Friday, February 20, 2009

Guantanamo and Utah; the common link

Recently I was reading the testimony of Brandon Neely, a former guard at the US concentration camp at Guantanamo. I thought of it again tonight when reading an article in the New York Times regarding opposition to the play Rent being shown in a toned-down version at America high schools. I thought I saw a link. To explain that link let me explain each story first.

Much of what Neely said is highly disturbing. It is clear that the United States has lost any moral high ground it once held. Our government is acting in ways that our nation has always opposed. President Bush changed that. Funny how a moralistic bumpkin managed to destroy morality at that level.

Neely spoke of being at Guantanamo the first day the prisoners arrived. He says: “I went back to my tent and laid down to go to sleep. I was thinking ‘those were the worst people the world had to offer? Now what I expected.” I guess I was expecting people who looked like monsters or what-not.”

Neely spoke of the abuse that was heaped on some of these prisoners, including abuse he helped with. But he also spoke of how these individuals often seemed to him merely scared and frightened. Individuals told to drink something feared they were being poisoned and refused – for that they were physically assaulted. One man was forced to his knees. This man had seen members of his family executed this way and started quivering and feel to the ground in terror. Neely responded. Here is what he said:
He was instructed to go to his knees, which he did. My partner then went down and took off his leg shackles. I still had control of his upper body, and I could still feel him tensing up. Once the shackles were off my partner started to take off the handcuffs. The detainee got really tense and started to pull away. We yelled at him a couple times "Stop moving!" Over and over. Then he stopped moving, and when my partner went to put the key in that first handcuff, the detainee jerked hard to the left towards me. Before I knew it, I threw the detainee to the ground and was on top of him holding his face to the cement floor. At this time my partner had left the cage. The block NCOIC (or Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) was on the radio yelling code red which meant emergency on the block. Before I knew, I was being grabbed from behind and pulled out of the cage by the IRF team. They grabbed this man and hog-tied him. He laid there like that for hours that day before he was released from that position. A couple days later I found out from a detainee who was on that block that the older detainee was just scared and that when we placed him on his knees he thought he was going to be executed. He then went on to tell me that this man had seen some of his friends and family members executed on their knees. I can remember guys coming up to me after it was over that night and said "Man, that was a good job; you got you some". I did not feel good about what I did. It felt wrong. This man was old enough to be my father, and I had just beaten up on him. I still to this day don't know who was more scared before and during this incident me or the detainee.
Neely’s perception of these men, many of who are clearly innocent of any wrong doing, changed in the time he interacted with them. The more he knew the more troubled he was by what he was doing to them; the more troubled he was by what our government was doing to them.

The New York Times story on Rent seems a world away from Guantanamo. The musical Rent “centers on a group of artists, straight and gay, living in the East Village. Some are H.I.V. positive; some are drug addicts, some are in recovery.”

Some of the music was risqué but it was removed for the high school version of the play that was released. In all the play was toned down for the audience.

When Ron Martin wanted to do the play with his pupils at Corona del Mar High School the principle, Fal Asrani, protested. She said that she was unhappy with the “prostitutes” and the “homosexuals” in the story. There are no prostitutes in the story so that leaves, well it just leaves the homosexuals. Asrani tried to blame Martin for cancelling the show, which he says, is absurd. In fact, he’s still trying to get her to allow it to be produced (with all this publicity it would be standing-room only).

In Bridgeport, West Virginia, drama coach Charles Dillon proposed putting on Rent and told principle Susan Collins about it. The Times reports, “when he told Ms. Collins there were two gay couples in the musical, ‘she got flustered and worked up and expressed concerns.’”

The play was proposed for a high school in Rowlett, Texas and the same thing happened. “Even though the play has been edited (by committee, no less) to exclude such things as same-sex kissing, parents and an unnamed local minister still consider the project objectionable and don't want the play to be staged in their local school auditorium.”

One of the parents bitched that the play might teach tolerance. Michael Gallop said: “I don’t think its the school’s place to each my child diversity or tolerance of a lifestyle that I don’t accept.”

Now let me bring these two stories together by the common thread. Familiarity breeds respect. Neely was shocked that when he met the actual inmates at Guantanamo that he didn’t find them to be the monsters he expected. He became friendly with some and was convinced that many were clearly victims of the war and not terrorists at all.

What horrifies the people like Michael Gallop is that even a portrayal of gay people on stage undermines the bigotry they are trying to instill in their kids. It is easy to hate an imaginary monster that you create entirely in your head. When that monster becomes a human being things change. Bigotry rests on the ability of the bigot to convince himself that the object of his hatred is “the other”. Bigotry requires a belief that the hated are somehow so different that perhaps they don’t even qualify as human. The more the bigot can convince himself that “the other” is alien and strange, the easier it is to engage in cruelty and violence toward them.

Every social movement that promoted bigotry and hatred did so by first building an image of the group that was being targeted that made them “different” from everyone else. If you believe, as the Marxists and Nazis taught, that Jews were money-grubbing parasites exploiting the working masses, it become easier to shut down their businesses, force them to wear yellow stars, round them up and imprison them, and send them to their deaths.

Convince the world that some group of people is really “different” than everyone else and you convince them to engage in unspeakable acts.

When Mormons in the Utah legislature were voting against the right of gay people to visit their partners in the hospital a Right-wing group named America Forever was running a full-page ad in the Mormon owned Deseret News which say that gays are guilty of “anti-species behavior” and that they “should be forced not to display” their sexual orientation (this means do anything that might tell someone they are gay).

The ad argues that people have the right to use force to evict gay people “in common living areas”. Note they speak of common living areas not private property but “in our streets, shopping centers and in our lives.” Hysterically this incredible bigoted ad says another reason to use force against gay is because “they are intolerant and do not emulate any Christian ethics.”

This sort of demonization is what bigotry thrives upon. Lie to people about any group or class of people, get them to believe your lies, and you can convince people to act in the most inhumane way. What messes that agenda up is when people start to see others as being pretty similar to themselves.

The reason the Religious-Right doesn’t want gay characters in movies or television is not that such things convince young people to turn gay. That “vampire theory” is so absurd that I doubt even the fundamentalist loonies believe it themselves. What worries them is that visibility shows gay people to be like other people. They love like other people. They hurt like people. They have the same aspirations and wishes for themselves that is common to all of us. In the end gay men and women are pretty much like straight men and women.

But that is precisely what threatens the bigoted agenda. Brandon Neely got to see the people in Guantanamo as human beings, not monsters. When people get to know gay people, either in person or depicted on the stage, they start to see them as human beings, not monsters. That undermines campaigns that are rooted in fear. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds tolerance. And that is why the fear mongers need to present people as alien to us, as “the other”.

Monday, February 16, 2009

It's the media's fault, really it is.

You may remember that I reported on the herd of Theopublicans who were so outraged that the "chaplain of the day" for the Oklahoma state legislature was a gay man that they voted to exclude his opening prayer from the record. I'm inclined to say they shouldn't have a chaplain of the day and it shouldn't be in the record. But if they do have such a thing then I don't see the rationality of banning prayers based on the sexual orientation of the minister. But rationality and Republicans just don't mix.

Various clergy in Oklahoma were horrified to find that these Republicans wanted to ban the prayer from the record and have voiced their disgust. The man who started the ruckus is the Republican caucus leader in the Oklahoma house, John Wright. When told that various ministers thought it was best for Wright to apologize he made it clear that he won't. After all he is speaking directly for God who voted for him in the last election.

One would expect that a brouhaha would erupt over Wrights demand that the prayer be stricken from the record. But Wright doesn't see it that way. He said that the incident is only getting attention because of the media reporting on and if they just didn't report on what he did then no one would be upset. A unique view of the role of the press held today by such luminaries as Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe and Vladamir Putin. One must say the Republicans in Oklahoma are finally traveling in circles where they belong.

Photo: John Wright, advocate of free speech -- not!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Guilty of praying while gay.

I have to admit that now and then the Religious Right absolutely astounds me, rarely in a good way however. The depth of their irrationality is mind-boggling. Take this absurd question: Does the Religious Right love praying more than they hate homosexuals? On the face of it you would think that was an absurd question that can’t be answered. But in Oklahoma a bunch of Republican theocrats in the state legislature managed to answer the question.

When the state legislature convenes they bring in some minister who is asked to pray. After the prayer a member of the legislature rises and asks that the prayer be put into the official record of the session. This is routinely done.

Recently Rev. Scott Jones of the Cathedral of Hope from Oklahoma City was asked to give the prayer. Jones was new at this sort of mixing of church and state and asked about the protocol. He was told that before his prayer he could recognize the individuals who came to the legislature with him. This came from the Speaker of the House, Rep. Chris Benge. Rev. Jones mentioned his “loving partner and fiancé, Michael” along with others as being with him. And then he prayed. That was all he did.

At the end of his prayer it was moved that the prayer be put into the record of the day, as is usually done. But this time Theopublicans in the House started protesting. They wanted the prayer stricken from the record, not because the prayer itself was particularly offensive but because the man who prayed happens to be gay. Twenty members of the legislature voted to ban the prayer and another 17 were just too cowardly to vote. The vote to remove the prayer failed but still about a third of the legislators voted to ban it or refused to vote at all.

Jason Murphey, a Republican who represent Guthrie and God, in the House said: “For him to show up and not just pray; that would be one thing. But to introduce his fiancé and then have his fiancé be a guy – and then pray – that was an attack on the beliefs of a lot of Oklahomans and it was entirely inappropriate.”

Try to get a handle on what this man is saying. As far as I can see the fact that gay man prayed is now considered “an attack on the beliefs of a lot of Oklahomans”. I presume that having a black man pray is an attack on the beliefs of a lot of Oklahomans as well, especially those in the Klan. Rep. Murphey seems to be upset in part because he the word fiancé “got everybody thinking it’s his future wife”. Murphey was asked if the mere fact that Jones was gay was offensive to him and he replied that he’d have to give it some thought and refused to answer.

The move to strike the prayer from the record was led by Rep. John Wright from Broken Arrow (and heaven). Wright is also the leader of the Republicans in the House. Wright has been pretty quiet on the move but did say: “My actions were motivated by the faith.”

When the objection was made Jones says that members of legislature seemed confused and some rushed over to read his prayer trying to figure out what was so objectionable in it to cause this unprecedented move by the Republicans. Scott reports that when legislators were reminded that if they were in the room they had to vote yes or no on including the prayer “some of them fled” in order to abstain. He also printed his precise words before his prayer:
Mr. Speaker and esteemed representatives, I thank you for the opportunity to be present with you today as chaplain for the day. I want to thank my representative and good friend, the Honorable Al McAffrey for the invitation. I would also like to acknowledge guests who are present in the gallery – members of my congregation, the Cathedral of Hope, United Church of Christ. Joining them are dear friends, my wonderful parents, and my loving partner, Michael Cich
Well, I certainly can see what got the members from God’s Own Party (GOP) upset. It’s practically blasphemy. Here are the list of Oklahoma politicians who clearly hate homosexuals more than they love praying.

Rep. Gus Blackwell • Republican
Rep. Lewis Moore • Republican
Rep. Mike Christian • Republican
Rep. Jason Murphey • Republican
Rep. Ann Coody • Republican
Rep. Leslie Osborn • Republican
Rep. Rex Duncan • Republican
Rep. Pat Ownbey • Republican
Rep. John Enns • Republican
Rep. Mike Reynolds • Republican
Rep. George Faught • Republican
Rep. Mike Ritze • Republican
Rep. Dennis Johnson • Republican
Rep. Mike Sanders • Republican
Rep. Sally Kerns • Republican
Rep. Randy Terrill • Republican
Rep. Charles Key • Republican
Rep. Todd Thomsen • Republican
Rep. Guy Liebmann • Republican
Rep. John Wright • Republican

If Jonah Goldberg can’t get it through his thick head why decent libertarians can’t ally themselves with the modern conservative movement this demonstrates it well. All twenty of the morons in this case were Republicans. That is one third of all the elected Republicans. Remember another 17 fled the chambers in order to avoid a vote. Unfortunately I don’t have the names of those individuals but I suspect they were mostly Republicans as well. UPDATE: I was able to find the vote and compared the names of those absent to their party affiliation. Only five of the 17 absent votes were Democrats, the other 12 were all Republicans. Suspicion confirmed.

This incident just indicates how deeply the modern Repubican Party, as an arm of the Religious Right, is motivated by visceral hatred. If Republicans can’t understand why Obama won so easily all they need do is consider the image they present when they allow religious fanaticism to dominate their party.

Photo: Rev. Jones: guilty of the crime of praying while gay.