Self in Society Roundup 2
Notes on Republican fascism, Rauch on transgenderism, the Florida 'gay' bill, evil, and Iron Man.
Welcome to my second Roundup for the Self in Society blog. Articles are free to read, so feel free to share. Paid subscriptions also are very welcome. Here I comment on topics of general interest. For my Colorado-specific notes, please also subscribe to Colorado Pickaxe.
Often I’ve thought about how people in the Weimar Republic viewed their situation. Did they think anti-Semitic bigotries were a problem only on the margins of society? How many of them even could imagine what was coming? More to the point, how much is modern America like the Weimar Republic? On one hand, I don’t want to catastrophize. On the other hand, I don’t want to ignore Cassandra until it is too late.
Seared into my consciousness is the fact that much of the Republican Party in Colorado and elsewhere came under the sway of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago, as Robert Alan Goldberg reviews in Hooded Empire (see also my podcast episode with Goldberg). Recently when I visited the state Capitol I saw in the hallways a portrait of Republican governor and KKK stooge Clarence Morley. You can view the Colorado KKK ledgers online. The KKK used to hold well-attended social events and march through the streets of Denver.
Is something similar happening today, at least to some substantial degree? I think the answer clearly is yes. The hoods are gone, but much of the ideology is comparable.
Recently I Tweeted:
The GOP is morphing into a fascist party.
* Open calls for extrajudicial violence.
* Continual lies and conspiracy mongering.
* Cultish worship of a demagogue.
* Demonizing and scapegoating "the queers."
* Xenophobia and nationalism.
* Calls for political punishment of enemies.
The specific claims are obvious to any honest observer of U.S. politics. Do I really need to review the violence of January 6, 2021? The intense anti-immigration sentiments that have animated the GOP for decades? Trump’s continuous stream of lies? To fully document these claims would take a book. Here I’ll just offer a few additional “data points.”
Last year Joe Oltmann of the influential Colorado group FEC United (that’s “Faith, Education, Commerce”) said the following about nineteen Senate Republicans who voted for a spending bill amidst debates over vaccine mandates and about the governor of Colorado:
There’s your list of 19 traitors to the American people, along with all the other traitors to the American people. I want people to go out there and get some wood. The gallows are getting wider and longer. We should be able to build gallows all the way from Washington, D.C., to California. We just have a line of executions of traitors through the United States of America. If you guys don’t think that’s funny—I think it’s kind of funny, actually. . . . So that’s what I sent to Gov. Polis. Gallows. I had to stretch that rope. I’m being funny. Why can’t you be a little funny? I wish all the traitors good luck.
My point is not that most Republicans agree with Oltmann. The problem is that the sort of views that Oltmann openly expresses are remarkably widespread within Republican activist groups, broadly tolerated, and only meekly rebutted by party leadership.
For many conservative leaders, transgenderism is the new homosexuality, in terms of finding people to demonize and scapegoat. Casual bigotry against both groups remains common. For example, Congressperson Marjorie Taylor Greene recently said, “Pete Buttigieg can take his electric vehicles and his bicycles, and he and his husband can stay out of our girls’ bathrooms.” That this smear doesn’t even make sense hardly matters.
One Colorado candidate for governor said of transgender people: “They’re trying to destroy our country. They’re Godless, I’m not joking. They’re going to take everything from us. They’re going to make you believe what they want, and we have to stop them.” This is classic scapegoating. And who among Republican leadership has clearly condemned such bigotry?
In terms of punishing enemies, Laura Ingraham recently said on Fox News:
And when Republicans, they get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table. Your copyright and trademark protection, your special status within certain states, and even your corporate structure itself. The antitrust division at Justice needs to begin to begin the process of considering which American companies need to be broken up once and for all, for competition’s sake, and ultimately for the good of consumers who pay the bills.
Described here is economic fascism, state control of nominally private businesses to enable political thuggery. Remember the days when some Republicans and conservatives pretended to care about free markets and property rights?
I’ll mention here that I remain a member of the Republican Party. I joined the party prior to Trump’s run in 2016 with the express aim of trying to keep Trump away from political power. I failed, obviously. I’ve remained in the party in the hopes that something like a Reality Caucus would emerge to right the Party of Lincoln. That has not happened. But neither has some new party emerged to take its place. Nor has there been any serious effort to reform electoral politics to strip political parties of their ill-gotten power. The country feels deeply stuck. The Democrats have their own problems, and pockets of the broader left have their own fascist tendencies. Cassandra is screaming but too many have plugged their ears.
Rauch on Transgenderism
These comments by Jonathan Rauch on transgenderism strike me as very reasonable:
There is nothing intrinsically radical or left-wing about gay equality. And there is nothing intrinsically radical or left-wing about trans equality. In most respects, trans people can be reasonably accommodated with modest adjustments to everyday life. Hardly any jobs and public spaces are gendered today, and we can live with preferred pronouns and arrange safe places to pee.
A few domains that are sex-specific, such as women’s sports and prisons, require differential treatment based on biological sex. Issues involving medical transitions for children are just plain difficult and require more and better research. But those issues are narrow in scope, and the political system, the medical profession, and civil society are more than capable of working through them, if allowed to do so in a minimally politicized way.
I disagree with Rauch, though, on sports. I think he is missing the opportunity to reorganize athletic tiers based on directly relevant physical characteristics (such as muscle mass) rather than on biological sex. For the same reasons that some transgender women should play with the men (basically, size, strength, and stamina), some cisgender men should play with the women. Indeed, this strikes me as such a good and obvious strategy that I am amazed more people do not promote it.
Regarding prisons, I think those hell-holes need pretty serious reform. If prisons operated the way they should, where prisoners actually live in safe and humane conditions, I see no reason why they should not be integrated by gender.
Regardless, I found Rauch’s essay enlightening.
What Does the Florida ‘Gay’ Bill Say?
I Tweeted March 29: “Help me understand the Florida bill. If a kid K–3 asks why Colorado has a First Gentleman, is a teacher allowed to say it’s because the governor is gay and is married to a man?” This is just one of an endless number of examples. Generally, what if a child asks about any issue related to homosexual or transgender people?
The next day, radio host Ross Kaminsky Tweeted, “I’m not a ‘social-issues conservative’ but I sure don’t understand how the left keeps getting away with calling that Florida law ‘Don’t Say Gay’ since that’s obviously not what the bill says or does.”
Let’s look at Florida’s bill 1557 to try to get the answer. Right away, the summary says the bill “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.” Taken literally, that would prohibit not only classroom discussion about Colorado’s gay governor but about “cisgender” (traditional gender) orientation. So, for example, teachers would be prohibited from discussing the fact that neither Florida nor Colorado ever has had a woman as governor.
Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
First note that the “or” here makes the bill’s language more restrictive, not less. If “instruction” takes place in K–3, or if it is “not age-appropriate,” then it is out. I guess we can argue about what “instruction” means here. Does a teacher informing a student that Colorado’s governor is gay count as “instruction”? A common-sense reading suggests that it does. Indeed, the bill very clearly seems to rule out all classroom discussion of men and women as such, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or transgender.
If you counter that no reasonable person would interpret the bill to mean what it forthrightly states, I would retort that, if Florida legislators cared about reason, they never would have passed the bill in the first place.
Why Are People Evil?
The philosopher Michael Huemer has a new post on why so many people love evil ideas. He doesn’t think that people’s propensity to believe falsehoods explains it. After all, people just as easily could believe falsehoods that support decent behavior. Often people seem to look for ideas to rationalize bad behavior.
Huemer says, “A significant portion of human beings are predisposed toward aggressive feelings.” A lot of this has to do with the quest for social status or dominance, he suggests. People who want to act aggressively toward others then are attracted to “a belief system that tells them that violence and other harm directed at some person or group is called for.”
I think Huemer gets at important parts of the truth. I also think that Jonathan Rauch helps explain the phenomenon of evil in his The Constitution of Knowledge (which I am now reading and which I heartily endorse). Rauch points out that people often express loyalty to their group or tribe by embracing the ideas popular in their group. And if those ideas also express out-group hostility, so much the better, in terms of tribal cohesion. Obviously demagogues are experts at harnessing tribal loyalties and out-group hostilities in a way that gives them extraordinary power.
Part of what “we” need to do to counteract such tribalism is to redefine our in-groups. Epistemologically, our in-group should be truth seekers, people who strive to go by logic and the scientific method and who work to identify and root out biases. Rauch calls this the “reality-based community.” Morally, our in-group should be humanity. I’m not arguing here for some New Altruistic Man; I’m just saying that, generally, we should want people to thrive, and we should advocate the sort of social-political-economic systems that foster human flourishing. In a word, we should be liberals, properly conceived.
Recently my family rewatched the original (2008) Marvel film Iron Man, and I was amazed by how well it holds up. Okay, the bit about how Tony Stark builds his first Iron Man suit in a cave right under the noses of terrorists who think he’s building missiles for them is wildly unrealistic. It’s a super-hero movie. On a budget of $140 million, Robert Downy Jr. and Jon Favreau, with their pitch-perfect acting and directing (respectively), launched a half-billion dollar film and a $26 billion franchise.
The moral of the story is that weapons manufacturers need to be careful about whom they are arming. That’s good as far as it goes. Of course the film’s solution, a basically independent operator (Stark) working loosely with the U.S. military, doesn’t get at the institutional preconditions for the responsible use of military power. Still, there’s something satisfying about seeing a basically good guy, Stark, beat up the bad guys.