Losing Marriage Equality in Maine: Question One this week at the Mall of America!
David R. Weiss, May 13, 2012
Question One, an award-winning documentary is playing this week, May 14-19, at the Mall of America Theaters. Monday through Saturday at 7 p.m. (except Thursday’s showing is already sold out), you can see an essential documentary about the struggle for marriage equality in Maine that matters for Minnesota. (Get tickets.)
In May 2009 Maine became the first state in the country where a legislature passed a bill granting same-sex couples the right to marry. But just seven months later, in November, that law was overturned by popular vote through a referendum.
Filmmaker Joe Fox went behind the scenes (and back into the closet) to chronicle the final three months of the campaign. I had a chance to preview Question One last month. The film ranges from insightful to infuriating, from hope to heartbreak (and not quite back again). Fox offers a glimpse into the dynamics, the demons, and the drive that fuels both sides of the battle in Maine. (See Fox’s May 10 guest column in the Star Tribune.)
I urge you to see it for yourself. If you intend to work for marriage equality in Minnesota—which right now means working to defeat the proposed amendment this fall—this movie is essential education.
Let me share a few thoughts the film raised for me
Question One: Facing the Enemy
I’m a pacifist. Not given to “enemy” talk. We accomplish nothing—indeed, we undermine our own humanity when we resort to language and metaphor that undermines the humanity of others. I don’t offer that as a timidly tendered opinion. I state it as a simple truth for which I take no credit, but about which I say baldly: you test it at the price of failure.
So, why “Facing the Enemy”? I mean this in two ways. First, the film forces us to ‘face”—to humanize the people who work so fervently against our rights, who believe so sincerely that we pose a threat to them. We may completely disagree with, even despise their thinking; we may at times mock their piety, but Fox manages to keep them fully human. And we need to be reminded that the people poised against us are not the enemy; we need to “face” them, to feel their humanity. We need to run a campaign that aims to fashion a Minnesota to which they, too, can aspire.
But the second way. As St. Paul might remind us, “we contend not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12). In more contemporary language we contend against systemic and psychic forces that have more money and fewer scruples than we can imagine.
There is an enemy here, and the closest it comes to having a human name is Frank Schubert. He’s the public relations strategist who guided the successful 2008 Prop 8 campaign in California and the successful 2009 Question One campaign in Maine and the successful 2010 effort in Iowa to remove the Supreme Court justice who had ruled for marriage equality there and the most recently successful 2012 Amendment 1 campaign in North Carolina. And who is guiding the amendment campaign here in Minnesota today.
But Schubert himself isn’t the enemy. His strategy is: which is to be relentless in using sensationalized claims—and images—to evoke emotions that foster doubts that get leveraged into fears that get turned into votes … that ultimately serve the powers and principalities well above Schubert’s own pay grade. This is finally less about anyone’s personal prejudice than it is about the frailty of the human psyche and the way that systemic corporate, political (in retrospect we will write fascist) forces manipulate that frailty for profit, for political gain, and for the perverse joy of dividing us against ourselves.
Of Heresy and Hope
So, now I will venture a bit of heresy. Not theological, but campaign heresy. Yes, we need to tell stories. We need to have thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of conversations about why marriage matters to us and to our LGBT friends if we hope to defeat this fiendish amendment. But here is the heresy: stories will not win this campaign.
Stories are feel good. And they are certainly useful because by telling them we empower ourselves and we do invite (and sometimes prompt) a change of heart (and mind) in others. They are more than just campaign busywork (ways to keep the population engaged and occupied while the real strategists wage the real campaign behind closed doors). Indeed, stories will change cultural attitudes over the long haul. We saw this in our work—stretched out for more than a decade—in the ELCA.
But here’s the catch. Here’s what Schubert knows that I’m not sure we do yet, but which I saw clearly in Question One. He doesn’t need to change attitudes over the long haul. He just needs to use a handful of well-funded and well-placed commercials over the last month or two of this campaign. His ads about the risks to our kids will reach into even the hearts and minds of the movable middle who want to like us————and ratchet up their emotions-doubts-fears just enough to flip the handful of votes that will actually decide whether injustice makes it into our constitution. That’s all he needs to do to deliver another victory to his handlers.
And because of the frailty—the simple vulnerability—of the human psyche, the votes that make the difference won’t be cast by mean-spirited folks. They’ll be cast by troubled souls who simply and truly want what’s best for the state they share with us. And they won’t be able to see or feel past the fear.
And while our stories may change attitudes over the long haul, once the amendment is in place, it will be another decade at least before changed attitudes lead to changed laws. (And there will always be others to play off against us in the future. And Schubert may even see the writing on the wall; who knows, he may decide at some point to take his wares over to Uganda where there are other powers and principalities looking for a few good men like him.)
Political campaigns aren’t won by stories. Not often. (Some will say that Obama won by stories. And there is some truth to that. But he was an exception, a man with the benefit of kairos—the right place and the right time … and a man who has sadly squandered that benefit and failed to govern with the same vision of the stories with which he campaigned.) These days political campaigns are won, more often than not, by fear. Negative ads are cheaper to produce and quicker and more reliable to deliver than ads that rely on substance. And Schubert has raised the negative ad to an art form, an insidious but undeniably effective art form.
If we want, not simply to change our culture, but also to achieve justice at the ballot box in November, we will need to leverage HOPE. Because hope is the only thing that can be more appealing to an unsettled psyche than fear. We will need a well-funded and extraordinarily creative ad campaign of our own. We will need to use social media in every way possible to inspire hope.
We cannot simply counter the lies. And we surely cannot dehumanize those who oppose us. If we go down that road, we will have given them the victory already.
It seems to trivialize things to call it a “game,” but those who specialize in “game theory” know that there is nothing trivial in the term. A political campaign is a game played to win. And here’s my heretical take. Fear beats story. Not every time, but often enough to win the vote every time. THE ONLY THING THAT BEATS FEAR IS HOPE. And when fear takes over the air waves this fall—as it surely will—unless hope is ready to meet it with creative vibrant compelling images of a Minnesota where every family (including those of our adversaries) flourishes, unless we can do that, it’s game over.
But if we do that, it’s a game changer. In the struggle for something that is just and true, even amidst the frailty of the human psyche and its propensity to be moved by fear, hope is the one thing that can appeal to our better angels. Hope is what invites us—the vast majority of us, the 99% and then some—to see the arc of the universe bending toward justice … and to feel a hint of joy. Crassly put: we need an ad campaign to leverage that.
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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.tothetune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”