Friday, 19 June 2009

Equal but different is not equal at all

At last.
President Obama signed a memorandum extending to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees some of the rights enjoyed by their heterosexual counterparts.
At last.

Still, this is no cause for celebration. This is basic stuff we are talking about. And although we are all happy this has finally happened, I can't help but be bothered by the fact that this simple memo is the result of months of study into how to extend benefits for same-sex couples without upsetting the conservative right and without violating the Defense of Marriage Act, an Act the Obama administration has vowed to scrap yet keeps defending.
So this memo, important as it is, is nowhere near enough if you are committed to ending the inequality marginalising same-sex couples. But it is too much if you care about not offending the conservative right.
There is no middle ground here and Obama is rapidly discovering this much to his dismay.

'This is only one step' said Obama in a conciliatory tone.
But that was a step too far for the conservarive right while pro-gay rights communities were left wondering when he's going to take the next step.
Obama has paid lip-service to the gay rights agenda but supporters feel he is not going fast enough or far enough. The conservative right, on the other hand, think he has already gone too far too fast.
From an electoral perspective, Obama needs to get this balance right. The gay community is a big chunk of votes he can't afford to lose but America's conservative heartland represents more votes still. From an electoral perspective, he needs to placate both sides, a mathematical impossibility as one side wants all rights to apply regardless of sexuality and the other, well, doesn't. So his only option is to anger both sides, a little but not too much. A thankless task if there ever was one.

All this considered, I still don't think that giving same-sex domestic partners access to healthcare is a breakthrough: it's a much-needed, long-overdue 'fix' to an unfair practice that discriminates and excludes people just because of how they find happiness and who they chose to love.
So the question, really, is 'now what?'

Obama has appointed openly gay individuals to prominent positions thus angering the right – name one thing that doesn't anger the right other than bible study – but beyond that, this is the first nod towards gay rights since he took office five months ago. Yes yes I know he has wars to finish and a financial crisis to manage but, to be honest, if he can't multi-task he's in the wrong job.

You wanna call a spade a spade?
In America, land of freedom and opportunity, some animals are more equal than others. So when a young black Democrat was elected to the supreme office, the entire world thought: here comes the end of 'equal but different' – segregation policies in all but name. But five months on, we are still waiting. What is he waiting for? The tide is already turning. Six states have legalised same-sex marriage. But, wait for it, Obama opposes that on religious grounds.

And that's where Barack lost me. Not that he cares. But he lost me.
Because that is a hypocritical narrow-minded rejection of difference (for political gain or out of personal cowardice and I don't know what's worse) and this is why:
- Christianity is a faith system based on love. Love for God and love for each other. No true Christian rejects love, wherever it is found, whatever form it may take, even if it is love you do not wish for yourself.

- Marriage is a civil bond that may or may not be sanctified by a religious ceremony. It is a contract allowing partners who spend their lives together to share the property they amass together, to make decisions regarding each other's health when the time comes, to be a unit in the eyes of the law. Religion comes into it if the couple feel it should and to reject a couple's legal right to marry on religious grounds is misguided and hypocritical.

- A same sex couple taking vows of fidelity and love hurts absolutely nobody. It takes away nothing from any other group. Even if you don't think that their love and partnership makes the world a better place, you cannot point to a single thing you lose through their union. If you don't like what you see, look away. Human and civil rights are granted on grounds of humanity and citizenship and cannot be legitimately withheld because you do not like the way people choose to exercise them.

And this is not about sexuality as such. This is about the sort of world you want to live in. And here is my problem: I think there should be anti-gun laws because people with guns can hurt others. I don't object to anti-smoking laws in public places on the same grounds but think that laws banning people from smoking in their own cars is penalizing a lifestyle choice and that's not how we do business in a liberal society. And that's the crux of the matter. My rights can only legitimately be curtailed in order to safeguard other people's rights. Not on grounds of the tastes and preferences of those in power. Objecting to gay marriage on religious or moral grounds, to me, translates to 'you can't have it cos I don't like it and don't want it for myself'.

So the time has come to stand up for what we believe in and that does not entail answering the question 'do you think gay servicemen and women should have the same right as civil servants not in uniform' (which they should); the question is 'do you want to live in a world where some animals are more equal than others'?

Obama promised to reverse the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act yet only last week the Justice Department filed a legal brief opposing a challenge to said Act (apparently administrations defend laws they oppose as a matter of course, according to Obama's press secretary) using unnecessarily strong language. If this was an attempt at conciliation, it failed. Gay groups are offended, rights activists are outraged while the right is not placated by the brief and finds Obama's memo a violation of the rule of law and the Defense of Marriage Act.

So what will it be Barack?
This war won't be won with token gestures and small concessions. While same-sex couples live in the margins because their rights are denied by a majority that doesn't care about what doesn't concern them, the right consider tiny redresses to the massive rights imbalance 'aggressive' and 'radical'.
Tony Perkins, President of the conservative Family Research Council, went as far as to speak of the homosexuals' extreme demands.
What would those be, I wonder?
The right for a couple to stay together when one partner is posted abroad? The right to take compassionate leave when your life partner is sick and needs you by their side? The right to live in dignity and peace? The right to publicly love and protect your chosen partner?

Extreme indeed.
As extreme as black kids going to school and women getting jobs. As extreme as black women voting and taking the bar exam.

The point is, fairness is not a popularity contest.
Equality is universal or it is not at all. Rights are universal or they are a sham.
That's why the world looked on in hope when a black man became President of the US. Because he didn't need to have some things explained to him. He didn't need to be told discrimination is criminal and 'equal but different' is an insult and a lie. And because he didn't need to have any of this explained to him, we expect him to stand up to be counted when fairness is at stake.

So Mr Obama, on the question of gay rights what we want from you is to eliminate the very phrase. We want equality for individuals to completely eclipse the need to even talk of gay rights. Because people who happen to be gay will have the same rights as people who happen to be straight.

Equality cannot be had by degrees. You are either equal or you are not.
So what will it be?

Monday, 15 June 2009

Greece, my Neverland

I just got back from Greece. I've brought back several tons of olives and a passable tan; I managed to forget half my clothes and take, instead, summer clothes I haven't worn in decades (because 'you never know' whatever that means, sometimes I don't even make sense to myself). And here I am back in London, back at work. Missing my mum. Missing the sunshine. And realising that storylines matter. 'Once upon time' creates its own imperatives. Stories have power, they don't determine everything but they do open up some options while closing others. That's why so much of the randomness of Greek life can be taken for granted while you are actually in Greece.
Take zebra crossings. I will go out of my way in London to find one, law-abiding citizen that I am. In Greece it never crosses my mind to cross at one. It wouldn't make a difference even if it did. Because crossing at zebra crossings doesn't happen in Greece. It's not part of the story.

Everything comes with a storyline. The way people behave in public, the way they approach politics, what they expect from the economy.

Take the European elections.

I flew out to Athens on Friday night last week. Thursday was the European election in the UK, Sunday was election day in Greece. In England you could have missed the fact that there was a European election altogether. Advertising did not go much beyond a 'don't forget to vote/make sure your papers are in order so you can vote' campaign and some flyers from various candidates. The actual candidates. 'Vote for me' type flyers including a photo and a name. Of the candidates. Themselves.

And then I fly out to Greece. And during the sleepy drive (worry not faithful readers, I wasn't doing the driving) from Athens airport to the heart of Thessaly (that's half-way up the country, for the non-Greeks among you. a drive of just over 3 hours) I saw literally thousands of political posters. More per hundred yards of high-way than in the whole of West London put together. In fact, I lost count of the political posters lining the streets before I even lost sight of the airport.
Poster after poster after poster but no sight of a candidate.

The posters fell in two categories: the two big parties (PA.SO.K – nominally socialist but essentially value-neutral unless lining your own pocket counts as an ideology – and Nea Demokratia – nominally conservative but in reality focusing more on being the most corrupt and inefficient government in a series of corrupt and inefficient governments, regardless of hue and creed. It's hard work but they are doing it very well). Those posters look identical: leader looking wistfully into the middle distance, backdrop in the party colours (green and blue, respectively) and an inspirational, void logo along the lines of 'we vote for Europe, we decide for Greece' or 'focusing on the citizen'.
The second type of poster was fielded by the communists (yes, we still have those in Greece) and the Euro-Communists (aka 'Syriza'). These were in various shades of red and focused on encouraging people to vote against the big parties as a sign of rebellion. Hasta la victoria siempre.

No mention of the European Parliament.
No mention of the actual candidates.
The storyline was all about parties and expressions of loyalty to colour schemes.

And that's the story both politicians and journalists stuck to.The entire European parliament election shebang was couched in a party narrative. The journalists were using the exact same language as if they were covering a parliamentary election. As were the politicians.
This party did this, this party got that share of the vote, a great success for the leader of the opposition, a blow for the Prime Minister.
And as all narratives, this one built up its own momentum and everyone around me was speaking of the European elections the same way. They even joked about how poorly Gordon Brown did over here.

Naturally MEP election results are often read as a rough indication of how well big parties are doing at home. But no more than that. MEP elections are safe (because MEPs have no power whatsoever so a voter will never live to regret a poor choise) so people vote in ways that they wouldn't vote 'at home': they vote Green, they vote Liberal, they vote 'funky' because they can.
No-one suggests that the result doesn't reflect poorly on Labour in the UK (not least because the nationalists did so well in the UK MEP election) but here's the newsflash: Brown was not running in the European election. The Greek Premier and his arch rival were not running the European election. Their parties weren't even running in the European election as MEPs belong to EU-wide amalgamation parties with separate leaders and rather loose party discipline.

But the narrative was so over-powering, no-one questioned it in Greece.
The narrative of the European election as a national election means that the premier has to hang his head in shame and promise the voters that he will reflect on the message they sent him (in this election that had nothing to do with him). But this same narrative allowed him to dismiss parliament, hide a series of scandals under the carpet and literally get away with murder.
This narrative gave all political parties a breathing space of several months 'preparing' for an election that didn't affect them and basking in the glory of a victory that doesn't concern them.

Stories matter.
'Once upon a time' sets the tone and we follow. It takes skill to spin a good story, to make sure things are understood a certain way, viewed a certain way, linked a certain way. Stories matter. Because we live in terms of stories and we understand our experiences in terms of the stories they fit into and we all assume our roles within the stories. And although we question events and people and facts, we rarely question the story.
Remember the Matrix? It's a bit like that minus the kicks and the leather coats.

Of course, I do realise that, in the grand scheme of things and in light of all our erstwhile leaders have put us through, this is small fry. In some ways, the European election gave our leaders something to play with that meant the economy, justice system and social structures were left in peace for a while. And yet this little game matters immensely. Because this story, as many others, was spun to perfection as far away from reality as it could possibly be without giving the game away.
And we swallowed it whole.

All I'm saying is that those who determine the 'once upon a time' also hold the 'happily ever after' and if we want a part of that, we'd better keep an eye on the storyline they are feeding us.