Saturday, January 14, 2017

Powerlessness - The 2016 Election


The left (broadly defined, which includes people like myself), have been trying to understand how the United States could elect someone like Donald Trump. We though that his clear lack of qualifications, his deplorable views, and his lack of a Presidential temperament, were so obvious that the country would elect Hillary Clinton in a landslide. We were wrong. Ink has been spilled, articles have been written, people have argued in person and online over the past two months. This is my attempt to join in the fray.

This past election cycle, and the cultural trends that underlie it, was an expression of powerlessness. Powerlessness is defined as “lack of ability, influence, or power”, and when one feels powerlessness, one often acts seemingly irrationally.

I grew up for most of my life in Central Illinois. The small (by American standards), rust belt community of Peoria and its surrounding environs were where I came of age, where I drove a car for the first time, where I had my first crush, where I lived my life. I grew up with the Tremont Turkey Festival, Gills Supper Club in Hanna City, Avanti’s Italian restaurant, and watching the Bradley Braves dominate in Basketball.  I grew up constantly aware of the precarious position of my city’s economy, for as the headquarters of Caterpillar, I knew family after family whose livelihood was dependent upon the well-being of that company.

I also grew up hating Chicago.

Growing up in Central Illinois in a politically active family, the specter of “Chicago” was always in front of me. Did we go and visit? Yep. Did we enjoy the city when we were visiting? Of course. But did we hate the city and all that it stood for in Illinois? Absolutely. To me, Chicago drained the economy of Illinois. I perceived that all the tax money went to support the city and not the downstate and I always felt that no one cared about my community…because “Chicago” was the economic engine of the State. The Democrats didn’t need to court voters in Peoria or Mt. Vernon, because they had Chicago…so why even bother. For example, when Democratic Governors from Chicagoland didn’t want to move to Springfield, we took that as a slap in the face.” Who cares about those hicks in the boonies”, we thought Chicagoans were telling us, “real people live only in Chicago”.
You may ask how this has to deal with the idea of powerlessness. How the ramblings of a guy who grew up in Central Illinois might explain the rise of Trump.

I still hate Chicago.

Irrational, I know. Do I not know that without Chicago, there would be no Illinois? Yes, I do. Do I know that without Chicago’s tax money, downstate Illinois would not be able to pave our roads or provide social services to our citizens? Of course. But this knowledge doesn’t deal with the resentment. It doesn’t deal with the fact that downstate Illinois has never felt ‘listened too’. The money that Chicago throws to the rest of Illinois isn’t enough to get past the sneers of derision and superiority that people from the downstate feel – rightly or wrongly – that Chicagoans give us.
Illinois is America. In fact, most States have similar dynamics. Tennessee? West TN is not as “sophisticated” as Central TN. Minnesota? The Twin Cities are the reason why the State does so well, who gives a shit about Greater MN. New York? Lol at the idea that the Upstate matters, NYC is where it is at.

Those who are not in the cities, the coasts, or the cultural capitals of America do not feel listened too. They feel powerless. Their way of life is disappearing, and instead of listening, we mock them. Are there very negative manifestations of how rural America has dealt with this feeling of powerlessness? Absolutely. Many have resorted to racism, homophobia, misogyny, or anti-Semitism as a way to express their anger and their feelings of resentment. But these are symptoms of this deeper problem of powerlessness.

Those of us on the left have tried to use facts. We have tried to point to the fact that the urban centers of this country provide the ability for rural America to live the way they do. We have tried to point out that immigrants, LGBT people, and people of color all make contributions to our society that should be celebrated. We point out that rural Americans are “takers” from the productive urban areas, we emphasize that rural areas have more power than they should in our federal structure. All to no avail. Why? But of the one thing we haven’t done - actually address this feeling of powerlessness.

And until we do, until we meet rural Americans where they are at, rather than where we want them to be, people like Trump will win. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Vote - It's Empowering

Today, I voted.

And it was awesome.

Often, we hear about voting in the negative. Facebook and twitter are both constantly filled with memes and posts stating something along the lines of "Make sure to vote...otherwise THEY (whichever party) will do this and that and that will be really really bad". Our "civic duty" is cast in the negative - make sure to do this or something will  be taken away from you.

But I am here with a different, albeit brief, message: Vote - it is empowering.

This morning I got up early to go to my local polling place to cast a ballot on whether or not Ann Arbor should increase property taxes for increased public transit. I know, I know, a super sexy topic that really gets people out of bed and out to the polls (for me, it does, because I love public transit and believe it is underfunded - but that is a topic for another blog post).

But when I got into the voting booth  it didn't matter that I was voting for a public transit tax. I felt excited that I was there - saying "yes" to something that impacts me on a daily basis. I felt nervous as I filled out the bubble with my vote - double checking that I filled it in correctly and that I didn't misread the question (even though I had read it about a dozen times online).

I felt I had a voice.

Voting isn't always about voting "against" something or someone. It isn't about fear. It is about putting your voice into the world through your ballot. And your one voice, coupled with those who vote with you, enact the real change in this country.

Go vote...its empowering.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

UPDATE: Tennessee wedding venue CHANGES POLICY!

Excellent news coming out of Tennessee this morning! After meeting with Tennessee Equality Project's Executive Director Chris Sanders yesterday, the wedding venue that I wrote about two days ago, Mint Springs Farm, has decided that they are allowing ALL couples - gay and straight - to use their facility for commitment/wedding ceremonies. From the TEP Facebook page:
"As owners of Mint Springs farm we have had time to regroup and reflect. We have reached out to the community and started a dialogue with Tennessee Equality Project. The Executive Director, Chris Sanders was able to meet with us. In order to move forward we have decided to change our policy. We will offer commitment ceremonies for any future couples that have a legal license from other states or countries. We also want to broaden this offer to include couples who simply want a commitment ceremony with no intention of obtaining legal marriage license.This will be our policy moving forward, it will remain true to all future prospective clients."
Let the owners of Mint Springs Farm know that this is a welcome change in policy, a change in policy which respects the inherent dignity of ALL couples - not just heterosexual ones. Their Yelp page, Facebook page, and Nashville Wedding pages are linked.

Also,make sure to let the Tennessee Equality Project know that you appreciate their work on this issue and the other issues that LGBT Tennesseans face every day.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tennessee Venue Refuses Service To A Gay Couple Because It Would Be An Illegal Wedding.

In today's "anti-gay bigots attempting to whitewash their opposition to our families" story, a same-sex couple (who are both Iraq war veterans) in Tennessee have been denied the usage of a wedding venue - simply because they are gay. 

WSMV Nashville gives us the story:

Looking for a place to hold a commitment ceremony, Wilfert and Blas said an employee took them on a tour of Mint Springs Farm where they believed the rustic charm and fences along winding roads would be the perfect backdrop. The website even says, 'Mint Springs Farm is an all-inclusive venue.'
"I made it clear from the get-go that it was a same-sex ceremony," said Wilfert. "He explicitly made it clear that it was not an issue, that they would host that type of ceremony."

Wilfert and Blas said days after two employees told them it'd be fine to hold their ceremony at the venue, they got an e-mail from an owner at Mint Springs Farm reading, "Unfortunately, until same sex marriage is legal in the state of Tennesse, we cannot participate in this ceremony at our venue. I wish we could help, I truly do, but our hands are tied in this situation."
Oh, but the reasoning of the owner gets even better...
 "We are deeply sorry that a staff member of ours was unaware of our policy and truly understand the disappointment of this couple. Our employee was simply trying to be helpful to this couple who visited our venue after hours. We only do weddings at our facility. When we went into this endeavor, we knew that due to the nature of our business, this situation would arise. However, Tennessee law currently states that same-sex marriage is prohibited by the Tennessee State Constitution. Because we only host weddings, we cannot violate Tennessee law. This decision does not in any way reflect or convey any personal feelings on this matter. We wish this couple the very best."
This rationale by the owner makes absolute sense because, as we all know, the Tennessee Constitution prohibits private venues from participating - in any way shape or form - in a same-sex wedding ceremony.  

Wait...that isn't what the Tennessee Constitution says? Here is the text:
The historical institution and legal contract solemnizing the relationship of one man and one woman shall be the only legally recognized marital contract in this state. Any policy or law or judicial interpretation, purporting to define marriage as anything other than the historical institution and legal contract between one man and one woman is contrary to the public policy of this state and shall be void and unenforceable in Tennessee. If another state or foreign jurisdiction issues a license for persons to marry and if such marriage is prohibited in this state by the provisions of this section, then the marriage shall be void and unenforceable in this state.
Nowhere in the marriage discrimination amendment is there anything about private venues being prohibited from holding a same-sex wedding ceremony on their property. Methinks the owners of Mint Springs Farm are simply bigoted against same-sex people and our relationships - and tried to come up with a "reason" to deny us service. Sorry Mint Springs...but we can see through your rationale. 

If you want to leave them a polite note detailing how the TN Constitution does not prohibit them from hosting a same-sex ceremony, please do so on their Facebook page

Update: Tennessee Equality Project Executive Director Chris Sanders has written a public letter to the owners of Mint Springs can find it at their Facebook page, or here it is in full. 

April 27, 2014

To the Owners of Mint Springs Farm

Good morning. I saw the Channel 4 piece on your refusal to serve a same-sex couple for their upcoming commitment ceremony and wanted to offer some perspective.

You indicated that your hands are tied because of the Tennessee Constitution. The Tennessee Constitution prevents the State of Tennessee from recognizing marriages by people of the same sex. It does not in any way prevent privates businesses from holding commitment ceremonies. Numerous commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples are held in houses of worship and private establishments around the state every year.

If you wish to get legal advice on this point, we will be glad to ask some attorneys to clarify the matter for you. Since you cited the Tennessee Constitution, we can only conclude that your refusal of the same-sex couple is based solely on your misreading of the law. If it has to do with bias against same-sex couples, especially those who have served our country, then that's another matter entirely.

We call on you immediately to reach out to the couple and explain your confusion and offer them your services. A profound apology for the mistake would also add a needed dose of healing to this event.

Please, let us know whether you will serve this couple and other same-sex couples.

Gratefully yours

Chris Sanders
Executive Director
Tennessee Equality Project and Tennessee Equality Project Foundation
Update #2: Mint Springs Farm has deleted their Facebook review page - so...naturally, move over to Yelp or Perfect Wedding and let them know what you think!!

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Power of Words


Simple characters on a page (or computer screen). Yet at the same time, when they are strung together, they evoke a wide range of human emotion – from pleasure and happiness, to anger and disgust. Even though we may claim that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, in reality, words DO have an immense impact on individuals and groups. Words can bring a man to his knees or propel someone to stardom. In essence, words are among the most powerful tools of humanity. 

Because words have these impacts, it is unsurprising that the hiring of certain "writers" gets everyone up in arms. For example, take the kerfuffle over Ezra Klein’s most recent hire of Brandon Ambrosino for Klein's new venture Vox. Though the hire may be puzzling (I don’t care about the hire per se), I am more concerned about the impact that Ambrosino’s words have had and will have on the LGBT movement.

But Kyle, you may say, if the pro-equality side on the “right side of history”, it shouldn't matter what a professional contrarian claims. This is true…to an extent. Though our side can withstand even the most intellectual arguments – as can be seen in both the legal and academic realms - the reason why Ambrosino gets under the skin of LGBT activists is not because of what he says, but instead because he is a gay man making these arguments. Even if Ambrosino’s beliefs emanate from a deep seated insecurity as well as display a lack of intellectual rigor, these facts don't matter to those fighting against our community. The opponents of equality (whether on the Right or Left) will naturally engage in the fallacy of extrapolating what one person says as being what a large segment of people think. “Look”, they will say, “here is a gay man who doesn't think that if you oppose gay marriage you are a homophobe…ergo, we are not” and “here is a gay man who says he chose to be gay, hence, ALL gay people choose to be gay”.

Ambrosino’s thoughts may be acceptable for debate in the realm of academia, after all, queer theory has been fighting against the “born this way” narrative for some time now, but Ambrosino is not in academia and he isn't writing to an academic audience. He is writing to broader society, a society which still contains a large percentage of people who DO believe that gay people are bullies, that we can change our sexual orientation, and that it isn't wrong to deny gay couples equal marriage rights. Ambrosino’s words will give (and likely have given) credence to the parents – like mine – who believe that gay people choose their sexual orientation, to send their children to reparative therapy. His writing gives legitimacy to the claims that those of us who are fighting for equal rights are the actual haters. And he gives a pass for religious groups to change their belief structure – because it isn't homophobic to deny gay couples equal treatment under the law.

Ambrosino doesn't seem to understand the responsibility of the platform that he has been given. His words do not exist in a vacuum, but instead are part of the overall narrative of equality and the place of LGBT people in the broad fabric of our society. His words have the power to help (or to hurt) not only our movement, but also the young man questioning whether his parents hate who he is because they think that gay couples are disgusting. This is the reason why there has been so much blowback by the LGBT movement on his hire, and why Klein should seriously reconsider giving Ambrosino a platform to disseminate his views. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

America Should Learn From Medicaid

Today in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein analyzes the biggest success of the Affordable Care Act – Medicaid – and how we are unfortunately not hearing much about this programs success.  Klein goes into an analysis of why he believes that Democrats have not been trumpeting the expansion of Medicaid as much as they should. He claims (and I agree) that Democrats are hesitant to sign Medicaid’s praises because of America’s hesitancy towards expanding the social safety net. Because “Obamacare” was sold as a program by which individuals who were not able to purchase private health insurance (whether that be for pre-existing conditions, the unaffordability of an individual plan, etc.) can now do so, one wouldn't want to use as a support for the Affordable Care Act the expansion of a government single-payer system. Further, because about half of the State have refused to expand Medicaid, the success of the program is limited to certain States (mostly Democratic ones).

This reluctance of Democrats and the Obama Administration to emphasize the success of Medicaid is unfortunate, as something like that program is actually where we should be headed as a country. Studies have shown that Medicaid costs have not increased a substantial amount compared to private insurance and Medicare and further studies have also shown that Medicaid is more cost-effective on a per capita basis than private insurance. This makes complete sense, because Medicaid, as a government program, has greater buying power with healthcare providers than private insurance companies do. This difference in buying power between government and private insurance companies is why almost every other developed country that has a form of single-payer spends less than the United States. Medicaid also has access to False Claims Act qui tam suits for fraud, which private insurance companies do not have access to outside of California and Illinois. These are just two of the reasons why Medicaid is more cost effective than private insurance. 

Granted, many conservatives claim that there are fundamental problems with Medicaid. For example, because the government is able to bargain for lower payments, and because those payments are significantly lower than the payments that doctors receive from private insurance plans, doctors are hesitant to accept Medicaid patients. Because of this lack of access to a primary care physician, that increases the usage by people on Medicaid of Emergency Rooms, as the recently released Oregon study showed. But these critiques are deceiving, because in reality the critique only works if you look at Medicaid as the outsider in the “private insurance” market.  I could use the same data, look at it from a different angle ,and say that it is not Medicaid that has the problem. Instead, I could just as legitimately claim that it is the private insurance market which is the problem. It is because the private insurance plans pay more than Medicaid that doctors will not see Medicaid patients. It is because of private insurance plans that Medicaid patients who cannot find a primary care physician use Emergency Rooms more.

Democrats need to up the ante. We need to emphasize to America that compared to the rest of the world we DO have a substandard healthcare system. Does it look great on the outside? Yes. We have gleaming new operating rooms, state of the art equipment, and doctors paid out the wazoo. But does that mean that we, as a society, get better care? No. In fact, other countries spend substantially LESS on healthcare, and have better outcomes. Democrats need to shout this from the rooftops; and we need to move to a form of single-payer.  

Gay Marriage Stopped in Utah - I'm Not Surprised.

The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, issued a stay of Judge Shelby’s opinion striking down Utah’s Amendment 3 (gay marriage ban). As much as members of the LGBT community are upset about this development, I’m not at all surprised. I was actually more surprised that the 10th Circuit didn't stay the decision itself.

Judge Shelby’s opinion, though good, enunciated a lot of ideas that have either been rejected by many Courts (same-sex marriage bans are discrimination on the basis of sex – which he really didn’t get too because he found the ban failed rational basis review) or are pretty weak to begin with (that same-sex couples have a “fundamental right to marry” – I don’t think that we do based upon Due Process jurisprudence). The opinions strong points – the nature of “responsible procreation” etc. – haven’t really had an opportunity to be analyzed by Circuit Courts and in many cases such reasoning by the State has been upheld by Courts around the United States. Granted, most of these unfavorable opinions were issued prior to the landmark Supreme Court case of Windsor v. United States, but I don’t personally see Windsor as a useful case to argue against state same-sex marriage bans (given its very limited focus and federalism issues).  Therefore, because the issues in Judge Shelby’s opinion were rather revolutionary in the Court system, it SHOULD HAVE been stayed by the 10th Circuit. Granted, the State of Utah botched the stay request, and its briefs to the 10th Circuit were laughable, but that doesn't hide the fact that the Court should have granted said stay.

Regardless, I want to take this opportunity to remind my readers that the Supreme Court had an opportunity to deal with marriage equality on a nationwide scale last year in the Prop 8 case. But they punted, instead deciding to issue an opinion based on standing issues. Read into that what you will (I have, and I read that Kennedy isn't ready to legalize marriage nationwide), but that fact must be remembered. 

So now what we have is a case being appealed in the 10th Circuit (UT), one being appealed in the 9th Circuit (NV), and many going to trial this month and next around the country. 2014 will be a fun year!
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