Tuesday, March 20, 2012

ERA at forty.

On March 22, 1972, in a bi-partisan vote, Congress passed a proposed 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution.  They sent it on to the states for approval, an arduous process.  Thanks to the Republican Party’s subsequent change of heart and the hard right turn that culminated in Reagan’s election, the Equal Rights Amendment died in 1982 shy of but the three states still needed for ratification.  There is good reason to feel ashamed of this failure and also of subsequent failed attempts to reintroduce as we approach the fortieth anniversary of its passage this week .

Women have made substantial progress over the years even without the ERA.  But anyone who claims they have achieved true equality isn’t paying attention, much less living in the real world.  Despite all the progress in business, a few now sitting corporate CEOs, women continue to suffer a pay and job deficit relative to men.  There are only 17 women in the 100-member US Senate and two of them are leaving later this year.  Thanks to President Obama, we now have three women on the Supreme Court but that’s far shy of the majority needed to decide any case on their own.  The same can't be said about the six sitting men.  Women still lag in academia where there remains a numerical faculty, and most importantly tenure, gender gap.  Even absent hard numbers, I think it’s fair to say that we’re more apt to see a man’s face front and center in news coverage, print and digital, not to mention among the members of their editorial or business boards.

All this, perhaps only more so, can be said for people of color who continue to make great progress but badly lag their white counterparts, male or female.  The then Senator Obama didn’t see a single other African American face on chamber floor and as president, he doesn’t even have that token before him when looking out from the State of the Union podium.  The ERA spoke to federally protected equal rights and that means also the rights of, for example, black and Hispanic men as well as women.  One has to wonder how well state laws against marriage equality might have held up against ERA?  If women and minorities stand out for their underrepresentation across so many strata of our society, it remains something novel to have an openly gay person running for public office.  One of the very few, Barney Frank (who came out late), will also be leaving Congress this year and there aren’t many Christine Quinn’s running for mayor around the country.  The future of marriage equality is front and center in many places these days including here in North Carolina where a mean-spirited Proposition 8-like constitutional amendment is up for citizen ratification early in May.

It is always interesting to consider what is so — that women, African American, Hispanic, Gays and others find themselves behind even when theoretically they should not be there any more.   More instructive may be trying to understand why that is so.  As we proceed toward this year’s election there has been wide coverage of what is, to put it generously, a superficial and disheartening campaign for our highest office.  The shift toward the right that killed ERA has progressed well beyond what even Ronald Reagan might have imagined.  Some have described the rhetoric in 2012 as vitriolic — it certainly lacks civility.  But to some degree, it’s hard to take what candidates say on the stump that seriously.  Unfortunatly, they all pander and they all go over the edge, regardless of party.

What strikes me is not the candidates but the almost irrational anger one hears expressed by citizens interviewed along the campaign trail.  They just want to get rid of Obama and that seems to transcend any particular issue.  Now I know that other presidents have been subject to such hatred, FDR in his time and of course more recently Bill Clinton.  But the level of hatred seems more extreme this time around.   In fact, it has been reported that there have been an unprecedented number of death threats against the president, so much so that the Secret Service is overwhelmed.  It may well be that Hilary Clinton, as a woman, might have faced similar hatred or threats.  The question is why?

For sure racial prejudice, which remains alive and well in America, plays here.  And gender prejudice, albeit in a very different way, remains.  But looking at the object of the hatred is to miss the underlying point as, I would suggest, is attributing it to prejudice against any particular group.  The ERA failed to pass the requisite number of states not so much because people were anti-women per se, but that it signaled a different world.  Think of it this way.  If God wanted the world to be different, he wouldn’t have made it the way it was and had always been.  It isn’t that life might be different for women, which surely is the case, but that it would be different for men.  Let’s remember that throughout history, and that included the history of this great democracy, there was no equality between the sexes. 

As many men saw it, the ERA translated into greater competition in the work place but, much worse, it threatened home life as they knew it.  The women who opposed it, most notably Phyllis Schlafly, the right wing provocateur of the day, saw themselves as protecting traditional values, the same kind that seem so important to candidate Rick Santorum.  What the ERA, civil rights, Spanish speakers in our midst, gays out in the sunlight equals is changing our way of life.  Forget Social Security and Medicare, it goes against what may Americans feel is their real entitlement, the way portrayed by Norman Rockwell, the good old days.  What really makes them climb the walls is when their cherished way is described by the next generation as so yesterday.

Sure the Tea Party represents a highly conservative political view, but what get’s it’s followers out of bed in the morning is an obsession with the idea that things are not as they were and a resolve to turn the clock back, or at least stop it.  They don’t want to live with a redefined life, including redefined institutions.  That’s why they’re so exercised about the marriage issue and even about the idea of global warming which means that, using a seemingly silly example, they won’t be able to light their rooms with incandescent bulbs.  No one has the right to take away their picture of the happy couple — mom and dad — coming down the aisle much less question that the most elemental bit of matter isn’t properly the God particle — god made.

The 2008 election was about change.  Some people make derisive light of that these days, some bemoan that too little change has actually occurred.  They dismiss it as just a slogan, an unrealistic and perhaps even irresponsible promise.  I’d submit that change is what we’re all about in the twenty-first century, and at every level.  To me the change slogan reads as an alert, a wakeup call.  Many of us, perhaps most of us on some level, find change — not the idea but the reality — frightening.  We’re ready to do battle.  I understand, as Bill Clinton would say, your pain.  But before you continue on that journey to reverse what is, give some thought to Sisyphus.  Things are not as they were and will likely never be.  The ERA may have failed, the full rights it intended may experience some more delay.  Change may make some of us angry feeling that we can’t take it any more.  No matter, tomorrow isn’t just coming, it has arrived.  Perhaps not de jure, but de facto the ERA is here and it’s irreversible.  We should raise a glass and celebrate its anniversary.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Extreme Danger

…extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!  (Barry Goldwater, 1964)

Barry Goldwater was considered at the extreme edge of the Republican Party in 1964.  His now famous quote was aimed at allaying the fears of voters that, as president, he might do extreme things.  Much like future political wordsmiths would do more successfully, he was trying to turn a word, in this case extremism, on its head.  He failed.  In years following his massive defeat Goldwater was said to have mellowed.  He emerged as a respected elder statesman capable of surprising those who saw him as one-dimensional.  According to his granddaughter C.C. Goldwater, he was pro-choice and a supporter of Gay Rights.   She says specifically that her grandfather …would not have been comfortable with the increasing influence of the Christian right over the GOP.   I’m with him on that.

Many of today’s far right Republicans credit Goldwater with being the heroic trailblazer without whom a series of conservative leaders, most notably their icon Ronald Reagan, could never have come to office.  They suggest that what was considered extreme five decades ago is now, thanks to Goldwater’s political heirs, mainstream.  Without accepting that characterization of mainstream, there is little doubt our politics and with it the country has moved to the right.  The Republican presidential primary of 2012, without a single (claimed or true) moderate voice in contention, puts that into sharp, sometimes shocking, relief.   Some people think the party has lost its mind.

Not so says NY Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat who denies the Republican Party has gone mad.  He suggests that the disastrous Bush years have left the party without a bench; that it finds itself in a kind of between generations limbo.  Poor unmentionable non-person (in this campaign) George W. Bush, has to carry the reputational blame for all that is wrong with the country and, of course, for the increasingly dim prospects for his party in 2012.  I rarely agree with Douthat but read him regularly and respect him as a fresh and thoughtful writer.  In this case, what he contends is sadly nothing more than old-fashioned spin and rationalization.  Perhaps the GOP isn’t crazy — I’ll give him that — but what they’re into this year and its extremism is absolutely mystifying.

A recent Rasmussen poll confirms that the vast majority (82%) of American voters consider the economy their number one concern.  No other concern comes close and others confirm these findings.  Nonetheless, based upon their campaigning (and what is truly mystifying), Republican candidates apparently don’t seem to see the economy as paramount.  Instead, they have returned the so-called culture wars and issues that don’t even register in the Rasmussen polling.  In fact these people give the economy astoundingly short shrift offering what amounts to more of the same old, same old.  Of course Mitt Romney boasts his special businessman credential — the guy who has created jobs.  His basic message: trust me, I know this stuff and can fix it.  But drill down and all he or any of his colleagues have to offer is the predictable robotic solutions: drastically cut government spending, lower taxes and let the free market do its work.  What’s mystifying is that the primary focus of the campaign being played out before our eyes, especially since Rick Santorum’s rise, seems to be about God and, of all things, contraception, not abortion.  None of this seems to be on the voters’ radar, except of course for those who count themselves among the religious right.  Primaries are aimed at the base, at the core of party support and ideology.  It is abundantly clear that the GOP’s base has become more extreme than at any time in my memory, or perhaps than ever before.

For more than a decade we Americans have been obsessed with religious extremism and where it can lead.  That focus has primarily been on Muslim fundamentalism justified by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.  It’s all about them, the alien other.  We should be equally concerned about our own religious extremists, I’d suggest much more concerned.  Rick Santorum, who a new NY Times/CBS poll suggests would draw as many votes against Obama as Romney, is one of them.  Santorum’s pronouncement on the contraception debate and his disavowal of church state separation, including totally distorting John F. Kennedy’s historic Houston speech, serve as markers for his extremism.  But perhaps even more so do his attacks on public and university education.  Santorum, as has been widely reported, said the idea that…government should be running schools…is anachronistic.  He called President Obama a snob for encouraging all American young people to attend college, which he characterized as indoctrination mills.  Then talking like a victim of minority persecution, he asserted, I went through it at Penn State. You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives, and you are singled out, you are ridiculed.  I can tell you personally, I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views.  Of course he backs up none of these almost paranoiac assertions which some college friends have disputed.

To prove his point about the evils of college, the former Senator contends that as many as 62% of students who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave college without it.  Why?  Well college campuses are not a neutral setting[s}, but rather places …with political correctness, with an ideology that is forced upon people who, you know, who may not agree with the politically correct left doctrine.  Not surprisingly, Santorum and his wife have made a number of lifestyle decisions, including…home schooling their younger children sending their older boys to a private academy affiliated with Opus Dei, an influential Catholic movement that emphasizes spiritual holiness.  Of course, homeschooling (employed by many on the religious right) like Madrasahs, Yeshivas and parochial schools don’t have any such lack of neutrality. 

Extremist fundamentalism of the kind Santorum represents is by no means restricted to one religion. Today it’s common for us to associate extremism with Muslims.  In fact, many of the Jews occupying the West Bank are both fundamentalists and extremists, who by the way find American Christian fundamentalists among their strongest supporters.  Fundamentalism, regardless of faith, is built around two essential beliefs.  The first, that there is a God is shared by the religious of all stripes.  However individually defined, that god belief is grounding and has motivated millions of human beings to both live exemplary lives and to do good in the world.  The second, and the one that is so troubling and potentially dangerous, is that their specific extremist beliefs are definitive — that they alone are in possession of the one and only truth.  So they feel empowered to both speak for and to act in God’s name, which includes against those who believe differently.  Mr. Santorum, for example, sees any sex not connected with procreation as sinful, and thus would do all in his power to prevent it (facilitated by contraception) from happening.

The rabid characterizations made by Rush Limbaugh and the disgracefully tepid response to them by GOP candidates and leadership has opened a political Pandora’s box.  Republicans, it is concluded, are simply anti-women.  To let that happen at a time when more than 50% of the electorate is female mystifies to say the least.  Rick Santorum who himself made some horrendously inflammatory assertions about both homosexuality and marriage equality, most assuredly is not troubled by the Limbaugh message.  Quite the contrary his positions are exactly the same.   To me, these views are totally consistent with religious extremism, regardless of ideology, which is essentially sexist.  Women are seen in a subservient role with but one primary purpose: to carry (and then care for) children.  Having lot’s of children not only helps preserve the faith, not inconsequentially, it also keeps women busy and out of trouble.  Religious extremists like it that way and remarkably many of their women have been convinced that walking (far) behind their man, not getting in the way, or God-forbid competing, is a good thing, the right thing.

Barry Goldwater was soundly defeated in 1964.  I voted for Johnson and, like Republican primary voters today, deeply regretted the limited choice at hand.  Johnson escalated Viet Nam even further after that election and, while the shocking Daisy commercial suggested Goldwater would be a killer of the innocent, it was Johnson who ended his own life with plenty of real blood on his hands.  That said, Goldwater was all wrong about extremism.  It is never a virtue.  Extremism is the product of people who arrogantly think they possess the truth and that the ends justify the means.  They never do.  We execute the wrongly accused, doing great and unjust harm because a jury has been mistakenly convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.  As bad as that may be, that court of law language suggests something the opposite of extremism, namely that there always can (and should be) doubt.  What makes this year’s GOP bunch, and most especially Rick Santorum, so frightening is not that they diss women or think the government should shrink to as little as possible, but that they are so damn sure of their truth and consequently everyone else’s falsehood.  That’s a threat to any democracy, a real, present and extreme danger to all of us.