Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan: Hateful Speech Translates to Hatreful Acts

Back after the long weekend, during which Steve and I spent welcome days with our dogs in the Ozarks, walking, reading, and watching and listening to waterfalls. The butterflies were beautiful. They’re different at different seasons, and always abundant in the little valley where we look for them beside a creek.

On this trip, a dark blue-black one with radiant iridescent blue spots along the lower part of the wings, and orange spots at the wingtips. Along with these, though congregated in separate locations, were a small brilliant orange butterfly with black markings.

And today the remnants of Gustav are with us, raking the state with constant rain and high winds. A day to read, write, listen to music, nurse chigger bites, and be glad that one is fortunate enough to be inside, to have an inside to which to go.

And to the news: today’s Alternet news site has excellent commentary by George Lakoff on some underlying reasons for the failure of progressive political thinkers to reach many American voters where they live and move and have their being. Lakoff notes that radical right-wing activists have been adroit about spinning narratives that engage the emotional-cognitive lives of mainstream voters (www.alternet.org/election08/97193/lakoff%3A_palin_appeals_to_voter_emotions_--_dems_beware).

Where we in the reality-based community who fight for progressive causes emphasize facts, those on the right have been spinning stories—and, in this way, they have succeeded in defining the conversation such that brute facts outside the confines of their narrative frames, no matter how convincing those facts are, fail to reach people’s hearts and souls. Lakoff challenges those of us who want to keep democracy alive at this precarious moment in our history to learn to tell stories and to find metaphors to engage people’s minds and hearts:

Our job is to bring external realities together with the reality of the political mind. Don't ignore the cognitive dimension. It is through cultural narratives, metaphors, and frames that we understand and express our ideals.

Lakoff’s reflections remind me of why I began this blog. I’m spending much of each day blogging because I’m convinced that many stories that don’t get a hearing in the mainstream media deserve a hearing. They have to be told. There’s no way we can understand our experience as a nation unless we hear the suppressed narratives that mainstream news outlets won’t touch, because the truths these narratives contain are inconvenient for those who have spun the dominant narrative.

Narratives from the margins provide facts that challenge the claim of mainstream perspectives to have the final word on what it means to live in America at this point in its history. The stories from the margins unravel the dominant narratives imposed on us from above. They force us to begin thinking differently about who we are, what we have done in the past, and our potential as a nation. They also seduce us into reverie and reflection, just when we think we’ve found a new meta-narrative that explains everything and includes everyone.

They catch us up in our quest for total explanation because they remind us of inconvenient bits of our history we hope to forget, to sweep under the rug when these bits of history become problematic. To a great extent, the political and religious right are trying to do this now with their recent history vis-à-vis their gay brothers and sisters.

As the cultural tide turns in favor of gay rights—as polls indicate younger Americans of all political affiliations rejecting homophobia—the political and religious right are trying to make us forget what they have done to their gay brothers and sisters in recent decades. Those on the right are trying to change the subject, to discover a new all-encompassing meta-narrative that will engage the passion of American voters while sweeping away inconvenient memories of the price we have paid for previous dominant narratives of racism and homophobia.

Clearly, that new meta-narrative will focus on brown people who (in our imagination as it is manipulated by those trying to control the conversation) invade our borders—illegal immigrants, Muslims, the people who planned 9/11. This may be the last federal election cycle in which we see the religious and political right trying one more desperate time to engage the visceral fears of the voting public by waving the gay flag as a warning sign, now that a shift is underway to demonizing narratives about threatening invasive brown outsiders.

Because the cynicism underlying the political use of human beings—gay, brown, Muslim, whatever group is in the sights of the right at any particular time—is so breathtakingly calculating and has been so destructive, I am glad that there are those among us who won’t allow those who have used and demeaned some of their brothers and sisters to forget.

Like Rachel Maddow. Choosing to make her a major political commentator is one of the smartest moves I’ve seen a mainstream news outlet make lately. I was particularly delighted with her comments to Pat Buchanan last Monday (25August) as MSNBC commentators dissected Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention.

In her inimitable nice but honest-to-God way, Rachel Maddow put Pat Buchanan on the hook, right before God and everybody. And let him squirm just a little bit. And he did and said nothing—could not do or say anything without admitting the truth of her damaging charges against him.

Maddow spoke about her reaction to Pat Buchanan’s saber-rattling culture wars speech to the Republican National Convention in 1992. As a young 19-year old who had just come out of the closet, she reacted to what the DNC and the RNC of that year did in personal terms. And how else could she have reacted? How else can anyone react to political speeches, except in terms of her or his own personal experience? Those speeches—the kind Pat Buchanan gave—had a personal impact on her own life and on the lives of people she knew and loved.

Rachel Maddow told Pat Buchanan that when he rattled his saber in 1992 and called for America to declare a culture war on those promoting “homosexual rights,” she felt as if her country were declaring war on her. By contrast, when she watched and listened to the Clintons, she felt drawn to them and their platform because she had the strong sense "they don't want an America that doesn't want me in it." As she told the chastened and silent Mr. Buchanan, "I felt like these people don’t hate me and would respect me if we met."

Indeed. Words make a world of difference. Especially when they are used like stones to hurl at someone—and when that someone is either you yourself or someone you love. Pat Buchanan may not like to be reminded of this today—I have no doubt at all he’d like to forget this—but his words in 1992 had real-life effects on real, living, breathing human beings.

Like Steve. And like me. Listening to Rachel Maddow brought back snippets of my own narrative that I have a responsibility to remember and pass on, because this is a tiny piece of what happened in America in 1992—of what some Americans did to other Americans in that year, as a result of Pat Buchanan’s call for a culture war against gay Americans. Of what some Christian and some Catholic Americans did to other Christian and other Catholic Americans who just happened to be gay.

When Mr. Buchanan (have I mentioned he’s a Catholic?) gave his culture wars speech at the RNC in the fall of 1992, we had just begun our second year of teaching at a small Catholic college in North Carolina. The college could have been anywhere USA—that is, any small Catholic college in the USA owned by a religious community. This one happened to be a Benedictine college.

Well, not quite anywhere. It was and is a college with a reputation for being on the far-right fringes of American Catholicism, and one decidedly in the pocket of the politico-religious right. We knew only bits and pieces of its reputation at the time we were hired to teach theology there—both of us.

What we knew troubled us, but as gay theologians living in a coupled but non-public relationship, we did not have the same freedom of choice in selecting jobs that our straight colleagues had. When the offer of two jobs at the same institution came along in the year after Steve had been denied tenure unilaterally by the rector of the seminary at which he had taught for some six years, we took the offer, cautiously but hopefully, believing the promises made to us by the school’s administration.

I will never forget that 1992 convention and Pat Buchanan’s culture war speech. I have no choice except to remember, because it is now part of my personal history. The small Benedictine college was very different from Xavier University, at which I had taught happily the first seven years of my career, and where I was offered tenure, turning down the offer to take the job in North Carolina.

For one thing, Xavier is owned by a community of religious women. The macho game playing and macho posturing that dominated the life of the male-owned Catholic college simply were not a part of the culture of Xavier.

Xavier is also an HBCU, and the kind of right-wing politics I was to encounter at the Benedictine school in North Carolina was just not in evidence at Xavier. Many faculty, both white and black, had no patience for neo-conservative political and religious thinking. They knew very well what it translates into, in the lives of African Americans.

The climate at the Benedictine college was night-and-day different from that at Xavier. At the Benedictine college, being a “liberal” was considered an oddity, a betrayal of what the school stood for—of the Catholicism that Patrick McHenry, a graduate of this college who now sits in Congress, has called purer and truer than that of other areas of the country.

A vicious, nasty Catholicism, I soon found—one where radical conservative activists on the faculty did not think twice about stuffing my campus mailbox with hate mail, and where I was severely punished for protesting this hazing and trying to get to the bottom of it and stop it.

And things only got worse—and decidedly so—with the 1992 RNC. That culture-war speech? Those hateful words uttered by the Catholic neoconservative icon Pat Buchanan? They energized the right-wing faculty at this small college. During the convention, as the anti-gay rhetoric spewed forth, the delight of the faculty—of the male faculty, I should day, for the most part—was tangible in the faculty lounge. It was very similar to the tangible gloating delight the same faculty exhibited when Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice and Anita Hill slapped down.

I had never met anything like this. I didn’t know places like this existed in American Catholicism. (I now know better, of course, and I’ve met versions of the same thing on Methodist campuses, where it’s better disguised as treacly “Christian” piety.) It was so . . . ugly. Downright ugly.

During all the time of the convention, when some monks would come daily to the faculty lounge to smoke with and high-five the other old boys as they gloated about how the Republicans were holding the family values line, only one person ever spoke to me about the convention. And about how it might be affecting Steve and me—who were clearly a couple, but also playing the Catholic don’t ask, don’t tell game, because we knew no other options if we were to keep our jobs and continue to function as theologians.

This was a monk who eventually left the monastery, a monk who was himself gay and who was struggling to claim and honor his identity. He left in part due to what the monastery and the college did to Steve and me at the end of that academic year.

As I’ve previously noted, the college gave me a one-year terminal contract and refused to provide any reason for the contract. The college also refused to place my final semester’s evaluation in writing—for understandable reasons, since I had been given a glowing oral evaluation the week before I was given the terminal contract. How to put the two together, and avoid litigation (which really was not an option, as the college’s administrators and monks knew, because 1] NC is a right-to-work state where people can be fired for no reason at all, and 2] NC has no laws protecting the rights of gay persons or gay employees)?

I could go on at length with details of this story. For the purposes of this reminiscence, I want only to note that Rachel Maddow is absolutely correct to try to call Pat Buchanan to accountability for the words—the shameful, anti-Christian words—he spoke in 1992 at the RNC.

Those words had real-life effects on real-life people. For Steve and me, they helped energize a movement within the American Catholic church that has made it almost impossible for gay Catholics to feel welcome today in our churches. The words signaled the start of a culture war within the American church itself, which has had quite a few casualties—gay people hounded out of jobs, gay people whose vocations have been thwarted and whose gifts have been rejected insofar as we have not chosen to remain self-denying, self-hating, and closeted.

Not long after Steve and I left the college in question, the abbot of the monastery took over the leadership of the college and mounted what many gay people living in the region saw as an outright purge of gay folks. He fired some seven or eight “single” faculty and staff members for specious reasons. I have a copy of a letter a local gay person who graduated from the college sent to a monk in the monastery that owns the college, protesting this purge (and identifying it as such), and stating his intent to move from the Catholic church as a result of what he saw the abbot doing.

The abbot justified his actions to the media as an attempt to re-establish Catholic identity in the college, as more lay faculty were hired and vocations to the monastery dwindled. How we who were gay and closeted at the college represented any kind of threat to the Catholic identity of the college was never clearly explained.

For Steve and me, these events were the beginning of the end for our careers as theologians. From that time until now, we have been persistently blackballed by any Catholic institution to which we apply for work. We spent several years living hand to mouth, and it’s impossible to read and write—that is, to do theological work—when you live hand to mouth, struggling to make ends meet, worrying about lack of medical insurance. These were years in which we were also caring for my mother, who was suffering from severe dementia, at home—a time in which we were least prepared to deal with the upheavals in our life the Catholic monastery and college caused when it ran us off.

So yes, Pat, Rachel is right: words make the world of difference in people’s lives. When people throw out words as weapons, those weapons do find targets. And they’re almost certain to wound the targets they find—the flesh and blood and psyches of those they find, when the targets are human beings.

Your words, uttered so casually, gave heart those looking for more reason to marginalize and hate in the name of Christ. In doing so, they had real effects on our real lives. And on many lives. Some of those lives cannot now be recovered, since the people to whom they belonged are no longer with us.

Like young Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to a pulp and then hung on a fence to die. I’m not accusing you directly, Pat, of causing his death. But I am saying—and I want you to hear this, as a fellow Catholic—that the words you uttered in 1992 had an ugly, toxic effect on our culture at large, and increased the proportion of hatred of gay people in our culture.

And it is from those cultural toxins that events like the killing of Matthew Shepard bubble up.

What will you as a Christian, as a Catholic, do now about those words you uttered 16 years ago, Pat? What will all the Christians, all the Catholics, who listened with glee to the family-values rhetoric in 1992, and who acted on that hate rhetoric, do now, I wonder?

The words may now be past for you, and you may want to repudiate them. But the wounds they inflicted still trouble our lives. Now as you try to distance yourselves from the words you once spoke, to pretend you did not speak them or mean them, what will you do about the lives that remain crippled due to the words you no longer want to own?

Christianity teaches us that we remain responsible for the effect of our words on others, even when time has passed. We remain responsible because, at the end of our lives, we must own our words and the effect they have had on others.

It is easy to disown words we have spoken in the heat of the moment. It is so much harder to bind up the wounds those wounds inflict, especially when the wounds go deep and linger for many years.

And yet there is no other option for people of faith, is there? Not if we believe, as people of faith around the world do, that we must give some final accounting for our lives, for the increase of love (or of hate) we have set in motion in the world through our lives.


colkoch said...

Nice piece Bill. It prompted me to find and read Buchanan's 1992 speech, and that set me down a trail of memories.

Up until the RNC convention I had planned to vote for Bush's re election, but Buchanan's speech, amongst some others, showed me the true heart of the Republican party--at least the version we have now.

The easy affability of Reagan had been replaced by hate mongering and divisive separation politics. In the end I sat that election out.

It doesn't appear things have changed in the Republican party. I 2000 I supported McCain. My biggest issue was change in the way business was done in Washington and I appreciated his and Fiengold's efforts. Unfortunately Bush and his well organised fear mongering won out.

I don't know who this McCain is. He's certainly not the McCain of 2000. This selection of Palin is political pandering at it's worst. It's unfortunate for Palin as I doubt a lot of people will see her for her qualifications because the jubilant right is presenting her as McCain's ticket to the heart of the Culture Warriors.

This is very ironic to me, this acceptance of Palin by the culture warriors. I can guarantee that if she had been presented for consideration in 1992, the pure and righteous would have back stabbed her to death over her daughter's unwed pregnancy. Not exactly the kind of thing the purveyors of Abstinence only would have wanted on the ticket.

Palin and McCain can thank the progressive liberals for the reduction of the stigmata of unwed pregnancy that has made the jubilant acceptance of this situation possible for the self proclaimed Culture Warriors.

Watching McCain piss all over himself and his ideological past is hard to to do. He's a kind of POW all over again.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, great comments. You say, "It doesn't appear things have changed in the Republican party."

Yes! And that's what baffles me so much about the continued encouragement of "pro-life" religious leaders for their flocks to vote for these folks. Nothing at all has changed after years of promises to end abortion. And at the same time, the transgression of other life ethics is so egregious it's almost ludicrous.

When any group of leaders can only offer the same tired old solutions (which can be shown not to have worked) over and over again, something's wrong. Something's especially wrong when people of faith put stock in such leaders, since faith is supposed to be about vision, hope, building a better future.

It's clear now that the Republicans are gearing up to play the culture war card yet again, focusing on Palin. What does that say about their ability to lead us into a future of hope?