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Monthly Archives: July 2011

I’ll admit it; I’m kind of fascinated by Michele Bachmann. It’s gotten to the point that those close to me are tired of hearing about all the crazy stuff she does.

Every time there’s a headline about some new cringeworthy gaffe she’s made or outlandish position she’s taken, my schadenfreude sense gets all tingly. I totally eat it up and click through and give the news outlet the eyeballs on their page that bring ad dollars that they were hoping to get by focusing on the most outlandish facets of the news in the first place.

But reading the story “Jon Stewart (with help from Jerry Seinfeld) mocks Marcus Bachmann’s gay therapy… as he ‘seems so gay,’” the usual glee I take in the absurdity of the Right vanished.

My first thought was: We’re not doing this. I don’t want to play this game. This is something they do. I like living on the moral high ground, and I want to stay there, thank you very much. No matter how odious the other side may be, no matter how appealing it is to think of giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Of course, as Michelle Cottle at the Daily Beast pointed out, this is

about more than critics lobbing generic bombs at a fiercely conservative presidential combatant. Michele Bachmann has long been one of the most aggressive anti-gay-marriage crusaders in politics, while Marcus runs a Christian-based therapy clinic accused of dabbling in “reparative therapy,” a controversial counseling technique premised on the notion that you can “pray away the gay.”

And there is something compelling about the turnabout here. If people like the Bachmanns didn’t insist that being gay was so horrifying, it wouldn’t be a big deal if he is. So it’s his own fault, too bad, so sad.

Also, the idea that someone is “profoundly antigay” out of gay panic makes a certain amount of sense.The idea that this is a form of protesting too much (and Shakespeare’s original opposite meaning be damned) is well-established. Popular culture has explored it: look at Karofsky bullying Kurt in Glee (or, I know I’m hung up on it, but seriously, Quinn’s mistreatment of Rachel. See skywarrior108’s The Truth About Quinn Fabray.)

But if Karofsky kissed Kurt and Quinn drew a picture of Rachel with hearts around it, where’s the smoking gun with Marcus Bachmann?

It’s his apparently “effeminate manner and ‘center-square gay’ voice” (Cottle). That’s right, they’re reading his sexuality off from his gender. The same way gender non-conforming people have been persecuted as sexual deviants with surprising consistency across time and space (though clearly not everywhere or everywhen).

Seriously? Sexuality doesn’t follow immediately from gender any more than either of them follow immediately from sex. If Marcus Bachmann is swishy, it doesn’t mean he likes men. The same people trying to call him out now have surely defended tough and supposedly “manly” women like Hillary Clinton against accusations of lesbianism, so how is this different?.

Judith Butler, in her 1993 book Bodies that Matter points out that “homophobia often operates through the attribution of a damaged, failed, or otherwise abject gender to homosexuals” (p. 238). People like Dan Savage and Jon Stewart and Andrew Sullivan would probably reject the idea that they’re homophobic (though at least a few queer theorists would disagree about Sullivan), but reading “failed” gender as a sign of homosexuality is the same thing.

That’s because it is based in the (heterosexist) idea that if you like someone of the “same” sex, it means you’re really sort of the “opposite sex” on the inside, because there can only really be cross-sex attraction. This argument is objectionable because it makes heterosexuality central and homosexuality a failed imitation.

Meghan Daum of the LA Times adds an interesting spin to this: “from the looks of things, it isn’t acting gay that Bachmann deplores; it’s gay acts. And there’s no evidence he’s broken his own rules about the latter.” Though problematic in assuming that there’s such a thing as “acting gay,” Daum’s piece usefully preserves the ways in which behaving a certain gendered way is distinct from having particular kinds of sex.

So even if Mr. Bachmann does really want to engage in gay sex—which we have no evidence of—the evidence that we do have points to him not actually doing it. Thus, “even if there were truth to the innuendo, how do you pin hypocrisy on someone who practices what he preaches?” (Daum).

The New York Times had a really interesting article about homosexuality, religion, and therapy recently that talked about the ways that both one’s sexuality and one’s religion tend to be integral parts of one’s identity. Gays assume you can just chuck your religion, and churches assume you can just chuck your gayness, but when people genuinely find both important to them, therapists are finding, the solution is exactly like Daum suggests Bachmann’s practice might be—you can have your desires or your gay identity, but maintain your religious identity by not acting on them. Food for thought, at least.

Self-loathing and unconfessed same-sex desire makes for gorgeously angsty and potentially hot fan fiction in which authors can really explore what it must be like to really want to have gay sex but be unable to reconcile it with your faith or your self-image (it’s a staple of the Quinn character in Rachel/Quinn fiction in the Glee fandom, and some of it is really beautifully done). But we don’t get to play with real people that way.

Okay, we do in Real Person Fiction (RPF). So if it’s really that important to these people, they can write a character study of a fictionalized Marcus Bachmann wracked with same-sex desire and crying himself to sleep at night. They can explore the darkness and pain of that place if it helps them reconcile the things that don’t make sense about his behavior, just like people do with other figures and characters.

But that isn’t news. It’s fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with asking these kinds of “what if?” questions, but it belongs on or Archive of our Own or whatever political figure fan fiction LiveJournal community.

Because frankly, harassing someone on the basis of sex they do or don’t have, or sex they do or don’t want to have, isn’t okay, no matter who’s doing it.

Hey all, I might miss next week because I’m moving this weekend and then my mother-in-law (out-law?) will be here. But I’ll try.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Casey Anthony, accused of killing her two-year-old daughter Caylee, was found not guilty of murder one on July 5 (she was convicted of lying to police). In response, there was widespread outrage, as the court of public opinion had long since convicted her.

You can see how this reaction came about. It was a high-profile trial involving a dead child—that always gets people’s dander up. There also wasn’t a really compelling alternative explanation for how Caylee Anthony died.

And, perhaps most importantly, most people don’t really understand that the American legal system relies on the principle of reasonable doubt. That is, it’s not enough that it seems most likely that the accused did it. In order to prevent convicting the innocent, the system is set up so that, as Wikipedia puts it, “the proposition being presented by the prosecution must be proven to the extent that there could be no ‘reasonable doubt’ in the mind of a ‘reasonable person’ that the defendant is guilty.” That standard wasn’t met, and Casey Anthony walked—whether she did it or not.

But in the midst of all that indignation and sense that justice had not been served was a peculiar pattern. Twitterer MC Thumbtack (pun alert!) hit the nail on the head when s/he said:

@inthefade I haven’t seen this many people outraged over something that has no affect on their lives since OJ’s glove didn’t fit.

Suddenly, it’s 1995 again. I’m sitting in my eighth grade science class watching the O.J. Simpson verdict come down. (No joke, we did this. I think we had a substitute teacher that day.) And, it’s not like I was reading a lot of news when I was twelve, but the reaction in that room indicated that people were mad.

But aside from the outrage factor, I can’t see what on earth Casey Anthony has to do with O.J. Simpson. However, I seem to be the only one.

When @KimKardashian tweeted “WHAT!!??!! CASEY ANTHONY NOT GUILTY!!!! I’m speechless!!!” O.J. was the go-to response (only one of them can I find now in its tweet form):

@HaHaWhitePPL So was Nicole Brown Simpson’s family when your dad got OJ off.

Granted, the O.J. link makes a little sense here, as Ms. Kardashian is, in fact—as the tweets note—the daughter of a member of Simpson’s team of lawyers.

But she’s also, as Wikipedia describes her, a “socialite, television personality, model, and actress” who’s “known for a sex tape with her former boyfriend Ray J as well as her E! reality series that she shares with her family, Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” That is, she’s not someone whose opinion on legal matters should be considered terribly important. And yet, people felt compelled to respond and point out the O.J. Simpson parallel.

I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except that it wasn’t just a couple of responses to a tweet by a “she’s famous for what?” celebrity.

It was Venn diagrams over at GraphJam of “People who have murdered” and “People who can get away with murder” with Simpson and Anthony in the tiny overlapping area.

It was OJ captioned as pulling a Kanye West and saying “Yo Casey, I’m really happy for you. I’mma let you finish . . .” followed by “…but I had the best ridiculous acquittal of all TIME.”

It was a five-picture series of “Totally Looks Like” photos with matching facial expressions between Anthony and Simpson, which must have taken ages to compile.

And it was a deployment of the Bed Intruder Meme. It ran Hide Yo Kids with a picture of Anthony and “Hide Yo Wife” with a picture of Simpson. Later, a version added Lorena Bobbitt and “Hide Yo Husband.”

So why so consistently OJ? Why not other people with similarities to Anthony? There’s a parallel with Scott Peterson, who killed his own kid. And Melissa Huckaby was one of those (relatively rarer) women who kill children—that seems relevant. Everyone was similarly sure Michael Jackson was guilty of child molestation, but he was acquitted, too.

But Casey Anthony hasn’t been compared to any of these people by user-generated humor. It’s all OJ, all the time. And it doesn’t make any sense.

That is, the particularity and consistency of Simpson has to mean something.

And it seems to me that if, as the tenor and sheer volume (quantity and loudness) of the outrage suggests, a mother (allegedly) killing her own child and (apparently) getting away with it is one of the most heinous offenses for our culture, the “the OMG, OJ!” response suggests that a black man (allegedly) killing a white woman and (apparently) getting away with it is right up there alongside it.

So, if the response to Anthony says a lot about gender (OMG, women shouldn’t kill! Mothers inherently have a link to their children, is she a monster?), the consistent linkage to Simpson says a lot about race. Particularly, the ways race in the U.S is to this day freighted with the project of “protecting” white women from black men.

Even when, as in this case, it has absolutely nothing to do with anything.

A peculiar thing happened in the news on the Fourth of July: there were surprisingly many stories about religion and nation. It wasn’t overwhelming, by any means, but there were enough that it was noticeable as a trend, which struck me as sort of weird.

First, there was a bit of a flap about atheism. It seems that the American Atheists wanted to conduct an advertising campaign in the skies above 27 states on Independence Day using planes pulling banners that read “God-LESS America” or “Atheism is Patriotic.” Trouble was, “out of the 85 people in the country who fly these sign-pulling planes only about 17 have agreed to fly the messages” as of whenever CNN posted the story.

It made for an interesting news story that looked at the Fourth of July from a different angle, so I can see why they’d run it to spice up the otherwise routine flag-waving, irritatingly Lee Greenwood-saturated coverage that the Fourth of July tends to produce. (Obligatory “God Bless the USA” YouTube link; feel free to skip.)

It was certainly not the case that CNN’s Belief Blog Promotes Atheist Group’s Fourth of July Airplane Messaging despite the headline at NewsBusters (though such hysteria isn’t exactly unexpected from an organization who defines their business as “Exposing and Combating Liberal Media Bias”), not least because plenty of other news outlets covered the story.

And then, also at CNN, Independence Day brought an opinion piece from Kenneth C. Davis, whom Wikipedia describes as “an American popular historian, best known for his Don’t Know Much About… series,” called Why U.S. is not a Christian nation(because apparently the headline editor is allergic to definite articles).

by TauZero, used under Creative Commons from Flickr

The go-to answer to why the U.S. isn’t Christian is that we have separation of church and state. It’s in the First Amendment, duh.

Except that it isn’t really. The relevant part of the First Amendment says:“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which certainly points to the government staying out of religious institutions and practices. But the phrase “separation of church and state”—the phrase that makes me chuckle every time I’m on a bus that turns from Church St. onto State St. in Champaign—actually isn’t there.

Instead, as Davis points out in that CNN opinion piece, the phrase “separation of church and state” comes not from the Constitution but from a letter Thomas Jefferson penned in 1802 when he was president. Jefferson wrote, as Davis’s piece quotes:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State

That all sounds great. The Founding Fathers, objecting to the ways in which the Church of England was headed by whoever was on the throne, wanted do things differently in the new country they were envisioning.

Any public schoolchild (hopefully) knows the story of how the Puritans left England for religious freedom. Some of the people involved in the founding of the U.S. as a nation had even been victims of religious persecution much more locally, such as Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island because he’d been “banished from neighboring Massachusetts, the ‘shining city on a hill’ where Catholics, Quakers and Baptists were banned under penalty of death” (Davis).

But here’s the thing, and here’s where the “America is a Christian Nation” proponents get their ammunition: those are all denominations of Christianity. Intra-Christian strife there was aplenty, but all of them were some sort of Christian or another (Unless they were Deists. But even Deism relies on there being a God, and to my knowledge it was a Christian-flavored one).

The fact that those Founding Fathers were all Christians isn’t just an interesting historical coincidence, but rather had the effect of making Christianity part of the basis of the U.S., to the point that, in some sense, it is a Christian nation. Christianity is normative in this country. If the scripture you follow consists, in entirety or primarily, of the Old and New Testaments, you never have to explain yourself or apologize for your deviance from the norm.

Believe that God kept talking after the New Testament with The Book of Mormon? Maybe you’re not electable as president. Stop believing after the Pentateuch? At certain points people believed you might be a traitor.And forget about it if the Koran is your main holy book—we all know that Muslims aren’t quite trusted to be loyal in the contemporary U.S.

So how did we get here? Christianity as the norm or not, whatever happened to the free exercise of religion and it being “between God and me”? (Which, that part of Broadway musical RENT is one of the most brilliant rhymes ever: “To sodomy/it’s between God and me” = <3)

What happened to the nation where “In 1790, President George Washington wrote to America’s first synagogue, in Rhode Island, that ‘all possess alike liberty of conscience’ and that ‘toleration’ was an ‘inherent national gift,’ not the government’s to dole out or take away” (Davis)?

Here again, my current favorite book helps make sense of what’s going on. Yes, it’s Wendy Brown and Regulating Aversion. The problem is that Mormons, like Muslims, like, at certain points in history (or maybe even today), Jews and Catholics (JFK “getting orders from the Pope,”anyone?), are imagined to be members of their religion first and Americans only secondarily, but “the state promises to protect and tolerate individuals, not groups whose fealty is to some higher or lower god, to some other national formation, to some elsewhere” (95).

That is, under contemporary assumed and normative (I am sort of tempted to say compulsory) Christianity, the nation and Christianity are assumed to basically, fundamentally align. It’s not a conflict. However, the flip side of this is that if you aren’t Christi-merican, there is a demand, implicitly or explicitly, that you be American first and religious second.

Notably, this takes place with respect to Islam, as Jasbir K. Puar has skillfully illuminated in “Monster , Terrorist, Fag” (with Amit Rai) and Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. But it’s also the case that Mormons are suspected of holding their religious allegiance above their national one—though being generally white, conservative, and not all that downtrodden they don’t make such a good cause célèbre.

The default Christianity of the United States is why we have a National Prayer Breakfast that is Christian but doesn’t have to announce itself as such. This is why it is such a scandal for those who (incorrectly) believe Barack Obama is a Muslim.And, ultimately, it’s why the atheist plan to fly their banners on the Fourth of July was so powerfully symbolic, because it was a rejection of that embedded Christianity. It’s also why it was so offensive to people who want the U.S. to stay stealthily Christian.

Those wacky current events just keep being fascinating. Next time, the weird racial politics of the way Casey Anthony keeps getting conflated with O.J. Simpson

This week, a special post-Fourth of July edition to think about the complications and contradictions of that funny little word “free.”

“Free,” first off, means a couple of different things. As Wendy Brown points out in her 2003 article Neo-liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy, “in economic thought, liberalism [ . . . ] refers to a maximization of free trade and competition achieved by minimum interference from political institutions. In the history of political thought, while individual liberty remains a touchstone, liberalism signifies an order in which the state exists to secure the freedom of individuals on a formally egalitarian basis.This, she notes, “may lean more in the direction of maximizing liberty (its politically ‘conservative’ tilt) or in maximizing equality (its politically ‘liberal’ tilt)” (s. 6).

When we talk about things being “free” in contemporary American political discourse, then, we mean both individual freedoms and the free market. This has some important consequences when, as David Savran notes in his Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture (sadly, out of print, but one of my favorite books of all time and I’m totally going to inflict portions of it on my students next semester), “the old-style American liberalisms, variously associated (reading from Left to Right) with trade unionism, reformism, and competitive individualism, tend to value freedom above all other qualities” (p. 270).

So, on one hand, the American instantiation of liberalism places the highest value on freedom, but on the other, “free” means two different things, and this leads to some interesting conflations. Savran actually enacts this—perhaps unintentionally—when he goes on to say that“taking the ‘free’ individual subject as the fundamental social unit, it has long been associated with the principle of laissez-faire and the ‘free’ market” (p. 270).

That is, the individual is imagined to be free in the same way that the market is free: both are understood to be the product of nonintervention.On one hand, this means that, like proponents of laissez-faire argue about the market, this position holds that the fewer laws constraining individuals from doing whatever they choose, the better.On the other hand, the relationship also runs the other way, with people assumed to be acting freely unless they are constrained by a law.

Here’s where things get interesting, because what this does is relocate problems and solutions to individuals. As Brown argues in Regulating Aversion (which has apparently become my go-to book lately), framing freedom as only the absence of a law telling you what to do works to “reframe inequality or domination as personal prejudice or enmity” (p. 142).

Under this logic, that is, only when someone is racist does race matter. Otherwise, we’re all the same and it’s that bad person’s fault for noticing. The same argument gets made about sexism or homophobia or whatever it may be, that inequality is personal prejudice, and the absence of personal prejudice is equality since we’re all the same under the law.

(Unless you mix your cocaine with baking soda. Then you are 18 [formerly 100] times more dangerous to society than someone who doesn’t—and your blackness has nothing to do with that determination, we swear.)

The trouble with equating freedom and lack of legal coercion is that “the reduction of freedom to rights, and of equality to equal standing before the law, eliminates from view many sources of subordination, marginalization, and inequality that organize liberal democratic societies and fashion their subjects” (Brown 2006 p. 17-18).

In the process of“formulating freedom as choice and reducing the political to policy and law,” that is,“liberalism lets loose, in a depoliticized underworld, a sea of social powers nearly as coercive as law and certainly as effective in producing subjectivated subjects” (Brown 2006 p. 197).

Let’s think about an example: “the contrast between the nearly compulsory baring of skin by American teenage girls and compulsory veiling in a few Islamic societies is drawn routinely as absolute lack of choice, indeed tyranny, ‘over there’ and absolute freedom of choice (representatively redoubled by near-nakedness) ‘over here’” (Brown 2006 p. 188-9)

What is interesting about this is that there’s always someone ready to get offended by somebody forcing women to cover up, but forcing them to uncover is equally objectionable. Or, rather it should be; it’s typically not.

Feminists recognized the demand to bare oneself as objectionable when it came to the hypersexualization of (white) women, but unfortunately many of them have missed the bandwagon on the hypocrisy of denying Muslim women the right to wear what they want if what they want happens to be the hijab.

Instead, the conversation has been dominated by a right-wing-flavored framing of the god-given “right” to wear less being denied to Muslim women.

As Brown goes on to say,

This is not to deny difference between the two dress codes and the costs of defying them, but rather to note the means and effects of converting these differences into hierarchized opposites. If successful American women are not free to veil, are not free to dress like men or boys, are not free to wear whatever they choose on any occasion without severe economic or social consequences, then what sleight of hand recasts their condition as freedom and individuality contrasted with hypostasized tyranny and lack of agency? What makes choices ‘freer’ when they are constrained by secular and market organizations of femininity and fashion rather than by state or religious law? (189)

If freedom is only juridical, only measured as the lack of a law prescribing your dress code, then people in the West are free. However, as this example shows, law isn’t the only thing that constrains action—things like social norms are really powerful, and indeed far more powerful than laws to the extent that we don’t even know they exist.

This is probably not surprising to many (or even most) of my readers, but what’s interesting is how much it is grounded in “free” meaning two totally contradictory things: individual liberty and the lack of constraint on the market get conflated into lack of constraint on individuals, and then we have, mistakenly, tended to call it a day and consider freedom achieved.