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.

Pope Francis, Like Popes In General, Cannot Be Liberal

The Pope Francis Honeymoon is over. The Pontiff who could make a hardened Republican, the third most powerful man in American government, cry like a particularly lachrymose baby, who has been saying all the right things for a very long time, who has been playing music for progressive ears, has gone ahead jumped the shark by meeting with Kim Davis–she of “I shall not marry the gays” and “‘Eye of the Tiger’ is so my song” fame. Reports have it that the Pope urged her to “stay strong” and described her as a “conscientious objector.” Much to progressives’ dismay, besides showing his poor understanding of the secular notion of the separation of church and state, Pope Francis also threw his considerable papal weight behind a bigot. I will admit that little is known about the meeting’s particulars but the reaction to it suggests there are considerable hopes invested in this Pope becoming an ally of progressive political forces.

I must confess, I was always a tad surprised by these hopes. Vague, anodyne ramblings about social justice and taking care of the sick and the poor have always been on Popes’ lips. They are part and parcel of the rhetorical package that goes with being called ‘Papa’ by crowds of adoring millions. Talk of Christian charity is cheap when it is clear that that charity is not really universal, that it is only selectively extended–to those with the right beliefs. Talk of the co-existence and compatibility of creationism and evolutionary theory is cheap too, when this is merely official Church doctrine, pragmatically adopted as long back as 1950. The Church, better than many adherents, understands the need to stay ‘relevant.’ To be sure this Pope has gone further, and to more places where previous Popes simply did not. But affixing political labels on him will not work; and neither will counting on him as a progressive ally.

A liberal Pope would not be a Pope; he would disdain the office, its titles, its pretensions. he would not wave to admiring crowds, pretending to be the arbiter of human fates, an infallible head of state, a ‘spiritual’ leader of millions, a hobnobber with heads of states. A liberal pope would not take on, and exercise the power of forgiving those who sin. A liberal pope would have to be a secular pope, and that he cannot be; you cannot be a liberal if you think the world can be divided into sinners and do-gooders with a special place reserved for those who sin and for those who don’t. The notion of damnation, of sin, is an illiberal, reactionary one. Forgiveness of those who have abortions sounds wunderful till you realize it is no human’s business to hand out forgiveness in the first place. A liberal Pope makes no sense; we can at best proclaim a particular pontiff is ‘liberal for a Pope.’

Popes, the heads of large, hierarchical organizations which claim a monopoly on the truth, which aim to provide moral and ethical instruction, and a guidebook for deliverance in this world and the next, cannot be liberal.

Samuel Bagenstos On The Mistaken Decision To Jail Kim Davis

Over at The New Republic Samuel Bagenstos offers some spot-on analysis of the decision to jail Kim Davis, ” the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk who defied a U.S. Federal Court order requiring that she issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples” and concludes:

To many observers…the drama is the point. By making a prominent example of those who obstinately refuse to comply with federal-court orders, they believe, we send a strong message that no individual is above the law. But what is the lesson courts are teaching in these cases: that the constitutional principle of equal citizenship is a basic commitment, or simply that judges are powerful people who, like parents, are not to be messed with? Sometimes, basic constitutional principles cannot be enforced without drama; without the 101st Airborne, the Little Rock schools would not have been desegregated. But federal judges should always be focused on vindicating the rights of those who invoke their jurisdiction. If the judges can vindicate those rights without demanding an ostentatious show of submission to their authority, they should do so.

I agree with Bagenstos: the real issue here is not Davis’ stance, it is the denial of legal rights to same-sex couples. Theirs is the story worth covering; Davis is merely fodder for mockery. (And sadly, too much of it is about her looks, her multiple marriages, and her adulterous life. The hypocrisy of the publicly religious is an old and well-worn joke; the marriage of that brand of humor with sexism and misogyny ensures a deeply unedifying discourse around this issue that only serves to obscure its relevant details.)

Judges cannot be expected to think too deeply about their participation in political theater and how their rulings and orders can be made to perform on its stage. Some, of course, are more self-aware about this possibility for co-optation than others. The judge who jailed Kim Davis was, presumably, not a member of the Left or the Right in his capacity as a judge, and thus cannot be castigated for having handed the Religious Right its latest hobby horse, ridden by its latest hero. But there is a great deal of wisdom in Bagenstos’ claim that from a jurisprudential perspective, one committed to revealing in each ruling the sinews of the legal, political, and pragmatic principles at play, the right thing to do in this case was to affirm constitutional principles of equal citizenship and not the power of the courts to compel obedience.

The former kind of ruling immediately forces a conversation about the rights and claims of citizenship, about the basic promise of a republic–remember, ‘res publica’, a nation of laws, equality before the law, the greatest political and moral deliverance of the modern, post-empire era; the latter merely brings us to face with the oldest, crudest forms of legal positivism, that the law serves as a cloak for the supreme power of a sovereign entity, which can enforce its decrees by crude force, handcuffs, and detainment. A conversation about the former would have shone the spotlight of bigotry and hypocrisy on Davis; the latter let her claim it as her due for heroism.  A tour of the talk-show circuit, and perhaps even a book contract await her.

Same Sex Marriage Is Legal; Prepare For Doom, America

Same sex marriage is now a constitutionally recognized right in the United States of America. As usual, Justice Kennedy has confirmed that he is the only judge required for the Supreme Court to function. But danger awaits America.

All across the land, divorces will break out, children will disobey their parents, and pedophiles will prey upon adolescents. Traditional marriage will crumble; the family as we know it will be no more; disease–the sexually transmitted variants–and pestilence, for what else is homosexuality?, will stalk the land. Church, synagogue, mosque, and temple attendance will drop; disco will be played in clubs again; wedding planners will be driven nuts by not one, but two brides (and sometimes, two grooms); heterosexual Americans will cower, trembling, for fear of being inveigled into homosexual relationships; figure skating clubs and cooking classes will report dramatic increases in enrollment; at baseball games, the seventh innings stretch will now feature, exclusively, “Raise Your Glass“, “I Will Survive“, “Beautiful“, “I’m Coming Out“, “Dancing Queen“, “Born This Way“, and “Y.M.C.A.“; closets will empty; men will dress better; women will cut their hair; the increase in consumption of wedding cakes will send national diabetes and obesity rates to all-time highs; the Stars and Stripes will be replaced by the rainbow flag; standards of grooming will improve; ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ will become double entendres; jocks, otters, bears, and wolves will become the new national animals; dykes will be found everywhere, not just in the Netherlands; members of the Federalist Society–young men at our nation’s best law schools–will be overcome by uncontrollable fits of weeping at the fall of their patron saint, Justice Scalia; limp wrists and lisps will be required for entry into the Armed Forces; sexual promiscuity will be enforced by state and federal  law; the legalization of ecstasy will proceed quicker than the legalization of marijuana; Harvey Milk will appear on currency notes; Spandex and Speedos, say no more; musicals will be sold out for years; piano bars will remain open all night long; cologne manufacturers will not be able to keep up with demand; ‘girlfriend’ will be overused; Liza Minelli, Donna Summer, and Barbra Streisand will be Joint First Ladies For Life; video rentals of All About Eve and Steel Magnolias will skyrocket (Netflix’s servers will break down);  floral arrangements will become highly valued art; ‘tossing the salad’ will not be restricted to kitchens; Bette Davis impersonators will find regular work; Calvin Klein underwear will be worn–on the outside–to bar mitzvahs; lines at Pottery Barns will stretch for blocks; men will talk about interior decoration all day and all night; the WNBA will become bigger than the NBA; boys will wear feather boas to play football; barbershops will offer pubic hair trimming; firm handshakes will be replaced by slaps on the butt; crew cut women will clog the aisles of Home Depot; flannel shirts will be back in fashion again; women’s soccer will become ‘America’s Game.’

America will become Sodom and Gomorrah; Jesus will weep; Justice Scalia will continue to not get laid.

Might Same-Sex Relations Be Evolutionarily Advantageous?

A prominent fallacious argument used against same-sex marriage is the good ‘ol ‘we’re only protecting our species’ one. I referred to it in a post a while ago:

[R]oughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon.

I then went on to note the naturalistic fallacy committed by the proponents of this argument.

But there is a flip-side to this argument against same-sex relations from a supposedly evolutionary perspective. Might same-sex relations be evolutionarily advantageous? A affirmative answer to this question would not, of course, imply that same-sex relations were thereby to be understood as morally praiseworthy; that would be committing a naturalistic fallacy of its own. Rather, quite simply, it might show that contributions to evolutionary ‘success’–a poorly understood notion at best–can take many more forms than just the mere reproduction of offspring and thus defuse, in yet another fashion, the so-called ‘arguments from evolution against gay marriage.’

In reviewing Lisa Cohen‘s All We Know: Three Lives (a biography of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland), Terry Castle writes:

For same-sex desire [Cohen] implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? [From ‘You Better Not Tell Me You Forgot‘, London Review of Books, 27 September 2012]

Castle reminds us that reproductive success in producing offspring might not be the only way to understand successful ‘evolutionary adaptations’. Perhaps members of the species can, through their ‘variant expressions of human sexuality’ contribute to the ‘success’ of their species in other ways? The ‘radical mental freedom’ of the same-sex members of our species might spark an efflorescence of activities–perhaps artistic, scientific, literary, cultural–that make possible its  adaptive success in a variety of environments. (Think Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Woolf, Turing – the list goes on and on.) Indeed, these activities by: enriching our lives, making them worth living, enabling us to find meaning in this world, might even(!) facilitate the reproductive success of the species.  (Some might think, of course,  that the excessive devotion paid to Turing’s children–the modern electronic computer–does no such thing.) Viewed in this light,  the presence of species members who do not partake in opposite-sex relations–with or without producing offspring–might come to appear as a positive characteristic of the species.

Marriage: It Ain’t a Religious Thing

Last year, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage, or rather, on Barack Obama’s evolving views on it. In that post, I handed out some unsolicited advice to the President, suggesting he view marriage in its social and economic context, and noting that there were too many similarities between the explicitly institutionalized racism of the past and the current strains of homophobic opposition to same-sex marriage to permit any vacillation on his part when it came to affirming support for it.

This week, as the Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of same-sex marriage I won’t repeat that same argument. (Besides, it seems to me, from my biased perspective, that the cases at hand are easy ones; the rulings are only a matter of suspense because the present Supreme Court contains ideologues like Scalia.)  Rather, I want to briefly note that marriage as a social institution opened itself up to the kind of abuse we see perpetrated by opponents to same-sex marriage the moment it sought divine sanction. Or rather, once a pair of human beings decided that the best way to signal to society that they were in a committed, enduring, sexual relationship, entailing extensive companionship, home-building and the rearing of children was to seek permission from a religious body, book, and ritual, the game was up. The path had been cleared for abuse of that social institution, and the means prepared for its ideological distortion.

Once marriage became a religious ritual, once marriages were made in heaven, much of the nonsense that has underwritten opposition to same-sex marriage became possible. But not just that; it also allowed the abuse perpetrated on women in ‘traditional marriage’–much of which was the target of feminists’ ire in days gone by (and today). Once marriage ceased to be a human, social institution, it ceased to find its grounding in particular social, economic and romantic contexts and became associated with things not of this earth, with transcendent realities. Those unsurprisingly, provided ample, powerful, cover for marriage’s utilization in a host of repressive political strategies: that the divinely ordained roles for women were procreation, child-bearing and housekeeping or that only certain kinds of people could marry.

The proper place for marriage is the secular; the religious sanctification so beloved of many should have been a supererogatory choice; those that were religious and were not reassured by the promises of the here and now, who didn’t feel their own emotional, financial and temporal commitment was enough, who doubted the resilience of human pacts which depend only on the profane, could have sought a religious ritual if they wanted one. The separation we have now, so that those who want to marry have the choice between a religious ceremony and one that is exclusively secular should always have been possible, should always have been built into the notion of a marriage. The move to make marriage into an institution requiring sanction by the state was a partially correct, albeit problematic move; it injects the state into the personal and institutionalizes marriage as the only kind of social signal for the commitments mentioned above. But it did move marriage out of an exclusively religious sphere.

The legal recognition of same-sex marriage is correct for moral reasons; it also moves marriage closer to its true secular place.

A Bad Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage

I would have scarcely believed it possible, but a few short hours after teaching the naturalistic fallacy in my Philosophy of Biology class, I was exposed to an argument–from a professional philosopher–that, roughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon. This resistance then, has nothing to do with religion, God, or the divine sanctification. Rather, it is the scientific thing to do: resist gay marriage because it is against evolutionary demands made on us as a species. This means that active disapproval of homosexuality–societal and legal discrimination for instance–is an expression of a biological instinct and should not be condemned as a moral failing.

The outlines of this argument should be familiar to most folks. It has been made time and again and despite having been spectacularly debunked, it rises again and again, like a zombie, or your favorite refusing-to-die cinematic ghoul.

What this argument attempts–and fails–to do is derive a proposition with normative import from a set of propositions that are purely descriptive. This–as David Hume pointed out a long time ago in his A Treatise of Human Natureis an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to bridge the is-ought gap:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

This fallacy manifests itself in the current situation as follows. There are biological facts about us: We reproduce, we pass on our genes, various reproductive strategies are adopted, some work better than the others (in securing more offspring to whom we can pass on our genes). This much can be ascertained by observation and measurement. But what should  we do on noting these observations? The proponent of the argument noted above, wants to derive the following: Those reproductive strategies that work ‘better’ are ‘good’, and therefore should be encouraged, should be praised. The rest should be condemned. (Marriage, it will be noted, has been admitted as a successful reproductive strategy; this is a matter of empirical assessment and could well turn out to be false.)

But whence ‘better’, whence ‘good’? Why is ‘reproductive success’ a moral good to be sought? What is the source of that valuation and why is it allowed to override other values in the derivation above? Might we be allowed to admit other values in arriving at an alternative conclusion? Like, for instance, a more tolerant society is a ‘better’ society than one that isn’t? But then, we would be opening up a debate–conducted within some broad ethical and moral frameworks–on valuation, which is precisely what our protagonist didn’t want. He merely wanted the straightforward elevation of reproductive success to the preeminent moral value without further debate.

The tireless proponents of the so-called evolutionary arguments against same-sex marriage forget that efforts to read normative judgments off the historical workings out of the evolutionary process have as much difficulty in bridging the is-ought gap as any other species of argument. Calling upon biology here is not the scientifically sophisticated thing to do; it is merely to reveal one’s ignorance of the limitations of evolutionary explanation.