Thursday, February 22, 2007

Oliver Gets it 1/2 Right

Too much work, too much travel, so little time to blog. But I wanted to be sure to highlight yesterday's post by Oliver Willis on the intersection between the Black Church and Democratic Politics from yesterday: The Old Hotness.

The money quote from it, to me, is this one:

Who is the American leader, in all of our history, who was most impactful at conjoining his religious beliefs and political action? It's not Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell or any of the agents of intolerance on the right. It's Martin Luther King. That is, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I often imagine King and other leaders before and since in the black church (yes, including Sharpton and Jackson) saying "I've got your religious left right here".

I think its great so many groups popped up espousing progressive religion, but I fear too many of them are in the mold of trying to appeal to conservative evangelicals - mostly southerners - who would vote for Satan before they would vote for a Democrat (I take pride in the fact that the bulk of haters vote GOP). Instead of liberals going to the existing religious left who pioneered political action and faith decades ago and saying "guide us", people created brand new organizations that too often ain't fooling anybody (If I hear anyone else say "we have values too" or any other empty platitude I'll go postal) and aren't - ironically - preaching to anyone.

The black churches of America aren't as fashionable and sexy perhaps as these other new organizations, but they've been there, they've done the homework, and they've produced tangible results we see every day in our lives as Americans. If they die out or fade away as a political force, the Democratic party and liberalism is doomed. Ignoring them and what they've done is a travesty.

Oliver is certainly correct in asserting what I think he is saying: the pre-existing, highly successful model, of the religious political left (for want of a better term) is Black people, and the Black church. And yet, when it comes to the new dialogue of reaching out to liberal and progressive people of faith, people are creating new models instead of embracing and following the lead of the one that both already exists and has delivered electoral success to the Democratic Party over and over and over again.

Unfortunately, Oliver takes that central premise and makes some assumptions that I think miss the point of the debate that started, I guess, when Jim Wallis called out Markos (who then acted as if he didn't get it, as Markos often does in the middle of controversy generated by his words IMO, and let others front for him instead of him speaking for himself) over about the fact that oftentimes, on DailyKOS in particular but more generally on left-wing sites, there is active verbal disdain and insult levied at religion and those who hold religious belief.

Where Bro. Oliver gets it wrong is in allowing himself to fall victim to a common deflection technique I've seen on the left where religion (and other controversial subjects in which the mirror is held up to itself) is concerned: he sets up a strawman and then knocks it down when he says:

And yes, the idea of these mythical Democrats who persecute the religious that nobody can ever name stinks to high heaven).

The strawman is the idea that anyone has ever accused folks on the left of "persecuting" the religious. I follow religious discussions pretty closely on most of the left-wing sites, and nobody has ever made that accusation. Thus, Oliver's dismissal of the accusation is dismissing a phantom that he and others who are uncomfortable with confronting the problem of folks hating on religious folks on left-wing sites head-on simply made up. Nobody is claiming any movement, or any organized effort, to "persecute the religious."

What the complaint is, and always has been, is that too many on the left who despise religion for their own personal reasons -- and I'm using the word despise quite deliberately, because every time this issue comes up I'm accused of capping on atheists and while the group I'm referring to often refers to itself as atheists most atheists were raised right and do not engage in the juvenile behavior that is generating so much complaint on the left from religious people -- have been encouraged, rewarded with mojo on sites that hand it out, and not called to task for insulting the very intelligence and ability to think and reason of those who call themselves religious, even allies on the left. When words like "irrational" and "unable to reason" and "deluded" and "psychosis" regularly find themselves in a dialogue between supposed adults about religion over and over again, only someone who is either (a) an ostrich or (b) self-serving or (c) a liar can fail to see the injury and deliberate harm. And none of this harm is excused by the fact that folks are fighting the same political fight. It also isn't excused by the fact that someone feels hurt about what the Catholic Church did or did not do to them or someone they love, the fact that their families may have psychically injured them while claiming to be religious or even that God does not intervene to prevent individual or global human suffering -- all reasons that I have seen written by folks who not only disclaim belief in religion (a non-issue) but can't just stop there, but instead go to the well of insult.

Oliver Willis, presumably knowing some Black religious folks, knows that our people wouldn't put up with that shit, in our churches or in our political movements, and would drop-kick someone with both barrels of the Lord (metaphorically) for one reason and one reason only: no matter what folks believe personally, coming in with such talk is inherently *disrespectful* to the majority of our people and our church communities which have proven their political worth. It is only in the white-dominated blogosphere that it is even tolerated, based on my experience. Maybe it's the perception of critical mass, maybe it's the sense that in their real lives they are frustrated having to conform to the social rules of etiquette when talking about religion, who knows. Whatever the reason, the left too often empowers folks who believe that their disdain of religion makes them superior intellects, reasoners and thinkers and that they therefore have license to ignore social convention when making their arguments.

By writing the above, Oliver essentially gives this type of person and this type of behavior a pass even as he rightfully seems to highlight that the blogosphere routinely ignores Black religious political movements when assessing and deciding upon strategic approaches to reaching "the religious left."

The other place where Oliver gets it 1/2 wrong is by assuming that

I think its great so many groups popped up espousing progressive religion, but I fear too many of them are in the mold of trying to appeal to conservative evangelicals - mostly southerners - who would vote for Satan before they would vote for a Democrat (I take pride in the fact that the bulk of haters vote GOP).

As a regular reader, even if not participant, in one of the sites he links to (Street Prophets) this fear has no merit. It is an as-yet statistically untested assumption that "conservative evangelicals" would vote for Satan before a Democrat. It may be a "truth" on the left, but there is no actual evidence of it. But more importantly, such a statement undermines Oliver's own thesis: It is inarguable by anyone who spends any time in Black churches that these same churches that Oliver rightfully points out have routinely brought political success to the Democratic Party ARE "conservative evangelical churches." They are evangelical in the traditional meaning of the term: they see their role as spreading the Good News. They are definitely "conservative" - you will not find a lot of emotional support for things that those of us on the left believe are issues the black church SHOULD support, the equal human worth of gays and lesbians at the top of the list IMO. Many lifelong Black churchgoers abhor abortion rights, for example -- indeed, the majority of African-Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in most if not all circumstances, even as Black folks disproportionately access the abortion right. They have reached a quiet consensus that it is a necessary evil. Acceptance of Premarital sex, particuarly amongst minors? They may accept the reality of it -- and indeed, when the babies come, as they often do, they embrace them and the mother, for religious reasons, but you'd be hard pressed to find any Black "conservative evangelical churches" that don't regularly make the immorality of it a topic for Sunday service Gay marriage? Nope. Patriarchy? You just don't want to know. You don't get much more "conservative" or "evangelical" than most Black churches - Especially in the South.

So Oliver's worry, such as it is, furthers the very thing that he is complaining about: ignoring the role of Black churches and Black churchgoers, by equating them to what (I think) he is really complaining about: white right-wing fundamentalists who claim to be acting out of religious belief. Those are not the same thing. I agree that anyone wasting his time on that group thinking that coalition can exist with it will see that group vote for Satan before a Democrat. But that group is a tiny minority of "conservative evangelical churches", and any argument that advocates less emphasis on trying to sway "conservative evangelical voters" necessarily gives them far more importance in the political process than they deserve.

The real skill will come in the left again learning how to discern the differences, and to work with religion as a tool for progressive political change, not merely against it as a coopted (by those who wouldn't know God if he showed up on their lawns with business cards) tool of progressive political harm.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I'm not Going to Make any Friends

and will probably lose some as well, over what I am going to say, since the current fashion is that something is wrong with you if you are not up in arms feeling like sexist wrongness has victimized Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwen. (And it is important to note that IMO this entire thing is about Amanda's writing, and only tangentially about Melissa's writing, based on both what folks are officially whinging about in this dust-up and what I know reading each for years at Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister. From my perspective as a reader, these women advocate in different voices even though they are fighting a common cause, so it is actually troubling to me that they are being lumped together by both sides in the discussion of what may well go down in history referred to as the Edwards’ Bloggers vs. Catholic League Controversy. Indeed, there is no common conclusion that one can draw about their respective writings -- not even the ones that led to this mess -- other than both are women and both are feminist.)

Despite the fact that I like friends, I am nonetheless going to put my view out there, and take the risk yet again that my different take on the predominant dogma might actually make some long-term sense now that heads are a bit cooler. I do so for the same reasons that the Amanda's and Melissa's and many others do: as a person committed to women, and women's equality, even if I see both theory and method about some key issues quite differently than most of my sisters on the left. And I expect it to be dismissed, but I'm tired of silencing myself as I have done for months now just out of fear of being dismissed. It won't be the first time: I am used to having my different voice as a woman dismissed on the left. For example, I was told once that I must not be a woman women merely because I pushed back at DailyKOS against the dominant feminist narrative that most women are victimized by unintended pregnancy following the choice to be sexual, so I guess what I am about to say will again reinforce in simple minds that I am anti- feminist. But at least I will still have bell hooks and other womanists for company......

I genuinely do not understand the argument that these women resigning from their posts -- whether voluntarily as they claim or under pressure as increasing numbers are speculating without a piss-pot worth of actual evidence -- is a reflection of John Edwards caving to anti-feminism or the patriarchy, as has been the rather consistent theme ever since Mr. Cowshit for Brains Donohoe had his say about what he found netsurfing Amanda and Melissa’s online writings. This entire thing appears to me to be nothing more than the same-old, same-old politics. Politics that could have just as equally nailed men in their employment for having said something that was off-the-cuff to one, intended audience that would one day be heard in another, less self-selected one. The business of Politics as Usual.

In other words, none of it -- except in the unconscious mind of the original speaker, Mr. Donohue himself, who appears to have made a career of going after women, and the hue and cry that others have raised about it – seems to have anything to do with feminism.

Hear me out before ranting, at least.

Let's get the easy part out of the way: William Donohue is a dick. A sexist dick. One who uses the veil of his asserted "Catholic League" (all 350K of them, the best evidence of how little energy what he had to say should have received from anyone since worldwide there apparently are nearly 1.1 billion Catholics, more than 65 million of them in the United States alone) to legitimize his neanderthal ways of thinking. Little ladies, indeed.

Second, I realize that religion and religious thinking is held in extremely low regard in virtually all of the "in-places" to be on the leftist internet. Particularly when it comes to religious thinking about things like birth control and abortion. The Catholic Church seems to get more than an average share of that low regard. Some deserved, but some over the top and reflecting a general resentment of religious teachings that don't leave people feeling completely validated for choosing to self-actualize in directions inconsistent with religious teachings. That's OK - I've accepted that general disdain and resentment as part of the territory even as I find it rather juvenile. And intellectually I understand where it comes from, although at times it seems to me to reach levels of histrionics that are a mystery to me since religion is, IMO, historically proven as much a source of societal good as societal evil such that dissing it and its adherents with the overbroad language too often used in leftist political discourse leaves many potential tools for change on the table at a time when those who truly are fighting for a better world for women and everyone else need all we can get.

But what really matters is that, for the purposes of political strategy, the religious-disdain left is deluding itself about its own importance if it does not accept, however difficult, the reality that such views are held by a tiny minority of potential voters. Thus, any leftist political candidate is a fool if he lets that minority of disdain be the deciding factor in how to react to anything. Anyone who doesn’t accept this – whether or not they like it, and I’m not advocating that anyone like it – is simply refusing to see the political landscape for what it really is at present. No matter how much folks believe it should change (and I am one of those that does believe it.)

In this case, Mr. Numbnuts Donohue used Amanda and Melissa's own words against them, counting on the fact that the overwhelming majority of folks in this country are religious and even if they don't agree with a particular teaching of a particular church -- even if they vehemently disagree with a particular teaching -- also were raised right and learned early on to tread lightly when dissing someone else's religion. Out of politeness, if nothing else. It's a politeness that seems deeply resented on the left, as evidenced by the sheer number of dust-ups that devolve into accusations of "delusional" and "irrational" beliefs as if calling someone either of those things just because they are religious is supposed to actually make them true.

And Donohue's gambit worked, up to a point. He counted on the left’s fear of a backlash from millions of religious Americans – including Catholics -- who are not crazy-as-a-bedbug folks like himself but who nonetheless vote to give actual power to his attempted power play. However, that fear, which I believe is both largely unconscious and underlies a lot of the vitriolic language (intended or inadvertent) used by too-many non-religious bloggers to discuss religious views on issues like birth control, abortion and unborn children, in which morality is implicated for most Americans to the same degree as women’s agency/independence/power or control, would not have done it alone. After all, all fear requires a target, a source of emotion. And the left wing blogosphere, having happily gone about for years treating itself as an echo-chamber in which folks could in a free-wheeling fashion and say whatever they wanted to without too much real life consequence even as it also jockeyed and positioned for, and ultimately obtained, real power, gave it to them. It is inarguable that had huge swaths of the leftwing blogosphere NOT had its now-years-long history of bloggers going to the global religious insult well because of their upset over the beliefs of a tiny minority, when nothing being argued required such rhetoric to make them, there would have been no opening for Mr. "I Had to Silence [Mara Vanderslice] Donohue" to have belly-crawled through. Had that history not been there to find, this entire episode would have been the kerfluffle that it really should have been.

But it was, and folks just have to deal with that. Hopefully, they will learn from it. For many reasons, most having to do with the fact that the star lights of the leftwing blogosphere seem to want to be real players at the halls of power in this country. And only an idiot doesn't know what the rules of the game are, where politics are concerned.

Now, having said that, it is inarguable that Donohue’s gambit worked only a little bit.

I believe that it was "only a little" is because, contrary to what others asserted, I believe that John Edwards -- himself an admittedly religious man who I suspect was as taken aback by reading some of the metaphorical things Amanda wrote – analogizing the Holy Spirit to “hot white sticky semen” and the Catholic Church's position on birth control being solely to guarantee itself more "tithing Catholics" as I was when I read them -- did the right thing in letting it be publicly known that he himself did not approve of what they had said, that he took them at their word about their good faith and lack of intent to insult either Catholics or religious people across the board (the subject of the "I didn't mean to" defense in a variety of political contexts is the subject of a very long diary I'll probably never have time to write) and then said the matter was squashed. These women were still welcome in his campaign, in the roles for which he'd hired them. And the controversy was Done. Finished. Catholic League or no Catholic League. Sexist pig Donohue or no sexist pig Donohue.

(We will set aside -- but only for now -- the larger question of why John Edwards or anyone is hiring anyone without doing a background check. There was nothing that Donohue used as a weapon that was non-public; this is not the equivalent of anyone accusing Amanda or Melissa of saying something in a private setting, which would have raised very serious questions for me. This entire event related to what both women had done as internet journalists. It really should have come as a surprise to no one that exercise of one's free speech right always runs the risk of a cost in the private marketplace of employment-- and for those truly sheltered people who *didn't* know that, I hope they have learned that lesson because unless one is self-employed one cannot survive. Our society has come to a virtual consensus that all employment is at will, meaning in plain English at the immediate whim of one’s employer. Do I think it's morally right? 95% of the time, no, and I don't think it would have been right in this case, either, had either woman been terminated because of what they wrote on their blogs. But it is nonetheless reality, and a community that claims to be grounded in reality is well advised to either accept this reality or fight to try to change it (the latter being my personal preference, but of seeming disinterest to most on the left, along with most issues affecting working and poor people.) If we do try and change it, however, a corollary truth is that we have to be prepared for it to change not just for political friends, but political enemies as well.)

To the little bit it did work, I have to ask: how did it work any differently for Amanda and Melissa than it would have for a man in their position with similarly public views that might not play too well in Peoria, an Armando or a Gottleib, for example? Nobody has explained that, and until that is explained, there is no evidence that gender had anything to do with this other than out of the mouth of the original speaker -- and as I've already discussed, that little man represents absolutely nobody.

How is the public use of Amanda's own words to pressure her to silence herself her any different than the use of Jeff Gannon's rent-a-boy photos to silence him? Is it inherently different because he was raising the perspective of "the enemy" in a way that neither Amanda or Melissa was? If you believe that, then I would argue that this type of thinking inherently leaves us weak and, ultimately, ineffective politically when it comes to communicating with the vast majority of potential voters. Either people are accountable for what they say or do, or they are not. But we cannot have it both ways - we cannot use these same types of tools – blog phishing, quoting out of context, and hyperbole about the relationship between words written in passion and real feelings and beliefs -- as a weapon and refuse to let go when speakers come forward and say "I didn't mean it that way" as an excuse only when it furthers our cause. It doesn't resonate with most people for a simple reason: it's transparently hypocritical.

Unfortunately, I do think that feminist ideals took a small blow from this episode, but not from the source everyone is blaming.

To me, they took the body blow when Amanda and Melissa did not believe enough in their own right to now put it behind them, and do the important work they were hired to do, after each had done IMO the right thing by apologizing for having inadvertently insulted religious people who did them no harm in their passionate writing. Neither of these women are shrinking violets. To the contrary they are champions for their take on feminism and respected if not beloved by many, as evidenced by how many responded to the call when they came under attack. They are held in extraordinarily high esteem and regard - and rightfully so, even though often times they say things that merely reinforce my sense of a huge perspective divide between how IME most middle- and upper-class white women think about sexism and feminism and resultant priorities, and how IME most Black women think about them. There is no question that they were qualified to do what they were hired to do and deserved the chance to do it.

Yet they folded – voluntarily in both Amanda’s and Melissa’s case. At least in part because of the perception that they would harm John Edwards' candidacy by remaining. A perception that they have, I would submit, only because of they are victim to the same patriarchal thinking about what our role is as women professionals that men are: in particular, the over-developed sense that women are responsible for both managing and stabilizing "communication" and "relationship" even if it comes at the expense of utterly unnecessary personal sacrifice. That sense that for women, we can never be completely "cleaned" of our inadvertent missteps so it's better not to harm others -- including other women -- by insisting on being judged by the same standards as men in the workplace. The standards that, for men's professional lives, often let them fuck up, say "mea culpa" and then demand that it truly be put in the past. We all know the experiences when men have been put under the microscope for saying things in front of one audience that were perceived as injudicious, or even offensive, in front of another. Have you seen any of them turn tail and run the minute that backlash against their words began? Hell no- they fought for their jobs, they fought for the right to be seen holistically, not just as moments in time which every human being has. They took their lumps, and even when it was clear that they were not qualified to be dog catcher they had to be run out on a rail for things that dwarf the things Amanda and Melissa had written. And, at some point, if the professional talent is there, the dialogue shifts from "OMG did you hear what he said/did" to one of "He's paid enough, leave him alone."

That process was shortcircuited when Amanda and Melissa quit.

And that bothers me, because their employer did have their back. Both women had been publicly affirmed by John Edwards, even if their personal opinions about religion had been publicly rejected, yet they did not use that power to hold the line. They made the personal, individual, choice, to quit. (Those who believe that somehow Edwards was wrong to express dismay about what they actually said do exist, but IMO that’s only because they themselves see nothing wrong with what was said and lack empathy for why others might not be sanguine about it yet not also be slaves to the patriarchy. Amanda and Melissa took it upon themselves to bear the weight of what people might think about John Edwards merely because they worked for him, a weight that I see no evidence of John Edwards actually asking them to bear. (I set aside all the conspiracy theories about how they were "forced" to resign; I have seen no evidence that either Amanda or Melissa is a liar, and I have enough respect for both to believe that either would spell it out plain if they felt shoved out by John Edwards. Just because it is more comforting to believe differently doesn't make truth.) They could have ridden this out, particularly once the blogosphere rose to surround and embrace and defend them. After all, memory in politics and media is only as long as the next thing that someone can throw up on the wall and make stick. This thing would have blown over quickly, I predict – but for the hue and cry that made this moment out to be a litmus test for all women bloggers on the left rather than what it it was, which was the ramblings of a petty man who speaks for virtually no one, that Edwards shot down by refusing to fire them.

And thus without meaning to reinforced the societal, sexist, patriarchal message that where women in power are concerned, we should volunteer to sacrifice ourselves professionally to "larger goals" even when we're not asked to do it, in a way that men in power rarely are asked to do and are certainly not expected to do. Each unwittingly reinforced the idea of women volunteering to be sacrificial lambs in the professional arena.

The very thing that most folks who championed their cause claimed they were being made into by Mr. “I Can’t Even Claim Most Catholics Agree With Me” Donohue’s calling them out.

It is my view that neither woman should have quit, and I say that as someone who was offended by some of Amanda's past writing (but not by Melissa's, which had a fundamentally different tone to it.) I took their apology at their word, and that was the end of it for me, a person who is not a Catholic and certainly not a member of the teensy-weensy Catholic League, but still a religious person who has routinely recoiled at the unthinking way that people on the left disrespect others in a blanket fashion when they write about religious issues which they don't like, ignoring the very individualism (i.e. that it is individual religious voters, not a faceless mass of “Christofascists” who are so tiny a fucking minority of both voters and self-professed religious people in this country that we should stop validating and empowering them by making them out to be the boogeyman that everyone should be worried about all the time, rather than the more than 100,000,000 religious people who are actually….religious and who while they may not give out kudos and congratulations for all behavior or thinking that feminists on the left hold near and dear (including things like elective abortion), are willing to at least Let Go and Let God on these same issues, and through their votes provide support even if not agreement or approval if they are not assumed guilty by association with the same Right Wing Religious Noise Machine that we make sure gets heard through our own over-focus on their bullshit.

But who do you blame for that? Mr. Donohue, who played his political hand? Mr. Edwards, who both appeared to remain true to his personal principles and true to these women at the same time? Amanda and Melissa for having given up? Or society itself for having created a political climate where these types of distracting things even can happen in political campaigning because of the words of someone who represents -- if we take his puffery seriously, and I don't -- exactly 3% of the folks who titularly share his faith? We are, I would argue, getting angry about the wrong things.

Here's what I am angry about, as a womanist (figuring I have cotninued to forfeit the title "feminist".) I'm angry that we as women continue to want to have it both ways: we want the power to silence our enemies for injudicious statements when they further our chosen dogma yet want to cry victim of sexism when the same tactics are used on our allies. If there is one thing I have learned, however, it is that we cannot have it both ways. That's not rocket science. If we are seeking a new paradigm, and I think everyone that loves women is whether we call a particular issue "feminist" or not, then we have to start from the proposition that there is no quarter, no matter what our personal beliefs, and that if we are acting on principle we have to be prepared to defend our principles. Starting with the principle that Amanda can write what she chooses to write and is woman enough to stand strong when what she has written is criticized for it, whether one thinks she should be or not, OUTSIDE of the echo chamber that is the left-wing blogosphere.

Because it is only outside that echo chamber that real change will be made.

I feel bad for Amanda and Melissa, that they have now chosen not to stay around and do the jobs they were hired to do when everything was squashed. Having high regard for their work, I know they would have excelled at it just as they excel at blogging their perspectives. But I do not feel bad for them because I believe that they were told to "shut their pie hole" because they were women by anyone who actually mattered. The only person who sent that message clearly *shouldn’t have* mattered to anyone who doesn't let foolishness distract them, and the persons who do actually matter (the Edwards’ campaign or other candidates) didn't say it. They didn't even imply it outside of the realm of "I don't agree with what you say, and reject how you say it, when it comes to what you expressed about Catholic religion." -- a particular heat in the kitchen that any savvy blogger better be able to handle, and that both Amanda and Melissa have shown they *could* have handled - if they chose too. Heat that would have been levied at them if they were both men, in this context.

I am happy, however, that Amanda and, in her less sarcastic way, Melissa, have decided to use this learning experience to continue to fight their fight, and am confident that in the end they will have served their cause more than in the jobs they have given up. I have nothing but love for that, in keeping with a core principle of Black feminism: we as women are powerful beyond belief, so don't you ever give that power away. Indeed, as of this morning following a wingnut denial-of-service attack, Amanda’s back again with both gloves off. Since of course no matter what I think of what they say when they are on a roll, I’d fight to the death for their right to say it – despite what I suspect would be deep disdain for my particular views on issues involving women which they hold held near and dear to their hearts. We may not see either the theory or methods of feminism the same way most of the time, and most of the time we don’t, but in that they are All Woman.

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