DEVOLVE TO ME!

As our friends at The Corner debate whom conservatives should blame for losing the reigns of government, Jim Manzi argues that on social issues like abortion and gay marriage

many people who share the same country disagree in good faith, and are unlikely to be persuaded within our lifetimes. As I have argued at length, I think that the only workable compromise is not to try to force the creation of uniform national law when no national consensus on the morality of these issues exists. Instead, I believe that we should have an agenda of devolving as many of these social issues, as a matter of law, to as local a level as possible.

If we really want to devolve these questions – is abortion permissible? What about same-sex marriage? – to as local a level as possible, how about the individual? I can have my abortion, and my neighbor can opt for adoption (maybe by the gay married couple down the street).

Of course conservatives have all kinds of arguments about why my liberal choices will hurt my neighbor. And liberals have our own arguments about how our economic choices affect each other in a different way than our social choices (making it a good idea to ban $1/ hour labor but not condoms). But it’s just not true that a state is the most local level to which we can devolve decision making on charged issues.

Part of what gets lost amidst right-wing rhetoric about courts reaching down to take away Americans’ freedom is that in taking decisions away from state governments, actors that are bigger than particular states can uphold the autonomy of actors smaller than those states: individual Americans, who shouldn’t reasonably be expected to move from California to Massachusetts to get married because 52% of their neighbors don’t want them to.

WORLD’S SHORTEST POLITICAL QUIZ

Guess where you can read the following political history:

You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

Is it the pages of Reason Magazine? The declaration of some self-described “classicaly liberal” professor? Nope. Those words were spoken at last night’s Democratic Debate by the party’s frontrunner.

This is what people mean when they complain about the Clintons’ much-vaunted triangulation – although this particular argument is really worse than triangulation, in that rather than positioning herself between two bad boogeymen of the hard left and hard right, she’s just defining her politics against left-wing “big government” (didn’t her husband already declare it over?). And she’s defining “individual freedom” against “big government” too.

It’s not a mystery why she would do this. Conservatives have done an impressive job of convincing people over the past decades that more government means less freedom. That’s how they’ve peddled their attacks on the majority’s ability to legislate against plutocracy. It’s how they’ve pushed forward an agenda that leaves Americans less free – prisoners of fear of disaster, dislocation, and disintegration of their communities and their hopes for their families.

Democrats have not done a great job over the past few decades of framing the debate in a way that elevates freedom from want and freedom from fear and challenges the idea that we are more economically free if your boss can fire you for being gay or fighting for more money. Right-wing frames are powerful. That means contemporary candidates need to either co-opt them or challenge them. Which choice they make is telling.

STOP STEPPING ON MY BREAKTHROUGH

Doing his best to sweet-talk electorally-ascendent liberals into hitching their wagon to the libertarian rickshaw, Brink Lindsey offers a list of shared victories in which liberals and libertarians can revel together:

an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.

If these are victories for libertarians, then this is a better argument for why libertarians should support liberals and leftists – the people who actually won each of these victories – than for why the left should turn libertarian. But it’s worth asking whether these markers of social progress even qualify as “libertarian breakthroughs” or “libertarian ends.”

The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by the elimination of the poll tax, a nasty law which restricts access to a government function to those able to pay for it and rewards those with more money to spend on their politics with more voice in them. What about undoing those laws qualifies as libertarian? The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by anti-discrimination laws that empower government to use regulation to limit the freedom of employers to employ a workforce that looks like themselves. Inflicting government intervention on market transactions is not exactly the libertarian m.o. Neither is government-mandated busing to integrate a public school system that if libertarians had their way wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Many libertarians no doubt break with Barry Goldwater and support the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. But their support for good progressive law doesn’t demonstrate a fundamental affinity between liberalism and libertarianism. It simply demonstrates that even its devotees sometimes reject the maxim that “the government is best which governs least” when faced with the liberty-denying consequences of the “free market” whose “relentless dynamism” Lindsey urges liberals to recognize.

Libertarians may support freedom of the press from censorship, but they’re more likely to fret over how to sell off our publically-owned airwaves than how to ensure airtime for grassroots candidates. They may support a woman’s right to choose, but I wouldn’t count on their assistance in ensuring that women have the economic means to choose abortion or childbirth, or the educational resources to make informed choices. They may support the rights of the accused to a trial, but they’re not the first to line up to be taxed to pay for decent lawyers to represent them (then there are the ones who would like to replace the criminal justice system with a system of private torts). They may support allowing more immigrants into this country, but if you expect them to face down employers who exploit the fear of deportation to suppress the right to organize, you’ve got another think coming.

And though the Cato Institute won’t be joining Rick Santorum’s crusade against no-fault divorce any time soon, there’s no need for an earnest Ayn Rand devotee to support a right to divorce at all. After all, isn’t marriage a binding contract that the parties should know better than to get into lightly? Aside from the reality that it presides over marriage in the first place, why should government have any more right to stop consenting adults from entering contracts for lifelong marriage than it does to bar contracts for human organ sales or pennies-an-hour employment?

FAMILY MATTERS

This article, one of the last by the recently-deceased Ellen Willis, is one of the more articulate, accurate, and biting critiques I’ve come across of Thomas Frank and What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a book many pundits make reference to and few do justice.

Willis takes on what I think is the most glaring weakness of Frank’s latest book, one which goes totally unaddressed in the full-length reviews and tangential digs bashing him for his supposed elitism: Frank argues that Republicans elected on the basis of their social conservatism don’t actually deliver socially conservative policy. As we say in Yiddish, “Halvai” – if only. As Willis notes, conservatives have successfully used the powers of their offices all too successfully to reshape the country’s “social policy” more faithful to their dogma – including making it prohibitively difficult for women in large swathes of the country to exercise freedom of choice. Frank is of course right to recognize the Federal Marriage Act as a stunt and a sop, but the unfortunate truth is that many of the right’s sops to social conservative activists pack a real punch in diminishing the freedom of the rest of us to access contraception, access knowledge, and access partnership rights.

Rejecting Frank’s insistence that the social conservative legislative agenda is a chimera doesn’t much damage the rest of his argument though. Frank is right to argue that conservatives build a base for right-wing policy based on classed appeals to stick it to elites by fighting social liberalsim, and that that base make possible policies that make elites that much more decadent. And he’s right that a progressive politics that speaks to class and is willling to condemn George Bush’s congratulating a woman working three jobs as a mark of elitism would do something to sap the power that right-wing aesthetic class warfare has in the absence of the materialist class warfare Lee Attwater rightly rued could bring the left back into electoral power.

Willis is right to suggest that that won’t be enough, and that progressives need to speak with strength and candor in the culture war rather than simply feinting or punting (and she speaks perceptively to the way we project our owjn ambivalences onto the electorate, which then reflects them). But she’s wrong to lump Frank in with Michaels (say, Lind and Tomasky) who are set on shutting feminists up.

And of all the charges to level at Thomas Frank, excessive loyalty to the Democratic Party is one of the more inane ones Willis could have chosen. That said, it’s a compelling read.

Zichronah livrachah.

MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACKING

One of the classic and/ or tired debate between the more and less left camps on the left is whether we win elections best by hewing or dashing to the center or by staking out strong left stances that demonstrate vision and courage and bring more people into the process. I think the latter kind of argument is underappreciated by most of the people running editorial pages and congressional campaign committees. But I’d also say that these arguments frequently overstate how much issues really determine how people vote (much as some of us might like it if they did). I think Mark Schmitt got it right when he said “It’s not what you say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about you.” That is, why candidates are perceived to have taken the stances they have and embraced the issues they have often does more to raise them up or bring them down than what those issues and positions are.

Another frustration of the debates about whether leftism or centrism will win elections is that it often willfully ducks the question of what policies are actually best for the country. Arguments about what policies win elections and arguments about what policies create better futures masquerade about as one another. Partly because that let’s us elide the very real debates amongst those of us to the left of the Republicans about whether three strikes laws or CAFTA or invading Iraq are worthy on the merits.

So when we consider the handiwork of those who try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to pick candidates, like a party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee, I think a useful question for those of us in what Wellstone first called the Democratic wing of the Democratic party to ask is: Are you putting up the most progressive candidate that could win the election?

So here are some, um, general thoughts inspired by recent events:

Bad Idea: When the state is pretty red and the most successful Democrats are agrarian populists, backing the guy with more money than god over the farmer.

Good Idea: When the state is quite red, finding a candidate who offers conservatism of personal narrative and cultural affectation rather than of contemporary ideology.

Bad Idea: When the state is even a little blue, the Republicans and the Congress are wildly unpopular, and the incumbent is the 100th most popular Senator, fielding a candidate who agrees with the Republicans on central issues we’ll face in the next couple years.

Good Idea: When the state is light red but the ruling party has fallen farther faster there than anywhere else, and the wounds of neoliberalism are particularly keenly felt, taking the chance to run a real progressive.

Bad Idea: When the incumbent sides with the Democrats on key issues in order to stay afloat in a super-blue state, trying to entice a candidate who’ll run to his right.

Good Idea: When a socialist Independent is the state’s most popular pol and he has aspirations for higher office, getting out of his way.

BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

BEYOND BUSH AND TANCREDO

Catching up on the immigration debate that broke out amongst some of my co-bloggers over at Campus Progress while I was out of the country, I think it exemplifies an unfortunate trend in the contemporary debate: conflating the questions of how immigration should be regulated and of what rights immigrants should have in this country. Every issue has some pundit out there convinced that there are not two sides but three or seven or nineteen, but the immigration question is actually one where there are three camps – counting not the number of potentially coherent ideologies out there but the number of discrete large-scale positions people are visibly lobbying for – which can’t be placed along along a single spectrum without losing a good deal of meaning.

The position which has gotten the most colorful press coverage recently is the one advocated by Tom Tancredo (R-CA) and the Minutemen vigilantes who’ve taken it on themselves the patrol the border and chase down people who look to them like immigrants. Tancredo wants to cut immigration to this country (drastically) by building a wall and wants to curtail the rights of immigrants here (drastically) by denying their children birthright citizenship. It’s a position which resonates with a significant swath of the Republican base, as well as some traditionally Democratic-voting folks. It’s the position of the National Review. Shamefully, it used to be (roughly) the official position of the AFL-CIO (arguably that position would have fit better in a fourth quadrant – fewer immigrants but more rights for them – which I’ll leave out here because it lacks many advocates).

The position which has unfortunately been the primary alternative portrayed in the media is the cluster of policy proposals represented by George W. Bush: more legal immigration but fewer rights for immigrants. That would be the consequence of the crypto-bracero program he offered two years ago, under which undocumented immigrants are invited to come out of the shadows and into the trust of their employers, who can sponsor them for as long as they see fit but are given no reason not to have them deported if they do something the boss doesn’t like. This is the position of the Wall Street Journal and the Cato foundation and the business elites they’re looking out for.

There’s a progressive position in this debate, but it isn’t either of these. It’s the position for which immigrants, advocates, and allies rode from around the country to Flushing Meadows Park for two years ago: open our country to more legal immigration and protect the rights of everyone who lives here. It’s the position of the national labor movement, the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, and it’s the one reflected in the principles of the New American Opportunity Campaign: offer a path to citizenship, reunite families, protect civil liberties, and safeguard the right to organize and bargain collectively for everyone who lives and works here. That’s the goal towards which the legislation offered by senators Kennedy and McCain is a crucial step.

Conservatives reap the benefits from any debate which pits low-income workers against each other based on race or gender or citizenship – even when such a debate makes cracks in their electoral coalition in the short term. Building a progressive movement in this country depends on bringing together working people across such divisions to confront shared challenges and opponents with common cause. It’s a task which ostensibly progressive organizations too often have failed – to their own detriment. A two-tiered workforce is bad for workers, and it’s bad for America. But the right answer to that challenge, on the immigration question as on the race question and the gender question, is to welcome new workers and ensure that they have the same rights as old ones, so that they can organize and bargain together to raise their standard of living. Pushing marginalized workers out of the workforce was the wrong position then, and it’s the wrong one now. It consigns more men and women to die crossing the border, and it endangers our security by perpetuating a system in which millions of people needlessly live outside of the law. And it denies the historical promise and dynamism of this country.

WHAT IS BARACK OBAMA SAYING?

Friday, Barack Obama wrote a response to blogospheric criticism of his criticism from the Senate floor of advocacy groups which were condemning Senators who voted to confirm Roberts (Obama himself voted against confirmation). He makes some points I agree with, and some I don’t. Most frustrating, though – and all the more so given his gift as a writer – are the arguments which sound nice but whose meanings are difficult to tease out at all. Like this one:

My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully – and voted against – the Iraqi invasion. He isn’t somehow transformed into a “war supporter” – as I’ve heard some anti-war activists suggest – just because he hasn’t called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn’t become anti-choice because he or she isn’t absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn’t become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn’t become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.

There are several ways to read this argument:

One is that what matters is a politician’s values, and not individual votes, and so it’s wrong to call a politician “anti-civil rights” for casting votes which hurt the cause of civil rights. The problem with this argument is that we elect representatives to cast good votes, not to personally sympathize with us and our values.

Another is that none of us has the right to decide what these labels mean – that it’s arrogant and inappropriate for pro-choice activists to tell politicians what it should mean to be pro-choice. The problem with this argument is that there’s no point in working to advance the cause of “choice” in general if that excludes advancing a particular understanding of what is and is not pro-choice policy. While it’s arguable whether or not the movement would be served by more politicians claiming the pro-choice mantle without changing their policy positions, but it certainly be insufficient.

Another argument which could Obama could be making here is that is that immediate troop withdrawl from Iraq, opposition to parental notification laws, defense of affirmative action from “questioning,” and opposition to CAFTA are not in fact serving the goals of the anti-war, pro-choice, civil rights, and labor movements, respectively. In other words, he could argue against the positions he thinks Democratic senators are wrongly being held to on the merits. But if there’s any such criticism here, it’s only implicit (Obama, for the record, voted against CAFTA in the Senate, voted against parental notification in the Illinois Senate, and is not calling for an immediate withdrawl of all US troops).

Given that Obama seems not to be articulating that argument, he could be arguing that these particular issues are just not important enough to make a big deal of. But it’s hard to imagine the groups he names not putting up a fight over these issues, and it would be hard to believe that Obama would expect them not to. CAFTA was the first comprehensive trade deal to come before the Congress under Bush, crafted to erode worker protections which accelerating the race to the bottom. Parental notification policies are, along with denial of government funding, one of the major policy impediments to women’s substantive exercise of their right to choose.

A more spurious argument which Obama seems implicitly to be making through questionable word choice is that the problem with these left-wing advocacy groups is that they’re out to restrict elected officials’ freedom of expression by punishing them for not being “absolutely convinced” on parental notification or “making a determination” they don’t like on CAFTA. To the extent that advocacy groups criticize elected officials for critical public statements, they’re not chilling speech – they’re responding to it, and I’d say there are some criticisms which are deserved and others which aren’t. But phrases like Obama’s here aren’t really about speech – they’re about votes. To describe a pro-choice group as punishing a legislator for not being convinced of something conjures up Orwellian images, but what pro-choice groups are taking legislators to task for isn’t private thoughts – it’s how they legislate.

The final argument that I think could reasonably be read from this paragraph, is that advocacy groups shouldn’t expect politicians to vote the way they want all of the time. But why not? Certainly, it would be a poor tactical choice for such groups to predict that everyone they want will vote however they want all of the time. But given the premise that their positions are the right ones (and with the exception of immediate and total withdrawl, I believe they are, and Obama seems to as well), shouldn’t support of all of their positions be the standard against which they judge elected officials? Does Obama really expect the National Council of La Raza to make public statements like, “Sadly, the Senator is only 85% of the way to casting votes to extend rather than restrict civil rights at least 60% of the time”? Elected officials, locally as well as nationally, often revel in disparaging “activists” for failure to understand the necessity of compromise. The first problem with that critique is that too often, the compromises are bad ones. The second is that the way we get good compromises is by having leaders on our side who are willing to take strong stands in the face of opposition. Obviously, writing a politician off as not worth working with in the future because of a vote on a particular issue is just bad politics – if you’re not organizing them, someone else is. But there’s a difference between writing off politicians who cast bad votes and being willing to publicly point out that those votes are bad. Voting for CAFTA may not make an otherwise pro-union legislator anti-union for good, but those of us who believe voting against CAFTA is the right vote and the pro-union vote to cast are, it seems to me, obligated to regard a politician who votes for CAFTA as less pro-union than if she hadn’t. Otherwise, we might as well pack up and go home.

Or maybe all Obama was trying to say was that left advocates should soften their rhetoric. I don’t think describing a Senator who votes to confirm a nominee for Chief Justice as in some way “complicit” in particularly aggregious decisions that Justice makes on the court is in any way out of bounds (and yes, that means Russ Feingold, of whom I remain a big fan, bears some degree of responsibility for what Justice Roberts does on the court). And I don’t think the left or the country are well-served when advocacy groups whose fundamental mission is an ideological one, not a partisan one, hold their fire in taking politicians of one party to task for actions for which they would condemn members of the other. Is there some exaggerated, over-the-top, nastily personal rhetoric out there? Of course. But if that’s what Obama takes issue with, he could have found a clearer way to say it.

NEAR-VICTORY HAS A THOUSAND FATHERS

Democrats got the closest thing to a surprise electoral victory we’ve had in a while on Tuesday when Paul Hackett pulled over 48% in the most Republican district in Ohio. Understandably, spin machines on all sides have been in overdrive in the week since to claim vindication in the results. Case in point: Ed Kilgore’s claim that Hackett made it to 48% because the unreconstructed liberals in the “netroots” were willing to face facts, eschew their litmus tests, and let Hackett run with the kind of centrism the DLC has been shopping around the country:

The best sign, IMO, is that all this excitement was generated on behalf of a candidate nicely tailored to a “red” district, whose policy views probably were at odds with those of a lot of the folks generating the excitement and the cash. And I gather the national groups and bloggers involved in Hackett’s campaign let the candidate and his staff call all the important shots.

Reading Kilgore’s take, you’d think Hackett was a regular Zell Miller – or at least a conservative Democrat, emphasis on the conservative, like Ken Salazar. It makes good copy if your organization is devoted to pulling the party away from the left: in a sudden fit of reasonableness, the liberal fringe recognizes reality and gets behind the centrist candidate who can win. Trouble is, Paul Hackett is no Ken Salazar. Don’t take it from me – check out his website. He bucks the party on guns, but otherwise, he’s in or to the left of the mainstream of the House Democrats. Not only is he resolutely opposed to Bush’s social security privatization scheme, he takes the step most Americans support but too many Democrats are afraid to talk about: calling for an increase in the cap on the payroll tax (hear that suggested by the DLC recently? Didn’t think so). He condemns outsourcing, and rather than echoing GOP rhetoric about “big government,” he exposes it for the sham argument that it is. And on perhaps the signal issue of the campaign – the war in Iraq – he stands well to the left not only of the DLC of a significant chunk of the Democratic party in the House. If not for his being a veteran, one would expect the DLC to respond to his rhetoric opposing the decision to go to war with the usual hand-wringing about the party’s flagging credibility on national security.

Of course, if Paul Hackett hadn’t been a veteran, it would have been a very different race. But if all Kilgore means is that liberals conceded to pragmatists by getting behind a veteran, then the obvious question is whhere he got the idea that liberals in their hearts of hearts would rather have men and women in Congress who’ve never served in war. Maybe by reading all those DLC memos about how the Democratic party has no credibility on national security.

Bottom line is, if Paul Hackett had tanked, we’d be hearing from the conservative wing of the party about how his unreconstructed liberalism failed to resonate with mainstream voters. Making Hackett out to be an extreme left-winger would certainly be less of a leap for them than it was to make one out of John Kerry or Al Gore.

THE OTHER SIDE OF ROE

One of the more interesting points William Saletan makes in Bearing Right is that as long as a sizeable number of Americans believes neither that a woman has a right to choose nor that a fetus has a right to life, we’ll continue to see employers, judges, parole officers, and others pushing policies which should trouble those who believe in either – policies which deny pregnant women who want to carry a fetus to term, or women who want to retain the ability to get pregnant in the future, the chance to do so. The case studies Saletan explores show that when the issue is mandatory abortion, pro-choicers and “pro-life” activists have generally been united in defending a woman’s right to choose birth, though in cases where the issue is mandatory sterilization, “pro-life” organizations have too often stood with those who would take away a woman’s or man’s reproductive autonomy, whether permanently or for the duration of coercively-implemented injections.

The ultimate line of legal defense for women told that sacrificing the chance to have a child is the cost of a job or a parole is that much-maligned but nationally popular decision, Roe v. Wade. One of these women is April Thompson, who is suing Piedmont Management Associates for firing her over her decision to remain pregnant:

According to the lawsuit, when Ebert found out Thompson was seeing a fertility doctor, she told her she was “worried that she was trying to get pregnant.” “If you get pregnant, you will have to move because I am not putting up with any babies around here and you also won’t have a job,” the lawsuit says Ebert told Thompson. “The guys and I do not even hire single mothers because of the problems. I know you have some great delusion that you will be a great mother, but you won’t — you can’t even take care of your dog.”…According to the lawsuit, when Ebert found out, she demanded that Thompson get an abortion.

April Thompson is a poster child for the centrality of privacy and workers’ rights to the pursuit of happiness this country promises. And her case represents the danger of a jurisprudence which would elevate an ostensible “free contract” right to sign away your personal freedom over individual rights, and the judgment of the state over the bodily integriy and autonomy of the individual. It reminds us why, if John Roberts still sees Roe as “unprincipled jurisprudence” and scoffs at a “so-called right to privacy,” and plans to remain the “go-to lawyer for the business community, then America deserves better than John Roberts on the Supreme Court.

CULTURAL CRITICISM, LEFT AND RIGHT

A series of dust-ups in the media about the media this summer – from the flap on Kos about an ad with women mudwrestling to Jon Stewart’s arguments with Bernard Goldberg, Zell Miller, and Rick Santorum about whether the culture has coarsened – has gotten me thinking about the different ways liberals and conservatives consider and critique what’s in the movies and on TV.

One clear but too-often-obscured distinction is between criticism and calls for censorship. Rick Santorum gets at this in his book when he insists in his book that “If it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral.” If one accepts Santorum’s frame – which is also Catherine McKinnon’s – then the question of what should be in the media and the question of what should be censored from the media are – at least in particularly agregious cases – mapped onto each other. Too often, progressives answer other progressives’ media criticism as if it were an implicit call for censorship, rather than as the “more speech” which the left has traditionally and rightly seen as the answer to bad speech.

Liberal and conservative approaches to media criticism are also distinguished by choice – or at least prioritization – of boogeymen from amongst sex, violence, bigotry, et al. And, arguably, by the question of how much we should care at all.

But related, and – I think – more interesting – is a distinction I haven’t seen discussed: Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses? By asking the question and making the distinction, I guess, I’ve already pegged myself in the liberal camp that says that the distinction is a meaningful one and that what’s endorsed is a more worthwhile ground for consideration or condemnation than what’s exposed. That’s not to say that it’s possible to present images or actions with neutrality – only that it’s possible to present the same ones with a whole range of meanings and judgments.

If we’re concerned about sex, we can worry about whether sex happens on TV or we can worry about whether the sex on TV is portrayed as a good or bad (or healthy or unhealthy, or cool or uncool) thing. If we’re concerned about sexism, we can worry about whether people are portrayed being or acting sexist on TV or we can worry about whether that sexism is presented in a favorable light. In each case, I’d say that if you see the thing as an evil (my take: sexism is, sex isn’t), your time and energy is better spent worrying about how good or bad that evil is portrayed to be than about how often it appears on the screen.

That’s why the fixation on nudity on TV is doubly conservative – conservative for the contention that human sexuality is what media consumers should be guarded against and conservative for the concern over the naked image itself rather than the social meaning with which it appears. Sure it’s easier to keep a tally of naked breasts than of positive portrayals of behaviors you think are negative, but the tendency of right-wing critics to go for the former approach seems to be about more than convenience. And that approach – grouping together breasts shown breast-feeding, breasts shown in an intimate moment between spouses, and breasts shown on a child being molested – leaves them looking that much more like middle-schoolers.

Among the problems with an approach to media criticism which fixates on what viewers are exposed to rather than what they see endorsed is that it lets pass all kinds of social meanings which are problematic but not explicit. Whatever your values, your chances of seeing them spread in society are affected more by G-rated movies than Playboy.

UNION RIGHTS ARE SPEECH RIGHTS

While I don’t at all agree with Thomas Geoghegan’s contention in Which Side Are You On that the ACLU’s agenda, while noble, wouldn’t “cost anyone anything” to implement, he does speak to a well-justified frustration many “labor liberals” feel at the difficulty of stirring certain civil libertarians to get up in arms about the civil liberties of workers on and off the job. Not only are positive rights (like economic security) crucial to the meaningful exercise of negative rights (like free speech), positive and negative rights frequently and fundamentally intersect, perhaps nowhere moreso than the workplaces in which millons spend the majority of their waking hours. Opposition to civil liberties comes not only from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their values but also from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their economic interests. That’s why the right of workers to speak, assemble, and organize on and off the job has always been threatened in this country. And that’s why it’s so often fallen to unions, in Nathan Newman’s words, to “bring the first Amendment to the workplace.” It’s worth asking (as Geoghegan was trying, though through a troubling turn of phrase, to do) why the idea of deprivation of civil liberties affects many of us more viscerally than the idea of economic deprivation. But even those who only get up in arms over the former should be disturbed that, as Geoghegan has been reminding us for years, American law offers you no protection against being fired for expressing your political beliefs, and promises the weakest of responses to employers who threaten, punish, or fire workers seeking to bargain collectively.

What are the stakes? The Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board provided a reminder last month when it upheld a security firm’s rule that bars its employees from “fraternizing” with each other on or off the job. Guardsmark insisted that its employees give up their right to associate with each other socially on their own time as a condition of employment, and the NLRB blessed the company to keep the rule in place.