Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Posts Tagged ‘GLBT rights’

Does Barack Obama actually believe in anything?

Posted by Kevin on May 28, 2009

“But I have a sickeningly familiar feeling in my stomach, and the feeling deepens with every interaction with the Obama team on [LGBT] issues. They want them to go away. They want us to go away. …

…the overwhelming sense – apart from a terror of saying anything about gay people on the record – is that we are in the same spot as in every Democratic administration: the well-paid leaders of the established groups get jobs and invites, and that’s about it.” –Andrew Sullivan

It’s pretty hard to defend Obama’s inaction on gay rights issues, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Reader tiradefaction recently sent me this article on the subject by Emma Ruby-Sachs entitled Obama’s Public Opinion on Gay Marriage Doesn’t Matter. From the article:

“I would love to see Obama stand up and say that LGBT Americans deserve equal rights in all areas of the law – something he stated publicly many times before he was President and a sentiment he has now retracted. After all the time spent campaigning for Obama, my own little heartbreak would be mended if Obama would tell the entire country that people like me are worthy of full rights.

But as a political junkie not only do I know that won’t happen, but I don’t care if it does.

I believe that Obama’s public opinion on gay marriage is particularly irrelevant. As well, any public statements made by his office, while comforting, will not translate into actual gains for our movement.

So excuse me for adhering to real politik here, but our focus should not be on whether or not Obama is commenting on Iowa marriage decisions or making public statements about UAFA. They are not the kind of actions that will win this fight.”

Instead, Ruby-Sachs says, we should “pressure members of Congress to stand up and publicly support gay rights issues. Those votes, those individuals, are the ones that matter. They can attain critical mass, can change the accepted discourse in the U.S. and lead to easy votes on equal rights legislation.”

She’s right to an extent. The president isn’t singularly important, and we do need to be pressuring Congress (leaving aside the issue of whether certain segments of the LGBT movement are actually willing to pressure any Democrat, let alone the president). But I still have serious reservations about the article.

First of all, she’s trying to have it both ways. Obama’s cool if he stands up for gay rights, but even if he doesn’t that’s still okay. One frequently sees this among Obama lovers: there’s no way he can possibly screw up in their eyes. Taken to extremes, it can become a quasi-religious “Obama works in mysterious ways” argument, wherein every disappointing action is taken to be part of some super-secret plan to do the exact opposite of what he appears to be doing – like the claim from some quarters that the real reason Obama has embraced many of Bush’s legal justifications for state secrecy is because he’s actually hoping the courts rule against him.

Or, in many other cases people just change what they think to be in line with who they’re supporting – as Ruby-Sachs is possibly doing with Obama on LGBT issues. An example of this line of thought can be found in the response of the Obama lovers to his flip-flop on releasing torture photos, for which they’re now scrambling to provide excuses. Glenn Greenwald had an important question for these people:

“…if you actually want to argue that concealing these photographs is the right thing to do, then you must have been criticizing Obama when, two weeks ago, he announced that he would release them. Otherwise, it’s pretty clear that you don’t have any actual beliefs other than: “I support what Obama does because it’s Obama who does it.” So for those arguing today that concealing these photographs is the right thing to do: were you criticizing Obama two weeks ago for announcing he would release these photographs?”

Likewise, Ruby-Sachs says she “would love to see Obama stand up and say that LGBT Americans deserve equal rights in all areas of the law,” and then promptly turns right around and says it’s fine that he hasn’t. Does anyone really think that if Obama did start publicly supporting gay rights, she’d say, “Maybe it’d be better if he stayed quiet on the issue”? There are much worse offenders than her (she at least recognizes the need to apply pressure to Obama), but still, cognitive dissonance anyone?

As to the main point of her article, that Obama’s opinions and actions are “irrelevant” and “will not translate into actual gains for our movement,” I totally disagree. While the president may not be able to push legislation though by himself, there’s still quite a bit he could be doing. For one thing, Ruby-Sachs rightly alludes to backroom arm-twisting Obama could be doing to advance legislation, although she makes no apparent attempt to explain why he isn’t doing that already.

Presidents play a major role in framing the debate and defining the “conventional wisdom.” If the president isn’t engaged in an issue, much of the media will take that as a sign that it’s not important, and many Democrats in Congress will be less willing to stick their necks out for fear no one will be there to keep their heads from getting chopped off. Frank Rich of the New York Times commented recently on a significant factor holding back the Democrats on LGBT issues:

“As [Freedom to Marry executive director Evan] Wolfson said to me last week, they lack ‘a towering national figure to make the moral case’ for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South…

‘This is a civil rights moment,’ Wolfson said, ‘and Obama has not yet risen to it.’ Worse, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is now giving cover to every hard-core opponent of gay rights, from the Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean to the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, each of whom can claim with nominal justification to share the president’s views.”

LGBT-friendly legislation is much more likely to pass if a president, especially one as (inexplicably) popular as Obama, keeps it from being moved to the back burner. This is especially the case on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. It’s clear that at best repeal of DADT is a low priority for the Obama administration, and as Kerry Eleveld reported in The Advocate, there are signs that they might not follow through with it. This is a problem, because as Eleveld notes:

“Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of SLDN, indicated that a bill was unlikely to be introduced without support from the president. ‘Congress will likely not act without a nod from the commander in chief. Congress often defers military personnel matters to him. And Obama is the ultimate enforcer of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’’ he said.

A Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity pressed the point a little harder: ‘No one wants to push this without the backing of the White House,’ he said.”

DADT is also one of the few areas of LGBT policy where Obama could take concrete action himself, without waiting for legislation from Congress. Granted, a repeal from Congress would be necessary in the long-term. But Aaron Belkin argues at The Huffington Post that Obama could de facto kill DADT with an executive order. So… why doesn’t he? Instead, he’s choosing to fire Arab linguists, while writing notes to the fired soldiers about how upset he is with doing it, even though he hasn’t done anything to stop it.

And this brings me to my last issue with Ruby-Sachs’ article. Even if I were to concede her point that public statements from Obama “will not translate into actual gains for our movement,” I’d still argue that it would be nice to know for once that Obama actually believes strongly in something, actually has a backbone and is willing to take a stand for something or someone. I’m not being hyperbolic; I’m really not sure. You have to admit that Obama isn’t exactly the most courageous politician out there (although that’s probably something a good chunk of his supporters like about him; it would seem that one person’s doublespeak is another person’s political realism).

On the contrary, there doesn’t seem to be much that he isn’t willing to sacrifice for the sake of political expediency. He appears completely opposed to radically restructuring the system, and definitely isn’t willing to take risks to do so. In fact, one of the few things he’s showed any degree of backbone on is handing the treasury over to Wall Street in the form of bailouts, standing up for neoliberal economic policies in the face of widespread public opposition.

On issue after issue, including LGBT issues, Obama has taken mostly symbolic steps to appear slightly less monstrous than his Republican opponents even while doing little to substantively alter the status quo. This is especially true on civil liberties/national security issues. He is admittedly showing real courage on closing Guantanamo in the face of an absurd fearmongering campaign (to which all too many other Democrats gave in)… but is pretty much just using it as a cover for embracing slightly modified Bush/Cheney policies, like abuse of state secrets, “preventive detention,” and a “kinder, gentler” form of military commissions. Not to mention, he wants to keep the prisoners at Bagram Air Base, a place every bit as bad as Guantanamo, stripped of their rights. Even Jon Stewart joked recently, in the context of poking fun at Dick Cheney’s hysteria over Obama’s positions, that there’s really only a 3-5% difference between the two.

Obama frequently utilizes one of the oldest tricks in politics, saying that he “supports” a given policy or position, and then doing nothing to advance it. David Sirota argued that this was the case with “cramdown” (allowing bankruptcy judges to modify home loans to prevent foreclosure, which subsequently failed in the Senate), and increasingly seems the case with the Employee Free Choice Act. He campaigned on EFCA to get union support, but his financial backers and many of his advisers are completely opposed to it, and he doesn’t seem willing to expend any “political capital” to see it through. “The motive for the two-step is obvious,” Sirota said. “Obama aims to get public credit for populist positions, while wink-and-nodding his way to moneyed-interest appeasement”.

So I reiterate: is there anything Obama is strongly committed to aside from the path of least resistance? It would be nice to know that he sees the LGBT community as something other than a source of votes and money; for a self-described “fierce advocate” for gay rights, he seems awfully willing to throw gays under the bus.

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Gay marriage wins in Vermont!

Posted by Kevin on April 8, 2009

Ok, I’m a day behind with this. But, as everyone reading this is probably well aware by now, the Vermont legislature voted yesterday to override Gov. Douglas’s veto and legalize same-sex marriage, becoming the first state to do it without a court order. I may not be a native Vermonter, but I’m incredibly proud of the state, and it was exhilarating to be able to play a small part in this.

This victory, along with the court decision in Iowa and the decision by the city council in Washington, DC, is a reminder, which I think we needed after recent years, that we’re on the right side of history, that it’s only a matter of time until we have marriage equality throughout the country. It may not happen anytime soon, and there are still going to be setbacks, but I’m hopeful that one day we’ll look back on opponents of gay marriage the same way we now look back on opponents of interracial marriage. Some people here wondered why the fundies were so angry when they seemed to have the upper hand, and I think now that the reason why is because they realize deep down that ultimately they’re fighting a losing battle.

Coverage is pretty easy to find, so I won’t link to it, except to point out this great article in The Nation. Also, if your blood pressure is too low today, Hemant has some reactions from the religious right over at Friendly Atheist.

I was in the House chambers that day – that’s one of the few advantages of being an unemployed househusband, that I could spend a day at the Statehouse waiting for a vote to come down. The place was packed with supporters; I was surprised that there weren’t any opponents in the crowd that I could make out, unlike pretty much every other day of the proceedings. I probably looked pretty confused as people in the gallery started murmuring “I think we got it!” while the roll call was being tallied. Honestly, I was surprised it passed; I didn’t think the House had the votes to override the veto. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to be proven wrong. I was afraid a loss here would be a big setback for the movement nationally – “Even those dirty fucking hippies in Vermont couldn’t do it; what the hell chance does my state have,” some might have argued.

As far as the Douglas’s veto goes, I agree with Jon Stewart when he reportedly asked during a speech at UVM, “Why is your governor such a shithead?” A shithead he is, probably because he’s trying to secure his right flank for election time. However, I think the veto was a net benefit for our side. The supermajority we got with the override probably gives the law much more legitimacy than it would have otherwise had. I can promise you that there are people wouldn’t have risked their seats voting for it if it hadn’t been for the need to override the veto. A few Democrats who voted against the bill even switched their votes on the override, in part because of pressure from party leadership but also in part to screw Douglas. And some House Republicans were publicly pissed that Douglas threatened the veto before they’d even voted on it.

So what’s next? Here in Vermont, the next step is making sure the legislators who voted for marriage equality keep their seats. The next dominoes to fall will likely be in New England as well. But it might take awhile for marriage equality to spread elsewhere, and from what I’ve heard, Prop 8 is likely to be upheld in California. There’s just too many places in the country held hostage by religious nutjobs and old people afraid of change.

Posted in Politics, Religion | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Random thoughts on the Vermont gay marriage hearings

Posted by Kevin on March 20, 2009

As you may or may not be aware, a gay marriage bill is currently being considered by the Vermont legislature (an expansion of the first-in-the-nation civil union law passed in 2000). It’s probably going to pass; the main question is whether the Republican governor is going to veto it. He’s not especially conservative socially, but he’s on the record in opposition to the bill, calling it too divisive and a distraction from dealing with the economy. This despite claims from marriage supporters – including business groups – that it will actually help the economy. Just today the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously.

On Wednesday I went to the public hearing on the bill in Montpelier, although I didn’t actually get to see the testimony; I got stuck in an overflow room because, as the Burlington Free Press reports, over 1000 people showed up, but there was an audio feed so we could still hear it. Among the part of the crowd I saw, the vast majority were marriage supporters; you could tell because each side passed out buttons and/or stickers. I was there with the pro- side, obviously, as were my wife and one of our friends. As for people testifying, from BFP again: “[the committee] heard from about 70 Vermonters, although about 200 signed up to speak. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, said there were 115 for same-sex marriage and 85 against on the list.”

This post isn’t intended to be all-inclusive of everything that happened at the hearing, just some general thoughts on things that stood out to me. The BFP link above includes video of some of the testimony if you’re interested in hearing more; the Valley News has good coverage as well.

Listening to the testimony, one thing that struck me about the opposition was that many of them didn’t even bother making a secular argument for their position, especially the clergy that testified (one of whom railed against the threat posed by “secular humanism”). They obviously didn’t feel they had to; it’s God’s will, so they think that should be enough justification to keep people stripped of their rights. Admittedly, these people were in the minority of those testifying against marriage, but that doesn’t mean that religion wasn’t a large part of the opposition’s case. It’s important to note that the main identifier for opponents that I saw was stickers that said “Don’t Change God’s Plan, 1 woman, 1 man.”

I was, however, surprised at how few people ranted against “the homosexual agenda,” or talked about homosexuality as being immoral. That doesn’t mean they don’t think that, of course, but it might hint that they think they’re on the losing side of that argument.

The other prominent theme in the marriage opponent’s arguments was respect for tradition. “It’s ALWAYS been one man and one woman! Surely civilization will collapse if gay marriage is legalized!” Similarly, some people talked about gay marriage as denigrating their marriages. How? They didn’t say. I think one could make a good argument that this sort of fear of change is an even bigger motivation for opponents of gay marriage than religion.

The obvious reply to this argument is that moral standards do change over time, otherwise we’d still be stoning disobedient children, for just one example. Even the definition of marriage has changed, and only the most ardent theocrats want to turn back the clock on the issue. Lisa Miller had a good article on this in Newsweek some time back. “[N]o sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else’s —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes,” Miller wrote.

Marriage opponents, and religious fundamentalists more generally, never explain why we should studiously follow scripture on the subjects of marriage or homosexuality even as they willfully toss out huge chunks that are incompatible with their lives in modern society.

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