The Overton Window Can Serve Progressives?

Well, yes.

I’ve told this story before, but I was involved in the planning, chant-writing, and sign-painting for a protest I did not actually get to attend. The protest involved a bill proposed by conservative jerkwad Kevin Mannix, one of many who have served in Oregon’s state legislature. The bill proposed that unmarried women who wished to receive artificial insemination in the state of Oregon be required to ask permission of the government before being able to legally proceed. Mannix was quite explicit in his rationale for the bill. State law made a married man equally responsible for the economic support and general well-being of a child of artificial insemination as it would a child via penis-in-vagina sex between that husband and that wife.

This was necessary because in divorce proceedings a child’s welfare needed no less attention merely because of being conceived through medically-assisted fertilization. The law solved a problem that had popped up in other jurisdictions in the early days of artificial insemination where a divorcing husband would claim that he never wanted the child and shouldn’t be held responsible. There was a trade off, however. If this law were to be applied fairly, then it would make sense that, as unlikely as abuse of the provision might be, the law ensured that the insemination was performed with the approval of the husband. So it was required that a doctor intending to perform such an insemination acquire and keep record of such a husband’s approval.

Mannix took an unusual lesson from these understandable legal facts: while married women have to ask their husbands’ permission to receive artificial insemination, single women don’t have to ask anyone.*1 That’s right, he gave an actual interview to an actual reporter in which he actually presented his argument as, “Well, women shouldn’t be able to do important things without asking permission.” If I had full access to the Oregonian archive, I’m sure I could even find the thing.

Well, Mannix didn’t do himself or his bill any favors with that interview, though I suppose it was inevitable that he would state something like that. It’s not like this was a confused misstatement: women shouldn’t have autonomy was an important part of his governing philosophy. Well, the news reports at the time weren’t exactly favorable to his bill, but there was some trouble putting it out of its legislative misery. Gail Shibley, the first out lesbian member of the Oregon legislature, had become the face of the opposition. There was quite a bit of hostility to queer folks in Oregon at the time (we were still dealing with Scott Lively and Lon Mabon’s decade-long parade of anti-queer bills at that point), and though there was obviously enough support from Portland progressives to elect Shibley and allow her to come out, having one of those GayLesbians identified with the cause seemed only to make the centrists/moderates less likely to take a stand against the obviously extreme bill. Shibley spoke behind the scenes to dozens of legislators about killing the bill, but they didn’t act with any alacrity on her say-so.

Thus the Lesbian Avengers decided to help. We rushed the planning and the house I shared with a couple other members became the hub for all activities related to organizing this protest. Unfortunately there was something going on at work that I felt I couldn’t miss (seems silly now, of course) so I didn’t attend the rally, but did spend more than 8 hours on each of the Saturday and Sunday before the rally helping to organize in two giant, well-attended meetings. That doesn’t even count the hours before and after work spent crafting chants and creating signs that my housemates and I spontaneously performed. It seems overkill now, when the chant that got all the attention from media (and our friends) afterwards was one of the first we created:

2-4-6-8, It’s alright to inseminate!

1-3-5-7, Fuck you and your bill, Kevin!

Oh, my. The protest was a sight. I no longer have pictures, but believe me my housemates were telling stories about it for months. When Mannix heard about the protest, he actually invited a few representative Avengers to his office to chat. Four went. Just when the chat was about to start, he finally read one of our chant-inscribed signs. He immediately invited them to leave.

Although the Lesbian Avengers were then escorted from the Oregon State Capitol*2 and the protest took less than two hours from initial meet up and chants in the grassy park across the street to marching through the building to the Mannix meeting to the final songs back in the park again, the effect of the action was huge and immediate. Shibley later stated to the mainstay Portland queer mag JustOut that another legislator*3 told her that they didn’t listen to her seriously enough on the insemination bill because they thought that, as a Lesbian, she represented the radical/fringe left. Then they got to see my housemates and found out that a lawyer who believed in the current power establishment enough to actually run for state government wasn’t a radical merely by virtue of falling in love with another woman.

This comes up for me now because over at Pharyngula there is a great comment on the role of Boghossian by longtime horde-member cartomancer:

Noam Chomsky (hey, look, I did a name drop too!) pointed out long ago that the role of people like this is to set the limits of discussion. They are set up as the mainstream left/liberal/progressive commentators, and then by definition anyone further left/more liberal/more progressive than they are is a crazy fringe extremist and can be safely ignored.

But see here: when the crazy, fringe extremists of Portland’s 1995/6 queer community got together and made ourselves visible, even if the legislature refused to listen to us, specifically, our craziness served as a useful contrast for legislators like Shibley and her then-colleague in the House (now Oregon Governor) Kate Brown. We weren’t afraid of being seen as crazy. While willing to sit down with Mannix and make a reasonable (even legal and constitutional) case in opposition to that fucked up bill, we never expected him to listen to us. Instead, our goal was to shame more moderate legislators for treating “Women should have to ask somebody,” as a legitimate argument.

I think that they did feel shame. I think many of them didn’t respect Mannix argument even if they publicly treated it as legitimate. What changed for them was that they now saw a risk of organized, aggressive, and potentially embarrassing activism from both sides. At that point, speaking to the respectable opposition – in this case, Gail Shibley – allowed the moderates to absorb a politically moderate rationale for opposing the bill without embracing the far-left whack-a-loons that the far-right whack-a-loons would punish a politician for embracing.

In short, Boghossian and James Damore and Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker need to be opposed, but we shouldn’t be at all concerned at opposing them reasonably. There are many people out there who will be happy to explain at length, using terribly patient and rational arguments, exactly why Peterson is full of shit and any policy recommendations he makes should be considered grossly suspect at the very least.

But we should not allow the Boghossians and Petersons of the world to take on the appearance of respectability that such serious treatment would convey if it were universal. No. Nathan J Robinson, the writer of the Current Affairs piece on Peterson, should be our Gail Shibley. It’s an important role, but we only needed on Shibley on the inside to pass on the reasonable arguments: it took a mob to communicate that Mannix was not some moderate, reasonable thinker.

That is, after all, the definition of moderate: someone whose ideas (and person) provoke no strong opposition. Reasonable argument is important, but in every era – no only in the Trump era – we also need to be willing to show up as crowds armed with slogans. Without such activism, no one credits a Shibley or a Robinson. With such activism, the reasonable insiders gain attentive audiences and influence that they could never acquire by themselves.

In your own area of expertise, go ahead and be reasonable. Be rational. Make your skilled and informed arguments. But when you are outside your area of expertise, spend at least a little time being very, very unreasonable.

*1: “single women don’t have to ask anyone” is as very near to an exact quote as my memory will allow, but you should expect that to be very, very close to exact as this was a big deal for me and my Lesbian Avengers friends and my memories of organizing a response to Mannix and his bill are unusually clear.

*2: Yes, that’s the name of a specific building where the legislature meets and its members have offices.

*3: or more than one, my memory is not as clear on that point, but I think it was more…


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The MLKs need the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam members, or they (the MLKs) get stuck in the Extreme box.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Pierce R. Butler:


  3. invivoMark says

    This is why I’ve been saying we need a radical left-wing version of the Tea Party.

    Trouble is, any time I try to come up with arguments that are the radical opposite of the Tea Party’s, all I can think of are perfectly reasonable positions.

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