Strawmanning my religion

So, I’m watching Glee (2×03) through the internets today and this week’s episode had some great songs, especially the Beatles number, but almost every moment that wasn’t music sucked. I felt like the whole episode was designed to strawman my religion- because of course, this week’s episode was about theism and prayer.

And yes, it was about theism and not religion, and it softballed the subject so badly that it wasn’t even funny. The only laugh moment I had was when Kurt added to his quip that Christianity isn’t always very friendly to women, which while absolutely true, is a little less self-involved than we might have expected from him. This was the only actual enlightened direct commentary on religion, and they barely even dented the bunch of adorable puppies they had representing the Religion Is Awesome When Life is Hard side by showing Finn that sometimes you can’t get what you pray for, or you get it in a horrible way. Which of course they immediately explain away by having Emma the guidance councilor pull an It’s More Complicated Than That, and we don’t get to see any of the emotional impact of that, because the reaction song didn’t really have anything visual to back it up, unlike the five or so the theistic kids got.

The rest was a terrible suck-fest full of theistic self-righteousness about being persecuted because the kids weren’t allowed to sing religiously themed songs. Never mind that Glee Club is extracurricular and may be allowed to follow different rules, because our Sometimes-Villain Sue Sylvester’s hate-on for prayer lead her to get Kurt to make a complaint about the religious content of the Glee club.

This continues the one thing that ruins my big bisexual love affair with Glee: the fact that it strawmans more liberal1 positions in order to make fun of them instead of actually trying to open up a debate. When Glee makes fun of conservatives, it makes fun of them for positions some of them actually believe. Nobody I’ve ever heard from believes you shouldn’t be able to sing “What If God Was One Of Us” in a public school, whether they’re American or New Zealanders. When Glee makes fun of liberal positions, we get get a mixed bag of chocolate and vomit. (sometimes the absolutely likely “My dads can’t sew”, and sometimes the terrible “gay boys are just like girls, only with penises!” Gay boys are boys who date boys, making them like girls only insofar as those girls are also androsexual) And frankly, no matter how many chocolates you get in a bag, one that’s filled with vomit really does risk ruining the whole bag.

The episode also completely failed to touch on atheistic spirituality: by which I mean there wasn’t even name-dropping for deism, (that would be me) Buddhism, reincarnation, humanism, (also me) and secular values. (yay!) Kurt “learned” a completely backwards lesson in which he gives up his right to a prayer-free space to worry or mourn in. Yes, it’s great that his friends were supporting him, but when someone asks you for space from your religion so they don’t have to confront your worship in a public context, that’s something they’re entitled to. Instead his friends essentially invade his father’s hospital room to pray in there after having been asked not to.

There were some less bad and more mixed moments, though. For one thing, there was very little of Season 1’s tendency to try and mock things by just showing them and assuming we know they’re ridiculous. If it’s meant to be ridiculed here, we knew why, even if it was completely wrong-headed of the writers to think we should agree, which made the enraging parts less so because the counterbalancing moments weren’t just little allusions telling us republicans are crazy. Probably the highlight mixed moment was when Sue confronted her sister about her frustration with prayer as a child, and her sister (for non-watchers, she has Downs Syndrome) gave us an “I’m okay, you’re okay” moment by telling Sue that God doesn’t make mistakes, which was precious, if it risked straying a little into Just World Theory and having conservatives foaming at the mouth saying stupid things like “yeah, Sue’s sister deserves to be retarded because God made her that way!”. I viewed as more of a “Hey, people may have teased me, but this made me who I am, and who I am rocks!” moment, and if that’s what they meant, Sue’s sister was totally capable of expressing that in a much clearer way.

So, in closing, the kids were absolutely right to pray for Burt, but nothing said they needed to do that somewhere that it would violate his son’s space and steal his right to control his own life. Because that’s all seperation of church and state is about: letting everyone have the space to not practice (or practice, if they so choose) their own beliefs, and not assuming that you get to invade other people’s space by putting your spiritual beliefs in it without permission and assuming they’re okay sharing them, or forcing them to debate you about them when they have other things they care about more.

1Glee is a social commentary and very rarely touches on economic issues, so I’m deliberately not using the words “left” and “right” here, because we’re talking a different political dimension. This will be comfortable to those who read about American politics where both parties are economically right wing, but readers from the rest of the world might appreciate the distinction. 🙂

Reaction: What isn’t wrong with hate crimes legislation

I picked up on an article in the online edition of the Times by John Cloud this morning on the extension of hate crimes legislation in the USA.

Firstly, let me agree with John Cloud on the critical point here: We can neither police what is in someone’s head, nor can we limit their ability to peacefully express their thoughts. This is what freedom of speech as a legislative principle is about. But hate crimes are not free speech, because they’re not speech. Punishing a hate crime more than an ordinary killing, assault, or harassment doesn’t risk punishing people for being wrong- rather, the angle of attack it’s most vulnerable to (and I don’t agree with this, I’m just being straightforward) is that it’s disproportionate punishment.

John claims that this additional strictness in sentencing is to punish someone for thinking bad things. I completely disagree: the extra punishment is because there are two crimes involved, not just one. The obvious crime is the physical or mental harm inflicted by the damage of the crime directly, and John correctly acknowledges that.

However, the less obvious crime is not that minority groups are outraged or encouraged to riot- no, those are reactions, not causes. The less obvious crime is that hate crimes are an act of domination. They tell people of other races, sexualities, or gender identities to shut up, take what they’re given, and to be very afraid that if they don’t comply with what a few violent and hateful individuals think, they will be harassed, hurt, or killed.

While these visions of kyriarchy might be protected inside someone’s head, or as words on paper, or even in a public speech, expressing them as violent crime aimed to intimidate and dominate the wider culture is indeed going further than a regular violent offense, and the harm that these acts of terrorism- and make no mistake, this is how hate crimes are intended to work, to terrify portions of the populace- need to be deterred with whatever extra muscle we can throw at them.

It’s also disingenuous to say that the only thing someone will care about with regard to hate crimes is the actual crime: I care about the motivation because that motivation spreads, and makes it more dangerous for me to be open about who I am, or for transgender people to transition, or for women to be out at night, or any number of other worries that come along with being who you are and doing what you want to. Hate crimes legislation is a strike back, it gives a little more courage, and tells everyone that the government is on your side a little.

John argues hate crimes legislation doesn’t need to extend to private land1 because hate crimes are already falling. I’m going to have to disagree with him that this is a good reason to abandon protective legislation: This law isn’t what’s going to end hate crimes altogether. The biggest reduction to hate crimes will come when everyone can actually understand and empathise with people of different sexualities, races, and gender identities, and I agree that hate crimes legislation, no matter how comprehensive and punitive, will make little difference. The point of hate crimes legislation is to act as a line in the sand, it starts as a symbol and hopefully gets people to think twice about making that leap from merely being wrong, which ought to never be a crime, to doing wrong- which often is. It gives courage to those of us worried about being a victim, and lets us act a little more closely to how free the average rich white guy can. 😉

1I’ll do him the favour of assuming his opposition to the bill proposed is not on the basis of it extending hate crimes protections to include acts of violence based on gender identity or sexual orientation, because I find the idea of someone opposing that appalling. Who knows if that’s optimistic or not?

Speech is action

I’m torn between being sad1 and angry1 about the news I’ve been catching up on since yesterday.

In case anyone thought we needed reminding, the death of one George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions in cases of clear need, will serve as a tragic marker for the connection between speech and action.

Scott Roeder, the lead suspect, was a fringe follower with links deep into self-described “pro-life” groups. Roeder was present for the acquittal when Tiller was accused of violating state abortion laws. (Tiller was harassed with lawsuits by pro-life groups) He followed websites that tracked Dr. Tiller, listed his home address, place of work, church address, businesses he frequented, and more. He, like many of his friends at his pro-life website, even compared Dr. Tiller to Mengele.

Combine this stalking behaviour with speech from all sorts of prominent anti-abortion campaigners comparing doctors performing abortions not only to murderers, but also to famous genocides, and the outcry from some groups that they don’t condone violence rings hollow- not necessarily because they do condone violence, but because their “strong peaceful protest” has likely enabled not just this killing, but also previous attempts (both successful and not) on the lives of doctors around the U.S.A., and even previous attempts on the life of Doctor Tiller.

Now we see the sad justification for the U.S. government watching for terror threats from extreme right-wing groups. If pro-choice groups attempted to capture and/or enslave men, or rape women with the aim to forcibly impregnate them, we’d be entering the same realm as we have now for conservative anti-abortion groups in the U.S.A. Here’s what the founder of the site Roeder followed had to say on this incident:

George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name: murder.

Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.

If yelling “fire” in a crowded room is incitement to disturbing the peace, what is yelling “genocide!” to an inflamed mob? I wish he had more to be worried about than just his crocodile tears over not being able to use “effective2 rhetoric” against abortion.

Comments like this go beyond the point where anyone can be expected to agree to disagree, as much as I am a fan of that policy. This is advocating domestic terrorism and political violence, and is never appropriate. In an ideal world these groups that advocate extreme violence would be treated like the terrorists they are wherever on the political spectrum they fell, but the political double-standard for American conservatives is apparently still in full force.

Still, at least I can credit the social conservatives in our own fair country with not being murdering crazies3.

1 Read: “crying” and “cursing”. 😉
2 I.e.: dangerous and irresponsible.
3Except of course the “Sensible Sentencing Trust”, who think it is appropriate to murder taggers. Damn. Guess that bit of patriotism backfired 😛

“Redefining Marriage”

Welcome to Big Gay January! This month I’m going to be focusing on a lot of GLBTQI stuff to see how that influences my writing. (And also because I’m in a very gay mood lately) Probably mostly GLB stuff because that’s what I’m most familiar with 😉

So, one of the huge success stories of the GLBTQI movement in the USA has been its push for gay marriage- namely that it has scared the jesus out of the conservatives1 that are pretty freaked out that this push could actually succeed. There’s talk in conservative circles of offering everything but the kitchen sink- ie. equitable civil unions and non-discrimination protections. Which is good. Clearly our queer sisters and brothers across the Pacific have shown us that if your position is sensible and consistent, pushing as hard as you can for what you really want redefines the “compromise” position.

So, what tactics have the social conservatives come up with to halt the march of progress? Well, they talk about “redefining” marriage. I’ve talked about the myth of marriage being an unchanged institution before, but there is some technical correctness here- when social conservatives talk about marriage being between a man and a woman uninterrupted for thousands of years since its inception, they are mostly correct. The assumption, bigoted though it was, was that sex between men (lesbians need not apply, because nobody knew or apparently cared that you existed for a lot of that time) happened only because of lust, and thus it was somehow inherently sinful. How this is different from normal sex is anyone’s guess. Now, while they are largely correct that marriage has always been between men and women since it started and until now2, they are incorrect to say that it has never been redefined and that they are right to oppose marriage equality on those grounds. Marriage has had countless redefinitions. Firstly, we stopped viewing it as a transaction where a father paid a suitor to take care of his daughter, and viewed it as a partnership between two independent and equal adults. In short, we injected feminism and equal rights into marriage. That was a redefinition, and if you oppose marriage equality on the grounds of redefinition, you ought to also be working just as hard to reinstate marriage as a financial transaction and revoke equal rights for women. And we all know that’s not a position you can afford to admit support for.

Oh, but wait, we’re not done. We’ve also got the miscegenation laws from America, and similar taboos and informal laws that have happened throughout history to prevent interracial marriage. Surely if marriage is to remain a consistent, unchanging contract, we should also reinstate the idea that marriage is to be restricted to people of the same race. We wouldn’t want that sort of social progress rubbing off, either. We’ll also ignore the convenient genetic advantages of mixing disparate gene groups. (Which is pretty much what a “race” is. Humans don’t actually have enough genetic variation for distinct breeds the way some other species do.)

Oh, and we’re still not done. We’ll have to abolish marriage as a contract for legal privileges and rights, too, and return it to merely being a declaration of love and a promise of fidelity, like I mentioned earlier.

Oh, and one more thing: Even if all that doesn’t change your mind, there was a limited period of same-sex couples being recognised as married in ancient Rome. Is it really redefining an institution if we’re just reinstituting it in a way the ancients practiced? While this isn’t exactly smoking bullet stuff, it still very much muddies the water on the accuracy of the “redefinition” argument, and perhaps relegates it to more of a dog-whistle for ignorance and contempt of homosexuality than a legitimate contention.

So, while I accept that people can say that marriage equality redefines marriage, and I even accept that they can be ridiculous enough to think that this is a bad thing, I do not accept that they can cherry-pick just gay marriage from the list of times we’ve redefined marriage and then say “Okay, we’re ignoring all those other changes.” If one redefinition is wrong without further justification as to what makes it special, then they’re all wrong.
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He’s a renegade

This is too cool. Maybe I’m way too geeky about codenames and the like, but I think it shows a great respect for him and understanding of his underlying character by the White House Communications Bureau. 🙂

The end of the global gag rule?

For those depressed by our own election, hopefully this chunk of news over at Shakesville will cheer you up. 🙂

Why are steps forward always accompanied by a step back?

Firstly: For those hiding under a rock, Barack Obama is now president-elect of the United States of America. I have heard so many amazing stories about this that have brought tears to my eyes, let me issue a completely goofy chuckle at the amazing feeling that having someone like you being your leader for the first time must elicit, (I get a small glimpse of it every time I get to talk with our incredibly successful youth candidates and/or GLBT1 candidates in New Zealand) and generally just lift up my faith in democracy ever so much higher. That’s even discounting the incredible, joyous relief I feel at the idea that the world’s most influential democracy has finally decided that smart candidates who can compromise, open government, and equality of opportunity over a folksy right-wing warhappy radical eco-skeptical neoliberal extremist who struggles with complex sentences and can’t behave himself appropriately on the international stage, but who might be kinda cool to share a drink with and could possibly fit in with you in church.

In short, America has reminded us that we can- and should- choose reform in government, equality, and democratic values. Even if the person bringing them isn’t our ideal candidate.

But it’s also been a bittersweet victory for many Democrats in the United States, and has warned us of wedge issues and the influence of social conservatism on the gay rights agenda. Many states just voted through propositions that revoked or banned gay and lesbian marriage, (usually in the form of a “protection of traditional marriage” proposal) including the incredibly liberal state of California2. In Arkansas even got through one that also bans adoptions by gay or lesbian couples. I’ve also read that much of the US$70 million that anti-equality campaigners spent on getting Proposition 8 passed in california was fund-raised out of state. The idea of more conservative or liberal areas flooding money into ad campaigns for their neighbors in order to enforce their moral agenda there seems somewhat chilling to me.

Had these been issues in the candidate elections, a lot of states could have lost some support among traditionally Democratic demographics3– for instance, 60% of black voters in California favoured Proposition 8. Convincing people that this isn’t about attacking “traditional marriage”, but actually upholding equality and the democratic principle of equal citizenship for all doesn’t just benefit GLBTQI New Zealanders- it can actually potentially change how some New Zealanders vote.

I’m seriously hoping that the results of our own election this Saturday won’t leave me with similar worries
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Sidetrack: EFA paralells in America

I know, I know right? Two sidetracks in a week. I’m getting bad at this. But this one is really important. It highlights why laws like the EFA are necessary.

Despite believing passionately in free speech rights, I’m a staunch supporter of the electoral finance act, which includes limits on the amount spent on advertising by political parties, and more importantly, limits the amount of parallel campaigning, (where say, rogue members of the exclusive brethren will launch attacks on another political party so that National doesn’t have to) whether positive or negative, that any third party groups can do during the election season. Some people see this as a contradiction. I don’t.

The really important part of this law is that it prevents third parties from spending very large amounts of money to attack or back a particular political party outside of the usual spending limits, thus effectively opening up a loophole and making the election less of a competition of beliefs and policies, and more of a matter of buying your way into power with as much advertising as possible.

National, the party that benefited from this sort of parallel campaigning last election, is calling the Electoral Finance Act an assault on free speech. Apparently, National don’t understand what free speech is. Free Speech is most fundamentally the right to air your political views without punishment, threats, or detainment by the government. We also understand it as the right not to be prevented from presenting those views in public. However, the type of speech being limited (not banned) is not political views. It is electioneering. Under the electoral finance act, you are perfectly welcome to say “we at the Business Roundtable think it is important that the government collect as little tax as possible”. You just can’t say “So vote for the National Party”, or even “so don’t vote for the Labour Party”1. Given that those sorts of statements have no explicit political message in them, I think there’s little reason to protect them in the first place.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign has just made a very similar move in the USA. In the US, Presidential candidates are able to sign up for federal funding of their campaigns on the understanding that they will abide by federal spending limits. Not only has Obama’s opponent, John McCain, already broken the law by exceeding those limits for his primary campaign, but he is also very likely to benefit from nominally independent groups that will run attack advertising on Obama using money raised by the Republican Party.

So, Obama knows that he can make a lot more money than the federal funding will allow him to spend, even though he supports that funding system. He knows that playing within the rules just gives McCain the advantage, especially as he’s demonstrated that he’s prepared to break them outright, and not just bend them as the Republicans usually do. So Obama has opted out of the public financing scheme, saying that it needs to be improved so that it’s not vulnerable to exactly the sort of parallel campaigning that laws like the EFA prevent.

Typically, McCain is following a similar line to National’s attacks on this matter- he’s portraying it as a cynical attempt to have more campaign finance available. And while it’s true in both cases- Obama’s pullout and Labour’s support of the EFA- that there is some self-interest involved, the public still gets to benefit from a far more level playing field come the election, which is something we can all agree is worthwhile.

1Edited to add: Well, you can’t say that without being subject to spending limits, registration as an official third party, submitting a known and inhabited residential address for verification, and a bunch of other things that basically just ensure you’re a real person/organisation and that you’re okay with not trying to saturate the country with advertising, but rather just want to show a small amount of support for your favoured Party or candidate. Even electioneering is technically protected like normal free speech, it’s just that you can’t spend too much money on it. You are however welcome to doorknock, attend debates, etc… which has the effect of making a good campaign involve really getting to know the voters a lot more personally than before. That can only be a good thing for the country as a whole.

We’re all in this together

One of the most frustrating things for me to explain as a feminist and queer rights advocate (and occassional opponent of racism, although as a white male geek I am pretty out of touch on this one, even if one of my family members is in a relationship with a Maori woman) is that injustice spills over from one category into another.

The most obvious starting point of how injustice defies simple categorisation is convergence: Consider a butch, fat, Maori lesbian. She doesn’t only suffer from racism, which is notable especially in the isolation from more peer groups with more emphasis on acadamic achievement and in the systematic discrimination in the enforcement of laws and regulations, but she also suffers multiplicative reinforcement of how different the brownness of her skin makes her. She has to deal with not just being a dyke, but being a fat dyke- stereotyped as unhealthy both physically and emotionally. Because she does not want to act like a stereotypical woman, she will often be isolated from the support of her fellow women in dissuading sexism, and because she’s a lesbian she is likely to lose support from her fellow Maori in solidarity against racism. And because she converges these concerns, her allies against any of her problems- gender roles, body shape, sexism, homophobia, or racism- will also be tarred with the brush of all of those problems.

This is a particular barrier against interracial couples, for instance, especially with Pakeha or white women in relationships with men from cultures that do not accept women’s liberation as a norm- leading to a sort of permanent tension in the relationship between racist undertones and sexist ones. That these kinds of couples succeed and deal with those tensions at all is a wonderful reminder of how small these issues can be when we just acknowledge them and resolve to listen to each other.

Convergence means not only that you experience two types of discrimination, but that those types of discrimination feed off each other and become more than adding up two parts of a whole: discrimination against black women keeps the usually challenged racism, whether invisible and systematic or overt and individualised, disguised under the convenient umbrella of sexism having “achieved its goals”, with the issues holding back women in income being excused as related to education, (despite women doing significantly better than men in formal education) a fair chance to sue for systematic pay discrimination dismissed as frivolous litigation. (women in the United States are currently regarded as having to file within 180 days of the first incidence of this systematic discrimination in order to be eligible to have their case heard)

There’s also what I call overflow. (I’ll admit that I haven’t seen any literature on this one yet. I’ve probably just not looked hard enough) This has created the image of radical, man-hating lesbian feminists that permeates the most brutal sexism. Because feminists support women who have been sorely emotionally traumatised by men and cannot accept them, they are conflated with man-haters. Because feminists have begun to listen to lesbian concerns, feminists are now suspected as being gay in disguise to hide their real agenda. Likewise, men who support feminism are viewed as closeted gays, transsexuals, as being too girly or “not manly enough”, because some male allies have come to the table this way.

Overflow is what makes discrimination against any group a problem for all groups- people who cannot acknowledge their own privilege start to view any significant engagement with the concerns of oppressed groups as wrong, and those of us who are privileged get obstructed by entrenched attitudes for trying to give up advantages we have no right to take for granted. Taking the case of male feminist allies in particular, being the one I’m familiar with, overflow doesn’t just get in the way of things you do to shed your own privilege.

It also involves in people challenging your manhood and conflating you, justified or not, with the groups you sympathise with- because men laugh about these type of things, we’re supposed to joke about clingy ex-girlfriends, and agree Helen Clark is some sort of robotic feminazi dictator machine, because it’s a matter of fact, not of perception- never mind that accepting the factuality of a label involves a certain amount of confirmation bias, because it takes a lot more mental flexibility to turn around labels- like slut, for instance- to apply equally to all groups. And even when this IS done, usually we qualify said labels differently. “Man-slut” is a great example- the qualification implies that men are an exception to the rules- much like calling a bussinessperson a “working woman”. Because apparently it’s unnatural for women to work, or workers to be women 😉

Motherhood issues

The Standard has a good post on how well we’re doing in providing for mothers in New Zealand. (note: The Standard is a partisan blog for the Labour movement, so the post is not politically neutral) Steve notes that New Zealand is ranked the 4th best place to be a mother by the report, (Sweden, Noway, and Iceland take out the top three spots in that order, and Niger is worst) and we’re rated as the second best place to be a woman in general. (Sweden beats us again) The report is fascinating reading, and shows that while New Zealand is doing incredibly compared to other countries in key indicators of female welfare, we have a lot of room for improvement, and we should be worried about backsliding in some areas such as female representation.

Worth noting is that in terms of children we fall down all the way to 20th. While New Zealand has a long history of being on the forefront of women’s rights, we haven’t yet afforded the same respect to children, and it shows in more than the recent s59 debate, which largely ignored the issue of children themselves and focused on parents. Continue reading