October 29, 2012
Playwright Doug Wright posted a Facebook status the other day that went:
I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they’re voting for Romney because of his economic policies (tenuous and ill-formed as they are), and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, ‘My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood.’ It’s like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You’re still complicit. You’re still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don’t get to walk away clean, because you say you ‘disagree’ with your candidate on these issues.
I had been thinking along those very same lines myself, with regards to the alarming pattern of statements minimizing rape and its consequences, and advocating depriving women of the option of legal abortion even in cases of rape and abuse, on the part of Republican candidates lately.
That frankly, every time I hear someone defend their Republican votes, despite that party’s deplorable stances on women’s and LGBT rights (among a host of other issues), saying “I only vote on economic issues,” what I hear is, “Your rights as a citizen and presumed equality as a human being with control over your own life and body are disposable to me, and here is exactly the amount of the tax break or economic advantage for which I would sell them. Your worth and dignity, your rights to medical care and privacy, are for sale to the highest bidder as far as I’m concerned.”
But rationally, I know that it’s not exactly a fair accusation, because people are neither that simple nor that consistent nor that self-reflective, and really, really talented at double-think.
That people are, in fact, somehow capable of seeing absolutely no conflict between believing that they love and respect their wives, daughters, sisters, and their gay, lesbian or transgender children, friends, and coworkers–and voting for candidates whose policies directly threaten our well-being and civil rights.
I don’t understand this, but I know that it’s true.
My more vexing question for these voters is, “What on God’s green earth makes you feel safe at the hands of these people?”
Because let me tell you something: They are not only threatening me. They are not only threatening women, gay people, trans people, religious minorities, poor people, illegal immigrants, various demographic groups whose voting patterns they don’t like, and the societal resources that make all of our lives richer and more stable.
They are threatening you. And they are telling you that they are. And you keep voting for them.
How many times have we heard children who didn’t want to be bullies, but who witnessed their “friends” or ring-leaders bullying others and did nothing, talk about why they didn’t? Because they were afraid that their “friends” would turn the ugliness on them if they stepped out of line. And indeed, many teenage bullying victims report that this is exactly what happened. That they were part of the clique, part of the in-group, one of the right people, until they weren’t.
When someone will do something horrible to other people, ostensibly for your sake, what they are telling you is not that they so vehemently have your best interests in mind. What they are telling you is not that they will go to whatever practical lengths necessary, however hard-hearted they seem, to uphold the beliefs you both share.
What they are telling you is that they will do horrible things to other people. They are telling you exactly who they are and how they treat people.
And if they will do terrible things to other people for your approval, then know exactly what they will do to you when they decide they need someone else’s approval.
I used to listen to Dr. Laura. I was young and thought I was a conservative. But, as a broken clock is still right twice a day, I think she said about two things that are utterly true and brilliant, and one of them was:
If they will do it with you, they will do it to you.
And when these guys talk about what they think or what they want to take away from the poor, jobless, disabled, and marginalized…and you think that doesn’t apply to you? Ask yourself just how confident you are that you will never be one of the poor, jobless, disabled or marginalized. (And before you decide, recall that a lot of people who thought they’d done everything right were pretty confident of this before 2008.)
This is one of those things that I grew up instinctively understanding, and am mystified by people who don’t, who I guess have just never been in a situation in which you had to know this. I have always had to know this.
When someone threatens any vulnerable person or group of people, they are threatening me. They are coming for me next. They are broadcasting that this is what they do to the wrong kind of people. (In my heart, I’ve always been one of the wrong kind of people.) It doesn’t matter that it’s not you right now. It’s going to be whoever they need it to be.
They’re telling you what they will do to people. They’re telling you, on the basis of their authoritarian religious beliefs, and with no economic reasoning whatsoever, what they want to be able to do to us.
They are threatening to take away access to health care.
They are threatening to take away our rights to control over our own bodies, and to privacy of our reproductive and medical decisions.
They are threatening to invalidate marriages and families. They are threatening to take away from children the securities intrinsic to having legally married parents. They are threatening to turn back the clock on the progression of equal rights under the law no matter the sex of the person you love.
Even if you don’t give a damn that this is being done to women and gays, try looking out for yourself and your own self-determination for a minute.
They consider themselves uniquely justified in imposing their religious beliefs on other people’s lives. Why do you imagine you’ll be exempt?
Why do you think you’ll be safe?
Do you seriously think that they’re just morally bankrupt enough to do this to me and the people I care about, but not to you and the people you care about?
July 23, 2011
Legal same-sex marriage begins tomorrow in New York, and I love that the Times ran this article (The Clergy Effort Behind Same-Sex Marriage in New York) spotlighting the efforts of members of the clergy on behalf of marriage equality, noting that it’s a common but erroneous belief that churches and religious people are polarized against the advancement of LGBT equality. While some of the most conspicuous campaigns against equality have been waged by churches, in fact, there are religious believers working on both sides of this issue.
What makes this surprising or counterintuitive for a lot of people is a pair of major misconceptions, perpetrated largely by the preaching of the fundamentalist religious right wing, that moderate, liberal or progressive Christianity is just a watered down version of fundamentalist Christianity with weaker versions of the same beliefs; and that in supporting LGBT equal rights, we’re just capitulating to the permissive amorality of popular culture.
What we want people to understand is that we’re actually doing this because we truly believe it is right. Not because it is easy or just happens to be popular at the moment.
We are not, as socially conservative preachers often accuse, saying we believe in equality for political expediency, to be popular, to duck uncomfortable criticism, because we’re insecure in our faith or because we don’t know all the same Bible verses from Leviticus and 1st Corinthians that they do. We support LGBT equality, including in legal marriage, as an expression of our faith, not in spite of it.
We think that the narrative arc of the Bible is one of an ever-expanding conception of grace and compassion for our fellow humans. It’s a story of each successive generation seeing a new reflection of God in the world and the people around them. We don’t think that that story ended 2000 years ago, but that we’re asked by Christ constantly to see all people anew as creations of God.
I do take issue with one characterization of the debate from the article, when it says “Yet the passage of same-sex marriage in New York last month, just two years after its defeat here, attests to the concerted, sustained efforts by liberal Christian and Jewish clergy to advocate for it in the language of faith, to counter the language of morality voiced by foes.”
Because we absolutely believe that this is an issue of morality as well. We believe it’s immoral for the government to create second-class citizens and second-class families. We believe it’s immoral to withhold civil rights based on sexuality just as it would be to deny those rights on the basis of race or religion. We think that the bigotry enshrined by the Defense of Marriage Act is immoral. We believe that to scapegoat gays for divorce, child abuse, and a host of other cultural problems is immoral. We believe it is a moral edict of our faith to stand up for the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society.
We are not attempting to undermine morality, but to support a morality of compassion and respect for all of our citizens.
We believe, as Victor Hugo wrote, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” and that nothing can make that wrong.
May 18, 2011
This is probably my most belligerent and exasperated blog post ever. Consider yourself forewarned.
I got myself into a couple of Facebook arguments recently, in which I’m not sure how much I accomplished, and which served mainly to undermine my regard for humanity. Apparently, after Osama bin Laden’s assassination a couple weeks ago, it was said by some on the political right that information we obtained by “harsh interrogation methods,” allowed us to find him. And I don’t even know enough about the chain of events to judge whether it’s true or not, but it hardly matters to my opinion: if it is true, then it wasn’t worth it. We paid too high a price in our own humanity and national honor. I would rather never have caught him, and let him die holed up in his little fortress, than have stooped to that level, morally, to get to him.
And if it isn’t true, then the argument is even more malevolent for being a lie.
So I really don’t care whether the practice of torture allowed us to catch bin Laden.
But I’ve already learned the immensely frustrating way that apologists for torture aren’t swayed by ethical arguments, or legal ones. There is always some end that justifies the means or legal loophole or illusory ticking time bomb.
I’ve only got one more argument:
The use of torture isn’t just weak, unconstitutional, un-American, illegal, immoral, and un-Christian. (Did I miss anything?) It’s stupid. It makes us as a country look brutish, and it makes its supporters look unintelligent.
It demonstrates an utter lack of foresight, of historical memory, and of imagination. You’d have to be totally unable to imagine yourself in the place of an innocent torture victim—swept up in a dragnet in the midst of civil unrest, at the mercy of a regime desperate to quash dissent or inconvenient criticism, the resident of an invaded country whose invaders understand neither your language nor culture very well but are convinced that you must know something that they want to know. And while it’s true, practically speaking, that you’re probably fairly safe from those circumstances here in America (for the time being, anyway), that’s only by sheer accident of birth. It’s not by any virtue or deserving of your own that you were born here, and not in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent. It’s luck of the draw.
Look back—how do we regard countries and regimes which engaged in torture? As evil. They all had high ideals. They all saw their own goals as ultimately good and so justified ignoring the human implications. But it’s their actions that reveal them for what they really were. So how is the future going to look back on us and this sorry decade in our history?
Look forward—what we do to the world and to other people comes back to us, one way or another, over and over again. You have to have not been paying very much attention not to have noticed this, or not been alive for very long. Or maybe I’m just better at pattern recognition. But we do reap what we sow. What if America finds itself in some kind of serious danger in the future; what will it do for our chances of finding support or cooperation from other countries if they know that when push comes to shove, we’ll behave just as badly as our enemies?
It’s arrogant, and arrogance is always shortsighted and dumb. It pretends that we know more than we can; I’ve heard the attempted excuse that we only torture people who we know are bad guys, or who we know (feel the sarcasm) have some kind of vital information but don’t want to give it up. But our record doesn’t support this confidence. See story of Maher Arar above, or look at the US justice system’s record of having to release people who turned out to have been wrongfully convicted of major crimes. And those are people who’ve had a lawful trial in which all available and legally admissible evidence was supposed to have been presented. Most of the people we’re interrogating at GITMO have not. We’re seriously not good at realizing what we don’t know.
Anyway, sorry to sound belligerent and angry. It’s tiring and it doesn’t make me feel good. It’s just that I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this stuff, and it makes me really sad.
March 10, 2011
Today, Republican Representative Peter King’s congressional hearings on radicalization within the American Muslim community begin. And I would say that this blatant and apparently un-self-conscious re-enactment of the McCarthy hearings, this repellent attempt by Representative King to use collective blame to make us view our Muslim fellow citizens with fear and suspicion or as somehow less than fully American, makes me ashamed to be an American, or makes me ashamed that King represents my state.
Except that everywhere, I read about people standing up to what King’s doing, speaking up in defense of the Muslim community, pointing out the hypocrisy of the very premise of the hearings, and drawing comparisons to the McCarthy hearings and Salem witch trials. And it makes me proud, and makes me wonder if we might finally actually be learning something as a country, even if our leaders aren’t yet. Which is that, while any of us are in danger of persecution or officially sanctioned injustice, all of us are.
In illustration, one of my favorite articles of the week, shared by a Facebook friend, comes from the Washington Post and chronicles the relationship of support built between the Muslim and Japanese-American communities on the west coast in the years since 9/11. (Japanese Americans: House hearings on radical Islam ‘sinister.’) The Japanese-American community remembers the internments of World War II, based on nothing more than suspicion of their ethnicity. They remember that it can happen to them, and it can happen again.
I have a theory, which is that people who instigate and support this kind of targeting and suspicion of others based on group identity, are people who are themselves pretty sure that the same tactics will never be turned back against them. People who have never been excluded or abused or marginalized based on who they are, have an easy time believing that they never will be. People who have always been able to take their place in society, or even humanity, for granted, have a hard time imagining not being able to do so.
But people who have been marginalized instinctively identify ourselves in every marginalized person, and see the danger to ourselves in injustice against anyone.
There’s a scene in one of my favorite books, which I’ve written about before, World Without End, in which a serf named Wulfric and his family have run away from the lord who controls their land, to another community where they have a chance to be independent and escape the grinding, perpetual poverty of feudal life. Sir Ralph comes to force Wulfric to return, as was legal in those days: the lord who owned your land effectively owned you. Another man tries to defend Wulfric, who says “Be quiet, Carl. I don’t want you killed for my sake.”
“It’s not for your sake,” says Carl. “If this thug is allowed to drag you off, next week someone will come for me.”
And that’s why King seeks with his hearings to get Americans to see American Muslims as not truly us, but “them,” some alien and hostile force among us. Whatever his ultimate aim is, and I don’t believe for one second that it’s really just to determine the extent of radicalization in the Muslim community, it depends on us seeing Muslims as something other than and less than ourselves.
And that’s why I say that today, I’m a Muslim too, or might as well be, because anything that can be done to anyone–like being presumed guilty of collusion with terrorists and investigated by Congress for your religious identity–can be done to all of us. Every single one. Never pretend that it can’t.
Representative Keith Ellison’s testimony at King’s hearing:
March 2, 2011
A friend shared this video on Facebook the other night; it’s several years old, being from the 10th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables, in which 17 actors who have played Jean Valjean in productions from around the world join in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.”
I remember reading the book in high school, and then seeing the musical, and mostly wondering whether, if it came down to it, I’d be capable of the incredible acts of bravery and love that characters like Valjean, Marius and Eponine were. I wonder it again now as I follow the coverage of the democratic uprisings in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya. I often wonder how much what looks like bravery in retrospect only felt like the only possible or acceptable thing to do at the time.
So I dedicate this to all the brave people of the Middle East.
Note: Copyright issues apparently will not allow the embedded video to play here. Use the link provided in the error message to watch it on YouTube. Sorry!
January 12, 2011
This makes me so upset that I somewhat doubt my ability to write coherently about it.
Arizona Orders Tuscon to end Mexican-American Studies Program (New York Times)
The attorney general of Arizona has decided that a Tuscon magnet school’s Latino literature class an illegal propagandizing and brainwashing program, under a law which he himself wrote, seemingly for the specific purpose of targeting the Tuscon school district’s ethnic studies programs, after a perceived personal insult by a high-profile guest speaker:
It was Mr. Horne, as the state’s superintendent of public instruction, who wrote a law aimed at challenging Tucson’s ethnic-studies program….Mr. Horne’s battle with Tucson over ethnic studies dates to 2007, when Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, told high school students there in a speech that Republicans hated Latinos. Mr. Horne, a Republican, sent a top aide, Margaret Garcia Dugan, to the school to present a different perspective. He was infuriated when some students turned their backs and raised their fists in the air.
According to the Times article, the law explicitly forbids programs that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” suggestions that “portions of the Southwest…once part of Mexico should be returned to that country,” “promotion of resentment toward a race,” and programs that “are primarily for one race or that advocate ethnic solidarity instead of individuality.”
I’ve long had mixed feelings about ethnic studies programs. And I haven’t attended Tuscon’s Latino studies class, so I can’t claim to know what’s going on. But I doubt very, very, very much that students in a high school literature class are actually being indoctrinated to support the overthrow of the government of the United States. And if denigration of individuality is the real problem, well, AG Horne, you might as well outlaw high school.
It seems far more likely that Horne is terrified by the prospect of a minority group, which he sees as a threat to his version of Americanism, taking justifiable pride in the literature of their own heritage, examining their place in American history and their hopes for its future, and that those hopes might conflict with his own. He’s not afraid of a bunch of Latino high schoolers plotting to topple the US government; he’s afraid of them having a narrative of their place in society that’s valuable, unique, and powerful.
And he’s counting on misinformation, ignorance, apathy, and xenophobia to protect him from any real consequences for his astonishing and vindictive attack on students’ First Amendment rights and academic freedom. He knows he probably won’t face any appreciable outrage from the state’s citizens, because not many people will see themselves in the group of young Latinos he’s maligning. Not many people will perceive any threat to the freedoms or safety from intimidation that they take for granted in this action, because they aren’t part of a controversial literature class alleged to be inciting disloyalty and racial discord. But they should. Because if this can be done to any of us without the protest of our neighbors–being legally targeted for what we are, read, or learn–then it can be done to all of us, for any reason.
November 16, 2010
One of the latest video messages to have gone viral in the last few weeks’ public fight against anti-gay rhetoric is of openly gay 14-year-old Graeme Taylor speaking at a school board meeting in defense of a teacher who had apparently ejected from class two students who said that they “did not support gay individuals” during a discussion, on Anti-Bullying Day, that erupted after he’d asked another student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle. The teacher was then suspended without pay for a day.
Sound like a First Amendment quagmire yet?
Graeme eloquently defends his former teacher, saying he was driven to a suicide attempt at age nine in large part by anti-gay slanders by classmates that long went accepted and unchallenged by teachers. The teacher says that he ejected the students for being disruptive, not for their stated opposition to supporting gay people, and I tend to believe him.
But…suppose that the students were telling the truth, that they only expressed their personal opposition to support for gays, calmly, non-threateningly and non-disruptively. Would their ejection have been a violation of their free speech rights? How should the teacher have handled the discussion?
Doesn’t the First Amendment protect even–especially–the most unpopular of speech?
Yes, I would say, IF the students in question merely expressed a position, as vile and unfortunate a position as I find it, then the teacher did wrong to punish them rather than guiding the conversation to a useful and potentially enlightening conclusion…even though he was right, doubtless in the eyes of some of his most vulnerable students, to oppose the sentiments as strongly as he was able to in the moment.
As much as I despise the opinion that gay people (or black people, Gypsies, Muslims, whoever) are morally inferior, in my understanding, the right of free speech applies equally to these sentiments. We don’t allocate the First Amendment’s protection based on the popularity of the content of the speech. So long as the speech does not constitute an explicit or implicit threat, well, people have the right to dislike whomever they dislike, whether or not their reasoning sucks.
But students also need to learn that the right of “free speech” does not mean the right of unchallenged or consequence-free speech, that just because their prejudice may be a religious belief doesn’t disallow opposition to it, and that if they choose to express their bigotry, they should expect to be strenuously challenged. Banning or punishing such speech (again, as long as it’s not actually a threat) will only give the bigots confirmation for their whine that they’re being oppressed by the fascist liberal homosexual agenda or something. Simply suppressing it doesn’t allow us to openly challenge it, to reveal its ugliness and violence for what it is, to discredit it with facts, or to show that the positions of acceptance and respect are stronger. Teachers are in an optimal position to do these things, and more importantly, to show their students how to do them.
Graeme Taylor has eloquence, grace, and self-possession of which I could only be passionately envious at his age; there will be no one more suited to take up the task than he will be. I’m sorry that he’ll have to. I shudder for his opponents to think of what he’ll be like to oppose in debate in a few years.