LABELING

Posted in Rants on March 29th, 2015 by Ed

Those of us 40 and older no doubt remember Ronald Reagan's first summer in office (1981) coming to a crescendo on August 3 with his now-infamous ultimatum to the nation's striking air traffic controllers. Their union, PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) was effectively broken in the process. When Reagan demanded that the 13,000 employees return to work within 48 hours or forfeit their jobs, it was no idle threat. Since public employee unions were forbidden by law to strike, he was able to use the authority of the Attorney General and Secretary of Labor to de-certify PATCO. With the possible exception of the auto sit-down strikes, the Norris-LaGuardia Act, or Youngstown v Sawyer, it was the most important moment in 20th Century labor history in the United States.

Recently I recalled doing some research years ago and coming across Reagan's press conference Q&A after making his announcement (transcript here). I was struck at the time, and reminded over the past few days, at how frank he was. Unions were still fairly popular in 1981 although their decline in power and popularity was already underway. And Reagan, for whom I think you all know I have no excess of admiration, said, "Here's what we're going to do" and then did it. While I disagree vehemently with the course of action he took, at least he had the decency to be honest about it. When shitting all over a group of people, in this case PATCO, an elected official should never be hesitant to say "The purpose of these actions is to shit all over PATCO." If he has the strength of convictions that he claims to have, there should be no hesitation to tell the situation exactly like it is.

This came to mind over the weekend watching and listening to Mike Pence nervously sputter into cameras in an attempt to explain that despite all appearances to the contrary, the recent law passed in Indiana totally isn't about legalizing discrimination against gays. It is a textbook case of the lady protesting too much, with every appeal to "religious freedom" making it sound less and less likely that religious freedom has anything at all to do with the motive. Throughout all of this – I've received a heavier than usual dose of this controversy since I lived in Indiana for 7 years and still have dozens of friends there – I find myself desperate for someone, anyone, to come out (phrasing) and admit that they just don't like The Gays much. Pence has promised to "clarify" the "intent" of the law, and I'm hoping that will consist of explaining that Indiana has a huge population of old, rural, white people who fear change and hate their shitty lives so they need to pretend it's 1950 and take it out on some social minority group. If we can make it sound noble by appealing to religion, all the better.

To many of you there may not be much of a difference in practice between "discriminatory" and "discriminatory and sanctimonious." It's true that the effect of the law is the same no matter how it is packaged and sold. I'd argue that in a way the rhetorical obfuscation makes it worse. The animosity is real no matter how we burnish it with florid words, so why kid ourselves?

(Oh, and fun fact: Ronald Reagan was the only president who was actually in a labor union – the SAG. Of which he was briefly president.)