You are browsing the archive for DOMA.

by Peterr

Snowden, Merkel, Obama, and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

9:13 am in Foreign Policy, LGBT, NSA by Peterr

photo: mplemmon via Flickr

In 1963, Martin Luther King addressed a group of local white clergy who were upset with him and his colleagues for being so confrontational, so direct, and so impatient in what became known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” After recounting the many earlier attempts to address matter that produced little if any change, King wrote this:

You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

In 2010, on the eve of the midterm Congressional elections, President Obama sat down with five prominent LGBT bloggers to try to tamp down the LGBT community’s pressure on him to quit defending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. LGBT activists had been raising the temperature on the White House, and Obama had the audacity to refer to King’s letter in telling them that LGBTs simply need to wait until the right time:

And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.

Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms. So it’s not my place to counsel patience. One of my favorite pieces of literature is ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time. And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better.

So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.

As I said at the time, I think Obama needs to reread the Letter, as he completely misses King’s meaning time and time again over his tenure at the White House. In January 2011, the DOD’s General Counsel Jeh Johnson attempted to say that King would have been fine with drones, indefinite detention, and the War in Afghanistan, totally misunderstanding King’s life’s work in general and his very specific comments about war and non-violence in particular. Let the record show slightly less than two years after making those remarks, Jeh Johnson become the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Those old posts came back to me as I watched Obama’s speech about the NSA last Friday, and watched the subsequent analysis of it — especially that done by the invaluable Marcy Wheeler (see here, for instance). Barack “No Drama” Obama disdains confrontation, and yet it was the drama created by the direct action of Edward Snowden, together with the journalistic work of Glenn Greenwald, Der Spiegel, the Guardian, and others, that has done what King talked about: “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

Marcy and others have been shouting for years about unconstitutional institutional overreach in the intelligence community, and the response from Obama was no better than the response from Bush, until Snowden’s leaks started appearing in print. When Obama nominated Dawn Johnsen to be the head of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel shortly after his election in 2008, he raised hopes that this kind of unreviewable, unchallengable, behind-the-scenes approach to the Executive branch’s conclusions about what is and is not constitutional would change. While others nominated to senior DOJ posts were confirmed, she waited, and waited, and waited some more. While Obama fought for other nominees, she sat alone, in silence. When her nomination was eventually withdrawn, it came as no surprise. As bmaz wrote most eloquently,

Read the rest of this entry →

by Peterr

God Laughs at Prop 8 and DOMA

4:08 pm in LGBT, Religion by Peterr

SCOTUS made one of their periodic announcements of the schedule of arguments for upcoming cases for which they had granted a hearing, and I could not help but hear God laughing in the background. Let me draw your attention to this portion of the announcement, via SCOTUSblog:

Tuesday, March 26:

12-144 Hollingsworth v. Perry – constitutionality of California’s “Proposition 8″ ban on same-sex marriage; also, question of standing to appeal

Wednesday, March 27:

12-307 — United States v. Windsor – constitutionality of Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s benefits limited to married opposite-sex couples; also, question of standing for U.S. government and for House GOP leaders to appeal the case

The laughter I hear comes from looking at the calendar.

On March 26th, Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kagan (the three Jewish members of SCOTUS) will be hearing about the injustices levied by the state against gays and lesbians on the first day of Passover — an eight day commemoration in the Jewish calendar of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. For Jews, the repetition of Moses’ cry “let my people go!” figures prominently in the Passover story, as God’s spokesman went to Pharaoh again and again to demand freedom from slavery and oppression.

Given what LGBTs have endured at the hands of the modern state, “Let my people wed!” has a nice contemporary ring to it.

And then there are the Catholics . . .

For Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, Kennedy, and Sotomayor — the six Roman Catholics — these two days of arguments take place between Palm Sunday and Easter. It’s Holy Week, when Western Christians recall Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowd, his betrayal and arrest on trumped up charges, his show-trial and execution at the hands of the state with the blessing of the religious authorities, and his resurrection. For Christians, Holy Week is the commemoration of a perversion of justice, set right by a divine veto.

Given how justice has been denied to LGBTs in ways great and small by the enactment of DOMA, it strikes me as divinely ironic that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the United States House of Representatives will be defending injustice during a week when Catholics and other Christians are in the midst of remembering the injustices perpetrated by Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas as they tried — unsuccessfully — to preserve their own power.

I fully expect to hear more from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on this, in the same illogical vein as Chicago’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George’s recent missive. (The best reply I’ve seen to it is from Neil Steinberg in the Chicago Sun-Times.) But using this style of argument during Holy Week will make Cardinal George sound like Caiaphas, not Christ, and I don’t think BLAG will have any more success than did Pilate or Herod.

Back in 2008, five sad days after Prop 8 was approved by California voters, I had the pleasure of hosting an FDL Book Salon chat with Mitchell Gold, discussing his book Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing up Gay in America. As I wrote in the set-up piece, these are stories of pain, power, struggles, partnership, and surprises (both nasty and wonderful). But discussing this book just after Prop 8 was enacted really altered the discussion:

In my head, I actually had two posts ready for this Book Salon, depending upon the results of the Proposition 8 vote in California. If “No on 8″ had prevailed, we could talk about how wonderful it is that the largest state in the US had taken a stand in favor of civil rights and fuller acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. We could talk about the positive message that this would send to anyone who is GLBT or who loves someone who is. That post, sadly, will have to wait for another day.

But that day is coming — make no mistake about that — just not as soon as we’d like.

Ultimately, these are stories of hope. In reading this book, I was reminded again and again of SF Supervisor Harvey Milk‘s famous “Hope” speech (YouTube excerpt here) :

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant in television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Hope. By the end of the book, that this what these stories are finally about. Hope that life can be better for all of us, and that pain and trauma are not the last words for any of us, regardless of our own sexual orientations or the orientations of those we love.

I truly believe that day of justice and hope is getting closer.

Some might call the connection between the SCOTUS calendar and the Jewish and Christian religious calendars a mere coincidence, but being a pastor, I can’t help but see a little divine humor at work. As BLAG will soon find out, trying to make arguments in defense of injustice during two powerful religious commemorations of justice is hard to do.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and let all the courts say “Amen!”

_____

No, I’m not suggesting religious appeals have any place in the secular legal discussions at the heart of this case. But that doesn’t keep folks like the USCCB or the evangelical fundamentalists from making them, and I’d like to give these religious appeals a little theological attention before they really start cranking up. Read the rest of this entry →

by Peterr

Obama May Want to Re-Read King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

8:36 am in Government, LGBT by Peterr

photo: mplemmon via Flickr

At yesterday’s meeting with five progressive bloggers, Joe Sudbay at AmericaBlog asked a simple question that’s been waiting for a simple answer:

JOE: I was glad to hear that you and your staff appreciate constructive feedback.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that’s something we enjoy. (Laughter.)

JOE: We’ve been more than willing to offer that. We’ve certainly been more than willing to offer than from AMERICAblog, particularly on issues related to the LGBT community, which, you know, there is a certain amount of disillusionment and disappointment in our community right now.

And one of the things I’d like to ask you — and I think it’s a simple yes or no question too — is do you think that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unconstitutional?

The answer he got was this:

It’s not a simple yes or no question, because I’m not sitting on the Supreme Court. And I’ve got to be careful, as President of the United States, to make sure that when I’m making pronouncements about laws that Congress passed I don’t do so just off the top of my head.

I think that — but here’s what I can say. I think “don’t ask, don’t tell” is wrong. I think it doesn’t serve our national security, which is why I want it overturned. I think that the best way to overturn it is for Congress to act. In theory, we should be able to get 60 votes out of the Senate. The House has already passed it. And I’ve gotten the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to say that they think this policy needs to be overturned — something that’s unprecedented.

And so my hope and expectation is, is that we get this law passed. It is not just harmful to the brave men and women who are serving, and in some cases have been discharged unjustly, but it doesn’t serve our interests — and I speak as Commander-in-Chief on that issue.

Let me go to the larger issue, though, Joe, about disillusionment and disappointment. I guess my attitude is that we have been as vocal, as supportive of the LGBT community as any President in history. I’ve appointed more openly gay people to more positions in this government than any President in history. We have moved forward on a whole range of issues that were directly under my control, including, for example, hospital visitation.

On “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I have been as systematic and methodical in trying to move that agenda forward as I could be given my legal constraints, given that Congress had explicitly passed a law designed to tie my hands on the issue.

And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.

Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms. So it’s not my place to counsel patience. One of my favorite pieces of literature is “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time. And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better.

So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.

Obama’s answer reads like someone who’s read a set of talking points from King’s letter, not the letter itself. To refer to the letter in the context of an answer that at its core tells LGBTs they are wrong for pushing for action and to wait and be patient is stunning.

Let’s take a look at some of that letter (full letter in an annotated form here), written by King to a group of local clergy who were upset with him for pushing too hard, too fast, and in too public and direct a manner:

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs.On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.

Promises made and not kept?
Blasted hopes?
The dark shadow of deep disappointment?
The humiliating signs remained?

That sounds very, very familiar to the LGBT community. While the progressives in general were celebrating Obama’s victory in November 2008, LGBTs were mourning the passage of Proposition 8 that tried to reverse marriage equality in California. “Your kind need not apply” said Prop 8.

Two years has passed since then, and the Obama DOJ has consistently defended DOMA and DADT in court (sometimes with amazingly destructive language), the Obama political folks never pushed for EDNA, and now Obama think LGBTs should not view his administration as a source of disappointment?

That sounds very much like the local clergy to whom King was writing, not the person in the jail cell holding the pencil.

Here’s more from King’s jail cell:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

The LGBT community gets this. They’ve gotten very good at it, too:

They continue to lead a drumbeat of criticism of the inaction of the WH on DOMA, DADT, and ENDA.

They provided immediate pushback against Valerie Jarrett for her unthinking use of the language of “lifestyle choice” to describe the gay teen who committed suicide.

Dan Choi presented his very body, chained to the WH fence, and later walking into a recruiter’s office to reenlist in the military.

Kerry Eleveld offers constant questioning of Robert Gibbs on LGBT issues in the WH press room.

Direct action, growing stronger and louder over two years. And wonder of wonders, a week before the midterm elections the WH invites a group of LGBT activists into the WH for a strategy session on DADT, followed by inviting a major LGBT blogger to be part of an intimate sit-down with the President the next day.

It sure looks like the LGBT community and its supporters have managed “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Does Obama get that he’s on the wrong side of what King wrote about?

<crickets>

More from King’s letter, on the basic question that Joe asked:

How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? . . . Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. . . .

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

How can Obama praise these words and then immediately pivot to tell Joe Sudbay that the LGBT community is wrong in considering the Obama administration a disappointment when it comes to dealing with the segregation faced by LGBTs?

The phrase “shallow understanding” comes to mind.

One last piece from Brother Martin — the section that speaks of the neutrality of time mentioned specifically by Obama:

Such an attitude (about being in too great a hurry, because change is inevitable) stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

When is the time to do right? Now.

No excuses like “after health care is passed.”
No delays like “after the banking system is back on its feet.”
No holding off “until the midterms are over.”

This is the kind of ineffective use of time by people of good will to which King referred.

The time is always ripe to do right.

Obama may want to re-read one of his favorite pieces of literature, and then try again.

(photo h/t mattlemmon)