In counterintuitive honor of Labor Day, I am taking it easy and just cutting and pasting myself out of New York magazine...
The first, last and best reason to fight tooth and nail against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is that it is not rightly President Trump’s nomination to make.
Yes, Kavanaugh is very conservative and no, I don’t like that. Staring down the barrel of the next several decades under a Roberts-Thomas-Alito-Gorsuch-Kavanaugh court, I am just as likely as the next liberal to lose my cruelty-free lunch. But under normal circumstances, them’s the breaks: a president who holds very right-wing views (or who is beholden to those who do) gets to nominate judges who hold very right-wing views. The same, of course, goes for the left and whatever may remain of the center. Absurd and alarming though it may seem – and always does seem to the out-of-power party -- the ultimate law of our land is literally a function of who happens to die or retire when. Under normal circumstances, absent a manifest lack of qualifications or evidence of some serious personal failing, the Senate is, in my view, constitutionally bound to voice its concerns (advise), then pretty much swallow them with a vote to confirm (consent.)
Have you noticed? These are not normal circumstances, and for once, Donald Trump is not the main reason why. These are distinctly Mitch-McConnell-made circumstances; in other words, circumstances sewn solely out of one lamentably-powerful man’s impulse not merely to put party over country, but to put party leader (himself) over country. When Antonin Scalia had the temerity to leave this life well before Barack Obama left office, McConnell simply invented a constitutional loophole whereby the Senate need not vote on a Supreme Court nomination made by a president in the final year of office. He did this presumably because Merrick Garland, the nominee set forth by Obama, was so unassailable on the merits, at least some Republicans would end up voting for him. Then, of course, came the presidential election of the last man on earth who would put the outrageousness of McConnell’s action together with his own loss of the popular vote and conclude that a true compromise pick, if not Garland himself, was in order. Nope, Trump proceeded to pick Neil Gorsuch off a list of judges thrilling to his base and his base alone. And now, far from figuring that he has kept his promise to his pet third of the country and now maybe ought to think about some other people, he’s trying to do it again.
No. No. No no no no no no no no no no no.
Bear in mind, I count myself among the last of the civility Mohicans. Even – no, especially -- in the face of the verbal, physical and moral repugnancy that the President of the United States has seen fit to personify and promote, I just can’t wrap my mind around the proposition that the real trouble in this country today is insufficient personal nastiness. No matter how much Twitter may taunt me, I am just not going to applaud language or behavior in adults – whatever their politics -- that I would punish in my child. So, much as I might share the impulse, I hope that Democrats won’t bring their dogs to dump on Mitch McConnell’s lawn. But I absolutely insist that Democrats drain the sewage in which the Majority leader has submerged the Senate. This can only be done by reclaiming one, and only one, Supreme Court nomination from the right.
Thus, at its core, the fight against Brett Kavanaugh must not be about Brett Kavanaugh.
Nor, God forbid, must it be about adapting McConnell's constitutional contortions to Democratic purposes. Let's please, please forget these budding arguments to the effect that Trump should not be able to nominate in a congressional-election year, which lends retrospective credence to the completely credibility-free notion that Obama should not have been able to nominate in a presidential-election year. No! Back to the constitution before McConnell mangled it: Office holders can and must carry out their constitutionally prescribed duties until they leave their jobs, or at least until they've already been voted out of of their jobs. By that definition, Democrats were cheated of one Supreme Court nominee, by dint of which they deserve more leverage over the next Supreme Court nominee and hell will rightly rain on Republicans until they get it.
Look, I'm not wishing for Washington furies to unleash themselves on Kavanaugh. I have no doubt he is intellectually brilliant, personally nice and ideologically appealing to the people who should have the right to drive this decision. I also don’t care. The people who should have the right to drive this decision do not have it, because in 2016, they forfeited it. Having crumpled up, spat upon, and tossed the constitutional prerogative of one president straight out the window, they have vastly expanded the grounds upon which all Americans should feel compelled to scream like stuck pigs at their attempt to defend the constitutional prerogative of the next president. Thanks to ole Mitch, all bets, all norms, all gloves, are off. The president either chooses someone acceptable to both parties, or the opposition party must do everything possible to block his choice, whoever it is.
Now, will “everything possible” include successfully keeping Kavanaugh from being confirmed? I am guessing not. I am guessing that Kavanaugh’s past statements deeming Roe v. Wade to be “binding precedent” will probably give Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski the cover they need to vote “yes”. It further seems likely that some, if not all, of the embattled Democratic incumbents from South Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana and Missouri will end up doing the same. So, barring a miracle, “Associate Justice Kavanaugh” does seem to be a phrase soon to enter the lexicon.
Nonetheless, some miracles are worth making, and this is one. It is worth calling, marching, organizing, funding, fighting on every front to defend the principle that the ruling party in Congress does not get to flip off a signal power accorded a president it happens to dislike. It is worth being hit with supremely hypocritical charges of “playing dirty” – for it will be nothing of the kind.
Unless and until the Garland wrong is made right, fighting a Republican Supreme Court nominee for the sake of fighting a Republican Supreme Court nominee will be the very opposite of playing dirty. It will be scrubbing a shamefully soiled process clean.
Thank God it’s Friday.
This weekend, let’s all take a nice, refreshing break from seeing the North Korea summit as a disturbing victory for Kim Jong-un and reflect upon it as an arguably-even-more-disturbing victory for Xi Jinping.
Having long sought a suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises that President Trump has now opted to suspend, China has gotten exactly what it wants out of the summit.
Then again, by now, China must be used to getting exactly what it wants from the Trump administration.
The bitter ironies of the Trump era are like a bowl of potato chips: you can’t stop at just one. So I’m not sure where this ranks on the list of screeching, two-wheel U-turns made by the administration even as it is screaming “pedal to the metal, straight ahead!” But it’s got to be in the top five:
Having run in large part as a candidate who would halt the rise of demon China, Trump has done nothing but fuel it.
Just a few Crayola-clear examples:
Trump rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was designed to check the economic power of China by organizing its neighbors into a counterweight.
Yes, Bernie Sanders opposed TPP, and in the end Hillary Clinton pretended she did too – but even had a Trump opponent taken the same tack as Trump on this one item, he or she would not have done so in disastrously China-boosting combination with so many other things.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord – and governs, of course, at the behest of a group that would love to pull the U.S. out of the whole climate-change kit and caboodle.
Talk about irony. This has allowed China, a country infamous for the black skies of Beijing, to seize the lead on environmental issues. Wholly apart from the environment – and even from the growing economic activity generated by environmental concerns – this spells real geopolitical trouble. The Chinese regime perpetually strives for two aims: total authoritarian control at home, and prestige abroad. This has traditionally been a difficult balance for the Chinese to strike, but Team Trump has made it a whole lot easier. By ceding climate change, the U.S. has handed the Chinese the perfect opportunity to gain international status and influence without ceding a drop of domestic control.
Nor is environmental science the only science that matters here – not by a very long shot. For reasons too irrational to be called “reasons,” the U.S. has decided to treat brain drain as a national goal. Perpetually underfunding higher education; constantly placing long-term research at the mercy of short-term politics; hassling and harassing foreign-born scientists who want to study or work in the U.S. and thus hampering any collaborations they may undertake with their U.S. counterparts; demonizing intellectual elites as enemies of the average American rather than as catalysts for the employment of millions of average Americans…this country, as enthusiastically embodied by this administration, has chosen to make itself more and more hostile to science and scientists alike. Meanwhile, China is making itself more and more welcoming. Back in February, the National Science Board predicted that Chinese investment in research and development would overtake U.S. investment by the end of 2018. On June 3, the Washington Post ran an article entitled “China Increasingly Challenges American Dominance of Science,” in which a Spanish-born, Yale-trained researcher gave a simple explanation for why he is currently Beijing-based: “Right now, China is the best place in the world to start your own laboratory.” Meanwhile, the White House has yet to so much as hire a science advisor, though one shudders to imagine whom they’d get.
Resource-poor China didn’t need Trump to push it toward resource-rich Africa, where it has been building commercial and political relationships for years. But the president’s signature blend of racism and isolationism do not exactly point that continent toward an American alternative. In the 1980's, the U.S. treated South Africa as a key ally, to the point of treating apartheid far too leniently for far too long. Today, China is the number one trading partner of South Africa, toward which the Trump administration has recently taken two actions: slapped it with tariffs and threatened to cut aid.
Meanwhile, the greatest Sinophile on earth could not object to an American president who brought all the aggregate strength of this nation and its allies to bear against such Chinese practices as dumping, intellectual piracy, and unfair labor practices. Instead, this American president has turned his ire on Canada and the E.U.
With all this, why bother mentioning Ivanka’s patents or the bizarre coddling of ZTE?
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Chinese jig. But I do know that these days, Xi Jinping is doing it.
Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review was kind enough to ask what had become of me. Here's my answer:
Enough about Samantha Bee. It’s Sally Field I want to scream at.
Bee, of course, called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” on her t.v. show and the world exploded. She apologized, and unlike Roseanne Barr, she has made no move toward taking the apology back. Thus, unless you’re in the limitless-laceration-of-liberals club, the great Samantha sturm und drang should be well over.
Field’s offense is much worse, yet it is not being treated as an offense at all. Field did not make a mistake by way of uttering a blindingly inappropriate aside in the course of a blisteringly accurate critique, as Bee did when slating Trump for posting a photo of herself coddling her own child as her father ordered asylum-seeking mothers to surrender theirs.
It was solely in relation to that slur and the outrage it had generated that Field deliberately chose to tweet the following:
I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.
Sickeningly, well over a quarter of a million people liked this remark on twitter.
In a week when the President of the United States is ignoring devastated Puerto Ricans, tariff-trashing baffled allies, and declaring himself king, it may seem ridiculously petty to bother calling out a tweet made by a celebrity with whose opinion of all things Trump I probably agree. But unless you share the right-wing dismissal of racial and sexual slander as plain old people-talk with which only politically-correct crybabies take issue, it’s anything but. One either regards the language of human degradation as a signal poison in our politics, or one doesn’t.
I can’t believe I have to spell this out, but I will spell it out – and just this once, with queasy regret, I will do so without the customary hyphenates and symbol-strings -- %&$*?! -- which serve to make eye-batting little whimsies of concepts that are brutally, boundlessly ugly:
Countries are not shitholes. Human beings are not animals. African-Americans are not apes. Kneeling football players are not SOB’s. Women are not cunts. And for crying out loud, no woman is too contemptible to be called a cunt.
Bee did not call Ivanka Trump a vagina or a uterus or a womb or something else that might be considered both a little anatomical for genteel discussion and “powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.” She called her a cunt, a term that exists purely to debase and dehumanize women. Sure, there are some academics who want to “reclaim” the word. Leaving aside the small matter that women have never claimed that word in the first place, I am perfectly prepared to let those academics go off and debate whether women gain power by speaking the language of misogyny. (Quick answer: They don’t. But there’s a seminar for everything.) I am also aware that there must be a place in the realms of art, entertainment and constitutionally-protected speech for every last word, including this one.
But if and as such academic and artistic expressions cross into the political conversation, which requires at least a basic level of respect for the dignity of all involved, they do become toxic.
So, for purposes of that political discussion, let’s just keep “cunt” locked in a little taboo-box, shall we?
Let’s at least consider the full implications of letting it out.
I do not have time left in this life to count the ways in which I object to the philosophies of Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas. Is it now all right, in the course of expressing those objections, to call them “niggers?" Or, to follow Field's logic, to assert that they are not even good enough be called niggers?
God, I hope not.
Given the degree to which the Trump administration is willing to throw LGBT people under every bus that passes by, I am appalled to read that Peter Thiel’s support for the president has simply turned to a “souring” that is “rumored,” rather than a disavowal that is deafening. Yet, would it not constitute a slur against all gay people to refer to him as a “faggot?”
God, I hope so.
No mother takes her prepubescent daughter aside and says, “now, honey, this may feel embarrassing for you to talk about right now, but it’s actually a source of pride: you have breasts, you have ovaries, and you have a cunt. Nurture it well.”
Certainly, no woman I can imagine enjoys being told that she is a cunt, as if that is a wondrous thing to be called.
And the noun is just the half of it. The verb is offensive too – something that ought to be painfully well understood by a woman who has kept on keepin’ on from Gidget to Sybil to Norma Rae to Mary Todd Lincoln, with the Flying Nun thrown in for good measure. Surely no one can know better than this feminist survivor of decades in Hollywood how hard it has been -- and how hard it remains-- for women to get the distinction through the thick skull of society: Women have breasts and legs and rear ends and reproductive organs. We are people.
This leaves us with the middle-schooler line of defense: Trump fanatics do it.
Yes, the reasoning goes, people whom we regard as hateful, destructive, ignorant and crazy tweet and post and cheer at rallies for and adorn their caps, tee-shirts, cars and coffee mugs with every vile, vicious, racist, sexist, homophobic slur imaginable and unimaginable. So we can do it, too.
Stop. Just stop. That is not beating Donald Trump. It is becoming him.
Don’t get me wrong. In my very strong opinion, Ivanka Trump is a complicit, craven, cowardly, probably-criminal creature of catastrophically cataclysmic corruption. But she is not a cunt, let alone some female life-form unworthy of the term.
No one is.
Hell seems to be making a habit of freezing over in Ireland.
On May 25, still fairly fresh from becoming, in 2015, the first country to legalize gay marriage by referendum, the overwhelmingly-Catholic nation voted roughly two-to-one to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the 1983 constitutional provision which bans abortion.
If that lopsided result came as a surprise, the reactions to it have not. Reproductive-rights activists are rejoicing. Anti-abortion activists are mourning. And, as usual when it comes to this issue, I am weaving back and forth between the two. I am willing to bet that many of those who voted in Ireland – where I lived from 2007 to 2015 – have been doing the same. Landslide or not, I doubt that the Irish people have suddenly fallen in love with abortion. Rather, they’ve come to know and loathe the consequences of outlawing it.
In this, they are treading a morality-reality line that, I think, millions of Americans are treading too, and that American activists on both sides need to consider if the U.S. is ever to achieve any measure of peace with this issue.
As it happens, it was through living in Ireland that I achieved some measure of peace with it myself.
Emotionally, morally, culturally, and instinctively, I have always been pro-life. Yet, had I voted in Ireland, I would absolutely have voted “yes” to repealing that ban. There is nothing like living in a foreign country that forbids abortion to make a fence-sitter come down on the side of permitting it back home.
This is not because I have come to believe that abortion is a health care issue like any other. With all due respect to my many pro-choice friends who consider this whole issue a no-brainer, I will never come around to seeing abortion as the moral equivalent of a mammogram or colonoscopy.
Nor can I manage the easy, “you-say-potato-I-say-potahto” sort of division between personal belief and public policy position that seems to come so easily to many others. To believe that human fetuses are human beings is to find it impossible to be A-OK with the notion that their moms have the absolute right to kill them. That’s not idiocy or misogyny. It’s rationality.
This, of course, leads to the question of how to allow for the fact that any pluralistic society is going to feature a variety of views as to when human life begins – a question that I am going to lay aside, and not just because there is no good answer to it. For me – and, I am willing to bet, for plenty of Irish “yes” voters – the issue of legalizing abortion or not comes down to a much simpler formulation:
If abortion kills people, banning abortion kills more people.
Many analysts have taken the Irish referendum as a sign that the power of Catholic church is on the decline in Irish society, while the power of women is on the rise. Both are undoubtedly true. But don’t forget a third, more prosaic factor: unlike their American cousins, the Irish have not been imagining, praying over, or speculating about this ban. They have been living with it. They have seen for themselves that it has been a disaster.
For decades now, the pro-choice movement has set forth two basic arguments: One, regarding abortion and everything else, women have the ultimate right to determine what they do with “their own bodies.” And two, as a strictly practical matter, the outlawing of abortion not only fails to curtail the practice, but both causes and correlates with all kinds of other problems.
No matter how one feels about the first proposition, Ireland has turned out to be Exhibit A that Team Choice is absolutely right about the second.
First, when abortion is illegal, women can and do die for no other reason than that abortion is illegal. This is not a pro-choice scare tactic. It is the truth – and not only in terms of those women who may feel driven to "back-alley" terminations. The case of Salvita Halappanavar seared the soul of Ireland, and it bloody well should roil the conscience of the world.
Halappanavar was a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist who had emigrated to Galway with her husband and small child. In 2012, some four months into her second pregnancy, she felt horrible back pain and sought help at University Hospital Galway, where she was told that she was in the process of having a miscarriage. She was also told that even though the pregnancy was hopeless, it could not be terminated so long as a fetal heartbeat could be detected. Her family begged for an abortion, but to no avail: the well-trained, well-meaning medical personnel, working in a modern, Western hospital, were not willing to risk jail to save her. Seven days later, Halappanavar died of an utterly preventable blood infection – strictly and solely because it was illegal to prioritize her life over that of a child who had no chance of being born.
This case was singularly appalling. Equally compelling, in the aggregate, were the numerous real stories told by real people of the real danger into which this ban had placed real women: the legal and logistical hurdles that women have had to jump through in order to end once-welcomed pregnancies that had turned on them. Contrary to pro-life lore, these were not people who were looking for some easy way out of some fetal unpleasantness. They were wanted-to-be parents searching for the safest, least-dreadful resolution to one tragic revelation or another, and being obliged to wait for the lawyers to weigh in on if, when and how that resolution could be effectuated.
Clearly, whenever that scenario played out in Ireland, it was awful. If it were to play out in the U.S. it would also be ironic. It is, after all, the GOP that champions the pro-life cause. And it is a GOP article of faith that government interference automatically equals catastrophe. Whether the context is the smallest business or the biggest idea, Republicans reflexively (and sometimes accurately) equate government involvement with sloth, delay, ineptitude, illogic. Yet, when it comes to pregnant women who may find themselves in dire straits, these same folks seem to have total faith that the government is suddenly going to become the soul of humane efficiency. Isn’t that odd?
Second, even embracing the perspective that abortion is a pure, straight-up evil, the fact remains that banning abortion does not, in many cases, extinguish that evil. It offshores it. The Irish people are well acquainted with the fact that should one of their countrywomen face a pregnancy that is merely unwanted, as opposed to traumatic, she does not say “oh, that’s illegal, I guess I need to have the child and then either learn to love my little boo-boo or arrange an adoption.” She hops over to the U.K.
Likewise, in the U.S., should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade and thus strip abortion of its constitutionally-protected status, unhappily-pregnant women would travel to the states that still allowed abortion, and failing that, to Mexico, Canada, and any number of other countries. Thus, banning abortion would not end the slaughter of innocents, as my pro-life friends and family might put it. It would simply ensure that the slaughter occurred someplace else.
Of course, one can argue that shooing murder abroad is better than tolerating it at home. But it doesn’t sound quite so heroic, does it?
Any abortion ban effectively applies only to those women who lack the wherewithal to skirt it: namely, the poor and those whose particular circumstances, from physical infirmity to abusive partners, might otherwise preclude them from traveling. In other words, the less able the woman to cope with the arrival of an unwanted child, the greater the odds that she would be forced to do just that.
Now, in theory, a pro-life person could and would argue that it is worth saving the lives of any unborn children, whatever the circumstances of their availability to be saved; and that it is an especial disgrace to tolerate the killing of children on the grounds that they would be economically inconvenient or socially undesirable.
If remotely serious about ushering that theory into practice, however, one would have to establish – or at the very least advocate for -- a society replete with caring, costly and sophisticated supports for such children and their parents.
Here, the cases of Ireland and the U.S. diverge.
Ireland is by no means a utopia for struggling mothers and children. But there is a general consensus in favor of providing for them. By bizarre contrast, the American pro-life movement has tethered itself to an ideology that prides itself on providing for nobody.
I’m not accusing Republicans of cruelty, but simply citing their philosophy: the less government, the fewer social programs, and above all, the lower taxes, the better. That’s a perfectly valid world view – until it is twinned with a policy of obliging over half a million women annually to bear children they do not want but for whom they will be left to fend, at which point it becomes too weird for words.
Just last year, in the original version of their tax bill, the Republicans in Congress actually tried to cut the tax credit for adoption. How can anyone possibly believe that, if their pro-life dreams come true, they are going to find additional billions for the fetuses (and indeed zygotes, and fertilized-but-yet-to-be-implanted eggs) they have required to become children?
Now customarily comes the cry that it isn’t the cold, hard government that would be called upon to care for such children. It’s warm, cuddly families and churches and charities….all of which would require even more massive government funding and tax-empting than they receive now.
Let me emphasize: I certainly know pro-life people who really walk their talk; who don’t just work against abortion, but for life. These people are heroes and angels and workhorses rolled into one. They don’t merely donate diapers and cribs, but truly help pregnant women in crisis, sometimes to the point of fostering or adopting their children, who might well be drug addicted or developmentally challenged. The question isn’t whether such people exist. It’s where to find hundreds of thousands more of them every single year.
Given all of the above, it is impossible to square a genuinely pro-life moral position with any existent political option. Here’s the closest I can get:
I will never believe in abortion.
In part for that very reason, I believe in widely-accessible birth control and full, frank sex education from an appropriate age, which these days is about four.
For that matter, I believe in plain old education. After years of spouting statistics that show the clear connection between higher levels of education and lower rates of poverty, mother-and-child mortality and all kinds of other horrors around the globe, I now find it sadly urgent to reassert that connection at home.
I believe in publicly funded health care, day care, pre-k, and all that Scandinavian-socialist-sounding stuff that conservatives equate with tyranny, but that struggling families often equate with the difference between doing OK and drowning.
The current crop of Republicans believe in none of this.
Understand, I say “current crop” because I know that there are some moderates, feminists, libertarians and pragmatists still standing in the GOP, and the last thing I want to do is knock them down. But as for the right-wing ideologues who now control the party: their "plan" is to guarantee an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies and then require that those pregnancies result in children, whom they will later vilify for failing to pull themselves up by bootstraps that these same jokers are working hard to abolish.
Sometimes, I put all that together, and it makes me want to call the current crop of Republicans a lot of things.
“Pro-life” is not one of them.
Last Monday’s opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem featured prayers that provoked, just because of who said them. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, merited a front-page headline in the New York Times for having expressed the view that “Jews are going to hell.” John Hagee, a famous televangelist out of San Antonio, once speculated that perhaps the holocaust was God’s way of getting His chosen people back to Israel.
When that last remark was unearthed in 2008, it caused then-presidential candidate John McCain to reject Hagee’s endorsement. A propos of the embassy opening, McCain’s successor, Mitt Romney, tweeted his view of Jeffress as a “religious bigot.” And of course, the Internet responded by producing a greatest-hits list of horrifying quotes from both men.
That’s fine. But for any American of any other religious disposition, the main worry about the likes of Hagee and Jeffress is not their bigotry. It’s their eschatology. It’s not what such ministers may have said, half of which is easy for them to wash out in the waters of "context." It’s what they and their sizable flocks believe, in combination with the political power that they currently exercise.
“McCain and Romney: both losers,” you can practically hear Trump hit back at all the opprobrium. For once, he’d have a point.
Prior to Trump, the last Republican to win the White House was George W. Bush, an Evangelical who had seen his father lose the presidency by losing the support of Evangelicals and whose entire tenure reflected his determination not to make the same mistake.
Like W., Trump came into office under a cloud of questionable legitimacy, but had none of the advantages W. enjoyed both as a born-again Christian and as a favored Establishment son. So Trump has done what any survival-minded reality-t.v.-star president would do. He has boiled his governing philosophy down to the hook of a hit single. To quote Meghan Trainor, albeit with a small spelling twist at the end:
It’s all about that base.
For Trump, "that base" is, first and foremost the Christian right— a catch-all phrase that causes all kinds of problems for anyone who tries to write about it. Even as the bulk of their brethren continue to hail Trump as a perfectly serviceable messiah, a vocal minority of conservative Christians has railed against him. Meanwhile, extra-Trump developments, ranging from the various faith paths of younger Evangelicals to the failure of the world to end in 2000, mean that there is much more to the "Christian right" picture than the part I am about to paint. That said, it’s a pretty important part: a hard-core fundamentalist Christian cohort that remains extremely motivated, extremely organized, and extremely loyal to the president – which makes it extremely powerful.
Enter Jeffress and Hagee. Crucially for purposes of Jerusalem, both believe in dispensationalism, a doctrine that has long been of existential centrality to millions of Americans, yet somehow fails to register with almost everybody else.
Whether it’s being revered or ridiculed, dispensationalism is widely portrayed as a direct product of the Bible. But though it draws its references from the Old Testament, it didn’t take shape until the 1800’s. Since then, it has generated various versions whose adherents differ on a number of particulars, which I apologize for blurring here. But by and large, they believe that human history is divided into segments, in the course of which God tests His people and, so far, has flunked them. The last and most important of these “dispensations” will be the end of the world, which may or may not be at hand right now. At any moment, in the mind of the dispensationalist, Jesus Christ could initiate “the rapture” by coming through the clouds and summoning the “saved,” who will meet him in midair before all ascend to heaven. Unbelievers will be left behind to face the wrath of God in “the Tribulation”. (Hence the “Left Behind” series, which sold roughly 80 million copies.)
Next, Christ and his righteous army will return to earth to join a literal, physical battle against the forces of evil, led by an anti-Christ who will first have presented as an agent of peace. When this battle has ended, the winners will revel in the reign of their triumphal Lord, and the losers will fall into a fiery pit.
Again, there is some variety of opinion on exactly when and how all this will happen, but there’s no disagreement as to where. It all goes down in the land of Israel, the protection and promotion of which is therefore held by dispensationalists to be a matter of eternal life and death.
Faith is so funny. It makes total sense to the people who hold it and strikes everybody else as stark raving mad. As hard as it is for me to imagine taking all this Armageddon stuff literally, it is easy to imagine how crazy Catholics like myself probably strike dispensationalists with our notions about, say, bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. Given this, I absolutely respect the right of any American to proclaim a dispensationalist view. The question is: should all Americans be represented by a Middle East policy that reflects it?
This is not a new question. In fact, nearly twenty years ago, I spent a good while asking it, for a piece that appeared in National Journal. To their credit, numerous then-leaders of the Christian right, including Jerry Falwell, Sr., were absolutely clear in their answer: yes! Falwell and company proudly expounded upon their belief not only that an end-of-days scenario would come to pass, but that U.S. policy toward Israel and the (distinctly less favored) Palestinians should unfold accordingly. I remember a top right-wing religious radio host assuring me, when I asked what should be done about the decidedly-temporal issue of any Palestinian refugees God might expel from the promised land, that they’d all fit fine in Jordan. Not long before, various of these sources had entertained the possibility that Bill Clinton, given all his years peddling the Oslo Accords, might have been the anti-Christ. Not long after, speculation turned to the thought that it might be Saddam Hussein. But speculation there was, and none too idle.
Unsurprisingly for a group that measures its policy positions against the yard stick of eternity, dispensationalists have not altered their point of view. What has changed, however, is American politics and their place in it. One need only compare Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell to their sons Franklin and Jerry Jr. to get the hint: for political purposes, the Christian right, with dispensationalism at its heart, has only become more strident. And under President Trump, it has only grown more powerful.
Of course, it was Ronald Reagan who forged the big modern alliance between the (white) reverends and the Republicans. But as Frances Fitzgerald points out in her recent masterwork, The Evangelicals, Reagan turned out to be so popular with such a wide variety of Americans, his political survival in no way depended upon Falwell and friends. The exact opposite is true of Trump. He needs these folks desperately, and he knows it.
In a way, it’s almost comforting to view the Trump presidency through the lens of this very simple reality. It explains everything.
OK, not everything, but Trump’s eagerness to please the Christian right explains an awful lot. It explains why he has not merely done the bidding of the right-to-life movement, but consistently exceeded its expectations. It is why, back in July, he tweeted his intention to ban transgender people from the military without bothering to consult the military. It is why, since the fall of 2017, his administration has moved to expand the scope of the religious grounds on which federal employees, private enterprises and NGO’s can base how they do business, and with whom (read: not the gays.) It is why any fight with any Muslim, from the nice mayor of London to the nefarious mullahs of Iran, is a fight that he positively wants to pick. And it is definitely why, in complete isolation from any related development in what the snowflakes over at State used to call “the peace process,” he has yanked the embassy out of Tel Aviv and plunked it square in the middle of the Christian Zionist dream.
“Hang on a second,” you might rejoin. “It’s not just dispensationalists…or even Christians… who wanted to move the embassy to Jerusalem. How about Jared, and Ivanka, and all the Jews around the globe who rejoice in that decision? How about Bibi Netanyahu? How about the secular neocons, hawks, and hardliners? How about all those Congressional Democrats and Republicans who have been voting for the Jerusalem Embassy Act since the 90’s? For crying out loud, how about Chuck Schumer?”
Fair point. These actors all had their own reasons for supporting the embassy move, and they have all done their own happy dances about it.
Consider, however, the following:
If you are a member of Congress who has been voting for the Jerusalem Embassy Act, assuming that the relocation it requires would never happen, you will now have to base any future analysis on the reality that it has happened.
If you are a neocon who has been arguing that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is just the sort of bold move that will snap regional players into getting serious about fixing the damn place at long last – or, on the other hand, a peacenik who has been arguing that it will do the opposite -- your argument now stands to be evaluated, and possibly altered, in the light of whatever happens next.
But if you are a devout Christian who sees the embassy move as a divinely ordained step in your dispensationalist progression, there neither is -- nor can there ever be -- any such adjustment. It doesn’t matter whether the Palestinians retain or repel Hamas, or what the Israeli public might decide to go along with, or who else in the region is willing to start or quell what kinds of trouble based on what points of self-interest. The end game is the end of the world. There’s no earthly reckoning with that.
Of course, the exact same could be said of the God-given visions for the Middle East that are cherished by subsets of Jews and Muslims, who are now celebrating and decrying the embassy move for their own faith-based reasons. But they are not calling the shots now.
For most of the American experiment, it has been considered essential that church and state not be allowed to call each other's shots. Not anymore.
In 1960, to remain viable as a Roman Catholic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy famously used the power of television to reassure Americans that his religion would not determine his actions in office. In 2018, Donald Trump routinely uses the power of policy to reassure the furthest right-wing Christian Americans that their religion does dictate his actions in office.
In that sense, the embassy opening in Jerusalem was perhaps the most purely honest moment of the Trump presidency thus far. Here the president had taken major action in the name of the entire United States of America, in a setting of deep significance to three major world religions. By elevating Hagee and Jeffress in that setting, the president signaled the totality of his fealty to a segment of Americans who, though numerous, still comprise but a fraction of U.S. Christians. Of course, Trump is very happy to make common cause with the other Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, (maybe a couple) Muslims and atheists when the planets of taxes or immigration align. But when push comes to shove, as far as the president and his spiritual entourage are concerned, all those other folks can, quite literally, go to hell.
Then again, some of us feel as if we’re already there.
Surprise, surprise: the White House has withdrawn Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson from consideration to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.
From the moment that President Trump nominated his personal physician to head the VA, Jackson faced major opposition based on his spectacular lack of the experience necessary to run such a large, complicated, and screwed-up agency. But that objection was soon drowned out by the outcry over the record Jackson did supposedly have: a record for dispensing unprescribed prescriptions, sexually harassing women, and passing out drunk on the job.
If puerile precedent holds, the matter will now pretty much drop. Jackson will fade from the headlines, but his reputation as an inebriated lech and pill pusher will follow him forever. Nonetheless, he will continue as a highly ranked naval officer and the president’s doctor, and no one will much care anymore.
Talk about “normalization” of a rank absurdity.
If the allegations against Jackson are remotely true, he deserves to be fired and, very possibly, prosecuted. As important, serious punishment must befall any officials who greenlit, then failed to revoke, his access to and ultimate responsibility for three U.S. presidents.
If, as he continues to insist in the most emphatic terms, the allegations are untrue, Jackson deserves to be vindicated, and the public should demand an explanation as to what the hell just happened.
Not that it’s never happened before. Au contraire. Damning personal accusations have never properly been a function of politics. But long before Donald Trump dreamt of becoming president, it had become a Congressional-confirmation commonplace to treat them as such.
That is terribly, terribly wrong – no matter whose nominee Jackson is, or rather, was.
God knows I am rarely inclined to agree with Kevin Williamson, the conservative writer recently hired, then almost immediately fired, by the Atlantic. I certainly do not share his views on abortion. Yet, when I ponder the revelation over which Williamson was fired – that of having stated publicly, emphatically and more than once his belief that women who have abortions should face major punishment, up to and including the death penalty – I find myself amazed that this can possibly have been considered any revelation at all.
As anti-abortion positions go, Williamson’s ought to come neither as a surprise nor as an outrage, but as a given. From any contention that an action should be illegal, there flows, naturally and necessarily, the contention that people who take that action deserve to be prosecuted. As concerns the action of murder, it is to be hoped that offenders will be convicted and severely punished; and in the case of conscious, willful, premeditated murder, more severely punished still.
Therefore, provided one favors the death penalty, as many anti-choice Americans do, it isn’t Williamson’s view that women who have abortions should pay, possibly with their own lives, that is truly stunning. It is the fact that the pro-life movement has gotten away for so long with a strategy of pairing volcanic hostility toward abortion with a policy of complete impunity for the women who choose it. In fact, in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump stated that women who had abortions ought to incur “some kind of punishment,” it wasn’t us feminazis who had the biggest coronary. It was Trump’s newfound fans in the pro-life leadership, who hastened to quash one of the only rational remarks their hero has ever made.
Understand, I am not addressing here the question of whether abortion ought to be legal, but strictly the operating logic of those who argue most passionately that it should not be.
By that logic and the rhetoric it unleashes, abortion is murder most foul. Doctors who perform abortions are butchers. The clinics where they perform them are slaughterhouses. Planned Parenthood is a slaughterhouse and a distributorship for discarded baby parts. Public figures who favor – or even tolerate -- abortion rights have the blood of the innocent on their hands. Yet, bizarrely exempt from any accountability whatsoever are the mothers who, in this scenario, choose to kill their own children.
Abortion being an intrinsically wrenching subject, it is routinely discussed, by both sides, in terms of its most wrenching examples. In real life, though, those examples illustrate far more exception than rule. Most abortions are not had by minors or the mentally incompetent; nor by victims of rape, incest, or coercion, nor by mothers anywhere near the brink of giving birth, nor by women who would otherwise die. Most abortions are had in the first trimester by adult women who choose to terminate their pregnancies. Whether such women experience their own abortions as terrible tragedies, as no big deal, or as one of the millions of possibilities in between, it is fair to assume that just about all of them know exactly what they are doing. After all, having an abortion is not like flying into a rage, speeding through a red light at a crosswalk, or killing a person one had merely meant to rough up. If a fetus – or indeed, to adopt the current pro-life perspective, a zygote -- constitutes a human life, then an abortion is purposefully intended to end that life. This abortion needs to be requested, scheduled and paid for. It will not be performed on a patient who turns up intoxicated. Therefore, whether or not it is an atrocity, an abortion is not an accident.
All this leaves pro-life advocates with only three non-Williamson frameworks in which to fit any women who may manage to have abortions, should their movement succeed in making the procedure illegal. One: abortion, though wrong, is actually a much more complicated moral-hence-legal proposition than flat-out murder, and therefore it should not be treated as such. Two: abortion is flat-out murder, but pregnant women should be assumed to lack the intelligence and moral rectitude to realize this, and thus be spared the consequences of defying the law. Three: abortion is murder, women ought to know this full well, and therefore, women who opt for abortions should, if caught, be punished -- but, at least for the time being, saying anything like that could alienate tons of swing voters, so nothing like that must be said.
Clearly, framework number one requires a nuanced, shades-of-gray discussion of the whole issue, in which activists show zero interest. Framework number two requires that grown women be treated as moral wards of the state, a concept which, should it ever be spelled out, stands to repulse lots and lots of ladies. So it seems safe to conclude that today's dominant pro-life strategy reflects number three: a politically convenient, morally and intellectually preposterous positing of abortion as a heinous crime that is not committed by the woman who seeks, schedules, very often finances, and undergoes it. Like him or not, Williamson is right to expose this for the absurdity it is. Meanwhile, the likes of NARAL and Planned Parenthood should hope he does so every chance he gets. For whatever lefty pressure may have led the Atlantic to toss Kevin Williamson, it’s not the pro-choice movement that his very cold, very clear reasoning on abortion stands to harm.
Forget about Joe Kennedy III’s Chap Stick. You know what kills me about the Democrats?
Time after time after time, they fight the battles Republicans pick, on terms that Republicans dictate.
This is a different problem than the problem, apart from the weird lip-shine, that critics professed to have with Kennedy’s State of the Union rebuttal. Detractors carped that this was the trotting-out of the same old liberal talking points, voiced by the same old monied Massachusetts K-words, lacking a positive, integrated economic vision for the future. But the wrong-battlefield problem is closely related.
Immigration is a perfect example. By fighting on Republican terms, Democrats have not only allowed the GOP to define the issue, but to cut it out of the broader economic narrative into which it must be tightly sewn if Democrats are to win, on this or anything else.
For years now, Democrats had been walking straight onto an immigration debate stage set by the nativist wing of the GOP, which has also written a now-familiar script:
Republicans: We’ve got to get these illegals out of here and keep any more from coming in!
Democrats: They’re not ‘illegal’, they’re ‘undocumented’, and this country was built on immigrants!
Republicans: Not on illegal immigrants it wasn’t.
Democrats: But they’re here already! They’re working, studying, contributing to their communities…
Republicans: Damn straight! They’re taking our jobs, siphoning off our social services, and killing and raping and…"
Democrats: You’re racists!
Republicans: We’re not racists, we’re realists. This is America. We have to put our own people first.
Democrats: These immigrants are our people.
Republicans (salivating; scenting victory ) Exactly. Africans, Haitians and Hispanics with no respect for the law are your people. Americans who play by the rules are our people.
Given the many sharp, moving parts of this issue and the unexpected ways in which those parts can jut out and whack politicians of both parties, it’s anything but clear that Republican hardliners will win by keeping this dialogue going. But they come much closer than their opponents ought to let them. After all, the above debate leaves an awful lot of room for nice, average people to scratch their heads and go, “Sure, I feel sorry for people coming here, but I’m here already, struggling for the basics, and no one is doing a thing for me.” Or, given some of the recent left-wing effusions about welcoming everyone: “hang on a second, shouldn’t there be a difference between the way the government treats a legal immigrant versus an illegal one? Or a citizen versus a non-citizen?” Best of all for the GOP, it also gives those asking such questions occasion to resent being considered racist for doing so.
All the while, the Republicans are getting away with policy murder. For years now, they have been allowed to roll merrily along, convincing millions of people that whether one regrets or revels in the harsh stance they take on immigration, that stance is going to lead to an America whose abundance will grow, then flow, above all, to Americans. This is total hogwash. The glaring fact of the matter is this: If the Republicans really wanted to make good on what they present as the promise of their vision for immigration, they would have to jettison their vision of everything else.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s forget about the racial, humanitarian, logistical, short-term economic and long-term actuarial implications, and adopt the hard-line GOP immigration ideal as our own. (And I use the term “hard-line” advisedly; obviously, some Republicans have far more nuanced views, but they are not the ones driving the bus.)
So our goal is: the US will have zero illegal immigrants, and only the most strictly limited, stupendously beneficial trickle of legal ones. Nobody succeeds in sneaking across the border. Nobody overstays a visa. No crimes are committed, jobs taken, families formed or benefits claimed by anyone who hasn’t been born here or practically begged to come by dint of their uniquely fabulous skills. It’s all native-born Americans, plus a few independently wealthy foreign geniuses, nobody else, from sea to shining sea.
Anyway, if that’s the dream, then yes: it makes sense to super-secure the borders, put the pedal to the metal on “extreme vetting,” and brace for mass deportation. Lord knows, the GOP has thought of all that. But there are other requirements too, and they’re ignoring -- if not actively thwarting -- those.
Let’s start with the magic four-letter word: jobs.
Logically, if the goal is for the best jobs in America to go to Americans and only Americans, a two-pronged strategy should be in full force.
One: In the immediate term, make sure that the most educated, brilliant, employment-generating Americans can really strut their stuff here.
Two: Produce massive numbers of Americans capable of doing the best jobs likely to be generated in the future. Needless to say, if this ultra-Americanization of work in America were to take root within decades as opposed to centuries, this mass production of massively productive citizens would not be a small matter -- a little high-school STEM funding here, some computer-based “transition” courses for displaced factory workers there.
Remember, the current H1-B visa controversy exists solely because there are more jobs being generated in burgeoning sectors, such as tech, than there are Americans fit to fill them. There is dispute over how big that gap really is, and whether some skilled Americans are being bypassed in favor of foreigners willing to take lower salaries. But no one seriously disputes that the skilled-Americans/available-jobs gap exists, and that it’s set to get larger. Even to approach closing it would require a domestic Marshall Plan for education, particularly the education of engineers. If this plan were to have both a hope of elevating working-class folks, white and otherwise, and also a hope of keeping America at the forefront of the world economy, its tentacles would have to reach from (obviously universal) pre-kindergarten through grad school.
On part one, the Republicans seem to understand the concept of value retention when it comes to money. They’ll never tire of celebrating the repatriation of corporate billions wrought by their recent tax bill, and that’s fine. It’s great, actually! But the concept seems to elude them entirely when it comes to minds. The extreme GOP respect for capital-capital is weirdly coupled these days with outright contempt for intellectual capital. To see this, just contemplate how much economically-salient intellectual capital currently resides in the field of science -- a field with which the Republican party has seen fit to wage all-out war. The political reasons for this may be obvious, but if Democrats played their cards better, the economic ramifications would be too. If the goal is to leverage the best of the best brains in America for the sake of tapping one of our time’s richest veins of employment, defunding and denigrating scientific research while staking the future on fossil fuels is a very odd way to go about it.
As for part two, the Democrats leave plenty to be desired in the education-for-innovation department. But they’re not the ones who are pretending that the economic salvation of the average Joe hinges on getting rid of immigrants. And at least Democrats seem appropriately chagrined by the irony that has stymied and embittered a generation: the more necessary a college education is to succeed in America, the more difficult it is for ordinary Americans to afford one.
And speaking of ironies, how about this one: Anti-immigration types want to crack down on student-visa holders who wish to remain in the U.S. beyond their courses of study, on the grounds that they then displace American workers. Pro-immigration types counter that that merely deports the benefits of a first-class American education. What often gets lost is one reason that foreign students have come to figure so prominently in U.S. higher education: there aren’t enough Americans who can both do the work and pay the full freight.
The reasons for this are myriad and complex, but for an “America First” diehard, at least some countermeasures should be clear. Immigration hardliners should be be clamoring to make college affordable for every qualified native-born American. No one should be more eager than the nativist crowd to flood state schools with funding, expand Pell grants and other scholarship opportunities for lower-income students, reform the system of indenture that college loans have become. Instead, by and large, they are doing the exact opposite.
There’s a cultural side to this, too, and it merits a much more careful treatment than I am giving it here. But just because a point of view may carry emotional resonance or political clout doesn’t make it economically wise. Propping up the coal industry, fighting to make creationism and Confederate revisionism welcome in curricula, lampooning expertise rather broadening access to it…no party truly intent upon building a giant American workforce for a roaring American economy would choose to engage in any of that. Today’s GOP is enmeshed in all of it.
So much for the home front. Now, very briefly, for the “shitholes”:
Although sadly resigned to America's inability to accommodate all, I could not be more appalled by the so-called-conservative threatening, hectoring and demonizing of desperate people who come here in flight from poverty, violence or persecution. But again, just for the sake of argument, let’s adopt the mindset from which such vitriol flows.
If the U.S. abhors the idea of absorbing refugees, shouldn’t the U.S. be doing everything it can to ensure that as few people as possible become refugees in the first place?
Or, to put it in the "tough language" that everyone seems to find so compelling at the moment: If we can’t bear to have the human shithole-sludge washing up on our clean American shores, isn’t it squarely in our national interest to have some serious strategies in place to prevent quite so many “shitholes” from forming?
If the most powerful nation on earth were serious about reducing the number of “low-skilled” immigrants seeking asylum within its borders, it would bring major, varied and constant resources to bear on assuring that fewer people needed asylum to begin with. It would pride itself, for example, on maintaining an excellent sense of the elements that, time and time again, breed misery and unrest abroad, and do its utmost to keep those elements from rising at all, let alone boiling over. In this light, any famine, war, drought or dictatorship abroad would be seen as a major problem at home, if only for its potential to send streams of unwanted wastrels our way.
Of course, America’s chronically-pathetic levels of foreign aid would markedly rise, as would rigorous oversight mechanisms designed to keep that aid both honest and effective. But more than that, every U.S. policy would be evaluated partially – not entirely, but partially – in terms of its global effects. No farm bill, for example, would go anywhere without a full airing of its impact on food prices in Africa. In the area of trade, at least some “losing” would be allowed for, on the grounds that countries that never "win" on any level have a real knack for bursting into flame. And for those occasions when refugee crises did nonetheless arise, the U.S. would strive to be at the center of the response, teaming with allies to distribute the burden of intake and promote the conditions for eventual return.
OK, fantasy or no fantasy, one mustn’t get carried away.
Clearly, there is a strict limit to how much even the most outward-looking, globally-minded America could do to influence the events and conditions that impel people to flee their homelands, or to entice other countries to coordinate their aims with ours . But the Trump-led GOP absolutely prides itself on making no effort whatsoever.
It’s not just the continuous starving and scalping of the State Department, nor the bizarre shunning of the kinds of relationships necessary to achieve such aims. It’s the whole conception of all international policy as a zero sum game. To hear this administration tell it, the ideal international policy consists of unlimited funding for the military, and nothing but derision for everything else.
NAFTA puts it in a nutshell. Even to the (limited) degree that the president has a point when he excoriates that agreement for “sending jobs to Mexico,” he seems totally unaware of what ought to be a huge upside for himself and his anti-immigrant base: those jobs then get done by Mexicans who therefore, y'know, stay in Mexico.
Of course, that's no more comfort to the U.S. worker losing a job than is the tone-deaf globalist's pointing out that macroeconomically, it's fine, because for every job NAFTA kills in one part of the country, it creates three in another, or whatever. But no policy invested in that worker’s well-being would try to hide him from the fact of globalization. It would concentrate on finding ways for him to weather its perilous storms, and for his kids to ride its wave (see above)
No question, Democrats blast Republicans all the time on income inequality, college affordability, and shirking of global responsibility. But for some reason, they fail to knit all that right into the debate on immigration, where it so clearly belongs. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Democrats stick so doggedly to a formula of compassion and racial enlightenment, plus maybe a little sprinkling of immediate economic benefit (the tech people from India can come in and spur employment for the construction people in Indiana, and whatnot.) I don't know why, on such a central issue, they aren't constantly calling the Republican hardliners' bluff.
Lord knows I’m not a Democrat looking to get myself elected. But if I were, and some America-Firster were trying to paint me as anti-American for being pro-immigrant, this is what I would say:
“If the right were to get anything like its way on immigration without seriously altering its views on education, trade and foreign policy, the U.S. population would, as they seem to hope, consist proportionally of many more native-born white Americans. But they’d be native-born white Americans forced to struggle economically while watching the rest of the world pass them by.
Is that really the sense in which the GOP wants to grow its base?”