Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Clumsy Adventure In Grassroots Democracy

Friday evening I took our new train, then the monorail, to Seattle Center to pick up my daughter Josephine. I’d arrived a little early because Mom wanted me to check to make sure the International Fountain was operational (apparently it had been closed for cleaning because of large amounts of broken glass after the Bite of Seattle event). She wanted the all's clear to take one of her grandchildren there for a romp in the spray.

As I was running this errand, a young woman approached me with a clipboard. She wanted me to sign a petition to place Referendum 71 on the Washington State ballot. This is the outrageously dishonest anti-gay initiative that would repeal our state’s newly expanded domestic partnership law. Now you must understand that I’m living under a strict vow to never again let these American Taliban foot soldiers speak in public without speaking back. I’m committed to civility and reasonable discourse, but if the last 8 years have taught me anything it’s that political silence is not an option in a democracy.

The discussion started out fine, but when she said, “I don’t want them teaching my children,” I became less than civil and reasonable. And to call it “discourse” would be stretching the term. I didn’t curse, but I did call her “a bigot” among other things, and I was wrong to do it. Make no mistake, this initiative is outright bigotry, but name-calling is never productive. It’s just intended to hurt. I try to teach this to children, but I clearly still have a lot to learn myself.

I’m somewhat more proud of what I did next. I’d come to realize that she was working as part of a team of 7 or 8 signature gatherers and they were soliciting people as they entered Key Arena for some sort of evangelical “conference”. I announced, “I’m going to stand here and speak against you.” And I proceeded to loudly inform passersby that these people were collecting signatures on an “anti-gay, anti-civil rights” petition. Then I started joining into the conversations of people being pitched, interrupting with things like, “This initiative puts the rights of a minority up to the vote of the majority. One group can’t be allowed to take away the rights of another in a democracy.” And, “Maybe I’ll come out here next weekend with a petition for a ballot measure that will make it illegal for Republicans or Christians to marry in the Seattle. It would make the ballot and it might even win!”

It seemed like this last point might have gotten through to one teenager. While the others had talked back to me, this kid stood staring with a look of pained perplexity on his face. It might have just been gas, but it could have also been the expression of someone trying to fit a round fact into the square hole his upbringing had made of his brain. Maybe, just maybe, I’d created a little cognitive dissonance, which can be an opportunity to learn something new. I wasn’t the only one who noticed this, because seconds later the patriarch of the signature gatherers took him aside for a private chat.

I’m embarrassed that I let myself get sidetracked into a theological argument, which is entirely beside the point. You can’t argue with people about morality. Once you disagree in a moral argument you’ve automatically reached a stalemate. In fact, I have a theory that the morality of a community (as opposed to the individual) can only emerge from the process of working toward compromise based on uncontested facts. If you start with morality you’re instantly faced with an irresolvable problem because people never back down from their moral values. Unfortunately, I was not of a theoretical mind on Friday.

I finally, reluctantly, left them behind as the time had come to return to my fatherly responsibilities.

In sum, I’m glad I spoke out, but I’m not at all satisfied with how I handled myself. I feel a little ashamed. Since then I’ve also experienced a major plague of “genius in the stairwell” (i.e., realizing what I should have said or done after the fact). And, the possibility of that teenager excepted, I realize that I probably didn’t change a single mind. At best, I can say that I succeeded in putting that little group on notice: You will be opposed.

But aside from writing to warn Washington State residents against signing Referendum 71, I wanted to share what happened when I picked up Josephine.

I told her what happened and she answered, “Aww, I wish I could have been there!”

Woo hoo! For those of you who don’t know, Josephine is 12 years old, an age when kids are notoriously always embarrassed by their parents. In a moment that left me with mixed feelings, the girl was telling me that I was a little bit cool.

On the way home on our fun new light-rail train, she told me some of the things she would have said had she been there with me.

I have a cool kid. And in spite of my misgivings, I wish she had been there to see me, clumsiness and all.


Eternal Lizdom said...

I LOVE THIS STORY. Knowing that you read my blog, I'm sure you've noticed that this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. And I adore that you took the time and used your cajones to stand up and speak out!

reshma said...

Thank you for writing about your experience and informing me about R71. I am glad you did not ignore them - it was the right thing to do. I use always sign petitions but after I heard about all the lies that signature gathers say to get you to sign I have decided not to sign a petitions unless I have done research on it.

Teacher Tom said...

You're right Reshma. And R71 has a couple of doozies right at the top. They claim, in print, that WA has legalized gay marriage -- which is not true. In fact our domestic partnership law is often called "everything, but marriage". And secondly they claim that teachers will be forced to teach their students about homosexuality -- again in print. Another outright lie.

Unfortunately, the courts have found that there is no obligation to tell the truth in political speech.