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?

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.

FIGHTING WORDS

Ezra Klein: “Siegel did not commit an act of pedophilia (or, for that matter, statutory rape), and he spent a decade plus feeling ashamed of it. And now, he has the gall to accuse Kincaid of pedophilia for believing that our culture sexualizes children.”

Greg Sargent: “When will Wolf Blitzer, Tim Russert and other bigfoot national pundits bemoan the fact that “sensible” and “courageous” moderate Chafee may have no place in his party?”

Thomas Frank: “What our modernized liberal leaders offer — that is, when they’re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos — is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.”

LIVING ON THE WEDGE

Here’s CNN’s headline on the latest GOP response to not being so popular right now:

GOP hones its core agenda: Flag burning, gay marriage, abortion top Republicans’ Senate plan

This will certainly provide fodder for those left of the center who like to argue that the problem with Republicans is that they focus on intangible “wedge issues” rather than material issues that actually affect people. It’s an argument that has some popularity not only with centrist Dems but with a fair number farther to the left too. I don’t think it’s a good one. Thing is, these so-called wedge issues affect real people in ways that are all too real – and often are economic as well. The problem with Republicans isn’t that they focus too much on so-called “social issues.” The problem with Republicans is that they are wrong. The problem with Republicans is that they want to reverse social progress. Democrats need to expand the public understanding of what is an issue of values. But they also have to make the case better on the issues that are already commonly identified that way (Thomas Frank is right to argue that taking stronger populist stands on the economic issues could help to sap right-wing “culture war” politics of their ostensibly anti-elitist appeal).

All that said, one can hold out hope that the image of Bill Frist scheduling hearings on how to amend the first ammendment to ban flag burning will do some damage to his party’s credibility as responsible stewards of the Congress.

BROKEBACK BACKLASH?

Last week’s Oscar ceremonies brought a crescendo – at least for now – to the animus heaped upon Brokeback Mountain, and upon Hollywood, by the right. Judging by watching Tucker Carlson tonight, professionally outraged conservative cultural critics have moved on to V for Vendetta.

But it’s worth reflecting on the clever packaging of that supposed backlash by the main organs of the conservative movement. Tucker Carlson offered an emblematic shtick: He hasn’t seen the movie, he has nothing against gay people, but “at some point, Hollywood should give up its mission as a kind of, you know, evangelist for a political persuasion and just shut up and make the movie.” Such an argument ignores the ways in which politics shape and are shaped by any art that engages with power, identity, morality, desire – that is, pretty much any art out there (this is a position that’s gotten me in trouble before). But more importantly, it’s fundamentally mendacious, as Bryan Collingsworth noted for people who refuse to see a movie because of content they oppose (or, as some would protest too much, they simply “aren’t that interested in”) to claim that their objection is to the politicization of film. Conservative critics who boast that they won’t patronize a “gay movie” suggest the logical implication that they go to other movies because they’re heterosexual movies. In a context of sexual inequality, there’s nothing apolitical about that. Just a political position that dare not speak its name.

What we get instead is a perfunctory faux backlash whose dimensions are effectively presaged by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? One is the sight of blue-state urban media elites rising to defend the ostensible sensibilities of imagined heartland Americans. Needless to say, Bill O’Reilly and company aren’t doing them any favors by projecting their antipathy towards their imagined “gay cowboy movie” onto the imagined faceless cornfield-dwelling masses. But speaking for an imagined heartland, like speaking against an imagined “political correctness” regime (for extra credit, do both at once), provides conservatives an excuse to fulminate against unpopular minorities while touting their own tolerance. It’s not that their intolerant, it’s just that they take offense at the hated liberals’ supposed intolerance of other people’s supposed intolerance.

Such targeting, too, is laid out well in Frank’s book: The enemy isn’t people who are gay. It’s the liberal elites who think they know better than everyone else. Such anti-elite animus has a much broader constituency than naked anti-gay animus (even gay conservatives can – and do – sign on). The people who made Brokeback Mountain are the same ones, Coulter and company insist, who want to reach down and take away all the guns, who want to reach up and pull down the Ten Commandments, and who make an annual tradition of warring against Christmas. Despite its own contradictions (as Frank ably argues, the elite theory requires suspending the media from the principles of the free market in which good conservatives believe so fervently), the anti-elite animus serves to tap into the real class resentment of working Americans while giving those in the real elite a way to decry what the hated liberals produce without admitting to actual prejudice. It’s a colossal cop-out. But it’s also a brilliant way to broaden the supposed backlash and deepen its political cache.

So what do we do about it? Broaden the class depictions of gay men and women in politics and popular media. And build a progressive movement that can push the Democratic party to offer an agenda that speaks to this country’s real class divisions as compellingly as the Republican party speaks to imagined class aesthetics. For a start.

FIGHTING WORDS

Thomas Frank: “History will record that in the week our laissez-faire government fiddled while a major city burned, the fourth most popular non-fiction book in the land, according to the New York Times, was an itemized account of the ways in which liberals are ruining the country.”

Deborah Pearlstein: “We are not doing well. And the unlimited-power executive holds a lion’s share of the blame.”

Eric Alterman: “When you think about it, it is a tribute to the American people that they remain as receptive to liberal arguments as they do, given how infrequently they hear them.”

Alek Felstiner: “And the political contributions, which are supposed to enrage the common man, are comically small compared with industry counterparts. In fact, they’re small compared with the $5 million/year Berman plans to spend on this campaign.”

E.J. Graff: “For nearly twenty years, across the country, lesbians and gay men have been doing what Laurel Hester did: letting others see the injustice within their personal tragedies.”

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein: “But it isn’t just about refusal. It’s about “A Better Way,” about a democratic, constituent, immanent (sorry) vision for how universities can be reorganized and what kind of work they/we can do.”

John Nichols: “The problem with the Bush administration’s support for a move by a United Arab Emirates-based firm to take over operation of six major American ports — as well as the shipment of military equipment through two additional ports — is not that the corporation in question is Arab owned. The problem is that Dubai Ports World is a corporation.”