George W. Bush is not a friend to democracy.

Dear Joel,

Donald Trump is a real gift to George W. Bush’s legacy, and the 43rd president seems to really be making the most of his moment. Next to Trump, of course, Bush is a poet, philosopher, statesman, and successful business leader. So, a few reminders, for those readers who might be too young to remember the thwarting of democracy that was necessary for his election, the pointless, costly, brutal, and illegal invasion of Iraq, the assault on civil liberties, or the economic ruin of GWB’s tax cuts:

Above, George W. Bush dresses as Santa, with members of the Secret Service dressed as elves, in order to hand out toys at a children’s hospital in Dallas. His tax cuts fueled economic inequality, handed significantly more money to the already-wealthy, and jacked up the deficit for years. The percent of Americans living in poverty increased under his tenure. Like Reagan before him and Trump after him, he sought ways to put more money into the pockets of the people who already had the most. 


Above, Bush receives a hug from former First Lady Michelle Obama. The two remain friends, despite the fact that Bush’s 2000 presidential primary campaign used fears of interracial sex in a smear campaign against his opponent John McCain. In South Carolina, Bush’s team suggested McCain had had a biracial child. In fact, McCain had adopted a child from Bangladesh, and racists in the Republican party saw her as evidence for the Bush campaign’s claims. Like all Republicans since Nixon, Bush could not have won a presidential campaign without appeals to racism. 


Above, George W. Bush paints portraits of those who have served in the Armed Forces since 9/11.  To date, approximately 7,000 members of the Armed Forces have died in the global War on Terror. If Bush painted one of their pictures every day, he’d have to live be 90 years old to paint them all. 

It is not insightful or noble or brave or courageous for Bush to now criticize Trump. He should have spoken up during the campaign. He should have worked to reduce presidential power so that a future power-hungry white nationalist wouldn’t have had the opportunities that Trump is now using. Bush gave us the template for violating the civil rights of non-citizens. He gave us the structure for spying on people more effectively. He gave us unending warfare and the executive order to bring retired military officers back to the military–an order that Trump has ramped up forty fold. Bush gave the model for tax cuts that hurt the poor to profit the rich. Some of us will never, ever recover from them. His very election sent the message that family status and power–not talent or competency–is what wins elections. Without Bush, we would not have Trump.


PS. A bonus video for those who need a more explicit explanation of how to think about Bush’s effort to rehabilitate his legacy. 




More about the politics of Israel boycotts

Dear Rebecca:

I’m agnostic on the issue of Israel boycotts. The way Palestinians are treated is awful, and I have friends who have been touched by that awfulness. But on the other hand, the people who form much Israel’s citizenry were nearly made extinct in the not-too-distant past, and I understand – even if I don’t entirely like – that a determination to avoid such a fate might motivate policies we’d normally find undemocratic and inhumane. The whole thing’s a mess, and I’m suspicious of anybody who doesn’t see the issue as a moral thicket.

I’m somebody who is alarmed at anti-Semitism — who once, as a young full-of-himself journalist, scared the crap out of some small-town City Councilmen when I protested their using the word “Jew” as a verb — but also somebody exasperated when charges of anti-Semitism are used to shut down genuine criticism of Israel’s policies.

Finally, I’m a journalist who knows there’s no way to write about the topic without enduring serious complaints. One side, or both, will always accuse you of being unfair. As an outsider to the topic, there’s just no winning.

However: This kind of behavior by American officials must be stopped:

The city of Dickinson, Texas, is requiring applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify in writing that they will not take part in a boycott of Israel. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the city’s condition as a violation of free speech rights.

The city’s website says that it is accepting applications from individuals and businesses for grants from money donated for hurricane relief. The application says that by signing it, “the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”

I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic to note that conservative Americans — especially conservative Christians — can be philo-Semitic for entirely creepy reasons. I think the spate of “don’t boycott Israel” laws that have popped in recent years are a fruit of that creepiness as much as anything. But isn’t it odd that a country where freedom to criticize the government is a cardinal  value would crack down on criticizing another country’s government? It doesn’t really make sense.

The ACLU is challenging this issue, as it should. As the organization notes: “The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and other decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits.”

We’re living in weird times. Ugh.



Give me an R! Give me an A!

Dear Joel,

Some high school girls--some beautiful blonde-haired, white cheerleaders–in the public school district where I live here in Utah have made national news recently for posting a video of themselves chanting “F—- N—-” on Instagram. The school district has claimed to be “shocked,”–just shocked!–at the incident.

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Last year around this time, some lovely white women from Arkansas State University, where I teach, made the news for showing up to a sorority event dressed as cholas and wearing t-shirts that looked like a brick wall as part of a “Build The Wall” costume, referencing Donald Trump’s xenophobic plan to wall of Mexico.  Responding to the charge that her behavior was racist, student Samantha Overby demonstrated a frighteningly stupid, bratty interpretation of the First Amendment when she announced both that “I have the right to my opinion and the right to express those opinions publicly” and “I will not be criticized for my political opinion” in the same Tweet. A-State declined to comment on the matter.

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And last November, the University of Kansas saw a cheerleader post an image of three men from the spirit quad some in KU sweatshirts signaling support for the KKK in a pro-Trump Snapchat post.

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I’m starting to see a pattern:

I live among racists–whatever part of that country I live in.

Young white people are so entitled that they cannot envision that they will face backlash for being publicly racist.

I don’t know if racism is worse among the cheerleading/sorority sister types, but these three cases are a good reminder that poor rural whites aren’t our real problem. It’s middle class suburbanites. 




When “complicity” = “listen to women”

Content warning: violence in racist and sexualized contexts.

Dear Joel and Rebecca,

Last week Marshall, a movie about an early episode in Thurgood Marshall’s path towards the Supreme Court, arrived in theaters. His life brings general (white) awareness to many opportunities to rectify injustices.  I think it’s relevant to Joel’s responses to Hollywood’s big release the week before: the latest episode of “men in control of women’s lives do bad things to them” (Harvey Weinstein et al).


Above, Marshall, our first African American Supreme Court Justice, was the grandson of a slave. Prior to his appointment to the Court, he’d argued more than 32 cases there, including Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which recognized that “separate but equal” is “inherently unequal.” Of those 32 cases, he won 29. 

I am grateful for the sisterhood that finally ended Weinstein’s reign of terror. I am also grateful for the male actors who have talked about assaults that use sexualized behaviors to say to them “remember, I own you.” It’s not about sex, it’s about power over others’ bodies.

We talk about the problems of putting boundaries on sexual behavior and increased racist attacks, behaviors exemplified in national leadership. We are puzzled that the block of swing voters in the 2016 presidential election were people like me: white middle-upper class educated church-going women. We like to dream of a country not troubled by race questions, safe for all children. The release at this time of Marshall, which focuses on Thurgood Marshall’s defense of a black chauffer in Connecticut accused of raping and then trying to murder his wealthy white employer, gently reminds us that these are still interlocking problems. If we insist the starting point is the safety of (our) white women and children, we have not entered the beloved community. The communal danger of sexual assaults is not that they are sins of lust, but that they are life-denying sins of pride and power.

Is this easier to see in other issues? What complicates relief for victims of sexualized war crimes–people who live in communities where everyone is hungry? What complicates advocacy for women kept in domestic slavery–women mostly unable to access help because they don’t have legal residency status? What’s the biggest challenge to “pro-family” missions into U.S. and Canadian reserves and ghettos–places where neighboring areas value lives less than cattle or cars? If we prioritize talk about sex over talk about power and privilege, we mess up.

The loudest protests against non-heterosexual relationships seem to happen in the same circles that struggle to challenge heterosexual pedophiles. That’s not coincidence. It’s not about sex, it’s about keeping closed the circle of who holds power.

When our white daughters put in the work to hold colleges accountable to Title IX, they are sometimes told to note their relative privilege and not distract from racial equity efforts. This argument only lasts as long as you can believe that minority students are assaulted less often and need less help accessing protection. Wouldn’t privilege look more like our white daughters using their resources for themselves and ignoring the problems of those who have less access to power? It does get uncomfortable when our children start using their own analyses of power.

This is NOT an issue of compartmentalizing attacks on women.  Marshall starts with both men and women upholding the account of a woman’s assault. Thurgood Marshall is on the other side. I’m not spoiling any suspense by noting that it’s about a case of a black man unjustly accused by a white woman.

Above, Kate Hudson’s Eleanor Strubing takes the witness stand to accuse Joseph Spell, played by Sterling K. Brown, of assaulting her. 

This still happens, all the time. Yes. It’s another side of “the talk” many African American boys get as they attempt to maneuver our white supremacist culture. They can get lynched just as quickly for being accused of making a white woman uncomfortable as they can for “frightening” a cop. White discomfort triggers disproportionate violence, even when the complainant isn’t aware of the racist way it plays out.

I participated in racism when I didn’t challenge the priorities of my sisters in the church as they approached the ballot box: the violence of the regime closely follows their priorities. All the actions in D.C. that bother me have a common goal of clarifying power. Some are directed against women, some excuse whites or empower the wealthy. I can’t isolate women’s issues.

It’s not about protecting the women, folks. It’s about recognizing that naked power is the real danger to us all.


Deb Bergen is a child psychiatrist in West Virginia (where she listens to the survivors of the opioid epidemic and capitalist oppression), mom of 2 young adult children (who have taught her wiser ways of listening), wife of a pastor/Old Testament prof (who listens to and sustains her), dual citizen of Canada and U.S. (doubled opportunities to learn White history).


8 Reasons for Hope

Dear Joel,

I’m taking up your challenge to find reasons to feel hopeful. And, as much as I love look at pictures of baby Highland cattle, they’re not enough. So, on this Tuesday, I’ll share some things in the world that are genuinely giving me hope.

  • Millennials. They’re shaking up our economy in some of the best ways: hurting the diamond industry, rejecting cars, closing Hooters. They smoke and drink less than previous generations, are deeply connected to their parents, are civic-oriented, love their gay friends and neighbors and selves, are less likely than previous generations to get pregnant before they’re married, and don’t cheat on their spouses nearly as often as their grandparents did. Let them have their avocado toast and liquid soapthey’re befuddled by ancient prejudices, and they’re going to do what you and I were supposed to do when we were young: rock the vote. And they can do it because they are, demographically speaking, huge.
  • Divorce rates are down. Unplanned pregnancy rates are down. Abortion rates are down. Drunk driving rates are down. Crime rates are down. Murder rates are down. We’re doing measurably better in a lot of ways.
  • The world is less violent than it’s probably ever been.
  • The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico is a hero.

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Above, Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz stands waist-deep in water to help victims of climate change impacted by Hurricane Irma. 

Image result for uncle moneybags equifaxAbove, Amanda Werner attended the Congressional hearings into Equifax’s bad behavior. She was dressed in a monocle and top hat and worse a white mustache to invoke the image of Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly. I hope she will be my friend one day IRL. 

  • Progressives are winning. Chokwe Antar Lumumbe is the new mayor of Jacksonville, Mississippi. He’s working to make Jackson “the most radical city on the planet.” Jackson. Mississippi. The one way down South.  And I believe he can do it, because he has a message of real democracy. And he’s explicit that the larger goal, beyond caring for the people who he serves, is to change electoral politics. And in Birmingham, Alabama, which has recently found new and legal ways to segregate by race, Randall Woodfin recently unseated a two-term incumbent. Woodfin is a straight up progressive, who ran on a platform of improving basic services while expanding social services. Both Lumumbe and Woodfin use the language of “people first”--straight up appeals to progressive voters. And they won because young people and people of color are doing tremendous work to make our democracy stronger.

No, the sexual revolution didn’t cause Harvey Weinstein


Dear Rebecca:

It’s becoming something of a trope on the socially conservative right that the reason for Harvey Weinstein is … the sexual revolution. It’s a critique of Weinstein that echoes his own laughable defense of himself, and ignores one critical thing: Men in power have been preying on women since time immemorial, even — sometimes especially — when conservative sexual ethics ruled the day.

David French offers such an argument over at National Review:

You can sum up the sexual ethic of the sexual revolutionary in one sentence: Except in the most extreme circumstances (such as incest), consenting adults define their own moral norms. One-night stands? Fine, so long as there’s consent. May/December relationships. Fantastic, so long as there’s consent. Workplace liaisons between boss and subordinate? No problem, with consent. Adultery? Yes, there are tears, but the heart wants what it wants.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but French relies on a concept of consent that’s so one-dimensional that it leads him to produce an error-filled paragraph.

“Consent” these days is more than about saying “yes” or “no” but includes the power dynamics that surround them. So actually: We still cast a wary cultural eye at May-December romances, because we worry that the older person is taking advantage of a younger person’s lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of power, whatever. Workplaces liasons between boss and subordinate? Maybe French hasn’t been through the sexual harassment training videos that I have, but again: The power differential makes this dicey.

As for adultery: Who lionizes the adulterer? He may have consent with the person who shares the affair with him, but he damages the consent shared with his spouse – who operates in such a climate with a deficiency of critical information.

French again:

The practical result of consent-focused morality is the sexualization of everything. With the line drawn at desire alone, there is no longer any space that’s sex-free. Work meetings or restaurants can be creative locations for steamy liaisons. Not even marriage or existing relationships stand as a firewall against potential hookups.

One wonders how closely the man has read his own Bible. King David sent Uriah off to die in a war so he could sleep with Bathsheba, we’re told in Jewish and Christian scriptures. He was a man who abused his power to whet his sexual appetites – and remained in God’s good graces enough, we’re told, that his lineage came to include the Savior of All Humankind. 

What kind of lesson are we supposed to take from that?

The Sexual Revolution was probably not an unambiguously a good thing. No human developments are! But an ethic of consent was probably one of the better things that has emerged from it — and, as French’s writing indicates, it takes a misunderstanding of that ethic to make it responsible for Harvey Weinstein … whose actions, it must be emphasized, apparently happened entirely without regard to or respect for consent. 

There are a lot of villains in this story. “Consent” is not even close to being one of them.



Good Guy Delusions and Las Vegas Shooting Conspiracy Theories

Dear Joel,

You have seen the Las Vegas shooting hoax and conspiracy theory internet posts? The gist of them is: It didn’t happen. It’s a false flag operation to gin up efforts to take away guns from law-abiding citizens. It wasn’t possible for one person to get that many guns to his hotel room undetected. It wasn’t possible for him to plan an attack that was so sophisticated. He couldn’t have circumvented the tight security of a casino. He couldn’t have gotten through the glass in his hotel window. A regular person couldn’t operate a gun that efficiently.

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Above, a meme articulating doubts about the Las Vegas shooting. I’ve lopped off the shooter’s head, which appears in the original. 

I don’t want to stereotype wingnuts, but the spots where I’ve tracked these posts are on Deplorable forums. Many of the posters are also believers in the “good guy with a gun myth”–the idea that if more of us were armed, we’d be safer. Bad guys wouldn’t even start something because they know they’d get shot down. (This ignores the fact that many mass shooters commit suicide at the end of their rampages; they’re not afraid of dying.) If they do, then good guys with guns will stop them. (This is demonstrably incorrect, but never mind that now.) There was no good guy with a gun who could have stopped Stephen Paddock, of course. At thirty some stories above the crowd, he was safe from every open-carrying Nevadan in the state.

I’m intrigued (okay, maybe disheartened is a better word) that people who don’t believe a mass murderer could commit a mass murder with a gun think that a good guy with a gun could prevent one. Somehow, these folks believe that they could, armed with a handgun, heroically kill a gunman without killing anyone else by accident (even though police miss their targets nearly 90% of the time in high stress situations), but they don’t believe that one person with 47 weapons can kill or wound more than 500 people within a matter of seconds.

I’m not sure what the corrective to this is. Better physics education? Mandatory classes in risk analysis and the psychology of self-delusion before you get to buy a gun? Verbally berating people to lower the misplaced self-confidence of significant portions of the population?