Sunday, June 23, 2019

Sunday Reading

Masha Gessen in The New Yorker on the unimaginable reality of American concentration camps.

Like many arguments, the fight over the term “concentration camp” is mostly an argument about something entirely different. It is not about terminology. Almost refreshingly, it is not an argument about facts. This argument is about imagination, and it may be a deeper, more important conversation than it seems.

In a Monday-evening live stream, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, called the U.S.’s detention facilities for migrants “concentration camps.” On Tuesday, she tweeted a link to an article in Esquire in which Andrea Pitzer, a historian of concentration camps, was quoted making the same assertion: that the United States has created a “concentration camp system.” Pitzer argued that “mass detention of civilians without a trial” was what made the camps concentration camps. The full text of Ocasio-Cortez’s tweet was “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalized with dehumanizing conditions and dying. This is not hyperbole. It is the conclusion of expert analysis.” Hackles were immediately raised, tweets fired, and, less than an hour and a half later, Representative Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, tweeted, “Please @AOC do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.” A high-pitched battle of tweets and op-eds took off down the much travelled dead-end road of arguments about historical analogies. These almost never go well, and they always devolve into a virtual shouting match if the Holocaust, the Nazis, or Adolf Hitler is invoked. One side always argues that nothing can be as bad as the Holocaust, therefore nothing can be compared to it; the other argues that the cautionary lesson of history can be learned only by acknowledging the similarities between now and then.

But the argument is really about how we perceive history, ourselves, and ourselves in history. We learn to think of history as something that has already happened, to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes. Despite our best intentions, the myth becomes a caricature of sorts. Hitler, or Stalin, comes to look like a two-dimensional villain—someone whom contemporaries could not have seen as a human being. The Holocaust, or the Gulag, are such monstrous events that the very idea of rendering them in any sort of gray scale seems monstrous, too. This has the effect of making them, essentially, unimaginable. In crafting the story of something that should never have been allowed to happen, we forge the story of something that couldn’t possibly have happened. Or, to use a phrase only slightly out of context, something that can’t happen here.

A logical fallacy becomes inevitable. If this can’t happen, then the thing that is happening is not it. What we see in real life, or at least on television, can’t possibly be the same monstrous phenomenon that we have collectively decided is unimaginable. I have had many conversations about this in Russia. People who know Vladimir Putin and his inner circle have often told me that they are not the monsters that I and others have described. Yes, they have overseen assassinations, imprisonments, and wars, but they are not thoroughly terrible, my interlocutors have claimed—they are not like Stalin and his henchmen. In other words, they are not the monsters of our collective historical imagination. They are today’s flesh-and-blood monsters, and this makes them seem somehow less monstrous.

Anything that happens here and now is normalized, not solely through the moral failure of contemporaries but simply by virtue of actually existing. Allow me to illustrate. My oldest son, who spent his early childhood in a Russian hospital, was for many years extremely small for his age. I spent useless hours upon hours in my study in Moscow, where we then lived, poring over C.D.C. growth charts. No matter how many times I looked, I couldn’t place him—he was literally off the chart. As far as the C.D.C. was concerned, my son, at his age, height, and weight, was unimaginable. When he was four, I took him to see a pediatrician in Boston. She entered his measurements into her computer, and a red dot appeared on the chart. I felt my body finally relax; my child was no longer impossible! He was on the chart. Then I realized that the pediatrician was working with an interactive chart. (This was in the early aughts, and there weren’t any available to me at home.) She had just put him in the system. His little red dot was still below the lowest, fifth-percentile curve. He was still the smallest child of his age. But a sort of cognitive trick had been performed. My son’s size had been documented, and this made him possible.

Donald Trump has played this trick on Americans many times, beginning with his very election: first, he was impossible, and then he was President. Did that mean that the impossible had happened—an extremely hard concept to absorb—or did it mean that Trump was not the catastrophe so many of us had assumed he would be? A great many Americans chose to think that he had been secretly Presidential all along or was about to become Presidential; they chose to accept that, now that he was elected, his Presidency would become conceivable. The choice between these two positions is at the root of the argument between Ocasio-Cortez and the critics of her concentration-camp comment. It is not an argument about language. Ocasio-Cortez and her opponents agree that the term “concentration camp” refers to something so horrible as to be unimaginable. (For this reason, mounting a defense of Ocasio-Cortez’s position by explaining that not all concentration camps were death camps misses the point.) It is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable, and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves—not just as Americans but as human beings—and therefore unimaginable. The latter position is immeasurably more difficult to hold—not so much because it is contentious and politically risky, as attacks on Ocasio-Cortez continue to demonstrate, but because it is cognitively strenuous. It makes one’s brain implode. It will always be a minority position.

Frank Bruni in The New York Times on the gay truth about Trump.

I’ll never buy Donald Trump as gay positive. But I’d bet on gay blasé.

“I think it’s absolutely fine,” he said when asked in a Fox News interview about displays of affection between Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten. “That’s something that perhaps some people will have a problem with. I have no problem with it whatsoever. I think it’s good.”

He not only picked an openly gay man, Richard Grenell, to be the American ambassador to Germany but also reportedly moons over Grenell’s good looks. “He can’t say two sentences about Grenell without saying how great of a looking guy he is,” an unnamed associate of Trump’s told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. When Trump catches the ambassador on TV, he gushes, “Oh, there’s my beautiful Grenell!”

During the 2016 campaign, he spoke out against a North Carolina law forbidding transgender people to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity and said that Caitlyn Jenner could use the commode of her choice in Trump Tower.

And then, of course, there was his speech at the Republican National Convention, when he carefully enunciated “L.G.B.T.Q.,” pledged to protect those of us represented by that consonant cluster and, upon hearing applause, added, “I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said.”

I’m glad he enjoyed it. We L.G.B.T.Q. Americans aren’t enjoying him. Far from protecting us, he and his administration have stranded us, packing federal courts with judges hostile to gay rights, barring transgender Americans from military service and giving a green light to Americans who, citing religious beliefs, don’t want to give us medical care or bake us a cake. When several United States embassies — including the one in Berlin, over which Grenell presides — requested permission to fly the rainbow flag this month in honor of Gay Pride, the State Department said no.

It’s an ugly story, and it pretty much sums up Trump’s approach to governing. His treatment of gay people perfectly reveals the flabbiness of his convictions and his willingness to stand at odds with a majority of Americans if it pleases the smaller number who adore him. He’ll suffer our anger for their ardor. Decency and principle don’t enter into it.

And he is at odds with most of the country, very much so. Take the Trump administration out of the equation and the march toward gay equality continues apace. As gay and transgender Americans prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising on June 28, we inhabit a state of cognitive dissonance, staring at a split screen: insults from the White House on one half of it, positive reinforcement from elsewhere on the other.

Democrats’ embrace of Buttigieg, the first openly gay politician to land in the top tier of presidential candidates, illustrates the trajectory beyond Trump. “As recently as five or 10 years ago, I think, a project like this would have been dismissed out of hand,” Buttigieg told me in a recent interview, referring to his campaign. “It was unsafe for Democrats to support same-sex marriage at the beginning of this same decade that we’re living in now.” President Barack Obama didn’t endorse it until 2012, Hillary Clinton until 2013. A Supreme Court ruling legalized it nationwide in 2015.

Being gay, Buttigieg said, hasn’t been any impediment to his bid for the White House so far. “It led to there being more interest and attention early on,” he said. “Perhaps the most interesting thing is how often it doesn’t come up — all the interviews in which it’s not mentioned. At this point, it’s safe to say that that’s most of the time.”

I was given an exclusive advance copy of a new report by the Victory Institute, a group that promotes L.G.B.T.Q. candidates. It found that the number of known L.G.B.T.Q. elected officials at the municipal, state and national levels in America rose 24.9 percent, to 698 from 559, over the past year. And while some of that is attributable to more politicians coming out, much is attributable to more being voted into office.

With the congressional elections last November, the number of openly L.G.B.T.Q. members of Congress rose to an all-time high of 10 — eight in the House and two in the Senate — up from seven. That same month Jared Polis in Colorado became the first openly gay person to win a governorship. He told me that his sexual orientation was absolutely not a factor in his race: “There might be some people who care about it, but they wouldn’t be considered swing voters, so they’re not relevant in terms of who you have to win over. It never comes up in terms of scrapping for the votes you need in the middle.”

In Chicago in April, Lori Lightfoot became the first openly gay person to win the mayoralty of one of the country’s three most-populous cities. “The fact that I could run as an out lesbian, married, in an interracial relationship, with a child, would have been unthinkable not that long ago,” she said when I spoke with her recently. “You can’t stop progress. You just can’t. It’s like trying to stop a ball from rolling down a hill.”

According to the Victory Institute survey, there are three openly L.G.B.T.Q. members in Oklahoma’s State Legislature and four in Montana’s. They’re all Democrats, but Republicans are changing, too. In Colorado, five Republican lawmakers voted in favor of a bill that banned anti-gay conversion therapy for minors, and six Republicans, including some of the same ones, voted to make it easier for transgender people to have the gender on their birth certificates changed. Polis signed both measures into law on May 31.

While media attention focuses on proposed state legislation to deny rights to L.G.B.T.Q. people, there are probably more examples of bipartisan pushes to protect or expand those rights.

According to Freedom for All Americans, an advocacy group, more than two dozen Republican lawmakers in 15 states recently sponsored legislation to protect gay or transgender people from discrimination. They include the chairman of the Republican Party in Florida and the State Senate majority leader in West Virginia. Republican lawmakers were crucially involved in blocking discriminatory measures proposed in Texas, Tennessee and Georgia, the group said. In South Dakota, where Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, four different measures to permit discrimination against transgender people were defeated this year.

That reflects Americans’ values more accurately than the Trump administration does. In a Quinnipiac University poll in April, 92 percent of Americans said that employers should not be allowed to fire someone based on his or her “sexual orientation or sexual identity.” When Americans are asked whether a full spectrum of civil rights protections should be extended to L.G.B.T.Q. people, the number falls — but a majority of 53 percent still say yes. And in poll after poll, most Americans say that transgender people should be able to serve in the military, with 70 percent of them indicating support in one survey.

Yet the Trump administration keeps tugging in the opposite direction. Trump has nominated and the Senate has confirmed many jurists with explicit, unabashed hostility to gay and transgender rights, including, just days ago, Matthew Kacsmaryk, who received a lifetime appointment as a United States district judge for the Northern District of Texas. This is a man who in 2015 wrote that gay rights were part of a sexual revolution that was “rooted in the soil of elitist postmodern philosophy” and “sought public affirmation of the lie that the human person is an autonomous blob of Silly Putty unconstrained by nature or biology, and that marriage, sexuality, gender identity and even the unborn child must yield to the erotic desires of liberated adults.”

The choice of Kacsmaryk is hardly an aberration, said Sharon McGowan, the chief strategy officer and legal director for Lambda Legal, an advocacy group that has been tracking these appointments to the federal bench. “The arc of history may bend toward justice,” she told me, “but history will not be kind to those who are complicit in what has been happening over these past two years.” She meant in the White House, in the cabinet and on Capitol Hill, where a stubbornly retrograde social conservatism holds sway.

“It’s a 180-degree turn from the Obama administration,” said Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a transgender man. Therein lies part of the explanation: If Trump’s predecessor did things one way, he’s inclined to do the opposite. “It has been shocking to me,” Minter added. Trump’s relatively benign comments before being elected did nothing to prepare Minter for the ban on openly transgender people in the military and for his administration’s edicts, efforts or declared intentions to eliminate protections for transgender people in the Affordable Care Act, allow health care workers to cite religious beliefs in refusing to treat gay or transgender people, let federally funded housing shelters deny access to transgender people, make it easier for adoption agencies to turn away same-sex couples and more.

“I wonder if they’re doing it out of this weird muscle memory left over from the days when launching an attack like this would be useful if you were under fire on other issues,” Buttigieg told me. “If people were displeased with Republicans on the economy, throw out a marriage referendum to fire up your base!”

He noted that the difference now is that the Trump administration doesn’t really crow about these steps. “Their assault on equality is not something they’ve been willing to fully own,” he noted. “I think that’s revealing, that they speak in one language while acting in another. It suggests that there’s a part of the White House that isn’t proud of this.”

Trump himself continues to murmur words kinder than his deeds, such as his tweet three weeks ago exhorting Americans to “celebrate LGBT Pride Month and recognize the outstanding contributions LGBT people have made.”

But the contributions Trump is focused on are the votes and donations from the so-called religious right, given in gratitude for his opposition to abortion and his anti-gay actions. “Because he doesn’t have the ability to broaden his support, he’s playing to a narrow base, and at the center of that base is this right-wing faction that’s often garbed in religion,” observed Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, a group that led the successful push for same-sex marriage. “He’s throwing them any meat he can find.”

We’re the meat. Hes the Silly Putty, content to mold himself or be molded in different shapes for different reasons. His vitriol toward immigrants isn’t echoed by most Americans, but it pushes convenient buttons. Middle-class Americans weren’t gaga for his tax overhaul, but corporate America was, and he indulged that constituency.

On issue after issue it’s like that: He doesn’t act or speak for the majority, but he accomplishes some narrower purpose, and gets away with it partly because gerrymandering, the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College have led to a government out of sync with the governed.

Trump is on the wrong side of history. But he doesn’t care — so long as it’s right for Trump.

Doonesbury — High there.