% IssueDate = "9/9/02" IssueCategory = "Viewpoint" %>
We just tripped over August 28, the 39th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. That speech, delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to the 1963 March on Washington, has become his most popular.
It's inspiring, passionate, prophetic, and hopeful. It's his most recited speech, while others are ignored. And our culture has made it useful. By removing it from the context of King's total life and thought, we have woven it into a pattern we use to inhibit real, structural change.
We've popularized some lines and images so that King doesn't really threaten the system. King can appear to place the entire blame for racial problems on individuals. Then, we preach that you, the individual, should just stop being prejudiced. Just say no!
It's just the fault of individuals, we can conclude. It has nothing to do with the way the institutions of our culture are conceived, setup, run, and financed, or what they teach, and how they make their profits. It has nothing to do with the dominant military-industrial-prison-media-corporate complex that finds itself in the middle of a crime wave today, denies that it's at fault, blames "a few bad apples," and works to re-hide it's sickness from sight.
But King knew better. He knew that there were entrenched structural problems with our way of doing things that required deep-rooted change.
The FBI and other "authorities" didn't target him because he told people they shouldn't be prejudiced. King didn't protest the Vietnam War merely because it reflected the white racism of individuals who participated. And King wasn't assassinated because he thought individuals alone needed to change.
In fact, King was assassinated while in Memphis to support better pay and conditions for its garbage workers. His life and work had become a challenge to the socio-economic system itself. He could see that our institutional structures embodied the deeper problem and they needed to change.
Protecting the structures is our cultural pattern. So, how do we try to fix things?
We reenact our father's methods. Blame individuals. Make people feel guilty, scared, ashamed, deviant, or sick. Tell them human nature is bad, or defective or essentially wild, greedy, selfish, sinful, or flawed. Pass more laws. Punish them more severely. Announce that you're "tough on crime." Threaten them with hell fire. Preach individual responsibility more. Find people to doctor statistics so it appears we're successful - like the popular corporate business technique of inflating profits.
And when these old and tired methods still don't work, we do more of them -- more prisons, stiffer punishments, more executions, more wars, more, more, more. In fact, if incarcerations continue to grow at the current rate in the U.S., it looks as if half of our population could be in prison by 2023. That'll fix things.
Corporate problems with telling the truth? Punish some executives. Poverty? Call them lazy. Cancer? Never suggest it's from companies polluting our environment but make money on drugs for victims instead. Teenage pregnancy? Scare them and deny them information. Violent crime? Get everyone armed. A lack of journalism that investigates institutions? Emphasize tabloid journalism and personal stories. Problems with government leaders being bought? Scapegoat a few while both parties take money from the same sources. Loss of jobs? Blame affirmative action or foreigners. A growing economic disparity between the few rich and the many? Blame the many for being untalented, without ambition, and unwilling to take risks. Drug use? Throw them all in prison.
But never get down to the societal conditions that might require radical change. And marginalize, demonize, and eliminate from the discussion anyone, no matter how good their supporting research is, that points to societal conditions that produce our problems. Never threaten the system. Let the institutions that produce wealth for the few and subsistence for the many grind on without change.
And what LGBT people have to face head on is that this is the system that blames us for the prejudice, discrimination, hatred, violence, sickness, and death we face. It wants to tell us that we are the problem and it wants us to believe that it's something about us that needs to change. The system doesn't want to change. It wants us to change.
It's a system that needs homophobia to sell its products but also wants our money. It intends to keep straight white males in charge but needs us to believe we can buy into its structures. It smiles at us when we look straight. It doesn't want our "lifestyle" to challenge its ethics, its exploitation of normative heterosexuality, its definitions of humanity, or its priorities.
It's afraid that we'll rise up from some queer space and expect better for ourselves. So it loves to sell us alcohol and other addictions so that we don't feel that our lives are on the wrong track and decide that we need to change things to make our lives better, healthier, and deeply joyful. And society around us doesn't experience that either.
It wants our AIDS organizations to act like straight-acting charities that settle for serving the afflicted and preach safe sex to individuals. It doesn't want them to question government and pharmaceutical company policies politically and economically. It prefers that they raise money from individuals and the private sector like good little charities and not take any dollars away from government priorities related to our war-based economic system.
Fear dominates our system as well as the corporate executives who seek more compensation on top of the current billions they receive because they fear our system's fragility. But our system and its leaders are really afraid that we'll change things, that our society may have to search for new answers, new definitions, and new ways to structure its institutions.
And change that makes a difference isn't easy. As one reviewer concluded his review of my book Scared Straight: "Although it would certainly be nice to invert the civilized world's thinking a little, it is also, quite frankly, just too much work."
But the reality is that LGBT people and their allies can do it and must. We need to take responsibility, surely. But the fact that we are often left outside the mainstream is not our fault. The system needs to, and can, change. To fit in is to betray ourselves and to deny hope everyone needs.
And King knew that. As he said in less famous words:
"The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority." (Strength in Love, 1963)
Robert N. Minor is the author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human (HumanityWorks!, 2001) and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at www.fairnessproject.org.