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Comment forums reveal GOP dissatisfaction

—Karen S. Hoffman

[This post is part of the 2016 election series, curated by Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn, co-editors of Controlling the Message.]

Since the 2012 election cycle the role of digital politics continues to evolve. Now the story is all about social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are all venues for candidates to communicate with voters. (All declared, and soon to be declared, candidates have Facebook and Twitter accounts.) Hillary Clinton leads on Twitter with over 3.7 million followers. Donald Trump is not far behind with just over 3 million. Rand Paul has the most “likes” on Facebook with over 2 million. There is good reason for the candidates to use social media tools. Pew reports that in 2014, 71% of adults online use Facebook. Sixty-five percent of those share, post, and comment at least sometimes on Facebook. And almost one-third of those post and comment about the news on Facebook. Data on Millennials is even more striking. According to Pew, Facebook is their main source for news about government and politics.

Social media has also impacted the way that citizens participate in political debate. At the time of my analysis of the 2012 presidential election, the main space for people to join an online debate about political issues was the comment forum that sits below individual articles on many news sites. While the democratizing effect of this type of public debate was celebrated, the substance of the discourse was also criticized as rude and vulgar. Some believed that the language on such forums represented only the most extreme and polemic views, undermining public discourse altogether. I disputed this position in my analysis of 2012 comment forum speech leading up to the presidential election, demonstrating that the substance of most comment forum speech was, in fact, fairly similar to elite discourse about the presidential election. If there was a problem with incivility during the 2012 election cycle, the problem existed far beyond citizen comment forums.

Heading into the 2016 presidential cycle, social media has also changed the nature of comment forums. Due to the tremendous increase in social media users, as well as a desire to improve the civility of comments, many news sources either require contributors to sign in through an existing social media account, or have moved public discussion to social media sites altogether. For instance, in 2014, Huffington Post banned anonymous comments and required contributors to sign in through a social media account to ensure that their comments were attached to a real name (no more “sukonthis,” “libs_r_trouble,” or “mancreatedgod”). CNN removed its comment forums altogether at the end of 2014, opting to host discussion via its Facebook and Twitter platforms. Fox News is an interesting exception. During the months leading up to the 2012 election, Fox News disabled its comment function completely, but since the election, has brought back the comment forum for some articles. In general, all news sites now have Facebook accounts, whether or not they have retained the comment forum function on their official news sites.

So, has the move to Facebook altered the substance of online public discourse? At this stage, it is difficult to compare current Facebook discussions with my original analysis. The 2012 data came from comments generated in the final months of the general election cycle, while we are barely into the primary season for 2016. Discussion during a primary season is likely qualitatively different from discussion during a general election, when internal party disagreement decreases. Keeping in mind that this is the primary stage, with most of the cycle still ahead us, two things stand out in comment forums. First, the changes in comment forums rules and venues have not changed the discourse. Second, conservative commenters are really angry at the Republican establishment.

First, language has not changed much as it moves to social media. Comments are still very polarized, routinely rude, and often tied to policy issues, very loosely defined, which is what I found in my first analysis. The one difference is not the speech, but the more polarized discussion spaces. As people rely on social media for their news, they are exposed to fewer perspectives, because even more than before, people see the news they want to see. It is also still true that social media comments on the 2016 presidential race still track fairly closely with elite discourse, which is similar to my findings in 2012. Because the rules now make it harder (although not impossible) to post anonymously, it is increasingly difficult to dismiss comment forums as the ravings of extremists and trolls who do not represent real citizens’ views. Further, as Pew reports, “For most politically active SNS users, social networking sites are not a separate realm of political activity. They are frequently active in other aspects of civic life.” While we might want to ignore this discourse, the people posting on comment forums are likely to be a factor in the presidential election.

Second, it is abundantly clear that there is discontent amongst the conservatives represented on comment forums. Everyone knows that liberals and conservatives are polarized, but the division within the Republican Party is extremely evident online, as well. Conservatives who post on these forums are very upset with the Republican establishment. They believe that their causes have faced nothing but losses – losses that are the fault of Republicans, such as a majority Republican Congress that has not delivered results (in their minds) and two significant defeats from a presumably conservative Supreme Court (on healthcare and gay marriage.) Typical posts on the subject are as follows:

“Why [have] the Republicans…done NOTHING since they won a landslide victory in both houses???????????????”

“I have not missed a presidential vote since Reagan in 1980. I’m so very close to sitting this next one out. The candidate better be an uncompromised Constitutionalist or I’m out.”

“…Thus far, none of the elected Republicans have shown any backbone at all or done what they promised they would do. We still have Obamacare, it’s not defunded, or removed. We still have a budget that only serves special interests. We have the rights of Christians, gun owners, and the constitution under attack. Can ANY of YOU remember that you are elected to protect the Constitution?…”

The fury fairly leaps off the page on these forums and it is clear that at this point in the election cycle they are not at all interested in candidates who can build coalitions and consensus. They want a fighter who will defeat the opposition, not work with them.

Enter Donald Trump. Many elites scoff at Trump’s bombastic language, fairly criticizing its flaws in fact and tone. They are also surprised (and sometimes worried) at the support he has received thus far. Based on comment forum discourse, however, it is not surprising at all. The attraction of Trump is not his mastery of policy issues – it is his uncompromising, “take no prisoners” approach to our political problems. For conservatives who feel the establishment wing achieves nothing by bargaining and negotiating in the political process, his rhetoric is music to their ears. In the words of commenters,

“These main stream Republicans are running scared. The are basically no different than the democrats. Spineless. Crank it up Mr. Trump!”

“The republicans bashing trump are weak. And jealous of him. These republicans are the same ones meander [sic] with the dems behind close [sic] doors.”

“I want Ted Cruz, Carly Fiornia and other candidates – including Donald Trump included in the upcoming debates. No more shoving some weak kneed GOP candidate who will lose (again) to the Liberal Progressives who have taken over the Democrat party. If FOX can’t accomplish this simple task, why should we TRUST FOX NEWS anymore?”

There is currently great support for Trump’s candidacy. Of the first 100 comments on a Fox News Facebook post about Trump, 92 expressed support. This is typical for conservative forums where support for Trump currently in the majority, if not a supermajority. A tally of the comments on a CNN Facebook post about Anderson Cooper’s interview with Trump showed less support, only 24 of the first 100 comments were supportive (which is not insignificant, given CNN’s position in the media’s mainstream). Based on a reading of the first 100 comments of four CNN Facebook pieces about presidential candidates, approximately 20% support Trump. Of course, today’s frontrunners may be forgotten in a few months (or even weeks), but the anger at establishment Republicans is the force driving support for Trump and will likely continue to be a factor in the race. Trump may not be the ultimate vehicle for this element of the Republican Party, but they want a candidate who is a fighter and not interested in bargaining and compromise.

Viewed individually, comment forum posts do not provide much insight on public opinion and they mostly serve to alarm everyone about the decline of civilized discourse. If you read enough of this speech, however, overall trends emerge. In the aggregate, comment forums are particularly useful in identifying more visceral aspects of opinion. The substance of this language is similar to elite discourse, but public comments tap into an overall mood.

Every week is a lifetime in a political campaign and it is not likely that Trump’s appeal can survive the entire primary cycle. The details of his various policy pronouncements are conveniently vague, and his bold statements will not be as impressive when subjected to close scrutiny. The anger and division within the Republican Party will remain, however, and Republican candidates will have the unenviable task of placating a very active wing of the Republican Party that is not in the mood for compromise and wants nothing to do with Establishment Republicans. I would not be surprised if many Republican candidates are currently hearing this message loud and clear (which is why many of them are hesitant to simply denounce Trump) and will continue to incorporate plenty of “fighting” words in their discourse. It is telling that Scott Walker’s speech declaring his candidacy did not tout a record of building consensus and getting things done, but rather that he could fight and win.

By the time the general election rolls around, this rebellion could subside as Republicans close ranks against the Democratic candidate, but the gist of the current comment forum language is that they erred in “settling” for Mitt Romney in 2012 and are not going to make that mistake again.

Karen S. Hoffman is Director of Undergraduate Studies and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. She is the author of Popular Leadership in the Presidency: Origins and Practice. She has also published articles on the presidency, presidential rhetoric, and political communication in Rhetoric & Public Affairs and Congress and the Presidency. Her essay on comment forum speech appears in Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns (NYU Press, 2015).

Controlling the message

—Victoria A. Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn

It is that time of the election cycle again, when presidential campaigns are gearing up and preparing for primary contests and, for a select few, general election races. As the would-be presidents seek to turn their electoral dreams into action, they are hiring staff, establishing PACs, and wooing donors. In addition, as many hopeful candidates have done in recent elections, they are building social media management teams, whose sole job it is to shape the candidate’s brand, leverage their political platform, and control ‘the message.’

In our recent volume, Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns, we collected more than a dozen essays that draw on real-time data collected during the 2012 election cycle to analyze how the new politics of social media affect, and are affected by, political campaigns. As the 2016 elections approach, we plan to bring you a series of blog posts from authors of those essays that link this scholarly knowledge to ongoing developments in the world of politics.

The excerpt that follows is from the first of these pieces. Authored by Karen Hoffman of Marquette University, it examines the political rhetoric of comment forums found at online media sites. Professor Hoffman shows that the dynamics of comment forum rhetoric so far in this election cycle continue to demonstrate the characteristics she wrote about in Controlling the Message. Further, she makes key observations about what this rhetoric tells us about conservative Republicans in the current election cycle.

So, has the move to Facebook altered the substance of online public discourse? At this stage, it is difficult to compare current Facebook discussions with my original analysis. The 2012 data came from comments generated in the final months of the general election cycle, while we are barely into the primary season for 2016. Discussion during a primary season is likely qualitatively different from discussion during a general election, when internal party disagreement decreases. Keeping in mind that this is the primary stage, with most of the cycle still ahead us, two things stand out in comment forums. First, the changes in comment forums rules and venues have not changed the discourse. Second, conservative commenters are really angry at the Republican establishment…

Read the whole essay here, and follow the series on the NYU Press blog.

Victoria A. Farrar-Myers is Senior Fellow and Director of the Tower Scholars Program in the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist UniversityJustin S. Vaughn is Associate Professor of Political Science at Boise State University. They are co-editors of Controlling the Message: New Media in American Political Campaigns (NYU Press, 2015).

Book notes: Beyond Deportation

—Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia

“Prosecutorial discretion” refers to a decision made by an agency (in this case, the Department of Homeland Security) about whether or not to enforce the immigration laws against a person or group of persons. A prosecutorial discretion grant is significant because it functions as a temporary form of protection from deportation even though the immigration “status” conferred is tenuous.

wadhia frontA prosecutorial discretion grant is also important to the agency because it allows the agency to use its limited resources to pursue true enforcement priorities and also injects compassion into an otherwise complex and broken immigration ­system. Beyond Deportation reveals just how much and for how long prosecutorial discretion in immigration law has been grounded on compassion.

The visibility of prosecutorial discretion has increased in such dramatic ways that it becomes hard to imagine a time when prosecutorial discretion fell outside the popular immigration vocabulary. Its popularity peaked in June 2012 when President Barack Obama announced a policy termed DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is a form of prosecutorial discretion in immigration law and has allowed thousands of young people to work, study, and drive in the United States with dignity and without the constant fear of arrest and possible deportation.

Prosecutorial discretion became even more popular after November 20, 2014 when President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immi­gration. These actions include an expansion of the DACA program and the establishment of a new deferred action program for qualifying parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in cases where the parents have resided in the United States for at least five years. These most recent deferred action programs are on hold because of litigation by 25 states and the state of Texas against the federal government challenging the legality of these programs. Along with these “on-hold” deferred action programs, the Administration published a new priorities memo entitled “Policies for Apprehen­sion, Detention, and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants.” The priorities memo is operational today and in six pages attempts to spell out the Administration’s priorities for removal and a refined prosecutorial discretion policy.

One of the chapters in Beyond Deportation discusses the immigration case of John Lennon and the efforts undertaken by his attorney, Leon Wildes, to encourage the immigra­tion agency to publish its policies about prosecutorial discretion. The Lennon case is significant because it triggered the publication of the immigration agency’s first guidance on “deferred action,” a form of prosecutorial discretion that has been used as a remedy for individu­als facing compelling circumstances for many years and was showcased most recently with the President’s executive actions. The book offers context to this case by providing a detailed history of “deferred action” and examples of how it has been applied to both individuals and special populations, such as vic­tims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes. The book scrutinizes thousands of deferred action cases and identifies a historical and humanitarian pattern for the types of cases that are processed and granted deferred action. In the last fifty years, people have received deferred action for largely humanitarian reasons, including the following attributes: advanced or tender age; long term presence in the United States; serious medical condition, or a primary caregiver to a person with a serious medical condition; and family members who are U.S. citizens.

Much of the deferred action data analyzed in Beyond Deportation was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. In the early years of my FOIA adventures, the data was in some cases disorganized, illegible and elusive. Even obtaining illegible data was remarkably exhausting and sometimes involved multiple communications with FOIA officers, government attorneys and the DHS’s own ombudsman. But the challenge was not limited to the shield held by the agency over the information itself or questions to myself about whether practitioners and scholars should have to file a FOIA to obtain basic information on topics such as ‘how to file a deferred action request.’ The challenges were more complex because some of the data I sought was simply not tracked by the agency. As one example and as a result of a FOIA lawsuit with ICE over deferred action cases, ICE confirmed that it did not track deferred action cases before 2012.

My own experiences in seeking and sorting data inform the book’s discussion about transparency. Transparency in prosecutorial discretion mat­ters because it improves the possibility that justice will be served for people whose roots and presence are in United States. Transparency also promotes other administrative law values like consistency, efficiency and public acceptability. I commend DHS for advancing these values through DACA—by creating a program that is trans­parent and aimed at protecting young people who satisfy the program’s core elements and, in these modern times, reflect the program’s humanitarian roots.

Beyond Deportation closes with praise for DACA but is replete with recommendations to the general deferred action program, which continues to lack form, specific criteria or even basic instructions on how to apply. As to the broader prosecutorial discretion policy, the bookcalls on DHS to look at the whole person when making prosecutorial discretion decisions. DHS memoranda on prosecutorial discretion suggest that no one single factor is dispositive to a prosecutorial discretion decision. However, the book’s case profiles of those deported—and anecdotes from immigration advocates and members of Congress about the impact of these deportations on families—raise important concerns to the contrary.

Whether or not prosecutorial discretion has earned visibility for political reasons, understanding the history of prosecutorial discretion and the important role it plays in U.S. immigration law is essential. My own preoccupation with prosecutorial discretion began during my time as law student clerk and later attorney at Maggio Kattar P.C. I worked on a wide range of immigration cases, but the most life-changing cases involved those individuals whose only prayer was prosecutorial discretion. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, I worked for several years as a legislative lawyer in front of the “political” branches, advocates, and affected communities. In the decade after 9/11, agency officials and policymakers were loath to openly discuss “prosecutorial discretion.” For the last seven years, I have lived in central Pennsylvania writing largely about the role of discretion, teaching immigration, and directing the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. This professional background combined my personal life experience as a child of immigrants raised in the U.S. with tremendous opportunity, a wife, and mother set the landscape for Beyond Deportation. I am honored to have had the opportunity to write this book and to share some of its origins here.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia is the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar, law professor, and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Penn State Law. She is the author of Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases (NYU Press, 2015).

To eradicate health care disparities, the Supreme Court needs enforcement

—Dayna Bowen Matthew

matthewIn the long-awaited King v. Burwell ruling last month, the Supreme Court took a major step forward in the fight to eradicate the racial and ethnic health disparities that result in the loss of over 83,000 black and brown lives in America each year. But just as the Court’s groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education decision was not enough to guarantee equal educational opportunity for minorities in 1959, the Supreme Court’s ruling alone cannot ensure equality in American health care today.

King v. Burwell hinged on the decision to uphold tax subsidies for those who purchased coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  By affirming the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s tax credits for individuals with household incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty line, the Court’s ruling preserved the economic support that many low income families (by some estimates, over 26 million Americans) rely on to buy health insurance and access health care.

Beyond preserving the Act’s economic support, King v. Burwell also protected the Affordable Care Act’s nondiscrimination provisions. Section 1557 of the ACA is the first-ever civil rights provision to specifically prohibit discrimination in the health care industry. This statute could represent a turning point—a veritable Gettysburg—in the fight against racial and ethnic health disparities. But only if the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) makes full use of it.

Section 1557 breathes new life into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and could be enforced to prohibit discrimination in health care based on race, color, or national origin. Thus far, the DHHS has applied Section 1557 successfully to combat sex discrimination in health care—important in its use to protect transgender patients, and ensure that providers treat men and women equitably in the context of hospital emergency departments. DHHS has also employed Section 1557 to win a number of significant agreements requiring providers across the country to ensure language access for persons with limited English proficiency. But HHS can, and must, go further.

The Department of Health and Human Services must use Section 1557 to challenge the well-documented discriminatory treatment practices that deny minority patients access to medical care for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and a wide range of other illnesses. Section 1557 has yet to be leveraged to curb rampant discriminatory patient admission and transfer practices; differential pricing and prescribing of specialty drugs used to treat chronic diseases that disproportionately affect minority patients; gross under-representation of minorities in research clinical trials; or the shocking lack of diversity in the medical workforce, all of which are persistent contributors to disparate health outcomes for racial and ethnic minorities.

The deadly, disparate impact of these and other discriminatory practices can and should be the focus of new investigations and enforcement activities. Only then will we ensure an end to the legacy of inequality in America’s health care system.

Dayna Bowen Matthew is Professor at University of Colorado Law School and the Colorado School of Public Health. She serves on the faculty of the University of Colorado Center for Bioethics and Humanities, and she is co-founder of the Colorado Health Equity Project, a medical legal partnership whose mission is to remove barriers to good health for low-income clients. She is the author of Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care (NYU Press, 2015).

Book origins: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here. For this month’s post, the author breaks down the book’s origin story.

I got interested in studying Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen about a decade ago in the summer of 2005, when the congregation moved into the Compaq Center. For nearly 50 years previous, Lakewood’s home was located in a Black and Latino/a working-class neighborhood on Houston’s northeast side. Lakewood’s new home generated national headlines, which, as a scholar of religious history, initially drew my attention.

Joel had emerged as a national figure in 2004 with the publication of his first book Your Best Life Now, which became a New York Times best-seller, and in early 2005 Washington Post writer Lois Romano dubbed him the “smiling preacher.” In addition, in June 2005 Osteen appeared on Larry King Live, where he spoke about taking over Lakewood Church from his father John Osteen, his life as a pastor, and his first book, among other topics. An exchange between King and Osteen during which King queried the smiling preacher about the exclusive claims of Christianity and salvation in Jesus Christ, however, quickly became a flashpoint of controversy that further catapulted Joel into the national spotlight. Because Osteen refused to condemn religious people of faith traditions outside of Christianity—while simultaneously maintaining that he believed God was the ultimate Divine Judge—many evangelicals believed he had denied the exclusivity of Jesus Christ on national television.

Critics roared with disapproval. A series of online, print, and television campaigns (which continue to the present) by the likes of evangelicals R. Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, Michael S. Horton, and Hank Hanegraaff castigated Osteen’s supposed uninformed theology, slim reasoning, and shallow dogma. Such dismissals, many of which emanated out of the New Calvinist movement, shaped opinion about Osteen, and even prompted a minister named Adam Key to picket and preach outside of Lakewood Church with a poster of his book Your Best Lie Now on display. (I recount this larger moment of religious controversy in chapter 8 of Salvation with a Smile, and explain its historical and cultural significance.) The summer of 2005 was thus a signature moment in the history of Osteen and Lakewood Church, and represents the origins of what became Salvation with a Smile.

At the time of Osteen’s ascendance in 2005, I was nearly finished with my Ph.D. coursework in the University of Houston’s history department, and looking for an independent study to round out my fall schedule. I had been reading Andrew Chesnut’s writings on religious economy—then at the University of Houston, now at Virginia Commonwealth—and approached him about using religious economy to analyze Lakewood’s congregation. The following fall, I conducted extensive participant-observation at Lakewood, and read widely about religious economy. I began to consider Lakewood’s historical origins, and think about why and how the congregation became America’s largest megachurch. The paper I wrote for the independent study with Professor Chesnut, it turned out, formed the basis for the chapter on Joel Osteen in my book Holy Mavericks, which appeared in 2009.

Yet the Holy Mavericks chapter could hardly tell the fuller story of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Much of the research I compiled for the chapter pointed to a much larger account of the congregation’s history and Osteen’s cultural significance, so I began to consider what that larger story might look like. By 2009, Joel Osteen had become a household name, and had published three New York Times best-selling books. He was, as Mara Einstein has observed, a powerful religious brand in American Christianity. The story was growing. In 2010, I assembled a book proposal and in March of 2011, with a book contract in hand, I continued to write and research Salvation with a Smile for NYU Press.

Having grown up in Houston in the 1980s, I’d heard of Lakewood and remember seeing the church’s founder John Osteen on local television. Another memory was “Lakewood Church: Oasis of Love” bumper stickers on cars around town. The origins of studying Lakewood in 2005, as I look back now, was also a way to conduct research on local history, and learn more about Houston’s past. Long story short, the research I compiled for the graduate paper, and later the Holy Mavericks chapter, proved too much to fit into those limited spaces. I had to write the larger story, which you can find here.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009).

The moment of maybe

—Joshua Gamson

rainbow-flagIn the days since Obergefell v. Hodges and its rainbow celebration, I spent way too much time on Facebook reading through the voluminous posts and commentaries about how wonderful, awful, incomplete, conservative, progressive, lame, and historic is the Supreme Court’s decision.

Setting aside the more strident, ungenerous, overstated, patronizing, and self-serving of these—frankly, that eliminates a lot of them—these stocktaking discussions highlight several important, basic points. First, marriage equality symbolically and legally marks the end of outsider status for many within gay movements, and that is both an uneasy and vexed transition. Second, there’s a whole lot more work to be done, both in terms of completing the equalization of rights and the broader work of social justice and institutional change; beware of what Michelangelo Signorile has called “victory blindness.” Third, the fact that the Supreme Court ruled favorably towards marriage equality, and that public opinion, pop culture, and big business have shifted so favorably towards gay rights in recent years, stands in stark, telling juxtaposition to the heightened attacks on black Americans and the rollback of reproductive rights.

Clearly, the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision marks a turning point for the LGBT movement—or rather, for the diverse, messy array of efforts and organizations that fall under that rubric. The question now is what that movement will do in this moment of possibility. A lot of smart people have been thinking, writing, talking, and acting on that question, and the best I can do is to cull from them the intertwined principles that might guide the next stages in this vibrant, ass-kicking movement.

Formal equality is not enough. Activists such as Urvashi Vaid have for decades been pointing to the limits of pursuing a “state of virtual equality that would grant legal and formal equal rights to LGBT people but would not transform the institutions of society that repress sexual, racial, and gender difference.” If you needed a devastating reminder of legal equality’s insufficiency, you could get that by flipping from the breathless SCOTUS celebrations to Rev. Pinckney’s dead body being carried past the Confederate flag. Now that gay and lesbian virtual equality is now well within reach—legal scholar Nan Hunter predicts that the LGBT-rights movement “will seem banal in 20 years if not sooner”—LGBT movements can return to a more ambitious social justice agenda.

Do not close the doors. A few years ago, Vaid suggested the guiding movement principle of “Leave No Queer Behind,” and it’s a crucial one at this moment. One of the risks when some beneficiaries of a movement are invited into social institutions is that they will abandon those who remain by necessity or choice on the margins. Refusing to do so—refusing to betray or abandon those who aren’t easily assimilated or who don’t want to assimilate—may involve the movement, as historian Timothy Stewart-Winter points out, in challenging the institutions that have just invited some of us in.

Intersectionality is not just a theory. That sexuality is intertwined with race, class, gender, physical ability, age, and the like is often noted but has not deeply informed much of mainstream LGBT rights organizing. It should be impossible to see the attacks on black and brown bodies, for instance, as an issue separate from LGBT concerns, if only for the obvious reason that some of us are LGBT people of color. The fight for gay rights has advanced in part by deploying economic and racial privilege, and over time, Vaid asserts, LGBT organizations have moved away from their earlier intersectional roots; the movement has been “oddly complacent in its acceptance of racial, gender, and economic inequalities, and vocal only in its challenge to the conditions facing a white, middle-class conception of the ‘status queer.’” At this turning point moment, she has advocated, a “re-formed LGBT movement focused on social justice [must] commit itself to one truth: that not all LGBT people are white or well-off.”

Coalitions, coalitions, coalitions. All of these linked principles—seeing formal equality as a starting rather than end point, refusing to leave anyone behind, making intersectionality a core organizing principle—promote a renewed focus on building and strengthening coalitions. The movement itself has always been a coalition, of course, and a fragile one; this transitional moment offer an opportunity to recommit to a coalition of lesbian and gay and bisexual and transgender coalition. It’s also an opportunity to imagine and enact new progressive coalitions; some are already working on these coalitions, and others have long ties that can be renewed.

Until last week, these principles seemed right but like a bit of a lost cause. As sociologist Suzanna Danuta Walters puts it, the gay marriage fight, for all its practical and symbolic value, took up a lot of “bandwidth and sucked the air out of the potentially more capacious room of queer world-making.” Now, at this turning point, when energy can be redirected and different voices emboldened, they seem instead like hopeful possibilities. Whether the LGBT movement manages to, as Walters says, “pivot and recalibrate,” I can’t predict, but the principles for recalibration are certainly well articulated. We are in a big moment of maybe.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him at @joshgamson.

[This article originally appeared on the Contexts blog, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]

How email ruined my life

—Catherine Zimmer

I got my first email account the fall I started graduate school, in 1995. Even then I had an inkling of the pressures that would come to be associated with this miracle of communication. My entry into grad school coincided with a relationship transitioning into a long-distance one, and what at first was a welcome mode of remaining tethered soon enough became a source, and an outlet, of demand, anxiety, guilt, and recrimination.

This early experience of the pressure and affective weight of email faded into memory alongside that relationship, and certainly at the time it did not occur to me to hold the medium responsible for the messages. But over the past couple of years, now that I am lucky enough to be firmly cemented in an academic job and stupid enough to have taken on an administrative role, that experience has reemerged for me as something of a retroactive portent of the place email would come to hold in my life. Because as anyone in an even remotely bureaucratic environment will tell you, “email” is no longer simply a way of communicating with others, though periodically a message gets through that is significant enough that the medium becomes momentarily transparent. Email is now an entity in and of itself—a gargantuan, self-perpetuating and purely self-referential monstrosity that I do not “use” but barely “manage,” a time-sucking and soul-crushing mass that I can only chip away at in an attempt to climb over or around to get to an actual task.

From epidemic-level ADHD and eye fatigue to degenerative spinal conditions at younger and younger ages—not to mention my self-diagnosed early-onset thumb arthritis—constant interaction with digital devices has arguably had widespread health consequences. It is also fraught with an expansion, intensification, and perversion of the emotions associated with that first email account. But while then I attached those affective elements to a romantic relationship, they are now purely indicative of my relationship to email “itself”: the phenomenon that makes constant and growing demands on my time, attention, and energy, requiring that I devote at least a modicum of substantive thought to each individual expression of its enormous, garbage-filled maw. Time spent on email has grown to hours every day. This is not a measure of increased “productivity.” In fact it is just the opposite, as answering email has become the forest I have to machete my way through just to get to the things that actually constitute my job. And while I do get angry at the jaw-dropping idiocy of certain student emails (Hi Mrs. Zimmer can u send me the syllabus because the final is tomorrow and i missed the last eleven weeks of class) and irritated at the endlessly accumulating details of academic work (Dear Dr. Zimmer, this is a friendly reminder that the due date for the Learning Outcomes Rubrics Departmental Self-Assessment Model is March 23rd) ultimately each one of these individually maddening iterations is just a sign of the incomprehensible sprawl of the medium. And when factored in with texting, messaging, social media, streaming television, and any number of other incoming and outgoing information flows, the sense of being “overwhelmed” seems unsurprisingly ubiquitous.

Email is of course inseparable from the character of any digital labor and the economy of which it is a part: it thus becomes a useful metonymic device to understand how convenience has become so profoundly debilitating. Though no one explicitly states it (because it would sound insane), the demand that we keep up with and process this level of information, and communicate coherently in return, is a demand that the human brain function closer to the speed of digital communications. Needless to say, it does not. Thus the unparalleled levels of prescription of amphetamines and pain medications are not merely the triumph of the pharmaceutical industry, but an attempt to make the human brain and body function alongside and through digital mediation. The relative ease of communications, the instantaneity of information exchange, does not make our lives simpler: it means that we are asked to attend to every goddamn thing that occurs to the countless people we know, institutions we are a part of, and every other organization whose mailing list you have been automatically placed on simply by having a single interaction with them. It’s like being able to hear the internal mutterings of both individual people and cultural constructs: a litany of the needs of others and the expectations of the social sphere (not to mention my own neurotic meanderings when I have to construct a careful response to someone, or an email I have sent goes unanswered). Finding it increasingly impossible to recognize and affectively react only to the articulations of each missive, I respond instead to the cacophonous noise of the whole damn thing. That noise is now constant, while its volume ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the work year. As the only constant, email becomes an end in itself. Email never goes away. Email is an asshole.

It is not surprising that this self-perpetuating mode of interaction comes alongside a proliferation of (self-)assessment and (self-)documentation—talking about what you will, have, or are doing instead of just doing it. Thus the ability to communicate about everything, at all times, seems to have come with the attendant requirements that we accompany every action with a qualitative and quantitative discourse about that action. Inside and in addition to this vast circularity are all those things that one’s job actually entails on a practical, daily basis: all the small questions, all the little tasks that need to be accomplished to make sure a class gets scheduled, a course description is revised, or a grade gets changed. Given how few academic organizations have well-functioning automatic systems that might allow these elements to be managed simply, and that my own university seems especially committed to individually hand-cranking every single gear involved in its operation on an ad hoc basis, most elements of my job mean that emails need to be sent to other people.

Once I send an email, I can do nothing further until someone sends an email back, and thus in a sense, sending that email became a task in itself, a task now completed. More and more it is just a game of hot potato with everyone supposedly moving the task forward by getting it off their desk and onto someone else’s, via email. Every node in this network are themselves fighting to keep up with all their emails, in the back and forth required before anything can actually be done. The irony of the incredible speed of digital mediation is thus that it often results in an intractable slowness in accomplishing simple tasks. (My solution has been to return to the telephone, which easily reduces any 10-email exchange into a 2-minute conversation. Sidenote: I never answer my own phone.)

In case it isn’t already clear, such an onslaught of emails, and the pressure of immediacy exerted sometimes explicitly but mostly by the character of the media, means that we no longer get to leave work (or school, or our friends or our partners). We are always at work, even during time off. The joy of turning on our vacation auto-reply messages is cursory, for even as we cite the “limited access” we will have to email (in, like, Vancouver), we know that we can and will check it. And of course we know that everyone else knows that it’s a lie. Even if we really do take time away from email, making ourselves unavailable (not looking at email, not answering our texts) does not mean email has not been sent to us and is not waiting for us. And we know it, with virtually every fiber of our being. Our practical unavailability does not mitigate our affective understanding that if we ignore email too long, not only will work pile up, but there will be emotional consequences. I can feel the brewing hostility of the email senders: irritated, anxious, angry, disappointed.

Even if I start to relax on one level, on another my own anxiety, irritation, and guilt begin to grow. Email doesn’t go away. It’s never over. It’s the fucking digital Babadook, a relentless, reflexive reminder of the unfathomable mass underlying every small transaction of information.

The nonstop stream of communication and its affective vortex are in part what philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and now many others) have described as “societies of control,” distinguished not by discipline but by the constant modulation and management of the flow of information. Ultimately we are exhausted by the endless negotiation of this unmappable terrain, and our personal and professional labors increasingly have the character of merely keeping ourselves afloat. Which is not to say that discipline no longer functions: those excluded from the privilege of control will often find themselves subject to the sharper baton of policing and incarceration.

There does appear to be increasingly widespread recognition that email is having a significant effect on both the amount of work one does and the increasing threat of that work to health and well-being. A widely and enthusiastically misreported news story that France had instituted a ban on sending work email after 6:00pm provided a much-needed salve for the idea that there is no outside to the onslaught. Never mind that this was a wishful, apocryphal version of a French labor agreement that in reality didn’t cut off email at any hour—the story still allowed France to perform its ongoing service as the English-speaking world’s fetish of a superior, butter-drenched, bicycle-riding quality of life, a life in which steak frites is now accompanied by possible escape from a particularly maddening incarnation of digital labor. That life is apparently now the stuff of internet rumor and media fancy.

The range of feelings I associate with the era of my first email account roll on through now and then as I check my inbox, and I could probably name them, though perhaps they were never discrete. And I understand that it is my job as a participant in digital culture to respond to email, and text, and instant messaging—in writing and in sentiment. But the truth is that I am just really tired. Perhaps the vacuum in affect attested to by the accumulation of emoticons and emojis has little to do with the flattening effect of digital communication. Maybe feelings are simply exhausted.

Catherine Zimmer is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies and English at Pace University in New York City. She is the author of Surveillance Cinema (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted on Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books channel.]

Marriage equality: A conservative’s dream

—Kimberly D. Richman

On November 4, 2008, I was lying in a hospital bed, on bed rest while pregnant with my twin daughters, watching the election coverage that first delivered the elated news of President Obama’s win, followed by the heartbreak that Californians had passed Proposition 8, inscribing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. On June 26, 2015, I awoke to a celebratory text message from the National Center for Lesbian Rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a nation-wide fundamental right to marriage for all couples, same-sex or different sex, and had the joy of explaining what this meant to my now 6 ½ year old daughters. Quite literally, the world shifted in the time it took them to reach first grade.

licensetowedIt’s safe to say that the dizzying pace of change in the world of same-sex unions was unexpected by those on both sides of the issue. What seemed like a distant goal in 1996 when I first started researching LGBT family rights, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act, is now so commonly accepted a truth that government buildings across the country—not just in my home town of San Francisco—have shrouded themselves in rainbow lights to commemorate the landmark Obergefell ruling. So much so, that to my daughters and their classmates, the idea of denying same-sex couples the right to marry doesn’t even register as a reasonable possibility.

But equally as surprising as the pace of movement on the legalization of same-sex marriage, is the ultimately conservative rationale and vision of family and partnerships on which both recent decisions by Justice Anthony Kennedy rest. Kennedy’s florid prose holds that “[t]he lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life…Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is correct in asserting that expressly excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry does them dignitary harm; I’ve found this to be the case for the hundreds of couples I interviewed and surveyed on the topic in my own research, as have other scholars and activists. However, to elevate the aspirations of those who wish to marry above those who choose to couple or do family and romance in other ways, entrenches a deeply conservative value—one that the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop 8, and other anti-gay measures hold dear, ironically.

While Kennedy is careful to state that marriage need not involve a nuclear family with children, he does not leave much room for the myriad family and relationship forms that we now know some Americans choose—unmarried cohabitation, polyamory, or single parenthood, to name just a few.

In short, the conservatives who fought for so long to “protect” marriage should be thrilled by Justice Kennedy’s sweeping affirmation of the importance of marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “building block of our national community.” Indeed, these couples who undertook a years-long, expensive, taxing legal battle to enter the institution of marriage do far more to affirm it than do the rapidly increasing numbers of heterosexuals who have given up on marriage, and chosen to do family and romance without it.

It remains to be seen whether those—gay, straight, bi or trans—for whom dyadic marriage has no appeal take up the cause as fervently to extend the material benefits that accompany it in future legal and political actions. When they do so, one can only wonder whether they will find an ally in Justice Kennedy.

Kimberly D. Richman, author of License to Wed: What Legal Marriage Means to Same-Sex Couples (NYU Press, 2014) and Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law (NYU Press, 2009) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.