Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Problem with Politics

   For the past season, I have been involved with a local theater group in Tallahassee, Florida known as the Mickee Faust Club, in particular their production of a cabaret designated "Queer as Faust 3" as it revolves around a number of songs, skits, and performance pieces that primarily document the culture of the queer community and the individuals within it. One piece in the show in particular speaks to me. The piece, "Leadership Has Its Privileges" revolves around the premise of an LGBT rights activist, a conservatively dressed gay man, accepting an award on behalf of his Human Rights Campaign-style activism. In the course of the piece, a disabled lesbian woman and then a transwoman excoriate the activist for "using his dick to lead us from one political asshole to another" as opposed to creating a more inclusive vision for the LGBT community in which more than middle class gay men who want to marry, adopt, and/or join the military are seen as having issues that deserve to be addressed. Poignantly, the skit ends with the stage empty of people except for two individuals. One says to the other "I guess you were right, Pastor Rick" and Pastor Rick then proceeds to respond "It's easy. Put them in a room together and they'll tear each other apart." On the whole, the skit does a good job of bringing out the tension between the reality that many voices in the LGBT movement are not listened to that should be with the companion reality that queer people will always have greater enemies than one another as long as the religious right is a force that wields considerable power in our society, above and beyond that which ANY faction of the queer coalition wields.

   Seeing this piece practiced and performed for many nights in a row has caused me to think a lot about the many problems with politics, both in a queer context as well as in a more general sense. I'm familiar with the "political assholes" to which the skit refers. Perhaps more importantly, I know where they come from. I've sat in rooms filled with young people in their late teens and early twenties who, contrary to the stereotype of young political types as idealistic do-gooders filled with a passion for any number of causes, were already cynical in their assessments of what was possible in a political context. Most disturbingly of all, they seemed to care little for ensuring that the end goals of politics were accomplished (in the most general terms, ensuring liberty and justice for all); instead politics was an end in itself. As long as their chosen party or candidate was elected (and getting said party or candidate elected was a task in which no sense of principle or decency was to be spared), it mattered little to them if the party or candidate actually hewed to any meaningful agenda while it office.

   Having been involved at different points in time with both Republican and Democratic party politics I can attest that there are in my experience very few differences in worldview between the sort of young wannabe politicos that make up the young corp of "youthful idealists" in both parties. Instead I have found both groups of politically active individuals roughly my age to be arrogant, insecure, power hungry, elitist, and to have spent their lives largely insulated from the realities of policy decisions that affect many people's lives in meaningful ways. For them, politics is a game as opposed to a way of creating positive changes in the lives of people (or for that matter even preserving things they deem positive about the status quo). Whether sending soldiers off to war, deciding who (and who not) to incarcerate, or making long term decisions about environmental issues, the name of the game is to keep thoughts of the repercussions of your policy choices for actual human beings as far from your mind as possible.

   Some of this is probably compounded by programs of study in political science at the university level. In all of my classes, I cannot recall ever being asked to consider the ethical implications of a policy question but I was often asked to consider how popular or politically feasible it was. Some of this is also partly due to the ignorance and/or bigotry harbored by voters and their unwillingness to hold leaders accountable. However, I think a bulk of it can be accounted for by the sort of people who self-select for political careers in our society. It takes a certain strange combination of arrogance, shamelessness, and a desperate desire for approval from mass numbers of complete strangers to choose to run for political office. (These qualities also exist in spades in many of those who work behind the scenes assisting would be and current officeholders in their projects.) And these qualities do not necessarily make one a wise person or a good person or a kind person. They do not necessarily mean that, once in office, an individual will govern well. But they do tend to assure that those elected to public office will be the least likely to make wise but unpopular choices because those elected are those Americans most desperate for the approval of the electorate. These individuals that comprise our political class, enamored of power themselves, are unlikely to respond to the concerns and needs of those lacking power - the poor, the sick, the disabled, the queer, the young, prisoners, women, foreigners lacking in human rights, etc. Sadly, it is these very groups of individuals who could most benefit from constructive attention from our nation's policymakers.

   There are no easy solutions to this problem. While many of us who would never otherwise consider running for office might want to think about doing so, there are ways that the LGBT movement in particular can make sure that we do not solely rely on the agendas of the most "politically savvy" among us to guide our priorities. We can start by admitting that when we only focus on same-sex marriage, adoption by LGBT parents, and ending Don't Ask Don't Tell as our primary goals there is an opportunity cost associated with that and it is born by our brothers and sisters with the least power.

   It is borne by our youth, kicked out of their homes and mistreated at youth shelters. It is borne by those of us who need medical care but are mistreated due to our sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It is borne by LGBT individuals denied the right to interact freely with their own children for no good reason. It is borne by those of us who are unemployed, those of us who are fired from our jobs for being queer, and those of us afraid to live out and proudly because of the impending threat of losing our jobs. It is borne by those of us in prison who are mistreated by fellow inmates and staff. It is born by students in schools, harassed by both teachers and fellow students. It is borne by intersex infants unnecessarily mutilated when they are too young to consent. It is borne by bisexual and transgender people whose issues are always considered under the rubric of "gay rights" even when they don't belong there. It is borne by victims of HIV/AIDS and other diseases - both physical and psychological - that disproportionately affect us.

   I am strongly in favor of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, assuring same-sex couples the right to adopt, and making marriage a legal option everywhere in America for every couple that wants it. But these are not the only or even the most important issues facing LGBT people as a group. To pretend otherwise is dangerous. We cannot model our priorities on those of politicians and other political types. Because what is politically expedient, politically popular, or politically correct is not always the most pressing concern. And we are foolish to think that men and women so desperate for the attention and approval of strangers that they are willing to beg mass numbers of them to cast a vote in their favor are always going to put our best interests first. Let us not be led "from one political asshole to another" but instead let us chart our own course in a spirit of inclusiveness and justice for all.