Archive for June, 2009

Mark Sanford Makes the Grade

June 25, 2009
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford

The New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins draws lessons from the emerging story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman. (“The Love Party,” June 24, 2009). Though her piece seems primarily intended to tease Republicans who put us through the Clinton impeachment, she briefly touches down in gender politics—or is it gay politics?—when she writes, “Perhaps it is time to rethink the idea of constantly electing middle-aged heterosexual men to positions of high importance.”

This is purely tongue-in-cheek, of course, and the reference to Sanford’s sexual orientation is without context in the article. Her first impulse may have been to write “middle-aged men” without the “heterosexual” qualifier. But the insertion of “heterosexual” creates a linkage to the roiling gay perspective on the Sanford affair. Sanford, after all, is a strong “family values” advocate who nevertheless opposes efforts by gays and lesbians to create strong families. (As a congressman, he voted against same-sex marriage and adoptions by gay couples.)

So we give him extra marks for hypocrisy. These will qualify him for induction into the Family Values Hall of Shame along with Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, John Ensign, Rush Limbaugh, Clarence Thomas, and David Vitter. Famous Democrat philanderers of recent years—Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and John Edwards—do not qualify for membership in this august body because they did not spend enough of their careers throwing stones, and they have all opposed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Fred Phelps’s Humor Deficit

June 16, 2009
Westboro Baptist Church members outside Garfield High School in Seattle

Westboro Baptist Church members outside Garfield High School in Seattle

June 16, 2009. Seattle was visited over the last three days by members of Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. These are the good Christian folks who stage protests at the funerals of American soldiers, claiming that they have died as God’s punishment for our country’s tolerance of homosexuality. Their Web site is aptly titled www.godhatesfags.com, but they are equal opportunity haters. Jews, Catholics, President Obama, blacks, and Unitarians all get the treatment. In Seattle this week, they appeared in front of Mt. Zion Baptist Church (whose congregation is predominantly African-American), St. James Cathedral (Roman Catholic), several synagogues, a Unitarian church, and Garfield High School, which has a gay and lesbian student organization. Counter-protesters massed at several of these events.

At Garfield High, I was struck by the complete lack of humor in their signage. They don’t tease. They don’t parody. They don’t engage in word play. They are devoid of wit. Forget about irony, mimicry, double-entendres, or even those lowest forms of humor, mockery and sarcasm. They just don’t do humor. “America is doomed,” “God hates fags,” and “You’re going to Hell” are all we get, and none of it seems the least bit calculated to make us smile or to win hearts and minds. We might at least expect a little entertainment in return for showing up. Instead, we get crude insults unleavened by cleverness, nuance, or originality. They want us to know God is not kidding around. Eternal damnation is no laughing matter, and the good Lord didn’t instruct Jonah to soft-pedal his warnings to the people of Ninevah. 

The only scenarios of doom that sell well in Seattle are those offered by the likes of Al Gore. Here, warnings of God’s impending wrath are about as scary as a circus sideshow. Don’t the folks from Westboro Baptist Church realize how pointless it is to work this city, or are they simply sucking up futility in exchange for three glorious hate-filled days in one of the nation’s most beautiful cities? Maybe that’s not such a bad deal. Unlike business visitors, they’re not force-fed PowerPoint presentations in windowless conference centers. They can do the Lord’s will on the streets of this city’s charming neighborhoods. And what better time of year to get out of Kansas, which can be Hellish in June, and head for the Northwest, which can be Heavenly?

Their signage could definitely use the help of a queer eye, but most of all, they need to lighten up. “You’re going to Hell!” is terminally dyspeptic. A little levity or a more positive spin might make the message more palatable. I would suggest downplaying the Hell imagery with something like, “Visualize Heaven without gaiety,” or “You can only go ‘straight’ to Heaven!”  How about a drawing of Heaven’s gate hung with a sign, ‘Sissies not welcome!'” OK, OK, it’ll never work, and it’s not going to happen. Fundamentalism is basically antithetical to humor, and it has no Bill Mahers or Jon Stewarts to call on for help.

My initial reaction at seeing them on the street–“They can’t be serious!”–quickly flips to “Why are they so serious?” And then comes the disturbing realization, sending chills down my levity, that they really and truly believe they are the modern Jonahs and that we are the Ninevites. The deadly seriousness of their signage tells us they’re not here for the weather or for the sight-seeing. They may see this as an opportunity to make courtesy calls on Seattle’s own neo-Nazi groups, of which there are two, or our local affiliate of Watchmen on the Walls, an anti-gay group based in Latvia. There could be some synergy here. Fortunately, all these groups, together with the Westboro Baptist Church, are on the Southern Poverty Center’s HateWatch list (www.splcenter.org).

And on the opposite side of the street are Garfield High’s students and a collection of queers, Jews, Catholics, Obama supporters, and other ordinary folks united in their revulsion toward the Phelps family (Yes, according to reports, all the Phelps protesters at Garfield were related to him!). For signage, we have, “God hates figs,” “You need a citation,” and “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

It’s unlikely they understood any of our signage. It’s doubtful they even knew about Jesus cursing the fig tree (Biblical literacy among fundamentalists is much lower than one might expect), and they may not have caught the double meaning of “citation” or recognized the quotation from “The Wizard of Oz,” a cult classic for gays. It was probably all just over their heads.

Whosigned.org Using Intimidation Tactics

June 8, 2009

Gay and lesbian couples who are registered as domestic partners in the State of Washington were recently granted the full benefits of marriage (except the name) by the state legislature. An organization called Protect Marriage Washington, which opposes same-sex marriage, now wants to recall this legislation and will soon be collecting signatures for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot.

A Seattle gay man has announced his intention to post on his Website (Whosigned.org) the names and addresses of those who sign the referendum petition. This is a mistake, and a big one. It reeks of threats and intimidation, and voters do not like it. A Seattle Times editorial on June 8 strongly condemns this tactic, and there is widespread apprehension in Seattle’s Gay community that it will backfire, causing many otherwise indifferent voters to sign the petition.

Supporters of this tactic say that it is reasonable for gays to want to know how their friends and neighbors stand on issues that are critical to their lives. If this is true, then let’s simply ask. While it is true that petition signers are not entitled to the same privacy as voters (their information is held in public archives), they are likely to resent any intrusions that seem calculated to produce a chilling effect on the democratic process.

It may be that public disclosure on the Internet of information about petition signatories will become accepted practice in the years to come. But let’s not be the ones pushing the envelope in this case. Let some other group test the waters. My hunch is that they will quickly get in over their heads. There is too much at stake for us to make such a huge tactical miscalculation.

Civilizational Collapse, Islamic Style

June 4, 2009

AyaanHirsiAli_Infidel

I’ve recently been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s bestselling memoir, Infidel (Free Press, 2007). The author, for those who don’t know her story, is a Somalian who was granted political asylum in the Netherlands after fleeing there to escape a forced marriage. She earned a college degree in political science from the University of Leiden and fought for the rights of Muslim women as a member of Parliament. When Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist in 2004, a note pinned to his body promised that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be next. She had collaborated with van Gogh in the production of a film critical of Islam. 

Part of the thrill of reading her story is that it provides a lens through which we can view not only her culture of origin but also our own. Again and again, we find parallels between Islamic fundamentalism and our own homegrown varieties, particularly in attitudes towards women and their bodies. This is an extremely rich territory for thought and discussion.

I was especially struck by Hirsi Ali’s frequent references to the belief, so pervasive in Islamic societies, that the sight of a woman’s body—or even a single part of it (the hair, the eyes, the ankles, the neck) can release an uncontrollable torrent of desire in men. When this happens, chaos (fitna) ensues, and social order is impossible to maintain. Everything falls apart, vehicles crash into each other, and men go into a frenzy.

Well, anyone acquainted with scapegoating theory (particularly the work of anthropologist René Girard) recognizes this state of chaos as a mimetic crisis, also sometimes called a “sacrificial” crisis because the only measure that seems able to stop it is a sacrifice. And who is to be sacrificed? The “guilty” party, of course. Public stonings of women in Somalia and other Muslim countries are typically carried out as punishment for infractions of the morality codes that apply to their bodies, which are considered the property of men. The women are “guilty” of inciting the men and of provoking the crisis.

If you haven’t seen where I’m going with this, I’ll make it plainer. The hysteria that is inspired by the thought of same-sex marriage in our culture is analogous to the hysteria that grips Islamic societies when they contemplate the mere thought of a liberated female body. The idea that people could assume ownership of their bodies and follow their own lights in matters of sex, joy, partnering, and caring is extremely threatening to institutions that have traditionally controlled these goods.

Wherever the idea of Hell holds sway, it can be a highly effective tool of intimidation. Hirsi Ali learned from an early age that eternal damnation was the price of rebellion against Islamic codes of conduct, and she believed this almost to the day that she declared her apostasy. But such threats are only about the Hereafter. Their “secular” counterparts are predictions of disaster in this world—public disorder, plagues, famines, and other signs of God’s displeasure.

In American culture, the James Dobsons and Mike Huckabees have discovered that threats of eternal damnation no longer carry much water, so they fall back on the “secular” version of the threat. They tell us we are facing “civilizational collapse” (collapse of the secular order), and their particular scenario for its unfolding is entirely a function of what people will believe. Pat Robertson didn’t have much luck with the “hurricane-as-God’s punishment” approach, so he adopted a “cultural,” scenario in which an intolerable chaos of desire is unleashed upon the world, pedophilia and sado-masochism become rampant, and humans have sex with animals.

These scenarios of mayhem and disaster are of course frightening to the gullible, but they are comical to those of us who have seen them for what they are: grand guignol bogeymen whose only purpose is to control our sexuality by scaring us witless. The fear that drives these horrific representations can be nothing less than the fear of sexuality itself.

So what does Hirsi Ali discover when she finally removes her headscarf in the open street in the Netherlands? Here’s the passage from page 195:

The next morning, I decided to stage an experiment. I would walk out of the door without a headscarf. I was in my long green skirt and a long tunic, and I had my scarf in a bag with me in case of trouble, but I would not cover my hair. I planned to see what would happen. I was sweating. This was really haram, and also the first time I had walked in a public space with my hair uncovered since I was sixteen.

Absolutely nothing happened. The gardeners kept trimming the hedges. Nobody went into a fit. Still, these were Dutch people, so perhaps not really men. I walked past Ethiopians and Zaireans, and no one paid any attention to me; but then, these people were not Muslims either. So I walked over to the group of Bosnians. Nobody looked at me. If anything, I attracted less attention than when I was covering my head. Not one man went into a frenzy.

Canada has had same-sex marriage since 2005, and no ill effects have yet been observed. My partner and I visited Victoria, BC only a month ago and saw no signs of civilizational collapse there. The buses were running on time, the flowers in the Butchart Gardens were still lovingly tended, and the newspapers carried no reports of increased bestiality among the local population.

Same-Sex Marriage and Civilizational Collapse

June 3, 2009

destructiondetail470In a recent blog comment, Mark Gordon decries what he sees as attacks on “the Christian moral tradition that holds homosexuality to be gravely disordered and sinful.” And he continues (still within the context of a discussion about homosexuality):

I named my blog “Suicide of the West” in recognition that we are entering the end-stages of a civilizational collapse, heralded (as all such collapses are) by the abandonment of sexual morality and the destruction of the family.

We have heard such sentiments a lot lately from religious and political leaders and from conservative talk-show hosts. So we learn from Dennis Prager (talk-show host) that same-sex marriages are like Islamic suicide bombings, and from James Dobson of Focus on the Family, we learn that same-sex marriage is a greater threat than terrorism because it will “destroy us from within.” Mike Huckabee, during the primaries leading up to the 2008 presidential elections, claimed that “there’s never been a civilization that has rewritten what marriage and family means and survived.”

Is this all just hyperbole, or do these individuals really fear that civilizational collapse will follow on the heels of same-sex marriage?

My partner and I have been in a loving and committed relationship for nearly ten years. He enjoys gardening and distance running, and I play the piano and do artwork in my spare time. We have a cat, and we both enjoy fine cuisine. Life is good.

We own a townhome in a city known for its progressive attitudes about homosexuality, and our particular neighborhood, in a charming older part of the city, is filled with gay and lesbian households. These couples are relatively affluent, many of the individuals are community leaders, and, like us, they hold jobs and pay taxes. Many of them support the arts, and many belong to local churches. Some of them are also raising children.

Somehow, I don’t see any of the signs of civilizational collapse here. Instead, what I see are ordinary people trying to manage their lives with as much wisdom and dignity as possible.

When I asked my partner if he thought he might be causing civilizational collapse, he replied, “I really doubt it, but it makes me feel awfully important.”

My partner and I are not “destroying” the family. Instead, we have created one, and we are committed to its preservation.

When we consider all the real threats to our planet—especially environmental collapse, overpopulation, water scarcity, and food shortages—we have to wonder why same-sex marriage inspires so much fear. Mark Gordon of the Suicide of the West blog is like a passenger on the sinking Titanic who complains to the porter about two guys kissing in the next cabin.