Artur Davis - May 21, 2012
My tardiness in updating the responses and feedback section has created a backlog. Not surprisingly, my columns on gay marriage have generated some of the most extensive feedback we have received, most of it actually thoughtful and a legitimate effort to engage the subject—the rest, promptly ignored. My essay on the Americans Elect fiasco proved topical (and as a few of you kindly acknowledged, prescient) and a number of you weighed in on the subject when I wrote about it several weeks ago. Finally, my thoughts on Elizabeth Warren and liberal hypocrisy on race provoked some interesting reactions. So, some thoughts in response:
-I was struck, but not surprised, by the number of responses on gay marriage that disagreed with my proposition that it was possible for civil discourse on the subject—which was frankly more my focus than finding the “middle ground” that some of you referenced. One reader caustically asked if I believed there was room for debate on whether segregation is legal; another argued from the opposing perspective that gay rights opponents have actually yielded too much ground and have not been emphatic enough in attacking the social costs of same sex marriage.
First, as one who remains a critic of same sex marriage, I reject the civil rights comparison. Without even attempting to resolve the imponderable question of whether race and sexuality are equally unchangeable, or in the lingo of constitutional law, “immutable characteristics”, I would distinguish the civil rights movement as an answer to the rigidly discriminatory economic and political fabric that prevailed in America at the time; but one that was never really preoccupied with social equality, and that rarely evoked the language of individual fulfillment or empowerment. It was also a crusade of Americans who were beleaguered and suppressed at every turn, by the force of law in the South and by custom elsewhere. Any historically faithful reading of the fifties and early sixties reminds that the movement was essentially a survival enterprise in a country that frighteningly resembled an Apartheid-like prison for the vast majority of blacks.
Marriage and social equality, for all of their desirability, are not foundations of earning a living or functioning in civil society; as a result, they are different from access to education or employment, or the right to contract, or to move into a neighborhood. Interestingly, the gay rights lobby has not made any of these conventional civil rights claims much of a priority (the Obama Administration put little effort into an employment discrimination law, even when Democrats controlled the House and had 60 seats in the Senate, and there has still been no notable pushback at the omission). My guess is that the relative silence on these questions is the strongest proof that the GLBT community is not suffering the systematic or widespread exclusion that drove the civil rights agenda in the sixties (after all, the gay rights effort has been a highly strategic enterprise that has not been accused of misreading its constituents’ aspirations).
True, it may be for a gay or lesbian American that marriage is a higher order priority, and it may be that their very identity is implicated in a fight over marriage rights, but those subjective possibilities don’t rewrite the history of the respective movements. The fact that one constituency based its effort on one set of threshold rights, while another is engaged in a fight over an entirely separate set of claims, doesn’t settle the argument, but it does undercut the notion that gays at the turn of the decade and blacks in the fifties and sixties occupy anything near the same position.
As for the arguments from the right, opponents of same sex marriage do have different reasons. As Gallup’s recent data makes clear, roughly 40 percent of the country still voices a pretty blunt moral disapproval of homosexuality, a position, of course, that is regarded in elite circles as hopelessly bigoted and one that has fallen out of favor with the under 30 crowd (it’s also a fight that can turn tedious: I read with alternating amusement and boredom a protracted Facebook debate between black professionals in the DC area over varying interpretations of forbidden biblical practices). There are others of us who leave the cosmic question to a Higher Power but fear that the consequences of same sex marriage for say, adoption, are too unpredictable. Yet others (I’m in this camp too) treat the issue as fundamentally a constitutional one and conclude that there is no federal constitutional right that is at stake and therefore no constraint on the 36 states that have banned same sex marriage.
I am of the opinion that whatever our religious teachings, a debate in the public arena does deserve a secular response that doesn’t rely on theology. It also happens that this is probably the only sort of debate that can stay civil and avoid fracturing us even more. That’s not a hedge on the merits; it’s recognizing that civility is a powerful value in its own right.
Having said all of that, religion is relevant to gay marriage in another sense. The institution of marriage is a heavily sectarian force in our culture, given that most of our marriages are religious ceremonies performed by a preacher, rabbi, priest, or Imam. Whether critics like it or not, our faith institutions will drive the consensus around marriage as much as politicians and judges. To be sure, that is an unsatisfactory position for a number of you, but it is a position that has obvious force in at least some contexts: even New York’s gay marriage law exempts churches from forced compliance with it; for that matter, the law exempts religious adoption agencies that won’t make placements with same sex couples from the state’s anti-discrimination statutes. The presence of these provisions is a reminder that liberals hardly treat marriage as just another contract, and that at least some advocates of full scale gay equality have given a nod to the fact that religious freedoms are at stake in the gay rights debate too.
-Several readers wondered if my critical take on Americans Elect means that I have abandoned my view, expressed in a Montgomery Advertiser column in 2010, that an independent party was a viable pathway. One correction: if you read that essay, which is apparently no longer online, I do distinguish between the obstacles around a national effort and the easier path for a state effort. I do think, though, that any independent effort in any partisan contest will face two barriers that are hard to overcome: the force of voter habit in picking Democrats or Republicans and the fact that most political dollars are tied to one party or another.
Therefore, I am not surprised that disaffected moderate to conservative Democrats in my home state are finding their way into the Republican Party, which for all its excesses on immigration is a consistent force for reform in ethics and education, and which favors the pro-growth economic policies that Southern moderates know are critical to attracting new job sources. Similarly, for Democrats who recoil at the influence of the gambling lobby, the Republican Party is a natural alternative to that influence. So, as for the viability of an independent state political movement, it will have to wait on an unusual donor coalition and on a candidate with an appealing nonpartisan record (maybe a visionary CEO or Mayor who has been very effective in building alliances across different lines); perhaps, it will be unnecessary if Alabama Republicans stay open to meaningful reform and don’t just become another party that always lines up with the special interest grid that runs Montgomery.
-Several readers felt that my complaint about Elizabeth Warren was unfair given that her representations of her minority status happened a while ago and apparently only surfaced in obscure academic contexts. While the distance from her claims may keep them from being disqualifying, I find it hard to believe that a candidate’s carelessness with her racial identity is an inconsequential thing. That kind of mis-labeling reflects either a shameful bid to get a job at the expense of more deserving candidates, or a shameless willingness to assist an employer in exaggerating its diversity record. I have no idea which is the case, and of course there are weightier matters this election year, but it’s another thing to say there is nothing to be gleaned from such a revelation. Especially given how much weight Warren has put on her authenticity and genuineness.
There were a few spirited suggestions that I was less than charitable in my observations about diversity at establishment, liberal leaning institutions. One reader made the case that it is inconsistent to criticize the Harvards and the elite law forms of Washington and New York for not being more diverse in their employment while I have criticized affirmative action in a variety of contexts. Sounds like a clever enough point, but consider: does the small number of blacks in administrative or faculty ranks at a place like Harvard, or the near invisible numbers of black lawyers at the top rank firms, really come down to whether affirmative action has been given a fair try? Are there really so few black top 50 firm caliber attorneys, and so few black Ivy League academic types, that it would take racial quotas to get them inside the tent? And in the case of the colleges and grad schools–if there is a dearth of qualified contenders–why do the same institutions that put so much stock in making their classrooms “look like America”, to deploy the cliché in admissions offices, have a much weaker interest in giving their teaching and leadership ranks the same all-American look?
Artur Davis - April 3, 2012
-My writings on the flaws of the Affordable Care Act generated a range of responses, most of which of course begin and end with the reader’s opinion of the legislation. There is no amount of argument that will change the fact that the strongest defenders of the law view any attack on it as indifference to the plight of the sick, or as pandering to win votes or contributions in some hypothetical future campaign (the fact continues to be missed that significant sectors of the lobbying/corporate crowd supported the legislation, and that the first to be up in arms over the mandate’s collapse would be the well-heeled insurance industry).
It is worth addressing the argument that President Obama, and a number of you, have made regarding the “activism” of a Supreme Court that would dare to strike down the mandate or the entire statute. It’s a tempting sounding argument, as I noted in my critique of Judge Wilkinson’s column a couple of weeks ago, but it is one that is hopelessly subjective. Does it mean that the Court should never second guess the political process: that’s hardly an argument that has historically made progressives comfortable. Does it mean that the Court should engage only if there is some kind of “clear”, obvious violation: if so, it means that a constitutional violation would be tolerable as long as it doesn’t hurt more–the sloppiest, weakest of standards.
Would the Supreme Court be engaged in activism if it struck down state laws that reflect the desires of local citizens to restrict illegal immigrants? As flawed as the Arizona and Alabama versions are—and I think they are poor policy that do more harm than good—it seems that an overrule of them would be just as vulnerable to the activist label, especially given the federal government’s inability to legislate in this area. The examples are infinite, and the one certainty is that the losing side of any high court argument is quick to throw “activism” around and just as quick to discard the charge on a winning day.
It’s particularly hard to condemn activism when Congress has walked right up to the edge of its authority by exercising it in an unprecedented way. The administration itself cites no prior example of the government compelling, at penalty of sanction, a consumer to buy a product; the mandate’s defenders invariably confuse, or dodge, the issue by waxing eloquent about the centrality of healthcare in our economy, or about the economic burden that the voluntarily uninsured leave behind, but the novelty of what the government seeks to do remains. As even a liberal like Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post acknowledges, a court wrestling with that novelty seems less activist and more like an institution doing its job.
-A number of you have asked if I have revised any of my thoughts on Trayvon Martin’s shooting given the slow trickle of new details. While I did caveat my judgment that the shooting was unjust on the facts remaining as they appeared in the early days, I recognize that for my posting at Politico, the editors chose a headline that was unequivocally judgmental. The best I can say is this: it a reasonable bet that the facts will never be known to the point that there are no real doubts, or suspicions and we would all do well to make that concession.
Given that, I wish we would focus more on two elements. First, regardless of who cried for help, struck first, or followed the other, the powder keg in this incident was a concoction of fear: a young black man who felt threatened and disrespected when he was confronted and a non-black man who felt at risk and based that risk on a child’s appearance. The edginess in their encounter is one our society too regularly faces, and while it rarely leads to shootings, it leads all too often to blows and insults that only harden resentments, and arrests and detentions that only deepen anger at authorities. If this indescribably sad event doesn’t move us to consider the cost of our respective racial battle stations, the loss is compounded.
Second, the Florida Stand Your Ground Law is a bad one that needs to be scrapped; whether or not it caused this death, it will cause others if it is not changed. The law, which is more tolerant of a self defense claim than any law like it I have seen, doesn’t just judge behavior: it drives it. Individuals with a gun feel liberated to act like cops and not to wait for the police to arrive; the police who enforce it are inclined to view a shooting as self-defense if the shooter invokes a few buzzwords—“danger”, “suspicious”, “made an aggressive move”, “he hit me first”, etc. On top of that, another weakness of the law is that it likely would have empowered either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman to act on their fears that night; the law gives an instant shooting license to the fearful and the threatened at just the moment when their judgment is cloudiest. A law should never make firing a gun so easy.
Artur Davis - March 19, 2012
-My argument in defense of the drug war provoked a stream of reactions worth addressing. The most common theme was that the aggressive prosecution of drugs has “not worked”—it’s a theory that is bandied around the drug debate a lot, by liberals like Michelle Alexander and conservatives like Ron Paul, but I still struggle to understand the terms of this supposed failure. The fact that the drug trade persists is no more reason to disarm the drug war than the persistence of discrimination means that Title VII should be abandoned or the prevalence of corruption means bribery laws should be discarded. While counter-factuals are worth only so much, it seems almost certain that a weaker effort in the eighties and nineties would have only strengthened a drug culture that was eating inner city neighborhoods alive. By that same logic, pulling back in the drug war could well reinvigorate that same culture—a cost that critics of the war rarely acknowledge or address.
As I indicated in my column, there are unmistakable inequities in the prosecution of drugs and there are a variety of reforms that could mitigate them. Several of you contended, though, that only some kind of decriminalization strategy would really address the concern about over-incarceration and un-employability based on criminal records. I am struck how often advocates of decriminalization overlook the fact that the overwhelming majority of federal and state drug convictions revolve around cocaine or methamphetamine, rather than a “softer” drug like marijuana. Unless cocaine or meth were legalized, and I have seen no serious argument that they should be (to the contrary, advocates of marijuana legalization spend considerable time distinguishing between these drugs and refuting the “gateway” argument that involvement with marijuana escalates to harder drugs), the limited decriminalization of marijuana would have a negligible effect on incarceration.
Lastly, the best statistical evidence from the Federal Bureau of Prisons is that without making any major revisions in the scope or definition of drug crimes, the rate of prosecution for drug offenses has slowed from its peak in the nineties, and the number of federal inmates doing time for drug offenses is now down to slightly more than half the total. There are all manner of reasons why, but it’s worth contemplating that prosecutors have already shifted their resources. In other words, the drug wars are likely getting more targeted, more focused on hard core traffickers than they were 20-25 years ago. That’s probably a good thing and a sign that opponents of the drug war are making several arguments that are outdated.
-A number of you responded to my comments on NPR this week about the Voting Rights Act and my arguments against overly vigorous gerrymandering. At least one reader made a point that deserves a rebuttal–the idea that such gerrymandering may be unnecessary to elect an African American, but that it helps guarantee that an African American who is primarily responsive to the interests of his race will win, as opposed to a more “conservative” black. Without wading into the specifics of whether the policy aims of a liberal black are always “more responsive” to the community than a conservative one (another essay, another time) it seems that this argument really is what animates black defenders of the status quo in redistricting.
Under this view, a more racially balanced district, say one that was 55 or 60 percent black, would contain a sizable enough share of whites to influence even a Democratic primary, and its representative would have to make some conspicuous nod to that white swing bloc—a district more monolithically black would be prone to the kind of race-conscious advocacy that flavors most black districts today. To be sure, the latter kind of district is the one that black interest groups prefer, and one likely to produce a politician who caters to their interests in patronage as well as substantive policies. But to say that federal courts should tilt toward one kind of politics for black districts over another is surely an overreach, and a misunderstanding of the impartial role judges should play.
-There is of, course, a larger debate swirling around this issue, which Jamelle Bouie addresses in a follow-up piece to his thoughtful essay in American Prospect on glass ceilings for African American politicians. As Bouie notes, the absence of black governors and senators is less a focus for many blacks than the ideological dispositions of the blacks who vie for higher office. As a result, a more centrist black, or an outright conservative like South Carolina’s Congressman Tim Scott, could expect considerably less enthusiasm and perhaps only limited support from African Americans. I find this disconcerting not only because of my own campaign experience, but because it undervalues the benefit of black politicians serving in high offices where their competence and leadership abilities are on display. The value of that kind of presence is not only a richer and more inclusive talent base but a template that makes whites more likely to discard stereotypes and to keep electing African Americans.
-Finally, a few of you asked what I make of Roy Moore’s come-back to win the Republican nomination for Chief Justice in Alabama. The line from much of the Democratic establishment in the state is that Moore’s revival underscores how right-wing Alabama Republicans have become. It’s worth noting, though, that Judge Moore barely cracked 20 percent of the vote running in the gubernatorial primary two years ago. The much lower turnout presidential primary gave him an easier threshold to crack and bumped up the influence of his Christian, evangelical base. It’s no small detail that his opponents were an appointed Chief Justice barely known outside his home county and a long-time politician with a deeply controversial history and his own limited geographic base; also, neither of these relatively weak contenders spent anywhere near the sums associated with statewide primaries in a non-presidential year .
More telling is the fact that the Alabama Democratic Party never managed to find a credible candidate of its own to run, and is stuck with a sacrificial lamb against a beatable Republican. One more sign of a party that has given up more ground in the last two years than any state party in the country, with the possible exception of Arkansas’ equally wounded Democrats.
Artur Davis - March 6, 2012
-My essay on Andrew Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh drew several strong reactions from readers who felt that it pulled too many punches. One reader wanted to know why a blog that touts its commitment to civil discourse did not effect more anger at two individuals who unmistakably represent the opposite value. In fairness, I doubt Breitbart’s fans would take much heart at my criticism of his take-down of Shirley Sherrod and my minimization of his Anthony Weiner expose; I am also reasonably sure that my description of Limbaugh as a perfect foil for liberals who want to blast conservatism is not the role he and his admirers believe he plays.
But I do plead guilty to the offense of not devoting an essay solely to the outrageousness in both men’s history. Certainly, there are parts of Breitbart’s legacy that deserve it (and David Frum’s blog was quite courageous in his devastation of that legacy); Limbaugh’s recent offensiveness is so gross that even his imminently forgiving sponsors have pulled back. But I think there is a value in my observation as to what the two reveal reveal about the political movement they epitomize for so many. Whatever lift their work has given the Right, I have argued that both men have injured it and contributed to a defensive culture that makes conservatism look weaker and more futile than it is. To be sure, that is not the defect that some want to hear, but it is a real one and conservatives would do well to reflect on it.
-The reactions to the Breitbart/Limbaugh piece reminded me of an occasional question I receive. One right-leaning version of it is “whose side are you on, and if it is conservatives, spare the occasional criticism”. Another version is “your views are hard to follow because they don’t fit one camp or another”. The best I can offer is that no, this is not a website that will cheer-lead for any particular viewpoint. Anyone who has perused the entries knows that there is a sympathy for conservatives, particularly the center-right brand that has more creativity to offer our politics than does the left. You may also find a skeptical tone toward orthodoxy, left or right, that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, or toward politicians or movements whose reputation for boldness exceeds their bite (see my thoughts on both Bob Kerrey and Americans Elect, and my comments on Olympia Snowe and Senate moderates below). But a consistent pitch for one cause or side? This is not the place you will find it.
-Lastly, some readers asked my thoughts on Olympia Snowe’s retirement. The short of it is that as gracious as Snowe is (no small attribute on the Hill), I never viewed her as ground-breaking. She, and Ben Nelson, and Blanche Lincoln, and Jim Webb, are all examples of admirable people who pondered and signaled breaking party ranks more than they ever actually broke them. While the fault lies partly with their party structures and the pressure toward uniformity on both sides, I have often wondered how the last four years might have differed if the aforementioned, and a few others like Mark Warner and Mary Landrieu, had combined to craft alternatives on healthcare, financial reform, immigration, entitlements, and job creation. I think it is arguable that on the first two, in particular, they might have actually seized the debate and written law. At a minimum, such a putative center bloc would have shifted the argument away from “do everything” v. “do nothing”.
Artur Davis - February 29, 2012
A few reactions to your feedback on recent columns:
-My criticism of affirmative action in college admissions drew predictable criticisms from the left—which generally views any retreat from racial classifications as a reverse of civil rights gains—and from the right—which would go further than I would and end all racial preferences. Several readers picked up on my concession that the ranks of black students would be thinned out if there were no preferences and wondered why I was so sanguine about the prospect. While I certainly don’t relish a reduction in black students, I would urge more examination on what diversity means in a complex society like ours. Which is the more likely problem on college campuses, a paucity of African American viewpoints, or an absence in the perspectives of, say, Arab Muslims, or East Asian Indians? That’s the trick with the diversity based arguments that drive affirmative action—they are usually a pre-text for one race (blacks), and are crafted for America circa 1975, before the ascension of globalization and before the multi-cultural surge in our demographics.
Having said that, a solid, pragmatic case can be made that we do need instruments like the Voting Rights Act (although not the partisan super-majority gerrymandering that contributes to the racial polarization of southern politics); and that secondary school districts need tools to keep our public schools from re-segregating. Unlike my friend Quin Hilyer, who makes a thoughtful case against ever taking race into account, I see the question as one of weighing the pluses and minuses.
-Some of you ask if I have revised my early assessment in the National Review of Rick Santorum’s electability based on his string of impolitic comments. In reality, my views of whether Santorum can win a general have always been nuanced. At his best, he delivers an economic fairness message that eludes many Republicans; at the same time, I have always included a caveat that he could push independents away with the forcefulness of his social views. I certainly miss the tactical wisdom in telling blue-collar Catholics over 60—an important swing voter bloc-that Jack Kennedy’s views on religion make you want to throw up. Color me skeptical of a candidate having an axe to grind with the merits of getting a college degree. And yes, the “Obama theology” meme gets tiresome when there is a genuine case about religious liberty and autonomy that needs to be made, but will get lost if it sounds extreme or coded.
My guess is that what’s going on with Santorum is partly an inexperienced candidate’s tendency to over-play to the room. Some of it is quite deliberate, and reflects a laser focus on winning the nomination and conveying his conviction to his base. The problem is that I‘ve seen that strategy up close: it usually fails in November and damages a party badly.
-Finally, several perceptive readers have wondered why in my essay on Obama and the rhetoric of community, I let conservatives off so easily. That’s a fair point that deserves more than an observation about the limits of space. The fact is that much of the Right is uncomfortable with the assertion of a national community: they fear it’s a cover for imposing an elite set of values over theirs, and for redistributionist tax and spend policies. It’s a subject worth addressing in a separate essay and I will do so soon.
Artur Davis - February 18, 2012
Every now and then, I will offer a few brief responses to feedback I receive on this site or elsewhere in the interests of letting you know your reactions don’t go unnoticed:
-Several readers took issue with the wisdom of Rick Santorum offering a major speech confronting claims that he is too sectarian and out of touch on gender issues. A regular theme of the disagreement was that the strategy would never work for a conservative in the way it worked for Barack Obama when he addressed the Jeremiah Wright firestorm in 08. It’s a fair point that a left-leaning media that was enraptured with Obama’s rhetorical powers and his personal narrative would not be as generous with a pro-life, anti gay marriage conservative like Santorum. But it’s worth noting that a conservative presidency would have to engage the same media environment and still find a way to move public opinion. Ronald Reagan never shrank from making a conservative case in the teeth of resistance, and Santorum shouldn’t either.
-A few readers made the excellent point that the New York Times’ safety net story suffers from a simpler defect than the one I mentioned: the story links income support items like food stamps and free school lunches, to entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and to elements of the tax code like the mortgage interest deduction and the earned income tax credit. It’s a reach to suggest that a taxpayer who expects his contributions to Social Security to be rewarded, and who claims a deduction the tax code makes available, is a hypocrite for being skeptical about poverty programs. It’s another reach to lump all of these incredibly disparate provisions together under the label “safety net.” It’s a weak thread that does make one question the underlying statistical foundations in the Times article and I should have at least mentioned it.
-Some took issue with my piece on Jack Kennedy and Mimi Alford on the ground that it minimized the atrocious behavior that Alford attributes to Kennedy. No question that if Alford is truthful (a thing we can’t know any more than we know whether Paula Jones’ just as lurid description of Bill Clinton’s behavior was honest), Kennedy used her in a manner that is appalling. But Alford only adds degrees to what we have long known about JFK’s adulteries and the casualness of his marriage vows. The fact that we have the benefit of more details doesn’t change my point: not all morality involves personal conduct or fidelity. There is another moral dimension that involves how nobly public figures affect our obligations to each other and the world. That morality has proved a far higher bar for politicians to either copy or fake, and Kennedy deserves credit for clearing it on civil rights and foreign policy.