Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Talibanization of America


It's a beautiful sunny morning in Portland, Oregon, but my thoughts are elsewhere.

The good news is that, in Idaho and Kansas, cooler heads prevailed. That may still happen in Arizona, as well: Gov. Jan Brewer has already vetoed one law like this one.

That bit of good news is cold comfort, though, when held up against the fact that people can be elected to a legislative office, take an oath to uphold the Constitution, and then with a straight face insist they have a constitutional right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and that to question such discrimination is to deny them free exercise of their religion.

That's the essence of all three of these latter-day Jim Crow laws: if my religion teaches that some aspect of your personhood is sinful, I have a right to deny you service at my establishment--even if, in the case of the Idaho bills, that establishment provides vital medical services. You may already have seen the sign posted by Rocco's Pizza Parlor, but it sums up the essence of this conservative effort beautifully. "Reserving the right to refuse service" is small business code for "take your business elsewhere if I don't like who you are."

We've been down this road before. We fought a second civil war over it (and yes, I'm saying the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s was a civil war). The lunch counter protests, the bus boycotts, Freedom Riders, the National Guard enforcing school integration, busing students across cities to maintain that integration, the Voting Rights Act--all of these battles boils down to the insistence of bigots that they have the right to take out their hatred on people who've never done a thing to harm them, but whose mere existence is anathema.

I'll frame it as a story:
A gay couple walks into a diner, holding hands, and takes seats at the counter.
"Ew," says one waitress to another, "I don't want to have to look at that."
"Maybe if we ignore them, they'll go away," says the other waitress, and that's what they do.
After ten minutes of waiting to be served, and seeing people on either side of them get plenty of attention, one member of the couple raises his hand. "Excuse me? We'd really like to see a menu." The waitress at the counter ignores the request, pretends she didn't hear it. "Excuse me!" he says again, louder.
The waitress sighs heavily, walks over to where the couple is sitting, and whispers loudly: "We don't serve people like you here, so why don't you and your...boyfriend...just get the message and leave?"
There's the setup. If this sounds painfully familiar, imagine it's 1959, and substitute a black couple for the gay couple. Now imagine they insist that they are decent human beings, like every other patron in the diner, and they deserve to be treated just as politely as all those others, and by God, they're going to stay here until they get service. They're not going to make a scene, mind you: remember, they're decent human beings. In New York City, in Portland, in Seattle, in San Francisco, in Washington, DC, they can do that. They may even be able to file a complaint with some city agency. In Phoenix, though (assuming Jan Brewer signs this legislation into law), they are now committing a civil rights violation against the waitresses, who can simply claim that it violates their religious freedom to have to wait on a couple of perverts.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Most of these blog posts are read by, if I'm lucky, two dozen people, and I doubt any of you are hate-reading me as a stimulus to your outrage engine. To you, then, everything I've just written is painfully obvious. That's why I'm now going to shift gears, and take this to a more over-arching level: the talibanization of America.

The Taliban, for anyone who wasn't paying attention for the last fifteen years, was (and is) a movement of socially conservative Muslims who took over the government of Afghanistan and then encouraged Al Qaeda to set up shop there. We can thank the Taliban for nurturing the September 11 plot into full bloom. The American invasion of Afghanistan pushed the Taliban out of office and installed an ineffective and corrupt quasi-democracy in its place, but they're still out there, enforcing their hateful dogmas on rural Afghanis, killing and maiming young women for having the audacity to go to school.

To the Taliban, it is heresy to educate a woman. There are many other restrictions they place on women, but that's the one that has garnered the most attention lately, thanks to the domestic terrorism targeting girls and girls' schools. It's reminiscent, in many ways, of the racist campaigns waged against public school integration in this country. In Afghanistan, as in the American South, it sometimes takes military protection to get these children safely to and from school.

I am not suggesting that we're going to need troops to defend the right of a couple of lesbians to go to the movies together. What I am saying, though, is that if you boil down the reasoning of the Taliban--that their religion demands they destroy any progress Afghani women have made in the last century, and restore Afghani culture to pre-modern mores--it is remarkably similar to the rationale behind these laws.

The religious right has been losing its grip on American society for over a hundred years. Christian fundamentalism arose in the early 20th century as a response to the growth of mainline Protestantism with its social gospel and its scientific approach to Biblical criticism. Fundamentalists have opposed the teaching of evolution, the liberation of women, the availability of birth control and abortion, and the bestowal of basic human rights on sexual minorities, and have decisively lost all of these battles. Some have come to accept this, and have taken a "live and let live" attitude toward the inexorable relaxation of Victorian morality. There is, however, a contingent within fundamentalism that will not accept the inevitable, that, like the Taliban, believes it is their responsibility to pull this nation back from the brink of a Romanesque decline and fall into corruption, and we cannot afford to ignore them.

It's easy to laugh off potential laws like those grabbing headlines in Kansas, Idaho, and Arizona, but there's a frightening principle here: bigotry is being reframed as liberty. The Constitution protects the free exercise of religion. What if my religion, as I understand it, condemns homosexuality, abortion, sassy children? (A Kansas bill that would expand the rights of educators to spank children also just died in committee.) What if opposing such sinfulness is mandated by my religion? If that's the case, then my immortal soul is on the line if I don't do everything I can to overturn laws requiring tolerance of such behavior.

If you're still not seeing the specter of the Taliban, I'll add one other cautionary note: there's a great deal of overlap between the radical religious right and Second Amendment purists. These people are armed, and view their right to bear arms with the same fanatical devotion as their right to refuse service to anyone who offends their religiously-justified moral sensibilities. As our nation continues down the path to greater acceptance of homosexuality, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine some of those arms being taken up in that cause. It's happened before: Medgar Evers, the "Mississippi Burning" murders, the Birmingham church bombing, Martin Luther King, Jr., and hundreds of others who were shot, lynched, bombed, burned, not to mention the countless numbers terrorized with fists, clubs, burning crosses, fire hoses, dogs. When people believe their prejudices come from God, that their souls are at stake, that their nation must be saved from corruption, some will defend those beliefs with weapons.

The only antidote to this poison is relationship. But this pessimistic essay is already too long, and most of you probably stopped reading six paragraphs ago, so I'll stop here, and save the hopeful part for another post.

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