I lament the loss of civil discourse, though I fear at times I am involved in its painful demise. As I write this week about politics, I am struck by my longing for the language of protests of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Hell, I am hungry for something that approaches a good argument. To be sure, the debates between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders help satisfy my appetite, but so much of the rest of the chatter, mail, emails, memes, and the like are frankly crap.
A year ago I wrote about the anti-gay and anti-transgender politics in Indiana. I could write about them again today, substituting North Carolina or Georgia, though a governor’s veto in the latter is being declared a victory for intelligence. We had another near miss in South Dakota as well.
The use of legislation to mobilize mass support against an imagined enemy is as old as ancient Greece and Rome, but it never ceases to have effect. Since the 1920s in the US, there has been a movement that drags out fear of a vast homosexual conspiracy whenever progress looms on the horizon. The worldview of this movement sees plots among some elite and fabricates shaky explanations to support their sometimes deadly scapegoating of sexual minorities.
Wisconsin’s own Senator Joseph McCarthy is a great example of this phenomenon. We tend to focus on his treatment of supposed members of the Communist Party and the red scare, but he was no less fond of dragging out accusations of homosexuality among his enemies. Even today, our accounts of this period of history tend to focus on the damaged careers of stage and film actors or poets who were purported communists.
But this limited view of history fails to consider the devastating effects on society, political discourse, and public safety then and now fostered by McCarthy’s right-wing, irrational extremism that targeted gay men. It is not surprising that it was Ronald Reagan, who operated as a sort of Hollywood FBI to root out supposed communists from the Screen Actors Guild, who would a few decades later fiddle as AIDS was devastating gay men in the US and elsewhere.
The recent actions in state legislatures which seek to prevent long-overdue civil rights ordinances in local municipalities may to some seem like politics as usual. But they are not. Similarly, the proliferation of bills that require additional identification to vote may to some seem like reasonable acts to secure our principle of one person, one vote. But they are not. These laws seek to limit human rights rather than advance them. They seek to limit our votes, not secure them.
These actions are not politics as usual. They do not seek to improve our lives or secure our futures. These actions are failures of democracy which deny rights, thus making our universal human rights increasingly privileges held by few. These actions are failures of democracy which disenfranchise those in greatest need.