Friday, October 9, 2009

Why I Think Nancy Pelosi is Right to be Afraid

Balbir Singh Sodhi, by all accounts, was a gentle, hard working man, a man who strove to embody the peace promoting values of his Sikh religion. Sodhi emigrated from India to Los Angeles in 1989 and spent years in LA and San Francisco working as a taxi driver, saving his money to invest in a future for his family. Eventually he was able to buy a gas station in Phoenix, Arizona. He was known as a generous man, letting the poorer kids buy candy for a discount and sharing what he could with the local homeless.

On September 15, 2001, a white, middle-aged man drove to Sodhi’s gas station and fired five shots into the innocent man’s body, the tumbling, flesh-ripping-hot-lead-slugs killed Sodhi dead at age 52. Why? Because he had brown skin. Because he wore a beard. Because he wore the turban of his Sikh religion. Because he was the all threatening brown-skinned other that so many ignorant and xenophobic Americans have been taught to fear. Sodhi’s death was the first confirmed racially motivated murder in the rash of hate crimes that swept the nation after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

Sodhi’s murderer is Frank Roque, a man with a history of schizophrenia and “hearing voices.” When he was handcuffed by police he repeatedly shouted, to some unknown audience, “I stand for America all the way.” I would agree with his assertion to the degree that I think he represents the worst in American culture, he is a symptom of the ignorant and reactionary segments of our society that perpetrate such irrational hate crimes. It could also be argued he is a victim of a society with inadequate mental health care and education and an irresponsible media.

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So when Speaker Nancy Pelosi emotionally calls for a calming of the rhetoric, when she urges "I wish that we all again would curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made, with the understanding that some of the ears this is falling on are not as balanced as the person making the statement might assume," she has good reason. She is not being alarmist. She watched the homophobic and reactionary politics in California in the late 1970s that lead to the assignations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. Dan White, the right-wing assassin, was mentally ill (and his attorney’s presented one of the most outlandish defenses in recent legal history, the “Twinkie” defense, claiming junk food and sugar had diminished his mental capacities). Speaker Pelosi has damn good reason to express concern.

My brother and I sat in our living room discussing the emergence of the right wing media machine in the recent decade and it’s current fomenting of insanity in the often southern, white, male, and uneducated populations of the US. I was forcefully complaining about the insane Glenn Beck and his bizarre 9/12 gathering in DC. Now, for the record, my brother’s politics pretty much line up with mine. He is a confident, educated, employed, straight, white male, a damn liberal guy and many times he has been by my side at gay rights marches and other progressive causes. But my brother expressed his disappointment in the left-media’s response in the form of MSNBCs Keith Olberman and the like, asserting that such a response, is in some form, stooping to the level of the idiots. He said that we shouldn’t be like them, we should not respond in kind to their ignorant vitriol.

I quickly noted that Keith Olberman has a BS from Cornell and MSNBCs Rachel Maddow is a Rhode Scholar with a PhD*. Glenn Beck, well, he is not a Rhode Scholar and dropped out of Yale before earning anything. My brother pointed to the popular critique of “liberals” as smug and Rachel’s rolling eyes and Kieth Olberman’s unbridled sarcasm as compelling evidence for such an indictment. I agreed, but countered that Kieth Olberman and Rachel Maddow are orders of magnitude more complex, informed, and rational in their analysis of current events and politics than is their Fox-News “counter-parts.” I understand their smugness, and at times, although not always, I enjoy their smugness, I find some relief in their sarcasm. Glenn Beck is pointing at the sky and screaming that it’s filled with flying cats! He is stupid. He is an idiot. He is the antithesis of the rational or intellectual and he has a national platform from which to spew his hateful nonsense. Rolling ones eyes at such nonsense seems within the realm of the appropriate.

All this talk with my brother got me to thinking about the differences in our experience of the current racist, reactionary insanity that has been making itself conspicuous during the national debate regarding health care reform. As my brother and I talked I realized I harbor a subterranean anxiety that does not burden him. When my brother saw those men with guns strapped to their hips, holding AR15s, he simply wrote it off as those wing-nuts in places other than the Bay Area. He would vote his conscience, give money to our side, and spare himself the pain of watching the idiots convene and shout their ignorance. Why was I so preoccupied with the nut-jobs and the Glenn Becks of the world spewing their hate-fomenting rhetoric on national TV?

I realized it is, in some part, because I fall into a category of conspicuous “other,” I am one that moves through the world knowing I have a certain kind of target on my chest should the haters be prompted to start shooting. I am an out, butch-dyke and you could figure this out very quickly with a short glance in my direction. I am conspicuously queer. Different. Other. In the eyes of many of those Glenn Beckers, I am an abomination against the laws of nature, a pedophile, a pervert, a predator, and a femmi-nazi (whatever that means!). There are people who think I should be imprisoned or, in some cases, killed because of my sexual/gender orientation. At the very least they think I should not enjoy the same constitutional rights as white, non-queer folks. And I do not mean to in any way fully equate my experience of homophobia with racism. I am white and enjoy the profound and unjustified privilege that comes with that biology. And at times, astonishingly, I pass as straight. But I still belong to a category of other that my brother does not.

I also live in Oakland, California, standing in the shadow of San Francisco, one of the great queer cities of the world, rubbing shoulders with the City of Berkeley, home to UC Berkeley and innumerable retired hippies. These three cities, the “holy-trinity” it is often called, the “bubble,” teeming with liberals, radicals, and incredible racial, ethnic, sexual, and social diversity. What do I have to fear in such a place?

Well, ask a fag who lived in the gay Mecca of Berlin as the Nazi’s spread across Europe. Or the Rwandan Tutsis who were one moment sipping lemonade in the afternoon shade and the next moment running from their machete-wielding neighbors and “friends” intent on slaughtering them, a genocide largely fomented by right-wing-racist radio broadcasts filled with outlandish lies presented as fact. Too extreme you think? Well let’s ask any brown-skinned person living in the Bay Area after the attacks of 9/11. Many people were dragged from their cars and beaten, their store fronts were shot-up and their cars and homes vandalized. Right here in the bubble. Right here, a few short years ago, in the holy-trinity, in the great melding pot of contemporary Northern California.

For months after the 9/11 attacks I would see cars on the freeways with flags flying from the antenna or taped into the rear window for all to see. When I pulled up to these red-white-and-blue decorated cars it was invariably a brown skinned person at the wheel. Fearing for their safety, brown skinned people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds defensively and conspicuously displayed the US flag, symbolically shouting, “I am not a terrorist! Please do not attack me or my car!”

In California, last November the historic ballet of 2008 also contained Proposition 8, that bigoted attack on same-sex marriage, a constitutional right that had recently been supported by a California Supreme Court decision. But in November, Prop 8 passed, again making same-sex marriage illegal. And when Prop 8 was legally challenged, the California Supreme Court, for reasons that escape my understanding, upheld Prop 8. Same sex marriage is again, illegal, unless you were one of the 18,000 gay couples that got hitched during the few months it was legal. Bizarre.

In the last two months leading up to the 2008 election, Prop 8 supporters and opponents clashed all around the state. Sign wielding demonstrators on both sides shouted at each other across crowded intersections. Synagogues, churches, and temples were desecrated on both sides of the issue. While holding signs on street corners I was screamed at, condemned to hell, and flipped off. I heard several stories, first hand, of pro gay marriage demonstrators and workers being spit on and beaten, and one incredible story where a woman on foot was first beaten and then almost run down by a car driven by a Prop 8 supporter. There was violence. In the bubble and the cities that fringe the Bay Area’s holy-trinity.

I do not walk the streets in fear as my privilege allows me a certain confidence. I am very open about my sexuality and I wear my butchness like a uniform. I committed to keeping my “No On Prop 8” signs in my yard until justice prevails. I have been blessed with an education and I know there are innumerable examples of mass bigotry and violence in the world and throughout all of history - the in-groups preying on and scape-goating the out-groups in often overt and horrific ways. And, obviously, racism, homophobia, and other forms of virulent bigotry are alive and well in the US. I know the roots of these problems are deep, complex, tangled in class, economics, race, politics, and a post fairness-doctrine era of 24-hour news cycles and the inconceivable immediacy and agility of internet technology. But I watch the news, see the men with their guns, the people holding blatantly homophobic, xenophobic, racist signs and I ponder the histories I have alluded to here. Where is the tipping point? Are we getting closer to one?

I am an optimist, an idealist, I believe in possibilities, in a prevailing goodness in the universe. My chosen profession is conflict resolution, mediation. I help people have difficult conversations in highly charged situations. But this shit, well, it’s eroded a little of my optimism. It’s got me a little worried….about the safety of my neighbors, my fellow Americans, and my president. And I am not sure what to do.

* I do not believe that a formal education is the only way one can become educated. Nor do I believe that an Ivy League education is inherently superior to other paths. But I have lazily referenced Rachel's and Kieth's education to assert that I think Glenn Beck is NOT an educated least by any definition I would employ. So pardon my laziness, but hey, this is just a blog with 9.3 (occasional) readers!

1 comment:

cindy said...

im gonna chew on this for a while, and then perhaps get my lazy ass to commenting on it, This piece touches on many issues that are near and dear to my heart, mulling it over is at least a beginning...