moving the middle

This week on TVLand or one of those channels, I stumbled upon an old episode of All in the Family, when Edith’s cousin Liz died. At her funeral, Edith and Archie learn that Liz’s longtime roommate, Veronica, was actually her… you know. Yep, they were “like that,” as Edith said; Archie of course commented it was entirely unnecessary, a shame really, because she was attractive and should be able to get a man.

That episode was from 1977. I was a senior in high school. We didn’t watch All in the Family in my household when I was growing up. It wasn’t “approved” TV. Norman Lear pushed boundaries and made people uncomfortable. Or just pissed them off.

Several years later, I was living in Washington DC when AIDS was becoming a known thing and folks were beginning to make noise. And by “folks,” I mean people on the left; Reagan, of course, set the standard for the right, and he wouldn’t talk about it at all. Hell, people still weren’t even talking about “gay” out loud much. Marriage rights seemed the impossible dream. But people were dying, and something had to happen to get political attention. Someone had to do something.

One of the groups that emerged during that time was called ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Not too much later, the Lesbian Avengers were born. These groups, and others, relied on direct action, public marches and street theater to draw attention to the violence of AIDS and the violence of homophobia. They dared to demand attention, to require conversation, to insist that something needed to be different. They worked outside of political channels. They were the fringe. Or as I like to imagine, the forward guard.

The keystone of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence. He inspired a lot of people to resist the violence, to work for a new system without themselves inflicting harm. But there were some who weren’t that patient. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers – their names conjure a particular kind of insistence, a lack of patience. They were the fringe.

The fringe matters. The fringe moves the middle. When the fringe moves, the middle creeps along behind, perhaps far behind, but moving in the direction of the goal.  The Lesbian Avengers and the Black Panthers knew this. Norman Lear knew this. For a while, it worked. We gay and lesbian Americans didn’t see progress until our growing demands for marriage rights made “civil unions” seem reasonable. But lately, the left has forgotten. These days, the people on the right are the ones who know this. The tea party knows this. The National Rifle Association knows this. They don’t expect to get everything they want, but look how far right they’ve moved the middle. In his work toward health care reform, President Obama never even talked about a single payer system – “universal health care;” but the right talked loudly and incessantly about complete privatization. And the middle moved to the right. It has happened time after time after time, and it is happening again with this so-called and self-inflicted sequester. Anytime the left takes its hands out of its pockets at all, the right bellows “government overreach.” Insane. And it keeps working. The right controls the conversation, and left is afraid of opening its mouth.

Now, it’s about gun control. We can’t require background checks, says the right, because that might lead to a national registry, says the right. The bumbling left tries to reassure America that a registry isn’t in the bill. And I’m wondering why the hell not. A national registry is the absolute most minimal thing we can do that makes any sense at all. A national registry is something that would save lives, calm our national proclivity to shoot one another, give more young people a chance to become old people. It is a reasonable middle ground.

The MOST sensible thing, of course, is repealing the second amendment altogether.

Don’t you see? A national registry is a compromise, not a fringe position. But it is only a middle ground, a compromise, when the left fringe is clearly defined. So, I’m throwing down the gauntlet and claiming a place on the fringe:

It’s time to repeal the second amendment.

People are dying; something has to happen. Someone has to do something. Time to push boundaries, to make people uncomfortable, to piss them off. Let’s see if we can move the middle.

(And by the way, thank you, Mr. Lear.)

I have no sense of humor.

So I’ve been told. Again.

It was to be expected. I even warned you in my “about me” section: I’m a serious person. I take things seriously, often looking for underlying realities or subtleties. And let’s be honest: women and others who want – who insist on and work for – equal rights for all people, have long been accused of lacking a sense of humor.

This time, the offense was an image posted to a design school forum in which I am required to participate. A sexualized pair of ice cream scoops, accompanied by a not-so-innocent invitation. Not a particularly clever design – any 14-year-old boy could have done it. Most probably have. In this case, it was posted by a female student. I asked that it be taken down, inappropriate to the class forum. That’s when I was labeled. No sense of humor. But not just that. I was also a bully for making the request, perverted for noticing the anatomical allusion, and moreover I was a clear representation of “what’s wrong with this country.” It was a big day for me. The epithets piled up. Even my female classmates joined in, labeling me and defending the post, calling it funny, clever, hilarious.

Later that evening, in another arena of my work, I interviewed students for summer internships. One student, a serious young engineer who wants to dedicate her life to making clean water available in impoverished and exploited countries, indicated she’d also applied for engineering internships, but didn’t expect to get hired. “They said they aren’t hiring women this year; they have enough.”

And in the news, Ashley Judd is considering a run for the U.S. Senate. Rather than critiquing her approach to social problems – the foundation for which has come from her childhood in poverty, her graduate education in the Ivy League, and her extensive travel to deprived and forgotten areas of the world – the recent conversation has focused on her movie career (she’s merely an actress) and the occasions when she’s played roles in varying degrees of nudity. But I know Reagan was an actor before he was president; Jesse “the body” Ventura was a pro-wrestling villain before he was governor of Minnesota; Arnold Schwarzenegger was a body builder before… well, you get the idea.

The movement isn’t done. The battle isn’t over. Women are still held to a higher standard, still met with resistance at the highest levels, and, Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Condoleezza Rice notwithstanding, still thought to be lightweights in realms requiring serious thinking.

We are always, always telling other people what to think of us and how to treat us. More than my frustration over the barrage of criticism that befell me for my request that the class post come down, I am frustrated that my classmate has done herself and the rest of us one more disservice.

Or maybe I just have no sense of humor.

 

Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?

What’s your manifesto?

Do you have a manifesto?

This week I read that Chris Dorner, the LA police officer who sought revenge by killing some people, had a manifesto. “Like the Unabomber,” wrote the news reporter. Manifestos aren’t only about destruction, you know, though they seem to get a bad rap. They can give us focus. They can speak our heart’s lovely desires and our life’s creative purposes.

Some time ago, a friend was in professional transition, and asked me to help her draft her “elevator speech,” the one she would use anytime she was able to steal 30-60 seconds with someone who might have a job connection. More recently, I was asked to write a faith statement, something I could tell to anyone who asked.Lift Every Voice and Sing

Then, in typography class this week, we were assigned to choose 80 or more words that mattered to us – song, poem, speech, whatever — and integrate them into a design. Mostly it’s a about learning to work with type, but I found the biggest challenge in choosing the 80+ words.

I considered “this land is your land,” by Woody Guthrie, especially the verses we don’t sing. Know this one?

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

(I think it’d make a dandy, way more singable, national anthem.)

Next, I thought of “here’s to the crazy ones” (which may be Jack Kerouac, Steve Jobs, some folks in the marketing department at Apple, or somebody else altogether); I considered the Ira Glass thing on not giving up, and Anne Lamotte’s irreverent reverence. I thought of “Passover Remembered,” by Alla Renee Bozarth, with its raw images of what freedom can do to a person and to relationships; I often read it in worship during our poverty events at UrbanSpirit. I pondered the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and excerpts from any number of books I’ve read – Goad, Ehrenreich, Krugman, Kozol.  Poets and preachers, from Jackson Browne to Jeremiah Wright; Holly Near and others in the “women’s music” genre who were early influences for me. (“It takes every muscle in my heart to dance at our revolution, but I’m dancing, Emma.”) I thought about Sojourner Truth, Jesus, theologians, scripture, and the psalms and prophets that move me. There’s a lot to consider!

Finally, I landed on the words of the hymn by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Sometimes called the Black national anthem, it is a liberation song. So, for this assignment, I set it into the symbols of the gay community — symbols of Nazi genocide, burned into our psyches as they were carved into our forearms, symbols that we only later claimed as our empowerment. I also hear these words speak powerfully to the never-ending struggle for economic human rights; they move me, often to tears.

This song I’ve chosen isn’t my manifesto, exactly, and it isn’t my elevator speech, but it does call me to consider who I am, where I came from and what I want my life to be about.

My classmates in typography at Ivy Tech SoFAD are an interesting bunch of folks. We are all white, and mostly from Louisville/Southern Indiana, but we come from multiple generations and circumstances, and bear our varied perspectives on the world. They educate me; I hope I do the same for them. I’m asking them to post their choices, and offer a word or thought about how they decided.

I’m asking you, as well: what moves you? What would your “80 or so” words be? If you’re willing, add yours — or a link — in the comment section.

In defense of knowledge.

Jon Stewart always makes me laugh when he chastises his audience for not connecting with a classic cultural reference (like the ending of Les Miserables). “Read a f***ing book!” he bellows in mock disgust (sometimes at me, since I don’t understand everything he says) and everyone laughs. But the larger truth isn’t really that funny.

A friend yesterday posted anti-Obama vitriol on facebook, claiming that Obama has signed more executive orders than all other presidents combined. But it isn’t true. Not even close. He heard it on Fox News, he said; it took me 20 seconds of googling to find the government archives website and get the real numbers. Cousins, friends, friends of friends and old classmates regularly post warnings or forward emails about poisons in packaging, the White House’s supposed refusal to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree, some heinous thing the ACLU is supposed to have done, or the self-esteem issues of a girl with Down Syndrome whose real name isn’t Mallory. The assault on truth is relentless.

LoveThyNeighborIn the most heartbreaking development so far, my uber-right brother has cut me off from my niece and nephew (ages 8 and 15) because he doesn’t want to have to answer questions about my being lesbian (a word he refuses to say). This was precipitated by a t-shirt I sent for my nephew’s birthday (he’s the teenager) that read “love thy neighbor,” and then gave a list of who that might mean. Because the list included “gay neighbor,” he threw it in the garbage and blocked my number from my nephew’s cell phone.  A few years ago, I sent the same brother a book I thought might help him “come to terms” with having a gay family member (a truth he’s known for more than 25 years). He threw it away, and yesterday threw the episode in my face. He doesn’t need a book, he said, except the bible. That’s right: his bigotry is rooted in what he perceives to be Christian faithfulness. He knows all he needs to know.

Parochialism, limited perspective, suspicion of the experience of those not like us, disdain for difference. Fear of a world we can’t understand or can’t control. A need for power over others, or a fear of loss of power. All these may be in some way ingredients in the hostility soup that is our culture these days.

I’m overwhelmed. I feel like Elijah[i], searching for a cave in which to avoid the venom of hatred that is all around. Self-preservation seems a worthy goal some days. Where even to begin? How to combat the comfort so many people find in ignorance? And when that ignorance becomes violent, as ignorance so often does, who do we suppose will claim responsibility? The churches, “news” stations or facebook groups that incited it? Doubtful.

One pressing question is how to get Elijah out of the cave. There is no energy for me in hurling epithets of my own. I don’t want a culture war. I want rights as a gay American and I want justice for my neighbors who are economically deprived, environmentally poisoned, and emotionally overwrought.

A further question is how to advance the cause of knowledge. God got Elijah out of the cave by giving him a new assignment. UrbanSpirit, the center I run here in Louisville, has a mission of poverty education; our primary tool is a week-long simulation of life at minimum wage. We’ve learned that putting ourselves in other people’s shoes is a powerful way to gain understanding, insight and empathy. We invite groups from all over the country to come and experience this reality. This is my work, my passion, my assignment to keep me from the cave. Some days it feels like droplets in an ocean. But it is something I can do. Way better than calling names or spreading someone’s lies.

About a decade ago in a difficult time, I dreamed of God, and I heard – in waking or sleeping, I can’t be sure – the voice of God saying, “I am faithful; you be faithful.” I think of that regularly. So I’ll continue to speak, to preach, to teach, to try to have conversation, to challenge the lies and put forward the truth. And I’ll keep trying to support and encourage truth-tellers I meet on the path.


[i] 1 Kings 19 in the Hebrew scripture (what Christians tend to call the “old testament”).