On a related note, when I sat down to write this post today, I found an email in my inbox from the White House. Don't get excited - this was a mass email sent out to those who had signed a petition asking for the Westboro Baptist Church to be formally recognized by the White House as a hate group, so that they can no longer be allowed to protest military funerals and hold up signs with their gay slurs written on them, shouting angrily that God is killing Americans because we're accepting of homosexuality. You can understand why I don't like this group. The petition, which I had signed some months ago, garnered this response from the White House:
Thank you for your petition.
The We the People Terms of Participation explain that "the White House may decline to address certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government."
To the extent that these petitions request a particular law enforcement or adjudicatory action, we cannot issue a comment. In addition, as a matter of practice, the federal government doesn't maintain a list of hate groups. That's the prerogative of private organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.
That all said, we agree that practices such as protesting at the funerals of men and women who died in service to this country and preventing their families from mourning peacefully are reprehensible-- a point that President Obama has made for years. That's why he signed a law to ensure that protesters keep an appropriate distance at military funerals. As the President has said, “The graves of our veterans are hallowed ground, and when men and women die in the service of their country and are laid to rest, it should be done with the utmost honor and respect.”
Moreover, one of the remarkable things about this set of petitions is that it shows just how strong the bonds that unite us can be. Together, we’re more resilient than those who would try to drive us apart.
Take, for instance, this map of all the signers of the petition "Legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group" -- that we built with the zip codes that people chose to share with us when they signed. The darker color indicates a higher percentage of signers for that particular area's population. While support for these petitions came from all over the country, it was densely clustered in two places that have unique insight into the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church -- Kansas, the state the church calls home, and Newtown, Connecticut, where the church threatened to picket the funerals of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.Let me put my initial response in the form of a song:
Fortunately, you're getting the written response to this email, not the angry verbal rant that my parents had to put up with after I'd read it. Okay, so the federal government doesn't maintain a list of hate groups (that's news to me, but whatever) but the handling of this issue really rubbed me the wrong way. President Obama has signed a law insuring that protestors keep an appropriate distance at military funerals? You know what the appropriate distance is? NOT THERE AT ALL. I'm rather irate that more action can't be taken against Westboro. While they are a very small group and could be ignored, they gain a lot of media attention and they certainly aren't a church - they're a hate group. Though Americans have freedom of speech, I feel that when your words start hurting others, your forfeiting that freedom because you are doing harm. Also, freedom of speech is centered around making sure the large entities (aka: governments, like the British government that influenced the formation of this part of the Constitution) don't take away the right of expression and speech through means like censorship. Would labeling Westboro as a hate group and not allowing them to protest at funerals be censorship? I certainly don't think so.
This comes on top of a post that was driven from an mental crisis I've been having for a great many years - that of identifying as an American (especially since saying America refers to two continents - and yet the U.S. has stolen the term - but calling ourselves United Statesians sounds really dumb). Given that tomorrow is the fourth of July, the day on which my country-people celebrate our independence from the United Kingdom by blowing up ludicrous amounts of fireworks, eating hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, apple pie, and of course the alcoholic beverage or two, or twelve, ideas of American identity are very present in my mind right now. However, the older I get, the more I love the 4th while also having a growing ambiguous attitude towards it.
It's not that I'm not American, that'd be wrong and inaccurate. I live in this country, I was born in this country, my citizenship is with this country. But after discussing nation-states in far too many of my cultural studies classes, boundary lines start to look really arbitrary, especially given technologies that allow us to communicate from all over the world. Maybe lines on a map meant more when travel took far longer and we couldn't instantly message someone who was half the world away. Now, differences between countries are more nuanced, more specific, and our similarities are easier to see. It's difficult to see American identity as anything better than another sort of national identity and so, ideas of patriotism and citizenship have changed for me.
However, the United States is also enormous, and to try and have an identity as such in an immense nation that focuses mostly on the East and West coasts makes things rather difficult. There are certain markers of Americanness, some that I like and other that I don't, some that I identify with and others that I don't. There shouldn't be a limited amount of markers for what makes someone an American, but unfortunately (because yay, hegemony) that isn't always the case. Tie this into my already complicated political beliefs, the fact that my country has done a lot of things and continues to do a lot of things I don't agree with but also has done some really damn spectacular things, and the fact that I got this really timely email in my inbox, you can probably begin to see why being "American" is not as simple as apple pie. Actually, scratch that - I don't think pies are all that simple to make. Maybe that's a better comparison than I initially thought.
As Gandhi (sort of) said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." While labeling the Westboro Baptist Church would easily prevent them from their heinous actions, it wouldn't do much to get rid of that mentality, I suppose. If it's up to us, to the citizens, to promote this change, then we have to fight against the ideas that Westboro supports. It's a much harder fight but one, perhaps, that will have better long-lasting affects. As the 4th approaches, I think more and more of how I want to live in a country I can be proud of. And I can't expect that it will happen without some effort of my own. I keep thinking of this John Mayer song and how much my friend Sarah hates it because of its message:
If we wait for the world to change, we'll be waiting for the rest of our lives. C'mon John Mayer - I'm going to steal your song and rewrite it because that one little line drives me crazy. Listen to Margaret Mead. Change the world. Blow up fireworks and eat hotdogs and think about what kind of place you want to live in. And then make it happen. Maybe it's the drive I've gotten from Pride and seeing how the passing of the marriage amendment has affected the community (I mean, a proposal happened at one of the music stages they had set up and that wouldn't have been possible a year ago. By August 1st, marriage equality will be completely active and present in Minnesota - it makes me ridiculously happy). Maybe it's the fact that my future job perspectives look like they contain some degree of activism. Maybe it's because nothing really matters and because nothing matters, everything matters. I may feel disconnected from Americanness, not because I'm not one but because being an American is only a part of who I am in a global society. However, it's an important part and something I'd like to be proud and humbled of, not ashamed or arrogant of.
And so, I'm entering this strange holiday of ours with actually quite a bit of joy. Trepidation for the future, of course, worry about political situations and certain policies, certainly. But I feel a great deal of hope in myself and those around me. I firmly believe that groups of people can change the world. Now it's just up to me to find one of those groups and get shit done :D