The Raleigh Rant

Our Dysfunctional Congress

congress capitol building darkI usually try to steer clear of politics and focus on the civil and religious rights of the LGBT community in this blog. But the cultural divide in this nation was dramatically displayed in public in the recent Senate hearings. The appointment of a controversial nominee for the Supreme Court dominated the news cycle for weeks. A proposed appointment two years ago was blocked from even having a hearing because “it was an election year.”

The partisan divide in the Senate merely demonstrated the chasm in the dysfunctional Congress that can’t agree on anything. Essential legislation on the basic functions of government is frequently delayed or weakened. Our infrastructure, economy, and social fabric have suffered. Sure, the stock market is booming, but that represents only a portion of the economy. Many other areas are suffering.

The LGBT community is concerned that this new partisanship on the Supreme Court may reverse prior decisions that struck down laws regarding sodomy and same-sex marriage. The media seems to focus on the abortion issue, but many other issues such as judicial reform and privatization of prisons and public schools also may be up for review.

The Senate hearings were dramatic and riveting to watch, but they showed the petty personalities of some of the Senators who revealed their primary concerns were seeking re-election rather than seeking justice. The result was a draw of “he said she said,” with the aborted FBI investigation revealing nothing. We can only assume that because it was never made public and many of the corroborating witnesses were not heard.

November may bring about a shift in which political party controls the Congress next year, but it will not heal the divide. The Congress may not reflect the will of the people, but it reflects the cultural chaos of our times. I cannot recall a more explosive period in our history since the 1960’s. Then we were convulsed in a debate over the Vietnam War and the civil rights of African-Americans. Unfortunately, racism is still a major issue in this nation. Even though we are a nation of immigrants, immigration has boiled over into policies and practices that have horrified the entire world.

We may not yet be in a literal shooting war, such as what occurred in the 19th Century over the issue of slavery, but we are reaching the boiling point that may yet explode. We already have huge public demonstrations across the country, and local outburst of violence. The hope for calm and cooperation seem far off. We look into the future with trepidation. Both sides claim that God is on their side, and we saw that also in the two World Wars. Let’s hope that our failing foreign policies may not again result in another war.

So get out and vote!

Hurricane Florence

Hurricane FlorenceDisasters and national tragedies create havoc, but at the same time they seem to bring out the best in Americans: our compassion, generosity, willingness to help others, and reaching out beyond absorption with self-interests that seem to plague us in normal times.

From the comfort of my apartment in Raleigh, I watched the non-stop TV coverage of the slow crawl of the hurricane across the southeastern portion of the state. It is too soon to assess the amount of the damage or to compare it with Matthew in 2016. North Carolina has great natural resources and beauty, but hurricanes are part of the cost of living here. Most people are not aware that the damage is often not limited to the coast.

The uplifting point to me is that in these times people put aside their differences and work together toward a common goal. When things are just rocking along, we tend to focus on ourselves and look at others with suspicion as though they are somehow a threat to us that we must fear. I think that one of the goals of the LGBT community has been to try to project the idea that we’re “just folks” like everybody else so why can’t we just get along?

Some people think that we threaten the established traditions and norms of the majority, so they feel that we must be ostracized, punished, or even killed. They justify their beliefs and actions because they fear our differences even though we can do nothing about who we are. We are not a “lifestyle” nor a choice, we simply have a different sexual orientation that is ingrained in us. Of course, some of the right-wing nuts blame us for everything bad that happens and use us as a bogeyman to support their diatribes. Let’s not even consider the so-called Christians who spew hate instead of love.

In the United Methodist Church, we’ve been haggling for 46 years about church doctrine and homosexuality, and the debate isn’t over yet. We’ve got a special called General Conference scheduled for next year. The various factions already are lined up with their position statements that we call resolutions. Can you imagine what might happen if only a portion of that time and money had gone to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)?

We tend to lift up as heroes those people who respond in exceptional ways in times of emergencies, but we tend to ignore the many acts of kindness and self-sacrifice of ordinary people in daily life. We should be challenged by these people who lift us up emotionally by their examples of heroism. We should apply that energy in our lives to help meet the common good every day. We’re not gay or straight; we’re all God’s children. God bless America.

Religious Liberty Task Force

In many aspects the double speak of George Orwell’s 1984 book has arrived, but none is more flagrant than the actions of the U.S Department of Justice. Our founding fathers wanted to preserve our nation from the religious wars that dominated Europe for centuries and so proclaimed “freedom of religion” in the U.S. Bill of Rights. In reality, they proclaimed a “freedom from religion,” i.e. a state-imposed religion that required everyone to not only accept that religion but also to pay taxes to support it. That is still the case in some European nations.

The intent was to allow citizens to practice their individual beliefs and to organize different churches, or denominations, to express those beliefs. There was no one state religion in the United States. In fact, that is what we are reverting to with the recent actions of the Office of the President of the United States and the U.S. Department of Justice via various memoranda, legal opinions, and public statements. In a continuing effort to weaken the non-discrimination clauses of both legislation and case law, they have established a precedent of stating that any person is exempt solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. That would not stand up in court if a person refused services or public accommodations to a person because of their race or national origin, but they claim it does apply if the issue regards sexual orientation. They claim we are not a “protected class,” in legal terms. Thus, they are promoting a special exemption just for this one category solely to mollify the religious fundamentalists who form the base of the Republican Party. It is an exemption based on partisan politics rather than religious freedom.

Using an obscure 1993 Law, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Administration has targeted the LGBT community and claimed that we alone can face discrimination because some people hate us because of those people’s personal religious beliefs. First, the DOJ issued a series of memoranda, and this week the U.S. Attorney General stepped up the pressure by appointing a task force (made up of himself and three others in the DOJ) to enforce these memoranda on the various departments and agencies of the DOJ. Waving the banner of “religious liberty,” they are in fact granting the privilege to discriminate by using religion as a weapon. The DOJ is establishing the religious practices of one minority group as official government policy. That is, in effect, state religion.

A lengthy op-ed in The Daily Beast, a Capitol Hill newspaper, blasts Jeff Sessions for his blatant cynicism and double speak of what constitutes religious liberty. When words are so twisted and mis-used, they lose their meaning and sometimes assume the opposite of the original meaning or intent. This is what we are dealing with regards the Trump Administration’s practice of propaganda (look it up!), lies, and misinformation.

Discrimination Knows No Boundaries

Detention Center

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the Trump Administration's ban on travel from certain Muslim countries on the basis of a narrow definition of national security expands the policy of discrimination against immigrants, people of color, and the LGBT community. The Dept. of Justice, which should protect our civil rights and liberties, has chosen for political reasons to establish a series of policies that discriminate against all of these categories.

Public demonstrations about police brutality against people of color and transgender folks, draconian measures against immigrants crossing the Mexican border, and reversal of a policy protecting the civil rights of the LGBT community have had limited impact in changing these policies. The clear intent is to spread fear and division in the country as a calculated appeal to the most extreme elements of the Republican Party. The blatant callousness is so appalling that most people don't know how to respond it. Public expressions of anger and frustration have limited effect on the autocratic form of government that now rules the nation.

Our Constitution established a balance of power among the three branches of government that has apparently been breached by the complete deference to the Executive Branch. Our founding fathers were particularly concerned about the potential of a dictatorial President who might assume unlimited power and rule as a King. We are facing that possibility now as our President has publicly expressed that would be his preference.

The euphoria about of ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court reversing the prior criminal laws against homosexual sex and the recognition of same-sex marriage may have lulled the LGBT community into thinking that we had won our search for civil rights. Yes, we have made significant progress in recent years through court cases, but we've had little success in passing legislation. We had a sympathetic administration for eight years, but that attitude has been completely reversed into total hostility. We're lumped into the category of "the others," i.e. the people that the WASP power structure that has dominated political and economic power for generations has chosen to attack.

And so Pride Month this year seems not so much as celebration as time to renew our vigilance to protect our civil rights. We still have a lot of economic power, and we can choose to assert it. The repressive legislation of the North Carolina General Assembly has threatened economic development as well as the civil rights of minorities, and that has had an impact. They reversed one of the most egregious sections of one law, but it only papered over its intent.

Clearly the only logical response to dealing with all of these issues is to get out and vote this fall and to change the political landscape at all levels of government.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Hymn to the Fallen

On the afternoon of Memorial Day, I was listening on WCPE to John Williams' Hymn to the Fallen from the score of the film Saving Private Ryanwhen I was moved to tears by the music. The haunting music struck a chord of memories of violence in this country. The media headlines today are focused on gun violence that has killed more people than all the wars since WWII. We see reports of shootings in the schools and of shootings in the streets. We are learning day by day of the intransigence of the National Rifle Associations that dwarfs that of the tobacco companies in their fight against regulation. Violence is all around us every day so that we become so numb to it that it doesn't even register anymore.

Over that weekend I read a book Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre that told the stories of Britain's Secret Special Forces units that sabotaged the Nazis and changed the nature of war. Their tactics were adopted by the U.S. Delta Force and the U.S. Navy Seals in later years. Although their stories recalled a lot of derring-do bravado and the glory of war, they also revealed a surprising lot of personal stories of the individuals as human beings and how they accommodated to the nature of war. In our minds, murder is justified in pursuit of a "just" war. Of course, much of the past three decades has been enveloped in controversies of how "just" the wars have been in which the United States was the leader. But that's another story.

I wore my Navy hat to the Memorial Day luncheon of SAGE at the LGBT Center to demonstrate that I was a veteran and proud of it. Of course, I didn't have the time to tell everyone my story of how an intelligence spy was sent onboard my ship to have sex with the sailors and then report on them so they would receive a dishonorable discharge. At that time the Navy was extremely homophobic and regularly engaged in illegal entrapments to justify their actions about maintaining the purity of discipline and order. Those guys weren't physically attacked or murdered, but they were rendered virtually unemployable.

Of course, gays, lesbians, and transgender folks now can serve openly in the military and even get married at West Point. (By the way, the couple were later attacked after they left.) That doesn't mean that hostility or bias have gone away; it is openly practiced in the highest level of the U.S. Department of Justice. Apparently most of the abuse in the military now is applied primarily against women.

On Memorial Day again I was drawn back to the recollection of the cost not only in our wars of the past 100 years, but also to the wounded who continue to bear the scars of war not only on their bodies but also on their minds. We have a lasting legacy of wounds from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that our veterans have borne selflessly and with honor. Unfortunately, we have not chosen to honor them by providing the services they need.

At the same time, I was struck by the hate crimes of racism and homophobia that are being promoted by our President, who is supposed to serve as Commander in Chief. Prior to writing this, I read several reports on the statistics on hate crimes. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs data reveal that a substantial proportion of hate crimes, including those based on sexual orientation, are never reported to law enforcement authorities and thus are not reflected in the FBI’s hate crime statistics. This violence includes not only homicide, but also rape, and physical assault on persons. Some data also include attacks on property. If you burn someone's home, is that less serious than assaulting them?

If we are truly to honor the veterans of foreign wars, then we must do more than just salute the flag. We must honor them by coming to terms with the plain facts that we are a nation of internal violence fanned by division and hatred that only seem to be growing. We can become reconciled with each other, or we can let this nation come apart at the seams by our indifference.