- 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.
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.
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.
I think we can all agree on the winner of last night’s first presidential debate:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Every presidential election year, I assign myself a whole pile of relevant non-fiction books as my Election Year Reading List. Some of them are topical; some are great political, sociological, or economic minds; and some are just strong liberal voices that clarify the values that motivate me to pick up my clipboard and get to work. I thought I’d share this year’s reading list, and a few important pieces that are still relevant from the ’08 list.
I’m putting this list in the order I’ve read them so far; those I’ve read will be marked with asterisks. Totally at random, the order of #2-5 has worked out very serendipitously, so if you decide to read these, let me recommend that order. I’ve already made quite a dent in this year’s list, so I could use a few more suggestions to fill it out through November, especially in specific issues of foreign affairs. I’m also always willing to read different points of view, so long as they’re rational, fact-based, and not overly polemical. You can leave your recommendations in comments, or friend me on Goodreads so we can see each other’s lists.
2012 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST
*1. Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government–and How We Take It Back by David Sirota. Sirota, a progressive radio fixture, offers a good basic primer of how money affects every branch of the government, from local to federal, and suggests some common-sense, achievable solutions to reverse that trend.
*2. Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future by Will Bunch. This book by Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News senior (and former political) writer and Huffington Post columnist, sets out to remind its readers of the realities of Ronald Reagan’s background, politics, and actions as president, untangling him from the distortions the man and his record have been subjected to in recent canonization efforts. The book’s definitely critical of Reagan, but the history review is good, and serves to point out just how far left of today’s conservatives Reagan really was.
*3. Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi. The Rolling Stone columnist delves deep into the mechanisms and psychopathic personalities that led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown. Taibbi’s wacky, profane style keeps the economic explanations from being dry, and he’s got a real knack for capturing characters that make you want to tear your hair out.
*4. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Headliner on the MSNBC primetime line-up, Maddow‘s first book puts her ferocious intelligence on display as she traces the transition of the US military from the all-volunteer force of WWII, through the Vietman Era, into the privatized professional military with its overused, sequestered backbone of soldiers of today. She ends with a few good actions to begin reversing this trend toward permanent war.
*5. With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful by Glenn Greenwald. The tightest-written and most persuasive book I’ve read in a long time, Greenwald, a widely respected Salon.com contributor, lays bare the subversion of our justice system to protect the social, political, and economic elites from the reach of the law.
6. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. I think the racial disparities within our justice system, and the private for-profit incarceration industry, comprise one of the most important issues in American society today. I saw Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State and a Huffington Post contributor, speak on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and I’m braced for a hard, harrowing, eye-opening read.
7. End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman. A New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Krugman is the hero and standard-bearer for modern Keynesians. I trust his analysis without reservation, and I’m very interested to see his prescriptions for the short- and long-term changes that our economy needs.
8. Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right by Thomas Frank. I loved Frank‘s earlier book (see later, in the best of ’08 list), and I’ve heard him speak on the current one on NPR a few times. He’s got a way with case studies and relating them to broader trends, and the examples of “broke” billionaires and the trappings of that culture I’ve heard him talk about just blew my mind. I expect this book to be funnyhorrorsad.
9. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I first encountered Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, on The Colbert Report, and I’m wildly intrigued by his work on identifying the psychological underpinnings that make political and religious zealots so similar.
10. Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective by Paul Rieckhoff. I respect the hell out of Rieckhoff, a retired Army specialist and one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I’ve read a lot of about the wars and today’s military by civilians, but I always want to get a balanced view, and I’m looking forward to his smart insights.
11. Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it by Robert Reich. Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor and a current professor of economics at UC Berkeley, dazzles me with his talent for condensing complex facts into easily understandable patterns. He’s a good Keynesian too, like Krugman, but add in his expertise on labor history and government experience, and you’ve got an expert I’ll always stop to watch/hear/read.
12. The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs. I heard Sachs, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speak on MPR, and I spent most of the hour with goosebumps from his smart, impassioned argument for the restoration of the real American values that made us great in the 20th century. After all the previous books help me get a grip on the scope and details of many problems we currently face, I’ll be ready for his strong restatement of our core values.
13. Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy by Bill Clinton. Similar to Sachs’ book, but obviously from a very different perspective, Clinton‘s most recent book should offer lots of good suggestions for how to get the country back on track. His work at the Clinton Foundation is on the cutting edge of new global solutions, so I’ll be creating my Debate Watchword Bingo score cards from the key issues he highlights.
THE BEST OF MY 2008 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST
– Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. This exhaustive work by Scahill, a journalist who reports on US foreign policy for media outlets like The Nation and Democracy Now!, ripped the lid off the world of private contractors in the Iraq War with his exhaustive, shocking expose. It’s impossible to understand our current foreign policy without understanding the role of privatization post-9/11, and this book is as relevant now as it ever was.
– The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This book made a huge splash for a very good reason–Klein exposed the practices and policies that make people and nations very rich by whipping up fake disasters that turn into real ones. I’m so glad to have read this before terms like “shortselling” and “credit default swaps” came on the market. It also gave me an entirely new perspective on the tumultuous history of South America.
– What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. If you’ve ever wondered why Red States are SO RED, despite policies by their elected politicians that seem determined to destroy the very middle-class, salt-of-the-earth workers who elect them year after year, this is your book. Frank demonstrates with grace and humor the ways in which conservatives have tapped into good heartland values and twisted them into bogeymen and puppet strings that work way too well for anyone’s comfort.
– The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. Don’t let the title put your back up. Zakaria–columnist,editor-in-chief of Newsweek International, and host of the only dedicated foreign affairs TV news shows today–provides a great, crunchy exploration of the ways in which countries like India and China have moved into modern positions of global power, following very different paths than the one America took. His analysis of global trends is really second to none.
– Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew Bacevich. Written by a retired Army career officer, now professor of international relations at Boston University and Huffington Post columnist, this book would be great to read alongside Rachel Maddow’s newer contribution. Bacevich also explores the ways in which the war industry pushes us to engage in conflicts around the world that are actually against our national self-interest.
When I hear about a rally or a march or campaign that stands for something I believe in strongly, I say, “Uh-oh. Time to lace up my Protesting Boots.” This is not an idle statement, nor a clever euphemism.
These are my protesting boots. I bought them at Shelly’s of London. They’re actually Tank Girl boots. There aren’t laces in them at the moment because they were needed for a science experiment, but note the speed-lace loops.
They’re not pretty boots–I didn’t buy them to be pretty. They’re scuffed, and the little metal teeth on the toes are rusty. But they’re padded, and comfy, and heavy, and just right for kicking ass. I love my Protesting Boots.
I’m not really sure where my mile-wide activist streak came from. I come from a family of selfless volunteers and helpers, determined to contribute to any and all communities of which they’re a part. My grandma taught Red Cross first aid and gave swimming lessons to disabled children, when she wasn’t running inner-city Girl Scout troops. My mom was PTO president and ran the Sunday School program at the church I grew up in. Now, she’s a dedicated member of the 501st Legion (TR7084, Florida Garrison, Makaze Squad), and despite two artificial hip joints, she troops at every fundraising march to which they’re invited. (My stepdad and brother are also members.) Most of their commitments come from genuine Christian charity and human compassion, the spirit of which I’m immensely grateful to have had modeled throughout my formative years.
But none of my immediate family is particularly activist, or politically inclined. The first real activism I engaged in was a fight against the school board, to keep them from moving our beloved band director from high school to elementary after he returned from his sabbatical (during which he worked toward his Ph.D. in trombone performance). We got our parents all worked up, and we packed the meeting room the night they were supposed to consider teacher placement. But just before they started in on the topic, they announced that they’d reconsidered, and Don would be returning to the high school the next year. We were relieved and excited, but humming with the unspent fight we’d girded for.
My first real experience protesting was against the First Gulf War. In fact, I ran all the way home from the college protest meeting to tell my parents to turn on CNN because they’d started bombing Baghdad. I was one of a small group of students at my school who got in trouble for refusing to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, if only because we couldn’t see how we were being disrespectful to a flag that they thought was fine to sew onto all the disgusting, sweaty athletic uniforms, or to fly over battlefields where we had no business being.
Later, the school tried to crack down on boys wearing of cutoff t-shirt sleeves as headbands. (It’s a skater thing. It’s probably on Wikipedia, or in the Smithsonian, by now.) Targeted at friends who were routinely threatened, even beaten, by jocks who called them every homophobic slur you can think of, I naturally took exception. A bunch of us invoked Title IX, took it to the administration, and organized as many girls as we could into wearing them too. Such a silly small fight, but as I look back now, I see the pattern developing. My stepdad actually understood this piece of me better than anyone else; he’d flirted with Quakerism, and was at the March on Washington for civil rights to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.
In my adult life, I’ve volunteered for numerous causes, if only because I have more time than treasure to support the campaigns I believe in. I gravitate toward issues of human rights, free speech, justice, and democratic (little d) freedoms. I canvassed so much in 2008, with 2-year-old Griffin in his stroller, that every time I reached for my purple clipboard with all the campaign materials and lists on it, Griff would groan, “NOOOOO OBAMA!”
But the single greatest protest experience of my life was the 2006 March for Women in Washington, D.C. I went with a group of friends from grad school, and it was the very first night I’d spent away from Connor, who was nearly two. I have only the vaguest memory of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Cybill Shepherd, speaking on the National Mall, but what’s indelibly etched into my most 3D, high definition, full-sensory memory is walking down the dotted line in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, holding high a sign that said, “Pro-Choice, Pro-Child.” Because I was, and am, and in that electrifying moment, I was more sure of my own power and identity than I’ve ever been, before or since. I owned that street. I could change policy, I could influence outcomes, I could stand for the silent. I was mighty.
And once you’ve had that drug, once you’ve danced at the victory party, once you’ve cried as election results rolled in, you just can’t get enough of it. Currently, I’m working as a team leader in Saint Paul for Minnesotans United For All Families, the organization fighting the proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. It’s going to be a lot of work between now and November, on top of the other political work I’ll no doubt take on, but I can’t imagine writing injustice into the permanent guiding principles of any state or country.
I wrestle with being the parent and the activist. My heart aches for the tiny children I see holding horrid, hateful signs they couldn’t possibly understand at funerals and Planned Parenthood locations. Sure, I gave my 2 1/2 year old a sign that read “Bush Is Scary, Vote For Kerry” at a rally in 2004. And when a MN state legislator slammed Neil Gaiman for “accepting” a 5-figure honorarium from a community library for doing a book talk and signing (“accepting” is in quotes because he turned right back around and donated it to a library support organization, as he often does), I didn’t give my family any choice about whether we’d go to the Read-In for Civility on the capitol steps. But I want them to grow up with their own priorities, their own causes, their own voices.
I want my kids to grow up thinking it’s worth the effort to stand up, be heard, and work for values they believe in. I want them to grow up knowing that it isn’t acceptable for one group to oppress another, or to silence a voice just because it disagrees with someone powerful. I want them to open their hearts, to make themselves vulnerable, by caring about the fate of humanity and the planet. If their values don’t always match mine, I’ll talk to them to find out where they’re coming from and make sure they’ve got all the information to make an educated stand, but I won’t make them back down. They have the same rights I fight to ensure for others.
And some day–maybe soon–I’ll take them shopping for their very own Protesting Boots.