently be those of men. And that really valuing individual women writers means not seeing them as women at all. Thing is, while different women and different men will of course each have different perspectives, when a medium overwhelmingly represents the voices of men it represents only the voices of a spectrum of people much more narrow than its audience. And if one really believes in the equality of two groups, then inequality of results cannot but suggest the absence of full equality of opportunity. As Katha Pollitt writes:

It may be true that more men than women like to bloviate and “bat things out”–socialization does count for something. So do social rewards: I have seen men advance professionally on levels of aggression, self-promotion and hostility that would have a woman carted off to a loony bin–unless, of course, she happens to be Ann Coulter. But feminine psychology doesn’t explain why all five of USA Today’s political columnists are male, or why Time’s eleven columnists are male–down to the four in Arts and Entertainment–or why at Newsweek it’s one out of six in print and two out of thirteen on the Web…The tiny universe of political-opinion writers includes plenty of women who hold their own with men, who do not wilt at the prospect of an angry e-mail, who have written cover stories and bestsellers and won prizes–and whose phone numbers are likely already in the Rolodexes of the editors who wonder where the women are. How hard could it be to “find” Barbara Ehrenreich, who filled in for Thomas Friedman for one month last summer and wrote nine of the best columns the Times has seen in a decade?

…That opinion writing is a kind of testosterone-powered food fight is a popular idea in the blogosphere. Male bloggers are always wondering where the women are and why women can’t/don’t/won’t throw bananas…There are actually lots of women political bloggers out there–spend half an hour reading them and you will never again say women aren’t as argumentative as men! But what makes a blog visible is links, and male bloggers tend not to link to women…Perhaps they sense it might interfere with the circle jerk in cyberspace–the endless mutual self-infatuation that is one of the less attractive aspects of the blogging phenom. Or maybe, like so many op-ed editors, they just don’t see women, even when the women are right in front of them.

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.

This Tony Auth cartoon has caused a stir in several Philadelphia, Jewish, and on-line circles since it was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday. The cartoon, which depicts a fence in the shape of a Jewish star dividing Palestinian civilians, has come under fire – as do most on the left about Israel – as not only critical of the Sharon government but anti-Israel, and not only anti-Israel but antisemitic. And, as in most but not all cases when Israel is the topic and antisemitism is charged, the charge doesn’t hold weight.

At the heart of the issue with this cartoon is the symbolic use of the Magen David, the Jewish star. Because Auth uses a religious symbol, the argument goes, the cartoon represents a religious – rather than political – slur, a blood libel. Because the star is employed in connection with a depiction of oppression, the cartoon’s message must be that the religion, and the coreligionists, associated with the star are oppressive. But this argument disregards the appropriation of the Jewish star a century ago for the flag of the State of Israel. The star, which appears in the center of the flag framed above and below by horizontal stripes, is its only recognizable symbol, and appears solo in a range of administrative contexts, as understandably is also a mainstay of pro-Sharon lobbies. So why the Magen David does not belong to the lexicon of acceptable symbols for Auth is seems to me difficult to argue.

This may seem like a belated nitpick, but there’s a larger and more persistent issue here. Whatever one believes about the religious nature of the state, I think intellectual honesty demands a recognition that any self-identified religious state inherently blurs the discourse, insofar as most of us legitimize and call for judgments of states and political actors of a type that we don’t want or legitimate of religions or religious groups. But pundits on both sides can fall prey to a desire to have it both ways. A couple months ago I called a Yale professor active on the Yale-Peace listserve on a seeming inability or willful refusal to distinguish between Jews, Zionists, Likudniks, Israelis, and neoconservatives. But the double standard on the right is more subtle and more ubiquitous: Groups that defend the Israeli government are pro-Jewish and speak for Jews, but when critics of Israel conflate the state and the religion it’s bigotry. It would be gratifying to see more politicians willing to distinguish the Jewish community and Arik Sharon when it comes to commentary they agree with and commentary they don’t.

Katha Pollitt, in an essay on flags after September 11, wrote that symbols are doors and it’s time to walk through them (when I asked her in person what she had meant by that quote, she said she didn’t remember ever writing it). Symbolic politics is inherently potent and inherently fraught. And all cartoons are charicature. As cartoonists go, Auth isn’t a particular favorite of mine, although he has his moments. But Auth’s cartoon has three symbols. The first, as described above, is perhaps the primary symbol of the state. The second, Palestinian civilians, exist by the millions in the territory occupied by that state. And the third, the fence in question, is lengthening even now. The criticism of Auth for using the symbol, and the implication that his symbolism is akin to Nazi propaganda and/or is comparing Israelis to Nazis to Nazis, makes it easy to forget that in this case life preceded art. The actual fence, in fact, looks a lot uglier than portrayed in the cartoon. Auth chose to make a statement – not a particularly new one – about the construction of the fence in the name of the star and its impact on men, women, and children. Debatable? Sure. Bigotry? No.

Disagree? Eidelson@Yale.Edu