Hillary Clinton On The Reagans’ AIDS Legacy: Anatomy Of A ‘Triangulation’

Here is my take on what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s ‘the Reagans started a national conversation about AIDS‘ statement (for which, after a ginormous shitstorm on social media had broken out, she apologized.)

In preparation for her remarks, Clinton must have been briefed–by not very competent people–that Nancy Reagan‘s funeral was a good opportunity to ‘reach out’ to, say,  ‘Reagan Republicans’ and ‘Reagan Democrats’ (the ‘Reagan Republican’ is a mythical creature more moderate than today’s flecked-with-spittle and foaming-at-the-mouth Republican types.) She could do this by acknowledging the Reagans’ ‘legacy’ in a domain of interest to Americans–hopefully crossing ‘political divides’–and show herself to be continuous with that American political tradition, which does not denigrate America or its greatness, or see anything fundamentally wrong in its social, economic and cultural polity that cannot be fixed by ‘more of the same.’ She would, at once, show herself concerned with public health issues, and also, by saying nice things about iconic Republican figures, perhaps ensure a softer reception for herself in the Republican demographic at the time of the general election.

Hillary Clinton was not prompted to give the response she did give by a Reagan-sympathizer questioner, who artfully used a leading question like “And what do you think about the Reagans’ starting a national conversation about AIDS at a time when no one else was interested in doing so?” To which, Clinton, in an awkward attempt to avoid saying “What are you on, crack?”–might have said instead, “Yes, it was a good thing.” Instead Clinton volunteered the response she did make, and moreover, she explicitly did it as a way of making the point that the Reagans were an outlier in an atmosphere that was not conducive to their efforts to begin a ‘national conversation.’ Clinton’s mistake might have seemed more genuine had she simply said something like “Nancy Reagan worked on many public health initiatives like those for stem-cell research, Alzheimers, AIDS, and other deadly diseases.” Then, she could plausibly say that she had mistakenly included AIDS in that list. But she did no such thing. Instead, as noted, she set the Reagans’ ‘work’ on AIDS apart from an otherwise dominant attitude towards the disease.

Most reasonably competent students of American politics and history know about the shameful chapter that is the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS crisis. A supposedly liberal politician, one as experienced as Hillary Clinton, should know much better. (The interview linked above shows that Clinton has fairly detailed knowledge of that period at her disposal; she invokes the Brady Bill and stem-cell research as examples of ‘unpopular’ political positions Nancy Reagan took on.) Did she somehow imagine that this aspect of American history has been forgotten? Even more problematically, and this is where a cynical politics becomes acutely visible, did Clinton act on the basis of a calculus that suggested it was perfectly allright to anger the gay community while reaching out to Reaganites? Clinton might have, of course, thought that the folks who were activists in the 1980s had simply died off, leaving no traces of their battles with an uncaring presidential administration. All of these calculations would be very peculiar for a candidate to make in the America of 2016, one which has legalized same-sex marriage.

On a purely electoral reckoning, this incident shows, yet again, an uncomfortable truth: Hillary Clinton is not a very good politician. On a moral reckoning, this is cynicism, pure and simple.

Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.

Ross Douthat is Feeling Sorry for Bigots

Ross Douthat doth protest too much:

I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying.

I have news for you, Ross: you are being self-pitying. This bemoaning a straightforward victory for common-sense–the vetoing of Arizona’s benighted SB1062–is a particularly pathetic exercise . An entire Op-Ed to tell us bigots are on the run, and will be ‘forced’ to do so?

What makes this response [to Arizona’s benighted SB1062] particularly instructive is that such bills have been seen, in the past, as a way for religious conservatives to negotiate surrender — to accept same-sex marriage’s inevitability while carving out protections for dissent. But now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

This is sophistry. Call a spade a spade; it’s “carving out protections for bigotry.”

If your only goal is ensuring that support for traditional marriage diminishes as rapidly as possible, applying constant pressure to religious individuals and institutions will probably do the job.

What would really help is supporters for traditional marriage renting a clue and reading a book or two about marriage’s historical origins and its placement within the political economy of society, its role in the subjugation of women and the enforcement of patriarchy. Then perhaps this utterly profane institution will be demoted from the ranks of the sacred and take its rightful place among other social customs, each with its own historical origin, each rooted in human needs, and each serving very particular ideologies. Also: why not replace “traditional marriage” above with “the bigoted exclusion of gays from social rituals”?

Instead, all that’s left is the timing of the final victory — and for the defeated to find out what settlement the victors will impose.

Here are the exceedingly simple terms of the surrender: stop being bigoted assholes; stop feeling sorry for yourself.

RIP Sally Ride

Like many other schoolboys in the 1980s, transfixed by the awesome sight of the space shuttle lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center, by the legend of the moon landings, and by the culturally enforced vision of the astronaut as our era’s most intrepid pioneer, I had a thing for those that went into space. Needless to say, I wanted to be like the men, those dashing, crew-cut, sunglasses-wearing types, piloting jets and shuttles. But that didn’t mean that women astronauts couldn’t make me admire them, especially if their credentials for spaceflight included degrees in physics like Sally Ride‘s did. I was a physics nerd too–one inordinately proud of explaining to anyone that cared to listen what pions had to do with the relationship between a proton and a neutron–and found the idea of civilian scientists and not just military pilots heading into space incredibly inspiring. If I ever dreamed being an astronaut, it was as a Mission Specialist and not as a Pilot  Commander that I imagined myself; I didn’t think I would join the military. And I also dreamed about a career as an astrophysicist, so a physicist-astronaut seemed wonderfully cool.

When Ride’s selection for STS-7 was announced, I took notice.  It didn’t matter she was a woman. Physics just made everyone that studied it cool, and besides, she was an astronaut. What was not to like? I studied shuttle flights closely in those days, diligently making trips to the American Library in New Delhi to watch videotapes of reports on each mission; STS-7’s details–its satellite deployments, for instance–received a great deal of wide-eyed attention from me. (It helped that the mission was led by the dashing Bob Crippen.)  Later, I saw Ride on television handing interviewers with aplomb and grace. I do not remember if any of them asked those sexist questions that were so often directed at her but it is entirely possible that I might have heard and seen a few and not realized just how offensive that line of questioning was. I do remember Carl Sagan being paired up with her for a television interview, and on being asked if he was envious of astronauts like Ride, saying he didn’t consider ‘puttering around in low earth orbit to be space travel.’ In the neighboring television window, Ride just smiled, refusing to fall for the bait. She seemed graceful, smart, and tough, a winning combination at all times.

One thing I didn’t know about Sally Ride then was that she was a lesbian. I wonder what I would have thought then as a seventeen-year-old schoolboy, one relatively unsophisticated in his understanding of human sexuality and its diverse forms of expression. My guess is that while I might have had some puerile curiosity about her sexual orientation and would have jumped at the opportunity to crack a crude joke or two in juvenile company, I think that in the end, the combination of astrophysics and manned space flight would have trumped it all. It still does.

RIP Sally.