Many are complaining that by reaching out to Rick Warren, Obama is offering a slap in the face to progressives. This is silly. Yes, Warren has badly screwed up views on social issues. Most Americans do. That doesn’t mean they must be shunned or demonized; it means that we need to do more to engage with them and bring them to their senses.
No matter the strength of our first-order disagreements, we should be able to ‘detach’ from these and treat each other with respect.
I don’t think anyone has suggested that Obama should not be civil and respectful of Warren. However, civility and respect don’t require honoring Warren in such a prominent way.
For those culture warriors who are shocked, just shocked, that Obama can bear to associate with evangelical conservatives, or who see such expressions of respect as somehow undermining his first-order commitment to liberalism, I can only ask: weren’t you paying attention? This is exactly what we want: a president who will advance solidly liberal policies, without demonizing or alienating conservative-leaning people. If we can leave off the tribalistic hating for just a moment, maybe some of ‘Them’ can even be brought around to our side.
It’s ironic that Richard calls for respectful discourse while condescendingly dismissing the concerns of tens of thousands of queers (and queer allies) as “tribalistic hating.”1
In his comments, Richard writes:
In the meantime, let’s focus on the respect question: why, exactly, is civically honouring Warren an insult to those who disagree with him on policy matters?
But that’s not the question, because no one has claimed that honoring Warren is a fishslap in the face to everyone who has ever disagreed with Warren on a policy question. Rather, the insult has been most prominently taken by queer activists. (Feminists have also taken insult, but less loudly — more on this below.)
The question Richard should have asked is, why are queers and queer allies insulted that Obama is civically honouring Rick Warren?
And here are several answers:
1) Imagine that Rick Warren had been hitting me on the head with a hammer, and then Obama says “here, Rick, let me honor you symbolically with this gift of a slightly bigger hammer.” In this context, it makes perfect sense for me to be angry at Obama.
Warren hurts people — not progressives in general, but particular groups, most recently queer people in California. (Richard’s post obscures this important reality by talking about “a slap in the face to progressives”). By adding to Warren’s reputation as a moderate, central figure, Obama helps Warren hurt queer people. As Ezra Klein writes:
…calling the Warren issue “symbolic” is just a method of marginalizing minority discontent. Warren is not a symbolic figure. He’s a religious leader who mobilizes his flock and leverages his public influence in order to affect electoral outcomes. The most prominent example was the Proposition 8 ballot initiative — as opposed to, say, the Proposition 8 symbolic logo design contest — in California. Warren used his power and prestige instrumentally, not symbolically. And Obama is giving him more power, and more prestige, which he will, quite assuredly, deploy in an instrumental fashion.
2) I don’t like objections to “emotionalism.”
First of all, used to dismiss an argument in this way, the term come wrapped in a great deal of sexist/homophobic baggage.2
Secondly, the expectation that queers and queer allies “detach” and not react emotionally to Rick Warren, in the wake of the genuinely wrenching passage of Proposition 8,3 is unreasonable. Queer activists and allies have a right to be angry.4
3) “Asymmetry of passion,” to use Nate Silver’s phrase, is a legitimate political tactic. I think the LGBT community fears that if they’re mild and concede ground easily, Obama will abandon his commitments to them.
This fear is not unreasonable. Whatever Obama feels in his heart — and I doubt he’s personally a homophobe — as a politician he’s never been a champion of gay rights. He’s just a Democrat who has taken the minimum, politically necessary pro-gay positions to be a viable national Democrat.
And when the politically necessary position is to be anti-gay — by opposing equal marriage rights — then Obama is anti-gay.
My point isn’t that Obama is a bad person. He’s a politician, who like a politician responds to political reality. The more motive we give Obama to be pro-queer, the more pro-queer Obama will be. And “asymmetry of passion” may be the best tool the queer community has for putting pressure on Obama.
It’s interesting that — although there is a great deal of anger in the feminist community over Obama’s selection of the sexist, anti-choice Warren for this honor — that anger seems less intense than the rage over Warren’s anti-gay history in the queer community.5
Partly, that’s because Warren’s most recent major campaign (his advocacy of prop 8) was anti-queer rather than misogynistic.
But another reason is that feminists and pro-choicers are getting real policy substance from Obama, which mitigates the anger. Within the first month of an Obama administration — maybe the first week — the “global gag” rule will be history, and US funding for the UN Population Fund will be restored. Hillary Clinton will be secretary of state — which is a more than symbolic point, because Clinton has a long history of concern for women’s rights in foreign policy. There’s also widespread confidence that Obama’s eventual Supreme Court picks will be safely pro-choice.
In contrast, what are queer activists getting from Barack Obama? It doesn’t seem like the promised repeals of “don’t ask don’t tell” or DOMA are going to happen anytime soon. As far as I know, Obama hasn’t endorsed protections against anti-trans discrimination, and he certainly hasn’t signaled it being a legislative priority. And, of course, Obama is anti-equal-marriage.
I assume the outright discrimination against gays practiced by some in the Federal government under Bush, will not be as tolerated under Obama’s people. And I also trust that Obama, while formally anti-gay marriage, will refrain from pushing anti-gay “protection of marriage” laws and amendments. But the queer community wants more from Obama than just refraining from overt bigotry.
So when people say, in effect, “why make a big deal of this Rick Warren situation? It’s a purely symbolic gesture, and what we’re getting from Obama in policy is so much more substantive!,” they ignore that queer activists really aren’t getting much policy substance from Obama.
Queers have a history of being taken for granted, and sometimes betrayed, by Democrats (remember Bill Clinton’s radio ads boasting about having signed DOMA?). It’s not irrational for queers and queer allies to believe that noise and anger is the best chance we have of not being taken for granted, and betrayed, once again.
4) The case for reaching out to evangelicals isn’t as strong as Richard believes.
There are a lot of well-meaning (if often misguided) evangelicals out there, and by reaching out to one of their most popular (and not hyper-partisan) pastors, Obama is creating the possibility that a lot of these folks might actually open their eyes, unblock their ears, and give him (and liberals more generally) a chance.
As Glenn Greenwald argues, Democrats have a long history of trying to reach out to evangelicals, including some notable cases of throwing queers under the bus, and the tactic has failed:
….Isn’t this exactly the same thing Democrats have been doing for the last two decades: namely, accommodating and compromising with the Right in the name of bipartisan harmony and a desire to avoid partisan and cultural conflicts? […] I
Courting evangelicals was a particular priority of Bill Clinton from the start. […] In 1996, Clinton signed into law the single most pernicious piece of anti-gay federal legislation ever passed — the Defense of Marriage Act — with overwhelming Democratic support in the Congress. Scorning the “Far Left,” especially on social issues, was a Clinton favorite. He is the inventor, after all, of the Sister Souljah technique. Bill Clinton was the ultimate non-ideological pragmatist. He was driven by the overriding desire to win over his opponents. […]
Did any of that dilute the Right’s anger and resentments towards Democrats?
I understand the strategic argument in favor of honoring Rick Warren. But I think Obama, and Richard, overestimate the flexibility of the evangelical community. History suggests that evangelicals aren’t taken in by these tactics; they don’t want symbolic inclusion, they want policy victories. And if Obama doesn’t support evangelical policies, evangelicals won’t support Obama.
Elevating Warren, in the hope of buying some evangelical support, is taking a risk. But if the risk goes bad, the people hurt most won’t be mainstream, centrist Democrats like Obama; they will be queers and women.6 It therefore makes sense that mainstream, centrist Democrats are more eager to take this risk than queers activists and feminists are.
[Illustration of Rick Warren developed from “Rick Warren” by Kev/Null, used under a Creative Commons license.]
- Is this negative use of “tribalistic” both racist and colonialist? It seems to me that it is, but I hesitated to bring it up because Richard might mistake it for me accusing him of racism. It’s racist in the same way that using the phrase “what a gyp” is racist; however, people of good will can thoughtlessly use these phrases without themselves being racist. The racism is in the society that normalizes these phrases, to the point that even anti-racist individuals use them without noticing. [↩]
- I am not accusing Richard of himself being a misogynist or a gay-hater in his heart. I am criticizing his word choice, not his essential character. [↩]
- There were several anti-gay ballot measures that passed in 2008, all of which sucked. But Prop 8 was more emotionally wrenching because we had a chance to win that fight. [↩]
- I predict someone is going to “gotcha!” me by saying that by this logic, I shouldn’t ask for civility in “Alas” comments. But the comments section of a blog is something that people can choose not to participate in, at no cost to themselves. The same is not true of national politics. [↩]
- I’m oversimplifying for the sake of clarity; there is enormous overlap between the feminist and queer activist communities, and of course individual reactions vary hugely within both communities. But although I’m oversimplifying, I think the tendencies I’m talking about are real. [↩]
- To be sure, these three categories — female, queer, centrist democrat — often overlap. [↩]