We All Represent “Diversity”

W.J. Astore

On not judging books by their covers

It was only a few years ago that I learned I’m a “cis white male.” As such, I guess I’m a dime a dozen. Ordinary. Not representative of “diversity.”

I get it. I’m a historian so I know something about how various peoples have suffered extreme, even murderous, prejudice and exploitation over time. I’ve taught about slavery, the Holocaust, and various forms of discrimination against women and minorities, among other groups and peoples. The list goes on and on. The recent shootings in Colorado Springs where the LGBTQ community was targeted reminds us that too many people see diversity as a threat.

If only we could see ourselves just as human beings in all the richness that term describes. We are all part of the human community. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said.

These people aren’t diverse. Where are the unhappy people? Seriously, this stock image is supposed to represent diversity, but I don’t see any blue-collar workers. Where’s the cleaning crew? Is everyone in this company lean and fit? Too often, even “diversity” images lack diversity.

Nevertheless, I understand how various people and organizations want to exhibit diversity by hiring or showcasing more women, or more Blacks, or more members of the LGBTQ community, and so on. It seems as if guys like me have ruled the world (or we act as if we have) for so long that we need to be taken down a peg or two. Or three.

What happens, sadly, is that in some cases what we get is what my wife likes to term “optical” diversity. Think about the U.S. government. You get a Black female (think Condi Rice) in a position of power, but she basically thinks and acts the same as a cis white male neo-conservative. You get a Black male (think Lloyd Austin) in a position of power, but he’s basically a card-carrying member of the military-industrial complex. You get “Mayor” Pete Buttigieg in a position of power, but he’s just another government technocrat spouting bromides in the pursuit of power.

Optical diversity shouldn’t be the main goal. What we’re striving for, or should be striving for, is diversity of perspectives, of life experiences, along with an openness to new ideas and viewpoints. A willingness to listen, to learn, to come together based on mutual respect, a shared commitment to work toward justice.

What about me? Am I just another aging cis white male? Just another out-of-touch white guy? Okay, Boomer!

I hope not. I was taught by my parents not to judge a book by its cover. So how do I represent diversity? If you were looking for “diversity,” would I fit the bill (no pun intended)? Here are ten reasons why I might be a “diverse” human:

  • I’m politically independent. In my life I’ve voted Republican, Democrat, and Green. I’m generally “progressive,” though I find labels reductive.
  • I’m a military veteran who’s written a lot of articles that are highly critical of the U.S. military.
  • I’m from a blue-collar family and I’m the first in my family to finish college.
  • I was educated as a mechanical engineer before I turned to history, where I specialized in the history of science, technology, and religion.
  • Speaking of religion, I was raised Catholic but now consider myself to be agnostic. I did my master’s thesis on Catholics and science; for my doctorate, I turned to evangelicals and science. I have a keen interest in both science and religion, respecting both of them as ways of knowing, ways of making sense of the world and ourselves.
  • I love the outdoors and consider myself to be pro-environment. So, for example, I am against fracking because of its demonstrable harm to our planet.
  • I lived and studied overseas in England for three years and have traveled to Italy, Germany, Scotland, and Wales. I gained a new perspective on America by being away from it.
  • I’m an introvert. (Do you want your team or organization to be all extroverts?)
  • I’m a science fiction fan. My favorite character on “Star Trek” is Mr. Spock. Yes, I can be a bit of a geek.
  • I like sports. Being from New England, I’m a fan of the Red Sox, Patriots, etc. I probably spend too much time watching “my” teams compete. My wife and I broke out bottles of champagne to celebrate the Red Sox winning the World Series.

Here’s my real point: All of you, everyone reading this, could make a similar list to showcase your (and our) diversity. In fact, if you’re reading this and would like to comment and share, please put a couple of things below that mark you as a “diverse” person. Because we all contain multitudes. Thanks so much.

Do You Know What Your Candidate Stands For?

W.J. Astore

So many people vote for a Democrat or Republican without having a clue what their candidate stands for. Politicians are adept at refusing to take positions; profiles in courage they are not. This is one big reason why I respect Matthew Hoh, candidate for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina. He takes firm stances based on his personal convictions and principles. Here, courtesy of INDY Week in North Carolina, is an article that details these. Not surprisingly, the Democratic and Republican candidates chose not to answer these questions.

My suggestion: Find a candidate in your district who’s willing to go on the record with strong stances that you believe in. If you can’t find such a candidate, write someone in, or don’t vote for that office, or (big ask) consider running for office yourself in the future, or consider joining new parties that seek to break the corrupt hold on our politics that the Democrats and Republicans have enjoyed for far too long.

Candidate Questionnaire: Matthew Hoh, US Senate

Name as it appears on the ballot: Matthew Hoh 

Screen Shot 2022-10-15 at 2.43.14 PM.png

Age: 49

Party affiliation: Green

Campaign websitehttps://www.matt4senate.org

Occupation & employer:  Disabled veteran

Years lived in North Carolina: 9

1) What are your primary concerns for the State of North Carolina?

I have been to all parts of North Carolina throughout the campaign, and the three things I hear everywhere are healthcare, housing, and drugs. 

Millions of people in NC live without healthcare due to being uninsured or underinsured, while more than 20% of NC adults are in collections for medical debt. Housing is unaffordable across the state. Home prices are out of reach for most working families, while rents have increased at a criminally staggering rate of 25-50%. Individuals, families and communities, particularly Black, Latino, and Native American communities, have been devastated by the War on Drugs. Every day 12 North Carolinian lives are lost from fatal overdoses. At the same time, the mass incarceration and prohibition policies of Republicans and Democrats have ruined lives and wrecked families, destroyed neighborhoods, and sustained cycles of crime. 

These are the same issues I see in my life. My family, friends and neighbors suffer and are hurt by these deliberate bipartisan policies. I’m running to make sure there is a voice in this race for Medicare for All and not for for-profit healthcare; that there are meaningful, affordable housing policies that are not simply tax breaks and subsidies for developers and banks; and that we end the War on Drugs and treat substance abuse and addiction as public health matters rather than as crimes.

2) What in your background qualifies you to represent the people of this state effectively? What would you cite as your biggest career accomplishments?  

I’m a disabled Marine Corps combat veteran. I live paycheck to paycheck, often solely on my veteran disability payments. Due to my disability, I went five years unable to earn an income. This, more than anything else, has prepared me to represent working families in Washington, DC.

In 2009, I resigned my position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest over the escalation of that war. I’ve worked in Washington, DC with members of Congress and their staff for over a decade on war and peace, veterans issues and foreign policy. I’m very familiar with how Congress and the DC establishment operate, and this, perhaps, is the best explanation as to why I am running with the Green Party and not as a Democrat or Republican. 

Locally, I have done peer support in the veterans and homeless communities.  

If elected, what three policies would you prioritize and how would you work across the aisle to enact those initiatives? 

I believe there are Democrats who are willing to break with their party and support meaningful climate and healthcare legislation (not giveaways to the fossil fuel industry and healthcare insurance companies such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Affordable Care Act.) At the same time, some Democrats and Republicans are willing to reduce the bloated military-industrial complex, rein in the gross violations of constitutional rights and liberties by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and end corporate subsidies. I look forward to working with progressives and libertarians on ending the War on Drugs, protecting and expanding civil liberties, particularly LGTBQIA+ rights, and ending our militarized foreign policy.

To accomplish this, I will work in a manner similar to how Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have operated these past two years. However, rather than my efforts being for the benefit of fossil fuel companies and hedge fund managers, as with Senators Manchin and Sinema, my efforts will be for the working and middle classes. I have said repeatedly: no one will get $15 billion aircraft carriers unless our people get healthcare.

3) More than 1 million Americans have died due to COVID-19 and millions more are struggling with astronomical medical bills. Do you believe the American health system is working? What is your plan for making sure health care is affordable and accessible to all American citizens? Are you in favor of a single-payer option?

I’m running because I have many people in my life, people I love, that must check their bank account before calling their doctor. Around a third of all COVID deaths occurred due to people’s inability to afford medical care. That is a consequence of our for-profit healthcare system and a legacy of the Affordable Care Act. Before the pandemic, tens of thousands of Americans were dying each year as a result of not being able to pay for healthcare. I support Medicare for All, which would provide people with affordable and quality healthcare under a single-payer system. This would save our society hundreds of billions of dollars annually while ensuring everyone can get the healthcare they need. I’m also in favor of canceling all medical debt.

4) What factors are fueling the country’s growing political polarization and how will you work to mend it?

Politicians in both parties have increasingly relied on culture war rhetoric to maintain voter loyalty, despite taking millions of dollars from corporations who couldn’t care less about issues like LGBTQ rights or religious freedom. Additionally, partisan gerrymandering has increasingly resulted in noncompetitive districts, denying voters the chance to support candidates from other parties. I support reforms like ranked-choice voting, proportional representation for legislatures, and public campaign financing. These improvements would take the pressure off voters not to “split the vote” and allow them to vote for candidates based on issues and policies and not party identity.

Rent, property taxes, and home sale prices have generally been rising over the past several years. What, if anything, should the federal government do to address this growing affordability crisis?

The federal government plays a dominant role in housing as it backs loans and mortgages, subsidizes development and construction, and provides grants to developers. This allows the federal government to institute rent control, which should be done. Public banking would allow working families to qualify for home loans based on their rental histories. Corporations, banks, and investment firms should be banned from purchasing single-family homes. Housing policy, like other areas of the economy, needs a reversal of the decades of bi-partisan support for corporations, banks and the wealthy at the expense of the working and middle classes. Our homeless epidemic, a massive moral failing, is the direct consequence of this choice to prioritize profit over people.

5) Do you believe the federal minimum wage should be increased? If, by how much? If not, why? 

I support a federal living wage that annually increases to match inflation and the rising cost of living, particularly housing costs. That would currently equal around $22 an hour. I fully support the right of workers to organize through unions for higher wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions. Additionally, we need to incentivize employee ownership, cooperatives and workplace democracy.

6) What specific policies or programs do you endorse or would pursue to combat inflation?  Do you foresee the US heading into a larger economic recession and if so, what is the best way for Congress to address it?

Food and energy price increases are a result of climate change and war. Droughts, floods, and wildfires will continue to impact our economy, as will foreign wars, while our dependence on fossil fuels will keep us at the mercy of US and foreign oil companies. We need a Real Green New Deal to address these causes. 

Supply chain shortages, resulting from decades of infrastructure neglect, are another reason for inflation. Most significantly, however, the current inflation rate is driven by corporate greed and price gouging, not labor costs or productivity issues. Fed interest rate hikes, meant to cause unemployment and which will fully push us into a recession, are not the answer.

Economic inequality has devastated the working and middle classes. This has resulted from deliberate policies over decades meant to ensure those at the top not only remain at the top but see their wealth grow. Working families have been squeezed to the point that 60% of us now live paycheck to paycheck while a third of families can’t make ends meet, with that number rising to more than half of Black and Latino families. I’m  the only candidate in the race for US Senate calling for Medicare for All, rent control, public banking, universal public education from pre-K through university, including vocational and trade schools, and living wages adjusted annually for cost of living increases. These measures will substantially and fundamentally address economic inequality and establish healthcare, housing, education and jobs as human rights.

7) The US Supreme Court issued a ruling this summer overturning Roe v. Wade. Do you believe abortion should be a fundamental human right? If elected, would you support a federal ban on abortion? What role, if any, should Congress play in restricting or expanding access to abortion?

Abortion, like other reproductive rights, is healthcare, and healthcare is a human right. Abortion is ultimately the sole decision of a woman. Like all other forms of healthcare, abortion should be available through a universal single-payer healthcare system available to all people without cost at the point of service. Abortion should be available without conditions and judgment. We must ensure women and their families have all the resources they need for healthy and productive lives, and we must protect abortion seekers and providers from violence.

8) Please state three specific policies you support to address climate change.

Ban fossil fuel extraction techniques and infrastructure, such as fracking, offshore drilling, and oil and gas pipelines. Invest in green energy tech, industry, transportation, agriculture and infrastructure to decrease and end our dependence on fossil fuels. Support training programs to help workers in fields like mining and farming transition to high-paying jobs in sustainable energy and agriculture. These and other actions to mitigate the climate collapse and to assimilate to our changing world, particularly transforming and strengthening our economic and societal infrastructure, are key elements of the Green Party’s Green New Deal. 

9) What more, if anything, should Congress do to regulate firearms?

I carried rifles and pistols in combat. The American people have the right to use firearms for self-defense and hunting. Still, measures like background checks, proper training standards, and mandatory waiting periods need to be implemented so that these weapons don’t end up in the hands of people who plan to harm others. A thorough in-person licensing and training program should be a requirement for possessing a firearm, especially outside the home. These measures must be consistent across states. We must also work to dismantle the gun lobby, whose continued obstruction of common sense gun regulations puts us all in danger.

Prohibition and poverty are and have long been, the primary root causes of crime. End the decades-long, failed, counterproductive and shameful War on Drugs. We must address the deep state of poverty by ensuring all people are paid a living wage and have healthcare and access to free public education from pre-K through college (including trade/vocational programs.)

10) Are there any issues this questionnaire has not addressed that you would like to address?

Environment: I’ve lost track of the number of NC communities that can’t drink their water. The poisoning of our air, land and water by corporations backed and protected by Democrat and Republican politicians is a mass environmental catastrophe that has caused immense environmental harm, devastated wildlife and sickened and killed North Carolinians.

Immigration: My grandparents were immigrants. If any other nation were treating people at its border the way the US treats people at its southern border, we would decry it as a crime against humanity. The bipartisan Democrat and Republican border policies have not only been failures but are massive human rights violations. We must treat all people with dignity and address the systemic reasons why people leave their home countries.

This nation needs immigrants to grow and develop our economy. There is no reason we cannot achieve an immigration policy that treats people humanely, allows for a pathway to citizenship, and provides economic benefits to our society. It’s simply a question of choosing to do so rather than continuing decades of racist fearmongering for political gain.

Democracy: Voting should be expanded, strengthened and made more inclusive. We need to make voting more accessible and easier for individual voters and we must update and modernize our political process.

A Pew poll found that 70% of Americans support the need for more political parties. Voters should have more options. I support ranked choice voting, proportional representation, abolishing the electoral college, ending gerrymandering, establishing term limits and fighting continuously to get money out of politics.

This past summer, the North Carolina Green Party and my campaign had to go to federal court to participate in this election. This was necessary because of a well-funded legal campaign by the Democratic Party to keep the Green Party off the ballot. At all levels, the Green Party prevailed (multiple county boards of elections, NC State Boards of Elections, Wake County Superior Court, US District Court and US Federal Appeals Court); however, the effect on our ability to participate in elections and to represent voters who otherwise would not be represented was dramatically impacted. Voter suppression occurs in multiple forms by both of the major parties.

Reparations: I support Black and Indigenous-led efforts to provide reparations.

Don’t Play the Sap for Any Government

W.J. Astore

In The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart famously tells Mary Astor that he won’t play the sap for her. It’s an immortal cinematic line:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPT49WXC0Zo

It’s election time in America, meaning there are plenty of candidates wishing we’d all play the sap for them. Don’t do it. Vote for those you believe in: candidates who are principled and have a record of taking bold stances and of telling the truth. People like Matt Hoh, who’s running for the Senate as a member of the Green Party in North Carolina.

Occasionally, I need to state the obvious, if only to remind myself of the realities of this world. All governments lie and all have their instruments of repression. The most dangerous government is most likely your own government, whatever country you live in, because that governing party has direct power over you, and also because you’re likely to have some allegiance to it, perhaps even some affection for it. As an American, for example, it’s far easier to play the patriot than to act as a dissident. The patriot gets applauded and rewarded; the dissident gets attacked and punished.

The U.S. government, like any other government, lies. Think of the Pentagon papers, the Afghan War papers, the “slam dunk” case of WMD in Iraq that were never found, and so on. All governments lie, as I.F. Stone said.

The message is simple: Always question authority, whether it’s Russian or Chinese or American. Be skeptical. Don’t play the sap. Make Humphrey Bogart proud.

Free Julian Assange

Exposing official lies: that is Julian Assange’s “crime”

Chris Hedges

Today I saw this speech by Chris Hedges and decided to share it here for all my readers. Julian Assange is being punished for truth-telling; punished as an example to others who might also seek to tell the truth; punished in a way that exposes the repression of a justice system that offers injustice to those who dare to challenge the powerful. “Tyranny imposed on others is now imposed on us,” Chris Hedges says in this speech. I urge you to read it, listen to it, and ponder his words. W.J. Astore

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Merrick Garland and those who work in the Department of Justice are the puppets, not the puppet masters. They are the façade, the fiction, that the longstanding persecution of Julian Assange has something to do with justice. Like the High Court in London, they carry out an elaborate judicial pantomime. They debate arcane legal nuances to distract from the Dickensian farce where a man who has not committed a crime, who is not a U.S. citizen, can be extradited under the Espionage Act and sentenced to life in prison for the most courageous and consequential journalism of our generation.

The engine driving the lynching of Julian is not here on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is in Langley, Virginia, located at a complex we will never be allowed to surround – the Central Intelligence Agency. It is driven by a secretive inner state, one where we do not count in the mad pursuit of empire and ruthless exploitation. Because the machine of this modern leviathan was exposed by Julian and WikiLeaks, the machine demands revenge. 

The United States has undergone a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion. It is no longer a functioning democracy. The real centers of power, in the corporate, military and national security sectors, were humiliated and embarrassed by WikiLeaks. Their war crimes, lies, conspiracies to crush the democratic aspirations of the vulnerable and the poor, and rampant corruption, here and around the globe, were laid bare in troves of leaked documents.  

We cannot fight on behalf of Julian unless we are clear about whom we are fighting against. It is far worse than a corrupt judiciary. The global billionaire class, who have orchestrated a social inequality rivaled by pharaonic Egypt, has internally seized all of the levers of power and made us the most spied upon, monitored, watched and photographed population in human history. When the government watches you 24-hours a day, you cannot use the word liberty. This is the relationship between a master and a slave. Julian was long a target, of course, but when WikiLeaks published the documents known as Vault 7, which exposed the hacking tools the CIA uses to monitor our phones, televisions and even cars, he — and journalism itself — was condemned to crucifixion. The object is to shut down any investigations into the inner workings of power that might hold the ruling class accountable for its crimes, eradicate public opinion and replace it with the cant fed to the mob.

I spent two decades as a foreign correspondent on the outer reaches of empire in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. I am acutely aware of the savagery of empire, how the brutal tools of repression are first tested on those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Wholesale surveillance. Torture. Coups. Black sites. Black propaganda. Militarized police. Militarized drones. Assassinations. Wars. Once perfected on people of color overseas, these tools migrate back to the homeland. By hollowing out our country from the inside through deindustrialization, austerity, deregulation, wage stagnation, the abolition of unions, massive expenditures on war and intelligence, a refusal to address the climate emergency and a virtual tax boycott for the richest individuals and corporations, these predators intend to keep us in bondage, victims of a corporate neo-feudalism. And they have perfected their instruments of Orwellian control. The tyranny imposed on others is imposed on us.

From its inception, the CIA carried out assassinations, coups, torture, and illegal spying and abuse, including that of U.S. citizens, activities exposed in 1975 by the Church Committee hearings in the Senate and the Pike Committee hearings in the House. All these crimes, especially after the attacks of 9/11, have returned with a vengeance. The CIA is a rogue and unaccountable paramilitary organization with its own armed units and drone program, death squads and a vast archipelago of global black sites where kidnapped victims are tortured and disappeared. 

The U.S. allocates a secret black budget of about $50 billion a year to hide multiple types of clandestine projects carried out by the National Security Agency, the CIA and other intelligence agencies, usually beyond the scrutiny of Congress. The CIA has a well-oiled apparatus to kidnap, torture and assassinate targets around the globe, which is why, since it had already set up a system of 24-hour video surveillance of Julian in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, it quite naturally discussed kidnapping and assassinating him. That is its business. Senator Frank Church — after examining the heavily redacted CIA documents released to his committee — defined the CIA’s “covert activity” as “a semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies and consorting with known torturers and international terrorists.”

All despotisms mask state persecution with sham court proceedings. The show trials and troikas in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The raving Nazi judges in fascist Germany. The Denunciation rallies in Mao’s China. State crime is cloaked in a faux legality, a judicial farce.

If Julian is extradited and sentenced and, given the Lubyanka-like proclivities of the Eastern District of Virginia, this is a near certainty, it means that those of us who have published classified material, as I did when I worked for The New York Times, will become criminals. It means that an iron curtain will be pulled down to mask abuses of power. It means that the state, which, through Special Administrative Measures, or SAMs, anti-terrorism laws and the Espionage Act that have created our homegrown version of Stalin’s Article 58, can imprison anyone anywhere in the world who dares commit the crime of telling the truth.

We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to fight against powerful subterranean forces that, in demanding Julian’s extradition and life imprisonment, have declared war on journalism. 

We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to fight for the restoration of the rule of law and democracy. 

We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to dismantle the wholesale Stasi-like state surveillance erected across the West. 

We are here to fight for Julian. But we are also here to overthrow — and let me repeat that word for the benefit of those in the FBI and Homeland Security who have come here to monitor us — overthrow the corporate state and create a government of the people, by the people and for the people, that will cherish, rather than persecute, the best among us.

Why Burn Books When You Can Stop Them from Being Published?

You won’t have to burn them if they’re never published

W.J. Astore

There are many forms of lying. One that we don’t always think about is lying by omission. A partial truth can be a more insidious lie than an outright falsehood. I might argue, for example, that the Vietnam War was awful for America, dividing the country and costing more than 58,000 U.S. troops their lives, along with innumerable other mental and physical casualties. But if I leave out or downplay the far more horrifying costs to Southeast Asia, the literally millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians killed in that war, the poisoning of their land by highly toxic chemicals like Agent Orange along with millions of unexploded mines and munitions, which still kill to this day, I have most definitely lied by omission. Perhaps the Vietnam War was a “tragedy” for the U.S., but it was far, far worse for those on the receiving end of American firepower.

It’s not easy to get books published that tell tough truths we’d prefer not to hear. For example, Nick Turse’s book about “the real American war in Vietnam,” entitled “Kill Anything that Moves,” was published by Metropolitan Books, which is now being shuttered and shut down, notes Tom Engelhardt in his latest article at TomDispatch.com. Engelhardt has seen this before, with Pantheon Books, another publisher known for publishing books that told uncomfortable truths about America. It too was a victim of consolidation in publishing, of being shut down, mainly because the consolidators simply didn’t like the books being published. And perhaps too because these same books sometimes didn’t make enough money (though some proved to be bestsellers, which, from the owners’ ideological perspective, may have been worse).

Engelhardt’s heartfelt article made me think. Imagine that. It made me think that the best way to “burn” books is to make sure they’re never published.  Same with banning books.  You don’t have to ban them when they can’t find their way into print.

Also, it’s far easier to manufacture consent — to control the national discourse — when only certain books are being published and hyped — the ones reflecting and reinforcing mainstream thought.

Whether it’s shutting down Pantheon or Metropolitan or similar publishing houses, it’s about blocking alternative views that challenge capitalism, neoliberalism,, neoconservatism, and similar mainstream ideologies. You can always claim that the house you’re shuttering just wasn’t making enough money, wasn’t moving enough product, never mind the quality of that “product” and the invaluable service it was providing to democracy and the free exchange of ideas.

Readers here know that I started writing for TomDispatch in 2007. My first article was critical of the Petraeus Surge in the Iraq War, but my goal back then was “to save the U.S. military from itself,” from its misleading and often mendacious metrics to its inflated sense of itself, shown most clearly with its obsession with medals and decorations even as the war was going very poorly indeed. I tried several mainstream publishers including the New York Times and Washington Post without success. A friend mentioned TomDispatch to me, I wrote to Tom, and he found something in my writing worthy of being published at his site. My next “Tomgram” will be the 95th I’ve written for the site.

If TomDispatch didn’t exist, my criticisms and critiques would probably have never been published. Tom’s example inspired me to write further, to become a regular at Huff Post and Antiwar.com and to start my own blogs. Bracing Views exists because of the example provided by TomDispatch.

Good books beget other good books. Critical books beget other critical books. Scholarship builds on itself. When you block or severely limit opportunities for good, daring, and critical books from being published, you strike a blow against scholarship, against the free exchange of ideas, against the very idea of an enlightened America made more powerful and righteous by its informed citizens.

Sure, it’s just another publisher being put out of business. Nothing to see here, move along. Except it’s much more than that. It’s a form of book burning before the book ever existed, a silencing of synapses in our minds, an insidious form of mind control in the sense of curtailing certain thoughts and ideas from ever taking form.

Do I exaggerate? Readers, what do you think?

Transvestism as a Cultural Phenomenon and a Political Issue

Tony Curtis with Marilyn Monroe, “Some Like It Hot”

Richard Sahn 

Discussions and readings about social deviancy are exciting in the liberal arts college classroom. One example of deviant behavior in contemporary American society I always looked forward to discussing is trans-vesting. The word means cross-dressing, intentionally wearing the garments culturally designated for the opposite sex, a taboo violation depending on where you live.

In a hypothetical society where men and women are not socially or even legally restricted in what they can wear it would be impossible to cross dress or trans vest. In most Western countries today, it is very difficult if not impossible for women to cross dress. The reason should be obvious:  it is now acceptable for females to wear clothing, such as trousers, once meant only for males. On the other hand, in a Muslim culture or community a woman can, indeed, cross dress if she wears, say, coat and tie.  Transvestites like to argue that if a woman can wear “male” clothing why can’t men wear “female” garments?

I’m not a transvestite myself so how did I become invested in the subject and, more importantly, why am I such a fan of transvestism? It all started when I asked a friend of mine who knew a transvestite from New York City to invite someone he knew to speak to my sociology class when I was covering social deviance. At the end of the class where he spoke, I interviewed him on tape. According to Michael, the guest speaker, and to subsequent research I did on the subject, there are five psychologically significant reasons why men trans vest:

  1. Auto-eroticism: When a transvestite looks at himself in the mirror, he becomes physically attracted to himself. The image in the mirror is an alter-ego. Perhaps a masturbatory fantasy.  No dating service required. And no flowers.
  2. Benign rebelliousness: Cross-dressing is a type of rebellion against mainstream society.  The transvestite is a rebel with a cause.
  3. Attracting other males (the drag queen). Most transvestites are heterosexual, but a sub-category of cross-dressers are gay males who, while in drag, want to be with other males. And there is a sub-category of this sub-category, namely, gay transvestite males who desire other males in drag.
  4. Sociological envy: Getting more respect or attention appearing as a female. The cross-dresser may feel that he lives in community that is more concerned with the rights of girls and women than with boys and men. As comedian Rodney Dangerfield always used to say as part of his stand-up act, “I get no respect.” (Perhaps Rodney shouldhave become a transvestite.) 
  5. Finally, female impersonation by a male actor on stage, such as the old Milton Berle and Flip Wilson shows or Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the movie, “Some Like it Hot.”

As a straight male I welcome the cross dresser. I want to live in a society, or at least a community, where LGBTQ+ is acceptable, maybe even encouraged. Frankly, I take delight in people who exhibit forms of unconventional behavior and desires which are harmless to the public. They are a relief from those who consistently conform to conventional dress code norms.  I simply feel freer, socially and even legally, to engage in unconventional behaviors and conversations.

Spare us from the xenophobes and haters in politics who would return us to the “respectable” conformist behaviors of other eras.

Clarifying Notes

A transvestite is not a transsexual. The latter is a person who literally changes physically, and to some extent, physiologically to the opposite sex—the so-called sex change operation. The transvestite male only identifies temporarily as a female and thus usually has no problem using restrooms designated for males. (Of course, he might have a problem if he is still dressed in drag with other males thinking he is female.)

Why do some people, notably men, fear transvestites? My guess is that they see the male in drag as a threat to their masculinity or male identity, especially if they have the slightest desire (perhaps on an unconscious level) to wear female garments.

What about legal rights for trans people? My position is that in any society people should be free from the fear of being abused for appearing the way they want to appear. Anyone who abuses another person for his/her/their appearance should be subject to fines or imprisonment.

Richard Sahn, a retired sociology professor, is an occasional contributor to Bracing Views.

Joe Biden’s Red-Tinged Speech

W.J. Astore

President Joe Biden denounced “extreme MAGA ideology” at a recent speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I’ve been to Independence Hall, but never did I picture it like this, lit in a garish red light:

Readers here know I’m critical of Biden and Donald Trump. I don’t want either man to get a second term. And MAGA, as in make America great again, is a movement that has cult-like elements in the way it elevates Trump as some kind of leader/savior figure. Being critical of MAGA is one thing, but Biden’s speech had all the subtlety of the red-tinged image above.

Having watched too many episodes of “Star Trek,” what I think of here is Red Alert. But painting all Trump supporters with the same red brush only aggravates tension and division.

Sorry, I don’t see my MAGA neighbor as my enemy. He or she is a fellow American, probably one who’s frustrated with the system as it exists today and is seeking an alternative to politics as usual. The shameful thing is our country’s political duopoly, which offers only two choices, Biden or a Biden clone versus Trump or a Trump clone. Maybe the “enemy within” is the duopoly itself?

Biden’s speech was disheartening. The way to win people over is not to paint your rival in red. Give people hope. Give them meaningful reforms. A $15 federal minimum wage. Affordable health care. Higher education that doesn’t lead to huge personal debt. Environmental policies that preserve the earth and address climate change. An end to gargantuan military budgets and overseas wars. Heck, I’ll settle for potable drinking water in Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan.

Railing against an “enemy” is easy. Sharing the fruits of America equitably among all Americans is the real challenge. Biden pushed a big red “easy” button that placed his followers on red alert against the MAGA foe, as if they weren’t our fellow Americans but a quasi-Klingon empire of aliens out to attack and conquer. It’s a move both wrong and wrongheaded. It’s also yet one more reminder that America needs new political parties and a new direction.

Seeing the Dark Side of the Moon — and of America

W.J. Astore

The Moon is the brightest object in the night sky. It has so many meanings in our lives, our history, our folklore and myths. Yet we always see it from one side. Until the beginning of the space age, we never saw its dark side. And that dark side presents us with a whole new idea of the Moon, as so:

A truly captivating vision of the dark side of the Moon, courtesy of NASA

I love seeing familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. Here we see the battered side of the Moon. In a sense, the Moon acts as a shield for the Earth, with some asteroids getting funneled into its gravitational well and striking its surface rather than possibly colliding with the Earth. Without a large Moon near us, life on Earth may have proved more precarious, with more mass extinctions due to asteroid strikes. (I think I’m right here, based upon my own reading on our solar system, which I admit was many, many moons ago.)

Can we also see the dark side of other objects? See the familiar in strikingly unfamiliar ways? How about America? It’s not easy, because those who try to help us to see are often punished for their probing in darker places.

Who are some of these “astronomers” who seek to show us America in a new light? I’d like to mention a few names here: Daniel Ellsberg, Daniel Hale, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. And let’s throw an Aussie in there too: Julian Assange. And an outspoken Catholic worker by the name of Dorothy Day. Or how about an anarchist like Emma Goldman. These men and women (and many others) sought to shine a probing light on some of the darker sides of American behavior, and you won’t be surprised to learn that they suffered for it.

My point here is not to focus exclusively on the dark side of America. Rather, just as it’s an incomplete picture to see the Moon from only one side and perspective, so too is it a limiting experience to see America from only one side. And that “one side” is typically the one most favorable to America, the brightest one, the least cratered one, even the romantic one.

If we seek to understand the Moon in its entirety, we must see all its sides — especially its most battered one. The same is true of America.

Are Joe Biden and Donald Trump Too Old to Serve?

W.J. Astore

President Joe Biden turns 80 this year. If he chooses to run and is reelected in 2024, he’ll be 82 and will serve as president until he’s 86. His Republican rival, Donald Trump, will be 78 in 2024 and is overweight and perhaps obese. Biden, meanwhile, is moving more slowly and appears to be experiencing signs of age-related cognitive decline. Leaving aside their politics and policies and personalities, are either of these men truly fit to be president?

We all age differently, of course. But it used to be said that being POTUS was the toughest job in the world. Younger men like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush aged noticeably in office due to the strains of the job. Yet pointing out the rigors of the presidency, and raising questions about whether men in their 80s are truly capable of handling such rigors, exposes one to claims of bias based on age.

A lot of jobs have mandatory retirement ages. My dad was a firefighter and he had to retire at 65. While we don’t expect the POTUS to climb ladders or charge into burning buildings or carry bodies, there’s still something to be said for the difficulty of men in the twilight of their lives serving as the “leader of the free world.”

(I say men here because women live longer and often age more gracefully. But I think it’s also true in the U.S. that a woman “pushing 80” would be dismissed out of hand as too old for the presidency; societal bias against older women still exists, though of course older women can cling to power with the same tenacity as men: just look at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.)

I remember the bad old days of the Cold War when Soviet leaders were mocked in the U.S. as a gerontocracy of sorts. So when Leonid Brezhnev died at the age of 75, he was briefly succeeded by Yuri Andropov (died at 69) and Konstantin Chernenko (died at 74 after serving for just over a year as General Secretary). Then the much younger Mikhail Gorbachev took over at age 54 and more than anyone helped to revolutionize U.S.-Soviet relations.

In a way, Joe Biden is the U.S. equivalent of Andropov and Chernenko, a time-server who was elevated by his party as a caretaker. “Nothing will fundamentally change,” Biden said of his administration, a promise he has indeed kept. Those same words could have come from Andropov and Chernenko.

The problem for the Democrats is that there’s no clear younger heir-apparent to Biden. Harris? Mayor Pete? Gavin Newsom? (Newsom, like Mitt Romney, has presidential hair but little else.) Where is the Democratic equivalent to Mikhail Gorbachev?

The Republicans have their own issues, the main one being the cult of personality surrounding Donald J. Trump. But what really empowers Trump, besides his own craftiness at cons and culture wars, is the weakness and hypocrisy of the Democrats. When your most likely opponent is a “no hope, no change” figurehead in his early 80s, even Trump appears by comparison to be a change agent of sorts.

America truly needs fundamental change, someone like Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader willing to face facts and tell harsh truths. Someone with a fresh perspective and the energy to convey it. Both Biden and Trump are too old, if not in their bodies, then in their thinking, to be the reformer America so desperately needs.

Liz Cheney Loses

W.J. Astore

The big news in U.S. politics today is Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, losing her House seat to a Trump-backed challenger.

Liz Cheney has recently built a reputation as the “sensible” Republican, calling on other Republicans to reject Trumpism, alternative facts, fake news, and all the rest of Trump’s baggage. She was an outspoken critic of Trump’s role in the January 6th Capitol riots. She broke from the Trump cult and was punished for it.

Liz Cheney concedes defeat

Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is indeed strong, but I don’t see him as a cult-like leader. I think many of Trump’s followers are with him because of the lack of viable alternatives. Trump’s strength, in other words, is the weakness of his competitors, including Republican has-been challengers like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but especially of Democrats like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Nancy Pelosi.

There’s been much hype in the mainstream media about Joe Biden having finally found his groove, with legislation being passed that is supposed to address climate change, to lower prescription drug prices, and to make health care more affordable. But when you look closely at what Biden has signed into law, the benefits largely disappear. Provisions to address climate change include massive handouts to the fossil fuel industry. New regulations to lower drug prices won’t come into effect until 2025 at the earliest, and only for a small number of drugs. (The cost of insulin will remain high for anyone not on Medicare, i.e. anyone under 65 without excellent health insurance.) Subsidies for health insurance are available but drive people into the “marketplace” where they can buy private for-profit health care plans that include high co-pays and deductibles.

In short, the Democrats, the main opposition to Trump, are up to their usual tricks, promising to make things better for the working classes while doing the bidding of their owners and donors. It’s Democratic actions and inaction, more so than the wonders of Trump’s personality, that drive so many people to look to Trump as a viable alternative.

The Democrats could win back many of Trump’s supporters if they simply kept their campaign promises. Those included, among others, a $15 federal minimum wage, significant student debt relief, a public option for health care, and family-friendly benefits for child care, family leave, education, and the like. They simply haven’t done it, and won’t do it, because the quest for corporate money and donors continues to drive policy.

So the Democratic playbook for this fall is the same as it’s been for years: scare the people into voting against “crazy” Republicans. Indeed, the Democratic establishment has actively funded more extreme right-wing candidates, boosting their chances in primaries against more moderate Republicans, because the Democrats assume they’ll have a better chance defeating the “crazy” right-wingers in November. One might ask Hillary Clinton how that worked out for her campaign in 2016 as she boosted Donald Trump against candidates like Jeb Bush, knowing in her heart that Trump would be far easier to defeat. What happened there, Hillary?

Trump, of course, has always been a sly con man. In a sense, he isn’t a hypocrite. What you see is what you get with Trump. With the Democrats, what you see is not what you get. We keep being told that Biden is accomplishing great things, that he’s channeling FDR (!), when it’s obvious he is what he’s always been: a centrist law-and-order Democrat who’s loyally served Wall Street, Big Pharma, and similar big money and corporate interests for virtually his entire 50-year career.

Those Americans who choose to follow Trump, in short, are not a bunch of irredeemable deplorables, they’re not gullible cultists, they’re not bigots, racists, and white supremacists. Not in the main. They’re Americans looking for answers, caught in a vise, being squeezed by the uncaring powers around them, including their own government, and including politicians like Liz Cheney.

Liz Cheney’s father didn’t prevent the 9/11 attacks. He got America involved in two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that killed and wounded tens of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi people. He was a director of America’s military-industrial complex that harmed so many of the sons and daughters of parents who became Trump supporters because they were tired of endless wars that served no one but the friends of Cheney. And Liz Cheney used her father in campaign ads that touted her as a patriot against the corruption of Trump.

That obviously didn’t sit well with the people of Wyoming.

There’s an increasing sense of desperation in America, a growing sense that things are getting worse, that we’re headed for Dickensian times of hardship and exploitation. And Democratic “solutions” aren’t even half measures. Nor was signing up Liz Cheney as an ally to rail against Trump and his MAGA followers.

The answer — and we’ve heard it before — is hope and change. Real hope and real change. We had a candidate and a movement in 2008 who seemed to embody true change, but as soon as he won the presidency, he disbanded his movement, kowtowed to Wall Street, and passed a Republican health care bill that ironically became known as Obamacare. After that record, you can see why so many Americans decided they “won’t get fooled again,” and why more than a few Obama supporters switched to Trump in 2016.

What’s the answer? One thing is certain. It’s not “centrists” like Liz Cheney — or Joe Biden. The voters have spoken.