Boys will be boys. Since before our grandparents were teens, it’s been a catch-all explanation for the stupid junk adolescent males get caught doing. It conveniently insures them against destruction of property with slingshot-borne BB’s, possession of racy pics on hard drives, and skipping of school to see R-rated shoot-em-ups.
Here’s what it shouldn’t cover: Creating a thuggish online persona across multiple platforms -- YouTube, Facebook, Twitter -- who denigrates Jews, expresses a desire to beat up "faggots," calls Mexicans the "scum of the earth," and adopts the screen name "n1ggerkiller" in an online video game. And then bragging that your father is a member of Congress.
This is what Tanner Flake, the oldest son of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), has done for the past year, possibly longer. The sheer number and tenor of Tanner's offensive posts -- more of which were still being flagged by readers after Buzzfeed broke the story this week -- are shocking.
Just not shocking enough, apparently. As soon as Tanner’s ugliness came to light, his father -- a conservative leader on the immigration reforms currently winding through the halls of the U.S. Capitol -- issued a terse, three-sentence apology to the media. The media dutifully printed it, chalked the affair up as a diversion from “real news,” and then ran on to the next story. Boys will boy boys. Especially online.
But Tanner Flake’s behavior isn’t a diversion: It’s at the heart of that immigration fight. It’s at the heart of the struggle over gay rights. It’s at the heart of the conservative movement’s identity crisis. It’s part of a broader lack of civility toward minority groups that still, in the 21st century, gets too much currency in America’s political culture. The truth is, it’s still okay to be a bigot and have a say in our national policy debates.
In recent years, conservative politicians -- like Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio, and Russell Pearce in Arizona -- have co-opted voter’s worst antipathies to pass laws targeting minority groups. How can you not raise a child to be racist and homophobic in Arizona, where, thanks to those politicians:
- Popular Latino studies courses were banned from public schools and attacked as “propagandizing and brainwashing.”
- Outcry from conservatives almost led local officials to whiten the faces of minority schoolchildren in an innocuous street mural.
- The sheriff of the state’s largest county regularly sweeps up Hispanics for being Hispanic -- and is battling the federal government to keep doing it.
- Gun owners don’t need to travel with any identification, but minorities can be stopped and hauled in for not carrying proof of citizenship.
- Guns are saved from destruction, but stray cats and dogs aren’t.
- A governor thinks it’s appropriate to publicly shout and shove an angry finger in the face of the first multiracial president of the United States. Or any president, really.
All of this is made possible by a mealy-mouthed American political culture that pays lip service to respect for others while letting attacks on human dignity go with a few ambiguous words of condemnation. No one, especially an Arizona Republican, can take a clear, unmuddied stance against prejudice, for fear of alienating voters.
Take the short apology Flake issued this week to multiple news outlets on behalf of his son. “I’m very disappointed in my teenage son’s words, and I sincerely apologize for the insensitivity,” the senator wrote. “This language is unacceptable, anywhere. Needless to say, I’ve already spoken with him about this, he has apologized, and I apologize as well.”
It sounds like a stand against prejudice, but it’s actually more like a calculated sidestep. Tanner Flake's problems are not confined to his choice of words. It's not as if the situation is improved by changing his screen name to "African-AmericanKiller" or clarifying that he believes Mexicans are the "unwanted peoples of the earth," rather than “scum.” No, the issue is in the sentiments that underlie these comments. Where was Sen. Flake on that?
In reality, that apology is just more of the same from Flake, who’s been all over the place on critical human rights issues. He’s widely portrayed in the media as a reasonable Republican on immigration, a compromiser, though he voted against DREAMers in 2010 and just Wednesday came out in favor of tougher border policing. He voted with the Democratic majority to let gays serve openly in the military, but he continues to advocate a constitutional amendment against gay marriage. In the 1980s, while representing a mining corporation that did business with the pro-Apartheid South African government, Flake claimed to oppose those racist policies, but he testified in favor of a Utah state resolution expressing support for the Apartheid regime.
In other words, Flake -- like so many other prominent US politicians -- has consistently refused to take clear, unambiguous stand against prejudice and fear. Why? Because there are political penalties for doing so. Prejudice and fear still move the polls in Arizona... and elsewhere in America.
And until that changes, boys will be boys.