Saturday, January 31, 2009

So what do gay people think?

Since I work in elections, sometimes on issues that involve gay people, I've seen a lot of polling about what the heterosexual electorate thinks about gay people. Yesterday at the NGLTF Creating Change conference, I got to hear a political scientist talk about political attitudes held by gay people. It was a pleasant turnabout.

For starters, Kenneth Sherrill of Hunter College answered a question I've had ever since seeing exit polls last November which seemed to show that, though gay people voted for Obama by a large margin (70-27), in 2004 Kerry did somewhat better with the gay vote (77-23). That didn't seem right in a year of unparalleled progressive voter mobilization. The professor agrees. He believes that exit poll conclusion is an artifact of the small size of the LGB sample in such a survey. In small samples, and gay samples are almost all small, any error introduced by random chance looks a lot bigger than it is. Sherrill's best guess, based on a lifetime of studying gay political attitudes, is that Obama got about 75-8 percent of the LGB vote which added up to close to 4 percent of total voters nationwide. (Nobody, but nobody, has invested in understanding the political postures of transsexuals, hence Sherrill drops the "T" out of the "LGBT" locution.)

Last April, Sherrill and co-authors Patrick J. Egan of New York University and Murray S. Edelman of Rutgers, published a study of gay political attitudes. You can download it here. They derived their findings from survey responses of a representative sample of 768 LGB U.S. residents. That's actually a pretty large sample. They state "the 'margin of error' (as typically reported by public opinion surveys) associated with our sample size ... is +/- 3.5 points."

I'm not going to go over all the numbers, but some of the conclusions they draw are interesting:
  • Among men who self-identify in the LGB population, about one third are bisexual. There are just as many women as men who identify in the population, but two thirds of the women say they are bisexual rather than lesbian.
  • Other than being somewhat poorer, slightly more likely to have higher educational attainment, and somewhat more likely to claim a mixed race heritage, LGB people are much like the national norms. And we're getting more so over time.
  • Many LGB people do not feel their LGB identity has much to do with their political opinions or sense of themselves. Nor do they think what happens to other LGB people much affects them. The exceptions to these attitudes are those with college degrees and the 18-24 age group. Bisexuals, especially men, are less likely to think their non-conforming sexual orientation affects their attitudes.
  • Nonetheless, LGB people are politically different. Over 80 percent are Democrats; over 60 percent say they are liberal. In 2007, nearly 80 percent of LGB people wanted the U.S. out of Iraq within 12 months. Support for some path to legalization for undocumented immigrants ran around 60 percent.
  • LGB people are at least as civic-minded as other people on measures like willingness to serve on juries. But we are much more likely to be "very interested" in politics; 32 percent claim this as opposed 22 percent of all citizens.
  • Where we really stand out though is in our willingness to take political action: we contact government officials (23 percent vs. 15 percent of all citizens), attend protests or rallies (11 vs. 4), write letters to editors (6 vs. 4), and contribute to campaigns (14 vs. 10).
Sherrill and his co-investigators found the LGB people were enough different from the US norm that our political attitudes needed explanation. Simply put, according to Sherrill

"no other sizable U.S. voting block leans more to the left. "

So these political scientists asked, how did we move so far from the U.S. norm?

They believe that the "coming out" experience -- the need to work through personal identity, often in opposition to social, familial, and religious assumptions -- leads to profound political differences. Ordinarily conservative (and liberal) political orientations are passed down in families; but LGB people usually spend at least some of their lives somewhat disconnected from their families of origin. After coming out, and often uprooting themselves geographically, LGB people report becoming more interested in politics, feeling closer to persons of other races, and less religious than before. All these characteristics correlate with liberalism in U.S. society.

Yup -- we're different.

Friday, January 30, 2009

ENDA for all; who's got the message?

The ultimate lobbying tool.

I attended a great workshop this morning at Creating Change about the on-going work to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in Congress this year. Presenters were Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and Becky Dansky of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force with help from organizers from PFLAG and the NGLTF Transgender Civil Rights Project. (Sorry, I didn’t catch their names.)

ENDA is the current version of a decades long effort to write protection from discrimination against LGBT people into federal law. The early rounds began in 1974(!) -- this is taking a long time. Since the 1990s, the effort has focused solely on employment. Not surprisingly, the effort was completely stalled during the period of Republican/Bush rule.

But now we once again have a chance to win -- and this year's version of the law is fully inclusive, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity (that means it covers transpeople and all variants of gender non-conformity) as well as sexual orientation. If we can get it through Congress, President Obama has said he'll sign it. In the workshop, we were told it would go to the House of Representatives in the spring. Once it passes there, if it does, it will go to the Senate in the fall.

Kiesling and Dansky were clearly experienced professionals. Though a less inclusive bill cleared the House last year, they insisted: "we can't get lazy." And thanks to grassroots demands, DC advocates are working for more and better this time around. Many Congresspeople still don't really believe gays need protection from discrimination in the workplace -- and they don't have much clue about how people who appear to others to violate gender norms are treated. People who care about these issues need to talk with their representatives.

Yet interestingly, Kiesling takes a very relaxed view of the interplay between an aroused grassroots and legislative lobbyists. I've never heard such comfort with a somewhat anarchic constituency from a professional who works the Hill. Though she's had long years in the business of crafting messages, she thinks the era of strict "message discipline" is over. Etools have so lowered the costs of mobilizing opinion that people who know what they want will simply do it without institutional prompting. She thinks of the Obama campaign as the model for showing that it is possible to surf waves of popular expression, rather than try to dam them up. She is very confident that the groundswell for a fully inclusive ENDA in this moment when "change" is the word in Washington can win this long slog.

That is, she wasn't entirely just being charming when she said that thanks to e-communications and communities, "you don't need us, the lobbyists."

I like the idea, but the workshop also showed that we do still need some prompting. About 75 percent of the 25 or so activists present could not name their Congresspersons. Until folks get engaged, we still need basic information pushed out to us from those who are paid to collect and synthesize it. Maybe then we can run with it, but there's still a vital role in having people at the center who know what is going on -- and which Congresscritters to target.

Still it was an interesting moment, to hear a political professional admit that messages cannot be centrally controlled in contemporary political struggles. Maybe we are seeing "change we can believe in."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Beauty in the face of invisibility

Here at Creating Change I'm having a good time and learning some interesting things that will eventually find their way into this blog.

But in the meantime, today I had the privilege of being in a workshop co-led by wise San Francisco Bay Area activist Patty Beirne of Sins Invalid. She played this clip of a Maori dance interpretation and I just had to pass it on. [3:01]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tidbits from empire

US Colonel Greg Julian with Afghan village elders in Inzeri yesterday. US commanders distributed $40,000 and apologized to relatives of 15 people killed in a recent US raid. (Jason Straziuso/Associated Press)

Today's Boston Globe, reports testimony by Secretary of Defense (War) Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs:

"The civilian casualties are doing us an enormous harm in Afghanistan, and we have got to do better" to avoid innocent deaths, even though the Taliban militants use civilians as cover, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. ...

"I don't think we can succeed in Afghanistan if civilians keep dying there," [Admiral Mike] Mullen said. "And we've got to figure out a way to absolutely minimize that, the goal being zero."

So what are they going to do about it? Afghan civilians get killed because U.S. forces sensibly would rather call in air strikes than walk into ambushes in a country they find impenetrable among enemies (people?) they find incomprehensible. They don't choose to take casualties in a war that makes no sense to the men who fight it. This isn't going to be cured by putting a few more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. More U.S. troops = more dead Afghans, many/most civilians. No way around it. Here's more from Robert Young Pelton on the ground with the troops.
Meanwhile in the Iraq sector, there will be provincial elections on Saturday. Well, sort of ... McClatchy Baghdad bureau chief Leila Fadel describes what happened in early voting:

Today was special voting day. Prisoners with a term of five years or less, hospital employees and security forces went to the polls on Wednesday in advance of Saturday's provincial elections in Iraq.

It was also a small glimpse of what is to come. According to a local organization to protect journalist rights, 64 journalists' rights were violated across the nation. In Basra, Babil and Anbar journalists were beaten or prevented from entering polling sites by security forces. Their camera equipment was confiscated and in many cases they were cursed at with foul language.

In the southern port city of Basra at Al Mina center where prisoners were voting, 15 journalists tried to cover the vote. They were beaten and guards cursed them as they forcibly confiscated or destroyed their equipment, the journalist association reported. ...

That's not all that happened during early voting. Check out the whole story.

It seems likely that whatever happens on Saturday will be called a "success," showing that the Iraqis are taking back responsibility for their country. But really, in the United States, few will be watching.

In part, that is because many journalistic organizations have moved on to other, hotter, stories. Iraq is old news. And more and more, Iraqi reporters -- who are the eyes and ears of Western journalists -- are taking advantage of a program that offers asylum to people "tainted" in Iraqi nationalist eyes by their association with the occupiers. Few are more qualified or more likely to find a viable place in the U.S. than the loyal journalists who've worked with the news bureaus. But if they go, who will interpret Iraq to outsiders? Of course, maybe Iraq would just like to be left alone.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

View out my window: downtown Denver

This week I'm at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference. This is a huge event with hundreds of sessions of various sorts. This means there will either be lots of blogging, or none for a bit while I try to take it all in.

Denver was cold, but crystal clear today. I like the Mile High City.

60 Minutes names the choices:
"Ethnic cleansing, apartheid or democracy"

More: each part is 7:35 minutes long.

Is a two state solution in Israel-Palestine still possible?

In most of the world, this longish [15:00] documentary report on the realities of Israeli apartheid is ordinary, common knowledge.

But the mere fact that it can be broadcast on U.S. television during a respected news program is evidence of what can be seen all around us: an enforced silence is breaking down.

What comes next is hard to envision. Probably more violence -- and the Israelis have most of the armaments, courtesy of our taxes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A labor lawyer's lot is not a happy one

If Tom Geoghegan (pronounced Gaygun; he's Irish) wins his race for Rahm Emmanuel's Chicago Congressional seat, he'll get to Washington in time to vote on the Employee Free Choice Act. That would be fitting indeed for a guy who has worked most of his professional life as a lawyer for distressed labor unions and their members -- and written about it with grace, guts and, when appropriate, cynicism.

A current field of fifteen Democrats will be cut to one in a primary election on March 3 -- and most likely that's the ballgame, as the Illinois Fifth District is completely Democratic. There are several better established Democratic players than Geoghegan in the crowded race.

Because Geoghegan is running for Congress, I finally got around to reading the first of his books, Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back, issued in 1992. This holds up really well. If anything, being for labor is worse now. Why back then, labor still represented 16 percent of the workforce and some 12 percent of the private sector. That's quaint, we think now, when unions represent only 7 percent of workers in private businesses.

Here are some snippets from Geoghegan's book that I hope will encourage a few people to see if their library has a copy.

On workers' "right to organize":

I doubt today if any group of workers can form a union if the their employer is determined to resist. ...Union busting is now almost a science. And the science is a pretty simple one: You go out and fire people. And keep firing until the organizing stops. Because at some point it always will. It is like sending people straight into a machine gun, and when the bodies pile up high enough, the drive is over and the employer has won.

On organizers:

I suppose to be a good organizer, you can't have any imagination. Otherwise, going into a plant, you would feel like a virus or a bacillus, first infecting a lot of healthy workers and then getting them fired. After a while, I would go crazy. You have to recruit them. Get them to trust you. Be a father figure, mother figure, one-person support system. And then you have to be perfectly neutral, when they are fired, as they turn on you, scream at you, shriek; and then you see how low and craven the human race can really be.

On what happens when labor laws allow workers to organize simply by signing up and they can't be fired:

Canadians. O.K., they're not Americans. But they have the same companies, ... Technically they are a foreign country, but it's like Minnesota being in NATO. ... But Canadians join labor unions like crazy. Why? Because they can get away with it, i.e., no one will fire them. Canadian workers just sign cards, and bang, they're in a union. It goes so fast, there is no chance to fire them.

This author should be in Congress to vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, don't you think? Let's hope he makes it.

And meanwhile in Chicago, one of Geoghegan's current cases lumbers across the legal landscape. He is representing city workers who got cheated out of some of what they had earned when they took a buy-out. The little guys who get run over by the big employers just keep on coming...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

From the "Equality Summit" --
Pre-packaged "choices" are so over

Some 400 LGBT people got together at the Los Angeles Convention Center to chew over the unsuccessful campaign against Prop. 8, absorb both analysis and opinion, and consider their next steps toward marriage equality for LGBT people.

I'm not going to try to summarize the event. (Full disclosure: how could I? I was a facilitator for a plenary on race and religion and the LGBT movement -- I was listening, not planning a blog post!) The blog California Ripple Effect has a seven part live blog of the day if anyone is interested.

As we know from the post-election street protests, folks are extremely distressed by the defeat, sometimes blame the "No" campaign almost as much as the majority of California voters who said "Yes," and want to know how to move forward. Some of the leadership was defensive -- but mostly those who had been in the middle of the fray showed up to talk with their community.

My perspective is that LGBT community in California has not had to defend itself in a statewide campaign in recent times and didn’t have much developed experience or infrastructure to do the job. I've seen that before: the state's civil rights leadership got hammered over and over by right-wing wedge initiatives in the 1990s (anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative action, anti-bilingual education) and learned a great deal about how to fight in the electoral arena. LGBT leadership is now acquiring that painful expertise. Doing it well in a deeply engaged community under threat is tough -- if same sex marriage goes back to a ballot measure, the campaign will probably find a better balance between poll driven advertising and the needs of its own vulnerable constituents.

Participants at the summit were involved.

They were serious.

In addition to critiques, they generated reams of ideas.

One of the most practical ideas from the day was offered by Geoff Kors of Equality California. As we wait to see how the California Supreme Court rules on whether it is really constitutional to deprive people of the state's equal protection by a majority vote, he suggested that folks should look over the enormous list of organizations that have joined the legal challenge to Prop. 8 -- and thank one of them by donating to it. If that one is something you haven't joined before, so much the better. I took his suggestion and made a small contribution to the California Council of Churches.

Above all, we can take away from the Prop. 8 campaign the knowledge this struggle for LGBT equality is not over. I agree with California political consultant Richie Ross: conservatives are shooting themselves by mobilizing constituencies against gay marriage. He compares the likely effect of Prop. 8 to the effect of Prop. 187. Then Governor Peter Wilson used that 1994 initiative attack on immigrants to win re-election. But it also pushed forward a boom in immigrant naturalizations that rapidly increased the Latino vote. And young Latino citizens coming of voting age repudiated what they saw as a party that attacked their hard-working parents. The Latino vote has been solidly Democratic ever since. Ross believes that by attacking LGBT marriage, Republicans are seriously alienating an entire generation of "millennial" voters whose numbers are exploding.

The fastest growing segment of the California electorate is the "millennials" -- young people coming of age since the year 2000. There are more than six million of them in California. By 2012, they will outnumber the "baby boomers."

They are hip, rebellious and more than "pro-choice." Their lifestyle is choice. And technology empowers their ability to demand and make choices. They reject pre-packaged everything. ...

Every poll on Proposition 8 showed that the ban on gay marriage in California was a generational issue. Younger voters opposed it. The percentage of young people today who are gay and lesbian is no greater than among previous generations. But the percentage of young people who rebel against a pre-packaged society is.

They believe in the right of people to make their own choices. They want themselves and their friends left alone to make those choices. And the empowerment they experience through technology makes them intolerant of authorities that deny choice.

The whole analysis is worth reading. I think Ross is onto a national phenomenon. Our time is coming.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reflections: Sunday Brunch; Sunday rites

Raymond Sawyer kindly has allowed me to republish his gay fable on the intersection of life and church-going.

Since the majority of Christian denominations officially oppress gays and lesbians, the Sunday Brunch replaced a more sacred Eucharistic celebration. Plato referred to this transference as "revolution within a form."

Sunday morning was still important. It contained a meal with conviviality and serious conversation around the brunch table. It was a time to review serious Saturday night gossip, and share announcements on the vital statistics of the group.

Our community is renowned for good cuisine, exquisite presentation and of course, conversational etiquette. Well, maybe two out of three, maybe.


Life has changed for our population. Enter the Same-Sex Family -- Gay or Lesbian -- with children. An alarm bell rings. Somehow the importance of spiritual nourishment becomes paramount. You begin to actually peruse the internet under the heading " GAY CHURCHES." or " GAY FRIENDLY " or the truly politically correct "GAY AFFIRMING."

Your next step, of course, is to vaguely remember that you were both raised in different denominations. You next remember that one conversation on that subject decades ago made you painfully aware that Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists would not openly welcome your advances -- and the emotions on your side would be mutual.

That is not to say that some mainline Christian sects don't have open or closeted acceptance of gay and lesbian families. You may have to travel to some neighboring city or town to find the "right" Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian or Episcopal parish church with the "right" pastor or rector on board.

You may even find a maverick Roman Catholic priest who both sets off your gay-dar and is "openly closeted" and carefully and subtly states his opposition to pastoral guidelines on marriage, contraception, and yes, YOU.

This is sometimes found in parishes or other venues operated by religious order priests, like the Franciscans. One must remember that Father Mykal Judge who died on 9/11 was a gay Franciscan priest who was fire brigade chaplain for New York City.

Out of all this, we provide our son with several messages on Sunday morning.

1) Sunday Brunch is after the Sunday Eucharist.

2) Our particular parish, and diocese and National Church respect who and what we represent. One bishop in our Church is just like his daddy.

3) Jesus loves him, and Jesus loves his two dads.

4) Families with moms and dads, and just moms or dads are okay and they think that we are ok too. We love each other on Sunday and every other day. Sunday School is fun.

5) DO NOT EAT TOO MUCH at Coffee Hour because you won't be hungry for SUNDAY BRUNCH.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Changing times

No, not more inauguration. Rather this news:

NASHVILLE — Nashville voters rejected a proposal on Thursday that would have made it the largest U.S. city to require all government business be done in English.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, unofficial results showed the "English First" proposal was defeated on a vote of 41,752 to 32,144. Proponents said using one language would have united the city and saved money, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worried it could give the city a bad reputation. Similar measures have passed elsewhere. ...

About 10 percent of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language other than English in their homes, according to census data.

Nashville is 5 percent Hispanic and home to the nation’s largest Kurdish community and refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The article's remark that similar measures have passed elsewhere is an understatement. As far as I know, this is the first time such an English-only law has been defeated by a popular vote.

The idea that government can enforce monolingualism on us is very comforting to most electorates consisting, as they usually do, of predominately of older whites (and sometimes people of color as well) who are rendered anxious by demographic change. In hard times, anti-foreigner feelings also can become acute. The New York Times explained several weeks ago:

'There are high levels of support for these types of measures if people don't view them as punitive against immigrant communities," Mr. McDonald said. "The trick is, you don't want to somehow motivate your opponent's voters with emotional rhetoric."

From far away without any actual contact with the campaign, I can only surmise how Nashville's voters were persuaded to kill this one.
  • The campaign against the measure seems to have rallied Nashville's business and political elite who don't want their city portrayed as unfriendly or even racist. They have ambitions to be part of the global economy. Optics matter to elites. Hence the "Athens of the South" graphic at the head of this post.
  • Opponents seem to have successfully branded proponent Councilman Eric Crafton as a crank. He's been beating the English-only drum for several years.
  • And in the context of a special, low turnout, election, the "no" side got their people out more effectively than the "yes" side. Only 19 percent the electorate turned out. The slightly cynical Nashiville Scene warns

    ...let's not get carried away here. It's not the dawn of a new day in Nashville or anything close to a crippling blow to ignorance or intolerance in our city. In fact, had English Only been on the ballot for a regular election, it would have passed overwhelmingly.

Still -- let's celebrate our victories where we find them and move on.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Marriage: what is it?

Since I'm doing some work on winning LGBT civil marriage rights, I figured I had better learn something about the history of the institution. I'm enough of an historian to be sure that Rick Warren was full of it when he told Beliefnet:

For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion - this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews - historically, marriage is a man and a woman.

I assumed that marriage had historically been mostly about organizing property and inheritance (think Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.) But clearly I had much more to learn.

So I picked up what seems at present to be the popular U.S. book on the institution: Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Coontz certainly documents that whatever else marriage has been -- polygamous, polygynous, polyandrous, or monogamous -- until fairly recently, it has been far more about creating links between families than between individuals.

Coontz finds the origin of what we think of as "marriage" -- two partners who choose each other themselves -- in cultural and economic arrangements peculiar to northwestern Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Polygamy was prohibited by the Church and unlike most of the world, the offspring of concubines could not inherit. With divorce religiously prohibited, marriage was a one shot deal for both parties who were expected to at least consent to the match. Upon marriage, couples set up their own household rather than joining an extended family group. This expectation meant that instead of marrying right after puberty, both members of the couple had to become self-supporting, as servants or in a skilled trade, before marrying at a median age of 26. All of these factors, unique in the world at that time, seem to have placed a strong emphasis on the couple bond.

In most of the world at that time, very young girls were married off by their fathers to husbands who were subordinate members of families ruled by their own fathers. The northwestern European couple, off by itself and well advanced into responsible adulthood, was a novel pattern.

Coontz contends that this pattern had features that

not only made it very different from marriage anywhere else in the world, but also made it capable of very rapid transformation. ... During the eighteenth century, the spread of the market economy and the advent of the Enlightment wrought profound changes in record time. By the end of the 1700s personal choice of partners had replaced arranged marriage as a social ideal and individuals were encouraged to marry for love.

For the first time in five thousand years, marriage had come to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances. The measure of a successful marriage was no longer how big a financial settlement was involved, how many useful in-laws were acquired, or how many children were produced, but how well a family met the emotional needs of its individual members. Where once marriage had been seen as the fundamental unit of work and politics, it was now viewed as a place of refuge from work, politics and community obligations.

None of this meant that people yet married primarily for love. Love was seen a dangerous emotion, likely to lead to bad judgment and trouble. Critics feared that the new definition of a good marriage would lead to unwise decisions and to women demanding equality. By the early nineteenth century, moralists worried that marriage was being undermined in terms quite familiar today. The French revolution redefined marriage as a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament, introducing another element of subversion into old patterns. The Victorian idealization of love and intimacy in marriage was actually an attempt to shore up an institution that was seen a threatened. Through the mid-twentieth century, at least in prosperous times, a successful expanding economy in northern Europe and the United States made what Coontz calls the "love-based, male breadwinner marriage" the dominant model.

And then -- the 1960s and 1970s brought to fruition all the trends conservative moralists had feared for over 100 years in evolving marriage patterns. Married women would no longer let their husband run the couple -- and had the economic clout to enforce their independence. People expected emotional fulfillment from marriage -- if they didn't get it, they divorced. One in three of couples who married in the 1950s eventually divorced.

Coontz is sure there is no going back.

For better or for worse, people decide what they will or won't put up with in a relationship today on a totally different basis from before. ...never before in history have so many women been capable of supporting themselves and their children without a husband.

Many forces rendered enduring marriages precarious. With longer life expectancies, couples face long lives together after children are grown -- sometimes that can spur divorce as people believe they've earned their long-delayed chance at individual fulfillment. Coontz speculates that some of the rise in births to unwed mothers in the 1970s and 80s was a practical response on the part of poor women who knew their male partners would not be able to support the family -- a husband looked like more of a burden than a help. Nowadays marriage is not closely tied to the possibility of sex, so new patterns of co-habitation have become commonplace. Individuals not only are free to work out for themselves what balance of responsibility and freedom marriage implies, they have to. Society provides a cacophony of voices trying to define what marriage means, but no universally respected paradigm rules all responsible coupled relationships.

In this context, objections to gay civil marriage seem almost absurd. Everyone else is cast adrift in the cultural stew, defining their partnerships as they go along. How can LGBT people be excluded from this option?

I do not believe we will be excluded for much longer. Tough economic times may rein in some of most individualistic contemporary patterns; when there is less to go around, we are likely to be more willing to accept some restraints for the sake of community. But our entire society is working this out. LGBT people will be included in that process.

Coontz concludes:

We can certainly create more healthy marriages than we currently do, and we can save more marriages that are in trouble. But just as we cannot organize modern political alliances through kinship ties or put the farmers' and skilled craftsmen's households back as the centerpiece of the modern economy, we can never reinstate marriage as the primary source of commitment and caregiving in the modern world. For better or worse, we must adjust our personal expectations and social support systems to this new reality.

Coontz's history of marriage is worth pondering.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inauguration afterthoughts

Damn it felt good to watch on the TV yesterday. Nobody needs any of what follows; we all had our own reactions. But I won't resist stringing some thoughts together. Because so many have focused on the racial implications of yesterday, I'm choosing to follow other lines of thought.

"... it will be the first wartime transition in 40 years." No, no, no ... this notion turned up in much coverage (the example is from the New York Times). The idea is false. Yes, U.S. troops are overseas, decidedly in harm's way. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded yesterday in Baghdad in attacks that killed 7 Iraqis and wounded 22. But at some level, U.S. troops have been in war zones continuously since the last time we unambiguously think of the nation being "at war" in 1975. Yet during none of that time has the nation at home felt truly "at war," it's daily life disrupted for much of anyone except the soldiers' families. We're fooling ourselves when we call our present state "wartime" -- wartime is national mobilization like World War II or national terror and death, like Gaza. This is not "wartime." Saying that it is feeds delusions and clouds judgment.

The novel development would be a transition in "peacetime." Perhaps if the people lead, President Obama will follow ...

He's a "grown-up." Yes, yes, yes. On top of all the identities Obama brings together, this apparent quality is what inspires hope in me. The sociologist Robert Bellah puts it this way:

What is most remarkable about him as a person is that he is a grown-up. Growing up is a task for everyone in every society and most of us don't do a very good job of it. Even highly gifted people, in the arts and sciences as well as politics, are often not very grown up, or have obvious personal flaws, even when we admire them. I'm not saying that Obama is perfect -- no one is. But he shows the quality of maturity that the great classical philosophies, Confucian or Stoic for example, tried to inculcate in their followers. Extraordinary intelligence helps but we know many brilliant people who are not very grown up. Extraordinary ethical sensitivity is closer to the core of what it means to be grown up. My amazement and near disbelief in Obama's victory is that I never again expected an American president to be so grown up. In my lifetime some have come close to the mark, but for me the clearest previous example is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom I, as a very young person, heard and admired.

I might quarrel with that last part. I suspect that Dwight Eisenhower was a grown-up. Holding together a fractious coalition in a real wartime almost certainly required genuine maturity of character. But Eisenhower was a mediocre President, so this is not so remembered.

This inauguration was the Millennial generation's "time." On this topic, Carla Marinucci wrote a pleasant piece in the San Francisco Chronicle that serves well to get this meaning of the day across to older generations:

Just as Woodstock was for their parents, Obama's moment assuming the presidency represents a generational touchstone event -- one that will define Millennials' lives, their age and their experience and become the event they will tell their kids and grandkids about.

And if history is a guide, a lot of folks who aren't there today will claim they were. Woodstock attracted a relatively small 400,000, and somehow it seems millions remember being on hand.

Cute and probably accurate, but this really is a wonderful generational hand-off occurring before our eyes. I usually think my Boomer generation is not quite the selfish, self-centered boors that my younger friends sometimes accuse us of being. But I do know that just because there are so many of us, in many spheres we've been in the way, blocking the mature ascendancy of those who came later. It's their time now, and that's great.

Jedediah Purdy has offered a long, thoughtful, smart essay on about how Obama has managed to present a vision of community to an ironic, skeptical and individualistic generation. This young author maintains:

Individualism and community, freedom and integrity, innovation and tradition, are tired oppositions for us. You can't rally us to one or the other, but you can interest us in integrating them -- which is what we were already trying to do in our own lives, by the way. We can be frivolous and self-involved, but friendship is one of our arts. We are instinctively ironic, but when we find something worth believing in, whether a movement or a person, we cherish it. Raised amid ads and images, we enjoy style, but lionize competence and ability. We like fun, but we treasure productivity. With wide-open choice from early in life, many of us are more religious than our parents (I'm not) or choose more traditional lives in other ways (I have). This is an easy generation to underestimate, but its promise is formidable, and near its core is the wish to be good.

This essay is my kind of read the whole thing stuff.

Some inauguration tidbits need an oldster's explanation. Or so I think. What was committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein nattering about when she suggested that the "ballot is more powerful that the bullet"? The conservative pundit Michael Goldfarb was nonplussed, accusing the usually bellicose Senator of advocating pacifism.

Dianne Feinstein opened the ceremony by talking about how the ballot is more powerful than the bullet, how non-violence has made this day possible. It's a bizarre revision of American history that focuses on Martin Luther King rather than William Tecumseh Sherman or George Washington. It was the violence inflicted against British, Confederate, and German troops that made possible the inauguration of an African-American.

The more usual reference for the phrase would be Malcolm X, probably not part of Goldfarb's pantheon of national heroes. Malcolm's 1964 speech titled "The Ballot or the Bullet" is not only a lucid explanation of his Black nationalism -- self-improvement, self-determination and self-reliance -- but also a call for the Voting Rights Act. It's a complex masterpiece, not something I'll try to summarize. Go read the whole thing -- he even predicts the fate of the U.S. in our far flung contemporary wars.

In fact, I don't know that Feinstein was nattering about Obama as a more palatable alternative to Malcolm, though this seems not impossible, given her political orientation. But Phil Bronstein, writing in the Chronicle about viewing the inauguration in San Francisco's Civic Center plaza, reminded me that Feinstein might have had different political violence in mind:

Watching Dianne Feinstein's face filling the CBS broadcast frame, with the backdrop of San Francisco City Hall behind the screen, there was a surreal juxtaposition of past and present, event and personalities. Senator Feinstein began her career in that building as a supervisor and was first propelled onto the national stage, also from there, in the blood and violence of the 1978 killings here when a younger, shaken and much less self-assured woman faced banks of cameras from everywhere.

Perhaps mindful of her own historical trajectory, Dianne noted in her address opening the inaugural as its chairwoman, that we live "in a world where political strife is often beset by violence...". She hailed the triumph of "the ballot over the bullet" and paid tribute to "those who worked and died to make (the country's promise) a reality." In DC, people were thinking Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. Somewhere in Senator Feinstein's thoughts must have been Harvey Milk and George Moscone.

I'm no Feinstein fan, but I think he caught something there. The event in Washington yesterday was, for many of us, a kind of break in the accustomed pattern of the possible that threw us into our deep interior musings, perhaps even forcing some re-evaluation of what we "know" is real and of what can be imagined. This moment belonged not only to the Millennials, but to all of us who choose to participate actively in the collective life of this terrible and beautiful country.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


We now have a President who knows the Constitution more accurately than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

I will not be surprised if we have that thought again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Day of service

Celebrating the Martin Luther King holiday with service projects is not really new. But President Obama's call for mass participation this year led to doubling of the number of projects known to the MLK site, where the slogan is "Make it a day on, not a day off."

Obama's fans came out in force.

In the Mission district, a group assembled to pick up street litter. We always have ample supplies of that.

Each little crew was sent off with maps of their turf -- just as many probably had been when canvassing during the campaign. They were told not to pick up needles -- just mark the location for the Department of Public Works to follow up. I usually step on and crush stray needles myself. It seems like a public spirited thing to do.

Over by Bernal Heights, just off Bayshore, a group came together to clean out below an underpass.

There was plenty of trash just behind CalTrans' fences.

And lots up against the fences too.

Adventurous cleaners went over the fence.

And found a lot of stinky stuff.
I admit to some ambivalence about these projects. President Obama clearly wants to remind us that sometimes individual satisfaction has to be put aside for the sake of the community. (The guy is beginning to act like the national kindergarten teacher ... that's okay I suppose. We need one.)

His lesson seems good and necessary. But it also seems a little hokie. Can't we form communities that are a little more organic, that seem less contrived? Don't we know we survive by caring for each other? Maybe we only remember the obvious if we occasionally repeat the lesson.

On the way home, I drove down Cesar Chavez Street.

The usual clusters of unemployed day laborers stood along the sidewalks, occasionally waving at a passing truck, hoping for some pick up work.

These folks work, if lucky, for a pittance everyday, doing the sorts of stuff the volunteer crews were dabbling at. Many of them are supporting families south of the border. I imagine they have some community among themselves -- they certainly have a common interest in avoiding the immigration police.

Their community, whatever shape it takes and I don't claim to know, seems an almost infinite distance from the good people sweeping and bagging trash in today's King day projects.

Inauguration dream

Catching glimpses of Barack Obama watch the "We Are One" Lincoln Memorial concert yesterday, I was reminded of these bits from his 1992 autobiography Dreams from My Father. When Obama was a boy living in Indonesia with his stepfather and mother, she was determined to make him an American.

Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she went to work. ...

"If you are going to grow into a human being," she would say ot me, "you are going to need some values." ...

It was as if, by traveling halfway round the globe, away from the smugness and hypocrisy that familiarity had disclosed, my mother could give voice to the virtues of her Midwestern past and offer them up in distilled form. ...My mother's confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn't possess; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful people could shape their own destiny. ...she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism. ...She would come home with books on the civil rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King....

Obama certainly went on to learn that the United States stood for far less admirable actions and qualities than the virtues his mother tried to teach him; in fact, it was in Indonesia that he first began to wrestle with the injuries of race as we have constructed it.

But he also seems to have learned from his mother to take strength from the aspects of this nation's unfinished story that point in better directions. I saw yesterday's concert as his gift to the nation of that innocent dream that has been so submerged under the detritus of empire and exploitation. We can't live there, but recovering some reminders of the good American myth may help us to live better in the tattered reality that we actually inhabit.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Now that was a farewell address...

In 1961, a President completed two terms in office with these thoughts.

Gay ripples among the peacemakers

James Loney in downtown Baghdad advocating for detainees, before the kidnapping.

In Part 1 of my discussion of the new book 118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq, I mentioned readers might have some trouble finding a copy. The problem actually goes back further: CPT had a hard time getting the volume published.

They report:

Even before the kidnapping was over, a church press approached CPT hoping for a book. ...

One of the lesser-known ripples of the kidnapping was how [Jim Loney's] partner, Dan Hunt, and the community of which they are a part made the heartbreaking choice to become invisible to protect Jim's life. We were aware that same sex love is a highly charged issue for many churches. Therefore we wanted to make sure the publisher would not silence any author by editing out aspects of the story concerning sexual orientation.

The publisher and CPT agreed that the book would portray "significant things that happened in the Muslim world, the Christian community and in those immediately affected," and in that context, there would not be "any kind of censorship" around Dan and Jim's relationship. ...

On the eve of going to press in February 2007, the publisher demanded that we cut the paragraphs in Dan's chapter that spoke most tenderly of his love for his partner Jim. The publisher had received negative feedback from church leaders, one of whom characterized Dan's chapter as "a pro-gay apologetic." When we refused to make the cuts, the publisher withdrew from the project.

CPT found another church press -- and once again, found themselves confronted with a demand to cut the two men's love story just as the book was about to be printed! They decided to self-publish, concluding:

Sadly, what neither publisher seems to recognize is that their editing requirements are part of the same system of homophobia that threatened Jim's life while he was in captivity, and subsequently condemned Dan to invisibility.

Being known as gay would indeed have increased the likelihood that Jim Loney would be killed during the kidnapping. One of the many aspects of Iraqi life which the U.S. invasion destroyed was the society's "don't ask; don't tell" accommodation with its gay male population. Under Saddam Hussein, private conduct was tolerated -- or police could be bribed. But the religious fanaticisms released under occupation have made surviving difficult for Iraq's gays. Many gay men have been murdered or emigrated.

So when Loney was kidnapped in November 2005, CPT and his friends did everything they could to keep the truth out of the media. This wasn't easy. He was a prominent peace activist who made no secret of his orientation.

Dan Hunt and Jim Loney lived in a Toronto Catholic Worker community. A friend there, William Payne, tells a poignant story in the book of what they had to do to try to protect Loney.

Through a crack in the rainbow-colored paper...pasted over the window, I spotted a television camera. Another knock.

...She asked, "are you Dan Hunt?"


"I'm looking for Jim Loney's partner. Are you his partner?"

I inhaled. "If you mention in your story that Jim might be gay, whether he is or not, you'll get him killed." It was time to be blunt and it worked.

She stumbled on her words. "I'm not homophobic and my boss is gay."

"That's not the point. We don't know who is holding Jim, but if they are homophobic, any suggestion that he might be gay could lead to his death."

I could see her backing off the storyline. I exhaled. And so, in the hope it would bring Jim home alive, our collective return to the closet began.

And so, Jim's people, and above all his partner, erased themselves for the duration. The closet is deeply self-destructive, but it had to be accepted for a friend. Above all, it meant that those closest to Jim would not openly receive and/or acknowledge the emotional support from Jim's well-wishers of which they were the object. The hostage crisis caused much inner re-evaluation among these LGBT Christians, put them in contact with Muslims struggling with LGBT issues in their own communities, and seems to have strengthened CPT's commitment to full equality for gay people.

Christian Peacemaker Teams took a brave step for the full inclusion of gay people in the lives of their churches by refusing to edit out this aspect of the kidnapping story.

Obama in San Francisco: an inauguration special

But you say (maybe), that's a painting by Mondrian. And so it is.

That's a house in the Sunset district, a rather satisfying hommage to the painter.

Running by recently, I saw that the Mondrian house had undergone some improvements.

For one thing, it seems to have had a touch-up. But also, it has acquired some color-coordinated signs in the windows.

Ah yes, just the thing to complement the décor.

UPDATE: at the request of the page developer, here's more on Mondrian.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gaza on his mind

A Palestinian family flee their neighborhood following an Israeli army operation in Gaza city, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. Israeli tanks shelled downtown Gaza City on Thursday and ground troops thrust deep into a crowded neighborhood for the first time, sending terrified residents fleeing for cover... (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

I had to hold my 17-year-old son down on the bed after he heard the news. His strength really shocked me. I was gripping his upper arms as tightly as I could to hold him flat on the bed, but he was spitting with rage, tears streaming down his face. I was shouting, "Stop! Please stop!" but he was pushing up at me hard, his face twisting like his body underneath me. He was fighting with everything he had in order to be able to get up, run down the stairs and get out of the house. All I knew at that moment was that I couldn't let him leave.

We were in his bedroom in London and I had just given him the news that his grandmother had been blown to pieces by a rocket in Israel. Jordy had lost his other grandmother five months earlier to cancer. This time there was someone to blame.

Our pain and his rage opened a window up for me on to what is happening in Gaza. There are thousands and thousands of young men who have experienced - or are experiencing - that rage in Gaza and the West Bank, and their fathers and grandfathers have no doubt experienced it too. When I heard in the days that followed Shuli's death that they handed out sweets in Gaza to celebrate the fact that the rocket had hit a target, I was appalled.

Now with all I have seen over the last two weeks in Gaza, part of me feels: why wouldn't they celebrate?

Paul Kaye,
The Guardian,
January 16, 2008

I have no words to add about my horror at what my country is assisting Israel to do to the people of Gaza. But I urge anyone stopping by here to read all of Paul Kaye's story.

Peace ripples

This isn't a book you are going to find in most bookstores. But if you are curious about the kind of people who devote themselves to seeking peace through faithful nonviolent witness in the midst of armed conflicts, go find it.

These are people who believe they are called to "get in the way" wherever war and violence are the rule.

118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Teams Held Hostage in Iraq is the record of the time, now nearly forgotten, when four international witnesses were kidnapped in Baghdad in 2005-6. Or rather, as the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) website explains:

The kidnapping of these four peacemakers was like a rock thrown into a pond. This collection describes the ripples on the water, the impact and results of that rock, in stories characterized by hope, courage, friendship, and forgiveness. [The book] bears witness to vital peacemaking being done around the world in these times.

Canadian Jim Loney, New Zealander Harmeet Sooden, and Briton Norman Kember were eventually set free by a detachment of British soldiers. Their US comrade, Tom Fox, was taken away and murdered by someone two weeks before their release from captivity. Several essays draw a vivid picture of the man who did not come back alive.

Since this is an uneven collection essays, it has many facets. I want to take up only two, one in this post, another in a subsequent post.

First, there's the illuminating account by journalists from the Christian news service Ekklesia of the difficulties supporters of Norman Kember in the United Kingdom had in getting themselves organized and in dealing with the press. CPT has some permanent infrastructure in the US and Canada; there were offices for the media to call. But in the UK, Kember's supporters fund themselves dealing without much preparation with hungry reporters hot on the trail of a juicy human interest story. Simon Barrow describes the trajectory of press accounts:

For the western news media, North American and European hostages in the Middle East are big stories because they can personalize and dramatize what can otherwise seem like one endless series of faraway, nameless tragedies. They become in fact miniature soap operas with their own recognizable cast of heroes, villains, victims and clowns. Their stuff is the daily drama of hope and despair writ large. Their setting is an exotic but mostly unexamined stage.

So, at first, the press made their narrative of Norman Kember's captivity that of an amiable, elderly naïve, rather than of a brave man who acted out of informed conviction. The realities of Iraq were almost erased by this narrative, as was the support offered the CPT hostages by religious Muslims around the world. Those elements didn't fit the story line.

So attached did the media become to their own narrative that they treated the release of Kember and the others as a sort of betrayal. Suddenly persons who had acted the parts of helpless victims became ingrates who didn't appreciate the risks that British troops in Iraq must have taken to bust them out of captivity. Though both CPT and Norman Kember thanked the rescuers, the peace activists still insisted that military force was not the way to solve Iraq's problems. So the media portayed them as graceless, ignoring both what the released men actually said and a message of gratitude posted on the CPT website.

Barrow reports what he learned from the hostage story: matter how remorseless the media juggernaut -- efficient in rapidly disseminating information, but often at some considerable cost to accuracy and understanding -- it is always worth engaging. ...Again and again the dominant narratives of our time, most especially what theologian Walter Wink calls 'the myth of redemptive violence,' assert themselves in such a way as to write peace and peacemaking out of the script. This is only to be expected. The appropriate response is not despair or collusion, but the cultivation of what the late Archbishop Helder Camara once called 'small-scale experiments in hope.'

... To be effective, alternatives need to spread. To spread they must be heard. And to be heard, they must be reinserted into the script... This is the task to which [communicators] continue to be called.

Worth thinking about. Few of us activists have to deal with a hostage taking that could lead to the murder of our friends, but all of us have to deal with how the media constructs what we do.

Further discussion of this book in Part 2, "Gay ripples among the peacemakers

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Philanthropy wants a piece of the stimulus pie

This morning I was talking with a younger friend who wants back into the employment scene after a period "off" mothering small children. She's an accomplished trainer of people, a community organizer, an organizational strategist and planner -- the sort of person who for the past twenty years has usually found employment in various non-profit sector community enterprises.

We mused about whether the economic bust might kill or enhance her chances of finding a job.

On the one hand, it looks obvious that the downturn will lead to radically reduced funding from foundations to community non-profits. Foundations make their grants out of their investment portfolios -- as the financial markets went bust, foundations suddenly found themselves with a lot less cash to throw around. This has not really worked its way through the system yet, as grant cycles lag behind investment realities. But by 2010, it seems just about certain that there's not going to be much foundation money floating around.

On the other hand, in lean times, sometimes the government has stepped into the areas these groups work in -- health promotion, educational innovation, community development -- and filled some of the void. The classic example was the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) that not only left us with enhanced parks and zoos, but also funded arts, photography, and literature, to the horror of conservatives. For much of the 1970s, the Feds propped up many a non-profit group through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA); groups used the "training" money to pay and expand their staffs.

President-elect Obama calls his supporters to service as a theme of his inauguration.

..." I'm not just asking you to take part in one day of service. I am asking you to make a lasting commitment to make better the lives of your fellow Americans -- a commitment that must endure beyond one day, or even one presidency."

That call for voluntary work bodes well for federal attention to the non-profit sector.

In this environment, it is not surprising to see non-profit executives making their pitch for a piece. Writing in the Boston Globe, two non-profit leaders make their case:

...the nonprofit sector is larger than the auto and steel industries combined, representing 10 percent of all US jobs, and 13 percent of jobs in Massachusetts. If the government fails to pay attention to this critical sector, there could be a loss of 1 million nonprofit jobs, leaving 1 million families without a paycheck, 1 million families buying fewer goods and services, and 1 million families who are closer to foreclosures and debt default.

The nation loses twice when there is a job lost in the nonprofit sector. Not only does a family lose an essential paycheck, but the community also loses a home healthcare worker, a preschool teacher, or an after-school tutor -- people who often serve those most in need.

This all seems unarguable. If Federal economic recovery efforts are to create community-based jobs and perform useful services, especially by employing a significant number for women, getting some money into what the nonprofit sector does seems a no-brainer.

The fight is going to be over who doles out the money. There are advantages and disadvantages to any of the obvious possibilities.
  • The money could go through various federal programs, some new. Good: non-discriminatory, maximum transparency. Bad: new bureaucracies that might create new long-term constituencies within the government without guaranteeing either expertise or speed.
  • The money could move through the "faith-based initiative." Good: in many cases, these folks are already doing the work, cheaply. Bad: these folks too often jealously guard their right to discriminate in favor of their adherents and to proselytize (even if covertly.) Questions of church-state separation, whether close cooperation with religious bodies is good for either government or the faith organizations, are real.
  • The money could go through existing philanthropic channels. That's what the Globe authors want, not surprisingly since that is what they do. Good: they already have systems to pass out money, at least in some way. Bad: those systems often seem arbitrary, fad-driven and short sighted to the grantees.
None of these are easy or perfect.

From what we've seen of the Obama people, if they drive any of this, they'll probably try a little bit of all these methodologies. On balance, that seems a good thing.