One of the ways to maintain perspective in these Crazy Years is to catch your breath and look back to see how far you’ve come. It seems, looking forward, like there are both reasons for hope and reasons for panic. It is heartening to see the reception that young passionate voices (for example, Sarah McBride) are getting in mainstream circles, in spite of the bigotry still found in some quarters. But at the same time it is frightening to see that the bigots currently hold the levers of power and have not been shy about manipulating them to their own hateful aims. One ends up with a disturbing sort of dissonance in which the desire to be optimistic and work towards a better future clashes with the easy depression of fear that gains can so easily be eroded.
Looking back, however, provides a much clearer focus and that particularly when one looks past the judicial and legislative gains to the cultural zeitgeist itself. In much the same way that the #MeToo movement is processing it’s way though the “it was a different time” swamp in regards to the past actions of powerful men towards their subordinates, and as those who work for true racial equality and justice are often asked to moderate by having it pointed out to them that people used to be much more open in their racism without repercussion, even so Trans people do not have to look very far back at all to find that the winds have certainly shifted.
To be clear, at a certain part of the political spectrum little has changed on any of these topics. The self-professed reason for the title “conservative” to exist is that those who claim it are resistant to, even hostile in many cases, to change and that is probably more prominent when it comes to cultural change than political change. Surveys often find that ideas which are no longer considered anything but fringy still find wide acceptance among conservative respondents. If you could put it to a vote, there’s probably 20 or more states that would re-institute a ban on interracial marriage for example. In that sense we don’t learn all that much about the cultural “winds” by asking conservatives or comparing, say, the views of Pat Buchanan in ’92 to the views of Sean Hannity today.
However, when measuring social progress in the culture it can be most instructive to look at what the liberal, the “progressive”, was comfortable with in the past and what is considered beyond the pale today. What follows is a case study in that regard. It’s just one moment, a snapshot in time, but it is hardly isolated. And frankly this is a conversation that we need to have as a culture, particularly on the left.
Almost fifteen years ago, in 2003, Democrats were having a debate in advance of the upcoming presidential campaign. At that time, an Ohio Congressman named Dennis Kucinich was the “nutty” candidate, far to the left of the more mainstream conventional Democrats. His positions were often like those Bernie Sanders ran on (such as universal health care) and occasionally like those Trump adopted to his political benefit (like opposing NAFTA). Kucinich, at 71 now, is running for (and unlikely to win) his party’s nomination for Governor of Ohio, but his views which have not changed are far closer to the mainstream of Democrat/liberal thought now than they were then, which is the subject of a deep dive article in the Washington Post this week. The article makes early mention of the candidate’s support for same sex marriage.
Commenting on the article on Twitter, Adam H. Johnson provided an interesting link. What he posted was a clip from The Daily Show back when Jon Stewart was still there and the darling of liberal media. Stewart played a clip of Kuchinich stating that he would readily appoint “any gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender” person to the Supreme Court. Stewart mocked. Not just in a “you silly boy you can’t admit stuff like that in public” tone but in words that could easily have emerged from the mouth of your favorite right wing evangelical bigot (except that the language is too salty for the faux morality of that crowd). The nature of videos posted on Twitter means I can’t easily find the source of the video, a brief youtube search was futile, but it’s damning. It’s vile. It is inexcusable but…it came from the left. Yes, it was fifteen years ago and “things were different” but that’s exactly my point. There’s been a pretty dramatic shift in what the mainstream of the culture s willing to tolerate in the past decade or so. And unlike political progress, that’s unlikely to regress to a “bad old days” situation. Certainly not in the near term. What will ultimately change our situation and secure our rights, legally, is that the culture has evolved towards a place where a plurality of the population sees legal inequality as incompatible with the culture of the country.
There’s still a responsibility for us to address these ugly histories. In my opinion Stewart personally needs to sit down and face himself and discuss with us the lessons we can learn from those past failings. You can’t go back and fix something like this but you can address what comedy looks like going forward and what can be learned and applied to the next marginalized person or group that you think you have a funny line about. But that aside, as weird as it seems to take encouragement from an insult, in gives me hope to know that we’ve moved so far in the right direction in such a relatively rapid fashion. Let us continue to press for change.
Photo by: Crysis Rubel