Commentary on Overturning Roe, Part 1

There are several things I want to say about the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v Wade in Dobbs vs Jackson,  terminate the constitutional right to abortion access for American woman, and thus downgrade American women to second class citizens. So, I thought to write a running commentary concerning the decision. Given that I’m not a lawyer, this running commentary will be weak on legal principles (but so is Dobbs v Jackson) and most oriented toward political and social concerns.

1. Suppressing Women’s Rights was normal. The early part of Dobbs is mostly the “arbitrariness” of Roe in overturning abortion laws in the states.

At the time of Roe, 30 States still prohibited abortion at all stages. In the years prior to that decision, about a third
of the States had liberalized their laws, but Roe abruptly ended that political process. It imposed the same highly
restrictive regime on the entire Nation, and it effectively struck down the abortion laws of every single State (10).

What was, and is, “normal” for Samuel Alito and the Court Majority was state government restrictions on the rights and citizenship of women and neither the full citizenship of American women or their rights to control their own bodies to the extent that men do. When Alito refers to “restrictive regime,” he means the restrictions on states legislating against women. Roe v Wade was consistent with the 19th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other legislation that recognized women as equal beings and citizens and overturning abortion laws was part of the broad movement in American society to end the various kinds of legal “double standards” bearing down on women and black people. To the contrary, the current Court majority views the second class status of women as “normal” and treats Roe as a “restrictive regime” because it curtailed the efforts of state governments to restrict women.

2. Because Conservatives Exist, You Have No Rights. Alito then introduces what will emerge as the dumbest consideration in the whole 70 pages of the Court’s decision.

Casey threw out Roe’s trimester scheme and substituted a new rule of uncertain origin under which States were forbidden
to adopt any regulation that imposed an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to have an abortion.11 The decision provided no clear guidance about the difference between a “due” and an “undue” burden. But the three Justices who authored the controlling opinion “call[ed] the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division” by treating the Court’s decision as the final settlement of the question of the constitutional right to abortion. As has become increasingly apparent in the intervening years, Casey did not achieve that goal. Americans continue to hold passionate and widely divergent views on abortion, and state legislatures have acted accordingly. (12)

Translating, the argument being introduced is that Roe was wrong and women don’t “really” have rights as American citizens because those rights are opposed by the GOP, religious conservatives, and other patriarchy advocates. It’s similar to refusing to acknowledge the dictum that “all men are created equal” because of opposition from the loyalists of 1776. But the idea that right-wing opposition nullifies rights is one of the key tenets of conservative thinking. Cops wanted to stop and frisk black guys any time they felt like it. So Fourth Amendment protections against against “unreasonable searches and seizures” went out the window. Republican politicians wanted Republican votes to count more than Democratic votes, so the Supreme Court gutted and re-gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and announced that Republican Party welfare was more important than Voting Rights. The malignant Constitutional thinking that characterizes the overturning of Roe has characterized conservative Supreme Court jurisprudence for years.

Dems Need Biden Activism

It’s been six days since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and provided ultimate judicial authority for the wave of woman-hating activism against abortion rights that has engulfed red states like Texas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. Here’s a passage from early in President Biden’s speech in reaction:

Fifty years ago, Roe v. Wade was decided and has been the law of the land since then. This landmark case protected a woman’s right to choose, her right to make intensely personal decisions with her doctor, free from the inter- — from interference of politics. It reaffirmed basic principles of equality — that women have the power to control their own destiny.  And it reinforced the fundamental right of privacy — the right of each of us to choose how to live our lives. Now, with Roe gone, let’s be very clear: The health and life of women in this nation are now at risk.

During that time, Democrats have been embroiled in arguments about whether President Biden and Congressional Democrats are at all effective and whether voting is worth it.

The arguments for Democratic leadership uselessness largely comes from the Sanders Hard Left but are also being energetically posed on twitter by figures like Stephen Robinson and Oliver Willis. For example, Willis poses the Democrats as weak and vacillating Gotham City type figures stupidly refusing to stand up to the Joker.

The counter-argument to “Democratic uselessness” is that the Court was lost because of the relentless attacks on Hillary in 2016 and specifically the rejection by Sanders of Hillary’s warnings about losing the Supreme Court if Trump was elected. Biden Democrats also point out that many of the solutions being proposed to the Court’s overturning Roe are either far-fetched or offensive. The offensiveness is especially true of the proposal to use tribal land as a haven for abortion rights but many Democrats also point out that proposals by Elizabeth Warren and others to use federal property or military bases for abortions would run afoul of the Hyde Amendment which bans the use of federal money for abortions. Likewise, the specter of Republican retaliation makes others highly skeptical of overturning the filibuster or expanding the Court.

Isn’t true that President Biden has done nothing. On the day Roe was reversed, Biden proposed to

  1. Codify Roe v Wade into federal law
  2. Guarantee that women can travel to states where abortions are available
  3. Protect women’s access to abortion pills and contraception.
  4. Seek to elect more Democrats to “restore the protections of Roe as the law of the land.

After the Alito draft leaked, the White House engaged with “dozens of representatives from reproductive rights groups, state legislators and private law experts to discuss a path forward.” My guess is that the meetings were either private or conducted with as little publicity as possible because I don’t remember much in the way of advanced publicity, public forums, news conferences, or media comment. There will be another meeting with blue state governors on July 1 and President Biden called today for the Senate to carve out an exception to the filibuster in order to re-establish a national right to abortions. Unfortunately, occasional Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona shot that down in the name of her undying commitment to preserving the filibuster.

According to CNN, Vice-President Kamala Harris was heavily involved in the discussions many of which focused on the possibility of state police agencies gathering information from menstrual tracking apps.

Harris has also assumed a leading role, convening her own discussions with advocates, faith leaders and law experts to collect different perspectives and policy ideas on how the administration could intervene to ensure the protection of certain safety and security rights should Roe be overturned. In a conversation on June 14 that focused on privacy, Harris was focused in part on questions about digital technology like period trackers, according to Melissa Murray, a constitutional lawyer and reproductive rights expert from New York University who participated in the discussion. “She was right there, asking really good questions, thinking about not only the sort of nuances of the issue, but also what’s the best way to explain this to the public so that they understand what’s actually at stake,” Murray said of the conversation.

As I’ve stated on twitter, these proposals and this consultation with “stakeholders” are definitely something rather than nothing. But it’s also far from being enough considering “the enormity of the Supreme Court taking away rights from more than half the American population.” In particular, the Biden administration needs to give up its preference for “insider politics” and conduct its resistance to abortion bans and promotion of women’s rights out in public and on both small and large scales. In the short term, the Biden people could:

1. Publicly coordinate with activists in abortion states which means President Biden, Vice-President Harris, and the many well known women in the Biden administration traveling to abortion ban states, meeting and publicizing pro-abortion and women’s rights activists, coordinating federal policy with the imperatives and needs of abortion rights activists, and promoting abortion rights activists and activism in the media;

2. Formulate federal policies that set standards for medical care in abortion ban states and seek to prevent states like Texas from letting women die from miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, and other hazards of pregnancy in their hospitals;

3. Host legal critics of Alito’s belligerent decision for a public WH conference on abortion rights and their moral and Constitutional justification. One issue that could be addressed by legal critics is the issue of expanding the Courts to re-establish full citizenship for women and protect the citizenship rights of other segments of the American population.

4. Hold large-scale rallies for women’s rights in both red states and blue states, encourage public agencies and private employers to give employees time off to attend rallies, and adapt “bans off our bodies” (which is an effective slogan) as a symbol of the resistance to abortion bans.

Given the failure of Build Back Better, the Biden administration has become more about managing the federal apparatus and engaging in foreign policy than anything else. However, the Biden administration needs to become more of an activist, resistance administration if they are going to be effective in helping women in the United States recover their full citizenship and fundamental rights.

Hey Dems! Follow Beto’s Example. Hold More Rallies

Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Once Covid started in 2020, Democratic presidential candidates stopped holding full-scale rallies and did most of their campaigns through media appearances, television advertising, radio spots, and fund-raising messages. That continued after the election of Joe Biden as president and there were reasons. The Covid pandemic peaked again in Fall 2021 and Jan. 2022, Pres. Biden prefers insider politics, and (outside the Sanders movement) Democratic audiences got out of the rally-going habit, preferring less stagy events like protest marches.

But Democrats should re-integrate mass rallies into their mix for the 2022 election and beyond. Large scale rallies of 5,000, 10,000 and more are good ways to focus attention on Democratic office holders and policies, get media attention, and keep up voter optimism for the hard times of the post-Roe era. Pro-abortion, voting rights, and gun violence rallies would give Democratic office holders a big stage, provide exposure to activists on various issues, and be doubly popular because famous singers and musicians would be eager to perform. Large rallies might also be safer than the street protests which are increasingly subject to police violence and right-wing incitement.

The virtues of large-scale rallies can be seen in a Beto O’Rourke rally held at the Pan American Neighborhood Park in Austin, Texas last Saturday. Thousands were in attendance, Beto increased his profile in the Texas governor’s race, and he was able to tie the overturning of Roe v Wade to the Uvalde Massacre.

Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke called for a restoration of the right to abortion in Texas, along with other state and local Democratic candidates and leaders from abortion advocacy organizations, at a rally in East Austin on Sunday evening. “If this were about life, then those 19 children in Uvalde, Texas would still be alive, enjoying their summer break right now,” O’Rourke said at the rally. “This is about controlling the lives and the bodies of the women of Texas.”

Willie Nelson and other country musicians performed and speakers included activists like “Aimee Arrambide, the executive director for the abortion advocacy group Avow Texas” as well as more nationally known pro-choice Texas advocates like Wendy Davis.

One advantage of rallies is that they allow organizers to combine national political personalities and agendas with local diversity, activism, and flair. I went to a Barack Obama rally in Lexington, KY where a University of Kentucky voice student did a remarkable rendition of the national anthem. People (like me) in the audience were so overwhelmed that Obama had won the crowd even before he stepped out on the stage.

Democrats have super-majority advantages in public opinion on most issues in American politics. One way to focus, encourage, and shape that opinion in politically effective ways is to hold mass political rallies.

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A Note on Overturning Roe– State Governments Do Not Represent “the People”

The Very White Texas state senate GOP caucus, facebook

As everyone knows, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade on Friday, June 24, rejecting the key principle in Roe that American women had a constitutional right to abort pregnancies and authorizing conservative states to outlaw abortion altogether. Here’s the key quote:

Held: The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.

Since Friday, there’s been a wide range of reactions from people who care about human rights in the United States, including calls to codify Roe into federal law, amp up distribution of abortion pills, maintain abortion rights on military bases and other federal property, use tribal lands for abortions, have employers pay for travel to get abortions, and expand the Court which would also require eliminating the filibuster in the Senate.

Different proposals have different merits and weaknesses. Using tribal lands for abortions was a complete non-starter but I think there will be a number of non-starters as people on the left begin to focus on restoring human rights in America.

My preference is to address the problem directly. I support eliminating the Senate filibuster and expanding the Court and I’ve argued on twitter that Democrats should seek to expand the Court from 9 justices to 19 in order to re-establish the rights recognized in Roe and overturn the enormous amount of awful Constitutional law that’s been enacted by successive right-leaning Supreme Courts since the Casey case in 1992.

What I wish to address briefly here is the Supreme Court’s idea that the states are proper vehicles for making law in relation to issues like abortion rights, reproductive rights more generally, gun violence, or the environment. Outside the 10th Amendment, the idea is that state governments in states like Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina are “closer to the people” than the federal government and are better vehicles than the federal government for representing “the will of the people.” In the “syllabus” to the Dobbs decision, Samuel Alito writes in relation to Roe v Wade (1973) and Case v Planned Parenthood (1992) that “The Court overrules those decisions nd returns that authority to the people and their elected representatives” by which he means “elected representatives” in state government.

However, elections in many states, especially Republican-dominated states, are so distorted by gerrymandering and vote suppression that state governments do not and can not reflect the “will of the people.” In relation to gerrymandering, a classic example is Wisconsin. Here are the party vote totals and distribution of seats in the Wisconsin Assembly for 2018.

https://isthmus.com/

In the 2018 elections, Democrats got 54% of the vote for the Wisconsin Assembly but only received 36% of the seats. In other words, one Democratic vote had a .666% impact in electing Wisconsin representatives while one Republican vote had a 1.39% impact. As is now the case with women, being a Democrat in Wisconsin makes a person less than a full citizen while being a Republican gives a person a kind of miniature “super-citizen” status. In 2018, the Wisconsin legislature represented the “will” of a privileged minority of Republican voters rather than the people as a whole. The Wisconsin Assembly should not be deciding the fundamental rights of the people of Wisconsin.

However decisions concerning abortion rights are worked out, state legislatures in gerrymandered states like Wisconsin do not represent the “will of the people.”

Working with Lexington Books

I’m happy to announce that I have received a book contract from Lexington Books for my long-term project on Philadelphia history, “White Laboring Men and the Transformation of Popular Culture in Philadelphia, 1785-1850.” The deadline for completing a full manuscript is two years away on July 1, 2024 and I am eager to resume writing. I delivered papers at both a political science conference and a popular culture conference last spring and was on the verge of thinking that doing the conferences was a waste of time. But Lexington Books contacted me at almost the same time that I was giving my paper and things moved quickly from there as I rewrote my book proposal and waited for Lexington Books to decide. Things were finalized this Thursday and I’ll continue to work on my chapter on the blackface bands of the 1840’s. At the same time, I’ll also continue blogging about politics. I still don’t believe I’ve found my voice for this blog but I feel like I have all kinds of worthwhile ideas about current politics and culture and can’t help but keep working on them. Anyway, the plan is to keep doing what I’m doing as I finish my book project.

Biden Speech on Guns Gets It Done

Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday evening, President Biden gave a nationally televised speech on gun policy in the wake of the mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, Tulsa, and other places. President Biden has a reputation as a poor communicator stemming from his days as a shoot from the hip gaffe machine. j

But those days are long over.

Since the beginning of his 2020 presidential campaign, President Biden has disciplined himself to avoid egregious gaffes and has emerged both as a skilled and forceful presidential speaker and a master of making policy through spontaneous policy.

The speech on guns is a good example of President Biden’s speech chops. President Biden has a clipped manner of speaking that communicates his points in a forceful manner. Instead of being “eloquent” in the manner of Barack Obama (and his vision) or Bill Clinton (with his lists), President Biden is pointed and sharp and it’s a highly effective way of getting his message across. Some of the effect comes across in the text.

The day before, we visited Uvalde — Uvalde, Texas.  In front of Robb Elementary School, we stood before 21 crosses for 19 third and fourth graders and two teachers.  On each cross, a name.  And nearby, a photo of each victim that Jill and I reached out to touch.  Innocent victims, murdered in a classroom that had been turned into a killing field.

Short sentences, briefly expressed thoughts, combining quickly to generate rhetorical force culminating in the image of a killing field. It’s not “To Be Or Not To Be” and it’s not Obama’s Philadelphia speech, but it is effective oratory.

Another virtue of the speech is that Biden did not kowtow to GOP Senators. No mention of “hardening schools,” video games, pornography, abortion, or other Republican bullshit distracting attention from the role of firearms availability in mass shooting. Likewise, the only mention Biden made of mental illness was in the context of helping people deal with the trauma of surviving so much loss. Biden’s proposals to ban assault weapons, pass red flag laws, repeal gunmaker immunity, and the like were designed to address the problem rather than cater to the right. And he proposes them directly:

We need to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  And if we can’t ban assault weapons, then we should raise the age to purchase them from 18 to 21.  Strengthen background checks.  Enact safe storage laws and red-flag laws.  Repeal the immunity that protects gun manufacturers from liability.  Address the mental health crisis deepening the trauma of gun violence and as a consequence of that violence.

A small group of Senate Democrats is negotiating with Republican colleagues like Susan Collins. But Biden was emphatic about the irresponsibility of Senate Republicans.

I support the bipartisan efforts that include a small group of Democrats and Republican senators trying to find a way.  But my God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable. We can’t fail the American people again.

He finds the majority of Republican senators to be unconscionable. With my small twitter account, I’m one of the people who persistently urges President Biden to be more aggressive and partisan with Republicans and more persistent about that partisan aggression as well. But President Biden has made a fundamental break with Republicans and conservatives. He no longer cares what they think and no longer cares about their sensitive, snowflake feelings. That’s a big step for Joe Biden and even a bigger step for the Democratic Party.

And President Biden deserves credit for that.

Biden further helped his cause by summarizing his list of seven gun reform proposals before explaining them in more detail. That bit of speech writing strategy kept the president’s gun policy agenda from getting lost in details and contributed to the clarity of the speech.

As a result, the substance of the speech had a clarity and urgency that matched President Biden’s mode of delivery.

Another striking element in President Biden’s speech was the way he generated outrage for mass murderers from his empathy for the suffering in Buffalo and Uvalde. Having talking about the crosses at the school, faces of the children, and the grief almost everywhere, Biden conveyed a growing sense of outrage over the failure to control mass murders that culminated as he kept intoning “enough.” Much of that happened after the policy proposals and gave further moral and civic weight to Biden’s policy ideas.

Altogether, President Biden’s speech got the job done. Now the President and his people need to be just as effective with their follow-up.

Uvalde Cops: Policing as Usual?

Pete Luna/Uvalde Leader-News

I wonder if the Uvalde cops just saw themselves as doing their “normal jobs” when they started harassing parents rather than going inside the school. Between the time that a heavily armed Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary school around 11:40 and when he was finally killed, the police focused on crowd control rather than mass murder control. The New York Times reports:

During that terrifying time — well over an hour — parents of students who were trapped in the school gathered outside the building as word spread of the shooting. Some were physically restrained by the police in a scene that witnesses described as disorder bordering on mayhem. The crowd grew to hundreds. “Parents were crying and some were fighting verbally with the police and screaming that they wanted their children,” Marcela Cabralez, a pastor, said. Miguel Palacios, a small-business owner, said frantic parents were so upset that at one point they tried to take down the school’s chain-link fence. “The parents were on one side of the fence, the Border Patrol and police were on the other side of the fence, and they were trying to tear it open,” he said.

As Salvador Ramos began shooting kids, the Uvalde police devoted their energy to preventing parents from entering the school to save their children. They were also preventing a Border Patrol special team from entering the school but I want to reflect on the connection between Uvalde police treatment of parents and everyday policing. The connection is suggested by Uvalde resident and twitter user @deenoonandraws who writes: “We are helpless. The cops do nothing but harass citizens they are suppose to be serving and protecting.” What would be “normal” police work would be bullying teenagers, rousting people from bars, hunting down people smoking pot, and other things that are safe for cops. No doubt justified by a rich vein of racial, ethnic, class, and gender stereotypes and enjoyed as an exercise in power..

Part of that power is lying. According to former local prosecutor @Miriam2626–“based on my past interactions with Uvalde PD, you will never know the truth about what went down in that school until every inch of video tape is released to the press.”

It’s like telling the truth is a disease the Uvalde Police don’t want to catch.

Controlling crowds, stifling the locals, handcuffing a guy worried about his kids, lying like hell–that all looks like a fairly normal day’s cop work in Uvalde.

Running into (potential) gunfire to save the kids of people you don’t respect–that’s for training exercises not real life.

On an extraordinary day, Uvalde police may have chosen to be their normal selves.

Beto Takes on the Texas GOP, Becomes Democratic Role Model

Houston Chronicle

On Tuesday around 11:30am, 18 year old Salvador Ramos invaded Robb Elementary School in the South Texas town of Uvalde, locked a classroom door behind him, and killed 19 students and 2 teachers before Border Patrol ran down a key, opened the classroom door, and shot him to death. Ramos purchased two AR-15’s and 375 rounds of ammunition for his 18th birthday and had apparently begun adopting an identity as a mass murderer when he put “Kids be scared irl [in real life]” into his twitter bio. Ramos began his spree by shooting the grandmother with whom he was living, crashing a car into a ditch, and invading the school after exchanging shots with law enforcement at the school.

Evidently, local law enforcement not only stood around outside during the 40 minutes Ramos was inside shooting but was preventing parents and relatives from trying to rescue their children themselves.

Personally, I’m numb with grief and disbelief and have trouble sleeping. The Uvalde massacre is almost as traumatic for me as the May 14 Buffalo massacre where the shooter was from my home region in Upstate NY.

But I want to discuss Beto O’Rourke and the politics of the Democratic Party in relation to the Uvalde Massacre, the Buffalo Massacre, and other mass shootings. Yesterday (May 25), Greg Abbott and Texas Republican officials were holding a news conference about the Uvalde Massacre in the town itself when Beto O’Rourke interrupted. Here’s a still picture:

@MaxMasseyTV

In some ways, it was Beto O’Rourke standing up as a lone citizen against the corrupt Republican establishment of Texas with Gov. Greg Abbott seated in blue, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick sitting on Abbott’s right, and Sen. Rafael (Ted) Cruz standing above Abbott. In some ways, it was a Jimmy Stewart kind of moment.

YouTube.com

Good for Beto!

I want to explain what is particularly effective about Beto’s appearance at the Abbott press conference in Uvalde. The Democratic leadership in Washington has been aggressive, determined, and disciplined about Covid, the Build Back Better proposal, and Ukraine. Even though his down in the polls and events haven’t gone his way, Joe Biden has been a much more effective president than I anticipated. At the same time, the Biden administration has done a poor job of promoting itself and I could say the same thing for the Democratic Congressional leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Same with Jaime Harrison and the Democratic National Committee. They’re all strong in the trenches but find themselves in weak political positions despite having super-majorities of public opinion on their side. They should have done a lot better in taking the battle to Republicans on Covid, critical race theory, the homophobic campaign against public schools, and voting rights. They need to do better when Roe v Wade is overturned this summer.

So what is Beto doing that the Democrats need to do? He

  1. MADE NEWS. Beto got in front of Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas GOP Establishment at a sensitive time and let him have it. Beto’s interference with Abbott made the press conference into an event that centered around Beto and it was reported in the Washington Post, New York Times, the New York Times Again, CNN, a CNN op ed by Chris Cilliza, CBS News, and so on. In other words, Beto O’Rourke criticized Texas Republicans in a way that was amplified by the mainstream media. That should be an objective for Biden White House communications–make news that is amplified by the mainstream media.
  2. MADE REPUBLICANS DEFEND THEMSELVES. Beto’s appearance at the press conference forced an immediate defense from Greg Abbott himself. According to Abbott, “every Texan, every American has a responsibility where we need to focus not on ourselves and our agendas, but we need to focus on the healing . . .” It was a weak response that did address anything O’Rourke said while Beto himself expanded on his condemnation of Abbott after being forced outside. In other words, Beto kept dominating the moment. Still feeling the need to defend Texas Republicans and conservatism, Fox News had Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick appear on Laura Ingraham’s show last night to attack O’Rourke. By forcing Republicans to respond, O’Rourke kept amplifying the story and further pushing the Republicans to defend their inhuman positions on gun possession and gun violence. Some of these defenses are foolish and open the GOP to further criticism and ridicule. For instance, the twitterati reminded Trump apparatchik Andrea Kremer about Rafael Cruz when she attacked Beto by using his birth name “Robert Francis.” Speaking of Sen. Cruz, he got upset when a reporter asked him why school shootings only happened in the U.S. That question might not have been asked if O’Rourke hadn’t inflamed the “controversy.”
  3. CREATED MORE OPENINGS. O’Rourke’s criticism of Abbott will most likely keep the Uvalde Massacre in the media beyond the three days allotted for the murder of 10 black shoppers in Buffalo. Beto’s critique of Abbott both for “doing nothing” and enacting new gun laws which made the situation worse a theme that could apply to the Republicans on Covid, infrastructure, Ukraine, and other issues. However, Beto can’t do this himself. He needs President Biden, VP Harris, the White House Communication Office, and the DNC to keep coming back to “doing nothing” and “making things worse” as the main imperatives of Republican politics.

Orban, Western Civilization, and CPAC

I watched Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s CPAC speech so you don’t have to. American conservatives held CPAC in Orban’s Hungary because they want to follow Orban in establishing an authoritarian regime within a democratic political system.

They also hate America.

Towards the end of his 30 minute speech, Orban identified the political right with “Western Civilization” by which he meant traditional male-headed families and the pre-eminence of the “Church” among institutions. “The cause of the nation is not a matter of ideology, nor even of tradition. The reason that churches and families must be supported is that they are the building blocks of the nation.” In other words, what conservatives want is Patriarchal Families, a Patriarchal Church, and Patriarchal Government.

However, the popular image of “Western Civilization” is almost entirely about progress–the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France, the Declaration of Independence in the United States, printing, global exploration, philosophy, poetry, Voltaire, and Shakespeare. Orban constricts “Western Civilization” into the elements of family and religion that in fact were the least distinct characteristics of the Modern West. It sounds like Orban is identifying Western civilization with figures like Clovis, Charles Martel, and Charlemagne, all of whom flourished before the accomplishments usually identified with “Western Civilization.” That’s both bizarre and dumb.

Of course, the idea of progress also served to cover up the monstrosity of the slave trade, native genocides, colonial tyrannies, or religious war. That’s an important part of the story of Western Civilization and so have the advent of ideas of religious tolerance, the resistance of Black populations in the U.S. and other countries, women, LGBT’s, and the various peoples subject to Western colonization. That resistance and the cultural creativity of all these populations is now an important part of the history of Western Civilization as well. However, Orban follows U.S. conservatives in ridiculing the critique of progress and new centers of political power and cultural creativity as “woke” despite not identifying himself with the original progress of the West. Such is the way with conservatives in Europe as well as the U.S. but there’s also a way in which Orban is writing conservatism out of Western Civilization.

To the extent that there is a Western Civilization, it’s morphed since WWII into a global culture. That’s partly a political matter resulting from the spread of democracy and the UN, partly an economic matter with the development of global corporations and global markets, and partly a matter of popular culture as the recording industry, movies, and television programs reached global audiences along with trends in Black American culture, anime, and KPop. An American pop performer like Demi Lovato is just as welcome in Sao Paulo, Brazil as San Diego, CA. There has also been global pressure on monotheism as Christianity declined dramatically in Western Europe, various kinds of pagan figures were revived by comic book mythologies, and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese forms of ancestor worship became globally recognized.

In the West, official values are liberal and multicultural and dominate in the major institutions, high culture, and popular culture. Conservatism is mostly a counter-culture appealing to large populations ambivalent about modern life but having few of its own cultural products. This is something Orban recognizes better than most Dems in the U.S.–

This problem–if I am not mistaken, both in America and Western Europe, is the domination of public life by progressive liberals. The problem is the fact that they hold the most important positions in the most important institutions, that they occupy the dominant positions in the media, they are the progressive left telling us what is true and that they produce all the politically indoctrinating works of high and mass culture. They–the progressive left–tell us what is the truth and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. And as conservatives, our lot is to feel about our nation’s public life as Sting felt in New York: like a legal alien.

Orban operates under the assumption that conservatives are such strangers in society that “the cause of [national conservatism] is not a matter of ideology, nor even of tradition.” That’s because conservative ideologies (fascism in Europe, militarism and supply-side economics in the United States have so little credibility. Given post-WWII communism, Hungarian conservatism has little tradition while the main traditions of American conservatives (slavery, segregation) are just as negative for conservative politics in the United States as fascism is for the European right.

For Orban, the patriarchal family and religion are the only institutions that can be used as conservative reference points. Because the West is so identified with liberalism, Orban has to avoid talking about the West in order to promote “Western Civilization.”

Orban isn’t impressed with Trump either. His main comment is that “President Trump has undeniable merits, but nevertheless he was not re-elected in 2020.” In other words, Trump’s pretty much a loser and the real model for American conservatives should be Hungary.

What about Orban’s “12 Principles for Conservatives?” It’s almost all warmed over stuff that U.S. conservatives have been doing for years if not decades.

Between Conklin and Buffalo

BUFFALO, New York — A weekend trip to the grocery store descended into a bloody tragedy for dozens of people Saturday. Jennifer Tookes, of Buffalo, had been in the Tops Friendly Market shopping with a cousin in separate aisles for about two minutes when she heard multiple gunshots coming from the front of the store. When it was over, 10 people were dead and three were wounded. A white 18-year-old who dressed in tactical gear and carried an assault weapon was arrested at the scene. He was arraigned Saturday evening on a first-degree murder charge and jailed without bond.

Maybe it’s a problem but what most ties up my emotion with the mass shooting in Buffalo is the extent to which the shooter Payton Gendron is like me and mine. The Fox News/Buffalo shooter is from Conklin, NY, a village of about 5,000 about 20 miles southeast of Binghamton on the Susquehanna River at the meeting point of Rt 68 and I 81. Conklin and the neighboring town of Kirkwood form a rural district of about 10,000. My own home town of Waverly is about 50 miles west of Conklin and grouped with three small Pennsylvania towns into what’s known locally as “The Valley.” When I was taking social studies classes in elementary school, the Binghamton area was thought to be on the verge of booming because of IBM, highway construction, etc. But by high school gradation, the whole region was in decline. That was especially the case with “The Valley” as IBM moved out of Binghamton and Owego and railroad repair shops and a highway equipment company moved out of the area. With an Amazon distribution center and a Dick’s Sporting Goods facility, Conklin and Kirkwood look to be doing better than Waverly with its empty downtown stores and boarded up houses. But declining opportunities, shrinking populations, and various drugs epidemics are the order of the day and both towns are “Trump Country.”

Google Maps

Waverly is not listed on this Google map of the trip between Conklin and Buffalo but Waverly is like Conklin in being right on the NY/PA border and Gendron would have dipped into PA at the two Waverly exits on Rt 68 as he was driving from Conklin to Buffalo to kill as many black people as he could.

Beginning with the racism.

Regional notions vary but I’ve always thought of the “Southern Tier” of Upstate NY as extending from east of Binghamton to Ithaca in the North and Elmira/Horseheads in the West. I last lived in the area in 1977, but have rock-solid confidence in saying It’s a racist place. I went to a lecture by a Binghamton University prof at the University of Louisville in the late 90’s where she mentioned the racism of the Binghamton area but I also remember reports of Klan groups associated with guards at the Elmira, NY prison and Klan meetings in Athens, PA just across the border. Waverly had an unusual number of black families who worked at the big restaurant on the hill and I knew a number of black guys growing up. But the fact that all my black acquaintances left town and didn’t come back says a lot about the strain of living as a black family in Waverly. My own family was racist to the core. My mother bragged about her adapted home town of Sayre, PA (actually she lived in Athens but graduated from Sayre High and always referred to Sayre as her home town) having a law against black people residing there (something which I’ve never confirmed or disconfirmed) and my parents had a broad early hostility to rock as “n-word” music. My father was even more racist and made a sustained effort to socialize me into white racism in my early teens as part of his effort to “make a man” out of me. Remembering, my father’s racism had an abstract quality. As far as I remember, he never said anything derogatory about any of the black people living in the Waverly area and it’s not like he spent much time in areas with black populations either. It’s like my father had animosity toward black people as a “category” and viewed that animosity as important to both his and MY being a “man.” Because of the categorical character of the animosity, my father’s racism was always impervious to counter-arguments, examples to the contrary, or anything having to do with the real world. It was necessary and obvious, and my disagreement made him less in his eyes without bringing his own self-esteem into question. Anyway, the effort backfired and reinforced the sense of him being repulsive that I had been forming for a couple years as a result of his abuse of my mother and more than occasional pummeling of me. Over time, I began to perceive Waverly as part American Graffiti, part “Harper Valley PTA,” and part Blue Velvet with nice people socializing in the living room while Dennis Hopper tortured Isabella Rosellini in the basement. I grew up in a Blue Velvet family and racism was an ingrained part of the experience.

The Racism and the Guns.

I wonder where Payton Gendron developed his interest in guns. Was it part of a “hunting culture” in which guns are central to stories about the hunt, the kills, the misses, dressing the carcasses, being with your buddies, and the male identity with that? Or was Gendron more into the fetishism of “gun culture”–the brands, names, fire power, ammunition, cammo gear, and all their possibilities, how all of that is displayed, counted, priced, and shared competitively with relatives and friends. When Payton Gendron travelled from Conklin to Buffalo for his massacre at the Topps market, he carried two guns with him, ammunition, body armor, and a helmet, and started opening fire. Like my father’s racism, there was an abstraction about that. Gendron not only did not know any of people he killed, he picked out the neighborhood because it was the zip code with the highest concentration of black people in Upstate NY. The aim was to kill black people generically and that killing black people was a kind of categorical imperative to Gendron. My father was also a dangerous gun owner as I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and shot at least three of our family pets in the head when they began to decline in health or got run over by cars. But the guns were never part of the bullying, gas lighting, or beatings that he dished out to my mother (who got it bad), myself, or my siblings. It’s like he never made the leap from thinking of guns as an instrument of hunting and display to guns as an instrument for the family abuse to which he was so highly committed. Once I became aware of murder-suicides, I am very grateful for my father never catching on to the idea.

The Racism and the Guns.

I wonder where Payton Gendron developed his interest in guns. Was it part of a “hunting culture” in which guns are central to stories about going on hunt, getting the kills, the ones that got away, dressing the carcasses, being with your buddies, and all the white male identification that goes with that? Or was Gendron more into the fetishism of “gun culture”–the brands, names, fire power, ammunition, camo gear, body armor and all how all of that is displayed, counted, priced, and shared competitively with relatives and friends. When Payton Gendron travelled from Conklin to Buffalo for his massacre at the Topps market, he carried two guns, ammunition, body armor, and a helmet, and started opening fire after a day of scouting. He also wrote about them in his 180 page manifesto. Of course, there’s a great deal of overlap between hunting culture and gun culture but I’m wondering if Gendron’s interest in guns morphed from hunting culture or gun culture into mass murder or whether he first developed an interest in guns AFTER beginning to see himself as a mass murderer on the examples of Charleston killer Dylan Roof and New Zealand shooter Brenton Tarrant. In political discourse, Roof, Tarrant, and Gendron are accurately seen in terms of accepting the “Great Replacement Theory” of white people in the United States and Europe being “replaced” by a combination of Black, Asian, Muslim, and Hispanic non-white populations and the whole thing orchestrated by a global Jewish conspiracy. What’s unique about Gendron is that he chose being a mass murderer before he decided which mass murder narrative he was adapting. At first, Gendron showed interest in shooting up Susquehanna Valley High School in Conklin. But some of his writing on the topic was seen and he was sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation. It was only after the “school shooter” path to mass murder was closed that Gendron adapted his race war blather to his ambitions to become a mass murderer. In this sense, answering the question about Gendron’s interest in guns might concern figuring out his path to the persona of a mass murderer.

Choosing.

Being a racist mass murderer was Gendron’s second choice, but being a mass murderer was most definitely a choice. There are a variety of identities available to small town white guys. In my case, it was the college prep path that I took because I wanted to leave town and leaving town was my overriding purpose from age 7-17. Gendron could have chosen “getting out of Dodge” as an identity as well. Or he could have just chosen college prep. Gendry’s parents were both college graduates and engineers, Gendry himself did well at school, and he could have chosen a college path without an overriding plan to leave town. He could have also chosen to adapt a hunting and fishing or golfing identity. If Gendron wanted to be working class, there are working class jobs at the Amazon Distribution Center in Conklin. I went to high school with guys from Waverly who lived to hunt and fish, other guys who lived to play golf, and still others who wanted more physical, traditional working-class kinds of jobs. Payton Gendron refused all these modes of white male identification and more in favor of being a mass murderer.

But why! It may be that Gendron had some sort of psychological disability that prevented him from taking any of the established paths for small town guys. Likewise, there may be some sort of trauma in his background. All of that may or may not come out as Gendron’s case is investigated. But the “positive” aspects of being a mass murderer need to be considered as well. I remember several cases in which mass killers reveled in the expectation of their posthumous celebrity and their association with other famous mass murderers and that association seems to be a real plus for Gendron. But I haven’t seen any consideration for the kinds of pleasures and ego boosts involved in mass murders. When I was forty years younger, I certainly got a lot of pleasure from separating from all the “losers” I grew up with in Waverly and I noticed the same imperative when I was teaching small town students in Kentucky. The Kentucky term was “dumbasses” but the feeling is the same. Given all the taboos against murder, the murder of people who are defenseless, and the murder of people with no reason. It may be that the breaking of all these kinds of taboos enhances the pleasure of separation in ways that are not recognized in mainstream culture. The same pleasure in breaking taboos can be seen in the 1830’s and 1840’s blackface minstrelsy that broke many of the taboos involved in racial boundaries. The same intensity of pleasure can be seen in the behavior of slave owners in the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. In certain ways, mass murder is an even more extravagant expression of “I don’t give a shit about anything” as antebellum slave ownership. Indeed, mass murderers have a not entirely dissimilar power of life and death over their (short-term) victims as slave owners. For a few minutes, the mass murderer is the lord of everything he surveys.