I believe in the United States of America. More specifically, I believe in the idea of the United States of America.
This is of course, ironic in some ways, since as a pagan/poly/queer/pervert, it is safe to say that there are many “defenders American values” who would just as soon have me somewhere else. Probably Copenhagen if I had to wager a guess.
In truth, we in Tashrisketlin have frequently debated leaving the country for greener, and perhaps saner pastures. Thus far we have elected to stay, not because we are thrilled with the direction this nation is headed, but because to brutally paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill’s famed dictum on democracy: America is the worst country we’ve found, except all the others.
The problem with democracy is that people are hard. We’re complicated and inconsistent, gentle and brutal, we want low taxes and bountiful social programs, free speech and freedom from speech we don’t like. We need the cake not to be a lie, and live as if wishing hard enough will make it truth.
I came across two news articles this evening that drove home just how complicated a government of the people, by the people, for the people can be.
The first addressed the deeply troubling fact that the vast majority of Republican congress members steadfastly hold the belief that anthropogenic climate change is a myth, or in some extreme cases, a liberal conspiracy. In the spirit of representative government, the meager number of Republican congressmen and woman who accept the scientific data on climate change closely matches the scant number of GOP identified voters who do.
Acceptance of climate change science is rapidly becoming a purity test for legislators wishing to run as Republicans. In the 2010 mid-term elections, every GOP candidate save one denied the existence of anthropogenic climate change. A few days ago, a Republican presidential candidate (the one with a Google problem) declared steps to address climate change part of a coordinated attack on personal freedom by the liberal left.
The economic consequences of a concerted push to reduce carbon emissions are real. However, so too are the economic, environmental, and humanitarian consequence of doing nothing. The problem is that taking steps to address global climate change hurts us now, and in ways that economists can reasonably predict. If these steps aren’t taken, the burden of that decision will overwhelmingly be felt after the lifespan of most GOP congressmen and voters. Moreover, while the economy is a complicated thing, modeling its behavior is simplistic next to modeling the behavior of a planet-wide and rapidly changing ecosystem. To maintain their integrity, climate scientists must speak in theories and potential consequences, which opens their data and predictions to dismissal by legislators for whose agendas carbon reduction measures pose a concrete threat.
And now, for a shift from the global to the personal:
A few nights ago, comedian Tracy Morgan, said some stupid and deeply offensive things during a stand-up performance in Nashville TN. Included in his diatribe was his belief that being gay (or presumably lesbian/bisexual/trans/queer) was a media influenced choice, that we need to stop “whining” about bullying, and that if he had an effeminate gay son he would stab him to death. It’s that last part that elevated the incident from “he’s not getting an invite to the GLADD Media Awards” to “full-out media blitz.”
Which, to my way of thinking at least, is exactly right. The inevitable weak statement of apology from Mr. Morgan’s publicist was met with derision from all corners of the LGBT media world, from the “Gay Inc.” blue chips like GLADD and HRC, to the queer blogosphere. Where I become concerned, as someone who believes in America, is when the focus of the community’s ire turns from what he said to the fact that he said it.
Tracy Morgan has, through his words, shown himself to be worthy of our deepest contempt.
However, because I believe in the American experiment, I have no choice but to defend his right to speak those words. The LGBT civil rights movement has legitimate and heartrending arguments in favor of restricting hate speech towards our community. It is all too easy to imagine the deleterious effects that Mr. Morgan’s public affirmations of hatred could have on vulnerable members of our community, particularly queer youth of color. In comparing his routine to speech that the Supreme Court has found legal to ban, fellow comedian and out lesbian Wanda Sykes had this to say as reported in the second article of the evening: “…but for a youth in TN or any other numerous place, Tracy just yelled, ‘Fire,’ in a crowded theater,”
The LGBT civil rights movement, and indeed other civil rights movements in U.S. History including the struggle for African American rights and the Suffrage Movement, could not have achieved any real measure of success without free speech providing a stable platform from which to challenge an entrenched society. It would be selfish and counterproductive to undermine that foundational American principal in order to punish those who attack us.
Go after Mr. Morgan’s livelihood and I will be there right beside you. Boycott 30 Rock, picket or send letters of protest to venues that choose to book Mr. Morgan’s stand-up performances, call him out on his bigoted and violent hatred towards us at every imaginable opportunity. In this country we have the right to speak our minds, but we also have the right to make choices based on our fellow citizen’s speech.
Free speech is dangerous, anyone who says otherwise is either lying or ignorant. However, it is the dangerous aspect of free speech that also makes it so valuable. We owe it to the generations and civil rights movements that follow ours to safeguard free speech from internal and external threats so that others can follow in our footsteps.
What these two articles have in common is that both address subjects that are far from as straightforward as invested populations would choose to believe.
In the midst of a national and global economic crisis of historic proportions, introducing any additional financial burden on the American public or our straining economy could be reasonably be argued to be foolhardy. Moreover, it could, and indeed has been argued, that the climate change skepticism found in the GOP is a reflection of their constituents’ beliefs, as required in a representative republic.
Likewise, it takes a harder heart than mine to dismiss even one vulnerable member of our community pushed into suicide or other self destructive behavior by Tracy Morgan’s destructive words as the “price we must pay” for free speech. Ms. Sykes makes a fair argument, and it is dangerously tempting to put our community’s needs first and support her perspective, leaving other minority communities to struggle without the robust right to free speech that made our successes possible.
I fear that this country is not weathering well the era of the 24hr news cycle, Twitter, and an age where one can access the sum total of human knowledge through a device that fits in a shirt pocket. Governing a deeply fragmented nation of 300 million people, who have sub-divided into socially and culturally isolated echo chambers is a Herculean, if not Sisyphean task.
As the fictional American President Andrew Sheppard once said: “…America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight…” It is hard sometimes to know if the American people remember how to fight that fight. And more importantly, if we remember why we need to.