Saturday, October 28, 2023

Bye and Thanks

The Vigilance blog is shutting down after nearly twenty years. We were successful participants in the struggle against early waves of rightwing religious authoritarianism in Montgomery County, and later, weaker waves of attack. But it's time for somebody else to step up to fight today's assault on democracy and civility. We thank all our supporters, participants, and friends in the community over these years, and will continue to support the good fight wherever we are needed.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Backing Off Here, A Bit

This blog started in 2004, when our suburban county came under attack by a new kind of religious rightwing ideology. They were arbitrarily, viciously anti-gay and felt that the public schools should endorse their bigotry by refusing to teach the actual fact that there are gay and trans people in the world. They had a dumb and dangerous idea and it ran against any credible concept of knowledge and education.

Teach the Facts supported the school district to get a decent curriculum in place. The MCPS bureaucracy was sometimes shockingly unwilling to take risks, but individuals within the system were able to communicate and work with us, and we got the job done. That controversy has been forgotten and now our county's kids get a little bit more realistic view of human variation, taking the outcomes of our struggle for granted. As they should.

The school district was pretty bad then but not like it is now. Over the years it has become a closed system that resists the community rather than working with it. The recent example, uncovered in the Post, of principal Joel Beidleman, who had been abusing teachers and students for years, was an eye-opener -- and you know it's the tip of the iceberg, he's not the only one. Turns out MCPS just kept promoting this malevolent person and moving him around, and it got worse and worse. And then they appointed their own lawyers to investigate themselves and the report, so far, has been whitewash. That's what we can expect from here on out.

This month, MCPS is hosting three different events by Moms for Liberty, a far-right hate group seeking to undermine the values of our community. There is very little outrage at this point; our liberal leaders are afraid to say anything and most county residents are unaware of these events.

FYI, here are the three upcoming MCPS-hosted Moms for Liberty events:
  • Mon, Sept 18, 6:30 PM, Shady Grove Middle School (media center), Moms for Liberty Chapter Meeting
  • Tues, Sept 26, 11AM, Gaithersburg High School: "Protest Gender Ideology in Our Schools"
  • Tues, Sept 26, 7-9PM, Wootton High School, "Giving Parents a Voice" townhall

During the first wave of attacks from the right, our group of parents and local residents organized and aligned with other groups and with LGBT leaders as well as allies within the MCPS administration. Working together we marched forward through an onslaught of lawsuits and protests and dirty tricks, pushing back against the hatred until it retreated. We were aggressive about it and also funny -- conservatives have no response when you just make fun of them.

This time around, conservatives and religious groups have declared war on classroom reading materials with LGBT+ characters, trying to get a provision for opting out, and so far they are almost entirely unopposed. The liberals who have appointed themselves to support the current policy do not want to engage with the attacking hordes swarming down on our county. They are literally afraid of violence if we fight back. They don't want people to speak out because they are literally afraid someone will say something that can be taken wrong. I say "literally" because they have said this in public announcements. They want all statements to the press to be filtered through spokespersons who will be careful not to offend anyone or cause trouble. They will say happy things like "Lead with love," and "Radiate positivity."

The one county leader who has addressed the situation was ambushed by her own party and criticized in the national press for stating the obvious. The rest of our "leaders," when forced to comment, utter lukewarm platitudes and that's it. They're hoping this whole thing goes away on its own.

The liberal leaders want to "promote the inclusive books" and "support the LGBTQIA+ community." Fine, but those are not the problem. The books are in classrooms already and there is no real movement to get rid of them. LGBT-supportive policies are in place, big time, the school district is working hard to provide a welcoming environment. This is not the time to play defense.

Stories with LGBT+ characters are not a problem. Gay and trans people are not a problem. Those are simply the wrong places to focus energy.

The problem is ignorant, hateful conservatives trying to tear down the fundamentals of Western liberal society, and they are now active in our county. The insurrection is sometimes bleakly obvious, like when there are tiki torch marches, swastikas painted on synagogues, bubba smearing poop on the walls in the Capitol building, but sometimes you can't quite believe that it has slipped into your own neighborhood. It has, and it's serious. It's cool to have nonbinary dance parties and rainbow bumper stickers but I personally would like to see someone addressing the actual existential problem. Directly, forcefully.

"Inclusive" doesn't mean you define some group as different from everybody else, and then hold dance parties and wave signs for them, put their flags in your front yard and their bumper stickers on your car. Our MCPS English classes can and do have readings about all kinds of people -- there aren't "normal" readings and also "inclusive" readings. Our county's leading liberals see "inclusive" as a special category of people requiring special attention. They are not doing anyone any favors with their divisiveness.

There has been protest from the Muslim community, and our Montgomery County "liberals" turned Islamophobic on a dime. This opposition could have been melted away long ago by the school district, with a thoughtful and empathic communication strategy rather than wagon-circling. And even now, dialog could defuse and dissolve the situation. But there won't be any.

Though Councilmember Kristin Mink noted that the Muslim protesters are different from regular rightwing bigots, our leading liberals toss them in with Trumpers and nazis, as if they're all the same. In reality, the Muslim opposition to homosexuality is the same as their opposition to eating pork, it's a religious prohibition and they have the right to believe what they believe. And the public schools have a responsibility to respect their religion, it doesn't matter if other people agree with it or not. Religious beliefs are not a matter of opinion, we don't debate them and adopt the ones that win the argument. People believe "on faith," which means they accept the authority of a religious tradition, and the Constitution protects that.

But the current situation is not like forcing Muslims to eat pork, it is like getting them to read a story where someone eats pork. And there is no religious prohibition against that. Even devout Muslims can read a story with gay people in it.

Who has sat down with any Muslim protesters and shown them these books? A: nobody. Most of the protesters don't even know what they are protesting against. Our liberal so-called activists don't want anything to do with actually resolving the standoff. They want more rainbow umbrellas and flags, and to avoid discussion (aka "confrontation") where it would actually do some good. It would be nice to have these Muslims on our side in the real, serious fight against fascism, but that won't happen as long as "we" lump them together with fascist bigots. As we speak, they are meeting and organizing with well-funded rightwing extremists, having been kicked out of the county liberal establishment. Great. Just great.

This blog doesn't get very many readers these days, and it would be nice to see somebody take the lead in this crisis. My usual approach here is to wait until there are about 200 comments, which means it takes a couple extra clicks to refresh the screen, and then I post something mainly so commenters have a place to argue. We are not influencing public opinion.

You might not think so, but writing these things is a lot of work. Many drafts are thrown away, most are re-written repeatedly and edited for days before I post them. And what is the payoff? Pretty much nuthin. So my tendency is to hang it up here. Maybe somebody will step forward in our community and say what needs to be said. It doesn't have to be me. I would suggest someone younger, more resilient, somebody with a sense of humor and thick skin.

There are reasons to believe the good fight can still be won. My feeling is that Montgomery County Council Member Kristin Mink is a rising star in the national progressive scene, and serious people should get behind her and support her. Our Democratic establishment feels threatened by her -- she's young, thoughtful, she's outspoken, she has tattoos fer cryin' out loud. She doesn't string cliches together, she seems to have a clear and sensible political philosophy and bases her decisions on that. I am pretty sure she sees her political position clearly, and hope she will plan her future with a realistic view of what her starting-point is. Another ray of sunshine is political scientist Sunil Dasgupta's I Hate Politics podcast, which holds a magnifying glass over local Montgomery County issues; he gently elicits important statements from elected leaders and others, often backing them into corners they would prefer to avoid. But besides those two, we can expect to see a bunch of risk-averse Democrats waving their "Yay Us" pom-poms and chanting the same old stuff, the same signs in the yard and same bumper stickers.

I'll post this and maybe when we get to 200 I'll just close the comments and leave the archived blog here as a historical resource. Who knows, maybe something will happen and I will post some more. Right now, I'm not feeling like the effort is justified, and will be backing off a bit.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

The Democracy Thing

Well now we've got the Atlanta indictments, more than forty more charges, a queue of suits from the former President on down lining up for mugshots and fingerprinting. Former President Trump is now indicted, on top of everything else, for a "serious felony" calling for a mandatory five-year prison sentence, and with no way to pardon himself or fire the prosecutor. This is his fourth set of indictments -- you've got the Mar-a-Lago documents case, the Stormy Daniels payoff case, January 6th and efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election, and now charges for racketeering and attempting to overthrow a legitimate election in the state of Georgia. He is currently in the pipeline for four trials involving ninety-one separate charges.

Never mind that the Trump Organization has had to pay big fines for fraud, and Trump is still getting slapped around in the case where he raped a woman and then badmouthed her in public and she won her case for defamation and he kept flapping his jaw and she sued him again. The House of Representatives is about to produce a report on emoluments, enumerating some of the ways the Trump family and their parasitic mobsters enriched themselves while he was in office. That ball will begin rolling soon; the DOJ wants to act like that kind of robbery is normal but they will have to do something once the evidence is placed right in front of them. There are also other grand juries looking at stuff, we don't know what. Well, there is talk about Arizona following Georgia's example; still in the rumor stage though.

Donald Trump is a bad person.

Oddly, he is popular with a certain small segment of the population. It is the modern version of the same subpopulation that supported Hitler before the US entered World War II, who identified then as now with the slogan "American First." Woody Guthrie referred to them in a song as Firsters, which is pretty good.

If there is something you could call an "idea" behind it, it is for America to have a strong leader who will be able to sidestep the slow-moving and inefficient government, the "administrative state," to allow cops and judges to put more people in prison for longer sentences on weaker evidence, to give the police more power to harass and execute "suspicious" people on the street. We wouldn't necessarily go to war with foreign countries but would cut off the US from the rest of the world with travel bans and tariffs and brutality at the borders. A narrow segment of the country would be favored in all government decisions, and nonmembers of that ingroup, including LGBT+ people, nonwhite and immigrant people, women, the poor, non-Christians, intellectuals, artists, people who criticize the leader, would live under an ongoing dynamic of stochastic punishment.

Sensible people describe this as a threat to democracy, which raises the question: what if the majority of voters actually want that? Right now Joe Biden is presiding over a period of unprecedented prosperity and stability, with good relations with the rest of the world, and his approval ratings, last I looked, were in the thirty-percent range. Trump's ratings are also in the thirties but it is hypothetically possible that, in a fair election, the population would select an unapologetic, narcissistic, multiply convicted felon for President. Isn't that democracy?

Well, no, not really. Democracy is not the same as "majority rule." The US has been systematically working for a couple hundred years to put together a system of laws, policies, and processes that keep the country thriving while protecting both the property and the rights of citizens. There was irony in the original "All men are created equal," of course, they didn't really mean "all people" as we would mean it today, but over the years the circle has expanded, and we now recognize that all races and ethnicities should be treated as equal to everyone else, women should be treated equal to men, renters should be equal to homeowners under the law. Even gay and trans people get protection under the law, technically speaking. (Not so much progress on the indigenous front, but it's coming.) The democratic ideal is that the justice system should treat everyone the same. We're not there yet, but it's a good noble project and progress has been made.

If voters turn the country back over to Trump or some other autocrat in the next election, we will lose all that. As he did last time, he will activate the justice system to execute his personal revenge whims and treat the Presidency as a smash-n-grab -- it'll look like one of those videos of teenage gangs stealing stuff from department stores, but counting in the billions of dollars, not hundreds. Picture the armed paramilitary on Lafayette Square in uniforms with no identifying patches or badges, shooting into a crowd to clear the plaza for a hypocritical photo-op of the President with an upside-down Bible. Even if the next authoritarian is elected by a majority of votes, this is not what democracy looks like. It is not government "for the people."

The rightwing pundits are outraged that Trump is being treated like any other criminal, for instance Laura Ingraham said this week, "These people are sick. How is a mug shot of the former president in any way necessary or in any way good for America?" They literally believe that their man-god is above the law, and cannot understand why it is reasonable for the justice system to treat him like any other person who has been indicted on multiple felonies. The Magna Carta has simply been lost on them. That was 1215, that's a long way to roll the clock back.

Here's my understanding of this. The government is big, slow, inefficient, expensive, hard to deal with, sometimes makes wrong decisions -- everybody knows that. Most Americans believe that the Constitution is based on important and sound principles, and that it describes an ideal system for serving the needs of the greatest number of people, given careful monitoring and attention. The people who believe the system can work are called "liberals." They see the same problems with the bureaucracy as everyone else, but they try to find ways to make it work, and more or less succeed at that -- look at Biden's management of the economy, for instance, what happened to the inflation you were complaining about? What about that unemployment rate? Weren't we supposed to have a recession? Liberals are people who believe that a democratic, constitutional system of government can work, with competent management.

But there is another group of people who feel that they are very insightful because they can see that the government is an inefficient, frustrating bureaucracy. So first of all they assume that liberals ("libtards") can't see how inefficient government is, or that they like it that way, and second of all, because it's easier to complain than to fix things, they think it would be smarter to tear the whole thing down and put an authoritarian in charge. I won't go into the reasons that democracy is better (basically, it buffers against corruption), but, well, look at the Trump presidency and see how well that worked. Trigger warning: it did not work. Think of Trump declaring that Obamacare is a "disaster," and then all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't think of anything better in four years of single-party rule. Not even a proposal. A big, fat book of blank pages, literally. Look at his seven or eight aborted "infrastructure weeks," versus Biden's actual infrastructure bill that is making the country a better place to live. Authoritarianism does not work for a country with three hundred million people. We hate it but there needs to be administration, bureaucracy, rules. "Daddy will spank you if you're bad" does not scale up to the national scope.

In one act of majority-rule, if by some twist of fate a fair majority supports him, or at least a majority of the electoral college, the public can reject democracy for the future and put an end to this historic experiment in self-government. One authoritarian's ingroup will make the decisions for all of us, while they're stuffing their pockets with tax money and payoffs. Look at them -- Michael Flynn, Sydney Powell, the My Pillow Guy, Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Javanka -- living in a world of delusion where they are the victims and "bad people" (outgroup members) need to be punished instead of themselves. The Internet can't even keep up with the list of Trump associates who have been indicted, convicted, or pled guilty to serious crimes, never mind the thousand-plus who have been busted for the insurrection at the Capitol building. Once Trump or somebody like him is in the White House, issuing pardons and interfering with elections in the states, destroying education, there will be no return to democracy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Question: Are Protesters Just Regular Anti-Gay Bigots, or Not?

In the ongoing Montgomery County protests about opt-out for storybooks, county residents -- especially county liberals and progressives -- are seeing the Muslim protesters as being the same as our familiar antidemocratic, authoritarian, homegrown anti-gay haters. On the other hand, the Muslim leaders say things like, "This is not an anti-LGBTQ+ movement. We understand this is a pluralistic society. If we become anti-LGBTQ+, we’ve lost the point." On the other other hand, MAGA extremists Moms for Liberty have promoted and planned these protests, and Muslim group Family Rights for Religious Freedom's leader Wael Elkoshairi (quoted above) personally handed the microphone to a Moms for Liberty speaker at one of the protests. On the other other other hand, he then told MoCo360 that "he 'had no idea who she was' at the time and that she wasn’t visibly affiliated with Moms for Liberty, resulting in what he called 'an honest mistake' on his part." There is some skepticism. Like, lots.

Local liberals see the protesters as garden-variety conservative haters, with Muslims making up the great majority of the crowd, and it is admittedly hard to see any gap between the Muslim groups and their rightwing allies. They are collaborating and both groups are covering it up, each is taking advantage of the other, and viewing them as one enemy certainly makes opposing them easier. And, the bottom line, both of them are trying to discriminate against our LGBT+ family members and neighbors -- yes, leaving the room when a kind of person is mentioned is discrimination. The Muslim leaders claim a religious rationale and criticize anyone who complains about them as "Islamophobic," but we have seen Christians do the same thing, also claiming to be victims because of their religion.

Is an alternative hypothesis plausible?

No one agrees with me, but I am hesitant to lump them together. I have listened to a lot of the speakers, interviews, mosque sermons, and so on, and there is an alternative hypothesis. There are nearly two billion Muslims in the world. It is one of the World's Great Religions, and has been going for a millennium and a half. In all that time, they have consistently considered homosexuality to be a terrible sin. Nobody reading this can defend all the stuff some religions believe, that's just the nature of religion. No Muslim country would ever try to call itself "The Land of the Free" -- some of them have morality police, fer cryin' out loud. In recent history many Muslims have migrated to the US, a very different kind of place, and they are learning to balance between maintaining their traditional culture and adapting to the new one they have voluntarily joined. And I think I can safely say that approximately zero non-Muslim Americans want to live under Sharia law, which is what is behind the Muslim opt-out demand. (In one Michigan town that is majority Muslim, it appears they are implementing a social order that conforms to their own norms, which the rest of the townspeople might not like, but that's democracy for ya.)

I don't believe they hate gay and trans people like our homegrown bigots do. They just have a different view of what it is, and that view is built into their way of life, and it puts them in conflict with the liberal Western democracy they have moved to, where "all men are created equal" is an ideal we always strive for. It must be a shock to see gay and trans people walking around unashamed and unpunished -- and remember, our own American culture is still straining to climb to the next rung ourselves. I do not know how they got swept up in this particular issue about English classes, but have some thoughts. Obviously storybooks with LGBT+ characters do not violate the tenets of Islam, they're just stories that kids read. As you will see below, the current local controversy seems to have started with our ordinary haters, and then the Muslims somehow took it up and became the face of it, and now they are in too deep to back down or compromise, which they will have to do, or else separate from the rest of American society. The alternate hypothesis is that our Muslim neighbors are not authoritarian bigots, but have a traditional belief that is discordant with US society; they have been swept up into the MAGA movement but -- the alternative part -- they are reasonable, educated people who would make the right choice, given accurate information.

Rightwing origins

At the first "opt-out" protest, County Council member Kristin Mink mingled with the protesters, listened to them, and then horrified liberals and offended Muslims by saying, to their face, "This issue unfortunately does put some, not all of course, some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots." Even so, she said, she "would not put [them] in the same category." For which she was called an Islamophobe and roasted at the stake by the right and the left. Her honesty was punished but she identified a big part of the problem.

Here's something interesting. A statement submitted by an MCPS Assistant Superintendent in the "opt-out" lawsuit mentions that, before MCPS stopped letting schools decide informally, "parents sought to excuse dozens of students in a single elementary school from instruction using the LGBTQ-Inclusive Books." The statement also notes that many of the informal requests were not religious in nature.

You know what that means? It means it was not Muslims that started this. There aren't dozens of Muslim families at any single elementary school. They make up a little more than one percent of the county's population.

Local reporter Em Espy tweeted a meaningful observation: "in the dozens of convos I've had with protesters, when I remember to ask the question, *most* indicate they haven't read the LGB[T]Q+ inclusive storybooks for themselves. This experience has been echoed to me by other reporters as well." This raises the question -- where is the framing coming from? Why do they believe these books are so bad, if they haven't even seen them? The answer is very likely that Moms for Liberty and other MAGA hate groups are deliberately misleading them, trying to motivate the Muslims to act in a way that does not serve themselves at any level.

The Muslim groups say they are fighting for religious values but they are collaborating with groups who represent an entirely different religion altogether. I don't like to think it but it is not unreasonable to conclude that Councilmember Mink was wrong, and they are "in the same category with" our homegrown haters. If there is a difference, now is the time to reveal it.

Parents' rights are not a religious question

It is not clever or new to invoke religion as an excuse for bigotry -- our Christians do it all the time. I am pretty sure there is nothing in Islam -- a religious culture that has led the world for centuries in philosophy, mathematics, science, and the arts -- that says your kid can't read a story about a family with two moms.

When the Muslim group leaders are asked about their religious values, they immediately switch the topic to "parental rights," which is simply a rightwing talking point: "We just want to be the ones who decide when our children should learn about these things." They stand outside Carver chanting "Save our children." From what? That is an entirely different point from religious values. And it is not a point that holds water; it only expresses loathing for LGBT+ people, as if these stories are some kind of danger to their children. It may sound outrageous to say so, but in the real world parents do not dictate what a public school will teach, and the school is not obligated to comply with squeaky wheels. Tell me, in Islamic scripture, what is the right age for a child to read a story about a knight and a prince falling in love? A: it is not mentioned. I would like to hear someone explain exactly what religious requirements these readings violate. Theologically, it does not seem any different from a Christian or Jew steeped in "Thou shalt not kill" reading a murder mystery. It would be sinful to murder somebody; reading about it is nothing.

Is there an honest religious objection, or are these groups simply under the influence of rightwing Christian bigots? It looks like it's just another gay wedding cake. And the follow-up is, having been backed into a corner by bad influences, can these protesting groups still negotiate and reason with the school district to come up with something that actually works? As Councilmember Mink said, "It's complicated."

Liberal backlash

The people who support gay and trans rights, and that is a great majority of this county, consider these protesting Muslims to be ordinary haters. They see them pushing to impose their prejudices on our public schools just like the rest of the radical right is doing. You can call everybody in the whole county Islamophobes, if you want, but that's how it looks to a normal person reading the newspaper. There is no public sympathy from Democrats or progressives, nobody is buying the "religious values" argument, nobody believes the Muslim groups are capable of reasoning with the school district, people just see more gay-bashing. These people want to leave the room when LGBT+ people are even mentioned, which is insulting, and isn't that the point?

I have been trusting that there is a core of sincerity in the Muslim protests, and that they have been misled by cynics along the way. Of course I had to be officially kicked out of the liberal cabal that is advocating for one-sided "inclusiveness" -- I've gone several weeks now without my Soroscheck, and am not even receiving my daily classified documents from Hillary's personal email server. The self-labeled progressives seem to think that the readings are being criticized and need to be defended, yay gay people. No, that is not the problem; nobody is criticizing the readings. In misinterpreting the situation they envision a crisp duality, as usual, in black and white, us against them, and the Muslim protesters are "them." I actually do believe in inclusiveness and do not see any good outcome resulting from othering the Muslim groups, to borrow the liberal-approved lingo. That is, dehumanizing and excluding them, which is the opposite, you notice, of "inclusion." I don't believe these protesters want to destroy our democracy like the other anti-LGBT+ groups do, but they are being intransigent about a position that does not actually make sense and cannot become the norm in our county. They don't like the reaction they are getting, and are doubling down but they're losing friends fast. In my opinion, liberals should be working on ways to bring the Muslim groups into the fold, to educate them and negotiate with them. But the one-dimensional progressives reject that possibility.

The lawsuit is a separate thing from the protests but nobody cares about the details. Everybody likes to say "the issue will be settled" but it won't be settled by the court -- one side or the other will have to accept something they find unacceptable. If "they" (an alliance of conservatives including Muslims) win the judgment and the schools have to implement opt-out, the public will resent the Muslim community for a long, long time, because it's their face on this. If their kids are standing up and walking out of class when rainbow stories are read, it will make a statement every time, and the resentment against that kid and his community will be palpable. They will not be trusted again. I'm just saying. Think it through.

How to resolve it

I obviously support the LGBT+ community. I think these diverse storybooks are good for our county and are good educational policy. Characters in pedagogical fiction have traditionally been whitewashed, pasteurized and homogenized, and it is better in all ways when they reflect the real makeup of our society. As Councilmember Mink said, "we cannot modify our fact-based, science-based curriculum to reflect particular religious beliefs that are not aligned with that science based curriculum." The authoritarian right wants to destroy secular public schooling; allowing families to pick the classes they approve of would be like planting a bomb in our educational system, and it can't happen. I am holding out that the Muslim protesters are not part of that, but are reasonable people who have gotten backed into a corner, and I think our best future follows from helping them out of that corner with their integrity intact.

As Councilmember Mink said, "It's, again, complicated, because they're following the same side of this particular issue." It's more complicated than that, when they meet with rightwing extremists and feature them at their protests: what are we supposed to think? Our Muslim neighbors have been good citizens, good for our county, good people; it is painful to think of them as run-of-the-mill haters, and I hope they are not. But they are going to get nothing but pushback from Montgomery County residents including the school district at this rate; the situation is polarized with no flexibility on either side. If this is resolved by the imposition of authority there will be bad feelings for a long time, no matter which way the court decides.

You can't make them believe God approves of homosexuality. We believe in freedom of religion, and some religions teach that it's a sin -- it's not just Islam. This is simply a fact of life in the free world, people can believe whatever. But MCPS is not trying to make anybody be gay or do anything their faith says they shouldn't do. It would be good if everybody was tolerant and reasonable but you can't demand that. What you can demand is that all students should show overt respect for one another, and you can at least hope that parents support their children in learning to be respectful. We have to educate our children about the diversity they will be discovering in the real world, so they can grow up to be good citizens.

Of course I disagree with the Muslim view of sexual identity, and I hope that the rest of us can help them evolve to a more comfortable place with it. Remember, mainstream America has been trying for a long time, and we still have a long way to go -- we are not in a position to judge somebody else's beliefs. But we cannot permit dehumanizing and disrespectful (never mind rude) behavior in the public schools. Muslim kids can sit through a story, it won't hurt them. They will learn about their friends' families and about people they will meet in their lives. MCPS should have prepared the families for this and they failed, but we can't go back now. I hate to say it but the Muslim groups are blowing it here, they are embarrassing themselves affiliating with bad people, and it is up to them to make a conciliatory gesture. For instance, offer to sit down and look at the books with an open mind, and evaluate the actual threat objectively. MCPS should offer an opening, too, and work with these groups, trusting they are different from the haters we are so familiar with, but are a population trying to adjust, who have hit a rocky place in the road.

Unrequested advice to Muslim protesters: distance yourselves from the haters.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Trans and Nonbinary Survey

Trans Maryland is conducting a survey of transgender and nonbinary Marylanders, to assess sociopolitical issues that impact health disparities for trans and nonbinary individuals. If you identify as trans or nonbinary and live in Maryland, follow this link: Maryland Trans Survey.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Why Would MCPS Give False Information Twice?

I am intrigued by the situation involving opt-out at MCPS, as a kind of pure, possibly intractable, dilemma. So far the protesters -- who want to remove their children from lessons with storybooks containing LGBT+ characters -- have controlled the message, and the press has perpetuated a number of errors. Elected progressives, except for Kristin Mink, have stayed out of the discussion; a couple of politicians commented on Kojo Nnamde's radio show for a few minutes, and that's about it.

There are some major questions about what's going on. One is the relationship between rightwing political extremists and the religious -- mostly Muslim -- groups who are speaking out. Muslim spokespersons insist their objections arise from deep religious beliefs and that they are not puppets of the far right, and they sound credible. I want to believe them and to believe that they are rational, mature people with sincere beliefs. If that's the case then there is hope that something can be worked out in a reasonable way. But affiliating with conservative extremists raises the possibility that the whole "religious values" argument is camouflage for maga-aligned forces trying to slip their own bigotry into local government and school policy. Which is a thing that is happening all over the country. I will want to get into that topic later. For now, a big question is why MCPS seems to have misled the public about the opt-out policy -- twice that I know of.

I don't think anyone thought it was necessary for the school district to have a policy that said students have to attend their classes. Nobody needed to make a rule stating that students did not have the choice to decide what classes were acceptable to them, and requiring the school to provide a different class if the student objected to the one that was offered. That just isn't how school works. The sex-ed curriculum was controversial when it was implemented, and Annapolis lawmakers required the schools to allow students to opt-out of some specific lessons, but that was a special case. The current situation is about English classes. And apparently there was no written system policy that said kids have to go to their English class, or that they could choose not to go.

But some parents believed there was an option, and you can see why. New inclusive reading materials came out in January, and it appears some parents worked out something with their neighborhood school to get their children out of the classes where gay or trans story characters would be discussed. There was no central control over the process, and no consistency across schools. It was basically a loophole, where MCPS hadn't actually said you couldn't do that, and so some people did.

On March 22nd, Fox 5 reported:

The MCPS Spokesperson shared with FOX 5 on Wednesday, "When a teacher selects the curriculum, a notification goes out to parents about the book. If a parent chooses to opt out, a teacher can find a substitute text for that student that supports these standards and aligns with curriculum."

The very next day, March 23rd, the school district issued a statement saying in part:

Students and families may not choose to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials, other than 'Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction'' which is specifically permitted by Maryland law. As such, teachers will not send home letters to inform families when inclusive books are read in the future.

They refuted their own statement from the day before. Were they just stating a fact, or changing something? It looks like they were trying to keep the decision making in the administrative offices, and not in the separate schools all over the county. It does not appear to be a new policy, but a restatement of an implicit existing one.

Something similar happened this month, when the Washington Post wrote:

The school system put an opt-out provision in place when the books were introduced, schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said. But that guidance shifted in March. Montgomery school officials say that Maryland law doesn’t allow students to withdraw from school lessons, except for a portion of the state’s health education curriculum on family life and human sexuality.

Jessica Baxter was MCPS's Director of Public Information, and sometime between talking to the Post and the article being published, she left her job.

Someone, presumably in Baxter's office, said something incorrect to Fox 5 in March, the school district had to respond immediately with a firm statement saying the opposite thing, then a few months later the office Director herself made the same mistake again? I am pretty sure the topic of Screw-up Number One was discussed in some meetings, and the responsible party was read the riot act. And then committed Screw-up Number Two. The exact same thing again. Why? How are you talking about official policy to one of the country's biggest newspapers, and you just make stuff up, knowing already that it's wrong? (By the way, the Post doesn't seem to have any correction or edit to that statement at this time.)

The protesters say there was an opt-out policy and it was taken away. Maybe some parents thought that their informal arrangements were a policy. After March 23 there was an explicit statement forbidding it; before that -- as far as anyone can tell -- there wasn't anything one way or the other. Which makes sense, kids gotta go to class, you shouldn't have to put that in a formal document.

There is no evidence that the district ever had any kind of policy allowing students to opt out of English classes. But MCPS spokespersons told the press there was. Twice. There is also a religious-diversity guideline that offers to let kids do an alternative lesson if something runs against their religion, but it is pretty waffly and specifies that this should only happen infrequently. Also, it is not an official policy, just a guideline document that was produced, I'm sure, with the best intentions for accommodating various holidays and traditions.

The school district has done a lot to create the wrong impression. Their actual position, I believe, is There is no opt-out and there never was. So why did they twice say there was such a provision? And why don't they face the TV cameras and state there was none, if it is indeed the case?

You get framing like the Post's lede, which is worth blockquoting:

For the past few months, hundreds of Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox parents have called on Maryland’s largest school system to restore an opt-out provision for books that feature LGBTQ+ characters.

But there was no provision to restore. Right?

MCPS needs to make that point clear, one way or the other. If there actually was an opt-out policy and it was taken away with no explanation and no input from the community, then the whole debate changes. There is no real evidence that that happened, but many people believe it and the point needs to be clarified.

The Muslim spokespersons say that the school district will not return their calls or set up any kind of meeting with them. So how does the district think this will work? MCPS should have been reaching out to religious leaders as they were developing their LGBT+ inclusive reading program, should have been showing them that the readings do not promote or encourage behavior a group finds sinful, but teach students about the varieties of people they will meet in the world. There are Muslim characters in classroom stories, presented with that same intention, not to convert anyone to Islam but to teach children about the world they are growing up in. A mature and trusting outreach program could have prevented the whole controversy. Instead, it appears the school district is taking a "deal with it" approach, creating polarity and opposition.

There is a lawsuit filed by a high-powered law firm, and they will argue that it is a violation of religious freedom to force kids of certain religions to read stories with two dads in them. The judge may agree it is a violation and order the schools to allow opting-out, which will be a slippery slope to who-knows-what. Or the judge may say it's not a violation, and then they're back to square one, demands suspended in the air, standoff continuing. Communication dead in the water. Zero leadership from the County. CAIR adamant and polarized, claiming victimhood. I think pro-LGBT+ groups are waiting to see what the court decides. Meanwhile, in the absence of facts, the protesters are giving the press a narrative that is not accurate, teaming up with far-right extremists behind the scenes, and winning public sympathy for their wishes.

I would not like to see this end with the Muslims starting a private school. They are a positive part of our community and it is a healthy thing to have them in public school learning side by side with all the other kids. Of course -- unless the court requires it -- this cannot end with students opting out of their reading lessons. Grade school can't turn into a pick-and-choose menu of options; that would get insane real quick. MCPS had the responsibility to show that this baby-step forward is not harmful but they have played their hand very poorly.

By the way, I want to hedge my bet by admitting that it is actually possible that somewhere in the bowels of the administration there was once a policy that allowed opting out of classes. It is impossible to prove a negative, and if anyone produced a document showing such a policy it would settle this particular question. I would look forward to seeing that, and we would discuss the situation in a different way. At the present time, though, it seems almost certain that there was never such a policy.

Though their connections to rightwing radicals are troublesome, I am willing to believe that the Muslim protesters are good, reasonable people and that they are telling the truth about what they believe. Their views on homosexuality go back fourteen hundred years and they're not just going to drop it, but they can adapt a little without giving up their beliefs. MCPS had a responsibility to manage this, and instead they misinformed and confused the public.


Later in the day when I posted this piece, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Zainab Chaudry, the firebrand director of the Maryland office of CAIR. Even the headline itself has at least three discrete errors in it. It reads: Montgomery parents want an opt-out on sexuality, gender education restored. First of all, a very tiny number of parents want opt-out, while the very great majority of actual "Montgomery parents" of students want their children to learn about the world as it is. Second, there is a "sexuality, gender education" curriculum, and it does have opt-out. We're not talking about that here, this op-ed is about English classes. There is no sex in the stories, though there is gender -- can you imagine a story without it? It is just part of a story, characters are male and female. Third, nothing can be "restored" if nothing has been taken away. There never was opt-out, and so it cannot be restored. Some religious persons are asking for a new opt-out provision, which, sure they can ask for it, but it is inaccurate to state it in terms of "restoring" something. The rest of the piece follows through with a narrative that maintains this level of veracity.

Friday, July 07, 2023

County "Leaders" Failed the Test

There has been a kind of local systemic political failure this past month that I find myself thinking about a lot. It is such a microcosm of our county's politics.

In Montgomery County, Muslim groups egged on by rightwing Christians have protested twice recently because MCPS does not let them opt out of classroom readings of storybooks with gay and trans characters. Students can opt out of some sections of the sex ed curriculum, as required by state law, but you can't opt out of English class when there's a gay character in a story. Some parents at some schools had worked something out so their kids could leave the room while LGBT+ stories were read and discussed, but there was no formal process in place for that. In March the school district issued a clear statement that opting out was not a choice for those classes.

This was enough to stir up a protest on June 6, before a school board meeting. It was peaceful, not very big, and though the protest was promoted by, and attended by, the Christian nationalist group Moms for Liberty, participants were almost all Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox. A number of the protesters spoke in the board's public comments session. It was fine, they said what they had to say. There were many misrepresentations but the board is not considering a new policy or anything, this was simply people complaining. There was a bigger demonstration later in the month -- I'm taking about the first one.

The last speaker in the board's public comments session was County Council member Kristin Mink. I am not really a very political person, and I didn't know who she was when she sat down. I didn't hear her name, and wouldn't have recognized it if I had. She was talking off the top of her head, with lots of "uhs" and "y'knows," backed up and started again a lot of times, but her comments were exactly perfect. It was a moment of heroism; she showed up on her own initiative, talked personally to the protesters to understand their point of view, and then sat at the board table with the video cameras rolling, to support our LGBT neighbors and tell the protesters that the school district was not going to change its policy, and why. A transcription of her statement can be viewed here: Kristin Mink comments 6-6-23

Mink was the only official from any level of government who showed up for the event. She said she has worked with the Muslim community on various community matters ("housing, and welcoming immigrants, and feeding our neighbors, and providing healthcare, and all of those sorts of things.") and knows a lot of them. And she said something true in the board meeting, which is the only thing anybody talks about. She said, "This issue unfortunately does put some, not all of course, some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots. However the folks who I talked to here today I would not put in the same category as those folks, although it's, again, complicated, because they're following the same side of this particular issue."

Break it down. Room is full of Muslims. They are there as Muslims because they do not want their children to learn about homosexuality, because of their religion. Are they on the same side as white supremacists and bigots? Well, yes, and in fact these Muslims are literally allying with Moms for Liberty, a white hate group; that group posted flyers and they attended the protest, and one of their leaders literally spoke at the protesters' press conference. Kristin said she would not put these people in the same category -- though it's complicated.

She got tons of backlash from the press and the Democratic establishment and ended up apologizing. CAIR and some of the Muslims, plus the whole world of rightwing media, accused her of being Islamophobic. Cowardly Council member Evan Glass found a reporter and said “I have spoken with Councilmember Mink about her comments and have expressed my profound disappointment.” Mink's comments were offhandedly referred to as Islamophobic and "a disaster." Because she said what needed to be said and she said it without being afraid to step over somebody's line in the sand.

I want to dwell on this for a minute.

A good friend will tell you when you've got a booger hanging out of your nose.

Okay, that is all.

Moms for Liberty set a trap here for liberals, who totally fell for it. M4L placed the cheese and set the trigger, but we're the ones who created an environment where you can't criticize a minority group. Kristin Mink spoke with sincerity and truth at the board meeting. She held the line on school district policy and proposed the only kind of solution that can work; the public school teaches facts and science, and religious values should be taught at home. She did not generalize about the nearly two billion people who participate in the Muslim faith worldwide. She talked about the group that protested, who were clearly self-identified Muslims advocating a rightwing position on sexual orientation. They are on the same side as our homegrown American bigots. It's complicated, if you grant that these were not actually horrid people like the Moms for Liberty that they associate with.

There was nothing that could be said about this situation that will not invite an attack. Of course they accused her of Islamophobia -- that's all they've got. They couldn't argue that her point was incorrect, or that her solution wouldn't work. But look, we have seen real Islamophobia. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing but American Islamophobia. Trump's Muslim travel ban was pure, unadulterated Islamophobia. After 9/11 Islamophobia was the default American attitude. People on the right have repeatedly implied that all Muslims are terrorists and if you say they are Islamophobic they shrug and go, so what? This group of people came to the school board to advocate a position that is normally advocated by white supremacist, rightwing bigots. But they don't seem like bigots themselves, if you know them. It's complicated.

You know what is worse than saying something that can be twisted into something it is not? I'll give you a minute. Okay, the answer is: saying nothing.

Yes it's a trap, it's a lion's den, and you have to be brave to walk right into it and speak your conscience in a way that is empathetic and also unswerving. You didn't see the County Executive, any of the other members of the County Council, any official of the Democratic Party, at the board meeting, and you did not see them back up their colleague when she came under attack. They should have queued up behind a microphone in Veterans Plaza or the Executive Building and taken turns saying: "We love our Muslim neighbors but some of them are on the same side as white supremacists and bigots on the issue of LGBT storybooks in school." They could have taken turns saying, "Kristin is kind of new at this game, God bless her, and she has not yet learned to talk out of both sides of her mouth. I remember when I first ran for office [goes into self-aggrandizing story of a not-really-embarrassing gaffe]." They could have said, "I know Kristin Mink and, whatever she is, she is not an Islamophobe." They could have said, "The MCPS policy is that you cannot opt-out of storybook readings, and I support that policy."

Nobody backed her up. All of our Democratic "leaders" hid, except for one. Kojo got Elrich and Jawando to talk superficially for a total of three or four minutes on WAMU, that's about it as far as I have seen. Oh when some Pride flags got burned later that week, every local politician in the county found a TV crew and expressed outrage in appropriately shocked tones of voice. But when our gay and trans neighbors actually came under direct attack, for real, in the school district where it counts, and when one of their colleagues stood up to directly address the situation, and there was some risk of being criticized for saying something, they hid. When we needed their leadership, they were not there.

Friday, June 23, 2023

The Effectiveness of Violence

Some of the storybooks read in Montgomery County Public Schools have gay and transgender characters in them. That isn't very shocking, I know, but some want to make a big deal out of it. The complaint is that MCPS isn't letting students "opt out" of readings on the basis of religous objections.

There was a moderate-sized, peaceful protest a couple of weeks ago, mainly organized by a group of Muslims. County Council member Kristin Mink told the group who organized the event that she knew them as good people but they had put themselves "on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots." Certain people have tried to pretend she was calling them bigots but it was the opposite of that.

This next Tuesday, the 27th, we will be hearing from the certified, professional bigots. Florida-based extremists Moms for Liberty are planning a protest at MCPS headquarters that will probably be pretty big. The group has been promoting disruptive events all over the country and now they're coming to Rockville.

And by the way, our local Muslims might think it's smart to form an alliance with the Moms for Liberty (hear one of their leaders being coy about it in this podcast interview; start at 22:00), they will soon find out that Moms for Liberty have no fondness for immigrants, especially Muslims. It's not called "Christian nationalism" for nothing.

The Moms for Liberty flyer for the 2PM Carver Building protest says: "Montgomery County Public Schools has removed opt-out for instruction related to family life and human sexuality and we want it restored immediately. Bring your family to support us as we testify in front to the BOE."

This is a clever sleight-of-hand, using that phrase "related to." There is a family life and human sexuality curriculum in MCPS, a series of health classes including sex ed, and it has an opt-out feature which is almost never invoked. Opt-out for other classes is generally called "truancy." There is no opt-out policy for storybooks. Families and sexuality are part of almost all fiction and do not make a storybook part of the "family life and human sexuality" curriculum. Think for instance of Tom Sawyer's attempted seduction of Becky. (And don't forget where Huck Finn presents himself as a girl.)

Moms for Liberty, now formally recognized as a hate group by SPLC, started out opposing mask mandates, but these things seem to all go together; they moved on to Critical Race Theory, and now they are crusading against LGBT+ topics in schools. They have been disrupting school board meetings, harassing officials at their homes and workplaces, making false accusations of child abuse. Moms for Liberty presents itself as a grassroots coalition of concerned parents, but leaders are well-connected rightwing partisans, manufacturing outrage to stir up local communities all over the country.

The chairman of the Florida Republican Party has said he expects Moms for Liberty to become foot soldiers for Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaign, according to the Washington Post. Publicity about a recent Moms for Liberty newsletter quoting Hitler in its masthead has caused them to do some quick backpedaling, at least as far as their public image goes.

From VICE (an article well worth reading, by the way):

A VICE News investigation has uncovered links between numerous Moms for Liberty chapters and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenterssovereign citizen groupsQAnon conspiracistsChristian nationalists, and in one case, with the founder of the AK-47-worshiping Rod of Iron Ministries church in Pennsylvania. Around the country, Moms for Liberty has formed links with extremist groups and militias, which are joining forces with the “parental rights” group at protests and school board meetings, and in turn pushing the already far-right organization toward even more extreme ideology.

The benign-sounding group puts the innocuous faces of snow-white upper-middle-class moms -- picture a room full of Sarah Palins -- on a coalition of rightwing terrorists, as violence has more and more become the far right's signature in imposing their narrow worldview on the country. Moms for Liberty member and featured speaker Kaylee Campbell Layton recently tweeted about Joe Biden: "I'm calling for the public execution of this old man and you can't change my mind." When I was a kid it was against the law to talk like that.

Local Montgomery County supporters of LGBT+ rights have decided not to hold a counterprotest this Tuesday, out of fear of violence. Some advocates may make public comments at the board meeting, but there might not be anybody on the sidewalk raising their voices in support of our gay and trans neighbors while the bigots wave their signs and talk to reporters.

The problem with violence is that it works. It will keep people away who disagree but don't want to be shot or beaten. Violence does not persuade people, it only stops them from expressing their opinions. But the TV-watching, Facebook-scrolling, newspaper-reading public will only learn that a lot of people oppose LGBT+ stories, and there will be no way to know that the great majority of people in our county support diversity in educational materials and oppose an option to leave the classroom when gay and trans topics come up. When you see us on the news, Montgomery County, Maryland, is going to look just like some place in Florida.

Because of the effectiveness of violence, the news cameras will record a crowd of protesters who will establish the narrative and call themselves "concerned parents," with no visible opposition. They will call the storybooks "pornography" and insist that stories with LGBT+ characters threaten their children. They will claim to have some made-up right to determine what their children learn in public schools. They will say that their religion requires them to be intolerant of LGBT+ people -- they "hate the sin, not the sinner," uh huh; they will be saying their religious freedom is violated by mention of LGBT+ characters in storybooks. They will claim there is an official opt-out policy where there is not. No reporter will challenge these things, and there will be no voice of reason to challenge the falsehoods. They will put some nicely dressed moms in pearls and barrettes out in front to cheerfully and likeably recite their talking-points to the cameras. As events are canceled and honest public servants all over the country resign quietly from their positions out of fear of violence, fascist protests like the one to be held at Carver Tuesday provide a one-sided display of a point of view that is held by a tiny minority of Americans.

There is a lawsuit over the storybook opt-out matter, and I hope MCPS has their legal ducks in a row. We know from experience that school district bureaucrats tend to shrink from intimidation and that they fear controversy; on Tuesday they will be hearing from only one side of the matter, and it may seem to administrators that appeasing the mob will solve their problem. They can choose to change their policy if they can be fooled into believing that's what the public wants, but they should fight a good fight in court first.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Muslims Protest MCPS Lack of "Opt-Out"

Tuesday there was a demonstration at the Montgomery County Public Schools office building, led by a group of Muslims who want their children to be allowed to opt out of class discussions and readings about LGBT+ topics. There might have been about a hundred people there, counting both sides, though the numbers shifted through the morning.

The nominal issue is kind of subtle but the real issue is not. The nominal issue is about an "opt out" policy where some parents want their children to leave the classroom for religious reasons during discussions of certain books that are assigned in class. That's complicated, because it sounds somewhat reasonable if you accept the premise that some students follow religious teachings that promote persecution of people of any faith who violate the sect's taboos, and the schools are somehow obligated to cooperate with that persecution against community members. "Opt-out" is a couple of paragraphs of a PDF file, probably in Courier font, with a lot of whereases and some signatures at the bottom: done. A bureaucratic item to check off a list. Sounds easy enough in light of "freedom of religion."

The nominal topic is "opt-out," but the real issue is that these people find some of our neighbors so loathsome that they cannot bear to be in the room when they are mentioned. The people who demand this option are not thinking for themselves, these beliefs do not reflect conclusions they have come to through evidence or logic. They have been taught that some of our neighbors are inherently disgusting, and they choose as individuals to believe this. They believe that some students in the classroom, some teachers, some students' parents, some community leaders, some of their neighbors are so immoral that righteous people cannot even allow themselves to acknowledge their existence. And these religious extremists believe that the Montgomery County Public Schools should adjust their policies to enable them to profoundly insult our community members.

Here is some video from the protest:

Frankly, it appears to me that the school district might have been picking a fight with this one. After one parent had a child sit outside for a book discussion in March, with a teacher's permission, MCPS implemented a policy the very next day saying that students could not opt out of the readings. I agree with the decision, and do not believe students should pick and choose what they will learn in school -- but neither should the schools be flipping their policies around without any input or explanation, especially when they know there will be controversy.

A lawsuit has also been filed. I have no idea how that will come out. If Maryland has an opt-out requirement for storybooks and MCPS is in violation of it, then they will lose. If the school district convinces a judge that they can't have students popping in and out of class depending on the topic, then they'll win. We do expect rightwing legal grandstanders to participate, so this will probably be in the news when it gets to court.

Some of the protesters spoke at the school board meeting after the demonstration. A number of speakers referred to a right that parents have to determine what their children should be taught in school. There is no such right. They have the right to send their kids to a religious school if they want a religious education, but public schools have a responsibility to stick with the facts, regardless of what parents believe. Public education is not a marketplace where you give consumers what they ask for. Curriculum is determined by careful deliberation, and there is community input in that process but the goal is not to add everybody's favorite thing to the classroom agenda.

Here is video of all the BOE public comments from that day:

The last speaker at the board's public comments was Montgomery County Council member Kristin Mink, whose presentation was informal and sometimes wandered, but she made some good points -- if anything, the extemporaneous quality of her presentation made it more effective. She had spent the morning at the protest talking with the Muslim protesters and said, "This issue has unfortunately put some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots," which drew a negative response from the Muslims present (and a written response from CAIR), but, well it's true, and she clarified well enough that she was not calling them bigots. In this case they are on the same side as the bigots, you can't argue with that.

Ms. Mink noted that the opt-out policy tells a certain demographic of people that "when they appear in books we're going to let some people say we're not going to read those books. There's no way to do that without sending a clear message to the LGBTQIA community that you are seen as different, as other, and other people don't need to learn about your existence or have you included in the curriculum. Montgomery County Public Schools has a responsibility to teach a fact based, science based, curriculum."

She said, "Same as evolution, we don't let religions opt out of that part of the science curriculum. Those parents who don't believe in evolution are free to teach a counternarrative at home or in their own religious institutions and say here's what you're going to learn about in school and here's what our family believes. All different religions of people have the ability to teach around the facts and the science that are going to be reflected in the MCPS curriculum but we cannot modify our fact-based, science-based curriculum to reflect particular religious beliefs that are not aligned with that science-based curriculum. And that's not an infringement on particular religious freedoms; just as we cannot allow folks to opt out of teaching about evolution, we can't allow them to not teach about this."

This is the grown-up solution. Schools will teach facts, and if someone's religion denies the facts then the family has the choice to send their kids to a private school or to discuss in the home where there are differences between their beliefs and the facts that are taught in class. Certainly if you belong to an extremist religious sect (and a couple of speakers made it clear that most Muslims do not share these anti-LGBT views), then you must realize that you are surrounded by people who believe differently from you and that has to be part of your children's upbringing. The lesson is: we do X but people outside our group do Y. It's not that hard to understand. So if you want to teach that gay and trans people are unclean, then you will have to teach that at home, not in our public schools.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Here We Go Again

CNN just had Donald Trump on for an hour in front of a hand-picked audience of his fans. He was rude to the moderator, lied his head off, and then just for fun he defamed the woman who had just the day before won a multimillion-dollar defamation suit against him. The jury found that he had raped her and then lied about her, and now she is thinking about suing him again for lying about her on CNN. Everybody -- I mean everybody -- is hoping she does.

Why did CNN put him on? They can pretend this is normal. He is going to be a candidate for the Republican nomination and the country needs to hear blah blah blah. In previous elections all the networks, including CNN, gave him billions of dollars' worth of free air time, and guess what -- here we go again.

Of course the problem is, at root, the fact that a modern corporation like CNN only cares about its investors. It doesn't care about its customers, except insofar as the investors use audience share to decide whether to invest. It doesn't care about its employees, making them go through with these awful things. And the corporation does not, in particular, care about the future of the USA. They had hoped to get good ratings with this show, and they were pretty good for that time slot, but Trump's audience was significantly smaller than Biden's last town hall. This one didn't really pay off for them.

Here's what makes sense to me. What about we elect somebody who KNOWS HOW TO RUN A COUNTRY? Sorry to shout, not sorry. There are things that need to be done, and maybe I'm weird about this but we need somebody who knows how to run things, even if it is just a mumbling old man and not an orange reality-TV actor. Like -- remember? -- back in June, 2017, Trump announced his infrastructure plan. A trillion dollars, he said. Then Comey testified in Congress, some terrorists attacked London, the so-called "travel ban" became consumed in controversy and the infrastructure train ran off the tracks. Trump declared the week of June 5, 2017 to be "infrastructure week." Also the week of August 14, 2017. Also October 9, same year. Also the week of February 12, 2018. Oh and don't forget March 26, 2018. Followed by infrastructure week on April 29, 2019.

The result was, literally colorful firebrand that he is, he could not do this straightforward thing that everybody in both parties knew needed to be done. He could not negotiate a bill through Congress and sign it. There was no infrastructure bill, even though it was an extremely high priority and Trump's party had majorities in both houses of Congress.

In contrast, in his second year in office Joe Biden signed a $1.2 Trillion infrastructure bill in April 2022 that included (quoting from Forbes here:

  • Roads and bridges: Headlining the 2,702-page bill’s spending, roughly $110 billion of new funds would go toward improving the nation's roads and bridges, and investments in other major transportation programs.
  • Public transit: The package also includes the largest-ever federal investment in public transit, allotting $39 billion to modernize systems, improve access for the elderly and people with disabilities, and repair more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 railcars and thousands of miles of train tracks.
  • Amtrak: The legislation marks the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago, with $66 billion earmarked for high-speed rail, safety improvements, Amtrak grants and modernization of the rail route connecting Washington, D.C., to Boston.
  • Broadband internet: Tacking on to billions authorized by last year’s American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill includes $65 billion to bolster the country's broadband infrastructure and help ensure that every American has access to high-speed internet, with one in four households expected to be eligible for a $30-per-month subsidy to pay for internet access.
  • Electric grid and energy: Though many clean-energy measures were cut from the bill to satisfy spending-weary lawmakers, a $108 billion investment will help upgrade the nation’s electricity grid, with thousands of miles of new transmission lines and funds for environmentally friendly smart-grid technology.
  • Electric cars, buses and ferries: In addition to $7.5 billion for the nation’s first network of electric-vehicle chargers along highway corridors, lawmakers have shored up $5 billion for zero-emission buses (including thousands of electric school buses) and $2.5 billion for ferries.
  • Clean drinking water: Following high-profile water-supply crises plaguing cities like Flint, Michigan, the legislation includes a provision for $55 billion to replace all the nation's lead pipes and service lines, representing the largest investment in clean drinking water ever.
  • Great rivers and lakes: Among the bill's more than $50 billion for water infrastructure improvements, about $1 billion is slated to go toward the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a sweeping clean-up measure targeting toxic hot spots—or areas of heavy industrial pollution—around the Great Lakes region, and $17 billion will be allocated to ports and waterways.
  • Airports: More than $25 billion has been allocated to help modernize America's airports—funds the Airports Council International says will help tackle more than $115 billion worth of project backlogs.
  • Road safety: The deal invests $11 billion in transportation safety programs, including a new program to help states and localities reduce crashes and fatalities in their communities, particularly among cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Normal funding: In addition to the $550 billion in new investments, the package also includes roughly $650 billion in previously authorized funding for roads and other infrastructure, including nearly $300 billion for the Highway Trust Fund and $90 billion for public transit over the next five years.

And that's just one bill of many.

So, you see what I'm saying. Why would you vote for a guy who is not only an indicted criminal with many more charges coming including probably espionage, a serial and unapologetic rapist ("unfortunately or fortunately"), a liar, and who does not have the skills to put together a White House staff and get any legislation passed and signed? Why would you vote for that? Is it because he says mean things about liberals? Is that what you're looking for in a CEO for the United States of America?

Hang on to your horses, people. Our billionaires -- and why don't we call them oligarchs? -- want Trump in the White House because they know how to get him to do what they want: give him money, easy. Our oligarchs can spend the money on the media to get people to believe anything. So the sensible people of this country are going to have to grip the arms of their chairs, grit their teeth, and hold on until we go to the polls, and hopefully they haven't had the sense bled out of them by then.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Decay of Democracy

We hear a lot these days about democracy, as if the institution is threatened. Well, because it is.

I remember growing up in a conservative state, and people would say, "America is not a democracy, it's a republic" -- they're still saying that. Even as a kid I thought: so what? We don't vote on everything that happens, we elect leaders to do our will in the halls of government. It seemed more efficient and had the added benefit that it was not so vulnerable to media-generated fads such as the current uproar over transgender athletes, or erroneous beliefs about crime rates. Elect somebody, give them a few years to work on some legislation, their re-election depends on them keeping the people happy but they are relatively buffered from the whims of the crowd -- Brexit shows you the kind of thing you get when everybody votes on complicated policies.

Now I understand the deal. Conservatives see it differently from the rest of us. We think of electing representatives to serve us, and they think of electing dictators to tell us what to do. From the conservative point of view, once they're in office an official can do whatever crazy thing they want to. They want to close the libraries, okay -- that wouldn't pass a popular vote but some minor-league dictators can do it. A couple of them are squeamish about drag shows? The public doesn't really object to them but our little demagogues can pass laws to make drag shows illegal, even as the press turns up pictures of half of the Republican party cross-dressing. You want to turn down federal money for state health care systems? The people of the state sure wouldn't do that, but their elected dictators can do it. To make a statement.

Abortion? The people who live in this country realize that abortion is a necessary form of health care. Everybody knows somebody who has had an abortion, and has seen why they did it. It isn't Reaganesque "welfare queens," it's your sister, your wife, your mother. The people don't want to ban abortions but states that elected Republicans now have to live with the depravity of forced childbirth. I once saw a Republican Congressman try to describe late-term abortion in graphic terms, as if abortion is just murdering babies. In reality third-trimester abortions are very rare and when they happen it is because something is terribly wrong. Now, with abortion banned in many states, the Congressman's words come true. Women are forced to give birth to babies that should not have been carried to term, that are not viable, that die as soon as they are born, or before. It is disastrous for the family, for the woman, for all who loved them. It is pure sadism, cruelty with no point.

People don't want that.

People are fine with gay people marrying. They are fine with trans people using public bathrooms. They are fine with using the right pronouns. People are in favor of helping the poor, with getting people back on their feet to make their lives better. Nobody knows what to do about homelessness but the problem is not that they are unsightly and scary looking, the problem is finding them homes. People want to see the end of the opioid crisis and know that illegal immigrants are not responsible for it, so much as greedy pharmaceutical corporations.

Most people in the US would like to see some rational measures taken to decrease gun violence. A recent poll showed that 34% of Americans are satisfied with the country's gun laws. But look who gets their way. The majority? No, but thank you for asking.

There is a small minority of people in the country who feel sure they are right and the rest of us are wrong. They feel it is their duty, that it's a good and moral thing for them to do, to make the rest of us live by their perverse, life-annulling standards. This is why democracy was proposed in the first place, to prevent this sort of thing. The idea is that most people are smart enough to make good decisions, and a majority vote will at least get the people what they want. It is fine if these religious nuts have their bizarre beliefs, but it is not fine to engineer society so that everyone has to live by principles that are important to one small, irrational minority.

A hurtful handful of weirdos can manage to get control of the system. Gerrymandering and targeted voter suppression lead to biased elections and the appointment of judges and next thing you know the Supreme Court is sitting over there considering whether a regular FDA approval process of a drug might have missed something. For a medication has now been used millions of times with near-zero ill effects. It's not about the FDA, of course, or the safety of the mifepristone, it's about Christian conservatives imposing their bizarre interpretation of "God's will" (it's not even in the Bible) on the rest of us. A radical Christian judge in Texas said nobody in the United States can take this important medicine, and now the Supreme Court has issued a stay, meaning that the judge's ruling won't go into effect until it has met some legal challenges. The fight is not over, it is just "stayed." Some total raving nuts are making life miserable for millions of American families, against the will of the people, and they are not giving up.

This is why there is concern for democracy. There is a Constitution and a justice system in place, but these extremists have replaced fair and reasonable legislators and judges with religious radicals, so they can go through the charade of following the law while they force their unpopular religious views on the population.

Monday, March 06, 2023

It's None of Your Business

Conservatives are putting gender identity at the center of their message now. They are passing laws punishing trans people, they want to eradicate "transgenderism," which, first, it isn't an "ism." Some people are mislabeled at birth, that's all. The doctor holds them up, looks them over, checks the M or the F on the birth certificate, and the new person sets out on a new life. Mom and Dad paint the nursery blue or pink, they buy dresses or jeans -- did you ever look at the boys' aisle versus the girls' aisle at a toy store? They are like two different planets. If the M was checked the kid gets treated one way, a different way if the F was checked. You might think it's sexist or whatever and maybe it'll change someday but that's how we do it now.

In the meantime, the baby doesn't know who they are or how they got here, they learn from the people around them and from the sensations of embodiment, and some small number of children discover that the people around them are making a mistake. It isn't an "ism," a belief system, there is just a matter of maturing into your own subjective experience and knowing who you are, including the fact that you might not be who you were told you are.

Conservatives like to make fun of the concept of identity, like the Fox host who said he was going to start identifying as Chinese for the benefits it would bring him, ah ha ha ha. Identity is a unique kind of word. Where most words refer to a thing or event in the environment, the word identity means "the thing itself." Identity is not what a thing is called, its identity is it, itself. The identity of this rock is this rock. For people, identity is the answer to the question, who are you? You can ask the hilarious Fox host, are you Chinese? and he will say, of course not. You don't decide to identify as something-or-other, it is just what you are. Identity is not a label, it is essence. And a thing or a person may have essential qualities that are not apparent to an external observer.

When a majority of people share a culture they may not be aware of having an identity at all. They simply see themselves as normal or ordinary, and so white conservatives accuse other groups of practicing "identity politics." But take a white American and drop them into a city or village in Asia, or Turkey, or Africa, and you will find them suddenly extremely aware of their identity. "I don't eat that, I'm an American." "I'm sorry, I don't really 'get' that kind of music." "I am only wearing this strange outfit to fit in." Fact is, only 4.25 percent of the world's population lives in the US, and only about 75 percent of those identify as white, meaning about 3.1 percent of human beings are white Americans. And they are only normal or ordinary when they can bunch together.

Well there is no sense getting academic about it. There is only one relevant thing to keep in mind here:

It's none of your business.

If somebody is transgender or not, if they are gay or not, if they are Black or Christian or Asian or short or tall or speak with an accent -- it's none of your business. It doesn't affect you, doesn't hurt you, people don't all have to live their lives in ways that you understand. And that should be the end of the discussion.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Story Hour Triggers Some People

In response to the dire threat of drag-queen story hours, a bunch of states are trying to pass laws to make it illegal to appear in the attire of a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth. I am dying to see how it turns out. Though Republicans have enjoyed taunting people who can't define what a "woman" is, they can't define it themselves, and in fact gender is an empirically undefinable concept -- you got nothing to go on but self-report. A society adopts some self-presentation norms to signal individuals' roles, including ethnic and class norms, indicators of profession such as work uniforms or suits-and-ties etc., and norms that indicate gender, and somebody always has fun pushing against that boundary, whether it's earrings for men or tattoos for women. I saw the King of England on TV in a skirt the other day, and what do you think shaving is? Men have beards, women don't, that's how God made us. Will women be allowed to wear pants? What about men with long hair, like me? I cannot think of anything sillier to pass a law about.

And tell me, what is less threatening than a drag queen? Oh some have a dangerous sense of humor, their grasp of irony can be deadly, but really now. If you are concerned about "grooming" and the "safety of the children," then I'm not joking, you should do something about the church and the Republican Party. A guy in a party dress with false eyelashes is reading stories to kids at a library, how is that scary to anybody?

And now the Proud Boys and other violent groups are showing up with guns and disrupting the story hour. Hey, you're being trolled, guys. You're yelling cuss-words at little kids who want to hear fairy tales, do you see how that looks? You're scaring librarians, of all people. Ssshhhh. Everybody's having a good time and you're waving guns around and calling people hateful and nutty names. The whole situation is engineered to make you look stupid when you do that.

There is no detectable irony in the news that a newly elected Republican Congressman used to perform as a drag queen named Kitara Ravache. It's almost as if it doesn't really matter.

I can't even see what the issue is with drag queens, including drag queens reading stories to kids. I have never heard even a rumor of anything inappropriate at one of those events. The drag queens are there to entertain, it's fun, it's pretend, it's outrageous. I assume most are gay but that isn't even part of the deal, we can find photos and videos of a lot of straight men in women's clothing over the years, it's a standard schtick. Drag is not contagious, they aren't trying to recruit or convert anybody, it's just fun. They like pretending, they like dressing up, and everybody seems to have fun at these story hours.

Clothing is a cultural expression, it changes over time. There is nothing "biological" about any of it and God did not give orders in the Bible to dress in some way. Today's fashions and gender cues are not even "traditional." The culture decides what is appropriate but fashion emerges from individual choices and is not imposed by law, at least in a free country (ahem). Of course drag queens are intentional dress-code violators, the outrageousness is part of the show. Part of the fun of it is that it is at once shocking and also not harmful in any way. Some rules and laws exist to protect people, and ... some don't really do anything for anybody. The idea that the government wants to tell people how to dress is just amazing.

I used to think that it was a cheap shot to speculate that people who doth complain too much are dealing with their own personal impulses. There is a long tradition of anti-gay crusaders getting caught having gay sex -- we had one just last week, typical story. So it seems that, at least sometimes, these poor guys are thinking if it's not illegal, what will stop me from doing it? Whatever "it" is. Dressing in drag, maybe. Since I can't allow myself to do it, I won't allow anyone else to, either. And so these tortured moralists have to threaten other people for doing the things they can't admit they want to do.

Drag queens, by their very existence, remind us that cultural norms are malleable and arbitrary, we participate in them by choice and are actually free to be whatever we want to be. And freedom is threatening to some people.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

What You Did vs Who You Are

I am a little fascinated by the story of the gun-shop owner on Gude Drive, in Rockville, who tried to kill a cop in the middle of the night last week. He ran after the police car shooting at it, put a few holes in the car but didn't hurt anybody, luckily.

This story is not going to get much publicity, because it does not further anyone's agenda.

Here's Bethesda Magazine's lede on it:

Andrew S. Raymond, 42, of Darnestown, was charged and arrested for shooting at a police officer in Rockville, early Tuesday morning, Montgomery County police announced in a release.

According to police, a county officer was patrolling the 700 block of East Gude Drive at around 12:30 a.m. when an employee of Engage Armament gun store ran towards the officer’s unmarked car and began firing shots, striking the vehicle twice.

Raymond was outside the store when the police officer drove into the parking lot of Engage Armament, police stated.

The officer saw the suspect running towards his vehicle while reaching inside his waistband, according to the MCPD news release.

According to the release, the officer activated his emergency equipment and signaled to Raymond that he was a police officer. Raymond stopped and dropped his weapon, raised his hands and was taken into custody, police said.

I drive past that place all the time. This is a hometown story.

Here's obviously what happened. Several gun shops in the area have been broken into lately. This shop owner figured he would defend his store, and sat out in the parking lot with a gun -- duh, it's a gun shop -- ready to kill someone. At the same time, the cops knew there had been recent break-ins and they were out patrolling, to, you know, catch criminals while they are criming. An officer pulled into this parking lot to make sure everything was all right, and this good guy with a gun came running out shooting at him, thinking it was bad guys.

Usually the media make a big deal out of somebody shooting at the police. In reality it is not a very dangerous job, they don't get shot very often, but it is a kind of story that people love to read because it confirms their preconceptions. This kind of story is most popular if there is a picture of a Black man, especially if he is funky looking. A Hispanic or African looking person will do, as well, especially if they have a foreign-sounding name. White people, only if they have tattoos or teeth missing, or really bad hair.

The media will not make a big deal out of this one. A man tried to kill the police but the story, I guarantee it, is going to be "it was an honest mistake." I predict that you will see a jovial photo in the news, cops laughing and having a beer with the guy who attempted to murder them, or similar. He will probably apologize. He shot real bullets at a real living human being but no prob, he didn't know it was a police officer.

This little story cuts across so many narratives. For one thing, stupid people here love to complain that Montgomery County is a dangerous place. They especially like to blame the County Council and County Executive for "skyrocketing crime rates." C'mon, people, Montgomery County? Some catalytic converters get stolen, there is an occasional burglary, but this is the sleepiest place in the world. And look what happens when the police act proactively to prevent crime. Citizens trying to kill them for it.

Of course the story here is that a "good guy with a gun" was shooting at another "good guy with a gun." Nobody likes to deal with the fact that most gun deaths are not bad guys breaking into innocent people's homes. Suicides and domestic violence, especially husbands killing their wives, make up more than half of US gun deaths. Walking around with a gun in your pocket does not actually make you safer, it just makes the rest of us less safe. Well you might shoot yourself by accident, but in any case the chance that your life will be threatened today by some violent person in Montgomery County is, statistically, zero.

The bookend story to this one was earlier this week, a guy was found not-guilty of anything after he shot a persistent panhandler on the Metro. There was video. The jury said it was justified. Well, of course, the shooter was a Good Guy. And the panhandler was a Bad Guy. He was rude and pushy.

Our society is having a kind of breakdown of law and order, and these incidents are so typical that they will not be talked about much. Nothing is going to happen to these people who shot at someone, because they are portrayed as Good People. Good People can do whatever they want. It is not easy to say what a Good Person is, it might be a regular guy but it helps to be rich or powerful. Almost certainly they are Caucasian. You will hear someone say, every day, "No one is above the law," but of course that is not true. People get hassled, beaten, killed, and locked up every day for nothing, but not white people with some privilege. Those people can break the law as they wish, they can even shoot at the cops, and nothing will happen to them. They are Good People and just made a little mistake. Maybe somebody died, oh well.

To my silly liberal mind, the law should be a set of criteria that people have to meet in order to avoid punishment. If you break the law you face the consequences. If you don't break the law then you are free to go. But that is not how it works. Instead, the police and court system are being used to reward Good People and punish Bad People, regardless of what the law says. It doesn't matter what you did, what matters is who you are. This post is about Donald Trump.