June 26, 2013
It’s my birthday today. I’m 31. Yikes.
And I had just finished breakfast this morning, in the kitchen of a friend I’m visiting, when we got the news, just after 10:00 AM, of the Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and shortly thereafter, Proposition 8.
I remember being a teenager, sitting at my own kitchen table, at breakfast time, in the house where I grew up, reading the news about DOMA’s passage. I wasn’t all that attentive to what went on in politics or the world at that time, I didn’t know things I do now about my own identity, and I didn’t think I knew any gay, trans, or queer people. I still believed some things about sexuality and morality then that I don’t anymore and am not particularly proud of to look back on.
But I remember reading about it in the morning paper and being so sad. Something about it just profoundly didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t think of another instance within my own lifetime in which a law had been passed for the deliberate and express purpose of depriving a specific group of people of rights or protections. And based on very little except the perception by the majority that they were simply the wrong kind of people, or willfully deviant–a burden which I had always felt, though for different and at the time unnameable reasons.
And no matter what I felt about homosexuality, I couldn’t believe that that was right.
It was part of a long pattern, that I identified with the wrong people in the given narrative.
I honestly didn’t think it would be so soon–though of course it’s been more than long enough for a lot of people who have suffered under the consequences of this law–that I’d get to look back on that day with a bittersweet happiness.
The world does change when people persistently stand up for what is right. We are capable of making the world kinder and fairer.
Remind people of this day, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, when they tell you any version of the lie that we can’t make the world safer by standing up for each other, or that it’s better to just keep your head down, fit in, and not speak up for justice or piss off anyone in authority, because the world never changes. It’s people with a vested interest in the world never changing who keep telling that lie.
(Edit: I hit publish on this, and then realized that I hadn’t come up with a title, but when I went back to edit one in, I thought that the date was kind of title enough. DOMA: 1996-2013. RIP.)
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?
September 19, 2012
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” –Mitt Romney
I am actually not one of the people whose character you insulted the other night at your private donor event, in footage now made public by Mother Jones Magazine. You see–and this may come as a shock to you, as it does occasionally to people when they learn how much money I actually make, or who think that freeloading is easier to do than it actually is–I pay federal income taxes.
I mean, sure, I can barely afford my rent, my health insurance, the steadily rising cost of public transit, and the $300 in unexpected repairs that my computer needs, and may be applying for food stamps this month because even though I worked steadily all summer, the work was chronically underpaid and I’ve run through my savings…but I still pay federal income taxes. I say this not for your pity or anyone else’s; this is just how it is. I pay federal income taxes, and I’m very, very happy to do so. I have a fondness for the trappings of civilization, I think the social safety net is a good and moral idea, and I’m glad to be a contributor to those things.
But let’s take a look at some of the people who you did call entitled victims with no interest in taking responsibility for their own lives. Because I don’t think they are who you want us to believe they are.
People who find themselves exempt from paying any federal income tax may include, but are not limited to: People who receive tax credits for dependent children, or for being the sole head of a household; people who buy their first home, or an environmentally friendly vehicle; who suffer an initial loss in the course of starting a new business, or who make improvements in energy efficiency to their home or business. People with more than one income source who can deduct half of the self-employment tax they pay on freelance work, or charitable contributions, or the costs of private health insurance or health care if they don’t get insurance from their employer. They include students who still manage (or need) to work part-time during high school or college. They include people who survive primarily on disability or Social Security, or are financially supported by their families, but who volunteer or do other informal work in their communities.
They include people who work full-time, and yet still do not make enough money, particularly if they also have children, to be legally liable for federal income taxes under our current tax code.
Do these sound like people with no interest in taking care or responsibility for their own lives to you?
But no, I have a feeling that images like these, of people who are benefited by the tax code because they do economically or socially advantageous things, are not what you meant to evoke to your donors. People who in fact are doing the opposite of not taking any care or responsibility for their lives.
You meant to evoke a bogeyman image of a lazy bum who purposefully refuses gainful employment and would rather sit around collecting government benefits, mooching off the hard work of the rest of us just because they can, and who will vote for anyone just to protect that status.
And those people do exist–I’m sure they do, because wherever there is any system of benefits or safeguards, there are people who will figure out how to take unfair advantage of it, among the rich as well as the poor. But that is really, really, really difficult to do these days, in our current system of welfare benefits, if you are a non-disabled adult with no dependent children and no work history. (Hell, it’s difficult to get benefits if you are legitimately disabled, generally requiring more than one appeal no matter the validity of your claim.)
This leaves about two possibilities that I can think of. Either that, one, you don’t know very much about how our tax laws work and how responsible, working people can benefit from them to the extent of winding up owing no federal income taxes, and you don’t know the difference between people who reap tax advantages by working and people who choose not to work, and you don’t know the difference between people who work full-time (or more) and still don’t make enough money to pay taxes on and people who think that the world owes them everything.
Or, two, that you do know these things, but you thought that you could win some advantage or approval with a few rich and powerful donors by smearing these people, and so you did.
You either know nothing about the lives and economic situations of nearly half of our citizens, or you see them only as pawns for your own advancement, whose character, work ethic, and well-being mean nothing.
Either one leaves you unfit to be President.
I, on the other hand, believe that if we don’t hang together in times like this, we will surely hang separately, so non-freeloader that I am, it doesn’t help you to tell me that nearly half of my fellow citizens are economically or morally disposable moochers.
I believe, unlike you, that the vast majority of our citizens and not only a little over half of us, both desire and are capable of doing something worthwhile with our lives and making this country a better place, and that valid ways of doing that are not confined to occupations that wind up making you an arbitrary amount of taxable income.
And this is the reason that I will vote for Obama and not for you. Not because I’m a freeloading entitled victim who pays no taxes and just thinks the government should provide for me. But because I don’t like how you treat people.
November 20, 2011
There was this guy…
(Here’s a link to better visibility and a transcription, along with a great point by point response.)
And then I saw this one today…
And that’s not even everyone in my Facebook news feed, let alone some corners of the internet where I don’t hang out, suggesting that the real problem with all these people bitching, whining, and complaining, is that they “just don’t want to work.”
Let’s get a few things sorted out, internet critics of Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement:
Protesting injustice and corruption is not the same as “just not wanting to work.”
Calling attention to it when something is seriously wrong is not the same as “not wanting to work.”
Standing up for your rights is not the same as “not wanting to work.”
Doing any of those things is not even a sign of somebody “just not wanting to work.”
Saying that “what is being done to us and our communities is wrong,” or that “the conditions under which we’re being expected to make ends meet are crushingly unsustainable,” is not the same as “not wanting to work,” nor a sign that somebody just doesn’t want to work.
Pointing it out when an entire system has become radically unfair, or that the people who *did not cause a global economic collapse* are the ones being disproportionately punished for it, is not “just making excuses” or “not taking responsibility for your own life” or “wanting to blame somebody else for all your mistakes.”
So you can think that the OWS protesters are dirty hippies. You can resent them taking up park space and making too much noise. You can dislike their tactics and criticize their vagueness, disorganization, and lack of concrete goals or actual policy proposals. You can think they’re misguided and wrong.
But do not slander them as “just not wanting to work.” They’re doing the work of calling attention to major injustice and keeping the tradition of protest and dissent alive in this country.
As for the people on the 99% Tumblr–not the Occupy campers–it takes all of 20 minutes to write a screed on a piece of paper, take a picture, and put it on the internet, so you really have no basis whatsoever to judge these people’s use of their time or decide that they’re putting insufficient energy into finding or keeping a job or working for their own futures.
Telling a story on the internet is not the same as not wanting to work. Telling the truth about how hard things are for most people in America right now is not the same as not wanting to work.
Daring to say that “the circumstances that allowed this to happen to me are not okay” is not the same as not wanting to work.
The thinking that says that it is, is a relic of the way we were treated in middle school–that somebody speaking up about unfairness or calling attention to a problem was shamed as guilty of creating a problem where there wasn’t any when no one was speaking up.
I guess a lot of people learned that lesson well. I didn’t.
A lot of the Occupy and 99% protesters are college graduates or have advanced degrees. You really think they dragged themselves through that many years of school, and the work and expense involved, because they “just didn’t want to work?” A lot of them went deep into debt for their college educations. You think they did that because they *didn’t* want to get a job? Or because they believed parents, teachers, and employers who told them that they needed a college degree *in order to get a good job* these days? Do you really think that what they’re doing now is easier than working a regular job, earning a living and going about their daily lives? Do you really think they’d all still be out there, with winter coming, if there were enough jobs paying livable wages to go around and they could just go get one?
When the economy first went into recession and unemployment spiked, many of these same people now protesting and occupying–including myself–yelled for a new WPA and Federal Theater Project, for the government to directly create jobs and put people to work. We wanted desperately to work–to put the economy back together, to put the country back together, to contribute in meaningful and permanent ways to our culture and future.
We begged to be allowed to work, to do the work that this country needed done.
But our government didn’t go that route…it mostly tried instead to entice private enterprise into bringing jobs back. Private enterprise didn’t come through with that.
And now you say that we “just don’t want to work.” It makes the irony-processing center of my brain freeze up.
It might be funny if it didn’t hurt so much.
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.
August 22, 2010
I want to address a lot of the misrepresentation, careless thinking, and downright asinine argument surrounding the plans for Cordoba House, a Sufi-affiliated Islamic cultural center to be built in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center site.
To start with, I think there are two big honest misunderstandings driving a lot of the bluster of this debate. First, what this project actually is–and it isn’t a mosque (though it shouldn’t matter even if it were, but I’ll get to that). Its organizers describe the concept as an Islamic cultural/community center modeled on the 92nd St. Y, a huge, multi-use community center of Jewish affiliation (itself modeled on the YMCA–same concept, nominally Christian). It has Jewish cultural and religious events, but also continuing education classes in music and the arts, performance space (where the dance company I work for recently participated in a festival of new work), gym facilities and a pool, child care, summer camp and after school programs, and classroom space–with everything open to everyone in the community. This establishment is pretty well-known in New York, but I don’t know that other cities have similar, equally prominent organizations, so I wonder if a lot of people across the country aren’t really understanding what the analogous plans for Cordoba House are.
The second big misunderstanding is much more massive, and less excusable, though hardly limited to this particular debate. It’s that Americans don’t really understand religious divisions and the difference between religion itself and fundamentalism.
Islam has militant fundamentalist sects, and peaceful progressive sects, and everything in between, much like Christianity does. The 9/11 perpetrators were of the former bunch, the people trying to build this Islamic cultural center are of the latter bunch…. Islam, like Christianity, is not one monolithic, homogeneous group that all believes the same things. For instance, Presbyterians and Mormons both consider themselves Christians, but they do not believe the same things, and their concrete ideas of what Christianity should accomplish in the world are wildly divergent. This is so in just about every major religion; even Buddhism has had violent radicals.
So asking the Sufi sect of Islam not to build near Ground Zero because the bombers were “Muslim” makes about as much sense–zero–as would asking Presbyterians not to build a church near the ruins of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was a militant nationalistic “Christian,” out of some kind of misplaced respect for the feelings of victims. It’s not respect, it’s cluelessness.
They’re not the same group. They don’t have squat to do with each other. The progressive Muslims trying to build a cultural center are not responsible for the fact that many Americans don’t understand the differences between their group and the handful of crazed militant radicals who flew planes into buildings, and let themselves be ruled by fear of the unknown. They should not be held emotionally or morally responsible, just like we don’t hold Christianity collectively responsible for what McVeigh did, or that guy who flew his plane into the IRS building, or Fred Phelps’s hateful funeral protests, or the people who bomb women’s clinics and murder abortion doctors.
Then there’s the widespread argument of opponents that they’re not saying the Cordoba Initiative shouldn’t have the right to build at that spot, it’s just that they shouldn’t, out of sensitivity or respect or understanding for the feelings of 9/11 victims. Or that they should just choose a different location, not so close to Ground Zero, which is “hallowed ground.”
But freedom of religion in this country does not have a geographic limitation. We do not indulge freedom of religion only in approved zones. We have freedom of religion–the assurance that our government does not discriminate against its citizens on the basis of religion–period. How far away would be far enough? And hallowed to whom? Only the white Christians who died there, and not the Muslims who also worked there, died there, lost family and friends in the attacks and suffered terribly with everyone else in the aftermath? Where is the respect and sensitivity to their feelings? They not only lost family and friends like everyone else; now they’re tarred with suspicion and guilt by false association with the killers.
The Muslims who live here are just as much New Yorkers, and just as much Americans, as all the rest of us. The protection of their Constitutional rights is just as sacrosanct as those of all the rest of us. They have just as much claim to any piece of ground here that any New Yorker or any American does.
And to say that they should have the “right,” to build there, it’s just that they shouldn’t out of consideration for others’ “feelings” is just about as bad as saying they shouldn’t have the right. It’s saying that they should consider themselves second-class citizens when it comes to freedom of assembly and freedom of worship, that they should curtail the exercise of their own rights out of deference to the irrational and incorrect portrayal of themselves as violent extremists. It’s saying that they should regard themselves as not worthy of equal protection under the law, out of respect for others’ ignorance and fear.
They shouldn’t. They should stand up and proclaim what they stand for, that the hijackers are not representatives of their Islam, and that they will not be ruled by others’ ignorance. And I cannot think of a better repudiation to the ideology of the 9/11 perpetrators than to have this cultural center, a representative of peaceful religion and interfaith respect, an emblem that America will not be scared out of honoring the rights of all of our citizens equally–which is what makes us the great country we claim to be–so close to Ground Zero. I look forward to visiting as soon as they’re open.
May 6, 2010
In his New York Times op-ed yesterday, “Tearing Away the Veil,” French politician Jean-François Copé attempts to make the case for France’s impending legal ban of the wearing of Islamic veils–the burqa or niqab–in public. He convincingly does just the opposite. His argument for the ban is a snide and condescending apology for authoritarianism. He claims to be arguing for a reaffirmation of liberty, but it’s clear that he has no idea what religious liberty is. He claims the practice of wearing a burqa is a “blow against the dignity of women,” but his own arguments are just as contemptuous and intolerant of women and their freedom to make decisions–especially unpopular decisions–to live on their own terms as are the clerics and cultures which enforce the wearing of the burqa.
He, too, fears women who do not behave as he thinks they should.
None of his justifications for his assertions that the ban is necessary for public safety or for the defense of French principles of liberty and fraternity even hold up to logical scrutiny, and are in fact a threat to the freedom of all citizens, not only Muslim women who wear a veil.
First, he claims that the allowance of full-face veils is a serious security problem in a society dependent on security cameras to maintain safety and order. “As a mayor, I cannot guarantee the protection of the residents for whom I am responsible if masked people are allowed to run about,” he says, and cites an example of a man in a ski mask who committed several robberies in a Paris suburb.
Has this man ever experienced winter in Chicago or Minneapolis? I dare him. Masked people running about everywhere! Oh noes! A couple years ago in New York, we had a man in a ninja costume rob seven houses in Staten Island. Ban the ninja costumes! We cannot have ninjas running about!
This reasoning is silly, of course, and factually absurd. Major cities all over the world allow masked people to run about all winter long. The visibility of the face in public is not always a public safety requirement. What’s serious, and disturbing, is that Copé presumes the criminality of his citizenry, and suggests that it’s their responsibility to live so as not to inconvenience the security cameras. Has he even read 1984? His example of not allowing people to walk naked down 5th Avenue not being an encroachment on liberty is the wrong one entirely; the correct one would be, are people allowed to walk down 5th Avenue masked? And of course, they are.
Secondly, his appeal to social norms as mandatory for maintaining a political community and its dedication to equality and fraternity is a threat to anyone who has trouble with conforming to those norms or who chooses any expression of nonconformity. “How can you establish a relationship with a person who, by hiding a smile or a glance — those universal signs of our common humanity — refuses to exist in the eyes of others?” he asks. Really, this is so hard? By talking with them and listening. Treating them kindness and courtesy on the basis of the simple fact of their humanity. God help the blind or autistic, stroke victims, the facially disfigured, or simply shy people–what do you do with them now, Mr. Copé? People establish relationships with others by letter, phone and internet, without ever seeing their faces, on the basis of shared feeling and humanity, every single day.
Copé tries to discredit veil-wearing by citing experts who say it isn’t actually required in the Koran, but this is irrelevant to civil government. In the US, hundreds of different denominations have very different interpretations of what the Bible requires. The government is not in the business of deciding their validity; it protects all religious practice to the extent that it doesn’t do violence to the rights of others. It’s a danger to all religious liberty if we give any credence to the proposition that the government can take any holy book and dictate which is the acceptable interpretation.
Finally, Copé maintains a profound ignorance of how integral and necessary religious belief and practice may be to religious people’s understanding of their own personhood. He doesn’t have to like it, but he doesn’t seem to have any inkling of it. He doesn’t consider that the veil may have meaning to women who wear it which is utterly different from his own presumptions of its meaning, and his presumptions are arrogant and insulting: “The person who wears one is no longer identifiable; she is a shadow among others, lacking individuality, avoiding responsibility.” But it is his prejudice which makes this true in his eyes; he makes no apparent effort to understand what the veil means to women who wear it. It is his prejudice and fear which robs her of individuality and human identity, not the veil.
It is his attitude which excludes veiled women from participation in democratic society. He is attempting to impose a “condition for living together” that will force women to reject either their religious practice, or their participation in society. He is the one trying to forcibly exclude veiled women; the veil itself cannot do that.
If the French are disturbed by the implications of women choosing to wear the burqa, they would do better, and be truer to their purported principles, to redouble efforts to simply show respect and tolerance in normal, daily interactions with both veiled and unveiled women, demonstrating incontrovertibly to Muslim women that with or without a veil, they can expect to be treated with dignity, equality, and civility in France. But Copé’s ignorant and bullying apologetic for the ban demonstrates the opposite: that a woman will not be trusted to live on her own terms in France.
Even the imagery of his article’s title, tearing away the veil, suggests violence, not liberty, not equality, certainly not fraternity. He is saying to Muslim women, you will be exposed to the extent that makes us comfortable, or you will not be allowed to participate in society.