Try to reform the Democratic Party from within or start a new party and overcome the two-party system of electoral dominance? It’s a fundamental question for leftists in the United States and one that hasn’t gotten any easier following Bernie Sanders’s now two failed bids for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
Each option has its merits and demerits. Regarding an “insurgency” within Democratic ranks, progressives can, in part, utilize the existing party brand and infrastructure to help attract a following, though in doing so, they risk incurring the wrath of establishment members, notably the “elites” within. Re bypassing the two-party paradigm, progressives aren’t beholden to any “establishment,” but lose the clout a Democratic Party affiliation affords. It also means, in the specific case of forming a new party altogether, that time, money, energy, and people will have to be marshaled and put to work under a single vision. That’s no small task.
In the meantime, the debate rages on. Progressives are earning key victories in Democratic Party primaries, in some cases ousting entrenched incumbents of 10+ terms backed by party leadership. Thus far, however, the upsets have been fewer and further between than many on the left would like or perhaps even would’ve expected, signifying transformative change indeed can be difficult to achieve and slow to realize. The backlash primary challengers and their supporters have faced from party loyalists for merely daring to run against sainted incumbents, too, is a veritable cross for them to bear.
On a theoretical third-party alternative, at this point, a viable challenge to the Democrat-Republican binary is just that—theoretical. The Green and Libertarian Parties are reviled as potential spoilers more than valued as legitimate voting options, especially at the federal level. Meanwhile, the movement for a People’s Party has not translated to electoral gains despite support from notable figures in the entertainment and political spheres like Abby Martin, Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Jimmy Dore, and Oliver Stone. If reforming the Democratic Party from within is a slow burn, starting a party from scratch is downright glacial in its pace (note: this may not apply to the pace at which actual glaciers are melting).
In addition, and at the heart of this piece, while said debate is elaborated, leftists still don’t have a real home. Back in January, speaking an event honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated this outright, remarking, “We don’t have a left party in the United States. The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or center-conservative party.”
By now, if you’ve been paying attention to American politics over even the past five years, you understand ideas like those of AOC’s aren’t absurd and shouldn’t be controversial. Nevertheless, the first-term member of Congress (at least until she officially wins re-election in November) received flak from liberals when, earlier in the same month, she pointed out that, in any other country, she and Joe Biden wouldn’t even be in the same party.
However you perceive her comment—whether as a dig at Biden or not—she’s right. Because of the stronghold the two-party system has on U.S. politics, the likes of Biden and Ocasio-Cortez are forced under the same “big tent.” In Canada, for instance, AOC would at least have the safety valve of the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, rather than being simply lumped in with the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau. She’d be able to trade her Democratic blues in for NDP orange. Hey, I think she could pull it off!
Despite being a member, AOC has been among the most frequent critics of the Democratic Party and its leadership, particularly that of Nancy Pelosi. Perhaps her most salient observation, though, is not about who calls oneself a Democrat, but what the Democrats stand for. For Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive brothers and sisters, their efforts to reform the party from within aren’t about taking the Democrats in a new direction, but steering them back on course.
As AOC opined back in November, leftists aren’t pushing the party left—they’re “bringing the party home,” citing achievements like the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act as evidence of the Democrats’ past progressivism. To this effect, what they hope to achieve isn’t “radical,” but in line with professed Democratic values, and in certain respects, bringing America in line with the rest of the world (looking at you, single-payer healthcare!). In fact, their policy goals are in accord with what a growing segment of the electorate, chiefly Democrats, want to see their elected officials pursue.
At the end of the day, votes matter. Joe Biden ultimately beat Bernie Sanders in resounding fashion for the nomination before the latter suspended his campaign in April. As Bernie himself conceded, he and his campaign did not make a strong enough case for his “electability,” with primary voters opting for Biden because they perceived him as more likely to get his policy initiatives advanced, they were more likely to have confidence in his leadership, and because they felt he would be better capable of handling the ongoing pandemic (note: all very debatable points).
However, Joe Biden’s comeback victory/misgivings about Bernie Sanders shouldn’t obscure the reality that, in state after state, voters indicated they support policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. At the moment, the Democratic Party might be able to get away with pointing to Biden’s victory as a justification for denying the American people these things. As time wears on and as progressives start notching more victories on their belts, though, these calls for more-than-incremental change will be tough to ignore.
The state of the progressive movement in the United States really feels like an exercise in optimism vs. cynicism. If you look at primary wins against entrenched incumbents for progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, your glass is likely half full. If you look outside the House of Representatives (and with that, outside the state of New York), your glass might be half empty.
I can’t say I consistently feel one way or another, hovering somewhere between half-full and half-empty on the progressive enthusiasm continuum. That more and more people are embracing policy goals like M4A and student debt cancellation (and, more recently, defunding the police and reparations) as part of mainstream political discussion is encouraging, for instance.
On the other hand, that voters will support these initiatives and still vote for the other candidate vowing not to implement them is more troubling, a notion exacerbated by the often-fragmented nature of the progressive moment. In theory, progressivism is, by its nature, meant to be inclusive and intersectional in its applications. In practice, though, factions within leftist spaces can feel like competing forces rather than sympathetic moving parts of the same whole.
Of course, the choice of whether to reform the Democratic Party or watch it burn to the ground and form a new party from its ashes isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing enterprise. That is, there would appear to be room for progressive Democrats like AOC to try to “bring the party home,” and at the same time, for activists and organizers to pursue other avenues in the service of advancing progressive initiatives, working together on core issues in the process. Yes, that potentially means working with Green and Libertarian Party groups with the expectation that neither side is expected to “convert” the other to its way of doing business. It’s an alliance, not a takeover.
Despite my occasional bouts of bereavement, I ultimately believe progressives will win, broadly speaking. As the saying goes, the hardest part is the waiting. AOC is right: there is no party for the Left in the United States right now. But something has to give eventually and, through all the electoral defeats, the Left’s energy and passion puts it in a better position than the centrists of the present order would care or will allow themselves to admit.
The 44th G7 Summit, held in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada this past weekend, was, by most accounts, an unmitigated disaster, and one person was at the center of the unrest. I think you know who I’m talking about. That Angela Merkel. Can’t go anywhere without causing a ruckus.
But seriously, if the title didn’t already give it away, it was Donald Trump. With the signing of a communiqué by the leaders representing the G7 member countries—one committed to investing in growth “that works for everyone,” preparing for the jobs of the future, advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, building a more peaceful and secure world, and working together on climate change, oceans, and clean energy—it appeared there was at least nominal progress and that Trump and the United States were willing to engage in good faith with the rest of the signatories.
Shortly after leaving a summit early to which he had already arrived late, however, Trump (or a surrogate tweeting on his behalf) backtracked on his accession to the communiqué, and in response to the host country’s prime minister Justin Trudeau’s speech addressing Trump directly on the subject of tariffs and indicating Canada would be retaliating so as not to be “pushed around,” he called Trudeau “dishonest and weak,” casting doubt on the productiveness of the whole shebang.
It was perhaps a fitting end to a summit in which Trump suggested Russia be reinstated as part of a Group of 8—you know, despite its evident interference in American politics and that whole annexation of Crimea thing—characterized the U.S. once more as being taken advantage of economically, and refused to attend portions of the program devoted to climate change.
In fact, Trump’s belligerent positions were enough that French Foreign Minister Bruno Le Maire went as far as to refer to the proceedings as the “G6+1 Summit,” underscoring the United States’ isolation from the other countries represented, and a photo of Ms. Merkel staring down at a seated Pres. Trump went viral as an all-too-perfect summation of how the affair went down. Trump, arms folded, looks like the petulant child to the rest of the adults in the room. Japanese PM Shinzō Abe is also featured prominently, with his arms likewise folded and standing, though with an expression that seems to indicate disapproval or utter boredom. Or maybe he was just wondering when the food was going to arrive. If you ask me, the only good type of meeting is one that involves food.
But I digress. In all, the sense many got of the G7 Summit, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s 180 as he took off for Singapore in preparation of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was one of disarray, and the war of words between Justin Trudeau and Trump further clouded the future of NAFTA negotiations, already decidedly murky amid the latter’s rhetoric on trade deficits between the parties involved and his insistence on a border wall fully furnished by Mexico. If anything, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the UK seem that much more committed to cooperating in spite of America’s actions and without its help than with it. Ahem, let it not be said that Trump isn’t a uniter.
What is so remarkable about how the events of this past weekend unfolded—and when I say “remarkable,” I mean like a horror film which you can’t help but watch despite your urge to look or even run away—is the type of discord Trump and his tantrums encouraged. The other members of the G7 are our presumed allies. In theory, we should be working together on matters that affect the whole, such as climate change, combatting extremism/terrorism, jobs, trade, and women’s rights.
Instead, Trump is content to downplay the effects of climate change and prop up the scandalous Scott Pruitt, play to the racists and xenophobes among his base, tout job numbers that are largely beyond his control, invite trade wars, and deny his own scandals involving sexual encounters or harassment of women. If there’s something to be said positively about his withdrawing from the communiqué, it’s that it’s probably more honest regarding his true feelings on the topics within. Simply put, Trump doesn’t play well with others.
The other element that is remarkable and, at this point, not entirely surprising, is how Trump administration officials have characterized Justin Trudeau in the wake of Trudeau’s decision to levy tariffs back on the United States. Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, characterized Trudeau’s comments as a “betrayal” and expressed the belief that the Canadian prime minister “stabbed us in the back.” Peter Navarro, the White House director of trade policy, echoed this sentiment of back-stabbing and suggested there’s a “special place in Hell” for Trudeau.
Again, Trudeau and Canada are our presumptive allies. These kinds of words are usually reserved for staunch enemies like Osama bin Laden and ISIS/ISIL, not our neighbors to the north, and were made on top of Trump’s recent historical gaffe uttered in a May phone call with Trudeau, in which Trump invoked Canada’s burning down the White House during the War of 1812. Which is great, except for the fact it was Britain who set fire to the White House, not Canada. For all Trump knows, it could’ve been Frederick Douglass who started that famed fire. A great student of history, our president is not.
Numerous critics of Trump’s antics at the G7 Summit and his subsequent comments calling out Trudeau have suggested that this public show of defiance was intended as a show of strength designed to make the president look tough before his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un. As these same critics would aver, however, insulting the leader of a G7 ally for following through with retaliatory tariffs the country announced it would effect even before the summit began achieves the opposite. It makes Trump look petty, and it makes the United States of America look unreliable.
Already, Trump has pulled us out of the Paris climate agreement—which is voluntary and non-binding anyway—and the Iran nuclear agreement, so why would Kim Jong-un or anyone else have reason to believe that Trump’s motives are pure and that the U.S. honors its promises? Unless Trump thinks he can outfox the North Korean leader as a self-professed master negotiator—and let’s be honest—do you really trust him in that capacity either? It’s been over a year in Pres. Trump’s tenure thus far, and I’ve yet to see this great deal-making ability in action—I don’t know about you.
At this writing, American audiences are still having their first reactions to news of the signing of an agreement between the United States and North Korea following their leaders’ summit in Singapore. Based on the available text of the agreement, it outlines commitments to establishing new relations between the two nations, building a “lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean peninsula, working toward denuclearization of the peninsula, and repatriation of POW/MIA remains. One hopes or even prays for the best.
If we’re being cynical—perhaps real—about the situation, though, we have to wonder what the intentions are behind the parties involved and how liable they are to keep their word. In North Korea, there is no news about the summit or any subsequent accords. As with the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is a blackout on imagery from the Trump-Kim meeting.
For Donald Trump and the U.S., meanwhile, the Devil is in the details regarding this agreement, and there are very few specifics about how denuclearization will be approached and how North Korea will be held accountable. At a press conference following the summit, Trump stated his confidence that Kim and North Korea will abide by the agreement’s terms based on a personal favorable assessment of the North Korean leader. But North Korea has reneged on provisions of previous agreements, and there is still much room for concern over its human rights record and its overall treatment of its citizens.
Plus, knowing Trump’s self-interest, he’s probably welcoming a thawing of relations between the two nations as a conduit to building properties under the Trump name in North Korea. For the concessions made to North Korea in that the United States vows to end its “war games”—its military exercises in conjunction with South Korea—little is known about what assurances we’ve gotten back in return. There’s every possibility that the lion’s share of the benefits would be ones that only those individuals bearing our leader’s last name would be able to enjoy. Ah, but no—it’s all about peace on Earth and goodwill to humankind. Right, right—my mistake.
Some critics, undoubtedly skeptics in their own right, have wondered aloud why Donald Trump would wish to try to negotiate with a dictator like Kim Jong-un and thereby give him legitimacy. There are two rebuttals to this line of thinking. The first and more obvious one is that dictators are, like, Trump’s favorite kind of person, and, as we fear, what the man aims to become.
For example, we’ve long been aware of Trump’s admiration for/refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin. Trump has also invited Rodrigo Duterte, a fellow misogynist and strongman whose war on drugs in the Philippines has claimed thousands of lives, to the White House. He’s given “high marks” to and praised Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s despotic president notorious for cracking down on journalists like a true authoritarian. Xi Jinping of China. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. If there’s a head of state making an enemy of a free press and readily engaging in human rights abuses, you can be sure Trump is a fan. Of Kim, Trump reportedly called him “honorable,” smart, and someone who “loves his people.” Oh, potentially over 100,000 North Koreans are in prisons over political matters because he loves them so much? I thought if you loved someone or something, you should set them free? No?
Perhaps less obvious but no less germane to this discussion is the idea that America hasn’t really been shy in its embrace of other dictators and human rights abusers over time. Just reviewing more recent history, Barack Obama, for one, paid homage to the Saudis after the passage of then-king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, noted autocrat and alleged murderer and torturer. Back in 2009, Hillary Clinton remarked that she considered Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a dictatorial leader deposed amid the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, and his wife, “friends.” So long as there is a means to benefit materially from our relationships with undemocratic heads of state, U.S. leaders are liable to pursue those connections, and while it can’t be assumed necessarily that Trump is playing nice to potentially enrich himself down the road, it sure shouldn’t be ruled out just the same.
Whatever the play is in North Korea, that Trump would appear so chummy with Kim and feud with Justin Trudeau is astonishing, even noting Trump’s desire to look like a tough maverick. I mean, who picks a fight with Canada? If this were hockey, one might be able to understand, but Trump’s finger-pointing is better suited to a South Park plot line than actual diplomatic strategy. To put it another way, when even members of the GOP are admonishing Trump for lashing out at Trudeau, you know it’s got to be a bad decision. No wonder Robert De Niro felt compelled to apologize to the Canadian PM on Americans’ behalf.
The general mood worldwide is one of cautious hope for something good to come out of the historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, perhaps notably from China, Japan, and, of course, South Korea, lands with a vested interest in denuclearization of and peace on the Korean peninsula, if for no other reason than geographic proximity. It’s the kind of optimism you would want to see in this context. Not merely to be a wet blanket, however, but there’s a still long way to go and much work to do. After all, Trump is not a man known for his patience or for his spirit of collegiality, and it’s much too early to consider North Korea an ally given its track record. Then again, with allies like Trump, who needs enemies?
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In social politics today, there seems to be an additional “F-word” that people dare not speak without looking around nervously or others getting downright angry. I’m talking about “feminism,” a term which conjures up some powerful imagery both for its supporters and for those who resist its use and its underlying motivations. Part of the strong reactions a dialog about feminism, gender, and “women’s issues” provokes, I believe, is related to the confusion about what this decades-old—if not centuries-old—movement entails. That is, different groups and individuals tend to define feminism differently. Kellyanne Conway, who, like so many members of the Trump administration, evidently can’t help but put her foot in her mouth—you know, when she’s not putting her feet on the couch in the Oval Office—and gave her own definition of feminism that invited due criticism. Conway, when interviewed recently at CPAC 2017, this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, said she rejected calling herself a “feminist” because the term has been tainted by the left and because the nature of the movement has become exclusionary and anti-conservative. The counselor to the President had this to say when prompted about feminism:
It’s difficult for me to call myself a “feminist” in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion in this context and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion. So there’s an “individual feminism,” if you will, where you make your own choices. I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances, and that’s really what “conservative feminism,” if you will, is all about.
Wow. As self-professed intellectuals like myself would put forth, there’s a lot to unpack here. Kellyanne Conway’s makes a number of suppositions that require one’s assent or tacit agreement. Let us first enumerate them, and subsequently address their potential veracity.
1. Feminism is anti-male.
This is a persistent criticism of the feminist movement: that those who subscribe are a bunch of man-haters who wish for the advancement of women at the expense of men who work very hard and are just minding their own business. This is not merely an oversimplification of feminist positions, however, but skewed to the point of absurdity. Might some feminists see patterns of patriarchal oppression and sexism where perhaps they don’t exist? It’s possible. Not all revolutionaries wave their banners for the same reasons, after all, and some might do so for the wrong ones. To a large extent, though, feminist arguments would appear to hit the mark given the pervasiveness of gender inequality across continents. At any rate, calling feminists “anti-male” makes about as much sense as calling Black Lives Matter activists “anti-police.” Feminists are not calling for violence against or abuse of men. It’s about equality, and addressing institutionalized forms of prejudice against women. Criticism does not necessarily equate to hate, and if those targets of criticism are indeed wrong, to defend them puts the defender at fault also.
Often, rejection of feminist views betrays a defensive attitude on the part of he or she expressing the rejection. For example, how many times have you heard “feminism” and “shrill” in the same sentence? Breitbart’s readership, for one, seems to dine on this stereotype like Garfield the cat dines on lasagna. Here’s a gem from the unholy pseudo-informative spawn Stephen Bannon helped nurture: “License to Shrill: Feminists Can’t Stop Whining about Their Fake Problems.” In this piece, the author suggests that feminists fret and whine about their “frivolous” problems like “the Democrats talking about climate change as a security threat when the country is under attack by illegal immigrants and radical Islamic terrorists.” And this from a female writer, no less!
2. Feminism is very pro-abortion.
It is, in fact, possible to have a nuanced set of views on abortion. I personally wish there were fewer unplanned pregnancies in the world, and I certainly don’t encourage men and women to be reckless in their sexual activity. However, I wouldn’t tell a pregnant woman not to have an abortion in deference to my beliefs, because I believe the matter of choice is sacrosanct. I’m sure many card-carrying feminists share these sentiments, at least to an extent. An abortion is not a procedure to go about willy-nilly, but to make a value judgment about someone else’s situation and to thrust those values upon the other person unsolicited is a sin in its own right, and can make what may very well be an emotional and stressful decision that much more difficult. People who vilify the “godless left” for being pro-abortion might just as well look at themselves and their aversion to a woman’s right to choose.
3. There is an individual feminism where you make your own choices.
Yes, there is. It’s called feminism. I just talked about it. You make your own choices. Like, say, those involving your body.
4. Liberal feminists view themselves as victims of their circumstances.
Bear in mind that Conway is making a distinction between feminism and “conservative feminism” in the first place. And they call us liberals the ones who are divisive! The “liberals play the victim card” charge is one that has been made numerous times before irrespective of gender and circumstances. Those college students who want an affordable education? Playing the victim. They’re just asking someone else to foot the bill. Those protestors going after police officers for doing their job? Playing the victim. It’s the fault of those resisting. Blacks upset about slavery? Hey, that was a long time ago—quit your bitching! Are you overweight? Get on a treadmill already, fatty! And I’m sure we can think of any number of barbs to throw at women and the issues they care about. Need an abortion? You should’ve learned to keep your legs closed in the first place, slut! Want to be taken seriously as a professional? Don’t dress in such provocatively tight clothing, provoking lustful eyes, OK? Upset about y0ur pay? Get a better job! Stop crying. Get over it. Welcome to the real world.
Let me say a few things about these things—chiefly with respect to how wrong-headed they are. On the subject of sexuality, specifically women’s sexuality, I would argue it is incredibly unrealistic to insist on all or even a majority of sexually mature women to adhere to an abstinence-only lifestyle. This is not a commentary on females’ lack of control of their bodily impulses, mind you—I would say the same thing for men, too. Especially men. It’s not that they can’t choose not to have to sex, but they shouldn’t be expected to, and that there is a profound double standard in our society concerning moral judgments of others’ sexual activity—men tend to be lauded for their sexual prowess, while women are shamed for their lasciviousness—speaks to a normalized attitude, once again, of dictating to women what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
On the subject of women in the workplace, um, the glass ceiling is pretty well documented by now. In the United States, women, on the whole, make less than men, and once more, there is a gender-based disparity in perception at work under the subheading of leadership. A male taskmaster is a strong, determined leader. A female in this same role is labeled a bitch, a cunt, is on her period, or needs to get laid. It’s boorish, quite frankly, and incredibly unfair. Moreover, on the literal subject of “victimhood,” women are disproportionate targets of physical and sexual assault, with college campuses across the U.S., in particular, seeing exceedingly high levels of violence against women and men. What is perhaps worst of all herein is the idea that with too many college and universities, there is neither an established environment of acceptance for victims of sexual violence nor a tone at the top which signifies a demand for justice in all cases. In some cases, these institutions charged with safeguarding the well-being of their student body appear more interested in protecting the school’s image. After all, donors are less liable to open up their purse strings or wallets if their would-be donee is regarded as a proverbial viper’s nest of danger and iniquity. Better to make young women jump through hoops to report cases of rape/sexual assault and slut-shame them to the back pages of the newspaper.
So, yeah, feel free to opine on the liberal victim mentality. But conservatives play the victim, too, especially when taken to task for blatant sexism and other forms of prejudice. If anything, it’s a pot-kettle sort of situation.
At the very least, Kellyanne Conway’s understanding of feminism as an abstract concept seems incomplete. So much so that Merriam-Webster’s official Twitter feed took to defining “feminism” for her and others’ benefit: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Nothing about hating men. Nothing about separating one feminist from another based on ability to choose for oneself. Nothing about viewing oneself as a victim or blaming others for one’s position in life and set of circumstances. And certainly nothing about the Women’s March, undoubtedly awash with feminists, being proof that those involved and many women in general have an issue with women in power, as Conway herself suggested. Unless Donald Trump is, in fact, a woman, and let me say that he doesn’t make a particularly fetching one if that’s the case.
Suffice it to say, though, that both men and women may misconstrue what feminism entails and what does or does not constitute a violation of feminist principles. Recently, Emma Watson caught flak for wearing an outfit for a Vanity Fair photo shoot that featured her wearing no bra and very little else covering her breasts. The argument from her online detractors was that Watson, a self-identifying feminist, is a hypocrite for decrying the objectification by men on one hand and dressing in a way that, as they would describe it, encourages objectification. As these critics see things, her revealing garb is a betrayal of her principles and sends mixed messages. Emma Watson, for her part, was taken aback by the negativity, mostly because she expressed a sense of frustration about these critics misunderstanding feminism to begin with. Or, in her words, from an interview with the BBC:
Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.
Very confusing indeed. Some might philosophize that by dressing sexy, Watson is no better than the the male behavior she discourages, but a key difference here is the matter of choice. Whether or not you agree with it from a moral standpoint, Emma Watson is choosing to dress this way, a notion she herself reinforces. As if she were making a choice about whether or not to have an abortion, it’s her body, and furthermore, one might argue that by exercising her free will, she is disempowering those who would seek to objectify her without her consent. In this context, control is everything. Otherwise, Beyoncé fans have taken to pointing out Watson’s reversal on this position. About three years ago, Emma Watson noted she felt conflicted about Beyoncé referring to herself as a “feminist” and having her (Beyoncé’s) 2013 visual album appear as if shot through a voyeuristic lens and from the perspective of the heterosexual male libido. First of all, um, that was three years ago. People’s opinions can change a lot in that span, especially for someone of Watson’s age. Second of all, Watson acknowledges her opinions about the subject matter were not really “formulated” at the time. Call her a hypocrite or “flip-flopper” if you want, but regardless of what she said then, she has the right attitude about it now. The woman has breasts—what do you want her to do about it?
The “if she didn’t want to be objectified, she wouldn’t be leaving her flesh so exposed” argument, by the by, is a logically weak one, akin to the idea that women are “asking” to be raped or otherwise assaulted based on how they dress. What’s more, this is not the first time Emma Watson’s feminist credentials or even her use of the term has been questioned. Watson was invited to deliver a speech on the fight for gender equality worldwide for the launch of the HeForShe initiative at the United Nations, and reportedly, was asked not to use the “F-word.” As in “feminism.” She did anyway. Even for an occasion designed to mark a movement for men to advocate for and support women in the fight for gender equality, that Watson received this “friendly advice” signifies the overall discomfort both women and men have in using the term based on its negative connotations. Emma Watson noted in an interview with the London Evening Standard that she debated whether or not to comply with this request, but that she ultimately chose in favor of using the term, explaining herself thusly:
I was encouraged not to use the word feminism because people felt that it was alienating and separating and the whole idea of the speech was to include as many people as possible. But I thought long and hard and ultimately felt that it was just the right thing to do. If women are terrified to use the word, how on Earth are men supposed to start using it?
Watson makes an excellent point. If feminists themselves are afraid to use the term and extol the virtues of their worldview, this risks dissuading men who are more amenable to the feminist cause from lending their support, and moreover, gives those who reject feminist ideals, chief among them conservatives and males who reflexively view any pro-female movement as a threat to their way of life and therefore in need of neutralization (see also alt-right, Gamergate) ammunition in further weakening their (the feminists’) resolve. Though not to equate the two movements and the struggle for mainstream acceptance they face, democratic socialism is another term which is assailed by its opponents to the extent people who might otherwise be sympathetic to its cause are alienated from the theory. Democratic socialists believe in a democratic form of government alongside a socialist economic system, rather simply.
As author and journalist Dan Arel explains, democratic socialism is, in many ways, not what you think it is. It is not Marxism, in that democratic socialism does not advocate for workers controlling the means of production. It is not communism as we would commonly understand it, that is, as manifested in China and the USSR. It is not a replacement for capitalism, but rather a more responsible, one might argue, version of capitalism that would restrict the excesses of corporations and their owners and would act to safeguard employee rights. It is not pure socialism, as democratic socialism believes that consumer goods/services and certain societal elements should be approached democratically rather than from a central government. Perhaps most importantly, it is not incompatible with modern American economic and political structures. As Arel suggests, democratic socialism already exists within the Democratic Party—it just isn’t embraced by all its members. Universal health care, free college tuition, a stronger social safety net—these are not pipe dreams for many developed countries around the world, especially in Europe. Yet people hear “socialism,” and either because they conflate it with communism or simply believe that industry in the United States is overregulated as it is, condemn democratic socialism in a reactionary way. Bernie Sanders and his crazy ideas! Why doesn’t he just move to Sweden if he loves it so much? Never mind that benefits such as community development block grants, the Earned Income Credit, educational grants, family planning services, food stamps/SNAP, the Head Start program, Job Corps, Medicare, public housing, Social Security, and weatherization services for low-income households are all social programs used by Americans of all different economic backgrounds and political affiliations. Um, you’re welcome.
Back to the role of feminism in America and in the world today, though. Feminism, at its most basic and essential, speaks to equality of opportunities and rights irrespective of gender. As suggested earlier, some men, notably those dyed-in-the-wool, old-fashioned sexists—whether they are conscious of it or not—view the advancement of women as a threat to them and their way of life. Feminists also face obstacles from institutions primed to favor men, chief among them the world of business, rigid standards of morality and religious conservatism, and even censure from other women who view their lot as whiny man-haters. In the discussion of not wanting to give the haters more fodder, though, certainly, card-carrying feminists must stick by their principles and do so without concern for excluding those uncomfortable with calling feminism by its rightful name. They should not have to fight this fight alone, however, and with a new generation of young men more sensitively attuned to ideas related to female sexuality, gender equality, and women’s issues, it would appear necessary that they recognize women’s struggle for equality as one which affects them as it does the women advocating for greater autonomy of self, and without concern for their (the men’s) immediate personal benefit. Their mission is our mission. Their losses and gains ours as well.
Now more than ever, with a man in the White House who identifies as pro-life to court religious conservatives despite expressing support for a woman’s right to choose in the past—not to mention boasting about being able to grab women “by the pussy” and defending his words as “locker-room talk”—and a Republican-led Congress which has targeted Planned Parenthood’s federal funding despite it not being used for abortions, already a small portion of the organization’s total services, men must support women’s rights as part of a unified front against others who would seek to abrogate these liberties. Accordingly, the following points should be considered non-negotiable, and let it be stressed that the feminist/women’s rights agenda is not limited to just these items:
Constitutional equality. I’ll speak briefly about equality in pay in a bit, but for women across demographic lines, constitutional guarantees to educational opportunities, full Social Security benefits, and job opportunities and political opportunities/power, are lacking. The Equal Rights Amendment, passed by Congress in 1972, has yet to be ratified in a three-fourths majority of states (only 35 of the 50 have ratified it), but efforts continue at the grassroots level to get its language specifically into the U.S. Constitution.
Control over reproductive rights. This includes access to safe abortions and available, affordable birth control and reproductive health services. I know I specified earlier that men should advocate for these points irrespective of any immediate benefits, but as they stand to, ahem, benefit from women’s healthy expression of their sexuality, right off the bat, this should be an easy sell.
Ending violence against women. Domestic violence and violence against women in college settings jumps to mind, but across international and cultural borders, there unfortunately are too many instances of the subjugation of women by physical and other means. Female genital mutilation sticks out in this regard, being inflicted on upwards of 200 million women and girls worldwide, chiefly in the regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It is deemed by the World Health Organization as unnecessary and dangerous, and by the United Nations and other international bodies as a human rights violation. Violence against women in its various forms is a serious problem in our world today, a reality that is made all the more disturbing by all the underage females who are targeted because they can’t protect themselves and/or to satisfy some illicit trade, as in the sex trafficking of young girls. This should not be considered a remote problem for distant continents either. This is a human problem and one that affects all of us.
Equal pay for equal work. Seems fair, right? Arguing against equal pay for women on the basis of their supposed inferiority is outmoded and foolish thinking, plain and simple.
Freedom from stigmatization of normal bodily functions. Earth to Donald Trump and some other men—women menstruate. This is uncontrollable, and symptoms of PMS shouldn’t be assumed against them when they dare to show emotion or, you know, do their job as female reporters/news personalities (what up, Megyn Kelly?) Also, women breastfeed. They shouldn’t have to hide this fact, especially given the idea babies need sustenance to survive and thrive. Stop, ahem, being such babies about this.
Justice for women of color and for the LGBTQ community. In the pursuit of gender equality, those who champion women’s rights are usually not provincial in their focus. Though they might frame their discussion of job discrimination, pay equity, Social Security and pension reform, and what constitutes a “living wage” in terms of women’s issues, these topics are applicable to the larger conversation about income and wealth inequality that pervades societal problems in the United States and elsewhere. Part of the women’s rights movement is addressing opportunities for women of color in all areas, especially education, employment, and health care, and for the LGBTQ community, notably with respect to child custody, employment, health services, and housing.
Again, these are not strictly “women’s issues,” but ones that affect all of us, considering how they impact and have impacted the lives of the women around us—our mothers, our grandmothers, our wives, our daughters, other female family members, our female teachers, our female nurses, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, despite the progress we have made in this regard, there is much work to do, and realistically, we should be further along than we are. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked two years ago about why gender parity in his Cabinet is so important to him, responded simply with the line, “Because it’s 2015.” It’s 2017 now, and the vast majority of us—women and men, men and women—should be proud to say we are feminists. I certainly am, and you should be too.
As I’m sure you’re aware, on the evening of January 29, in Quebec City, a 27-year-old man named Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec mosque and started firing. By the end, six men were killed, with others injured, and the next day, Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder with a restricted weapon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to condemn the attack as a terrorist act and one of cowardice on the part of the assailant, and authorities and Canadian citizens alike called for a spirit of inclusivity and togetherness in the wake of the violence. While mass shootings have become regrettably almost run-of-the-mill in America, mass shootings in Canada have been relatively sparse.
Within the United States, however, for a number of vocal Trump supporters during the early confusion of details filtering down from Quebec, the attack on the Centre Culturel Islamique was Exhibit A as to why the recently-enacted “Muslim ban” is not only advisable, but patently necessary. Initial reports identified two suspects in connection with the shooting, one of whom was Mohamed Belkhadir, a 29-year-old engineering student originally from Morocco. The jingoists among us, eager to fly the Stars and Stripes at first notice of an exclusionary narrative onto which to latch, were likely already foaming at the mouth at mention of the name “Mohamed,” and news of Belkhadir’s connection with the crime just sent them over the top. See, this is why we don’t want to let refugees from Muslim nations into the country! There’s too great a danger! You never know when ISIS might be lurking around the corner! Bear in mind Morocco isn’t one of the countries specified in President Trump’s ban on immigration, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good argument, shall we?
Except for the eventual revelation Mohamed Belkhadir was not actually a suspect in the mosque attack, but a witness. Oops! According to reports, Belkhadir was trying to administer first aid to a friend and fled to the cultural center’s parking lot when he saw someone with a gun, not knowing that person was a cop. Indeed, the search for a narrative and the desire to run with it led to a hasty presumption based on unconfirmed information and betrayed a series of arguments predicated on racial and xenophobic prejudice. What’s more, regarding the person of Alexandre Bissonnette, a synopsis of various media sources by Manisha Krishnan, writing for VICE, paints a picture of the Laval University student that might easily be recognized stateside as well as in Canada. According to these reports, he is a loner, a subscriber to right-wing views, a xenophobe, someone who displays misogynistic tendencies and trolls a Facebook group for refugees, is a white nationalist, and—to top it all off—is a fan of Donald Trump and his policies. Oops, again! While I personally might balk at the idea that Bissonnette is one of the Trump Train lot, as, ahem, not every Trump supporter is a mass murderer, that Bissonnette would seem to be an admirer of the President’s puts an almost ironic twist on the quick finger pointed at the Muslim world wholesale by those espousing similar right-wing views.
There are any number of striking things about this example of brutality. Certainly, the idea that Donald Trump’s influence translates into French Canada and abroad may startle, though the rise of white nationalism is certainly not limited to Trump; Alexandre Bissonnette is also said to be an admirer of France’s Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party has gained popularity by adopting a similar anti-immigrant stance. What also grabs the attention, however, at least for yours truly, is statistical information regarding all Canadians’ attitudes toward Muslims. Justin Trudeau, either because he’s being diplomatic, he truly believes it, or both, has, in the wake of the mosque attack, consistently preached the country’s support for the Canadian Muslim community and solidarity with the population. Personal views, meanwhile, tend to vary. Alyssa Favreau, a Montreal-based writer, connects the Quebec shooting to a rising sea of anti-Muslim sentiment.
As Favreau notes within the piece, police-reported hate crimes against Muslims more than doubled in Canada from 2012 to 2014, and the raw number (99) stands to be much larger because the majority of these crimes go unreported. What’s more, the attitudes of average Canadians toward Islam on the whole speak to a vague apprehension about the religion and its practitioners. A 2015 survey by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that, despite about half of respondents having reservations about organized religions in general, a significantly higher percentage of those surveyed said they felt more uncomfortable about someone wearing a hijab as opposed to one wearing a cross. As for the Canadian population as a whole, based on a Forum Poll (Canada’s leading public opinion service) survey, more than a quarter of respondents had unfavorable feelings about Muslims. In other words, if Trudeau’s sentiments conveyed the sense some sort of love-fest exists in his country for followers of Islam, evidence points to the contrary.
In the United States, meanwhile, according to a report by Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, just under half of respondents across a composite of four polls during the election year disapproved of Islam on the whole; the approval rate for Muslim people fared yet better, with 70% of respondents viewing this subset of the population in a positive light, as opposed to 28% surveyed viewing Muslims in a negative light as of October 2016. This actually marks an improvement on these ratings since November 2015, and in spite of the salience of events like the Orlando shooting. As Telhami instructs, the upward trend in pro-Muslim leanings is almost exclusively attributable to changing views among Democrats and independents, and may well be a reaction to Donald Trump’s divisive actions and rhetoric. While the direction of this trend may be surprising, the source seems less so. After all, we would expect more liberal-oriented respondents to more readily embrace Islam and those who practice the faith.
If American views of Islam and Muslims are on the upswing, and even though progressives would like to see improvement on the dimensions governed by the polls interpreted by Shibley Telhami and his associates, it is therefore somewhat troubling to have people who would more readily identify with the left espousing views that mischaracterize Islam. By and large, I appreciate the comedy of Bill Maher, and while I may not agree with all of his positions on key issues, I have a certain degree of respect for the man. His stances on Islam and Muslims, on the other hand, I patently disagree with, and his embrace of fringe theories about this religion is not only arguably counterproductive, but potentially dangerous as well.
On a recent airing of his show, Real Time with Bill Maher, the namesake host featured a conversation with Sam Harris, author, cognitive neuroscientist, and co-founder of Project Reason, on the nature of Islam. Harris, no stranger to the program and notable for being a leader within what has been coined the New Atheist movement, had some choice words for the Muslim world and those liberals who support them. According to Sam Harris, “the left has allied itself with Islamists and closet Islamists,” and while on one hand, he and Bill Maher reject the merits of the Muslim ban, he had this to say about criticisms from left-leaners of others possessing Islamophobic tendencies: “You don’t have to be a fascist or a racist or even a Trumpian to not want to import people into your society who think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet.” Maher was quick to chime in at one point on this broad subject, condemning comparisons made between Islamist terrorist groups and the Ku Klux Klan, saying dismissively, “The KKK is not seeking nuclear weapons.” Um, bully for them then?
Both Sam Harris and Bill Maher, in discussing Muslims and Islam in this way, appear to be making a fundamental error. Harris, making a sweeping generalization, evidently believes all Muslims and refugees from countries where the predominant faith is Islam think cartoonists should be killed for drawing the Prophet Muhammad or otherwise representing them in a less-than-holy light, when realistically, this is a hallmark of radical or ultra-conservative Muslims, and not necessarily your everyday followers. As for Maher, he makes the distinction between the Ku Klux Klan and various Islamist groups, as if to say, “See? What did I tell you about Islam!” If saying the KKK doesn’t want nukes is your primary defense of this group, though, it’s a bit of splitting proverbial hairs, no? It’s like saying Donald Trump isn’t Hitler because he hasn’t tried to exterminate the Jews. That’s really a cold comfort, and besides, dude’s still got ample time in his first 100 days and Stephen Bannon the Skeleton King pouring poison into his ear. In either case, Harris and Maher are conflating the work of jihadists with that of rank-and-file Muslims, and such discourse not only seems to be steeped in faulty logic, but potentially is dangerous given the national voice these figures possess.
Sadly, this is nothing new for either man. Though a bit dated by Internet standards, Salon in 2015 compiled a compendium of Bill Maher’s “greatest hits” on Islam, which includes references to Muslims’ beliefs as “pernicious,” the Koran as a “hate-filled holy book,” and to Islam itself not being a religion of peace. As for Sam Harris, Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best journalist you’ve never heard of, penned a lengthy op-ed about Harris and other New Atheists on “anti-Muslim animus” back in 2013. I know—positively ancient, right? And yet, not much seems to have changed or evolved within Harris’s world view since. Greenwald acknowledges Sam Harris’s antipathy toward organized religion as a whole (Bill Maher, though not an avowed atheist, is like-minded in his distaste for organized religion and its more deleterious effects), but notes how Harris, for lack of better phrasing, has a hard-on for Islam and those that worship in accordance with its precepts. From the essay:
The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening: “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice western Christians (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Jews: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death.”
This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that “we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.” He has also decreed that “this is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with millions more than have any direct affiliation with Al Qaeda.” “We”—the civilized peoples of the west—are at war with “millions” of Muslims, he says. Indeed, he repeatedly posits a dichotomy between “civilized” people and Muslims: “All civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the earth.”
This isn’t “quote-mining”, the term evidently favored by Harris and his defenders to dismiss the use of his own words to make this case. To the contrary, I’ve long ago read the full context of what he has written and did so again yesterday. […] Yes, he criticizes Christianity, but he reserves the most intense attacks and superlative condemnations for Islam, as well as unique policy prescriptions of aggression, violence and rights abridgments aimed only at Muslims. As the atheist scholar John L Perkins wrote about Harris’ 2005 anti-religion book: “Harris is particularly scathing about Islam.”
The larger significance of these kinds of attitudes, as Glenn Greenwald sees things, is that this thinking can be used to justify all sorts of aggression, human rights abuses, and violence against Muslims, the kinds of acts to which rights activists independent of political affiliation strongly object. They include anti-Muslim profiling, state violence (i.e. liberals are “soft” on terrorism), support for Israel even in the face of international criticism, and torture. What’s more, whereas defenders of divisive behavior and rhetoric on the right might view this as justified based on vague ideas of Christian righteousness or outright racism and xenophobia, the foundation of New Atheism’s anti-Muslim sentiments is feelings and notions of a moral superiority. Sure, Sam Harris and his confederates might view their objections to Islam as more correct because they are not based on strict adherence to religious doctrine, but viewed in the context of secular morality and a battle of good versus evil, they are equally as insidious, if not more so. “They know not what they do”? Hardly. Harris and Company know exactly what they do—and that’s the point.
As Glenn Greenwald frames his arguments, then, Bill Maher’s and Sam Harris’s wholesale character assassination of Islam fits in all-too-nicely with a generalized American and Western condemnation of the Muslim world, and a tendency to side with our own interests even when they may be seen as wrong. Greenwald describes the problem with Harris’s denigration of Muslims and Islam quite succinctly:
Harris’ self-loving mentality amounts to this: those primitive Muslims are so tribal for reflexively siding with their own kind, while I constantly tout the superiority of my own side and justify what We do against Them. […] He is at least as tribal, jingoistic, and provincial as those he condemns for those human failings, as he constantly hails the nobility of his side while demeaning those Others.
As Sam Harris and other New Atheists would have it, the end game of Islam is to convert everyone to the faith, politically subjugate those who don’t convert, or kill those who stand in the way. Otherwise, the assumptions they make about the way Muslims think are based not on factual observation or rational, intellectual inferences, but rather a spirit grounded in religious or “tribal” attitudes—and if we really want to get down to brass tacks, this liberal Islamophobia is pretty much a religion in of itself. So much for that whole “no religion” bit.
It’s one thing for educated folks like Bill Maher and Sam Harris to sneer at the section of right-wing America that, to paraphrase Barack Obama’s infamous quote, clings to its Bibles, its guns, and its resentment against the foreign and the unfamiliar. It’s quite another, however, for their likes to convey an elitist tone and deride the Muslim ban as an obvious poor choice while they, in the same breath, denigrate Muslims and what they believe. So, while Maher, Harris and other non-believers/agnostics may thumb their noses at those who get caught up in matters of sectarian conflict, looking down at the rigidity of organized religions from atop their high horses, by painting Islam and Muslims with broad, largely negative strokes, they are no better than the Americans who, say, argue Muslims are a danger to the United States because they want nothing more than to make sharia law the supreme law of the land and subvert our existing statutes in the name of Allah.
Speaking of which, on that last note, in another one of those quasi-ironic twists that I seem to love these days, if anything is liable to bring religiously-motivated laws into a position of greater influence and effect, it is not Muslims, but the man behind the ban himself, President Donald Trump. Alongside plotting a gutting of the Dodd-Frank Act, a piece of legislation crafted in direct response to the irresponsible banking, lending and other regulatory practices which led to the global financial crisis almost a decade ago, Trump vowed recently to destroy the Johnson Amendment, which effectively bars churches from making political contributions, and thus, is an important aspect of the separation of church and state in the United States. Evidently, and in short, Trump, his cronies, and Republicans who aid and abet him in terrible policy-making are content to let the financial industry and religious organizations alike run amok. As many of us may reason, they might as well. You know, after confirming the likes of Rex Tillerson, a man who has ties to Vladimir Putin and who until recently helmed a company that dealt with countries considered state sponsors of terrorism, and Betsy DeVos, whose millions of dollars of political contributions somehow are supposed to count for a complete lack of competence and experience, there’s almost nowhere to go but up. Almost.
What we don’t need, therefore, returning our focus to the topic of anti-Muslim sentiment, is more noise from individuals professing to uphold science and intellectualism but instead giving way to beliefs that smack of white ethnocentrism and are reliant on a warped understanding of a religion practiced by over a billion people worldwide. People like Sam Harris argue liberals are in bed with jihadists and others like Bill Maher feel political correctness holds us back from having an honest and open conversation about Islam and the Muslim world, and at worst, makes us “pussies.” Little do they realize, however, it is, to a considerable extent, their closed-mindedness which only fuels mutual misunderstanding between East and West and drives us all further apart.