Wednesday, July 3, 2013

We the People

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As you might of noticed, there was no post on Saturday, mainly because I spent the day running all over Minneapolis with my friends, celebrating the Pride festival. Minneapolis hosts the 3rd largest Pride in the United States and is known for its family-friendly atmosphere. Here, it's become another sort of event to attend, like the State Fair or the Uptown Art Festival, which I think says a lot about how accepted the GLBT community is in the Twin Cities.

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.

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I don't think I've ever clearly expressed my political standing on this blog, mainly because I can't. I don't have a clear political standing. There is no political group I fit really nicely into. I don't like the two party system because it generally feels like both parties say the same thing, just in different words. I'm not clearly a socialist though I certainly have Marxist leanings. I'm sort of a libertarian except for the focus on private institutions and isolationism and the emphasis on small government (not that I'm entirely against small government, but why doesn't anyone ever talk about middle sizes? Or some flexibility? You know, have some growth here, shrink it down over here; that sort of thing). Sometimes I get all anarchist and hate the idea of political systems entirely, but then remember that general chaos is not really something I'm a fan of and I like having an organized way in which to express my opinion and my vote does matter, thank you very much. Given the fact that I feel my generation is entering an era that history will likely want to compare to the 1960s or 1970s, I've been thinking about what it means to be an American in this era a lot. And I've realized that I don't easily think of myself as one.

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.

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The point is, national identity has gotten rather complicated in our global world and when you live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, being American is weird. It's not bad, it's not good, it just is and it's bizarre. Tomorrow we're celebrating our independence from a country who is now our closest ally (and a place I have a strange appreciation for), a holiday that teeters between a day of strong patriotism and an excuse to get drunk (I use the number of people who injure themselves while setting off fireworks when intoxicated each 4th as evidence of this and not an exaggeration). I like the 4th because it allows me to contemplate something else - that while I do feel disconnected from American identity, that I have troubled feelings about the United States, this is also my home and has been for the last twenty-two years of my life. I may identify more as a Minnesotan than an American, but being an American is part of the Minnesotan identity and I know my roots here at least are deep. I may not always live in this country, but it has deeply changed how I see the world, for better and for worse. And just because I don't like aspects of where I'm from doesn't mean I should give up on it. I have high hopes for my country and I'd like to see them realized - being at Pride and seeing what sort of place we could live in outside the special event made me astoundingly aware of that.

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On an attempt to come to some sort of closing here, I'll go back to the email that sparked all of this. The White House did get one thing right in their response - recognizing the number of people who signed the petition. While this was added in to appease the signers that they can't actually do anything about this issue, it hints at a really important point. We can't always look to our government for change - we just can't. If we did, we'd be waiting around forever. It took months for the White House to get back to the signers of this petition, and this is an easy response - it's a petition that can't be recognized because of how labeling hate groups work. Instead, it's up to those who signed the petition to do something else - find their own way to make sure Westboro's hate and bigotry can be limited. Maybe the U.S. government doesn't function properly or maybe it can't deal with every issue or maybe it's driven by corrupt means or maybe it's slowly creating change - I let others decide which of these to believe. Maybe it's all of these. However, it's a quote from Margaret Mead that I turn to now (one I found on a magnet at Pride and felt compared to buy): “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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

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