Saturday, May 12, 2012

Stephen Colbert Gets It Right about North Carolina

Stephen Colbert gets it right about North Carolina.  As someone who grew up in its neighbor state to the south and who knows the culture of the Carolinas well.  North Carolina's governor Bev Perdue (who courageously opposed Amendment 1, knowing as she spoke out against it that it would pass by a large majority), is now saying she's embarrassed that her state has earned the reputation of another Mississippi.

And I know how that has to sting: North Carolina as the new Mississippi East.  Putting the BIG in bigotry.  I know how that has to sting because I grew up right next door to Mississippi and I know well from my growing-up years how Mississippi has always been the butt of jokes across the entire Southeast. Even in little old uneducated and poor as dirt Arkansas, which drags itself up in one index after another measuring quality of life just ahead of Mississippi.

We're 49th!  Yay for us.  Time to celebrate!  We're ahead of Mississippi!  49th in education!  49th in median household income!  49th on indexes of child well-being!

I heard this all the years I was growing up, as the results of every new quality-of-life index were announced, showing Arkansas "winning" over Mississippi by a paltry few percentage points on polls measuring the race to the very bottom.  Thank God for Mississippi! we Arkansan have always said.  If it weren't for them, we'd be at the bottom.

Mississippi was the state you drove through, fast and without stopping if possible, on your way someplace east.   Someplace that counted.  It was the state that had a reputation even in Arkansas for sheer, gut-burning, refractory, never-going-anywhere backwardness.  The state in which you feared to be pulled over by a cop, because small-town police forces in Mississippi had the reputation for singular meanness, for delighting in catching somebody "not from around here" and throwing them into some hellhole of a Mississippi county jail cell on tenuous charges.  

You say that's bird seed in that bag?  Looks to me like pot, boy.  We don't care for long hair and hippies around here.  What's that sticker for McGovern doing on your car?  Where you from?  Been marching in those n----r-loving civil rights demonstrations, ain't you, boy?

That was Mississippi's reputation, earned or not earned.  Fair or not fair.  And it stung just a little bit, because my mother's father, who was a singularly liberal and well-educated man (for his time and place), grew up in Mississippi.  So I knew perfectly well it was, in some respects, a stereotype and undeserved.

But I also knew growing up next to Mississippi that, as with many Arkansans, many Mississippians worked as hard as possible to reinforce the stereotype and to prove it true.  And I knew, all my growing-up years, that North Carolina, the state in which most of Arkansas's first settlers, as judged by the 1850 federal census, were born, had a different reputation.

When Brooks Hays, an Arkansas Congressman whom my family much admired, who was also president of the state's Southern Baptist Convention, took a courageous stand against the racially inflammatory tactics of Governor Faubus in the 1950s and was hounded out of Arkansas as a result, he headed to North Carolina.  And people I knew--my family and its friends, that is to say--all tended to sigh and say, "Well, what can you expect?  North Carolina is just more educated.  More tolerant.  More liberal.  Our loss, their gain."

But then Steve and I took that ill-fated job at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, and I learned that BIGotry was alive and well in North Carolina, every bit as much as in Mississippi and Arkansas.  And that it had a special anti-gay face in many parts of North Carolina.

I learned in the years in which we lived (and suffered miserably--far more than we ever have in Little Rock) in North Carolina as a gay couple that North Carolina's reputation for progressivism is, to a great extent, media hype.  Business hype.  And that the media and big businesses hyping the reputation wouldn't lift a finger to assist people like Steve and me when we lost jobs at a Catholic university in the state solely because we were a gay couple.  That they weren't willing to pay any price to make their reputation for progressivism real.

I learned that, as with people everywhere, but with a special hypocritical "Christian" twist, many North Carolinians enjoy having the "right" to go into a voting booth, and with no one except God and their own conscience watching them pull the lever, vote to kick a minority group in the teeth.  Just for the sheer joy of making someone else suffer.  For the hell of it.

While touting the state's image as educated and progressive and moderate all the while.

As with the stereotypes of Mississippi, I also know very well that this stereotype doesn't apply to anywhere near all North Carolinians.  In my years of living in the Charlotte area, which was, in those years, heavily Republican and anti-progressive, I found the research triangle area of the state and its more educated citizens very attractive.  I felt very much at home there.  Steve and I made some of the best friends we'll ever make in North Carolina--good, generous, thoughtful, first-rate human beings.

But the county in which we lived, just to the west of Charlotte--Gaston County--has just voted 75% in favor of Amendment 1, and I'm not the least bit surprised.  I'm not surprised at the heavy vote for Amendment 1 in a county that has several colleges, one of which is the Catholic college that ended our career as Catholic theologians, Belmont Abbey College, which prides itself on being a noted center of learning in the local community.

I'm not surprised that a county with a Catholic college now suing the Obama administration over the HHS guidelines for contraceptive coverage would vote in a singularly bigoted way in the recent ballot initiative in North Carolina.  I'm not surprised that Catholics in many areas of the state evidently voted heavily in favor of Amendment 1--though I also know of Catholics who strongly opposed it precisely because their Catholic moral values demand that they fight for the human rights of minority communities.  

But in making that decision, they were moving against the express wishes of North Carolina's two Catholic bishops, both of whom fought very hard to see the amendment passed, both of whom gave lavishly of their layfolks' donations for the upkeep of churches and schools to the drive to have it passed.  As you'll also see from the thread of comments by me in response to the NCR article to which I've just linked (if NCR chooses to post my last comment in the thread), one of those two gentlemen, one of the sitting Catholic bishops of North Carolina, had a gay brother.  Who is now dead.

And I know some of the story of that gay brother due to its having been talked about openly in the community in which Steve and I lived in North Carolina.  It was talked about openly particularly among priests whom we knew in the local area, who included the chancellor of the diocese, when the gay brother committed suicide in the years in which we lived there.  I am, of course, not privy to all that goes on in anyone's family, and it would be cruel in the extreme to add pain to a family one of whose members has taken his or her own life.

This I can say, however, and it needs to be said, because it's both true and was a matter of public knowledge, something talked about in many circles in which Steve and I moved in our years in North Carolina: the gay brother of a current Catholic bishop of North Carolina who committed suicide told a number of people that one of the serious burdens with which he struggled was his family's refusal to accept him as a gay man.  Because they were Catholic.  And communicated to him that they could not accept him as a gay man, because they were Catholic.

A friend of mine who is a therapist met the young man several days before he committed suicide.  This was at a support group for gay Catholics.  Recognizing how burdened with pain the young man was, my friend offered him his card and phone number and asked the young man to call him.  He talked to him, heard his story of pain--of the pain caused quite specifically by his Catholic family's refusal to accept him.

A few days later my friend opened the local paper to see that this young man had taken his own life.

And now his brother, who, one would like to hope, has been invited by the Holy Spirit through what happened to his brother to rethink the malice inherent in "the" Catholic approach to gay and lesbian human beings, has chosen, by his support for Amendment 1, to pass that malice on to other families.  To other families who have gay and lesbian brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

I cannot help finding this decision by this bishop obscene.  I find it shameful.  I hope he has the decency, humanity, and integrity at some deep hidden level of himself to feel shame for what he continues doing as a bishop, at the urging of the pope to whom he is utterly obedient.

When he could, as a follower of Jesus, choose instead to heal the wounds of young people suffering abuse because they are gay, and because their families have the misguided notion that God commands them to condemn and not love their gay family member.

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