BEDROOM POLITICS

Last year, Grover Norquist told a New York Times reporter that he had little trouble getting the culture warriors over at the Eagle Forum to stand with the auto industry in opposition fuel efficiency standards because “it’s backdoor family planning. You can’t have nine kids in the little teeny cars.”

Certainly, leaders on the modern American right, as well as the left, struggles with how to keep its constituent movements working constructively together, or at least keep them from actively undercutting each other. But those struggles seem to turn out better on the right. Arguably, that’s because the right has real power to mete out amongst the groups and individuals who make it work and can therefore keep them in line. But there’s as strong a case to be made that being out of power is more unifying – that’s why, in the fall of 2004, well-justified and broadlyy shared anti-Bushism made it so much easier to imagine that there really was a coherent, unified left in this country. That example itself suggests one of the problems we face: while there’s more discussion these days about the importance of broad-based, multi-issue progressive coalitions, the people most vocally pushing for them want such coalitions to work essentially as extensions of Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees. “Netroots” folks like Kos actually pride themselves on their lack of ideology (and get vouched for on this count over at The New Republic).

Meanwhile, while a certain amount of the hand-wringing on the right about Bush’s supposed unconservatism is just a strategic response to his unpopularity – that is, an attempt to save the conservative brand from public dislike of its most prominent example – there is a genuine gap between certain aspects of what Bush is doing and the preferences of the grassroots activists and house intellectuals of the conservative movement, and it seems to be spurring renewed consideration at least in the pages of the right-wing mags about whether there can be a multi-issue conservative ideological coalition that’s not a partisan one. If conservatives do a better job than liberals of organizing across issues for a vision beyond the electoral fortunes of a party, even as conservatives and not liberals are running the government, then the left will have been outmaneuvered again.

That’s why folks across the left should be excited about UNITE HERE’s Sleep With the Right People campaign, part of the union’s international Hotel Workers Rising project, through which hotelworkers in cities all over North America are using concurrent contract expirations to leverage strategic pressure on major hotel chains to raise the standard of living for all their workers and agree to fair organizing conditions for those without collective bargaining rights (I start work with HWR tomorrow; views expressed here are my own). Sleep With the Right People represents a crucial alliance of progressives committed to the dignity and empowerment of people too often marginalized based on sexuality, class, gender, race, or the intersection of these identities.

As Hugh argues here and here, this campaign represents a critical stand against the view that “difference” should be “a cause of fear.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of the freedoms to join a partner in building a life together, and to partner with co-workers to build a more democratic workplace, each without sacrificing safety from violence or freedom from want. It’s a step towards the ameliorating the too-frequent insensitivity of the labor movement towards identities other than class and the too-frequent insensitivity of the LGBTQ movement towards identities other than sexuality. There are more steps ahead.

Tuesday night several groups at Yale sponsored an excellent debate between the Reverends Barry Lynn (of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners Magazine) on the role of faith in public life. They’re both thoughtful and articulate speakers with a stake in a more progressive turn for this country.

Wallis is frustratingly off-base in his support for President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives as an opportunity to be seized by a religious left. The issue, as I’ve said before and as Lynn argued, is not whether religiously-identified groups are eligible for government support when they provide social services but whether they will be subject to the same regulations as everyone else when they are. Lynn quoted troubling comments from Wallis conflating denying funding to groups because they hold a certain faith with denying funding to those groups because they discriminate in hiring against those who don’t. And Lynn rightfully questioned Wallis’ attempt in writing to dichotomize racial and religious discrimination, pointing out that for some of the groups in question one identitiy is mapped onto the other – and that right-wing churches led by the likes of Pat Robertson haven’t been rejected for “preaching hate” like the Nation of Islam has. Wallis, to his credit, expressed unspecified concerns with the implementation of the initiatives, but declined the engage the issue of discrimination and instead expressed hope that the Supreme Court would sort it out.

My sympathies were more divided between the Reverends on the other issue which consumed much of the debate: What is the place of religious rhetoric in political discourse? I share Rev. Lynn’s concern that the halls of Congress not be overtaken with arguments over the details of scriptural interpretation. He’s right to argue that in a pluralistic, democratic society votes should be cast, and should be explained, based on popular rather than divine authority, and on the basis of shared rather than sectarian values. He’s right to observe that while religious rhetoric infused the Civil Rights Movement through and through, when members of Congress cast their votes in 1964, they explained them through appeal in large part to the values of equal protection set forth in our common law. And he’s right to reject Wallis’ tenedency to reduce “values” to religion and to reduce the political spectrum to religious right versus religious left.

That said, I think few of us disagree with Rev. Wallis’ contention that it’s long past time that the religious left disrupted what he calls the monologue of the religious right. And I’m not persuaded by the bright lines Lynn seeks to draw between the discourse in the halls of Congress, in the church, on opinion pages, at rallies, and on Meet the Press. Certainly, an advocate assumes a different voice than a representative, speaking on different grounds and to a different audience. But Wallis is right that there should be a place for our elected representatives to speak to their personal faith convictions as well as to our shared democratic ideals. He’s right that for Lynn to bristle categorically at any instance of biblical references by elected politicians does little to further the cause of religious freedom.

One audience member asked Rev. Lynn why he was comfortable with Senators quoting from “anything else in Bartlett’s Quotations,” but not the Bible, and in response Lynn made an illuminating distinction between a quote to persuade – invoked because the quote itself makes a persuasive argument for whatever is being advocated – and a quote on the basis of authority, which is invoked to bring down the authority of whoever said the quote in the first place as an argument in and of itself for what’s being advocated. Lynn’s belief is that Bible quotes are always brought in not to share creative persuasive arguments but to shut down argument by virtue of biblical authority. I’m not so sure. It may be complicated to distinguish between appeals to a biblical argument and invocation of biblical authority, but I think it’s critical that we do. I think it’s similarly critical that we distinguish between those who invoke their particularistic faith values as ends unto themselves, and those who offer them as a personal path to our shared faith in community, in individual freedom, and in social justice.

It occurs to me that Zach’s aspersions about my personal hygiene may be a hint that I haven’t yet responded to his latest thoughts on Rush, the Right, and such. I don’t think there’s much left to say. I of course agree with Zach that gloating at embarrassments of political enemies is less constructive than learning from them – that’s, in fact, exactly what I was endeavoring to do. I, like Zach, appreciate “insight both strategic and theoretical into the ways in which ideologies of control and strategies of Empire are linked” – I stand by my original (if I may be so bold) insight that the role of the right’s class agenda in determining the application of its social agenda raises questions about the integrity of the latter and the relationship between the two. On the other hand, while I share Zach’s aspiration of “destablilizing the structures of gender, sexuality, and race,” I don’t find the use of the term “minority” to refer to groups that are, empirically, smaller in this country than the majority along whichever axis we’re referring to a particularly problematic terminology. I would also maintain that while identities are constructed, they exist, and factual explorations of the breakdown of identities – who identifies how? what else do they have in common? where do they live? how are they changing? – in this country should be marshalled by the left rather than condemned and left as the province of the everyone else. Finally, resoundingly, I would affectionately but bitingly make a comment to the effect that sometimes we have to choose between laundering clothes and organizing a movement and then sing Pete Seeger’s rendition of “Which side are you on?”

Faced with Bustamante’s edge over libertarian wonder boy Schwarzenegger, Bustamante’s potential to mobilize Latino voters as the first Latino to lead the nation’s largest state, and the nagging problem of Arnold’s coziness with Nazis, some on the right have been grasping for their reverse Kurt Waldheim scandal. What they’ve come up with is Bustamante’s membership as a college student in MEChA, Movimiento Estudantil Chicana/o de Aztlan. And they’ve had the audacity to suggest that membership in the national Latino student organization occupies the same moral space as close friendship with Nazis, and that the media only displays more concern about the latter than about the former because of – you guessed it – liberal bias. This argument rests on an idea that the right has spent significant effort trying to infiltrate into the American consciousness: that the nationalism and solidarity of the oppressed and the minority is morally equivalent to the nationalism and solidarity of the oppressor and the majority. This idea is a keystone of the far (and not so far) right and far left argument that identification with an in-group is always an obstacle to identification with a larger group and never a path towards it. I think I stand with the majority of Americans in maintaining unequivocally and without contradiction both that blind nationalism, uncompromising sectarianism, and subtle racism pose and have historically been dangerous threats to the construction of a human community and that identification with a small group – be it a neighborhood or one of Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” – can serve both the advancement of marginalized groups and the building of human empathy. But an intentionally divisive fringe, with much of the mainstream media in tow, is steadilly working to build in the minds of Americans a conception of the NAACP as the KKK. This, ironically, echoes the apologia of the hate groups themselves: ” has their organizations looking out for their interests, so shouldn’t have one looking out for ours?”

Michelle Malkin, in her attack on MEChA, quotes an early document of the organization from several decades ago, which reads in part:

“We do not recognize capricious frontiers on the bronze continent. Brotherhood unites us, and love for our brothers makes us a people whose time has come and who struggles against the foreigner ‘gabacho’ who exploits our riches and destroys our culture. With our heart in our hands and our hands in the soil, we declare the independence of our mestizo nation. We are a bronze people with a bronze culture.”

In other words, Latinos have been oppressed and persecuted by an illegitimate campaign of white violence, and should work together to beat back a continuing assault on the opportunities, communities, and culture of Latinos. And the homeland of Latinos belongs to them, and not to the United States that used war to occupy it.

Malkin says of the piece she quotes:

Substitute “Aryan” for “mestizo” and “white” for “bronze.” Not much difference between the nutty philosophy of Bustamante’s MEChA and Papa Schwarzenegger’s evil Nazi Party.

One difference would be that to be Aryan is to be racially “pure,” whereas to be mestizo is, by definition, to share a mixed heritage. The other major difference would be that the Nazi party engaged in a campaign of systematic genocide against oppressed minorities on the grounds that ensuring the purity of the Aryan nation by eliminating the groups secretly responsible for the decline of Germany was a historical imperative. MEChA engages in political and educational work directed towards improving the role of an oppressed minority within a dominant society that incorporated it through violence. That’s the difference.

Nathan Newman explores the issue here:

So what this statement says is that celebration of race mixing is the same as racial purity. Yes, Orwell rides high in the saddle when the rightwing guns for MEChA.

Well, what about the “bronze nation” nationalism? What a shock– an exploited group talking about its ethnic solidarity. The Irish never engaged in such rhetoric or engaged in political cronyism based on ethnic ties — or if they did, they were all Nazis? The Jews never speak of international solidarity with other Jews in say a small country in the Middle East?

The only difference between MEChA-style ethnic nationalism and most historic white ethnic groups, is that the latinos have a clearer grievance by historical standards. It was racist white nationalism that fueled “Manifest Destiny” to take over the whole southwest in a series of wars. Sorry– the only thing that looks like Nazism is the “white mans burden” conceit of America backed by military invasion that allowed it to attack Mexico and annex its land to the United States.

David Neiwert debunks the associations made between Bustamante and a few real racists who are also connected to MEChA here.

And I don’t think Colorado Luis is off the mark when he suggests that

…in a significant way, white Democrats are the target audience for these attacks. Not necessarily just to make them think twice about voting for Bustamante on the recall, but in the longer term, to promote the fear that when Democrats run minority candidates, they will lose…Meanwhile, Republicans gear up to run their own candidates of color — Condi Rice for California governor is a popular one I’ve seen mentioned. Republicans would love it if Democrats were too afraid to nominate people of color for important jobs, while Republicans go ahead and do it. So it is important for the GOP not only that Bustamante lose, but that white Democrats see race as part of the reason for his defeat. That’s why we’re seeing the MEChA smear instead of, oh, say, an examination of Bustamante’s voting record in the California legislature.

The most important site to check out, however, for anyone interested in making a thoughtful informed evaluation of MEChA, is its own website – funny how none of the conservative bloggers I’ve run across touting this counter-Waldheim discovery have bothered to link there (I would be dangerously remiss if I didn’t also link here to MECha de Yale). As MEChA’s current philosophy reads:

The Chicano and Chicana student movement has been plagued by opportunists that have sought to rechannel the energies of our people and divert us from our struggle for self-determination. The educational plight of Chicana and Chicano students continues to be ignored by insensitive administrators. Overall, Chicano and Chicana junior high, high school and college push-out rates have risen since 1969, forcing many Chicanos and Chicanas to a life of poverty. These factors along with a growing right wing trend in the nation are combing to work greater hardships on Chicanos and Chicanas. New repressive and racist immigration laws are continuously directed at our Gente. The Federal government is campaigning to pacify and assimilate our Gente by labeling us “Hispanic.” The term “Hispanic” seeks to anglicize and deny our indigenous heritage by ignoring our unique socioeconomic and historical aspect of our Gente. These factors have made it necessary for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztl├ín to affirm our philosophy of liberation (i.e. educational, socioeconomic, and political empowerment) for our Chicano and Chicana nation.
Joining with other community-based Chicano and Chicana nationalist organizations, M.E.Ch.A. is committed to ending the cultural tyranny suffered at the hands of institutional and systematic discrimination that holds our Gente captive. We seek an end to oppression and exploitation of the Chicano and Chicana Community