Mitt, money, Mormons, class

Among the revelations stemming from Willard Mitt Romney’s tax returns – now being combed with the exigetical intensity usually given to sacred texts – are his contributions to homophobia. Most directly, his family foundation gave $35,000 to two “pro-family,” anti-gay groups. For Mitt, of course, that’s nothing. But he also tithes — gives at least 1/10 of his income to his institutional religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; in the last two years, that amounted to more than $4 million. The Mormons, in turn, are big funders of the homophobes. Mike Signorile says, “The church itself gave over $180,000 to help pass Prop 8 [the 2008 anti-same-sex-marriage referendum in California]. The church was fined by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting its numerous financial contributions to the cause.” The Mormons also have a network of small, strange NGOS, circling around a few post office boxes in Arizona, that carry on similar struggles at the United Nations.

It seems to me this opposition has a large component of sour grapes.   Deep in the Church festers a feeling of: If we didn’t get to redefine marriage, why should you? 

The LDS, after all, held sacrosanct for years the practice of polygamy or plural marriage, as in Big Love, the better to multiply their congregants.   A Supreme Court ruling conclusively banned it in 1879, and eleven years later God spoke to the head of the Church and told him, be fruitful but only with one woman per, until further notice. But a certain resentment remains, a feeling that others should not get away with matrimonial overflow – whether beyond the bounds of number or of gender — denied to the chosen. I say this based not just on intuition but on some conversations with very right-wing Saints over the years. Most notably, around a decade back I spoke at a conference on religion at Cornell. Upstate New York (where Joseph Smith found the golden plates and the magic spectacles, and founded the glorious religion) still has warrens of underground Mormons, some of them dissident, clinging to the old-time faith, living in secrecy somewhat like monsters in an H.P. Lovecraft story.   Several were in the audience. They seemed to blink unfamiliarly at the light. They were all men, all compact as Toby mugs, with those patriarchal beards that omit mustaches and make the wearer look like his own ancestor, or C. Everett Koop. (Later, when I met Salafists in Egypt, I recognized the style.)

Brigham Young and his beard

After my address, we got into a discussion about the concept I’d introduced: sexual rights. Almost shyly, they asked how a right to sexual autonomy would affect the number of people one married. I said, very carefully, that one could in theory construct a human rights argument for legal recognition of polygamous relationships – as long as gender equality was respected. They perked up visibly, like portraits coming to life. The reservation about gender seemed to them a potentially endurable concession, something you could put in the law as long as you didn’t tell the women. The women wouldn’t learn to read, anyway! I felt that if we had a few more hours, we might almost have arrived at some historic compact, like Mussolini’s concordat with the Vatican: a polygamous-promiscuous alliance to sweep the nation simultaneously forward to the Age of Aquarius, and back to the Age of Abraham.  I wonder if we could revive the prospect someday. Divided, we are weak; but together, we can rule the world.

Happy Pride! You're fired.

Mitt, notoriously mercurial about everything, used to be a bit nicer to the gays. His opponents this year brought up a bright pink flyer his campaign distributed during his 2002 run for Massachusetts governor, with he and his running mate saying “All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference.”  Mitt now says he never saw it before. Probably this is that pink slip he was always worried about getting.

Mitt’s devotion to one-man one-woman marriage is perhaps made more interesting by the fact that Mitt’s own family comes from the Mormon colonies founded in Mexico by plural marriers fleeing persecution in the United States. His father, George Romney, was born there, in 1916, just before the colonies broke up because of the Mexican revolution and the exiles returned to the U.S.   (George ran for president in 1968.  Spawned on foreign soil, he would, oddly enough, have been disqualified under the standards birthers try to use against that Kenyan interloper, Barack Obama.  Mitt’s son Tagg, who lately voiced his affinity with the birthers, might want to check his family history.)

On a very cursory search, I don’t see any evidence that Mitt’s own ancestors practiced plural marriage; there seem to be few enough of them to suggest that monogamy straitjacketed their sperm into limited outlets. But certainly they must have been ideologically, or theologically, in favor; that was the main motive for the exodus to the Sierra Madre.   It would be intriguing to confront Mitt with this genealogy sometime, particularly if Rick Santorum were in the room to contribute his own questions. They have coyotes in Mexico, Mitt; did your granddaddy marry any dogs down there? It could make an interesting discussion.

The reason I got to thinking about these things was because for weeks I’ve kept seeing Mitt Romney described, in news articles, as a “WASP” and an “aristocrat.” And he’s not.

It’s  a terrible, amnesiac misrepresentation. He cannot be called a WASP; Mormons are not, in the normal sense, Protestants, which is what the P stands for. They occupy their own distinct niche within (or maybe a little bit without) Christianity. Meanwhile, his clan were aristocrats, in  a sense, but Mormon aristocrats: dignitaries within a community that had long been a tribe wholly unto itself. Until his father’s generation, they had nothing to do with the seats of American power. The sachems of the Protestant ascendancy, with their rites of the Episcopal Church and the Porcellian Club, their temple complexes at Exeter and Andover, Harvard and Yale, their human sacrifices at the debutante ball, inhabited a completely different world. The Mormons were beneath their notice, hardly better than far-off Aztecs when viewed from New York or from the heights of Beacon Hill.

"In Memorial Brigham Young": 1877 anti-Mormon cartoon

In America, for a very long time, the Latter-Day Saints remained morally and sociologically isolated. It took the Mormon church decades to shed the disreputability that polygamy had smeared across it.  In the first decade of the 20th century, the US Senate required three years of hearings before seating an electee from Utah (the later-famous Reed Smoot), because his detractors claimed his status as a Mormon Apostle disqualified him.  (It was of Smoot and his battle against immoral literature that Ogden Nash wrote the immortal lines:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a war on smut …
Senator Smoot is an institute
Not to be bribed with pelf.
He guards our homes from erotic tomes
By reading them all himself.

Read more here.)

By the time the church had won a partial respectability, the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s made it a pariah in a new sense. The Latter-Day Saints still understood the deity to say that blacks were a separate and inferior creation to whites; the rest of the United States heard the Lord, or at least the law, differently.   Only in 1978, when God changed his mind, did the ideological barriers separating the Church from broader American society fully relax. For those of us in the advocacy business, it would be interesting to know what kind of lobbying persuaded God.

Romney père: auto-maton

George Romney was a figure who bridged both worlds, the insular one of his tribe and the wider one of public power. He was a thoroughly self-made man – he never went to college, and worked his way up to head of the American Motor Corporation, which as they said at the time was fourth among the Big Three car companies. He then ran for governor of Michigan, and won.  Despite the Church’s residual prejudices, he fought racism vigorously in public life and supported the civil rights movement honorably. At the same time, he was a grandee of the Church, in every way a pattern of dignity and rectitude. (His uncle, also a Mexican colonist, had been the first president of what’s now Brigham Young University.) But with all that, you wouldn’t quite call him part of the American elite. The deliquescent ease with which his presidential candidacy dissolved in 1968 (his support melted away like Utah snow when he said he’d been “brainwashed” over Vietnam) indicated that the truly powerful felt no special closeness to him. He ended his career as Nixon’s secretary of urban development which in that administration was like a chauffeur pensioned off to polish hubcaps when he can no longer drive.

If you want to know what an American patrician looks like, cast an eye instead on George H. W. Bush: Andover, Yale, Skull and Bones, son of a senator and grandson of an arms salesman. How different from the Romneys! He was Gumby-postured and slouchy; he spoke like Bertie Wooster; he wore unpressed suits in the style of 1955, and he got blind drunk every day by 3 PM. (So it was rumored in Washington. He was careful to start press conferences and wars before noon.)   He didn’t have to prove anything to any higher class, because there was no higher class. He could just be who he was, although what that was in a deeper-than-sartorial sense he was never sure.  (Unfortunately, as a politician he was forced to pander to the lower classes, which caused him no end of trouble, as he proved terrible at it.  His apparently smug son George W. was actually much more insecure, probably accentuated by his eschewal of hooch, which served him well – he empathized with the jitters of the unwashed Yahoos, and could talk their language.)

Are these things clothes, even? They don't have pinstripes.

Mitt Romney is nothing like that. Just watch. He’s stiff. He’s uncertain. He combs his hair too closely and his suits seem to have been dipped in Superglue. He moves like someone who just got his body for Christmas, but lost the instruction manual.  Persuaded to wear unfamiliar jeans on the campaign trail in order to “humanize” himself, he keeps glancing down uneasily as if he’s really naked and they just haven’t told him yet. His robotic demeanor has nothing to do with the hauteur of “aristocracy.”  Iit’s the checked hyper-caution of someone watching his own every move and trying to be what he’s not. He’s impersonating a member of an elite that hasn’t let him in. As a devout Mormon leader he’s obliged to wear special underwear, certifying he and his genitalia are secretly sacred to the Lord. These antiquated garments keep showing in the imagination, faint creases through his shellacked clothes, and they seem like the most natural part of him. The rest is all costume, and it’s not cut to his size.

Mitt Romney’s father George remained  in and of the West, as Nick Carraway would say in Gatsby – in that abode of American individualism very different from the class-bound, class-defined East Coast. He knew his limits and by and large he stuck to them. (Michigan, for Carraway, would have been amply West enough.)  Mitt sought out the East; he came to Harvard; he stayed in Boston; and it’s fairly obvious this exotic Mormon with his strange skivvies never quite fit in. He still doesn’t fit in. He’s comfortable in a simple corporate world where status comes from money — but not in the world of class, that other ghost-world that persists and underlies it, made out of memories, of phrases registered and gestures half-remembered, where people are judged by a numinous quality of accommodating, of knowing how things are done or are undone, of understanding how life is woven out of signs and one must signal back to be a part of it. In his hardened carapace of fake skin, he sees the seamless world of the social but it can’t reach him.   He’s lost and no longer at ease there, not recognizing the looks on people’s faces, smiling when he ought to sigh.

Poor Mitt. He’s a prisoner of the persistence of class in American life. It’s the thing nobody talks about but everybody has to understand.

Maybe the real insecurity of his church is actually similar — I mean, the reason they spend so much money to “defend marriage”: they know the memory that shadows them in American society, the mark of their exclusion from the class system, is that they were off the map on marriage before, and now they must be plus royaliste que le roi.   Still, it’s Mitt who’s suffering right now from the paradox of class. His inability to comprehend it is destroying the political career he spent his adulthood trying to buy.

It’s sad he keeps getting confused with an “aristocrat”: that only makes things worse.   Maybe he’d be happier off in the simpler past, in that long-lost Mexico colony where each hut had bedrooms for eight wives, in the vanished century and the arid hills.  Somebody should ask him. Rick Santorum?

From Egypt: The class impasse

So this is what violence in Cairo is like now: the city has grown inured to it. You can stroll down a sidewalk in perfect serenity, and ignore the fact that a few blocks away lies what the foreign journalists call a “war zone.”  Tuesday night — the end of the first round of the parliamentary elections — I was wandering Mahmoud Bassiouny Street downtown. I reached street’s end and a tangle of highways by the Egyptian Museum, and suddenly there were people rushing across the pavement and screaming, and bright crashing flashes that I recognized as Molotov cocktails. Behind me, abruptly, aggressive young guys in leather jackets had built a makeshift barricade across the street and were diverting traffic, and waving large knives. Among their shouts, I could distinguish “Eid wahda” — “One hand.”  A few shopkeepers motioned me to get the hell away. For months crowds have targeted foreigners amid gathering xenophobia, reviling them as spies. There was, however, no obvious place to run. I walked as calmly as I could back past the barricade and the multiplying mob, and it was only at Talaat Harb Street, as the usual bustle of the city settled in, that I checked Twitter and called my friends and realized I’d been in the middle of the latest installment of the Battle of Tahrir. By night’s end, around sixty people, democratic protestors attacked by their opponents, were in the hospital. At midnight, I watched demonstrators carrying their comrades, swathed in bandages, across the square.

I’ll say more later about exactly what was going on.  First, though, the elections.

The returns have been dribbling in for two days. This was the first round of three: a third of Egypt’s governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, cast ballots. The sweep of the Islamic parties’ victory surprised everyone, including some wings of the Islamists themselves.

Salafist campaign workers in Cairo's Shobra district: from @mmbilal on Twitter

Freedom and Justice (FJP), dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, carried about 40% of the vote. More shockingly, el-Nour, the main Salafist party — representing literal, puritan, right-wing Islamists — won about a quarter of the ballots to come in second overall. The Egyptian Bloc, a coalition of liberal and largely secular parties, placed third, slightly behind it.  The next election rounds will largely be held in more conservative parts of the country. Unless the Coptic vote in Upper Egypt shows unexpected strength, Freedom and Justice will hold close to a majority of seats; with el-Nour, they could control the new parliament completely.

Most people expected the Brotherhood to win, though by a lesser margin. At a polling place downtown I visited on Monday, Freedom and Justice organizers swarmed everywhere, flush with leaflets and paraphernalia, while the other parties were pretty much invisible. Several observers heard the same comment over and over from FJP activists: “We’re confident because we’ve been organizing for this moment for 80 years.”  Certainly, for at least two decades the Brotherhood have been the only opposition force with a real grassroots presence. This time, they had the chance to try it out in a fair election. On the other hand, the Salafists’ success seems to have shocked even the Freedom and Justice Party. Mubarak jailed and tortured the ultraconservative Islamists with still more fervor than he devoted to repressing the Brotherhood; driven underground, they had few of the Brothers’ opportunities to organize in cities or villages. Their ability to pull millions of votes out of a hat this time shocked many across Egypt.

In the US, naturally, neoconservatives bray that Egypt is the new Iran, making up in population for what it lacks in plutonium: “Egypt’s turn toward Islamic revolution would be catastrophic. As the largest country in the Arab world, it has influence that Iran could never hope to achieve.”

I spent most of the last week talking to “liberals” in Egypt — a catch-all term defined quite differently than in the West. It includes Communists of various sorts, socialists, social democrats, anarchists, and free-market liberals, most but not all secular, united by a commitment to democracy, divided by disparate beliefs in what it means — some wedded to the parliamentary process, some dreaming of direct self-governance. Few, though, had an apocalyptic sense about the Islamists’ victory. They talk about three key things. First, as democrats they can’t reject out of hand the outcome of a democratic election. Second, the parliament will have little power in a government still run by a military junta. And third, the junta remains the real enemy.

One bloody hand: Junta head Tantawi

The generals are killing people. I spoke last night to two gay friends who have been committed revolutionaries since January. Both were in Midan Tahrir the week of November 20, and their rage against SCAF (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) was palpable. That week, the junta reacted to a renewed sit-in in the square with brute force. They sent Central Security police down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, leading from the Ministry of the Interior, to beat and abuse protesters. The protesters fought back, blocking the street and throwing stones at the police. The police in turn soaked the street in tear gas, till mushroom clouds of it loomed above the city; they fired at the demonstrators with rubber bullets and birdshots — aiming, it’s clear, at the eyes to blind them. The square these days is full of people with bandaged sockets, bandaged faces; friends of my friends lost their eyes. One police marksman, Sobhi Mahmoud Shenawy, became known as “the eye sniper.” Forty-three dissidents died. “This was a deeply personal fight,” Ahmad told me. “You could see they would kill you in a minute.”  And Khaled added, “You felt that such people, who would fire to blind you, didn’t deserve to rule a city block, much less a country.”

Wounded protesters, Nov. 20: from @NadimX on Twitter

As gay men, my friends don’t much fear the Brotherhood or the Salafis. They remember that the worst persecution of gays in Egypt’s history, probably the worst anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world, happened under the secular Mubarak regime, from 2001-2004.  The FJP could hardly augur anything worse.

To be sure, the Brotherhood, always opportunists, sold out in the last weeks, giving their support to SCAF.   But the new Prime Minister whom SCAF plans to puppeteer, Kamal el-Ganzouri, is a Mubarak veteran who presided over mass torture of Islamists during his last term as premier in the 1990s. The Islamists have long memories; they will not forgive him. Already, the FJP has announced it expects a government responsible to the parliament. SCAF quickly warned them the new cabinet will answer to the generals alone. “The Brotherhood can mobilize a million people in the street if they want,” my friends told me. “If it comes to a face-off with SCAF, they’re almost the only political force with a chance to win.”

Still, liberals — and feminists, and gays, and Egypt’s large Coptic minority, and many others — hardly trust the Brotherhood. And the Islamists’ triumph raises serious questions about where the revolution is going.

Back to last Tuesday night’s violence — because it illuminates those questions. How did the fighting start? On Tuesday morning, the revolutionaries in Tahrir decided to expel some of the vendors who populated the place. The square has become a market; in addition to tea, juice, food, and fruit, hawkers pitch T-shirts, flags, and souvenirs. The vendors have a bad reputation; they’ve been accused of peddling drugs; the dissidents thought they might besmirch the image of the revolution. Out with them!

This has happened before, once over the summer; back then the vendors got violent, and they did this time as well. In the evening, they counterattacked, assaulting the square with stones and Molotov cocktails. Or somebody counterattacked. The men I saw blocking traffic didn’t look like vendors; it’s possible SCAF took advantage of the situation to send in its own provocateurs. (Their battle cry, “One hand,” was SCAF’s own slogan: “The army and the people are one hand.”) What matters, though, is that the revolutionaries decided to turn on Egyptians who were using the revolution to scrape by. A protester I met in Tahrir two nights ago said plaintively: “We fought the revolution for the poor. And why should we throw them out of here so shamelessly? Just so we would look more clean?”

Khaled, one of my gay friends, last night told me, “On the front lines at Mohamed Mahmoud, it was mostly poor people. They were fighting bare-handed, bare-chested; they couldn’t even afford gas masks on their faces.” And Ahmad added,

“They’re the ones exposed to daily insults from police officers more than anybody else. And I don’t think they take values as relative, they way we usually do as part of the middle class. Sacrificing your life — we calculate about it: is this the time, today? Maybe this battle isn’t worth a life. But they have more absolute values of sacrifice and courage. For them, being on the front lines was a matter of human dignity.”

But the revolution has failed to do full justice to their dignity. The poor may be at the forefront of the battles, but the revolution’s leaders are overwhelmingly middle-class. The front lines of democracy and the front lines of class are not the same. And the bourgeois leaders have failed to reach across Egypt’s yawning class divide.

Some of the failure has been programmatic. Over the summer, as revolutionary groups struggled to agree on a list of demands, they found consensus on democracy and civil liberties easy — but their concession to addressing economic issues dwindled to an anodyne promise to raise the minimum wage. Strikers from factories to public services who had put their bodies and jobs on the line for Mubarak’s overthrow felt ignored.

But some of the failure was more physical. The revolutionaries failed to leave Tahrir, failed to go into the neighborhoods and towns and villages, to talk to workers and peasants, to organize. The Salafists, despite years underground, didn’t make that mistake. They spent the summer recruiting a third of a million active members for el-Nour. The revolutionaries waited for the masses to come to them. The result is written in the election returns. Even Zamalek, the liberal island of the haute-bourgeoisie in mid-Nile, went for the Brotherhood. The doormen and maids and porters who slave for the wealthy live in Zamalek too,  shunted to cellars and rooftop shacks — but they emerged, and they voted for the FJP.

The encampment in Tahrir is an ideal and almost a fetish for many leftist Egyptians. You can see why if you’ve been there: it’s an Arab Woodstock and Brook Farm, an alternative space to a corrupt society and state, a place where diverse identities can meet and share, where unities grow out of differences and one can imagine a new way of life, a new world. It’s beautiful. But too much time, many feel, was wasted this summer and fall defending Tahrir against the military, and too little speaking to the rest of society. An alternative community may represent the dream of comprehensive change, but does little to realize it. The hard work of talking across class boundaries and building solidarities to encompass the rest of Egypt fell by the wayside.

There’s still time to recuperate the revolution. But it will take time and sweat. It will take dialogue. It will take renewed respect for the multiple meanings of dignity.

Over the summer, revolutionaries tried to stage a march on the Ministry of Defense in Cairo’s Abbasiyya district. Together with an Egyptian friend, I got there late; the marchers had been stopped several blocks short of the ministry, surrounded on three sides by massed troops and tanks. We tried to go through the surrounding neighborhood, and get into the demonstration from the fourth side. The rundown, impoverished streets teemed with tense, angry citizens — enraged at the marchers, whom they regarded as invaders. And at one point we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a river of running people, men and women pouring out of buildings, armed with big knives that glinted in the light of Ramadan lanterns strung above. They were shouting: “They’re attacking us!  Strike back! Defend yourselves!”  They could easily have turned on us, but somehow they raced past us unseeing. They engulfed the protest, and beat and brutalized many demonstrators. We couldn’t break through to join our friends; shaken, we limped home.

It was a fine example of false consciousness, you could say: the poor enlisted to defend an arrogant and indifferent regime. But the protesters too had their arrogance. When they first met the residents of the neighborhood, who blocked the way and demanded why these outsiders were marching through, some called back, “It’s a public street! We have the right to pass here.” That claim of possession is not what you say to Cairo’s poor, whose back streets and close communities are all they have. The revolutionaries are learning about dignity the hard way.