Thursday, November 11, 2010

...except that it is

So I recently put up a post on the BARCC website about consent, and I believe it. Check it out here. In terms of sexual assault and rape, when we talk about consent, we're not talking about a long-term on/off switch that we and our partners flip. It doesn't work that way.

But...I'm not sure I actually believe my own statement about consent not being complicated. I think it's exceptionally complicated. We talk about consent in the context of sexual assault in a way that we really don't talk about it in any other circumstance, with the possible exception of medical care. Perhaps we should be making more analogies to doctors in our work.

Here's the problem: how many times a day do we get to consent to something? If I'm hanging out with friends, maybe I'll have the chance to determine if we go to a certain place to get food, or maybe I'll have input into what board- or video-games we might play. Maybe. But that doesn't require a continuous checking-in, it doesn't require that I try to think in advance of what emotional needs my friends might have, and it doesn't really require a ton of assessment of the cultural factors that weigh down that decision. If I ask my roommates if they want to grab Anna's Tacqueria for dinner, they aren't labeled, socially positioned, or discriminated against because they say yes or no. So the way that I think about consent in most of my normal daily interactions doesn't really fit the same model of consent that we're asking people to use in the sexual sphere.

Secondly, how many things happen to us on a day-to-day basis where consent isn't even a concept we get to broach? I've got homework to do, and my options are either to do it and get a good grade, or not do it, get a lower grade or fail, and face some serious consequences. When I worked for the marketing firm I worked for right out of undergrad, when my boss asked me if I could stay late to finish up reports that our clients needed the next morning, I guess I could have said no, but then I would've gotten in a lot of trouble.

Time after time in the course of most of our daily experiences, forces outside our control interact with us and affect our lives, and rarely if ever do those forces ask if they can do so. I don't get to negotiate with my college about tuition; my options are either to pay it or get kicked out, or go to another school. I don't get to negotiate with my public transportation agency about when the bus comes; I can either get on the bus or I can decide not to. I don't get to (directly) decide what my taxes are going to be most of the time - I can either pay them, or I can get audited by the IRS and possibly arrested. The idea that, in sexual relations, we're not only allowed but expected to put wants and desires first, and to regularly make sure we're falling within the lines of those wants and desires with our partners is a big jump from almost every other part of my world. I'm not saying it's a BAD jump, or that I don't whole-heartedly believe in it; what I think is difficult is that I don't necessarily have a whole lot of models for it.

The reason this is important for this discussion of rape and sexual assault is simple in my mind: most of us do not have experience with consent in the way we talk about it in the context of sex. If I expected my law school to be as attentive to my needs as a sexual partner is expected to be (under this ideal standard), I'd be laughed out of school. If I expected an employer (god forbid a law firm, in the future) to be this attentive, I've be laughed out of the firm, fired, and blacklisted from other firms. Where was I supposed to get the tools, experience, and understanding of this progressive idea of consent, from the world I live in?

In my world, people who get to express their desires and wants on a moment-to-moment basis in any context outside of sex are FABULOUSLY more wealthy and powerful than me. I worry that without more comprehensive sexual education, a lot of kids in the US will start thinking of consent as a class-based privilege. You can talk about consent all you want, if you've got the power to back it up. If you don't though, then you sound entitled and foolish. Consent is bourgie. If we've never made it clear that comfort zones, personal boundaries, and consent have a place in our lives in any other context than sex, why would people believe those things have a role in sex, either?

I think that the best place we have to model the type of consent we want to see in sex is the medical industry. It's not perfect, for sure, but the way that good doctors interact with good patients, especially when discussing surgery or treatment options for longer-term care, might be the best alternative model we've got for consent. A good doctor is supposed to offer a number of possibilities, reasonably cover the risks, and make sure that the patient has a good understanding of what's going on and can make a decision fairly before proceeding with any one treatment option. That would be my hope for consent in the sex arena, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

More thoughts on non-traditional messaging

To follow-up on this post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the power of non-traditional messaging, I had the opportunity last night to meet Dr. Riley Crane, of MIT's Media Lab at a Yelp event. Crane was discussing his lab's use of social networking sites to win the DARPA Network Challenge - a $40,000 competition to locate 10 red balloons scattered throughout the US using whatever means competitors wanted to use.

Crane's team was able to locate all 10 balloons, scattered around the entirety of the US, in just under 9 hours (8 hours and 52 minutes), by turning to the enormous expertise and observation of the internet. His lab offered a financial incentive to anyone who either found one of the red balloons directly, or led the team to someone else who found a balloon. On average, Dr. Crane said that for each of the red balloons, there was a chain of four people between the folks who saw the balloon and the MIT team.

Aside from how cool the story is on its surface, I am very excited about the potential for social networks to start flexing their muscles in other ways. Dr. Crane talked about the enormous potential for systems like these (and his team was primarily using Twitter, Facebook, email, and a couple of blogs and advertisements) to find missing persons.

I want to know what kind of impact networks like these can start having for groups like HollaBack - a site dedicated to exposing street harassers by sharing their photos online via the medium of camera phones. Could we create a nationwide database of harassers? Could an idiot on the street in Chicago get recognized as the idiot he is in New York, as well?

While some experts like Crane and his team are already doing work in this area, it also makes me wonder if we're fully tapping the web for more mundane issues, like city planning. In a previous life, I was a city planning student at Boston University's Metropolitan College, and one of the major conclusions I came to during my time there was that citizen participation was vital in city planning, not only for the ideological reasons of civil society and government by the masses, but also because involving a lot of people usually results in better planning decisions.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Fantasy of Equivalent Pain

I've got a new piece up over at the BARCC Blog, and it's not one of my better works. The post was inspired by a friend who shared a Dateline story with me about a young man who was emotionally abused and coerced by his abuser into killing her husband. Pretty much every aspect of the story is incredibly depressing, but also fairly typical for an abuser. The only thing that sets Ramos's story apart from our more "traditional" story of DV is that his abuser, Patty Presba, didn't smack him around the way we expect male perpetrators to smack around women.

Whenever I read a story like this, in addition to the depression and sadness that comes with it, I also feel a twinge of...victory? I'm not sure exactly how to describe it. When I hear news about a female perpetrator, my first thoughts are often almost gloating - "see, women can abuse too." My post today was sort of about this, although in much nicer language. Yes, it is important for me to understand that men can suffer from sexual and partner violence and abuse. Yes, it is important for me to understand that abuse is unreasonably common in all types of partnerships across the country, and that lesbians abuse, queer people abuse, women abuse.

There's a very valid concern in the world of violence prevention that survivors who don't fit the cultural script of who a survivor "should be" have a lot of obstacles to getting support. BARCC has run up against this problem with male survivors, who don't really report assaults, and with lesbian survivors too. I want to recognize that there are probably a lot of male survivors, or non-traditional survivors, who haven't reported or can't report because of hurdles placed in their path above and beyond what we already throw in front of straight white women who are survivors.

BUT - and here's where things get tangled in my own mind - it's really easy for me to slip into a fantasy where, because of all these obstacles that exist in the world, there are these huge masses of men being sexually abused or raped, and who never talk about it. I have this fantasy that abuse and violence are equivalent, and that it's not mostly people who look like me and identify like me that are causing all of this pain in the world.

That fantasy is complete bullshit. Yes, men can be and are survivors of assault, abuse, and violence. It is absolutely necessary to support survivors who are male, to ensure that they have the safe social space to seek support and help, and that they can do so without compromising their gender identity. Almost hoping, though, that as many men have been victimized as women (because it would make me feel better as a male-identified person myself) is a form of trying to claim ownership of an issue that isn't mine to claim.

It's like try to prove that rifles are as dangerous as handguns in gun-related violence. Sure, people do shoot each other with rifles in non-military situations in the US, and we should probably have good policy to prevent people from getting shot with them. But high-profile cases like the D.C. sniper aside, the relative levels of handgun violence versus rifle violence is so outrageously lopsided that any public health professional or gun-control activist would laugh at the idea that we need tremendous resources to prevent rifle-violence.

Likewise, even if I wish it weren't true, the rates of perpetration of domestic violence, incest, rape, and violent crime between men and women is so ridiculously lopsided that I can't in good conscience harp on female perpetrators. They do exist. They do hurt people. But if I'm trying to stop sexual violence, I'm going to do a lot more good focusing my work on other men than I will on women.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Pernicious Cultural Messages

The way that CNN pretty much pulled a 180 on Jaclyn Friedman is both ridiculous, but also strangely transparent in its urge to promote mainstream cultural conversations. Check out this post for the skinny on it.

The part that I find a little strange is that, for CNN, it sounds like they had a pretty good idea of what this segment they were running was going to sound like, well before they consulted any experts or talking heads. The mainstream culture already has a message for artists like Ke$ha and others who promote female wildness, and CNN was pretty intentional about making sure that message got promoted at the end of the day.

My question is why they decided they wanted to use Jaclyn Friedman to support that message. For a chunk of CNN readers, Jaclyn's name may not mean anything, and her being quoted out of context almost doesn't matter for those readers. Even our biggest Feminist names don't have quite the cultural penetration into popular cultural consciousness that, say, Ke$ha has, unfortunately. But Jaclyn's name is pretty big, especially in the world of rape prevention. For anyone who's heard of her even a little bit, they probably have an inkling that the quotes CNN published don't quite sound right, based on what else they may know of Jaclyn.

It feels almost like CNN either didn't know who Jaclyn is, or they deliberately set out to trash her reputation. This is not that much different than having CNN invite someone like, say, the late Dr. Howard Zinn to speak on history, and then misquoting him as saying that history is made by kings and presidents. It's not only not what he would say, it's the exact opposite of what he would say.

How pernicious must these cultural messages about drinking, sex, and gender roles be for CNN to pick not only someone who wouldn't really agree with the story they wanted to write, but who vehemently disagreed, and had spent most of her professional life opposing it? I don't know why they didn't just grab some random talking head who has no reputation for this segment.

Now Jaclyn has used her superpowers to call attention to the fact that CNN misquoted her, used her name and not her thoughts, and tried to stack a B.S. story on top of her credibility. I love that. It's awesome. But it's annoying that, instead of reporting on reality as it is, and actually allowing her the space to share her ideas for real, CNN tried to shoe-horn Jaclyn's points into the pre-determined shoebox they made for the story.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Freakonomics guys, but one thing I will certainly cede to them: once we look at real data in the real world that's based on reality, the social myths we constantly prop up and support (like, say that female drinking is responsible for rape) crumble around us. Conventional wisdom is pretty much always crap based on social power and not on facts and data. The more we can push up against them, and break them, the better off we'll all be because we'll have a world that actually respects real information. Hopefully.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The power of non-traditional messaging

Quick mini-post, not about gender at all: back to messaging and communication!

On Saturday, a main water pipe in Weston ruptured, leaving about 2 million members of Greater Boston without safe drinking water. Obama has since declared this a disaster emergency, paving way for Massachusetts to receive some federal funds to even out the cost of repairing the 10-foot pipe and testing the water quality.

The interesting part of this story for me was not the response of state or city agencies, although as far as I can tell, both were exemplary. The most unique part of this story is the way social messaging websites served in many ways as state proxies, distributing information about the water to a diverse series of social networks.

I didn't learn about the ruptured pipe from the Boston Globe (not because it didn't report it, but because I don't generally read the Globe or any other physical newspaper, for that matter). I didn't learn about it from the evening news or from the radio; I heard about it via text message from Boston University's Send Word Now alert system, developed after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2008.

Then, when I got home, I learned that I could boil my water to purify it for drinking, that it was safe to use for washing my hands (but not brushing my teeth!) and that it would be a few more days before we had reliable drinking water from a variety of friends on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm not going to wax too poetic about the social virtues of Twitter and Facebook; there are many other articles written about that. What I found interesting about this particular phenomenon was how quickly my friends (many of whom have worked for public agencies in the past, granted) took up the information they received from the Department of Public Health or Public Works, and spread it to their own social networks. It would seem to be the case that, when/if the public welfare is clear enough, most people are willing to cooperate with government to help educate each other.

It makes me wonder about things like Hurricane Katrina - how much different would the response have been, both of citizens in New Orleans, and the response effort, if Twitter and Facebook had been as big then as they are now. Would more citizens have been able to evacuate? Would more family members and friends have known ahead of time what type of hurricane was coming?

Once New Orleans lost power those networks would have been useless, of course, but would the state of Louisianna's message about evacuating have been carried further by individual social networks if we had the kind of technology in 2005 that we have in 2010? Would more people have been able to pool resources to leave, if they didn't have enough on their own?

I think the Boston water pipe aquapocalypse shows, in a small way, that government doesn't have to do all the necessary messaging itself: people will spread information, and reliably, too, if they have the mechanisms to do it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

What is orientation, anyway?

(This is the first in a short series of posts about sexuality and gender)
I had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful, long conversation with a new friend last night that covered a whole range of topics, from politics to feminism to grandparents. Beer was enjoyed by all. Much commiserating about life occurred. Many insights were shared.

One of the really interesting ones for me was actually something that I said, which is weird because I hadn't thought about it much before this particular conversation. Go privilege! We were talking about orientation, and I realized (as I was saying it) that I'm not really sure what orientation is.

I identify as straight - in common understanding, that would mean I'm attracted to women, right? But in muddied, complicated world of sexuality and gender, what does that really mean? Does it mean that I am attracted sexually only to people who are female-bodied? What if they identify as men, and look like boys or men? Body parts without context (or, say, the rest of a human attached to them) are not particularly interesting to me sexually, so my orientation isn't based solely on body parts and genitals.

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to people who LOOK the way I've been socialized to assume women look? Am I attracted to a series of cosmetic and maybe clothing choices like long hair, skirts, certain hip/waist ratios? Male-bodied people can definitely choose to wear skirts if they want, and some male-bodied people will have similar hip/waist ratios as female bodied ones (probably fewer, but still enough).

Does my straightness mean that I am attracted to behavior? Am I looking for signs of traditional femininity in my partners? A certain passiveness, delicateness, and so on? So far, my actual life choices would indicate that I'm not the biggest fan of traditional femininity in behavioral terms - I tend to be interested in more aggressive partners.

So, if I can't pin down my orientation based on body type, presentation, or behavior, what the hell is it governed by? I have traditionally identified as straight both because I thought it was somehow objectively true for myself, but also because I didn't want to appropriate any marginalized sexualities to try and make myself look cooler or more interesting as a member of the gender justice world. I've never described myself as queer because I've never felt like I lived the non-standard sexuality (and subsequent marginalization) that the term implies. The society around me has more or less always supported my attractions and sexuality, even if it wasn't able to really provide a clear message about what that sexuality was (I mean, aside from NOT being gay, whatever that meant).

One of the messages the gender justice movement has been able to send to people pretty well is the idea that gender is not a binary: the world does not consist of men and women, who each evince certain personality traits and body types without any overlap. We recognize that there are many, many different genders. Many activists will describe gender on a continuum, but I don't even like that framework because I think it's still too narrow. Likewise, orientation falls the same way. I'm not attracted to all women. I'm not attracted to all female-bodied people. My orientation is some strange hybrid of genetic predisposition and socialization that drives my interests. Orientation, like gender, is more like a plot on a map than a place on a continuum, and it's CERTAINLY a lot more varied than a check box of straight, gay, or bi.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Feminism is not a pick-up line

So a little bit of background here - I wrote a post for the BARCC blog a couple of weeks ago about being an ally, and trying to deal with being a straight white dude in a variety of movements where I need to recognize my privilege with the quickness. Here is my favorite part of that post (is it weird to link to my own stuff?):

The real danger with the good guy mindset is that it gets real easy to make my feminism cosmetic only; to make it a button I wear at NOW meetings or an interesting piece of conversational material I can pull out at a party when I want an otherwise uninterested woman to think I’m cool, different, and “not like those other guys.” Seriously, though, “I’m a feminist!” isn’t a pick-up line.

A couple of weeks later, two of my favorite bloggers wrote pieces that, while not companions per se, certainly touch on an issue related to this. First, Holly over at the Pervocracy, and then Cuppy at her place, both write excellent posts about trying to both fit feminism into their lives, and still have lives in addition to that. I have often felt these things as well - feminism is really important to me, and a major source of my identity, but I also really like Led Zeppelin and soccer and martial arts and terrible action movies and God of War and Warhammer 40K. Some of those things don't really have any particular relation to feminism in general, some of them can be incorporated into my belief system (go Boston Breakers!) . Some of them are...harder to do that with (no women in the 41st millennium!) But feminism is a big pillar on which my sense of self rests. It generally informs the rest of what I do with my time and my life.

So. I want to represent myself honestly to the world. I want people who are interested in meeting me to have a rough sketch of the things we might have in common, and as a straight dude, I want potential female partners of mine to have a clue what makes me tick. Where does that desire to be honest, and to express myself, start becoming...exploitative, perhaps? I list a lot of my loves on things like Facebook...including feminism. It's on my OkCupid profile. I make no bones about being involved in the movement when I talk to people. And, to be fair, despite my post for the BARCC blog, that has gotten me a couple of dates with women. I don't think I mean for my involvement in this world to be self-promotion, but it sometimes feels like it's coming across that way. I sometimes feel like I'm name-checking my favorite band and insinuating that I know the lead singer when I talk about my feminism, even if I'm not trying to impress someone.

A lot of my own personal feminism is external to me (on a side note, I hate saying things like "my feminism" because it makes me think I'm in Konoha and Naruto is about to go into a lengthy four-episode flashback about "his ninja way!"). I'd like to think I do a lot of internal work, too, to start breaking down the walls of misogyny that built up like plaque in my system, but more of my feminism is directed towards the neighborhood I live in and the organizations I work with. I feel like having straight dudes who openly identify as feminists is important for the movement, and that's been where I live for the past couple of years. So I'm a little conflicted - I like being the straight guy who's a feminist, but I don't want to abuse it. For me, reconciling my life with my feminism is also reconciling my sexuality with my feminism. I'm not sure I've figured out how to do that completely yet.

Bowling Teams

I've been spending more of my time recently over at the BARCC blog; come and find me over there on Mondays.

With HCR now passed (it's a BFD!), I can resume my regularly scheduled ranting about political and social messaging in a broader context than one bill. Since the HCR bill decided to throw women under the bus, as pretty much always happens when we talk about sexual and reproductive health, I'm in the mood this morning to rant about rape culture.

Here's an example of excellent, grassroots, media supported social messaging: bowling team names. I'm in a seasonal bowling league with some good friends from college, and here's what I've noticed about bowling team names (and to an extent, bar trivia names, too) - they are all required, by John Locke's social contract, to be terrible puns. All of them. Pretty much without exception.

So in my league, we've got my team (Split Happens), the reigning champs, Living on a Spare, and so forth. When my team captain first sent out her email to get our ideas for team names, she didn't explicitly tell us that we had to pick something that was a terrible bowling pun - we just knew we were supposed to do that. There is enough support in the social atmosphere for us to have learned through osmosis that this is the convention in bowling leagues.

Where did we get this information? Probably a bunch of different places: Obviously, the Big Lebowski is a big driver of it, as is probably a small stable of other bowling-focused large-budget comedies I saw as a kid. A few episodes of the Simpsons here and there, a few episodes of other major TV shows, and the words and conversations of my parents and adult relations when I was a kid, made me aware that this was the naming convention in bowling leagues.

This led me to wonder - how is that the world that I float in on a day-to-day basis is able to educate me quite firmly about the social conventions of something so trivial, like a bowling league, but it is unable to create a coherent message about sexuality? Obviously, there are less social power dynamics at play in a bowling league than in our overall messages about sexuality, so that's one reason at least that our messages aren't as easily shaped.

Rape prevention activists also don't get a whole lot of support from mainstream media, and we're not making a lot of our own media in the meantime. I'm talking social media, not news reports and blog posts - both of those are great, but when my friends get together on the weekends to have fun and shoot the shit, we don't quote our favorite blog posts (well, not most of the time, anyway). We toss jokes back and forth from our favorite TV shows, movies, and sometimes viral videos, if they are funny enough.

One of the tools progressives and gender justice folks like myself will need to really push back against rape culture is the support of major social media, to start creating a viable alternative social space for people to make jokes, have fun, and share common experiences and loves that aren't sexist and rape-y.

My ultimate goal in this world is to make consent in sex, and respect, as basic and easy to learn through osmosis as how we're supposed to name bowling teams.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Messaging Madness

So we have another opportunity for the DNC to win some much-needed PR points, and I'm not really seeing much happening in that category. Here's a link from Jesse Taylor over at Pandagon, one of my favorite blogs, about the Bunning situation taking place right now:
I really don’t understand how multiple Republican Senators saying that people are voluntarily unemployed because of unemployment benefits isn’t blaring from every cable pundit’s mouth and every Democrat’s press office as the worst thing anyone’s ever said (seeing as how it kind of, er, is).
As a party that has become much more George Wallace than Barry Goldwater over the past 40 years, Republicans seem to get a free pass from Democrats whenever they say some ridiculous madness like this. Senator Kyl's comments not only do not support any popular understanding of the "common man" or working class, they don't fit into even a conservative framework. Unemployment insurance is not a new idea, not a particularly radical concept - it's been in existence more or less since 1935.

So, as the party that attempts to speak for "real Americans," and then says crazybusiness like Kyl's statements, where is the organized, publicized response from Democrats? This is the opportunity to push for a serious change in branding. No, the Dems can't completely change the image they have allowed Republicans to heap on them for decades with one political gaffe, but this particular misstep is one in a long series of hypocrisies, lies, and falsehoods that need to be brought to public airing.

In my ideal world, there would be viral-friendly videos and posts about the "Republican reaction to economic recession" on the DNC website, along with the President's (or the party's) plan for economic recovery. The DNC would invest in a concentrated media push in poor and working class communities to question Republican commitment to those locations, and a national media push to highlight substantive policy differences between the parties. The lack of a unified response feels like there is no strong leadership at the party level.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Obama is not the beginning and end of Democrats, or health care reform

I read a great post this morning by Jonathan Bernstein over at his place A Plain Blog About Politics that really helped sum up a few of the serious issues I've had with the Democrats in their discussions on health care reform. The post is great, but here's the real kicker of it:
Barack Obama ran on health care reform. It wasn't incidental to his election; it was absolutely essential. Not, to be sure, to the general election campaign, but to his nomination in the first place...

In other words, attempting to pass health care reform was not a choice for Barack Obama. Any Democrat elected in 2008 would have done exactly the same thing. And given the similarity in the plans pushed by the leading candidates for the nomination, it's fairly safe to say that any Democrat elected in 2008 would have had a substantively fairly similar bill.

Obama couldn't have run from healthcare reform, or tested the waters to see what's up - this was his platform. This was his foundation, what pushed him to his post. Ignoring that mandate would have alienated not only his base, but a big chunk of other liberal legislators.

The bigger question in my mind than why Obama moved forward on such a difficult issue is how an issue that has such a liberal connotation in American politics was able to cause such a divide in a liberal party. Yes, I know the Democrats are a big tent and represent many ideas, but healthcare is a staple liberal idea, like supporting labor. Shouldn't there be some baseline from the party about it?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Liberal Messaging: best provided by conservative lawyers

About a month ago, conservative lawyer Theodore Olson wrote an op-ed for Newsweek describing why he was fighting to overturn Proposition 8 in California. I'll be honest, I did not know much about Mr. Olson before his op-ed and still don't know much about his career now, but what I did find interesting was that despite his conservative bonafides, Mr. Olson's "conservative case" for gay marriage seemed awfully similar to, say, any legal case for gay marriage.
...If all citizens have a constitutional right to marry, if state laws that withdraw legal protections of gays and lesbians as a class are unconstitutional, and if private, intimate sexual conduct between persons of the same sex is protected by the Constitution, there is very little left on which opponents of same-sex marriage can rely. As Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented in the Lawrence case, pointed out, "[W]hat [remaining] justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising '[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution'?" He is right, of course. One might agree or not with these decisions, but even Justice Scalia has acknowledged that they lead in only one direction.

I've been confused about what seemed like a basic legal point in my mind for a really long time - the 14th amendment of the Constitution, our equal protection guarantee, seems really straight forward to me (granted, I'm no legal all). It has refreshingly simple language for a powerful and necessary idea: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." To my simple and easily confused mind, that says, pretty clearly, that if something is going to be a law that affects people, it needs to affect everyone more or less the same way, and those laws cannot arbitrarily remove rights from individuals. This is basic. This is already in place. This exact law has already been used to rule in favor of homosexual couples' sexual freedoms. So why has the LGBTQI movement, and the democrats who ostensibly support that movement, worked in so many other directions and angles to promote this particular victory. Instead of waiting for the "right time" or for the Supreme Court to be more liberal, we should have pushed for more powerful, 14th-amendment based challenges to anti-gay laws.

Using equal protection is a strong position from which to argue gay rights and gay marriage. Mr. Olson's op-ed is well thought-out and written. What democratic messaging has taken place to promote this idea? In the mainstream public discourse, why is so much energy and attention paid to whether gay marriage affects our kids or destroys families? I understand the social reasons for doing so, in terms of moving culture gradually towards a more open and tolerant place, but legally? We've had the tools necessary to move this issue forward with the court, but we haven't done it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Cornel West has a good idea

Cornel West's short video address to President Obama earlier this week was a great encapsulation of the problems with progressives pegging our hopes on a single person (especially a single person who has to answer to a diverse nation of 300 million people) to right the wrongs we see in the world.

The most pertinent section to me was this:
Like Abraham Lincoln who needed the abolitionist movement, like FDR needed the labor movement, you need a progressive movement to push you and that's what we, I plan to do but you have to be receptive.

The issue for progressives is that last sentence - what are we doing to legitimately make our voices heard in the White House or, for that matter, anywhere in politics? I see no rallies (even though I try not to fetishize protests), I see no organized national attempt to push a progressive agenda from organizations outside of Washington. Tons of groups are doing great progressive work, but they are not necessarily banding together to push the President.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A continuation of the messaging

Nate Silver and the awesome team over at have a couple of really great posts up about health care reform and its role in the Massachusetts Senate race last week. Here are the two big take-aways I got from those posts, in order:

1. Massachusetts voters do support health care reform; they just don't like how it's actually happening in terms of legislative process, and like most of the country they...

2. Don't actually know what the proposed legislation does.

So, here we are. The democrats are in a nasty spot on a substantial legislative platform because they did not find a way to explain what it actually is. What didn't work to convince the public was a speech by the President, a set of confusing and contradictory statements from Pelosi, Reid, and Obama, and no planned communication strategy to combat falsehoods spread by special interests.

Silver says it pretty well:'s much harder to read the opinion polls as a "mandate" against the health care bill when much of that opinion is based on demonstrably false beliefs, some of which have been perpetuated deliberately by opponents. And it's much harder to know how the Democrats ever expect to pass a health care bill or similarly complicated policies like cap-and-trade if they wither in the face of polls that reflect less a disparity of opinion and more a poverty of accurate information.
I don't know if it's too late to launch a comprehensive communications platform for this or not. But if it isn't, party leadership might want to focus on that for a while to make this issue less toxic for the senators and representatives running this November.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

This is not the type of communication I was talking about...

Here's the DNC's new effort to use the momentum of the Obama election to push forward a progressive liberal agenda...a year after he was sworn into office: Gen44! Yeah...a new 'youthful' vibe that's totally not at all based on all of the old problems of using a figurehead as a political movement.

Anyone else remember when Katha Pollit told democrats NOT to do this exact thing?
Stop looking for a savior. If we create a strong movement, leaders will arise. Probably too many! When a movement is weak, what you get is men--and I do mean men--on white horses, people with thin records of accomplishment upon whom wild hopes of rescue are projected. In 2004 it was Wesley Clark--supposedly electable because he was a general. This year, it's Barack Obama, with John Edwards coming up the inside. My point is not that both men are lightweight, inexperienced and less progressive than advertised. It's that, whatever their merits, if you want the next Democrat in the White House to feel beholden to you, don't act like a groupie two years in advance. Concentrate on building a movement he'll need to court--and satisfy.

I'm sure it is the intention of the Gen44 folks, whether the idea was initiated at the DNC or elsewhere, to make sure Obama ISN'T the headliner of the party for the foreseeable future, but making the name of the organization tasked with doing so an explicit reference to Obama probably won't accomplish that. Just saying.

How about instead of this, the DNC and OFA work on crafting a durable, poignant message about what their current legislative platform is, and how it will help Americans? How about they do some media studies to find out how to best distribute that message?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Communication was biggest issue in Coakley's Loss

Communication seems to be a serious tripping point for the Democratic Party, and not just for Obama's administration. Martha Coakley's loss last night to Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat gave me a personal experience with this lack of messaging. I think it may be the most critical and glaring problem the party faces right now.

Coakley lost for two basic reasons - first, she didn't ask for anyone's vote. Sure, Massachusetts is the most liberal state in the country and traditionally votes democratically, but the state is not unidimensional. We have always had a republican presence and the majority of the state's voters are registered as independents, not democrats (about 51% of voters in MA are independents). Coakley didn't communicate with anyone because she and her staff didn't feel they needed to, and that was a dangerous mistake to make, specifically because of the second reason she lost - healthcare.

While campaigning, Scott Brown regularly and loudly proclaimed that he would be a "41st vote" against healthcare, indicating that his election would stall national democratic efforts to pass the reform bill. Here's where the national and state-level elections and communications failures start to compound one another for the democrats, and where Coakley got completely derailed.

Internally, it sounds like DNC leadership either did not offer to assist Coakley early enough in the campaign cycle (which, for a campaign as abbreviated as this one, should essentially have been as soon as she won the primary in November), or they weren't forceful enough with her campaign staff about how to run her campaign. In either event, I would have expected the DNC to be on top of this particular election if for no other reason than it was the ONLY election taking place at this time of year, and that would have any bearing on the national healthcare debate.

Based on the claims coming out of the Coakley and White House camps, there was no consistent communication between the two. Coakley refused party assistance, or was offered it too late in the campaign to matter. That was the error of internal communication - the party failed to provide the support, strategy, and guidance that an important candidate needed, a candidate the party was counting on to carry the majority required to pass its signature legislative platform of the current administration. Bad move.

But the bigger bad move has been made for the past 9 or 10 months of discussion on health care reform: communicating to the public. Throughout the summer and fall of 2009, Republicans and the teabaggers brought up spurious claim after spurious claim about the nature of health care reform - not only items that were (supposedly) in the actual bills themselves, but about the social value of health care reform, and the costs and benefits of it. This colored the public conversation and made health care reform, a major pillar of Obama's campaign, an unsafe issue for democrats.

First mistake here: there was no advance plan created to launch or sell health care reform. Party leaders should have known that attacking the health care industry was going to result in a backlash, but from what I saw during 2009, the democrats were blindsided by the type of backlash they witnessed from the teabaggers and town-hall meeting outbursts. Had there been a pre-emptive campaign to both sell the American public on the need for and benefits of healthcare reform, we could have met some of the backlash full-on, and we would have taken control of the conversation.

Mistake number two: there was no party consensus on what healthcare should BE. I can respect that the democratic tent is a lot bigger than the republican one, but the lack of a single focus for the health care bill hurt national efforts to promote and defend it. I can also respect that the constituents in different states will need different mechanisms to understand the complexities of something like health care reform, and a dedicated and analytical democratic communication team should have been able to determine what types of messaging would help combat the lies of the teabaggers in vulnerable states, like the ones represented by Blue Dogs. In some locations, strong media buys might have helped raise the level of discourse. In other locations, a grass-roots, volunteer focused effort to offer person-to-person information might have worked better (something like the Climate Project). Without any of that effort, the democrats fought a half-year rearguard communication war that saw the support for health care reform fall from about 50% to 40% (granted, there a variety of other polls that show slightly different results, but the truth is that healthcare reform has become a noxious enough issue that a state that hasn't elected a republican in 38 years just elected one last night, at least partially because he promised to kill the current health care bill).

The longer term messaging issue is the more important one - if we had a consistent, effective, nation-wide communication strategy to sell health care reform for the past year, it wouldn't have mattered who Scott Brown was, because his major campaign goal would have been moot. However, since we didn't do that, specific attention from the party for an important race would have at least let us hold on to the hope of passing something soon. Without either, it's probably back to the drawing board for health care reform. If this doesn't pass this year, it will embarrass Obama and the party, and probably result in us losing a lot of seats in November.