What’s the greatest threat to our communal safety? If we take our cue from the Obama Administration, the answer just might be that perennial menace bedeviling so many poor souls anywhere from Houthi country to Homs, the inability to find a restroom that properly acknowledges more fluid gender representations that transcend the more stringent ones long enforced by the patriarchy. You know, life and death stuff.
To address this towering concern, the White House dedicated a gender-neutral bathroom last week, with much fanfare. The measure, Obama’s Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote—taking a break from her duties shepherding the Iran deal—was designed “to ensure that everyone who enters this building feels safe and fully respected.”
The word “safety” mirrors the latest bon ton on college campuses, that of “safe spaces” designed to shield young and delicate minds from intolerable cruelties like conversations about real-world unpleasantness or movies starring Bradley Cooper. To the quivering practitioners of identity politics, such safe spaces are shrines in which to reverentially contemplate the virtues of victimhood; that the leader of the free world chooses to ape this language is strange, but not accidental. Apart from inaugurating the planet’s most equitable commode, the administration has recently pursued other measures—including intervening on behalf of transgender prisoners suing for the right to receive hormone treatments—to signal his strong and unequivocal support of the LGBT community.
And what of it? After all, even a legislator who, like Obama, had not so long ago insisted that he was bound by his faith to view marriage as a union of one man and one woman may change his mind and pursue what is inarguably a key liberal priority. And he may do so even at a moment in which public support for gay marriage is at an all-time high, having risen more rapidly than arguably any other social shift in American history to win the approval of nearly two-thirds of Americans.
Still, there’s something curious about the president’s zeal for assiduously pursuing an issue that, by any sober reflection, is doing well enough on its own and requires little by way of executive intervention. Is Obama having a lame-duck liberal renaissance? If that were the case, you’d expect to see similar presidential thrusts on other key goals that require his legislative heft, from environmental protection to taking on the banks. And yet, Obama is doing nothing of the kind. Why?
Because that would be hard. And gender-neutral bathrooms are easy, not to mention effective at positioning the president as the commander in chief of the culture wars. And culture wars are highly effective at this juncture, now that the president’s foreign policy has served to spark up or aggravate a whole slew of very real wars—in Ukraine, in Libya, in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere—America has no intention of fighting seriously.
I suspect that with the Iran deal looming, and with even staunch Democrats like Chuck Schumer having serious reservations, Obama, like the deftest of high-school mean girls, has realized that the best way to push through what is, at the very least, a deeply flawed policy is to bundle it together with other highly visible and utterly unrelated measures no liberal could ever afford to reject. Squeamish about an agreement predicated on taking the ayatollah at his word? Tell that to your gay brothers and sisters. What self-respecting liberal would stand up to this protector of transgender people? What nuanced intellectual would dare upset the White House’s safe spaces for something as remote as the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb?
Evidently, not too many, which may help explain why—in sheer defiance of observable reality, common sense, and basic decency—most of the president’s base did not bother asking whether making far-reaching concessions on nuclear armament to crazed mullahs chanting “death to America” while allowing Syria to turn into a breeding ground for jihadists that puts pre-9/11 Afghanistan to shame may not be the most prudent moment in American foreign policy.
Examples abide, although cataloguing them is little more than a wearying exercise in stating the obvious. What is worth noting, however, is how many of the liberal critiques of those opposing the Iran deal are focused not on the pros and cons of the deal itself but, in keeping with the president’s robust rallying of his faithful, on arguing that Obama’s detractors are guided by little less than an incurable case of fundamental racism. You can see traces of this argument in Salon; you can glean it more openly in the work of CNN’s Sally Kohn. Or you could go straight to the source and see this logic in play in the New York Times.
In an editorial last week, the paper of record lamented the coming of “a new phase in anti-Obama attacks,” an onslaught of questioning so pernicious that it could only be understood as an attempt “to undermine not just Mr. Obama’s policies, but his very legitimacy as president.” You know, because he’s black.
To prove this bizarre point, the Times offered its readers the following thought-experiment: Imagine what would have happened if Democratic lawmakers in 1986 had taken a page out of Tom Cotton’s playbook and written to Mikhail Gorbachev, informing him that President Reagan “did not have the authority to negotiate a nuclear arms deal at the Reykjavik summit meeting that winter.” Whoever wrote this sentence didn’t bother to even use Google: Reagan, unlike Obama, did not depart for Iceland before negotiating closely with his political rivals at home, making concessions and calling the House Speaker Tip O’Neill from Reykjavik to thank him for his party’s “show of unity.”
But don’t confuse the Times with any of that. Like many other of Obama’s vocal supporters, their equation is simple: Exercise your own right to free thought and evidence-based argument, and you’ll be called nasty names and booted from liberalism’s ever-shrinking tent.
What’s so striking about this course of action is just how illiberal it is. Traditional liberalism—as opposed to the Obama-ites version of “progressivism”—champions the unfettered exchange of ideas. If honest thinking and writing are a democratic value in themselves, they can also lead to surprising coalitions, fruitful collaborations, and real progress. Spend enough time talking freely and earnestly, and you may not only bring together Tip and the Gipper but also bring Gorbachev to acknowledge that his regime’s violations of human rights were worthy of public airing. Do your best to remain in the shadows, and don’t expect anyone to applaud.
And while anyone committed to the liberal values of free association and critical inquiry should refuse any demand to purchase political principles in bulk, American Jews should be particularly wary. In its zeal to see its policies to fruition, the administration is not only sacrificing Israel’s vital interests in order to appease Iran but is eroding the fertile ground of internecine quibbling that has helped so many Jews grow emotionally, spiritually, and politically. Like every minority, we linger on the promise of robust dissent, free of litmus tests and sine qua nons. The Jewish talent for dissent has not only made so many Jews liberals by nature as well as political affiliation, it is also a primary source of Jewish innovation in politics, charity, art, and other forms of social self-expression. Blind obsequiousness rarely shows the Jewish community and its spokespeople at their finest. It seems particularly dangerous now.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.