Sunday, May 31, 2009

Identity Politics Redux

"Court Choice Brings Issue of 'Identity' Back Out," heralds the New York Times. The ascendancy of Barack Obama was supposed to have ushered in a new post-racial era. However, the choice of Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter has inconveniently brought to fore the debate over race and identity, which was really never settled at all.

Plain truth is, we are not in a new post-racial or post-identity age. In an increasingly diverse society with growing inequity, identity - racial, ethnic, religious, regional, class and gender orientation - will continue to play an important role in public discourse. Identity Politics, that is, political action to advance the interests of a group whose members perceive themselves to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized trait, is integral and crucial to American democracy.

People who share characteristics because of which they experience disenfranchisement and oppression coalesce to challenge and transform prevailing negative ideas and stereotypes about them. They act to change the injustice and inequity they live with daily. They are empowered and become active citizens. They gain a place in the political arena previously inhabited and dominated by white privileged males.

Critics argue that identity politics causes division. Then again, the rifts have barely been bridged, much as some would like to declare the project complete. While stressing difference might seem to widen gaps, I believe that embracing diversity and working through its challenges will result in a stronger and more equitable society. It fosters, at times forces, dialogue.

The LGBT movement is a prime example. By embracing a gay identity, individuals challenge and contest long held ideas and prejudices against them. Since the Stonewall Riots, LGBT people have gained a voice in the public square, are emboldened and more visible, and continue to gain allies. Most of all, this minority group marches on to gain full equality as citizens. We follow the footsteps of African Americans and women.

It would be rather disingenuous for anyone to say that we are past differences and that there is no need to acknowledge and deal with the hard realities of our pluralistic nation. As R.D. Parker wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, "All politics is identity politics. Political activity is - and, at its best, is - animated by efforts to define and defend who I am, or who we are, or you are, or hope to be, or hope to be seen." Furthermore, "the choices and the commitments we make in politics are ones with which we mean to - or by which we cannot help but - identify ourselves."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

People First

I like ideas. I enjoy immersing in them, following the flow, sometimes altering the course to see where it leads. However, I don't get how we sometimes put ideas - economic theories, political ideologies or religious dogma - before breathing, living human beings.

The primacy of the idea of free and unregulated markets sent the global economy into a tail spin with millions around the world losing their jobs, homes, savings and sense of security. Billions more are pushed into deeper poverty, hunger and desperation. Yet there are those that defiantly cling on to ideology and refuse to consider pragmatic compromises. In this country, elected officials have refused much needed aid for their constituencies out of disdain for the current administration and federal government. The idea of limited government carries more weight than the reality of families struggling to get by day in and day out.

Forty years after Stonewall, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans remain second class citizens because of the idea that we are somehow less than our heterosexual neighbors, because of some people's idea that god condemns those she also created in her image. We are denied the right to marry because of an idea that has itself changed through the centuries. We are not allowed to defend the country we love because of the idea that our presence would disrupt and demoralize the ranks. We are not afforded over a thousand privileges straight people take for granted because of the idea that we have chosen to be gay, that we are responsible for how we were born.

Then there are those who put some idea of godly mandate before their very own children's welfare. Parents who allow their pubescent daughters to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers. Mothers who refuse standard medical procedures that could save their children's lives.

I realize there are those who will argue that I should not judge or condemn people for their religious beliefs. After all, the afterlife and divine judgment are at stake. But that too is an idea. The child that suffers, the individual that is denied basic rights, the families that have lost everything they worked hard for, the billions that live on less that $2 a day, these are real. Real human beings before us, flesh and blood. Not ideas we have chosen to believe.

Image by
Steve Sawyer.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Laughter & Hate

Clowns Kicked KKK Asses. The posted link on Facebook immediately caught my eye. The post narrated how a white supremacy rally was drowned out by counter protesters dressed up as clowns. When the supremacists shouted "White Power!" the clowns yelled back "White Flour" and threw flour in the air. Subsequent angry volleys of "White Power!" was countered with "White Flower?" and petals, then "Tight Shower?" and a solar shower, and finally "Wife Power?" and women in white dresses. The last return successfully managed to get the VNN Vanguard Nazi/KKK members to attack and get arrested. That was in May 2007.

The white supremists were protesting what they believed was a hate crime ignored by the national media out of political correctness and elite bias because the perpetrators were African American and the victims, whites. Associated Content (not related to Associated Press) comments:
The amount of savagery that took place in this case is of such magnitude that bloggers and their readers are asking, "Where's the national media?" What happened to these two young people is right up there with Jeff Dahmer's deeds on the list of wicked things that people have done to each other.
In January that year, 21 year-old Channon Christian and her boyfriend, 23 year-old Christopher Newsom, were abducted in Knoxville, Tennessee, in what appears to have started as a carjacking. The suspects allegedly tortured and raped Channon for several days before killing her. Christopher was murdered sooner but his treatment was no less brutal.

The crime was undoubtedly savage and those that committed it need to be brought to justice. Whether it was a hate crime or not, I do not know. People, impassioned by the horrific event, have the right to air their grievances. Including those who have made it their life's mission to loathe and denigrate people of color, Jews, lesbians and gays, and others they deem not chosen and unpure.

The good thing about our democracy is that the rest of us can stand up and point to the absurdity of their arguments. Even parody their odium. Unfortunately, ignorance, fear and hate are not easily dispelled by mirth. Discrimination is not always so overt as to identify itself through rallies, slogans, websites and appearances in Fox TV. Many of us are still influenced, not a few convinced, by nuanced and at times insidiously subtle "reasons" for continued segregation and disenfranchisement of people of color, immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. We need to remain vigilant, ready to stand up for what is right and just.

Image from Neatorama.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Dallas Principles

Although President Obama continues to protest that he supports full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, fact is, he has done nothing to back up his words. He has not even attempted minor changes that fall within his purview such as the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell or suspension of dismissals due to DADT through an executive order. This comes as no surprise as he is an elected official beholden to numerous and disparate stakeholders. If he were to come out pushing for LGBT initiatives such as same-sex marriage, he would instantly alienate constituencies he believes he needs, adversely affect his more important policy initiatives and ultimately, his grander vision of change. This would also go against his dogged and at times quixotic adherence to pragmatism and bipartisanship.

So what are the gays to do? Contrary to Meghan McCain's claim that homosexuals are better off with the Republican Party, the LGBT community is well advised to cast its lot with Mr. Obama and the Democrats. At least until the GOP becomes more centrist and rids itself of a conservative social agenda. As such, gay establishment leaders keep aligned and in step with the administration, preaching patience to the troops.

However, that is not enough. Pressure on the White House and the Democrats to remind them of their promises of full inclusion and equality - pressure for real change - has to be kept. And this push should come from the grassroots as they have the numbers and the power when agitated, harnessed and deployed. More importantly, it is the individual on the ground, not the highflyers flitting through the halls of Congress and the White House, who suffer more from discriminatory and unfair policies and institutions. The elite of the LGBT community have the resources as well as social and political capital to buffer themselves. Middle and lower class lesbians and gays do not. LGBT of color have so much less.

It is thus appropriate that a week ago, 24 thinkers, activists, and donors gathered in Dallas, Texas to discuss the immediate need for full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender people in the United States. Collectively they prepared The Dallas Principles and have launched a campaign promoting this grassroots effort. They outline principles, lay out goals and sound a call to action.

Their preamble reads:
President Obama and Congress pledged to lead America in a new direction that included civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. We now sit at a great moment in our history that inspires the nation to return to its highest ideals and greatest promise. We face a historic opportunity to obtain our full civil rights; this is the moment for change. No delay. No excuses.
No more delays. No more excuses.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Faith & Policy

President Obama asked the graduating class of Notre Dame, "Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?"

Indeed, America is becoming more and more pluralistic. About 15% of citizens identify themselves as Latino, 13% as African American and 4% as Asian Pacific American. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that an average of 1.8 million immigrants come to the United States every year.

Moreover, a recent survey by the Pew Forum speaks of diversity in religious belief and affiliation as well. For instance, 26.3% of those polled are affiliated with Evangelical Protestant Churches; 18.1% with Mainline Protestant Churches; 23.9% with the Roman Catholic Church; and 6.9% with Historically Black Churches. Close to 2% identify themselves as Jewish while almost 3% belong to Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and other world religions. A stunning 16.1% of Americans are not affiliated with any faith tradition, a cohort that has grown the most. Another survey reveals that individuals change religious affiliation early and often.

So, in a highly diverse society, what role should religion play in politics? More to the point, what role should the personal faith of an elected official have in determining public policy? How do we engage in "vigorous debate" without imposing specific religious beliefs through the state?

In a panel discussion hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life and continued through the book One Electorate Under God: A Dialogue on Religion and American Politics, this question is debated. It began with an exchange between politicians Mario Cuomo and Mark Souder.

Cuomo, a three time democratic governor of New York and liberal Roman Catholic said:
Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as of the heart. To be a Catholic is to commit to certain dogmas. It also means a commitment to practice the faith day to day. The practice can be difficult ... Catholics who also hold political office have an additional responsibility. They have to create conditions under which all citizens are reasonably free to act according to their own religious beliefs, even when this acts conflict with Roman Catholic dogma regarding divorce, birth control, abortion, stem cell research, and even the existence of God ... Catholic public officials, like all public officials, take an oath to preserve the United States Constitution which guarantees this freedom.
Souder, an Republican incumbent from Indiana and conservative Protestant countered:
Conservative faiths, even sects within these faiths, differ on how involved the City of God should be with the City of Man. But this much is true: Conservative Christians as individuals do not separate their lives into a private sphere and a public sphere ... If you believe you are specifically designed - if you believe in fact that you are not part of some random, inevitable progression of life - then you believe not only that you can change things, you believe also that you have an obligation to change things ... To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do. Either I am a Christian or I am not. Either I reflect His glory of I do not.
The first amendment does guarantee the right of public officials to express their faith. The fact is, whether we agree with it or not, think it is right or not, people do bring in their faith, moral beliefs and values to the commons. Through the voices of legislators, elected officials, judges, religious and secular leaders, the media and any one loud enough, religion in its own permutations takes part in public discourse. Nonetheless, the first amendment prohibits religion from governance.

In the book One Electorate Under God, noted American sociologist and educator Robert Bellah, expresses his belief that
it is perfectly appropriate to base one's political stand on the particular faith tradition to which one is committed and to explain that tradition in arguing one's case. The only caveat is that one's argument must appeal to general moral principles in persuading others. One does not have the right to demand that others accept the tenets of one's own faith in making a political decision.
During his dialogue with Souder, Cuomo realistically pointed out that
Religious values will not be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the community at large. The plausibility of achieving that consensus is a relevant consideration in deciding whether or not to make the effort to impose those values officially.
The Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, in introducing President Obama, echoes this sentiment when he said
As we serve our country, we will be motivated by faith, but we cannot appeal only to faith ... We must also engage in a dialogue that appeals to reason that all can accept ...
In this vibrant, varied and vigorous democracy of ours, what role then should religion play in politics?

Cuomo proposes an answer based on what he holds all religions teach.
We need to love one another, to come together to create a good society, and to use that mutuality discreetly in order to gain the benefits of community without sacrificing individual freedom and responsibility. In these concededly broad terms that would be good government.
I would leave religion in the private sphere and turn to universal values all Americans share. Common principles upon which institutions can be built and policies crafted. Equality. Justice. Compassion. Altruism. Honesty. Integrity. Responsibility. Duty. Love of country. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Legislators and other public officials could learn from a wise woman. When asked how she went about integrating her faith with her public service, the late Barbara Jordan, political pioneer, congresswoman, professor and faithful Baptist said, "You would do well to pursue your career with vigor while realizing that God may well choose to bless an opposing point of view for reasons that have not yet been revealed to you."

Image by Inez Templeton.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blind Justice?

Empathy has been getting a lot of buzz lately, what with President Obama declaring the facility to experience as one's own the feelings of another as a desired trait for Justice Souter's replacement.
I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook ... It's also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives -- whether they can make a living and care for their families, whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele, while sitting in on Bill Bennett's syndicated radio show, blurted out, "Crazy nonsense empathetic! I'll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind!"

Conservatives concurred albeit in a more appropriate manner. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch calls "empathy" for what it really is.
He's also said that a judge has to be a person of empathy. What does that mean? Usually that's a code word for an activist judge ... But he also said that he's going to select judges on the basis of their personal politics, their personal feelings, their personal preferences. Now, you know, those are all code words for an activist judge, who is going to, you know, be partisan on the bench.
Economist and social commentator Thomas Sowell warns us:
That President Obama has made "empathy" with certain groups one of his criteria for choosing a Supreme Court nominee is a dangerous sign of how much further the Supreme Court may be pushed away from the rule of law and toward even more arbitrary judicial edicts to advance the agenda of the left and set it in legal concrete, immune from the democratic process.
Folks have latched on to the poor word. Perhaps with good reason as the ability to walk in another person's shoes seems rather important to Mr. Obama. However, is that necessarily a bad thing? Dahlia Lithwick points to the president's book The Audacity of Hope, in which he described empathy as "a call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes."
To Obama, empathy chiefly means applying a principle his mother taught him: asking, "How would that make you feel?" before acting. Empathy in a judge does not mean stopping midtrial to tenderly clutch the defendant to your heart and weep. It doesn't mean reflexively giving one class of people an advantage over another because their lives are sad or difficult. When the president talks about empathy, he talks not of legal outcomes but of an intellectual and ethical process: the ability to think about the law from more than one perspective.
Peter Slevin also reminds everyone that
Obama has deeper experience with constitutional law than any of his modern predecessors, having spent 11 years as a lecturer on the subject at the University of Chicago. For many of those years he was also an Illinois state senator, working the intersection of law and politics.
So people should calm down, meet the president's choice and go through the vetting process. The president will not nominate someone who will upend the rule of law and arbitrarily make decisions. The touted short list bears this out. Empathy is not code. Rather he seeks someone who realizes that laws are made by and for men and not the other way around. Which, really, is not a bad thing is it?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville writes:
What is fanaticism? Fanaticism is mistaking one's faith for knowledge or attempting to impose it through force. The two almost invariably go hand in hand: Dogmatism and terrorism are mutually reinforcing. This is a double offense - against intelligence and against freedom. Thus we must combat it doubly - through lucidity and democracy. Freedom of conscience is a human right and a prerequisite of intelligence.
I will not argue that opponents of gay rights are terrorists, they are not. Nonetheless, by using the argument that homosexuality is a "sin" for the continued institutional and legal discrimination of a group of citizens, these individuals are no less fanatical than the people Comte-Sponville describes. They are forcing their religious beliefs on a secular society against a minority.

Comte-Sponville continues:
Religion is a right, and so is irreligion. Thus, both must be protected - if necessary, one against the other - and protecting them means ensuring that they are not imposed through force. This is why the separation of church and state is the most precious heritage of the Enlightenment. Today's world is rediscovering how very fragile that heritage is. All the more reason to defend it against all forms of fundamentalism and pass it to our children.
Separation of church and state is a cornerstone of American democracy. The first amendment guarantees the right of individuals to choose their religion (or not to have one) and ensures that the state will not establish, favor or sponsor any faith.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress ofgrievances.
Thus, while we are all free to express our opinion based on a belief, we cannot and should not use religious dogma as basis for law and reason for denying others of equality, dignity and freedom.
Image from Joe Moderate.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

WWCD, Take 2

Apparently, there has been quite a reaction to a recent poll analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which I blogged about three days ago. The Washington Post (B2, May 9, 2009 paper edition) calls it a "fiery response."
A firestorm has erupted over an analysis from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showing that white evangelical Protestants are far more likely than those in other faith traditions to support the use of torture against suspected terrorists ... the blogosphere blew up, with representatives of various faiths - and even some evangelicals - accusing evangelicals of forsaking the love-thine-enemy doctrine of Christianity, and evangelicals protesting that they were being unfairly tarred as un-Christian ... the original analysis overlooked a centrally important piece of information: the big dividing line on public support for torture as a tool in terrorism investigations is along partisan lines, not religious ones.
Apparently, it was quite the conflagration that Pew took a closer look.
Indeed, religion is only one of many factors correlated with views on the justifiability of torture. Differences between Republicans and Democrats are even larger than differences across religious groups, with 64% of Republicans saying torture can be often or sometimes justified, compared with only 36% among Democrats ... Statistical analysis that simultaneously examines correlations between views on torture, partisanship, ideology and demographic variables (including religion, education, race, etc.) finds that party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture than are religion and most other demographic factors.

In short, Republicans are twice more likely to approve torture. Political not religious affiliation is the main determinant of who thinks torture is a good thing. But then again, don't Republicans invoke God more than the rest of us? And aren't most White Evangelicals card carrying members of the GOP?

As Pew points out in the same statement:

Of course, religion itself is known to be a strong factor shaping individuals' partisanship and political ideology. Attitudes about torture are likely to reflect both moral judgments and political considerations -- both of which may be formed in part by religious convictions -- about circumstances under which torture may be justified.

So after dousing the flames and clearing the smoke, it looks like nothing has changed. Really.

Image from peacepalestine.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Private Prayer, Public Space

President Obama broke with tradition again by marking the National Day of Prayer but not with a public ceremony in the East Room as has been the practice of his predecessor. Under the unabashedly pro-"faith" Bush administration, the White House hosted an interfaith service each year, inviting Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders. Presidents Reagan and Bush 1 also held White House observances. Today, Mr. Obama signed a proclamation but kept his prayers private.

"Prayer is something that the president does everyday," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs explained. "I think the president understands, in his own life and in his family's life, the role that prayer plays."

As to be expected, there are those who are not happy with the latest presidential antic. Shirley Dobson, wife of the most righteous James Dobson and chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Committee, issued a statement which reads,
We are disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration ... At this time in our country's history, we would hope our president would recognize more fully the importance of prayer.
Atheists are not too thrilled by the proclamation either. Trina Hoaks of the Atheism Examiner writes,
As you might imagine, this dismays (to put it mildly) many secularists, humanists, and atheists across the nation. Hasn't this country been under the influence of religion and pointless prayer for long enough for the point to have been driven home that this approach doesn't work? We just came out of one of the darkest periods in this country's history and the country is in a shambles. Doesn't that tell us anything? Will we ever learn? It is time to move away from the nonsensical stranglehold that religion has on this country. Proclaiming yet another National Day of Prayer is a move in the wrong direction.
Then, there are those who are perfectly fine with Mr. Obama's choice. Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance issued a statement which says,

President Obama did the right thing today by issuing a proclamation for the National Day of Prayer that is inclusive of all Americans. We must cherish the freedom in this country to pray or not to pray.

The reality is that we don't need our elected leaders to instruct us in the ways of religion just as we don't need our religious leaders to tell us for whom to vote. However, if we are going to have such a day, I am glad to see that this president understands that it should be inclusive.

I think prayer has its place. In private, within the confines of a religious space, or among people who have chosen on their own accord to gather for the sole and express purpose of praying. Not in the commons inhabited by citizens of various beliefs as well as a good number - 16% - who do not claim any religion.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

What Would Christians Do?

One would think that Jesus' mandate to love one's neighbor would somehow figure in the torture debate especially among Christians. Interestingly however, "unaffiliated" Americans - those that do not profess any faith or attend any religious services - are more "Christian" than those who quote the Bible unquestioningly and bandy self righteousness indictments on those they consider sinful and beyond redemption.

An analysis by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life of a new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press illustrates differences in the views of four major religious traditions about whether torture of suspected terrorists can be justified.

Over 60 percent of White Evangelicals and half of White non-Hispanic Catholics believe that torture can be justified. Forty six percent of White mainline Protestants would condone torture. Only forty percent of unaffiliated Americans believe that the use of torture can be justified.

It appears that church attendance whets the appetite for tormenting God's other children. Over 50 percent of those who attend weekly religious services think that "enhanced interrogation techniques" can be justified. After all, the exquisite pain, humiliation and fear are inflicted on suspected terrorists. On non-Christians that dare to attack God's chosen nation.

Come to think of it, the Roman Empire considered Jesus of Nazareth a terrorist. Thus the flogging, crown of thorns, public humiliation and crucifixion. If these God-fearing folks were alive then, I suspect that they would be the loudest in shouting "Crucify him!"