Change in South Korea

In a major political shift in South Korea, the ruling Saenuri party lost its 16-year majority in the national assembly. Most of my young Korean friends, as well as my friends in the academe, will likely be pleased.

The Saenuri party was trounced in Seoul and in Gyeonggi, the province that has the capital at its center. That’s an expected result; the conservative party finds its greatest support in the Southeast, around Busan. Even there, though, the ruling party lost seats.

More unusual is the emergence of Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party as a major third party on the left, picking up a significant number of seats in the traditional liberal strongholds of Gwangju and Jeolla Province. Ahn is a former member of the Minjoo Party, South Korea’s main liberal party, but what he stands for now is unclear, other than that he stands for change; he seems to have picked up quite a few votes from disaffected conservatives as well as liberals. In any case, it’s interesting to me that the country’s Southwest — home to political activist-turned-president Kim Dae Jung and the scene of the Gwangju  Uprising, which ended in a massacre of students that was the beginning of the end of South Korea’s long era of military dictatorships — has once again turned out to be a political spoiler and a driver of change.

I’m glad to see that Park Geun-hye’s increasing authoritarianism, pervasive corruption, and general ineffectuality have been repudiated. It will be interesting to see what develops politically in the next year, leading up to the presidential election. Ahn has much of his support among the youth, and I would like to see their concerns addressed: high youth unemployment, slowing economic growth, and a culture of corruption and overwork. The country is also in dire need of education reform and more spending on social welfare, particularly for the elderly.

Ahn might also have an opportunity to break the left’s old allegiance to an outdated notion of inter-Korean politics. For decades, the rightist governments and dictatorships in South Korea used the North Korean threat as a cudgel in domestic politics, creating an exaggerated sense on the left that the North Korean threat was only a political tool of rightist oppression. It is not. While it was legitimate in the late nineties to attempt a new path through the Sunshine Policy, Pyongyang’s actions over subsequent decades have made it clear that North Korea was never negotiating in good faith, and the South Korean left should not be naive about the North’s human rights abuses and belligerence.

Beyond that, perhaps Ahn has a chance to forge a new politics that is less dependent on chaebol support and its attendant corruption, and more focused on developing new and independent businesses in South Korea. We shall see. He’s a bit of a blank slate, letting everyone (including me) project his or her fantasies onto him. He’ll need to stand for something now, as he’ll be a major player in the next Assembly session.

 

Don’t Visit North Korea

Vientiane, Laos

Yes, it’s possible to visit North Korea. No, you shouldn’t do it.

As the horrifying case of Otto Warmbier unfolds, it’s clear that North Korea is interested in taking American hostages. Warmbier has been sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster in his hotel room.

It’s unclear whether Warmbier will ever serve that sentence, but if he does, he will not be alone in the labor camps. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are there already, in the conditions that upset us so much when we consider an American being sent there, and often for reasons as stupid and paltry.

Visits to North Korea are not really visits to North Korea. They’re visits to a performance of North Korea, staged by the government. Your money for your visit goes to the government. It sustains the same government that is destroying Otto Warmbier’s life without remorse as part of its power games. The same government that holds out the promise of family reunions, only to withdraw at the last moment, toying with the hearts of its own citizens. The same government that has kidnapped teenagers from Japanese beaches. The same government that the UN found has committed human rights abuses “without parallel in the contemporary world.”

If you have a real reason to go to North Korea, like the volunteers at Choson Exchange, then go. Otherwise, don’t.

I realize that by posting this, I am disqualifying myself from going to North Korea. I shouldn’t go. You shouldn’t either. It’s not safe, and it’s not right to support the regime. We are only pawns in their game.

Trekking Beyond Pai

Pai, Thailand

You learn a great deal when you spend a day and a night with the local people, even when it’s structured and touristic. All the better if you remember that you’re seeing one small corner of a much larger society, presented through one or two viewpoints; the perspective is less sociological than anthropological, which is to say novelistic and personal.

I went on a one-day, one-night trek with Pai Adventure, the same outfit that took me rafting, and with Paul, the same guide who steered our boat. Along the way, I learned about this part of Thailand, where the land of the Tai ethnic group butts against the Shan and Karen peoples in the Burmese borderlands, and what Paul thinks of it.

Into the farms

We began with a drive up past Hong Nam Saen, Pai’s bigger brother out on the main road, until we veered off, down a dirt road, and began our walk into the hills. Along with our guide, Paul, there were five of us: Tammie, a 52-year-old Aussie train driver and florist who has been to 71 countries; Liu, a young Japanese Ph.D. student in biochemistry; and a young French couple, Gaelle and Julian. Gaelle studied cultural management, which strikes me as a very French thing to study; Julian is a pilot, just beginning his career with a small Swiss airline. Julian was also rather ill as we began our trek, and I worried how things might go if his upset stomach worsened into something acute.

The first half of the day was spent mostly in farmland that has been carved out of the surrounding mountain jungle: fields of peanuts, red bean, and especially corn. As we walked, paul explained the economics of each crop — the price per kilo, the kilos a field could produce, how long a farmer had to work to grow that much — and came up with hourly rates that did not make farming seem like a good proposition. We calculated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of no one living on less than a dollar a day was being met by farmers who were earning something like B150 ($4.50 or so), but Paul also explained that when he worked on farms in his younger years, his B30 would buy him enough for a great heap of food at the market and a tuk-tuk home, while now just the tuk-tuk is B20. It makes sense that prices would be rising in a country that has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, and also that the rural farmers would bear the brunt of it.

Added to their burden is the corn situation. According to Paul, the government encouraged people to clear the jungle and plant corn, which the government promised to buy at a subsidized rate. You could hear the trees falling “like elephant crashing, boom! boom! boom!” Paul told us, waving his hands in every direction. The trouble began when the subsidies ran out. The corn variety the farmers grow is for animal feed, not human consumption, and whether it’s GMO or not I’m not sure, but it’s one of those types where you have to buy the seeds again each year. Without the government coming in to buy the stuff at fixed prices, Paul estimated that the farmers struggle to net more than B50,000 (about $1400) in a year on a plot of land that takes three people to work. The seeds, the weed killing chemicals, and even gasoline to ride motorbikes back and forth to the farm every day, cut into the profits. (All day we saw farmers putting by on motorbikes, up and down the rutted dirt trails, going empty into the hills and coming down with sacks of crops.)

We climbed up a long way into the hills, then stopped for a break in a small village where there was a shop run by an old Shan couple. The old woman served us coffee — hot water and Nescafe, which I hope is less disastrous than the “Mexican coffee” that did in my brother and me some years back — while the old man sat and sipped his can of Chang beer, setting it down beside two empties. It was 11:30 am.

A short while later, we stopped for lunch at a shelter in a cornfield. Paul pulled out plastic bags of rice and chicken curry, and we all tucked in, except Julian, who had just managed to keep down a few swallows of the warm Coke he’d bought back in the village. Paul topped it off with some bananas he’d cut from a farmer’s tree along the way, and then we all napped for a while to the buzzing of flies and the rustle of corn leaves.

Into the forest

The second half of the hike took us into wilder territory, off of the farmers’ motorbike paths and into dense forest with great stands of bamboo. As soon as we entered, the air was cooler, wetter, and still. Paul warned us to put on our bug spray: bamboo, he said, means mosquitoes. He also cut a leafy branch and began swatting it in front of his face as he led us, to knock away spider webs. I found out why when I took the lead a bit later — Paul made a pit stop — and walked into a couple of webs before attempting to make my own spider swatter.

We went up and down and up again through the forest, past spectacular karst mountains that we had seen at a distance at the beginning of the day and suspected Paul was joking about when he said we’d be walking to them. According to Paul, we started at 400 meters and topped out at around 1800.

Along the way, at one of our breaks, Paul told us a story. At the beginning of the world, the Buddha came to all the different peoples to give them languages and alphabets. But at the end, he ran out, and there were two countries left, Burma and China. So Burma looked around, saw a horse walking by, and decided to make the tracks into its alphabet. And China saw a chicken scratching the ground, and that became the Chinese characters.

The climax of the long walk up was a soaring view of a vast cave across the canyon, a giant gaping mouth in the mountain where Paul told us he has led rappelling expeditions. After the cave, we began a descent that took us back into farmland, past banana groves and down to the Shan village where we spent the night. On the way down, in what felt like safer territory than the forest, Paul almost stepped on a cobra that was hissing at him, head reared, but I didn’t see it. He said it set his heart pounding.

Into the village

Lukhaolam, which means “bottom of the mountain,” sits in a bowl of karst ridges and peaks. It’s full of chickens, dogs, old people, and children — we walked around, handed out some candies, played soccer with some local kids — but few young adults, most of whom have headed for the cities for jobs that pay better than farming. I was reminded of the village setting where Laurel Kendall did her research in Korea in the 1970s: it was rural and shamanist, yes, but with electricity and televisions, not far from a road, and tied to the expanding Thai economy and the wider world.

Paul might have followed the others into the cities, but I suspect he has a conservative streak that keeps him tied to his homeland. He spoke wistfully of how the Shan used to have their own state, and he claimed to prefer his own village because it doesn’t have electricity, and he said that unlike a lot of local people, who supported Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt faction in the recent conflicts in Thailand, he supports the military government and its campaigns to root out drugs and addicts, sometimes by breaking into people’s homes and shooting them even though they don’t actually have any drugs — and this from a guy who also used to smoke meth when he was younger. He also showed me scars all over his legs, shrapnel wounds from a bomb that exploded when he was in the army, fighting off Burmese at the border in what he called the “quiet war” that has gone on for decades in the region: the Burmese army runs drugs, while the Thai army tries to put a stop to it. And he complained that Thai people sit around waiting for the government to help them, when really they should do something for themselves. In assessing his perspective, I imagined what his equivalent might be in the United States, and came up with a part-Navajo wilderness guide: someone with a minority tribe’s distrust of the central government and the disposition to maintain old ways and live on the land.

Paul, who is in his late thirties but looks much younger, told me a lot about himself, especially after he’d cooked dinner and had a few drinks, and after the other tourists had gone off to bed. Paul has two daughters and a girlfriend who is their mother. He used to run around with women a lot, especially the exotic tourists he had access to, but for the past seven years he’s been faithful. He told a story about the time he ended up in jail for the weekend because of a bar brawl that broke out between northerners and southerners over some German girls the former had brought in, and said he was glad he hadn’t brought his gun or his knife or his brass knuckles. He also explained that he’s a kind of village chief in his hometown, so he gets called in for every sort of problem: pythons in the house, domestic disputes (caused by “no fucking, no cooking, whatever”), or anything else that comes up. In fact, when we found him the next morning, we learned that Paul had only slept a couple of hours when the men of the town woke him up to lead a hunting expedition for some sort of big cat they’d seen. Paul was sneaking up on the animal and asked the others to hold back, but someone fired a rifle over his head, wounding the animal but not killing it, and it got away.

We stayed with a family that regularly hosts trekkers, getting paid for their hospitality. The household consisted of some old men, an old woman, and a five-year-old girl whose parents have gone to Chiang Mai for work. We sat on the bamboo floor of the kitchen — the bamboo stays cool even when the teak walls don’t — and ate chicken curry and fried vegetables over mountain rice. Above the doors were abstract woven wicker talismans and drawings put into plastic sleeves, provided by the village shaman for protection. Paul, who is half-Shan, half-Chinese, is Buddhist, as is his Burmese girlfriend, but this village was shamanist. Such villages, he explained, have both a secular chief and a shaman, usually an old man who is good with the spirits. As far as I could gather, the role is not hereditary, and like Korean shamanism, it includes spirit possession and expensive rituals: sometimes a family has to sacrifice six or seven pigs to feed the surrounding villages, spending several years’ wages, to bring good luck. I asked whether shamans undergo spirit sickness before they become religious figures, but Paul didn’t know.

We were all in bed by 9 pm, though the village continued to buzz with conversation and the barking of dogs for an hour or so after that. I made do with earplugs as I lay on my mat under the mosquito net, but by midnight or so, there was little sound but the chirping of insects. Around 3 am the roosters started up, and by five the village was coming back to life, though I slept through it until about seven. I came out to find Tam drinking coffee; she’d already gone into the village and joined in a community cleanup, pulling thistles with her bare hands and signing the register of participants. We were alone in the kitchen for a while, heating the water again over the fire, and then I stood out on the deck and watched the mist rise off the ridges as the sun crept in. (Later Paul explained that the raised houses let you hang things underneath, and also keep the pythons out.) Gradually the others emerged, Julian last, much better for a night of sleep. Paul fried us some eggs for breakfast, served alongside fresh-cut onions and tomatoes and toast he’d done on a grill. then it was time to pack up and go. Most of the others were going rafting today, but I’d already done it, and Gaelle doesn’t like that sort of thing, so the two of us waited in the middle of nowhere, by two little shops on either side of the highway, for the minivan that would take us back to Pai.

Convergences

Ayutthaya, Thailand

I’ve arrived at Tony’s Place Bed and Breakfast in Ayutthaya, charming guesthouse in a sprawling house full of teakwood touches and Thai decor. I suppose it might have been trickier to get here had not one of my new Thai friends messaged me this morning to ask if I needed a ride to Victory Monument, where the vans for Ayutthaya depart, and then decided as we were driving that we might as well go all the way to Ayutthaya together and have dinner. I’d originally booked just two nights here, but it took me all of an hour to decide to add two more. Already I feel worlds away from the jittery madness of Bangkok and Sukhumvit. This feels like a vacation.

UN connections

In other news, I had lunch today with Heike Alefsen, Senior Regional Human Rights Adviser, United Nations Development Group Asia-Pacific Secretariat, whom I met at the Halloween party at my hotel in Bangkok. It turns out Heike once worked under Kang Kyung-wha, an extraordinary woman who stood out as one of the most impressive and formidable of the many excellent diplomats I worked with at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. I love these kinds of surprising convergences! Lunch was a delight, and I learned a great deal about Thailand and the region.

(We ate at a fancy buffet in Sukhumvit called Crave. There was dragonfruit.)

Donald Trump’s Drag Race for President

Usually it’s tacky to focus on a candidate’s appearance. To talk about what women candidates are wearing instead of what they’re saying is demeaning and sexist. To focus on how a candidate looks is to ignore the substance of that person’s candidacy.

Except that Donald Trump’s hair is his candidacy for president. It is a transparently artificial creation that is apparently meant to project a kind of authentic virility, and the excitement comes not from believing in the hair, but from believing in the chutzpah of a man who would go out there under that hair and dare you not to believe in it. It’s the thrill of drag, which is not the thrill of being fooled, but the thrill of exaggeration and shared make-believe. Trump is running a drag candidacy, dressing up in an oversize president costume and making broad gestures to rile up a crowd that will call him “Mr. President” the way you call a fat 6’4″ man in heels “Lady Boom Boom.”

To insist on debating Trump on substance, and to mean by that his ideas, is to miss the substance of his campaign. It’s like debating fascism on the merits while ignoring the aesthetics. Without the torches and the arm bands, the whole thing falls apart. Without the hair and the TV bluster, Trump isn’t anything. No one on the right would care what Sarah Palin was saying either if she looked like Bernie Sanders.

It is worth remembering that this is not an election year. There is nary a caucus in 2015. Donald Trump can command a small plurality in polls of self-identified Republicans who are responding to presidential polls in a non-election year, but that’s about it. He’s riling up the people who in other years went around cheering David Duke or Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot. (We may well end up with a regular election in which Clinton beats Bush with a plurality and an independent nutjob with a Mexico obsession steals votes mostly from the right while America simmers with racial tension, so get out your flannel shirts and your Singles soundtrack.)

Trump’s never going to be president and he knows it, but what he does for a living is bluster, and he’s good at it. And since there’s not actually an election of any kind happening at the moment, the press is happy to focus on a guy who knows how to make noise and get ratings. (No, not you, Bernie Sanders!)

And the hair? The hair is part of the bluster. It’s a taunt, a joke, a wink and a nod, a dare. It is part and parcel of what Trump has on offer, and making fun of it is fair game.

Donald Trump’s Drag Race for President

Usually it’s tacky to focus on a candidate’s appearance. To talk about what women candidates are wearing instead of what they’re saying is demeaning and sexist. To focus on how a candidate looks is to ignore the substance of that person’s candidacy.

Except that Donald Trump’s hair is his candidacy for president. It is a transparently artificial creation that is apparently meant to project a kind of authentic virility, and the excitement comes not from believing in the hair, but from believing in the chutzpah of a man who would go out there under that hair and dare you not to believe in it. It’s the thrill of drag, which is not the thrill of being fooled, but the thrill of exaggeration and shared make-believe. Trump is running a drag candidacy, dressing up in an oversize president costume and making broad gestures to rile up a crowd that will call him “Mr. President” the way you call a fat 6’4″ man in heels “Lady Boom Boom.”

To insist on debating Trump on substance, and to mean by that his ideas, is to miss the substance of his campaign. It’s like debating fascism on the merits while ignoring the aesthetics. Without the torches and the arm bands, the whole thing falls apart. Without the hair and the TV bluster, Trump isn’t anything. No one on the right would care what Sarah Palin was saying either if she looked like Bernie Sanders.

It is worth remembering that this is not an election year. There is nary a caucus in 2015. Donald Trump can command a small plurality in polls of self-identified Republicans who are responding to presidential polls in a non-election year, but that’s about it. He’s riling up the people who in other years went around cheering David Duke or Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot. (We may well end up with a regular election in which Clinton beats Bush with a plurality and an independent nutjob with a Mexico obsession steals votes mostly from the right while America simmers with racial tension, so get out your flannel shirts and your Singles soundtrack.)

Trump’s never going to be president and he knows it, but what he does for a living is bluster, and he’s good at it. And since there’s not actually an election of any kind happening at the moment, the press is happy to focus on a guy who knows how to make noise and get ratings. (No, not you, Bernie Sanders!)

And the hair? The hair is part of the bluster. It’s a taunt, a joke, a wink and a nod, a dare. It is part and parcel of what Trump has on offer, and making fun of it is fair game.

Yes, you can celebrate marriage equality even if you’re a radical progressive

I’m starting to see the backlash rolling in on Facebook — not from the right, but from the left. There are voices within the queer community and among its allies who have found reasons to be sad about the Supreme Court decision that has made gender a non-issue in marriage law.

Choosing your battles

The first critique, and the easier one to dismiss, is that this was the wrong battle. Why are we fighting for marriage equality, and celebrating its spread, when we still lack anti-discrimination laws and other basic protections?

The answer is simple: marriage equality has been an astonishingly effective platform for changing attitudes about being gay. Just as the civil rights movement of the 1950s chose issues that had broad appeal — letting young black men eat lunch at Woolworth’s, or letting an old black woman sit down at the front of a bus — the gay rights movement took on an issue that would humanize gay people to the broader public. Were lunching and bus-sitting rights the biggest problems facing black people in the age of lynchings? Not hardly. But they were effective in making it clear that black people deserved dignity and rights, and that those rights needed the protection of the law.

Did you see that rainbow White House? Did you notice the Supreme Court talking about the dignity of gay couples? If you somehow think that will have no impact on the ongoing struggle for anti-discrimination protections and the like, you’re nuts. The marriage equality movement has brought about a sea change in attitudes about homosexuality in America, to the extent that 27 percent of evangelical Christians now believe in same-sex marriage. And when you believe in the rights of two people to marry, you start to follow that logic a little bit and see that it’s probably not OK that they can then be fired for having gotten married.

So yeah, you can celebrate this victory without thinking it’s the last civil rights issue that will ever need work.

Wholesome versus Folsom

The second critique, and the more trenchant one, is that marriage itself perpetuates a whole bunch of heteronormative, oppressive thinking about how society is structured, how relationships ought to be, what’s acceptable and what’s not. This is what I call the “wholesome versus Folsom” debate, between those who want to assimilate and those who want to radicalize.

Marriage equality is a victory for the assimilationists, that’s for sure. And I’m kind of not one. I would like to see a discussion of sexuality and relationships that doesn’t imagine binary life-pairings as the one true goal. And that’s why I originally favored a shift to civil unions for all, taking the government out of the marriage business completely.

But I came around when I realized a couple of important things.

First, there was no way that American governments were going to stop sanctioning marriage licenses and switch to civil unions — no way that states would begin informing their citizens that their longstanding marriages are null and void, or even just recast as something else. Marriage as a legal institution is not going away. You might want it to, but that’s a very long fight for another day, and not one I would want to pin to the gay rights movement. And as long as governments are in the business of ratifying marriages, they ought to be ratifying same-sex marriages.

Second — and this is the really important one — gay rights can’t wait for a radically progressive America.

If it feels like the gay rights movement has been getting less and less radical over the years, that might be because people further and further in from the radical fringe are willing to come out as queer and to be part of a political movement for rights. Pride parades that used to be radical displays of countercultural expression are now bland strings of corporate floats pumping out mainstream pop.

That means we’re winning.

When you become a big-tent movement, it means that the radical voices tend to get drowned out by the mainstream voices. It can mean that the people who always get marginalized — the poor, people of color, women — end up getting marginalized again, within a movement that’s supposed to be helping them. The people with money and power tend to take over. And that sucks.

But there’s also something else that happens, and it’s more legitimate, which is that the movement becomes more democratic, more representative of the spectrum of views in the society within which it’s working. Where before the movement for gay rights attracted a radical few who were willing to rally to the cause, now it attracts people who aren’t especially political, who might just care about this issue for limited selfish reasons, who don’t care to see America remade as less capitalist or less focused on the nuclear family.

Marriage equality is a huge victory for LBGTQ people, but it is not a victory for radicalism. It’s a mainstream, middle-of-the-road sort of victory, in which queer folk become boringly more like everyone else who isn’t a radical.

Which let’s think about that for a minute. Gay people. Mainstream. Middle of the road. How could that even be a thing?

Oh, right. The marriage equality movement.

And that’s why I’m celebrating, and you can too, the way black people (and everyone else) can celebrate Juneteenth without betraying the ongoing struggle for liberty and rights.

Yes, you can celebrate marriage equality even if you’re a radical progressive

I’m starting to see the backlash rolling in on Facebook — not from the right, but from the left. There are voices within the queer community and among its allies who have found reasons to be sad about the Supreme Court decision that has made gender a non-issue in marriage law.

Choosing your battles

The first critique, and the easier one to dismiss, is that this was the wrong battle. Why are we fighting for marriage equality, and celebrating its spread, when we still lack anti-discrimination laws and other basic protections?

The answer is simple: marriage equality has been an astonishingly effective platform for changing attitudes about being gay. Just as the civil rights movement of the 1950s chose issues that had broad appeal — letting young black men eat lunch at Woolworth’s, or letting an old black woman sit down at the front of a bus — the gay rights movement took on an issue that would humanize gay people to the broader public. Were lunching and bus-sitting rights the biggest problems facing black people in the age of lynchings? Not hardly. But they were effective in making it clear that black people deserved dignity and rights, and that those rights needed the protection of the law.

Did you see that rainbow White House? Did you notice the Supreme Court talking about the dignity of gay couples? If you somehow think that will have no impact on the ongoing struggle for anti-discrimination protections and the like, you’re nuts. The marriage equality movement has brought about a sea change in attitudes about homosexuality in America, to the extent that 27 percent of evangelical Christians now believe in same-sex marriage. And when you believe in the rights of two people to marry, you start to follow that logic a little bit and see that it’s probably not OK that they can then be fired for having gotten married.

So yeah, you can celebrate this victory without thinking it’s the last civil rights issue that will ever need work.

Wholesome versus Folsom

The second critique, and the more trenchant one, is that marriage itself perpetuates a whole bunch of heteronormative, oppressive thinking about how society is structured, how relationships ought to be, what’s acceptable and what’s not. This is what I call the “wholesome versus Folsom” debate, between those who want to assimilate and those who want to radicalize.

Marriage equality is a victory for the assimilationists, that’s for sure. And I’m kind of not one. I would like to see a discussion of sexuality and relationships that doesn’t imagine binary life-pairings as the one true goal. And that’s why I originally favored a shift to civil unions for all, taking the government out of the marriage business completely.

But I came around when I realized a couple of important things.

First, there was no way that American governments were going to stop sanctioning marriage licenses and switch to civil unions — no way that states would begin informing their citizens that their longstanding marriages are null and void, or even just recast as something else. Marriage as a legal institution is not going away. You might want it to, but that’s a very long fight for another day, and not one I would want to pin to the gay rights movement. And as long as governments are in the business of ratifying marriages, they ought to be ratifying same-sex marriages.

Second — and this is the really important one — gay rights can’t wait for a radically progressive America.

If it feels like the gay rights movement has been getting less and less radical over the years, that might be because people further and further in from the radical fringe are willing to come out as queer and to be part of a political movement for rights. Pride parades that used to be radical displays of countercultural expression are now bland strings of corporate floats pumping out mainstream pop.

That means we’re winning.

When you become a big-tent movement, it means that the radical voices tend to get drowned out by the mainstream voices. It can mean that the people who always get marginalized — the poor, people of color, women — end up getting marginalized again, within a movement that’s supposed to be helping them. The people with money and power tend to take over. And that sucks.

But there’s also something else that happens, and it’s more legitimate, which is that the movement becomes more democratic, more representative of the spectrum of views in the society within which it’s working. Where before the movement for gay rights attracted a radical few who were willing to rally to the cause, now it attracts people who aren’t especially political, who might just care about this issue for limited selfish reasons, who don’t care to see America remade as less capitalist or less focused on the nuclear family.

Marriage equality is a huge victory for LBGTQ people, but it is not a victory for radicalism. It’s a mainstream, middle-of-the-road sort of victory, in which queer folk become boringly more like everyone else who isn’t a radical.

Which let’s think about that for a minute. Gay people. Mainstream. Middle of the road. How could that even be a thing?

Oh, right. The marriage equality movement.

And that’s why I’m celebrating, and you can too, the way black people (and everyone else) can celebrate Juneteenth without betraying the ongoing struggle for liberty and rights.

Wrongful acquittal

What would happen if a prosecutor announced that he was setting a bunch of murderers and rapists free, pretty much at random? He or she would be pilloried.

But in practice, that’s what happens every time someone is wrongly convicted of a violent crime.

Forensic fakes

We’ve known for some time that there are serious flaws with the forensics system. DNA evidence, where available, has turned over convictions. Now a horrifying Washington Post report reveals further systemic abuse: “of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” These include 32 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death, of whom 14 have been executed or died in prison.

In other words, forensic “experts” lie. And almost always on the side of the prosecution.

Setting murderers and rapists free

The discussion of these cases almost always focuses on the people who have been wrongly convicted. And it should: these are lives destroyed by criminal justice system, and in many cases we still have the opportunity to set these people free, if not undo the damage.

What rarely gets a mention, though, is the hundreds of violent criminals — murderers, rapists, arsonists — who’ve been set free by this flawed system. For every person rotting in jail on a wrongful conviction, there’s a criminal who got away with it.

It’s true that some of these criminals end up in prison for other things they do wrong, but that’s cold comfort. In some cases, they’re in prison for violent crimes they committed after the crimes they got away with.

Protecting public safety

It’s hard to get traction for overturning false convictions. Prisoners are powerless by design, and they’re often unsympathetic characters, which is part of how they ended up convicted in the first place.

Instead, it might make sense to frame the issue as a matter of public safety. Even for old convictions, it’s worrying that murderers, rapists, arsonists, and other violent criminals are still lurking — or might be. These may be cold cases, but they’re cases nonetheless. Predators are unaccounted for. How can that be okay?

I am not arguing for increasing our prison population or for treating violent criminals more harshly. Indeed, I think we need to refocus our justice system on rehabilitation because prisoners are mostly going to rejoin the world sooner or later.

But I am arguing that we should find and prosecute violent criminals, not ignore them because we’ve already convicted someone else. Overturning false convictions and setting people free is a matter of public safety because it will allow the system to pursue those who did commit terrible crimes.

There shouldn’t be a statute of limitations on murder — even if someone else has already been wrongly convicted of the crime.

Money for love

McDonald’s wanted you to demonstrate love in order to receive food. Coke fantasized that it could overcome hate through a Coke-based industrial accident. And now Dove is telling women to shut up already about their bodies (through a Twitter campaign that replies to women’s negative posts about their bodies with messages that are supposed to be empowering or positive).

These campaigns are part of an ugly trend in advertising. It’s troubling is when brands want to be my leader, my friend, my moral compass.That’s not OK. I would like to be able to drink a cup of tea without receiving an exhortation, for example.

Brands, corporations, and people

We all know that giant corporations like Facebook and Google (yes, the hand that feeds me) have more information than they ever did about our daily habits, thoughts, desires, interactions. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, just how much you could gather from my mobile phone data, Google searches, and Facebook feed. And we all know that these giant corporations sell that data to advertisers and marketers. And I’m actually pretty OK with all that: advertising has been a part of my world for my entire life, and I’d rather see ads that are relevant to me than just random garbage scattered across the televisual landscape. Done right, advertising can actually be useful, like an airline recognizing that I’m searching for flights to a particular city and deciding to give me a discount to entice me to go with them. They win, I win. It’s fine.

Brands are owned by corporations, and corporations are organizations designed to make profits, not to improve your moral worth. As such, they lack the disinterested moral authority of clergy (pledged to a religious responsibility), therapists (licensed and beholden to professional ethics), or friends and family (people we’ve decided for our own reasons to trust). Moral exhortations from corporations are a confidence game.

Now it’s worth remembering that, as Mitt Romney had it, corporations are people, or at least made out of people (like Soylent Green). Marketing campaigns do not create themselves. Corporate leaders can and often do desire to do good in a broader sense than simply making profits. That kind of leadership is good and should be encouraged. Companies that provide great service or go green or treat their employees well deserve accolades.

Do as I say, not as I sell

But as with people, there’s a difference between companies that do good and companies that talk about doing good. Dove is the latter. So is McDonald’s. That’s what rankles, the way it would rankle to have some rich guy fly in on a private jet, ride his souped-up Harley over to your shitty little house, and remind you how important it is to be humble and leave only footprints.

To a great extent, these campaigns have consisted of corporations wrong-footing themselves in a complicated Internet landscape that they don’t quite know how to handle. Because we have the Internet, we can talk back, and people are doing just that. I suspect that the current trend of earnest moral exhortation as brand message will not last — not if it keeps pissing people off.