Confused by the presidential candidate who once claimed she was named for an explorer who became famous more than five years after she was born, I checked Merriam-Webster Online for help with the word “community,” a noun I thought I already knew. By confirming my understanding of what a community is, the dictionary only added to my confusion. Then I remembered that language changes over time can be accelerated for ideological reasons.
Any difference between the definition of a word and the way that word shows up in pop culture indicates what’s in play, and “community” is one of the words progressives are trying to change. Hillary Clinton tried that with her crack about half of Donald Trump’s supporters being a “basket of deplorables.” It was a generalization meant to imply community where none exists, then heap scorn on that so-called community for being full of “-ists” and “-phobics” whom Trump has had the poor judgment to “lift up.”
In the old days, people formed communities through proximity, family ties, and shared experience. Eventually, economic growth meant you no longer had to elect amateur politicians into legislatures because there was no shortage of people willing to kiss babies and do each other favors for a living. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot returned to jobs they understood better, and medieval guilds left politics to the professionals. Then community organizers came into their own, with starry-eyed idealists and con artists each learning how to influence politicians.
Sexuality Is Not a Community (Unless You Need Votes)
By highlighting self-interest and sorting people accordingly, you can imply strength in numbers even where there is none. People in power can then turn around and co-opt that energy by mouthing platitudes about how we’re “stronger together,” as long as we’re in the right basket.
Consider the abbreviation “LGBT,” which surfaced in the 1990s when references to the “gay community” seemed incomplete to people who prefer to think of themselves as lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Because it is so endearingly specific, “LGBT” sounds more welcoming than “gay.” Even so, when LGBT became a free-range abbreviation, it couldn’t keep up with the pack whose big dogs are “NRA,” “AARP,” and “NAACP.”
The problem from a progressive point of view is that biology and psychology are never as forgiving or fluid as activists want them to be. Most people figure that sex is observed and recorded at birth, not determined. With the majority of men and women accepting traditional ideas about sex, LGBT activists needed ways to amplify their own voices, and so added Q (for “questioning”) to the abbreviation they already had. Q covered people unsure of their “sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” as a website called The Welcoming Project puts it.
For strength-in-numbers purposes, the rule is “Once a Q, always a Q.” Activists hope that if confusion over sexual orientation ever morphs into certainty, it does so by moving left within the LGBTQ label into one of the groups allegedly allied with Questioners. Closed systems like that are politically useful, but by making “community” a stealth synonym for “special interest group,” they twist logic, promote conflict, and violate the assumptions on which real communities depend.
The Difference Between a Community and a Special Interest
One way to tell the difference between a real community and a special interest group is to ask which of the two is being bullied by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If the federal government is gleefully manipulating Section 8 housing money to force demographic change on an area, then people there are part of a real community.
Another way to tell the difference between real communities and fake ones is to ask which seems more hospitable to outsiders. Fake communities cannot afford to be tolerant, because they depend so much on a defining characteristic that anyone who treats that thing as secondary rather than primary seems threatening.
When Hillary Clinton spoke in New York earlier this month, her arrogant dismissal of “deplorable” people got more notice than the fact that she wrapped her scorn in a homey basket metaphor or managed to spout self-canceling nonsense like “I am all that stands between you and the apocalypse” and “I cannot do it alone.” It was “I am woman; hear me roar” and “Help me, Obi-trans-Kenobi, you’re my only hope” in the same speech.
A Midwestern farm kid weighing college options and a Northeastern hedge fund manager nearing retirement probably don’t socialize with each other, but if each of them is gay, they’re automatically expected to patronize gay bars and film festivals. Whether either man fixates on his sexual preference is, for activists, beside the point.
Ironically, the people for whom adjectives like “black” or “transgender” are magic beans that sprout communities wherever they are planted always say that they’re standing up for the dignity of their neighbors. After an officer-involved shooting anywhere in America, for example, someone calls a press conference to say that “the community stands against police brutality.” Nobody this side of Heather Mac Donald remembers that the police say the same thing, and they’re part of the community, too.
Being black or gay or transgender is not enough of a credential to create “community,” because secondary stuff cannot do the work of primary stuff. Real communities share more than one thing. A resident of Florence who cannot see Il Duomo from her living room is no less Florentine than one who has that view. Let’s not let misuse turn “community” into another stick activists use against people who disagree with them.