Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about the politicization of the Baltimore riots, Supreme Court oral arguments on same-sex marriage, and writers’ protests of Charlie Hebdo.
Conservative reaction to the unrest in Baltimore sometimes looks like a page out of the old “silent majority” playbook. The right has so far blamed the crisis on unions, welfare, single-parent families, Democrats, the “animalism” of Baltimore residents, and President Obama. Is there a political agenda taking root to exploit this crisis in 2016?
If there is, the country is going to pay a huge price. To exploit urban riots as a wedge issue, as Richard Nixon did in 1968, is to pour gasoline on the flames. And there is reason to fear it is already happening. At the crudest level — as Larry Wilmore graphically demonstrated on Comedy Central last night — we have the spectacle of Fox News commentators falling over themselves to repeat the name of one particular Baltimore gang, the Black Guerrilla Family, over and over. (Such other Baltimore gang names as the Bloods and the Crips just don’t cut it anymore if you are in the scaring-whites business.) At the more serious level, we have a lead columnist in this morning’s New York Post all but wishing that New York might become “another Baltimore” so that blame can be placed on its Democratic mayor and the Democrats in general.
Then we have Rand Paul, who in an interview with the conservative radio host Laura Ingraham yesterday, joked that he was “glad the train didn’t stop” in Baltimore when he passed through it this week. Remember Rand Paul? This is the one Republican presidential hopeful who has been making a point of reaching out to African-Americans. He doesn’t seem to realize that not stopping in Baltimore is exactly the problem for him and his peers. Speaking as someone who has family there and has spent good chunks of the past four years there, I can join the many who attest that any national politician who didn’t know the despair in this city, 40 miles from Washington, was simply in a bubble, sleepwalking, or didn’t give a damn.
There is no justification for criminal behavior in Baltimore or anywhere else, even with a provocation as horrific as the homicidal violence inflicted on Freddie Gray. But there is also no justification for cynical politicians using that outbreak of criminality to drum up votes. Particularly if you have no ideas for ameliorating what the president rightly calls a “slow-rolling crisis.” What you’ll find this week if you look at received conservative opinion is the old saw that more force, more police, more implementation of the police tactics of Rudy Giuliani (not to mention his ace police commissioner Bernard Kerik) is the first step toward urban tranquility. What you won’t find is any acknowledgment of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or the most salient statistic in the whole Baltimore story: the Baltimore Sun’s investigative discovery that since 2011 alone the city’s police department has paid out $5.7 million to settle or resolve 102 incidents, many of them involving excessive force.
The ultimate goal of such conservative point-scoring in this tragedy may indeed be to drive a wedge between Hillary Clinton and those white Democratic and independent voters who defected from Obama but who might be inclined to vote for her. And those are white voters Clinton may need, after all, to make up any shortfall in enthusiasm and turnout among the young and minority voters who were so central to Obama’s two national victories. Will Clinton stand up — and stand up strongly — against such race-baiting? Neither she nor Bill Clinton acquitted themselves well in this regard in 2008. It means as much for America as it does for her campaign that she muster courage and leadership in the slog to 2016.
Following arguments on same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court this week, some commentators expect a ruling that will, at least to some extent, recognize its constitutionality — and provide GOP presidential hopefuls a way to sidestep the issue. Assuming the Court rules as expected, could opposition to same-sex marriage be retired as a perennial GOP rallying cry?
This theory seems to be on its way to becoming a consensus: If the Court acts as predicted, then Republican candidates can say marriage equality is a “settled issue” and move on to the next question without driving away the large majority of voters that now approve of same-sex marriage. Even the Times’ statistical blog, the Upshot, has concurred that “history would effectively be bailing out” the Republicans if the Court acts. But history isn’t necessarily governed by logic, and one might as well have made the same prediction in 1973, when Roe v. Wade held the prospect of ending the culture war over abortion.
If there is a sweeping decision, the GOP presidential field still has a huge problem. The largest component of the party’s base is evangelical Christians, and they oppose same-sex marriage overwhelmingly (by a margin of three-to-one, as opposed to two-to-one in the party overall). At the same time, as was verified by the implosion of the “religious freedom” laws in Indiana and Arkansas, GOP-leaning corporate America is wholeheartedly in favor of making same-sex marriage the law of the land — so much so that its economic leverage brought the conservative Republican governors of both those states to heel. How do you resolve this split between the party’s grassroots and its donor class?
You can’t. This dynamic will keep playing out, no matter what the Court decides. The Republican base isn’t going to retreat from its vocal opposition to same-sex marriage — and its demand that presidential candidates toe that line — any more than anti-abortion advocates have retreated in the four-decade-plus history of a woman’s right to choose. The anti-marriage-equality forces are going to be visible and vocal on the primary campaign trail and no doubt at the convention, possibly with protests. And if the Court’s decision is less than sweeping — leaving the door open for a free-for-all battle over conflicting marital laws and rights in different states — marriage could yet prove a major issue throughout the 2016 cycle.
Citing the PEN American Center’s decision to give its Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo, six prominent writers have withdrawn from the gala in protest, essentially arguing that its anti-Islam cartoons add to the suffering of “a Muslim population in France that is already embattled, marginalized, impoverished, and victimized.” In a case like this, where do you draw the line between satire and racism?
To my American eyes (and perhaps most others), Charlie Hebdo’s mocking of the Prophet Muhammad is crude, puerile, and potentially funny only to those Frenchmen who still swear by Jerry Lewis. But they are cartoons and expressions of free speech, however offensive. Terrorists murdered 12 people to censor that free speech. That Charlie Hebdo’s survivors continue to publish in that aftermath fits the definition of “courage,” to use the word PEN invokes in honoring them. Some American publications have lacked precisely this courage, thereby denying Americans the right to judge Hebdo’s output on their own and weigh these cartoons’ contribution, minor or major, to the virulent climate of Islamophobia in France.
I admire the writers who are protesting the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo’s survivors. But I think they are overthinking it. Their arguments have inadvertently landed them on the same side of this debate as William Donohue of the Catholic League. After the Paris bloodbath, Donohue was the first loud American voice to condemn Charlie Hebdo for mocking the Prophet Muhammad — much as he had previously led the charge in condemning those who mock his own religion, whether at the Brooklyn Museum or South Park.
The pretext also seems weird for taking this stand: We’re not talking about Charlie Hebdo being given the Nobel Prize. It’s being given an award at a black-tie fund-raising gala — a political-moral battleground akin to the Leonard Bernstein party mocked as “radical chic” by Tom Wolfe in New York 45 years ago. In any case, if the writers’ protest over Charlie Hebdo has accomplished anything, it has raised the profile of an event that otherwise would have only been noticed after-the-fact on the party page of the Sunday “Styles” section. Back in the real world, PEN’s first priority right now should be to make sure that the security at its gala’s venue is impregnable.