For This Culture War Redux, Hil Yeah

Khizr Khan, holding his pocket copy of the US Constitution, and his wife, Ghazala Kahn, sit backstage prior to their appearance at the Democratic National Convention last week. | ERIN SCHAFF/ DNCC

Khizr Khan, holding his pocket copy of the US Constitution, and his wife, Ghazala Kahn, sit backstage prior to their appearance at the Democratic National Convention last week. | ERIN SCHAFF/ DNCC

In 1992, failed presidential candidate Pat Buchanan went to the Republican National Convention and declared “a religious war… a culture war… for the soul of America.” America’s enemies? Radical feminists, environmentalists, homosexuals, and people of color. Though not all of them, because praising the “brave people of Koreatown” was a good way for him to slam the terrifying and cowardly — um, black — mobs of the LA riots.

It’s almost 25 years later, and we’re hearing the same refrain, but a hundred times louder, and in plainer, more dangerous speech. Independent women and feminists are fat, disgusting, threatening pigs. Latinos are rapists and criminals. Black people are thugs. Homos and trans people are pervs that need to be put back in their places by judges appointed specifically for that purpose. And of course, Muslims are terrorists who should be banned from immigrating, and subject to torture any time, any place.

Trump scares me, scares everyone I know. The Latino supers are out in the street talking about the tyrants he reminds them of. And I remember how the Republicans lost in ‘92 but still radicalized Christians nationwide, inspiring a hydra of anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-multicultural campaigns, each followed by violence. Because bigots don’t just hate ideas. They hate people in the flesh. They wish we all had AIDS. Were locked up in camps. They want to drag us behind trucks like James Byrd. Burn down our houses with us in them like Hattie Mae Cohens and Brian Mock. Blow up our clubs and abortion clinics. Rape and emasculate black men like Abner Louima.


And they never just have a single enemy. I learned in the first Culture War that hate is a habit, a worldview. The white anti-gay foes of the New York’s aborted Rainbow Curriculum like Mary Cummins also had racist agendas, freaking out over “chinks” daring to run for the school board. That’s why the long view demands that organizations and activists fighting for queers also work against racism, and misogyny, and anti-immigrant sentiment. (And vice versa.) And not just because any of these can and will explode into queer-bashing, but because the LGBTQ community reflects America at large. We rise and fall together.

So in this year of the Culture War Redux, hell yes, I’m with Hillary, who’s already more “evolved” at this stage than the 2008 Obama, who campaigned with the same anti-gay preachers as George W. Bush. As for his policies on homeland and security, don’t even get me started. And yet, Obama turned out pretty good.

This time, instead of positioning themselves to cater to the lowest element of the Republican party, the 2016 Clinton and the Democrats are going high. (Yes, I’m stealing FLOTUS’ line). Their convention featured a rainbow of speakers from trans women to the disabled. While I’m usually pretty cynical about this kind of circus, they seem like the party might actually be on board with a progressive agenda.

Even the speeches designed for disaffected Republican consumption, insisting on her (relatively) “hawkish” creds to be commander-in-chief, also reiterated Clinton’s preference for the exercise of soft power abroad — at which she excels. They also strongly denounced torture, which should go without saying, but this is America post-Bush with Trump gung-ho for waterboarding.

Less explicit at the convention was her commitment to economic equality. Sure, she’s an advocate for debt-free college, perhaps thanks to the Sanders campaign. But she’s gone further than the senator from Vermont, regularly consulting with the extremely progressive Roosevelt Institute. They not only develop concrete policy measures, they identify key appointed positions across government that could have an immediate impact on economic and racial equality.

I’m not sure anybody cares. So many people just hate her. Just because. Or they dismiss as window-dressing the people of color front and center at the DNC that featured not just speeches by heavy hitters like Cory Booker or Michelle Obama, but even Black Lives Matter and the black mothers of the victims of racist violence. Clinton herself didn’t just speak vaguely of equality, but specifically denounced systemic racism. But so what? So what if the leadership of the party is now in the hands of three formidable black women: Donna Brazile, Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, and the Reverend Leah Daughtry?

I’m also seeing lefty sneers at the appearance by Khizr Khan, which in some ways may be more important than Clinton’s historic acceptance speech. Too bad if he lost his son in Iraq. It’s one more narrative of the Good Muslim. These “progressive” critics are missing the importance of his expansive rebuke to Trump in the name of diversity, and why the man exploded in rage.

“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

And by offering to lend Trump his well-worn copy of the US Constitution where the Republican nominee should “…look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law,’” the immigrant lawyer signaled that he is not trying to be accepted as a good Muslim, he’s fighting for the soul of America itself.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.