On Brett Kavanaugh

September 28, 2018 Leave a comment

I’m hesitant to write this.

I believe Dr. Ford; I believe that she was sexually assaulted at age 15 in the manner that she has described. And I believe that it was 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh who assaulted her.

I do not believe that, alone, is disqualifying information.

I don’t feel that way under the auspices of “boys will be boys” or to downplay, in any way, how serious of an offense it is to forcibly grope someone and instill the fear of rape; to literally silence someone by overpowering them. This is a serious offense. It is an event that in a just world would and should lead to consequences—consequences Brett Kavanaugh has never felt.

I genuinely believe that Kavanaugh doesn’t recall the incident he insists never occurred. I expect that he, too, could pass a lie detector test. Not only because he was described as “very drunk” at the time, but also because I imagine that to Brett Kavanaugh, a trivial bit of fun has long ago been lost in the recesses of his mind—a blip of an event not worth remembering.

I imagine that to Brett Kavanaugh, he never intended to rape Dr. Ford, or anyone else for that matter. I imagine that for Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, groping a woman and scaring her into thinking there might be more coming was a fun sort of joke. I imagine Brett Kavanaugh thought it to be exciting and arousing for both parties involved, rather than potentially traumatic. I imagine that even if he were stone cold sober at the time, this wouldn’t be the type of thing Brett Kavanaugh would remember taking place dozens of years later.

All of this is abhorrent. And it’s indicative of both a young man and of a culture—a culture in which things like this happen and are forgotten or glazed over far too often. So you may be wondering how I could find this to be true, and not find it to be disqualifying.

It is because I believe in rehabilitation. It is because in the undercurrent of friction between the #metoo movement and criminal justice reform, I tend to lean toward a reformed view of crime and punishment. I believe that all people—black, white, rich, poor—deserve a chance at rehabilitation. I believe that few people—especially juveniles—should be defined by their actions from decades ago without additional context. I believe that all crimes—from petty theft to murder—deserve a level of reconsideration as time passes and people change.

But I do not think that time, alone, earns this forgiveness—this reconsideration of the type of person you are now or were then. I do not think that time alone merits Brett Kavanaugh a chance at being confirmed to the highest court in the land. I believe there is a need for understanding of and empathy for the damage you have done. I believe that a consequence must have been issued commensurate to the seriousness of the crime.

This is where Brett Kavanaugh disqualifies himself. It is the lack of consequences, and then the subsequent lack of accountability that I find in Brett Kavanaugh. Not only did he never pay even a small price for what he did, he demonstrated very clearly that he sees no chance that his actions could have caused someone else a lifetime of emotional or psychological consequences. He has never reckoned with the unintended consequences of his lifestyle, of his privilege, and of his brand of “fun.”

There is a column recently published by the Atlantic in which the author, Deborah Copaken, a victim of date rape in college, contacts and confronts her rapist only to discover that he was blacked out drunk, has no memory of the incident, and had no idea the harm he had caused her. In this story, the rapist apologizes; he listens; he expresses shame and embarrassment at his actions. The author writes that “suddenly, 30 years of pain and grief fell out of me.”

I can’t speak for Dr. Ford and with as well as she spoke for herself, no one should want me to. But I get the feeling that if her allegation had been handled in such a way, there’s a good chance none of us would have ever heard about it. I get the sense that Dr. Ford wanted little part of this ordeal, and instead, wanted to inform the country on a measure of this man’s character.

And when given the chance to measure his character—to show accountability, growth, remorse, empathy, shame, or even the low, low bar of potential fallibility, Brett Kavanaugh disqualified himself for the world to see. He showed defiance. He cast himself as a victim. Entitlement and resentment emanated out of him as he shouted, cried, and bragged about his accomplishments. His desire to show that he was not the man who could commit such an act could only exist, for him, in his mind, if he insisted he was never the man—the boy—who could have committed such an act.

So he lied about his drinking habits. He applied the lessons that Donald Trump has so exasperatingly taught us—that certainty more than truth proves persuasive. He proved that he had not healed or learned or changed much at all from the time he was a boy. He proved that he had never wrestled with his past demons, but simply moved on from them and started pretending they were angels all along.

There is a world in which a boy like Brett Kavanaugh could commit an act of sexual assault described by Dr. Ford and grow up to be a man I find worthy of high office. In that world, boys have consequences, girls are respected and believed. In that world, there is communication and forgiveness, and routinely a process of restorative justice (formally or informally) in which men and boys are shown the impacts their actions have on women and girls. This is not that world. And Brett Kavanaugh has shown himself not to be that man.


Make Republicans Great Again

October 18, 2016 Leave a comment

A lot has been written lately about the impending death of the Republican Party. I have remained skeptical of such eulogies. In fact, I think that the Republican Party could have a strong future in our national politics sooner than later, but it has to start right now.

In far too many words, I will lay out how the Republican Party can reclaim their status as a national governing power, improve the American electoral process, govern efficiently without compromising their (establishment) principles, exploit an impending divide in the Democratic Party to recruit pragmatic centrists, and win over the hearts of Millennials. The resulting country would be stronger, because each party would have empirical evidence that theirs is a viable path forward; each party would value responsible, responsive leadership; and the two parties combined would be more representative of the American electorate, whose center has been criminally underrepresented and whose politics and policies have been drifting left.

Personally, I should note that despite considering myself a moderate, many of the positions I advocate for the Republican Party embracing are not ones I would clamor for myself. I am not daydreaming about the perfect party for me, personally. But such a change would lead to the possibility that I would again be an undecided voter in many elections–a status I haven’t been able to claim for some time.

Step One: Become the Party of Electoral Legitimacy

I got the idea to write this post today when I saw an article about the Allegheny County (PA) District Attorney issuing a statement ensuring that they had no evidence of any impending wrongdoing undermining the electoral results. It struck me, that in an American democratic system, such a reminder needed to be issued. But it is needed; desperately. Because Trump has apparently given up on winning the election and has instead dedicated his time to questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming electoral outcomes. It should surprise nobody that there is a great deal of literature that indicates that the key to successful democracies is the peaceful and smooth transition of power after the votes are cast. That’s just common sense.

And so, yet again, Trump’s behavior is giving Republican officials an opportunity to disavow him. The last time a wave of un-support occurred, many on the left (including President Obama) said that Republicans get no points for distancing themselves now, this late in the process. Many were cynical about the fact that alienating Muslims, Mexicans, and all sorts of others were tolerated, but the electorally powerful block of women was enough to engender real dissent from Republican officials.

So again, if officials were to stand up to Trump, many would question: why now? Why only when it is clear that he will lose? But there is a good answer. Trump has disparaged people; he has disparaged communities; but now, he is disparaging democracy. He is calling into question the quintessential institution of a successfully-governed society. And Republican officials at all levels need to stand up and shut this rhetoric down. They need to show the country that there are two responsible parties; that our democracy can survive Trump; and that our country and some of its most vital institutions are not endangered by their party.

Republican state parties, national leaders, and elected officials should come forward and insist that they will uphold the electoral integrity of the process. They should speak out against voter intimidation. They should promise their support and acceptance of the outcomes of the elections. This message should come as soon and as loudly and as clearly as possible. Our elections are in good hands; their results are paramount and final. The Party will accept the results.

Step Two: Disavow, Disengage, and Re-Brand

When people think about re-branding, they usually think about re-branding themselves, or from within. I, however, am talking about re-branding ardent Trump supporters. I recently read a column that pointed out that in the general election, there are ~40% of people who will vote Republican every time. That explains Trump’s level of support. But in the primary election, the Trump vote, and even the more cumulative “outsider” vote, made up a smaller share of the Republican Party and American electorate. These people who so readily put party above country, or worse yet don’t understand the risks that Trump actually poses to the nation, deserve to be outcast by those in the party who wish to govern and to make progress in American policy rather than simply tear down the institutions that have been built over time. Repudiating Trump will cause an immense backlash from many within the party base, who by and large still want their leaders to support the nominee, but it’s time to officially cast out those demons.

This doesn’t require a great deal of shifting, honestly. Once Trump has been disavowed and a dedication to responsible transition of power has been announced, parrot Paul Ryan’s oft-repeated desire to govern responsibly and fulfill a conservative vision through implementation of the Better Way agenda. Then, simply add that those who stand in the way and do not support the implementation of the agenda are the ones abandoning their country and their party. Those who resist the loudest and most boisterously, then, should be branded as outside of the Republican Party. They key is to brand them in a way that they would also welcome and adopt–I’d pick something along the lines of Radical Nationalists; they might think it a compliment or at least a fitting and acceptable moniker. Tell them that they no longer stand with the party, and let them embrace that role. And in a simple but steady stream of rhetoric, the party has thus ousted those who seek to destroy it.

Step Three: Be the Party of Electoral Reform

Of course, if it were that easy, wouldn’t the Republican Party have asserted its leadership over its unraveling base long ago? Yes, but they needed the fringes on the right to win elections. They needed to move even further right to survive primary challenges. But with the right set of initiatives, the need and fear of primary challenges could be eliminated. If there is one thing that 2016 has made clear, it is that the electoral system is in need of reform. The primary system has delivered two historically unpopular candidates and removed the credibility of the recently-coined edict: “the party decides.”

This is why becoming the party of electoral reform would be a hugely popular move. And through initiatives completely within party control (at the state level), the need to pander to right-wing voters could be greatly reduced or eliminated. How? By opening primaries. Republicans famously have full control over 23 state governments (governors and legislature), plus 8 more governorships (either with mixed or Democratic legislatures), and a legislature under an independent governor. This control gives the party a HUGE amount of leeway to implement electoral reform. This move would be popular among independents and political disaffecteds, but would also allow the large swath of Republican-leaning independents to have a say in the primary process.

These efforts should be targeted. Look to traditionally blue states with Republican Governors. Look for states where Trump did very poorly in the primaries. Look for states in which Senator and Congresspeople have felt safe and empowered enough to openly oppose Trump. A mass effort of strategically opening primaries across the nation could mitigate the prospect of far-right primary threats and create goodwill among political moderates in one fell swoop. This is an essential part of any plan to put Republicans back into play nationally without sacrificing the ability to govern effectively.

Step Four: Govern

This one is going to be difficult to swallow. The President is going to be Public Enemy #1, Hillary Clinton. One path would be to let the anti-Clinton sentiment unify the party into 4 more years of obstructionism–something Republican Senator John McCain has indicated is on the docket. This would be the easy path.

However, Speaker Paul Ryan has repeatedly said that he would look for areas of common ground and work to implement them. He usually follows that with some quip about there being very little common ground to work with. And so I took it upon myself to open up Hillary Clinton’s website, and open up Speaker Ryan’s Better Way website, and I looked for common ground. There isn’t a TON to work with, but there is enough.

Speaker Ryan and Clinton can improve workforce training initiatives. Both would like to increase early childhood development. They actually have a decent amount of room to work with on health care, if they can get past the dicey political rhetoric of Obamacare and repeal; simply putting forth several of the measures they view as a “replacement,” rather than continued focus on “repeal,” could uncover many overlaps. Crucially, after a thorough vetting, the Republicans in the Senate (likely to be in the minority) should confirm Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. That will hurt, but it is the responsible thing to do.

This is not a call from a political naïf for a kumbaya government. There are irreconcilable differences, such as the approach to addressing poverty, the approach to reforming entitlements, and upper income taxation. Republicans should not abandon their principles and let Clinton do as she pleases, but simply move government along, find areas of agreement, and try not to mention the word shutdown for a few years. When it comes time for subsequent elections, Republicans should be able to say that they fought Clinton on a number of issues, but that they also managed to accomplish some of their legislative priorities despite a hostile president.

There is one area of agreement that I have left out thus far, and this will be a crucial to a Republican plan forward. Clinton has acknowledged that the corporate tax code is among the highest in the world. She has called for reform and closing of loopholes. She has said proposed several measures through the corporate tax code to punish companies that leave the US for tax avoidance and reward those that bring money and jobs back. She has been rumored to be in favor of a repatriation holiday and possibly a lower corporate tax rate. She favors full expensing of investments, and a lower, simpler tax code for small businesses. Paul Ryan’s Better Way agenda calls for many of the same things. He prefers full expensing for all businesses, and likely a lower corporate tax rate than Clinton would prefer. But there is a LOT of common ground here. I can see very little chance that a Republican House, a split Senate, and a Clinton presidency would not result in a large-scale corporate tax reform. And doing so will likely benefit the country, while also being a huge victory for the Republican Party.

Step Five: Drive the Wedge

One of the most important developments for this plan is happening outside of the Republican Party and outside of their control. And that is the leftward shift of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders galvanized a new generation on the left. Elizabeth Warren is lionized. And while yes, the more center-left, pragmatic Clinton won the primary fairly easily, the Democratic Party platform, as well as the tone and content of the messaging from the left have undergone a sort of metamorphosis in the past several years. No time in recent history has the word “socialist” been as politically acceptable. No time in recent history has social justice so dominated the conversation. Clinton is an unpopular candidate who will win the election because Trump is an unacceptable candidate, but there are fissures on the left, and those fissures could create the opportunity to pilfer the centrists from a party they see moving left of them. And those fissures will crack wide open when Clinton partners with Republicans to pass corporate tax reform.

I’m not saying that the Democrats would run a primary opponent against her. I’m not saying that they would abandon support altogether. But I am saying that corporate tax reform would ramp up the rhetoric from the left in a hurry. It would provide a boogeyman to point to: “look at the Democrats lurching left! Opposed to working together and making compromises that better the country!” The American public forgets in a hurry. Two years of responsible Republican governance could quickly flip the script and make the Democrats the ones that sound unwilling to make a deal, such will be their discontent with yet another corporatist at the helm of their party. This is a recruiting opportunity. Show centrists that there is a responsible alternative now, dedicated to governing; willing to push out the extremists from their party. Show them how distanced you are from the Party of Trump.

Step Six: End the Culture Wars

Up until this point, I have laid out a path to oust the extreme and ungovernable right wing from the Republican Party and form a coalition of establishment Republicans, right-leaning independents, and centrists dismayed by the Democratic move to the left. Certainly, if all goes well, that might be enough to re-form the Republican Party into a viable party on the national level in a way that many couldn’t currently fathom. However, there’s an important voting bloc remaining that may be a secret weapon: Millennials.

Millennials are the largest generational demographic in the nation, having surpassed baby boomers in size. Naturally, young people don’t vote as often as older generations, but they also present an opportunity for a political realignment that this nation so desperately needs. Millennials are less likely to identify with either party. They are among the most likely to back a third party candidate this year, showing a vast discontent with their options and a big opportunity to be persuaded and recruited. They are also incredibly likely to favor gay marriage. And while some polls have shown them to be pretty hostile toward abortion, the same polls indicate that they do not identify as “pro-life,” primarily because the image has been so tarnished by Republican-driven rhetoric in the culture wars of the past.

I’m not saying become a pro-choice party. I’m not saying become a pro-gay rights party (ok, both of those would be pretty great to me personally, but I recognize that there is enough of an electorate out there who disagrees with me that reversing yourselves might cause more trouble than its worth). But at the very least, stop emphasizing them; stop talking about them. The Republican Party has already in theory rejected “culture wars” in matters of social justice, though the white nationalists supporting Trump have made that more difficult to believe. But in moving forward, it might be a great appeal to unaffiliated and undecided voters to just be the party that prioritizes economics and job creation and lays out a conservative vision to address poverty and just simply stops pushing and pushing back on the social issues. This is the one thing that prevents moderate democrats from ever crossing the aisle. And after years of harsh rhetoric, backing off from these topics could provide the breath of fresh air needed to legitimize the party for the next generation.


So that’s my blueprint to move forward. The result of these actions should over time lead to a center-right party battling more of a leftist party and leaving the right-wing nationalists relegated to the current role of libertarians–angrily throwing forth a longshot nominee every four years; exactly where the fringe of this country deserves to be.

But remember, it all starts right now. It all starts with ditching Donald Trump and making a strong, ardent case for electoral legitimacy and peaceful transfers of power.

On Ferguson

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Michael Brown is probably a bad example. He appears to have committed a crime; to have tangled with the police officer at and in the officer’s vehicle; to have turned back toward the officer and approached him before being shot. Michael Brown isn’t the clean example that could wrap this whole thing up in a tidy package and deliver it with a bow. I honestly never expected an indictment in this case. The facts were too messy. I kept wanting to remind the media that “unarmed” does not equate to “innocent,” and to remind those defending Officer Wilson that probable guilt does not equate to a death sentence. But without minimizing the life of Michael Brown–his life matters–the facts of this particular case stopped being the point a long time ago. Ferguson is not about one black male being shot in the street.

I recently drove across the country, and as I heard that a decision about indictment was near I thought really hard about stopping in and staying in Ferguson for the reaction. This is a historic moment; we’ll remember watching it on tv. But it’s also the sort of moment that you can never understand without feeling it in the air. It’s the kind of moment that feels very different unfiltered. It’s the start of a movement that will change the landscape of criminal enforcement in this country. In some ways, I hate that I’m not there for something like this. Because Ferguson is not about one black male being shot in the street.

Ferguson is a tipping point. It’s a tipping point of awareness that too many black and brown men are dying at the hands of police. It’s a tipping point of our societal tolerance for letting that continue to happen. It’s a tipping point for the militarization of police units and the escalation of force that accompanies it. People in the streets are clamoring for justice for Michael Brown, but Michael Brown is probably a bad example. This is not about one black male being shot in the street. Justice will be served when (not if) the death of Michael Brown spurs the movement that forces our police to stop unnecessarily killing black and brown men. And any discussion of the events of tonight must recognize that Ferguson is about more than one case and more than one life.

On Congressman Scott Peters

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

The views expressed in this blog entry are solely my own and are not representative of any official campaign stance

Today is my last day as an unpaid intern on the campaign to reelect Scott Peters. Tomorrow, I will become a paid staff member. That makes this my last chance to tell everyone why I support Peters without facing accusations that I am “just doing my job,” or am “saying what I’ve been paid to say.” This is my chance to make it clear that I don’t say these things because I work for Peters. I work for Peters because I believe these things.

But first, background:

I am a politically independent Army veteran and graduate student with a couple of bachelors degrees. I’m so fed up with Congress’ inability to do its job that I once attempted to establish a new nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of independent candidates and voters–to put evidence and results above ideology. I recently moved to San Diego “for the summer” because I wanted to see if it was a place I might want to settle after my eventual graduation. Upon my arrival, I could have done just about anything–sought a “real” job, waited tables, mowed lawns, whatever. I wanted to get involved in the political scene out here, so I began looking into the local races and candidates. I could have picked anyone from any surrounding district to support and to volunteer my time. After researching the races and candidates in the area, I chose to dedicate about 30 hours a week, unpaid, to Scott Peters’ reelection campaign for the past five to six weeks.

In short, by most standards, I’d consider myself credibly objective in this matter. I’m not just going to shill for anyone in my party or district, since I have neither of those here. And I’m probably a lot like you: I love this country (so much that I painted American flag racing stripes on my car), but can recognize it’s flaws and shortcomings. And I want my government to get back to actually working for its people. I generally pride myself in being able to see multiple sides of an issue. But there’s one thing I just cannot wrap my head around: I honestly can’t see a single good reason not to vote for Scott Peters over Carl DeMaio. I honestly believe that if I were to sit down and have a real, honest, open-minded discussion with every member of California’s 52nd District, Peters would win 70-30, at least.

Here’s why:

If you think Congress shouldn’t get paid unless they do their job and pass a budget, vote for Scott Peters, who ran on a platform for such a law, cosponsored it, voted for it, and it passed into law.

If you wanted a sensible debt reduction/shutdown avoidance plan that appeals to both parties, vote for Scott Peters, whose pre-shutdown plan was endorsed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles–you know, the guys that created the Simpson-Bowles report that everyone wished were enacted but Congress mostly ignored.

If you want someone who puts policy and people above party, vote for Scott Peters, who was ranked the 4th most independent Democrat in 2013 by the National Journal, which noted that Peters is “part of the bipartisan freshmen United Solutions Caucus, which meets to try and translate the dissatisfaction their voters voiced during the campaign into bipartisan action. He said many of the new members feel emboldened to buck their parties”.

If you want to take care of our veterans and military, vote for Scott Peters, who played a role in the recent VA compromise bill, and who has also supported legislation aiding homeless veterans (introduced), increasing access to mental health services (cosponsored), and increasing economic opportunities (voted–across party lines).

If you support women’s economic and/or reproductive rights, then vote for Scott Peters, who has a 100% rating and an endorsement from Planned Parenthood; and who also has cosponsored multiple measures focusing on equal pay and workplace treatment. (And if you can’t vote for a pro-choice candidate, then you also can’t vote for Peters’ opponent).

If you want to protect the environment, vote for Scott Peters, who chairs the Climate Task Force for the Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition and has the support of the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club.

If you want to support small businesses, vote Scott Peters, who wants to cut/reform taxes on small businesses and who has the endorsement of FOUR former chairs of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, such as in this letter to the editor.

If you’re tired of the corporate influence on politics and don’t believe that corporations are people, then vote Scott Peters, who cosponsored a resolution for a Constitutional Amendment to undo the Citizens United decision and has supported other efforts to improve the impact of small, individual donors.

If you want a candidate with strong family values, vote for Scott Peters, the family man that is the son of a minister.

If you’re a geek, vote for Scott Peters, who played a major role in keeping ComiCon (and its economic impact) in San Diego… and also put a Game of Thrones shout-out into his video for ComiCon 2014.

If you think the IRS has lacked accountability, vote for Scott Peters, who voted for the STOP IRS Act, which calls for the termination of those found to take certain official actions for political purposes.

If you think bipartisanship starts by building relationships outside the halls of Congress, vote for Scott Peters, who participates in bipartisan workouts to build bonds with fellow representatives.

If you’re tired of an obstructionist Congress that openly mocks working together to find a solution, vote against Carl DeMaio, who was the lone no vote on a divided City Council over 100 times and openly mocked “bringing everyone to the table” to find a solution in a recently-released video (1:10) from a 2011 speech to the local Tea Party.


Basically, you have a first-term incumbent who is doing all the right things to be a part of the solution in Congress; aiming to balance the budget, getting the support of wide-ranging groups from environmental to business to military to women’s groups. You have a guy who didn’t let being a freshman hold him back from introducing and cosponsoring legislation, balancing achievable (and achieved) goals with lofty legislative long-shots. If you’re tired of the same old crap from Congress, Scott Peters is what we need more of in D.C..

Carl DeMaio is trying to run his campaign against Washington and everything that is wrong with Congress. That makes sense for him because there’s a lot of anti-government and anti-Washington sentiment out there on which he can capitalize. Unfortunately for him, Carl DeMaio isn’t running against everything wrong with Washington. He happens to be running against one of Washington’s few bright spots. It only takes a little bit of research (and/or a few conversations with those who have worked/interacted with both men) to realize that. And as soon as people figure it out, I would hope and expect that Scott Peters would receive the victory he so rightly deserves.

On Offensive Words, Part Two

June 19, 2014 5 comments

This is the second in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

The word redskin is a crazy word. I’ve never seen an etymological debate get so heated, so public, so emotional, or so misleading. I wrote over 800 words earlier today in an attempt to set the record straight when I reached a point in my post when I actually typed, “but none of what I’ve written so far matters.”  At that point, I deleted it and decided to focus on the parts that do matter. But first I just can’t help but share some reading and a quick opinion on the etymological stuff that’s going on, because I hate when two sides feel like they need to bend, stretch, or fabricate the truth in order to make their point–and there’s a lot of that in this case. You are certainly welcome to trust me, but I strongly encourage you to click on some of the links in the following paragraph.

First, the most thorough and definitive history of the use of the word redskin was written by Ives Goddard of the Smithsonian Institute. That study was the primary source used for this more-readable Slate article last December. These sources are specifically written to discredit claims by Suzan Harjo about the word redskin originating as a term for the scalps of dead Native Americans, but both admit a later evolution into a pejorative. The claim of scalp-origin was loudly repeated without substantiation in a bluntly-titled Esquire piece yesterday that relied primarily on oral history and followed up today with an attempt to verify his claims with this picture from 1863 that doesn’t actually prove the point he’s trying to prove (and comes far after the word’s origin). Meanwhile, the Redskins and their fans will tell you all about how the name must be accepted by all because of their Native American coach at the time of the naming in 1937, whose heritage was in such question that a court case attempting to determine his heritage actually ended in a hung jury… and created a pretty crazy story from his mom, too. It’s not hard to tell where I stand on the etymological debate. I think that the worst claims about the origin of the term redskin have never been adequately substantiated and have been, to me at least, adequately debunked. But remember, this is the point where I concluded that none of the above truly matters to the current debate. Word origins don’t mean much because language evolves, words take on new meanings, and public perceptions change–which has certainly happened in the case of the word redskin.

On the subject of public perception, a 2004 Annenberg Poll found that 90% of self-identified Native Americans did not find the team name Redskins to be offensive. Many criticize the findings because of the self-identification aspect, without differentiating at all who was living on a reservation or was more assimilated into mainstream culture and society. However, with such strong results and so little variation among subgroups, the results should be seen as at least somewhat reliable. These numbers line up fairly well with a 2002 Harvard/Sports Illustrated poll that found that 75% of Native Americans (and 62% living on reservations) did not find the name offensive. These numbers are certainly enough to give some pause to the people who feel that there is no need for discussion or debate and no argument against the viewing of redskin as an offensive slur. At the very least, in very recent history, the issue was less clear-cut. Or maybe I just resent a little bit any notion that there is no other side to an argument that has so much to do with emotion and perception.

But times have changed. A more recent poll, by The Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino found that 67% of Native Americans agree that “the Redskins team name is a racial or racist word and symbol.” While the shift has been less profound among the general population (especially white people), the tide of public perception has clearly turned on this issue. While I fully accept this new reality and have long expected the team to change its name soon after losing their trademark, which I believe that they will even after appeal of today’s decision, I am intrigued by the cause of such a shift. And I fear that, as I stated in Offensive Words Part One, the primary driver very well might be that people are being told how to feel.

One way that people are being told how to feel, which is obvious to notice and just as obviously failing, is that fans of the team and defenders of the team name repeatedly will tell us that Native Americans should be honored by the team name. While it’s certainly true that people don’t name sports teams after cultures or animals they find embarrassing or disparaging, the intent behind the naming is simply not at issue here. The perception of the word and the feelings it evokes are at issue, and you can’t simply tell someone to be proud of something that offends them.

The other way people are being told how to feel, though, troubles me as well. I want to present a series of quotes:

I hate to tell you what would have happened if you had polled African Americans in 1900. Totally irrelevant, because Native Americans, just like Washingtonians like me, have grown up using the name. Their consciences haven’t anymore been raised than mine have been, until I heard what Native Americans were saying… Now, when they know that some of their brethren—who they were really talking about, and what it meant and the history of that name, and the brutal history, very gruesome history, I don’t think you have the same answer.

– D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, on the uselessness of a 10-year old poll

[Dr. Michael Friedman] claimed that even if Native Americans say the name is not offensive, they do not realize it is hurting their self-esteem.

“Even a positive image, if it’s stereotypical, will lead to psychological distress, lower self-esteem, lower sense of achievement,” Friedman said.

The Free Beacon in an interview with Native American Activists

Native American activists dismiss such opinion as misguided (“There are happy campers on every plantation,” says Suzan Harjo), or as evidence that Native Americans’ self-esteem has fallen so low that they don’t even know when they’re being insulted.

Sports Illustrated in an article interviewing several Native American activists

The common thread here is that some activists opposing the use of the word redskin believe that Native Americans are not offended by the term only because they lack knowledge or fail to understand why it should offend them. This notion, especially coming from Harjo who routinely states factually unsubstantiated claims about the word, strikes me as incredibly condescending toward the affected populations. And while the campaign to educate the population about the terrors associated with the word redskin is proving effective in changing public perception, something about that kind of attitude turns me off to the arguments. As I stated in Part One, I believe that the decision to find something offensive or not to find it offensive should be an individual one. These are examples of a population being almost belittled for not understanding why they should be offended by a word.

All of this leads me to wonder if perhaps this education does more harm than good. If, as has been asserted by Dr. Friedman above and the American Psychological Association, the word Redskin has a potentially “negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children,” is a greater awareness of the negative ways in which it was once used a healthy outcome or an improvement? I tend to believe that in almost all circles, the word redskin had all but lost its more problematic meaning and become simply associated with a sports team. It may have made the incredibly rare journey from a word that once offended and now was accepted, like queer (albeit under vastly different circumstances).  And if it had, is returning it to a word of hate and re-wrapping an ugly history of negative treatment toward Native Americans into a word the best outcome?

At this point, my questions can only be hypothetical. The damage is done. The tide is unlikely to turn again. Redskin has become, again, a dirty word. For some it always was. For others, they didn’t realize it ever had been. The Redskins will likely change their team name eventually. The delay will likely place them on the wrong side of history. It’s just a sports team name, after all. It isn’t worth offending so many people so badly. But I, for one, wonder if the price of reviving a polarizing word that had been all but forgotten by society at large (and apparently, 75-90% of Native Americans, too) will be worth the gain of changing the team name. I hope so.

My thoughts on this matter continue and are clarified in my first comment response below… if you’re interested in even more words on the subject.

On Offensive Words, Part One

June 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Disclaimer: The language used in this blog post may be offensive and hopefully makes readers at least as uncomfortable as it makes the author to write. However, it felt important to write this particular post free of euphemisms. I have been thinking of writing this post for over a year and was constantly worried about being viewed as insensitive. I can only hope that I have worded my thoughts appropriately.

To my knowledge, the word nigger is the most powerful word in the English language. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve uttered it aloud, and all were quotations; and all were whispered no matter the setting. Typing it feels strange. I’m certain that when it comes time to press “publish” on this post, I will think more than twice about it. My father wrote for a newspaper and once made a typo writing the word “bigger.”  The n-key is just next to the b-key, you see. It slipped through the cracks and somehow got published. Our whole family was tense for days about the potential consequences. I’ve retold that story dozens of times. I always manage to do it without speaking the word. One little word, six letters–they fill me with fear.

But to focus on my fear is missing the point of the word’s power. Wrapped up in this little word, to borrow from a recent Atlantic magazine cover, are 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of separate but equal. Wrapped in that word are lynchings and cross burnings. Wrapped in that word are oppression and segregation and violence. It’s all right there packed into one word, giving it so much charge, so much bite, that a single utterance can label the speaker a racist and ruin the day (at least) of the spoken-to. It’s a word further complicated with reclamation attempts, generational gaps, cultural appropriation, music…. but the complications do nothing to mitigate the power of the word. It is a terrifying and devastating word.

There’s something about that power that I resent a little. I hate that a word so heavily-charged exists that it can eviscerate someone’s self image or career in a heartbeat. I find the power of the word potentially damaging. I find it harmful. No one likes heavily-concentrated power. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to prevent putting so much power into any single word. It’s too late for nigger. The power is there. It’s real. It’s palpable. I honestly can’t think of another word like it in that respect. Maybe faggot comes the closest (I can tell by how uncomfortable it makes me to write it), but by and large, few words–if any–have become universally known by their more acceptable euphemism, in this case “the n-word.”

But that may not last for long. A funny thing is happening. These days, it seems everyone is trying to create more n-words. You’ve likely all heard about the pledge to end the r-word, retard(ed). And today there’s a big headline about the other r-word, Redskins. Just yesterday, a reality television star who is a little person stated that the word midget is as offensive as the n-word. Of course, you can always tell that a word isn’t there yet when people say it out loud in comparison to “the n-word.” These PR campaigns to equate words with nigger are, to me, short-sighted and harmful. The idea is that they want fewer people to say these words, and I agree; let’s not go around calling people retards, please. But in order to get that result, they are also charging the words up with greater and greater power. They are creating vernacular monsters.

All of this is part of a cycle of name-changing and euphemizing that has always confused me a little bit. There was a time when black people in the United States were officially referred to as negroes, or colored people, or African-American, or black. There was a time when people were referred to as slow, and then retarded (the Latin word for slow; really creative, guys), and then mentally disabled or challenged. Midgets or dwarfs are now little people… or dwarfs, sometimes; I found mixed signals on that. Indigenous people to the United States were red skins and Indians and Native Americans and American Indians. In some of these cases there needs to be a distinction between official terms and slang terms. But in most of these cases the official terms became slang terms, and thus the “need” for a new official term was created. However, these changes in vocabulary serve in large part only to mask the attitudes that turned words into pejoratives in the first place.

I understand that language evolves, meanings change, and connotation especially can change. But it seems that when PR campaigns need to be launched making the most extreme verbal comparison available in order to affect that change, that maybe we’re missing the point a little. Maybe we need to look a little deeper at the practice. Yes, it’s easy to view me from my perch of privilege and write off this opinion, but to me–and this is what confuses and bothers me the most–people are being told how they must feel about words in order to retain status as decent and compassionate human beings. It’s one thing to have the feelings of an oppressed community explained to you and to feel empathy. It’s quite another when a small group within that community claim to speak for the entire community and tell both the outside population and members of their own community how to feel about various words and labels.

My basic understanding of how these labels come to change is that usually, a very small group of people within a minority community advocate to those of power within a majority community to tell the overall population what they now must call a smaller group of people. The rank and file of the minority community being re-branded rarely has much of a say–and generally don’t care, according to polling. However, one year you’re African American… the next year, you’re black again. It must be somewhat of a weird phenomena to experience from within; to be told that your label or your identity is now changed. It has been changed for you.

How many people within a community need to find something offensive in order to change that community’s label and identity? Is their sense of what is or isn’t offensive the new standard? Are you a bad or lesser human being if you find the labeling game to be a mostly fruitless endeavor?  I’m not certain about any of this. But I think that whether or not we find something offensive can be an individual choice, and that can be ok. And I think that charging words with all the power of the word nigger is a disservice to language and to society. And I think that you don’t have to re-brand a community to feel genuine empathy for them and to work to improve their lives.

This is the first in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

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On Saving Face

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

My ex-girlfriend and I had an on-and-off relationship. Many of our friends had grown quite impatient with the constant indecision. When she asked me to move in with her, of course, those close to us were concerned. Those concerns made sense, and soon she started having second thoughts. Of course, to back out would mean that all of those concerned loved ones would blame and vilify her. When she first brought her uncertainty to my attention, I wanted the decision to be based on the issue at hand and not on how it would be perceived, and so I told her that if she backed out now I would tell people that it was a mutual decision that we rushed into things; I’d help her save face. (The end of this story isn’t necessary)

The more I read about the government shutdown, past shutdowns, and past congressional deal making, the more apparent it is to me that had this been averted before the crisis, no concessions would have been needed. But as things have now gone to this greater level, outside perceptions are going to matter a great deal. This sentiment has been well-documented by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post the past two days, who passed along this quote from Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Indiana) “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” If the Republicans are going to end this–even those who want to end it–there is going to have to be something that helps them save face in the public perception. Over the pat few days, I’ve been trying to decide what that might be.

We Did Everything We Could

One method for House Leadership to save face is to simply lose the fight. Although only 19-23 Republican House members have publicly stated that they would likely back a clean continuing resolution (CR) as was passed by the Senate, the estimates for its support behind closed doors are much higher. The National Review’s Robert Costa estimated that there are “potentially more than 100” Republican House members who would back a clean CR. Rep. Peter King guessed that “if you had a secret ballot, 180 would vote for a clean CR.” King is also among the numerous moderate Republicans contingency planning for a revolt against House leadership.

Many members, however, are worried about their home districts and pressure from the right. For this reason, I think that of the 100-180 that support re-opening the government without concessions, those in the safest reelection districts should be identified. Behind closed doors, Boehner could curry votes to end the shutdown, while protecting his vulnerable members and publicly opposing the move. As long as they have enough votes to pass the bill that way (they have enough to pass right now, but not enough to necessarily pull off the plotted revolt), then let the others vote against it, for political cover. This way, individual members get some cover. Leadership gets cover with the right wing by saying “we did everything we could, but we just didn’t have the votes,” and the government opens. Procedurally, this seems the most difficult and complex. It’s also the least likely.

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