Thursday, May 10, 2012

The President Speaks on Principle, and a Cloud of Witnesses Surrounds Him

There's, of course, a lot of commentary rolling out now about the statements of President Obama yesterday in favor of marriage equality.  Most readers of this blog will probably have read much of the commentary.  But I thought it might be helpful if I gather a selection of pieces that seem to me to have made valuable points about yesterday's remarks.

And so here goes:

A number of pieces that catch my eye focus on the question of who helped the president to "evolve" on the issue of marriage.  I'm particularly struck by Joan Walsh's remarks at Salon on this point for two reasons.

The first is that she isolates the importance of principle in the decision the president has made to speak out on this human rights issue.  At the blog of my statewide newspaper Arkansas Times yesterday, I was excoriated by a blogger who wants me gone from the conversation and who has persistently attacked me for holding onto a commitment to faith in general and to Catholic faith in particular as I advocate for progressive causes.  This blogger claims to have had insider tips from her beltway friends about the fact that Mr. Obama was going to make a big announcement about marriage equality this week--and she maintains that all of this is politically orchestrated, and she is uniquely privileged with information about the political machinations behind the scenes the rest of us lower beings can't possibly know about, which led to the president's decision to speak out.  

Keep in mind that the person attacking me here claims to be a supporter of marriage equality, though this is someone who has never revealed her identity to the Arkansas Times blog community where she holds court.  She also claims to be heterosexual, and so she has never paid any price at all for being openly gay and out of the closet in places like Arkansas--where one pays a high price for being gay and out of the closet.  She's not, in fact, an Arkansan at all, if anything she says about herself under the cover of her pseudonym is true--and it will be interesting to watch her trying to pontificate from her superior vantage point as the state's primary is held in a few weeks, since, as Steve Kornacki notes at Salon yesterday, the president has fared very badly in Southern states with a mountain heritage.  And that includes half of Arkansas.

And in saying all of this, I'm winding around to a point I want to reinforce later: it's commitment to principles, by people willing to pay a price for their commitment, that moves history forward.  Not insider beltway gossip by superior agents who stand above the frays they imagine they're managing, with the lives of other human beings as bargaining chips.  And history is moved forward not by fragmenting social movements for progressive change through enervating battles against your own allies who happen to have faith commitments you deplore as you claim to be advocating for progressive change.  It's moved forward by solidarity and bridge-building.

And so Joan Walsh's commentary: I like it, because it emphasizes the commitment to principle that is at the heart of the decision the president has made to speak out.  And it emphasizes the role of other people of conscience who have pushed, prodded, cajoled, and screamed at the president to provoke his "evolution" around this issue.  

And it reminds us of the extremely costly price President Johnson and the Democratic party paid in endorsing civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s--and of the fact that President Obama is making a costly decision in coming out for marriage equality.  Breakthroughs in human rights are hard-won breakthroughs.  They require blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice.  They don't come automatically.

They require people putting their lives on the line.  And many brave, loving, and holy people have put their lives on the line for some years now to move the conversation to the point that it reached yesterday with the open endorsement of fundamental human rights in the area of civil marriage for gay citizens of the U.S.

Walsh writes, 

After he signed the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson famously told Bill Moyers “we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” 
But no person of conscience would today suggest Johnson did the wrong thing. “I had assumed that civil unions might have been enough,” Obama told Roberts. He did not say how long ago he realized he was wrong; it’s enough that he realized it today. 
By all accounts Joe Biden did bend the arc of justice a little, with what are being called spontaneous and unplanned remarks on “Meet the Press” Sunday supporting gay marriage. The Catholic Biden, like Obama, put his evolution in very personal terms. “The good news is that as more and more Americans come to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love?” he told David Gregory. “Who do you love and will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out what all marriages at their root are about.”

More in this vein: Steve Kornacki at Salon on the details of Biden's role; and David Sirota, also at Salon, on the many brave gay activists who refused to let the president and the principles-lite pragmatic Democrats who call themselves centrists keep waffling about the human rights principles at the core of this discussion, and who are uniquely responsible for moving the conversation to the point at which it now finds itself.

I've mentioned before on this blog that for quite a few years, I maintained my own private iconostasis of saints whom I've known personally or who have inspired me from afar through their writings and deeds--saints who have significantly influenced my life and spirituality, and who will almost certainly never be canonized by the Roman Catholic church.  But who are saints nonetheless.

The pictures on the iconostasis included a snapshot of Kathleen O'Hara, who was on the chaplaincy staff when I was a student at Loyola in New Orleans in the late 1960s, who profoundly influenced me through her deep lived spirituality, and who was eventually fired in a humiliating and peremptory way and without cause by the Jesuit community after I graduated.  And who then went back to her community's motherhouse, immediately discovered that she had terminal lung cancer, and died very quickly after the diagnosis.  The Jesuits sent a priest to her funeral to apologize to her community for how they had treated her not long before her death.  (But she was then dead and lying in her coffin, of course.)

I woke up last night thinking of Kathleen.  And Rosemary Wesley, a tiny Sister of Christian Charity about whom I've written in the past, who did not have a car and could not drive, who weighed all of 90 pounds, who was berated and ordered about by a Jesuit priest who claimed to be her spiritual director, but who managed, with all of these liabilities, to distribute more food, clothing, and money to the poor than any social worker I ever knew in New Orleans, while carrying on a day job of teaching English (and exemplifying holiness) to pre-seminary students.

As I thought of Kathleen, Rosemary, and other saints like them during the night last night--a sleepless night, in part due to the constant enervating battles I seem to find myself in lately with folks like the Arkansas Times blogger I mention above--I thought, too, of the specifically gay saints who have spurred tectonic shifts in my thinking, my heart, my spiritual life.  I thought of these folks against the backdrop of the president's announcement yesterday--and of how their lives, their struggles to be faithful and to live according to principle, to reach out to others with their socially transformative insights, are part and parcel of the transformative movement that lies just under the surface of what the president said yesterday.  

If I made an iconostasis today, it would include pictures of these and other people who came to my mind last night as I recited my own personal litany of gay saints, with gratitude for each of them, in light of the president's statement: Adrienne Rich; Audre Lorde; Mary Oliver; Fenton Johnson; Cyrus Cassells; Tony Kushner; Daniel Mendelsohn; John McNeil and Geoff Farrow.  And now, of course, Maurice Sendak, about whose life as a gay man I was oblivious until he died.

These are the people who make history and move mind, heart, and soul.  They do so by paying attention to the soul, and speaking to the soul and on behalf of the soul.  To them and many others, profound gratitude for creating the conditions for the human rights breakthrough we witnessed yesterday.

The graphic is from a Bilerico posting commemorating the protests the Mattachine society launched in front of the White House in 1965--when even being gay was still criminalized in many U.S. states, and when the media would do nothing at all to assist in publicizing serious abuses against gay citizens across the U.S.

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