Elder Scam: Debunking California’s Republican Frontrunner on Systemic Racism and Conservatism

If you like my essays on this blog, check out the latest episode of my podcast, where I debunk California’s Republican Frontrunner, Larry Elder, on issues like systemic racism!

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Prager U’s Short and Flawed History of Slavery

In a new video for PragerU, conservative commentator, Candace Owens, attempts to debunk what she sees as common myths about slavery. She begins by claiming that slavery existed in a wide variety of cultures in Africa, Asia, Europe, etc. during the ancient world. This is true so far as it goes, although it seems to be largely attacking a strawman. I am not aware of any significant numbers of scholars on the left who argue that slavery has ever been practiced only by white people. Most scholars acknowledge that slavery has existed in many white cultures and many nonwhite cultures throughout human history. At the same time, it must be acknowledged, though Owens does not acknowledge it, that not all societies have historically practiced hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery. Under hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery, enslavement can last for the slave’s entire life, at the owner’s discretion, the status of slave is passed down from parents to children on through generations, and slaves are formally recognized as someone else’s property. This is the kind of slavery which existed in the United States until 1865. As historian Orlando Patterson has discussed, in what is now the United States, most Native American tribes outside of the West Coast generally avoided hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery. Historian Walter Rodney discussed in a 1966 article the fact that in most of Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast, hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery was absent prior to the rise of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The same could be said for many of Africa’s “stateless societies.” As the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital Library explains, “Many of these small-scale, decentralized societies rejected slaveholding.” While conservatives are correct that many large kingdoms and empires in Africa and some stateless societies practiced hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery long before European arrival, this is by no means true of all African societies.

Shortly before she reaches the two minute mark of her video, Owens makes the first outright factual error. In an attempt to claim that “white people were the first to formally put an end to slavery,” she asserts that in 1833, Britain was “the first country in the history of the world to pass a slavery abolition act.” This would be a surprise to many Haitians, since a black-controlled government in Haiti banned slavery decades before Britain did. It is true that in the years that followed, Haiti enacted horrific systems of forced labor that had disturbing parallels to slavery, even though slavery was illegal at that point. The problem with using this to defend Owens’s position is that all forced labor by the British Empire also did not completely end after slavery was outlawed there. In 1882, England defeated and occupied Egypt. While many Brits were disgusted by the system of corvee that had long prevailed in Egypt, under which people were required to meet a labor quota on public works programs for the State, England did not immediately discontinue the practice. In a largely self-congratulatory account, Evleyn Baring, British Consul-General of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, admits that “only” 87120 Egyptian men were forced to work in 1887. Indeed, if we claim that Haiti’s banning of slavery in the early 1800s doesn’t count due to the persistence of certain kinds of forced labor, then the U.S.’s own abolition of slavery has been significantly backdated: after the U.S. invaded Haiti in the 1910s, American military officials forced Haitians to build roads against their will, with some scholars estimating that as many as 5,500 Haitians died in the process. Deplorably, many societies that outlaw slavery find ways to get around the ban. Citing emancipation in Britain, France, and the U.S., Owens unironically states that “white men led the world in putting an end to the abhorrent practice.” This neglects the massive role that black men and women played in promoting emancipation in these countries. This includes both black abolitionists and black slaves who took part in rebellions. For example, just two years before Britain passed a gradual emancipation bill, there was a large slave rebellion in Jamaica, putting more pressure on the British government to act. Black people living under British rule, including former slaves such as Mary Prince, joined with white British abolitionists such as Joseph Sturge and Henry Brougham to fight for freedom. In the French Empire, Cyrille Bissette was a biracial activist who initially owned black slaves himself but became a radical abolitionist. And, of course, we know that conservatives are aware of African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, since they remind us again, and again, and again that these African American abolitionists voted Republican. It is indeed true that many whites opposed slavery and played an important role in outlawing it, but they did so with black people. Black people were not passive observers in their own emancipation. Owens brings up that hundreds of thousands of white Union soldiers died freeing slaves. It is certainly true that the Civil War was about slavery, with the South seceding to protect it. It is also true that the war was necessary in order to end slavery. But while slavery was the overwhelming reason why the South seceded, it was not the primary reason why the U.S. government went to war or why most white Union soldiers fought. Historian Bell Irvin Wiley once estimated that only about ten percent of white Union soldiers fought mainly to free the slaves. Historian James McPherson wrote that if we specifically look at Union soldiers who fought only to be free slaves, the ten percent figure may be too high. I do, however, applaud Candace Owens for acknowledging that the South seceded almost entirely because of slavery, not that it prevented her from defending Confederate monuments. I will add that Owens’s use of the phrase “white men” here is very interesting, given the rivers of ink spilled by scholars writing about the vast role that radical white women played in the British and American abolitionist movements.

Owens next claims that slavery has been erroneously described as a “white phenomenon.” She seems to be conflating discussions of American slavery with discussions of global slavery. American slavery is largely described as a white phenomenon, because under American law prior to 1865, whites could not be legally enslaved. Legally sanctioned hereditary, perpetual chattel slavery in America consisted of nonwhites, first primarily Native Americans in the early colonial period, followed by primarily blacks, who had become the main source of slave labor by the end of the 1600s. While a few slaveholders were black, they owned other black people as slaves and could not legally own whites. Indeed, when enslavement of blacks by Native American owners became increasingly common in tribes such as the Cherokee, this was largely an attempt by these Indians to assimilate into white, Southern culture. As stated earlier, I have seen very few leftist scholars or mainstream political commentators attempt to argue that slavery worldwide was an exclusively white phenomenon. Owens may have examples, but she fails to cite any. Instead, she limits herself to talking about posts by random people on social media. She then brings up the widespread participation by black African political leaders and merchants in the Atlantic Slave Trade. This participation is as deplorable as it is widely talked about among historians, many of whom, such as Eric Foner, are quite left-wing. Implying that it is some hidden secret suppressed by left-wing universities is nonsense. However, since Owens brings it up for political points, I will mention that scholars such as Orlando Patterson, who was cited in a PragerU video, have argued that many of the slaves sold by these political leaders and merchants were captured in wars embarked on largely to gain slaves to sell to Europeans. Thus, many historians believe that European involvement in the Triangle Trade helped lead to many blacks being enslaved who would otherwise not have been. None of this is to exonerate in any way the deplorable participation of many African political leaders and merchants in the trade. It is merely to point out that the Europeans helped make the trade much more widespread. Owens claims that “our lives had very little value to our ancestors.” This statement is baffling. Is Owens under the impression that the African ancestors of most modern African Americans sold themselves into slavery? Does she have any evidence to back up the idea that most African Americans today are descended from the African slave traders? Is she saying most black African slaves were sold by their own relatives? This strikes me as a case of a dogwhistle in which black people are all held responsible for the reprehensible actions of certain black individuals–which is the very kind of collective guilt Owens complains about whites being saddled with!

In a case of “whataboutism,” Owens brings up the fact that there are at least 700,000 slaves in Africa today and that this is almost twice as many slaves as were ever brought to the United States. This is indeed a horrific problem that demands our attention. But rather than being a dirty secret that the left is trying to hide, the ongoing problem of slavery in Africa is being covered by Amnesty International–hardly a conservative group. And for years, liberal Representatives such as John Lewis and Barney Frank fought to bring attention to the horrors inflicted on people in African countries such as Sudan. The 700,000+ figure should sicken us all, but the attempt to juxtapose it with the number of slaves brought to the U.S. involves oversimplification. Firstly, it is comparing the number of slaves in an entire continent consisting of dozens of countries and over a billion people with the number of slaves brought to a single country that had a population of less than 7.5. million by the time the Transatlantic Slave Trade was banned. If we assume the true number of slaves in Africa today is three times Owens’s minimum estimate, then about .1727% of Africa’s population is enslaved today. Percentages obviously do not come close to telling the full story of human suffering. We should all do everything in our power to fight modern day slavery in Africa and all over the world. And to the extent that Owens is genuinely interested in fighting it and not just using it to shut down discussions of American slavery, we share a goal. But her argument is worded in such a way as to imply that slavery is more prevalent in Africa today than it was in pre-Civil War America. This does not hold water. About 12% of the total U.S. population and nearly 90% of the black population was enslaved in America in 1860. In 1860, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the U.S., far more than the figures Owens cites for modern Africa. This is because the number of slaves living here had grown to vastly exceed the number of slaves originally brought here. While she correctly points out parallels between the Atlantic Slave Trade and modern African slavery, Owens fails to ponder whether the Arabic and Transatlantic Slave Trades may have helped prolong slavery in Africa long after it was cracked down on in the “Western world.” She also says that “slavery, by any traditional definition, is exclusively practiced today within non-white countries.” This might be true if she is talking only about legally permitted slavery, but it is blatantly false to say that slavery is only practiced in nonwhite countries when one considers the rampant problem of illegal slave trafficking. If Owens wants to only focus on legal slavery here, that is fine. But she must then exempt some of the African nations that are frequently brought up in discussions of modern slavery, such as Mauritania and Eritrea, for her argument. Mauritania, after all, has a law against slavery, the problem being that the law is not properly enforced. But if we look at where slavery is happening illegally, we see that underground slave trafficking is happening in plenty of white-dominated countries, including the U.S. According to the Global Slavery Index, “Forced labor still occurs in agriculture … Some of these [agricultural laborers] experience situations of modern slavery where they are held against their will, through the use or threat of violence, and forced to work for little or no money.” In Russia, a mostly Caucasian country feted by many white supremacists, hundreds of thousands of people are subjected to forced labor today. In the words of The Moscow Times, “An annual U.S. State Department trafficking report ranked Russia alongside 22 countries with the worst records of fighting forced labor and sex trafficking this year.The Global Slavery Index, meanwhile, gave Russia a ‘CC’ rating for its government response, which is among the lowest ratings.”

Owens once again short shrifts Haitians when she says that slavery was universal until Europeans and Americans ended it in their countries. Owens’s claim that “black victimhood” elects politicians and empowers “racial grievance groups” is hilarious coming from a supporter of Donald Trump, whose campaign was built largely around perceived white victimhood. She makes no attempt to define what a “racial grievance group” even is. Presumably, she is talking about groups such as Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. But if her definition includes any person or group which says that black people have certain legitimate grievances, then Owens herself meets this definition, since she has described black people as having special, legitimate grievances with regard to illegal immigration. Finally, her implicit invocation of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence by calling on black people to abandon “victimhood” and embrace “the patriotic spirit that holds all men are created equal” carries with it a certain level of irony. Jefferson, of course, was a lifelong slaveholder who discouraged a neighbor named Edward Coles from trying to free his own slaves. Then again, I’m not sure what else to expect from a “university” that did a video actually defending slavery ten months ago. When it suits PragerU’s political goals, they try to shift blame for slavery onto non-Westerners, Democrats, and anyone else they dislike. But at the end of the day, PragerU’s main problem with the left continuing to talk about slavery is that PragerU doesn’t see what precisely was so bad about enslaving black people.

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What Did My Election Predictions Get Right and Wrong?

Well, this was my prediction map going into Election Day. On the one hand, I was off by 27 electoral votes. On the other hand, the only states I got wrong were Georgia and Arizona, plus Maine’s and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. But in my semi-defense, the 2 states I got completely wrong were also the Biden states which Trump came closest to winning. And while I was wrong about Maine not splitting its votes this time, my reasoning–that the Obama brand being more popular in Maine than the Clinton brand would help Biden win the state by a bigger margin was, in fact, correct. Clinton won Maine by just under 3 percentage points, Biden took it by over 8.5. Part of this was also almost certainly caused by third party voters from 2016 going for Biden, but the fact that they could vote for Biden and not Clinton is also partly related to the Obama brand being more popular in the Pine Tree State.I was also correct that, contrary to the hopes of some Republicans and fears of some Democrats, close blue states from 2016 such as New Hampshire and Minnesota would not go for Trump. While I can’t say I’m happy to have been right about this part, I do take some pride in the fact that I correctly predicted Trump winning at least 2 states that 538 and The Economist both thought would go blue: North Carolina and Florida. In fact, my prediction was significantly closer to what actually played out than the Economist’s prediction was. I predicted Biden winning by 279, the Economist predicted Biden winning by 356 votes. While I am not making excuses for the states I did get wrong, I think it’s important to note that I deliberately erred on the side of not getting overly optimistic about Biden’s chances, partly by following a policy of not predicting that he would win any states that had been lost by both Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2012. I felt that Democrats had gotten way overconfident in 2016 and erroneously believed Clinton was going to flip red states rather than losing blue ones. One final note: some months back, a friend of a friend who shall remain nameless was having a Facebook debate with me and decided to go on my wall and click laugh reacts to a number of my Facebook statuses that went against his pro-Trump and frankly pro-white supremacist viewpoint. One of them he clicked the laugh react to was my election map. Reason being, he was 100% convinced Trump would win and thought it was hilarious that I would predict a Biden victory. Well, he was right that my map had some inaccuracies, but not the kind he thought, so you might say that he who laughs last laughs longest.

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Why Biden Must Win

In 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled, “Why Obama Must Win.” In 2016, I wrote a blog post entitled, “Why Clinton Must Win.” So, you might say that I am 1-1 with these blog posts. I think that most people who read my blog regularly are aware of why I prefer Biden. On the issues most important to me–racial equality, women’s rights, LGBT rights, flag desecration laws–Biden’s views line up much more with mine than Trump’s do. I have libertarian tendencies, but the idea that Trump is more libertarian than Biden only works if you are solely focused on issues such as taxes and environmental regulations or if you are calling yourself a libertarian as an excuse to oppose anti-discrimination laws. Trump has an almost fetishization of government power, and even on issues such as gun control and corporate regulation, his authoritarianism blunts any “libertarian” impulses he might have. But since a standard endorsement article didn’t help Clinton win in 2016, I want to do something different. I wanted to address some of the most popular myths used to defend Trump compared to Biden.

Myth 1: “The Left is Anti-Free Speech and Pro-Cancel Culture: Trump is the Only Way to Preserve Free Thought!”

Truth: There is a worrying tendency for some people on the left to support censorship, for example hate speech laws, which I have criticized. But this is every bit as true on the Right. Conservatives and other right-wingers are more likely than people on the left to support laws against “unpatriotic,” “seditious,” or “obscene” speech. And support for censorship of left-wing viewpoints by social conservatives long predates support for censorship of right-wing viewpoints by social liberals. Laws against abolitionist writings and petitions, for example, existed long before there was any talk of laws against hate speech. Flag burning began being outlawed long before liberals and others on began pushing the “Fairness Doctrine.” In some cases, this is still a matter of policy today. While our current jurisprudence rightfully does not recognize the idea of hate speech that can be banned, it does recognize a supposed right for the government to censor “obscene” material, a right the government unfortunately exercises. And as I wrote about here, many conservative parts of the country try to force children in public schools to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. In fact, some of the conservatives who have made careers out of complaining about left-wing intolerance, such as Ben Shapiro, have records of supporting censorship for forms of expression they are offended by. Donald Trump exemplifies this tendency. He has called repeatedly to ban flag desecration, make it easier to sue journalists for writing things he dislikes, threatened the NFL with more taxes if it did not make players stand for the National Anthem, and demanded a federal investigation of SNL, to give just some examples. These claims can all be easily verified by looking at Trump’s full, in-context tweets and other statements.

Myth 2: “Donald Trump is better than Joe Biden on criminal justice reform.”

Truth: Biden himself has acknowledged the major flaws in his Senate record on criminal justice. But let’s look at whether Trump’s record is any better. The problem for those on the left and right who seek to present Trump as more progressive on criminal justice reform is that it is virtually impossible to find points when Trump took a more progressive stance on criminal justice than Biden at the same time that Biden was taking a less progressive stance. What does this mean? It means that during the time when Biden’s opponents are most critical of his criminal justice record–the 1980s and 1990s–it is extremely difficult to find any cases of Trump taking a criminal justice position to his left. The only stance I can find as an example of this–Trump advocating drug legalization in 1990–is one that he has long since backed off of. We do know, however, that in the same era that Biden was helping pass infamous crime bills, Trump also advocated reinstating the death penalty in New York. Nowadays, he opposes legalizing marijuana and thinks drug traffickers should be executed. Biden now opposes the death penalty and incarcerating anyone for drug use alone and supports expunging all previous convictions for marijuana.

Since both Biden and Trump have lumped Biden in with the Obama Administration, let’s compare the two administrations on criminal justice. In his second term, Obama’s administration began dialing back prosecutions of nonviolent drug offenders; establishing federal supervision of police departments with histories of misconduct and voluntary cooperation with police departments and the federal government to pursue more humane policing; and imposing more limits on asset forfeiture practices that had allowed police to seize people’s property without the person being convicted of a crime. Trump’s Administration gutted these reforms. Trump went on a crusade to have athletes for taking a knee during the National Anthem partly in protest of police brutality. And he has done virtually nothing about racial profiling, opposing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that would crack down on it and supporting the Justice Act that does not address it. Yes, Trump signed the First Step Act, an important criminal justice reform bill. But the law had massive bipartisan support, with all the Senate opposition coming from Republicans. Biden, Obama, or just about any other Democrat would have signed the bill. Equally important, the Obama Administration tried to pass a criminal justice reform bill, and Republicans scuttled it.

Myth 3: “Donald Trump has been the best president ever for gay rights, and Biden’s record isn’t as good as his!”

Truth: Donald Trump’s anti-trans rights policies–from kicking trans people out of the military, to allowing public schools to deny trans kids bathroom rights, to allowing health care workers and federally-funded shelters to discriminate against trans women–hardly need to be recapped here. His support for both private sector and State-imposed discrimination against trans people is so brazen that most people who defend his record on gay rights are forced to decouple the issue from trans rights entirely. So let’s meet them on their own terms. For starters, at no point when gay marriage was illegal in all 50 states did Trump ever express support for legalizing it. In fact, he voiced opposition to it repeatedly. In 2012, Joe Biden came out for gay marriage, followed by Obama. 3 years later, Trump was still vocally opposed. When the Supreme Court handed down its ruling legalizing gay marriage in 2015, Trump denounced it. In early 2016, he said that he would “strongly consider” appointing Supreme Court judges to reverse gay marriage. His pledge has been carried out with Amy Coney Barrett and possibly Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. As of now, there are 3 judges on the court who dissented from the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalizing marriage equality. 2 of these judges, Thomas and Alito, have made it clear they still oppose the ruling. Barrett voiced opposition to gay marriage in 2015. 2 other judges, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, have each dissented from the majority in major pro-gay rights rulings, though Gorsuch also authored a pro-gay rights ruling in another case. Only 3 judges are clearly pro-gay marriage now. A Trump reelection represents a threat to marriage equality.

The Trump Administration has also supported taxpayer funding for institutions that discriminate against gay people; watered down Obama’s executive order banning antigay discrimination by most federal contractors; opposed a proposed bill, the Equality Act, that would ban antigay discrimination by businesses; blocked gay people fleeing genocide in Chechnya from coming here as refugees; unsuccessfully urged the Supreme Court to uphold antigay discrimination by not only corporations but also state governments; imposed a new rule stating that same-sex spouses of U.S. diplomats can only immigrate here if gay marriage is legal in their native countries; and effectively eliminated a position within the State Department designed to promote LGBT rights internationally, including in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran that are conducting antigay genocides. GLAAD has a good summary of Trump’s terrible LGBT rights record here.

Let’s look some more at Biden’s record. Those who want to make Trump look more pro-gay rights than Biden are forced to try to compare Biden’s views on gay rights from decades ago–sometimes as far back as the 1970s–with Trump’s purported views now. It has been brought up that Biden opposed gay people in the military in the 1970s, while Trump supported it before it was legalized in 2010. But Trump appears to have first voiced support for ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2000–7 years after Biden voted to allow gay people to serve openly in the military. Ergo, he clearly reversed his view from the 1970s before Trump expressed support for gay soldiers. In 2012, when gay marriage was still illegal in most states, conservatives had never lost a referendum to ban gay marriage, and no presidential nominee had ever supported gay marriage, Biden announced that he supported it. He supports the Equality Act and voted for anti-discrimination laws to protect gay workers as far back as the 1990s. And, of course, he has been very critical of Trump’s anti-trans rights policies, including in the areas of bathroom rights and military service. In fact, Biden has openly supported trans people serving in the military since 2015.

Myth 4: “Donald Trump Did Not Call White Supremacists ‘Very Fine People!’ The Liberal Media Took Him Out of Context!'”

Truth: The defense of Trump’s comments hinges on two statements that he said in an August 15 press conference on the violence in Charlottesville. The first statement is that, “There were people in that rally. I looked the night before [Heather Heyer was killed.] If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee. I am sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.” The second statement is that, “You had people and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. O.K.? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.” These statements hinge on the claim that there were non-bigoted protesters who showed up on Friday, August 11, 2017 to support keeping a statue of Robert E. Lee. (Heyer was killed by a white supremacist driving a car on August 12.)

If only white supremacists showed up the night of August 11, Trump’s statements represent an attempt to paint bigoted people as non-bigoted. And that is exactly the reality. As Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post puts it, “But there were only neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the Friday night rally. Virtually anyone watching cable news coverage or looking at the pictures of the event would know that. It’s possible Trump became confused and was really referring to the Saturday rallies. But he asserted there were people who were not alt-right who were “very quietly” protesting the removal of Lee’s statue. But that’s wrong. There were white supremacists. There were counterprotesters. And there were heavily armed anti-government militias who showed up on Saturday.” I would contest the idea that right-wing militia groups, which usually support authoritarian, socially conservative State actions are “anti-government.” But otherwise, Kessler’s point still stands.

Consider a video used to defend the motives of militia members. In this video, the primary militia member speaking specifically mentions that he and other members have no opinion on the Unite the Right Rally that took place in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, despite the Rally being a known white supremacist event, while condemning Black Lives Matter and defending the Confederacy. Is that people’s idea of non-bigoted these days? When an advertised white supremacist rally takes place, and members of the right-wing militia movement, which has long been linked to white supremacy, show up and make little effort to meaningfully disavow a white supremacist rally, they are effectively running security for the white supremacists. This is especially true when they also praise the Confederacy. If Trump apologists were to argue that Trump mistakenly thought there were non-bigoted protesters who showed up to defend the Lee statue in Charlottesville because he is an idiot who cannot do his own research, I would honestly respect them more. But for me, it was not his response to Charlottesville or any other supposedly out-of-context interviews or press conferences that convinced me Trump was bigoted toward black people. It was this tweet from 2015: “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!” As I wrote at the time, “So in Trump’s warped mind, because President Obama is black, he is responsible for everything any black people do.” Had there been no other racist statements over the past five years, I would still consider Trump a racist bigot based on that tweet. Of course, riots have occurred under Trump on a much larger scale than they ever did under Obama. Go figure. Biden, however, helped pass sanctions on South Africa’s Apartheid regime, strengthen the Fair Housing Act, and keep Robert Bork, perhaps the most racist Supreme Court nominee of the past forty years, from being confirmed. He supports affirmative action, an end to government displays of the Confederate Flag and Confederate monuments, eliminating racial profiling, and protecting voting rights.

Myth 4: “Donald Trump telling the Squad to ‘go back’ was not racist, because immigrants who come here and constantly complain about America should go back where they came from!”

Truth: I will leave aside the problem with using immigrants’ nationality as a “trump card,” no pun intended, to take special potshots at them in debates about American greatness. I will leave aside the problem with the idea that immigrants are somehow in less of a position to critique America based on an accident of birth. And I will leave aside the fact Donald Trump’s entire campaign slogan revolved around America supposedly being a lousy country. Of the members of the Squad, Ayanna Pressley was born in Cincinnati (the one in Ohio) and raised in Chicago. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York City. Rashida Tlaib was born in Detroit. Ilhan Omar, born in Somalia, is the only member of the Squad not born in the United States. Thus, even if you don’t believe Trump was being racist/xenophobic toward Omar, he was clearly being racist toward Presley, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib by acting as though three American-born nonwhite women were foreigners. To Trump, all nonwhite people are foreigners. Despite his major disagreements with the Squad, Biden unequivocally condemned Trump’s remarks about them as racist.

Myth 5: “Donald Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape about grabbing women’s genitalia were jokes! Biden is the real predator! You’re just oversensitive and don’t understand how men talk to each other”

Truth: On the tape, which by now anyone not living in a cave has probably heard, Trump bragged about getting away with grabbing women’s genitalia without their permission. Let me be clear: grabbing a person’s genitalia without their express permission and deliberately taking advantage of your status and power to keep them from pushing back is sexual assault. It is incumbent upon the person in Trump’s position to receive explicit consent before touching someone else’s genitalia. It is not incumbent upon anyone to have to tell someone not to grope them. Nothing about the context of the tape indicates it was a joke. For the last few years, I have heard things about men supposedly “joking” about assaulting women. But I would like to know if these men have been accused of assault by over twenty women. To believe Trump is innocent, apologists have to assume that over twenty women falsely accused a very powerful, vengeful man of a crime and that by sheer coincidence, he falsely confessed to the crime while not under duress. This beggars belief. Maybe you believe that Biden is a predator also, based on the Tara Reade allegations, and if so, I respect your decision to abstain or vote third party. I am open to new evidence coming out against Biden, but I believe the current available evidence strongly suggests he is innocent. What is untenable, however, is to claim that over 20 assault allegations and a recorded duress-free confession do not demonstrate guilt but that one allegation and no confession does.

Myth 6: “Nobody could have seen the coronavirus coming or done anything differently to prevent it from spreading!”

Truth: Trump admitted to downplaying the danger level posed by the virus. This led the virus to spread more and more as Americans remained unaware of the threat level it posed, causing more far more deaths and almost certainly necessitating a longer recovery time for the country than if he had been honest with the public. Had he been upfront, more Americans would have taken necessary precautions earlier on, including quarantining, fewer people would have caught the virus and died, and things might very have been mostly back to normal before now, similarly to New Zealand. In 2019, Biden warned that, “We are not prepared for a pandemic. Trump has rolled back progress President Obama and I made to strengthen global health security. We need leadership that builds public trust, focuses on real threats, and mobilizes the world to stop outbreaks before they reach our shores.” The idea that the destruction wrought by the pandemic would have been equally bad under Biden is farcical.

Myth 7: “Trump Gave Us A Great Economy!”

Truth: When Barack Obama took office, the unemployment rate was 7.9% and rose to about 10% in November of 2009 mainly due to an ongoing recession Obama inherited. By the time Obama left office, the unemployment rate was down to 4.8%. While a trend of lowering unemployment begun under Obama continued under Trump, his venal mishandling of the pandemic brought the rate to almost 15% this Spring. It now stands at 7.9%, far higher than it was when Obama left office. To quote Kamala Harris, “He inherited the longest economic expansion in history from Barack Obama and Joe Biden. And then, like everything else he inherited, he ran it straight into the ground.”

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Biden, Busing, and Defining Segregationists

This may be a standalone blog post, or I may write some followups, depending on what else I decide needs to be said. I’ve seen the claim made a lot that Biden was a segregationist early in his political career. I will not, at least in this post, get into why I don’t consider him a bigot, because: 1. I don’t want to come off as defending everything he’s ever said or done, some of which really can’t be defended; 2. His nearly 50-year public record has been so exposed that everyone has probably made up their mind one way or the other on whether or not he’s a bigot. This, of course, is a distinct question from whether he is a racist, since nobody really agrees on how to define that. What I would like to do is explain why, from a historian’s standpoint, the “segregationist” label does not square with the politics of the era that Biden came up in. The term “segregationist” was traditionally used to refer to people who specifically favored comprehensive, government-imposed, legally-mandated racial segregation. While all segregationists were racists (or bigots, or whatever term you want to use), not all racists were segregationists. Barry Goldwater, contrary to the spin he tried to do later, was absolutely either a bigot or deliberately taking bigoted stances to pander to them, opposing Brown v. Board as late as 1960 and advocating that the GOP appeal more to white Southerners than black people. But it’s a misunderstanding of 1950s/1960s politics to call him a segregationist, since he personally opposed state laws requiring segregated public schools, supported certain desegregation policies in Arizona, and supported limited federal civil rights laws. A segregationist was someone like Strom Thurmond, Richard Russell, or George Wallace who outright supported large numbers of Jim Crow laws.
So this brings us to Biden. Some of the rhetoric and tactics Biden used to oppose busing in the 1970s and 1980s played very close to the edge and, as I said, really cannot be defended. At the same time, Biden made it clear that he favored Brown v. Board of Education. Segregationists despised the Brown decision. You may disagree with his opposition to busing, you may find the tactics and rhetoric he used to be racist, but being pro-Brown v. Board and anti-busing was a common position in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s a common position today, evidenced by the fact that none of Biden’s primary rivals would commit to bring busing back, but none of them (thank God) opposed Brown. Nor can the position, in and of itself, be dismissed as contradictory. I believe public and private schools should be as diverse as possible. But the Brown decision was limited to declaring that students cannot be denied entry to a school based on race. Rightly or wrongly, it did not require that schools be diverse or that state and local governments actively promote diverse schools, as opposed to simply having nondiscrimination policies. Nor was busing a direct result of Brown. Rather, it was a direct result of later court rulings, some of which built on Brown, as well as state laws like Massachusetts’s Racial Imbalance Act. I should note here that while racism was rampant in Massachusetts, probably at a higher level in Boston than in the state as a whole, one key difference in the political situation there vs. in the South is that any intentional segregation of public schools in Massachusetts that did take place was a violation of multiple state laws. In the mid 1800s, largely at the behest of black and white abolitionists, Massachusetts banned government officials from intentionally segregating public schools. In 1965, the state passed a law requiring that public schools be racially diverse. Thus, while Massachusetts can and should be taken to task for racism and discrimination, the claim that there was no difference between Massachusetts and Mississippi on public school segregation is ahistorical. And much of the progress that has been made by Massachusetts in this area was done at the state level, while virtually all of the progress made in places like Mississippi was federally-imposed.
Busing generated additional controversy due to it often involving white students being removed from their current schools and bussed across town, rather than simply busing black students to previously “white” schools. A case could be made that this was necessary to ensure true integration, but a side-effect was that even some parents who had no problem with their kids attending school with large numbers of nonwhite classmates balked at busing.
Furthermore, among supporters of school desegregation, busing was never a popular method of enforcing Brown or diversifying schools. A 1973 poll found that 19% of white Americans and 9% of black Americans said they supported public school segregation. But only 9% of black Americans thought busing was the best way to diversify schools, as did only 4% of whites. Some of these respondents were undoubtedly covering for their private support for school segregation, but it’s hard to believe 91% of black voters opposed Brown v. Board or wanted public schools segregated. Furthermore, it’s even harder to dismiss everyone who didn’t chose busing as simply closet segregationists when 27% of respondents identified redrawing district lines to allow more kids of different races to attend schools together as the best solution, and 22% said the best solution was to build more low-income housing in middle-class neighborhoods. The former solution would have directly led to more diverse schools, and the latter solution would have directly led to more diverse neighborhoods and indirectly led to more diverse schools, since school diversity has been largely tied to neighborhood diversity post-Brown. My own view is that Brown v. Board is one of the Supreme Court’s best decisions, there should be zero-tolerance for discrimination in the assignment of kids to public schools, and that stronger enforcement of fair housing laws and an end to district-based restrictions on which schools students can attend are better methods than busing of accomplishing the vital task of making schools diverse.
Biden himself argued for stricter enforcement of the Fair Housing Act (which Trump has tried to water down) as an alternative method of desegregating schools. One could argue that this was an inferior solution to busing. But no segregationist was in favor of stricter enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. Segregationists opposed any fair housing legislation and often wanted the government to actively promote segregated housing. Nor was Biden’s avowed support for stronger fair housing legislation simply rhetoric. By 1986, he was cosponsoring legislation to strengthen the Fair Housing Act. It’s probably possible to point to old guard segregationists, such as Senator Robert Byrd, who took similar positions to Biden during this time, but these individuals had a background of opposing federal desegregation laws in the 1960s that Biden did not and, in Byrd’s case, had a Klan background. There is simply no point in Biden’s career or even his life prior to entering politics where his views would have been characterized as segregationist by most of his contemporaries. This is, again, a separate issue from whether or not Biden is/was a bigot, racist, prejudiced, etc. But if you want to attack Biden, it behooves you to know exactly what you are attacking him for.
I will close by saying that I am not convinced that either the Right or the Left will benefit much from taking the fight to Biden on busing. Before she mended fences with him, Kamala Harris sparred with Biden over busing. She made the very smart decision to explicitly say she did not consider him racist, but she still ended up in a jam when her attack predictably led to people asking her if she supported busing. The result was that she was forced to choose between seemingly contradicting her critique of Biden and taking a very unpopular policy position. Leftists who advocate voting third party or abstaining may have an easier time of it if they argue that Biden’s specific rhetoric and tactics opposing busing are proof of his bigotry. But they will have a harder time if they insist, as some have already, that all opposition to busing was inherently support for school segregation, since Bernie Sanders also criticized busing during the early 1970s and did not advocate for bringing it back during his presidential campaigns. (Bernie’s rhetoric, however, was much less incendiary than Biden’s was regarding busing, and he did not work with Southern segregationists opposing it.) Conservatives who try to attack Biden on the grounds that opposition to busing was synonymous with support for segregation will have an even tougher road to hoe. Not only was Trump sued for housing discrimination during a time when Biden strongly opposed it, but almost every hardline conservative opposed busing in the 1970s and 1980s and still does now. Two of the segregationists Biden worked with against busing despite their differing views on Jim Crow, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, had career renaissances as conservative Republicans. If opposition to busing meant support for segregation, then most conservatives have consistently been in favor of segregation. Furthermore, Trump is arguing that enforcement the Fair Housing Act needs to be less stringent in order to keep the suburbs safe and prosperous, to the point of favoring local zoning laws that make it harder for suburbs to diversify organically. He is accusing Biden and other Democrats of trying to ruin the suburbs by flooding them with low-cost housing for low-income, nonwhite people. We’ve seen conservatives accuse Obama both of being a Muslim and of agreeing with his Christian pastor on everything. We’ve seen them accuse Biden and Harris both of having unfairly locked up scores of black people that Trump supposedly has been trying to help and of being ready to let Black Lives Matter activists burn the country down. But accusing Biden both of being racist for opposing busing and of being ready to destroy the suburbs by flooding them with nonwhite people might be too contradictory even for the right-wing spin doctors.

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Remembering Representative John Lewis

Some great civil rights champions perform immense service for their cause in a short amount of time, early in life. Others live a long life spending decades championing civil rights in many different eras. Some great civil rights champions accomplish a great deal for one cause. Other great civil rights champions are heavily involved in promoting many different causes. Representative John Lewis was in all these categories. When he was only in his twenties, Lewis played a pivotal role in dismantling Jim Crow in the United States. At the age of twenty-one, he took part in the Freedom Rides to challenge bus segregation. After cofounding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he assumed leadership of the group at the age of just twenty-three. That same year, Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders organizing the famous 1963 March on Washington by 11 years. Of the speakers at the March, he was the youngest by nine years. He was the last member of either group to pass away. Indeed, his speech at the March was considered so inflammatory towards both white Southerners and the Kennedy Administration that A. Philip Randolph, the oldest of the Big Six organizers and himself no stranger to militancy, had to convince Lewis to tone it down for fear of damaging the Civil Rights Movement’s chances of success. In hindsight, the offending passages seem rather innocuous. For example, Lewis’s original draft said that he “could not support wholeheartedly” the civil rights bill being debated in Congress at the time, as it was “too little too late,” called America “a nation of cheap political leaders,” lamented the presence of civil rights opponents in both political parties, and blasted the federal government for its response or lack thereof to racist violence in Albany, Georgia. He planned to end with a warning: “If we do not see meaningful progress here today the day will come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did — nonviolently.” During the 1960s, Lewis was arrested dozens of times and subjected to injuries by racist rioters that ranged from cigarette burns to a fractured skull.

Lewis also consistently opposed the idea of black separatism and promoted a system in which leadership of civil rights organizations was primarily black, while membership was open to people of all races. Lewis’s stance was rejected by SNCC in 1966, when Stokely Carmichael assumed control of the organization and expelled its white members.   The following year, H. Rap Brown assumed leadership and maintained the ban on white members. SNCC’s turnabout was a reaction to ongoing anti-black racism and racial inequality generally, as well as to Carmichael being pushed to his breaking point by continuously being jailed. But it proved fatal to the organization. By 1968, what had, just five years ago, been one of the 3 most important protest-based organizations in the Civil Rights Movement had all-but dissolved. While the demise of SNCC was partly due to factors beyond Carmichael’s and Brown’s control, the group had managed to weather great challenges previously, and its cratering under their leadership speaks to Lewis’s integrationist approach being the better one. Lewis was also very supportive of interracial marriage, recalling his acceptance of interracial couples within the movement and repeatedly quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition that it is people, not races, who fall in love and marry. He showed a special distaste for anti-Semitism, pointedly acknowledging the important role many Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement, attending a gala for the Anti-Defamation League, and calling out the anti-Semitic statements of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, an aide to Louis Farrakhan.

Rather than accepting the conservative claim that racism ceased to be a major problem after the 1960s, Lewis continued speaking out on issues such as racial profiling, the Confederate Flag, and voter suppression. He also championed many other civil liberties causes. He was one of 66 Representatives to vote against the Patriot Act and continued opposing the Surveillance State under the Obama Administration. When the NSA was revealed to have complied phone records on all Americans, Lewis supported unsuccessful efforts to end this egregious privacy violation. He was opposed to the death penalty in an era when this position was particularly unpopular, and in recent years, he was a strong advocate for the reform of federal marijuana laws. In his old age, he protested for the rights of immigrants. In contrast to some of the men of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was a staunch feminist, publicly calling for women to receive more credit for their role in the movement and speaking at the 2017 Women’s March in Atlanta. In 1994, he was one of less than a third of Representatives who voted to end the requirement that young men register for Selective Service. While he cosponsored a bill in 2003 that would have reinstated the draft, this was not an actual attempt on his part to bring back conscription but rather a symbolic gesture to use a bill with virtually no chance of passage to draw attention to what he perceived as an unwillingness of many supporters of the Iraq War to fight in it themselves. We know that Lewis’s intention was never to bring back the draft, because, like most of the cosponsors of the bill, Lewis voted against it when it was brought to the House floor. Lewis was nothing if not antiwar, opposing both Gulf Wars and sponsoring a bill that would have allowed antiwar Americans to pay taxes into an alternative federal fund that could not be used for military spending. Lewis also showed a strong concern for preventing cruelty to animals. Having bonded with animals going back to his days as a child practicing preaching in front of his family’s chickens, Lewis cosponsored legislation to crack down on organized animal fights and participated in events with the ASPCA, being photographed cradling puppies.

But perhaps Lewis’s boldest and most cutting-edge work during his time as a Representative came in an area for which he is probably less remembered: LGBT rights. Long before he held office, it might be said that Lewis subtly defended gay rights by being part of a faction within the “Big Six” also including King, Randolph, and James Farmer which called for Bayard Rustin to be placed in charge of putting together the 1963 March. Two other members of the Big Six, Whitney Young and Roy Wikins considered this to be too risky, but the Lewis-Randolph-King-Farmer faction brought about a compromise wherein Randolph would be officially in charge of the March but would be able to delegate most of his actual duties to Rustin. For the rest of life, Lewis did his best to ensure that Rustin’s crucial role in the movement generally and the March on Washington in particular was never forgotten. During his first year in Congress, Lewis cosponsored legislation to ban workplace discrimination against gay people. In 1993, he voted against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting openly gay military personnel.

1996 represented his most courageous stand in favor of gay rights. Lewis was one of 67 Representatives to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) banning federal recognition of gay marriage and preventing states from having to recognize gay marriages entered into in other states. Even many politicians who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act avoided outright endorsing gay marriage, but Lewis showed no fear. “Mr. Chairman,” thundered Lewis, “this is a mean bill. It is cruel. This bill seeks to divide our nation, turn Americans against Americans, sew the seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance. Let us remember the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths self-evident that all people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay men and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage and I quote, `Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.'” This was a position that most of the Democratic Party came around to over the next 20 years, but it was a fringe position within the party in 1996. Lewis was never afraid to draw parallels between the struggles of black people against racism and the struggles of LGBT people against homophobia and did so repeatedly in the years following 1996, while also implicitly acknowledging that black gay people such as Rustin faced double discrimination. He was also supportive of transgender rights. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “Congressman Lewis worked closely with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) during the drafting of the Equality Act and was a lead sponsor of the legislation — a bipartisan bill which would finally add clear, comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people to our nation’s civil rights laws. He has a perfect 100 rating on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard and, among other things, was also the lead sponsor of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit federally funded child welfare service providers from discriminating against children, families and individuals based on religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status.”

I would be remiss if I did not discuss my own experience meeting Representative Lewis. My mom has long considered him one of her greatest heroes, and that was how I first became aware of him as a kid. My dad was a Republican at the time (who has since begun voting Democratic), but Lewis was one of the Democrats he respected most. As I got older and became involved in civil rights activism myself, I started learning more about Lewis’s activism in the 1960s and his more recent advocacy. The more I learned, the more I admired him. When I started college, I knew I was going to focus my undergraduate thesis on looking at how to formulate a strategy for achieving equal rights for gay people, largely by examining the tactics of previous movements such as the abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements. I felt that interviewing Lewis would be invaluable to this project. I was able to secure a meeting with him in the Spring of 2014. Lewis sat down with me for an interview that covered a broad range of topics, including his activism in the 1960s, the tactics that he used in the movement, why gay rights was so important to him, and the importance of allies and marginalized people working together. Throughout the meeting, I was struck by Lewis’s friendliness, humility, and lack of any of the bitterness that would have been so understandable given his experiences. He treated me like an old friend and seemed eager to continue talking until one of his staffers warned him that he had an upcoming meeting. He expressed a wish that he hoped I would visit him at his Washington office, but I knew that this would likely be the first and last time we met. I left the meeting immensely grateful for both Lewis’s decades of civil rights advocacy and his willingness to sit down with me. I am even more grateful for both of these things now. Longtime readers know that one of my favorite historical figures is the abolitionist, Wendell Phillips. I like to think that Phillips is welcoming John Lewis into Heaven and that they are now swapping stories, the Golden Trumpet of Abolition meeting the Conscience of Congress.

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John Lewis, my mom, and me

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How Joe Biden Fumbled on Flag Desecration Bans–And How He Can Fix It

Since 2015, Donald Trump has repeatedly advocated for a common conservative, anti-free speech position: a ban on burning or otherwise desecrating the American flag. I already explained in detail back in 2016 why I feel that the flag desecration laws that once existed in America, as well as attempts to revive them, were and are dumb and dangerous. I also demonstrated in 2016 that support for these laws has long been a fairly standard conservative position: it did not emerge as a reaction to recent “cancel culture,” and it is not unique to Trump as opposed to other recent Republican presidential candidates. But today, I want to address Biden’s problematic record in this area and how he can deal with it and move forward. It was recently pointed out that Biden favored flag desecration bans as a Senator. In 1989, he spoke up for an amendment against flag desecration. By 1995, he opposed an amendment but favored a statutory ban, which likely would have been struck down by the Supreme Court. Later in his Senate career, he voiced support for the proposed Flag Protection Act of 2005 offered by Senators Hillary Clinton and Robert Bennett, which included a clause banning flag desecration if done with the intent to incite violence. As I explained in 2015, “The problem is that neither Clinton nor her cosponsor, Senator Robert Bennett, saw fit to define what constituted an attempt at inciting violence. This would have necessarily been left to judges, juries, and district attorneys, and it is not far fetched to imagine many of them using the law to punish people ostensibly for intending to incite violence but really for the act of desecration itself. And since any act of flag desecration is likely to result in violence by angry bystanders against the person doing the desecrating, Clinton’s proposed law was particularly ripe for abuse.” To be clear, all of this is not evidence that liberals or Democrats were or are equally supportive of flag desecration laws compared with conservatives or Republicans. As I referenced in my 2016 posts on the subject, Republicans have consistently voted for anti-flag desecration amendments at much higher rates than Democrats, and many of the Republicans who have dissented were moderates, not conservatives. Many of the Democrats who voted for these amendments were centrist “Blue Dog Democrats.” Many of the Democrats who supported statutes such as the Flag Protection Act as halfway measures or stealth bans were moderately liberal Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, who were likely attempting to appear centrist. Meanwhile, more hardline liberal Democrats such as Daniel Inouye, Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, Patrick Leahy, John Lewis, Jerrold Nadler, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Tammy Baldwin tended to oppose all anti-flag desecration laws on free speech grounds. To Obama’s credit, shortly before leaving office, he categorically stated that flag desecration was free speech, making him perhaps the first sitting president to do so. Joe Biden was recently asked to clarify his position on flag desecration laws. According to The Washington Post, “’This is a long-settled constitutional question, with the Supreme Court ruling that flag burning is free speech. For Donald Trump to try to politicize the issue is just that: politics,’ Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told me. He added that Biden does not support a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.”

As a civil libertarian, this response did not thrill me. Biden did not categorically state that he considers flag desecration to be freedom of speech or that the Supreme Court ruled correctly on this issue. His argument seemed to be that the issue was settled and that Trump was being divisive for bringing it up. The former claim is an odd one, because there are Supreme Court cases older than Texas v. Johnson which are still being debated, and some of them, such as Terry v. Ohio, absolutely should be reversed. Nor did Biden talk about the way in which flag desecration laws represent a grave threat to a free society. Now, Trump’s acolytes will attack Biden for changing his mind and use Biden’s past support for flag desecration laws to defend Trump’s current support. And I very much doubt that there are a significant number of people who are open to voting for Biden but will flock to Trump if Biden unequivocally defends the legal right to desecrate an American flag. With that in mind, I have written a statement that I believe would be a better way for Biden to address and disavow his past support for flag desecration while underscoring his commitment to free speech:

“For the last five years, Donald Trump has, on multiple occasions, called for a law against desecrating the American flag. I have been asked about whether I still support a law against flag desecration, as I did when I was a Senator. Part of being a capable statesman, particularly a president, is stating when you were wrong. I was wrong on the issue of flag desecration laws. Going back to some of the protests I witnessed during the Vietnam War, I was appalled by flag desecration. I felt that it was disrespectful to our soldiers, including those who sacrificed their lives overseas, to our veterans, including those who came home mentally scarred and physically disabled, and to their loved ones. I still believe that flag desecration is deeply hurtful to vast numbers of soldiers, veterans, and their families. I still would never desecrate an American flag, and I would personally discourage others from doing so.

But I have come to realize that when it comes to what the law ought to be, my personal feelings on flag desecration are not relevant. Flag desecration is free speech, plain and simple. It may be incendiary, hurtful, or tasteless, but so are many other forms of expression that we legally permit in order to live in a free society. If you burn someone else’s flag, that is theft and destruction of private property. If you burn your own flag, it is a form of peaceful protest that I do not personally endorse but which the State ought not to interfere with. As the late Senator Daniel Inouye, who lost an arm fighting in World War II, put it, “Our country’s unique because our dissidents have a voice. Protecting this freedom of expression even when it hurts the most is a true test of our democracy.” Perhaps this is why a significant contingent of veterans have long supported the right of flag desecration. William Kunstler, a lawyer who challenged flag desecration laws in Texas v. Johnson, received the Bronze Star during World War II. William J. Brennan, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the decision striking down flag desecration bans in that case, also served as an officer during World War II and lies buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The change in my views was also influenced by Senator Tammy Duckworth, one of the most decorated veterans of the United States military, who lost both of her legs in Iraq and who is adamant that one of the freedoms she fought for was the right to show anger at the government by desecrating the American Flag.

I also have become aware of the grave danger to our freedoms that banning flag desecration poses. Burning an American flag is almost always done to protest the U.S. government. If we reestablish the principle that the government has a right to ban a form of nonviolent protest against itself, then we stand on the precipice of a police State. These are the types of laws we see in countries such as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. They have no place in the Land of the Free. And I would hope that given our president’s statements calling for nonviolent protests and condemning rioting, he would not be so quick to call for outlawing a method of nonviolent protests. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we ask that those protesting racial injustice do so nonviolently, we cannot prohibit them from engaging in certain forms of nonviolent protests because we find these protests offensive.

Finally, in the last few years, I have come to understand why some people engage in protests that seem to target our flag, our National Anthem, our Pledge of Allegiance, and other patriotic symbols. The increasingly widespread practice of taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest mistreatment of minorities forced me to look at the history of protests of this nature. Before then, I had thought that anyone who did not adhere to my definition of patriotism simply didn’t appreciate our nation’s greatness. But I found out that these kinds of protest tactics have their roots in the abolitionist movement dedicated to making the American promise of freedom a reality. The great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, burned a copy of the Constitution to protest federal support for slavery. Other abolitionists flew the flag upside down. These types of protests were also used by civil rights activists in the 20th century. The first Supreme Court case dealing with flag desecration involved a black man named Sidney Street who burnt an American flag to protest the attempted murder of another black man, James Meredith, by white supremacists in Mississippi. I will never agree with flag desecration as a method of protest, and I respect the fact it causes pain for many people, but I have a better understanding now of why someone might choose to do it. We cannot stop activists from burning the flag by imprisoning them, and we cannot honor our soldiers and veterans by eliminating the freedoms for which they have fought. I regret that it took me so long to come to this position, but I appreciate the civil libertarians of all kinds–activists, lawyers, Supreme Court judges, veterans, and athletes–who have helped broaden my understanding.”

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Celebrating Pride Month…By Celebrating a Homophobe?

When we discuss the many horrific results of the Trump presidency, we ought not to forget the result that many social conservatives with rap sheets of bigotry longer than the Golden Gate Bridge have been held up as heroes by liberals for doing little more than denouncing Trump. We saw it with George W. Bush. We saw it with David French, the National Review writer who revoked his support of gay marriage because he thought gay marriage activists were not magnanimous enough. But today, I want to talk about it as regards Mitt Romney. Romney is not like some conservative bigots such as Bush and French, who have been pretty consistently anti-Trump. Nor is he like other conservative bigots such as Glenn Beck, David Marcus, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Erick Erickson, who went from “NeverTrump” to “Never Take Their Lips Off Trump’s Posterior.” In the last four years, Romney has, by my count, gone from anti-Trump, to pro-Trump, to anti-Trump, to pro-Trump-but-thinking Trump is too soft on DREAMers, to anti-Trump. Yes, Romney voted to remove Trump from office–and make Pence the president. Yes, he went to a Black Lives Matter rally and spoke about addressing root causes of riots, which I do find commendable in a way that rallying behind President Pence was not. But there is a certain cruel irony that as we enter Pride Month, many LGBT rights supporters are heaping tributes on a man whose gay rights record is in some ways even worse than Trump’s–and yes, Trump’s gay and trans rights record is horrendous. When cataloguing a record so full of disgusting moments as Romney’s, I think that a timeline of his various missteps on LGBT rights is worthwhile:

1965: As a senior at Cranbrook School, Romney is alleged to have participated in, if not instigated and led, an assault against a now-deceased student named John Lauber. According to the allegation, Lauber, who later came out as gay, ended up in the crosshairs of Romney and friends for having bleached-blond hair draped over one of his eyes. According to a classmate and (presumably former) friend, Matthew Friedemann, Romney complained, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” According to the allegation, Romney and friends held Lauber down, and Romney began vigorously cutting the boy’s hair. According to The Washington Post, “The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them — Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal — spoke on the record. Another former student who witnessed the incident asked not to be identified. The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.” Romney responded to the allegations in 2012 by saying, “As to pranks that were played back then, I don’t remember them all, but again, high school days, if I did stupid things, why, I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it.” Now, I myself was not as woke in my senior year of high school as I am now, but if you ask me whether I participated in a hate crime back then, I won’t have to fall on, “I don’t remember.”

Circa 1992: According to The New York Times, Romney talked his son, Tagg, out of becoming a Democrat partly by warning that Democrats would eventually push to legalize gay marriage.

1994: Romney ran for Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize gay marriage 9 years later, and a socially conservative Republican would have had an uphill battle there. Romney said he supported a federal anti-discrimination law for gay people covering employment, credit, and housing and called on both the military and Boy Scouts of America to welcome openly gay people. All of this would come back to bite Romney later, but looking back, he may wish he had consistently stuck to these positions.

2004: After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage for the state in November of 2003, Romney not only fought the decision tooth and nail but testified before Congress in favor of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage in all 50 states. According to The Deseret News, although Romney coyly expressed a desire “for each state to preserve its own power in relation to marriage,” “he prefers a version that uniformly defines marriage itself as between a man and a woman but allows states to permit as many benefits for same-sex ‘civil unions’ as each deems appropriate.” In other words, Romney did not want Massachusetts to have the power to legalize gay marriage but wanted Utah to have the right to keep it illegal. This position put him to the Right of many more moderate opponents of gay marriage at the time who, while disagreeing with the Massachusetts court’s decision, felt that gay marriage should be decided by each state without a constitutional amendment. For example, John McCain, hardly a gay rights advocate, considered the amendment overkill.

2006: In an interview with the conservative National Review,, Romney called the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act which he had once considered too narrow, “an overly broad law that would open a litigation floodgate and unfairly penalize employers at the hands of activist judges.” On “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said that, “I agree with President Bush’s decision to maintain this policy and I would do the same.” That same year, he tried to put gay marriage on the ballot for Massachusetts voters with the goal of repealing it.

2007: Romney ran an ad that, according to The New York Times, included “trumpeting his role in fighting gay unions in Massachusetts and his support for a federal marriage amendment banning them.” In a Republican presidential debate later that year, Romney reiterated his support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and explicitly stated that his opposition to it in the 1990s was wrong. As a bonus, Romney also gave an interview with Tim Russet in which he affirmed his family’s support for racial equality while failing to state point blank that the Mormon Church’s openly racist policies until 1978 had been wrong.

2011: Romney signed a pledge put forth by the National Organization for Marriage promising to support various anti-gay marriage policies if elected. These included backing a Federal Marriage Amendment and defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court. On the plus side, he changed his position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” somewhat, disavowing any intent to reinstate the policy now that it had been recently repealed.

2012: In February, his spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, stated, “Gov. Romney believes a family with one mother and one father is the ideal setting to raise a child. That doesn’t mean adoption by other parents — whether they be single or same-sex — should be outlawed. States have to make decisions that are in the best interests of children, and where possible that should be in a home with one mother and one father.”
At his RNC convention speech, Romney promised, “I will honor the institution of marriage.” He appointed Robert Bork, who had helped write the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, as well as opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Griswold v. Connecticut, and the decision to allow women into the Virginia Military Institute, to his Justice Advisory Committee. His running mate, Paul Ryan, also voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment. Romney and Ryan repeatedly denounce gay marriage during the election.

2019-2020: The Equality Act was re-introduced in the U.S. Senate in May of 2019. If passed, the Act would extend most of the protections to LGBT Americans that cis women, immigrants, racial, and religious minorities enjoy under our federal anti-discrimination laws. Romney is not among the 46 current Senate cosponsors, who include Republican Susan Collins. Some things, it seems, never change.

 

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We Are All Tom Steyer Now

I have wanted Cory Booker to be president since back when I was an undergrad, and he was a mayor. I originally envisioned him as a 2016 vice presidential nominee for someone like Andrew Cuomo as a way of building up his experience and name recognition, leading to a presidential run down the road. But now, Booker is out of the running. You might say that he was doomed to failure in a primary with too many candidates louder, richer, more left-wing, and more famous than him. In a race of Socialists and Billionaires, a social liberal-fiscal moderate with a $1.5 million net worth may have been doomed to failure.

With all that in mind, the question for me becomes who to vote for in the primary now. I really like Yang and Patrick. But Yang has somehow managed to promise everyone $12,000 a year and still not pick up much traction, while Patrick wishes he had as much traction as Yang. With Booker out of the running, I would like the next candidate I throw my support behind to have some chance of getting the nomination. Or at least get a percentage of the primary vote that does not start with a decimal point and a zero. For me, this narrows it down to Sanders or Warren. Longtime readers of this blog know my feelings on Gabbard. Suffice to say that defending an anti-gay marriage organization when you are in the process of rehabilitating your image on gay rights is a bit like calling yourself antiwar while criticizing Obama for not bombing enough. Come to think of it, she managed to do both. But perhaps she can win the endorsement of a big money donor such as Bashar al-Assad or Narenda Modi. Biden is a good man and probably one of the top three best vice presidents ever, but there are other people in this race with most of the good aspects of his policy record and less of the drawbacks. Klobuchar has some laudable policy views, but her record on LGBT rights is good-but-not great, and she is so supportive of the Surveillance State that she would probably have the NSA search my Netflix queue. Buttigieg is a trailblazer with some very good policies, but while I consider him to be solidly anti-racist, he has badly mishandled key issues involving police racism and misconduct in South Bend, Indiana. All too often, Buttigieg has discarded the velvet glove for a cat’s paw. 15 years ago, Buttigieg would have been one of the most progressive Democratic candidates on criminal justice issues. But 15 years ago, the special effects in the Star Wars prequels were considered great too. Which brings me to Bernie, Warren, and Steyer. Bernie and Warren are basically tied for my first choice among Democrats who are polling reasonably well. Steyer, however, is me. And he is all of us—all of us who admire both Bernie and Warren, that is.

Why is that? Well, let’s recap. We were treated to the “Game of Telephone from Hell” when anonymous press sources repeated Elizabeth Warren’s private account of a private conversation with no transcript, no recordings, and no witnesses. According to the players, Bernie told Warren in a private meeting that he believed that American sexism, weaponized by Sexist-in-Chief Trump, would prevent a woman from being elected president. The alleged comment, if it was made, was not made in the context of gloating about how a woman could supposedly never make a good president. According to the Warren team’s own account, the comment was made as an indictment of American sexism, not as an indictment of the ability of women to be good leaders. Then, the floodgates of social media opened, and a minority of Bernie and Warren supporters went at each other’s throats. All manner of accusations were hurled. Bernie was working deep cover for the Klan when he protested segregation. Bernie votes on women’s issues like Pat Schroeder but thinks about women’s issues like Pat Buchanan. It’s Bernie’s fault that Clinton lost, Trump won, and Rory got pregnant on the Gilmore Girls revival. No, the minority of angry Bernie supporters said. Warren is a mole from Big Pharma. Warren is a secret white supremacist who rode with the Seventh Cavalry. Warren is an Oklahoma Iago. Warren is a treacherous snake whose fangs drip with private health insurance. Then, those of us who liked both candidates tried to run for the online equivalent of fallout shelters. Meanwhile, Joe Biden stands to make out like a bandit. He has to be liking this dustup more than the Patriot Act. Don’t get me wrong, I love Joe Biden. He’s someone I’d love to go grab a beer—well, in my case, a root beer—with and thank him for the great job he did moving the needle on gay marriage as vice president. But I would like this meeting to take place somewhere in Wilmington, Delaware—not the White House.

Bernie denied ever saying a woman could not be elected but admitted that he warned his old comrade that Donald Trump would subject her to sexist attacks if she ran. Warren declared that the press sources’ version of events was accurate but called Bernie her friend and said she had no interest in litigating the matter further. Which naturally led a CNN debate moderator to litigate the matter further at the following night’s debate. Bernie repeated that he never said a woman could not win. Warren repeated that he had, that he was a friend, and that she wanted to put the matter behind her. They then had an esoteric debate about the meaning of time more fit for a Philosophy seminar than a presidential debate.

I was very pleased that they kept things civil. Then, the aftermath came. Warren approached Bernie. Bernie, for once, chose to extend his hand instead of gesticulating with it. As a gesticulator myself, I sympathize with his plight there. Warren did not shake his hand, which may have been an oversight and may also be my punishment for all the years I spent wishing that the party nominees in the general election debates would stop with the phony handshakes. A phony handshake would have been nice that night. Instead, Warren accused Bernie Sanders of calling her a liar on national television, perhaps implying that calling her a liar on local cable television would have been acceptable. Bernie attempted to deescalate things like only a pugnacious New Yorker can, saying that she had called him a liar and insisting that they have this conversation elsewhere. Normally, I would agree, but in a roundabout way, having a conversation in private with no recordings or witnesses is what started this mess. During this fracas, Tom Steyer came in like manna from Heaven and excitedly said hi to Bernie. Maybe he was oblivious to how agitated the two candidates were. Maybe he was just excited to meet his hero. Maybe he likes photobombing. But in that moment, he stood for all of us who think that Bernie and Warren are both good people, good feminists, and good civil rights advocates generally. Those of us who think that Bernie and Warren would both be great presidents. Those of us who believe that we aren’t experts on an unrecorded conversation we didn’t witness. Those of us who believe that it’s possible for a comment to come across differently than intended or for two people to remember something differently. Steyer should work as a mediator between warring nations, warring spouses, and warring friends. In a world of acrimony, Steyer is the great peace maker.

 

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Areo Article #3

If you’re interested in free speech, check out my latest piece for Areo Magazine!

Enforcing Patriotism, Suppressing Dissent: America’s Neglected Free Speech Crisis

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