Sunday, April 13, 2014

Putting the Eich in Eichmann

The rumblings about Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s donation to the campaign against gay marriage reached me through a facebook posting by my friend Sarah N.:
So first I couldn't use Firefox to access the Obamacare website because it kept crashing. Then I couldn't use it to access OKCupid because OKCupid is protesting the Mozilla CEO's anti-gay stance. Time for a new browser, clearly. But I have not been able to find a good way to block annoying pop-up ads on Safari. Recommendations.”

Oh, no, I thought. My two least favorite issues – gay marriage and “free speech”, colliding – and in the middle of it all, I’m going to have to find a new browser?  (Though in the five years I’ve had an OKCupid profile, I’ve gotten exactly one date.)

You can imagine how relieved I was when Mozilla caved into the pressure and accepted Eich’s resignation.

Great.  Crisis averted.  I barely had to think about it, and now I could go back to using Mozilla searches to figure out why well-informed Americans can’t see the problem in trying to broker “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians while arming one side to the teeth. 

Then the media firestorm began.

It was not surprising that Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh launched into tirades about liberal fascists.  For better or worse, that’s their job.  I don’t think they even believe it any more.  They just do it because that’s what keeps the lights on in their mansions.

But when the liberal media joined in the condemnation of the “intolerance” of “the New Gay Orthodoxy”, I had to check back in.

Christian Science Monitor:  “The resignation was greeted with cheers among many in the gay community and beyond…But others are drawing a different lesson from what happened to Eich, likening the events to a “scorched earth” policy that’s antithetical to a society where tolerance for opposing viewpoints is a mainstay of the Constitution.”

REUTERS:  Tech workers in Silicon Valley debated on Friday whether Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich got the comeuppance he deserved or was himself a victim of intolerance when he resigned under pressure this week amid outrage over his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Andrew Sullivan appeared on Stephen Colbert, arguing that gay people got our rights by showing how nice we are.  Hey, Sullivan, that thing we commemorate every June wasn’t the Stonewall Ice Cream Social, it was a riot.

But again, Sullivan’s line wasn’t surprising – his claim to fame is that he’s the gay conservative.  More upsetting was that Colbert, reading between the lines of his conservative “character” to glimpse the real Colbert (who I don’t think will make it as David Letterman – but that’s another rant), seemed to agree with him.  So did Bill Maher, talking about“The Gay Mafia.” 

Sullivan’s argument, besides the “catch more flies with honey” baloney is that “when people in the workplace feel threatened for things they do completely outside of the workplace, their political views – I mean, in California, if you actually fired someone for a political view you disapproved of, it would be against the law.”   
He further expounded on his blog:

“When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel?”
 There are a few problems with Sullivan’s reason-ing and the liberals who are so comforted by it: 
  • There is no such thing as “McCarthyism by civil actors.”  McCarthyism, by definition, was about a government conducting political interrogations and purges.
  • This is why I hate discussions about “free speech”:  almost no one understands what it is.  Freedom of speech is supposed to mean one thing:  that we can’t be imprisoned for what we say (doesn’t always work – ask Sami al-Arian or Lynne Stewart).  Freedom of speech does not exist in the workplace.  I work for a corporation – I know.  They might not be able to fire me – in California – for voting Green but they sure could fire me for insulting one of their clients.  Refusing to do business with someone because I don’t like their politics is not violating their freedom of speech.  It’s exercising my right to choose who I want to associate with.  Drowning someone out in protest is not violating their right to free speech.  It’s just rude.
  • OK Cupid pressuring Mozilla to get rid of Eich is not the same as AIPAC and CAMERA pressuring universities to fire professors who criticize Israel (or, in the case of Iyemen Chehade, showing an Oscar-nominated film that makes Israel look bad).  Those professors are not advocating that some people be denied equal rights; they’re advocating rights for people who currently don’t have them.  Moreover, they are not the leading face of the university.  For every professor who supports Palestinian land rights, there are ten who don’t – more’s the pity.
  • Professors and teachers are fired, all the time, for their political beliefs, and I don’t recall Andrew Sullivan or Bill Maher springing to the defense of Debbie Almontaser, Ward Churchill, or Shannon Gibney.
  • The CEO of a company is not a “worker.”  It’s not like Mozilla went and checked the political affiliations of the people in the mailroom.  The CEO is a symbol of the company.  Mozilla did not fire Eich for his opinion. They pushed him out because his actions made them look bad.  Here are a couple things that happened last December: 
    • "Media company IAC has "parted ways" with company PR executive Justine Sacco over her tweet: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" 
    • Lululemon CEO Chip Wilson resigns in wake of controversial remarks.  “In an interview last month, Wilson touched off a flurry of criticism by suggesting to Bloomberg TV that production issues may not be the only issue. “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for it,” he said. “It’s really about the rubbing through the thighs, how much pressure is there.” 

I never heard of either of those people, and I doubt most of you did either.  So why have we heard so much wailing about poor Brendan Eich?

In the end, what our liberal friends are saying is, “Gay rights aren’t really that important.”  If Brendan Eich had donated $1,000 to the Nazis, I don’t think Frank Bruni would have written, “Something remarkable has happened — something that’s mostly exciting but also a little disturbing ... I’m referring to the fact that in a great many circles, rejection of the Nazis has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable.”

Remember Anthony Wiener?  Most of the liberal establishment supported Nancy Pelosi in forcing him to resign from Congress.  So apparently, it’s okay to fire someone for taking pictures of their dick, but not for being one.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Sun Orbits the Earth: the Proper Uses of Opinion Polls

Last month, Time magazine and a bunch of other news outlets revealed a disturbing fact:  1 in 4 Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth.  Sam Grossman, writing in Time, offered this comforting caveat:  “Americans actually fared better than Europeans who took similar quizzes — at least when it came to the sun and Earth question. Only 66 percent of European Union residents answered that one correctly.”

Here’s a less comforting caveat:  In 1999, the number who didn’t know the earth-sun relationship was 1 in 5.  So that suggests that by 3000, that little piece of cosmological knowledge will be as rare as the proper use of a slide rule.

Now you might say, “But that doesn’t mean that all these standardized tests we’re making our kids take are going to waste.  They’re just learning more important things than obscure information about distant celestial objects.”  After all, does knowing that the earth orbits the sun affect our ability to use gravity?  No. Does it help me decide when it’s going to be light enough to wash my car (not that we Californians are washing our cars these days – we have a drought)?  No. So who really cares?

It’s true, my friends’ kids who went to Bay Area public schools learned a lot of cool stuff I didn’t learn in school, and not all of it involved video display screens.  They did whole units on Filipino history and the Black Panthers.  So I would be more sanguine about the loss of what I was raised to consider basic human knowledge if it weren’t for some other troubling facts I ran across recently.

Here are two quotes from an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times: 

“In the United States, the share of market income captured by the richest 10 percent surged from around 30 percent in 1980 to 48 percent by 2012, while the share of the richest 1 percent increased from 8 percent to 19 percent. Even more striking is the fourfold increase in the income share of the richest 0.1 percent, from 2.6 percent to 10.4 percent.”

A January poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today found that “65 percent believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years.”

This wasn't the editorial's point, but it should have been:  35% of Americans believe something that is objectively false.  (And before anyone points out that the statistics in the first paragraph are based on 30 years, not 10, and thus don’t directly contradict people’s belief, here’s one that does:  “From 2009 to 2012, as the U.S. economy improved, incomes of the top 1% grew more than 31%, while the incomes of the 99% grew 0.4% - less than half a percentage point.”)
When Republican David Jolly won the Florida special Congressional election last week, it was touted by both sides as a win for the anti-Obamacare messaging of the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove.  In particular, it’s seen as a win for personal anecdotes about people being screwed by Obamacare.  One of those anecdote-tellers is Julie Boonstra of Michigan.  When a journalist from the Detroit News told Ms. Boonstra that the plan she enrolled in under Obamacare will in fact save her money, not be unaffordable as she has claimed, she simply said, “I personally do not believe that.”  
Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC's "All In" (a really stupid name for an often good show) interviewed a political scientist named Brendan Nyhan, who explained based on his research that debunking the stories doesn’t do any good because people with strong beliefs simply refuse to believe the evidence.  In fact, according to one of Nyhan’s articles,
“We conducted an experiment to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could correct the false belief that the Affordable Care Act would create “death panels.” Participants from an opt-in Internet panel were randomly assigned to either a control group in which they read an article on Sarah Palin’s claims about “death panels” or an intervention group in which the article also contained corrective information refuting Palin.
Findings: The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge. However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supporters, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.”
It’s easy to blame the decline of education for our severe case of inability to distinguish issues appropriate for opinion polls from matters of fact.  David Coleman, president of the College Board and designer of the Common Core educational standards, certainly thinks so.  But wait, these people who are so sold on death panels and other fake horror stories about Obama and his care?  They’re not millennials or the product of famously failing inner-city schools; they’re old white people from suburbs.

So if we can’t blame teachers, our favorite scapegoats, then who?  The media, that’s who.

My friend’s son, Jack Mirkinson, who is media editor at the Huffington Post, was recently on CNN, along with popular physicist Michio Kaku, to discuss the proposition that “Climate Change Is Not Debatable.”    The point they made is that inviting climate deniers onto news shows is like inviting – well, the people who believe the sun revolves around the earth.

The fact that Brian Stelter brought up that issue and had Mirkinson and Kaku on to talk about it is progress.  But the principle, that the media need to limit segments in which people are asked their opinions to issues on which there is a legitimate difference of opinion, needs to be more broadly applied.  When Pew Research Center and USA Today released the results of the poll on wealth inequality, the headline was not “35% of Americans Don’t Know Inequality Is The Worst It’s Ever Been.”  It was, “Most See Inequality Growing, but Partisans Differ over Solutions.”  The question that needs to be asked is not whether most see inequality growing or not, it is.  The question is, why do a third of us not see what’s in front of our faces?  Despite Progress,Many Say Racial Equality Still Not a Reality,” casts the question of whether we’ve achieved racial equality as a matter of opinion, when it’s a fact that by every measure, we have not.

Believing the sun revolves around the earth is basically harmless, even if it becomes a majority opinion.  We’ll keep having seasons and gravity will keep us from falling into the earth and burning up whether we believe in it or not.  The belief by two-thirds of whites that Blacks and whites are treated equally fairly by police is not harmless.  Our fallacious opinions on income distribution, affirmative action, racial profiling, health access and climate change are used to make bad policy.  And too often, the media amplifies our wrong opinions by reporting them without pointing out that they contradict the facts.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Toxic Twitter Feminism and the Long View of History

A bit over 20 years ago, I attended a conference at San Francisco’s Mission High School called Dynamics of Color.  Organized by a multiracial planning group over many months, it was a two-day extravaganza for lesbians to grapple with the myriad ways that racism divides us and gets in the way of our organizing for liberation.

I was there with half a dozen other members of LAGAI, which then stood for Lesbians And Gays Against Intervention – we’ve since gone through a few reworkings of the full name, which is now LAGAI – Queer Insurrection.  Since our mission statement, since the group’s founding in 1983, included, “To confront and challenge racism within the lesbian/gay community,” we were all looking forward to this conference as something historic and important.

As part of the introductions, we were given guidelines for calling out and responding to racial/racist dynamics that arose during the conference.  To concretize the discussion, the organizers put on a role-play that they said was based on something that actually happened during the conference organizing.  The role-play was a meeting.  A white woman announced that the outreach group had finished a huge mailing the night before, sending announcements (snail mail, that’s how we did it in those days, folding and stamping hundreds of letters and separating them by zip code and sending them off to physical mail boxes) to hundreds of organizations.  A mixed-race woman asked if a certain organization was on the list.  The white woman stammered.  She couldn’t remember, and she didn’t have the list with her.  She’d left it in the car, which was parked blocks away and she didn’t want to go get it.  The interchange culminated with the white woman crying and the women of color explaining, one by one, why that was an inappropriate and manipulative response.  Eventually she stumbled over an insincere apology, and that was the end of the role-play.

I felt a gnawing in the pit of my stomach.  Not because I had done something like that.  Not because I could identify with the white woman screwing up, crying in a meeting and being bawled out for it, although I could.  I didn’t believe the scenario, and I felt that it augured badly for the conference.  I discussed it later with my closest friend, who had the same reaction – that role-play seemed like a straw dog.  My friend said, “Every white woman I know would have brought the list.”

“Yes, I said.  She would say, ‘Oh, you want to see the list?  Here it is.  Please, feel free to add to it,’ and she would produce a list of ten single-spaced pages containing every group you ever heard of and lots that you never did, overwhelming you with her competence, and your insignificance.

Finally the agonizing preliminaries were done and BarbaraSmith, founder of Kitchen Table Press was introduced as the keynote speaker.

“Sometimes,” she began (I’m paraphrasing, of course, this is all at a remove of two decades) “I regret the day we ever decided to do anti-racism work in the lesbian community.”

I sensed a collective gasp.  She couldn’t be saying, “You brought me all this way to tell you you’re wasting your time.”  She wasn’t, exactly, but she was cautioning us against spending all our time focusing on the small harms we do to each other and losing sight of the bigger harms caused by the military-prison-industrial-educational complex.

“When I look around,” she said, “the people running the schools, the jails, the FBI, the Pentagon, they’re mostly not lesbians.”

That was truer then than maybe it is now, but the principle remains worth holding onto, as discussions of toxic twitter feminism begin to devour all the air in our intellectual atmosphere.  The opportunism of mainstream white feminists is a problem.  It certainly bears some of the blame for our failure to build a revolutionary, broad-based women’s movement confronting inequality, colonialism and imperialism.  But the lion’s share of responsibility for that failure doesn’t lie with feminism.  Feminism is not responsible for the backlash against it from Reagan and Schlafly and Cruz and Huckabee and and and and.  It’s not responsible for the rightward tornado that has swept the country and the world since circa 1973.  Mainstream feminism has not been as progressive as it should and could have been, but it has been consistently more progressive than the rest of the country.  Ultimately, the radical movements that should have been pushing on the mainstream of feminism and everything else did not fail to mobilize mass support because of feminism.  We failed all on our own, with lots of help from various forms or counterintelligence but also helped by our own unforgiving cultures.

In the early nineties, after volunteering with San FranciscoWomen Against Rape for eight years, I was tired of constantly hearing about what a problem white women were in the organization.  I felt stuck, like people expected me to do something I didn’t know how to do, to be something I wasn’t, and if I asked what it was, I was shirking responsibility for confronting my own racism.  I decided the best thing I could do was remove my toxic presence from the organization.

I wasn’t trying to be petulant.  I really thought I was doing the right thing.  If I couldn’t be part of the solution, at least I could stop being part of the problem.  I put more of my energy into ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and LGBT antiwar organizing.  When ACT UP San Francisco imploded, due to the unwillingness of some of the middle- and upper-middle-class white gay men to consider racism, sexism and classism for even one precious minute, I went back to SFWAR with a new appreciation for an environment where at least, our divisions were seen as something to be confronted.  I learned that I could survive criticism and even grow from it.  I learned not to take every criticism of white feminist culture personally.  Most of all, I learned that the culture of an organization really can change, if there’s enough unity and commitment from the people in it.

I also made friends, both white women and women of color, who helped me to take those steps, and feel supported in my learning process.  That’s a piece that can easily be lost in movements where ideological purity is highly valued.  Of the people I’ve known who used to be political and no longer are, nearly every one has said the reason they stopped was because they felt unvalued and unsupported by their fellow activists.

When I hear about Susan B. Anthony’s racism, or Betty Friedan’s classism and anti-lesbianism, Gloria Steinem’s Zionism and Islamophobia, Margaret Sanger’s pro-eugenics beliefs, I’m mortified.  I don’t want to be tainted by those positions and it’s tempting to follow the trend of defining them only by their failures.  Yet I don’t define Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton by their sexism, or MLK by his caving into homophobia and red-baiting.

Recently, I heard an incredible radio documentary by Fran Luck, a producer on Joy of Resistance at WBAI New York.  It traces the founding of the National Organization for Women to the exclusion of women from the podium at the 1963 March on Washington.  In the aftermath, African American women leaders organized, a woman named Pauli Murray wrote an op-ed which Betty Friedan read and reached out and suggested that they have a meeting in Washington, D.C. to form a national organization for women’s equality.  This history doesn’t wipe out the ways in which Friedan later narrowed the scope of women’s issues to those that most affected white middle-class women.  But it’s interesting to me that we all know the later history, and almost no one knows the founding story.

My friend Carwil Bjork-James writes helpfully:

Anger can motivate awesome work and can motivate toxic and destructive work. It can be clarifying and illuminating, or convince us that our closest friends are just out to get us. But in expressing our anger about pop culture (that is, about people who made art that reinforces our (or others’) oppression, rather than directly oppressing us), I would suggest these propositions:

--Strategically deployed anger ultimately seeks to enlarge the community seeking social transformation, not to split it. 

--Publicly expressed anger depends on establishing that it is justified to make it strategic.

--Even justified anger needs calm, patient work of educating current and potential allies.

I’ve been one of the people who liberally dispensed anger when people didn’t live up to my highest standards of anti-oppression politics, who tolerated no middle ground the cutting edge issues of any given day.  At the time, I believed that was necessary and important for pushing movements forward, and I’m not going to say that it wasn’t.  It’s only in hindsight that I think, maybe I helped drive people away from the movement.  Maybe they were people who didn’t belong there.  But maybe some of them were people who could have been helped to see how their behavior, or their use of privilege or their short-sighted vision was detrimental to our mutual goals.  My own politics have certainly evolved over the years, yet at times I casually judged some people as not worth educating.

I will never regret trying to make the movements I worked in as radical, as inclusive, as responsive to real people’s needs as they could be.  But I do regret some of the strategies I’ve used.  As I get older, I realize I want my contribution to be the people I brought into activism, not the people I turned away or turned off.

Hard as it is for women in their twenties and thirties to believe, multicultural feminism is still in its infancy.  Less time has passed since the founding of Ms. Magazine (42 years) than it took the first wave of US feminists to win the right to vote (71 years).  But as I follow the angst of online feminists trying to walk that line between grinding each other down and letting each other off the hook, I remember Barbara Smith's words all those years ago and I can't help thinking, "We haven't come very far."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Five Things I Love And Hate About New Years

I love New Years.  I love all of them – Jewish, pagan (which would be Halloween), Julian, Chinese, gay (now known as Pride Sunday – the newspaper I work on, UltraViolet, changes volumes in June) … haven’t been to a Nawrouz (Persian New Year) or Diwali (Indian New Year) celebration as yet but hope to soon.  I love it because let’s face it, New Year = Hope, and I’m an optimist.

Rebecca Solnit, in her otherwise amazing piece in The Nation, claims, “Optimism says that everything will be fine…,” but she’s wrong.  Optimism says, “Everything can be fine.”  As I was discussing with friends last night, all activists are optimists (even the ones that are ceaselessly negative in meetings).  That’s what enables us to keep going, despite the appearance of getting nowhere.  Optimism says, “We can do it.”  New Years is the Time of the Optimist. 

Here are a few of the things I love:

Here’s what I don’t love:

  • False cheer
  • The emphasis on dating and being kissed at midnight
  • Resolutions – especially since so many of them will have to do with dieting, like being thin or depriving yourself is what makes you a good person
  • Fixations on elections and what the year will bring for politicians
  • Hearing all the worst music of the year at once

Here are a few of my best ofs:   


  • WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler  - can’t say enough good things about this one (thanks, Julie).  Run don’t walk to your nearest indy bookstore.
  • QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING by Susan Cain - okay, it’s mainstream and promotes a false dichotomy between “extrovert” and “introvert”.  I learned a lot about myself and others.
  • SHAKE OFF by Mischa Hiller (thanks Radhika) – thriller by a Palestinian author with a Palestinian protagonist.  Great characters, fast-moving plot.  Just bought SABRA ZOO (his next), but making myself read some serious fiction first
  • THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER by Lois Leveen - not perfect, but engrossing story of a freed slave who returns to Richmond (my hometown) to spy for the North.  Great woman protagonist; good antidote to “12 Years a Slave” (the movie, not the book) with its lack of depiction of agency by the slaves.

Articles & blogs

Happy to see feminists challenging some harmful dynamics within our movements, without lapsing into solipsism:

After seeing Henry A. Giroux on Bill Moyers, I became a devotee of Giroux and his Public Intellectual Project.  This article rocked my world: The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy 


Wishing everyone a joyous, contemplative, creative and revolutionary New Year