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April 30 2013


The F-Bomb

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 6.04.06 PMWhen I was in the last years of grade school and an underclassman in high school - both Catholic, middle class, and predominantly white - there was one word that almost always guaranteed playground or sandlot bloodshed among adolescent males.

The word was "faggot."

If you've seen 42, then you know its most heated scene consists of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman standing on the dug-out steps shouting variations of our most hated racial epithet at Jackie Robinson - over and over, in a chanting cat-calling cadence that is designed to evoke a physical response. 

Fight or flight, the human instinct particularly sharpened in the nervous systems of young men.

Ben Chapman had nothing on some of the guys I grew up with, although their special milieu wasn't race, it was sexual orientation. "C'mone, faggot!" was the tag line of one particular 70s bully whose name does not escape me. You fought (and probably suffered) or you ran. I, for one, took off at full gallop. Others fought and were patched up by the school nurse. 

None of us questioned the underlying challenge. In point of fact, we barely understood it - except for those among us who were, of course, gay. I'm sure they got it. And I'm certain they suffered worse in silence than the cuts and bruises the non-runners tolerated.

What was this challenge? That being called gay - the term was not widely in use at the time; the more polite noun was actually "homo" - was the worst put down, right up there in fight challenge parlance with questioning the sexual proclivities of the maternal? And that it meant weakness, a failure of proper gender, the banishment of the outsider? I didn't stop to think - yes, I was too busy running. But I just wasn't prepared for it either. The culture would barely support the conversation. 

I feel some shame at this memory. In my amended biography, it would be nice to find a heroic chapter in which I stood up and shouted "yeah, I'm a homo - what of it, buster?" But my Pro Keds and their fleet tread provided the best option for my adolescent legs. I ran from conflict with the slur, yes - but I mainly ran from fear of physical violence. And when I didn't run, I was silent. Sad to say, we all pretty much were.

In truth, acceptance of this despised "other" was easy - in no small part due to the catechism of liberal 60s and 70s Catholicism. I felt no hatred, no real dislike, and little revulsion - certainly no more revulsion than I felt for the hormone inebriated monster that inhabited my own body. I read a lot and learned, in theory, about the many flavors of man at a fairly young age. But I didn't stand up, and of course, the moment passed. Older high school boys became more polite and less bullying, in general. And college provided the wonders of real diversity and experience. I stopped hearing "faggot" on the playground because I'd left the playground.

And then it was 1998.

In October of that year, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. His name was Matthew Shepard and his killers left him hanging from a wire fence to die because he was homosexual.

By all accounts, Shepard was a sweet kid, smart and promising. His father said Matthew was "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."

More than anything - yes, even more than the tragic AIDS plague of the 80s, I'd have to admit, though I was a "liberal" throughout - Shepard's murder made me realize the real stakes in "gay rights." This was a civil rights crusade. It was about the rights of non-heterosexual Americans to live as freely as everyone else. And it was about the forces of darkness, the spit-flaked speech of the playground, the incitement to violence and shunning and shame.

I began to think that it wasn't the Matthew Shepards of the world who needed the courage to come out of the closet - and be welcomed by the normal world - it was the rest of us who needed the collective courage to tear the damned closet down.

Nothing in American political life of recent vintage has been as stunning and inspiring as the success of equal rights - political, social and cultural - for gay citizens. That advance in less than a generation is one of this country's most hopeful signs for the future. And the refusal of my children's generation to even categorize LGBT people is astounding and welcome.

So in some ways, the brave decision of NBA center Jason Collins to come out in Sports Illustrated this week feels more like an important postscript. I know it's not, of course. Marriage is still before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sodomy laws remain on the books in many states. Religious establishments protect prejudice. Things don't change quickly enough.

Yet the reaction to Collins's courage was swift and validating - especially among his former teammates and professional athletes. That reaction in response to the elegant SI essay really matters, it seems to me. The passage in which Collins talks about wearing 98 in tribute to Matthew Shepard was deeply moving. (And how cool was it that Collins is a classic NBA enforcer, a journeyman Anthony Mason?) More gay athlets will clearly live in public. Their teammates will support them. Those athletes can change the playground rules. Sports culture is a stubborn hold-out on all fronts of sexual and gender equality. But under the hoop, maybe we won't hear the real F-bomb as much any more.

March 27 2013


December 11 2011


We Did Overcome: Hillary's Landmark Speech

Lyndon Johnson's journey from the political precincts of segregated rural Texas to the moment in 1965 when he told the American nation "we shall overcome" was a long one, yet the great moments of advances in freedom are best seen in the changes, in the evolution of thinking. The long struggle for equality in sexual orientation doesn't hold the same century-long existential question for the country as a whole, but it has nonetheless been an accelerating freight train of social change in the last decade, a welcome success in the process of smoothing of the rougher, unfair, immoral edges of our society. And the fragrant, flowering success of the gay and lesbian rights movement has given us all proof in dark challenging times that there still exists a willingness in the American spirit to rethink ourselves, to stride into the future with purpose, and to pursue a more perfect union.

And last week, the Obama Administration provided its LBJ speech in that long struggle - and signaled its evolving commitment to linking gay rights to its wider human rights agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a non-supporter (yet) of full gay marriage and a one-time supporter of the Clinton White House Defense of Marriage Act, threw both her not inconsiderable personal international stardom and the full weight of U.S. foreign policy behind supporting equality for homosexuals - and more importantly, condemning those nations who turn a blind eye to anti-gay violence.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Republican reality show mess that passes for that sad, obstructionist party's nomination process, the speech didn't get the domestic media play it deserved. Yet it marked a high point of the Obama Administration, and showed the keen coordination that has become the extraordinary relationship between President Obama and Secretary Clinton, formerly bitter rivals. Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton formally declared the fight against discrimination against homosexuals a key priority of U.S. foreign policy.

"Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today," she said. "In many ways, they are an invisible minority."

Then she took dead aim:

“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights. It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”

In a word: bravo! It's hard to beat the reaction of Dan Savage (with his implicit political message) in HuffPo: "The check I was planning to write to Obama's reelection campaign just acquired another zero."

At Feministing, Easha Pandit praised the speech, especially its muscular and clear-eyed culture message.

I particularly value the connection of social justice issues to human rights language. It’s a powerful statement. This language and the leverage of American diplomatic efforts are vitally important, they give the issue visibility and legitimacy. I particularly appreciated Secretary Clinton’s call for the freedom of expression. She said,

“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave.”'

Pandit rightly pointed out that U.S. domestic policy still has a ways to go before both anti-gay violence and discrimination disappear from these shores, politely emphasizing the Obama Administration's own slow boat evolution. Yet radio host and gay rights activist Sandip Roy saw a clear lack of hypocritical nagging in Secretary Clinton's landmark speech.

But the most interesting (and un-American) part of the speech was that she didn't use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was "far from perfect." She didn't use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration's own record -- for example, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

She actually looked abroad for inspiration -- to South Africa, Colombia, Mongolia, and India:

"To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, 'If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.'"

That's noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don't usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on "Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi" instead.

Secretary Clinton's address in Geneva was strong, dramatic and historic. But it was also given more import with the release of a White House memorandum over President Obama's signature that explicitly ties the U.S. emphasis on human rights to gay rights in our foreign policy. While American foreign policy in general in far from a perfect expression of freedom and civil rights, this is a time for applause and good feeling. Compare Secretary Clinton's address and the sickening, gay-baiting pseudo-Christian political ad released this week by former GOP frontrunner Rick Perry and you'll glimpse the vast contrast between the team we have - and their potential successors. As Leslie Gabel-Brett of Lambda Legal said: "A vision of equality and human rights for LGBT people has taken hold, and the number and power of those who promote that vision is growing. It may be a heavy boulder up a steep hill, but many people are pushing history toward the full recognition of LGBT human rights under the law at home and around the world."

Is there a more noble goal for a superpower's foreign policy?

March 13 2011


Counterproductive and Stupid

"What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense."
- P.J. Crowley

To pure open government advocates and many anti-war progressives, Private Bradley Manning is a prisoner of conscience, held without trial in solitary confinement in the Quantico brig for allegedly providing a vast store of secret U.S. government documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. To the right (and much of the military), he's a traitor, pure and simple - the supplier of secrets to American enemies all too happy to use them against the nation.

I think Manning was legitimately sickened by what he saw in America's endless, grinding war policy, but wildly misguided in his methods. The massive leak of secret gigabytes wasn't a whistleblower's case against the state's wrong-doing - an argument against crime or policy; it was vast spray-painted vandalism, devoid of a message or a real goal. And Manning's alleged choice of a partner could not have been more disastrous for the 23-year-old Army private. Assange has turned a promising new form of journalism and distribution that may have eventually promoted more open government into a widely-loathed platform of preening, anarchistic nonsense, tarred by anti-Semitism, sex abuse charges, and an increasingly insular and paranoid cult of personality. While the brave-but-misguided Manning wastes away in the brig, the posing WikiLeaks czar reworks images of himself as Che Guevara into T-shirts for sale.

This does not excuse the American government, nor its Democratic President, from responsibility in the Manning case. Reading the accounts of Manning's confinement leaves little doubt that he is the target of some rather special incarceration tactics designed to break him down emotionally, and cause him to assist the Obama Administration in its apparently still-active movement toward prosecuting WikiLeaks. Both the treatment of Manning and the pursuit of Federal charges against WikiLeaks and Assange are grave political mistakes - and the former is a serious ethical failing.

The treatment of Private Manning is well-documented. He is confined to his spartan cell 23 hours each day. He is not allowed to exercise. His contacts with the outside world are severely limited. Much of his treatment is attributed to suicide prevention, yet a United Nations anti-torture investigator has submitted an inquiry about Manning to the  State Department, as did Amnesty International to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Last week, Manning's lawyer released a letter from the prisoner in which he describes how he has been "left to languish under the unduly harsh conditions of max [security] custody" ever since he was brought from Kuwait to Virginia in July last year. From The Guardian's coverage:

The most graphic passage of the letter is Manning's description of how he was placed on suicide watch for three days from 18 January. "I was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear. My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness."

Manning writes that he believes the suicide watch was imposed not because he was a danger to himself but as retribution for a protest about his treatment held outside Quantico the day before. Immediately before the suicide watch started, he said guards verbally harassed him, taunting him with conflicting orders.

When he was told he was being put on suicide watch, he writes, "I became upset. Out of frustration, I clenched my hair with my fingers and yelled: 'Why are you doing this to me? Why am I being punished? I have done nothing wrong.'"

He also describes the experience of being stripped naked at night and made to stand for parade in the nude, a condition that continues to this day. "The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder-width apart. I stood at parade rest for about three minutes … The [brig supervisor] and the other guards walked past my cell. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then continued to the next cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked."

Too often since 2001, our government had made decisions in which security transcends our humanity. These decisions are, in effect, our decisions - from the disastrous and immoral Iraq invasion to the abandonment of our deeply-held judicial principles at Guantanamo Bay. I am generally a defender of President Obama and - in the main - fairly positive about his tenure in office thus far. Hell, I've been flayed as an abject apologist by lefty friends. I admire the President. But in no area am I more disappointed with the candidate I voted for rather proudly in 2008 than in the realm of civil liberties. I thought Barack Obama would lift the moral fog of the 9/11's fear-tinged national security hangover. He has not yet chosen to do so, preserving - and in some cases, extending - the security-driven abuses of the Bush era, punishing whistleblowers, and simply ignoring several of his most prominent campaign promises.

Yesterday, the White House fired State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley for saying out loud at an MIT forum on Friday what most on the diplomacy side of the Federal government's foreign policy apparatus believe: that the treatment of Bradley Manning is "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." It's not as if Crowley, an Air Force veteran, is a huge fan of Manning's actions or WikiLeaks; indeed he also told the panel "nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place," and "there is sometimes a need for secrets ... for diplomatic progress to be made."

Yet Crowley's remarks - ironically transmitted by a blogger in these more open days of government communications - prompted a question about Manning's treatment at the President's press conference. As CNN's Ed Henry reported, "Sources close to the matter said the resignation, first reported by CNN, came under pressure from the White House, where officials were furious about his suggestion that the Obama administration is mistreating Manning, the Army private who is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico."

 In a single ill-timed move, President Obama has squelched even polite, mild public dissent in his Administration, appearing both in thrall of the security hawks who have governed too much of U.S. policy since 2001 and thin-skinned about being asked a semi-tough question at a press briefing.

That the White House would make such a move on the very eve of Secretary of State Hillary's Clinton's crucial trip to the Middle East to meet with transitional leadership in Egypt and Tunisia, and with the Libyan revolutionaries, frankly reveals just how much stock the President himself puts in message cohesion on his Bush era national security stance.

John Cole, not exactly a political enemy of the President's, may have put it most colorfully (and correctly):

You don’t screw with the national security state. They do what they want, and if you speak up, you just gotta go. So much for that team of rivals shit.

And if you are wondering why we will stay in Afghanistan for as long as Obama is President, wonder no more. The mildest disagreement with the national security state and the war pig is cause for immediate dismissal.

I am no fan of WikiLeaks and its naked political ambition, but it's impossible to justify the Obama Administration's reaction to what is a minor threat and a major opportunity to pivot U.S. policy and practice on a new axis and seize the high ground. The firing of P.J. Crowley will, I think, have repercussions well beyond a single spokesperson's tenure. And Bradley Manning just became a prisoner of conscience for many more Americans - including me.

September 22 2010


Giving It Away on Seventh Avenue

From my column in Tina Brown's Daily Beast today on the annual Clinton Global Initiative philanthrofest at the Sheraton - turns out Mick Jagger was wrong: you can give it away on Seventh Avenue:

Six years after unveiling his Clinton Global Initiative in midtown Manhattan, Bill Clinton is happy to reel off the numbers: 1,946 commitments to social change in the world valued at $63 billion “which have already improved nearly 300 million lives.” That's almost 5  percent of the Earth's population. And those numbers will go up this year, as the usual pilgrims for social change make their way to the cool and cavernous Sheraton on Seventh Avenue to announce philanthropic deals, forge alliances, and tweet the latest star sighting.

At the center is an ex-president almost entirely unbound. In setting up CGI, gathering the world's leaders from the corporate, NGO and government spheres, and pressing for a diverse series of philanthropic commitments around the world, Bill Clinton has created a potent alternative to the cloistered, poll-driven, media-obsessed, 24-hour cycle of the 10th circle of hell known as the American Presidency.

To read the rest, dip your piggies in Da Beast.

September 21 2010


I Love This Video

Debuted today at the Clinton Global Initiative - created by The Girl Effect, which works toward the "powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate in their society."

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