The Democratic Party is Irrelevant

It looks like Hillary has the Democratic Party nomination all but locked up right now. We’re down to recriminations and sour grapes and I-told-you-sos and calls for party unity. Bernie’s still talking a big game but Hillary’s already gearing up for her victory lap and Trump has started ignoring Cruz and Kasich in favor of taking potshots at Hillary and mocking the media for its notion of what “presidential” looks like while the media tells us that he is, in fact, presidential.[1] All of this is maneuvering and posturing for the big show that will consume all of us between now and November. All of this ignores the one thing no one in America is able to recognize. Whether Hillary wins by 90 points or Trump becomes America’s most wildly unqualified President-elect since Zachary Taylor the Democratic Party is going to lose.

We’ve been hearing tales of the death of the Republican Party for years. In 2008 there were gleeful reports of the end of all things Republican Party. John McCain went from being one of the most respected politicians in America to a has-been joke accompanied by a word-salad shooting moron in a matter of months while the Democratic Party Ascendant had Barack Obama and still had Hillary waiting in the wings. In 2012 when the Republican Clown Car was whittled down to a bafflingly wealthy board with an amazing head of hair with no chance of winning the pundits looked at the vast wasteland of Republican benchwarmers and also-rans and asked yet again if the Republicans would soon go the way of the Whigs, the Anti-Masonic Party, and the American Party.[2]

What all of this ignores is the fact that the Republican Party is far stronger now than it was in 2008. The Republican Party won the most important political race of this generation in 2010 while the Democratic Party was asleep at the switch. Don’t believe me? Let me throw three names at you: John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Rick Snyder.

What do all three of those men have in common? All three were inaugurated as state governors in January of 2011. All three followed a Democratic Governor. All three are currently governors of old, mainline Union states whose men had heroic tales of fighting the Confederates in the Civil War. All three had a long tradition of leading the way on labor rights issues. All three states went to Barack Obama in 2008. The states in question are Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

You may recognize all of those names. John Kasich is, of course, the current answer to the question, “Hey, who’s the other guy who’s still in the Republican race for some reason?” Scott Walker is famous for having to run another race for his own job shortly after being elected when it turned out that he mostly wanted to tell teachers to go fuck themselves. Rick Snyder, meanwhile, let the city of Flint, Michigan drink and bathe in delicious lead water for a year or so.[3]

The Republican Party didn’t just grab a few governor’s offices in 2010. They took control of the House and very nearly managed to grab the Senate. The Senate seat grab came at the cost of the Illinois Senate seat that had belonged to Barack Obama, although there was the weird influence selling scheme by Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris had already vacated the seat by the time Mark Kirk was sworn in. The big loss in 2010 came in — wait for it — Wisconsin, where liberal stalwart Russ Feingold was booted in favor of Ron Johnson, as dingbatty a Tea Party dingbat as any of the other Tea Partiers.[4]

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other Republicans who won the governorship in formerly Democratic-governed states. Rick Scott took Florida and became the first governor to push for drug testing of welfare recipients. He also refused to say that he knows anything about climate change while governing a state that’s slowly drowning. Paul LePage got the governor’s seat in Maine with just under 39% of the vote and proceeded to just be the worst. Sam Brownback won in Kansas and decided to use it as a laboratory for Republican financial policies of cutting taxes to the rich and services to everyone else and Kansas is suffering heavily from lack of funds. But it’s okay because Kansas is going to pay you $2,500 the state doesn’t have if you check the genitalia of everyone in their public restrooms and find that someone has an outtie where there should be an innie.[5]

So, in short, in 2008 the Democratic Party won the Oval Office and majorities in both houses of Congress. The pundits started asking if that would be the end of the Republican Party. Two years later the Republicans had taken basically everything back but the office of the President. We should all have such a difficult death.

This whole change came about because of the Tea Party, a pseudo grassroots organization that was fueled by equal parts racism, religious bigotry, hatred of the poor, and generalized rage at the Other. Much ado was made about how the Republican Establishment wasn’t a fan of the Tea Party and either the Tea Party would take over the Republican Party or the Republican Party would splinter into a Mainline Conservative faction and a Tea Party faction. This, it was reported, would be the death of the Republican Party as a force in American politics.

We all know that didn’t happen. I’m now convinced that the Republican Party will long outlive the Democratic Party. This, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. The Republican Party is the party of old people, after all. Its supporters will soon die out and its ideologies will soon become irrelevant. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The simple fact of the matter is that it’s the Democratic Party is irrelevant. There is no nationwide plan. They look at the major grassroots, socially-driven, progressive movements in this country and they respond with shrugs at best and lectures at worst. The Democratic Party did nothing to help Occupy or Black Lives Matter. The Democratic Party gave up the high ground on North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” and let Starbucks and Target and Bruce Springsteen take up the fight.

For all of the gleeful discussion of how 2008 was a sign that the Republican Party was in its death throes the Republicans gained ground. For all of the speculation that Donald Trump will destroy the Republican Party the Republicans keep gaining ground. The Republican Party has a strong coalition because the Republican Party has a coalition based on hate and fear. It doesn’t matter if the voters hate taxes or government or gays or brown people, they all hate something. And Donald Trump hates and fears the same things they do just as strongly as they do.

I do not for a moment believe that the powers that be in the Republican Party actually give a shit about whether or not Trump wins the nomination. The Kochs and the Adelsons and the dark money groups know something that most of America doesn’t: the office of the President doesn’t actually matter. It’s a sideshow. Get a stranglehold on 50 governors and 50 state legislatures and a plurality of Congress and the President could be a magical unicorn that farts jobs programs and shits healthcare vouchers and it won’t matter.

The Republican rank and file will go to the polls in November. They will vote for Trump. Whether or not Trump wins it won’t matter, though, since those very same voters will also vote for Louie Gohmert and Chuck Grassley and David Vitter and they’ll go back to the polls in two years to vote for Louie Gohmert and Rick Snyder and Bruce Rauner while the Democratic Party takes a nap and maybe lectures social progressives on what they need to do to get on the Sunday morning shows and the front page of HuffPo.

If Hillary loses, which is not a bet I’m currently willing to take, the Democratic Party will eat its own tail. It will turn on Bernie’s supporters and wag its finger and tell all of those damn Millennials and misogynistic BernieBros that it was their fault. The thing about it is, though, that those same lazy Millennials and misogynistic BernieBros flock to rallies and march in protests and love Elizabeth Warren. So maybe it’s not that they’re too lazy to vote or hate women but that they’re looking for something authentic and they see it in Bernie and Warren and don’t see it in Hillary and the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party needs to find ways to leverage enthusiasm for Bernie but it won’t. How do I know this? We saw it in 2008 with Howard Dean. Dean, for those who can remember things that happened 12 years ago, was the presumptive frontrunner going into the 2004 election. He lost, badly, but became the DNC Chair and formulated the 50-State-Strategy, which was an attempt to counter the Republican tendency to make sure they had people running for every seat from President on down to County Coroner. Dean’s strategy was crucial for the Democratic Party wins in the 2006 mid-term and 2008’s visit to the woodshed with the Republican Party. How was Dean rewarded after the 2008 election? He was kicked to the curb.

See, it’s conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party that some seats just can’t be won and, as such, no money should be spent on those seats. It was Dean’s belief that you lose 100% of the seats you don’t put a candidate up for. Dean’s primary opponent was Rahm Immanuel, also known as Obama’s first Chief of Staff and the current mayor of the soon-to-be-formerly-great city of Chicago. It doesn’t take too much to figure out how Dean ended up on the outside of the fight.

I can assure you, as someone who has taken the Democratic ballot in several primaries and seen that half of the sheet is blank, that it’s frustrating and demoralizing. This primary season I wanted to vote for Bernie. I was also proud to get a chance to vote for Tammy Duckworth. After that most of the boxes on my ballot were blank. All that does is signal that in November those same boxes will have a name with an R next to it and no name with a D.

So let’s review. The Democratic Party doesn’t care about trying to win seats in districts that are in Chicago’s collar counties. The Democratic Party would rather that the people from Occupy and Black Lives Matter go home and be quiet and speak with their votes. When those people do speak with their votes for Bernie Sanders the Democratic Party scolds them for dragging out Hillary’s coronation.

Meanwhile, the unfettered id of the Republican Party runs amok. “Hey, I hear you hate Muslims. So do we!” say Trump and Cruz. “What’s that? You’re worried that the Mexicans are taking your jobs? We’ll build a wall!” “You don’t like the gays getting married? Here’s a bill that will stop all that from happening!”

And that’s the lesson the Democratic Party needs to take from the death throes of the Republicans in 2008 and 2010.[6] There will always be Tea Partiers. There will always be angry people. The rank and file of the Republican Party isn’t united in their love of low capital gains taxes or Evangelical Christianity. It’s united in the fact that the people who vote Republican are deeply, existentially, afraid of something and are looking for someone to tell them that they’re not alone in their fears. They’re looking for someone to tell them, “Yes, we are standing here on the ramparts and we will defend you from that big, scary monster.”

The Tea Party didn’t destroy the Republican Party because as far as the Republicans were concerned the Tea Party was a giant, angry focus group. Trump’s supporters are much the same. The entire Trump campaign has normalized hate and bigotry to a degree that would make Barry Goldwater blush. No matter what happens in November of 2016 the Republicans will take that information and run with it in 2018 and again in 2020.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, begs Black Lives Matter to quiet down and told Occupy to go home because they might make it harder to work with the Republicans. Those self-same Republicans who seven years ago said it was their entire job to keep Barack Obama from accomplishing anything while he was President. On one level they failed, since Obama got quite a bit accomplished. But even when Obama pushed through a victory, like the ACA, the Republicans still managed to functionally stop it from working in states like Texas by just refusing the Federal subsidies. They also made sure it was a horribly written law hated by basically everyone from the start.

Occupy should have been a refreshing of the Democratic Party. Black Lives Matter should be the signal of the start of a new Civil Rights Movement. The enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders should be a wake-up call that a huge chunk of the country is clamoring for a real progressive bent to the supposedly liberal Democratic Party. That’s simply not happening. The Democratic Party is pushing away those they should embrace.

It should be said at this point that the Democratic Party has had a pretty good track record with gay rights and women’s health issues these last few years. But even those victories have to be written down with big, fat asterisks. For every step forward at the Federal level there are huge steps backward in the Red States. Gay marriage is now the law of the land but Republican lawmakers down in the states are doubling-down with discriminatory laws. Planned Parenthood and similar organizations have been all but pushed out of the South because legislators have been allowed to write bizarre, specific laws and then change them on a whim.

What it all comes down to is the idea that a big, splashy win is meaningless if it doesn’t bring about real, helpful change. The Democratic Party focuses on big wins while the Republican Party focuses on little victories because the Republicans know that the little victories add up. The Oval Office is a big win but six governors, seventy Congresspeople, and a whole bunch of state legislators are a heap of little victories. We know from American history that the little victories mean more.

In 1876 the Republicans got the White House. The Democrats got the little victory of the end of Reconstruction. This set the stage for Jim Crow and allowed racist policies to rule the South until the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1963. The Civil Rights Act was a big win. In 1964 the Republicans started their string of little victories with the Southern Strategy. That strategy, as I’ve talked about before, is why we are where we are today.

There are real people in America who are hurting. Transgender people in North Carolina are being told they aren’t allowed to use the bathroom because they’re sexually violent. Black kids in Chicago and St Louis are being shot by the police who are supposed to help them. Toddlers in Flint have developmental defects from drinking lead water. The state of Illinois is no longer paying its bills because Bruce Rauner has made sure there isn’t a budget for nearly a year. Kansas appears to be at a breaking point but Brownback keeps doubling down.

Each of these things costs us something. Each of these things is another step down the road to ruin. It’s not inevitable. It’s not irreversible. But as long as the Republicans keep finding a new way to harness hate and anger while the Democrats keep seeing the progressive grassroots as a hindrance we’ll keep walking down that road.

The Democratic Party either needs to wake up or move aside. Anything else is a death spiral of irrelevance and ruin.


[1]This is one of the subplots of the 2016 Presidential race that just completely boggles my mind. The news media mocked Trump when it looked like he was just running to sell more books last year. As this bizarre farce has gone on the news has started telling us that, no, really, he can totally be President, you guys. Look! He’s learned how to use a teleprompter! And he went three whole sentences without kicking Ted Cruz in the nuts, metaphorically speaking! So President. Much gravitas.

[2]A.K.A. the Know-Nothings. That’s my second favorite political epithet behind the Mugwumps.

[3]The whole thing with Snyder is actually significantly worse than it looks if you do a little digging. One of the reasons it got to that point in the first place was because of the Emergency Financial Manager position in Michigan. It was a law originally created in 1988 to give the state the ability to step in and fix broken financial situations in municipalities. One of Snyder’s first acts as Governor was to drastically expand the scope of the Emergency Financial Manager’s power. The people of Michigan slapped the revision down but then Snyder pushed a similar bill through in 2012. Flint was living under Snyder’s rule when the city’s Emergency Financial Manager switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water.

So, y’know, fuck Rick Snyder.

[4]2010 also included an off-cycle Senate election that followed the death of Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy. In that election the woefully inadequate Democrat Martha Coakley lost to Republican empty suit and former underwear model Scott Brown. In 2012 Scott Brown got his ass handed to him by Elizabeth Warren because Elizabeth Warren is one of the five or so politicians in America who is actually good at their job. Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Dick Durbin, and Tammy Duckworth are the other four.

[5]Here in the civilized world we call people who go into public restrooms and force other people to show them their genitals “sex offenders.” I guess things are different in Kansas.

[6]And, for that matter, 1964.

What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Kim Davis

I grew up in a world at war. Signs of that war were everywhere. Evidence of battles won and lost could be found in the daily newspaper and on the nightly television broadcasts. Lives were being lost and the world hung in the balance. Everyone, everywhere was in constant danger.

I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois. Wheaton is a quiet, upper middle class suburb of Chicago and home to one of the most prominent institutions in American Christianity. There were no tanks in the street. There were no gutted homes. There were no running gun battles through downtown.

Still, we knew we were in the middle of a war. Seeing that war required what we called “discernment.” That notion of discernment came from a cobbled together collection of Bible verses that said there were powers and principalities beyond human understanding constantly acting on the world as part of the eternal war between good and evil, between God and Satan.

The funny thing about all of that is I came of age in the 1990s. The ’90s were, for anyone living in the bucolic splendor of American suburbia, a quiet time. The tech boom had brought prosperity to the nation, there were no major wars to be fought, cussing and cleavage weren’t allowed on the television, and things were pretty great for your average white, male Christian.

There’s a reason the Republicans endlessly chased Bill Clinton’s penis throughout the ’90s. The Cold War was over. 9/11 was still in the future. America was an impregnable force, sitting atop the world as its sole superpower. The great social upheavals of the following decade were little more than a murmur in the national conversation.

We needed an enemy. The serial philanderer in the White House seemed like a good choice. To the obvious charges of infidelity we added dark whispers of the Clintons killing Vince Foster and conspiracies to give American military technology to the Chinese. We got Left Behind and the usual dark warnings of the United Nations as a One World Government on its way to take away our freedoms.

Those with the gift of discernment read the signs in the newspapers and saw all the places the followers of Jesus were losing their fight against the world. Everything was either a win for Jesus or for the world. See, Jesus once told his followers that the world hated him, so obviously the world would hate them. Since that comment made it into the Bible we knew that Jesus meant to tell us the same thing. That message was to be taken exactly the same in Wheaton, Illinois in 1996 as it was to be taken by a small sub-sect of Jews living under the thumb of the Roman Empire during a time of unrest that would ultimately lead to the Great Jewish Revolt and the destruction of the Temple. The spiritual gift of discernment, it would seem, did not include the understanding of context.

I say this with the caveat that I graduated from high school in 1999. I was pretty young for most of the events I recall in the 1990s and it was only much, much later that I began to unpack the world as it was during that decade and separate it from the world as I saw it. I was convinced at that time that I was in training to be a soldier on the front line of a spiritual war. I decided in high school that I was going to be a missionary or maybe go to seminary to become a pastor. I saw the wreckage of the world all around me. I wanted to fight against the Devil himself.

Fast forward fifteen years or so. We lived through the horror of 9/11 and found a new enemy to replace the Soviet Union. The economy collapsed. America no longer feels invincible. We are the proud statue with clay feet from Daniel’s prophecies of Babylon.

I left the church a long time ago. I spent years unpacking how I saw the ’90s and re-learning much of the history of the world from my youth, this time not shaded by the proper levels of spiritual discernment. I came to understand the notion of privilege and see how my bucolic, suburban upbringing was a far different experience from so many in America.

The me of 15 years ago would not have been prepared to handle the America of 2015. Social justice movements have swept across the country with breathtaking speed. Gay marriage took far too long to arrive, but when it got here it got here extremely fast.

That’s how we get to Kim Davis and what the fight over Kim Davis actually represents. To those outside of that subculture it should be a non-story. She’s not doing her job, so she should be removed, replaced, or circumvented, marriage licenses should be handed out and we should all go to lunch.

I highly doubt that Kim Davis expected this to go as far as it did. The circus surrounding her should be squarely blamed on the absurdity of the 24 hour news cycle and the grandstanding of assholes like Mike Huckabee. Her decision to retain Mat Staver as her lawyer does not reflect well on her intentions, but I’ve seen the video of her walking out of the police station to “Eye of the Tiger” with a dazed, confused look on her face. I don’t think she intended to become this week’s celebrity news target.

There’s a larger discussion to be had here about the nature of celebrity in America in 2015. We talk endlessly about the Kardashians. We get needlessly worked up over the Duggars and Octomom. Twitter and YouTube are legitimate paths to fame and fortune for those who understand how to use them.

I don’t think that in those first days of her fight against gay marriage Kim Davis realized that she was stepping into the American celebrity machine. I believe that she thought she was standing up to the Devil. To the Christian subculture I grew up in homosexuality was a sin and god would have no part of anyone who engaged in such wicked acts. Legalizing gay marriage, then, means that the state is sanctioning sin and in the metrics of us-v-them Christianity that’s a firm win for them, “them,” in this case being Satan.

The sort of thinking with which I was indoctrinated in my youth has not gone away. If anything I suspect it’s gotten worse, as the Internet has risen as the great equalizer of speech and movements for social justice finally got a platform that allowed them equal time. There used to be signs of the impending apocalypse once or twice a day in the newspaper and the 10 o’clock news. Now every hashtag has the potential to signal Satan’s impending conquest of the world.

Prepare for more Kim Davises in the coming days. The only thing we can do is understand that these issues which are, to most, obvious stops along the universe’s trail to justice are signs of Satan’s victory to those like Kim Davis. Wherever there’s a Kim Davis playing the role of true believer there will be a Mat Staver and Mike Huckabee willing to turn the whole thing into a circus for their own ends.

Caitlyn Jenner, Gay Marriage, and the Importance of Group Identity

I almost wrote a piece for the bloggity blog a few weeks back when Caitlyn Jenner’s Variety cover came out and drove the conversation on social media for a news cycle or two. It wasn’t Jenner herself that fascinated me about the whole thing, but the bifurcated response from the news media. Now that we’ve gotten last week’s SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage and a similar response that’s more general than just media-driven I feel that I can fully and completely write what I want to write on the topic.

I don’t really want to focus so much on gay or transgender rights. I take it as a given that gay people should be accorded all the freedoms straight people possess. I take it as a given that transgender people should be free to identify themselves however they desire. It’s a moot point to me. This actually surprises me to some extent, as I know that 12 or so years ago I would have seen Caitlyn Jenner and the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling as an attack on the church and all I stood for.

This is why I think it’s important for me to offer up my thoughts on this. I am not gay. I am not transgender. I do, however, have gay friends and transgender friends. I have friends who count themselves as friends and allies to the gay and transgender people in their lives. I rejoice that the world has gotten a little to a lot better for those folks over the last month and am gratified to see that the arc of the universe is lately bending a little farther in the direction of justice. I also know that past versions of me would be horrified to learn that the current version of me feels this way.

I’ve realized that the entire fight we’re currently witnessing comes down to a binary set of beliefs. On one side of the fight are those who believe that each person gets to define who and what they are according to their own beliefs. On the other side of the fight are those who believe that the group gets to tell everyone who and what they are according to the group’s beliefs. The former group is the ultimate expression of the Declaration of Independence and the core beliefs set down in the preamble, that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. The former group, then, is engaged in an exploration of what it means to be American and live in the nation created two hundred and twenty-five years ago through the crucible of blood, hardship, and sacrifice.

The reason the Caitlyn Jenner story crystallized this thought in my mind is simple. In the days following the release of that Variety cover it was absurdly simple to figure out who was on what side. Those who agreed used “her” and called her “Caitlyn.” Those who disagreed used “him” and called her “Bruce.” It was that difference that allowed me to discern the true motives behind the allies and the enemies. Caitlyn said, “I am a woman, call my Caitlyn.” One side said, “Okay, you’re Caitlyn.” The other side said, “Shut up, you’re Bruce.” One side said, “You get to tell us who you are.” The other side said, “We tell you who you’re allowed to be.”

Gay marriage follows the same logic. One side says, “You get to decide who you love.” The other side says, “We’ll tell you who you’re allowed to love.”

The fascinating thing is that this isn’t even a religious divide. I could give you the names of religious friends and acquaintances who are overjoyed at the new-found freedoms of gay Americans and accept Caitlyn Jenner’s self-identification. I’ve seen several examples of self-identified non-religious people who are all about “straight pride,” whatever the fuck that is.[1]

What it comes down to, then, is something that goes deeper than the divide between liberal and conservative. It’s an issue of security versus insecurity. If a great sports hero and champion of masculinity like Bruce Jenner can come out as Caitlyn Jenner what does it say about a lesser man? If a great Christian nation like America can make gay marriage the law of the land what does it say about Christianity?

Those of us who don’t define ourselves according to what others say can handle that sort of change. Those of us who define ourselves according to what others say cannot handle that sort of change. It’s that simple. Bruce Jenner’s re-introduction to the world as Caitlyn doesn’t make me a woman. The legalization of gay marriage doesn’t make me gay. Since I am aware of this I can rejoice at the fact that Caitlyn Jenner has now made life easier for transgender folks and the Supreme Court has now made life easier for gay folks.

It’s a beautiful thing, being able to celebrate with those who rejoice.


[1]Straight pride. Ugh. This is one of those things that baffles me.

To make an analogy: I am one of the whitest people you will ever meet. I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, which is pretty much known as the white, Evangelical Mecca. I went to school next door in Glen Ellyn, a wealthy, predominantly white suburb. In grade school I think I had one black and one Filipino friend. It’s not because I was racist, it’s because I think those were the only non-white people in my grade. My junior high and high school were similarly lily white. Hell, I was friends with the only black guy on my floor when I was in college and the only two black guys I worked with when I lived in Texas. I’ve lived a fairly isolated life is what I’m saying. I didn’t seek that out, it just kind of happened.

That said, when I was in college I worked with the InterVarsity chapter at WIU. The year I was installed as the outreach leader the regional chapter decided to have a white culture retreat. I thought it was the dumbest fucking thing I’d ever heard, but it was my job to promote it because outreach guy. So we, and by “we” I mean, “The leadership group, over my objection,” decided to do a skit at the weekly meeting to promote the fucking white culture retreat. I’d also like to point out that in the time I was in said InterVarsity group there was one non-white person. Seems important.

Either way, the week of the meeting where we were to do the skit I got hit with my annual flu bug. Basically, there’s about three days of the year where I get extremely sick and spend my days wrapped in a blanket, unable to move, and wishing I was dead. I dragged my ass to the meeting and did the skit, where I still vaguely recall saying, “We’re white, we have culture, go to this retreat,” with all of the verve of a man who thought he was about to puke his guts out and die in a puddle of vomit. To this day I think that’s more enthusiasm than the notion of a white culture retreat deserves.

The problem is that I didn’t have the vocabulary to truly object at the time. I knew it was really stupid, but I didn’t know why. The whole thing was cooked up as a sort of salve to the notion, both within and without InterVarsity, that we should celebrate diversity.

The reason we have Black History Month and not White History Month is because every month is White History Month by default. White is the default color through which we view western civilization. Male is the default gender. Straight is the default sexual orientation. Anything outside of straight, white male is considered a deviation from the norm. Black History Month, then, is a necessary reminder that not everyone is white. Gay pride parades, then, are a necessary reminder that not everyone is straight. We don’t need white pride. We don’t need straight pride. That sort of idea just gilds the lily.

It occurs to me that this dovetails nicely with my thoughts on the Confederate flag. There’s no Northern pride movement to counteract Southern pride because those of us from the North know we kicked the South’s ass and that the South won’t, in fact, rise again. We don’t worry about a pride movement because we’re secure in our position as undeniable victors in a long, bloody war. This is a negative comparison, however. It’s why we need to lower the Confederate flag and raise the rainbow flag. The Southern pride that holds the stars and bars as an ideal is a divisive aspiration that holds to the notion that some people are inferior to others by dint of minute genetic differences. Southern pride as espoused by those who hold the Confederacy as an ideal, then, is weak, divisive, and easily pushed aside by any true ideal that holds to the notion that all men and women are created equal and possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A Dearth of Empathy

[NOTE:  There are several edits below and an interesting conversation in the comments, so if you already read this one on its original publish date you might want to check it again.]

I managed to make it one whole day before breaking my promise to not get into the big internet kerfuffle of the day.  I am proud of my restraint.  Thing is, though, there are two caveats to my original statement.  The first and most important is that this is my blog so I can put any damn thing up I want.  The second is the notion I advanced that if something is worth talking about it will be worth talking about in two weeks.  This will be worth talking about in two weeks, two years, or two decades.

Longtime friend of the blog[1] The Everlasting Dave usually writes posts about baseball or his experiences watching terrible TV or horrifying movies so you don’t have to.  It’s not very often that you can go to his blog and find a post wherein he’s upset to the point of incoherence.  I think it’s important to read what he has to say and also the catalytic events.

Please, go read it now.  The whole thing is long, it’s involved, and it’s important.  Anything I say here runs the risk of me making this thing that’s not about me something that’s all about me and I don’t want that, but I still want to talk about it because, again, it’s important.  It’s one of those things that’s literally life and death.


I don’t know how to say what I want to say.  I keep composing apologetic sentences built around words like “privilege.”  I keep starting to write something that sounds like the standard mea culpa offered by folks like me whenever they want to discuss things they don’t have to experience.  For me this is a thing that happens to other people and in the end I can retreat into my world as a middle class, cisgendered, white male.  I can’t pretend it works any other ways.  I can’t say, “Hey, I’ve struggled, too, so I totally get it and look at how amazing I am for knowing what’s what.”

In the end this is a story of straight, cisgendered guy reading about another straight, cisgendered guy who was apologizing for what he and another straight, cisgendered guy did to a transwoman.  But it’s also a story of that first guy realizing something that the other two didn’t: that they’d fucked up because they made the story about them.  If you haven’t already go read Christina Kahrl’s response, as she speaks with a great deal more credibility than I do.

Allow me to say this in the strongest possible terms: Caleb Hannan, the writer of the original article, fucked up because he brought things that weren’t germane to the story into the story.  He fucked up on a much deeper and less excusable level by deciding that he had some sort of right, responsibility, or privilege to bring up Vanderbilt’s gender identity.  Bill Simmons and his staff fucked up because apparently absolutely no one said, “Hey, um, what does Vanderbilt’s gender identity have to do with the claims she’s making about her education or work experience?  Bill Simmons and everyone else then fucked up in a mind-bogglingly insane manner by deciding to write about the whole thing and post it on a popular website.

On one level I’m impressed by Simmons’ apology.  I stopped reading his stuff a while ago because he comes off as an unrepentant frat bro and an apologist for and enabler of the worst of middlebrow white guy culture.  I gave up on Grantland shortly after it started because the site came across as nothing more than a home for pseudo-intellectual morons who thought making snarky commentary about television shows made them smart and important.  I was pleasantly surprised, then, that Simmons repeatedly took responsibility, offered what appeared to be a genuine apology, and then published his letter side-by-side with Christina’s devastating critique of the entire sad affair.

On another level I’m saddened by Simmons’ apology.  He seems more concerned with the career and well-being of his writer than the life and well-being of Essay Vanderbilt.  He seems more concerned with making sure everyone knew that he put the article in front of lawyers and editors than anything else.  It’s astounding to me that he could apologize for not handing the article to a transperson to read and then, a few lines later, claim that he did his due diligence.

Bill Simmons, Caleb Hannan, and the Grantland staff are comparable to no one so much as Tom and Daisy Buchanan, engaging in actions that cost another person her life and then withdrawing to their security, privilege, and fried chicken dinner.  By the time I decided to write this the editorial and Kahrl’s rebuttal were gone from the front page but the original article was still right there in the feed.  I had to look for the fallout but the cause was there for all to see.

It’s inexcusable.  This should bring major repercussions down on the heads of Bill Simmons and Grantland but it won’t.  Instead the internet outrage machine will find a new target, the pseudo-intellectual frat-bro mentality will take control, and everyone will move on.  If the actual thing is remembered by Grantland’s target audience it will most likely be as a “controversy” or, worse, those uppity jerks in the trans community getting pissed because a bunch of well-meaning people didn’t use the right pronouns.

Essay Anne Vanderbilt will still be dead.  I don’t know who she is, I wouldn’t have known who she is if she hadn’t killed herself while a collection of clueless dullards used her life as story fodder.  But Essay Anne Vanderbilt is dead and the world will move on.


The crazy thing is that apparently there was a fascinating story there.  Essay Anne Vanderbilt ran up a tab of lies that would have left movie scriptwriters saying, “No, man, that’s too crazy.”  She convinced people she was a physicist and aeronautical engineer and would-be golf innovator.  Why did she find it necessary to make those claims?  We may never know and we can’t ever know because it never occurred to a would-be journalist that maybe her gender identity wasn’t germane and maybe it was possible to tell the world she was lying about her education without bringing up the shape of her genitalia.

Let’s try an experiment.  Pretend that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was born cis or, alternatively, that Hannan never found out and it never came up.  Let’s say she still lied her ass off about reinventing golf as we know it.  Would her gender identity ever even come up in an expose about her con game?[EDITED, note below]

No?  Okay, then.


This is kinda heavy.  I think we need a quick musical interlude.

Context.  Because Matt Nathanson is a fantastic human being.  It’s also unnecessary.  I saw him at the Riv a couple months back and he told the story about the song, which he wrote about a waitress he thought was really cool.  He could have made a pretty standard music video around the actual story but chose to do something completely different.  Then again, he also did this one.  I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda adorable.[EDITED]


I have some tiny modicum of understanding what it’s like to be transgender.  I spent a good chunk of my life as the fat kid who desperately wanted to be thin and hating everything about the face I saw in the mirror every morning.  My understanding diverges quickly from there.  I lost a bunch of weight and now the face in the mirror looks something like the face I always wanted to see.  If I tell people who didn’t know me before and show them pictures I’m told, “Good for you.”  I don’t have to hide who I was.

That tiny amount of understanding, though, is the beginning of empathy.  I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not good enough, like I’m not right, like I’m being judged by everyone around me and found inferior in some way.

Everyone, in some way, has that space inside of them.  For some it’s a tiny, hidden place.  For others it’s an immediate, gaping wound.  Empathy begins the moment you learn to say, “I don’t know what you’re going through but I know how you feel.”

Sometimes the journey is much, much longer than others.  Sometimes the lessons you will learn will turn out to be terrifying.

Consider the alternatives, though.  Empathy is the more difficult path to start, but it’s the easier path to travel.


[1]Also longtime blogroll snub.  This says nothing about any animosity I possess for the blog in question but, instead, how absolutely, god-awfully terrible I am at maintaining a blogroll.  Sorry.  That oversight has been fixed.

[EDIT] I apparently stepped in it a bit in the edited paragraph.  Please see MadGastronomer’s comment below.  Edit on the edit: I noticed that I stepped in it in basically the same way again a paragraph later.  Edit on the edit on the edit: and I still didn’t get it quite right.

Also, I missed a trick on this one.  I had a middle edit based on a somewhat, and by “somewhat,” I mean, “deeply” flawed understanding of how Caleb Hannan found out.  Simmons’ apology didn’t reference it at all and Kahrl’s rebuttal was clearly predicated on the notion that the reader had read the original article and seen where Hannan went completely wrong.  I read the fallout but not the original, which is pretty friggin’ stupid of me, considering my whole thing about checking your sources.  Either way, this is Caleb’s big reveal:

He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.

“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”

It took a moment for him to respond.

“I cannot confirm or deny anything on that,” he said, sounding once again like a risk manager. “But let me ask you a question. How far have you looked into her background?”

What.  The.  Actual.  Fuck?

Protip to any would-be investigative reporters out there: information that isn’t germane isn’t germane.  Let’s say you’re doing a piece on why the city’s planned sewer reconstruction project isn’t going anywhere and the mayor’s accountant keeps telling you to “look into the discretionary fund.”  That’s probably an indication that he’s trying to point you in the direction of corruption and redirection of the sewer funds.  Look into it, expose it.  If he keeps mentioning the mayor’s name and then hinting at a prescription for a powerful anti-depressant that’s none of your fucking business and probably means the accountant has an ax to grind and is using you to smear the mayor.

Apparently the entire editorial department of Grantland thought they had Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one with Caleb Hannan.  Instead they had James fucking O’Keefe.  That’s fucking inexcusable.  Every single person who gave this piece the go-ahead should be punished.

It’s understandable why Simmons would whistle past that part of the original article in his apology.  He and everyone on his staff actually read that and actually said, “Yeah, we’re on board with this,” even though it’s blatantly obvious that what Leland Frische, Caleb Hannan’s Deep Throat, did was not okay and putting it into a story about a piece of golfing equipment was not okay.  I just wish Kahrl had hit that point a little harder in her rebuttal.  She focused more on how Hannan’s response was terrible and everything that happened after the moment was damn insensitive That isn’t wrong, but I walked away with the sense that I had all of the pertinent information and felt like I didn’t really have to go read original.

That, again, is very much a mistake I shouldn’t make.  But after reading the responses I really, really didn’t want to read the original.  It felt voyeuristic somehow.

Still and all, damn.