THE BLOG
06/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Injustice (Accentuate the Negative)

I'm not a political scientist. I don't run a website or have even cursory knowledge of basic html. I don't own any poster board. I also don't hold political office or a union card, I haven't been tortured, and I am a straight white dude who's getting married next month. I am perhaps unqualified to be holding forth on the state of activism and messaging in play across the broad fight for progress in this country.

Though from the looks of the blogosphere, I am not uniquely unqualified. And hey, I'm Jewish, so I know a little something about laws that rob certain citizens of their rights. I learned about them in Hebrew School, where they'll also let you know that some of my fellow MOT's (Members of the Tribe) were Freedom Riders during the 1960s! So there's that. Plus, the whole Moses thing.

Resume aside, I don't think it takes more than a set of eyes and a smidge of dreaded Empathy to understand that freedom's gallant march has slowed to a parched freeway crawl of late. The California High Court's recent ruling against gay rights is enough to remind anyone that freedom is not in fact just another word for nothing left to lose. Losing one's natural born status as a fully recognized human being, for example, ain't exactly unburdening.

It does seem lately as if "activism" is just another word for standing outside of important buildings and landmarks with clearly printed placards and well-phrased chants decrying an important decision that's just been made. Alternate meanings include crafting cogent arguments on websites or in blog posts on others' websites that decry important decisions that have recently been made.

While decrying decisions in the aftermath of their making is not entirely effective as a plan of corrective action on its own, there is lots to decry: torture, labor, gay rights, for starters. Personally, I blame Obama. And not just because I have a deep voice and it would be kinda cool to have a radio show. I think it's possible that, following Obama's success, we've all gotten just a bit too goddamned warm and fuzzy for our own good. Conventional wisdom has it that goal-oriented optimism is now the way to win, especially in this economy. Also, the phrase "especially in this economy" is now a required addendum to all public messaging and certain college essays. Just cover your bases and think of it like a punctuation mark.

With Obama, we participated in the most successful movement of our time. I know this because the web banners said, "join the movement". And when I did I was explicitly thanked and congratulated for being part of the movement for change. It was sweeping the country. We had days last year that they said would never come. They told us we couldn't, and we, well you know what we told them. And you know what we did.

It's instructive to recall, however, that the Obama movement, wrapped as it was in the language and spirit of civil and social rights, was a presidential campaign. Unlike movements for civil and social rights, candidate Obama wasn't advocating a narrow issue or specific right. This was not a movement centered on a particular measure benefitting humankind, it was a movement centered on one human in particular. Anything else would have been self-defeating.
Of course, this human, now POTUS, is in position to make progress for a wide swath of humanity on a number of issues, and is even taking advantage of that power now and again. Djya hear the one about Sonia Sotomayor? With regard to diversity and jurisprudence, that's actually a twofer.

Still though, it may be time to un-know hope. I'm not asking that we strike the stuff from all memory. What say we simply park it out back awhile? At the very least let's restore despair and self-righteousness, along with shame/fearmongering, to their rightful places in the activist's arsenal (a benign alternative to the anarchist's cookbook). Above all, we have to stop starting with the solution.

Take The Employee Free Choice Act. Labor Unions, the folks that gave us the weekend, the middle class, and The Sopranos (the production crew on that show was all union) are in trouble. Big Business, while vilifying unions for everything from the fall of the American automobile to the rise of outsourcing, has invented a variety of ways over the years to use the current system to interfere with organizing efforts. Labor's latest response was legislation making it easier to form a union. Labor, as is their wont, lobbied Congress for support on the measure, winning lots of commitments. Then EFCA lost steam as pro-business pols and pro-business pals picked apart the legislation and removed their names and the names of remotely vulnerable Senators and Representatives from it. A lot like what happens when you try to form a union.

Unions might not now be holding out hope for a diluted compromise had they first made plain that broadly accepted worker's rights and collective bargaining itself are in mortal danger. Collective bargaining should be at least as sacred as secret ballot voting, which apparently must be employed in every group decision made on American soil if Democracy is to be preserved (except one group).

Of course this would all be a bit more relevant if the words "card check" registered more than a blank stare on the face of the average eligible voter (you want me to look in my wallet?). So there is still time to start from scratch on EFCA, with the knowledge that political support is a bit easier to come by when you show the problem before proposing its solution.

Fact is, in the pursuit of social justice, the failure to articulate injustice will always be fatal. The enduring images of America's civil rights success stories are not the successes themselves. I wasn't there (another qualification out the window), but when I think of the voting rights movement, I don't picture smiling black folks walking unfettered into a voting booth (if that's even happening yet). I don't necessarily think of Martin on The Mall, either. I think of Sheriff Bull Connor and I see the protesters on the business end of his police dogs and fire hoses. I see kids of all colors torn from their seats at diner counters throughout the Deep South. I see Emmit Till, or what was left of him.

I imagine there was a point in time then when you could see as clearly as now the straight line from the schoolroom or the ballot box to the lynching tree. I'm not interested in a tiresome compare/contrast on suffering and oppression, that's not what I'm intending. But I do think it is important for those who value equal rights to draw a line from the wedding altar to Matthew Shepard.

Disenfranchisement of African-Americans was not simply about the vote, as if that wasn't enough. The larger issue was whether or not black people were to be viewed and treated by their own government as human, or not. Any law or ordinance that undermines the rights of a specific group necessarily isolates and defines that group as "less than." That goes for marriage, too. The CA Supreme Court didn't "uphold the ban on gay marriage." They signed off on California's newly anti-gay constitution. By invalidating the rights of gay and lesbian people, the government validates and gives de facto encouragement to those who treat the LGBT community as subhuman.

Anti-gay laws in California make a joke of hate-crimes legislation everywhere. Hate crimes against gays, by the way, have been on the rise, particularly since last November and the passage of Prop 8. Recently, in Richmond, CA, just outside of Oakland, a group of men found a lesbian woman with a rainbow bumper sticker on her car, dragged her from it, beating and robbing her while spewing anti-gay slurs. They proceeded to rape her in the street. When they noticed someone walking in their direction, the men bundled her into her car, drove a few blocks away, and pulled over to rape her some more. They then left her for dead in an abandoned warehouse.

Somehow, timid television ads invoking slippery slopes or kindly old straight validators, or even door-to-door Mormon marriage burglars, don't quite communicate the depth of the matter. It's facile--the bad kind of facile--to think that because we all seem to agree with the ideal of equality in general that it will always be a popular notion in specific. If that were the case then we wouldn't need laws. We'd have love, love, love. That'd be good with me, but details keep getting in the way.

I've heard and even had confusion at times over the big deal with marriage. Weren't we just talking about civil unions? Can't we get past tax form, health care and visiting hour snafus through loopholes that won't inflame those who find homosexuality so threatening? The answer of course is that it's bigger than all that, as if just getting hitched weren't enough. Marriage is also about the 14th amendment and simple human decency. Extending full recognition to all citizens is something we either do or don't do.

Prohibiting loving relationships via ballot measure or constitutional amendment or both is shameful and hateful. It's guaranteed that government endorsed hate poses a greater danger to the future of your kids and mine, gay or straight, than a ceremony at Town Hall. And if you think the comparison to '50s and '60s civil rights is overreaching, tell me if you think anti-miscegenation laws were primarily about the definition of marriage, or just plain racist. Maybe it is as simple as equality for all, only it takes a beat or two to get there.

I was going to tackle torture here as well, but this is running long and Dick Cheney is on the job, clearly now working for the Left. Just keep trotting him out on the morning shows, throw in a couple of spots in prime time. Eventually the electorate will howl for hearings and more significant human rights legislation, and the politicians will follow like lemmings.

Actually I'm inclined to think torture went from being a Bush Administration program to an American program once the polls closed on November 2nd, 2004. President Obama admitted as much when he noted, during the release of the last round of memos, that "... withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. " While all of the Bush regimes' alleged (cough, cough) crimes should be investigated and -- where appropriate -- prosecuted vigorously, assigning guilt will not relieve collective culpability.

We simply didn't work as hard for Kerry as many of us did for the current President. Then again, the Kerry campaign seems to have been so focused on keeping it dignified that they failed not only to defend John Kerry but also to shine a harsh light on any of the smorgasbord of open secret Bush abuses. So in the end, more people were scared of marriage than of what might happen to them through four more years of Dick and George. Judging from the squeamish reaction of certain of my friends to my own impending nuptials, this is not entirely surprising and may not be about sexuality. Some voters are just afraid of marriage.

In context, perhaps blaming our Chief Executive and reverting to a BBO (Before Barack Obama) mindset isn't the answer. The argument about the role of leaders inside and outside the government seemed cosmetic during the Democratic primary (remember Clinton/LBJ vs. Obama/King?). It turns out that expecting the President to simultaneously run the government and lead a daily sit-in isn't altogether realistic. Getting angry with President Obama for not doing everything we want or waiting for him to get it done on his own isn't going to work now any more than it did in support of John Kerry. The onus is on us to do the President the favor of pressuring him into action, by working to put and keep the big picture in everyone's mind.

Let's say for the sake of argument that we are mature enough to keep shrill hyperbole at a reasonable distance and avoid invoking the Holocaust. Then the time's come to quit shying away from the larger ramifications of our discourse, no matter how bleak the message may become as a result. We still have to find full equity for gay people, and everyone else for that matter. And we need to begin to repair the environment and public education, extend health care to all, fight poverty, and on and on. And that's just domestic legislation. At this point in our history, we can't afford to lower the stakes any longer. Especially in this economy.