Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Circle the Wagons! The Lesbians Are Coming!

This really made me angry when I heard it on Democracy Now! today.  While giving a speech "at a private fundraiser in Washington," Michelle Obama was confronted by Ellen Sturtz, a lesbian protester upset by Barack Obama's failure to sign an executive order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation by federal contractors.

Mrs. Obama's reaction was interesting. "And I don’t care what you believe in," she told Sturtz. "We don’t — wait, wait, wait. One of the things I — one of the things that I don’t do well is this. ... [You] can take the mic, but I’m leaving. So, you all decide."  Sturtz was shouted down by the audience, and Mrs. Obama stayed.

Some liberal and progressive pundits criticized Mrs. Obama for not handling the situation well, comparing her approach unfavorably to her husband's.  I have mixed feelings about that myself.  I sympathize with Michelle Obama's position as First Lady: she's stuck in the public eye whether she likes it or not, and I gather she's always been less than happy with that.  (The Onion satirized her plight, not unsympathetically.)  It's not her fault that her husband won't act on antigay discrimination by federal contractors, and I'm inclined to question Ellen Sturtz's choice of venue for her protest.  Still, if she can't deal with protesters -- like Medea Benjamin, I prefer that word to "hecklers," which is favored by corporate media -- she should stop giving speeches.

I disagree with Benjamin, though, about Mr. Obama's tactics with protesters.  The other day a student spoke up during a speech he gave in Israel.  The student, an Arab-Israeli, called out, "Have you really come to promote the peace process or to provide Israel with more weapons to kill the Palestinian people? On your way here did you see the [West Bank security] fence, or the killer of Rachel Corrie?"  I wouldn't call that "heckling," as most media did.  I think the first question, especially, is quite fair, and an honest answer would probably be "the latter."  Obama has learned a trick or two since 2010, when a student in Tampa asked him about Palestinians and he floundered, obviously unprepared.  He hasn't come up with any more honest answers to such questions, but he's learned to mock the people who ask them.  In Israel last week, he smirked and said that "we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home ... I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have at least one heckler.”  (By way of balance, I'll point out that the protester spoke in Hebrew, and "a reliable Hebrew speaker" told Obama he was talking about convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.  So Obama didn't even understand what was being said; not to worry, his response to any question would have been the same.)

On balance, I prefer Michelle Obama's direct brusqueness to the smarminess of her husband.  What got me going was the rest of the DN! item:
Some criticized the protester, Ellen Sturtz, saying there were racial overtones when she said she was "taken aback" that Michelle Obama "came right down in my face," in response to the interruption. Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said: "Media coverage also played along, portraying the First Lady as the aggressor rather than Sturtz. ... Such a characterization read instantly to many as an exhibition of white privilege. Similar statements of any black person 'stepping out of their place' in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in beatings and lynchings."
I don't detect any "racial overtones" in Sturtz's complaint.  Professor Butler's remarks stink of the same dishonesty that drove Clarence Thomas's claim that he'd been subjected to a "high-tech lynching" during his confirmation hearings, a phrase that was recycled twenty years later, with equal creepiness, by defenders of Herman Cain.  The victims of lynchings seldom ended up with lifetime tenure on the highest court in the land.  A lone lesbian of any color is not a lynch mob, and if we're going to talk about privilege, the First Lady's privilege trumps that of any mere citizen. Before they convict Ellen Sturtz of "exhibition of white privilege," they'd better have some evidence, and I haven't seen any yet.  How classic, though, to accuse a citizen of oppressing her rulers.

What can ordinary citizens do to reach the ears of their rulers?  Few of us have enough money to purchase some quality time with the President on the golf course.  If we are lucky enough to get an audience with him, we should tug our forelocks and know our place: "Oh, come on, don't lobby me here right now," he admonished a Greenpeace director who got importunate at a photo op.  Getting up in the President's face is lèse-majesté; we unlucky Americans may not have a king, but we can still act as if we do. What is an appropriate way to let the President know what we think: Write letters, send e-mails, call the White House ... vote? Please. Since the President isn't bothered by "hecklers" anymore, some other ways of getting his attention will have to be devised by those of us who can't buy it.  I'm not sure what those methods would be, but I have faith in the ability of our grassroots activists to come up with them. And whatever they turn out to be, they'll be the wrong methods at the wrong time as far as the powerful and their toadies are concerned.