My friend, Mitch Berg, over at his blog "Shot in the Dark", is having a field day going after the Democratic Primary winner of district 60B in the Minnesota State House. The woman who won, Ilhan Omar, defeated a long-serving representative Phyllis Kahn. Kahn was a (really) weird, unhelpful, and vengeful representative who did little to bring meaningful issues to the floor and less to help her district. I worked on a campaign to replace her 20 years ago which failed when the local "machinery" decided to stay with Kahn, even though they knew she was deeply flawed. It took 20 years to finally move her out and the state and district 60B are the better for it. Democrats have bad politicians too, and Kahn was one of them.
But like all humans, her vanquisher Ms. Omar, has flaws too. Her "big" flaw, as reported by the right-wing hate site PowerLine, was she married a Somali man (per Somali custom), divorced him (per custom), married another man (for which she obtained a license), and then left him to go back to her first husband. She didn't get a formal divorce from the second (from a man who currently is in England) Should she have? The answer is "yes" if she or either men claimed that marital status to the government (as part of tax papers), but there's no evidence she ever has done so. So, her big "crime" is that she failed to document to authorities her marriage to husband 1 and divorce and divorce from husband 2 (to rejoin husband 1). Wow, pretty serious crime there. Or, well, no crime whatsoever, actually.
The false flaw, also reported by PowerLine was that husband 2 was Omar's brother. This was an ugly, race-baiting lie, and unfortunately my friend Mitch, ever mindful of wanting to kiss up to right-wing power, big or small, failed to repudiate when he decided to make this his new cause.
First thing's first. Omar's conduct is not outside the customs of her nor even a number of American cultural norms. People get married by a church but some who are "anti-government" or even just don't see a need, chose not to memorialize that marriage with the authorities. To some of us it may seem a rather obvious thing to do, but in Somalia (or coming from it) where the government essentially doesn't exist for any productive purpose and interacting with it may be dangerous? Maybe, just maybe, not so much. Certainly not if your custom suggests it's at best a "nice to have." In fact, even in the US, unless you want to claim some sort of benefit, there's no legal requirement to document it with the state. In fact Mr. (Don't call me a hypocrite just because I'm complaining about something I say IN THE SAME ARTICLE I'd do myself) Berg, said he likely wouldn't file marriage papers should he ever marry again. In fact, in Pennsylvania, home of the Quaker Society, Quakers undertake something called a "self-uniting" marriage which allows for a marriage to be done without an third party. They offer a license for these marriages as well but Quakers being Quakers, notoriously don't obtain them. Maine offers a similar option to Quakers and members of the Bahai faith. So, it seems that, just maybe, this 'aint a Muslim thang' or (only) a Somali 'thang' as Berg implies might be the excuse offered, even though Omar never used such an explanation at all. In fact, it's not a 'foreign thang' either, yet Berg goes on to claim that Omar (and her husband) should have learned the laws upon coming here. My question for Berg is this, how do you know they didn't? Maybe they simply didn't care and since they didn't break the law, how does this matter to you? (Oh, I actually can answer that question and will do so below).
Now, Ms. Omar did get a license for her second marriage. She did, though, fail to get a properly documented divorce. Good for getting the license (to me), but even by her admission, bad for not formalizing the divorce. Her former husband is in England where it's kinda, ya' know, hard and expensive to get legal proceedings completed through given the distance and differing legal requirements. So, is it unusual for folks to not formalize a divorce, no. In fact, in a recent NY Times article, the authors noted that it is quite common for married people to separate but never follow through with formalizing the divorce. They see tax and financial advantages in those cases, but the outcome is the same (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/fashion/01Undivorced.html?_r=0). So, is it a "foreign thang" to not go through with the expense of a divorce? No, not in the slightest except if you intend to remarry. In THAT, I personally think Ms. Omar erred, and she does to saying it is something she is working to correct now (as she should) given that she has rejoined her first husband and considers herself married to him (though she never actually remarried him). Apparently she DID regocnize the law and did follow it... wow, and to think she's Somali, I wonder however she wrapped her pretty little head around all those complex legal thingies...?
There's no evidence whatsoever she's broken any law (and least of all any law that matters) and yes, I'm putting a value judgment on her conduct, but look if she's broken a law against speeding, do we really care very much? Long and short, she lived within her culture. Would I have rather that she documented her first marriage and both divorces, sure, but no one was harmed. She did not, as PowerLine asserts and Berg implies, engage in polyandry (Berg stupidly refers to it as polygamy). It's clear she was with one man at a time. Given the general cultural intolerance of adultery (especially by a woman) in Muslim culture, does anyone SERIOUSLY think two men would have allowed their wife to be concurrently married to another man in practice (not on paper)? If you do, you're both a xenophobe and a fool. If you repeat that kind of lie when you have to know it's not true, well, you've pretty much self-identified as (journalistic) pond scum.
The larger point about her conduct is this. In society people behave in varying ways. Nearly all of us do small deeds which are at best along the grey line of the law but not along a grey line morally. Some smoke pot to ease pain in states where pot is not legal. That's not just grey, it's downright black, right over the line legally, but hardly over it morally. Some let their 5 year olds light a fire-cracker. Probably on the grey line there, hardly a wantonly immoral act. In the end, this woman acted within her faith and culture and decided to not tell the government. Would I do the same, no, I recognize there are benefits which I would want to accrue from documenting it, but were it something else, like my having bought a boat that I'm going to restore and never put in the water and therefore don't owe tax nor need a registration. Maybe I SHOULD tell Uncle Sam (or Uncle Paul Bunyan in Minnesota), but I don't have to so long as I don't care about accruing the benefits. People live together, raise children together, leave each other and start new relationships (or restart them) all the time without getting married. Had this women NEVER gotten married in her culture, and instead only married husband 2, left him and taken up with someone else without divorcing, in short having a relationship with man one, marry man 2, separated from him and then gone back to man one, it would follow a story line that has happened in the US 100,000 times if it happened once (and it has happened once). Her "mistake" it seems was in saying she married in her culture and divorced in her culture without getting it memorialized by the state. Yet, that "mistake" is something which isn't required if you don't care about any of the societal benefits. So, she neither broke the law, nor did anything any more immoral than anyone else who leaves one spouse and takes up with an old flame. In short, she did NOTHING immoral.
Some (religious police) might want her to stay with the first but those same (right-wing religious police) also don't want people to divorce, let alone to divorce 3 or 5 people, nor to be an adulterer while married, nor at least presumably to demean the opposite sex, to treat them as if they are objects rather than people, to muse about dating their children... All conduct which most people, not just religious police, find more than just a little less than a whiter shade of pale on the moral scale. Yet, this latter conduct is the conduct of the Republican Presidential nominee. Where's the outrage from Berg or PowerLine? (Crickets..) Berg dutifully regurgitated the story and took the time to attack this woman and PowerLine and Berg went even further, saying she may well have been engaged in polyandry or had married her brother to defraud the immigration process (a flat-out bigoted lie). I wonder when they'll get to Trump's infidelities (well, not really, I don't wonder).
Rather than be honest, much less even-handed, Berg instead engaged in race-baiting, saying that if someone comes to the US they should learn our laws and abide by them, as if not filing for a marriage license is a foreign "thing" only. It's race-baiting because in saying it is a "foreign and Muslim" thing he purposefully (and dishonestly) demeans Ms. Omar. SHE didn't say that non-Muslim's wouldn't understand, she didn't belittle or demean others, but Berg by his "non-accusation" accusation plays on a fear among whites of being accused of being told they can't understand. She didn't say it but he most certainly played to it even though it was irrelevant.
Worse, though, was the anti-Somali/anti-Muslim tone of his screed. He basically said something akin to, "If you're going to come to the country, you damned well should learn to speak the language." Laws are more important than language in terms of the need to adhere, but there are laws with serious ramifications if not followed and there are laws which say you shouldn't engage in oral sex. No one listens and even less care about those laws (except for a scant few homophobes). In short, there are laws which mean something and there are those which due to culture/upbringing many folks simply ignore. That's not news, not to Berg and not really to anyone. Because it's not news, saying it's about being "foreign" is just taking a chance to stoke anti-immigrant fears. He's demeaning her, and with her other Somalis for whom she's an emblem, because of her ethnicity. He's claiming it's her "foreign-ness" which is the problem when it's no problem at all. How was Mr. Berg harmed? How was anyone? Her cultural diversity created no real issue for anyone except for her and her current "husband." I agree that her ethnicity may very well have driven her decision, but I also see that it could have been someone with a European ethnicity. Even more, I (and others) should and do strongly question whether the issue would have been an issue at all if she were Swedish or German. I am convinced it wouldn't have been raised as an ethnic or "foreign-ness" issue if she had been. Berg engaged is the most basic form of hate-stoking. It's her "African Culture" which is the problem, like similar claims about Muslims about Sharia Law and Islamic hatred broad brushing. What Berg knows, but cares not a whit, is that by drawing this cultural line and claiming it's an hypocrisy (for liberals) and a problem for all, is that he's drawing out a line of "them" rather than "us." He's doing it on purpose, and that's the real issue here. Her culture may and is different, but this country has welcomed (more or less) many cultures, including their differences, over the years. Calling those differences out and then saying they represent conceit or contempt for US culture is a symptom of that same problem. It creates a resentment (on purpose) for those who won't "conform" even when "us" do the exact same thing. It's yellow-journalism and nothing less or more.
One last point, Berg claims that liberals love regulation and the "mommy state" and thinks we're hypocrites for not going after Ms. Omar. In this Berg again shows his deep and abiding ignorance of what liberalism is and who liberals are. We are committed civil libertarians. If Ms. Omar didn't engage in some sort of fraud about her marital status, I embrace (and liberals embrace) her cultural choices, not condemn them. I embrace her right to privacy, not condemn it. I embrace the idea that the government only has a right to information for which it has a good and proper purpose (e.g. the 14th Amendment's key point). I don't reject that right to privacy as so many conservatives do (including one Mitch Berg). I certainly don't feel more needless laws are a good thing, such as needless voter ID laws or "women's health laws" or Patriot Act laws or secrecy laws (which have exploded in number and use since 2001). I do believe in a common interest where those with the most should not be allowed to abuse those without power (like PowerLine going after the Somali community via yellow-journalism). I don't think we need a law to end that practice but we do need the courage to accept cultural variety and the integrity to not use variety to stoke hate when that very same variety would be entirely acceptable if the person's name was Anderson instead of Omar.
The ultimate point, though is this. Like Donald Trump, Mitch Berg is a willing wielder of hate-based rhetoric. His complaints have almost nothing really to do with Ms. Omar and nearly everything to do with exploiting that hate to get people to vote. In the end, it's about winning, about winning in any way possible, by any means necessary, saying any ugly thing that can be spun up. Ms. Omar's conduct isn't even news really, it's at best a slightly embarrassing reality but one that a host of others might well fall into. No matter, if you can make hay, well, throw truth and decency under the bus baby, we have a political football game to win and in the end, it's our team that has to win or we feel like we're losers so if someone gets hurt (punched) or defamed, who gives a flying rip? If a whole class of people are labeled and hate toward a large segment of our society is ratcheted higher, if the integrity of our democracy is called into question, imperiling it, what the hell, at least we win. I'm sure that's not immoral.