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Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
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Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.

Out of Step with Queer 14 May 2010

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Modernity and Modernism, Queer Theory.
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An acquaintance of mine asked me this morning to explain what I meant in my profile by being “out of step with the queer left.” It’s a good question, but a complex one that I still struggle with and am not sure about. I find that I both love queer theory and am frustrated by it on many levels. I find that I get giddy when I think about some of the protest actions by Gay Shame here in San Francisco, but that I also find them problematic and elitist. So here’s my attempt to explain to him what I mean by this. In some ways, this is a personal intellectual journey, but it’s also about conclusions I’ve drawn after being immersed in archival and ethnographic research of gay men for the past 8 years.

A few caveats: I think of knowledge as always in process and emergent, so this is just where I am now. I am constantly thinking about this (and I’m currently writing an encyclopedia article about developments in Queer Theory since 2000), and reworking and exploring where I stand. So this is just a snap shot. Secondly, this is a blog, not a journal article, so what follows is necessarily gestural and incomplete, or in process. Third, it’s at a very abstracted level without actual quotes or examples to anchor the discussion. I would love to have more substantive, anchored conversations about this topic, and hope that maybe the conversation could move there in the comments. So here’s my explanation of what I mean by being out of step with the queer left:

1) I’ve always been pretty idealistic, driven by a vision of what the world should be like, especially in terms of justice and equality. My poor little conservative, Republican, mormon parents thought I was Satan spawn in high school. And my classmates and teachers in my tiny rural high school thought I was from outer space. But for better or worse, I find that I’m still driven by that deep belief in justice (although I find recently that I’m growing exhausted with the never ending academic discussions about it and banging my head against the wall trying to get students to break out of their own experience to see the world as it is for so many others around the planet).

2) Both in my undergrad and in my Masters program (where I did Native American studies, and wrote an embarrassing thesis about NA autobiography), I had been steeped in critical theory, especially in the postmodern/deconstructive vein (and not as much but still significantly in the old Marxist vein). But by the time I was into my PhD program (where’d I’d switched to a more sociological orientation) I had started to rethink the assumptions about empiricism and knowledge production that I’d inherited from my cultural studies background up to that point, and I started thinking in really hard terms about the disjuncture between academic discourse about “critique” and real human lives outside of the academy.

3) Around this time, I met one of the two Social Theorists on campus, Robert Antonio (his work most recently has been about Weber and before that Habermas and before that Dewey) who introduced me to the American Pragmatists, and I began reading Pierce, James, Dewey, and Mead voraciously. They begin with the demonstration of the emergent property of knowledge (and truth and culture (although they didn’t use the “c” word yet because it was before the ascendency of Anthropological terms in the field), the contingency (or situatedness) of knowledge (truth and culture), and the details of how human minds produce knowledge. Dewey after WWI took off from there, theorizing how to conceive of problems in the world and solve them given the emergent nature of knowledge. For me, this was a breath of fresh air. It jarred me out of the kind of helpless funk that the posmodern critique can sometimes lead to, and also reoriented how I frame social problems in the world. [And in my professional life, it also led me to symbolic interaction as a method for research, but that’s tangential to this conversation.]

4) I started doing my dissertation research (which eventually led to book research after I finished my degree) about gay men in the 1960s. I started off with a very “queer” lens and a set of values and provisional claims that I thought I was going to make. I worked hard, however, to keep my claims provisional and to allow the evidence to speak and to see what was actually there. If you read the intro and conclusion to my book, for example, you’ll get a good feel for my intellectual orientation in research in this regard. You’ll find that my divergence from “queer studies” per se is subtle, but there. I’m actually really interested to see what reviewers do with the book and how they interpret my intellectual orientation to what have become “queer” problems.

5) Let me now address my relationship to the ‘academic’ side of queer. In a more direct way, this is what I can tell you about “queer”, where I am right now, after having spent 8 years on a dissertation and book about gay men (bearing in mind that I’m being gestural here).

a) I find that a lot of queer theory is more normative than analytical. This is quite ironic, given queer theory’s ostensible eschewal of the normative. Often I actually agree with the normative it’s proposing, but find that the theorists leave their normatives unspoken or uninterrogated, and therefore weak.

b) I find that queer theory often relies on unsubstantiated or poorly evidentiated assumptions, for example, the universality of bisexuality (which is an old Freudian canard, which still shocks me when I find it popping up in queer writers). This more often than not comes from a refusal to address the actual embodiment of human agents, as queer theory most often sees bodies as mere symbolic effects. Here is, for me, an epistemological disagreement I have with a lot of cultural theory since about 1970 (especially that which is derived from French philosophy): Knowledge can only be produced by bodies, through means that evolved, in physical (and symbolic) environments that produce constant feedback to the organism. I find that queer theory most often rests in that line of cultural theory (though often unspoken) that assumes a priori that the symbolic world is completely self-referential and all correspondance to the exterior world of the subject is coincidental or illusory. I come at this from a baseline interactionist perspective, which is that meaning is more than the interaction of symbols and that it is an emergent property of interaction in an environment and that, although the connections to the exterior are contingent, change over time, and contextual, they are nonetheless real, not just in their consequences, but in their origins.

c) Finally, queer theory is often uncritical of its own historical connections to the eponymous “radical” gay and lesbian movement of the early 1970s. Like other liberation movements of the post-war period, the homosexual movement(s) ended up being constituted through an internal schism between the self-described radicals and the other side, called by the radicals everything from “liberal” to “conservative”, “Auntie Toms” and “shameful.” There is in contemporary queer studies an often un-interrogated aesthetic or even nostalgic longing for the movement of 40 years ago, which itself was probelmatically organized out of a desire for “authenticity.” So “queer” today, despite its critiques of authenticity per se, often unconsciously builds upon notions of authentic queerness (especially in its politics) and then produces the normative bent I mentioned above.

6) And now for actual politics in the public realm. This is where things get very muddy for me, and a lot of my discomfort comes from the research I did about gay men 1961-1972 in San Francisco. There is a long history in gay politics of what I’ll call “in-fighting” for lack of a better word; it’s as long as gay politics itself, that emerges (in my opinion) out of LGBT people’s interactions with the dominant culture and their various efforts to create a space for themselves and the consummation of their desires within society. What tends to happen (at least as far as I can see back to the founding of the Mattachine Society) is a sharp conflict over values among LGBT people that gets enacted in a deep moralizing conflict within the “community” (a word I use with great caution and discomfort (again, see my book for details on that point if you want)).

Take “Gay Shame” here in SF. I find that I very often agree with their social critique, and then can’t figure out what the hell they spend all their time protesting other gay people. This is an old tradition in San Francisco, where the moralizing left aims all its frustration and anger at other gay people. The baseline interaction becomes about who is doing gay (or queer) correctly, rather than on effecting social change that expands the freedom and possibilities of gayness in the lives of real life queers. To say this more clearly: The battle becomes over the right way to be gay, rather than over the transformation of the social structures of oppression.

Think of the battle over gay marriage. If you’ll allow me some cartoon caricatures for the sake of argument, to the far left, the critique is of the institution of marriage itself and the patriarchal relationship between genders, and between parents and children, and between individuals and the state. To the far right, the effort is for assimilation and acceptance, for full “Americanness” and normality. [I think both sides are far more subtle than this, but you see where I’m going.] So here in SF, you got queers-on-the-left protesting against the protests against Prop 8, because of course any gay person who would want marriage is a dupe or stupid or a tool of “the Man”. When I was marching in the massive shut down of Market Street the day after elections in 2008, I felt like I was in a time machine watching Gay Sunshine protest against S.I.R. in 1970. Surreal.

In the interactionist mode, marriage has already been massively transformed by the past 200 years of feminist and more recently LGBT action. Marriage today simple is not what it used to be even 50 years ago. And it will continue to change. LGBTs trying to get marriage can reinforce its social valence and power, but it also necessarily transforms it. This leaves aside the very real inequalities, some of them horrifying and inhuman (see the Governor of Minnesota’s recent veto for example) that result from the current state of affairs.  LGBTs having the right to marry can be domesticating, but it can also be transformative. Both. At the same time. Gays in the military can be a normalization of masculinity among gay men; it can also be a transformation of masculinity in the military and in society in general. So the real-world effects and the real-human desires at play seem to be both more simple and more complex than queer politics would have them be.

Whereas I want to create a society that gives the widest range possible for the expression of non-normal (in the statistical sense) sexualities by expanding freedom and access, and whereas I find that I often agree with the baseline criticisms of queer theory and activism, I find that queer practice can be normative, moralizing, and exclusive.

Is Marriage the Containment, Once and for All, of Homosexuality? 14 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Gender, Inequality & Stratification, Microsociology/Social Psychology, Queer Theory.
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A common thread in queer critiques of gay rights movements is that the aims of the movement are moving us toward a domestication or containment of our queerness, of the things that make us different and interesting in the first place. I have mixed feelings about these criticisms. 

On one hand, Michael Warner’s argument in The Trouble with Normal really resonate with my own sensibilities of the beauty and the possibility of queer culture and gay relationships (see also Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy). I worry that the movement’s goals are about conformity and respectability, rather than about the freedom to be different and, well, queer. My own research concludes that what makes gay community and culture possible are the social spaces necessary for gay people to work out the meanings of their difference with each other, rather than in relationship to the dominant heterosexual norm. I argue that one of the key areas of weakness in the current iteration of gay rights movement is that it seeks integration into the dominant culture, and ignores the necessity for queer spaces in their own right. If there are no more queer social spaces, there are no more contexts within which queers can create their own culture. Remember, culture is an emergent property of social interaction; without interaction, there is no culture. Do we really want to just blend in and accept the terms of ‘normality’ from the dominant? Is my desire for men nothing more than a quirk that can fit into the hegemonic American Dream?

There are at the practical level significant problems, sociologically speaking, with my position. Namely, the kind of social spaces, whose loss I bemoan, and the kind of emergent culture they produce, have historically happened oppositionally. That is, they happen because there was a need in the social environment for their creation. Or to say it yet another way, in my research, gay men formed social spaces and cultures because they needed to in their context in history. Could it be that to maintain gay male difference, for example, you must live in a homophobic or heteronormative society? If there is no institutional or social mountain to climb, is there still a difference worth fighting for? In some ways, this will be a question of history. You can look at places like Sweden which has integrated homosexuality to a great degree, so that there are virtually no queer spaces at all in the country: Then we can ask the question, are there still differences? If not why not? If not, should there be?

But since culture is emergent and context specific, is it even the right focus to mourn the loss of cultural practices that arose in different contexts and that may no longer be useful or meaningful in the current environment?  Because culture is nothing more nor less than the production of meaning that is useful to the group in a specific setting, should our critical focus be preserving a culture within a changed context? [I believe these questions must be asked of other minority groups as well, not just queer culture.]

There are still more levels to delve through. Warner is but one among many who argue that marriage is the wrong battle to wage. But we are left with two important empirical considerations: 1st and foremost, the liberal democracy distributes social goods based on institutions, in this case marriage, which means that when the legal definition of marriage excludes same-sex relationships, it necessarily distributes those goods unequally; and 2nd, because marriage is a part of a the current social environment and it carries significant cultural weight, across race, ethnic, class, and religious lines, it is an object of desire for many (most) people in the society.

On the first point, many activists argue that the institution of marriage should be eliminated altogether, not only because it excludes homosexual pairings, but because it has a long history of sexist and racist effects. Marriage has been a tool of containment for women, specifically controlling their bodies and reproduction and limiting their public participation and status. The cultural spectre of marriage has been used in many different ways to maintain racial categories and in their effect the subjugation of African Americans (think: social gospel movement, eugenics, contemporary debates about “welfare queens”, etc., not to mention anti-miscengenation). So should the government just scrap marriage altogether? Should we as a society just jettison the institution because it cannot be clensed of its past and/or because it still is used as a tool to maintain social boundaries and control the flow of social power? [A similar question has been asked at a much larger scale if liberal democracy itself should be overthrown for similar reasons.]

On the second point, we have to deal with the thorny issue of people’s desires, why the desire them, if those desires are ethically acceptable, if they should be allowed to consummate them. Clearly, this should be of utmost importance to queer thinkers, as our whole modus operandus revolves around the consummation of desires, sexual and otherwise. In traditional critical theory, the world revolves around, in some form or another, “false consciousness”, the belief that people who desire “bad” things are duped or ignorant, but that if they could only be made to “see” would desire something else. In this specific case, it means telling gay men and women and other queers, transsexuals and bisexuals, that if they desire to be wed, they are complicit in their own oppression, they do not understand, or that they are morally or intellectually inferior.

Both points are powerful, but both points leave me unsatisfied. Both points seem to rest on deeply flawed understandings of where meaning comes from in human populations, how social institutions arise and change over time, and the irreducibility of the connection of human meaning (and desire) to the context within which is emerges. Maybe I’m too past graduate school for this kind of critique, because it just seems to treat the question in ideal (in some ways Hegelian/Marxian) terms, disconnected from on-the-ground reality, with how societies build and maintain social structures and the degree to which state power can be coercive or not, without regard to the degree to which power flows in the other direction, and without accounting for the connections between institutions and meaning making by those who are supposedly oppressed by the institutions. It also risks lapsing into that “radical” netherworld where institutions are bad per se. It ignores that all institutions, no matter how they are constituted, both enable *and* foreclose possibilites, including whatever social institutions would fill the vaccuum after the state sanctioned marriages are removed. Importantly, all institutions bring with them a concomitant resistance, regardless of our personal political stance on the institution. To make an anti-marriage argument on the grounds that an institution has negative consequences seems nearly childlike in its naivete.

The brief piece “No State Regulation of Families”, while pointing to disturbing and important historical power-relations in marriage, also relies on an assumption that marriage (and by extension all social institutions) are static and unchanging, as if marriage in 2008 is the same thing as it was in 1808. I don’t think the authors actually think that, but their argument assumes that, as if the very humans who live and breathe within that institution don’t push against it and transform it constantly, both at the micro-, individual social level and at the macro level of overall constitution of the institution. Marriage isn’t essentially or inherently oppressive merely because it has been so in the past. Marriage is simply a category of a kind of social institution that humans have created in innumerable ways to organize relationships and structure society; but they have always then moved with and against it, to transform it over time so that it has evolved to meet differing needs in different contexts. You could argue that marriage is a particularly stubborn institution, particularly slow to change; yet you can’t argue that it is the same or that it oppresses in the same ways as the past.

There is some truth to the idea that gays wanting to get married works to conservative advantage and is in part a domestication of gay/queer culture. In fact, it’s true enough that it scares the shit out of me. Yet it ignores the opposite flow of power, which is that by their very insistance on participation in the institution, same-sex couples have and are dramatically changing the institution itself, how its power is constituted and how it constrains and enables behavior and meaning. One clear example is that queers, legally married or not, continue to negotiate the sexual boundaries of their relationships, rather than merely excepting sexual exclusivity as a norm. Another example is how male couples tend to negotiate and consciously arrange their finances in a range of ways that undermine the kinds of power marriage has had historically on unequal economies within the relationship.

Many anti-gay-marriage analyses also often have the problem that always comes from a kind of false-consciousness critique: Somehow, ethnic and racial minorities (and of course gay folks) who desire marriage and/or who want marriage are duped, that their desires are somehow less authentic or coerced. If blacks, for example, only saw that “traditional marriage” were deployed against them, they would no longer want to be married. Yet what African Americans have done for generations is insist on the validity of their own formations of marriage and family relations; while simultanesouly demanding the recognition of the state with all its accompanying rights and privileges. And yet in the social context within which all of these people live, marriage is one of the terms of social participation. That is, marriage already is, and so categories of people who have been oppressed by the terms of marriage (e.g., slaves who were married until “physically separated”, or women who were economically dependent on husbands) or who were excluded from it (e.g., interracial couples and same-sex couples) will naturally engage “marriage” as a cite of social transformation, rebellion, and change; and it necessarily involves a tension between wanting in and wanting it to be different once they are in. They redefine the institution necessarily by their very participation in it.

In an odd way, I believe arguments against gay marriage almost give too much power to marriage as an institution (and by extension to all social institutions), oversimplifying the flows of power and constant cultural change and transformation.

Time for the Movement to Spread Its Protests Around 13 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Religion.
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Just a quick thought: Although I’m supportive of the many protests of the Mormon church over the past week, and I think they are totally justified given the church’s prominent role in the Yes on 8 campaign, I think it’s time to expand our scope. We need to continue the peaceful, but pointed protesting, at other churches who were deeply involved in this issue, and we need to include churches across race lines as well. If the exit polling was correct, the religious vote generally, which in this case included Catholic and evangelical churches, voted roughly 80% in favor. Spread the love, my people!  I also thought of suggesting the protests move to retirement communities, but for some reason that thought just made me giggle.

Free Speech 101: Mormon Edition 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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Please read Chanson’s great post at Mainstreet Plaza explaining to Mormons why protesting at their temples does not violate their rights. My favorite paragraph:

But seriously folks, free expression 101: your right of free speech doesn’t guarantee you protection from having other people tell you that what you freely said was wrong. You know it, and I know you know it, so please cut the B.S.

Here’s my post from a couple years ago on American Christianity’s basic misunderstanding of free speech, “Free Speech, and Insulting Religion.”

Clarification on Mormons and Prop 8 9 November 2008

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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Just to clarify: I’m completely supportive and in favor of the ongoing protests and civil disobedience to bring to light the wrong-headed, unscientific beliefs in fairy tales, and the undemocratic efforts of the Mormon church and its adherents to enshrine their *religious* beliefs regarding homosexuality and marriage into the *secular* Constitution of California. In fact, I’m especially thrilled by the prospect of protestors disrupting Mormons’ efforts to marry in their temples. The irony is rich, no?

And especially in reference to my post about the Mormon church’s tax-exempt status, I’m in favor of all churches losing their tax exempt status. There is no reason at all that churches should be able to keep their finances secret and that they should be able to control billions of dollars in assets without contributing back to the society. And they certainly should be paying taxes if they are going to step into the public sphere to make their particular biases and bigotries enforced by law.

Unlike Seth, the Mormon commenter to the previous post, I see no difference between the protests in Salt Lake City and in Los Angeles. Both were direct responses to the Church’s efforts to impose its religion on the people of California; both were lawful; and both were filled with the frustration of a people denied. The protestors in Salt Lake City gathered at one of the gates to Temple Square and chanted “You’re Sexist! You’re Racist! And you’re Homophobic!” The protestors in Los Angeles bore signs that read, “You have two wives. I want one husband!” I marched in the protest in San Francisco on Friday night and felt the power of a people galvanized against those who would make them second class citizens. Separate is never equal, and this is but one stop along the route to full equality under the law for the gay and lesbian citizens of Californa. Next stop: The United States.

Going After the Mormon Church’s Tax Exempt Status Is the Wrong Strategy 8 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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I’ve been getting a lot of people directing me to the Mormons Stole Our Rights web site, starting a campaign to take away the LDS Church’s tax-exempt status for the participation in the Proposition 8 battle. This is the wrong approach. Let me explain:

I’m especially pissed at the Mormons for two reasons: 1) it was the religion of my childhood and I feel betrayed and shunned all over again; 2) because they financed at least 1/2 of the campaign and provided the lion’s share of the ground forces for prop 8. So I get the rage and the need to strike back.

However, I’m a stickler for free speech and free expression: As the law now stands, the Mormon church did NOT break the law; neither did the catholic church; nor the evangelical churches who campaigned (and who held that horrifying rally in San Diego a few days before the election).

There is a legal problem here that we realistically need to account for if we are to hold the LDS Church accountable (as well as the Catholics and all those Evangelical churches): The Mormon church did not break any law. It’s within their rights according to the IRS code to advocate publicly and spend money to advocate for political issues. Like all churches/non-profits, they are only barred from campaigning for candidates.  The website “Mormons Stole Our Rights” is wrong on the legal facts (it ignores subsection (h) of the tax code they site) and this will lose in any court in America. Ask any tax attorney and they’ll spell it out for you.  Even more problematically, the Mormon church itself donated exactly ZERO funds to this campaign anyway and asked its members to donate money; this is also completely within its rights as the law now stands.

The more legally sound approach is to begin a campaign consisting of one of the two of the following:

a) demand that churches not be considered special kinds of non-profits and that their finances must be made public, just like non-religious non-profits must.

b) remove nonprofit status from all religious organizations. Make them all pay taxes on the money they use to advocate for issues, just like all private citizens must (we have to pay taxes on the money we donate to political causes).  Religions have only had nonprofit status since the 1950s. This isn’t enshrined anywhere in stone.

There is also a third issue to consider:

c) another way to go might be to see if it could be made illegal for California propositions to be funded by out of state interests (see prop 10 as another example); I suspect that may come into conflict with the interstate commerce clause, however, and would require federal legislation.

In some ways, this nascent campaign seems to seek to punish the Mormons for expressing their beliefs and campaigning for them. That is, on its face, anti-democratic and the precise wrong way to go about addressing our the role of the LDS Church in this past election. I’m all in favor of the protests at the Mormon temples, the intense criticism in the public sphere that Mormonism has been getting over this issue, etc. That is what free speech is for: Engaging against wrong-headed and harmful speech and countering it. But rather than seeking to punish an individual or organization for doing what is most fundamental to a democracy, we should be seeking to change people’s minds and convincing the majority of Californians that they are wrong ethically and democratically to enshrine a second class citenzhip for homosexuals in their constitution.

Let’s face it: The No on 8 campaign was completely unprepared for this battle, and the homos of California were complacent and assumed that there was no way this could pass. By the time No on 8 made the staffing change in the campaign, it was too little too late.  There is much work to be done to overcome the homophobia and no institutionalized inequality in our Constitution. I fear that this specific line of attack is the wrong one, unless done very carefully and with full understanding and respect for the law and for the right to free speech and expression.

75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto” 21 June 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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I picked up a copy of the May/June 2008 issue of The Humanist magazine this week to read a special about the 75th Anniversary of “A Humanist Manifesto,” which I have known about vaguely because of my studies of John Dewey. Reading the 1933 document in its entirety, I can somewhat see why it has been called naïve by some, but I read it as a statement of values, not a prediction of the future. The horrors of the 20th century more than anything seem to support the manifesto’s fundamental principle, that old ways of thinking no longer work given what we know, and that something new is in order. Science, technology, and global economics have transformed us far beyond a world where traditional cultural and religious systems can be adequate to explain and guide a meaningful life.

The manifesto sees itself in its 1933 context as creating a new kind of religion, so it calls itself “religious humanism,” but if you read it carefully, you find an amazing set of approaches to religion, that human life in all its diversity and range of good and evil is coextensive with ‘nature’ and that there can no longer be any meaningful division of the sacred from the profane. Human life is all we have and our purpose as humans should be both to seek to fully realize our humanness as our individual consciousnesses lead us and to create and maintain a society that supports all of our realization-processes.

The 15th article of the manifesto resonnates with my most dearly held values:

We assert that humanism will: (a) affirm life rather than deny it; (b) seek to elicit the possibilities of life, not flee from them; and (c) endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely the few. … Man [sic] is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement. He must set his intelligence and will to the task.

“Gay Marriage” in California 22 May 2008

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights.
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I’ve been meaning to post about last week’s decision for, well, about a week now, but haven’t really had the time to breathe with all these blue books needing graded. I’ll try to come back to this early next week when grades are submitted. For the time being, run, don’t walk, to read Glenn Greenwald’s two analyses of the legal issues. I especially appreciated his day-of explanation of what makes an “activist court” and why this is not judicial activism. I wish some of the law professors I’ve been hearing on the radio over the past week would do some reading in democratic theory and even the Federalist Papers, for god’s sake. 

Glenn Greenwald, “California’s Marriage Ruling—What It Means and What It Doesn’t Mean” from 15 May 2008
Glenn Greenwald, “The California Marriage Decision and Basic Civics” from 22 May 2008.

Dialogue to Solve Cross Cultural Problems 4 March 2008

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, International Politics, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Social Sciences.
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This issue has come up twice for me over the past couple weeks. First, I was re-reading my doctoral exam on democratic theory in order to prepare for a discussion about social theory with some colleagues, and stumbled upon my critique of Richard Rorty’s idea of the “international bazaar”; and second, I introduced my students yesterday to the pragmatic critique of naive relativism and weak forms of multiculturalism.

Rorty’s proposal was derived from John Dewey’s theory of democratic deliberation and basically proposes a multicultural world of smorgasbord options and possibilities for dialogue. What I find most problematic in Rorty (and full disclosure here, I haven’t read him since graduate school and I only read a handful of articles on this topic) is that he doesn’t acknowledge the dramatic problems that can arise in cross-cultural dialogue. Dewey’s theory assumes that you begin with fundamental, shared values, namely tolerance and the dignity of the Other. In Dewey’s formulation, you cannot enter into a dialogue without that minimum, and rebellion is justified to get that level of recognition. Rorty fails to account for or theorize how to deal with dialogues with groups who don’t see you as fully human, or who don’t recognize your “rights” in any sense.

In my Nature and World Cultures course, we examine environmental problems (e.g., resource depletion, global warming, water polution, desertification, etc.) that arise from cultural misunderstanding of the ecosystem/physical environment, there is a point at which we have to be able to say that a given culture did something wrong in their environment. In weak multiculturalism or naive relativism, because all our values are “socially constructed”, or emerge out of a particular social environment through a transation between organism(s) and their complex environment (i.e., human environments are always both material and social), we draw the problematic conclusion that you can’t “judge” another culture by your own values (which is basic ethnocentrism).

I try to teach this by framing it as two separate but overlapping intellectual problems. On one hand is the social scientific problem (and in some ways, ethical problem in a pluralistic society), which is to understand or explain a cultural milieu or perspective different from your own. This requires a firm systematic relativism, a conscious effort to set aside one’s own values and perceptions in order to evaluate a culture on its own terms, to see it as it sees itself, to truly grasp what and how the culture works. It is in my estimation an impossible project, so it requires the peer-review process (or dialogue with others) to make sure that we aren’t being ethnocentric.

The second intellectual problem, however, is that we live in the real world where people of different cultures act in the world and have consequences in the world that extend beyond their own cultural boundaries. In other words, we have problems that are shared across cultural boundaries; and we have problems in culture A that are caused by actions of culture B. [I actually don’t think cultures exist in such stark, discreet units (problematically, people often experience them as if they do, but that’s another issue altogether); this is only a heuristic.] This discussion by its very nature necessitates the application of values: how do you know something is a problem in the first place if not because it violates your values? And if it violates your values, how do you talk to someone of a different culture about your values in order to solve that problem? This requires an intense and careful interaction that is often bypassed in favor of coercion.

As a side note, here, I find myself constantly wondering to what degree social scientists should be involved in this second intellectual problem. In fact, I find that much sociology is based in unspoken value propositions about equality, for example, already; and let’s be honest, there is often an value-driven litmus test for the worth and quality of research. I think that social scientists as a group should be more clear about these overlapping, but different intellectual projects. Explaining how a group came to be poor is not the same project as arguing for a solution to that poverty (which already assumes a value that says poverty is a problem that needs to be solved); and yet I find that often these two projects are blended together in problematic ways. But I digress…

My students in class are often confused by this discussion because they feel that a) it is bad to judge other cultures; and b) that when they do judge other cultures for practical reasons, they dont’ recognize it as such. Yesterday’s discussion went rather smoothly, compared to how it’s gone in the past; but one of my more engaged students wanted to push the issue of how to actually go about solving problems in the real world. That is really the issue that Rorty was addressing in his theory of the bazaar, and it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I delve into background research in global migration. This student emailed me earlier this morning, saying that he can’t see how to solve cross-culture, international conflict without resorting to coercion and that he can’t think of any examples in history when violent conflict has ultimately been avoided. In his view of history, solving big international problems has always come to blows. I think that his concern is a valid one and goes to the heart of the weakness of Rorty’s position; but it also ignores the multitude of examples of successful dialogue and negotionation and belies the value-propositions inherent in the argument in favor of cross-cultural dialogue rather than cross-cultural violence. Here’s my response to the student’s email query:

I think [the problem] comes from how one looks for evidence of successful dialogue. It is definitely true that dialogue often breaks down into violence, and historically, violence is the mode of choice for resolving conflicts. The whole idea of people who are different should talk to each other about value propositions and solution to each other is only about 300 years old, at most (although clearly, human groups have negotiated with each other for as long as we have recorded history). In order for this to work, all sides involved have to actually believe in having the dialogue. There are clearly many times when one or more parties is so convinced that they are “right” that it leads them to justify violence in their own moral-world (it’s a cliche, but the Nazis are a good example of this).

However, think of it this way: How many times a week are ambassadors working out international agreements without violence? It’s easy to look at just the conflicts that erupted in violence because they are what we study in school. But even just think of something like the Bay of Pigs, where we almost had a nuclear war (!) but the two parties negotiated their way out of it (most likely because no one really wanted a nuclear war). Or think of the negotiation for NAFTA, where international problems were brought to the table and hammered out (although I think their solutions have had horrifying results). Or think now of the ongoing (for over 10 years now) economic talks for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Or think in reverse, where violence has broken out and someone like Koffe Annan goes to Kenya and convinces them to stop killing each other and start talking. Are you following what I’m saying?

The real problem for me is a practical one: in the world as it exists, nations have dramatically unequal relationships. The united states has the biggest guns and largest consumer market; china controls the world economy by virtue of producing most of the cosumable goods; europe is quickly taking control of the financial markets… So that leaves us in a situation of asking really hard questions about whether or not a dialogue about values and solutions to real problems can take place between parties who are vastly unequal.

It further has the problem (this may seem silly, but I think it’s the biggest problem) that people you disagree with get to *talk back!* The nature of dialogue and debate is that people you don’t like, people you find immoral and reprehensible, people who espouse ideas that you find dangerous and offensive GET TO TALK and make arguments for their positions too!

This is at base the social complexity of democracy, right? You have to live with people you don’t like and still grant them rights (i.e., tolerance); and sometimes you lose. One of the problems with terrorist organizations is an odd duality: on one hand, they are angry and fanatically precisely because they haven’t been heard and taken seriously (in many but not all cases); but on the other hand, their fanaticism precludes their sitting down with people they don’t like and actually being willing to *lose* the debate. In other words, if everyone doesn’t already believe in universal dignity and tolerance, you can dialouge all you want, and someone will get violent or at least refuse to engage or use other forms of coercion.