Thursday, April 30, 2015

Women’s power is zero-sum

My wife and I agree on very little when it comes to watching television -- she's all "Grey's Anatomy" and "Revenge" and "The Good Wife," while I'm all about "Big Bang Theory" and "The Black List" and "Person of Interest."

There are two shows, however, that we watch together without fail: "Dancing With The Stars" and "Scandal." This column is not about DWTS, although I will say tell you now that Willow Shields will win it because (1) she's almost as good as Rumer Willis and (2) "Hunger Games." [Update: Willow was eliminated on April 27 after a series of disappointing performances. I blame Mark Ballas.]

But our other TV show appointment, "Scandal," has graduated from the realm of guilty pleasure to become serious, issue-driven TV that we all need to watch.

In the most recent episode, Laura Dunham (she of HBO's "Girls" fame) played the writer of a tell-all sexcapade book that threatened to bring down most some of the most powerful men in government. Olivia (Kerry Washington) Pope was hired to dissuade "Dirty Sue" from publishing her book, but the attempt backfired. Sue wanted three mil to be quiet. Problem is, one of her targets was Attorney General David Rosen, who has promised Olivia's associate, Huck, immunity to testify against the B613 covert action group. Are you with me so far?

Turns out, Sue was fired from a government job for which she was eminently qualified because she refused to let her boss screw her. She promptly sank into a miasma of kinky sex with all manner of Washington alpha males, from which experiences she wrote her tell-all book.

 Sue agrees to drop the whole thing when Olivia secures her a decent job doing what she wants so she can reclaim her dignity and her personhood, But when Olivia's associates, Katy and Huck, go to pick up the last copy of the manuscript and all of its notes, Huck summarily assassinates Sue. "She'd tell," he says over and and over. "She knew and she'd tell." Huck, you see, is convinced that Dirty Sue will eventually tell someone about her affair with Rosen, causing Rosen to resign, threatening Huck's immunity and endangering his life. Are you still with me?

The episode was more jam-packed with women's equality issues than the show has ever been, and I don't see it going back on that. One sub-plot involved the White House press secretary, a fetching redhead, who complained that, although she's risen to the very top of the journalism/PR profession, she is constantly identified in the media as the girlfriend of a powerful Washington, D.C. "fixer." She has no identity of her own, she shouts at her paramour. American society identifies her by the man she's sleeping with.

By the way, the show has continued to thump on that theme by making a big deal out of Mellie Grant's bid to follow in Hillary Clinton's footsteps. Mellie is "Scandal's" First Lady and, while her husband is still the president, she runs for the Senate in Virginia. Questions are raised about a conflict of interest if a Virginia senator is sleeping with the president. The show's writers turn that little bit of misogyny on its head by making the bedmates issue a plus for Virginia -- screw the rest of the country, only Virginians will vote for their senator and she's happy to promise them she'll be spreading her legs for POTUS. If Virginia falls for it, is it a win or a loss for women's power and equality?

But back to Sue; she defied Olivia's slut-shaming attempt, telling her the book is "all I have left." She doesn't care if people use the W-word about her because she's done what she wanted with whom she wanted and gotten the pleasure she wanted, and now she's going to enjoy the success she's always wanted. While other women are complaining about being defined by their sex, Sue is reveling in it. Olivia offers her a different kind of validation, one based on her brains instead of her body, and it turns out that’s what Sue really wanted all along.

And then Huck kills her.

Here’s my takeaway from that: Equality is a matter of power, and power is a zero-sum proposition. In order for women to gain power, and thus equality, men have to be willing to share it, or lose it by force. And men need to understand right now that, to paraphrase Emerson, events are in the saddle; women will gain the power they need for true equality, and the only decision we men have is how much or little pain we cause ourselves in the process.

So Huck saw the newly-empowered Sue as a threat. His precipitous assassination of her is a metaphor for the backlash that women suffer even when they gain some of the power they need for equality. I think his action will come back to haunt him in very real and painful way.

Sue meant no harm to Huck and posed no real threat. But like too many men, Huck couldn’t stand a woman having that kind of power. He didn’t trust her with that power. It frightened him.

There isn’t a happy ending here. Every day thousands of women suffer physical and mental harm because the men in their lives -- men they didn't even know were in their lives -- cannot abide women having that much power.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Religious accommodation laws unnecessary

Colorado probably will escape the shitstorm that has engulfed Indiana and Arkansas over religion protection bills. Colorado had one – HB 1171, officially titled the State Freedom of Conscience Protection Act – but it died in committee in March.

When I say it “died in committee,” I mean it was assigned to – of all places – the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs committee, where it was postponed indefinitely. Why a bill meant to sanction bigotry against homosexuality was sent to the committee that is mostly concerned with the National Guard and Colorado reservists, I’ll never know, but it was and now, thanks to whatever god you believe in, it’s dead.

That’s fine because Colorado doesn’t need a law saying that it’s okay to exercise your religious right to not do business with gays or lesbians or Democrats or Elvis impersonators or whoever you think is going to sully your pure white Christian bakery. In fact, we don’t need any state law in any state, and we don’t need the federal law that a Democratic president signed because he was trying to be a “good guy.” If you needed yet another proof of Bill Clinton’s hypocrisy, the fact that the president who used an expensive cigar to masturbate an intern and then left his semen spilled on her dress is the same president who signed a “religious rights” bill into law should be all you need.

We don’t need any of those laws because we have the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment says law and religion have to be kept separate, and it’s not a wide black line that separates them. That line gets really squiggly and hard to see sometimes, especially when the lawyers start messing around in it. But if you’re going to plunge into those legal waters, know that the rash of “religion protection” laws results from a long legal conflict between what Kelly Catherine Chapman calls “the clash between an individual’s right to be free from discrimination and an individual’s right freely to exercise religion.” In a 2012 paper published in The Georgetown Law Journal, Chapman noted that there is no common ground to be had, short of state law, and that when it comes religious freedom clashes with gay rights, it’s a zero-sum situation; for one to win, the other must lose.

That’s a pretty grim assessment and I doubt that even my optimistic appeal for common sense will make anyone bend in the least but I’m going to make it anyway, and I’m going to preface it with my own experience with religious discrimination vis-à-vis unconventional marriage.

When my wife and I decided to make Lohengrin’s trek, we had a religious problem. She was devoutly Roman Catholic, having graduated with honors from the local parochial school; I was a nominally Methodist sensualist who caused the pastor to winch on my rare appearances in his environs. My bride insisted she would be married in the Catholic church in which her parents had raised her; the rector of said Catholic church wouldn’t touch us with a ten-foot crucifix. We enlisted the considerably more liberal assistant rector who agreed to do the required pre-marriage "counseling," perform the service, and even allow the Methodist pastor to participate. In return, I had to sign a paper saying our children would be raised "in the Catholic Church." I signed it. The kids were raised Episcopalian.

My wife and I actually broke barriers that day; we were the first mixed-faith couple to ever be married in that church. And if you think that doesn’t compare to what gay couples face today, you didn’t live in Sterling, CO, in 1973. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of the county’s population was Roman Catholic, and of those, eighty percent were only one or two generations away from their European roots.

That experience taught me a few things about religious tolerance. It taught me that religion and religious belief is deeply ingrained in some people’s identities. Take away their religion, take away their church, and they are lost, bereft in a world they cannot navigate. Their religious doctrine, whatever it may be, is the lighthouse they look for when life casts them on a stormy sea. My wife has long since walked away from Vaticanworld and all of its fantastical mythology, but she still clutches her rosary every time she rides an airplane into the skies. I have said, only half-jokingly, that you can take the girl out of the Catholic church, but you can’t take the Catholic church out of the girl.

We overcame religious bigotry by being flexible and by finding people who would accommodate us. Now, of course, the only people who get married in the local Catholic church are Catholic couples because everybody else is getting married in back yards or on ranches or in parks or any of the hundreds of other places where nobody cares what church you go to.

So, I have a couple of suggestions to those who find themselves in the predicament of accommodating the public or faced with sexual bigotry:

First, for gays who want to marry, I’d suggest: Shop around and understand that there are people who cannot wrap their hearts and heads around your love and commitment. You’re asking people to be flexible; show some flexibility of your own. Seriously, do you want someone who openly detests you to have anything to do with what should be the most beautiful day of your life?

Second, for businesses, I’d warn: Be able to accommodate or have deep pockets, because you’re going to court, and rightfully so. Have a list of alternative businesses that can show the happy couple the sensitivity and commitment to service that you seem to lack. Learn some damn diplomacy in guiding a gay couple to someone who will be happy to have their business. Or, if you’re really a savvy business owner, put your pride on the shelf in the back room and take the business. Seriously, can you really afford to turn down business from one of the fastest-growing consumer segments in modern America?

Not that anyone will listen to this advice, of course. No, the Bible thumpers will continue to think they have God on their side, only to find that the Supreme Court thinks otherwise, and gays will continue to martyr themselves for The Cause, ruining their own matrimonial experiences with their disrespect of other people’s religious beliefs.

Kelly Chapman was right that it's a zero-sum situation, but there aren't any winners.