Monday, February 23, 2004

MEDIA SPINS: GAY MARRIAGE
HIP-HOP AND BLACK HISTORY
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
AND...SEX AND THE CITY


  • I don't know why I feel surprised but I wasn't expecting the Indianapolis Star to have a huge opinion - let alone three of them - about the current gay marriage controversy in San Francisco. However, the Star commissioned three columnists to share their opinions about the current situation and they offer a summary of the three columns. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but all three are at least nominally supportive. One is flat out supportive and the other seem to pass the buck to judicial and legislative decision-makers but none come out and say, "this is wrong wrong wrong...damn these crazy Bay Area queers to hell." Refreshing - who knew Indy was so progressive?

    Meanwhile, here in San Francisco, S.F. Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders writes a strangely critical view on gay marriage. I say strangely because her logic is impeccably flawed - she prefers the "oh my god, they're breaking the law" approach and dismisses the idea that couples who are getting married in S.F. right now are practicing a form of "civil disobedience." She's apparently appalled that people would compare the current gay marriage controversy with the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, arguing that CRM pioneers like Rosa Parks faced far more hostile receptions in the South of that era than any of these gay couples do in San Francisco. This doesn't work for me on multiple levels.

    1) Saunders wants to play what labor historian Robin Kelley has called "comparative suffering" and which I prefer to deem "the oppression Olympics" where one group posits their oppression as superior to another's, thereby negating that the other group even undergoes any suffering. I don't know if Saunders really wants to get into a debate about which is more hateful - racism or homophobia - and given her severe lack of historical knowledge, I don't think anything she'd have to say on the topic would be particularly credible.

    2) After all, she writes of Rosa Parks, "In 1955, Parks was a lone black woman on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, who after a hard day of work, courageously refused a driver's edict to give up her seat to a white man." This, of course, is the familiar myth of Rosa Parks as the "lone black woman" but scores of historians, including the aforementioned Kelley, have debunked this, pointing out that Parks was part of a much larger civil rights movement in Montgomery and that her decision to refuse to move to the back of the bus was neither random nor lone but part of a calculated strategy laid out by local CRM groups. Parks was part of this larger movement in every way possible and in this respect, it is not outrageous to compare queer couples getting married in San Francisco with her. After all, both are doing so in the face of widespread local, state, federal and cultural opposition. Both are doing so with the knowledge that they join a larger movement towards what they think is the morally right thing to do. I'm not saying that the queer rights movement and CRM are equivalent - they come from two entirely different eras, but that doesn't mean that they aren't comparable. One gets the feeling that you could easily go back to 1955 and find a columnist like Saunders decrying the Montgomery Bus Strikes as illegal and unworthy of support. The thing is - Saunders will absolutely be on the wrong side of history when this all goes down even if she doesn't know it yet.

    3) Saunders writes: "Rosa Parks stood firm in hostile territory, the segregation-era South... Segregation was a system that subjected blacks to relentless humiliation.San Francisco is gay-centric." The comparison here is totally disingenuous - as Saunder herself writes, Parks was in hostile territory, meaning the ENTIRE SOUTH. Well, last I checked, S.F. is gay-centric BUT THE REST OF THE NATION, hell, the rest of THE WORLD is not. That seems like fairly hostile territory to me.

    4) Saunders also writes, "When Rosa Parks defied the law, her fate and the outcome of her cause were uncertain. In San Francisco, the issue of gay rights has been settled in every area but marriage. As Jesse Jackson noted, gays always could vote and enjoyed other rights. The only question left is whether same-sex marriage can be called marriage -- and there are plenty of gay people who don't care about the outcome." First of all, Jesse Jackson is just wrong on all this - read Margaret Cho's recent reply to him. Second of all, the statement that "there are plenty of gay people who don't care about the outcome" is even more abhorrently disingenuous than her previous statement. No doubt, in any civil rights movement - be it based on race, class, gender, etc. - you will find many who are just fine with the status quo. In the case of the CRM, there were many Blacks who had no real issue with segregation and did not "care about the outcome." That, however, does not change the moral issue at hand here.

    True, there are many queers who feel like the institution of marriage is a flawed one (many straights couples believe this too) and I think that's a perfectly fine stance to take - I may even agree with the logic. But marriage, by its very treatment under the law IS a civil right. It is a pact that is recognized, endorsed, even rewarded by the state. As such, to approve it for one segment of the population (straight couples) while denying it to others (queer couples) is a fairly clear case of civil prejudice and discrimination. Whether all queers support the idea of gay marriage or not is besides the point.

    By the way, in a previous column, Saunders also compares the current situation to a hypothetical one were polygamists began clamoring for marriage rights. This is a cheap card to play - one that many conservatives have already deployed. I don't think it's even worth trying to debunk except to say that it's far easier to prove that polygamy is a damaging social practice (since it historically, in the U.S., has been used to subjugate women) in ways that queer relationships are not. Ok, next!

    5) Lastly, Saunders writes, "As for the self-congratulatory term "civil disobedience" -- well, the civil part is missing. Hello. It can't be civil disobedience when there is no civil penalty, and there is a government sponsor." Well Debra - you are right in pointing out that said couples don't face persecution by the city since the city is essentially endorsing the current trend, but how did you manage to overlook that these couples are facing the sure-to-come wrath of the state and federal government? At least in the case of Montgomery and other flash spots in the CRM, actvists could nominally (and I stress "nominally") count on the support of the federal government that was supposed to have protected them - and in rare cases, a begrudging JFK and Lyndon Johnson did so by sending in the National Guard to help desegregate schools and cities. Queer activists are facing a President who is theoretically contemplating a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage or at least, some kind of federal legislation to that effect.

    It's a complete reversal, in some ways, of the CRM experience where organizers had to contend with a hostile local government and indifferent but theoretically supportive federal government. In this case, we have a supportive local government but an unquestionably hostile state and federal government. I'm not sure if anyone should really make the argument about which is better or worse. Surely, I'd rather be queer in San Francisco right now than Black in Montgomery circa 1955, but then again, I'm not sure if I'd rather be gay in Montgomery right now or Black in San Francisco in 1955. These kind of historical attempts at non-critical equivalence (vs. simply noting the moral parallels) are inherently flawed and no self-respecting historian would try it. Saunders is no historian, no comment on whether she's self-respecting or not.

    6) Let me just state this again - those who oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it's illegal or immoral are on the wrong side of history. And you can huff and puff all you want about how wrong I may be for saying that but there are few things I am more certain of. Just an anti-miscegenation laws were morally indefensible a scant 50 years ago, the current opposition to gay marriage will similarly be recognized in the same way. It won't happen tomorrow but it will happen.


  • The Toronto Star recently published a story about how black youth respond to hip-hop and how the music/culture has shaped the public's perception of them. In the Star article, several of Toronto's Black youth express frustration with how they only understanding that people seem to have about contemporary Blackness comes exclusively through hip-hop. For example, it quotes one Cara Eastcott, a high school senior, complaining that during her school's Black History Month assembly, "There was nothing about the civil rights movement, the struggles people had to go through in Canada ? still do ? the diverse black community here, blacks in politics. It was just one big hip-hop talent show. It was a BET (Black Entertainment Television) video ? basketball, bling bling and hip-hop, that's what black culture was."

    This is an important topic - and not one that's gotten a lot of play save Ta-Nehisi Coates' Village Voice article from last June about 50 Cent and the representation of Blackness in contemporary media. While it's become quite fashionable to talk about hip-hop's multicultural community and mass appeal to many beyond the Black community, as a media-driven music and culture, hip-hop still represents Blackness to most around the world. The images and ideas that hip-hop espouses may be consumed by a rainbow coalition but they still largely only represent Blackness (ok, Aesop and Slug aside). No wonder many Black youth would be angry with the ways in which their realities are represented (or not) through the media machine of hip-hop. It must be even more infuriating to see the ways in which Blackness becomes uncritically consumed, appropriated and paraded by a variety of other youth, Black, White, Asian and otherwise. I hope this piece, along with Coates', helps to invigorate more discussion about the ways in which hip-hop mediates Blackness to the wider public and the social consequences that arise thereof. Ironically, for a music that's so traditionally thought of as race-conscious, the racial debate has all but disappeared from contemporary conversations around hip-hop. It's high time race comes back into it since, as many have always known, it never left to begin with.

  • I have absolutely no interest in going to go see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (I find Christianity, as a whole, off-putting so you can only imagine my antipathy towards Gibson's particular orthodoxy) but I thought David Denby's review of the film for the The New Yorker to be one of the more intelligent and articulate critiques of the film - one that doesn't solely play the anti-Semitisim card but also notes that Gibson's view of Christ undermines the benevolent nature of Jesus that the mainstream Christian Church has cultivated for eons.

  • I'm not just putting Sex and the City last because it's rather more frivalous than the previous three topics but let me just say: the series finale was kind of wack. Provided, it is tough to wrap up any series and I suppose we should all feel blessed that there wasn't some bizarre "this was all the creation of an autistic imagination" (St. Elsewhere) or "let's get Joannie and Cha Chi married" (Happy Days) send-off but SATC tried to do just a 'lil too much in too little time. Only Miranda's self-contained storyline - dealing with Steve's aging and increasingly senile mother - had real heart to it. Charlotte's baby quest was busted ass tired three seasons ago and while it's nice to know Samantha doesn't always have to play the unrepetent slut, she hit her high point earlier in the season with her breast cancer battle and is now little more than a narrative afterthought.

    As for Carrie. *sigh* Well, I'm glad she ended up with Big John but for chrissake, what terrible writing and thin chemistry between the two of them. 'Cuse me for saying this but after six seasons of Big torture, it would have been nice to have enjoyed the two of them having more of a moment together than Chris Noth saying, "Carrie, you're the one." It's enough to make you reach for the air sickness bag. Unlike other detractors, I'm not mad at how they resolved Carrie and Petrovsky's relationship except to say she should have noticed he was single-minded and self-centered long before he asked her to come to Paris. It took her until now to figure that out? And damn, her heartbreak lasted about as long as it takes to pop a bag of microwave popcorn. Oh well.

    Anyways, Sopranos kicks off March 7th, with season three of The Shield coming about a week or so later. Woo hoo!