thoughts at zach wahls dot com

Happy Fathers’ Day!

In my latest for Quartz, I reflect on learning to be a man while growing up without a father:

My parents valued—and instilled in both my sister and me—a rigorous work ethic, patience, honesty, integrity, and a love of family and community. Are these masculine values? Feminine? More than anything else, I’d say these are the values that are the obligations of parents—fathers and mothers both.

And share a piece of trivia I discovered while working on the piece:

But when it comes to the “traditional American family,” there’s a lot people don’t know. For example, it might surprise family values advocates to learn, that the father who inspired the creation of what we now recognize as “Father’s Day” was actually a single dad of six. (I bet you also didn’t know that the original proposed name was “Fathers’ Day.”) Father’s Day, as President Coolidge described it, sought to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations and not necessarily buying the best beard kits every year for him”

It Slowly Gets Better

A response to Tim Carney’s “pursuit of happiness” claim

In the days and weeks surrounding arguments in front of the Supreme Court of the United States regarding same-sex marriage–consolidated under Obergefell v. Hodges, plenty of pixels will be dedicated to the consequences of the impending decision. I wanted to take a quick a moment to respond to a piece by Tim Carney on the nature of supporting traditional marriage.

There are few people on the right whose writing I enjoy more than Tim Carney’s. Enjoy, and often find challenging because of how correct he often is. On Thursday, he published a piece arguing that opposition to gay marriage is not by definition rooted in anti-gay bigotry. It can, instead, be rooted in traditional teaching of marriage that is separate from feelings of animus towards LGBT people.

I was disappointed not by Carney’s thesis—which I generally agree with—but instead by his final claim that supporters of LGBT rights are trying to “banish [views of traditional marriage] from our society.” This final, last-shot argument undermines the rest of an otherwise thoughtful piece, and it also provides a useful insight into the mindset of the backlash that is now underway to the ascension of LGBT rights.

Tim opens his piece by making a number of comparisons between anti-gay bigotry and racist bigotry and concludes that refusing service to gay people for their weddings is substantially different than refusing service to black people or interracial couples because of their skin color. So I took Tim’s first six paragraphs, and extended his comparison one step backwards. Here’s how his column might have read fifty years ago:

Traditional, same-race marriage in the U.S. makes its last stand this week at oral arguments before the Supreme Court. If interracial marriage wins out, the next question is what to do with the vanished? Should we tolerate opposition to interracial marriage?

What should be done, legally and socially, with photographers who don’t want to take part in an interracial wedding, or churches that don’t want to consecrate an interracial union? How should we all treat the old-fashioned view that marriage is between people of the same races?

Many institutions, commentators and politicians already have their answer: opposition to interracial marriage deserves no more respect than misogyny. The government ought to force a photographer, a musician or a caterer to participate in an interracial wedding, they argue, just as we forced a misogynistic society to accept women in the workplace.

But the premise here – that opposition to interracial marriage is necessarily grounded in bigotry – is wrong.

Certainly, racist bigotry still exists, and if a businessman refuses to sell someone a slice of pizza because he’s black, that sure looks like bigotry. Hating or discriminating against a person purely because of his race is not in keeping with Christ’s commandments that we love everyone.

But refusing to participate in a marriage ceremony is a different sort of thing. It’s not a statement about the people involved. It’s a decision about the ceremony itself—that one doesn’t want to endorse a definition of marriage that one doesn’t share.

Essentially, the argument is, Nothing personal. You do you, and I’ll do me.

Tim, of course, argues that the Catholic teaching of marriage is a significantly different motivation than anti-racial animus—and I couldn’t agree more with him on this point. He argues further, “if you can grant that some of these teachings are grounded, not in animus, but in an understanding of love, then at least you can agree to this: We shouldn’t use the force of law to banish these views from our society.”

In assailing this straw man, Tim fails to acknowledge that the United States of America has already seen a concerted, nationwide effort to banish a certain set of views from our society using, in part, the threat of state-enforced violence. I’m talking about state-sponsored and culturally reinforced efforts to marginalize LGBT Americans. Though Tim argues that his beliefs are rooted in love, not animus—and he asserted on Twitter that he in fact does not disapprove of same-sex marriage, which he didn’t explicitly state in his piece—it’s difficult to ascribe any of the following to “an understanding of love.”

What it was like, before it got better

Anti-sodomy laws were being enforced in fourteen states as late as 2003. In a majority of US states, it is still 100% legal to fire an employee because of that person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The original Stonewall riots were a backlash to “force of law” efforts to put down the LGBT community in New York City. Harvey Milk, one of the most prominent early advocates for the gay community, was gunned down in broad daylight and the man who shot him was not convicted of murder, but instead manslaughter. Dan White, the assassin, served only five years in prison before being released. When I asked my buddy about it (he is a hotshot Los Angeles criminal defense attorney) – he said this was a pretty bad situation for the person being charged.

As HIV/AIDS decimated the gay community during the 1980s and early 1990s, the federal government stood by silently. I’m not sure whether or not Tim knows a gay man over the age of 55 who was out during the 1980s. If he does, I can guarantee that that man watched several of his friends die slow and painful deaths precipitated by that plague. And, in all likelihood, that man was barred from attending some of the funerals.

For decades, gay, bisexual, and lesbian servicemen and women who had honorably served our country’s armed forces were dishonorably discharged if their sexual orientation was discovered. The transgender members of our military still face this threat of odious discrimination.

Further, the severe rejection of LGBT youth continues to have deadly consequences today, to say nothing of the past. Compared to LGBT youth who are accepted by their family, caregivers, and community, LGBT youth who are severely rejected are eight times more likely to attempt suicide, six times more likely to suffer from severe depression, three times more likely to use hard drugs, and three times more likely to be at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. In addition, 40% of our nation’s youth homeless population is LGBT, because they have been thrown out of their homes by parents who have a peculiar way of demonstrating their “understanding of love” to their LGBT children.

It is getting better–slowly

This is what a concerted, state-enforced, nationwide effort to banish a certain set of views—a certain identity—from our society looks like. I genuinely hope Tim understands how difficult it is for LGBT people to look at and experience all of the above and then to try to conclude, “Well yes, but that’s all separate from the fact that it has taken decades of patient, disciplined work by our community to obtain recognition of marriage rights for same-sex couples. Yes, we’re the real oppressors here.”

Tim’s central failing is to focus exclusively on marriage, the one central piece of his identity he now shares with so many same-sex couples nationwide, while ignoring the pattern and history of discrimination and bigotry experienced by LGBT people in so many other aspects of the human experience. I hope, at least, he sees the parallel between what the LGBT community has actually experienced and what he fears his future may hold: stigmatization, dehumanization, and humiliation are not a hypothetical for people who are LGBT.

Tim argues, “the premise here – that opposition to gay marriage is necessarily grounded in bigotry – is wrong.” I agree, and I know many of my fellow advocates do as well. Opposition to gay marriage can be grounded in things other than bigotry. What Tim’s arguments-by-parallel-example fails to mention is that we didn’t outlaw racism. We didn’t banish race-based-bigotry. We didn’t outlaw thought. We outlawed a certain kind of action, regardless of the belief in which that action was “grounded.” His parallel doesn’t even hold up.

Tim’s final claim—that people who believe what he believes are having their beliefs and identities banished from our society—will be much more persuasive when people of his belief are actually in the throes of a rejection similar to that experienced by the LGBT community. And to be clear, that rejection is not an experience I would wish on anyone.

All the same, it’s critical to understand that what Tim feels—anxiety, fear, and discomfort—is real. And it’s crucial to acknowledge that he isn’t alone in how he feels, and that those of us who support the advancement of LGBT rights dismiss the feelings of Tim and his cohort at our own risk. The backlash is coming, and it will likely get worse before it gets better.

But it will get better. We will one day live in a world where LGBT youth are not more likely to be homeless or attempt suicide or suffer from severe depression. We will one day live in world where LGBT adults can go to work in all fifty states without fear of losing their jobs because of who they love or how they identify. We will one day live in a world where the conflicts between LGBT people and people of faith will be squarely in our past, when the mystic chords of memory have again swelled, touched by the better angels of our nature. Our pluralistic republic will carry on, and we will all be the stronger and more resilient for it.

That day is not today, but it is coming. It will get better for us all—including Tim Carney.

Four years ago today

Four years ago today, I gave a short speech to the Iowa legislature against a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in our state. Four years later, I’m still working through the deluge of messages I received–finally down to the last 500 emails, many of them from other children of same-sex couples inspired to reach out. I’m glad to know they found my words inspirational, and I’m more glad to know that, in Iowa at least, nobody will have to give that speech again. That inspiration and passion can be directed elsewhere.

Iowa Senate Democrats held onto the state Senate last November and maintain a firewall behind the leadership of Mike Gronstall. When Iowa House Republicans last week introduced yet another bill to ban gay marriage in Iowa, they could find only twelve sponsors, down from 56 four years ago. A bill might still pass the Iowa House, but it’s going nowhere–and it’s certainly not going into our constitution.

Same-sex marriage is here to stay, and those of us with same-sex parents can stop worrying about the government interfering with our family lives. We can look to the future, and use our inspiration and our passion to dedicate ourselves to the building of beloved community and the extension and protection of rights beyond marriage.

As much as my life has changed in the last four years, it’s nothing compared to the broader acceptance of same-sex marriage in this country. Here’s to the next four years–and the next forty.

The Question of Speech


Early this morning, I woke to a series of WhatsApp messages from my girlfriend, who’s currently on holiday in Paris:

“Good morning.” 6:36 AM
“We’re totally safe.” 7:35 AM
“The shooting was near us, and we are fine.” 7:35 AM

I had no idea what she was talking about. I opened Google Search, tapped the “voice search” button and said “Paris shooting,” which gave me plenty of results about parachuting but no news of actual events in Paris.

Twitter illuminated what Google Search did not. Around 5:30AM ET, a group of at least two, maybe three, men stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo—a popular leftist, strongly anti-religious satirist newspaper—during the staff’s weekly editorial meeting. At the time of writing, at least twelve people are dead.

In the prerequisite class to work for my high school newspaper, The West Side Story, we extensively studied the free speech protections that exist for high school students. We took these rights seriously—in no small part because the most high profile Supreme Court case concerning these rights, Tinker v. Des Moines, originated just ninety minutes due west on Interstate-80. Our editor-in-chief kept a poster up in the newsroom with a quote attributed to Voltaire (though actually composed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall) that read, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Abstractions are really great on the easy days. Not as much on days like today.

I feel my blood simmering; anger and grief are caught in my throat. This hits home not just because my girlfriend is in Paris, but because the people targeted share her line of work. It’s easy to imagine her deciding to swing by the office of a popular left-wing magazine. Just the other day, she met up with some friends who work for Slate France. These are her people, and they are under attack.

He died on his feet

We would do well to remember that just because massacres like this are so rarely actually carried out does not mean that we are not under attack. It’s easy to dismiss government claims of “disrupting” or “preventing” attacks that don’t occur—and I still believe that we should take such claims with large grains of salt—but we should not forget that absence of attacks carried out does not imply the absence of intent to attack. It’s equally easy to convince oneself that such attacks are impossible and will never actually happen:

“It just so happens I’m more likely to get run over by a bicycle in Paris than get assassinated,” says [Stephane Charbonnier], the soft-spoken editor of Charlie Hebdo, a left-leaning French satirical weekly, which since 2006 has been sued, threatened and firebombed for its sporadic publication of cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

Los Angeles Times, “Editor of incendiary Charlie Hebdo magazine wants everyone to calm down,” March 27, 2013

In a 2012 interview with the French daily paper of record Le Monde, Charbonnier, or “Charb,” as he was known, said, “That may be a bit pompous what I am saying, but I prefer to die standing than live on my knees. ”

Charb is among those who died as a result of this attack.

Je Suis Charlie

The reaction has been swift. I don’t know if we’ll see a more fitting tribute than this one from David Pope:


“Je suies Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” is picking up steam on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve already seen a number of images like this popping up on Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook:


Is it helpful to mock the entirety of a religion? I doubt it.

Some publications are censoring depictions of the cartoons, including the UK’s The Telegraph, New York Daily News, and the Associated Press, which announced it would “refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”

Digital publications seem to be moving in a different direction.

The conservative digital publication Washington Free Beacon (which, on other days, revels in being labeled a “bomb thrower” by liberals) was quick to publish a number of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, under the subhead, “Publishing the cartoons that jihadist fanatics don’t want you to see.”

BuzzFeed has followed suit, publishing a listicle of “12 Striking Charlie Hebdo Front Covers,” which features plenty of offensive depictions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.

The left-leaning news explainer Vox republished a cartoon that seems relevant in light of the attack in Paris:


It will be interesting to see if a clear divide emerges between digital and print publications. I suspect it may.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine takes on the traditional liberal view:

The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.

The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

New York Magazine, “Charlie Hebdo and the Right to Commit Blasphemy,” January 7, 2015

Matt Yglesias tweets at Chait (formerly of The New Republic) asking if he’d apply that principle to racist speech. [UPDATE: Yglesias penned his own response, which I find to be an improvement on Chait’s work. Link is below in “Additional Reading” section.] Max Fischer, also of Vox, makes a more compelling case:

And that is exactly why Charlie Hebdo’s “Love is stronger than hate” cover so well captures the magazine’s oft-misunderstood mission and message. Yes, the slobbery kiss between two men is surely meant to get under the skin of any conservative Muslims who are also homophobic, but so too is it an attack on the idea that Muslims or Islam are the enemy, rather than extremism and intolerance.

Vox, “Charlie Hebdo’s most famous cover shows what makes the magazine so important,” January 7, 2015

I’m uncomfortable with offensive speech for the sake of offensiveness alone, but it’s critical to remember that there is a difference between effective satire with purpose ala Charlie Hebdo and needless incendiary actions, like the Florida pastor who threatened to burn the Koran. Do both deserve equal protection? How do we understand or qualify motive in these cases?

Sticks and stones

When is speech no longer speech? Does speech stop when harm starts? This is unclear, given the difficulty of defining where harm begins. I have no love for religious extremists. Most of them would prefer that families like mine (i.e. families with same-sex, homosexual parents) didn’t exist. Homosexuality, of course, is punishable by imprisonment and/or death in many theocracies around the world—and was still illegal in many parts of the United States barely a decade ago.

I’d venture that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of needless agitation for agitation’s sake. The relentless mocking and derision of women, people of color, LGBTQ people and, yes, religious minorities, remains so present and destructive in day-to-day life that decent people should think carefully before opening their mouths or putting pen to paper.

Speech is itself abstract and the impact it has on individuals is abstract—or at least mental—as well, but these abstract impacts can have concrete consequences. The attack in Paris is just one example.

The night before the attack in Paris, an NAACP chapter in Colorado Springs was attacked with a makeshift explosive device. Would Western politicians or editors ever exhort journalists or cartoonists to act in such a way as not to offend white supremacists?

Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen in Ohio who killed herself shortly after Christmas, felt hopelessly trapped by the actions and words of her parents, who for religious reasons did not feel comfortable acknowledging their daughter’s transgender identity. Which is more culpable in Leelah’s suicide: her parents’ speech or Leelah’s agency? The question of agency is further complicated by the fact that, at seventeen years of age, Leelah was a minor.

Is it even fair to conflate a couple’s religious beliefs with the satiric drawings of French cartoonists? It will depend on whom you ask. There’s a thin line between bullying and satire, and that line is often drawn by something even more ethereal than speech: motivation.

What’s next?

We don’t know. Most immediately, I’ll be watching to see who does or does not publish uncensored Charlie Hebdon cartoons, if we hear more urgings to “exercise restraint” in the images we create, and whether or not we see people in France act in a way comparable to how many Australians reacted to the recent attack in Sydney, which is to say with grace and compassion towards nonviolent Muslims in their communities.

George Orwell wrote as the original preface for Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

In some situations, hearing things we do not want to hear can lead to us improving ourselves. In other situations, it can make our problems worse. I suspect that Ezra Klein is right: “this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.”

Who drew first?


In our civilization, there is a correct answer to this question.

Je Suis Charlie. •

Additional Reading

Ross Douthat: The Blasphemy We Need

Will Wilkinson: Drawing blood

Matt Yglesias: Two — but only two — cheers for blasphemy



On Body Cameras

The grand jury’s decision is out. What now?

Darren Wilson will not be indicted. There may yet be a civil suit and/or federal intervention. Lots of people are demanding a policy change. Michael Brown is dead; something has to give. But what?

One idea that’s percolating up through the discourse is to mandate the use of body cameras on active duty police officers. This is now being championed by Michael Brown’s parents. Let’s talk about this.

Body cameras on every officer?

It’s easy to understand why Michael Brown’s parents have taken up this cause and would support such a policy change. Eyewitness accounts of the events surrounding their son’s death are disputed and conflicting. Some witnesses claim that Brown’s hands were raised and that it appeared he was trying to surrender. Others refute this claim, including Darren Wilson. In an interview released after the grand jury’s decision, Wilson claims that he was being charged by Brown and feared for his life after a physical altercation in the police car. Ezra Klein points out that, as told in that interview, Wilson’s story is difficult to believe. A video could provide clarity in a way that conflicting eyewitness reports have not.

Further, beyond the situation in Ferguson, a small but rapidly growing body of evidence compellingly suggests that when police officers know their actions are being recorded, they behave much better.

According to a year-long study of the Rialto, Calif., police department, the use of “officer worn cameras reduced the rate of use-of-force incidents by 59 percent” and “utilization of the cameras led to an 87.5 percent reduction in complaints” by citizens against cops.

Time Magazine, “Make Cops Wear Cameras,” August 14, 2014

Not only do body cameras lead to better behavior by the officers wearing them, it’s not difficult to see how the public could feel better served and more protected by heightened accountability. From the same Time article:

Such results are the reason that the ACLU is in favor of “police body-mounted cameras,” as long as various privacy protections and other concerns are addressed. And it also explains growing support for the policy among elected officials. In the wake of Eric Garner’s chokehold death in July, New York City’s public advocate is pushing a $5 million pilot program in the city’s “most crime-plagued neighborhoods” as a means of restoring trust in the police.

Time Magazine, “Make Cops Wear Cameras,” August 14, 2014

We live in a country where faith in the ability of government to do its job has steadily eroded for the last twelve years. A strong racial gap exists when it comes to trust in “the police” as an institution:

Gallup’s Frank Newport notes that the police tested third-highest out 17 institutions in whites’ confidence, behind only the military and small business. Blacks rated police seventh, behind organized religion, the medical system, and television news.

The Atlantic, “Americans’ Deep Racial Divide on Trusting the Police,” August 20, 2014

Body cameras may help begin to rebuild trust in American government at one of its most frequent points of interactions with everyday citizens–law enforcement.

Not so fast.

Americans overwhelmingly support more police transparency and accountability–we want to know that those tasked with enforcing the law are also obeying said law. Mandatory body cameras may help with that. Three immediate concerns come to mind.

First, though it is certainly not being pitched as such, putting a body camera on every cop would amount to a dramatic expansion of domestic surveillance. There are approximately one million full time police officers in the United States. This would translate into an additional one million mobile surveillance cameras on America’s streets and in our neighborhoods. What happens when the Department for Homeland Security syncs up all of these cameras in real time and adds facial recognition? This is a serious question. The immediate hurdle, of course, is processing such a massive amount of information. Don’t worry, though. Our military industrial complex is already working on it:

Advocates of surveillance point to advancements in technology as proof that cameras will, in the future, enhance response and assist prevention. Leaders of video surveillance — companies like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — are shifting the industry from analog to digital, and into the uncanny, science-fiction realm of smart cameras.

The future of surveillance is “video analytics,” where computers will automatically analyze camera feeds to count people, register temperature changes, and, via statistical algorithms, identify suspicious behavior. No technicians required. Up to this point, surveillance has been limited by personnel: For surveillance to be useful in real time, someone has to keep an eye on all those CCTV feeds.

Fortune Magazine, “The Great Surveillance Boom,” April 26, 2013

I’m not one for wearing tin foil hats, but before we rush into putting a high-definition body camera on every cop in this country, let’s have a conversation about what the potential ramifications are. Once we go down this path–as we’ve seen with nearly every single expansion of domestic surveillance–it becomes incredibly difficult to turn around and walk the other direction.

Second, beyond philosophical questions about surveillance, there are practical concerns about the effects of body cameras on day-to-day police work. When it comes to working with informants, interviewing witnesses, etc. the presence of a camera may in some situations make policing more difficult. I’m inclined to say that this is probably worth the hassle and complications, but it’s worth considering.

Finally, I keep wondering which is more dangerous: unaccountable police or mass surveillance? If it’s possible to rein in the former without giving way to the latter, this becomes a simple question, but it’s unclear if it’s really that easy. The reality, too, is that which is more dangerous likely depends on who you are. I’m an upper middle class white male. What we understand as “mass surveillance” is probably “more dangerous” in my day-to-day life than what we understand as “unaccountable police” in the life of Michael Brown and the lives of poor, young black men across the country.

I keep trying to consider this question from the original position, but without thoroughly understanding the consequences of either mass surveillance or unaccountable policing, I’m unable to arrive at a clear answer.

What’s next?

We need more data. The deployment of body cameras comes with significant potential upside and downside, and the decision is about weighing those against each other and figuring out how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

If we see more evidence that suggests wearing body cameras significantly alters police behavior in a positive way and we are also able to regulate the use of the video streams from these cameras in such a way that we are not eroding privacy rights of the public, we should seriously consider moving forward with more body cameras nationwide.

In the mean time, deploying body cameras in limited quantities with strict oversight makes a lot of sense. The information we glean from these samples will help us make a better choice. Hopefully, too, we’ll learn how to appropriately handle the video that’s gathered in a way that both creates accountability and protects the public’s privacy. ⋅

Related matters

In Australia, the New South Wales state parliament is considering legislation that would enable police officers to wear body cameras when responding to reports of domestic violence. The idea here is that video testimony would help make sure that witnesses are not later coerced to tell a different story.

The legislation has received a mixed response from Australia’s women’s groups. NSW’s Police Association, however, is pushing for body cameras on all police at all times.

Additional reading

Vox: How body cameras could change the police

The Dish: Cameras for Cops

Time: Make Cops Wear Cameras

New York Magazine: Ferguson Police Have Started Using Body Cameras


While I was writing this, a friend of mine mentioned a book in which elected officials are required to wear body cameras–now there’s an idea!

The same friend raised another interesting point: what if body cameras are used as a first strike disciplinary measure? “Want to keep your job? Wear this body camera.” Makes sense to me.

Another friend chimes in:

This adds another layer of technical complexity, but what about cameras that activate when weapons (pepper spray, tasers, guns, etc.) are drawn? That could help address the concerns with either always-filming or discretionary devices.