Tagged with " politics"

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.

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

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.

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.

 

A Government of the People

I think we can all agree on the winner of last night’s first presidential debate:

Big Bird.

Seriously, more than the President’s apparent NyQuil mishap, or the former governor’s faulty truth software, or the tragic demise of both Jim Lehrer’s moderator cred and the formal debate format, it’s Romney’s comment about getting rid of Big Bird when he would defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that’s blown up my social media feeds today. If Joe Biden doesn’t say “Bin Laden is dead and Big Bird is alive!” at next Thursday’s veep debate, he’s missing a great opportunity.

But that got me thinking. We’re big PBS and NPR fans in the Banks household, and the way I see it, the takeover of the federal government by the combined talents of those two organizations could only improve life for us all.

So here’s my plan for the new, improved CPB American government: Calm, Patient, Brilliant.

THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH

I think a Garrison Keillor/Carl Kasell ticket is just the thing to bring dignity, truth, and mildly humorous storytelling to the White House. Martha the Talking Dog could bring a new articulateness to the role of First Dog, and fill in as White House Press Secretary whenever Peter Sagal needed a break.

The Cabinet is where my plan truly shines. The Dowager Countess is an obvious pick for Secretary of State, as is Wordgirl for Education. Bob Vila‘s got Housing and Urban Development covered, and Bill Moyers would make a strong, moral, incorruptible Attorney General. Clifford the Big Red Dog will advance a “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy in his Department of Defense. Ken Burns gets the Department of the Interior, with its oversight of national parks, monuments, and natural resources. Helen Mirren/Jane Tennyson would be a ferocious head of Homeland Security. Click and Clack should do nicely for Transportation, as would the Antiques Roadshow folks for Commerce and the Victory Garden people for Agriculture. Marketplace could manage both Treasury and Labor, and the Frontline reporters have been with the soldiers all the way through the last 10+ years of warfare, so they’d a natural pick for Veterans Affairs. Martin Clunes/Doc Martin is good for Health and Human Services, especially coming from National Health Service as he does. And let’s give the NOVA guys the Department of Energy–at least they don’t think the cast of Dinosaur Train are the only source out there.

THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH

My plan is beautiful in its simplicity for Congress. Over the years, I’d wager Masterpiece Mystery has killed off at least 541 people. If we include the perpetrators, that’s enough to field candidates for actual contested races in all those states and districts. For that matter, probably enough to completely staff the home and Washington offices.

Between the corpses and the criminals, we’ll achieve roughly the same levels of trust and productivity as the 112th Congress. And probably a better gender and minority balance.

THE JUDICIAL BRANCH

Sesame Workshop’s got this covered.

 

And, obviously, Nina Tottenberg continues to provide dramatic readings from the transcripts from this esteemed body.

 

A FEW LOOSE ENDS

The Yip-Yip Aliens can only improve the FCC. Sid the Science Kid might be a bit young for the CDC, but at least he won’t treat it like a faith-based department. Bob Ross, bless his soul, would’ve ruled as director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Cyberchase kids should be outstanding at all the electronic surveillance over in the CIA. Terry Gross is a relentless interrogator who could whip the FBI into shape in a heartbeat. And Congressional Budget Office’s reports might take a little longer with Count von Count at the helm, but the constant thunder will comfort everyone that he’s always hard at work. Neil deGrasse Tyson already should be the head of NASA, so that’s a no-brainer.

And Curious George would definitely be a pro-legalization Drug Czar.

The CPB government will eliminate all personal income taxes, but you’ll have to deal with Fall and Spring pledge drives. The guilt trips will be epic, but between Austin City Lights, The Mark Twain Prize, and This American Life, there’ll be some outstanding programming twice a year to get citizens to chip in their fair share.

I’m sure there are many positions I’ve forgotten, or other excellent candidate for the posts I’ve named, so feel free to suggest your own in comments.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have a government for 100 percent of America? And commercial-free, too.

 

The Truth, Nothing Less

I’ve had a thousand things to say since Missouri Representative, and Senate candidate, Todd Akin opened his pie hole and let the crazy-ignorant cat out of the anti-choice bag. And I haven’t been quiet, but I try not to turn this exclusively into a current affairs blog. I am able to let an event pass without commenting on it. (Theoretically.)

I’m a rape survivor. It’s fairly common knowledge among those who know me, and I’m way past shame. It’s been more than 20 years now. It was a “legitimate rape,” even though I knew my rapist very well and I didn’t scream. I didn’t ask to be raped, even though I was dating my rapist, and I’d turned down a ride home earlier in the night. I didn’t get pregnant, not because I was a virgin or because my body “shut that whole thing down.” I didn’t report my rape, not because I knew it was my fault, but because I needed to survive a whole year with him in my small school, in a small town.

You never forget that part of yourself, and you can’t run away from it. My freshman year of college, I started doing strange things (stranger than usual, I should specify). I became physically self-destructive–I stopped eating for the most part, and I exercised to the point of foundering. I had nightmares every time I fell asleep. On winter break, I finally told my parents what had happened. My dad arranged a meeting with one of his former students, whom he knew had also survived an acquaintance rape. She said it would never go away, but like a piece of paper, time would fold and fold again what seemed massive right then, and while I’d always have that little square to carry around, it wouldn’t fill my world forever.

I went to counseling at Rape Victim Support Services when I returned to school, and found out I had textbook Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The only uncharacteristic thing about it was that I’d successfully suppressed it for so long, until I was somewhere it was “safe” for it to emerge. After I completed the program, I went back to the crisis center that facilitates RVSS’ services, and trained to be a counselor as well. I found community, and understanding, and purpose, as well as a set of skills that I use every single day. Most of the time, all this feels a very long time ago. Almost no scars remain that haven’t turned into the roots I feel unequivocally positive about.

But what started as anger has become strength and a fierce insistence on the truth. So when a long-time acquaintance said there were “worse ways for [rape] to happen,” I responded with a vehemence that surprised me. And when the Independence Party candidate for the 4th Congressional District said, in a live MPR debate I attended Tuesday at the MN State Fair, that there are “many, many different kinds of rape,” many which women claim just to get the abortions “they’re giving out all over the place,” I barely managed to keep my seat, channeling the rush of ferocity into shouts of disagreement and chants of “Rape is rape!” that you can hear on the broadcast recording. And when I arrived at a friend’s house mere minutes after she got the news that her gay son had been raped yesterday, I let Emergency Lass take over and stand by her, helping her think clearly when she was in shock. My own tears and shaking came later; only hugging my sons eased them at all.

Don’t write Todd Akin and his kind off. He’s not a fringe wingnut–he’s the six-term Congressional Representative for his district, and until he accidentally said exactly what he believes on tape, he was leading his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, in every poll. I know people who claim pregnancy is a sign the rape wasn’t that violent or unpleasant. I know people who reject the CDC estimate of 32,000 rape-induced pregnancies in the U.S. last year. I know more people than I’d like to think of who think that, in some cases, at least one victim had to have, on some level, wanted it, to take the chances they took.

Please, spread the word: There is nothing you can do that means you were asking to be raped. There is no involuntary physical response that means you deserved or wanted it. There is no kind of rape that’s more or less horrific than another. Virgins get raped. Married people get raped, sometimes by their own partners. People who only go out in groups get raped. Men get raped. Gay people get raped. Mothers, sisters, and daughters get raped. Friends get raped.

Not one of them wanted it. Not one of them deserved it. Not one of them should be doubted or taken less than seriously. Not one of them should think they’re alone. Not one of them will ever forget what happened to them. Rape is rape. It’s not a sexual act–it’s an act of power. Rape is terrorism of the most personal kind imaginable. Don’t settle for anything less than that full truth.

Bite Your Tongue

I’ve been on hiatus here at the blog for a while, as summer (and more specifically, con season) made all our best laid plans gang well and truly a-gley. Having been deprived of Gen Con, I set out to give the boys a few firsts, including first time on a horse and first time in a human-propelled watercraft. They both went surprisingly well.

I’ve also been doing lots of work with Minnesotans United for All Families–not particularly more than before, but the campaign has reached critical mass, and every day it seems there’s movement or news.  I had to tell the boys to stop yelling excitedly every time they see an orange “Vote NO” lawn sign, as they started springing up like mushrooms all over Saint Paul, and I began to rapidly lose my hearing. There’s great cause for hope, but it’s going to be close, and we’ll be working flat-out right up to the night of November 6.

(Wo)manning the MN United table at our apartment complex’s National Night Out event. Picture by Griffin.

The heart of my work is having conversations with Minnesota voters, and teaching others to do likewise. It’s so different from other political advocacy I’ve done in the past, as I’ve described previously, and instead of coming home exhausted and drained, it usually takes me an hour or three to come down from the adrenaline high after a phone bank or training. I’ve met fantastic people of every age, faith, place, and life experience, and whatever the outcome of the election, I believe we’re fundamentally changing the way Minnesotans think about each other, about marriage, and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, for the better.

Time and again, though, in my own conversations and the ones I’m training people to have with their friends, family, and neighbors, this question comes up: “What do you say when someone says marriage has always been that way and starts quoting Scripture?” To which I always reply: “You’ve got to bite your tongue, just like I do.”

I know, you’re saying, “You, Jess? You just bite your tongue when it comes to a question of religion and history?” And yes, I really do, hard as that may be for you to picture. In fact, that’s the major skill set I’ve been working on personally in this campaign, and I’ve made real strides in this department.

But why, you ask? Why don’t I lay The Almighty Bible-quoting, chapter-and-verse, dates-and-names-and-edicts-and-Supreme-Court-cases Smackdown To End All Smackdowns on them? I admit, the urge is strong. Sometimes, it feels like a whole segment of the population is just BEGGING me to teach them the history their schools and churches have failed to teach them. It seems like a personal sign from the universe that my particular combination of research is meaningful and needed, right here, right now.

But I’ve discovered something else that’s meaningful and needed, right here, right now: I’m not going to win a single vote for marriage equality by “changing minds,” which is what I’d be trying to do if I gave in to the impulse to lecture. The only way we’re going to defeat this hurtful amendment is to change hearts, and all the knowledge in the world doesn’t even scratch the surface of that mission.

I just finished reading a fascinating book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I haven’t felt like assigning required reading to everyone I meet in a while, but if I could buy this book for everyone I know–especially those on the campaign with me–I would. Haidt makes the case for a hybrid definition of how the human mind works, somewhere between Plato’s assertion that emotions are the servants of Reason and Hume’s argument that Reason is a slave to our passions. Haidt says a more apt analogy would be an elephant (our emotions) with a rider (our intellect). The rider can make suggestions to the elephant and looks like he’s in charge, but ultimately, if the elephant decides to head a particular direction, all the rider can do is say “I meant to do him to do that.”

Haidt also shares the results of his research into the moral foundations on which the edifices of conservative and liberal thought are built, and his conclusion is that part of the success of the modern conservative movement is based on the fact that conservative ideology appeals to a broader array of moral options than liberalism does. Since liberals often think of conservatives as “narrow-minded,” this sounds counter-intuitive, but really, it’s not. Liberals, Haidt demonstrates, derive their moral judgments almost entirely from whether something cares for or harms other beings, or whether it seems equalizing or discriminatory. Conservatives, on the other hand, respond less strongly to equality and care/harm, but additionally respond to messages of proportionality (more/less work=more/less reward), loyalty (to kin and other identity groups), sanctity (upholding standards of purity or pollution), and authority (respect for institutions), while many liberals actually perceive a threat from high degrees of those sources of morality. I think he’s really on to something, and I agree with what I heard Howard Dean talk about in a speech at Penn State, all the way back in 2004–that progressives won’t be able to accomplish their goals until they learn to articulate the morality of their position from all of these angles, and tap into the emotional heart of their message.

So when I talk to people about the anti-marriage amendment, I’m consciously talking to the elephant, not the rider, because it’s the elephant that will check a box on the ballot November 6. What does that mean, practically? It means I ask voters how they feel about love, marriage, and commitment, not how they think. I ask them if they’re married, if they’ve ever been in love, if they’ve ever been to a wedding, and how those things felt. I ask them whether they know any gay people, and how they feel about them if they do. If they say they don’t, I ask if they’ve ever felt excluded from something they wanted with all their hearts. And I don’t take no for an answer, because that experience is just as universal as love.

What I’m specifically not asking about is what they’ve been taught, what they’ve learned, what they know about the law and history of marriage. I’m not informing them on marriage’s roots in civil, economic, contractual law. I’m not engaging in Dueling Scripture Quotations. I’m not expounding on the long, twisted history of suppression of rights for groups that aren’t rich, white, male, or Christian. I’m not doing any of that, because it’s an absolute waste of my time, and I don’t have a minute to waste between now and the vote. There’s no point in convincing the rider, because there’s no way he can convince that elephant to squeeze into the booth if the elephant’s not into it.

The way we’re going to win is make the elephant want to get into the booth, and the only way to do that is to tie marriage equality to something the elephant already feels strongly about. Everybody wants love; nobody wants to be told they’re not good enough; we feel strongly about commitments to the people in our lives. Occasionally, I’ll come across a person whose church is democracy, whose scripture is the constitution, and for them, talking about rights and fairness is as persuasive as showing them how this amendment harms the people they love. But that feeling isn’t nearly as universal as the desire for love and the dream of celebrating that love in the sight of family, friends, community, and (for many) their god(s).

So I bite my tongue, and the teacher in my head jumps up and down furiously at being stifled. But the blood I taste is worth the stories I hear, the hopes and fears people share, and the wonder of creating a connection where there wasn’t one before. Those are the things that will get the elephant in the booth, and help generations of Minnesotans know that they are welcome, valued, and loved in this beautiful state of ours.

Aug 1, 2012 - Political Science    2 Comments

Politics Most Fowl

I’m going to come right out and say this:

I don’t like Chick-Fil-A.

I mean, I really don’t like their sandwiches. I’m pretty sure no one but me cares, and that’s fine.

No, I’m not just piling on the little guy (if a corporation can be a “little guy;” Citizens United be damned), and I would die for the company’s president to say whatever damnfool, hateful nonsense he wants. This is America, and both religion and speech are still free, even inhumane and cruel religion and stupid, self-serving speech. I just think their chicken tastes like crap.

But in the noise and the furor over the statements and counter-statements, the protests and counter-protests, I only have a few things to add, all of which are unsophisticated and not worth arguing over.

1)  Boycotts work. If you don’t agree with a company’s politics or actions, don’t give them another dime. Yes, the first place they feel it is in local franchisees, and that’s maybe not whom you want to hurt when you drive on past. But corporate offices sure as hell notice boycotts, and they are incredibly powerful tools of protest.

2) Be kind to the people who work for the corporation you’re targeting with your protest. I’d be willing to guess that there are a lot of people who work for Chick-Fil-A who work there because it’s a job. They’re mainly college kids trying to scrape up tuition money for next semester, senior citizens whose Social Security wouldn’t keep them in food AND meds, and a whole bunch of underemployed people who just need a steady income as they come out the other end of the financial disaster we’ve just weathered.

They’re not anti-gay; they don’t value anyone less than another. (Though there is this, which is a little weird.) They’re scared as hell that someone’s going to belly up to their counter today and release a spew of bile and invective at them, and hold them accountable for something beyond their ken. And that spew goes both ways. Imagine the pain of having to suffer through some bigot’s tirade about gays going to hell, followed immediately by an irate liberal’s rant about how they’re a horrible human being for taking a paycheck from a company that crushes the dreams of little gay boys and girls.

I get queasy just thinking about that level of confrontation, all day every day.

So, if you want to make a big scene, for god’s sake, don’t drop a glitterbomb on the counter at a Chick-Fil-A. Some kid with developmental disabilities, on loan from the local group home, is going to have to sweep up every single flake before he can claim his discounted, hours-old, half-cold, slowly-lethal chicken lunch in the janitorial closet. That’s the way fast food works, and you’re not punishing the right person.

Just got to make a point? Grab your best friend, ask to see the manager, kiss that friend right on the mouth, and tell them that you love everyone. And then go home and cook dinner for your family.

Correction: Don’t just kiss your friend–hug the manager. Tell him/her how sorry you are that the company owner put their business in this position. Then donate the cost of your meal to one of the marriage equality fights in the country right now (in Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota). And THEN cook dinner for your loved ones.

Excuse me, I’m having a moment here

You know those people who always say, “There’s a reason for everything that happens?”

Yeah, I usually want to kick them in the crotch, too.

But even as I say that, I have to admit that I’ve seen meaningful patterns in my life, time and time again, for which there’s no rational explanation. Doors closing, windows opening–call it what you will. I’ve just found myself in too many places I shouldn’t have been that turned out to lead me to exactly where I was meant to be.

That’s why, when people ask me if I could “take back” my sexual assault or my fibromyalgia or the hell we’ve been through with Connor, I answer, fast as a snap, “No!” Those things made and keep making me the person I am, and I love where and with whom I am far too much to risk changing even one crappy thing in the past.

For the most part, I perceive these patterns from afar, like an aerial photograph of where I’ve been. But I’m in the midst of an amazing moment right now, when I see them crystallizing right before me. I am precisely where I am supposed to be, where I’ve been headed for decades.

I’m volunteering for Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition fighting the constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota for generations to come. It’s on the ballot in November, the 31st of these elections when a basic human right for a whole group of people is put up for popular vote.

We aim to be the first to defeat this kind of attack.

I’d already committed to be part of this effort, but when one of the organizers here in Saint Paul came to me to ask if I would step up as a team leader and put in about 6-8 hours a week on the campaign (until it becomes much, much more, when the leaves start falling from the trees). Frankly, I might’ve been smarter to say no, but I’d wanted a way to engage more with the campaign so, like the Overcommitment Princess I am, I said, “Bring it.”

I’ve attended trainings and phone banks, planning meetings and launch parties. I’ve met more new people on the campaign than I may have met in the whole time I’ve lived in Minnesota. They’re running a crazy-smart campaign here, unlike anything that’s been attempted anywhere else, focusing on personal conversations about love and commitment, rather than discrimination and legal protections, with over 1 million voters. And the longer I’m in this thing, the more I know that the skills I’ve acquired all come together for this work.

A lot of the work is very similar to teaching. Informing voters, training volunteers, and coordinating teams has shades of lecturing, discussing central concepts, guiding and supporting folks so they can reach their own conclusions on the subject. I appreciate my experience with non-traditional students and different ethnic constituencies–this coalition is so broad and deep, uniting across so many communities.

I’m finding my crisis counselor training to be very useful too. Having intense conversations about values with strangers, neighbors, and friends, as well as training others to have those conversations, requires active listening, something that doesn’t (but should) get taught in everyday life. It’s hard not to use my Rogerian reflective statements, but I’m allowed to get invested in the stories I’m telling and hearing in a way I couldn’t as a counselor. I’m walking with people through memories, and feelings, and judgments that sometimes unravel or take shape at the same time as the words cross their lips. It’s incredibly powerful.

And I’ve already expounded on my commitment to philanthropy and social justice activism here on the blog. Though I still feel guilty when I try to own my bisexuality because I’ve never suffered for that part of my identity, this isn’t only an LGBTQ issue. All you have to believe in to fight this amendment is love. I’m living my happily ever after, despite very long odds–I want everyone to have the same freedom and joy.

Even my training as a historian gives me perspective that adds to my sense of privilege at being a part of this. In my religious studies work, I’ve looked at the civil terms and religious blessings on personal commitments in a wide variety of cultures and eras, which is powerfully erosive of many arguments in favor of such an amendment. And knowing the history of milestones like the Loving v. Virginia case, which made interracial marriage legal for once and for all in America in 1967, has opened my eyes to the historical importance of halting the tide of these amendments at last.

So I’m having a moment here. Minnesota’s having a moment too, deciding what kind of state it wants to be. But my moment (as egocentric as it sounds to say it) is more empowering than I think anyone at Minnesotans United knows or cares. I doubt my qualifications, my value, my ability to be useful to anyone, all the time. Every time I recommend myself for something, my heart’s in my throat like I’m jumping off a cliff. I even feel weird thinking about getting business cards made up, because honestly, who would ever want or need to remember me enough to keep my stupid square of cardstock?

But on this campaign, I feel useful. I’m doing good work. I can contribute my skills and my passion, and have it matched and encouraged and appreciated. I feel needed–me, with my quirky, particular bag of tricks. I’m so grateful for the experience that I even offered to dye my hair back to a plausibly human color, if they thought that the coding that happens on first contact would be detrimental to my ability to help effectively. Their response? “No way. Rock the pink hair. We need the pink-haired to feel included too.”

That’s love, folks. That’s what we’re fighting for. And what I’m doing will help us win.

May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

I’ve been trying to string these observations together for three days now, and failing utterly to find a single narrative thread. But I really feel the need to get these ideas out there. So, instead of a coherent blog post, you get a bunch of random thoughts about the complexities of race relations. My apologies.

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Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

I’m thinking a lot about race these days. Part of that is deliberate. I took part in a study group about the racial history of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, at church, in anticipation of a weekend visit by the foremost historian of the African American UU experience, Mark Morrison-Reed. We read his book, Darkening the Doorways, and discussed everything from white privilege, to assumptions about what black visitors to our church would find welcoming, to outreach efforts to walk the talk on multicultural engagement.

The accompanying workshop, and the extended conversation for the group of us, was difficult and painful, but soul work really should be. The first principle of our faith is that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we’ve been unsuccessful more often than successful at truly embracing real diversity in our church homes. We’re so much more comfortable going into communities of color for a day of service–us doing things for them, not with them–then returning to our monochromatic congregations on Sunday with the glow of righteousness.

The main conclusion we came to that day, with Mark’s help, is that communities of color are used to people coming and going. What they’re not used to is people staying. Volunteers paint buildings and plant gardens. They don’t come back to touch-up or weed. It’s the same with political work. Don’t just show up for the march–come back for coffee, stay for dinner. Don’t just make speeches–ask what they want, and listen as long as they want to talk.

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I’m not colorblind. My stepdad says he is, with ridiculous statements like, “I don’t see race” and “There’s no such thing as black and white–we’re all cocoa, vanilla, cream tea, cinnamon.”  It sounds delicious, but it’s hard for me to reconcile this kind of obliviousness with his history as a young white man who stood up for civil rights in the ’60s. He even attended Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To me, this is blindness, not color blindness, and it diminishes the real struggle people of color have had and continue to have in America. Is this a relic of that generation of liberal speech on race? Did it sound as insensitive in the past as it does now?

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I see race because I see patterns. As a kid, I was curious about things like melanin, epicanthic folds, and naso-labial shapes. But I was far more fascinated by the differences than worried about them. I noticed that people of different ethnicities smelled differently, and I wanted to taste the food I scented on their clothing and in their hair. I collected dolls dressed in the native costumes of different nations. I spent hours in a Chicago-area children’s museum, acting out family life from Fiddler on the Roof in the kid-sized Jewish home, and making tortillas and touching all the weavings in the Mexican home. And my mom tells me that, around the age of 2 and 3, I would babble incessantly in some weird language, then sigh in exasperation when she told me to stop talking nonsense. “*Mo-om*, it’s not nonsense,” she says I said, “I’m speaking French.” To this day, she wishes she’d known someone who spoke French, to find out if I actually was.

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I worked in a record store at the last year of my undergrad work, in Lawrence, Kansas. I loved my job, but I’d watch the kids who browsed a little too long in the Rap/R&B section. The white boys were so stupidly obvious, all I had to do was walk up to them and ask them how I could help to get them to mumble nervously and quickly leave the store, their shoplifting plans foiled. When it was young men of color, I’d watch them, then deliberately turn away, telling myself it wasn’t fair to profile them thus. After they left, I’d do a quick check of the section, and when I found neatly razorbladed magnetic tags or plastic wrappers stuffed into the corners of the racks, I was furious and hurt. I hated that they reinforced the negative stereotypes, justified my profiling, and made me feel racist and ashamed.

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I just read a book by John L. Jackson, Jr. called Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, in which he makes a compelling case that, in the wake of the advances at exterminating de jure (in the law) and de facto (in reality) racism, all the remaining ambivalence gets internalized into what he calls de cardio (in the heart) racism, which isn’t even always conscious, and will be much harder to stamp out. Jackson posits that, if people on both sides of the color line can’t trust people to speak the truth about race, they come to mistrust everything they say about race, leading to deep racial paranoia.

Mind=blown.

The book taught me about the propensity to believe in vast conspiracies, based on this fundamental mistrust, and the books and music who advance these theories in the black community. I felt about a dozen questions and observations snap into place, finally in context, with each chapter. And his theory confirms my suspicions about the direction public attitudes about LGBT folks are headed, as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to openly discriminate. In this way, among so many others, we have to acknowledge that civil rights are civil rights are civil rights.

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Few things make me as frustrated or embarrassed as seeing white people co-opting pieces of other cultures as their own. Purely Euro-American people drumming in sweat lodge retreats at expensive resorts. Suburban soccer moms who say they understand Latinos because they’re sending their kids to a Spanish-immersion private school. Kids putting on the swagger and language of inner city culture, without having to suffer any of the doubt and fear that comes with walking through gated communities while black.

A few years ago, I heard someone ask, “Why is cocaine so addictive and damaging, when South Americans chew coca leaves for years and never suffer ill health?” The answer is simple. Because when you take something out of context–extract, distill, purify–you may amplify the parts you want, but you lose hundreds of organic compounds that balance and mitigate the downsides in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Culture works the same way. When you sample ideas and practices out of context, you may feel enlightened and energized by your new, hip, exclusive experience, but you’re missing the point, and denigrating a culture that’s richer than you even know. Admire Native American spirituality? Learn about rez life. Like to sing African American spirituals? Learn about the black experience of Christianity and liberation theology. Do the work, and learn the context.

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I’m not trying to “put on” blackness, with all these inquiries into race lately. I want to understand a culture that is, in so many ways, hidden in plain sight. I want to understand how people of color experience the same things I experience, each of us through our different lenses. Those lenses are ground by things like dinner table conversations, schoolyard lessons, the looks you get (or feel) walking down the street, and how it feels to stand on thresholds real and metaphoric.

I’ve experienced the world through the lens of white privilege; I know that deep in my bones. I don’t feel guilt, but I do feel regret. I’ve also experienced the world through the lenses of being female, being autistic, being liberal, being curious. I want to hear the voices, and I have a deep desire to reach across that divide, as much as I would be welcomed, to speak to and embrace the common humanity of us all. I’m not satisfied with the boundaries others tell me are “safe.”

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I am happiest when my world is diverse. And I want my boys to grow up thinking that friends come in every shape, gender, color, physical ability, and personality. When they were younger, I took them to the parks where the immigrant families came for day trips, up from Chicago. A lot of the locals in our lily-white resort town told us to avoid them on weekends, but I wanted my sons to smell different cooking, hear different languages, and play with every kind of kid. So many families welcomed my wild, gregarious sons, and seemed delighted with the mingled laughter and fun of their children and mine.

When they ran over to ask if they could play with a new friend, I asked them to point out at least one of the kids’ parents. They would point vaguely, eager to return to the game, and say, “His dad is the one in the green shirt” or “His mom has long hair.” I would follow their little pointing finger, and as often than not, the man in the green shirt was also black, or the woman with long hair was dressed in a sari. But those things didn’t register as different enough to remark upon, and skin color was irrelevant, next to the possibility of a new playmate.

Am I wrong to be proud of that? I don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. But teaching values to kids is such a fraught proposition, and the way they treat others–especially perfect strangers–is one of the real litmus tests for whether your lessons are sinking in. They’re a big part of why I want to expand my circle of friends and contacts to include more people of color. The indifference to difference doesn’t last forever. It’s time for me to put my body and heart where my values are, for them to see.

 

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