Sunday, November 23, 2008

Stokin' Rage

David Ehrenstein is, like, totally pissed off, and I don't blame him. (Photo above ripped off from his Fablog post, I don't know where he got it.) That doesn't mean I don't have some disagreements with him, of course.

At this point I'm not even sure how substantial my disagreements are. So let's have a look; like some writer (Saul Bellow?) once said, I won't know how I feel about it until I write about it.

Ehrenstein is pissed off about the passage of California's Proposition 8. I've been mildly surprised by how un-pissed off I am by it. The enshrinement of discrimination based on sexual orientation in a state constitution is a disturbing development, after all. Maybe it's because I didn't choose this battle, and for years I've been listening to respectability-minded Homo-Americans yammer that we shouldn't do things that upset straights, like having Gays Gone Wild Pride Marches with half-nekkid people simulating intercourse in public and stuff like that. The thing is, the issue of same-sex marriage upsets straight people too. If we should be modest in public because of Teh Str8, then maybe we shouldn't try to get married either, because of Teh Str8. But when it gets down to it, advocates of marriage don't really care about upsetting straights -- they care about being upset themselves. Many gay people also object, for public-relations purposes at least, to public displays of buttcheek or mammary gland, on their own account.

But having written that, I must qualify it, since I know perfectly well that not all gay proponents of same-sex marriage want respectability -- many just want the legal perks that go with a civil marriage. They themselves may get down and dirty in Pride Parades, or at least know that it is possible to blow drunken kisses from a float and still want to file a joint tax return or share Social Security benefits. For such people, the issue is one of equal rights, though as I've said before, it's really one of equal access to special rights given to couples who register with the State, which I'm not sure I want to support, let alone advocate, since it turns singles or unmarried couples into second-class citizens.

What comes closest to bothering me seriously about the success of Proposition 8, aside from the aforementioned enshrinement of discrimination in the California State Constitution, is the ineffectual campaign waged against it, which apparently was run by the usual bunch of human-services professionals and diversity managers who've sunk gay-rights causes before. One problem with these professionals is that they are evidently most comfortable in a corporate environment, where people have few if any rights and where they can be coerced into going along with a diversity agenda. Anyone who's worked in such an environment will know the drill: posters, videos, employee training sessions, etc., with disciplinary action as backup. That's not an approach that's going to work very well to persuade voters in the voting booth. (It doesn't even work very well in GLBT corporate environments like large urban community centers, as Jane Ward shows in her book Respectably queer: diversity culture in LGBT activist organizations [Vanderbilt, 2008].)

Anyway, back to David E. First he tears into the openly gay director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) for saying in the L. A. Times:

“If you’re asking, ‘Do we take discrimination against gays as seriously as bigotry against African Americans and Jews?’ . . . the answer is, ‘Of course we do.’ But we also believe that some people, including Rich, saw Prop. 8 not as a civil rights issue but a religious one. That is their right. And it is not, in and of itself, proof of bigotry.”
As Ehrenstein says, "we" (it's unclear who "we" are) don't take antigay bigotry as seriously as bigotry against African Americans and Jews. (Hell, racism is still alive and well in white America, including white gays.) But then Ehrenstein goes on to say,

To speak of their hatred as a “right” is unacceptable. More imp[o]rtant you would do well to keep in mind that all homophobia is premised on the perception of our being weak and powerless and therefore neither willing or able to fight back.
I've already had some things to say about "hate." Both Condon and Ehrenstein are wrong. Bigotry is not "hatred," contrary to Ehrenstein, but even hatred is a "right." (Our Christian opponents claim that they love us while hating our sin; gay Christians don't even seem to go that far, though they also love to wave the word "love" around.) According to the principles of free speech and press, people aren't obliged to say or write or do only loving things -- indeed, these freedoms guarantee our right to be outraged and offended -- or else Ehrenstein's expression of fury would itself be endangered. Or "themselves" -- his blog often vents his rage at various targets, often quite hatefully, which is fine with me. But he feels, as do his opponents on the Right, that his expression of wrath and condemnation is just and righteous: it's okay when he does it, because he's the Good Guy; but it's not okay when they do it, because they're the Bad Guys. It's very dangerous to let the state decide whose righteous wrath is proper, and whose improper. I myself don't have any faith that it would decide in my favor.

But Condon is also wrong. The word "bigot" first was used in contexts of religious disagreement, centuries ago, and most liberal Americans nowadays, at least, would agree that it would be bigotry to disenfranchise Roman Catholics or Presbyterians or Quakers or any other religious group because their beliefs or practices violated the religious standards of the majority. Yet in the past, such persecution was considered not only proper, but an obligation. And because of the respectability of religion, and the feeling that many believers have that religion should rule all aspects of their lives, racial and other forms of bigotry have been justified by religion. American white supremacists of the 1950s and 1960s had Biblical arguments to support their opposition to racial integration. (Those arguments were dubious, selective and self-serving, of course, but so are everybody's Biblical arguments. Believers don't base their positions in scripture: they pick and choose from scripture to support the positions they already hold for other reasons. [That's a slight oversimplification too -- sometimes people are struck by a scriptural passage that contradicts their prejudices, but I'd bet that on some level they were already ambivalent about their positions, which are based in real-world experience as much as in theology.]) Hence the racially-segregated Christian "academies" established in large areas of the US to evade school desegregation. Would a nice liberal like Bill Condon care to claim that these white racists saw Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Bill "not as a civil rights issue, but a religious one"? I rather doubt it. But they did. As was their right. It was also their right to build their segregated Christian schools, but not to demand to be subsidized with tax exemptions. They just did not have the right to impose their views on others, or to demand that their views be respected.

The occasion for Ehrenstein's tirade was the resignation, under pressure, of the director of a nonprofit music theatre in Sacramento, who had donated (as an individual, not officially) a chunk of money to the Yes on 8 campaign; and the calls for the removal of the Mormon head of the Los Angeles Film Festival, who'd also donated to the campaign. Condon was being critical of these developments, but as I have explained, his arguments don't work. Even if their support for Proposition 8 was based solely in their religious beliefs, it is still bigotry when it attacks the rights of other people (assuming for the sake of argument that marriage is a right). The real question, then, is whether people should lose their jobs because of their religious beliefs, no matter how loathsome those beliefs are.

The answer is probably no, and I'd guess that both of these men would have a case under civil rights law that they were discriminated against for their religious beliefs. (The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in employment because of an "individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin".) Boycotting Cinemark Theaters because its CEO donated to Yes on 8, whatever his reasons, is okay, just as it would be okay to boycott the LA Film Festival because it's run by a bigot. (Back to the corporate environment, though: if a corporation fires an officer because his or her religious beliefs caused the corporation to lose money through boycotts, that is probably legal under the strict letter of the law -- as would firing an officer who took any other public stand that hurt profits, like supporting gay rights.)

"We’ve taken names and we’re kicking ass", Ehrenstein crows in boldface. I've seen that tone of type before. It's about power (or not being "powerless", as Ehrenstein says), not about right or wrong. Whether I like it or not, disputes like this often come down to who wields the power -- but as the passage of Prop 8 showed, it's not obvious that gays do wield the power in California. And both sides can play that game, as "The Vote Yes Crowd Turns to Judicial Intimidation" and opponents of same-sex marriage take names and prepare to kick judicial ass, "threatening to lead a statewide recall against any and all justices on the CA Supreme Court that vote to overturn the outcome of the referendum (and thus re-legalize same-sex marriage in California)." Joe Moag, the writer of that piece, blusters and fusses about "hate" and other usual suspects, but that's how it goes in politics, and I'm not nearly as sure as Moag that the recall efforts would fail.

Next, Ehrenstein reprimands producer Christine Vachon for saying that she "can’t quite stomach the notion that you fire somebody because of what they believe. It doesn’t feel right to me." Ehrenstein ripostes,
Well being attacked by those who claim a Big Invisible Bi-Polar Daddy-Who-Lives-in-The-Sky is the ultimate moral authority and has condemned me to death, doesn’t feel right to me and a great many others. What also doesn’t feel right, Christine, is when you say
“Many straight people really don’t understand it’s a civil rights issue. . . We didn’t do our job well enough. We need to do it better.”
Honey I’m 61 years old and have been talking to straight people all my life. If they don’t understand by now they can go fuck themselves.
It’s really just that simple.
Hm, I knew I'd seen that tone of type before -- it's typical of right-wing, especially Christian right-wing tract writers, from the use of boldface down to the sloppy punctuation and the onward-Christian-soldiers braggadocio. You know, David, I largely agree with you. But many of the opponents of Prop 8 also believe in a Big Invisible Bi-Polar Daddy Who Lives in the Sky; just look at that one sign in your photo, "Would Jesus Spend Tax Free Dollars to Spread Hate and Injustice?" No one knows what Jesus would do, and anyone who claims to know is a liar, whether they're Yes on 8 or No on 8. I feel fairly sure that a sign like that isn't going to sway a voter in favor of same-sex marriage, any more than celebrity talking-heads in commercials or outspending the opposition is going to do it by itself. Christine Vachon is right. I'm almost as old as you are, David, and I know how frustrating it is that straights haven't understood yet, just as it's frustrating that after an even longer time, men don't understand and whites don't understand. And getting people fired for their beliefs isn't going to work -- it hasn't worked on the gay movement, after all. It only creates martyrs. It may make you feel better for a few minutes, but the bigots will find other jobs and the California Constitution will still be amended to make queers into second-class citizens.

It may be that what doesn't feel right to Christine Vachon and what doesn't feel right to you cancel each other out. Your fury seems to have blinded you to that. (Oh dear, someone stop me before I say that two wrongs don't make a right.) This has nothing to do with religion -- many atheists are just as obsessed with getting even as Christians. ("Forgive your enemies" has hardly won much lip service among Christians, let alone observance, but then the gospels' Jesus looked forward to casting his enemies into Hell anyway, so they haven't had a good example to go by.) It's sheer practical politics to bring about change by grass-roots face-to-face work. That's why the radical gay movement that inspired both of us rejected professionalism and expertise in favor of coming out, not just to other gays but to straights. And you're complaining because we haven't won in 40 years? Not to mention that most gays are still closeted and would rather hire other queers to do the work for them from above, at a safe distance. There's still a lot of work to be done.