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Posted by Nobody at 10:01AM, Thursday, November 01st, 2007

The 2008 Election and Ballot Propositions

Un-American and cynical vehicles for bigots to weaken constitutions; evidence that we've learned little from centuries of civil rights progress; and the failure of American progressives to build coalitions and protect their own interests

Propositions and the petty and cruel tyranny of the majority
The passing of ballot propositions to amend the state constitutions and make discrimination against gays legal, in California, Arizona, and Florida put the lie to President-Elect Obama's assertion in his acceptance speech that "the dream of our Founders is alive in our time," that we all share "values of self-reliance and individual liberty." Tuesday was a profound setback for civil rights in America. What happened this weak was meaner and more vindictive than 2004, when many states where marriage equality did not exist voted discrimination into their constitutions. This week, voters in California stripped extant equal rights from a whole class of people. And it wasn't just in California. Aside from the other pro-discrimination questions in Arizona and Florida, a ballot question passed in Arkansas to make it illegal for unmarried cohabiting couples, gay or straight, to adopt. This punishes not only unmarried couples, but their children, and the many children in need of adoptive parents. A ballot question also passed in Nebraska to end affirmative action. This manifest cruelty was not confined to one state or region, or against just one class of people. It is legion, and it swept the nation, fueled by the false morality of organized religion.

These are not only the hallmarks of a petty and vindictive society, one which likes to punish the underdog -- queer, poor, non-white, or child -- and evidence of a marked backwards trend, across red and blue states alike. They're also further evidence of a terrifying change in America's relationship with its state constitutions. Modeled on the United States Constitution, these are documents designed to protect the rights of individuals (although, perversely, in these cases the respective constitutions are being used to erase any guarantee of rights for whole classes of individuals.) They set up our famous tripartite system of government, where the Congress writes the laws; the courts interpret them in the context of the constitution, determining their relevance, applicability, and constitutionality; and the executive branch gives press conferences and invades countries. The only reason to have a judicial branch is if conditions might arise where the laws written by the legislative branch are in violation with the constitution, and require amending or striking down. Because the U.S. Constitution establishes the framework for such decisions, the founders decided that changing it should be possible, but should be an onerous process. Otherwise, minorities are subject to the tyranny of the majority.

What we have in many states now is a movement to make it easier for the majority to tyrannize minorities, by altering those states' constitutional frameworks on a simple majority vote. This is contrary to the intentions of the founders, it's contrary to the purpose of having a government, and it's diametrically opposed to progress.

Much of the progress the African American civil rights movement made in the 50s and 60s came about via the judicial branch. Landmark decisions like Brown v Board of Education and Loving v Virginia were not popular at the time, in their context. It's doubtful that they would have passed a referendum vote. For that matter, the nation as a whole was not terribly fond of emancipation -- effecting that change required executive branch leadership of the kind we have not seen for decades.

We can look back on the 60s now, and say that, clearly, segregation was wrong, it was unfair, it was un-American -- but would segregation have ended, if left to the whim of the majority? Would we have the comfort of our enlightened view today, or would the South still have signs for colored rest rooms? Remember that, when Hitler rose to power, and started victimizing Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals, his actions were not terribly unpopular. We, as a nation, can look on them with hindsight and say that they were wrong -- partially because we know what they led to. At the time, their end result was uncertain. Citizens have never shown restraint in meting out punishment to those they hate. Californians who voted for Proposition 8 knew that the measure was controversial and not overwhelmingly popular, yet gleefully voted to penalize those who had never harmed them. It's difficult for me to see that humanity has evolved. It's popular to cite "the will of the people" in defending the kind of bigotry we saw last Tuesday, but doing so willfully and cynically ignores the mechanism through which America has historically improved the lives of minorities -- and ignores human nature. It's a dangerous, revisionist meme.

A trend towards hate, and the silence of leadership
Discussion of civil rights and equality is not merely abstract ideological debate. Hate crimes against queer people have been rising. As Human Rights First states, 'of particular note in the 2007 [FBI] statistics are continued increases in reported violent attacks against persons of Hispanic origin and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.' (http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/media/disc/2008/alert/354/) Although the Mormons who helped to fund Proposition 8 claim to be peaceful and respectful, there have been multiple reports of Proposition 8 supporters directing violence -- and associated verbal epithets -- against their opponents. And of course, this year has seen ugly racial intimidation against Obama and black people in general. The Boston Globe reports that the reprehensible practice of church burning has come to Massachusetts since the election. (http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/11/06/black_church_in_springfield_burns/?s_campaign=8315)

This vile manifestation of hatred does not happen in a vacuum. People look to their leaders for examples. Are we surprised that corporate executive malfeasance rose under the Bush regime? Are we surprised that hate crimes against Muslims spiked after 9/11? When heads of state proclaim that one class of people should not be afforded the same rights as another, it's no surprise that violence against that class increases. And while we on the "left" are quick to blame Bush when he does not adequately denounce the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and to blame McCain when he does not forcefully demand silence during the boos for Obama at his concession speech, we are markedly quiet when our own leaders fail to condemn vile behavior of their followers or supporters.

Remember the silence from Obama when his campaign and his supporters in the blogosphere unleashed a nauseating stream of sexism at Hillary Clinton? Remember how Obama shared a campaign stage with Donnie McClurkin, a man who once said -- on the 700 Club, no less -- that gay people were "trying to kill America's children?" We need to start holding our own leaders to the same standard we demand for Republicans. Statements like McClurkin's are expressly designed to incite violence and hatred towards gays and lesbians, and Obama's implicit support, by choosing such a figure to represent him on the campaign trail, is reprehensible.

During the Proposition 8 campaign, Obama did say that he opposed the proposition -- but always mentioned that he believed marriage should be between one man and one woman, whenever he did so. That's patronizing to voters. No one's dumb enough to fail to notice that contradiction. And it appears that Proposition 8 passed among black voters in California by 70%. Prominent African American leaders failed to articulate a case for black voters to oppose Proposition 8.

Coalition-building
One of the most cynical and depressing conclusions I've drawn from this campaign season is the inability of left-of-center factions in America to band together in coalitions. During the primary, we saw the corporate media unnecessarily frame the vote as a contest between misogyny and racism. Misogyny won, not just in the major media, but also in the so-called progressive blogosphere, in the Obama campaign, and in the conventional wisdom. Similarly, over the Donnie McClurkin fiasco, the Obama campaign bizarrely framed the process of gathering support among religious African American voters as a contest between racism and religious-backed homophobia. After gay groups loudly protested, the campaign brought in a white gay man to talk at the same event -- which merely reinforces the meme that homosexuality is a white people's issue. In the end, unsurprisingly, homophobia won that contest. Obama could have replaced McClurkin with an out gay black pastor -- he could have chosen someone like the Reverend Irene Monroe (http://www.irenemonroe.com/home/), and demonstrated that leftist factions need not be separate.

Similarly, Obama could have offered compelling arguments for minorities to oppose Proposition 8. Some conservative black people are offended when gay activists compare the gay rights struggle with the African American civil rights struggle, citing the difference in degree of visibility of skin color versus sexual orientation, or incorrectly claiming that sexuality isn't an innate characteristic like race. Regardless of the aptness of the comparison, equating these struggles is not necessary in order to build strong arguments for blacks and Hispanics to oppose America's war on gay people. Mention that the restriction of marriage has historically been a tool of oppression -- used against slaves, against the poor, against women, against mixed-race couples, and now against gays and lesbians. Mention that the same people, in some cases, who fought against miscegenation have used the same tools to fight against marriage equality for lesbians and gays. (Strom Thurmond, anyone?) Surely, coalition-building requires recognizing that, when our most vile enemies use their most despicable tactics against one group, we should all look out for them to wield those against any other group, and join together to stop them. Any doubts we have about the need to band together against our enemies should be erased when we see the same tools used successfully over and over again.

And yet I heard no such arguments from any prominent leaders on the left, white or black, during the campaign season. Where are our leaders?

As I noted after the 2004 election, the various minorities who should make up the progressive movement in America, when counted together, should form a vast majority: blacks, Hispanics, immigrants, anyone who believes in teaching science rather than bible-studies-as-science in school, the sick, the elderly, atheists, the poor, anyone who's had an abortion or knocked up someone who has, gays and lesbians and trasgendered people, Native Americans, Muslims... And yet, over and over again, we fail to stand up for one another, and allow the corporate media to divide us, and conquer us. There are reports of African Americans approaching anti-Proposition 8 protesters and shouting at them about god's will. (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/08/BAJ6140Q55.DTL) There are reports of African American pro-Prop 8 supporters calling demonstraters queers, and, not unexpectedly, of the protesters responding by using the N-word. This is not progress. It does not help anyone. And it does not give me hope for the future.

It's easy to look back sometimes and see how far we've come -- particularly after Obama's landslide last week. Yet, if our opponents can effectively use tried and true tools to do what they've done before, but this time to a new minority group -- and if other groups who've had those tools used against them fail to help the current victims -- have we really made any progress? Are we just happily swapping one set of underdogs for another, while failing to draw any conclusions about fundamental rights or dignity?

What needs to change?
Part of the blame for the success of the right wing's divide and conquer strategy lies with the media. How much did you hear about Donnie McClurkin through the corporate media, or about his support of George W. Bush during the 2000 election? How much did you hear about Obama backing out of appearances with Gavin Newsom, after Newsom supported the then-politically-dangerous notion of marriage equality in San Francisco in 2004? How much did you hear about Obama having Douglas Kmiec, prominent right-wing Catholic and Proposition 8 supporter, campaign for him? (http://advocate.com/exclusive_detail_ektid61930.asp) Those stories were relegated to the gay news ghetto -- just as discussions of Native American land rights during the primary were ignored, and just as many massive protests against the Iraq war were ignored. The Boston Globe has had no homepage coverage of the thousands-strong Proposition 8 protests for the last few days, even of protests in Massachusetts. We need to force the media to do better.

Part of the blame also rests with gay voters. In 2000, we supported Al Gore, despite his cowardly support for civil unions but not marriage, because he was the lesser of two evils. In 2004, we supported Kerry, who used the same losing strategy. In 2008, Obama actually, thankfully, won -- but not because he was different from them, in embracing his putative progressive tendencies. He offered the same non-support for gay equality -- and articulating support for "separate but equal" could not have been any more hypocritical, given his parentage.

I hear the conventional wisdom on this repeated incessantly -- that it's impossible to elect a national politician who openly expresses support for marriage equality. I don't see this as anything but rationalization. All three of the last Democratic nominees have been painted by the right as supporting gay marriage. Their shrewd political calculus of civil union support is unlikely to convince anyone who hates the gay, yet it makes them appear spineless and lacking in character, afraid to say what they really believe in, to right-wing or undecided voters. There are no test cases to prove the notion that being pro-marriage-equality makes a candidate unelectable -- no Democratic presidential nominee has ever, at the time, articulated a pro-gay-marriage view. However, there are plenty of test cases supporting the opposite conclusion -- presidents like Reagan and both Bushes openly and unabashedly supported policies (like opposition to abortion) that, according to contemporary polls, were more unpopular than gay marriage is now. And they won.

We cannot expect any but the saintliest of politicians to come to our aid unbidden. They will all stab us in the back when their political calculus, right or wrong, indicates it's the popular thing to do.

We need to make it clear that the political calculus is on our side, and that throwing us under the bus would be a disaster. We need to make it clear that "progressive" candidates who do not support us will lose all of our fundraising and volunteer time until they recant. Obama, Clinton, and Edwards all advocated similar positions on gay non-rights during the primary -- and we allowed them to do so, by giving our support to whichever of those lesser of evils should win. Well, there will ALWAYS be a choice between a lesser of two evils. As long as we settle, as long as we allow politicians to marginalize us, we will be without representatives and champions in positions of power. I have spoken with many gay and pro-gay Obama supporters, but haven't spoken with any people who have told the campaign to forget about their votes or their money until Obama comes around on gay marriage. That needs to change. We are the people. We donate an out-of-proportion chunk of change to progressive candidates, but without conditions. We could have the power to affect change, if we would only seize it. If we don't exercise that power, if we allow politicians to fuck us, without repercussion from us or the so-called progressive movement, if we fail to give them any reason NOT to throw us under the buss, except for their own stunted conscience, we'll never get progress.

What's next?
One thing that's heartening this week is that there have been massive daily protests throughout California since election day. It's becoming evident that queers are not going to take this un-American attack on civil rights laying down. Opponents of Proposition 8 are mounting legal challenges to the ballot question. It's unclear whether California ballot initiatives can constitutionally strip away such fundamental rights.

There's also been a visceral backlash against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which strongly urged its members to give financial support to the Proposition 8 campaign. As a result, donations from Mormons appear to have funded between 48% and 73% of the campaign (http://advocate.com/news_detail_ektid65120.asp). There's a growing movement to challenge the church's tax-exempt status, since it was politically lobbying to enshrine bigotry in the California constitution. There are also reports of grassroots movements to boycott tourism in Utah, and to boycott Sundance.

In the short term, the Proposition 8 campaign, and its religious backers, made this a personal fight, by attempting to restrict rights, the exercise of which did not affect them in any substantial way. They declared war on us -- not just on queers, but on anyone who does not abide by their own religious cults' favorite discriminatory beliefs. I don't recall the church rising in protest against war, or poverty, or hypocrisy -- all things that Jesus loudly spoke against. They have turned to the basest of human instincts. In doing so, they have awoken and energized a massive civil rights movement.

It will be a long and bloody fight, because our opponents are violent and immoral and two-faced, and determined to inflict their personal religious beliefs on everyone. Although, ultimately, their power is fading as the older, more openly bigoted generations die off, in the nearer term, Proposition 8 affects gay kids, gay adults, gay couples, and their children and families -- not to mention hurting state revenue by destroying the burgeoning gay marriage industry. Gays and lesbians in California have been shocked into loud action by the bigotry their compatriots displayed in this election. At the moment, it appears that Proposition 8 may have galvanized a coordinated gay equality push, the likes of which haven't been seen since ACT UP! in the 1980s. We hope that this outrage is not merely temporary, but lasting and powerful enough to force much-needed change. It's up to us, and us alone, for now, to make things better.

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