Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage

An atheist says Bishop Gene Robinson’s new book, “God Believes in Love,” has some major flaws.

How do we convince religious believers to accept same-sex marriage?

The opposition to LGBT rights in general, and to same-sex marriage in particular, overwhelmingly comes from conservative religion, founded in the religious belief that gay sex makes baby Jesus cry. So if same-sex marriage proponents want to persuade religious believers to support same-sex marriage… how can we do that? Should we keep our argument entirely secular, and stay away from the whole question of religious belief? Or should we try to persuade them that God is on our side?

God Believes In Love book coverLots of people make the second argument. Bishop Gene Robinson is one of them. And Bishop Robinson is a man to be taken seriously. The first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Robinson has been active in progressive political activism for many years: he is a fellow at the Center for American Progress, is co-author of three AIDS education curricula for youth and adults, has done AIDS work in the United States and in Africa, and famously delivered the invocation at President Obama’s opening inaugural ceremonies in 2009. He’s recently written a book, published by Knopf and widely reviewed and well-received: God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage. Aimed at religious believers who oppose same-sex marriage or are on the fence about it, the book makes a Christian case for same-sex marriage: “a commonsense, reasoned, religious argument made by someone who holds the religious text of the Bible to be holy and sacred and the ensuing two millennia of church history to be relevant to the discussion.”

And I think this is a terrible, terrible idea.

I am an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage. What with being married to a woman and all. I agree fervently that same-sex marriage deserves fully equal legal and social recognition with opposite-sex marriage, and I am very glad to see Bishop Robinson, and anyone else, advocating for it in the public arena.

But the argument he makes in his new book, God Believes in Love, disturbs me greatly. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that God, or any sort of religious or spiritual belief, should have anything to do with the question of same-sex marriage. I am deeply disturbed by the idea that any decision about politics, law, public policy, or morality should ever be based on what’s supposedly going on in God’s head. I agree completely with Bishop Robinson’s conclusion about same-sex marriage — but I am passionately opposed to the method by which he’s reached it, and the arguments he’s making to advance it.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage. To find out why I think God should have nothing to do with the debate over same-sex marriage — including for same-sex marriage proponents, whether they’re religious believers or not — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Intersectionality’s The Thing: Andrew Tripp’s Reply

Sparked by his piece on transmisogyny from a little while ago, Andrew Tripp and I have been having a conversation about atheist activism and what its priorities should be, amongst other things.

Andrew has posted his reply to my most recent response:

Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta.

If you’re interested in this conversation and have been following it, please go read it.

And here’s a list of/ links to the previous posts in this conversation, including Andrew’s original post that sparked the conversation:

Andrew: Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression
Me: Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp
Andrew: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing
Me: “Whatever activism gets them excited”: A Reply to Andrew Tripp
Andrew: Intersectionality’s The Thing: Responding to Greta

Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid

Wow. They’re really getting desperate.

Headline and subhead from the Los Angeles Times:

Gay marriage opponents take unusual tack with Supreme Court
Lawyers defending the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Prop. 8 argue that marriage should be limited to opposite-sex unions because they alone can ‘produce unplanned and unintended offspring.’


“It is plainly reasonable for California to maintain a unique institution [referring to marriage] to address the unique challenges posed by the unique procreative potential of sexual relationships between men and women,” argued Washington attorney Charles J. Cooper, representing the defenders of Proposition 8. Same-sex couples need not be included in the definition of marriage, he said, because they “don’t present a threat of irresponsible procreation.”

Wow. Just… wow.

This argument is so stupid, so desperate, I almost wondered for a moment if these lawyers were deliberately tanking their own case.

I mean… set aside, for the moment, the notion that the primary purpose of marriage is the shotgun wedding. Set aside, for the moment, the notion the primary purpose of marriage is to encourage people to stick together who otherwise wouldn’t want to, because they “irresponsibly” (their word, not mine) got pregnant. (A notion that’s grossly insulting to just about every married person — including the straight ones. Okay, I’m not doing a very good job of setting it aside, am I?)

According to this logic, these folks should be proposing a ban on marriage for infertile straight people. After all, if the primary purpose of marriage is to encourage couples to stay together if they unintentionally get pregnant, there’s no reason for infertile straight people to be married. If you’ve had a hysterectomy, if you’ve had a double orchiectomy, if you’re post-menopausal, if you have untreatable erectile dysfunction, if for any other reason you can’t conceive children without “substantial advance planning” (again, their words)… no marriage for you. You’re not who marriage was made for.

Oh, it doesn’t make sense to have a separate legal category for infertile straight couples? It’s okay to let infertile straight couples slip in through the cracks, even though they’re not who marriage was made for, because it doesn’t make sense to have a separate legal category for them? Then why on Earth does it make sense to have a separate legal category for same-sex couples?

In a weird way, this argument makes me hopeful. Because you know what? They are desperate. They are grasping at straws. They got nothin’. They are proving to everyone with a shred of sense that the opposition to same-sex marriage is bankrupt. It’s morally bankrupt, and it’s logically bankrupt. Once they let go of the religious arguments — once they let go of “Gay marriage makes Baby Jesus cry,” since that really isn’t going to fly in front of the Supreme Court — their arguments become increasingly contorted, increasingly stupid, increasingly laughable, increasingly desperate.

They got nothin’.

Let’s just hope that the Supreme Court sees that.

“Whatever activism gets them excited”: A Reply to Andrew Tripp

Andrew Tripp and I were having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote about priorities in the atheist movement, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve taken it public. Today’s piece is in response to Andrew’s most recent reply, Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing. A complete chronology of the conversation, with links, is at the end of this post.

As I said at the beginning of this conversation: There are some things Andrew says that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.

Okay. So you’re not saying, “Atheists aren’t oppressed.” You’re saying, “Atheists don’t face systemic violent oppression.” Thanks for the clarification. On that, I totally agree — in the United States, anyway.

So a smaller point, and then to the larger one — namely, where the priorities and energies of the atheist community and the atheist movement should be going.

The smaller point is about this: “We atheists have the privilege of being able to conceal our beliefs.” I really hope I misunderstand you here. I assume you wouldn’t tell a gay person, “You can live in the closet, therefore your oppression isn’t really all that bad.” If you wouldn’t say it to gay people, please don’t say it to other atheists. Living in a closet is oppression.

Now to the bigger question: the priorities and energies of the atheist movement.

If your only point were about some atheists playing the victim card while ignoring (and in some cases denigrating) issues outside their worlds… yes, I’m totally with you on that. (I’m pretty sure you know that! :-) ) I’ve argued the same thing many times: that both individual atheists and atheist organizations need to broaden our horizons, focus energies on intersections between atheism/ religion and other forms of oppression, look at ways that we ourselves may be perpetuating these oppressions, do alliance work and service projects with/for other social change movements and oppressed groups, look at who we’re not reaching and work on reaching them, etc. (You know: the usual “social justice” line that’s totally ruining atheism.) Like you, I don’t like it when some atheists dismiss and even deride other marginalizations and oppressions, while demanding attention for anti-atheist oppression. And I’ll add that if you, personally, care more passionately about anti-trans violence than you do about anti-atheist oppression, and are more moved and outraged by your trans friends who have died because of transphobia, that is way more than reasonable. That is admirable. I would never try to argue you out of that.

But you’re also arguing (if I understand you correctly) that things like the Times Square billboard and nativity scene lawsuits are a waste of atheists’ money and energy: that these things are trivial compared to things like the systemic violence and oppression of trans people… and therefore atheists shouldn’t be doing them. At all. And there’s where I have a problem. [Read more...]

The Scale of the Thing: Andrew Tripp’s Reply

Andrew Tripp and I have been having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote on the Considered Exclamations blog, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. The piece was primarily about transphobia and oppression against trans people, especially among some feminists, and most of the piece I agreed with heartily. But he said some things about atheist organizing and anti-atheist oppression that I disagreed with, so we’ve been emailing about it.

We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve decided to take it public. I posted my first reply here, in a letter/ post titled Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp.

Andrew has now posted his reply: Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing. If you’re interested in this conversation and have been following it, please go read it.

And here, because I think it will be useful later on even though it’s a bit repetitive now, is a chronological list of the posts in this discussion:

Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression
Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp
Responding to Greta: The Scale of the Thing

Is Anti-Atheist Bigotry A Papercut? A Conversation with Andrew Tripp

Andrew Tripp and I have been having an email conversation about a piece he recently wrote, titled Papercuts: Transmisogyny, Western Atheists, and the Meaning of Oppression. We both thought the conversation might be of interest to other people, so we’ve decided to take it public. For the record: There are some things Andrew says in this piece (and has said in our subsequent conversation) that I don’t agree with, and some of it I disagree with fairly strongly. But I have tremendous respect for him, and in particular for his hard work, integrity, and commitment to his ideals, and am basing this conversation on that foundation.

Hi, Andrew. Greta here. I was reading your Papercuts piece, and was totally with you… up until this.

American atheists are not oppressed. We are not the Other. We are not dehumanized as a matter of course. We aren’t fetishized objects for audiences to drool over. Our agency and identities are not lampooned and erased because of our atheism. We have blogs read by millions. Heads of our nonprofits get on the mainstream media regularly. Those organizations, for the most part, have good-sized budgets, ranking in the millions of dollars. We’ve got some issues to overcome before we have a truly equal footing in society, yeah. But pretending like getting “In God We Trust” off the money won’t do a damned thing to change the world. We have to use our positions to tackle real oppression, or we’ll never live in a truly free society. In the grand scheme of things, we as Western atheists have some minor, papercut level inconveniences. To pretend that papercut is a gaping head wound is patently absurd, and we need to stop it.

I think you may be coming from a position of privilege here that you’re not seeing. You live in Chicago, and being an atheist in Chicago (or rather, being a white atheist in a more liberal enclave) is not that bad. Being an atheist in the Bible Belt is another thing entirely. Being an out atheist in the Bible Belt means risking your job, your safety, your property, your community, custody of your kids. Look at what happened to Damon Fowler. That was no papercut. That was systematic oppression, from every part of the society around him. And atheist activism isn’t just about nativity scenes and getting In God We Trust off the money. I do think those things matter… but that’s not just what it’s about. And I don’t understand why an atheist activist would be so dismissive and trivializing of the real oppression many atheists in this country do face.

The problem with the Maria Maltseva piece you linked to isn’t that it points out the seriousness of anti-atheist bigotry. The problem (well, one of the problems) is its basis in Maltseva’s raging anti-feminism. We can acknowledge the reality and importance of sexism, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry and oppression — and indeed, talk about the places where those bigotries and oppressions intersect with religion — without being dismissive and trivializing of bigotry and oppression against atheists.

I really liked the piece other than that. Hope you’re doing well: take care, and I’ll talk with you soon.

(I’ll post links to Andrew’s replies as he posts them.)

Shoes for Social Justice! UPDATED

So if you were following the absurd manufactured shoe controversy, and you were feeling irritated or frustrated about it (or just baffled by how unbelievably dumb it was), and you felt inspired to do something about it — here’s something you can do.

In response to the stupid non-controversy, several readers made new donations to my blog, and specifically requested that I do something frivolous with the money. I’m deeply touched and grateful by the sentiment… and I’m on it. I already have the frivolous shoes picked out. :-) But some people on Atheism+ have been organizing an interesting response to the non-troversy that’s caught my imagination, and I wanted to spread the word.

There’s a charity I didn’t even know about until the last couple of days: a not-for-profit organization called Dress For Success. Their mission is to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, as well as a network of support and career development tools. So on Atheism+, some of my readers and supporters have begun a fundraising campaign to donate money to the organization in my honor.

I think this organization’s mission is an excellent one. As someone who cares passionately about both clothing and social justice, it’s definitely in my wheelhouse. And given that so much of this non-troversy is focusing on the question of “how could someone dare to seek help from supporters and then spend some money on dressy, comfortable shoes, suitable for a professional work environment and well-made enough to last for years”… it seems like a perfect fit. Here’s what one commenter on Atheism+ had to say about her experience with the organization:

I have personally benefitted from this charity.

They take clothing donations, but they are very label conscious when it comes to what they accept. They’re only looking for business and work appropriate attire, and they’re deathly picky about shoes in particular, amusingly enough. Fluevog was about the lowest quality they had. roll that around in your brain for a little while. I went home with three pairs of shoes and not a one of them retailed for less than $250.

That said, the main thing a personal shopper does is gently try to explain to you that it’s all right to take so much stuff, that’s what it’s there for, and you’re not cheating anyone else, and you deserve to have the clothes you’re getting. It wasn’t just me. There were four of us in with appointments at the same time, and every single one of us said the same thing: “You can’t give me all this stuff, I don’t deserve it.”

They didn’t let me out until I had a bit over a full week’s worth of work clothes, and I had a second appointment in six months to do it AGAIN for the other season. It kind of blew my mind.

So if your response to this non-troversy is irritation, frustration, or bafflement — or if you just think this is a good organization and you want to support them — please participate in this fundraising campaign, and donate to Dress For Success. Mention that it’s in my honor if you feel inspired to do so.

Oh, FYI: You know that offer I made in response to the non-troversy, to refund any donations made during my cancer fundraiser to anyone who wasn’t happy with how I’ve been spending my money? As of this writing, the number of people who have taken me up on that offer: Exactly zero. Just thought you’d like to know.


UPDATE: Dress for Success has posted the following comment, clarifying some details about their program:

Hello, all!

I haven’t followed the “non-troversy” mentioned, but we always appreicate folks spreading word about our orgaization and, of course, clothing donations!

I just want to clarify something mentioned in the post about, we are NOT label conscious when it comes to the clothing that we accept. We are more than happy to accept any brand of clothing as long as it’s clean, has been taken care of (no holes or stains, etc.) and is, of course, appropriate for an office environment. Since our women are applying and being accepted into an array of career fields, we accept everything from suits to sweaters to scarves– as long as they are professional in nature!

I hope this clears things up! Please feel free to donate away! The women of Dress for Success can’t thank you enough!

Republicans and Fundies: Reaping What They Sowed

So I’ve been thinking about the last election. I’ve been having this thought about the Republican party, and how they’ve gotten shackled to the hard-core Christian fundamentalists as their base even while this strategy is alienating moderate and even conservative voters. And it occurred to me:

They are reaping what they sowed.

In the Reagan era, the Republican party made a very conscious decision: the decision to wed big money with the religious right. They decided to make a base out of hard-core right-wing Christian fundamentalists; fund them with huge money from hugely rich corporate overlords; and twine the ideologies together, convincing Christian fundamentalists that lowering taxes on the super-rich and eliminating regulations on enormous corporations was exactly what Jesus would do.

It was very successful at the time. Hard-core right-wing Christian fundamentalists were pretty numerous; fervent in their willingness to work and turn out for the G.O.P.; and — at the time — only somewhat wildly out of touch with average American values. Fueled with enormous funding from obscenely wealthy corporate overlords, they ruled the land for many a year.

But it’s finally started to backfire. Hard-core Christian fundamentalists are becoming less numerous, especially among young people, who are leaving religion at a rate that’s unprecedented in this country. And they’re becoming more and more out of touch with average American values: especially on issues like gay rights and birth control, which most Americans now not only support, but think are uncontroversial and no big deal. Most Americans have moved forward on these issues… while the Christian Right has stayed entrenched in them, and if anything has gotten even more wildly hard-core. They have moved so far to the right, they’ve fallen off the map.

But the Republican Party is now committed. It’s going to be very hard for them to move back toward the center, even back onto the map, without alienating the people who they’ve made their base. They let themselves build a base on a demographic that is, by definition, stubbornly out of touch with reality. In fact, their base demographic isn’t just out of touch with reality: they are deeply committed to being out of touch with reality, as a core identity and a foundational moral code. “We will believe in the literal word of this holy text written thousands of years ago by Bronze-age goat-herders, replete with internal contradictions and glaring factual errors and grotesque immorality, and will ignore the stark human reality that stares us in the face every day. And that is what makes us awesome.”

When you shackle yourself to a demographic that is morally committed to the denial of reality, you shouldn’t be hugely surprised when you eventually start to alienate the rest of the population. Especially when you’ve been using the supposed moral high ground of the committed reality-deniers as a smokescreen, distracting the rest of the population while you pick their pockets. You shouldn’t be hugely surprised when people start to notice, “Hey, the platform of the Republican party is batshit and evil… and why are taxes on the super-rich so low, and why is my union getting busted?”

They made a conscious decision to wed their economic policies to the Christian right. Both are bankrupt. They are reaping what they sowed.

Election 2012, and the Victory of Secular Values

A few observations from Tuesday’s election:

1: Same-sex marriage won in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. In Minnesota, a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was overturned; in Maine and Maryland and Washington, same-sex marriage has been flat-out approved. This is the first time in United States history that same-sex marriage has been approved by popular vote: in the past, same-sex marriage has always won either through the legislature or the courts.

2: The first openly gay United States Senator, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, has been elected.

3: Marijuana was legalized in Colorado and Washington. And medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts.

4: Open misogyny, rape apology, and hatred of female sexuality got trounced, as Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, Richard “Rape Is Something That God Intended To Happen” Mourdock, Allen “We Are Not Going To Have Our Men Become Subservient” West, and Joe “Abortion Is Never Necessary to Save the Mother’s Life” Walsh… all got beat.

5: Taxpayer support for churches lost in Florida. And it lost by a big-ass margin.

6: The Republican strategy of trying to win elections by demonizing birth control, i.e. people who have sex for pleasure, went down in flames.

What does this tell me?

There are lots of conclusions to be drawn from this election: from the value of getting young people energized about politics, to the increasing racial diversity of this country and the increasing stupidity of race-baiting as a political strategy, to the fact that women, you know, vote, to the simple importance of getting the vote out. But there’s one conclusion that jumped out at me like a kangaroo last night:

In this election, secular values won big-time.

In this election — as in so many elections in the recent past — the Republican Party tried to win, in large part, through religious fear-mongering about gays and drugs and sex and abortion and women who don’t know their place. And in this election, the religious fear-mongering suffered a catastrophic fail. It wasn’t a complete victory for secular values everywhere — it’s not like the religious right lost every single election across the country — but the trend across the country showed an overwhelming rejection of the religious right.

I’m not going to credit this to the atheist movement. I don’t think atheists are an effective voting bloc — not yet. But we sure as heck could be. I think in a few years, we will be. And more to the point: The political values that are most common among atheists — support for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, support for birth control and abortion, support for evidence-based drug policy, opposition to religion being intertwined with government, opposition to laws about sex being based on religion, opposition to laws in general being based on religion — are, increasingly, American values. This election was, to a great extent, a referendum on secular values versus the values of the theocratic religious right — and secular values won.

Atheists are not in opposition to American values. Atheists are on the cutting edge of them.

Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up: Why Voting and Calling Congress Isn’t a Waste of Time

your vote counts buttonWhen I first wrote this piece a few years ago, I wrote it specifically to encourage people to call or email their Congresspeople or other elected representatives. But it applies just as well to voting. So I’m recycling it here today. I’m concerned that progressives in the U.S. may not turn out very heavily in tomorrow’s election, since a lot of progressives are very disillusioned with politics and government right now. I don’t care. Vote anyway. This piece talks about why. Just replace “calling Congress” with “voting.”

Okay. The title is a bit off. A more accurate title would be, “Why Calling Or Emailing Congress, The President, And Your Other Elected Officials Not Only Isn’t A Waste Of Time, But Is One Of The Most Important Things We Can Do To Take Back Our Supposedly Democratically Elected Government.” But the Writer’s Union would have my head if I went with a title like that…

cel phoneI’m writing today to ask you to write and/or email your Senator, your Congressperson, your President. Your governor. Your mayor. Your city council. Your school board. If you don’t live in the U.S.: Your Prime Minister, your Premiere, your MP, your Assemblymember, your Deputy, whatever.

Not on any particular issue. Just in general. On whatever issue you care about.

And I want to argue that this is not a waste of time. I want to argue that this is one of the single most effective political actions we can take: not just to change this policy or that policy, but to change the entire way our government works, and the amount of power we have in it.

When I wrote my recent piece exhorting readers to call/ email Congress and the President about the public option for health care, many of you followed through, with a heartening degree of enthusiasm. But a surprising number of politically aware, politically astute people were strongly resistant: not to the public option for health care, but to the very idea of contacting their elected officials at all. They thought their voices wouldn’t be heard or cared about. They thought it was a waste of time.

I want to persuade you that it is not a waste of time.

And I want to persuade myself as well. I don’t call or email my representatives nearly as much as I think I should, and I’m writing this partly to remind myself to do it more.

Here is my thesis.

empty voting boothsThe fact that Americans feel so alienated from our government? The fact that so many people don’t vote? The fact that most people don’t call or email the President or their Congresspeople to tell them how they feel about important issues? The fact that so many people think politicians don’t care about them anyway, so there’s no reason they should bother getting involved?

This plays directly into the hands of the very people we don’t want running the show.

This is one of the main reasons government is so much more responsive to hard-line extremists and big-money corporate interests than it is to the majority of people it’s representing.

This is one of the main reasons government is so screwed up.

When very few people get involved in politics — when very few people even bother to vote, and even fewer bother to call or email their elected representatives — then the few people who do bother are the ones who get listened to. The hard-line crazies get to set the terms of the debate. Them, and the people with money.

baptizing of americaWhy do you think the extreme religious right was so successful, for so long, in setting this country’s political agenda? They were successful, in large part, because they had an extraordinarily well-oiled machine of millions of inspired people who would make phone calls and write letters at the drop of a hat. When the folks on the mailing lists of the religious right got a call for action telling them to call or write their Congressperson, they didn’t lapse into cynicism about how no politician really cares about them — and they didn’t lapse into soul-searching about whether they were sufficiently educated on this issue to express their opinion. They bloody well picked up the phone and called.

Decisions are made by those who show up.

And if we want to be making the decisions, we have to show up.

There’s a larger, more systemic way that this plays out, too. The fact that people feel jaded and alienated by politics and government? It’s a textbook example of a vicious circle. The less that people get involved in their government, the less politicians have to worry about the voters — and the more they can suck up to big money contributors. And the more that politicians suck up to big money contributors, the more alienated and jaded people get about government… and the less likely they are to get involved.

figures moving computer mouseThis circle isn’t going to get broken by elected officials. And it sure as hell isn’t going to get broken by corporate interests. The only way it’s going to get broken is by citizens picking up their phones or getting on their computers and telling their elected officials, “If you want my vote ever again, you freaking well better vote for X.” And then Y. And then Z. Over, and over, and over again. The only people who can break this circle are you and me.

Not getting involved doesn’t make government better. It makes government worse. It plays right into the hands of the corporate interests, who find it easier to get laws written their way when there aren’t all those pesky citizens to worry about.

And it plays right into the right-wing “keep government small and taxes low” rhetoric — otherwise translated as, “Keep taxes on rich people and big corporations low; keep regulations on business to a bare minimum if that; and keep government services for poor and middle- class people stripped to the bone.” People’s cynicism about government, their belief that it never helps them and doesn’t have anything to do with them unless it’s screwing them over, and it’s always better to have it small and weak since it sucks so badly? That’s one of the strongest cards in the right wing’s hand.

firefightersI’ve written about this before, and I’ll write it again: Government is — in theory, and at least some of the time in practice — the way a society pools some of its resources, to provide itself with structures and services that make that society function smoothly and that promote the common good. And it’s the way a society decides how those pooled resources should be used. It’s one of the main ways that a society shares, cooperates, works together, takes care of each other — all those great ideals we learned in kindergarten. Government is roads, parks, fire departments, street sweepers, public health educators, emergency services, sewers, schools. Government is not Them. Government — democratic government, anyway — is Us.

But for government to do all this and be all this, not just in theory but in practice, we need to start seeing government as Us.

control keyAnd calling/ emailing your President, your Senators, your Congressperson, your governor and your mayor and your dogcatcher, is one of the most powerful things we can do to turn government from Them into Us. It reminds our elected officials that they work for Us, that they’re there to represent Us. And maybe just as importantly, it reminds us of that, too.

If you want to look at it idealistically: Many elected officials get into politics because they want to make a difference, and want to represent the will of their voters. And those officials are desperately wishing for citizens to kick up a stink on important issues: it makes it easier for them to fight special interests, and it lets them know that we’ve got their back. (It’s a whole lot easier to tell your big campaign contributors, “No,” when you can say, “I’m really sorry, but my phone is ringing off the hook about this one, and if I don’t support/ oppose it my voters will have my head.”)

But you can also see this in a completely venal, Machiavellian view… and still come to the same conclusion. Squeaky wheels. Grease. Many elected officials don’t much care about making a difference… but they bloody well care about getting re-elected. Politicians assume that if people care enough about an issue to call or write about it, they’ll care enough to vote the bums out on election day. If enough people call or write, it can override the voice of big- money special interests — even for the most self-serving politician in the world.

pigs at the trough book coverI get that it’s easy to be cynical about politics. Boy, howdy, do I get it. You don’t have to tell me about the massive role that big money and corporate lobbying plays in government and policy; or about the short attention span of citizens and how easily distracted they can be by the Drama of the Day; or about the great advantage incumbents have over challengers and how it contributes to inertia and indifference in politicians; or about how easy it is for voters to be manipulated by fear. I am 47 years old, and I’ve been participating in my government for almost three decades and observing it for longer than that, and I am under no illusions about how deeply sucky government can be. I get it.

But I also think that cynicism is the easy way out. Cynicism is just a way of not having to care, so you don’t risk being disappointed. Not calling or emailing an elected official, because you think they don’t care and won’t listen, is like never asking out the girl or guy you think is really cute, because you’re afraid they’ll say no. It’s giving up before you’ve even started.

I keep thinking about that quote from Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Politics is never, ever, ever perfect. Politics is the art of compromise… and the art of compromise is often an ugly, messy, dumb art.

But giving up is not the answer. Giving up is not going to make government better. Giving up is actively making it worse. Giving up on government because we can’t make it perfect is the enemy of making it good. Or at least, making it better.

And better is… well, better. As my friend Nosmo King points out: The lesser of two evils is less evil. How is that a hard decision?

This isn’t idealism. It’s harm reduction.

cynicism from diogenes to dilbert book coverStay cynical if you want to. Keep being a jaded, cynical hard-ass who thinks all government officials are selfish, power-hungry jerks. But be a jaded, cynical hard-ass who thinks all government officials are selfish, power-hungry jerks… and who calls or emails them to tell them what jerks they’re being, and what exactly you expect them to do to be marginally less jerky.

Be a jaded, cynical hard-ass. But don’t be a nihilist. Don’t give up. People fought and died for the idea of participatory democracy: not just in the United States, but all over the world. In many parts of the world, they’re still fighting and dying for it. You’re lucky. You don’t have to fight and die to keep this idea alive. You just have to call or email your elected officials. And you just have to vote.

So that’s the general principle. Participatory democracy. You know, the principle that this country fought a revolution for.

And yet a lot of people who agree with the principle still don’t follow through in practice. A lot of people who passionately support the idea of participatory democracy still don’t pick up the phone or get on the computer to, you know, participate in it. (Including me a lot of the time.)

Why is that?

I posted this question on Facebook the other day. I asked, “If someone asks you to email your Congressperson, and you don’t, even if you care about the issue — what stops you?”

I wasn’t asking to judge or criticize. Hell, I do this, too. I decide that I’m too tired, too busy, that if I responded to every “Call your Congressperson” email I got I’d never get anything else done. But it does bug me. It’s such a simple thing to do, and it can make such a huge difference, and I’m trying to figure out what, specifically, keeps us from doing it.

So now — again, for my own benefit as much as anybody else’s — I want to respond to some of the answers I got to this question. I want to remind myself, and anyone else reading this, that the reasons for not calling or emailing your elected officials, as understandable as they may be, simply aren’t anywhere near as compelling as the reasons for calling and emailing.

(Here’s Part 2 of the original.) Again, it talks more about calling elected officials than it does about voting… but I think it’s still relevant.