Joy Reid and “Distraction” in the Age of Trump

On Saturday morning, MSNBC host Joy Reid addressed the anti-LGBTQ language that she had tweeted in the past and which appeared on her old blog between 2006 and 2009.

AM Joy via Twitter

I was a guest on the panel of “LGBT activists” brought in to engage with Joy about the blog and tweets. I was happy to be a part of a conversation about the dangers posed to the LGBTQ community from language that demeans our existence and the importance of embracing our evolution as people and thinkers in engaging with and coming to understand people who are different from ourselves. However, I am disappointed with myself for not pushing the conversation in some important directions and wanted to address that in a bit more depth here.

Coming out of that panel and stepping back to look at the Trump moment, I am troubled by the use of the rhetoric of “distraction” to absolve ourselves of accountability and reflection.

Yes, Trump, Pence, Sessions and the entire federal government are deeply invested in the eradication of trans existence. It is terrifying and I have devoted a considerable part of my professional life to fighting back against it. However, by situating the Trump administration as a lone and uniquely anti-LGBTQ phenomenon, we are compromising true visions for justice and ensuring our own complicity in the many complex forms of violence that long-predated Trump’s ascendance.

I appreciate Joy’s apology and accept it. But I wish I had done and said more when given the chance on Saturday.

I believe that Joy, like all of us, internalized a deep discomfort with LGBTQ people growing up and expressed that discomfort on various public platforms in childish, hurtful and, at times, hateful ways. I would never write her off for this and I certainly forgive her for hateful things she has done and said in the past. But though she has clearly grown, her work is not done. That she as recently as 2010 went after Ann Coulter — a person with unlimited substantive bases to attack — by calling her a man and using the anti-trans slur “shim” in reference to her, is enough to tell me that her trans-antagonism is a problem she has to continue to contend with. Even on Saturday when she apologized to Ann, she explained that “of course Ann is a woman.” Well, yes, of course. But that is not the problem. Women who are trans are also women. And the use of “shim” — a combination of “she” & “him” used to attack trans women — is painful and regardless of someone’s gender, using anti-trans language to attack anyone is inexcusable. And incredibly common still. I don’t see Joy as exceptional in any way. Liberals, progressives and radicals are all guilty of this. Including many who are quite self-righteously calling Joy out now. By tripping over ourselves with gratitude that we aren’t as bad as Trump we do a disservice to the work that remains within all of us.

This is where we compromise our true visions for justice. If the current federal government is our only, or even main, source of outrage we will be constrained by a quest to hold the line against the blatant racism, LGBTQ-phobia, xenophobia, misogyny that flows from this administration. And while this is a critical fight, only holding the line against Trump-style animus will do little to push us toward truly liberatory and redistributive visions of justice.

And in that vein, what troubles me most is what we did not address in the conversation on Saturday. From the anti-Muslim language in Joy’s blog to Joy’s cruel dismissal of Chelsea Manning’s torture while in pre-trial custody to the LGBTQ movement’s history of racism, as a panel of “experts” brought in to represent the LGBTQ community, we (or at least I) failed to contend with our own flaws in a deep way. So eager to accept her apology and condemn the Trump administration, we failed to consider that perhaps it is the banal recitation of anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black, anti-POC, anti-disabled, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-woman norms by so many of us on the left that allows for Trump’s policies to flourish. That we can today look back on the Bush administrations with nostalgia is an indictment of our facile engagement with our present context.

It is not a “distraction” to look within ourselves and our allies at the ways we have internalized and externalized the power dynamics that infuse our societal structures. Our conversation on Saturday revealed some critical ways we have failed to do this. We focused on the power of Obama’s support for the LGBTQ community in changing in hearts and minds but paid little attention to the decades of work led by mostly LGBTQ people of color — who lived and died by their truths — that pushed us to imagine more robust visions of justice. And even then, let us not forget that President Obama expelled Jennicet Gutiérrez from the White House pride event amidst cheers from the mostly white, cisgender crowd for calling out his mass deportation regime. Our search for heroes in the darkness of this present moment will contribute to our deeply American amnesia about the many forms of violence that our government exacts. President Clinton signed so many terrible laws in 1996 that led to the horrors we experience today. President Obama opened the door to the mass deportation surveillance state that the Trump administration is happy to exploit. And all of us have work to do to interrogate our investment in power, our consolidation of power, our fear of difference. This was an opportunity to do that and I didn’t get it right just yet.

Don’t get me wrong, I miss the Obama administration every day, but not because it was perfect or even just. It was neither. But in our harm reduction fights, it was much easier to distribute life saving resources against the backdrop of an administration that did not actively seek to destroy so many of us. The Obama years brought hope for a federal judiciary where we could push the law closer to justice, where we began to experience robust protections under federal law being explicitly enumerated in regulation, and where we saw in the White House a Black family who modeled love of each other in beautiful and transformative ways. All that feels painfully far away now and in our fear and trauma and nostalgia, it is easy to glorify what was while contending with what is currently. But I think the work is in not doing this.

The concept of “distraction” is deployed over and over to dismiss a focus on anything other than some big picture effort by the Trump administration to destroy democracy. But if so many things are just a distraction then aren’t we ceding the entire terrain of our lives to the main event that Trump wants us to contend with — him. And even more concerning, aren’t we uncritically hailing our democracy and “rule of law” without recalling that they are indeed deeply flawed systems that flowed from an investment in a chattel slave economy. Our “rule of law” supported slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, Muslim registries, mass incarceration and more subtly insidious structures like the notion of race discrimination against white people.

A 30-minute segment on MSNBC was not going to contend with all of this, of course. But for me it symbolized the way that we seek to hold up heroes without complicating our messy truths — how we want to fight a “real enemy” without looking at the enemies within ourselves. I am much more concerned about this than I am about what Joy wrote in her tweets or on her blog.

Joy was never my hero and she isn’t now but I do respect what she has to contend with as a brilliant Black woman in the public eye. She is not perfect because nobody is. And I wish we had pushed harder to engage with that reality and the work that comes from being human in the world. It does not surprise me that Joy may not recognize the former self that wrote those hateful words in her tweets and on her blog. I don’t recognize my 2006 self either. So much so that I could imagine believing that someone else wrote words attributed to me and investigating whether that might be true. I am not qualified to assess the nature of Joy’s claims of hacking or the public dialogue over journalistic standards of integrity. Outright lying to the public does seem disqualifying for a high profile journalist. But oversimplifying the nature of one’s voice in the service of power and obscuring the ever-shifting ways that journalistic bias seeps into reporting sounds wholly unremarkable to me.

The entire situation with Joy Reid’s blog and the response to it offer us an opportunity, though, to look deeper into how we all contribute to the nightmares that we face currently. We have a role to play in combating the complicity that makes it possible for some people to live while others are condemned to die. None of this is new and it is not a distraction to contend with the deep histories of injustice that are embedded in our institutions and within ourselves.