The Corner

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On Max Boot’s “Thread”

Max Boot on Real Time with Bill Maher (via YouTube)

Max Boot has what he calls a “7 part thread” on Twitter, highlighting the “flaws” in my response to his Washington Post column about Phyllis Schlafly. While I congratulate Max on the length of his thread, I worry that he may be dodging central parts of my “specious argument” as he attempts to refute it.

First, he says that I fail “to address [his] extensive quotes from Schlafly’s crazy, conspiratorial book A Choice Not an Echo, which claimed that ‘secret kingmakers’ were sabotaging the GOP to help ‘Communist slavemasters.” When one considers that Boot’s thread failed to respond to almost anything I wrote in my piece, his objection seems a bit trifling. Still, while I have no interest in defending Schalfly’s hyperbolic and “conspiratorial” remarks on their merits, I fail to see why her paranoia should be treated differently from Max Boot’s own “conspiratorial” musings.

In a column that ran early last year, Boot listed “18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset.” At the end of the piece, he concluded that he could not “think of anything that would exonerate Trump” of the charge that he had “been compromised by a hostile foreign power.” While he concedes that his case, as presented, fails to convict the president of treason “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the president should be so lucky — he quips that if “Trump isn’t actually a Russian agent, he is doing a pretty good imitation of one.”

Conspiracy theorists always think that theirs is the only one of many grounded in reality, and I do not doubt that Max Boot is convinced that Donald Trump is quite possibly a “Russian agent.” I will say again what I said before: It behooves someone who believes the president to be a possible Manchurian candidate to be a bit more tolerant of conspiratorial excess.

Boot proceeds to insist that I am “pathetic” — there is a word — for calling Schlafly’s alleged membership in the John Birch Society from 1959 to 1964 “a blemish on the career of an otherwise admirable woman.” He wishes that I had been less “forgiving” of her error, and had condemned her in more unequivocal terms.

Again: I wonder, by this standard, what we are to make of Max Boot. Phyllis Schlafly was an alleged Bircher for five years. This is, as I say, a blemish on her legacy. Max Boot, by contrast, was a card-carrying member of the conservative movement for three decades. In his book The Corrosion of Conservatism, he claimed that the “whole history” of the conservative movement to which he belonged is “permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism.” If Phyllis Schlafly should be forever marred by her membership in an organization that Max Boot finds unsavory, what are we to make of a man who spent the better part of 30 years in a movement that is “permeated with racism”?

I find forgiveness easier for all parties involved.

If Boot’s primary objection to Schlafly’s alleged JBS membership is her failure to publicly acknowledge that she was once a Bircher, I likewise lament her public omission of that fact. As I wrote in the piece, Phyllis Schlafly was a human being with flaws. Some of those flaws are glaring — Schlafly did, as Boot suggests, make a crude comment at the end of her life about Hispanic immigrants. Yet her life and legacy are more complicated than a five-year membership in the John Birch Society or unfortunate comments she made on a radio program. I’m sure that Max hopes his own legacy is not defined by his worst moments, like making the case for “American empire,” or decades of participation in a movement that he said is “permeated with racism.”

Neither Schlafly’s membership in JBS nor her racially insensitive comment on a small-time radio show undermine the merits of her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Boot nevertheless spends the last two parts of his “7 part thread” trying to undercut the validity of Schlafly’s opposition to the ERA.

Boot argued that I falsely claimed that “Schlafly was right to warn women they wouldn’t get child support or alimony if ERA passed, because RBG advocated ‘sex neutral language’ in alimony.” In fact, Boot said, “that simply means men can get it too—not that women are denied!”

It is important to acknowledge at the outset that what Boot is arguing here is not what he argued in his piece. In his piece, he said that Schlafly’s fight against the ERA was successful because of her “incendiary — and far-fetched — claims that passage of the ERA would eliminate alimony, child support and single-sex bathrooms and force women into combat.”

This was an inaccurate depiction of Schlafly’s argument. She did not claim that alimony would be eliminated, inasmuch as it would not exist for men or women, but that the ERA would take away its special provisions protecting women and housewives. The ‘STOP’ in Schlafly’s ‘STOP ERA’ campaign acronym stood, after all, for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.” In other words, Schlafly was explicit in her writing that she was concerned about protecting rights that were afforded particularly to women in recognition of the biological differences between the sexes, not in universal protections that would be taken away with the passage of the ERA. For example, Schlafly wrote in an essay from 1972:

since women must bear the physical consequences of the sex act, men must be required to bear the other consequences and pay in other ways. These laws and customs decree that a man must carry his share by physical protection and financial support of his children and of the woman who bears his children, and also by a code of behavior which benefits and protects both the woman and the children.

By including Ruth Bader-Ginsburg’s 1977 report Sex Bias in the Federal Code in my piece — in which Ginsburg argued that “all alimony and support provisions should be recast in sex-neutral language” — I was responding to Boot’s allegation that Schlafly’s concerns were “far-fetched.” I assumed that Boot knew more about Schlafly’s beliefs than the caricatures of her views contained in a Hulu dramatization, but I admit to being overly generous in that presumption.

Max Boot misunderstands why many admired Phyllis Schlafly, flaws and all. An icon for social conservatives, Schlafly was a rebuke to society’s gender confusion — a confusion even more plainly manifest today. To Boot, social conservatives are driven by nothing more than antediluvian prejudice and manifestations of Trilling’s “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” No one, in his view, is genuinely outraged at a society in which medical professionals mutilate confused children and mothers snuff out the incipient children in their wombs by the hundreds of thousands. All of it, to Max Boot, is a species of “intolerance.”

In any case, it has been a long day. Perhaps Max will spare us the performative Twitter tantrum tonight.

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