Racist Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen’s Long Family History of Reactionary Third-Party Politics

Rep. Ira Hansen (R) stepped down as speaker-elect of the Nevada Assembly on Sunday, following national publicity of a report on his racist and misogynistic columns in a local newspaper—including his labeling of Black people as “simple minded darkies.”  But given that memories are short, and politicians’ ambitions never die, this may be a good time to discuss  the Hansen families’ 50+ year history of right-wing third party politics, from George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign to the present.

Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen

Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen

Hansen is denouncing the “orchestrated attack” on his character, claiming that the inflammatory quotes are 20 years old and taken out of context—his use of the word “negro” in lower case in reference to President Obama is not two decades old—but it is true that national press failed to provide context for Hansen’s rapid rise to prominence in Nevada’s GOP.

The Independent American Party of Nevada

The Hansen clan, including Ira Hansen’s father, grandmother, aunt, and uncles, and other relatives, are practically synonymous with the state’s third largest party, the Independent American Party (IAP). The IAP in Nevada has included in its ranks Sharron Angle, who later ran for Senate as a Republican, and Cliven Bundy, who publicly abandoned the GOP and signed his registration form at an IAP event held in his honor in May, 2014. The IAP is the fastest growing party in Nevada, now with over 70,000 members and doubling in size since 2005.

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The John Birch Society (JBS) tried but failed to build GOP support for a 1968 presidential ticket with Ezra Taft Benson and Strom Thurmond for vice president. Benson was one of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Mormon (LDS) church and the former Secretary of Agriculture in Eisenhower’s administration. After the attempt failed, the JBS played a significant role in getting George Wallace on state ballots as the American Independent Party presidential candidate. Wallace asked Benson to be his running mate, but LDS President David O. McKay either strongly advising him to decline, as published in 1968 by the Bell-McClure Syndicate for newspapers, or refused to grant him permission, as indicated in an article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, by D. Michael Quinn and based on letters in the Wilkinson Papers at Brigham Young University. Daniel Hansen was one of many John Birch Society members who campaigned for George Wallace in western states and was one of Wallace’s many Mormon supporters. Wallace won five Southern states and 13.7 percent of the vote in Nevada. Ezra Taft Benson, whose work to align the church and JBS in the 1960s was controversial, would become the 13th LDS Prophet and President in 1985.

The Party was founded by Ira’s father, Daniel Hansen, as part of an effort to get Alabama Governor George Wallace, a hardcore segregationist, on the ballot in Nevada for the 1968 presidential election. (See the sidebar about the role of Daniel’s fellow John Birch Society members and Mormon leadership in campaigning for Wallace in Western states.)  The IAP of Nevada was affiliated with the American Independent Party (AIP) in the 1960s and 70s, and later with the theocratic Constitution Party.

Daniel Hansen was the runner up in balloting for the vice presidential slot on the ticket with Gov. Lester Maddox in 1976, and would run unsuccessfully in Nevada for Governor and Congress before his death in a car accident in 2002. The IAP would continue, with Daniel’s sister Janine and brothers Christopher and Joel, also running as perennial IAP candidates.

The Hansens have been leading culture warriors in the fight against women’s and LGBTQ rights.  Led by Janine, the Hansens organized the STOP ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] movement in the western states. Janine continues today as the leader of Nevada’s Eagle Forum and as the Constitutional Issues Chairman of the national organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly. Janine has published a voter guide since 1988 and lobbies the Nevada Assembly on behalf of Eagle Forum.

Daniel Hansen wrote that homosexuals are “termites of civilization [who] have brazenly oozed out of their closet to proclaim that they have a right to maim, molest and embarrass society.” In 1994, the IAP published a 16-page advertising insert for local papers titled “The Homosexual Agenda Exposed,” promoting an amendment to the Nevada constitution that would permanently legalize LGBTQ discrimination. Talking Points Memo described it as including “virtually every homophobic myth ever conceived” after obtaining a copy during investigation of Angle’s role in the IAP.

By the 1990s, the Nevada IAP affiliated with the Constitution Party.  Daniel served as Western States Chairman for the national party, followed by Janine who represented Michael Peroutka’s presidential campaign at the Alaskan Independence Party convention in 2004.  She continues as Western States Chairman in the national party today.  (Peroutka has been featured in PRA articles concerning his successful infiltration of the Maryland Republican Party and election to an influential county council position.)

Janine and Christopher Hansen were behind a 2006 schism in the Constitution Party. The Hansens are Mormon (LDS) and Christopher, as the IAP candidate for governor, ran on a platform opposing abortion with included the Mormon church’s support of exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, as documented in Janine’s voter guide. This was unacceptable to some of the Constitution Party leadership, since the party adheres to a strict written policy “opposing abortion 100%, no exceptions.”  In the power struggle that followed, the Hansens and IAP were not expelled from the national party, and nine state parties disaffiliated in protest. Ironically, those states included Maryland, resulting in Peroutka being essentially locked out of the party which he had represented in the presidential election.

Ira Hansen himself has expressed disdain for his relatives’ third party efforts, complaining that “IAP candidates can only be spoilers and never win any major races themselves.” Only Ira, running as a Republican, has achieved success beyond a local office.  “I don’t want anyone to think I have anything to do with the Independent American Party,” stated Hansen, according to the Las Vegas Sun, which described him as not wanting his fellow Republicans to wonder whether he belongs to the GOP just to get elected. He claims disassociates himself from his relative’s IAP activity, even getting up from his seat and walking out of the Assembly when his Aunt Janine was testifying. 

The Battle for the Soul of the GOP

But Ira Hansen wouldn’t be the first politician to join the GOP out of expediency.  Sharron Angle joined the IAP and worked with the Hansens in circulating petitions to the get the party back onto the state ballot in 1992. Talking Points Memo interviewed three IAP members, including Janine Hansen, who described Angle’s departure in 1997 as a strategic move in order to run for office.

Ira Hansen’s critiques of the GOP sound much like those of his late father. In a 2014 interview, Ira claimed that it was Nevada Republicans who doomed Sharron Angle’s run for the Senate, and joined radio host Janet Mefferd in bemoaning what they described as the party establishment’s “leftward drift.”

Ira Hansen also appears to share his relative’s views on state’s rights and their admiration for Cliven Bundy—who gained notoriety after refusing to pay the fees for letting his cows graze on public land for decades, although the notoriety was short-lived after he made some incredibly racist comments on Fox News.

Janine Hansen welcomed Bundy into the IAP and described him as “her hero” in May, at an event honoring him for his “courage in standing up for state sovereignty.”  Bundy spoke for more than a half hour, calling for states to take over the federal land within their boundaries, including national parks.

Ira Hansen joined several other Assembly members in calling for the Nevada Attorney General to conduct an investigation of the Bureau of Land Management following its standoff with Bundy. “Whatever Mr. Bundy’s unfortunate comments [addressing the racist remarks] were, Mr Bundy is really not the issue per se,” Hansen told local news. “It was the overreaction by the Bureau of Land Management.” He is a co-sponsor of a bill in the Assembly creating a task force to “conduct a study addressing the transfer of public lands from the Federal Government to the State of Nevada.”

Like Bundy, Ira Hansen has also been fighting authorities for decades.  He is a professional trapper and refuses to pay fines accumulated for violations to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.  In this, Hansen echoes his Uncle Christopher who touts his refusal to file income taxes and made himself “Presiding Sovereign” over a political-religious entity called “The First Christian Fellowship of Eternal Sovereignty.”  The organization of about 650 “patriot saints” uses their “Testament of Sovereignty” to fight OSHA, the IRS, and other county, state, and federal entities.

In 2008, Ira Hansen and several relatives joined a local Nevada camp of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans (SCV), advertised as the largest SCV camp outside of the South.  A 2009 SCV newsletter includes a reprint of a column by Hansen titled “The Confederate Battle Flag – Symbol of Manly Courage.” (The SCV newsletter points out that Hansen knows the Stars and Bars was not the Confederate battle flag, but that he’s trying to connect with those not aware of this distinction.)

In the column Ira Hansen reveals he does his writing in a room adorned with a Confederate flag, but it’s the following paragraph that confirms his allegiance to state’s rights:

“Anyone who has read the Confederate Constitution, studied the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, read Calhoun’s arguments on nullification and delved into the ideology behind the attempts at seceding knows the Southern position represents the original intent of the majority of our founding fathers. The death of the Confederacy was in fact the death of Federalism, the division of power between the equal States with a common, intentionally weak central government handling primarily the foreign affairs and general needs of this union of states known as the United States of America. By way of contrast, today, as Nevadans know oh so well, the central ‘Federal’ government is an almost unbridled and an increasingly dangerous power, while the states have become practically impotent.”

Hansen also co-sponsored a 2001 bill in the State Assembly claiming state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment, and demanding the federal government “cease and desist, effectively immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.”

In a year when the party establishment was supposedly outflanking the Tea Party wing, Ira Hansen’s rapid rise to prominence in the Nevada Republican Party indicates the ongoing appeal of the reactionary politics embraced by the Hansen family over the last half century.

For more on the growth of neo-Confederate ideology see Nullification, Neo-Confederates and the Revenge of the Old Right.

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TDOR 2014 and the Right-Wing Roots of Anti-Trans Violence

Since 1999, Nov. 20th has been set aside as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). TDOR provides space to remember and honor those who have been killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice. The annual event originated when trans activists and allies came together to mourn the loss of Rita Hester, a Black trans woman who was brutally murdered in Allston, Massachusetts on Nov. 28, 1998. Beyond a few transphobic mentions in the local media (the Boston Globe referred to Hester as “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes,” while the Boston Herald called her a “transvestite” and “a large man who lived as a woman”), her death garnered little attention, let alone outrage.

transgender day of remembrance PRA

While significant legal advances have been made for the LGBTQ community in the 15 years since Hester’s murder, trans people continue to experience horrific and disproportionate rates of violence. As the official TDOR website states:

“We live in times more sensitive than ever to hatred based violence, especially since the events of September 11th. Yet even now, the deaths of those based on anti-transgender hatred or prejudice are largely ignored. Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives. This trend shows no sign of abating.”

Yet most media outlets, policymakers, and even the mainstream LG(BTQ) movement, have a long history—that continues to this day—of marginalizing the experiences, contributions, and needs of transgender people and people of color. The 1969 Stonewall Riots—often considered a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history—are frequently claimed by White, gay men as a triumph of their own doing, even though it was primarily trans women of color and homeless youth who led the charge. And whereas Rita Hester’s murder in 1998 was largely ignored, the murder of Matthew Shepard—a young, White, gay man—just two weeks later prompted nationwide vigils and helped lead to the eventual passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. The legislation expanded the 1969 U.S. federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

Indeed, disregard for the role of trans people and people of color has plagued the LGBTQ justice movement since its earliest days. Meanwhile, these are the members of our community who bear the brunt of the violence and oppression directed toward LGBTQ people.  In its annual report on hate-violence experienced by LGBTQ and HIV-affected persons in the United States, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) documented more than 2,000 incidents of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2013, and 18 hate-violence homicides. NCAVP’s findings also reflect the disproportionate impact of this violence: almost three-quarters (72%) of the documented homicide victims were trans women, and more than two-thirds (67%) were trans women of color.

TDOR interrupts this pattern of neglect, insisting that the LGBTQ movement—as well as our broader communities—acknowledge and mourn these lives.

Who Are The Architects of Anti-Trans Violence?

To a certain extent, talking about violence against trans people as a “hate crime” abstracts it from any social or political context, and suggests that these attacks are isolated incidents caused by rogue individuals. As Kay Whitlock has argued in a PRA discussion paper:

“While the hate frame may be powerful in terms of increasing awareness and mobilizing opposition to the threatening, violent actions of individuals and small groups directed against targeted communities, it also, paradoxically, obscures the relationship of such violence to its systemic underpinnings […] It’s so much easier to place the blame for violence directed against entire groups on criminal misfits, loners, and crackpots than to challenge the unspoken public consensus that permits broader cultures and structures of violence to exist.”

And so we must acknowledge—and then challenge—the architects responsible for manufacturing and perpetuating a cultural climate that justifies violence against trans and gender nonconforming people. 

Christian Right Church Leaders

Earlier this year, delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June signed a “Declaration on Transgender Identity.” With 16-plus million members, SBC is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States (in terms of Christian organizations, only the Catholic Church manages to outnumber them). Consequently, SBC’s policy decisions carry tremendous influence.

Unfortunately, the declaration was far from affirming. It states that trans and intersex people are manifestations of “human fallenness” and “contrary to God’s design.” The resolution notes that SBC condemns “acts of abuse or bullying” (unlike many of the document’s other proclamations, the authors couldn’t seem to find any scriptural backing for this piece), but they are quick to note that SBC also opposes hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery, as well as any legislative or cultural efforts to validate trans people as “morally praiseworthy.”

SBC’s policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), hosted a conference last month on “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” At the event, ERLC president Russell Moore—who was recently invited by the Vatican to speak at a conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman”—took the opportunity to offer advice to pastors ministering to trans people during a live “Questions & Ethics” session, saying “The people who are coming to you—that biologically male person who says ‘I think I’m a woman,’ or vice versa—that person really experiences that and believes that. … You don’t have to agree with that at all, and I would say we can’t. The Bible teaches us that God created us male and female.”

Right-Wing Parachurch Organizations

Focus on the Family explicitly opposes “the celebration of ‘transgenderism’ as one of God’s gifts.”

On its website, FOTF explains its position: “Because ‘transgenderism’ violates God’s intentional design for sex and sexuality, we believe that this is a cultural and theological battle that we must engage and win. The modern ‘transgender’ movement is systematically working to dismantle the concept of gender as the Bible and the world have always known it to be. If the transgender lobby succeeds, there will be striking consequences for marriage, family and society at large.” Those who fail to follow FOTF’s guidance are told, “[T]he problems associated with transgenderism, like confusion and pain, stem from a lack of parental involvement and guidance.”

Right-Wing Think Tanks & Legal Lobbyists

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund), a right-wing legal ministry committed to “religious freedom,” has recently taken up the cause of isolating and shaming transgender students. Arguing against a Massachusetts school’s 2013 decision to allow transgender students to access facilities and recreation activities that aligned with their gender identity, ADF’s Jeremy Tedesco warned the policy created “an atmosphere that could result in sexual assaults committed by minors.”

In letters delivered last month to similarly progressive schools in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, ADF suggested that creating inclusive policies for transgender students would “seriously endanger students’ privacy and safety, undermine parental authority, violate religious students’ right of conscience, and severely impair an environment conducive to learning.”

The Family Research Council, a right-wing lobby group based in Washington, DC, similarly argues that gender identity protections would “purposefully threaten the public safety of women and children by creating the legitimized access that sexual predators tend to seek.”

Concerned Women for America has warned its members that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)—legislation that would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity—could force “Christian businessmen” to allow transgender employees to wear male and female clothing alternately, and could “open bathroom doors for predators throughout the nation.”

As Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, put it, “These bills or policies are gifts to predators![emphasis his].

What’s Next?

Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and co-author of the SBC’s anti-trans declaration, has warned that the trans justice movement is “the next phase of the LGBT revolution.” In actuality, the mainstream gay rights movement is already demonstrating a preference for other, international priorities in the post-marriage equality era.

Rita Hester

Rita Hester

Nonetheless, with leaders on the Right conceding defeat on the marriage front, we can expect to see them turning their sights toward other battlefronts, particularly ones they perceive to be winnable.

While it may seem that the trans community is that vulnerable, “winnable” target, what the Right doesn’t recognize is that the power of the gay rights movement—a movement that most would say has beaten the Right—was fueled first by trans women of color. These women—who find themselves at the nexus of White supremacy and heteropatriarchy—were fighting long before Stonewall, and they’ll continue fighting long after Gay Inc. closes its doors. They are fierce and formidable, and, as the Right will soon learn, they are undefeatable.

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U.N. Condemns “Conversion Therapy,” But U.S. Right Continues Promoting in Africa

This week, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) took the historic step of expressing concern about “conversion therapy,” also known as “ex-gay” or “reparative” therapy. But while much of the Western world is taking steps to eradicate the barbaric practice, U.S. conservatives are doing everything they can to spread the anti-LGBTQ practice in Africa.

ex-gay protester

PRA’s senior researcher for religion and sexuality, Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, wrote an article last month documenting how these U.S. culture war-exporters are increasingly turning to “ex-gay therapy” in African countries as a strategy to advance their propaganda that being gay is a choice—a critical component for them in their message to falsely portray Western LGBTQ people as predators invading local communities to recruit children.

Sadly, the so-called “ex-gay movement” has found a home in global evangelicalism. In October, 2010, in Cape Town, South Africa, 4,000 global evangelical leaders from 198 countries convened for the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization—the biggest gathering of global evangelical leaders in modern history. Among the attendees were members of Exodus Global Alliance (EGA), a network of “ex-gay” groups. The Alliance was tasked with leading a discussion on “Sexuality, Truth, and Grace.” In its presentations, EGA argued that “compassionate” conversion therapy and prayers for LGBTQ people were the best approaches to homosexuality.

Human rights groups lauded CAT’s advancement of the discussion. The National Center for Lesbian Rights’ (NCLR) #BornPerfect campaign sent survivors of the dangerous conversion practices to testify before the committee. “Today, for the first time, a United Nations committee recognized that conversion therapy is an issue of international human rights,” said Samantha Ames, NCLR’s #BornPerfect Campaign Coordinator. “We are incredibly grateful to the Committee Against Torture for raising up the voices of conversion therapy survivors, and ensuring their suffering is finally being vindicated.”

Dr. Mike Davidson, director of a UK-based conversion therapy group called Core Issues Trust, responded to the U.N. advancement saying “This is a stark reminder of the determination of a certain lobby, driven by a radical ideological agenda, to close down options for those facing unwanted same-sex attraction.”

Despite no cases of ex-gay therapy ever having successfully been proven to alter sexual orientation, andDavidson added “Science and experience demonstrate that help with unwanted same-sex attraction can be effective and is far from harmful.”

But while major success against the practice of attempting to alter and change a person’s innate sexual orientation have been piling up over the past few years—the prominent ex-gay therapy group Exodus International shut down in 2013 after apologizing for promoting the debunked practice, and several U.S. states have now banned the “therapy” from being performed on minors—those successes have not translated to non-Western nations.

Kaoma continues:

The plea to “help gays escape” homosexuality is perhaps the most commonly repeated mantra across the African continent. From vicious anti-LGBTQ figures such as Martin Ssempa of Uganda, to ostensibly more respectable evangelical leaders such as Rev. Pukuta Mwanza (Executive Director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia), religious leaders endorse prayers and counseling as an answer to homosexuality. Despite the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion) telling Zambians that homosexuality is a global and human rights issue, Rev. Mwanza (who spoke afterwards) asked LGBTQ persons to seek “spiritual help and prayers” from the Church. In his judgment, the church is the hospital for African gays—if they accept to be “cured.”

This characterization of LGBTQ people as “sick” and in need of healing is also used to jail those who are perceived to be “against the cure.” Anti-LGBTQ leaders argue that allowing sexual minorities to live among the public will not only pollute the social life of communities, but also pose a risk to public health and must be forced into therapy, locked up, and/or forced to live in exile. “The choice is theirs!”

Worse still, based on the conviction of the validity of reparative therapy bolstered by U.S. conservative evangelical talking points, some advocate policies that outlaw homosexuality and even allow forced therapy.

American Culture Warriors Book CoverTo learn more about how U.S. conservative Evangelicals are exporting the culture wars to Uganda, Nigeria, and other African nations—and what you can do to stop it—read American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism.

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Uganda’s New Anti-Gay Law A Copy of U.S. Right-Backed Laws in Russia/Nigeria

Reports of the new anti-gay bill—“Prohibition of the Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill of 2014” being considered in Uganda have caught the world unaware. Supporters of Uganda’s LGBTQ community had hoped that the Uganda court’s striking down of the Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA, formerly known as the “Kill the Gays Bill”), as well as president Yoweri Museveni’s subsequent meetings with President Obama at the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, had buried the tide of anti-LGBTQ persecution in Uganda. But, then the news came—the new bill is in the pipeline. Unlike the “Kill the Gays” proposal, this new potential law is a virtual copy of the recently-passed anti-gay laws in Russia and Nigeria banning recruiting into, or “promotion” of homosexuality—all guided by U.S. exporters of homophobia and sexism.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni

The new proposed law is a response to international outrage to both the death penalty and life imprisonment for homosexuality previously proposed by the country’s parliament. By tailoring down the punishment for being an LGBTQ person to 5-7 years imprisonment, the authors hope to appear more moderate and assuage some of the international outrage of their treatment of sexual minorities.

But while this new proposal is sure to draw continued (and deserved) international headlines, the Western world’s near-exclusive focus on Uganda, while ignoring identical legislation in countries like Nigeria, have left the African social justice community vulnerable to anti-gay activists. How are we, as fair-minded people, going to oppose Uganda’s latest anti-gay legislation, when the international opposition to Nigeria has been tame at best? And after the bill (likely) becomes law, there is little question that we should expect similar bills to quickly follow in many other African countries.

Following the international community’s threats of trade sanctions over the original Anti-Homosexuality Act, Uganda president Yoweri Museveni appeared to be stepping down his opposition to LGBTQ people, asking his followers to take it easy due to its impact on the national economy. But this apparent easing of his positions has quickly become transparent as little more than lip-service, when last month he oversaw the consecration of the Bishop Alfred Acur Okodi as the first Anglican Church of Uganda Bishop of West Lango in Uganda—he even donated a brand new SUV to Okodi. During his consecration, Bishop Okodi “pledged a relentless fight against homosexuality,” and argued that the court’s striking down of the Anti-Homosexuality Act “only serves to clarify that the problem is beyond political solution and it’s a spiritual problem that calls for a spiritual solution.”

The global social justice community must understand that Museveni himself is now devoid of virtually all political power on this issue. The Anti-Homosexuality Act was struck down on technical basis—the parliament did not meet its required quorum of members present during the vote—only, and not because of the merits of the law. To the anti-gay community, this problem can be resolved easily by taking the bill back to parliament or simply introducing a new bill since they have more than enough votes to pass it.

Museveni knows he must downplay any anti-gay laws if he is to keep up economic relations with the rest of the world, but at the same time, his backing away from the laws doesn’t play well with the local electorate who have been whipped into an anti-LGBTQ frenzy by the Religious Right. Museveni has been in power in Uganda for the last 28 years, but things are rapidly changing. Museveni needs the support of religious leaders in order to win the next election, but he also needs the international community, especially the United States, to legitimize his dictatorial hold on power. To please both groups—the electorate controlled by anti-gay pastors like Martin Ssempa and the international community—is a fine line to walk.

In this regard, the new bill could work to his advantage by being virtually identical to the new law in Nigeria—which raised almost no international consternation.

In his letter to the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga (the real power in Uganda at this point) in December last year, Museveni explained that while he opposes the AHA, he nevertheless agreed with anti-gay activists when it comes to barring so-called “promotion,” defined as any mention whatsoever of homosexuality in a positive light in public. This bill, Museveni is likely to argue, fits into the U.S. Right’s narrative that gays are out to recruit children into homosexuality.

Museveni may want to play good politics here. But how is he going to please religious leaders (who are crucial to his hold on power), with their close ties to, and funding from, the U.S. conservative Evangelicals who were behind the creation of the “Kill the Gays” law?

Museveni may wish to veto the new anti-gay law when the Parliament inevitably passes it again—as they have pledged to do—in order to save face with the international community, and preserve the approximately $118 Million the African nation reserves in foreign aid from various Western countries. But even if he were to do so, the Parliament could easily override the veto by simply passing the bill two more times. Museveni has been backed into a no-win political corner, as he would be blamed for the loss of foreign aid if he signs the bill intolaw, but if he vetoes the (sadly) popular anti-gay legislation and is overridden by the Parliament, it would be the final nail in the coffin of his political career.

Regardless of how much he wants to present himself as a moderate to the international community, Museveni does not have the power to stop the anti-gay bill from becoming.

So what is to be done?

The anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has boiled up to the tipping point in Uganda, Nigeria, the Gambia, and so many other African countries is not native to Africa. Rather, as I discuss in American Culture Warriors in Africa, it was born in the United States. U.S conservative culture warriors such as Rick Warren, Lou Engle, Scott Lively, Sharon Slater, and others have successfully capitalized on the widespread anger and mistrust of all things Western in African nations after decades of colonization by Western governments—infiltrating local communities to export their anti-LGBTQ and anti-sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) views in the name of religion. They have also defined Western LGBTQ people as straw men villains, who these U.S. conservatives are there to “warn” Africans about—feeding off of existing prejudices against anything Western while simultaneously neo-colonializing Africa’s values with their own Western anti-human right prejudices.

Spreading imagined and fictitious stories of Western gays infiltrating African schools and recruiting and abusing African children into “gay lifestyles” has fruitfully turned many Africans to U.S. conservative causes. And providing local religious and political leaders with funding and connections has won these U.S. conservatives a powerful crop of talking heads and decision makers who are all too willing to further the homophobic and sexist policies to please their new benefactors.

Local LGBTQ organizations that are on the ground and working day and night to educate and change hearts throughout Africa are fully capable of turning this trend around, if only the spigot of U.S.-based anti-LGBTQ and anti-women money, resources, and talking points were turned off.

While Western people of conscience should indeed take heart at the temporary push-back of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, it is imperative to triple our efforts to shed light and bring to justice the culture warriors who live in our own backyard. The only path to safety and equality for the African LGBTQ community is for Americans to stop the source of this evil where it lives, and allowing the African LGBTQ activist communities to work for change in their countries without the exportation of the culture wars from the U.S.

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Ebola: The Right’s New Code Word for Islamophobia, Homophobia, & Xenophobia

The recent Ebola cases in the U.S. have sparked popular news outlets and Religious Right leaders into an undeniable state of panic. The mention of Ebola is accompanied by an urging to close “the border,” as the U.S. Right re-employs its all-too-familiar tactic of using popular discourse as a platform for Islamophobic, racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic rhetorical shots.

A protester stands outside the White House. image via JACQUELYN MARTIN / AP

A protester stands outside the White House. image via JACQUELYN MARTIN / AP

The physical impact of the Ebola virus is well documented. According to the Center for Disease Control, there have been 1,018 deaths due to Ebola in Guinea, 2,413 deaths in Liberia, and 1,510 in Sierra Leone. In the United States, there have been only four confirmed cases, one resulting in death. As several recent articles point out, the medical effects of Ebola in the U.S. are miniscule compared to those of other common and well-known viruses, such as the flu—which results in between 3,349 – 48,614 deaths annually in the U.S.

The near ubiquitous discussion on Ebola is rarely solely comprised of statistics or its biological effects. Ebola—not the virus, but the newsworthy discussion topic—has become a cultural phenomenon acquiring meaning and consequence beyond its medical character. In approaching Ebola from a cultural lens, we expose how it has become a tool for the Right, inserted amid public discourses on race, religion, immigration, sexuality, and terrorism.

Conservative journalist Paul Sperry wrote an article in Investor’s Business Daily titled, “Islamic Burial Rituals Blamed for Spread of Ebola,” in which he states, “Islam isn’t just at the heart of the terror threat posed by the Islamic State. The religion is also contributing to the other major crisis plaguing the globe: the spread of Ebola” (emphasis added). Sperry names the religion of Islam itself as the culprit for the spread of Ebola and for the terror threat created by the self-described Islamic State, a militant Sunni Islamic group that has seized large territories in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and whose casualties are mainly made up of fellow Sunni Muslims as well as Shiite Muslims. In naming Islam itself as blameworthy for these threats, Sperry adopts several of the pillars of Islamophobic rhetoric as identified by the Runnymede Trust Report including the following beliefs: Islam is monolithic and static, Islam is completely separate from other cultures and religions, Islam is inferior to the West, Islam is a political ideology used for military advantage, and Islam is violent and in support of terrorism.

Alan Keys, a conservative political activist, former diplomat, and radio talk show host, shares a similar sentiment when he warns that Obama’s “plan to import Ebola-infected persons into the United States” will have the majority of Americans “look(ing) upon a country no longer their own.” This begs the question, whose country is it? On October 14, 2014, conservative public interest lawyer, Larry Klayman, sued the Obama administration for using the Ebola virus to further Muslim bioterrorism on “Christian and Jewish Caucasian Americans.” Klayman alleges that President Obama’s actions exposing Americans to Ebola is a “direct result of discrimination against Plaintiff [Klayman] on the basis of his Caucasian race and Jewish-Christian religion and in favor of people of the African-Black race and the Islamic religion.”

Klayman has not written a single article about the devastating number of deaths the Ebola virus has caused in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. As journalist Hannah Giorgis aptly writes in the Guardian, the “death [of Black people] is remarkable only to the extent that its perpetrator could also affect citizens more deserving of sympathy, of news coverage and of life.” Judging by the upsurge in media coverage since the documented U.S. case, Ebola was not considered a threat to most in the United States until the lives of White Americans came into question. Klayman’s answer to the presence of Ebola in the U.S. is to blame “suicide terrorists from ISIS, [and] perhaps American Muslim traitors” and to sue Obama for refusing to issue a travel ban on persons flying to the U.S. from West Africa and from “all Muslim nations where terrorists have a beachhead.” In the face of public health experts’ nearly unanimous position that a ban could increase the threat of the virus spreading, President Obama continues to undergo pressure from Capitol Hill and others to prohibit travel into the U.S. from West Africa.

Moreover, despite lacking any backing from scientists or public health officials, several conservative politicians have expanded upon these nativist fears, insisting on the urgent threat of Ebola emanating from the “porous” U.S.-Mexico border. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have all recently stated their beliefs that the U.S.-Mexico border is not secure enough to keep Ebola out of the United States. Representative Phil Gingrey (R – Georgia) agrees. In a letter to the director of the CDC, Gingrey writes, “Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis are particularly concerning.” To date, not a single case of Ebola has been reported in Mexico or in any Central or South American country.

While some blame the spread of Ebola on a “porous” national border, several evangelical religious leaders have recently jumped into the Ebola debate by linking the virus to LGBTQ people and to same-sex marriage, including  New York Pastor James David Manning of the ATLAH Worldwide Missionary, who cautioned the public that Starbucks coffee shops are “ground zero for Ebola,” because they attract “a large number of sodomites” interested in “clandestine sexual activities” and who “exchange a lot of body fluids.” North Carolina Pastor Ron Baity, recipient of The Family Research council’s top “pro-family” award, warns the End Times—in the form of Ebola—are now upon us in the wake of recent court actions overturning North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage. Conservative Christian radio host of Trunews, Rick Wiles, is more optimistic about the effects of Ebola on the U.S., “Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion.” Speaking on the causes of Ebola, Archbishop Lewis Zeigler of the Catholic Church of Liberia asserts “one of the major transgressions against God for which He may be punishing Liberia is the act of homosexuality.”

This rhetoric mirrors religious conservative statements about the LGBTQ community during the height of the AIDS crisis. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University and co-founder of the Moral Majority, famously referred to the AIDS epidemic as “the wrath of a just God against homosexuals.” While Liberian and U.S. religious and political leaders publicly ponder the “threat” of the LGBTQ community on the wider public’s health, the material effects of anti-gay policies and violence against the LGBTQ community in West Africa have escalated.

Disguised as concern over public health and safety, the Right’s discourse surrounding Ebola has become a shielded arena for the propagation of xenophobic attitudes and fears. Christian Right leaders use this rhetoric to suggest that White Americans, especially Christians, are being threatened by Black West Africans, Muslim terrorists, undocumented Mexican immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. Meanwhile, thousands of Black West Africans, many of Islamic faith, including LGBTQ people, have actually died from the physical effects of the Ebola virus.

In the U.S., the word “Ebola” has become shorthand for a migrant, racialized threat to the body, whose very mobile nature challenges imperialistic notions of distinct, self-contained, isomorphic spaces. Ebola is personified as a terrorist body that needs to be quarantined, surveilled, and banned. Its origins are constructed as “over there” (outside of the West), and its threat is felt “here.” Because it isn’t capable of self-selecting a group to be aligned with, nor a group to invade, the virus is easily linguistically detached and reattached to different populations whose bodies are associated with threatening White, Western, heterosexual citizenry.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Right’s alarmist rants over the Ebola virus as bizarre and atypical. However, the ways contagions have historically been connected to public discourses on race, religion, sexuality, and the nation suggests that the current debates on Ebola are deeply rooted and easily mobilized. Several journalists have documented  (see here, here, and here) the relationship between the over-hyped Ebola threat to Americans, and the rhetoric of hate employed by the Right which poses a real material threat to bodies constructed as “other.”

In linking the abstract threat of “otherness” with a material entity that can invade the bloodstream and alter the biological cells of the body, right-wing Ebola discourse insists upon being felt. Infected by the force of tangible fear, how will affected persons be incited into action and whose lives will they threaten?

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From Singapore to Arizona: Right-Wing Groups Invade Classrooms and Curriculum

Agatha Tan, a 17-year-old high school student in Singapore, recently attended a mandatory sex-ed class at her school. She was appalled by what was being taught, and took the opportunity to address her concerns in a Facebook post addressed to her school’s principal. “From merely glancing through this booklet,” she explained to him, “I learned a simple yet important lesson: that bigotry is very much alive and it was naïve of me to think I could be safe from it even in school.”

Tan’s post, which quickly went viral, critiqued the program’s promotion of rape culture, sexist gender stereotypes, and anti-LGBTQ perspectives. It also brought to attention the source of these messages—Focus on the Family.

Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family (FOTF) is a global right-wing Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, CO. Founded by the conservative Christian psychologist James Dobson in 1977, it has grown significantly in size and influence since then. In 2012, FOTF had nearly 750 employees, revenue of nearly $91 million, and net assets of nearly $53 million. CitizenLink—the political advocacy arm of FOTF—had about 50 employees, revenue of more than $13 million, and net assets of $3.5 million.

In addition to its sprawling Colorado Springs “campus” (FOTF even has its own zip code), FOTF maintains a massive web presence and produces several programs that air on Christian radio stations globally. Some 4,000 radio and TV stations in more than 40 countries carry their broadcasts. To support these international efforts, FOTF has affiliate offices in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ireland, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, and Taiwan.

FOTF has campaigned against LGBTQ people since its founding. The organization’s director of family formation studies, Glenn Stanton, has described homosexuality as “a particularly evil lie of Satan because he knows that it overthrows the very image of the Trinitarian God in creation, revealed in the union of male and female.” One FOTF analyst, Jeff Johnston, has described homosexuality as “Satan roam[ing] the earth like a lion, using sexual and relational brokenness to destroy individuals, families, churches, groups, [and] businesses.”

As for abortion, James Dobson says it’s “the greatest moral evil of our time.”

As Tan put it, “FotF has used sexuality education as an opportunity to further spread their own conservative, ‘God-ordained’ beliefs rather than to educate students on arguably more important things such as safe sex, sexual identity and shared and equal responsibility.”

ripped bookMeanwhile, here in the U.S., a school board in Gilbert, Arizona recently voted to “edit” a high school honors biology textbook after determining that it does not align with a 2-year-old state law. Under Senate Bill 1009, which went into effect in April 2012, “no Arizona school district ‘may allow any presentation during instructional time or furnish any materials to pupils as part of any instruction that does not give preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption as preferred options to elective abortion.'”

The textbook in question, Campbell Biology: Concepts & Connections (Seventh Edition), includes a chapter that discusses abstinence, birth-control methods, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and drugs that can induce abortion. (Note: all of the information included is strictly based on medical facts and doesn’t advocate any positions on these topics.)

In this case, it was the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) that stepped in to ensure that this public school’s curriculum be restricted to only the most conservative understandings of gender, sexuality, and reproduction.

According to school board member Jill Humpherys, ADF complained about the textbook to Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto this past summer, and eventually argued their way to censorship victory—the board made its 3-2 decision after listening to a presentation from Natalie Decker, an ADF lawyer. Though Decker didn’t offer any recommendations for how exactly the book should be altered in order to be in compliance with the law, board member Daryl Colvin has an idea. “The cheapest, least disruptive way to solve the problem is to remove the page,” he said.

ADF is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, but much like FOTF, it has a global reach (made possible by its network of over 2,200 lawyers). Formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund, this legal ministry committed to “religious freedom” was created in 1994 by a team of conservative Christian leaders, including FOTF’s James Dobson. Tom Minnery, FOTF’s senior vice president of government and public policy, currently sits on ADF’s board of directors.

ADF serves as a key opponent to reproductive justice efforts in the U.S., working to end what they refer to as the “premeditated murder of the helpless.” Their efforts have included lawsuits aimed at discontinuing funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, forcing young adults to obtain parental consent for abortions, and eliminating critical reproductive healthcare elements of the Affordable Care Act.

Under the leadership of president, CEO, and general counsel, Alan Sears, ADF claims to have “successfully defended marriage as the union between one man and one woman in over 40 cases nationwide.” According to their website, “Redefining marriage is ultimately part of a larger effort to redesign society in order to give social approval of homosexual behavior, and to empower social acceptance of a forgery of gender and sexual practice at odds with natural law and the faith of millions.”

FOTF, ADF, and their crew of right-wing allies are working in courtrooms and classrooms around the world to influence the policies that define the strength and extent of our freedoms. May our resistance be as bold and brilliant at Agatha Tan’s.

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Midterm Elections: School Privatization Continues to Advance DeVos/Heritage Foundation Strategy

Midterm elections present a particularly fruitful opportunity for the school privatization movement to maximize their investment.  Since 1974, in mid-term or non-presidential election years, the federal election turnout has failed to reach 40% of eligible voters, as opposed to range of about 49% – 56% in presidential elections, thus providing an opportunity for energized voters to advance their issues in state-level races.  While the results of the 2014 effort remain to be seen, this effect has been amplified by the impact of both the Tea Party movement and the millions of dollars of pro-privatization money being poured into elections in several states.

While most of the press coverage and national attention during midterm elections is focused on the composition of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the privatization juggernaut has used these low-turnout elections to continue to increase its hold on state legislatures, where most decisions are made on education policy and funding.

“Private school choice” is the term used by its advocates to describe the state-level programs that use public dollars to fund private education, including tax credit programs and school vouchers.  Advocates of school privatization have always focused on state elections, but by the late 1990s they had shifted their dollars and efforts from statewide ballot initiatives to a policy of rewards and consequences for individual state legislators—both Republican and Democratic—based on their position on school privatization. This strategy was described to a Heritage Foundation audience by leading privatization advocate Dick DeVos in 2002, as the strategy implemented in the late 1990s was beginning to yield results.

Dick DeVos

Dick DeVos

Although it’s now more than a decade old, the Dick DeVos speech to the Heritage Foundation is still useful in understanding the shift in strategy that has resulted in the success of the privatization movements after decades of rejection on state ballot initiatives.  The video includes the explanation of the “rewards and consequences” strategy, which uses massive funding to support or attack state legislators in their home districts. DeVos explains the ongoing implementation of this strategy by his wife, Betsy DeVos, through the Great Lakes Education Project in their home state of Michigan. Betsy DeVos was then, and continues today, to be the “four star general” guiding the attack on public education, as she has been dubbed by Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The DeVos strategy has been implemented through single-interest nonprofits, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the conservative think tanks in all fifty states interconnected through the State Policy Network.

In addition to the shift from state ballot initiatives on vouchers to a “reward and consequences” for state legislators, DeVos also emphasized the need to continue an ongoing strategy for changing the face of “school choice” promotion.  School privatization had been the domain of a small core group of wealthy, White, conservative donors, but by 2002 an effort was already well underway to recruit a public face for the movement that would be bipartisan, minority led, and appear to be a grass roots effort.

In the video, the covert nature of the strategy is stressed, as DeVos warns the Heritage Foundation audience that they need to “be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” including the need for school privatization to have a different face than their own.

“That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible. And, in fact, to the extent that we on the right, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle, appropriate education choice as our idea, we need to be a little bit cautious about doing that, because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”

Here’s a two minute excerpt of the speech:

A transcript of that segment can be accessed in my 2011 Talk2action.org article.  and DeVos’ full December 3, 2002 speech at the Heritage Foundation can be seen here.

Dick and Betsy DeVos and their relatives have long been leaders in funding school privatization activism.  Betsy heads the 501(c)(3) American Federation for Children (AFC), and its tax affiliated 501(c)(3) Alliance for School Choice—the two are the primary advocacy organizations behind the movement and the source of funding for many state nonprofits dedicated to this agenda.  Also under the umbrella of the AFC advocacy is an array of political action committees or PACs, which fund candidates and the reward and consequences strategy in states across the nation.

In 2011, I tracked the money spent by AFC and its related entities in the 2010 midterm elections and mapped the history of primary nonprofits behind the privatization movement. Some of the products of this effort can be seen in a series of 2011 (list of links and summaries accessed in this article) and in the Summer 2012 issue of The Public Eye magazine (beginning on page three).

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Lincoln, Slave Narratives, and Hollywood’s Neoliberal Agenda

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Why does Hollywood keep distorting history to portray exceptional individuals rescuing America from collective problems?

**This article appears in PRA’s Fall, 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine, a special edition on neoliberalism and the Right**

Editorial note: This essay has been revised and updated from a previous version. 11/5/2014.

Recently, a number of acclaimed films focusing on the life of Abraham Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War have distorted historical reality to suggest that exceptional individuals– and not social movements–are are responsible for progressive social change. From serious nonfiction dramas based on historical texts (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, Salvador Litvak’s Saving Lincoln) to fictionalized dramas set in historical times (Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained), to works of fantasy and science fiction (Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Richard Schenkman’s Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies), these films work to further affirm a neoliberal economic and political system.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in the 2012 film Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in the 2012 film “Lincoln”

The only film listed above that manages to offer moments of subversion is 12 Years a Slave. Tellingly, it’s the sole film of the bunch directed by a Black artist. Its screenplay, too, was written by an African-American, and its three leading actors were all born and raised outside of the U.S.  The varied backgrounds of the film’s primary creative forces help explain why the film has a greater sense of ideological complexity.

Yet even 12 Years a Slave is flawed in its refusal to represent slavery as an economic system of extreme labor exploitation, such as when a slave in the film is casually murdered by one of his kidnappers (a ludicrous situation within the economy of slavery, where murdering a strong, able-bodied person was tantamount to setting a small fortune of currency on fire, and which is also inconsistent with Solomon Northup’s memoir upon which the film is based.) This distortion wrongly contextualizes slavery as less an economic system and more a system of psychological cruelty[1].

The screenplay for 12 Years a Slave also erases Northup’s insightful descriptions of how enslaved people were in a constant state of rebellion. Like Tarantino’s Django Unchained, McQueen’s film is obsessively focused on Black passivity. The Black male protagonists in both films are exceptions to the rule of Black abject conformity.

All of these films embrace narratives of exceptionalism. This fixation helps to explain why representations of Abraham Lincoln have become so popular—a trend perhaps best exemplified by the film Lincoln.

In interviews, Tony Kushner (the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright behind Lincoln) has repeatedly said that he wanted to create a narrative that would relate to our time (and specifically to the struggles of the Obama administration). To do this, though, Kushner engages in a conscious act of historical misremembering.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team of Rivals, upon which Lincoln is based, is conceptually brilliant: rather than a linear history of Lincoln’s presidency, Goodwin offers a parallel biography of Lincoln plus his three primary rivals—William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates—for the Republican presidential nomination of 1860. By placing Lincoln within his broader sociopolitical context, Goodwin highlights what was extraordinary about him.

But Kushner created a largely fictionalized drama that emphasizes the greatness of Lincoln, portraying him as a man who had the good sense to not go too far in terms of granting African-Americans full civil rights and who is applauded for his patience. (Kushner doesn’t seem to consider that it is rather easy to be patient about the human rights of a group to which you yourself do not belong.) The film’s antagonist is not a slavery advocate, but rather the Northern Radical Republican leader and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.

Kushner seems intent on denouncing radicalism as unrealistic, portraying the radical wing of the Republican Party as a bunch of hyper-emotional “wild boys.” With such disregard for facts, could Kushner be using Lincoln to mount a critique of contemporary progressive critics of the Obama administration?

In one disturbing scene in the film, Kushner and Spielberg suggest that the suffering of African-Americans for almost a century under Jim Crow and the continuing legacy of poverty that disproportionately harms the African-American community are worth it because no other historical course toward justice was possible. The forces that sought to maintain class and race privilege are depicted as “reasonable,” whereas people such as Stevens, who demanded full civil rights for all, are depicted as “unreasonable”.

With such shadings, Kushner becomes an apologist for the rampant human and civil rights violations of contemporary Democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Kushner has stated in the press that the election of Barack Obama “changed his politics” and that he now understands one has to “work within the system” if one really wants to help people[2].

In a later scene in Lincoln, Kushner and Spielberg portray Stevens and Lydia Smith, an African-American woman Stevens employed as his housekeeper, in bed together reading the official copy of the 13th Amendment. By framing Stevens’s commitment to Smith as the motivational force for his politics, the film attempts to justify its argument that Lincoln had the more rational political analysis. Kushner manages to slam Stevens in a way that also engenders contemporary audience sympathy for Stevens’ allegedly extreme position. The film is arguing that Lincoln wanted African-American political liberation as profoundly as Stevens did but that Lincoln was the more pragmatic, dispassionate political force.

The evidence suggests that the historical Lincoln was far less focused on achieving justice for people of color. His approach to Native Americans illustrates this. In 1862, Lincoln presided over the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged in Minnesota. While Lincoln did also pardon over 250 men from hanging on that same day (the Army had wanted to execute 303 Dakota men), he pardoned them because of fear of European opinion, rather than a sense of humanitarian intervention[3]. The only opposition in Washington to his plans for increasing the intensity of the genocide of the Native American populations came from radicals like Thaddeus Stevens[4].

12 Years a Slave and Lincoln are not the only Hollywood films guilty of historical revisionism. While Seth Graham Smith’s novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, includes realistic echoes of Lincoln’s biography (minus the vampires), his screenplay imagines a friendship between Lincoln and an African-American character, William H. Johnson, played by Anthony Mackie[5]. The filmmakers make Johnson into a sidekick who is kidnapped by vampires and has to be saved by Lincoln and two other White male friends. Their friendship allows the filmmakers to suggest that the North was a post-racial wonderland for African-Americans (a quality the film shares with the strange early scenes of 12 Years a Slave).[6]

Why is contemporary Hollywood prone to such acts of distortion? Of course, Hollywood did not become rooted in neoliberal propaganda overnight. Steven Spielberg’s box office hit Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) were reactions against in a Hollywood cinema that had been growing progressively more daring in terms of analysis of race, gender, capitalism and imperialism. The success of these predominantly White, overwhelmingly male-oriented, and ideologically conservative films led the film industry to two conclusions: one, that more money could be made producing films with white male protagonists; and two, that films ought to embrace the idea of the superiority of middle class values and American exceptionalism. While there has been critique of the lack of gender and racial diversity in Hollywood films, media critics pay less attention to the ways Hollywood has increasingly adopted neoliberal positions vis-à-vis global finance capital and U.S. imperialism. Films that are critical of the global economic structure and US military aggression are rarely produced by the current studio system. When they are produced, they tend to be met with hostility or bewilderment.

The success of neoliberal philosophers, historians and cultural critics such as Anthony Giddens, Todd Gitlin, Jim Sleeper and Francis Fukuyama[1] has been a key factor in moving Hollywood away from support for narratives of oppressed communities liberating themselves and toward tales of saviors granting freedom to the downtrodden.

For example, Gitlin’s books, The Sixties: Years of Hope Days of Rage and Letters to a Young Activist have had profound effects on popular culture[2]. In both books, Gitlin argues that the hopeful nature of the 1960s was ruined by leftwing militants. He goes so far in Letters as to argue that ““You either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule of the Republicans.[3]” Gitlin blames anyone that tries to charge the dominant system with the responsibility for placing the oppressor into power. Arguments such as this have influenced Hollywood liberals to believe that the world needs exceptional heroes and elite structures to rescue impoverished and oppressed people. They further believe that people like Thaddeus Stevens or Frederick Douglass did more harm than good because they were “too extreme” in their belief that oppressed communities could empower themselves.

Yet Hollywood neoliberalism is a reflection of our larger neoliberal landscape. Liberal elites embedded in the Democratic Party would prefer to ignore the historical reality that slavery ended primarily because of relentless resistance from within enslaved African-American communities. They discount the radical White men, like Thaddeus Stevens, who worked in solidarity with African-American leadership.

For filmmakers to realistically portray a historical person like Lincoln as a political moderate “forced into glory”[7] by the social forces of his time would help to delegitimize the idea that history is made by a few great (White) men. To realistically portray Black insurgency against slavery as a consistent aspect of the 19th century would suggest that racist violence and a racist legal system—not Black passivity and pathology—have held the African-American community in disproportionate poverty since the end of slavery.

If liberals are consistently pushed by Hollywood to believe that progressives and radicals have been the “problem children” of history, is it any surprise that they shy away from working in coalition with them or even, at times, view them with hostility? Or that they resist critiquing the Obama administration in order to give the President a chance to “save us?”

There is another way. The historical record supports the narrative that President Lincoln became a great President because he had so much pressure from a well-organized and militant left-wing.  We must boldly and vigorously challenge Hollywood’s tendency to distort this history. Only then can we expect to get the kind of films that will support, rather than hinder, the struggle for human liberation.

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[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wg91T83Bwmk

[3] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian American History of the American West, p. 40, Henry Holt, Owl Book edition (1991, copyright 1970)

[4] Hans L. Trefousse Thaddeus Stevens:Nienteenth-Century Equalitarian p. 193-200, The University of North Carolina Press, (1997)

[5] David Herbert Donald Lincoln p. 20-47, Simon and Schuster (1996)

[6] For viewers familiar with the life of the real William H. Johnson, his representation in the film is problematic. Johnson was Lincoln’s personal valet in Illinois and he was brought with Lincoln to Washington DC upon his election as our 16th President. Johnson accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg for the famous address. While at Gettysburg, Lincoln contracted smallpox. The president was placed in isolation and was only cared for by Johnson. The president recovered but Johnson contracted the disease and died.

[7] Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream is remarkable alternative study of the Lincoln presidency written by African-American historian Lerone Bennett Jr. in 2000. Bennett’s controversial book suggests that the true “great emancipators” were African-American activists and leaders and their white anti-racist allies.

Neoliberal Language Lessons

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

Click here to see the full neoliberalism issue of The Public Eye magazine

How right-wing power—along with free-market ideas—shifted from conservative Christians to the Tea Party

In his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, political geographer David Harvey traces the triumph of neoliberalism back to a “revolutionary turning-point” in the late 1970s.[1] Figures across the world, including Deng Xiaoping in China and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, began to implement ideas and policies that favored property rights and market exchanges over public investment and government intervention.

In the United States, Harvey notes, Ronald Reagan participated in this early neoliberal wave when he “brought to life the minority tradition that stretched back within the Republican Party to Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s.”[2] This tradition had emphasized not only libertarian economics but also social traditionalism since at least the post-war period. But over the course of the 1970s, it was transformed into a political alliance between wealthy, neoliberal-friendly elites and a grassroots more interested in curtailing women’s bodily autonomy and promoting “family values”—the so-called Christian Right. Why has this latter group, comprised mostly of evangelical conservatives, acted as regular, if not always docile, allies in the Republican Party’s active role in the neoliberal project?

People wave signs at a "tea party" protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

People wave signs at a “tea party” protest on the grounds of the Colorado state capitol in Denver April 15, 2009. image via Reuters

Political analyst Thomas Frank, famously, thought the answer was clear: they were being hoodwinked.[3] According to Frank, Republicans talk about abortion and other social issues but do not actually provide much policy action. Yet while their supporters are distracted, Republican officials can erode the social safety net and promote unfettered, free-market capitalism. Still, Frank’s analysis has been criticized for suggesting that grassroots Christians are rubes.[4] In fact, social issues are not just distractions, but rather legitimate concerns for evangelical Christians. Liberalism and feminism are indeed threats to their way of life, or at least to the conservative, patriarchal social structures that their political and religious leaders promote as “natural.”

There also are concrete policy actions that Republicans provide to make neoliberalism “real” for evangelicals. Faith-based initiatives are a key feature of the “compassionate conservatism” so favored by George W. Bush.[5] These policies outsource and privatize welfare by providing grants to religious organizations, creating a kind of “market” where churches compete to provide voluntary support for the poor. (Frederick Clarkson covers this phenomenon extensively in his essay for this issue of The Public Eye.)  Churches remain eligible for federal dollars without having to conform to any prohibitions on discrimination or proselytization, while the neoliberal shrinking of the state proceeds. As both economic elites and evangelical leaders promote their alternative to a supposedly pervasive culture of “welfare dependency,” faith-based initiatives help cement Christian Right support for neoliberalism. As geographer Jason Hackworth notes, “The rationality of replacing secular welfare with religiously delivered welfare has helped to bond together elements of the American Right throughout the past thirty-five years.”[6]

Faith-based initiatives also have helped neoliberals by softening the image of their poverty policies; they’re not eliminating aid to poor families and children, but replacing it with a better alternative. (Forget that no evidence exists that these policies produce better results, or that they might actively undermine a democratic civil society.[7])

But Christian conservatives have come to neoliberalism for more than just welfare. Some scholars argue that evangelicals are naturally predisposed toward free markets. Sociologist Max Weber famously tied the rise of capitalism to the Protestant work ethic. More recently, historian Mark A. Noll has argued that the rise of evangelicalism in the early United States likely fostered acceptance of free-market principles among religious believers: having largely rejected regulation and authority in religious life, evangelicals were then ready to accept a similar economic program.[8] Sociologist Fred Block has even suggested that a shared commitment to “market fundamentalism” helps unite business elites and Christian conservatives; this latter group is particularly “reassured by its moral absolutism.”[9]

It may be true that evangelicals have an affinity for free markets, but Christian doctrine has also been aligned with social welfare liberalism, as with Catholics and the Social Gospel, or rights liberalism, as with the Black Church and the Civil Rights Movement. The missing step is politics—a political force that activates Christian conservatives’ affinity for neoliberalism and transforms it into political action. And this is just what some savvy political operatives within Republican networks have done.

Evangelicals did not magically become Republicans in the late 1970s; the marriage required matchmakers. New Right operatives famously invited Christian evangelicals into the GOP, most publicly with the creation of the Moral Majority in 1979.[10] Since then, the wealthy elites who run the GOP have spent years trying to convince the Christian Right to go along with their economic agenda, and have used religious-based discourse and coded language to do it. So the estate tax, for example, became portrayed as a “family” tax that disrupted the bonds of inheritance.[11] Similarly, voucher advocates use the language of “school choice” to enlist religious conservatives in neoliberal privatization efforts.[12]

All of these maneuvers have led to the present moment, when, at the grassroots level, the most active force within the Republican Party is no longer the Christian Right but the Tea Party. As polling by the Pew Research Center confirms, Tea Party activists are also often Christian evangelicals.[13] Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

Tea Partiers may still love Jesus in their hearts, but they are talking and acting like good neoliberals.

It remains to be seen how much staying power the Tea Party has, and whether its leaders are engaged in a zero-sum game with the Christian Right in national politics. But their success in driving the American political agenda towards issues of deficits and the proper scope of government cannot be denied. On one level, this is a tremendous victory for economic (or corporate) conservatives. On the other hand, grassroots activists are taking neoliberal ideas to their logical conclusion, possibly damaging the GOP’s political prospects by pushing for government shutdowns and challenging incumbent Republican officials who are insufficiently devoted to their principles.

The obvious Frankenstein parallels may not be lost on today’s Republican elites. Still, Republican neoliberals continue to have one thing in common with their evangelical protégés; they are unlikely to waver in their faith.

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[1] David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1.

[2] Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 9.

[3] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 6.

[4] Larry Bartels, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?Quarterly Journal of Political Science 1 (2006): 201-226. Frank’s analysis is generally more subtle than his detractors let on; his analysis is less about what voters think than about the kinds of discourses they adopt (referring to an antagonistic “liberal elite,” for example).

[5] Frederick Clarkson, “An Uncharitable Choice: The Faith-Based Takeover of Federal Programs,” The Public Eye, Fall 2014. http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/10/an-uncharitable-choice-the-faith-based-takeover-of-federal-programs/

[6] Jason Hackworth, Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3.

[7] David Ashley and Ryan Sandefer, “Neoliberalism and the Privatization of Welfare and Religious Organizations in the United States of America,” in Religion in the Neoliberal Age: Political Economy and Modes of Governance, ed. François Gauthier and Tuomas Martikainen (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013).

[8] Mark A. Noll, God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). British historian Boyd Hilton suggests a similar dynamic for the UK in the same period; see Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), viii.

[9] Fred Block, “Reframing the Political Battle: Market Fundamentalism vs. Moral Economy,” Longview Institute, Jan. 30, 2007, http://www.longviewinstitute.org/projects/moral/sorcerersapprentice.

[10] Frances FitzGerald, “A Disciplined, Charging Army,” The New Yorker, May 18, 1981.

[11] See Richard J. Meagher, “Tax Revolt as a Family Value: How the Christian Right Is Becoming A Free Market Champion,” The Public Eye, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2006). Also see Richard J. Meagher, “Family Taxes: Conservatives Frame Estate Tax Repeal,” Journal of Policy History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 2014).

[12] “‘School Choice Week’: A Dose Of Facts Debunks Voucher Propaganda,” Americans United for Separation of Church & State, https://au.org/voucherFAIL.

[13] “The Tea Party and Religion,” Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, Feb. 23, 2011, http://www.pewforum.org/2011/02/23/tea-party-and-religion.

Christian Right Undermines Marriage Equality With Religious Supremacism

This article is a part of PRA fellow Fred Clarkson's ongoing column on religious liberty for LGBTQ Nation

This article is a part of PRA fellow Fred Clarkson’s ongoing column on religious liberty for LGBTQ Nation

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That vision of history’s progression has been well illustrated by the past year’s landslide of advances for marriage equality.  And as we move closer to a more just society, the nature of the opposition is revealed in the nature of the backlash.

The Christian Right has been operating on multiple fronts to stop—or at least limit—the scope of the advance of marriage equality, including seeking to enable business owners, civil workers, and elected officials to openly discriminate against LGBTQ couples by co-opting the progressive principle of religious liberty.   The most dramatic example of this is in Mississippi, where recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act authorizes just such discrimination by businesses—and is being challenged in federal court.

As the case proceeds, we may hear more about one of the most remarkable marriage equality victories in the landslide of federal court victories this year. General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper.

The United Church of Christ, whose origins go back to Plymouth Rock, won a stunning victory for both marriage equality and religious liberty when they overturned North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage. The federal judge ruled (PDF) that the state could not criminalize the role of clergy in solemnizing the same-sex unions of members of their congregations. “It is clear,” U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn declared, “ … that North Carolina laws … threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional.”

Judge Cogburn’s ruling underscores that religious liberty is only possible in the context of religious pluralism—in which all religious and non-religious points of view have equal standing under the law. It also helps to clarify that when Christian Right leaders talk about religious liberty—they often really mean theocratic religious supremacism.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, took to the airwaves after the filing of UCC’s suit to claim that the church is not really Christian, and that those who support gay rights don’t have the same rights as conservative Christians—because ‘true religious freedom’ only applies to ‘orthodox religious viewpoints.’”

FRC head Tony Perkins

FRC head Tony Perkins

Perkins’ blunt statements are a sobering reminder that theocratic factions of the U.S. Right have long sought to regain the religious and political hegemony they lost when the Constitution was ratified in the 18th century.  The arc of the moral universe is not bending their way, and demagogues like Perkins are abusing the idea of religious liberty to beat down people with whom they religiously and politically disagree.

Let’s take a moment, then, to hear what advocates for religious liberty and pluralism actually sound like.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

“The historic wins for marriage equality and our willingness to seek justice through the courts,” said president Michael D. Castle of the Alliance of Baptists, “not only places us as a leading witness for justice, but also allows the Alliance of Baptists to offer a powerful and prophetic witness to a Christian faith where love always trumps fear, and where the welcome of Jesus always trumps hate and archaic religious dogma.

The Alliance of Baptists—progressives who fled the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the ‘80s— and the Central Conference of American Rabbis signed onto the UCC suit as co-plaintiffs, along with a number of individual clergy from a variety of religious traditions.

“Depriving rabbis of the freedom to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies in North Carolina,” Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive of the Conference stated, “stigmatizes our religious beliefs and relegates many of our congregants and community members to second-class status.”

“There is no more central tenet to our faith,” added Fox and several other Reform rabbis in the wake of the Windsor decision of the Supreme Court last year, “than the notion that all human beings are created in the image of the Divine, and, as such, entitled to equal treatment and equal opportunity… Thanks to the Court’s decision, the federal government will now recognize these marriages as well, while still respecting the rights and views of those faith traditions that choose not to sanctify such marriages.

No one speaks for all of Christianity, let alone all people of faith. But there are certainly authentic spokespeople for religious liberty. Let’s not allow the Christian Right to drown them out or shout them down.

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