Publisher’s Perspective: Uphill in a mudslide

By : Tom Dyer
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TomDyerHeadshotAnother year is coming to an end, but as editor Steve Blanchard’s ‘Big Story’ points out, it is also the end of a decade. The first ten years of the new millennium are now over.

We may resist looking back for good reason. The last twelve months have been, in varying degrees, painful for just about everyone. To consider a decade’s-worth of events that either created—or foreshadowed—our current precarious situation seems almost masochistic. In a recent cover story, Time magazine dubbed 2000-2009 “The Decade from Hell.”

It started well enough, with goosebump-inducing celebrations circumnavigating the globe to remind us that we all inhabit the same small planet. But that same year a contentious U.S. presidential election led to a fateful Supreme Court decision that saddled us with leadership—and partisanship—that has proved tragic.

After the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, American reaction at first unfolded like purposeful, patriotic improv. But hindsight has made clear that it was exploitative, cynical, and scripted by the Bush/Cheney administration down to the level of political stage management.

A universally supported assault on the Taliban perpetrators in Afghanistan was soon abandoned for the White House’s desired target, Iraq. When claims that Saddam Hussein controlled weapons of mass destruction proved false, it was apparent that we had invaded a country that posed no immediate threat, killing thousands of our own troops and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis in the process. Osama bin Laden remained at large, and our conduct of the war—remember Abu Ghraib?—gave him a powerful recruiting tool. The loss to America’s moral authority is incalculable.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005 and became the perfect metaphor for a federal government that was indifferent to the needs of most Americans. While thousands cried for help from their rooftops. or from the filthy Superdome, President Bush instructed the pilot of Air Force One to fly over the flooded devastation so he could take a quick look on his way from Texas to Washington, D.C. He never really got any closer to the unprecedented disaster.

That same indifference to common citizens defined government reaction to the economic meltdown in late 2008 and extends to this day. Eight hundred billion dollars was set aside to prop up the financial institutions whose greedy speculation caused the crisis. This was likely necessary, but when banks were instructed to use at least some of the money to address the foreclosures that are rendering millions of Americans homeless, they proved mostly indifferent. It was time to tighten up lending, if not bonuses.

As though walking uphill in a mudslide, the LGBT community has made remarkable advances since 2000. Respected lesbian blogger Deb Price called it “a decade of wonderfully dizzying progress.” Looking back, it’s hard to argue with her assessment. 2009 was a year of frustrating setbacks in California and Maine, but that’s only in the context of the previously unthinkable gains.

A conservative Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws, ruling that adult intimacy is a protected liberty. Gay bishops were appointed, and openly gay candidates were elected as mayors of Portland and Houston (and Prime Minister of Iceland). President Obama made good on his promise to do away with the HIV travel ban, and signed a law making it a federal crime to assault someone because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Most significantly, LGBT marriage was legalized in most western nations, as well as in five states and soon the District of Columbia. New Jersey, New York, California and Maine were—and remain—oh-so-close.

Not coincidentally, all of this occurred as gays, lesbians, and even transgendered people attained unprecedented cultural acceptance. We are fixtures on television and in movies, and the list of out celebrities—just a handful at the turn of the century—is now far too long to list comprehensively. And this acceptance is leaking into schools, where there has been an explosion of Gay-Straight Alliances that fight homophobia where it often starts.

Of course, soul-sucking inequality remains. More than 30 states, including Florida, have blocked marriage with statewide votes. In those states that allow gay marriage, lack of federal recognition severely diminishes the impact. Gays still can’t serve openly in the military, and with insulting adoption limitations, Florida and other states deny our right to parent and create families.

As we embark on the second decade of the new millennium, our march to equality will be slowed by two factors. First, everyone is consumed by pressing economic problems and will thus be less willing to consider full LGBT equality a priority. Second, influential conservative mouthpieces see gays and lesbians as the personification of freethinking ‘anti-family’ radicalism, and they will scapegoat us at every opportunity for the pain of present circumstances.

The current political climate scares me. Propagandistic media like Fox News not only drive the debate, they set the agenda. Meanwhile, elected officials are so insulated and special interests are so entrenched that we seem to lack the ability to address increasingly alarming problems.

Two examples: A full year after the worst economic meltdown since the depression, there has been no meaningful attempt to reform the financial sector to prevent it from happening again. And after months of debate, health care reform will basically require 40 million Americans to buy health insurance from for-profit insurance companies. If this seems inexplicable, look to the power of the lobbies, especially with Democrats now that they’re in power.

The only meaningful way to fix this corrupt system is with an overhaul of campaign laws so that elected officials represent us and not their biggest donors. That would require a revolution, so my less dramatic hope for the next decade is that our current president—smart, ambitious, energetic, and currently too deferential to the existing corridors of power—will grow in the job and lead us out of this quagmire the way FDR lifted the nation seven decades ago.

It’s not easy walking uphill in a mudslide, but it can be done.

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