Archive for November, 2004

More on Civil Rights

Tuesday, November 30th, 2004

Further evidence that gay rights are the civil rights of our time:

A federal Court of Appeals panel has ruled in a 2-1 decision that campuses can place restrictions on US armed forces recruiters as a protest against the military’s discrimination against gays.

A lawyer representing the law schools states: “Now every academic institution in the country is free to follow their consciences and their nondiscrimination policies. Enlightened institutions have a First Amendment right to exclude bigots. In a free society, the government cannot co-opt private institutions to issue the government’s message.”

This issue is not new. When I was at Harvard twenty years ago, well before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” ROTC was banned from campus for similar reasons. (Students who wanted ROTC training could get it at the “trade school up the river” – MIT.) But the main issue galvanizing student protest at that time was whether the University should divest itself of investments in South Africa to protest apartheid. It was an instance of the international pressure that helped bring apartheid down.

The dissenting judge in the present case points out that “the military’s policy against homosexual activity has been adjudged by a number of our sister courts of appeal not to violate the Constitution.” He’s right, of course. But apartheid in South Africa, along with Jim Crow laws and the “separate but equal” doctrine in the US, had the force of law. That didn’t make them right.

Two Weeks On

Tuesday, November 16th, 2004

Even as things feel like they’re getting back to normal here in NYC, some strangeness remains in the air. I was shopping at Whole Foods Market (hmm, was that a “Blue State” thing to be doing?) and I got a brand new shiny Texas quarter in change. For a moment I stared at it as if it had Queen Elizabeth on it, wondering if it was legal tender.

Then I passed a middle-aged woman on the street carrying a small dog in one hand, and in the other, a paperback book with Dick Cheney and some others on the cover, bearing a title with the word “Satan” in it. Wish I could remember the whole title, but it looked like one of those religious trade paperbacks they sell from stands on the street.

I really wondered if I had imagined it. A lot of people don’t like Bush-Cheney, but was I in some alternate Universe of Excess?

Retire the Term “Gay Rights”

Friday, November 12th, 2004

Is it time to stop talking about gay rights and start talking about civil rights?

No doubt it’s wise for gay rights groups to choose their battles carefully, but that doesn’t change the fact that gay rights are the civil rights issue of the present generation. Martin Luther King Jr. is never referred to as a champion of “black people’s rights.” His cause, and that of the many Americans of all races who contributed to it, was civil rights. Adam Liptak’s
article in today’s New York Times reports that gay rights groups are not planning to aggressively challenge the new state amendments.

“There is no putting lipstick on this pig,” said Matt Foreman, who is the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and who will give the keynote address on Friday morning at the group’s conference in St. Louis. “Our legal strategy is at least 10 years ahead of our political and legislative strategy.”

His adversaries also expect that court cases will embolden their ranks. Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, a public interest law firm that represents religious causes, said that challenges in the federal courts were losing propositions for gay rights groups – whatever their outcomes.

“If the same-sex marriage advocates win,” Mr. Staver said, “that will be like pouring gasoline onto the fire for purposes of the federal marriage amendment.”

I suggest it’s time to stop talking about gay rights and start talking about civil rights again. This will have several beneficial effects. First, it will increase the comfort factor for some sympathetic straights who may not know a lot of gay people and perhaps still feel personally uncomfortable identifying with them even if they believe philosophically in equal rights. Second, it will help raise awareness among the general forward-thinking population. Third, it would reduce the potency of the anti-“special privileges” argument.

And fourth, the overall battle for free speech (for unpopular or opposition points of view) and civil rights (for women and for minorities) isn’t completely over. The fact of discrimination being written into state constitutions reminds us that hard-won gains can always be lost. Opposition to the loss of civil liberties (cf. the “Patriot Act”) and to the denial of civil rights can and should find common cause.

That’s Rich

Thursday, November 11th, 2004

Frank Rich makes a rather bloated effort to puncture the collective windbag that is the “moral values” narrative.

The storyline proclaiming that the country swung to the right on cultural issues in 2004… is fiction. Everything about the election results – and about American culture itself – confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry’s defeat notwithstanding, it’s blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of “The Passion of the Christ” should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.

Rich supports his position by making the “people will continue to get the entertainment they deserve” argument and noting that

The blue ascendancy is nearly as strong among Republicans as it is among Democrats. Those whose “moral values” are invested in cultural heroes like the accused loofah fetishist Bill O’Reilly and the self-gratifying drug consumer Rush Limbaugh are surely joking when they turn apoplectic over MTV…Fox remains the go-to network for Paris Hilton (“The Simple Life”) and wife-swapping (“Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy”).

None of this has prompted an uprising from the red-state Fox News loyalists supposedly so preoccupied with “moral values.” They all gladly contribute fungible dollars to Fox culture by boosting their fair-and-balanced channel’s rise in the ratings. Some of these red staters may want to make love like porn stars. Besides, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The problem with Rich’s argument is that he’s reading “culture” as synonymous with “entertainment” when entertainment is only a subset of culture. The hypocrisy of moralizing asswipes like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh is so well known as to be almost beyond the need for discussion. Their audiences ignore, deny or forgive their flaws in favor of their religious or moral messages, or their sheer entertainment value. Even if this means turning to and similar sites, media companies will give people the entertainment they demand (after creating and nurturing the demand, of course), but so what if Middle America watches Paris Hilton sex tapes, enjoys intensive sex and masturbates to the hardcore videos on and similar sites? They still want their guns, so they vote against the Dems. Guns are culture too, so is religion, and so – insofar as they are mutable, or pluralistic – are morals.

In the short term, it doesn’t much matter how the radical right gained power: with all three branches of the government under right-wing control, some of the far right’s agenda will be passed in the next four years even though they don’t claim a majority of the general population.

NYC General Strike!

Monday, November 8th, 2004

In some countries, when citizens are outraged by egregious governmental failures or injustice, they call a general strike. A concerted effort by workers can shut down whole sections of an economy.

New York City is the financial center of the U.S. Other industries, such as the media, are centered here as well. I say let’s strike.

The economic costs of a shutdown of the financial sector should be fairly easy to predict, since we have the example of September 11 to go by. I think one day would be all it would take. Imagine what a powerful statement would be made if (say) 70% of New Yorkers, throughout the city and especially on Wall Street, all refused to show up at work on the same day.

I recommend a Tuesday, for greater resonance with September 11, to remind the rest of the nation that we New Yorkers were the primary victims. I suggest January 18, the day after we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. That too would be resonant, since Dr. King was our greatest national prophet of peace.

Thoughts? Please comment.

Brooks vs. Felber

Saturday, November 6th, 2004

The New York Times is finally publishing a conservative voice other than the arrogant William Safire’s. The latter’s irrational hatred for Hillary Clinton (among other things) has long since disqualified him as a representative intellectual of the right wing. David Brooks, on the other hand, seems to be able to think things through, at least as far as his beliefs will allow.

Today he writes to deny the “values-voter” narrative of the election just past, pointing out that the percentages of evangelical voters, and of voters who specifically believe that (for example) abortion is wrong in all cases, did not change from 2000 to 2004.

The fact is that if you think we are safer now, you probably voted for Bush. If you think we are less safe, you probably voted for Kerry. That’s policy, not fundamentalism. The upsurge in voters was an upsurge of people with conservative policy views, whether they are religious or not.

It may be policy, but it’s partisan policy, not policy based on what’s good for the country as a whole. As Adam Felber puts it in his brilliant “concession speech”:

We in blue states produce the vast majority of the wealth in this country and pay the most taxes, and you in the red states receive the majority of the money from those taxes while complaining about ’em. We in the blue states are the only ones who’ve been attacked by foreign terrorists, yet you in the red states are gung ho to fight a war in our name… Healing? We, the people at risk from terrorists, the people who subsidize you, the people who speak in glowing and respectful terms about the heartland of America while that heartland insults and excoriates us… we wanted some healing. We spoke loud and clear. And you refused to give it to us, largely because of your high moral values.

Felber’s emotional reading of the election is eloquent but typical. If Brooks is right that the “red state” majorities voted for Bush because they believe he has made them safer, then they believe what to most in the “blue states” is an obvious falsehood. The Bush majorities (if indeed they were majorities, but that’s another story) – seem to have turned their backs on us who live in the target areas and who don’t feel safer at all. Their actions seem wilfully blind, if not outright hostile. It’s no wonder the idea of the red-state/blue-state divide has become such a vivid presence in political discourse, on both sides but especially on the left.

Percentages aside, so-called “moral values” do play an important part in many voters’ choices. It’s no coincidence that the same year in which these “moral values” started to seem so important has also been the year of the anti-gay-marriage amendments. Such amendments are hostile in exactly the same way as votes that are putatively based on “feeling safer.” My observation is that many gays throughout the country are feeling personally attacked, and it’s no wonder, since discrimination and prejudice have now been written into eleven state constitutions. “Civil unions,” even if invested with the same rights as marriage, embody the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was decisively rejected by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

Gays simply must be allowed to marry if they wish. Even if you believe (with the equivocating John Kerry) that it’s a state matter, states must be required to recognize all marriages performed in other states. Anti-gay-marriage amendments are government-endorsed discrimination, plain and simple. The Nazis began their persecution of the Jews with small measures, annoyances really. No one believed it could escalate to death camps and the “final solution” – not until it was far too late, anyway.

We may trust our traditions of democracy and civil rights to prevent the U.S. from becoming a full-fledged fascist dictatorship, but it would be foolish to forget our parallel history of slavery, genocide, lynchings and internment camps. So it would be wrong. To. Assume. Anything. Because you know what happens when you assume.

The 51st State

Friday, November 5th, 2004

“Mike” posts the following to Atrios:

Democrats need to counter with a proposal to eliminate Wyoming’s congressional representation. Since DC has no voice in Congress, Dems argue that Wyoming shouldn’t either, since DC has more people. Also, DC is overwhelmingly Democratic, so it’s only fair that an overwhelmingly GOP state lose its voice. The real goal, of course, is to get two Senators and a Congressman from DC.

Disenfranchising Wyoming would have the added benefit of pissing off Cheney when he retires and goes back home. (I picture a retired Cheney like the dog in the David Lynch comic strip who is so angry he cannot move and it makes me laugh, for some reason.

But seriously, what about a concerted push by Dems for DC statehood? This website looks like a good place to start. And we who are fortunate enough to be enfranchised American citizens could certainly petition our elected reps to take up the issue (again).


Thursday, November 4th, 2004

Reflecting on the election, Sandy Andina put it equitably in a post to the Indiegrrl list today:

We learned a little cultural humility–that we cannot afford to write off the South and the Heartland. We now know our philosophical adversaries, and must learn what is important to them. The challenge will be how to resonate with them without either condescending or abandoning our own principles. Without them, no national candidate can win. We’ll figure out how to do it, just as Carter in ’76 and Clinton did. We can begin by reminding the nation that compassion, governmental honesty, and the Biblical imperative of peace are “moral issues” too.

But we have our work cut out for us. The Left Coaster reports on a conversation with a pair of Bush voters:

They clearly understood the negative implications for their own lives of a Bush reelection. It didn’t matter. For them, a vote for Bush was a religious act of self-affirmation, a way of proving to their god (or to their community of fellow worshippers) that they are “faithful.”

Reminded that John Kerry was a lifelong Catholic, their response was chilling: “He’s not as Christian as we are.”

We The People

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004

We The People have spoken: President Bush has won the nationwide popular vote by a small but clear margin. No doubt the result is partly a reflection of voters’ nervousness about changing leadership during a time of stress and war. But the Bush Administration’s enormous unpopularity overseas leads me to worry that the rest of the world will infer from this result something dark about the American people.

The U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the Western world, and fundamentalist Christianity plays a significant part in the Bush Administration’s political success and agenda. Unfortunately, fundamentalist religion is a fertile medium for the growth of evil.

It is by no means the only such medium, of course. The Nazis weren’t fundamentalists, although Hitler did (in his twisted way) try to create a new religion; Saddam Hussein’s regime was a secular one, as was Stalin’s. But we need look no further than those who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11 2001, or those who send children to blow themselves up in crowded markets in Israel, to see religious fundamentalism at its most anti-human.

No one is accusing the “coalition of the willing” of crimes equivalent to those of Hitler or Stalin. The families of the thousands of innocent Iraqi dead might be forgiven for missing the distinction, however. And I couldn’t fault gay Americans for fearing the future when influential religious leaders speak of them in apocalyptic terms.

I disagree with pretty much every aspect of the Bush agenda and I’m certain the U.S. will be the worse for it, especially economically. But it isn’t the Bush team that ultimately worries me. Rather, it’s the fact that the most powerful nation in the world is being guided by an electorate – for we are, after all, a functioning Republic – increasingly motivated and informed by the dogmatic side of Christianity. The United States did not start out as a Christian nation, but it is one now. Alas, it is not an enlightened form of Christianity that moves the masses, but an absolutist and increasingly benighted one. We’re in danger of becoming a Fourth World, more and more separated (culturally, and soon economically) from our most important trading partners in Europe and Asia.

Oh, and how, exactly, do more marriages (of people who happen to be gay) threaten my marriage? My undying respect to the first person who sends me a rational explanation for that.