Hate Crimes Bill, Prop 8 Update

A brief roundup this morning of some news of interest to gay-rights activists:

Recently I sent an email to my legislators through the MassEquality website, asking them to sign on to the hate-crimes bill that’s pending in Congress. Back when I was a young libertarian, I had my doubts about hate-crimes legislation. As I saw it, violence and bullying were uniformly bad, whether motivated by bias against one’s group affiliation or by plain old personal cruelty. Why did we need to single out some forms of victimization as more worthy of attention than others?

As I now see it, one reason we need the federal government to pay special attention to hate crimes is that the attitudes motivating the bullies may be shared by local law enforcement and juries. This was certainly the case during African-Americans’ fight for civil rights in the mid-20th century.

The office of Senator Ted Kennedy (D, Mass.) sent me back a form email expressing his support for the hate-crimes bill, which I’m reprinting below because it does such a good job of explaining the difference that this legislation would make:

Thank you for your recent letter about the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act. I understand your concerns and appreciate this opportunity to respond.

The United States is a nation founded on the ideals of tolerance and justice for all. We cannot accept violence motivated by bias and hate. According to the FBI, over 9,000 Americans a year are victims of hate crimes, and that number does not include the many hate crimes that go unreported. These crimes have a reach and impact far greater than the individual victim. They target whole communities, attacking the fundamental ideals our nation was founded on.

No member of society deserves to be a victim of a violent crime because of their race, religion, ethnic background, disability, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. It is long past time for Congress to do more to prevent hate crimes and insist that they be fully prosecuted when they occur. That’s why I’m proud to join Republican Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon in sponsoring the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act.

This important legislation will strengthen the ability of federal, state, and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. It will authorize the Justice Department to assist in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, when requested by local authorities. The bill will also provide grants to assist localities in meeting the extraordinary expenses involved in hate crimes cases, and in training law enforcement to combat prevent such crimes. Cities and states will be given the assistance and resources they need to protect all members of society.

The House of Representatives has already passed this needed legislation. It now moves to the Senate, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to approve it soon.

In other news, the California Supreme Court today will be hearing oral arguments in the lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8. Ken Starr, whom you may remember for his fascination with Bill Clinton’s ding-dong, is the lead counsel for the Yes on 8 folks. He will be arguing not only that the ban on gay marriage should stand, but that the court should invalidate the 18,000 same-sex marriages that were performed before the ballot referendum passed.

Starr’s brief in the case repeats all the old lies about how nontraditional families are harmful to children. You know what was harmful to our nontraditional family, Ken? Sexism, secrecy, job discrimination, and religious condemnation.

Sign the Human Rights Campaign’s petition telling anti-GLBT extremists to “End the Lies” here. Their wall of shame shows quotes from other prominent figures in politics, religion and the media who are spreading dangerous misinformation about sexual minorities. There’s also a link to suggest your own favorite offenders. I nominate Brian Camenker of MassResistance, who was kind enough to link to my video of the November 2008 Join the Impact rally. Thanks for the hits, Brian.

DIAGRAM Essay Winner Matthew Glenwood: “John Henry’s Tracks”

Online multimedia journal DIAGRAM, edited by poet Ander Monson, is a uniquely satisfying blend of the surreal, the philosophical, and the darkly humorous. In addition to original poetry and prose, they feature offbeat and obscure images from specialized texts, hence the journal’s name. Ever wondered about the proper proportions of a love seat? Do you know everything you ought to know about the appurtenances of perpendicular drinking? Perhaps you need ideas for unusual leg positions. DIAGRAM has it all.

On a more serious note, Matthew Glenwood, the winner of their most recent Hybrid Essay Contest, offers the rhetorical masterpiece “John Henry’s Tracks”, a passionate piece of writing that draws connections between the famous folk song, plasma-selling, Hurricane Katrina, and the dehumanization of the poor. Sample:

John Henry was a mighty man,
Born with a ten-pound hammer in his hand.
—”John Henry”*

Some dirt-diggers in the Holy Land claimed to have found the bones of Jesus and his family. Jesus’ son, too. We’ll probably never know for sure if those were the holy bones or not. That kind of news could prove ungentle to dreamers. Like finding the remains of Amelia Earhart under her front porch steps, or the skeleton of a baby bird beneath its nest. We would hope for a wider arc to the hero’s journey than bones at the starting point. It could be called bad news if Jesus, the alleged foreman of Heaven, left bones behind. News that says nobody’s going very far.

But it wouldn’t be the whole truth. There is somewhere to go.

We can go sell our plasma for fifty American dollars a week.

The journey to the Biolife Plasma Center in Marquette, Michigan came easy for me. I just had to follow an abandoned train track for a few blocks. The track met the edge of the woods along the shore of Lake Superior; rabbit, chipmunk and deer crisscrossed it as beasties would any ready made trail, for there were no tracks left on that line. The rattle of my mountain bike startled ducks from the shallow waters of the ditch alongside. In winter, the flat, open space doubled as a cross country ski trail. You might say everything ran on that track except for rails.

The region, too poor to have a reason to run its trains, pulled up many of its train tracks, and commerce that way moved at the speed of wild grass. The poverty of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is probably why the plasma company came to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That and the local college students, the reliably poor. As any farmer with a bad back could tell you, the easiest of tall crops to harvest is one that stoops to meet the hand of the harvester.

At the plasma center, technicians tap into the natural resource of your veins. The process takes, at most, a couple hours, and you’re paid for it. It’s easy money, and couldn’t come much easier; all you have to do is exist. The plasma company calls itself a “donation center”, but really it is a selling center. Poor people coming to sell the one possession they unquestionably own: the materials of their being. Take away those materials and the world would have no more poor.

Our folk songs say that John Henry could drive steel harder and faster than any man. The job of a steel driver was to pound holes in rock by hammering a long metal drill held and rotated by another man known as a shaker. Dynamite was then dropped into those holes—tunnels blasted into mountain stone. Steel driving was done for the mean benefit of the train companies laying track across the nation. In other versions of the song, steel driving was intermixed with pounding spike into the rail lines.

One day a salesman brought a new steam-driven drill to the line. John Henry, fearing for his job and for the jobs of his fellow rail workers, challenged the machine to a contest. John Henry declared to his captain:

Lord, a man aint nothin’ but a man
But before I let that steam-drill beat me down
I’m gonna die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry won. But after beating the machine, he suffered a heart attack and died. That’s to say, he could do no more work for the train company.

Like Jesus, no one can prove the John Henry of legend. Some stories say he was an ex-slave working for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway during the Reconstruction days of the South, following the Civil War. People disagree on where, and if, the events of the song took place. One man thinks the contest of hammers happened in Talcott, West Virgina. But everybody knows that you’ve got to bite the coins that come out of Talcott.

About twenty years ago, a man in my hometown got caught in one of the big machines of the mining company. A rock crusher, if I remember right. He was the father of a classmate. I ought to have attended the funeral, but didn’t. In those high school days I was discovering the books of the American Transcendentalists: Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau. “Transcendentalism” was a big word to me at the time. The idea of it is that you can ride your porch swing to the truth of all flowers. The notion sounds sound to me, still. But, being young, I felt as if I had inherited a mansion up in the blue air; as if everything wrong were, with an idea, suddenly right.

The daughter of the killed miner, my classmate, needed some consoling, but I was too shy, too awkward at social graces, to be one of the people to give it. I had no consoling to give. Her father was a good man of Finnish descent; he left behind a large family. The family had a new lesson to learn about the worst of all possible outcomes. As for me, I had my books which said spirit dances with matter.

Much of my life has passed since those books. Those Yankee writers of old are truer to me now than when I was young, and it’s likely that I need them more now. But an idea isn’t much true unless we are willing to wear its dirt. A frog of ugly sits at the center of true, and his appetite is Void.

Rather than the gift of a mansion in the sky, transcendence now seems to me a lifetime of lonely carpentry. Carpentry on a house nobody can see. And that house won’t shelter from the rain, but make us wetter. Those who ply this trade might not finish even the front steps before the cold evening comes on, before the closing whistle blows. Maybe no one completes the house called Idealism— built, as it is, on the foundation that is the suffering of the world. The hammer is usually abandoned with much work left to do; it hums only a little while with the vibrations of the last nail driven, until stillness takes it.

Had the good miner’s death happened today, I would’ve gone to the funeral. The fact about our portion of transcendence is that some of us get flattened in rock crushers. The fact is that there is blood on the machine.

And in the machine.

Sometimes the crashing waves of Lake Superior, powered by strong winds, sounded like a train through my apartment window. But, in the city of Marquette, the only real locomotion taking place was the centrifugal force of the Autoapheresis-C machine (made by the Baxter corporation) separating plasma from blood. The word “apheresis” is Greek for “take away”.

Read the rest here. Read another piece by this author in DIAGRAM 1.6.

The “Unwritten Constitution” and Biblical Interpretation

Debates over constitutional interpretation have much to teach us, I believe, about ways of reading the Bible. Perhaps more so than the average religious person, lawyers and judges are particularly conscious that they are choosing among different interpretive methods whenever they read and apply a text, and they’ve developed a sophisticated language to discuss this.

I don’t know whether this was always the case, but the adherents of “plain meaning” and “original intent” in the legal sphere frequently share the same conservative politics as Biblical literalists, while political progressives are more likely to see both legal and sacred texts as dynamic, ambiguous, and responsive to changing needs. In both cases, I suspect the deciding factor is whether we see our ancestors as more likely to be right than ourselves. Is the moral awareness of humankind progressing, or declining–and can we be trusted to know the difference?

As for my own personal view, it’s complicated. Some things are better than they were 200 or 2,000 years ago (democracy, the rights of women and minorities, freedom of religion, modern medicine), some are worse (pollution, nuclear weapons, 24-hour adult video channels); thus it has always been. But since we’re the ones who have to live with the consequences–not our ancestors, and not the authorities who interpret them for us–I think we should get the final vote on what a text means.

In the latest issue of Harvard Magazine, BusinessWeek editor Paul M. Barrett reviews legal superstar Laurence H. Tribe’s new book, The Invisible Constitution. The framework he outlines below may help clarify similar debates over the Bible (emphasis added):

Tribe argues persuasively that the most conservative jurists on the closely divided Supreme Court—chiefly Antonin Scalia, LL.B. ’60, and Clarence Thomas—get it wrong when it comes to deciphering our foundational legal document. The originalists, as they are known, contend that judges can look only to the literal words of the Constitution and the “original” understanding of those words held by the men who wrote and ratified them. That’s why the conservatives find it laughable that anyone could ground in the Constitution a woman’s right to choose to seek an abortion. The Constitution doesn’t mention abortion. The Founding Fathers would never have countenanced the act. Case closed.

Not so fast, Tribe says. Jurists of all stripes derive their interpretive principles from sources outside the text of the Constitution, and many of these principles cannot even be traced directly to the document’s words. My favorite example of this seemingly self-evident but often-obfuscated observation is the basis of originalism itself. The Constitution nowhere instructs its inheritors to interpret its opaque terminology (“equal protection,” “due process,” “cruel and unusual punishments”) according to the original understanding of its drafters. The Constitution doesn’t offer guidance on whether to read those terms as static or evolving. There’s an argument to be made that the Founders’ intent deserves special deference, or maybe even something approaching exclusive deference. But such ideas are drawn from someone’s version of what Tribe calls the invisible Constitution: the unwritten premises and intuitions and experiences that have accumulated over more than two centuries of law and politics in America.

Tribe’s liberal version of the invisible Constitution is no secret, and he does not elaborate much on the substance of his views in this book. He believes that judges—whether they lean left or right—inevitably champion the values they perceive as underlying or animating the ambiguous admonitions and protections outlined in the Constitution. In articulating those values, judges give meaning to a phrase like “equal protection.” For him those words, applied to questions of racial relations, can be used not only to strike down intentional segregation but also to uphold race-conscious policies (“affirmative action”) that seek to remedy the lingering injustices of slavery and Jim Crow. For Justice Scalia, equal protection suggests that race can never be taken into account in any way in forming public policies. That’s a legitimate argument. Tribe’s point here is only that it can’t be settled by simplistic appeals to literalism or the parlor game of WWJMD (What Would James Madison Do?).

To use a favorite phrase of postmodernists, any text always already contains “unwritten premises and intuitions and experiences” without which we would be unable to relate it to the rest of the world. Naturally, those unwritten addenda can be elaborated implausibly or in bad faith, and as Barrett says, they can be turned to liberal or conservative ends. But if we don’t admit that they exist, we’re claiming an illusory objectivity for our preferred viewpoint.

I’m planning a post soon about whether the Bible itself gives us any guidance about preferred interpretive methods. For now, I’ll leave you with these provocative questions (and if you’re very good, one of these days I’ll turn comments back on): Does the Bible ever tell us to believe something because it’s “in the Bible”? What other reasons for belief are urged upon us? Does the Bible know it’s the Bible?