Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE INTERBLOB

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
 
I recently started a new job in downtown San Diego, and that means for the last three weeks I’ve been witnessing the slow death of an old friend. No, I don’t mean a human being. I’m referring to the huge building in front of Horton Plaza that used to house San Diego’s outlet of the long-defunct Planet Hollywood restaurant chain and, more importantly to my point of view, the Sam Goody’s record, video, electronics and entertainment store. It’s being torn down to make way for a so-called “expansion” of Horton Plaza Park that, judging from the artists’ renderings of what it’s supposed to look like, is a typical San Diego public project: spectacularly ugly, offering no continuity with the original park and looking more like an industrial park’s patio than a community gathering center. But that’s another story.
No, the topic today is why Sam Goody’s had to die — and as someone who literally spent thousands of dollars there over the years, I feel like I’m entitled to mourn its passing. It’s the same phenomenon that killed Sam Goody’s most direct competitors, Tower Records and Wherehouse. It’s what killed the Borders bookstore chain and has put Barnes and Noble on its last legs — after those operations themselves ran over hundreds of independent bookstore owners and put them out of business. It’s a phenomenon that’s running roughshod over our culture, our economics and our daily lives, driving us apart from each other and forcing us to relate electronically instead of physically.
It’s the Internet — or, as I’m increasingly calling this malevolent side of it, the Interblob. This isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of positive aspects to the Internet. For one thing, it’s enabled voices that can’t or won’t find their way in print, on radio or to TV a way to get themselves heard. It’s created outlets for media content, including the ones you’re reading this on, that would otherwise not exist. And purely from a practical point of view, the Internet has been of invaluable help to me as a fact-checker. Details in an article I used to have to spend hours in a library coming through books and periodicals to nail down are now available to me online within minutes. It’s made me a more accurate, and therefore a better, journalist.
But, like the Blob in the 1958 sci-fi camp-classic film — a huge piece of protoplasmic jelly from outer space that devoured everything in its path and grew to massive proportions — the Internet has devoured virtually every competing source of information, entertainment or culture. And that’s not all. It’s transformed such basic functions of modern life as the search for a job or the pursuit of a relationship. It’s remolding us all into widgets in an increasingly computerized world in which it’s not altogether clear whether the machines are serving us or we are serving them.
Though virtually no science-fiction writer in the pre-Internet era imagined anything like it — if they wrote about computers at all, it was usually about bigger and better mainframes than the ones from the 1950’s and 1960’s — the Interblob is absorbing more and more aspects of human life. Seemingly nothing in its path is safe — not only bookstores and record stores but newspapers, magazines, even the post office.
Want to look in the newspaper and see what’s on television tonight? Too bad. A month ago the Los Angeles Times announced that they’re discontinuing their prime-time TV listings and put in one of those all-too-familiar snippy notices saying that from then on that information would only be available — you guessed it — on their Web site. This was around the same time the Hollywood trade paper Daily Variety announced it was discontinuing its print publication completely and thenceforth would only be available — gag me — online via the Interblob.
Want to look at a newspaper at all? Too bad. Thanks to the Interblob, newspaper publishers are shrinking their print editions and charging more money for less content. They’re trying to get people to pay for online content but they’re having difficulty finding a way to do that in a manner that’s both fair to consumers and lucrative enough to sustain the expense of news-gathering. Most “news” on the Interblob vampirically sucks the blood out of mainstream media content and merely offers a gloss of opinion or “spin.”
Indeed, the Interblob is so extensively remodeling the rules of journalism that within a decade or two it will essentially cease to be a profession. With the demise of big print newspapers and the dumbing-down of broadcast news in the YouTube era, newsrooms around the country are being dismantled. Professional reporters are being replaced by Internet “stringers” who are paid pittances — when they are paid at all — for tiny stories. Reporters are being turned into digital sweatshop workers being given piece rates for how many “posts” they can get up by ever-quicker deadlines.
In May 2012, according to an article by Ryan Chittum in the March/April 2013 Columbia Journalism Review, the New Orleans Times-Picayune cut its frequency from daily to three times a week — making New Orleans the first major U.S. city, but no doubt not the last, not to have a daily paper at all. The paper’s owner, Advance Publications, laid off half the newsroom staff and replaced the fired reporters with “younger digital natives who could be paid much less … They would be told to write search-engine-optimized posts for the Web multiple times a day, and not to worry about print deadlines.” Under the lash of a corporate manager who had decided that print was dying and the Interblob was the future, they pulled this on a paper whose long-form multi-part investigative reports had earned it national acclaim — and in a city where up to one-third of the population is too poor to have Internet access at all.
Want to buy books at a bookstore? Tough luck. Want to buy CD’s or LP’s at a record store? Too bad. Want the thrill of browsing and discovering an item you didn’t know existed but absolutely fascinates you when you hold it in your hand, and buying it in that spectacular rush of knowing that your life will no longer be complete until you’ve read or listened to it? Forget it. Under the rule of the Interblob, browsing has been replaced by so-called “customized recommendations,” items Web sites offer you based on predictable patterns from what you’ve bought there before. The opportunity for the unexpected discovery has been replaced by an electromechanical feedback loop that circumscribes your taste and timidly sends you where you’ve already gone hundreds of times before.
Indeed, under the Interblob even the opportunity actually to hold a book or a recording in your hand is rapidly vanishing. Audio CD’s are being replaced by “downloads” and books are becoming “e-books” read on that pestilence of devices with cutesy-poo names: Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, Sony’s Libria (later the Reader) and Apple’s iPad. Amazon’s Web site claims that they now sell more books as Kindle files than they do as actual ink-on-paper books — as if that’s something to be proud of. What’s more, when you “buy” an e-book you don’t actually own it; you merely get a license to use it for as long as the company allows you to. Early Kindle users found that out the hard way when copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 suddenly disappeared from their devices due to a squabble between Amazon and Orwell’s print publishers. With the usual tone-deafness of modern corporations, nobody at Amazon gave a thought as to how it would look when their faceless authoritarian bureaucracy pulled their customers’ access to two famous books exposing the vicious, arbitrary power of faceless authoritarian bureaucracies.
Want to go to the library and read books the old-fashioned way without having to pay for them? Don’t hold your breath. Even though the new San Diego Public Library downtown was sold largely on the promise that thousands of books currently locked away in storage would at last be visible on the shelves and available for checkout, more recently the people running the library have said they’re just going to throw out a lot of those books rather than take the trouble to move them. Why? Once again, the Interblob: people running libraries these days see them primarily as places for people to access the Internet. The Interblob is also destroying the postal service; thanks at least partly due to the shift by corporate marketers from junk paper mail to junk e-mail, their volume has dropped so much that they’re canceling Saturday mail deliveries. Not Saturday package deliveries, though — not when those who still order stuff from Amazon and its competitors in tangible paper form rather than as e-book files are waiting for their deliveries. The United States Postal Service is charging more and more for less and less service — and we’ve all seen how well that worked for the newspaper industry.
But the Interblob isn’t stopping its carnivorous activities just on the cultural front. You want a job? Good luck finding one in the old-fashioned ways like state employment development postings and classified ads. Today not only are the job openings themselves advertised online, you need to send your résumé out online as well and hope the computers don’t screen you out even before it’s seen by a human being. You want a date? Bars and social organizations are cutting back or going out of business as that sort of human interaction, too, gets taken over by the Interblob. People can flirt with each other for months or even years online before they actually meet — go “FTF” (face-to-face), in the modern lingo — and because it’s so easy to edit or fake a computer profile, complete with a photo that’s either ancient, someone else’s or heavily Photoshopped, Interblob dating is even riskier than old-fashioned dating in terms of being lied to, ripped off or otherwise used.
The Interblob isn’t just killing old-fashioned ideals of journalism and culture; it’s also contributing to the ever-greater social stratification of the U.S. and the world. Many areas of the U.S. don’t have Internet access at all. Others don’t have broadband, which as the Internet progresses technically is virtually essential. Thanks to America’s long tradition of turning new media technologies over to private corporations who exploit their customers for maximum profits from minimal service, the nation which invented the Internet has a lower percentage of its population online than virtually every other developed country in the world. Even South Korea has a higher percentage of broadband users in its population than we do.
By now the swollen power of corporations and the super-rich in the U.S. is so great, and so far beyond effective political or social challenge, that virtually every new development in technological or social interaction is going to make the rich even richer and everyone else even poorer. The Interblob is no exception. So much of your ability to access the Internet is dependent on your financial status — whether you have the money for a state-of-the-art connection and a computer to do it justice — that the Interblob is creating a society of information-haves and information-have-nots. If you’re too poor to afford your own computer and broadband connection, once again, tough: you’re relegated to whatever jobs you can find and apply for in your grudgingly doled-out 15 minutes online at a public library.
As the Interblob kills professional journalism and replaces it with so-called “citizen bloggers” — volunteers and poorly paid pieceworkers grabbing whatever little tidbits of information they can and lacking either the skills or the budgets to pry information out of the powers that be that don’t want you to know what they’re up to — we’ll become even more socially stratified. Instead of a time when cheap newspapers and free radio and TV enabled even relatively poor citizens to be well informed about what was going on around them, in the future of the Interblob your ability to follow the political, economic and social events that shape your lives will be directly determined by your income. America’s rising trend towards inequality of income and opportunity predates the Internet — real wages have been declining steadily for 40 years — but as the Internet morphs into the Interblob, it’s only going to get worse.
And if it’s bad now, it’ll only get worse later on. How will future historians and biographers assess our age? When he did his classic documentary The Civil War Ken Burns had paper letters and photographs to draw on to give his film visual interest and bring the drama of the war home in an incredibly intimate way. A future Ken Burns trying to do a similar reconstruction of the 21st century will literally have nothing. The e-mails, text messages, tweets and blog posts of our time will have long since disappeared into evanescence. So will the digital photos we’re all so industriously shooting with our smartphones. Computerized media are so impermanent that even movie studios, which are increasingly shooting their films with digital equipment, still transfer the final results to film so they can be archived. And the technologies to play computer movies, recordings or books change so rapidly files only two to five years old become useless. The Interblob is destroying the very idea of culture as something permanent. E-products are usable only as long as the corporations that ultimately own them allow you to use them, and when they’re used up they literally vanish, disappearing into digital ether at the stroke of a key — either from you or the corporation that decides you’ve had them long enough.
What can you do about the Interblob? About the only thing is personal resistance. Vote with your pocketbook; find that corner bookstore that’s held on through the rise and fall of Barnes and Noble and Borders, or the independent record store that’s survived the decimation of Tower, Wherehouse and Goody’s, and patronize it. You might not be able to get the latest best-sellers but you’ll still find fascinating stuff to read and listen to. Keep and maintain subscriptions to the paper editions of your favorite newspapers and magazines. Socialize with real people in coffeehouses and bars instead of evanescent presences in the digital world. When you encounter one of those hateful “voicemail” systems— whose inventor, I think, deserves to rot in the nastiest and most painful circle of hell — use whatever shrinking options are left to insist on speaking to an actual human being. You’re not going to be able to stop the Interblob, but like the Luddites and the original French saboteurs — workers who threw their wooden shoes (sabots) into the machines to protest the automation that was destroying their jobs — you can at least slow it down a little.
As the Sam Goody’s building on Broadway between Third and Fourth becomes an historical memory, I’ll cling to the nostalgia of all the fascinating music I bought there. Things you wouldn’t expect in a mass-market record store, like a long-lost 1953 recording of Verdi’s Aïda with John Barbirolli conducting and Maria Callas in the title role. Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, the last recording of the woefully neglected and underrated jazz pianist Herbie Nichols. Yoko Ono’s album Blueprint for a Sunrise. An overwhelming performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from the 1951 Bayreuth festival. A two-CD collection called From Gershwin’s Time that was exactly what its title said: historical recordings of George Gershwin’s music made when he was still alive. Maybe I would have found these things browsing online, but I didn’t. I bought real, physical, tangible copies and gave the money for them to an in-the-flesh sales clerk I could talk to, often getting surprising insights about what I’d just purchased.
As the Interblob consumes all other forms of human interactions, the opportunities for much of what makes life worth living — from the chance to advance yourself career-wise to the experience of unusual or unfamiliar culture — will either shrink or simply disappear. We’re being told that all this is “inevitable,” that it’s the price of technological change and we’ll be better off when we’ve eliminated all those pesky old remnants of pre-Interblob culture like books, CD’s, newspapers and coffeehouses. But permit me to disagree and to long for the days when companies paid people to answer their phones instead of having machines do it, when you could read the news of the day on paper instead of having to log on to a computer and absorb it online, and when a book was a book was a book, and once you knew how to read, a book 10, 50, 100, 200 or even 500 years old was as accessible and as permanent as one published yesterday.

NOTE: Since this column was written, the Los Angeles Times has restored a listing of prime-time TV programs to their print edition — but it’s only half a page instead of a full page now.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Rally on Eve of Supreme Court Marriage Hearing Draws 300

Marchers “Light Up” the I-5 Overpass for Marriage Equality

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

March with International Socialist Organization (ISO) banner

Gathering before the rally

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

Four Years and No Complaints

You Are Not Alone

Sean Sala

Lori Hensic of the American Military Partners’ Association (right) with her fiancée Shaina

Fernando Lopez

Pastor Bill McCullen of Missiongathering

Musician Colby Martin of Missiongathering

March with End DoMA, Prop. 8 sign

March after dark

Assembling the lights

At the overpass

“This shit wouldn’t happen … ”

On the eve of the United States Supreme Court’s historic hearing of the constitutional challenge to Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage approved by California voters in November 2008, San Diego was one of 180 cities in all 50 U.S. states to host a “Light the Way to Justice” rally. The purpose of the nationwide mobilization was to raise public awareness of the case and to call on the Supreme Court to issue an historic ruling declaring all laws against marriage equality for same-sex couples unconstitutional.
The event was held outside the Federal Building on Broadway and Front Street downtown at 6 p.m. March 25. It was called by San Diego Queer activist Sean Sala, organizer of the first contingent of active-duty military personnel to participate in a Pride parade. Sala acknowledged he’s a relative newcomer to Queer activism, having only been involved for the last two years, while “there are people who have been doing this five, 10, 15, 20, 50 years now. We’re here because of their work.” As precedents for civil-rights activism he cited 19th century women’s activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk and the “drag queens and Transgender people who were the ones at Stonewall who sparked this movement.”
Sala put together a 41-minute program with three speakers and a musical performer. First up was Lori Hensic, director of educational affairs for the American Military Partner Association, a nationwide network of partners and spouses of Queer servicemembers. Throughout her presentation her partner Shaina, an active-duty Marine Hensic plans to marry in California this August if the Supreme Court invalidates Proposition 8, stood by her side.
“I’m elated and moved beyond words to send a true message to the Supreme Court to embody the virtues of equality,” Hensic said. “I’m the child of parents who raised me with honor, and taught me to stand up for what was right. I didn’t think I’d ever have to stand up against my parents. My spouse and I will be married in August, but my parents will not be there because they tell me they ‘do not believe in same-sex marriage.’ It’s not something to ‘believe’ in. My love is real, and my marriage will be too. I’m hoping the Supreme Court will allow this marriage to continue and grant us the benefits to which all other Americans are entitled.”
The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear two different marriage-equality cases on consecutive days. On February 26 they held a one-hour, 20-minute hearing on the Proposition 8 case and on February 27 they were scheduled to address the provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), a federal law which defines marriage as one man and one woman and therefore forbids legally married same-sex couples from getting any of the benefits given to opposite-sex married couples under federal law.
Not surprisingly, DoMA was the issue Hensic focused on because, as the partner of a U.S. servicemember, it’s the issue that hits her most directly. “I didn’t realize what a hold DoMA had on my life until I entered this relationship,” she said. “I couldn’t visit her office without written permission. I will not be allowed to share in her health benefits. And if she dies in the service of our country, I will not be the first person to be notified. As an active-duty Marine, my spouse fights for our freedom — including, apparently, the freedom of a majority to vote away our rights.”
“We’re standing on the sunset of discrimination,” said Fernando Lopez, administrative and public affairs director for San Diego Pride. “What if we could wake up tomorrow and the value of our humanity did not depend on the one we love? That is the day we have been fighting for. Our fate does not only rest on nine people in robes. Our quest for equality does not rest with a single court decision. Our fate rests with the people willing to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ The world will change because of you who were strong enough to serve in silence during the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ era, to stand up to bullies, to be the pioneers of our movement or just to hold hands with your lover on the street. You have brought this movement to this point with your fierce tenacity of love and a colorful, creative sense of community.”
The last two participants were from Missiongathering [sic] Neighborhood Church, 3090 Polk in North Park. Missiongathering’s pastor, Richard McCullen, identified himself as an openly Gay evangelical Christian and recalled what happened right after the California Supreme Court allowed same-sex couples to marry in 2008 — a decision reversed by Proposition 8.
A few days after the state court’s ruling became effective in mid-June, McCullen recalled, “I received an e-mail from the pastor of a large mega-church in San Diego inviting me to be part of a brainstorming session on how to reverse this decision. My first thought was that this person obviously didn’t know what I believed or what sort of church mine is, but I decided to go and see why they were so upset. I was surrounded by more than 1,000 religious men and women, who claimed they know a loving God. But their prayers were not of love and peace, but of hate and discrimination. I had to leave because I was so hurt.” McCullen recalled that his elation over the election of President Obama in November 2008 was tempered by the passage of Proposition 8 in the same election.
“Tonight we stand here, religious and non-religious, Gay and straight, not in hate, anger or revenge, but in love,” McCullen said. “Hopefully this summer we will experience equality for all. We cannot leave this moment without the amazing words of Martin Luther King, Jr. that the arc of history is long but that it bends towards justice. Our state and our country are seeing through the hate, and we will no longer be held hostage to it. We will win and equality will win. We stand here in solidarity calling on the Supreme Court to rule for equality.” After McCullen spoke, his “worship & arts pastor,” Colby Martin, came onstage for an impassioned medley of well-known songs, including John Lennon’s “Imagine,” U2’s “One Love” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Post-Rally Action: Lighting Up I-5

“When you leave here, do not stop,” Fernando Lopez had said in his speech during the rally, and about 75 people took him literally. In an action pre-arranged by the SAME Alliance (formerly San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality) and Overpass Light Brigade, they marched through the streets of downtown San Diego on a circuitous route to the overpass over Interstate 5 at First and Elm. The objective was to display light boards spelling out the words “NO DOMA” and “NO H8” so motorists on the freeway could see them.
The police, out in force for the rally, were momentarily confused by the marchers’ route. “We’re here to protect you; we just need to know where you’re going,” one officer said. Former SAME Alliance president Cecile Veillard, who was leading the march and using a bullhorn to call out chants, ignored the police and told this reporter, “I don’t talk to police.” Eventually SAME Alliance’s current president, Sean Bohac, spoke to the officer and gave a quick overview of the route they planned.
The march was fairly long, doubling back on its route and briefly passing — but not entering — Civic Center Plaza, site of Occupy San Diego’s occupation in late 2011 before the police broke it up. One woman who’d been part of Occupy San Diego marveled at how different the police were treating this action as compared to how they’d handle the occupiers. The people at the overpass were spirited. People took turns pressing the lighted signs against the fence so passing motorists could see them. The police briefly threatened to arrest the people holding the signs, apparently on the idea they could be a threat to traffic, but ultimately let the action continue.
The night’s activities were disrupted only briefly. One woman at the rally started heckling incoherently and Sala asked the police to intervene and have her removed. Later, as the march passed the bus stop on Third and Broadway, a tall man started yelling, “Shut up!,” as the marchers passed by and chanted. Ironically, he was also in the area the next day while supporters of Proposition 8 held their own rally during and after the court hearing on March 26 at the same location — the Federal Building downtown — the opponents had used the night before. He seemed equally hostile to both sides in the debate.
The pro-8 rally drew about one-third the crowd of the marriage equality event the night before. It was much longer and had many more speakers. Though the Queer community and its political allies proclaim a commitment to including people of color and non-English speakers in their movement, it was the pro-8 rally, not the one on the other side, that included at least one speaker in Spanish.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Marriage Equality Goes to the Supreme Court March 26 & 27

Lawyers, Activists Speak at Community Meetings In Advance of the Hearings

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The Activist San Diego/SAME Alliance marriage equality meeting, March 18, 2013. Back, L to R: Leo E. Laurence, Zakiya Khabir. Front, L to R: Todd Moore, Eric Isaacson, Fernando Lopez.

The San Diego International Socialist Organization marriage equality meeting, March 22, 2013. L to R: Rachel Scoma, Sean Bohac, Zakiya Khabir.

On March 26 and 27, the United States Supreme Court will hear the two most important Queer-rights cases in its history since the landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision struck down laws against Queer sex in 2003. March 26 is the scheduled date for the hearing in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the federal court challenge to Proposition 8, the initiative California voters passed in November 2008 to end the state’s 4 ½-month experience of marriage equality and legally define marriage as only between one man and one woman. The next day the court will take up the case of a New York Lesbian widow who got charged over $360,000 in federal estate taxes under the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DoMA), which defines marriage at the federal level as between one man and one woman. It’s money she wouldn’t owe the government if it recognized her legal marriage to her late wife.
San Diego activists planned an elaborate series of events in the week leading up to the court hearings. On March 18, Activist San Diego (ASD) and SAME Alliance (formerly the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality) put on a community forum at the Joyce Beers Center in Hillcrest featuring attorneys Eric Isaacson and Todd Moore, San Diego Pride administrative and public affairs director Fernando Lopez, pioneering Gay activist and legal scholar Leo Laurence, J.D., and SAME Alliance steering committee member Zakiya Khabir. The meeting centered around two topics: what the Supreme Court is likely to do about Prop. 8 and DoMA, and how activists should respond to the court decision whichever way it goes. (The Court will have to announce a ruling by the end of its current term in late June — unless it decides to postpone the cases or ask the attorneys to reargue them next term.)
Three days later, on March 21, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) held a forum on the Prop. 8 and DoMA cases at the Bamboo Lounge in Hillcrest featuring Khabir, SAME Alliance president Sean Bohac and attorney Rachel Scoma. Not surprisingly, this meeting focused less on handicapping the Court and more on the activist response than the ASD/SAME Alliance session had. The events continue with a rally in San Diego this Monday, March 25, part of a nationwide mobilization for the eve of the Court cases. It takes place at 6 p.m. at the Federal Building, Broadway and Front Street downtown. Afterwards members of SAME Alliance and the Overpass Light Brigade will march to the Interstate 5 overpass and display lighted signs calling for the Court to throw out Prop. 8 and DoMA.

Attorneys Expect Narrow Decisions

When attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies filed the case against Prop. 8 — then known as Perry v. Schwarzenegger — in May 2009, they made it clear that not only did they want it to go to the U.S. Supreme Court but their ultimate objective was a broad ruling that laws barring same-sex couples from legal marriage were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But according to Isaacson, Moore and Laurence, that’s not likely to happen. Nor, they said, is it likely that the Court will be equally sweeping in the other direction and issue a ruling that states are free to define marriage either to include or exclude same-sex couples. Instead, they said, the court is likely either to rule on “standing” — whether the people involved in the case have the right to court relief at all — or find a narrow procedural ground in both the Prop. 8 and DoMA cases.
Eric Isaacson has been involved in litigation over the right of California same-sex couples to marry ever since 2004, when the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of San Diego in Hillcrest authorized him to file an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the initial challenge to the California state law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. At the March 18 meeting he rattled off the long list of faith-based organizations he’s currently representing in the case: California Council of Churches, California Faith for Equality, Unitarian-Universalist Legislative Ministry of California; Northern California/Nevada and Southern California/Nevada Conferences, United Church of Christ; Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis; and California Network of Metropolitan Community Churches.
Ironically, Isaacson said, the Right-wing majority on the current Supreme Court may rule on the marriage cases in ways that achieve a progressive result but further a long-time conservative aim: to limit the number of people who have access to the courts to remedy social wrongs. “One thing conservatives who advocate judicial restraint push is a very narrow view of what constitutes a ‘case or controversy’ under Article III of the Constitution that allows them to throw out cases brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), environmental organizations and the like,” Isaacson explained. He mentioned the Court’s most recent ruling on standing, Clapper v. Amnesty International U.S.A., in which on February 26 the Right-wing Court majority issued a sweeping decision that Amnesty International, the ACLU, attorneys for Guantánamo detainees and journalists had no legal right to challenge the government’s secret “anti-terrorist” spy program because they couldn’t prove that they personally had been under surveillance. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the plaintiffs had nothing more than a “highly speculative fear” that they might be surveilled, and therefore they couldn’t prove they were being harmed by the program.
Standing became an issue in the Prop. 8 cases when California governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, and attorneys general Brown and Kamala Harris, refused to defend Prop. 8 in court. When the Perry case was tried in federal district court before Judge Vaughn Walker in January 2010, the proposition was defended by attorneys representing Protect Marriage.com, the organization that had put it on the ballot and sponsored the official campaign for it. After Judge Walker’s decision throwing out Prop. 8 was appealed to the Ninth Circuit of the federal courts of appeal, the three-judge panel hearing the case asked the California Supreme Court for guidance as to whether the proponents of an initiative had the legal right to defend it in court if the government officials who would ordinarily do so declined. The California court ruled unanimously that they did; otherwise, the court argued, government officials could effectively nullify an initiative simply by refusing to defend it. But that decision isn’t necessarily binding on the U.S. Supreme Court, Isaacson explained.
If the Supreme Court throws out the Prop. 8 case based on the idea that the initiative’s proponents aren’t personally being harmed by the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in California, and therefore they don’t have standing, the likely result is that same-sex couples will be able to marry legally in California, and perhaps in other states under the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction, but not anywhere else in the U.S. they don’t have that right already, Isaacson explained. “The Proposition 8 proponents will ask the court to throw out Judge Walker’s ruling and limit it only to the two couples who actually brought the suit” — Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo — “but that is unlikely,” Isaacson said.
Standing became an issue in the DoMA case for similar reasons, Isaacson explained. “The Obama administration concedes DoMA is unconstitutional,” he said. “House Speaker John Boehner created something called the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, or BLAG, and it claims to have standing.” (Isaacson laughed at BLAG’s designation of itself as “bipartisan,” which came from Boehner having originally invited House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to join — until she found out its purpose was to defend DoMA, whereupon she abruptly withdrew.) “If he doesn’t have the U.S. Senate on board, he can’t claim to speak for the legislative branch. Obama would like the Supreme Court to strike down DoMA rather than put him in the uncomfortable position of refusing to comply with the law. If there is no standing, I would imagine the lower-court ruling [that the Lesbian widow didn’t owe the estate tax because DoMA was unconstitutional] would stand.”
Leo Laurence said his experience as a post-doctoral researcher for California appeals courts in the 1960’s backed up Isaacson’s argument that the Court will look for the narrowest grounds on which they can decide the Prop. 8 and DoMA cases rather than issue a sweeping opinion on either side of the marriage debate. “If there’s a way to rule on a case procedurally without deciding on the merits, that’s generally the way the courts will go,” Laurence said. “I believe the Court is going to say there was no standing. I don’t think they’ll even get to the merits of the issue.”

Levels of Scrutiny

Isaacson said that if the Supreme Court decides that the defenders of Prop. 8 and DoMA have standing after all, their ruling is likely to depend on what level of scrutiny is applied to the case. Ordinarily judges decide whether laws that treat different groups differently are constitutional on what is called “rational-basis review.” That means all they have to do to let the law stand is find some reasonable ground for the way it treats different classes of people. But there are two more severe levels of scrutiny than that: “heightened” or “intermediate,” which is how federal judges view laws based on gender; and “strict scrutiny,” applied to laws based on race. If the Court finds that Gays and Lesbians have faced such a long history of discrimination that they constitute a “protected class” and are therefore entitled to strict scrutiny, Isaacson said, both Prop. 8 and DoMA “would be held unconstitutional.” Even “heightened scrutiny” would “probably” bring down Prop. 8 and DoMA, he added.
“Obama’s change on DoMA was based on the idea that laws targeting Gays and Lesbians should be subject to heightened scrutiny,” Isaacson said. “”In Proposition 8, the Court could say that in states where Gay and Lesbian couples had already been granted all the benefits and obligations of marriage under domestic-partnership or civil-union laws, the Court could say that’s unconstitutional under Romer v. Evans” — the landmark 1996 case in which the Court held that a Colorado initiative barring state and local governments from giving civil-rights protections to Queers or doing anything to “promote” Queer rights was unconstitutional because it put limits on the ability of Queer people to organize and change the laws through the political process.
The other speakers focused largely on the sea change in public opinion that has occurred regarding same-sex marriage equality since the first court test in Hawai’i in 1993 — where the state supreme court hinted that they would rule the ban on same-sex marriage to be a form of gender discrimination, but marriage equality opponents got a Proposition 8-style initiative passed which nullified the case. Todd Moore, who represented former SAME Alliance president Cecile Veillard in the Equality Nine case — nine local activists who were arrested for civil disobedience at a marriage equality demonstration at the San Diego county clerk’s office in August 2010 — noted that Bill and Hillary Clinton have both come out for marriage equality. That was especially ironic because Bill Clinton was the President who signed DoMA into law in the first place. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who voted for DoMA as a Congressmember, announced he was reversing his opposition to same-sex marriage because he wants to support equal rights for his Gay son.
“Public opinion has changed,” Moore said. “How does that affect what the Supreme Court will do? I don’t know, but I think the reason they took these cases is there is significant dissension between the states.” Like Isaacson, he said the Court should throw out Prop. 8 using Romer v. Evans as the precedent, because “once the California Supreme Court gave same-sex couples the right to marry, you cannot take it away.” He agreed with Isaacson and Laurence that the Court is not likely to rule “that Gay marriage is a fundamental right,” but what they are likely to do will restore marriage equality to California and allow the federal government to treat married same-sex couples more equally.
Fernando Lopez, administrative and public affairs director for San Diego Pride and former member of the national board of Marriage Equality USA, has also been a witness to the sea change in public opinion on this issue. He admitted he started as a marriage equality activist “selfishly” in 2001 — he and his then-partner wanted their own marriage legally recognized — and he recalled that for years even fellow Queer people regarded marriage as a non-issue. “As recently as 2008, when we ran the decline-to-sign campaign [a failed attempt to keep Prop. 8 from getting on the ballot in the first place], people within our own community wondered why we were standing outside grocery stores arguing for a right we did not have,” he recalled.
According to Lopez, in 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on interracial marriages were unconstitutional, only 20 percent of Americans polled supported the right of mixed-race couples to marry. He pointed out that in 2000 California voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage with over 60 percent of the vote — and now the polls indicate nearly 60 percent of all Americans support the right of same-sex couples to marry. “There has been a slew of advocacy and activism, and more and more people coming out in support of marriage equality,” Lopez said. “That’s what’s helping shift the conversation.” Lopez is confident the Supreme Court will invalidate both Prop. 8 and DoMA — and even if they don’t, he added, he thinks that we’ll be strong enough to repeal Prop. 8 at the ballot box.
But Zakiya Khabir warned that the marriage equality movement could be jeopardized by its own overconfidence. “The inevitability feeling happened around Proposition 8,” she recalled. “A lot of people didn’t think California would pass it. I don’t want us to make the same mistake again. Bill Clinton saying DoMA, which he signed into law, is unconstitutional is the result of activism.” She called on people to participate in the March 25 rally and march, and also promoted the SAME Alliance’s call for a “Day of Decision” action whenever the Supreme Court announces its ruling. “We want to see people out in force, out in numbers, when the decision is made,” Khabir said, adding that people can keep track of the action on the SAME Alliance’s Web site, www.samealliance.com

Activism Is Key

The emphasis on the need for continued activism carried over into the ISO’s meeting three days after the ASD/SAME Alliance event. The speakers were Khabir, SAME Alliance president (and fellow Equality Nine defendant) Sean Bohac and attorney Rachel Scoma. Like the attorneys at the ASD/SAME Alliance meeting, Scoma defined the issue in terms of scrutiny. In order to decide the case, she said, the Supreme Court has “to decide whether LGBT’s [Queer people] are a suspect class and therefore laws against them should have heightened scrutiny. If they agree, DoMA is likely to go down. If they don’t find LGBT’s are a suspect class, the government can basically pass any law they want” to restrict their rights.
Scoma noted that the attorneys for the DoMA and Proposition 8 challenges are taking opposite positions on whether the laws they are challenging would pass rational-basis review. “The DoMA lawyers are not saying it would be found unconstitutional on rational basis,” she said. “The Prop. 8 attorneys are arguing the opposite: that exclusion of Gays and Lesbians from marriage doesn’t even pass the rational-basis test.” They had help from Judge Walker, who in his 138-page opinion in Perry, issued August 4, 2010, said he didn’t think there was a rational basis for excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage. His opinion showed how the proponents of Prop. 8 had scrambled to find a reason for the ban on same-sex marriage that made sense, and hadn’t been able to do so.
Like Isaacson and Moore, Scoma said that, “Because California had marriage equality until the voters took it away, the likely outcome is California’s Proposition 8 will be found unconstitutional, but it will not apply beyond California.” Her own opinion, not surprisingly, was, “There’s actually no rational basis for excluding same-sex couples from marriage in any state.”
“I’ve been involved with SAME Alliance and the Green Party of San Diego County, and I found myself in the leadership of the campaign to repeal Proposition 8 in 2010,” Bohac recalled. “SAME Alliance has defined activism as what individuals do in terms of confrontation. We are pressing the voice that gets left out. We were upset that the No on 8 campaign was weeny and weak in not representing Gays and Lesbians” — a reference to the tactical decision the No on 8 campaign leaders made to fight the measure on vague grounds of “equality” and to keep actual Queer people out of their ads and public presentations. “We wanted to bring Gays, Lesbians and Transgender people into the discussion. SAME Alliance has created space [within the Queer movement] for radical thought and allowed for the practice of leadership. We also look to inspire people beyond our group. We form coalitions and communicate the messages to a broader audience.”
Khabir, a member of the local ISO as well as the steering committee of SAME Alliance, talked about the link between the struggles for Queer rights and socialism. “I’m an ISO member, but after Prop. 8 passed I had to think, ‘Why are socialists here?’ As socialists, we want to see a world where people are free to love who they want, as well as free from starvation and oppression. That world is possible, but not if these divisions [over race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity] still exist. You can’t have socialism without Queer rights and you can’t have Queer rights without socialism. Socialists and LGBT people have a strong history of working together and also a long history of being victims of oppression.”
Chuck Stemke, an ISO member who was running the group’s literature table on March 21 and was also one of the Equality Nine, said, “It’s so great to have SAME Alliance, ISO and Canvass for a Cause [CFAC] together. We’re the people who are pissed off. We’re the protesters who, when something outrageous happens, respond to it.” He and other ISO members in the room announced a follow-up discussion Thursday, March 28, 6 p.m. at the City Heights Recreation Center, 4380 Landis Street, for a broader discussion of Queer-rights issues.
Bohac said that one problem with the marriage equality fight is that the lengthy litigation in the Perry case “sucked the oxygen out of the movement” and discouraged people from doing the kinds of confrontational street actions that made SAME Alliance’s reputation. He remembered how the Equality 2010 campaign, an attempt to repeal Prop. 8 at the ballot box using only grass-roots volunteers, ended when mainstream Queer organizations decided to wait and see what happened in the court case instead. “It’s been going fairly well in the lower courts, but now it’s coming up before a ridiculously reactionary Supreme Court with conservatives who follow their faiths instead of the law,” Bohac said. “They might strike down Prop. 8 and a few aspects of DoMA, but we’ll still need a federal law for marriage equality.”
“Even if we win, there are still battles in other states,” said former SAME Alliance president Cecile Veillard — who was also part of the Equality Nine and who was Todd Moore’s client in the case. “Where it’s already been banned, [the likely Supreme Court ruling] doesn’t do anything. The repeal of DoMA just allows [federal] recognition of marriages in the nine states where it’s already legal.”
“I’ve been ridiculously wrong before about LGBT demonstrations,” said Khabir. “I’ve seen 3,000 people when I expected 50. I’ve seen almost nobody show up when I expected thousands. But groups like ours provide the through line between those ups and downs. Our job is to till the soil as much as possible in the lead-up to the decision, so when it comes down the LGBT movement is ready to pop. In 2008 there were 300 organizations and people didn’t know what to do. Now we’ve got a nucleus of people who know how to protest. I’m going to be making the case in as many venues as I can. What happens that day will be determined by what happens in between.”
SAME Alliance meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month at the San Diego Pride office, 3620 30th Street in North Park. (By coincidence, the next meeting — Tuesday, March 26 — will fall on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court hears the Proposition 8 appeal.) For more information on SAME Alliance, visit the group’s Web site at www.samealliance.com

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The People’s Pope?

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • For East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org

I can remember the first time I experienced a Papal conclave. No, it wasn’t a real one; it was the one depicted in the 1969 film The Shoes of the Fisherman. It’s about a Ukrainian archbishop, Kiril (Anthony Quinn), who was tortured in the Gulag, gets summoned to Rome, is made a cardinal and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a conclave when the Pope who appointed him dies. The conclave deadlocks and Kiril is elected Pope as a compromise candidate, then uses his new-found powers to mediate an end to the Cold War and ward off a military threat to the West from China. It was based on a novel by Morris L. West, a potboiler author of religious books, and though it wasn’t much as a movie I found the depiction of the rituals of the conclave absolutely stunning — particularly the repeated puffs of black smoke signaling that the cardinals hadn’t yet reached the two-thirds majority for picking a Pope.
 
Ironically, the last time before the most recent one that a conclave actually happened, I was reading Dan Brown’s novel Angels and Demons, the prequel to the highly successful The Da Vinci Code (though when it was filmed it was turned into a sequel instead). In that conclave, the four principal candidates for Pope — the ones referred to as Papabili (literally “pope-able”), were being murdered one by one, by a mysterious killer who left coded messages behind and seemed to be part of a broader conspiracy that the author, being Dan Brown, didn’t reveal the true reach of until the end of the book. I remember being disappointed by the vast gap between the melodramatic conclave Brown brought to life in his novel and the surprisingly short and simple one that actually took place, where the Roman Catholic Church’s cardinals agreed quickly that Joseph Ratzinger of Germany should be the next Pope.
Ratzinger had been on my radar screen ever since 1986, when as head of the church’s Office for the Defense and Propagation of the Faith — an institution you no doubt know better by its former name, the Holy Inquisition — he issued a statement calling homosexuality “an objective moral disorder.” Not many people realized this, but this was a major policy shift for the Catholic Church. Before that the church had preached that it was all right to be Gay as long as you didn’t actually do anything about it — as long as you didn’t have sex with partners of your own gender. Indeed, that’s one reason why, historically, so many Gay men had been attracted to the priesthood as a career option: because it gave them a socially acceptable and even valued reason not to have sex with women, marry them and have families No, Ratzinger said, the very fact of being Gay was now considered “an objective moral disorder” by the Roman Catholic Church.
And just in case anyone might have hoped his anti-Gay attitude might have been softened when he became Pope Benedict XVI, he made it clear it hadn’t been on November 29, 2005 when Benedict announced that his response to the scandals about priests molesting children would be to bar any Gay men from entering seminaries or the priesthood itself. Never mind that at least as many Catholic priests have been disgraced for doing little girls as for doing little boys. Never mind that psychologists who have studied child sexual abuse have said that in most cases it’s far more about power and dominance than it is an expression of sexuality. Never mind that, as Gabriel Longo wrote in his 1966 memoir Spoiled Priest — about he left the Roman Catholic priesthood to marry a woman and start a family — throughout his years in the seminary the student body had been divided between two groups he called the “flits” and the “non-flits,” and the difference was the “non-flits” spent every waking hour thinking about women while the “flits,” as Longo diplomatically put it, “concealed their real interests under a mask of piety.” And never mind that according to Longo, it was the “flits” who rose through the hierarchy and actually ran the church.
When Benedict’s missive came out, repeating his language from 19 years earlier that “deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are … objectively disordered” and adding that the church therefore “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘Gay culture,’” I wrote an editorial for Zenger’s Newsmagazine called “Whitewash the Sistine Chapel.” My point was that this church does an awful lot of business (including electing its popes) in a building that’s one of the high points of Western culture because of the work of the Gay artist Michaelangelo decorating its ceiling and its back wall, and until the Roman Catholic Church became Gay-friendly, “it’s time for its Queer members to quit it en masse and whitewash the Sistine Chapel as they go. After all, how can all those good, homophobic Roman Catholics stand to worship in front of artworks made by a man who, if he lived today, they would condemn as emotionally immature and sick?”
So when Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, announced his sudden resignation as Pope early this year I wasn’t at all sorry to see him go. Not that I had any particular hope for his replacement. The Roman Catholic Church still hasn’t recovered from the premature deaths of Popes John XXIII after five years and John Paul I after just two months, short-circuiting their attempts to liberalize the church. The extended papacy of the conservative John Paul II and his replacement by the even more reactionary Benedict XVI means that since 1978 the College of Cardinals, like the overall leadership of the church, has been pulled steadily Rightward. As one commentator noted in handicapping the most recent conclave, the cardinals weren’t about to select anyone who’d even consider ordaining women as priests, lifting the insanity of the celibacy requirement, ending the church’s holy war on marriage equality for same-sex couples or revoking its idiotic ban on birth control.
Still, so far I’m getting a good feeling from the new Pope, Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He’s the first Pope from the western hemisphere and the first to be a Jesuit — an organization that historically has been in an uncertain position, vis-à-vis the Vatican, since Pope Clement XIV officially outlawed it in 1773. Clement’s decree wasn’t repealed until 1814, and the Jesuits got into hot water with a Pope as recently as 1981, when John Paul II vetoed their choice to run the order and appointed his own man instead — sort of like an American labor union putting a local in trusteeship. The number after Francis’ name is “I,” indicating that no previous Pope has used it, and it comes not only from St. Francis of Assisi — who, given the seriousness with which he took his vow of poverty and the fervency of his self-denial, is probably the one figure in Christian history who comes off more like an Eastern than a Western holy man — but Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary who brought Catholicism to Asia.
While hardly taking it to the levels of St. Francis, Francis I has earned a reputation for turning down the quasi-imperial trappings of the church and living as simply as possible. In Buenos Aires he took the bus to work instead of using the chauffeur-driven car the church put at his disposal. When he got elected Pope he went to the hotel where he’d been staying during the conclave and paid his room bill himself. For his first public appearance as pontiff, he wore the plain white vestments of an ordinary priest instead of the fur-trimmed red half-cloak available to him as Pope, and the cross around his neck was made of iron, not gold. And when he went into a church in Rome for his first public prayers since his election, he used an ordinary sedan instead of the papal limousine. So far it’s reminded me of the late, much lamented Princess Diana, similarly refusing the perks of a royal position and going out as jes’ plain folks. People’s Princess, meet the People’s Pope.
Francis I has his flaws. He’s still mistrusted in Argentina by liberals in general — including the adherents of the “liberation theology” movement for social justice for the poor, which flourished in the 1960’s and 1970’s until John Paul II denounced it and effectively shut it down. That’s partly because he mostly stayed silent during the years of the so-called “dirty war” the Argentine generals who ruled brutally in the 1970’s and the 1980’s waged against their own people — though after the military government fell he advocated canonizing three of the priests who had been killed. Argentina’s current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, clashed with the new Pope when she was working to get the Argentinian legislature to legalize contraception and same-sex marriage — and he was working, ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep that from happening.
But within the limits of a position in the hierarchy of a church whose last two Popes have moved it quite far Rightward from the heady days of Vatican II in the early 1960’s, Francis has staked out some interesting positions. He’s called Latin America “the most unequal part of the world.” Even more impressively, he’s called out priests who grant or deny parishioners the church’s sacraments on the basis of whether or not they follow the hierarchy’s definition of orthodoxy. In a speech last year he accused fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and befriended prostitutes.
“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Francis said in 2012 when he was still plain old Cardinal Berdoglio. “These are today’s hypocrites: those who clericalize the church, those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized.” After comparing this sort of Catholicism to the Pharisees of Jesus’s time, Berdoglio told the priests under his supervision to “go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but a Pope that asks the what-would-Jesus-do question instead of wondering what’s best for the church’s damage control sounds like what the fractious Roman Catholic Church really needs right now. I was particularly struck by the comment in Berdoglio’s speech about the “poor girl” who carries her pregnancy to term “rather than returning the child to sender.” If that’s an indication of the attitude he’ll take as Pope, it’s a good sign that Berdoglio — unlike a lot of other people on the so-called “pro-life” side of the abortion debate — understands that it’s not enough just to preach to women dealing with unwanted pregnancies that they’ll be damned if they don’t give birth. You also need to be aware of what problems both the woman and her child are going to have in the real world, and be willing to reach out with love and some level of material support.
Pope Francis I takes over a troubled church. Much of the coverage of the conclave repeated the church’s claim that 1.2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people are Catholic — which would make it the largest religious denomination on earth (only Hinduism and Sunni Islam even comes close). But a lot of them, especially in the developed countries, have become what the church’s conservatives contemptuously call “cafeteria Catholics,” picking and choosing among the church’s dogmas and ignoring the pronouncements from Rome with which they disagree. It’s been estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of all U.S. Catholics practice some form of birth control even though their church leadership continues to say that’s a big no-no.
The new Pope will have other problems, too. He’ll have to deal with the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy which runs the church’s day-to-day affairs and has been accused of both financial and sexual corruption. Italy’s tabloids have been covering the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal, which claims that members of the hierarchy have been blackmailed by male prostitutes whose services they used. Francis will have to handle the continuing fallout from the priests who regularly abused children sexually, and the others — including cardinals like Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who went to Rome and voted in the conclave despite an uproar back home — who allegedly covered for them by moving them from parish to parish and not reporting their crimes to the police.
What’s more, he’ll have to deal with a world in which all the old established religions are losing relevance, especially among young people. Between the inroads Protestant evangelists are making, even in the Latin American countries that are the most heavily Catholic in the world, and the number of young people in the U.S. and Europe who aren’t going to church at all and are declaring their religious preference either as “none” or as “spiritual” — convinced that there’s something out there beyond our material reality but unsure of what it is and quite sure that no really existing religion comes close to describing it — it’s going to be harder and harder for hierarchies like the Catholics in Rome and the Anglicans/Episcopalians in Britain to maintain the members they need to support themselves financially and have both political and ethical clout.
But the speech Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, made to the Argentine priests a year ago suggests that at least he’s aware of the problems. Telling off priests who refuse to baptize the babies of single mothers sends the message that though Francis may be a conservative, he’s not a troglodyte. He seems aware that the decisions he and the Vatican hierarchs make behind closed doors have real effects on real people’s lives. He also seems to know that the church he’s going to be the absolute ruler of was based on the teachings of someone who went out of his way to reach out to the humblest, the poorest, the lowest of the low, the outcasts of his time and place. If Francis can put some of Jesus’s spirit into action, instead of just paying lip service to the poor and their needs the way John Paul II did, he may be able to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the 21st century in more ways than just knowing how to use Twitter.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Activist San Diego, S.A.M.E. to Discuss Marriage Equality March 18

This Monday, March 18, 7 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest (at the north end of Vermont Avenue between Panera and Aladdin restaurants), local attorneys and activists will discuss the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court cases challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage equality, and the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996, which bars legally married same-sex couples from receiving benefits or equal treatment from the federal government.

The meeting is co-sponsored by Activist San Diego and SAME Alliance (formerly San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality) and, in addition to the speakers listed below, will feature José Medina of SAME Alliance. For the record, the statement on the flyer that Fernando Lopez was formerly employed by the San Diego LGBT Community Center is not correct; Zenger’s regrets the error.

For more information contact organizer Mark Gabrish Conlan at (619) 688-1886 or visit www.activistsandiego.org or www.samealliance.com on the Web.


The Pregnancy Police

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org

The 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which established a woman’s constitutional right to safe and legal abortion, passed last January 15 with a lot of crowing — from the anti-choice side. Time magazine ran a cover story that announced that advocates for women’s right to reproductive choice won a big victory with Roe v. Wade — “and they’ve been losing ever since.” Over those 40 years, the Supreme Court has moved farther and farther Right and given states leeway to create more and more so-called “reasonable restrictions” on women’s right to choose. A continued campaign of terrorism — there’s no other word for it — against abortion providers has intimidated doctors, nurses and clinic staff and forced women who want abortions to get them in conditions which resemble maximum-security prisons.
 
The terror campaign as well as the increasing number of legal restrictions on abortion providers has discouraged medical students from entering the field. The number of abortion doctors in the U.S. has been trending steadily downward, as the older generation with living memories of the pre-Roe years die off (naturally or otherwise). Younger doctors either choose not to buck the organized terrorism of the bitterly misnamed “pro-life” movement or, if they want to train to perform abortions, can’t find medical schools willing to teach them. Pro- and anti-choice organizations have propaganda duels over the poll numbers, since on abortion, more so than most other issues, how the polls turn out depends largely on how the questions are framed. What’s clear, though, is that most Americans are somewhere in the middle: supportive of some reasons women choose to have abortions, opposed to others and varying widely over whether they think government has the right to ban women from having abortions for reasons they personally don’t approve.
In recent years the anti-choice movement has strongly pushed for so-called “personhood” laws, which would define the word person under the U.S. and state constitutions to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” That language is from an initiative that faced voters in Mississippi — not exactly a bastion of equal rights — in November 2011 as Proposition 26. Much to the surprise of people elsewhere in the country on both sides of the abortion debate, Proposition 26 actually lost. Enough Mississippians were concerned that the law would go farther than making abortion illegal again — assuming, as its proponents apparently did, that the current Right-wing majority on the Supreme Court would have used it as a pretext to reverse Roe — it could also have outlawed some forms of birth control and even in vitro fertilization.
In addition, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) executive director Lynn M. Paltrow, opponents of Proposition 26 and similar measures in other states “argued that such measures would create legal grounds for forcing medical interventions on pregnant women and punishing those who … suffered miscarriages and stillbirths.” Though the proponents of 26 dismissed such concerns as “scare tactics,” a study Paltrow and her collaborator, Fordham University professor Jeanne Flavin, released on January 15, 2013 — the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — said that not only could pregnant women be treated as criminals if laws like 26 went into effect, they already are.
“Our study identified 413 criminal and civil cases involving the arrests, detentions and equivalent deprivations of pregnant women’s physical liberty that occurred between 1973 (when Roe v. Wade was decided) and 2005,” Paltrow explained in a press release announcing the study on the NAPW Web site (http://advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/blog/2013/01/new_study_reveals_the_impact_o.php). “Because many cases are not reported publicly, we know that this is a substantial undercount. Furthermore, new data collection indicates that at least 250 such interventions have taken place since 2005.”
What’s most horrifying about the information Paltrow and Flavin collected is not only that women are being arrested, jailed or otherwise punished for conduct that wouldn’t be illegal if they weren’t pregnant, they’re being dealt with by the criminal justice system even in the absence of any specific laws. “In almost every case we identified, the person who initiated the action had no direct legal authority for doing so,” Paltrow explained. “No state legislature has passed a law that holds women legally liable for the outcome of their pregnancies. No state legislature has passed a law making it a crime for a pregnant woman to continue her pregnancy to term in spite of a drug or alcohol problem. No state has passed a law exempting pregnant women from the protections of the state and federal constitution. And under Roe v. Wade, abortion remains legal.”
Yet, according to Paltrow, “many states have passed anti-abortion and feticide measures that, like so-called ‘personhood’ measures, encourage state actors to treat eggs, embryos and fetuses as if they are legally separate from the pregnant woman. … Women have been arrested while still pregnant, taken straight from the hospital in handcuffs, and sometimes shackled around the waist and at the ankles. Pregnant women have been held under house arrest and incarcerated in jails and prisons. Pregnant women have been held in locked psychiatric wards, as well as in hospitals and in drug treatment programs under 24-hour guard. They have been forced to undergo intimate medical exams and blood transfusions over their religious objections. Women have been forced to submit to cesarean surgery. They have been arrested shortly after giving birth while dressed only in hospital gowns.”
Paltrow and Flavin describe five such cases in their paper. One was Regina McKnight, a 21-year-old African-American whose pregnancy unexpectedly ended in a stillbirth. Though later tests showed that the stillbirth was the result of an infection, McKnight was accused of causing it by using cocaine. She was put on trial, convicted after only 15 minutes of jury deliberation, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. McKnight had actually been in prison for eight years when, in 2008, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously overturned her conviction on the ground that her attorney hadn’t called experts who could have testified that recent studies showed “that cocaine is no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor.” Nonetheless, rather than face a second trial and possibly an even longer sentence, McKnight pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to time served, which means she got out immediately but will be branded as a felon for the rest of her life.
Laura Pemberton, a white woman in Florida, ran afoul of the pregnancy police when she tried to bear a child naturally after having had a cesarean section when her previous child was born. Her doctors got a court order to force her to go through a C-section for her new child, too. “A sheriff went to Pemberton’s home, took her into custody, strapped her legs together, and forced her to go to a hospital, where an emergency hearing was under way to determine the state’s interest in protecting the fetus still inside her,” Paltrow and Flavin wrote. “While lawyers argued on behalf of the fetus, Pemberton and her husband, who were not afforded the opportunity to be represented by counsel, were allowed to express their views as she was being prepared for surgery.” The judge ordered Pemberton to have the C-section, and when she later sued over the violation of her civil rights, she lost on the ground “that the state’s interest in preserving the life of the fetus outweighed Pemberton’s rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Since then, Laura Pemberton has had three more children, all born naturally.
Rachael Lowe, a 20-year-old woman in Wisconsin, voluntarily went to Waukesha Memorial Hospital for treatment for an Oxycontin addiction. The staff responded by reporting Lowe to authorities under Wisconsin’s “cocaine mom” law, which allows the state to arrest a pregnant woman and keep her in custody if authorities believe the “expectant mother habitually lacks self-control in the use of alcohol[ic] beverages, controlled substances or controlled substance analogs.” Lowe was arrested and taken to St. Luke’s Hospital in Racine, more than an hour’s drive from the home she shared with her husband and two-year-old son. At St. Luke’s she was held in the psychiatric ward, given no prenatal care and prescribed Xanax and other psychotropic drugs. Lowe wasn’t appointed an attorney until she’d already been in custody for 12 days, and even after a judge ruled that she should be released, she was kept in the hospital under state control for several more days. Even after she was released, she was kept under surveillance for the rest of her pregnancy and forced to provide urine samples to law enforcement. As a result, Lowe lost her job and her husband had to take a leave of absence from his.
Martina Greywind was a 28-year-old homeless Native American in Fargo, North Dakota who was arrested when she was 12 weeks pregnant and charged with “reckless endangerment” of her fetus because she was allegedly inhaling paint fumes. She spent two weeks in the Cass County Jail before she was released so she could go to a medical appointment. She then had an abortion, in defiance of anti-choice protesters who were trying to force her to carry the pregnancy to term. Then she filed a motion to dismiss the charges, which the state agreed to on the grounds that, according to one of the district attorneys, it was “no longer worth the time or expense to prosecute her.”
Michelle Marie Greenup was a 26-year-old African-American woman in Louisiana who encountered the pregnancy police after she’d had a miscarriage. She went to a hospital complaining of bleeding and stomach pains, and the doctors taking care of her suspected she’d recently had a baby and contacted authorities. She was grilled by police and forced into a “confession” that her baby had been born alive and had then died because she hadn’t cared for it properly. Eventually Greenup’s attorney got her medical records, which revealed she’d been given Depo-Provera — a drug notorious for causing miscarriages — and her fetus had been no older than 12 to 15 weeks. Nonetheless, she wasn’t released from police custody until she pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “improper disposal of human remains.”
Paltrow argues that these five cases, and others she and Flavin uncovered during their research, mean that women won’t be just as bad off if Roe v. Wade is overturned as they were before it became law. Rather, she says it will be worse. In an article called “Roe v. Wade and the New Jane Crow: Reproductive Rights in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Paltrow notes that before 1973 women were rarely prosecuted for having abortions. Rather, they were generally pressured into turning state’s evidence against the doctors or other providers who had performed the procedure. But if Roe is overturned now and states are free to make any laws they wish restricting women’s reproductive choices, it’s going to be considerably harder on women than it was pre-Roe.
One reason is that this country is simply sending more people to prison for everything than it was before 1973. In the 1970’s the U.S. had about 300,000 people in prison, and very few of them were women. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails rose a whopping 500 percent, compared to a 40 percent increase in the country’s overall population. Today over 1.5 million people, including 200,000 women, are held in American prisons and jails, and another 4.8 million are under probation, parole or some other form of criminal justice supervision. According to Paltrow’s “New Jane Crow” article, two-thirds of all incarcerated women in the U.S. have at least one minor child, and 5 percent are pregnant when they start their imprisonment.
“This new era of mass incarceration,” Paltrow writes, “ … makes it far more likely today than in 1973 that if Roe is overturned women will themselves be arrested and jailed.” As she points out, the use of prison or the threat of prison as a weapon to control women’s reproductive choices is a part of the massive growth in America’s prison-industrial complex, “largely accepted by the public, defended by an army of lobbyists, and justified by a war on drugs deeply rooted in America’s history of slavery and racism,” including the growth of a private, for-profit prison industry that has a vested interest in lobbying for “tough on crime” laws and ever-longer sentences in order to grow the market for their services.
But it’s also a sign of the return of a much older attitude towards human reproduction and women’s role in it. It’s as old as the “seed and soil” myth that, in the era before genetics existed as a science, held that a baby’s heritage from its parents came exclusively from the male. The idea was that the man planted the seed and the woman was simply the soil in which it grew. Though any modern scientist would regard this as not only wrong but ridiculous, it’s clearly an attitude believed in, consciously or unconsciously, by many people in the radical Right. We saw glimpses of it when two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in the 2012 elections, Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, both made their outrageous statements about women, rape and abortion; Akin said that women don’t get pregnant when they’re raped because “the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” and Mourdock said if a woman does get pregnant from a rape, she should regard that as “God’s gift.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that a movement as tone-deaf to its own hypocrisy as the modern-day American Right should on the one hand denounce Social Security, Medicare and welfare as examples of the “nanny state” through which government controls people in the guise of “helping” them, while at the same time they embrace a “nanny state” that brazenly tells pregnant women what they may or may not do with their bodies. Paltrow’s research reports pregnant women being arrested while driving with a level of alcohol in their system below the legal definition of intoxication — something that obviously wouldn’t be considered a crime if done by a man or a non-pregnant woman. Women have been prosecuted for using drugs while pregnant; for seeking treatment for drug abuse while pregnant; for having abortions, miscarriages or stillbirths; and for either seeking or rejecting medical treatment.
The whole message behind this, as Paltrow notes, is that women in general and pregnant women in particular be put in “a second-class status that will not only deprive them of their reproductive rights and physical liberty … but also effectively strip them of their status as full constitutional persons.” It’s being pushed by men (and, amazingly, some women) who don’t see women as fully equal people; who see their sole legitimate function as growing the next generation in their wombs, and are willing to use legal penalties as well as social pressures to force pregnant women to behave to their ideal of “responsible motherhood” regardless of the women’s own needs or choices. It’s a view that relegates over 50 percent of the human race to permanent enslavement to their wombs — and it’s a view that is steadily gaining in power and influence throughout the United States.