One of the most recently reported-on events are the confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, as she becomes the first ever African American female nominee to the United States’s highest judicial court. Her hearings are currently being discussed everywhere from mainstream news shows to TikTok, highlighting the trend of increased public interest in the Supreme Court and increased personality politics that have breached the Court in recent years.
Unlike many similar institutions around the world, the Supreme Court of the United States is an inherently political one, where Justices are easily placed on the Liberal-Conservative scale. It is now seen as an accomplishment of the President to place someone on the bench– not because it is an opportunity for greater education and stronger debate, but because it increases the likelihood of the President’s policies passing easily through the judicial branch. Retirement of Justices is now strategically planned, with Justices of a certain political leaning delaying or expediting their retirement in order for it to occur under a President they support, so that their replacement would be of a similar ideology. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, Republicans rushed to pass Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment, as it was just a month before the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump risked losing the opportunity. This is an inherent risk with lifetime appointments, as electing Justices of roughly similar ages means that there are often multiple vacancies opening up all at once, and some Presidents are given the opportunity to appoint multiple Justices. In four years, Presidents Trump and Richard Nixon appointed three and four SCOTUS Justices, respectively, whereas both Presidents Barack Obama and George Bush Jr. each appointed just two in their eight years (and no vacancies opened up during President James Carter’s term). The opportunity to elect a Supreme Court Justice was a rare one, so Presidents needed to take the chance to appoint someone who will support as many of their policies as possible.
Never before has such scrutiny been placed on a Supreme Court nominee as that on Ketanji Brown Jackson. Her initial naming was controversial, as many took issue with President Joseph Biden’s campaign statement that he would appoint “the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court,” with some claiming that this undervalued the Court, arguing that “a nominee’s race or gender should not play a role in Biden’s selection process.” However, this argument is not unique in 2022, as in 1980, President Ronald Reagan made a promise to elect a female Justice, stating that he would appoint “the most qualified woman [he] can possibly find.” Whilst he failed to do so, with the first female Justice coming 13 years later with President William Clinton’s appointment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Reagan’s campaign promise was not dissimilar to Biden’s, as it suggests nomination based on an underrepresented demographic (in this case gender). It is also important to remember that Reagan’s statement crosses party lines, and whilst not all of the outrage against Biden’s statement came from Republicans’, they were certainly the leading voice. Parties have become so polarised that they are now disagreeing with issues that their own party championed just 40 years ago, and this has concerning implications for the future of bipartisanship.
However, the arguments over Biden’s decision limits Judge Brown Jackson’s candidacy to a discussion just about race. Senator Ted Cruz questioned her on children’s books such as “Antiracist Baby” by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, asking questions such as her opinion on critical race theory and if she “thought babies were racist.” Whilst critical race theory is a widely debated issue across the country right now, it is important to note that neither Justices Brett Kavanaugh nor Amy Coney Barrett were questioned on this topic, and certainly neither of their confirmation hearings involved scrutiny of children’s books. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would vote against Brown Jackson’s appointment, as she has refused to comment on the issue of adding seats to the Supreme Court, in agreement with Justice Coney Barrett, as she too had refused to comment on the issue. However, when speaking of Amy Coney Barrett, Mitch McConnell stated that she was an “incredibly impressive jurist and highly qualified nominee.” Whilst it is far from surprising that a Republican leader would denounce a Democratic pick for the Supreme Court, it is vital that the arguments made against her are scrutinised and understood, just as those made against Republican picks must be as well. In a similar vein, there has been little discussion within mainstream news of how she is the most qualified lawyer of all those sitting on the Court. The following graphic has gone somewhat viral on social media, which compares Judge Brown Jackson’s legal history with the 9 other Justices.
Barabak, Mark Z. “Column: The architect of Reagan’s pledge to put a woman on the Supreme Court says it was all political.” Los Angeles Times, Feb 2022
Burtt, Kristyn. “Ketanji Brown Jackson Faced Some Astonishingly Stupid Questions About Racism From Ted Cruz.” SheKnows, March 2022
CBS News. “Full Transcript of the South Carolina Debate.” CBS, Feb 2020
Kaslovsky, Jaclyn and Andrew Stone. “Biden vowed to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. It might be good politics.” The Washington Post, Feb 2022
McMillion, Barry J. “Supreme Court Nominations 1789 to 2020.” Congressional Research Service, March 2022
Mitch McConnell Senate Website. “McConnell Praises Judge Barrett and Denounces Attacks on Judicial Independence.” The Newsroom Remarks, Sept 2020
Quinn, Melissa. “Mitch McConnell says he opposes Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination.” CBS News, March 2022
Schwarz, Frederick A. “Saving the Supreme Court.” Brennan Center For Justice, Sept 2019
In recent years, America has seen the emergence of “radically left” politicians, who introduce ideas such as universal healthcare and green climate policies. Politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known by her initials as AOC) and Senator Bernie Sanders have been described as “socialist superstars”1 and “Stalin sympathisers,”2 and have been criticised by both moderate Democrats and the Republican Party as being too radical.
Reflecting back on history, it is easy to see why this divide has emerged. America is one of the few countries that was founded on and rooted within capitalism, an economic system that is inherently much more closely aligned with right-wing ideology than with left-wing ideology. Additionally, the Cold War bred the “Red Scare” mentality (an Anti-Communist movement that targeted more liberal figures in the 1950s due to fears of connection between the Soviet Union), and therefore the impact of USSR Chairman Joseph Stalin is long-lasting. Due to this, America has always aligned itself more with the right side of politics than the left, symbolizing a continuing and everlasting form of the Red Scare even today. Therefore, when candidates such as Sanders, who promote left-wing values, start to come into mainstream politics, the outlook and public opinion is that they are too leftist, as history has told modern day Americans to fear left-wing figures.
The irony of these criticisms is that in the grand, world-wide scheme of politics, Sanders and AOC are far from radical. Progressive candidates in the US push for reforms that strongly resemble the norm within many other countries, and it is only within the US-centric view of politics that they appear radical. While this is a perfectly understandable reason to critique or analyse them within American politics, applying terms such as “radical socialists” is far from correct. Candidates such as Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader in the UK, and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, a French MEP for the Party of European Socialists, are much more characteristic of more extreme left-wing candidates. Corbyn championed nationalisation for a wide range of industries, a huge tax increase for the wealthiest in order to pay for welfare services, and even more of an investment in the scope of the National Health Service. In much the same way, Lienemann fought for Socialist ideals such as freezing the private sector and raising the minimum wages across the public sector. It would be inconceivable for a candidate to run with the outright name of socialist (as Corbyn and Lienemann did) in the US due to the everlasting Red Scare, and even Sanders faced criticism for being a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, an ideology much less extreme and palatable than actual Socialism. Whilst Corbyn’s views are pertinent to similar issues as Sanders’ views, they’re taken to much more extreme measures, whereas Sanders and AOC have to operate within a much more restrictive system.
One way to illustrate the US’s restriction on leftist ideology expression is through the policies that Sanders and AOC vote for. Sanders lists the following on his website as his key ideas: a move to renewable energy, national health insurance, and more humane and greater tolerance for immigration.3 On AOC’s website, she calls for greener climate reforms, criminal justice reform, and tackling income inequality.4 All of these issues are seen as radically left in the US, but are consistent with almost every major left-wing party outside of the US, and even in many centrist or right-wing parties. For example, the Conservative Party in the UK generally reaches a consensus that their National Health Service is important, highlighting an agreement between the far-left of America and the right-wing of the UK. With this point, it is clear that the ideas of Sanders and AOC are so often dismissed in the US for being too radically left, but they are the consensus between major parties outside of America. Another example is criminal justice reform policies, which aim to grant prisoners the right to vote – a concept that is the norm in many European countries, or at the very least, an issue at the forefront of the attention of major parties. Overall, America’s major left-wing party is more indicative of a centrist party elsewhere, which means that actually traditional left-wing politics are seen as radical-socialism, resembling the political beliefs of Stalin.
A reason for why this disillusion has occurred is because of the general right-wing bias that the US operates under. The consensus of the Democratic Party is one of moderate, even centre-right politics, in the grand scheme and yet is branded as a left-wing party. Democratic Presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would undoubtedly be part of the centrist or right-wing parties in other countries. Their policies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, are similar to those argued for by the UK Conservative party. Biden, along with other Senate Democrats, wouldn’t commit to the Green New Deal, a progressive and expansive Climate aid program, which the European Parliament, a currently centrist/right-leaning body, supported. Additionally, one such argument often made in favour of calling Biden a left-wing politician on a global stage is his opposition to Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU, a typically left-wing policy. However, this is also an issue supported by two Conservative former Prime Ministers: in short, Biden’s more left-leaning ideas are also those supported by right-wing parties elsewhere. Even within Canada, the election of 2020 was seen as an opportunity to decide between “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties.”5 While the Democrats are the left-wing party of the US, it is important to realise that almost all of American politics operates on a right-shifted spectrum, and when translated into global terms, it is very much a case of centrist/right versus far-right, with the “radical” voices merely representing actual left-wing policies.
What is important to recognise, however, is that the goal of pointing this out is not to suggest that Sanders and AOC are not hugely influential, or to criticise their politics. They are politicians who are actually left-wing, and this is hard to come across within the US political platform. Their emergence in Congress, and the effect they are having on political debates are a positive thing. The US is an inherently right-wing country, so any movement to the left, no matter how minimal on the global stage, is progress for the left-wing voters. By shifting some of the debate to left-wing issues and by challenging those in the centre to take a stance on issues they have previously stayed silent on, the nature of American politics is revealed, and it is evident that elected officials have limited scope. If enough support is gathered for the progressive branches of the Democratic party, such as Sanders and AOC, perhaps a clear left-wing alliance may arise, and the consensus will shift to one many other countries have: an “actual” left-wing, and an “actual” right-wing, instead of continuing with one party having the label of left, and the other having the label of right, but continuing to vote on centrist and far-right policies respectively.
Trumps’ presidency has finally come to an end. As we look forward to the new policies Biden will introduce in 2021, it’s important to reflect on the state of the country as it is. Trump was very open during his term and never held back on his beliefs. Ever since the capital attack on January 6th, the hate for Trump supporters has only grown and enraged other liberal-leaning parties. However, it’s important to answer the question as to whether or not the hate some of these Trump supporters receive is justified?
In 2016, Trump had just under 63 million votes (“2016 Election Results”). While in 2020, he had increased his voter base to over 74 million (Lindsay). Thirteen million more people had decided that Trump was worth their vote and should continue his presidency into a second term, but were these people always conservative? Conservative groups have been on the rise ever since 2016, and more people find themselves lost in conspiracy theories (Page). Groups such as QAnon continue to mislead countless Americans as to what liberals and the Democratic Party actually do.
There have been many stories about family members reading articles online, becoming infatuated with and lost in conspiracy theories. When they try to reach out to their family members, they are ultimately cast out, because what they believe is unrealistic. An uncle, a distant cousin, a grandmother can fall victim to many of these ideas and find themselves voting for Trump based on the “legitimate” articles they read. Ultimately, I believe that many Trump supporters are just unsatisfied with the position that their life is in. These conspiracy theory blogs and articles give hope to people struggling with their lives that they matter and they have a greater purpose. This is especially prevalent among Trump supporters because they are very passionate about their beliefs. Despite this, these people have only been inspired with false passion because they want to believe they can actually control something in their lives. It’s almost a form of acceptable brainwashing.
Asides from the shame and humility, the people exposed to these groups are in greater danger than they think. The first step to getting indoctrinated into these ideas is social media, but eventually they evolve into protests. It won’t be surprising if these misguided Americans get together to host another capital attack for the sake of another conspiracy posted online. The worst case for these supporters is when they encounter something they cannot get back from, as is the case of Rosanne Boyland, a Trump supporter in the capitol riots that was trampled to death. Many liberal-leaning parties are quick to make jokes about the sign “Don’t Tread On Me” she was carrying, while the conservatives hold her up as a martyr, but that’s not who she was (“Woman Trampled in Capitol Riots Had ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Flag”). Ms. Boyland was a wife, a sister in law, a daughter, and a sibling. Her family “begged her not to go”, but the conspiracy she found online was enough to grip her soul (Thanawala). What she thought was right, was merely misinformation: an idea that she needed to hear to make sense of the world. As the new generation of parents, teachers, and academics, we need to make sure people like Ms.Boyland are not alone, spending time with them, making sure they don’t find themselves looking for meaning on the dark corners of the internet. If we don’t, it’s only a matter of time before they fall even deeper into the sea of lies.
The emphasis on STEM-related majors at colleges and universities has been aggressively fueled by the growing influence of educational systems and political propaganda (Wright). Job seeking websites—including Monster.com—stated that when it came to the highest-paid industries, “…No surprise, STEM majors—science, technology, engineering, and math—came out on top” (Monster.com). Based on salary figures from 2020, STEM-related careers earned on average 26.45% more than humanities-related careers (Monster.com). It makes sense that young people would be persuaded towards pursuing STEM related careers. But are there external factors pressuring college students away from the humanities?
In June 2020, the Australian government announced an economic reform package that was directed to lower the course fees associated for “job-relevant” courses, while at the same time, doubling the cost of programs in the humanities (Duffy). This raise puts the cost of humanities programs at the same level as medical schools; med school programs saw a 46 percent decrease, while humanities programs saw a 113 percent increase (Duffy). The Australian government stated that this economic reform package is aimed at increasing the employment rate for graduates, with employment growth in STEM-related fields expected to be significantly higher post-pandemic (Sears and Clark).
Australia is not the only country influencing the career track of college students. George Washington University’s (GW) president, Dr. Thomas LeBlanc, announced in 2019 that he planned to increase enrollment in STEM-related majors from 19 to 30 percent (Rich and Schwartz). As the undergraduate population shifts to STEM related programs, the number of STEM programs and courses will also have to increase in order to accommodate the increasing number of students. Katrin Schultheiss, chair of GW’s history department, worries that “…the changes will necessitate reductions in funding for non-STEM departments and result in a ‘radical shifting of resources away from non-STEM fields’” (Rich and Schwartz).
This push for STEM programs and graduates comes from a fear of losing the race for high-tech supremacy to China (Herman). Where does this fear originate from? In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said, “…Think about the America within our reach: A country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs” (Archives.com). We can theorize that this fear derives from the American perception of the “Chinese Threat,” a fear that China will conduct “…brazen cyber intrusions” (FBI.gov) or continue to saturate our economy with global exports (Mack). Fear of the “Chinese Threat” did result in a significant increase in the number of STEM degrees; however, according to a 2016 Census Report, only 74 percent of those college graduates pursued STEM-related careers following graduation (Mand Labs).
Now, elementary schools are introducing STEM curriculums, including hands-on learning to promote STEM skills, hiring and retaining well-trained experts as teachers for STEM curriculums, and working to eliminate the gender pay disparity (Mand Labs); hoping to further increase enrollment in higher education STEM degree programs to meet the growing demand of STEM related careers. Whether or not these new strategies will be effective remains to be seen. What does the continued push for STEM degree programs mean for the humanities, in a world where humanities are needed more than ever? Increasing costs of attending humanities programs, coupled with budget cuts following the 2008 financial crisis, “…have resulted in some schools eliminating courses and degrees in subjects, such as foreign languages, art, and history” (Mullin). Deborah Fitzgerald, a professor of the history of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says state schools are the first to eliminate humanities curricula: “…Their boards just don’t think they are important anymore” (Mullin).
The following article is a revised version of the original piece and does not include all photos. The full original article with all accompanying photographs can be viewed by downloading the PDF below (recommended, but viewer discretion advised).
American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe shocked the international art community in 1988 with The Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Against politicians’ desires, the CAC decided to display Mapplethorpe’s work even though the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. cancelled the same exhibit only a few months earlier (Tannenbaum). The majority of Mapplethorpe’s photos were labeled obscene and pornographic, leading to criminal charges pressed against the CAC and its director at the time, Dennis Barrie. One of the most shocking was Rosie (1976), a photograph featuring a friend’s three year-old daughter sitting with her legs open, revealing her nude body beneath her dress. The trial took over a year, ending in acquittal and the public display of Mapplethorpe’s work at the CAC in 1990, just over one year after his death in 1989 (Mezibov).
Nude photography was one of Mapplethorpe’s specialties. Several of his portfolios featured the S&M and LGBTQ* communities in New York City, particularly in nude portraits (“Biography”). Many believe his intense focus on the nude body was an expression of his homosexuality. Rosie however, was one of only two photographs of nude children—the other, Jesse McBride (1976), featured a fully nude five year-old boy sitting on a chair. Both photos were taken with the children’s mothers’ permission but still received heavy backlash and criticism for being “pornographic” (Mezibov).
Ultimately, Mapplethorpe’s Rosie (1976) was not meant to be pedophilic, but rather a response to increasing radical American conservatism during the 1970s and 1980s. Its showcasing in The Perfect Moment exhibition (1988) challenged the limits of censorship and artistic freedom, reflecting the growing social phenomenon of hypersexualization that continues to define American media today.
Senator Jesse Helms and Homosexuality
Mapplethorpe lived in the heart of LGBTQ* activism in New New York in the 1970s. It was during this decade that the gay community began seeing representation in mainstream media, including movies that featured gay characters and the establishment of Gay Pride week. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stopped recognizing homosexuality as a mental illness, and the corporate world started prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination (Rosen). The LGBTQ* community saw tremendous strides in equality and justice advocacy.
It was during this time that Mapplethorpe became an icon for LGBTQ* folks. According to his friend and writer Ingrid Sischy, Mapplethorpe’s works purposefully focused on homosexuality in order to draw attention. His unapologetically direct photographs helped turn homosexuality from a shameful secret into a proud identity (Sischy).
However, the AIDS epidemic soon heightened homophobia in the 1980s. Mapplethorpe heavily focused on black male nudes, a clear expression of his homosexuality, making him a prime target for censorship. Republican Senator Jesse Helms was especially offended by Rosie and hyperfocused on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality, AIDS-related death, and interracial photographic subjects (Adler, Meyer). In 1989, Helms convinced the deciding congressional committee to pass a bill prohibiting the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) from funding the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), which organized the original Perfect Moment exhibit, for five years (Adler, Tannenbaum). He did so by lying about the photographs he saw firsthand at The Perfect Moment and distributing copies of four of them to the other committee members (Meyer).
At the time, Senator Helms’ arguments reflected those of a growing conservative movement. His outrage about Rosie was less about the photograph itself and more about the artist. Furthermore, his push for censorship was less about Rosie’s exposed body and more about silencing the LGBTQ* community, including proudly gay folks such as Mapplethorpe. In his attempts to “cordon off the visual and symbolic force of homosexuality, to keep it as far as possible from [himself] and the morally upstanding citizens he claim[ed] to represent,” Helms ironically brought even more attention to it (Meyer 134).
Some supported censoring Mapplethorpe’s work by claiming he was a pedophile and child abuser, but neither Jesse nor Rosie recall him as such. As adults, both reflected on their portraits proudly (Adler). As censorship lawyer Edward de Grazia wrote regarding the Mapplethorpe case, “art and child pornography are mutually exclusive… no challenged picture of children having artistic value can constitutionally be branded ‘child pornography’ or ‘obscene’” (de Grazia 50). Though it was ultimately deemed non-pornographic after the Mapplethorpe trial, Rosie was only the beginning of a political push to seize funding from the arts, particularly the radical works such as Mapplethorpe’s, following several rising liberal and conservative movements in the previous decades.
Historical Context: Radical Conservatism and the Sexual Revolution
During the 1970s, the LGBTQ* community became more vocal, allowing gay men such as Mapplethorpe to be more openly accepted in the art world. In response, movements such as the New Right and the Christian Right emerged, led largely by American evangelicals claiming that homosexuality was morally sinful (“The New Right”). Mapplethorpe’s very existence contradicted traditional conservative values, and he could never align with socially-accepted heteronormative culture.
In fact, the Rosie controversy emerged during a new wave of conservative outrage that began a few years earlier in 1987, when Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was awarded $15,000 by the partially NEA-funded Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (Meyer). Along with many other Republican Christians, Senator Helms was deeply offended and embraced the opportunity to denounce another artist who defied traditional conservative values when The Perfect Moment debuted in 1988. At that point, Helms’ focus shifted from Serrano’s critique of religion to Mapplethorpe’s expressions of homosexuality, repeatedly calling his photographs “sick” (Meyer 137). In doing so, Helms used the art as a larger metaphor for homosexuality and AIDS, which he believed were plaguing and contaminating Christian-American society.
As a gay man, Mapplethorpe was not sexually attracted to females at all, so it would have been much easier for Helms to use Jesse McBride rather than Rosie in his rhetoric. It was the ongoing sexual revolution, which also contributed to the rise of far-right conservatism, that put Rosie in the spotlight instead. Rosie, then, can be interpreted as Mapplethorpe’s way of challenging traditional ideologies and aligning with the sexual liberation movement. Where he saw an innocent child, many conservatives such as Senator Helms saw the bare sexuality of a young girl. Movements such as the New Right could not view her as anything other than sexual with her genitalia exposed. Therefore, it was not Mapplethorpe who sexualized the child but the audience who saw her, revealing a culture deeply rooted in traditional domestic roles and gender spheres.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a rapid increase in women’s and sexual liberation. Nonheterosexual sex was brought to national attention as well, especially after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (Kohn). Much of Mapplethorpe’s work reflected this new spotlight. Rosie, though, was unlike his trademark photographs of an interracial S&M community, yet it still gained significantly more attention. Despite the portrait subject being a White child, Rosie was one of the four photographs that Senator Helms distributed to his fellow Congressmen and Senators. The others were Mark Stevens (Mr. 10½) (1976), Man in Polyester Suit (1980), and Jesse McBride (Meyer). There were several other photos of naked men in The Perfect Moment, many considered far more pornographic than Rosie and Jesse McBride could ever be, but Rosie was not chosen by mistake. She reflected a different, but not unrelated, threat to Christian-American tradition: women’s liberation.
After the birth control pill hit the market in 1960, sexuality and sexual expression were no longer taboo subjects. Rates of premarital sex increased significantly while books such as Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex normalized conversation about sex (Kohn). For many, Rosie represented a new generation of sexually-liberated women. For conservatives like Senator Helms, this was an intolerable break from traditional gender roles, where men and women had defined, separate roles in society. The New Right movement believed the sexual revolution was destroying the American family structure, leading little girls like Rosie from domesticity to radicalism (“The New Right”). Rosie, then, was the epitome of everything wrong with women’s liberation for Helms. In distributing her photograph, he attempted to defy the new wave of feminism.
Censorship and Artistic Freedom
However, despite its many controversies, the Mapplethorpe censorship case was most defiant of artistic freedom. Following the case, American art critic Robert Storr wrote that “there are no ‘laws of decency’; certainly none that have any juridical standing with respect to art” (Storr 13). He further argued that censorship itself is the manifestation of widespread mistrust of the public’s ability to draw their own conclusions. In a nation founded on freedom of speech and expression, art essayists like Hilton Kramer, who deeply criticized Mapplethorpe’s work, and politicians like Helms ironically believed that common people should not and could not discern what was acceptable, particularly regarding art (Storr). Helms and Kramer used censorship to impose their own beliefs onto the general public, serving as a microcosm of strong conservative attempts to minimize the voices of non-traditional values.
When such defiances of conservatism emerged, they were immortalized in the form of art through Mapplethorpe and other “radical” artists like Serrano. In the heat of America’s changing society, Rosie became a monumental representation of true freedom: freedom of artistic expression, freedom of sexual expression, and the freedom of perspective. Politicians, however, disagreed over what freedoms should receive public funding. Helms and his fellow White Christian American conservatives believed that the NEA should not fund art that offended them based on “their assault on social constructions of sexuality, race, and spirituality” (Atkins 33). Once again, the majority group was attempting to impose their beliefs on the rest of society, a perfect example of censorship at its core.
Mapplethorpe’s case was significant but not the first. Works by LGBTQ* folks, people of color, and those with “dangerous” political views have been consistently marginalized. For example, Diego Rivera’s Portrait of America mural at Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1933 because its center featured Vladimir “Lenin” Ulyanov, former leader of the communist Soviet Union (Atkins). In 1934, Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In was removed from the Corcoran Gallery of Art—the same gallery that cancelled The Perfect Moment in 1988—because the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration requested it (Atkins). This was only a small part of FDR’s anti-gay legacy: during his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR helped run a sting operation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1919, resulting in the arrest of over 20 Navy sailors for homosexual activity (Loughery). In 1981, after strong advocacy from Hilton Kramer and other conservative critics, the NEA stopped funding individual art critics because many of them were leftist (Atkins). Clearly, the Mapplethorpe case followed decades of conservative attacks on art.
Some believe the most pressing issues surrounding Rosie were Rosie’s age and exposed body. There were certainly multiple other artists photographing naked women at the time, like Don Herron and his Tub Shots series, who received little criticism for the nudity. In fact, nudity itself has never been an issue in art; some of the most famous and public classical works portray naked Romans, Greek gods, and biblical figures, like Michelangelo’s David and Sistine Chapel ceiling. In fact, nude boys were not an issue either, as seen in works like Thomas Eakins’s Boy nude at edge of river (c. 1882) and John Singer Sargent’s A Nude Boy on a Beach (1925).
The fact that Rosie was a girl was not the most significant factor either. During the 1970s, when the Rosie photograph was taken, the United States saw a rapid increase in explicit advertisements, particularly those with women only partially dressed or in full nude. One 1993 study revealed that the number of purely decorative female roles in ads increased from 54 percent to 73 percent from 1959 to 1989 (Busby and Leichty). A 1997 study found that over a 40-year period, 1.5 percent of popular magazine ads portrayed children in a sexual way, and of those ads, 85 percent depicted sexualized girls, with the number increasing over time (O’Donohue et. al). Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the sexualization of young girls was certainly nothing new. Advertising industries had been doing this for decades before the Rosie controversy started in 1988. In fact, they still do.
The hypersexualization of both women and children in the media is quite common now. As National Women’s Hall of Fame activist Dr. Jean Kilbourne reveals in So Sexy So Soon, corporations use sex and sexiness to advertise to children at increasingly younger ages—and they are alarmingly successful. Dangerously unhealthy standards of beauty define sexiness as the most important aspect of a woman’s identity and value. The sexual liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s has turned into a hypersexualized culture, where children as young as Rosie are exposed to sex in songs, TV shows, advertisements, and social media (Kilbourne and Levin). Like the conservatives’ reaction to Rosie in 1988, young girls are now seen in a sexual way before they are seen as simply children.
Therefore, like the basis of Helms’ original arguments, the outrage and controversy surrounding Rosie was less about the photograph itself and more about the artist and what the artist represented. Mapplethorpe’s identity and lifestyle contradicted many traditional conservative values: he was homosexual, engaged in S&M, photographed interracial couples, and eventually died of AIDS. Rosie herself said she did not view her portrait as pornographic and could not understand why others thought it was. In fact, in a 1996 interview with The Independent, Rosie recalled her mother making her put on a dress just before the photo was taken, and immediately after, she took the dress off. Ironically, she noted that “if it had been a small [nude] boy, maybe this furore would be justified; Robert [Mapplethorpe] wasn’t interested in girls anyway” (Rickey). Jesse McBride, which is exactly that, received even less backlash than Rosie.
Helms, then, used Rosie against Mapplethorpe not because he thought it was pornographic, but because of all Mapplethorpe’s works, Rosie garnered the most conservative support for censorship. He could easily use the classic damsel in distress situation by painting Rosie as a helpless little White girl in need of protection from a dangerous gay man, with emphasis on Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality. It wasn’t Rosie’s age, nor her exposed body, that angered Helms: it was Mapplethorpe.
The Rosie controversy was just as relevant in 1988 as it is now. It continues to pose crucial questions, challenging the boundaries of art and the limits of censorship while highlighting the marginalization of LGBTQ* art, societal resistance to change, and hypersexualization of women and children. Ultimately, Rosie was not the creator of such outrage and conservative criticism, but the vessel exploited by powerful politicians to further their own agendas against Mapplethorpe and other LGBTQ* folks. The Mapplethorpe trial surrounding Rosie was the culmination of decades of liberal movements—including women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and increasing attention to LGBTQ* voices—and the conservative responses to them. Despite the continuous controversy, critics consider Mapplethorpe, rightfully so, as one of the most influential American artists in the twentieth century. Rosie was last on public display in 2017 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
O’Donohue, William, et al. “Children as Sexual Objects: Historial and Gender Trends in Magazines.” Sexual Abuse, vol. 9, no. 4, 1997, pp. 291–301. SAGE Journals, doi.org/10.1177%2F107906329700900403. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.
At first glance, it may seem odd to compare Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and E.B. White. Other than spending their childhoods in Westchester County, New York, what else do they have in common? Ocasio-Cortez is a current United States congresswoman, representing New York’s 14th district. For many, she is a symbol of change: she defeated her well-established primary opponent despite being outspent 18-1; she is the youngest woman to serve in the US Congress; she sponsors bills considered to be radical, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for all; and she even has an asteroid named after her (Hajela; Mosher). On the other hand, White can be seen as a standard bearer, an idealistic image of an Ivy League-educated white male who came to age before any of the two world wars. Even during the Great Depression, White lived comfortably as a writer for the New Yorker (Heitman). As a co-author of the prolific style guide, The Elements of Style, White has set the bar for writers for decades. His books, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, have influenced countless children as they learn to develop their own styles of writing. Dr. Laura Lisbeth of Stony Brook University characterizes White’s influence as “a tradition in Anglo-American literacy,” for The Elements of Style “certainly turned the English language into a personal expression of his idiosyncratic preferences” (Lisbeth).
Comfortability would not be an accurate descriptor of Ocasio-Cortez’s life. Despite rising from poverty and winning her own voice in the United States Congress, her troubles as a young, idealistic woman of color were far from over. On July 23, 2020, Ocasio-Cortez gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. She reprimanded her colleague, Representative Ted Yoho, for his offensive remarks that he delivered to her personally on the steps of the Capitol Building. Ocasio-Cortez rebuked not only Yoho’s remarks, but also Yoho’s compliance with a culture that has served to the detriment of women throughout American history. In 1941, almost 80 years earlier, White made his mark in literary history and published his essay “Once More to the Lake” in Harper’s Magazine. In the essay, he details his vacation to a lake in Maine with his son. White weaves in and out between the past and present, merging them together and revealing how some things never change.
As different as Ocasio-Cortez and White are, a common theme between these two works is the past and how it affects our present and future. Because the barrier between past and present is fluid for White, he uses the past as a way of telling the story of the present. Nostalgia would not be enough to describe White’s attachment to his childhood: he actively lives in both worlds. Ocasio-Cortez uses the past not as a point of nostalgia, but as a point of reference from which society should use to change the future. Unlike White, Ocasio-Cortez does not wish to live in the past. She would rather live up to her reputation and change the future for the next generations of women. Both White and Ocasio-Cortez share a common theme, but differ in how they examine the implications. Using rhetorical devices such repetition, parallelism, anadiplosis, and antimetabole, Ocasio-Cortez and White engage their readers with cohesive and rhythmic sentences that display the authors’ control over their narratives. By having this control, both writers can focus their readers to the details and emotions they wish to convey. In return, the readers have confidence in how each author interprets their relationships with the past.
Prominent rhetorical devices used by Ocasio-Cortez and White are parallelism and repetition. In the opening of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech, she describes exactly what Yoho had said to her. She says, “[H]e called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind, and he called me dangerous” (00:14-01:43). The repetition of the opening, “he called me,” creates an intensity that is palpable to the reader. Even to those in the audience who are already aware of the incident involving Yoho, there is an anticipation built up because of Ocasio-Cortez’s wording. To those who are not aware of Yoho’s remarks, this repetition would be even more enthralling: ‘He did what? He called her what?’ This kind of excitement provides emphasis to Yoho’s comments. There is particular stress on “crazy” and “dangerous.” The parallelism allows the reader to find cohesion (Kolln and Gray 129, 152-153). The remarks Ocasio-Cortez relays to her audience are not broken up by different structures or introductions. She consistently states, “he called me.” This, in effect, keeps the reader focused and attentive to the string of offensive remarks, instilling outrage and disappointment.
A second instance of repetition and parallelism in Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks comes soon after the first. She denies that Yoho’s comments hurt her personally. She says, “Because all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape, at some point in our lives” (01:43-03:11). As she repeats “some,” she implies that Yoho’s remarks are not an isolated event; rather, his remarks come in a long line of incidents that Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges she shares with “every woman in this country.” Thus, her use of “all of us” and “in our lives” allows her to build a relationship with the women in the audience. When considered together, the two quotes accomplish three things: instill anger in the audience towards Yoho and disgust towards his remarks, imply Yoho’s remarks are not isolated and are an unfortunate consistency throughout Ocasio-Cortez’s life, and build a shared experience with Ocasio-Cortez’s target audience, which is actually split. She is simultaneously addressing men and women to different effects: men are meant to feel guilty and responsible, while women are meant to feel sympathy.
In his essay, White observes his fellow campers and writes, “This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers at the camp at the head of the cove were ‘common’ or ‘nice,’ wondering whether it was true that people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken” (3). Here, White exhibits parallelism in structure. His use of gerunds provide a sense of eloquence and activity. Given White wants to reminiscence in past experiences and merge them with the present, eloquence and activity are welcomed sentiments for the reader. White does not provide the kind of repetition that Ocasio-Cortez has. However, White’s objective of describing the experiences at the lake is made stronger without repetition. Although repetition does not imply the experiences themselves were repetitive, it may lead the reader to believe they were. Ocasio-Cortez uses repetition to make it apparent to her audience that Yoho’s remarks have been a repeated occurance in her life. Thus, repetition may not serve White so well in this manner. After all, why would someone feel nostalgic about a camping experience that feels repetitive? Repetitive would be counter to White’s portrayal of activity and eloquence. Even though White and his son engage in almost routine activities—fishing, swimming, boating—White’s recollection of his childhood negates any sense of the story being repetitive. He says, “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing” (1). He adds, “I kept remembering everything…. It was like the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen with childish awe.” (4-5). By continuously remembering the first time he ever experienced these activities, White allows himself to reconnect to the “childish awe” those first experiences instilled in him. He is not so much repeating activities, but instead repeating positive emotions. As for the reader, they can see a parallelism in his wording as well as the parallels between White’s past and present but without any perception of repetitiveness.
Both Ocasio-Cortez and White portray themselves as being in control of the narrative. Both of them make their statements from personal sentiments, but from different sources. White derives his purpose from the personal bonds he has forged with his son and his own childhood: years could not separate White from his affections for his childhood memories, sentiments he hopes to pass on to his son. Ocasio-Cortez makes it evident she derives her purpose and conviction from personal wounds: “he called me.” Both Ocasio-Cortez and White build shared experiences. Ocasio-Cortez shares her experiences with the women in her audience. White shares the experiences with himself (past and present), his father, his son, and the other campers.
The two works differ in how the reader assesses Ocasio-Cortez and White. The reader is meant to feel sympathy and reverence towards Ocasio-Cortez — sympathy for her years of being the recipient of offensive remarks, and reverence for her bravery and solidarity with her fellow women, a stance that many would argue is long-overdue. The reader feels more inclined to involve themselves with Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative, whereas the reader may feel more inclined to ‘sit back and watch’ the narrative being portrayed by White. White’s narrative is unique to himself not only because it is, of course, his personal story, but also because his story evades the circumstances of his time. As White and his son have a nostalgia-filled summer escape to the lakes of Maine, the world is in its second world war, and many sons are dying far away in unfamiliar places. White is afforded the privilege to take his reader for a ride as he navigates his way through past and present experiences that are out of the readers’ control. Ocasio-Cortez, representing herself as a casualty of another person’s privilege, wants to apply the past to the future. The future is never certain and she is addressing all generations of Americans, men and women as well. Ocasio-Cortez forces the reader to think with her about the implications of the past. She has a universal message, whereas White’s message is most definitely not shared amongst the readers of his time.
In the use of parallelism, an author may feel inclined to also build up to a climax. The term climax used here should not be confused with the climax in a sequence of a story, but it does bear resemblance. Just as a story can develop to a critical moment for its plot, a sentence or set of sentences can end itself with a climax of ideas (Kolln and Gray 49-51). For example, observe how Ocasio-Cortez uses parallelism in this sentence: “I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse and worse to see that, to see that excuse and to see our Congress accept it as legitimate and accept it as an apology and to accept silence as a form of acceptance. I could not allow that to stand which is why I am rising today to raise this point of personal privilege” (04:35-05:49). The parallel structure and repetition introduce a series of clauses with “I could not….” The repeated use of the opening is an example of anaphora (Kolln and Gray 130). The parallelism builds up until Ocasio-Cortez reaches the climax: She could not allow that to stand, and she goes on further explaining her purpose before the House. The climax is the definitive statement. This is where all the repetition and parallelism has led to. This is the most important statement. This is “why [she is] rising today.”
White also creates a climax in his sentence: “We caught two bass, hauling them in briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat in a businesslike manner without any landing net, and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head” (2). White uses climax to narrate a specific instant with his son. This is another use of parallelism (continuous use of gerunds) that culminates with the climax of killing the fish. The reader is drawn into this action sequence that is resolved by a climatic finish. It is climactic both rhetorically and in terms of the sequence of events. Both Ocasio-Cortez and White create a climactic point to show their readers that they have reached a control over the ideas, and they are steering the readers toward an end goal. Ocasio-Cortez’s climactic end goal is to show purpose for speaking. White’s climactic end goal is to finish an action sequence.
Another way Ocasio-Cortez and White take an authority of their narrative is by using short sentences. In order to dispel Yoho’s use of his daughter and wife as part of his apology for his behavior, Ocasio-Cortez issues this statement, “I am someone’s daughter too” (05:49-07:12). She then goes on to claim she will not anguish herself waiting for Yoho to properly apologize: “I will not do that to myself” (07:12-08:18). Short sentences gravitate more attention than longer sentences (Kolln and Gray 29-30). Here are clear instances of Ocasio-Cortez using that fact to her advantage. There is no surprise that both sentences begin with “I.” Ocasio-Cortez wants her reader to feel the impact of these short, yet meaningful sentences. What made her write such short sentences in the midst of her longer remarks? Obviously, it comes from personal conviction: “I am…,” “I will….” Similarly, White uses short sentences. When he describes the nature of the lake, he says, “There had been no years” (3). White wishes to be firm and declarative to his readers in his recollection of events. He asserts with confidence that nothing has changed. The emphasis in the sentence falls on “no.” This strengthens the readers’ trust in White’s narrative. Another short sentence by White is a deliberate fragment. Within his remembrance of the lake, he adds, “Peace and goodness and jollity” (4). White only wants to encapsulate the serenity of the experience. This serenity must not be shared with any other ideas because it is personally significant to White. Thus, a short sentence suffices.
Both Ocasio-Cortez and White use short sentences to command authority from their audiences. Ocasio-Cortez obtains authority through justified defiance and strong will. White obtains authority through his confidence in detail and assessment. Of course, the authors do not blatantly say, “I am defiant,” or “I am confident in my recollection.” Good narrators will show, not tell. Through short sentences, Ocasio-Cortez and White show these sides of themselves without explicitly telling the audience.
Throughout their respective pieces, Ocasio-Cortez and White enhance their writing with a play on words. The first device is anadiplosis. This is used when one clause ends and another begins with the same word or phrase (“Anadiplosis”). There are two instances where Ocasio-Cortez uses it in her speech. When she begins a fiery condemnation of men using derogatory terms towards women, she says, “It happens when individuals who hold the highest office in this land admit, admit to hurting women and using this language against all of us” (09:06). In the course of her speech, Ocasio-Cortez insinuates that Yoho has not only wronged her, but also wronged women across the country; he adheres to a terrible culture that has treated and continues to treat women so poorly. Insinuation is one thing, but now Ocasio-Cortez puts special emphasis on “admit” by ending the first clause and beginning the second with the same action. In Ocasio-Cortez’s mind, the act of Yoho admitting he has used derogatory terms towards women is not best served by saying it once. She needs to say it twice and add how Yoho’s admission is an affliction towards “all of us” women. In the second clause, “admit” is not the only word that has emphasis. “Us” also has stress on it, creating an even greater sense of solidarity with her female audience.
Contrast her first use of anadiplosis with her second use of it: “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize” (08:18-09:06). “Decent man” is clearly in the limelight of Ocasio-Cortez’s sentence. This is another instance of showing, not telling. Ocasio-Cortez has branded Yoho as the opposite of a decent man because he admits to his actions but refuses to take the proper responsibility for them. Yoho is evasive and not forthcoming. Characterizing him as such without explicitly saying so can be created by Ocasio-Cortez’s use of anadiplosis. The emphasis and stress allow the reader to infer the intention behind her words.
White uses anadiplosis in a manner similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s second use of it. Towards the end of his essay, as White begins to make his final assessments of the camping experience, he states, “This was the big scene, still the big scene” (5). It is a conclusive statement, in which White reaffirms that the present lake and camping experience resembles the experiences from his childhood. There is emphasis on “still” and, of course, “big scene.” The reader can feel the confidence White instills in his statement. There is no uncertainty. An alternative way White could have written this sentence is, “This was the big scene, [and it] still [is] the big scene.” We can see here how White uses ellipsis to leave out phrases that are understood (Kolln and Gray 132-133). This omission allows the sentence to be more precise and controlled by White.
Ocasio-Cortez’s use of anadiplosis is to uphold Yoho to his actions, turn her audience against him, and place herself on the moral high ground. White does not use anadiplosis to reflect badly on anyone else. Rather, he uses anadiplosis to reflect on his own ability to recall detail and connect to the past. Nonetheless, their uses of anadiplosis aid in their ability to command the narrative and direct the readers towards sentiments the two authors want them to feel. This is an indispensable tool, not only for politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, but also for storytellers like White.
An additional rhetorical device involving repeating phrases is antimetabole. This time, however, the repeated phrases are in reverse. For example, Ocasio-Cortez explains the wife and daughter excuse is a fallacy: “And so what I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man” (08:18-09:06). Ocasio-Cortez reverses “decent man” and creates two different meanings. Her proposition can be more definitively stated as, “Having a daughter does not transform a man into decency. Having a wife does not show the decency of a man.” The use of antimetabole is a witty way for Ocasio-Cortez to explain herself. The purpose of her speech is to condemn the idea that having a daughter or wife excuses inappropriate language towards women. The antimetabole accomplishes this and has the added benefit of being catchy and quote-worthy. Politicians are always searching for the one-liner or debate hook to jab at their opponents. It is evident to the audience that Ocasio-Cortez has found hers.
White also uses antimetabole but more subtly. White says, “I began to sustain the illusion that [my son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father” (2). White has reversed “was I” from one clause to the other. The purpose of White’s essay is to illustrate how the imagery and sentiments of the lake remain constant, but the roles are transferable: he becomes his father, and his son becomes him. White’s use of antimetabole is an eloquent way of stating this occurrence. Recall how White’s repetition and parallel use of gerunds added an eloquence to his wording. The antimetabole reaffirms that eloquence and engages the reader with the abstract idea of transposition.
Ocasio-Cortez’s use of antimetabole puts her in a position to judge. Her moral high-ground gives her that responsibility. Her self-identification as a fellow victim gives her the right to confront the culprit. As stated earlier, White exhibits eloquence in his imagery and eloquence in how he describes such imagery. This duality adds to the fairy tale-aspect of his story. Fairy tales, or children stories, usually involve a lot of flowery language to charm the reader with the ‘magic’ of the scene. White authored many children’s books, but he may have excused this essay from that flowery diction. His use of antimetabole helps get similar ideas across to his audience. Without antimetabole, Ocasio-Cortez’s idea would be more lengthy and less characteristic of a political speech, and White’s ideas would lose the essence of eloquence and charm he had been establishing throughout the essay.
The last major rhetorical tool that Ocasio-Cortez and White share is the use, or lack of use, of conjunctions when creating a series. Polysyndeton is the excess use of coordinating conjunctions, while Asyndeton is the absence of coordinating conjunctions (Kolln and Gray 128-129). Ocasio-Cortez uses asyndeton as she depicts Yoho’s actions as having greater repercussions than he may have assumed. She says, “In using that language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community, and I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable” (07:12-0:8:18). The list is composed of wife, daughter, and women in the community. Ocasio-Cortez does not put “and” before “women in his community.” Ocasio-Cortez implicates Yoho’s actions as an offense to a never-ending list of women in America. The asyndeton does not give any emphasis to each listed object (wife, daughter, women in community), but it implies the list of victims can go on and on. ‘Victims’ is a strong word, but given the circumstances, it would not be a far cry to assume Ocasio-Cortez wishes to portray women as victims of never-ending misogyny from men. This misogyny coincides with the use of the asyndeton: never-ending misogyny equates to a never-ending list of victims.
White uses polysyndeton in his essay. In the beginning, he describes why he prefers to go to the lake than the ocean. He claims, “I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the woods” (1). Here, White uses an excess of “and.” The polysyndeton allows White to list three aspects of the ocean (restless tides, cold water, and wind) without sacrificing emphasis on any one of the three. The excess “and” adds rhythm to the sentence, as the reader bounces from one idea to another. The sentence is lengthy, but White can focus the readers’ attention to the details he feels important to him. White begins his essay by describing a trip to the lake in Maine when he was a young boy, but now he has “since become a salt-water man.” White is his own man now with his own preferences and judgements. He can go where he pleases. So what would compel him back to the lake? What would override his preferences that he has accumulated in the years since boyhood? Evidently, it is the restless tides, cold water, and incessant wind of the ocean. All three can be so brutally harsh that they convince White to turn his back on his own present-day preferences and return to the sanctity provided to him when he was a young boy: a sanctity from his past.
Ocasio-Cortez and White—separated by decades, circumstance, and purpose—show that rhetorical devices are not limited by genre or style. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style” (qtd. in “Quotable Quotes”). Ocasio-Cortez and White, when writing their respective pieces, did not think to themselves, ‘I will use parallelism and anadiplosis to convey my ideas.’ It was the passion that led them through their drafts: Ocasio-Cortez’s passion for change and White’s passion to enjoy the memories of his childhood.
In a chapter of Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Craig Hulst writes, “The rhetorical situation of a piece of writing is everything surrounding it—who the audience is, the purpose for writing it, the genre of the writing, etc.” (88-89). The difference in rhetorical situation between Ocasio-Cortez and White is obvious, but the rhetorical devices they used empowered both authors to control the events around them and command the narrative. The reader trusts White’s recollection of his camping experience, and the reader understands how White jumps between past and present and realizes the end of his childhood and the beginning of his son’s. The reader can feel the frustrations in Ocasio-Cortez’s speech. The reader grows disappointed with Yoho’s poor excuse and the culture he perpetuates. The reader can focus on the implications of the issue Ocasio-Cortez addresses, and she engages them to think about how to prevent the future from being a repeat of the past. Some readers may believe White’s essay is an example of his privilege or that Ocasio-Cortez’s judgement is incorrect, but there is no dispute that the correct rhetorical tools gifted the two authors with the means to make their case in the first place.
“Anadiplosis.” Literary Devices, go.shr.lc/2Zia6Ul. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.
“Antimetabole.” Literary Devices, go.shr.lc/30RgT6D. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.
“More than 900 women have died at the hands of their husbands or partners since China’s law against domestic violence was enacted in 2016”
Lhamo, a Tibetan woman and popular social media star living in southwestern China, was one of them. Two weeks after her ex-husband set her on fire, Ms. Lhamo died in the hospital, leaving her two sons and a rekindled wave of women’s rights protests behind. Her story, according to The New York Times reporter Elsie Chen (2020), reflects the Chinese government and law enforcement’s inability, and perhaps lack of desire, to protect its women. However, there are several underlying factors influencing feminist politics in China that went unaddressed in Chen’s report, along with the few other news reports covering the same story. Ms. Lhamo’s tragic death is also a product of brutal, complex relationships between ethnicity, sexuality, and socioeconomic status, revealing minimal progress towards equality and justice despite written law.
Ms. Lhamo’s family was well aware of her husband’s abuse, as she frequently fled her home with bruises and injuries over the course of their marriage. When she divorced him for the first time, he threatened to kill their children, forcing Ms. Lhamo to remarry him.
While it may seem like a feminist issue on the surface, the authorities’ ignorance actually reflects a much larger, deeper ethnic prejudice. As a Tibetan, Ms. Lhamo was a minority, and according to Human Rights Watch, her case “illustrate[s] the Chinese government’s long-running mistreatment of Tibetans,” stemming from tense relations after the failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese occupation in 1959 (2020). Since 2006, the government has forcibly relocated and created “near complete restriction on the freedom of movement” of over 2 million Tibetans (Minority Rights Group International, 2017). Even before any domestic abuse occurred, Ms. Lhamo was already a victim of injustice because of her national origin. However, Chen’s report does not mention this, reflecting a broader lack of attention to ethnic individualities within the global feminist context.
As Syracuse University professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (2003), “systems of racial, class, and gender domination do not have identical effects on women in Third World contexts” (p. 55). As such, a Tibetan woman such as Ms. Lhamo would not receive the same treatment as a Han Chinese woman would because of her ethnicity (the Han ethnic group is the largest in China). Furthermore, she had lower socioeconomic status, producing additional challenges. For poor minority women like Ms. Lhamo, human rights have “always been mediated by a coercive, racist state” (Mohanty, 2003, p. 54). According to Chen’s report,
Even after “she sought help from All-China Women’s Federation, the government agency in charge of protecting women’s rights,” Ms. Lhamo was denied justice “when an official dismissed her injuries, saying other women were worse off” (Chen, 2020). This prompted her to file for divorce a second time, after which the police did bare minimal investigation and let her husband escape any consequences yet again.
Ms. Lhamo’s experiences and tragic death went unaddressed by the Chinese government, with the Communist body going as far as censoring social media hashtags like #LhamoAct (Chen, 2020). As Mohanty writes in Feminism Without Borders, “Chinese women ‘disappear’ in popular and academic discourses on China, only to reappear in ‘case studies’ or in the ‘culture garden’” (2003, p. 76). Ms. Lhamo is a clear example of this. Chinese feminist issues have gone largely unaddressed in Western media and academia, only resurfacing when case studies such as Ms. Lhamo’s occur. Western feminisms often fail to incorporate the “diverse struggles and histories” of women from other countries, more commonly lumping them together to further their own agendas (Mohanty, 2003, p. 46). Like Mohanty, professor Amrita Basu of Amherst College recognizes the necessity of diversity inclusion, arguing that when feminist discourses fail to identify and consider cultural influences on women’s experiences, particularly regarding gender violence, women’s “identities as Bosnian, African American, or poor women may be muted” (2000, p. 76). These are only a few examples of the several aspects that comprise one’s identity.
To make any progress towards true gender equality in China, the diverse population and cultures must be considered. This includes diversity in sexuality, which Chen also does not address in her report. Like the United States, China’s political and social structures are based on heterosexism and homophobia. As feminist scholar Audre Lorde writes, heterosexism is the “belief in the inherent superiority of one form of loving over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (1985, p. 3). Currently, China’s Domestic Violence Law “does not protect gay couples,” and though it does protect cohabitating couples, Chinese government official Guo Linmao noted at a press conference that
Essentially, he meant gay couples do not encounter domestic violence, which is untrue.
Chen’s report echoes this false assertion, though perhaps not intentionally, quoting Chinese women’s rights lawyer Wan Miaoyan, “But why does it take a tragedy and a victim to sacrifice herself in such a bloody way before we make progress on law enforcement?” (Chen, 2020). This statement assumes all domestic violence victims are women. However, according to the United States National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010), members of the LGBTQ+ community “have an equal or higher prevalence of experiencing IPV [intimate partner violence], SV [sexual violence], and stalking as compared to self-identified heterosexuals” (CDC, p. 1). China is certainly not exempt from this pattern. In fact, a 2009 survey conducted by the Chinese organization Common Language found that of the 900 participating lesbian and bisexual women, “42.2 percent reported intimate partner violence with same sex partners” (UNDP, 2014, p. 28). In every aspect of injustice, LGBTQ+ folks continue to fight for recognition and support, especially when the government refuses to protect them. As a member of the heterosexual hegemony, this is one battle that Ms. Lhamo did not have to fight, which some may consider a privilege despite her tragic situation.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, instances of domestic and intimate partner violence have significantly increased due to lockdown and quarantine policies. According to another domestic violence report from The New York Times (2020), Chinese “activists, citing interviews with abused women, estimate the numbers are far higher, especially after millions were placed under lockdown during the pandemic” (Wee). As Basu writes, “Women’s movement activists have employed the term violence against women in describing diverse practices cross nationally… in order to assert the global dimensions of a single problem” (2000, p. 78). Unfortunately, partner violence is not a single problem. It is stuck in a web of complex, intersectional relationships between sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, and more. However, despite the multitude of experiential and cultural differences, women like Ms. Lhamo still share many similarities and often unite on these common grounds. China’s women are not alone, and like every country around the world, China has a long road ahead to achieving gender justice.
by Cassandra Skolnick and Sanjana Sankaran, December 16, 2020
To conduct this collaboration, the authors participated in a coin flip. Cassandra lost the coin flip and has been entrusted to debate in favor of the Electoral College. Sanjana, the winner of the coin flip, has been entrusted to debate in favor of Ranked Choice Voting. Both authors have agreed to suppress all personal opinion and bias for the purpose of this debate. To make things more interesting, this debate was conducted through text message.
Cassandra (Nov. 23, 2020 – 11:36 AM)
Opening Statement:I am disinclined to acknowledge this debate question as it is presented. The question is categorically wrong, deriving from the assumption that the Electoral College and ranked choice voting are mutually exclusive. Maine used ranked choice voting in the 2020 election, and the votes were then allocated to an elector in the Electoral College. So, your argument is still in favor of the Electoral College and there is no debate to be had.
Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 5:30 PM)
Opening Statement: I believe that ranked choice voting is better for the United states. The Electoral College and RCV are not mutually exclusive, and that is shown in various countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, who use RCV for various elections, both major and local, without the use of an elector. RCV is the epitome of majority rules, the system we have now is plurality rules, where a majority of people who vote do not get the candidate of their choosing. Benjamin Reilly, an electoral system design expert at the University of Western Australia, said at best, RCV serves as a “prophylactic against extremism,” something America sorely needs (Kambhampaty).
Cassandra (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:01 PM)
Your opening argument calls for the implementation of a Ranked Choice Voting system because it is “…the epitome of majority rules” (Skolnick and Sankaran). An analysis conducted on Ranked Choice Voting in the journal Electoral Studies “…analyzed some 600,000 votes cast using RCV in four local elections in California and Washington” (Waxman). The conclusion from the analysis was that none of the elections resulted in the winner receiving a majority of the votes.
Cassandra (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:30 PM)
Ranked Choice Voting is an attractive concept, and I am willing to concede that it may be entertaining to rank candidates based on who you like best and who you like least; but let me propose a question to you. You are a passionate American who wants to perform their civic duty and vote in an upcoming presidential election. The ballot is in front of you and you have a selection of five candidates. You think hard and rank your top three choices.
Cassandra (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:34 PM)
When the polls close, your three candidates are eliminated and one of the remaining two is declared the winner. Did you have a say in who won the election? Did the majority of Americans have a say in who won the election? Instead of voting for one candidate or against another, you now have to ask Americans to think strategically to make sure that the worst-case scenario fails to emerge.
Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 9:40 PM)
You say Americans have to prevent the worst case scenario, however many democrats believed Biden was the worst or last case scenario. There were many progressive candidates who had huge followings such as Warren and Sanders. Those democrats would argue that RCV would have given those people a fighting chance. Referencing your point about the elections in California, the paper that Waxman cites discusses the pros and cons of RCV, and says the candidate did not receive over 50% of the vote because of “voting exhaustion” (Waxman).
Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:00 PM)
While I can agree this is a problem with the RCV system, it has not been a problem for Australia for the past century. In a majority of these cases candidates always get over 50 % of the votes after a certain amount of rounds, and might I add that voting exhaustion is only a problem when voting is made to be extremely difficult. Mail in ballots being sent back, lack of same day registration, voter intimidation and suppression all contribute to voter exhaustion, and not solely because of RCV.
Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:04 PM)
In fact, according to many election result archives from the “Fair Vote,” places with RCV have increased voter turnout because candidates feel less guilty for voting for minority parties; additionally, because it is done in rounds, there is higher voter participation than the plurality system. Between 2006 and 2010 there was a 43% increase in voter turnout for the mayoral elections in Oakland, California (Richie and Hill).
Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:22 PM)
According to Rob Richie, the Conservative and Labor party used RCV for electing a mayor in London and “The Conservatives elected a winner on the first count, while the Labor nominee earned 59% of the final round vote after securing 37% of first choices – with more than 99.9% valid ballots out of the nearly 90,000 ballots cast” (Richie).
Sanjana (Nov. 24, 2020 – 10:30 PM)
One of the main reasons why the current system is dangerous to democracy is because it enforces the concept of negative partisanship whereby people would rather vote against someone than for someone. We saw this in the 2016 election where many people were unhappy with both options so they abstained, or they were extremely unhappy with the democratic option so they voted against Clinton rather than for Trump. This in turn creates more division and a politicization of issues that should be bipartisan such as the COVID-19 pandemic (“We’re Doing Elections Wrong”).
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:40 PM)
This is the problem with proponents for RCV. There is a general understanding of RCV, but not the many parts that make the system up. For one, are you arguing for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) or a Single Transferable Vote Proportional Representation (STV)? You brought up Australia but are you aware that Australia employs both of these RCV voting systems? I’m going to assume you have been thinking of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) since you keep speaking about the presidential election, so we will start there…
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:43 PM)
The problem in the United States with IRV is that the advantage it proposes is illusory at best (Minguo). Proponents believe that IRV is the solution needed to prevent supporters of minor parties from stealing votes from a major party and therefore benefiting the other major party in an election: the spoiler effect. That sounds fantastic, as long as the minor party has no chance of actually winning the election. Well, Sanjana, I propose this situation to you; what happens when a minor party gains traction and becomes a threatening major third party? Well, then supporters pose the same risk they pose in a plurality system. Let’s explore this…
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:50 PM)
Suppose that strong third party comes along. For the sake of argument, we will call this party the American Party. The party identifies as a politically centrist party, leaning left on issues involving social oppressions and environmental concerns. On November 3rd, your preference is the American candidate, and the Democratic candidate is naturally your second choice. After several rounds of counting, the American candidate is eliminated and your votes transfer to your second choice, the Democratic candidate. The Democrat ultimately wins the election. Great, you may be disappointed that the American candidate lost, but at least the Democratic candidate who shares a lot of your beliefs won.
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:54 PM)
Now, let’s throw a monkey wrench into your early celebration of the IRV system. What if the Democratic candidate is eliminated before the American candidate? Unless all of the votes transfer to the American candidate, which is unlikely, the Republican candidate would win the election. You just helped the Republican win the election by not ranking the Democrat first. Which puts you in a familiar situation that you are experiencing in the current plurality system if you vote your true preference (Minguo).
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 12:57 PM)
I understand your frustration with the Electoral College, but you are overlooking a fundamental flaw of IRV. The example that I described above fails to recognize one of your preferences in the election. By voting American and then Democrat, you increased the chances that the Democrat will be eliminated before the American. Once this happens, your preference for the Democrat over the Republican is essentially discarded or ignored. The only way that you can make sure that your vote is not wasted is to vote for one of the two major party candidates as your first choice (Minguo). Wait a minute, isn’t that what we’re doing already?
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 1:05 PM)
You keep speaking passionately about democratic majority rule and bringing up countries like Australia and New Zealand. To quote you directly, “RCV is the epitome of majority rules” (Skolnick and Sankaran). I want to counter by throwing out Athens and France, where democratic majority rule ultimately led to tyranny of the majority, “…the majority of the electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of those of the minority factions” (Wikipedia, “Tyranny of the majority”). This is one of the pitfalls of democracy that our founding fathers feared when they established this country and why they created the Electoral College. It ultimately destroyed Ancient Athens. Now, you want to establish a voting system that could result in this precise dilemma.
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 1:08 PM)
Let’s take a moment to deliberate the case of Ancient Athens. During the 4th century BC, Athens suffered catastrophic democratic collapse amid “…crippling economic downturn, while politicians committed financial misdemeanors, sent its army to fight unpopular wars and struggled to cope with a surge in immigration” (Cambridge). What caused these horrific conditions? Two words… “mob rules” (Cambridge). Democratic majority cleared the way for demagogues and tyrants to seize power, ultimately destroying the city-state from the inside.
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:09 PM)
The Electoral College may have been a solution back then when several Americans did not have access to education. However, with the advancement of technology, and increased education of American’s, the American government should recognize that we are capable of making informed decisions. Now I want to be extremely clear when discussing RCV I am specifically interested in applying that to primaries, and local elections rather than general elections. In the general election I believe that we should only go by popular vote.
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:12 PM)
Within governmental systems RCV will be more beneficial, especially in a two party system because there are several candidates within each party you fall under various different umbrellas. You have the Tea party, Green party, Progressives, Moderates, and Libertarians. Because of the vast amount of choices that exist RCV would allow candidates to freely rank their candidates without the instance of a spoiler candidate or vote splitting. RCV will actively prevent extremists from either side of the spectrum from reaching the general election.
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:15 PM)
On one side you have conservatives whose extremists are white nationalists or supremacists, and on the other side one may see extreme socialism or communism. RCV also results in less negative campaigning because if they want to be someone’s second choice or third choice they still have to appeal to a broader base and withhold divisive language that only leads to more polarization (Neal).
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 2:39 PM)
Now looking purely at the objections of this system, I will argue that these worries are unfounded. The first concern is that it will go against the concept of “one person, one vote”. Because of this, several lawmakers have tried to litigate this system as being unlawful and unconstitutional. However, several of these litigations have not succeeded because there is nothing in the constitution that proves RCV is considered to be unconstitutional. The second concern is that it may be too confusing for voters, and they will have to know all of the candidates policies, and how the whole voting process works. To this concern I say, “well, obviously.” In any voting system, every voter should be educated in the candidates’ policies in order to make a proper decision and then decide whether or not they want to support the candidate.
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 3:00 PM)
In order to make an informed decision, voters need to be exposed to candidates from an unbiased perspective. As voters become more educated in the candidates’ policies, extremism will go down. Much of the reason that Trump rose to power was because of rampant misinformation spread by social media and sites such as Fox News. Lastly, many critics also argue that with a less negative campaign, a politician’s past will not be held accountable.
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 3:07 PM)
To this, I argue that just because a campaign is less negative towards their opponent does not mean their past won’t be held accountable. It simply means that incendiary language and vitriol will be less prevalent. In the case of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, many Sanders supporters attacked Warren and her supporters online with truly hateful comments. I am not saying that RCV will completely eliminate the concept of the online bully, but it will tame the fires and create a sense of unity amongst the party (Neal).
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:10 PM)
While you have changed your stance significantly, I still find myself perplexed by your desire to support “tyranny of the majority.” Whether you are debating as an avid proponent of RCV or Popular Vote, you are still stacking the deck unfavorably against the minority. Do urban city Americans understand the needs of rural American farmers? No. That is an absurd and reckless thought. Then why should we rely on these same urban Americans to choose leaders to represent rural Americans?
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:12 PM)
You know the answer to that question… we shouldn’t! You then go on to argue, “…An election should not have to depend on the Electoral College outcome of two states, but rather the country as a whole” (Skolnick and Sankaran). I agree! You just argued in favor of the Electoral College, because it prevents two states from deciding the outcome of an entire election for the country. Your argument is against implementing a system based on the popular vote!
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:14 PM)
Arguing against only one of many reasons why the Electoral College was established is equally as reckless. As you stated, in a negative connotation, one of the reasons was that our founding fathers were concerned that not all voters were informed enough to choose a leader (Seigel). The Electoral College was also established to balance interests of majority and minority groups across state lines. Why was this important? Our nation had “…fought its way out from under a tyrannical king and overreaching colonial governors. They didn’t want another despot on their hands” (History). Why do you think it requires two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of states to ratify a constitutional amendment to append or abolish the Electoral College?
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:15 PM)
If you believe the Electoral College doesn’t represent the will of the people it represents, then pass a Constitutional Amendment to tie electors to their state’s popular vote. In other words, eliminate faithless electors. What concerns me is your reason for debating in favor of RCV or Popular Vote is not because you believe them to be better electoral systems, but because you believe the systems will favor one political ideology over another.
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:16 PM)
Whether we believe in particular political ideologies or not, barring actions that violate our natural rights, Americans have the right to celebrate political ideologies that are representative of who they are and how they believe. No electoral system should be established that eliminates political ideologies in favor of a single majority, because that is when democracy burns and tyranny reigns supreme.
Cassandra (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:26 PM)
Closing Statement:As we stated at the beginning of this collaborative debate, we must remove our personal opinions and biases in order to effectively argue in favor of the electoral system we were assigned. There is a lot of fear, anger, and uncertainty dominating our nation presently. To blame an electoral system that has worked for over three hundred years because your ideologies have been oppressed is not the way to right the ship. I remain disinclined to agree with my friend’s argument in favor of Ranked Choice Voting and general elections decided by Popular Vote. This debate transcends to the heart and soul of a government that our founding fathers wanted to make immune from tyrannical oppression and domination that we fought desperately to escape. Overwhelmingly, the argument has been that Ranked Choice Voting and the Popular Vote would allow for the majority of Americans voices to be recognized. I contend that they already are. The Electoral College is far from perfect, but it gives each state the ability to cast votes in favor of a candidate that represents the will of their constituents.
Sanjana (Nov. 27, 2020 – 6:38 PM)
Closing Statement: I just would like to say that even though I find the Electoral College the source of many problems in the political sphere of America, abolishing it is only one part of the solution. Ranked choice voting and enabling the popular vote to decide the president-elect will allow for the will of the people to actually be heard. Ranked choice voting has been proven to also expand the two party system and allow for third party or minority party candidates to be heard as well, it is not necessarily in favor of one party over the other. RCV does have the ability to eliminate political extremism. RCV in practice has prevented spoiler candidates so voters will actually feel excited to vote for the candidate of their choosing. RCV in practice will reduce the polarization and political divide in this country.
The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg left the United States in insurmountable mourning. While many of us took time to reflect on the life of a human rights icon, conservatives fixated on the opportunity to pack another conservative justice into an already ideologically polarized Supreme Court (hereto referred to as, “SCOTUS”).
Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito also wasted little time mourning the loss of a longtime colleague and friend. Within a month of her passing, both justices were expressing their disgust over legal precedent created in the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same sex marriage. Thomas questioned the courts involvement in the case to begin with:
“It would be one thing if recognition of same-sex marriage had been debated and adopted through the democratic process, with the people deciding not to provide statutory protections for religious liberty under state law. But it is quite another when the Court forces that choice upon society through its creation of atextual constitutional rights and its ungenerous interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause, leaving those with religious objections in the lurch.”
The Trump administration’s appointments of justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the bench would certainly tip the balance in favor of conservatives who are hard pressed on overturning Obergefell.
However, I propose in this article that the legal precedent set by Obergefell is safe and here to stay. I will defend my opinion through an analysis of five supporting arguments; the textualist interpretation of law by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court principle of stare decisis, growing empathy and support for same sex couples, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution, and the potential for legislative intervention.
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has not been the pariah conservatives had hoped for when President Trump appointed him to the SCOTUS. Gorsuch is a textualist; someone who interprets the law by how it is written.
In July of 2019, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times said of Gorsuch, “He is a libertarian who is quick to oppose unchecked government power, even in the hands of prosecutors or the police. And he is willing to go his own way and chart a course that does not always align with the traditional views of the right or the left” (qtd. in Ballotpedia).
We saw evidence of textualist interpretation in June of 2020, when Gorsuch joined Supreme Court Justice John Roberts and the liberal majority in Bostock vs. Clayton County; a ruling that states that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender employees from employment discrimination (Leonardi).
Gorsuch was right in his interpretation. In the majority opinion, Gorsuch determined that it would not be possible for an employer to discriminate on an employee on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity without also discriminating on them on the basis of sex. Discrimination on the basis of sex is prohibited by law, therefore civil rights protections are extended to gay and transgender employees.
It sounds like a clear-cut interpretation, but conservatives were furious with Gorsuch for his ruling. There was a public outcry, with evangelicals and right-wing media calling Gorsuch a traitor and sell-out (Arkes, Perano). However, Gorsuch made his ruling based on an interpretation of law that was already established. While it remains to be seen how he would respond to an opportunity to overturn Obergefell; textually speaking, I have a hard time believing Gorsuch will join a conservative majority in overturning existing precedent.
Relatively few people know about the court principle of stare decisis, but this Latin phrase translates to mean “…to stand by that which is decided” (Young). Generally, this means that once the court has established a legal precedent, it usually commits to uphold that legal precedent when ruling on similar cases.
While this has been a common court principle throughout history, I consider it imperative to point out that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has made it abundantly clear to his colleagues that he does not believe in being bound to the court principle of stare decisis. Thomas wrote, “When faced with a demonstrably erroneous precedent, my rule is simple: We should not follow it” (qtd. in Reuters).
With the exception of Thomas, the SCOTUS has remained steadfast in their position, reluctant to overturn precedent without significant rationalization. Overturning Obergefell would mean the potential revocation of the marriages of hundreds of thousands of same sex couples. It would be irretrievably damaging to the Court’s image if they disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans without irrefutable proof that Obergefell is infringing on constitutional liberties.
Americans Support Same Sex Marriage
Public opinion has historically had minimal impact on SCOTUS decisions, but the latest studies by researchers show that this has changed in recent years. One research collaboration, SCOTUSPoll, concluded “that the court’s position in every major case this term was exactly in line with public opinion” (Smith). What does that mean for the future of Obergefell?
Well, support for same sex marriage has grown extensively since the SCOTUS ruling in 2015. A recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) “…found about 70% of Americans said they support granting same-sex couples the right to marry — the highest percentage of supporters the survey has recorded. 28% of Americans said they opposed it” (Andrew). Republicans even showed increased support. The same survey conducted by PRRI found that “…50% of Republicans say they support same-sex marriage, their percentage of support still jumped since the 2017 survey when 42% supported it” (Andrew).
The once stable position of the Catholic Church has also seen a remarkable shift, when a documentary premiered and revealed Pope Francis declaring support for civil unions of same sex couples (Horowitz). While civil unions are not the same as marriages, it is the first time the Catholic Church has expressed any form of support for same sex couples.
Corporate America is another area seeing improvement in their support of same sex marriage. Companies like Nabisco have come under fire from the right-wing conservative coalition–One Million Moms–over commercials expressing messages of inclusion, acceptance, and support for same sex couples. They have organized boycotts in an effort to impede further progressive stances, but these boycotts are mainly symbolic.
However, the biggest confirmation of this shift in support for the LGBTQ+ community may be the growing number of openly gay and transgender politicians being elected to public office. Last month, Sarah McBride, a transgender woman from Delaware, won her primary bid by over 90% of the vote. She is now poised to become the first openly transgender politician ever elected to any state senate (Rodriguez). According to Victory Fund, “Since 1991, Victory Fund has helped elect thousands of LGBTQ people to positions at all levels of government” (Victory Fund).
The level of support in this country is at all-time highs. With public opinion clearly opposing an overturn of Obergefell, the chances remain slim that the SCOTUS will choose to review any cases that attempt to reverse the 2015 precedent.
Full Faith and Credit Clause
The Full Faith and Credit Clause (FFCC) is the most disputed of my arguments. Used for the purpose of enforcing judgments across state lines, the FFCC also recognizes legal marriages contracted in another state. However, the argument has been made that the framework for the FFCC, “does not mandate recognition of same sex marriages or that it does so for limited purposes” (Singer). Prior to Obergefell, scholars also interpreted the FFCC to cover residents of states where same sex marriage was legalized, “but not nonresidents seeking to evade their restrictive home state marriage laws” (Singer).
However, with the Obergefell decision, the FFCC now provides fundamental support for same sex marriage. To stress this argument, I need to explain two important events from the nineties: the lawsuit, Baehr v. Miike, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
In 1993, Baehr v. Miike, “was a lawsuit in which three same-sex couples argued that Hawaii’s prohibition of same-sex marriage violated the state constitution” (Wikipedia, “Baehr v. Miike”). The Supreme Court of Hawaii ordered the case reviewed by a trial court to determine whether or not the state was justified in prohibiting same sex couples from marrying. The state failed to present a convincing argument, and the judge ruled that excluding same sex couples from marriage was indeed discrimination (Lambda Legal).
The ruling in Baehr v. Miike panicked conservatives in Congress, who recognized that “a redefinition of marriage in Hawaii to include homosexual couples could make such couples eligible for a whole range of federal rights and benefits” (Wikipedia, “Defense of Marriage Act”). That’s because legalizing same sex marriage in Hawaii would mean forcing other states to recognize same sex marriages from Hawaii under the FFCC. In response, they passed legislation known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
DOMA was a straightforward law passed by Congress during the Clinton administration. “It defined marriage for federal purposes as the union of one man and one woman, and allowed states to refuse to recognize same sex marriages granted under the laws of other states” (Wikipedia, “Defense of Marriage Act”). The intention behind DOMA was to create a barrier to the FFCC, preventing states from having to recognize same sex marriages that were performed in states where it was legal.
The SCOTUS cases of United States v. Windsor in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 ruled the two sections of DOMA unconstitutional, thus legalizing same sex marriage and restoring the power of the FFCC to recognize same sex marriages across state lines.
The 2020 national election is probably the most important election of our lifetime. Learning from the 2016 fiasco, we know better than to rely on polling to indicate the winners in various races. However, I believe we are going to see a much-needed change in power.
A Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, Senate, and Presidency, would mean passing of a broad legislation known as the Equality Act. The Equality Act means exactly what it says, “…consistent and explicit anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, education, public spaces and services, federally funded programs, and jury service” (HRC).
In a survey conducted by PRRI on support for legislation like the Equality Act, they found, “More than seven in ten (71%) Americans say they favor laws that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations” (Vandermaas-Peeler et al.).
The main obstacle to passing this crucial legislation has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the Republican majority in the Senate. McConnell has repeatedly refused to hold a floor vote on the Equality Act, regardless of the fact that it has passed the House of Representatives. Pending any surprises in November, we should finally witness the advancement of this crucial piece of legislation.
While nobody can predict what the future holds, I contend that the arguments above provide significant obstacles to conservatives hoping to overturn the precedent established by Obergefell v. Hodges.