Friday, August 01, 2008

An Open Letter to Open Left

-- by Sara

Regular readers may recall that a few weeks ago, I participated in a round-robin discussion hosted by Jon Pincus at Open Left, on the subject of "feminist and womanist perspectives on Hillary's withdrawal from the race."

The discussion ended abruptly after four posts, of which mine was the second. (It was also posted here at Orcinus.) It ended in a storm of recrimination, much of it crystallized in this thread, that soon enough devolved into pretty much exactly the same political correctness debate feminists have been having since I was in my first CR group in 1977. (Just reflecting on this fact makes me tired, all the way down to my bones.)

The personal part of this conversation included heated accusations from Paul Lukasiak (whose work I've admired) and Debra Cooper (with whom I generally disagree about almost everything anyway) that my offering was anything but feminist; and actually was a complete apology for, and a capitulation to, The Patriarchy. Other commenters picked up the theme, denouncing my lack of "feminist credentials." (Evidently, there's a licensing body out there somewhere that I've been derelict in sending my annual dues to.)

The discussion all went down in the days just before and during Netroots Nation, which is why I haven't really checked in and followed it all down until today. But, having done so, there are a few things I feel a strong need to set straight. Since I didn't make my case when the conversation was live, I'm going to accede to Jon's prompting for a reciprocating post here at Orcinus now.

This is my open letter to everyone involved in that conversation. (An earlier draft was circulated privately to the principals involved.)

To OpenLeft, fellow bloggers, and commenters:

I finally, belatedly, wandered into the 81 comments left at Jon's intermission post. And I really, really wish I hadn't.

It was delightful to discover, after 40 years of believing otherwise, that a bunch of people who've never even met me have decided that I'm not a feminist! Apparently (I had not known this), self-identifying as a feminist is Not Enough. You have to meet other people's externally (and badly) defined criteria. (I believe that, in other contexts, this is called "political correctness.") And I'm not politically correct, so Debra Cooper and Paul Lukasiak are going to revoke my card.

Fine. I've seen the "feminism" they represent, and it's not a club I've ever wanted to join anyway.

My main offense seems to have been in pointing out a historical pattern -- which, by the way, I first learned of in a women's studies class at UCLA taught by a radical lesbian feminist -- in which blacks almost always seem to come into their rights before women do. That's not an apology for anyone. It's simply a documentable description of how our society has worked in the past, and seems likely to work in the future barring extraordinary changes that don't appear to be in the offing.

This fact is annoying on some levels, and encouraging on others. I acknowledged that, too. If merely speaking a historical fact is enough to get one tossed out of the feminist movement (and, evidently, it is), I no longer have to wonder why we've made so little progress. The first step in dealing with reality is seeing it clearly. If contemplating the nature of reality is not allowed, then "feminism" will never amount to anything more than a shared fantasy; and those of us who consider ourselves card-carrying members of the reality-based world will be excluded from the work.

My other offense is that I apparently didn't feel sufficient allegiance to Hillary simply because she and I share a similar anatomy. In my feminism (which I realize -- all too acutely now -- does not look like that subscribed to by others in this discussion), we're allowed to choose our allegiances based on criteria other than shared gender; after all, this is exactly what we're asking the male power structure to do. I understand now that this kind of petty insistence on equivalency makes me a heretic; but since that's nothing new for me, so be it.

In my feminism, men do not get to be automatically wonderful just because they're men and hold all the power. And women don't get to be automatically wonderful just because they're women and we're supposed to be working off of some kind of presumed "sisterhood." (Sorry. I've been knifed in the back by too many rich white yuppie "sisters" in the course of my life to trust them blindly. I've also been in too many organizations that were completely disrupted by their combative operational style, and had to join the cleanup team after they left. Hillary did push that personal button for me, hard.) But mostly, I found Hillary distinctly unwonderful for a host of reasons that had nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her alliances and her record.

Because of who I am and what I do, I daresay I have a more-specific-than-usual set of criteria for what I look for in a leader. (And let me further note that those criteria are not the least bit gender-based -- though, if anything, they tend to favor women.) Hillary didn't make the cut because she simply did not exhibit enough of the characteristics I seek -- and my sense of female solidarity was not strong enough to make up for this lack.

I also learned through this discussion that being a middle-aged white female means I'm the heir to the only true feminism, and cannot possibly be disinherited. Or else I'm not a feminist, because I failed to stand in unquestioning solidarity with Hillary when she needed me. Or else I'm a covert agent for the Male Supremacy because I made an observation of fact that some people chose to respond to with emotion. Or something.

Drop me a note when y'all figure it out. Or, y'no, don't.

My feminism, in case anyone still cares, is based in a larger humanism. It's predicated in the idea that I have a fundamental right to live my life in a way of my own choosing, without having to submit myself to any man simply because he is a man. To the extent that men have conspired to create a society that demands that women do this in almost every interaction we have with men, women and their thoughtful male allies must conspire to break that system.

But you can have legitimate disagreements on how that can happen, and still be a feminist. Or, at least, I keep thinking you should be able to -- but I'm eternally astonished by my own gender's ability to insist on an ideological purity that destroys unity, creates schisms, leads to fights like this one, and makes a farce of the entire effort.

This is why I don't usually engage much with identity politics. My personal feminist revolution -- and I like to think I have this much in common with everyone here -- is working in a deeply male-dominated domain under my own name, and earning a fair amount of respect for what I do because of (or in spite of) my gender. I'm raising a son who reflexively respects women, and a daughter who knows how to demand respect for herself. I don't put up with sexist shit from men; and, mindful of the fact that lot of women admire what I do, I do my best to set a good example and offer encouragement those who are trying to find their own way to empowerment.

I find the idea that four decades of living a life rooted deeply in feminist values isn't enough to qualify me as a feminist deeply, personally offensive. My feminism doesn't depend on meeting the criteria on somebody else's personal political checklist. Muriel Rukeyser once said, long ago, that if one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open. Modern feminism began with the deep insight that the personal is political -- that every act a woman performs as a free woman has the power to transform the culture. Feminism, to me, is not about how well one can parrot high-flown academic theories. Rather, its most radical and transformative expression lies in how we choose to exist in the world every day.

And so I speak my truth right out loud in the blogsphere -- and then I go about the radical business of living my life. And in my world, that makes me a feminist, regardless of whether or not those who think they hold the current patent on the word agree. I'm not looking to any of you to punch my ticket for me. And thanks to you, I now realize that attitude, too, is a radical act of self-liberation.

Sara Robinson

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

White Supremacists See Their Imminent Defeat As A Good Thing

-- by Dave

White supremacists are nothing if not a deluded bunch. Even facing the prospect of the election of a black man to the presidency -- marking, in so many ways, another major defeat for their ideology -- they continue to believe his imminent election is a good thing for them:

Tom Prater, Florida spokesman for the white power group Euro and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, says the Illinois senator's success is a boon for his cause.

"I've gotten more calls in the last two months about interest in our organizations than I got in all the years in the past," said Prater, who lives in Jacksonville.

August Kreis, national director of Aryan Nations, another white supremacist and anti-Semitic organization, agrees.

"Obama's done my group a lot of good," said Kreis, who lives in South Carolina and says he keeps a Nazi flag over his mantel. "He's polarizing Americans, black and white.

"Especially in Florida, affiliates have increased recently," Kreis said, although he did not produce membership figures.

... [Stormfront leader Don] Black was quoted in The Washington Post last month as being optimistic about the opportunities offered by Obama's candidacy.

"I get nonstop e-mails and private messages from new people who are mad as hell about the possibility of Obama being elected," Black said. "White people, for a long time, have thought of our government as being for us, and Obama is the best possible evidence that we've lost that. This is scaring a lot of people who maybe never considered themselves racists, and it's bringing them over to our side."

Of course, the main people doing the scaring are overt race-baiters like Black, as well as the only slightly more subtle smears spread by the likes of Floyd Brown and Co. and their anonymous army of e-mail forwarders. And no doubt they will all do their damnedest to stir up trouble intended to harm an Obama presidency should it happen.

Monday, July 28, 2008

In Tennessee, eliminationism is no longer 'just a joke'

-- by Dave

In Tennessee this weekend, the chickens came home to roost when a gunman named James David Adkisson walked into a Unitarian Universalist Church and began shooting. So far, two people are dead, and seven more were wounded. He was saying "hateful things," according to all the news reports.

Naturally, right-wingers like the Ole Perfesser tried to fob it off on "Christian haters" -- Adkisson was the son of a church deacon and evidently hated going to church. But that also ignores the fact that he identified himself as a "Confederate."

Now, MSNBC is reporting this morning that Adkisson targeted the church because of its liberal politics. A four-page letter police recovered, according to Knoxville police officials, referred constantly to his "stated hatred for the liberal movement."

Right-wingers love to "joke" about mowing down, rounding up, and otherwise "wiping out" all things liberal. It's become a standard feature of conservative-movement rhetoric. And whenever anyone calls them on it, they have a standard response: "Aw, c'mon -- it's just a joke!"

In reality, of course, rhetoric like this has historically played a critical role in some of the ugliest episodes in American history, as well as thousands of little acts of xenophobic brutality: functionally speaking, it gives violent -- and frequently unstable -- actors permission to act on these impulses. People like this always believe they're standing up for what "real Americans" think -- and the jokes tell them that this is so.

This was a violent attack on liberals. It was inspired by years of wingnuts talking about how much they hate liberals and wish they could do something about them. This man did. But watch the people who have been telling these "jokes" run away from any culpability for it.

Pam has more.

[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

UPDATE: "All liberals should be killed"

Zombie Right-Wing Smears Return To Life: "Obaaamaaa..."

-- by Dave

First it was the return of Floyd Brown and Co. on the scene. Then came the fraudulent e-mail forwards that quoted a white nationalist and claimed the words were Barack Obama's. Slowly but surely, the old extremist right of the 1990s -- the ones who saw Bill Clinton as the New World Order Antichrist and formed militias to stop him -- has been crawling back out of the woodwork in response to Obama's looming presidency.

Now they're replaying one of their old favorites: the fake "body count" e-mail. Gavin M at Sadly, No! has the details:

This isn’t one of those snarky jokes we’re so often accused of making. It’s real, and it’s likely coming soon to an inbox near you (replete with nine-hundred AOL and Hotmail addresses in the ‘cc’ column).

You’ve heard of the Clinton Body Count, and now it’s time for…

The Obama Death List

The following is a partial list of deaths of persons connected to Barack HUSSEIN Obama during his time inside the United States. Read the list and judge for yourself…

The source of these mails is indeterminate. But you may recall that the similarly spurious "Clinton body count" e-mails that flooded our inboxes in the '90s was the product of the black-helicopter militia crowd:

Of Madmen and Martyrs

-- by Sara

We are an odd group, we Unitarians.

Conventional wisdom says that we're soft in all the places our society values toughness. Our refusal to adhere to any dogma must mean that we're soft in our convictions. Our reflexive open-mindedness is often derided as evidence that we're soft in the head. Our persistent and gentle insistence on liberal values is evidence of hearts too soft to set boundaries. And all of this together leads to a public image of a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that somehow lacks cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose.

You can only believe this if you don't know either the history or the modern reality of Unitarian Universalism. The faith's early founders, Michael Servitus and Francis David, were executed for the radical notion that belief in the Trinity -- which excluded Muslims and Jews -- should not be a requirement for participation in 16th century public life. Four hundred years later, in the same part of the world, other Unitarians died in concentration camps for having the courage of their humanist convictions. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother from Michigan who was killed by the Klan in the days following the Selma march in 1965, was one of ours, too.

And then there are the thousands of us who lived to fight another day -- surviving not because we were weak and indecisive, but because we were unshakable in our convictions and unwilling to back down out of sheer cussedness. That Unitarian-bred belief in the nobility of the human spirit was the spiritual foundation on which a plurality of America's founders found sure footing as their convictions crystallized into revolution against tyranny. It fueled the passionate oratory of Daniel Webster, the wisdom of Ben Franklin, and the incisively clear writings of Tom Paine. It sent Paul Revere out into the cold of an April evening, and set Thomas Jefferson to the task of writing a Declaration. It recklessly bet the church's entire existence -- and the lives of its leaders, who willingly and knowingly committed a capital act of treason -- in order to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Unitarianism and Universalism lit the spark of progressive change that drove Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Julia Ward Howe to organize for women's rights. It sent Jane Addams, Dorothea Dix, Albert Schweitzer, and Clara Barton forth to bring health and hope to the poor. It gave voice to poets from Whitman to Plath to cummings, novelists from Dickens to Melville to Vonnegut, and musicians from Bartok to Grieg to Seeger. It fueled the boundless imaginations of Bucky Fuller and Rod Serling and Frank Lloyd Wright. It kept Christopher Reeve alive and breathing and working for his causes. I still hear it crackling hot and fresh every time UU-bred Keith Olbermann goes on one of his trademark rants.

These are not fearful people. Nor do any of them seem to be bedeviled by a lack of conviction. "Mushy" or "feckless" are about the last words I'd use to describe any of them. ("Stupid" isn't anywhere on the list, either.) When you sign up to become a UU, this is the legacy you take on, and from then on attempt to live up to. It's not God's job to make the world a better place. It's yours. This has never been work for the faint of heart, mind, or spirit -- and in this era of conservatism gone crazy, it still isn't.

I'm thinking about all this tonight as I sift through the incoming news that seven people were shot when 58-year-old Jim Adkisson pulled a shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire during a kids' performance at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church this morning. Two have died; four are in critical condition as I write this.

One of the dead, Greg McKendry, apparently took a shotgun blast full in the chest while trying to shield other members from the line of fire. Three other members of the congregation almost immediately charged the gunman and took him down, breaking his arm in the process. Still other members acted sanely and calmly to quickly get the dozens of children out of the sanctuary, and summon the police.

Those are the Unitarians I know. Smart, tough, fearless, calm in a crisis, committed to right action. It could have been any UU church in America, and they'd have behaved pretty much the same way.

It could have been any UU church in America -- and that's the problem.

Nobody seems to know just yet what motivated the attacker. The information is coming out in drips and drabs as police put it all together, and the congregation retreats into itself to pick up the shattered pieces. As we've always noted here when things like this happen, mental illness will probably figure largely in the story when it finally all comes out. You don't have to be crazy to shoot up a church, but past experience suggests that it definitely helps.

But for those of us who've watched and worried about right-wing crazies for years now, there's the sickening feeling that our worst nightmare may have also come true here. Witnesses say that the man was shouting "hateful things." The FBI is standing by, investigating this as a possible hate crime. It's not out of the question: according to Out & About, a Tennessee gay news site, there was plenty going on at TVUUC for the right kind of right-winger to hate:

Knoxville Police have not yet released a motive for the shooting. The church is the site of some gay affirming activities.

A member of the congregation wrote in a national blog that the church just recently put up a sign welcoming gays. One of the goals of the church's long range plan is to "Increase congregational participation in human rights programs for
gay/lesbian/transgendered persons."

“Elrod,” who posted a comment on the blog, “The Moderate Voice” says he is a member of the church. He said he was not present today but did add “all we know right now is that the suspect was not connected to the church in any way. I have no idea if the man had some sort of political or cultural agenda (TVUUC had just put up a sign welcoming gays to the congregation), or if it’s just some lunatic acting for no reason at all.”

It is home to Knoxville’s Spectrum Café, which is a social gathering place for Knoxville area high school youth who “support the principles of diversity, tolerance, and the worth and dignity of every human being.” Teens who come to Spectrum respect each others' ideas, religious views, race, sexual orientations, abilities, and ethnic backgrounds. The group welcomes “self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or who are questioning their sexual or gender identity.”

The Knoxville Monday Gay Men’s Group meets at the church each Monday from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

David Massey is one of the coordinators of Spectrum Café, also known as “Spectrum Diversi-Tea and Coffee House,” which will begin its eighth year this spring. “We advertise it as a safe harbor for teens who identify as LBGTQ and their straight friends and allies, plus any other youth who are being harassed for religious beliefs, appearance, or abilities,” Massey said in an interview with UU World Magazine.

Other sources note that the church has taken the lead in sheltering and feeding the homeless in the community, and founded the local ACLU chapter.

And in this, too, it could have been any UU church in America.

After 25 years of right-wing eliminationist rhetoric about liberal hunting licenses and scaring us out of our treason and keeping a few of us alive as museum exhibits, it's natural that some of us would jump to the thought that maybe, at long last, somebody finally decided to grab a shotgun and go bag himself some libruls -- and decided (not unreasonably) that down at the local UU church, they'd be as thick on the ground as quail on one of Dick Cheney's private hunting trips.

Whatever the reasons turn out to be, there are at least two lessons I hope y'all take away from today's events.

One is that you can bet that the members of this congregation will find a novel way to approach their healing -- and in doing so, they'll set example for the rest of us to watch carefully. If (when) mental illness becomes the issue, they will respond to this man and his family with compassion and justice, because that's the UU way. And if hate turns out to be part of the story, too, then Knoxville, TN is about to have a dialog on hate crime that will leave nobody in town untouched or uninvolved. That's the UU way, too.

The other is that this congregation's cool, brave response shows, once again, that it's past time to drop that old stereotype, and stop underestimating the courage and intelligence of the religious left in America. We've gotten incredibly short shrift over the past few decades -- not only from the religious right, which thinks we're the minions of Satan on earth; but also from fellow progressives, who think that "religious" is a synonym for crazy, dangerous, irrational, and definitely not an asset to the movement.

Secular progressives don't seem to understand that while politics is all about how we're going to make the world better, progressive religion tells us why it's necessary to work for change, and what "better" will look like when we get there. Liberal faith traditions offer the essential metaphors and worldview that everything else derives from -- the frames that give our dreams shape and meaning. It has an invaluable role to play in helping our movement set its values and priorities, understand where we are in the larger scheme, and gauge whether we're succeeding or not.

The conservative movement knew from the get that it would not succeed unless it could offer people this kind of deeper narrative. Providing that was one of the most important things the religious right brought to their party. Progressivism will not defeat it until we can offer another narrative about what America can and should be -- and our liberal churches have longer, harder, better experience than anyone at developing and communicating those stories, and building thriving -- and on occasions like today, literally bulletproof -- communities around them.

And then there's that long, tough history to draw on. The UUs, along with the Congregationalists and Quakers, have been at the beating heart of American liberalism since before the country was founded. We've faced down the ignorant and the arrogant, the terrified and the unreasonable, the cops and the courts and the Congress so many times that it's not even news any more. Civil disobedience is built into our bones (yes, *sigh,* Thoreau was one of ours, too), and we've come to regard it as one of our more important sacraments. These days, it's not only in our defense of gay rights and our gathering fury about torture, but also in our leadership role in the New Sanctuary Movement defending immigrants from ICE raids.

If the right wing ever does turn its anti-liberal crusade into a shooting war, it's easy to predict that the country's UU churches will be among their first targets. What's less predictable -- unless you know the people, the theology, and the history, or took careful note of everything that happened in Tennessee today -- is just how surprisingly fierce and fearless that response is likely to be.

Grief and pride taste strange together, but I am full of both for the people of the Tennessee Valley UUC tonight. After all, it could be any UU church in America. That's the bad news. It's the good news, too.

Update: Word coming in this morning confirms both possibilities. Adkisson was a Vietnam-era veteran with a history of alcoholism who was having a hard time finding work. And he blamed this fact on "liberals" -- gee, I wonder where he got that idea? -- whom he believed were getting the good jobs, and were about to cut his food stamps to boot. (How's that for a misunderstanding of the progressive project?) According to a four-page letter he wrote during the week he'd been planning this, his plan in launching the attack was take out evil liberals while committing suicide by cop.

A guy having trouble who, almost without a doubt, spent too much of his abundant spare time listening to right-wing hate radio. As the economy sours and the Democrats move into power, we probably haven't seen the last of these.

Any UU church in America, indeed.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

'A line was crossed at Postville'

-- by Dave

It seems there was good reason to be concerned about the unusual handling of the cases of illegal immigrants caught up in last month's massive raids at Postville, Iowa -- where, as we noted at the time, immigrants not only were treated like cattle, the prosecutors engaged in questionable tactics as they processed these cases: deploying the unusual tactic of threatening the immigrants with felony identity-theft charges and sending them to prison when they either plead guilty or were quickly found guilty.

Last week there was a New York Times editorial directing us to an essay by Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Spanish-language court interpreter who was called in to help process detainees in the raid. It makes the devastating case that the Department of Homeland Security, in collusion with the Justice Department, is (in the words of one observer we heard from about this case) "basically gaming the Federal judiciary using existing law, rules and regulations to force the judiciary to act as a coerced agent of the executive to imprison undocumented workers, after which they are deported with a prison record."

As Camayd-Freixas makes clear, these workers were charged improperly with a crime of which they were innocent as the means of forcing them to plead guilty to a lesser charge, for which they then accepted five-month prison sentence.

As the NYT editorial says:

Under the old way of doing things, the workers, nearly all Guatemalans, would have been simply and swiftly deported. But in a twist of Dickensian cruelty, more than 260 were charged as serious criminals for using false Social Security numbers or residency papers, and most were sentenced to five months in prison.

What is worse, Dr. Camayd-Freixas wrote, is that the system was clearly rigged for the wholesale imposition of mass guilt. He said the court-appointed lawyers had little time in the raids’ hectic aftermath to meet with the workers, many of whom ended up waiving their rights and seemed not to understand the complicated charges against them.

You really need to read the entire piece by Camayd-Freixas. This passage in particular stood out:

It is no secret that the Postville ICE raid was a pilot operation, to be replicated elsewhere, with kinks ironed out after lessons learned. Next time, “fast-tracking” will be even more relentless. Never before has illegal immigration been criminalized in this fashion. It is no longer enough to deport them: we first have to put them in chains.