Mike Pence, a heartbeat away from the presidency? Now that’s frightening

Published: Salon (September 22, 2016)

Why isn’t Mike Pence a major issue in this campaign?

In any other election, Pence would be to a Republican presidential nominee what Sarah Palin was to John McCain back in 2008 — that is, an extreme right-winger whose presence on the ticket is widely regarded as a liability. Of course, this is the year in which the GOP tapped Donald Trump to be its standard-bearer, and when the main attraction is that prone to controversy, it makes sense that anyone running with him will wind up being more or less ignored by the media.

Considering that Donald Trump is as dangerously close as ever to winning the presidency, though, we need to pay close attention to his running mate, particularly since Pence has said he’d like to model his vice presidency after Dick Cheney, one of the most “consequential” No. 2’s in history. Needless to say, if Trump becomes president, Pence’s opinions will matter … and those views are, upon closer inspection, chilling.

While it’s easy to point to Pence’s extreme positions on a wide range of issues — from climate change and evolution (where he is anti-science) to trade policy (where he’s a staunch free trader, putting him at odds with Trump) — Pence has defined his political career by his hatreds.

Most conspicuous among these is his animus toward the LGBTQ community. This was most recently made evident by his support for and signing of the notoriousIndiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a bill that, under the guise of protecting religious liberty, established loopholes that allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But Pence’s LGBTQ bigotry goes much deeper than that. Back when he was a Hoosier congressman, Pence opposed funding legislation to combat AIDS on the grounds that the money could be better spent trying to “cure” homosexuality. As governor, before the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, Pence signed a law making it a felony for gay couples even to applyfor a marriage license. All this, of course, occurred on top of Pence’s predictable anti-gay positions on matters like hate-crime legislation or repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Pence’s record on race is hardly better. Back when he ran for Congress in 1990, Pence used a fear-mongering campaign ad that criticized American dependence on foreign oil by grotesquely caricaturing Arabs; six years later, he defended Pat Buchanan on his radio show as someone who should not be considered outside the mainstream of the Republican Party. (In case you’ve forgotten, Buchanan sympathizes with fascism so openly that Donald Trump himself once called him out on it.) Pence’s race-baiting was not limited to the ’90s. Check out his suppression of minority voters in Indiana or his recent refusal to denounce neo-Nazi leader David Duke as deplorable. Pence may claim that Martin Luther King Jr. is his personal hero, but his actions would seem to contradict those words.

Finally, there is Pence’s attitude toward women. If his career-long commitment to defunding Planned Parenthood isn’t enough to convince you that he has a problem, how about his 1997 editorialproclamation that working mothers stunt the emotional growth of their children, or his 1999 article denouncing the Disney film “Mulan” as “liberal propaganda”?

There’s also Pence’s (thankfully unsuccessful) effortto allow federal funds for a post-rape abortion only if the rape was “forcible,” or his support of an Indiana law mandating investigations of women to see if they caused their own miscarriages, and requiring women to bury or cremate miscarried fetuses. Perhaps most tellingly, even though Pence used his radio show to express outrage at a female Air Force pilot for cheating on her husband, he didn’t bring up Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities until his listeners prompted him. Even if you believe someone can be anti-abortion without being anti-woman, it’s difficult defend Pence’s stances on issues like these without crossing the threshold into misogyny.

Again, these positions are not mere blips in Pence’s background. They are the foundation of his political career, from the campaign messages he’s used to win votes to the policies he’s supported once in office. As such, they offer a reliable indicator of the attitudes Pence would bring with him if the fates conspire to make him president. As the running mate of a man plagued by scandal who would be the oldest incoming president in our history, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine impeachment or mortality elevating Pence to the highest office in the land.

That’s why we have a responsibility to draw attention to Pence’s record and his evident prejudices, just as we’ve done with Trump’s long history of sexist and racistremarks. By not holding Trump’s feet to the fire for choosing a running mate with Pence’s extreme positions, we normalize those stances instead of shuffling them to the margins of political discourse where they belong. Even worse, instead of allowing the American people to make an informed choice about such a controversial figure, we have created an environment in which polls suggest that nearly half the publicdoesn’t know enough about the man to form a first impression.

Of course it’s possible that Trump would win this election even if Pence’s views were as widely understood as Sarah Palin’s were in 2008. That said, it’s difficult to believe that Pence’s background wouldn’t at least become a major factor. It’s clear that whenever he’s been entrusted with power, Mike Pence strive to turn back the tide of progress made over the last few decades in terms of social justice for racial minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. He may not be as flamboyant as Trump, but he is just as dangerous, and most mainstream journalists covering this election have simply looked the other way. We have less than seven weeks to correct this.

The Significance of Mike Pence

Published: The Good Men Project (July 16, 2016)

As The New York Times recently reported, there are an awful lot of social issues in which Donald Trump doesn’t now or didn’t in the past line up with his new vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. These range from abortion and gay rights to whether smoking kills people. Considering that Trump has flip-flopped on a number of issues in this election cycle alone, it may not seem particularly noteworthy that he has chosen a veep whose views are so out of whack with what he used to believe.

Nevertheless, the Pence selection forces us to confront a very unsettling reality about how Trump would govern as president – namely, that he would move to the hard right, with all of the base hatreds to be found in that movement.

Think about it. When a presidential nominee chooses his or her running mate, they do so to benefit from the foremost assets that individual will bring to their ticket. When Barack Obama selected Joe Biden in 2008, it was because the latter’s 36 years of experience as a United States Senator was a great antidote to the charge that Obama himself was inexperienced; John McCain, by contrast, chose Sarah Palin because her youth and charisma would supercharge his flagging political brand; and Mitt Romney tapped Paul Ryan to solidify his credentials as a thoughtful conservative alternative to the Obama administration’s policies.

By focusing his presidential campaign on hoary stereotypes about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump has effectively declared that he would marginalize individuals within those groups if he ever rose to power. Now that he chosen Pence to be his vice president, he has said the exact same thing about homosexuals and women (at least those who want to control their own bodies).

Pence, on the other hand, only brings his longstanding reputation as a right-wing firebrand. Sure, he has a decade of experience in the House of Representatives and a single term as Governor of Indiana, so he fulfills the “political experience” requirement that Trump declared would be such an important consideration for him (though not more so than many of the other options he had considered). That said, Pence is best known to the political world for his support for Indiana’s notorious and toxic so-called Religious Freedom law, which allowed business owners in his state to deny service to LGBTQ individuals. Beyond that, Pence developed a reputation as a particularly rabid opponent of abortion rights, not only leading the crusade to defund Planned Parenthood but even comparing American abortion practices to the September 11th terrorist attacks.

It is important to note that when I bring up these stances from Pence’s past, I’m not cherry-picking random positions that he has happened to take. These policies are central to Pence’s political brand, just as much as Trump’s political brand depends on his opposition to illegal immigration and free trade policies. While politicians will obviously need to take a wide range of policy positions throughout their careers, they usually select a handful that ultimately define them. For George W. Bush, it was tax cuts and (later on) the war in Iraq; for Obama, it’s been health care reform and economic stimulus; and for Pence, it’s been his opposition to the rights of homosexuals and women.

This speaks volumes not only about the type of campaign that Trump is prepared to wage, but the manner in which he would plan on governing. Whatever his past positions may have been, Trump has now aligned himself with the hard right, a movement that in turn depends on asserting the superiority of white conservative Christians over the rest of us. By focusing his presidential campaign on hoary stereotypes about Mexicans and Muslims, Trump has effectively declared that he would marginalize individuals within those groups if he ever rose to power. Now that he chosen Pence to be his vice president, he has said the exact same thing about homosexuals and women (at least those who want to control their own bodies).

Needless to say, this clears up any confusion as to whether the Trump who used to be pro-choice and pro-gay rights bears any resemblance to the man now running for president. Moreover, it establishes that the stakes in this presidential election couldn’t be any higher. Whatever else you might think of Trump’s (incredibly inconsistent) policy positions, the main message of his campaign is that he and his team are driven by a multitude of hatreds. If you vote for Trump-Pence, you are electing a ticket that would roll back all of the progress America has made in the past few years at becoming a more pluralistic society.

There can be no doubt what we’re up against.

The Wall of Hate

Published: The Good Men Project (March 29, 2016)

Let’s talk, for a moment, about the Wall of Hate.

It may not look like much, but it was enough to grab my attention as I walked home from the Fairchild-Martindale Library at Lehigh University. Various students were standing in front of it with markers, scribbling words that I could not as of yet discern, and several more were present to hand out pamphlets and talk to curious passersby. I asked one such student, Aleksandra Popova, and she agreed to email me more details about the movement (which she co-founded with Brishty Khossein, Arnie Diamond, and Sydney Bagley). Her response deserves to be republished in full:

We hope that our event fosters conversations among Lehigh students on the topics of diversity and inclusion, highlighting the impact that individual words and actions have on our campus culture. Going forward we hope our event helps acclimate Lehigh students to having difficult conversations on sensitive topics.

Global Citizenship is a four-year interdisciplinary certificate program that emphasizes the various dimensions of a student’s educational development. The program incorporates academic courses, travel experiences and extracurricular activities to encourage global-mindedness in multiple areas of a student’s life. As a senior in the Global Citizenship Program you are required to conduct a Capstone project that reflects on their personal concept of global citizenship as it relates to a specific topic in their individual disciplines.

As a Global Citizenship Capstone group we want our project to be an outlet for students to vocalize their concerns about the campus climate. We believe that open dialogue and facilitated conversation about controversial topics will be an effective method of addressing and reflecting on community concerns, and we want to instill confidence within students that change can come from within the community. We would like to see community members feel comfortable opening up about their experiences at Lehigh in a public forum, and mobilize students to take action in instilling changes that they’d like to see in the community rather than remaining passive. Ultimately, a few days of open dialogue cannot create sustainable change – the conversations must continue into the future.

It’s become popular these days to ridicule the concept of “microaggressions,” but the Wall of Hate amply demonstrates why this term is still relevant. Even though individuals who say things like “Tell all of your people they should vote” and “You’re pretty for a black girl” and “That’s so gay” (all of which I found on the wall) may not view their words as particularly hateful, they carry enough weight that those who hear them can feel belittled and marginalized long after they were first uttered. While I’d agree that it’s dangerous for the PC left to shame unintentional transgressors (and everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt regarding their intent, at least until it can be demonstrably proved otherwise), the Wall of Hate isn’t about humiliating those who harbor prejudice. The goal here (at least from my vantage point) is to draw attention to comments that, though perhaps made innocuously, really aren’t so harmless. That’s why students throughout the campus could be found congregating around the Wall of Hate, writing about their own experiences with prejudice so that others could learn from them.

As I walked away from the Wall of Hate, I found myself oddly inspired by what I had seen. At a time when prejudices continue to divide the nation and could even produce our next president (looking at you, Donald Trump), it’s encouraging to see so many young people taking a stand against these hatreds. Even better, they have found a way to speak out that is creative and provocative, encouraging others to participate and share their stories. This is what campus protest should look like – and I, for one, would love to see more of it.

“It’s Always Sunny” gang goes to hell: The long-running “Seinfeld” heir skewers rape culture, homophobia and religious hypocrisy in two-part finale

Published: Salon (March 8, 2016)

If we live in the golden age of television, the FXX comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is one of the underappreciated gems. Often billed as “Seinfeld on crack,” the show has a distinct comic sensibility of its own, cynically reveling in the monstrosities of its five main characters, who have been described in-series as “the most horrible people alive.” Although it’s one of the longest running live-action comedies in history (its first season aired in 2005), “It’s Always Sunny” hasn’t received much critical recognition or won any awards (which the show itself has pointedly referenced). It also hasn’t lost any of its edge, mining dark comedy out of a twisted mythology that it has had more than a decade to develop.

It has also, incidentally, produced some truly memorable social commentary. That was especially evidenced in last week’s episode “The Gang Goes to Hell,” the first half in a two-part season finale that feels like a series closer (the show has been renewedthrough next season, though). Not only did it heavily suggest that the main characters have died and are now in the afterlife – which, for obvious reasons, will be a game-changer for the show if it proves true when the second part airs on Wednesday – but in the process it tackled sensitive issues like homophobia, rape culture and religious morality (spoilers follow).

The episode opens with the title card telling us that the gang is standing in an Unknown Location. They stand before an unseen judge against a white background wearing white robes while they try to talk themselves out of being damned for eternity … literally. We hear something about a cruise ship sinking (a plot thread that will presumably be picked up in Part 2), but Mac (Rob McElhenney) assures their captor that they are good people before the title credits roll and we cut to them on board the mysterious ocean vessel. Apparently Mac won free cruise tickets at a church raffle (which we never see), and the gang members will get to vacation in Suite H666 in an environment that seems specifically designed to test their moral vices. Dennis (Glenn Howerton) is lust, Dee (Kaitlin Olson) is wrath, and Frank and Charlie (Danny DeVito and Charlie Day) are gluttony. Mac remains intriguingly undesignated (more on that in a moment).

Dennis’ subplot in this series is that rare thing in American comedy – an effective joke on rape culture. The premise is that Denise, who has severe delusions of grandeur when it comes to his prowess with women, harbors a fantasy in which he physically isolates a woman on a boat in the middle of the ocean, coercing her into sleeping with him because of “the implication.” This joke is never told in a way that is crass or exploitative, and the punch line is never at the expense of the women. The joke is that, although Dennis gets off on his perceived power over the women in those scenarios, he loses power because other people see him as a transparent creep. “‘Cause if the girl said ‘no,’ then the answer obviously is ‘no,’” he unconvincingly reassures Mac in an earlier episode (“The Gang Buys a Boat”) with this theme. “But the thing is, is she’s not gonna say ‘no.’ She would never say ‘no,’ because of the implication.”

In “The Gang Goes to Hell,” Dennis finally gets to live out his fantasy, stalking a barely legal woman who he insists is tempting him, even though her behavior is completely innocuous. He confronts her, she politely allows him to make his coercive pitch, and then immediately gets him thrown into the boat’s jail. There is nothing cool or erotic about Dennis’ fantasy, as he has always envisioned it, and instead of being in control of the power dynamic, Dennis unexpectedly found that a greater moral force was presiding over affairs, one that would pluck him out of a scenario in which he was about to harm another person. Instead of indulging in its fantasies, it just throws him in the brig. Dennis, and by extension the misogynistic mentality he embodies, is oblivious to its own ominousness… but that doesn’t make it any less sinister. Rape is taken seriously in this universe, as shown when a bird literally defecates in Dee’s mouth when she brags to Dennis about psychologically coercing them into sleeping with her with “an insinuation” of what will happen if they don’t.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the episode is Mac. As the series progressed, a running gag emerged about the devoutly Catholic and virulently prejudiced Mac being a closeted homosexual. Unlike shows where the joke is at the expense of his homosexuality, though, “It’s Always Sunny” has made it clear that the punch line is Mac’s pointless sense of guilt. For example, in the episode “Mac Day,” when Mac meets a cousin who is in every way a cooler version of himself, the superior version of Mac is completely comfortable in his homosexuality, in contrast to the regular Mac’s deep denial and overcompensating. The humor stems from just how far Mac is willing to go to deny his homosexuality, in the process implicitly arguing that the intolerant behavior we see from people like Mac in real life is often just so much self-hatred externalized. In this episode, all of those threads are built to a climax in which Mac – having found a religion that truly fulfills him spiritually, only to discover that it accepts homosexuality –finally admits that he is, in fact, gay. This isn’t the payoff, though, but the setup: Since he is gay, he now no longer believes in God.

Interestingly, though, there are hints that there might be some sort of god in the “It’s Always Sunny” universe. Whenever Mac makes intolerant comments about homosexuals, a loud thunderclap goes off to suggest a divine being’s displeasure. This is a proactively progressive view on religious morality: There is a place for God in our universe, and for the metaphysical in general, but it doesn’t cast out homosexuals or objectify women. (Dennis, for what it’s worth, seems to be agnostic, but then again there are plenty of professional atheists with well-known sexist streaks.) As a result, when “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” creates humor on subjects like sexism or homophobia, it doesn’t do so by ridiculing the victims, but by deflating the delusions that fuel prejudices. Dennis thinks he’s cool because of how he treats women and Mac thinks he’s righteous because of how he scorns homosexuals; in fact, those traits merely make them creepy and lame, respectively.

There is a case to be made that, while not all of the series’ best episodes take place on boats, any episode on a boat is going to be one of the best (see “The Gang Buys a Boat” or “The Gang Misses the Boat”).  Here the boat could very well be a ferry across the river Styx, transporting them to the next realm; or, just as likely, a clever gimmick that will pay off in an unexpected and memorable punch line that allows the series to hit the reset button at the start of Season 12. All I know is that, if “The Gang Goes to Hell: Part Two” lives up to the promise of last week’s episode, the story arc could stand on its own as an example of satire done right.

Kim Davis, Donald Trump, and the Maddening Paradox of Ignoring the Obnoxious

Published: The Good Men Project (January 12, 2016)

The Internet is understandably indignant that Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, has been invited to appear at President Obama’s State of the Union. Insofar as they are outraged at this doffing of a symbolic hat to a walking symbol of homophobia, they are absolutely correct. At the same time, it is highly problematic that – as I write these words right now – Davis is currently trending on both Facebook and Twitter. By virtue of feting her with attention, we empower the very beliefs that we should be striving to delegitimize.

After all, there is a reason that a Christian conservative group like the Family Research Council arranged to have her invited… and it certainly wasn’t because they thought that she, as a person, had something meaningful to contribute to the night’s proceedings. It’s Davis the symbol that they know can be a potent force for them. Even as President Obama glowingly praises the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on same-sex marriage – with the plaintiff in that case, Jim Obergefell, in the audience – there will be Davis, personifying right-wing cultural sanctimony in front of the entire world.

Similarly, one could argue that the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is also due more to his potency as a symbol rather than whatever substance he may have as a possible statesman. He may not be the wealthiest man in the world, but he is one of the men most commonly associated with the abstract concept of wealth in our popular culture. He is also a heterosexual, Protestant white male who seems to embody the dreams of intolerant “bro” types everywhere – a man who can denounce racial minorities and women with impunity, who squires supermodels and emasculates his opponents, and who will fire you in a blink if you don’t bend to his will.

When Americans support Trump, they seem to do so because they find this symbol so appealing. He is like a gross caricature of the type of person who ran this country up until very recently in its history… but because we live in an era in which traditional racial, gender, and economic hierarchies are being aggressively challenged, his belligerent assertion of privilege can be seen as an act of iconoclasm or even rebelliousness. In this way, too, Davis manages to seem like a victim even though she is the one (a) who holds direct political power and (b) who uses that power to harm other people. This makes them uniquely invulnerable to being discredited. Not only do they feed off of attention and grow stronger when it is given to them, but by virtue of being proud oppressors, it’s impossible to morally invalidate them among those already inclined to be their supporters.

This brings me to the paradox that faces any writer who wants to effectively combat them. The best way to disempower them is simply to ignore them – but in order to draw attention to the importance of ignoring them, one must talk about them. What to do?

First, we need to understand when it is appropriate to discuss them at all. Whether we like it or not, Davis and Trump are capitalizing on real and widespread hatreds. When Davis becomes an icon by defying a pro-LGBT Supreme Court ruling, or when Trump takes the lead in polls by making racist statements against Mexicans and Muslims, they are speaking to deeper belief systems that are embraced by a large segment of our population. Insofar as their popularity attests to this, their words and deeds warrant attention and analysis.

At the same time, we must recognize that the spotlight makes them stronger if it shines on them for too long. As such, when we discuss them, we should make a point of placing them in the background, with the foreground being devoted to the prejudices they’re trying to exploit. For one thing, this keeps the focus where it ought to be in the first place – on the victims who suffer from discrimination. Just as important, though, it would remove a powerful incentive that helps motivate demagogues like Davis and Trump in the first place. While they play off of preexisting prejudices, they may not be as inclined to assertively spread them if the reward of fame is less likely to accompany those actions.

These are just ideas, of course, and I am more than open to suggestions. What I cannot do, though, is continue writing about how we shouldn’t be discussing David and Trump. The inherent paradox in what I’m forced to do is maddening.

5 reasons why 2015 was the year of the social justice warrior

Published: Salon (December 31, 2015), The Daily Dot (December 26, 2015)

Although the term “social justice warrior” was constructed as an insult against progressive activists, the year 2015 has amply demonstrated why liberals should embrace the term. Social justice issues dominated the year, from race to sexual identity and beyond. Here are five ways the United States grappled with with social issues in 2015:

1. Same-sex marriage was legalized throughout America

Sixty-one years ago, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Educationdeclared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. As a result of that decision, the year 1954 is often regarded as a milestone in the history of the civil rights movement for African-Americans.

Sixty-one years from now, the same thing will almost certainly be said ofObergefell v. Hodges, in which our nation’s highest bench ruled that the Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to marry for same-sex couples. While attention will be rightly paid to the five jurists who ruled in favor of Obergefell (and particularly Anthony Kennedy’s powerful brief on behalf of the majority), it’s important not to overlook the decades of activist struggling that made this historic moment possible.

“The LGBT community has always been an early adopter of Internet and the opportunities it presented for personal and professional activism,” explained Pam Spaulding sin an op-ed for the Huffington Post. “In fact, it was a necessity for a slice of the American public faced with few legal rights that faced hostility and violence just for being who they were.”

Because of online social justice activists, the gay community was able to mobilize its supporters and exert pressure on political leaders with unprecedented efficiency. British activist Benjamin Cohen perhaps summed it up best in TheGuardian when he observed that the LGBT community’s success in U.K. politics “was a real demonstration of the power of the internet to bring the electorate and the political elite together.”

2. Transgender issues were brought to the fore of our cultural consciousness

Without question, Caitlyn Jenner’s decision to come out as transgender took the Internet by storm. In addition to trending on social media, Jenner broke the Guinness World Record for fastest Twitter account to reach one million followers and was soon regarded as the most prominent transgender celebrity in modern history.

Beneath the media furor surrounding Jenner, however, there has been a substantive dialogue about the struggles facing ordinary transgendered people every day.

“Transgender teens and adults say they routinely endure discrimination in employment, housing, access to public bathrooms, and government willingness to acknowledge their gender status in official documents,” writes the Retro Report in an interview for Medical Daily. “While momentum may now be on the upswing, the movement that began almost half a century ago still has a lot of obstacles to overcome.”

These problems can’t be fixed in a year, but as the Internet continues to rally behind positive cultural depictions of transgendered individuals (the TV show “Transparent” comes to mind), one can hope that 2015 will at least be seen as a major turning point for transgendered Americans.

3. Online feminism has provided women with a new voice–and perhaps the first female American president

In many ways, the rise of Internet feminism is simply the next logical step for a movement that has always evolved with modern culture.

“The 1910s saw suffragettes using militant tactics propositioning their power to win votes, in the 60s and 70s feminism was radicalized to further include women of color and minorities, and the 90s saw ‘riot grrrl’s come up from underground to wage war on unsolved sexist dilemmas,” writes Lydia Morrish of Konbini, “Now there’s a digital anti-patriarchy army forming, creating safe havens where artists, writers, photographers, poets and, yes, feminists, are reworking the narrative for women’s rights. With added emojis.”

Although Internet feminists have already transformed our public dialogue — from focusing on the subtle undercurrents of rape culture to holding politicians accountable for sexist statements – their greatest achievement yet may actually occur next year. As Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues her historic campaign for the presidency, commentators have already noticed her willingness to play the so-called “gender card” when faced with sexism.

“It’s a well-noted dramatic turn from her 2008 campaign, where Clinton famously tried to downplay the gender issue,” observed Amanda Marcotte of Salon. “Clearly, she’s learned that doesn’t work—as the Benghazi hearings show, Republicans will never stop harping on ugly stereotypes of women as weak and mendacious—so instead her campaign is turning her gender and her feminism into a strength.”

Considering that Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, it is entirely possible that the Internet feminists whom Clinton has embraced will ultimately be remembered for producing America’s first female president.

4. #BlackLivesMatter reinvigorated the civil rights movement in the light of a series of terrible tragedies

“In 2015, Black Lives Matter blossomed from a protest cry into a genuine political force,” noted Time magazine in its encapsulation of the movement’s achievements this year. “Groups that embraced the slogan hounded police chiefs from their jobs, won landmark prosecutions and turned college campuses into cauldrons of social ferment.”

All of this is true, but it’s important to understand precisely why it is true. After all, racial profiling by law enforcement has been a major problem long before the#BlackLivesMatter movement rose up to protest it. Over the past twelve months, however, civil rights protesters have developed an unprecedented degree of sophistication in utilizing social media to draw attention to their struggles.

“The thing about [Martin Luther] King or Ella Baker is that they could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people,” explainedactivist DeRay Mckesson in an interview with Wired. “The tools that we have to organize and to resist are fundamentally different than anything that’s existed before in black struggle.”

This has been evident in virtually every major #BlackLivesMatter movement this year, from the protests over the execution of Freddie Gray to the campaign forChicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to resign due to his role in covering up Chicago Police Department abuses.

5. As ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organizations threaten the world, advocates of religious equality have been fighting Islamophobia at home

Earlier this week, left-wing activist filmmaker Michael Moore created the#WeAreAllMuslim hashtag to protest GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s recent proposals to register Muslim Americans and ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the country. If you had any doubt that such a hashtag was necessary, bear in mind that shortly after the terrorist shootings at San Bernardino, “Muslim Killers” also began to trend on Twitter.

Moore is hardly alone in his determination to fight anti-Muslim prejudice.

Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution created #MuslimAmericanFaces, which told the stories of ordinary Muslims to counter the misperceptions that had been perpetuated by groups like ISIS; a Libyan-American Muslim woman named Hend Amry concocted #HowToStopAMuslimPresident as a way of ridiculing Ben Carson’s Islamophobic statements; and podcasters Zahra Noorbakhsh and Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed came up with #GoodMuslimBadMuslim (also the name of their show) in order to confront the stereotypes and social pressures that are used to determine what separates a “good” Muslim individual from a “bad” one. In addition to fighting Islamophobia, these efforts may very well also assist us in disempowering terrorists who, after all, want nothing more than the West to brand all Muslims as enemies.


It’s important to remember that, despite the this progress, activists still have a long way to go. Homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, and Islamophobia aren’t going to leave us any time soon, and as long as they linger in our cultural milieu, discrimination and oppression against those groups will continue to happen.

That said, 2015 was the year when progressive movements on behalf of the marginalized seemed to reach a critical mass and, in the process, change how we discuss these sensitive issues. If this doesn’t earn them the right to a title as cool as “social justice warrior,” then I don’t know what would.

Stop comparing Kim Davis to Rosa Parks

Published: Salon (September 10, 2015), The Daily Dot (September 8, 2015)

In a mission to cast Kim Davis—the Kentucky clerk who has been temporarily jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses—as a martyred culture warrior, conservatives are comparing her to the heroes of the civil rights movement. Iowa Congressman Steve King tweeted that Davis should win the Rosa Parks Award, a sentiment echoed by conservative talk show host Jesse Lee Peterson, who wrote on Twitter that Davis is a “modern day Rosa Parks.”

Similarly, frequent Fox News guest Pastor Robert Jeffress told host Tucker Carlson that Davis is like Martin Luther King, Jr., in her belief that “whenever man’s laws conflict with God’s moral law, we have to obey God’s moral law.” This comparison has also been made by Davis’ lawyer and founder of the Christian right-wing legal group Liberty Counsel.

But listen up, conservatives—Kim Davis is not your Rosa Parks. To understand why, it’s important to recognize the key difference between the civil rights protesters of the mid-20th century and the so-called “religious liberty” protesters today—the former fought for a disenfranchised group that was lobbying for equality, while the latter represents a powerful group that wants to maintain social exclusion. As the Huffington Post’s Gabriel Arana put it, Kim Davis has more in common with the racist bus driver than she does Rosa Parks.

Part of the problem with claiming that Davis is a powerless victim, of course, is that until the Supreme Court intervened, she was the one with all the authority.

“At heart, civil disobedience is a way of dramatizing injustice. You break a law and invite the state to exercise force against you,” Arana explains. “Davis doesn’t fit into this template. As a county clerk, she’s an agent of the state like formerAlabama Gov. George Wallace, who famously stood in the doors at the University of Alabama to try to stop racial integration from taking place.”

While Davis’ political office was vital to her power, though, her behavior primarily stems from the fact that—like many Americans throughout our history—she used her religion as a basis for discriminating against a minority group. During the early years of the American republic, states like Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Delaware, and South Carolina had laws requiring officeholders to be Christian. Persecution of Catholics and Mormons was rampant among Protestants at various points in our history, while various churches used their influence to justify slavery or segregation as divinely sanctioned policies.

This power dynamic has been particularly stark when it comes to the LGBT rights movement. Until 1962, no U.S. state had repealed its anti-sodomy laws. This means that until just over six decades ago, the moral concerns of religious Americans had literally criminalized same-sex relationships.

Even then, it wasn’t until the Stonewall Riots broke out in New York City seven years later that the LGBT movement in America began to truly emerge as a major civil rights effort in this country. Before then, religious control over public policy pertaining to queer Americans had been unquestioned for nearly two centuries in America.

Despite these facts, right-wingers like Davis and her supporters continue to claim that they are the victims in post-Obergefell America. A Pew study taken last year found that a majority of white evangelical Christians believed they experienced more discrimination than blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, and atheists.

“If claiming to be a victim is powerful, believing you are a victim is far more so,”wroteValerie Tarico of Alternet. “In the case of Christianity, the theology of persecution serves to give the faithful hope… but it has also blinded generations of believers to the possibility that sometimes the hardships they face are due not to their faith or outsiders hating Jesus, but to the fact that they hit first.”

What makes people like Davis feel as though that they are being persecuted is that for centuries, they have been the ones who had all the power. This is why businesses in Indiana that discriminate against gay couples or clerks in Kentucky that refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses can label their behavior as acts of “religious liberty”—because only a few years ago, the definition of “liberty” was written to benefit them. After all, as writer Salman Rushdie reminds us, countries like the United States were founded on the basis of “freedom for religion, not from it.”

The reality of religious liberty in America is evident in how Republican presidential candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are defending Davis— despite the fact that she clearly broke the law. Huckabee, who plans to visit Davis in jail, has even said that if he were elected president, he would likewise refuse to “bow down to the false gods of judicial supremacy.”

In a USA Today op-ed, Huckabee continued, “When the Supreme Court abuses the limits of its power and attempts to create a right that doesn’t exist in the Constitution, it is the duty of the president to reject this threat to our religious liberty as ‘the law of the land.’”

The biggest issue with anointing Kim Davis as an underdog hero is that there are far too many Americans—including many of those running for president—who want to follow in her footsteps. Thus, we can’t afford to lose sight of what separates a bully from a victim. The gay couples who asked to be legally married in Rowan County, Kentucky weren’t harming anyone or asking to harm anyone—all they demanded was recognition of their rights.

Instead of forcing LGBT people to the back of the bus, it’s time to show people like Kim Davis their rightful seat.

Understanding (and Misunderstanding) Gay Rights

Published: The Good Men Project (September 1, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa deconstructs the dangerous logic being used by the anti-gay rights movement in America today.

Over the last week or so, there has been a growing problem with the logic of the anti-gay rights movement. Let’s see if this article from the right-wing blog InfoWars about Vester Lee Flanagan, the African-American gay man who shot two reporters in Virginia, gives you a clue:

“Police reportedly confiscated a gay pride flag from Flanagan’s apartment on Wednesday, but in an example of hypocrisy, this hasn’t sparked outrage from liberals who wanted to ban the Confederate flag due to its association with Charleston, S.C. church shooter Dylann Roof.”

Haven’t figured it out yet? Maybe it will become clear when you look at the argument presented by Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who has made headlines by refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses:

To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word. It is a matter of religious liberty, which is protected under the First Amendment, the Kentucky Constitution, and in the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our history is filled with accommodations for people’s religious freedom and conscience. I want to continue to perform my duties, but I also am requesting what our Founders envisioned – that conscience and religious freedom would be protected.”

In case you haven’t deduced it yet, the common theme is simply this: Opponents of gay rights wish to confuse the public about the difference between being oppressed and being an oppressor. This is a predictable response in a nation that just legalized gay marriage – and its underlying reasoning needs to be nipped in the bud.

Opponents of gay rights wish to confuse the public about the difference between being oppressed and being an oppressor. This is a predictable response in a nation that just legalized gay marriage – and its underlying reasoning needs to be nipped in the bud.

We can start with InfoWar’s juxtaposition of the Confederate and Gay Rights flags. Although Flanagan owned a rainbow flag and cited perceived homophobia as a motive for his killings, the rainbow flag cannot be logically conflated with the stars-and-bars because it represents a movement that fights for human rights, not against them. This doesn’t mean that gay rights activists have never engaged in hateful or violent activities (see: Vester Lee Flanagan), but when they have done so it was because they betrayed the underlying ideals behind their movement. The Confederate flag, as I’ve explained before, was popularized specifically to promote white supremacy in the South – an ideal that inherently involves subordinating one group of human beings to another. By contrast, the Gay Rights flag represents an oppressed group’s wish to be treated as equals with the rest of society. This is a crucial distinction.

A similar point undermines Davis’ position. While she has every right to live in accordance with her own religious principles, the separation of church-and-state forbids her from using government power to impose those personal convictions on others. Arguing that she is somehow the victim ignores the fundamental power dynamic at play here: Davis isn’t being forced to change her religious convictions, but is instead using her office to deny other people their Constitutional rights. No matter how much she tries to spin it otherwise, she is the one with power in this situation, and the men and women who are unable to get married in her county are the ones without it. Likewise, she is the one who is identifying with an oppressive cause – namely, that of opposing full social equality for the gay community – and her opponents are the ones identifying with the rights of the underdog.

These observations should be obvious, but it’s problematic that social conservatives are able to characterize the anti-gay rights movement as victims and the LGBT community as oppressors without being universally ridiculed as a result. Because we live at a time in which justice rather than brute strength is held in highest regard, the groups that have dominated society in the past by using said strength (usually in the form of political and economic institutions) are now trying to rewrite both history and the present so that they can appear to hold the moral high ground. In the case of the gay rights movement, this means that the same religious groups who managed to persecute homosexuals for most of our history now need to pretend as if all of those past events didn’t matter at all. They need to ignore that the rainbow flag was created to empower the disempowered, and that until recently the anti-gay opinions of religious Americans determined marital policy and not the other way around. Only then can they have any chance of reclaiming the power that was once theirs but is being gradually lost.

We cannot let them do this.