Donald Trump’s Drag Race for President

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

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

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

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

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.

Money for love

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.

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Recently I wrote about the troubling case of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who admitted to giving inaccurate accounts of his life in North Korea.

Now defector and advocate Hyeonseo Lee has written about Shin in the New York Times. With eloquence and far more personal, direct insight than I could ever provide, she’s made some of the same points I wanted to get across. Here’s the heart of it:

This unfolding saga is troubling to me and to other defectors who tell the truth about the horrors of life in the North. The furor over Mr. Shin’s confession is really a sideshow, a distraction from the larger issue: Pyongyang’s continuous abuse of human rights.

Mr. Shin has been examined by doctors who believe he was subjected to torture and child labor, given the evidence of his scars and unnaturally bowed arms. We shouldn’t lose sight of that when discussing his lies.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Shin was tempted to obscure the truth. For defectors, sometimes doing so is the only way to survive.

Beyond that, she talks about the hardships and challenges North Koreans face when they arrive in South Korea, and the need to give them with greater support, which organizations like Liberty in North Korea work to provide.

There are many reasons North Korean defectors lie, as Lee notes. But at its heart, the issue remains the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses, not the personal foibles and mistakes of some of its victims.

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Ms. Lee on Mr. Shin

Recently I wrote about the troubling case of North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who admitted to giving inaccurate accounts of his life in North Korea.

Now defector and advocate Hyeonseo Lee has written about Shin in the New York Times. With eloquence and far more personal, direct insight than I could ever provide, she’s made some of the same points I wanted to get across. Here’s the heart of it:

This unfolding saga is troubling to me and to other defectors who tell the truth about the horrors of life in the North. The furor over Mr. Shin’s confession is really a sideshow, a distraction from the larger issue: Pyongyang’s continuous abuse of human rights.

Mr. Shin has been examined by doctors who believe he was subjected to torture and child labor, given the evidence of his scars and unnaturally bowed arms. We shouldn’t lose sight of that when discussing his lies.

It’s easy to see how Mr. Shin was tempted to obscure the truth. For defectors, sometimes doing so is the only way to survive.

Beyond that, she talks about the hardships and challenges North Koreans face when they arrive in South Korea, and the need to give them with greater support, which organizations like Liberty in North Korea work to provide.

There are many reasons North Korean defectors lie, as Lee notes. But at its heart, the issue remains the North Korean regime and its human rights abuses, not the personal foibles and mistakes of some of its victims.

The price of a chat

The price of a chat

When Obama came to power, he made clear that he was willing to sit down and talk with the leadership of pretty much any country, including several that we have long considered enemies and threats. It’s a good principle. Conflict is expensive and talk is cheap. What harm could there be in at least keeping the lines of discussion open?

Except that talk is not always cheap. When South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with Kim Jong-il in 2000, the price South Korea paid for the privilege was $500 million. Further meetings have come with escalating costs. North Korea tried to get $10 billion in cash plus aid from President Lee Myung-bak in exchange for a meeting.

There’s a tendency on the South Korean left to see the conflict with North Korea as perpetuated by the South Korean right and the United States. If only the United States and South Korea would talk to North Korean leaders directly, instead of threatening them with isolation and sanctions and military might, the thinking goes, we could achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.

This line of thinking made a certain amount of sense in the 1990s, during the Sunshine Policy era. The world’s communist regimes were either collapsing or transforming. The cold war was over. South Korea too was undergoing a profound political shift, from right-wing military dictatorship to left-wing democracy. President Kim Dae-jung was right to try a new approach to an old and serious problem.

It didn’t work.

The North Korean regime, it turned out, was pocketing the money it got from summits while continuing with unacceptable behavior, particularly its nuclear program. The regime has kept itself alive however it can, playing regional powers against each other, dealing in meth and missile parts, oppressing its citizens.

So when North Korea begins to talk about talking, we should look carefully to see whether they’re arriving hat in hand. Are they looking for a dialogue, or are they just looking for a handout? Considering how little has been gained from past talks with North Korea, neither South Korea nor the United States should buy what Pyongyang is selling. Let Pyongyang deliver some sample goods first — a constructive conversation of any sort at all, really — before South Korea spends more money on empty words.