The president was in Boise, Idaho, on Tuesday, which is, as Rachel Maddow said, the reddest of red states, and the crowd around him was mesmerized, cheering him on. He spoke, briefly, of what has been accomplished in Washington. He touched lightly on his achievements, and then he spoke more philosophically of the things we do when we engage in political discussion. What are my responsibilities, and what are yours. What is the goal, and how do we get to it. Listen, this is the conclusion (you can read the whole speech here):
“Some of the commentators last night said, well, that was a pretty good speech, but none of this can pass this Congress. But my job is to put forward what I think is best for America. The job of Congress, then, is to put forward alternative ideas, but they’ve got to be specific. They can’t just be, no. (Laughter and applause.) I’m happy to start a conversation. Tell me how we’re going to do the things that need to be done. Tell me how we get to yes. (Applause.)
“I want to get to yes on more young people being able to afford college. I want to get to yes on more research and development funding. I want to get to yes for first-class infrastructure to help our businesses succeed. I want to get to yes! (Applause.) But you’ve got to tell me, work with me here. (Applause.) Work with me! Come on! Don’t just say no! (Applause.) You can’t just say no.”
This is about how we get to a shared goal when the how is not shared. The president doesn’t explain how we are to operate if we and our opponents do not share the goal, if we think the goal is more research and development funding, and they think, the country can do without that. At that point, they say, no. Or they try to ignore climate change. This is where we’ve been for the last four years.
Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and we saw interviews and documentaries of his life all weekend long. Saturday I saw a documentary on the 1962 Freedom Rides from Nashville to Jackson. King and President Kennedy were not considering how to desegregate the South so much as they were faced with the question, Is the desegregation of the South the goal all of us are working toward? That’s what the Freedom Rides were about—establishing the critical, primary, universal need of America to get rid of segregation. The riders—college kids, almost all of them—did that by putting their lives on the line and making use of the media to show America what American blood, spilled by American cops and mobs, looks like. Once Americans across the country saw what American blood looks like when it is spilled by American cops, it didn’t take but a day or two for America to decide, this is the goal, and it is now the most important goal before this nation. Fix this first.
Well, here we are. A cursory analysis of the present predicament of GLBTQ folks in America suggests that we are more like our president and his opponents in Congress than MLK and his president and opponents. But the Freedom Riders and the blood they spilled, should be remembered as one of the tactics available to us in our own trek through these brambles toward getting to yes.
This tells us something about the future of gay men and women. We can mount the same kind of responsible, experienced, steady, fact-grounded campaign, making use of every tool we have available to us, remembering that our opponents have shared space with us in America all these years and have managed to avoid us until lately. Most of our opponents know almost nothing about us. So, we must be in their face and the power of our argument irresistible as we convince them that getting to yes on, for example, teenage gay suicides is essential and inescapable.
Getting to marriage is only the first step. The rest of it is going to be even more tough.