Thursday, May 31, 2012

Memorial Day Discussion

The Memorial Day edition of Up with Chris Hayes on MNSBC included a very thoughtful conversation on the history and meaning of the holiday. Amid the discussion, host Chris Hayes admitted that he wasn't entirely comfortable calling soldiers heroes, not because he thought less of fallen soldiers but because the use of the word makes the speaker complicit with the machinations that justify endless war and make it more difficult to think critically about warfare.

Predictably, Hayes comments elicited anger from some right wing commentators and Hayes eventually apologized. He shouldn't have. Memorial Day has degenerated into a national barbecue and anyone with real respect for the sacrifices of the troops or who cares about the consequences of warfare ought to appreciate the attempt by Hayes and others on the panel to be thoughtful about what we actually mean when we say we "support the troops" and what Memorial Day is supposed to represent.

The Memorial Day related segments from the show are embedded below. The panel includes Liliana Segura, Michael Brendan Dougherty, John McWhorter, and Michelle Goldberg.

Update: On the June 2 episode of Up with Chris Hayes, the host responded to criticism of his earlier remarks. The rest of the episode continued the discussion about sacrifice, service, and civic engagement that had begun the previous week.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When Bullying is Not Bullying

The culture wars are back. Truthfully, they never really went away but as Tea Party Republicans swept into state and federal legislatures in 2010 the presumption by the mainstream press had been that they would ignore cultural issues like abortion or civil rights and focus on the economy. As it turned out, little to nothing was done with the economy while record breaking numbers of laws were proposed on culture war issues.

In the past few weeks gay rights has moved to the center ring of the media circus, swapping places with a virulent (but largely unresolved) public debate on birth control which had replaced the Trayvon Martin case before it and the Kony 2012 movement before that.  Like most issues, the media will play with gay rights like a child with a new toy, squeezing as much talking head drama from it as it can muster, and then discard the issue for another without ever reaching even the semblance of a conclusion.

The story blowing up talking head television at the moment is President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. It’s tempting to wait for this to blow over but the reactions to this story are telling of the ways in which certain segments see their place in the cultural shift. In a speech at Liberty University, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made passing mention of the issue within remarks about the role of religion in public life. The themes of this speech were consistent with a similar speech that Romney made in 2007 in which he erroneously claimed that religion (read: Christianity) and freedom were intertwined. His 2012 speech was an improvement in coherence and delivery but it shares with his former speech a bland naiveté and a pandering approach to his audience. Romney said:

The protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.

But from the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.

This perception of religious liberty coming under attack is a mischaracterization. For centuries a few select religious movements have had a monopoly on the public square and as a result they have largely gotten their way and been treated with deference. As the culture has become more pluralistic these powerful cultural elites are now being asked or required to share stage space. The newfound competition is confused with an attack on religious liberty while it is actually the extension of that same liberty to other views. Romney’s remarks reinforce his audience’s self-image as victims and highlight the presumption that the culture war is a zero-sum game: either a culture has specific Christian values or it has none at all. This mindset prevents its adherents from seeing victimization of anyone except themselves.

An example of this worldview was seen a few weeks ago when a video clip of GLBT rights advocate Dan Savage surfaced in which he criticized the use of the Bible to justify anti-gay positions:

As the video went viral, some criticized Savage for his comments, with the common thread being that Savage had become the very bully that his “It Gets Better” movement had rallied against. (See this, this, and this for examples of the reaction.) But this I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I response to Savage is inappropriate. First, Savage is correct in what he says. From prohibitions on shellfish to advise on slavery, believers and nonbelievers alike have learned to ignore the content within the Bible that they know to be philosophically or factually wrong. Second, and perhaps more importantly, viewing Savage’s rant as on the offensive is an exercise in false equivalence. Savage's comments come in the context of ongoing harassment. The gay community has been and continues to be under attack by those who justify their bigotry with their faith. Accusing Savage of bullying is like telling a person who throws a punch while being mugged that he is as bad as his attackers. Dan Savage didn’t start this fight and he is right to call people names like “pansy-assed” when they cry foul in the face of fair resistance.

Most of the news media this week has contrasted Romney’s commencement speech with the one given by President Obama at Barnard College, but I think a far better comparison is to be made between Romney’s remarks and a recent essay by Peter Gilmore of the Church of Satan about same sex marriage and religious politicking. Gilmore observes that rights are issued and managed by the state, “and so it is quite a simple matter for special interest groups to lobby to have more for themselves or to remove them from other.” In that same vein, he writes that “[marriage] is also a legal contract with broad power and obligations in the secular sphere.” As he sees it, this conflict is about the expansion of rights in such a way that creates a society in which all members have equal status under the law. Gilmore concludes that:

If the secular folk win, no one will force the spiritual religions to change their stultifying viewpoints. They can hold to their faith and definitions. But they would not be able to force others to comply with their dictates, and they’d simply have to buck-up and deal with the fact that there are others who do not share their point of view. If that is offensive to them, too bad. Rational, secular people are frequently offended by the nonsense promulgated by the various faiths of the world. By contrast, the limitations of many religions on their adherents would be ever more obvious and might foster an exodus of clear-thinking, equitable people from their ranks. If the bigots win now and again, then whoever does not agree with them might need to migrate to other places which do have laws promoting tolerance for different modes of living.
As Gilmore indicates, the expansion of marriage and its attendant rights and privileges to homosexuals comes at little cost to those who oppose it so vehemently while the denial of that expansion will create ongoing hardship for minorities and establish second class citizenship within our laws and our culture. What religious leaders stand to lose is their place as the sole arbiters of morality and ethics. As Gilmore hints at the end of his remarks, the legitimization of marriage equality may cause its opponents to lose their own legitimacy as they find themselves unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas. What that reveals, finally, is that the fight against gay marriage is not about preserving the family or stabilizing society. It is ultimately about a religious group trying to preserve its own authority.

What Gilmore and Romney represent in their remarks is a key underlying issue of the culture war: the reality from which its participants proceed. Romney articulates a view in which one group’s values are the only valid ones, the state is subservient to them, and in fact it exists to uphold those values. By contrast, Gilmore envisions a culture in which the state exists as a referee, a pillar around which participants in the marketplace of ideas set up shop and various interest groups conduct their business without subsidy from the establishment. Gilmore’s position is the truly democratic position. Romney’s position is a few short leaps from theocracy.

The culture wars exist because the values of society are in flux and they challenge established elites with new or contrary ideas. These debates remain vital in part because they are more interesting (and entertaining) than subjects like tax reform but especially because they speak to our very identity as a nation. Some bemoan the partisan and polarizing state of the culture and see Obama’s recent show of solidarity with gay rights as pouring fuel on the fire. That may be but it is a fight worth having and it deserves a deeper examination than a primetime lecture from the hysterics and carnival barkers that inhabit cable news.