Democrats seem only to believe in means -- policies, tactics, rules. This would include the Democratic Leadership Council’s fixation on triangulation; only last week Al From insisted that there has never been a liberal majority in this country.
Delicacy prevented him from adding the understood “and there never will be.” The problem is, the words liberal and conservative no longer have any intelligible meaning whatsoever, just as the concept of compromise no longer has any meaning. If liberals are those who believe in means, above all -- and there is no shame in it; democracy is, after all, a process, and progressives know you have to start wherever you are -- we are in big trouble right now. Because a rule-based attitude will not work against a powerful, wealthy movement that firmly believes that the ends justify the means.
One of those means is scapegoating. Rush Limbaugh detected kindred spirits in the gang at Abu Ghraib -- those frat house pranksters who just needed to “blow off a little steam.” Like a lot of people, he really seemed to enjoy their practical jokes. But since the so-called torture really was just pranks, it also stands to reason that no one else in the chain of command was involved. One wonders how Lynndie England had the prescience to bring so many black hoods and dog leashes with her to Iraq.
Here at home, in the Culture War, the scapegoating started immediately after September 11, when Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed the catastrophe on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, the gays and the lesbians . . . the ACLU, People for the American way,” etc. Courts and judges are also very much to blame: “Modern US Supreme Courts have raped the Constitution and raped the Christian faith,” Falwell believes. And the right, despite some superficial denials, has pretty much stuck with that analysis.
Scapegoating is, in origin, a religious ritual. The children of Israel would put heavy packs on the back of a goat and chase it out into the wilderness, where it would die under the burden of the community’s sins. The purpose of the ritual was to provide a catharsis for the people, as they whipped the poor animal and themselves into a frenzy, and, more importantly, to allow them to continue on doing whatever it was that made them feel so guilty with a light heart. A more modern word for scapegoating might be projection.
People like Senator Rick Santorum, for example, are projecting their own perversions onto the gay population. Santorum believes that -- let me get this exactly right, now --people have no more right to gay sex than they do to bestiality and incest. There can be no right to privacy where crimes are concerned. Period. Homosexuality is a crime to those who believe in Santorum’s version of Biblical law, and the theocracy based on that law. Most Americans really have no idea what Biblical law is all about, and we ought to help them start thinking about it. We could start by thinking about Senator Rick Santorum. When Santorum’s wife suffered a miscarriage, they took the fetus home to introduce to its brothers and sisters, before the burial. He has written a highly instructive book called It Takes a Family.
That is why it is extremely disturbing to read in an article in The Nation called “Beyond Gay Marriage” that authors Richard Kim and Lisa Duggan believe that by engaging in the marriage debate only in terms of “gay rights,” both the gay movement and the Democratic Party have put themselves in a compromised and losing position. Faced with an aggressive marriage movement that has skillfully stoked and manipulated anxiety about same-sex marriage, progressive Democrats and gays must come together to reframe the issue as part of a larger campaign for household democracy and security, a campaign that responds to the diverse ways Americans actually structure their intimate lives.
It is hard to believe that there are still those on the left who believe they can wonk their way out of the Culture War.
Duggan and Kim go on to analyze exactly why, when everything else is trending in favor of gay rights, gay marriage is such a winning issue for Bush Republicans. They cite neoliberal economic policies, which have strained families. Gay marriage, then, is put forward as a proxy for the security of the family, which is many people’s last economic resort. Therefore, QED, people saw these anti-gay-marriage amendments as referenda on the issue of “household security.”
I find that analysis strained. It is true that families are under attack. It is also true that marriage is a very powerful icon, one that easily arouses strong emotions -- and the easiness of the emotion has a lot to do with the fact that referenda on things like marriage and the flag seem, to the vast majority of voters, to be entirely without cost, beyond the emotion. Nevertheless, isn’t it clear that at a point in time when everything is rapidly changing beyond understanding or comprehension, that marriage, one of the oldest of human traditions, is a powerful magnet for the fantasy of going back in time? Back to a simpler era when problems, no matter how bad, could be identified and resolved. Gay people become icons of hostility toward household security, yes, but the intermediate step is that we are icons of rapid, uncontrollable change.
Which is just a polite way of saying that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have found a way to blame 9/11 on the pagans and the abortionists and the gays and the lesbians. The marriage amendments, brilliantly, put whole electorates into an us-versus-them position, simply by virtue of the fact that Republican legislatures across the country, acting in lock-step, passed the initiatives to be put on ballots. The initiatives were presented to the electorate as purely symbolic, but immediately afterward Republican attorneys-general moved, again in lock-step, to use these initiatives to roll back decades of rights, and not just for gay people. The very act of taking away basic rights implicates all those who voted for the initiatives, conditioning and desensitizing them to the harm that is being done. That’s a lot of people who’ve already taken one step in a very bad direction.
What we are fighting here is fundamentalist religion. In political terms, religion is an emotion, an authentic, deep emotion. You cannot fight it with “rational” belief systems, science or fact, which is one reason why Republicans have become the anti-science party. Under the tutelage of Bill Kristol, conservatives re-framed creationism and made it something called Intelligent Design. They have done nothing less than reverse the Scopes trial defeat of 80 years ago. They’re re-writing history, and this time the Bible wins! George Bush went on the campaign trail to spread the good news right before he went on his five-week summer vacation.
You certainly cannot fight this with policy. The only way the left can fight this emerging proto-fascist theocracy is with emotion. Real emotion.
The emotional tone people respond to in Bush Republicanism is sadism. Right now, that passes for courage. Moreover, George Bush doesn’t advocate that sadism; he embodies it. Whatever lies he may tell, whatever twists his “policies” may take, the characteristic cruelty is always there, palpable in every twitch of his eyes and roll of his shoulders. The fact that two-thirds of the American people recently said they find him “strong and likable” is profoundly disturbing.
Paul Hackett obviously embodied something real in the recent special election in Ohio: the authentic position of the American soldier in Iraq. From a policy perspective, it is impossible to understand how an anti-war position could lead to a man signing on for another tour of duty in Iraq. But it is surely obvious to the least empathetic among us that the people who are actually fighting this war are in an emotionally conflicted position. They are committed, but to each other, not to the war itself.
The worry is that the DLC and the congressional Democratic leadership will take their lesson from Hackett’s confused policies rather than from his passionate advocacy for American troops, and thereby, once again, manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. “Too much, too fast, too soon,” Dianne Feinstein clucked about gay marriage (The Nation, above) in a formulation whose cadence is oddly reminiscent of “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.”
Because the Democratic Party has abandoned vulnerable constituencies, because it refuses even to acknowledge the need for strident political opposition, right now Republicans are on a shopping spree buying up tokens from traditionally Democratic groups. That is exactly what Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman went to the NAACP conference to do. I don’t know whether he apologized for George W. Bush’s absence -- that might be an unacceptable show of weakness -- but he did sincerely apologize for Republicans’ racist southern strategy before pitching good old fashioned homophobia to a welcoming black audience. Mehlman not only made the pitch, he embodied it: as a gay man, he showed just how far a token can go under George Bush.
Tokenism is one of the most effective tactics the Grand Old Party has going for it. When people start to get a little bit uncomfortable, they can always think about a Mehlman, or Santorum’s chief of staff, or Condi Rice, or Karen Hughes, and think, how bad could it be?
It was the Terri Schiavo affair, and the spectacle of the rightwing openly stirring up hatred and interfering in very private family matters, that started to make the masses queasy. It also highlighted the extreme disproportion between the roiling rage of the right and the virtual non-response of the left.
Events on so-called Justice Sunday revealed to many mainstream Americans for the first time the murderous hatred fueling this very real war. With respect to “activist liberal judges,” there was even approving talk about “no man, no problem.” The Stalin solution. Just kill them. And let us never forget, all this animosity is directed toward judges only because judges stand between the wingnuts and their most hated enemies, the lesbians, the feminists, the pagans, etc. The end result of this violent campaign was that a group of the most unqualified, Constitution-hating radicals you could ever imagine now have lifetime seats on key federal benches. And the left found a way to save the filibuster.
In this context, reframing is just another excuse for not fighting.
What we can do, without recourse to our entrenched and self-defeating leadership, is take up our own causes as vehemently as the right has taken up theirs, including constitutional amendment initiatives. Jesse Jackson, Jr., has three such proposals that should be front and center right now. One guarantees an equal right to a high quality public education for all. When divorce rates are climbing because of lack of education, this is a pro-marriage position. Another amendment concerns the right to vote, which is not mandated in our Constitution, as the Supreme Court kindly pointed out when they decided Bush v. Gore in Mr. Bush’s favor. The right to vote is under attack, and we need to yell that from every main street in America. And, finally, Jackson proposes to make access to high quality health care a constitutional guarantee, a move that would rescue the working and middle classes from extinction.
Jackson argues that we must focus on rights, because what we’re building is not one candidate, or campaign, or even a coherent, long-term policy platform. We are building a grassroots movement. Jackson knows that gay people, black people, people who believe in peace and justice and the environment, true Christians and all those who live by the Golden Rule, are eager to be in the forefront of this fight. We know we have no choice. We only demand that there be a fight.
Patricia Goldsmith is a member of Long Island Media Watch, a grassroots free media and democracy watchdog group. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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