It should be clear by now that I kinda like getting upset over folks who say things that are demeaning, libelous, cruel, or just plain wrong about marginalized groups of people (including many kind and courteous Christians who’s image is besmirched by slick, hateful, publicity-seeking public figures). Usually I’m upset over the ways that people’s real problems are belittled and how their already quiet voices are silenced. I get angry when I see the powerful blaming the weak for all of the powerful’s problems. I get angry when I see women being treated as though their rights were only privileges, their lives nothing but leverage in political wars. But sometimes I get angry because people are really awful thinkers and writers.
I don’t have any particular claims to being an expert on writing. I won a school essay contest in eighth grade. In tenth grade I went to the international level in Future Problem Solving’s writing competition – but then placed last. I didn’t get thrown out of a college that puts a lot of emphasis on clear and cogent expression of ideas, but didn’t win any prizes there. I don’t blog because I want everyone to see how awesome a wordsmith I am, but because I know I have a lot to learn from the practice of regular writing.
But I still have standards. You can’t imagine how much I delete, how many poorly constructed sentences get the hatchet, how many ideas I sink because I find I can’t state my views in a convincingly logical and well-sourced way. And this is for a blog, that on it’s very best day, got a little over seventy sets of eyeballs on it. I don’t even know if any of those people read a single word! So I do expect that written texts, ones put out there by organizations that would like a say in how we live in this country, how we understand God, or how we are to understand the world around us should be well-thought out, clearly expressed, avoid logical fallacies, and be (mostly) free of errors. I really expect people with advanced degrees to either know how to write or know how to shut up.
Apparently, these basics are too much to ask.
My anger-trolling brought me to a set of remarks given before the state legislature of Rhode Island. These particular remarks were delivered by Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and president of the Ruth Institute, part of the ever dubious National Organization for Marriage.* She has a PhD in Economics from University of Rochester and has taught at Yale and Cornell Law. This woman isn’t a dummy.
And yet. I find that many people seem to throw all regard for logic and prose-stye to the wind when faced with discussing topics they find religiously controversial. I could never have written a blog like this when I was a Christian. All of these controversial topics were so important and fraught that I could never have approached them in the dispassionate way that is required of good writing. But here’s the big difference between teenage me who could never have written about controversial topics well and a highly educated woman who’s been published in a dozen different scholarly journals – when I found I couldn’t write appropriately about a topic I stopped. She didn’t.
This set of remarks infuriates me. Dr. Morse is wrong about marriage equality but she’s wrong about it in pretty average ways. You can find this kind of flim-flam bigotry and fear-mongering on any street corner. But the writing! It is so misleading and over the top! You can read it in full here.
Almost two years ago, I came to this place to plead with you not to remove the gender requirement from marriage. I predicted that children would have three legal parents and that custody disputes would involve three or more adults. I predicted greater attacks on religious liberty for those who resist your war against the gendered nature of the human body. I predicted the systematic removal of gendered language from the law. No more husbands and wives, only spouses. No more mother and father. Only Parent 1 and Parent 2.
All of these things have come to pass in other places.
Two years ago Dr. Morse said all these terrible things would happen in Rhode Island if they changed their laws to allow for gay marriage. Now, when she returns in the garb of a vindicated Cassandra, all she can say is that these terrible things happened other places, and not, in fact, in Rhode Island. This seems a good beginning for a mea culpa, not a victory lap. Also, it is an outright lie that all of these things happened and she says so herself in her footnotes. (I’m not going to reproduce the footnotes here but you can check them all out on the original post.) A bill came through the California legislature to recognize more than two parents to a child, but was vetoed by the governor. The State Department attempted to clarify language on children’s passport applications by asking for information on Parent 1 and Parent 2 but ultimately didn’t make any changes. This might be the stuff of your nightmares but, lucky for you, it lacks for substance just as much as bad dreams do.
Sensationalistic lying is bad writing. It’s a bad policy to claim something as true and then conveniently hide the actual truth in footnotes. Especially in a speech. It’s questionable ethically at best and at worst it is bearing false witness – a sin just as dire as any on the list of sexual misdeeds she lists a little later. Writing grade for this paragraph, C-, for nice bouncy rhetoric but difficulty conveying the truth.
You will little note, nor long remember what I say here. The rich people in our country have decided that we are going to have what you call same sex marriage. You will do what you have come to do.
Whoa, guys. Did you see what just happened there? She just made this her own little Gettysburg Address. In fact, this post is called the “New Gettysburg Address of the Marriage Movement.” When Lincoln said the words, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” he was indicating that his speech, however memorable, could not measure up to the magnitude of the losses experienced in the Civil War and that the burden of the tens of thousands dead should weigh on us longer than any paltry words attempting to eulogize them. It was a lovely, and honest, statement of humility, especially considering that this speech is revered in this country as one of the best pieces of public oratory ever delivered.
Dr. Morse does not use these words with the same attitude Lincoln did. Lincoln spoke in humility, Dr. Morse speaks in anger. She doesn’t mean that her remarks are of little consequence compared to the reality she speaks of, but rather that she believes that all the minds in the room are already made up and no one will even bother to listen to her testimony. She’s throwing a little bit of a tantrum by way of patriotic oratory.
Dr. Morse reiterates her claim of the already decided fate when she quotes the Gospel of Matthew’s retelling of Judas’ betrayal. “Do what you have come here to do,” is what Jesus says to Judas before Judas gives him the betraying kiss. Yep, in this situation Dr. Morse is Jesus speaking to an entire deliberative body of Judases. Dr. Morse considers marriage equality the same as turning over the Son of God for torture and execution. Grade for this paragraph, automatic F, for plagiarized, unattributed quotes of exceeding hubris.
Even if we should lose this particular fight on this particular evening, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength on the airwaves, we shall defend our beliefs, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the churches, we shall fight at the ballot box, we shall fight in the schools and in the courts, we shall fight on the web; we shall never surrender.
Anyone else surprised that this doesn’t end with a rousing chorus of “We Shall Overcome?” It’s strange to me to see language that so clearly derives from the Civil Rights Movement being used to describe actions taken against expanding civil rights. I mean, does this work? Can you just appropriate the language of civil rights so that you can play the part of the martyred prophet without anyone noticing that you are, in fact, constricting and eliminating civil rights? Also, that’s a hell of a lot of “shall’s.” Grade for this paragraph, D, for presumptuous and misappropriated language and a gratuitous use of “shall.”
UPDATE: H2466trainmaster, better known as my father-in-law, has noted that the last paragraph I quote isn’t actually mimicking civil rights language but is actually another unattributed quote, this time from Churchill. This is his original quote:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
Dr. Morse has put herself in the shoes of Lincoln, Jesus, and Churchill. She has called out the legislature as a bunch of Judases. Now, she’s comparing them to the Gestapo, to the Nazis. Because everyone knows Hitler was really looking out for gay rights and the expansion of human dignity. Revised Grade: automatic F, for plagiarism and for invoking Godwin’s Law.
D- F to reflect large scale plagiarism and generalized deceit.
*Funny story, I was once sent fundraising materials from NOM. After laughing for a while over what possibly suggested to them that I was a good candidate for wringing money out of I took their return envelope and stuffed it with all the materials to send it right back. On the back of the envelope I drew a big pac-man shouting, “NOM NOM NOM” as it ate my message of, “I disagree with everything you stand for, plus, I can’t take you seriously with an internet meme name.”