Agree to disagree

Wonkette highlights this quote from Democratic Senator Chris Murphy:

“I worry that we are entering a world where we don’t talk unless people are 110 percent in alignment with us.”

Of course this is idiocy. Lordy, if feminists didn’t disagree with each other all the time we’d have 90% less to say. We are constantly speaking to those who disagree. What was Mitsue Yamada’s work except daring and cogent protest against the forces pushing her to the margins not only in US society at large, dominated by men and masculinity as it is, but even within feminism?

What were the sex wars of the 1980s if not shatteringly strong disagreements? Without disagreement, how does one even begin to explain the hundred years of mainstream feminists’ eye-rolling whenever the socialist feminists enter the room? How could anyone ever explain that one joke about Judith Butler that was retold 170 billion times in the 1990s?

Disagreement is the heart and soul of the left. It is loud and messy and frustrating and painful. It leaves people who shop at the supermarket feeling judged and people who shop at the co-op feeling hopeless.

But it also is the only thing that has ever led to progress in socio-political ethics. The world gets better because we disagree.

Humans have always treated out-groups differently than in-groups. We have, for ages now, defined our progress largely by an ever-expanding definition of the “in-group”. The US constitution has been one of the best examples of this: at its drafting the monied and educated white men who gathered to create it guaranteed themselves treatment that they thought just and fair. Over the centuries since, we have been adding groups to those previously protected — Black people, people in other states, Chinese immigrants, women, and so on. While what constitutes just treatment has also evolved, this too has happened largely through comparing the treatment of some to the treatment of others.

The defining trait of conservatives is the drawing of a line to say, “This many are in my in-group, but no more! The remainder are outsiders because they deserve to be outsiders. Prohibitions against the immoral treatment of others do not apply to the treatment of them.”

The defining trait of progressives is a recognition that the definition of the in-group is not yet expansive enough. But just as conservatives can differ about where to draw the limits of the in-group, so can progressives. White supremacist nationalists might draw the line one particular way, while theocratic christians might draw a different boundary encompassing many of the same people, but not all. Meanwhile one progressive might fight strenuously for the right of people with disabilities to :gasp: sexual self-determination, while another might fight strenuously for the right of Black boys and men to respectful treatment by the police.

Those two hypothetical progressives disagree not only on the out-group most in need of inclusion, but also on the forms of marginalization and exclusion from ethical consideration that most pressingly demand elimination.

Chauvin is an example of how policing excludes Black people from the ethical protections of our shared humanity to which in-group status would entitle them, and Chauvin is not even the worst example of this. Murderers like Chauvin begin now to receive the widespread infamy they have always deserved. To suggest that this might not be our most important fight would understandably provoke criticism, and the farther that suggestion travels, the more likely some of the criticism will take terrible forms.

But sexual self-determination for people with disabilities is not a trivial issue. In myriad ways we are denied sexual education and experience. As a result, not only are we cut off from an entire realm of human connection and prevented from ever fully participating in society, but we are portrayed as innocent in a way that allows sexual assault and rape to flourish. Our rapists believe that we are unable to comprehend or experience sexuality in a way that would make us truly victims, thus rationalizing generation after generation of abuse. Our family, caretakers, and educators deny us the conversations and sometimes even the vocabulary necessary to identify (much less protest) the harms inflicted upon us. The rapists literally depend on those charged with our care to silence our screams, and they are not disappointed.

How can we justify agitating for more attention to those whose violations at least get some when some violations get no attention at all? The rapes of children with disabilities get at least nominal condemnation, if no effort at solving the issue, but as yet we have no name for the denial to people with disabilities of puppy love, making out, marriage, fucking and all the rest. This entire world of human interaction which is the basis for connection after connection, historically a world through which one group would literally join with another to form a new, larger group for defense, political connection, sharing of labor and wealth, this gigantic source of human strength and vulnerability and growth and joy is denied millions with no comment or discussion at all. How can this be unworthy of our activist efforts?

It takes little to see, once the words are on the page, how those fighting on either of these fronts could see the other as a dangerous distraction, a waste of energies best directed elsewhere. How do you respectfully tell the bereaved mother of Atatiana Jefferson that racist police violence has received enough attention? How do you tell the medicalized woman raped by her caretaker but denied the necessary assistance to travel to her boyfriend’s house that we have helped her enough, she has no right to ask for more or better?

Our issues are pressing. It is a tribute to our passion for inclusion that some of us will disagree. Some of us will spend more energy on the issue closest to home, or the one on which we have the most expertise. We need that. We need the personal stories because indeed the comparative importance our society places on the stories of Benjamin Franklin and Venture Smith is part of our problem.

But being progressive isn’t to be perfect, and so long as our issues are pressing, some of us will desperate as well as passionate. Desperate disagreements are not polite disagreements.

We are disagreeing passionately and desperately, but the left is disagreeing about the right things, and has been for as long as it has been the left.

“Ain’t I a woman?” asked Sojourner Truth.

Dr. King warned:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

And add to this words from Kimberlé Crenshaw:

a large and continuing project for subordinated people … is thinking about the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others. This project attempts to unveil the processes of subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people who are subordinated and people who are privileged by them. … And this project’s most pressing problem, in many if not most cases, is not the existence of the categories, but rather the particular values attached to them and the way those values foster and create social hierarchies

We of the left are in a constant struggle, but not so much over the need to expand our in-group, to love more, to provide more, to include more amongst those we love as ourselves. No, in a world with such violence and desperation amidst our margins, the questions that provoke the fiercest responses are those about whom to save in the finite today, for tomorrow will be too late for many.

It would break my heart if we could not hear people scream at the lifeguard saving a Black boy that the crippled girl is drowning just as certainly. When George Floyd whispers for his mother, his lungs near empty at the last, when the nameless, hidden woman with Down syndrome cannot find the word for rape to speak it, when she is silenced by the admonishment that her weekly bleeding is menstruation at what volume should I scream?

When I hear the angry, wounded shrieks of those who have brought these two into their in-group, who cry out as if they themselves were being raped, being murdered, my concern is not for the ringing in the ears of some. Our empathy is a moral victory. Our rage is moral genius.

To those like Chris Murphy who complain about the messy, turbulent, painful noise of the subjugated, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the other, I say that love will win. We progressives will expand the in-group and expand it again, and every generation the conservatives will defend a new, larger boundary. And you may lose your hearing from the cacophonic din, but we will yell because we must, because our morality demands it. And when we fall steeply into our last and lasting sleep, we will dream of the day when our boundaries compass the entirety of the world, when the screaming ends not because it violates a norm of propriety but because there is no longer any desperation to yell out.

What will you dream?

Abortion is a trans rights issue, and trans rights are reproductive rights

So memorably (to me anyway) I once gave a speech at a small but influential gathering in defense of the Lovejoy Surgicenter clinic in Portland, Oregon. The so-called “Lovejoy clinic” provided abortions to women and others in need for fifty goddamn years, starting before Roe guaranteed abortion rights at the federal level. It was not a Planned Parenthood clinic, though it did frequently work closely with Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette. This did not happen without attacks and certainly not without protest. So you can imagine that supportive rallies were needed there on many occasions.

At the rally I attended, and where I spoke, a number of people from the board of PP-CW and the Lovejoy clinic and Oregon NARAL also attended, and they were listening. I briefly spoke about the state of trans freedom and trans health care and the political attacks on both. Few people if anyone seemed aware of any of this, but that was kinda my point. I said that the attempt to assert public control over individuals’ genitals and health care and especially health care having anything to do with genitals was all of a piece. For that reason, I argued, trans people must stand up and count themselves among the fighters for abortion rights whether or not we are people who are able to become pregnant. After the rally I was approached by a number of heavy hitters in Oregon’s reproductive rights community and we spoke for maybe an hour, certainly much longer than I had planned to be at the rally. I remember being quite late to get home.

Within two years support for abortion rights among trans people in Portland had increased and PPCW had begun providing a small amount of trans health care. Now, I have no idea whether or not showing up that day had anything to do with the beginning of PPCW’s slow shift into providing more and more care to trans patients. And if I affected the trans community’s willingness to take on abortion access as a trans issue it was more from general haranguing over years in personal conversations than it was that rally where few if any other trans people joined up and no others spoke. But it’s clear that something was happening around then, and that I was a part of it, and that a community was opening up that had felt besieged and often had little time for issues like anti-domestic violence or reproductive rights work that didn’t seem to fit into the narrow definition of trans issues that then existed.

And look, if you don’t know what it’s like to be besieged, just try being an out trans person thirty years ago, whoo, sibling.

The point of all this is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to expand your issues. When you see your issues linked with issues that are historically not your issues a good approach to this might be to say, “Hey, I notice this link, and because I care about my issues, I care about yours.” This is not only good ally work, but it also can be the start of something special, as in Portland 25 years ago where we went further. As trans people and people fighting for reproductive rights, we held hands like Marcie and goddamned Peppermint Patty and told each other, “Because I care about my issues, your issues are my issues.” Trans people gave more money to reproductive rights organizations than they had previously and out trans people began working in reproductive rights organizations. At the same time reproductive rights organizations started offering care to trans people right there in their clinics.

It was a beautiful thing to witness (and none of my doing, since I did not work in those organizations and I have never provided abortions or trans health care or health care of any kind besides bandaids and such for kids) and I will always love Portland for it.

More often though, we fall short of that. Humans gonna human, right? I have limits on my expertise and I can’t always talk about Black women, chemical hair straighteners, racism, and cancer (though that’s an article I’ve been wanting to write for two weeks now) because white MtF person touching on Black women’s hair? That can get tangled and uncomfortable real quick, and as necessary as it is that white people talk about how racism is giving Black women cancer, it’s not entirely unreasonable to be afraid of fucking up on the topic and that can make writing about it a little more fraught, a little more draining, and a little more time consuming than writing about other topics. We’re human, and this is mostly okay.

But mostly okay is not ALL okay. When we get complacent, or when we seem to get complacent, it becomes necessary for one asshole to speak up and ask if we’re really doing our best here. It doesn’t feel great, usually, but it’s often necessary for the overall effort of getting better over time.

It is in this spirit that I’m gonna take some shots at Christina Cauterucci’s recent Slate article Abortion Is So Popular Republicans Are Inventing Conspiracy Theories to Trick Americans Into Voting Against It. Since this article appeared on Slate and was linked in the Wonkette TABS! roundup, I am sure all good liberals have read it. And if you know it then you know that a huge part of it is summed up here:

Abortion bans are unpopular. So unpopular that Republican extremists seem to have to invent conspiracy theories to trick Americans into voting for them.

That’s the major takeaway from recent political battles in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In all three states, abortion-related ballot initiatives and elections were framed by right-wing groups as the only thing standing between parents and “trans ideology” in the classroom. …

This is the new playbook. Using the specter of child corruption and social contagion, Republicans are attempting to manipulate parents, scapegoat trans and queer people, and erode multiple axes of bodily autonomy, all in one fell swoop.

Cauterucci brings the receipts. The article is, indeed a great summation of “the new playbook”.

What it is not, however, is any kind of call for trans advocates and feminist reproductive rights advocates to work together. The existence of trans people is portrayed as a chink in abortion defenders’ armour:

These groups believe that by agitating conservatives and uniting voters against a trans boogeyman, they can get people to ignore their own support for (or indifference to) abortion rights and eagerly line up to give those rights away.

And sure, we are that I guess. Cauterucci quotes a Republican scare-ad saying that we are

Malicious entities from out of state [that] are arriving in sheep’s clothing to “encourage sex changes for kids” and sneak “trans ideology” into schoolrooms

Fortunately Cauterucci has a more reassuring message. In her telling, cissexist scaremongering and the demonization of trans people is bad, but it’s also nothing to worry about:

It’s no surprise that GOP operatives are trying to divert the focus to literally any other issue where they perceive themselves to have the upper hand, though it is horrifying to see that they believe virulent transphobia is a winning enough position that it may convince voters to sign away their access to legal abortion. The only silver lining, in Ohio as in Wisconsin as in Michigan, is that the bait-and-switch doesn’t seem to be working.

In this article trans people aren’t the enemy. Instead, trans people are the helpless tools of the enemy. But we can be hopeful because trans people’s issues aren’t our issues, they are “other issues” and no one thinks that they’re protecting trans people when they vote for reproductive freedom.

And again, because I’m about to be THAT ASSHOLE, this is an article written by Cauterucci, not Cauterucci’s whole life and philosophy. For all I know, Cauterucci is trans. And lord knows I’ve had a piece or two of my own edited to say something that I didn’t want the piece to say, so let’s get together and agree here that no one is interested in demonizing Cauterucci.

And also, too, there’s room in the wide world for some articles that are single-issue. It’s popular to say in trendy living rooms within a ten foot radius of my fat ass that my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit, but sometimes the question for the day really is nothing more than, “What is the current GOP strategy?” with no room for any sidetracks into whether it’s good or bad or how best to fight it.

And, of course, we’re human beings with limited space in a brains and in our hearts for all the issues that matter. If you’re doing your best and you just don’t get trans issues and don’t have room in your whatever for trans people or trans advocacy, I would much rather you embrace and create positive momentum towards resolution on issues you do have the time and energy to address, whether that’s climate change or voting rights or abortion, than give up on everything because it’s not in you to do something intersectionally.

But there is a problem if pieces like’s Cauterucci’s work for Slate become common, and in my opinion they have become common enough to reach this threshold. However much you would like to give zero points to the theocratic right on any and every question, they’re not actually wrong to think that trans rights and reproductive rights are related. In many cases this is direct and explicit: governments often have and often still do require proof of sterilization before changes to legal sex can be made. FtM people can and do get pregnant, can and do access abortion. Trans people of all flavours use condoms and lube and antibiotics for our STDs. In other cases, it is more indirect. Indeed whether you believe (as I do and any reasonable person does) that the political right’s attacks on trans people during recent reproductive rights ballot campaigns have been deceptive to mendacious red herrings and demonization, it is certainly true that the theocrats are creating ever more links between the issues.

I said 25 years ago in that after-demo discussion that the desire to control others’ reproductive systems is related in the theocrats’ own minds, and if I tolerate fascistic reproductive control so long as there’s a special exception for me, I am tolerating the existence of an ideology that would destroy me the moment it had the chance. This is equally true for trans people who tolerate anti-abortion attacks and for reproductive rights advocates who tolerate anti-trans attacks.

I said at the time that I fight for reproductive rights for many reasons, but not least because it is in my enlightened self-interest. And so it is for people whose primary issue is reproductive rights: if the general lefty public went all in on fighting for trans rights thirty years ago, could the theocrats use trans people as a wedge to split (or threaten to split) support for abortion rights today? Well, of course not.

So it pains me to see the mistakes born of near-universal ignorance repeated in a time of near-universal access to information about trans lives. Take the passage in Cauterucci’s article that addresses the 2022 campaign for a reproductive rights amendment in Michigan. The amendment found in Michigan Proposal 3 read, in part:

Every individual has a fundamental right to reproductive freedom, which entails the right to make and effectuate decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy, including but not limited to prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management, and infertility care.

The right wing opponents were going to try to make this about trans people, and the most convenient portion of the amendment for their purposes was the right to make decisions related to “sterilization”. Cauterucci explains:

Conservatives spent the months before the election trying to convince voters that the inclusion of the term “sterilization” was a sneaky admission, by Democrats, that they would be legalizing secret gender-affirming surgeries for children.

Now, Proposal 3 was not a secret effort to hack up children’s bodies, much less an admission of our dastardly plan to do so. Cauterucci goes on to explain that at some length, citing the fact that puberty blockers do not cause sterilization and that

[l]egal analysts who responded in the Detroit Free Press said the abortion rights amendment in Michigan was not written to legalize clandestine procedures for children, nor could it be reasonably interpreted as such by a judge.

None of this is wrong, of course, but there’s a really odd element to all this. Cauterucci quotes a theocratic opponent of human rights thus:

“A constitutional right to ‘sterilization’ surely includes a right to be sterilized to align one’s sex and gender identity,” wrote a spokesperson for Citizens to Support MI Women & Children, the PAC that funded the ads, in an email to the Detroit Free Press. “The majority of voters do not support a 12-year-old girl’s right to sterilization without her parent’s notice or consent.”

And while she does an admirable job attacking scaremongering about trans kids getting access to surgery without parental notice or consent, never once does her piece even acknowledge, much less find importance in, the fact that the first part of this terrible statement is actually correct: sterilization is a normal and expected result for most gender confirmation surgeries that alter the reproductive organs. Thus Michigan’s Proposal 3 is a constitutional amendment with provisions of special importance to trans people.

Now as I said, not every piece of journalism needs be intersectional, but Cauterucci in this piece does everything possible to convince readers that trans lives have nothing at all to do with reproductive rights and there is nothing related to trans persons or trans health care on the ballot in the measures the article analyzes. Sure, the focus is on countering myths about trans health care for children, but when the quotes an author brings in explicitly raise a valid connection (trans people have a health care interest in a right to sterilization), it is up to the author to address that. By remaining silent on the issue Cauterucci gives the impression of believing that not only is the connection to trans children scare mongering that should not (and did not) prevent people from voting for reproductive rights, but also that any connection to trans adults is illusory. As a result, trans people are being given the impression (rightly or wrongly) that we are unimportant to Cauterucci and her fellow travellers, at least in a reproductive rights context, beyond the extent to which we are useful weapons of the Right.

This is, of course, wrong. I was denied health care in the early 90s specifically because the treatment path I sought included surgical removal of the gonads, and doctors wanted to prevent me from “suffering” sterilization. Nor was I alone in that experience. Other trans people around the world in cultures as disparate as Iran and Sweden have been forced or coerced into sterilization by government law or policy. The trans struggle for the right to self-determination on health care which includes sterilization (even when that is not the primary goal) has been waged for decades.

The inclusion of sterilization in Michigan’s Proposal 3 was therefore a huge win for trans people who had been both denied sterilizing procedures and forcibly sterilized. (It was also, by the by, a huge win for black women, women with certain disabilities, and poor women on government assistance because all of these are groups that have been targeted for sterilization without consent throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.) While the Proposal 3 vote had concluded before Cauterucci began writing the article, it is an odd choice to omit any notion that the much-contested sterilization right might have been a point of attack for the theocrats, but it also served as an opportunity for diversifying and expanding support among people with disabilities, poor people, trans people, and Black women.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that trans people and trans advocates being spoken of as if an irrelevant distraction to issues of reproductive rights rather than a vital constituency and natural coalition partners was not accidental. This was almost certainly an intentional framing for this article (possibly by Cauterucci, possibly by an editor). And to my dismay, this is far from the only article to be written in such a way. Cauterucci’s piece is not uniquely guilty, but it was reading it that it become clear that now is time to push back.

If you are a reproductive rights advocate, I want to first say thank you. But then I want to tell you that it’s fucking time you stood up (if you haven’t been already and for years the way Planned Parenthood Columiba Willamette has been) and interrupted the framing that portrays trans rights and abortion rights as separate issues unfortunately and erroneously connected only by the actions of a mendacious and theocratic right wing.

If nothing else, do it for your own fucking self-interest. If trans people weren’t societies’ demons, then the existence of trans people and the protection of trans rights could not be used against the efforts to protect reproductive rights. If our demonic status didn’t make letters about us such good fundraising material, the enemies of reproductive rights would have less cash on hand with which to work mischief. And while trans people are society’s demons, we are also natural allies you should be targeting for recruitment. You should be aware of how the fight for the right to self-determine access to sterilizing or potentially sterilizing health care gives racial justice advocates, disability rights advocates, economic justice advocates and, yes, trans advocates a huge stake in this fight. It motivates us. It causes us to join with people that have not been historically welcoming of us prior to the 1990s and in many areas are still not. You should know how to rally your allies, to bring people together, to forge a movement. You should know this even if you don’t actually give a fuck about trans people or Black women or folks with Down Syndrome. You should know this because it will make you more successful in fighting for the cause you hold most dear to your own heart.

But I’m hoping that at least some of you will challenge articles like this one in Slate because my issues are your issues. I would like you to see that Cauterucci’s attempt to divorce trans rights from reproductive rights bisects actual human beings, people you care about, people you might even love if you got to know them.

Abortion is a trans rights issue. Trans rights are reproductive rights. Just because people who lie about adolescent trans health care say that our issues are linked doesn’t actually mean that they aren’t. Nor do we suddenly have to avert our eyes from our common interests.

So when you’re speaking or writing about reproductive rights, don’t use the framing that trans rights aren’t reproductive rights. Don’t let the trans people unafraid to be associated with baby killers be braver than reproductive rights advocates that risk being associated with child molesting mutilators. We can counter the harmful myths about child predation without throwing each other out of our purer organizations.

In short: be my goddamned Peppermint Patty and I will be your Marcie and the world can be a whole lot better than if we each ignore the other’s issues as irrelevant distractions from our own, at best worthy but unrelated causes wrongfully conflated by the Right and at worst frustrating vulnerabilities which we must disavow, even excise from our movement.

We’re in this together. Let’s act like it.

Charles Hamilton Houston and the Montana environment case

Charles Hamilton Houston is the legal genius and absolute giant of the current USA constitutional order whom you are least likely to know — unless you’re Black. And even then, maybe not unless you’re a lawyer.

Born in the late 19th century, Howard lived about eight and a half months of his life before Plessy v. Fergusson declared “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws constitutionally sound. He would die before that changed, but he was the first one to see that change, the shape of it, the mechanism of it, the inevitability of it.

He became an attorney and co-founded the Washington Bar Association (an affiliate of the still-new National Bar Association) when the American Bar would not admit Black lawyers. Recruited to Howard University, he became the Vice Dean of the school, as well as Dean of its law school. With so few law schools open to Black students at the time, his bios describe him as directly teaching or mentoring up to one quarter of American Black law students during his Howard years.

In addition to his teaching, however, he was an activist. His particular genius was in seeing the judiciary as made up of flawed human beings and playing to human judges while arguing the law.

When he set out to overturn the doctrine of separate but equal, he knew he could not mount a frontal attack. Rather he predicated his arguments on Plessy; its own internal flaws would eventually bring it down, and Houston was content to portray himself as non-threatening while they did. Rather than argue overtly that Plessy must be struck — at least in early cases — Houston argued instead that Plessy was good law that must be actively applied. While that seems a contrary thing for a Black lawyer to argue, he knew differently.

Initial use of Plessy was as a club wielded by whites against Black equality. But Houston saw how this use focussed on separateness to the exclusion of equality. As a result, he set up the case of Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada. In this case he took the state of Missouri to task for having a segregated, whites-only law school and… no law school at all for Black students. While one might trust whites to rationalize terrible facilities given to Black students as all they deserve, it was impossible to (honestly) argue that nothing was equal to something.

Houston, then, backed white racist judges into a corner. They had always valued Plessyfor its ability to keep Black folk separate, but they valued themselves as an honest intellectual elite. Indeed, this was part of what made whites better to the racist mind. To discard the promise of equality in Plessy would be to accuse themselves of never having been honest about the nature of the case and its precedent in the first place. In order to preserve the honour that, they believed, made them better than Black Americans, they were goaded into following their own law. Missouri could not enforce “separate” without also enforcing “equal”. In order to cling to the sense of superiority which justified white racism, Houston forced judges to hand him the tools with which he and his protégés (notably Thurgood Marshall) would dismantle its legal enforcement.

I would enjoy writing a longer essay about Houston and the line of cases leading up to Brown v. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas), et. al. but this is not that post. Instead, I want to set up ex rel Gaines as a comparison to Rikki Held, et. al. v State of Montana. This latter case was a suit brought by a number of Montana children seeking to enforce the Montana constitution’s environment clause, which reads like so:

Art 9, s 1:
(1) The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.
(2) The legislature shall provide for the administration and enforcement of this duty.
(3) The legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.

Emphasis mine.

In our modern times, conservative jurists absolutely love to blither and blather about their textualism and their fealty to principles. Conservatives are loyal to the clear text of state and federal constitutions, even when this is inconvenient for their policies, they insist. It is the activist left who would ignore plain language in favour of outcome, they would like you to believe.

Unfortunately for the left, this isn’t true, but in the federal constitution there is a great deal of silence on issues of import to liberals. While we can and should deride the mendacious conservatives of SCOTUS for inventing new doctrines contrary to their beloved originalism and shoehorning them into any silent crevice in constitutional law, the Montana environment clause is, like Plessy, extraordinarily and uncomfortably clear. For the conservatives to maintain the myth of honour they sell themselves in the mirror each morning, they must occasionally pay a small price. The outcome in Held is one of the largest such payments, but it was mandated by their narcissistic, self-laudatory conception of their own goodness.

If they were able to see where this all will lead, the trial court judge might have ruled otherwise. Indeed the appellate courts in Montana still might. But as Houston forced the judiciary to agree in ex rel Gaines that for “separate” to have teeth, “equal” must also have teeth or else white judges had always been dishonest, counsel for Held, et. al. forces conservative judges to agree that text as clear as Montana’s environment clause must have teeth or textualism — and more importantly, textualists — have no honour and have never been honest.

Just as in ex rel Gaines, the victory here is minimal. Houston won a promise that Missouri would eventually set up a separate law school for Black and indigenous law students, Held and her co-plaintiffs have won only the modest victory Montana may no longer ban environmental impact statements’ discussion of climate change and the roles of molecules such as carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrocarbon chains.

But while the instant victory is minimal, the precedent is vastly important. Houston forced white judges to grant power to the promise of equality. Held’s lawyers are forcing conservative — not to say white again — judges to grant power to the promise of “a clean and healthful environment”.

In the 1930s any knowledgeable observer could predict that Jim Crow must eventually fall before its own most powerful precedent because the entire point of separateness was the promise to whites that they would be treated better than Black persons. Separate but equal was a lie the whole time, but it required the cooperation of a hostile judiciary to expose. Houston’s genius was taking white racists at their word and forcing them to choose what was more important, Jim Crow, or their own heroic self-conceptions. Ex rel Gaines was the lever which he used to separate the Jim Crow laws from their white defender’s egos.

It would be easy to focus on the limits of yesterday’s victory in Held, but by forcing Montana’s courts to recognize that the environment clause is as much text, and therefore as enforceable as any other element of the state constitution, Nikki Held’s lawyers have created the lever with which the conservative attachment to fossil fuels can be pried apart from their devotion to textualism and the self-aggrandizing ego kick it provides.

There are important differences here, of course. The largest is that this is a state decision, and most states do not have a similar guarantee. There is also reason for concern if we intended to rely only on the courts. After all, from Gaines to Brown took 16 years. Surely some of us will not live another 16 years; Houston himself never saw Brown, having lived only 12 more years after Gaines.

But for me, I see great promise in this approach. And if nothing else, it provides an important opportunity to talk about one of my favourite lawyers and how he showed that the secret humanity of judges we tend to mythologize as objective can work in the favour of a clever advocate.

Charles Hamilton Houston and the Montana environment case