Browsing "Political Science"
Oct 28, 2016 - Political Science    No Comments

Disabled, Not Disempowered

headbands-masculinas-06

The flop-preventative “sleevie” headband. If you weren’t alive in the ’90s, I can’t help you.

I’ve been an activist since high school. Administrators made a rule that t-shirt sleeve headbands we used to hold back floppy skater hair were the same as hats (and therefore forbidden) when worn by boys. We organized a direct action to have all the girls wear them for one school day, and we delivered a letter to the front office threatening a Title IX suit for gender discrimination.

They reversed the policy.

I’m also a political junkie. I prefer issue politics, which build bridges of common values across otherwise insurmountable obstacles, to electoral politics. But my values compel me work in that arena too.

Here’s my problem, though: I have a chronic pain disorder, as well as various mental health issues, which combine to keep me from being as present physically as I want to be. Marches and rallies, door-knocking and phone-banking, they can all be too much for my health. Missing those things leaves me feeling ineffective and isolated from the people and experiences that contribute to a sense of connection that’s even more of a reward than the actual work.

But there are things that people with physical and mental disabilities can do to contribute meaningfully. Here are some of the ways I try to have an impact with what I’ve got.

disabilityprotest

1) Advocate for disability accommodations in political and activist spaces. There’s a real effort right now to make social justice movements intentionally inclusive. Elders and youth share power and responsibility more evenly. Folks commonly state their pronouns during introductions. Translators are frequently available. But disability issues are often left out of consideration.

So contact campaigns and groups and find out if their meeting places are disability accessible, to make them aware of barriers like stairs and narrow doors (common in churches, which provide cheap locations for large groups). Reach out to protest organizers to request march details so you can participate at the beginning or end locations. Help them devise routes that are safer for low-mobility attendees. Convince them to provide sign language interpreters and crisis support for folks who may be anxious in large crowds or triggered by the presence of aggressive law enforcement or counter-protesters.

2) Share information and messages in social media spaces. Some people brand this as “slacktivism,” but there are countless movements that wouldn’t have the global reach and organizing power they’ve achieved without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. Share livestreams, amplify hashtags, invite people to events, and aggregate links and facts so people can find centralized information.

3) Volunteer from home. It’s still standard for people to go to a central location to make calls in support of a campaign, but there are plenty of tools out there now that allow people to do the same work from home with a laptop and phone. Even patch-thru phonebanks, one of the most highly effective tools for getting people to take a simple action like send a message to their legislators, can be done from home. If it’s difficult for you to get to an office, ask the campaign to set you up to work at home. Data entry is equally valuable and accessible at home.

4) Raise money for the cause. This one feels impossible sometimes, because disabled people are so often under- or unemployed, or on a fixed income. But we have the same networks of friends, family, and acquaintances, and the values we share with those people can motivate them to donate. Surprisingly often, the only thing that keeps them from doing that is that no one has asked. Explain why you think it’s important, connect it to your shared values so they see their self-interest in it, and ask them for an amount that would be meaningful. Sure, some will say no, and that shouldn’t make you shame or failed. But you can’t know unless you ask, and people will surprise you all the time.

5) Create things. Your contribution to an effort can be measured in time, treasure, and talent. If the first two are difficult because of your physical and financial resources, you need to know that the third is just as valuable. For example, an army moves on its stomachs, as the old saying goes. Campaign workers and volunteers basically live on junk food, pizza, and coffee, and anyone who brings in a crockpot of anything healthy and homemade becomes their favorite person.

Art is just as important. Striking graphics, clever memes, and meaningful signs and banners are essential to the visuals that move people to action. Stories are the most compelling tool we have change hearts and minds on an issue, so write about why these things matter so much to you. And if you’re gifted enough to draw, paint, stitch, or craft objects that others might want, you can accomplish more of #4 with your skills.

Hey, I blogged a thing somewhere else!

In light of the recent outrages from the shameless assplugs over at Autism $peaks (yes, I’m unhappy, why do you ask?), my friend Elsa asked if I’d do a piece for her bang-up awesome disability blog Feminist Sonar. You can find it here.

The biggest surprise for me was that my brain decided to go the cold, academic dismemberment of a faulty argument route, as opposed to the table-flipping screed I’d been expecting. In any case, I hope you find it illuminating.

Weeklong Training #2: Melian Debate

Of all the readings I might have expected to be assigned during Weeklong, Thucydides (my old nemesis from History grad school) wasn’t one of them. Yet there it was, the chapter on the Melians, an island nation drawn into the Peloponnesian War, in our prep materials. Reading it in the context of how we act on our ideals in the face of a practical threat was enlightening, but I couldn’t see how it would apply to our training.

My confusion grew when I showed up at the first session Monday morning, and the group leader (Don, from the night before) asked who had participated in a Melian Debate before. Was this to be some kind of quiz in the form of a reenactment? I didn’t raise my hand with a few other folks who indicated this was new territory, figuring anyone who’s read that same passage at least five times before should fare okay.

Don lined up teams of four debaters, named them Melians and Athenians, then set them to argue their respective positions. The only rule, he told us, was, “I can interrupt.” He occasionally retired people from the line-ups and called new folks. Then he made the teams switch allegiance and argue the other side. Everything seemed like an academic exercise until he started sending people out of the room.

I wasn’t called until the end, so I sat there, half my brain trying to psychically will good points of argument to the various players, the other half frantically scanning for a pattern to Don’s interruptions. I couldn’t find one. People who hardly said a word were sent from the room. People who engaged ferociously for their side stayed for long minutes, then returned to the audience. No rhyme or reason.

Apparently, others started questioning Don’s calls too, because a group from outside the room came back in with the intention of disrupting the debate. They proposed sending an assassin to kill the Athenian delegation. Don responded by announcing that the Athenians start destroying Melian villages. The escalation of urgency drove both teams into ever more retrenched arguments, despite being increasingly uncertain what the end game or victory even looked like. Finally, Don called a halt to the exercise, about three minutes after I joined the Melians.

Then came the moral of the lesson: This wasn’t about winning or losing. In fact, the reenactment of the debate wasn’t the point at all. What really mattered is how we reacted to power–namely, Don’s power. The way we responded, individually and collectively, to Don’s commands revealed how we generally respond to people in positions of power. Almost all of us simply followed orders. We sat down when Don said to sit down, we left the room when he said to go, we grew agitated and desperate when he started giving “reports from the front.” None of us questioned his choices, and when a group did try to take back some control, they were disorganized and ineffective, ultimately still responding to the artificial emergency and not Don’s role in it.

We felt terrible. Because, deep down, we hated knowing he was right.

I didn’t find out as much about my own responses to people in power because I wasn’t called into things until the very end, but maybe that’s its own lesson. I tend to wait until I either see something that needs to be done, or I ask for jobs from people who seem to have a sense of the larger plan. When I’ve initiated my own plan of action in the past, I’ve been slapped down by people who don’t like a different way of doing things, or my take-charge attitude, or not vetting my plans according to the “proper channels.” And I’ve let those unappreciative responses intimidate me from being more of a self-starter.

People in power have absolutely no interest in making room for people out of power at the table, so you have to be willing to build your own power with other people until they have to take you seriously. We can’t wait for authority figures to ask our opinion, or sit down when they tell us to. For a room full of activists determined to buck the system and change the world, facing such undeniable proof of our less-than-commanding attitude toward power was an unwelcome Monday morning wake-up call.

Love > Fear

I’m going to summer camp this year. Not as a parent or a teacher, but as a student at the Leadership Institute run by National People’s Action. This opportunity is dearly bought with the love and financial votes of confidence of many friends, as well as the perseverance of the Darling Husband, who’ll get his share of single parenting back from all those cons he’s attended for work over the years. And I’m determined to use this camp’s resources to level up my skills and be a stronger leader for the causes I feel strongly about. I know it’s going to be a challenging, agitating, soul-searching experience–I’m ready for that.

But today, I was faced with a view of my activism that I’d never, ever envisioned. A beloved friend suggested that I might be on the path toward the kind of activism that harms and terrorizes other people. And I found myself replaying all the marches, rallies, phone calls, planning meetings, training sessions, and conversations I’ve had. I searched them from the outside looking in, scanning for visions of myself as frightening, threatening, angry, or intimidating. And, of course, my vivid visual imagination got straight to work manufacturing reflections of past scenes or shadows of future selves in which I’m furious and self-righteous, intolerant of other viewpoints, but blind to the faults in my own.

But those pictures aren’t real, and the rest of my memories yield images I can’t associate with terror. I speak clearly and fearlessly, yet with respect, to anyone who’ll listen. I work hard, but I goof off too and distract my friends for a few laughs in brief downtimes. I sing, I clap, I chant, I dance. I’ve cried with both joy and grief in the halls of power and in the streets.

I don’t know how these things are scary.

I do have the clarity to see that parts of my activism might provoke a negative response in some people. I may appear to have a rigid sense of what’s right and little tolerance for other positions. My voice can be strident when I try to make it heard over those who try to drown it out. I’m not a small person, and when I raise a fist of power or link arms in solidarity with others, I probably look unmovable. I talk a lot about the actions I’m taking, because they take up a big part of my life. I retweet too much.

It IS radical, what I do. Maybe I should get used to that statement: I am a radical. I believe in radical things, like the worth and dignity of every single person on this planet, and the power of a single person’s action joined with others. I do radical things, like give my time and energy and voice to causes that do not directly benefit me at all, just because they seem worthwhile and I recognize the power that comes with my privilege. I try to offer radical acceptance to every person I meet, by acknowledging that every life is a journey, and we’re not all at the same place on the path at the same time–judging or criticizing another person for being where they are on their path accomplishes nothing.

The internal conflicts I weather as I work through the evolution of my beliefs and the consequences of my actions aren’t visible to most people, so I’m sure I seem like another cardboard cut-out liberal rabble-rouser. I don’t talk with everyone about why some causes get my attention and others don’t. Part of that is embarrassment at the inexplicable, emotional reasons for some of those decisions. I have internal boundaries among the issues and tactics of activism that don’t always come from a sensible place.

But I hope my primary motivations are clear as day: I want everyone to feel the same love and enjoy the same rights I do. I love learning and free will and self-determination, and I believe everyone deserves equal access to them. Because that’s what moves me, I’m categorically opposed to tactics designed to frighten or deprive anyone of something that’s rightfully theirs.

And here’s where I’ll make the only qualification in this whole screed: disproportionate political or financial power is not a right. Those are things you earn, and if you use them to take away the rights and freedoms of others, then you have to be ready for the same people who gave them to demand them back. If you’re the one in power, the idea of losing that position might be frightening. It shouldn’t be, because power over others isn’t a right, but nobody likes to lose control. I can empathize; I’m a control freak too.

But one of the founding principles of democracy and human rights is the power of a group of people to rise up peacefully, speak their piece, and create change in society. Sometimes, the language of this right is misappropriated by people who want to use that power to take away others’ rights (often, that exact same right they’re exercising). But the truly great moments in history largely correlate to times when individuals have stood up for their rights in the face of overwhelming disparity in power and force.

It takes guts and advice and practice and support to do that and not falter. It takes the sight of other people to the left and right of you, whether it’s in a parade or a phone center cubicle or a line of jail cells. That’s who I want to be for others who are fighting for a better world. That’s what I want to be trained to do. And if my faith and conviction in the possibility of change toward greater freedom makes  someone feel afraid of me or bad about themselves, all I can do is say that I love them and where they are in their journey. I’m just trying to be my whole, powerful self and make room for others to do the same.

How to Be An Activist

It’s been a pretty harrowing June, and the last 24 hours have encapsulated the atmospheric highs and stomach-churning drops of being fully engaged in our democratic process. The Supreme Court decision to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the inspiring filibuster of a draconian anti-abortion bill in Texas, and today’s SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality have been a rollercoaster through elation, despair, outrage, cynicism, hope, admiration, and faith in the people, if not the process.

Through it all, I’ve fielded a number of questions about how I can stand to invest so much of my heart and effort into issues so much bigger than myself, many of which don’t even touch me in my place of acknowledged privilege. Personally, I’ve never felt like I had much of a choice–I couldn’t not care or act on that feeling. But here’s a brief primer in how to find that commitment in yourself.

Step #1: Figure out what you believe in. Everyone has core values, and those are the only things that can motivate someone to stand up and fight the good fight. If all you can come up with are things like “I believe Han Solo shot first,” or “I believe in cake,” or “I believe that Washington is evil,” you’re not digging deeply enough–you’ve got to strike bedrock for this to work.

If you believe in the magical, transformative power of books, put in some time to improve library access or literacy programs. If your faith is important to you, figure out ways to act on the belief that all God’s children are worthy of love, or that this planet was given to us as a sacred trust and should be preserved. If your religion is democracy, work to bring sunlight and integrity back to the broken processes that limit our rights.

My bedrock truth is that every single person has inherent worth and dignity, and I act on this in a multitude of ways. I work for racial and LGBT justice. I strive for more accepting and safe schools for our kids. I speak out for freedom of the press and against the death penalty and mass incarceration. I march for each woman’s right to choose. I stand up for rights and respect for disability rights and neurodiversity. So many issues, one underlying principle.

Step #2: Show up. I’m not being trite or overly simplistic. Inertia is the greatest enemy to getting active on the issues that move you, and it’s why you need that deeply motivating value to clear away obstacles. Don’t know how to get involved? There’s this fantastic thing called the Google Machine. Use it. Scheduling conflicts? I don’t know an organization anywhere that won’t take whatever time you can spare, whenever you can spare it. Afraid of being challenged? Good. New experiences do that. But when you act in spite of that fear, you are most open to the experiences that will expand your views, your world, your circle of friends, and your hope for the future.

Two important things about showing up, though.  First, show up as an apprentice. Too many groups swoop in as “suburban saviors,” with big ideas about how to fix people’s problems in a weekend. These solutions are the likeliest to stick, and they come from a place of privilege and self-gratification, not true altruism. Don’t come with an agenda–show up and ask how you can help.  Second, keep showing up. Again and again, on the issues that matter to the community you’re joining. Let them know that you’re an ally who can be counted upon.

Step #3: Profit. Okay, I’m mostly kidding about this, but stick with me. You’ll never make big money doing good works, but that’s not why anyone gets into it. The dividends are much more varied and durable than money, though. When you keep showing up, you learn new skills, many of which spill over into the rest of your life and make you a better worker, partner, parent, and friend. The base of people you know explodes. If networking is king in the new economy, activism is like LinkedIn that actually helps people. Also, you’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun. If you’re not having fun at least part of the time, then it’s not activism that’s failing you–it’s that you haven’t found the right group of people to do this work with, so keep looking!

Another important note: Profit happens, yes, but investing yourself in issues and people comes with ups and downs. The only way to keep the fire lit under your chair is self-care. Set boundaries about how much time and energy you can afford to give, so you don’t flame out in a few months–AND THEN KEEP THEM. Organizers are going to test those boundaries, and defending them is excellent practice for doing so in other parts of your life. And when you do feel like you’re burning out, don’t turn inward and shut down. Reach out to other activists who’ve been doing it longer than you. Ask how they stay fresh. Trust me, it works.

So that’s it. It’s not superhuman, it’s not rocket science. Pick something that matters to you, show up ready to work, and keep coming back. Every single person is an activist waiting for an issue, and we never know when we’ll break through and make history.

 

 

May 31, 2013 - Political Science    No Comments

The Big Debrief

No more phonebanks, no more trainings. I’m home most nights of the week now. My feet have stopped aching from the Capitol’s marble floors. I’ve mostly caught up on sleep.

This is what victory looks like.

I attended my first training session to fight the hurtful anti-marriage amendment proposed for the Minnesota state constitution a full year before it appeared on the ballot in November 2012. Early the following spring, I attended my first phonebank and began my role in the massive conversation that reworked this state’s understanding of love, marriage, and commitment. I stepped into successively greater volunteer leadership roles as the next nine months played out.

And then we won. Minnesota became the first state to defeat an amendment banning same-sex marriage after 30 previous states had passed them. Jubilation isn’t too strong a word. Strangers in stores asked if they could hug me when they saw the campaign stickers on my coat. “I’m just so proud of my state,” they said, and I agreed.

A lot of people left everything on the field in the effort to send that amendment down to defeat. So when the campaign announced early in the new year that it would ride the momentum to take a shot at winning marriage equality this year, the crowd of people I worked with changed. Many beloved friends stayed to change a No to a Yes, but there was a shift, and I fumbled a bit to find my place in the new order.

Burnout wasn’t an unexpected guest after 15 months on the case, but I was still disappointed in myself to have lost the rhythm of self-renewal. I questioned the assumptions I’d built up in the previous campaign, that I was made for this work and the work itself gave me back more than I put in. But I’d grown enough as a person to know that this was a natural cycle, and that it called for reaching out for support, not withdrawing into myself.

CapitolMessaging2And then, like the birth of every good and wonderful thing, came the Big Push. It required no exaggeration to convey the urgency of every single phone call, every email, every lobby visit. Thousands of us in orange and blue crowded the capitol on the day of the House vote. I worried that I would feel useless as a tiny cog with no sense of the great machine, so instead of simply accepting that, I asked for something specific I could manage. That’s how I became the clearinghouse for the hundreds of paper messages we sent directly to the legislators’ hands as they sat in session. Every time another stack was ready for the pages, I would say “Fly, little bundles of love!” like some manic Witch of the West.

I was surprised by the flood of tears that joy brought as the freedom to marry passed first the House, then the Senate. Sure, I cry with joy or beauty sometimes, but the sobs I tried to contain shook me with an unexpected force. One part was surely a release of tension coiled tightly over more than a year. Another part, though, was the crashing wave of love and possibility that swamped everyone who’d fought or longed for this most basic freedom.

No good campaign skips the big debrief at the end–the veterans are repositories of wisdom on what worked, what didn’t, and how to do it better the next time. So I need to take an inventory of what this movement has done to me.

I can both teach and be taught better than before. I listen more actively and empathetically. I’ve refined and reaffirmed some of my deepest moral and spiritual beliefs. I believe action can work. I can build unlikely coalitions. I found my true calling in issue politics. I can set effective boundaries to preserve my own resources, and I can defend them when challenged by a new, sudden need. I know more about community organizing and legislative politics. I have a base of beloved, lifelong friends. I feel perfectly comfortable in the halls of power. I have made Minnesota my forever home. I learned that our own personal stories can change the world.

And I’m ready to start making some wedding gifts.

FreedomToMarrySign

Autism Speaks, I Want To Say…

MamaConnorHairAutism Speaks, I want to say that I won’t be lighting anything up blue in April. I won’t be donating money in any of the cans shaken by earnest coeds in shopping districts. I won’t wear a single piece of puzzle jewelry. I won’t be taking part in your walks, and neither will my son.

It’s too bad, really, Autism Speaks. Because my son and I are autistic, and we make fabulous spokespeople. Like many of our autistic brothers and sisters, we’re hyperlexic, so when we’re asked to speak, we do so way above our grade level. Our autism also gives us a natural enthusiasm, especially when asked to talk about the way the world looks to us, and we can describe clearly and concisely how our perceptions may differ from a neurotypical person’s.

The pink hair is not, sadly, part of my autism, but it is pretty awesome and it shows very well on camera. Too bad you won’t get any pictures of me participating in your orchestrations.

What I want to say to you, though, is very straightforward: I don’t need you to speak for me. I don’t need you to speak for my son.

Moreover, I don’t want you to. I don’t like the messages you send. By only having neurotypical board members, organizers, and spokespeople, you say autistics can’t speak for themselves and defuse the fear and confusion about life with autism.

By choosing a puzzle piece as your symbol, you suggest that autistics are incomplete or a mystery to be solved by someone else, instead of a pattern that is already intact and beautiful as it is.

By devoting a paltry four percent of your annual revenue to “Family Services” (that is, grants to families of autistics who need support for therapy and adaptive technology), you fail to help autistics right here and now.

The 44 percent of your revenue that goes toward research is almost solely dedicated to finding “a cure” for autism, preferably a prenatal test that would alert parents that their beautiful child will be wired differently than they expected. Your idea of a cure would solidify the public’s impression that autism is a life-ending curse.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that your fundraising, advertising, and administrative salaries exceed the percentage of revenue that goes both research and family services.

Instead of urging companies to “light it up blue,” why not ask them to train their employees on the nature of autism, and how best to help autistics who may be overwhelmed by the noise, light, crowds, and textures businesses use to entice neurotypical customers? Why not offer educational programs in the schools that give children the opportunity to see and question an adult autistic who thrives in their work and community? Why not raise money for respite care and better access to early intervention therapies that we know make a huge difference in the future success of autistic children?

The real quest of Autism Acceptance Month must be the quest to understand the beauty, complexity, challenge, and opportunity that autism brings. So keep your change in your pocket, and lace up your walking shoes to take the autistic kids of your family, friends, or neighbors out for a walk in the beautiful April air.

And most of all, let an autistic speak about autism. This may require listening very, very closely, or even reading texts or a chat program, because nonverbal autistics have important things to tell you too. Let them tell you about the flavors and textures and feelings that, while wildly overwhelming sometimes, are also rich and delightful. Let them tell you about what color the world is. Let them perseverate about their favorite things. Let them tell you how much they love you, in whatever way works for them.

That’s how autism really speaks.

Held In The Hand

You hear a lot in the wake of a big election about who has the mandate. This year, with all the time I’ve spent with gay friends on the marriage campaign, my first reaction to the word was, “With who? Gimme the dish!” But I got all excited for nothing—they just mean the same old tired definition. It seems to generally go along with a sweeping victory, but what exactly qualifies as “sweeping” (and even what qualifies as “victory,” sometimes) covers a range of outcomes you could drive a truck through. 
But the historian in me got to wondering: Where did this concept of an authorization or endorsement of one side’s agenda come from?
The term mandate comes directly out of Latin, which is unsurprising, since most ideas of political power were defined—in one way or another—by those experts in bureaucracy, the Romans. But the etymology suggests something more of a public trust: mandate means “to give into the hand” (manus = hand; dare = to give). Romans used the past participle, mandatum, to mean something given into a person’s care. 
By the 15th century, mandatum turns into mandat, which meant a legal or judicial order in early modern France. The wars of religion were already revving up, but there had been two sources for such orders for almost 1000 years: secular courts, run by a local magistrate, noble (often the same), or even the king; and canon courts, run by the Catholic Church. While secular courts dealt with problems of property, feudal allegiances, or the usurpation of the state’s prerogative to use violence, the canon courts claimed crimes with a moral or sinful dimension (e.g., marital disputes), as well as any crime committed by members of the clergy, which included not just priests and monks, but any member of the Catholic bureaucracy, including university students.
So there’s already both a political/legal sense of the word that existed alongside a very spiritual idea of trust and care. And the Romans weren’t the only ones to invest the word mandate with those dual meanings. Ancient China, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), ascribed its rulers with the mandate of heaven. To the Western eye, the mandate of heaven looks like a version of the divine right of rulers. But in China, the endorsement of the divine depended on continued moral leadership (both leadership with morals and demonstrating exemplary morals), and if the leader was not sufficiently generous, just, conservative (in the small “c” sense of conserving tradition and resources for future generations), and observant of religious obligations, then Heaven would revoke its mandate. This could serve as justification—even an endorsement—for popular uprising and the overthrow of the regime. (1)
If that sounds similar to something American rebels against England could get behind, you’re not wrong. And, in fact, 1796 is the first time mandate is used in the modern political sense of approval of policies as communicated by the outcome of a vote. (2) Naturally, the only American politician whom everyone agrees had a mandate was George Washington. But while the Constitution provided a framework for elections, it’s clear that the Framers had no intention to ascribe endorsement of policy change to the outcome of those elections.
But that sure hasn’t kept our presidents from claiming that mandate. Andrew Jackson, who was elected after the Twelfth Amendment (1804) correlated the popular vote with the actions of the Electoral College, asserted that the President “was an immediate and direct representative of the people” in order to legitimize the changes he had in mind for the Bank of the United States. Woodrow Wilson is credited with giving voice to the idea that the President is the only nationally elected representative, saying “There is but one national voice in the country, and that is the voice of the President.”
Richard Nixon made the first direct use of the word mandate when he announced in 1973 that “Last November, the American people were given the clearest choice of the century. Your votes were a mandate, which I accepted, to complete the initiatives we began in my first term and to fulfill the promises I made for my second term.” But both Kennedy and Nixon in his first term were elected with only a plurality of the national vote (less than a 50% plus one vote majority), and Jimmy Carter received a bare 50.1% of the vote in 1976. Reagan won in 1980 with less than 51% of the national vote, yet the Vice-President-Elect claimed that Reagan’s victory was “not simply a mandate for change but a mandate for peace and freedom; a mandate for prosperity; a mandate for opportunity for all Americans regardless of race, sex, or creed; a mandate for leadership that is strong and compassionate….” (3)
Not that we’ve ever agreed with our opponents’ claims, or the extent of that mandate for proposing new policy. As presidential elections have become increasingly about the personal qualities of proposed leaders, and less about specifically communicated policy intentions, I think it’s worth looking back at where the idea of a mandate comes from. With the country so divided along ideological and party lines, it’s unlikely that we’ll see popular vote margins large enough to satisfy everyone that the winner has a clear endorsement from the people. Even Barack Obama, the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win back-to-back majorities of the popular vote and the Electoral College, obviously isn’t seen as holding a mandate from a significant portion of Americans.
But, more than ever, it’s important for our leaders to proceed knowing, as the Romans and Chinese knew, that they hold their power in their hands—they hold the people in their hands. And it is a fragile thing, so easily crushed by inattention and the flexes of muscle demanded by other parts of the job. Though Bush’s presidency represented it in absolutely no way at all, I appreciate the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” The people and their trust must be treated with compassion, not ruthless budgetary efficiency or wasteful military squandering, or neither of them can be conserved for the good of the country’s future. 
Held in their hands, our leaders could easily squeeze out the civic feeling and confidence in good governing, exhausting those tender values before the next generation can refill those reservoirs with youthful optimism. The real mandate that every legislator must embrace is the one to earn our trust and preserve our faith in the institutions to which they want us to appoint them.
***
(1) For more on the Chinese idea of The Mandate of Heaven, watch this helpful video.
(2) Etymological details of the word mandate come from here.
(3) History of the Presidential mandate from Wikipedia entries for individual presidents, and this excellent article by Robert Dahl in Political Science Quarterly, found here.
Nov 12, 2012 - Political Science    1 Comment

Dear Levi

I’m sorry for such an odd first letter. I’ve been trying to write about the election for almost a week now, but I’ve failed to find the words, so I hope you forgive this awkward effort.

You see, in the nine months I’ve been working my heart out to defeat the hurtful amendment that would’ve permanently banned same-sex marriage in Minnesota, I never let myself imagine what came next. I’m very much a “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” kind of person.

And in those last, frantic days, I only had the energy to focus on the work, not the outcome. I was grateful, in a weird way, that the Darling Husband’s conference for work required me to stay out of the campaign office over the weekend.

John Barrowman, Connor, and me at a book signing at Red Balloon Bookshop

The moral support from John Barrowman (say it with me, mmm hmm) didn’t hurt either. But I found myself conducting mental calculations, trying to negotiate a way to go in for a few hours more. I’m a complete junkie.

But I never could’ve done the 13+ hour days of training and coaching and troubleshooting and calling on Monday and Tuesday if I hadn’t been forced to rest up a bit. They were excruciatingly painful, and endlessly exhilarating. I don’t I’ve ever “been on” so unrelentingly, for so long, as I was in those last two days. And it felt like someone had been caning the soles of my feet by the time the boots came off at night.

But the atmosphere was electric in the Saint Paul office. It seemed like volunteers knew something special was happening, and people who’d never put in an hour on the campaign before took an hour off work so they could say they’d been a part of it. And those of us who’ve been in it for the long haul were determined to squeeze every last experience from our time. The first shift I did back at the main office, they had a sumptuous spread of food, and they interrupted shifts for a dance break. I was furious! I’d been busting my ass for almost three months off-site–we didn’t have crockpots of soup and conga lines! (I felt a little better when folks told me that these things only came along in that last week.)

Anne, Emily, Claire, and Vern at the very last phone bank of the campaign.

We knew this extraordinary moment wasn’t going to last much longer, even though we weren’t completely sure what would come next. I saw no fewer than five efforts to collect emails and phone numbers from the staff and hardcore volunteers. Even little Phoebe was trying to create a little phone book so she wouldn’t lose any of the people who’d filled her world for almost a year (an incalculable time, for an eight-year-old).

I felt badly going home to watch election returns, instead of down to the RiverCentre for the big party. I really wanted to be there with everyone, but it was a school night and I knew it would be a long time before we knew anything about the outcome. So I went home to watch returns with the person who made me such a big fan of marriage in the first place.

You’ve probably seen the video of Richard Carlbom, in the middle of telling everyone to head home and get some rest, receive the news that we’d won. My Twitter feed the next day was full of staffers giving him flak for that Howard Dean yell. Me, I just burst out in sobs–another way I’m like your mom, I’m sure. And then I collapsed into dreamless sleep. But I took a second to leave this note for the boys, in case they woke up earlier than I did.

 

And we all hiked down to the Capitol the next evening for the big victory rally. I wanted to be there to reclaim some of the outpouring of emotion I’d missed at the party the night before–the pictures made me cry all over again–but also to hear where this thing would go next. We’d been so ready to bounce back and keep fighting, to transform our grief into resolve. But it felt like that moment when you’re walking down the stairs, so sure there’s one more step than there actually is, and your knees buckle as you come down hard on a stair that isn’t there. In all the joy and relief, there was no clear path forward.

Not only did we defeat the amendment, but we won back DFL majorities in both houses of the state legislature. It feels like the next logical step is to translate all this momentum and public consensus into an effort to fully legalize marriage, but I’m not sure that’s on the docket for the next session. There’s a kind of policy conference at the beginning of December, and I really want to be there. I’m also looking for ways to shift some of this leftover effort into a new project, maybe something to do with all the personal work on civil rights and multicultural justice I’ve been doing.

But this is what I want to say to you, at the end of this amazing, historic, victorious fight: Start dreaming. I’m so glad to hear your current post is safe and supportive–I can’t imagine how hard those months in Oklahoma must’ve been, in a branch of service that really hasn’t fully bought into the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I know you’ve suffered for your aspirations to be a soldier. And we’re all so proud of you for sticking it out.

But when you’re done with this part of your life, when you’ve had your adventures and realized your highest goals, I hope you come home. I hope you fall in crazy love with the one man who’ll make your heart whole, like mine has been these sixteen years. And I hope I can be there on the happy day when you marry each other, right here in Minnesota. I want to dance with you and your brothers and my sons, and hug your mother and cry, and wave you off into your brave new future together.

You keep working on your dreams, and I’ll keep working on Minnesota. I can’t wait to see what we make of them.

Love,

jess

Closing Arguments

I’ve been working on the campaign for marriage equality here in Minnesota since March, and as I’ve written before, it’s the most fulfilling political, social, and activist project I’ve ever worked on. I’m a total addict to the amazing people and experiences I encounter every single time I put in some time, and I’m going to crash hard on November 7, even if we manage to win. I’m already getting the shakes. Last night, I asked my friend and co-trainer Scott, who works in politics for his day job, for a new campaign–I’m lining up a new dealer once Minnesotans United for All Families skips town.

MN United has built a campaign unlike any other, rejecting the messages and tactics that have failed in 30 states where anti-marriage amendments have gone up for a popular vote. While talk about the rights and benefits that attach to marriage, and how the denial of those rights amounts to separate-but-equal discrimination on par with civil rights fights of the past, are important to many supporters of marriage equality, they aren’t generally persuasive for people who are on the fence about gay marriage. So we’re having personal conversations with voters, using our own life stories, to make it clear that marriage is about love and commitment, no matter the gender of the partners. These stories are powerful, and they change hearts and minds and votes.

Only four days remain until the election, so I’m going to share the core of the conversations I’ve been having with you today. If you’re in one of the four states voting on marriage equality, I hope that this strengthens your resolve if you’re a supporter, and opens your heart to the conversation if you’re still undecided.

Our first walk as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, 5 October 1996

I find this amendment personally hurtful on so many levels. I have the great good fortune to be married to the love of my life, despite the astronomical odds that we would ever find one another on opposite sides of the world. And for the last sixteen years, we’ve had each other in good times and bad. I’ve rejoiced in the affection and the support and the million inside jokes and shorthand references that weave us closer, and I’ve buckled with relief into that tightly knit fabric of partnership in the times of crisis and grief. I think marriage is the best game in town, and I devoutly wish the same celebration and endorsement for every loving, committed couple who lean into the unknown future together.

All of this hinges, though, on one critical fact: my beloved was the opposite gender. When we fell madly in love, we had many obstacles to overcome so we could be together, but the legal right for me to marry him and secure his immigration status so we could start our new life together was not one of them. We obtained a K-1 “fiance” visa that allowed him to enter the country and get on the fast track for a green card by submitting evidence of our marriage. We went through the separate interviews to assure our marriage wasn’t a scam.

But I’m bisexual. There was no guarantee that my soulmate would be a man. And if he weren’t, the last sixteen years–all the love, all the progress, all the family we’ve built–disappear. That one thought blows through my gut like an icy wind and fills me with unbearable sorrow. I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of being told I couldn’t marry and be with my beloved.

And I look at my amazing, difficult, brilliant, gorgeous, perfect sons, and I marvel even more. We didn’t have to submit any applications or pass any interviews before we decided to conceive them, and not once have we ever had to fear that they would be taken away from us. We’re far from perfect parents, but no one has ever questioned whether we’re the best people to raise them. It’s assumed that they’re safe and happy and healthy and loved, and there’s no awkwardness when I introduce their other parent at school events or church functions.

Believe me, all this “traditional”-ness is positively mortifying to a weird, eclectic nonconformist like me. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. We didn’t set out to create a “traditional” family, and we’ve done everything in our power to the least traditional traditional family around. But we are very aware of our privilege, and there’s no reason in the world it should be reserved to our narrow demographic.

Marriage is an important but limited part of how I envision family. I’m a child of divorce, and even as an eight-year-old, I knew that my mother and father weren’t working out. I knew that marriage stood in the way of being our best selves, and I told my mom often as a kid, then a teenager, then an adult, that she made the right call. That divorce didn’t dissolve the ties of family, though–I’m still close with my father’s family, and I kept my birth last name as a second middle name when my stepdad adopted us years later. But I also watched my grandparents’ marriage, which started with my grandma saying, “I’ll marry you so I can get out of the house before I kill my sister. But if it doesn’t work out, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and no hard feelings.” It lasted 62 years.

We teach our sons that families come in all shapes and sizes. Of course, we didn’t have to work too hard to teach them this: they already knew it. They have friends who have a mom and a dad like they do, and friends who only live with their mom or their dad, or travel between their parents’ houses. They know friends who live with extended family, or foster parents, or adoptive families. And they know friends with two dads or two moms. All they care about is that their friends are as loved and secure as they are.

So I’m voting no.

I’m voting no because I treasure my marriage. No other word in our language and society so completely sums up the lifelong commitment and enduring love that I share with my partner, and it hurts to imagine being told that we didn’t qualify for that word by something we couldn’t change or improve. My marriage is strong, and no married gay couple down the street, arguing about bills and chores like we do, makes that less secure.

I’m voting no because I hold my sons in hope and love. I feel that they’re better people because we’ve taught them that every person is worthy of the same dignity, no exceptions. My dream for my boys is to dance at their weddings, and the only thing I care about is that the person they marry loves them as much as I love their father. I’m going to dance, it’s going to be Bad Mom Dancing, and it’s going to live on in infamy on YouTube, to forever embarrass them, like every good mom should.

I’m voting no because my understanding of the world’s faiths teaches me that the most universal truth among humans is to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. Whether it’s the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, or the Confucian Silver Rule, this is held as a central tenet. We rarely follow the ancient scriptures that prohibit same-sex partners on other subjects; we acknowledge that they’re historical documents, and that society’s values have evolved since they were written. I want my church to have the religious freedom to marry gay and lesbian couples as our faith embraces as equally entitled.

I’m voting no because I’m a historian. I can see that the institution of marriage predates the Bible and that it began as an economic transaction to link families and secure heredity. It was not always a sacrament, and it was not always available to every heterosexual couple. It hasn’t “always been” any particular way. Marriage for love is a damned newfangled idea, relatively speaking. If you married someone not from your hometown, you’re already breaking “traditional” convention, let alone someone of a different church, faith, ethnic group, or race.

I’m voting no because I’m a teacher and a parent, and the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child matters to me. I can’t imagine the horror of waiting to know how the state where they were born is going to vote on whether they and their families are welcome. LGBT youth are so fragile already, under siege in schools and churches and media, and it’s a sacred trust we are given to show them that they can aspire to fully participate in society and experience the range of human love. I have great confidence that other teachers will continue to teach age-appropriate lessons, and that as parents we still have the greatest power to teach our children about morality.

I’m voting no because I’m a patriot. I believe in the founding principles of our country, especially the purpose of our constitution as a document that secures personal freedoms and limits government intrusions. The constitution should never be used to carve out a segment of the population and deprive them of the same liberties as others enjoy. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting rights up for a popular vote. Ideological conservatives have made some of the most persuasive arguments along these lines.

I’m voting no because I’m an optimist, and I believe our society is moving toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of one another. The less we allow race, gender, faith, class, and sexual orientation to cloud our vision of a common humanity, the more we will recognize that we all want the same thing. We’ve got a long way to go on all of those issues, but we can (and should!) work on them simultaneously. I reject the arguments of fear, division, and misunderstanding, and I put my hope in the journey we’re on toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

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