Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Matthew Shepard and public life

Last night I saw a reading of “The Laramie Project, 10 years later” sponsored by, among others, Miami University’s Department of Theater. All around the country yesterday, staged readings and productions of this play were being brought to the public to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shephard’s death after a brutal slaying motivated by homophobia. This performance intersected with my current research about “the public” – what this space (both actual, virtual and metaphorical) represents and means today.

“The Laramie Project” was a play by the Tectonic Theater Project and later an HBO movie that was based on the interviews done with Laramie residents five weeks after Shepard’s beating. It has supposedly now been seen by more than 30 million viewers. “The Laramie Project, 10 years later” visits the town a decade after the incident to see what has changed. They interviewed many of the same people and tried to see how the community was thinking about the incident, and what has changed for the GLBTQ community in Laramie and in Wyoming. It is a difficult but wonderful presentation. I urge you to see it if you can.

I am fascinated by the way that Shepard’s death has found spaces of expression, action and movement in public life. The Laramie Project represents one artistic vein of that expression, where playwrights, actors, and audiences re-enact and witness the story of Shepherd, his murderer, family, and the people of the town in which he died. The Laramie Project has spawned on-line communities. Shepherd’s death has spawned activism for hate crime legislation, the Shepard Foundation, and a number of other organizations and groups. In Shepard's name, many people in the GLBTQ community and their supporters gather, mourn, commemorate; some of those people take this energy into the political realms of policy-making and legislation on behalf of civil rights for GLBTQ people, as is witnessed by the explosion of activism in support of these causes in recent years.

In the town of Laramie itself, at least as far as how it is represented in “The Laramie Project, 10 years later,” you see the same kinds of discussions and actions around the Shepard’s murder and it’s implications for justice and community in Laramie. But in the performance of “10 years later,” you see how the circulation of meanings around Shepard’s death reflects the divisive and sensationalist world of contemporary political and cultural life. An infamous 20/20 News Hour show in 2004 raised doubts about the motivations of Shepard’s killer despite the clear evidence, including confessions, aired during the trail of his murderers (who are serving multiple life terms). That 20/20 episode asserted that the murder was not related to homophobic hatred but a simple robbery and drug deal gone bad. People interviewed 10 years after Shepard’s death now echo the lies constructed by this 20/20 episode which intersect nicely with our own impulses to ignore and paper over unpleasant truths about ourselves. Matthew’s death wasn’t caused because he was gay, this logic goes. He was killed in a robbery. Murderer’s confessions from the trial, however, reveal he was robbed in the first 10 minutes of the encounter; he was brutally beaten and left for dead well after the robbers had his wallet, which contained all of $30.00.

There are public expressions of this general idea, as well. The conservative right wing of our political culture, through its own media outlets, argue that Shepard’s death was not motivated by hatred at all, and use the 20/20 episode and its half-truths and lies to argue against hate crime legislation. The idea that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people do not deserve civil rights creates its own expressions, performances, and activism. It has created a strong set of public ideas and performances since Shepard’s death, passing Defense of Marriage Bills and blocking hate crime legislation in many states.

These public controversies generally are written off now as “the culture wars” in action. But they are not inevitable; they are part of the conditions of our contemporary public life. There are multiple areas of potential agreement between conservative Christians and GLBTQ civil rights activists that might be fruitfully explored and harnessed for political and cultural change that decreases homophobic violence and murder in our society, as one example. “The Laramie Project, 10 years later,” promotes the discovery of these multiple potential sites of agreement when the interview with Shepard’s murderer serves as the climax of the performance. The interviewer is urged, by a Catholic priest who served in Laramie, to get to know the murderer, and try to understand him. The play does not urge an easy excusing of Shepard’s murderer, or a forgiveness of hatred, but a kind of plea to get beyond simplistic characterizations of “us” and “them” while keeping a steady eye on justice. And that is the kind of public performance that, to me, is deserving of the name “public” in aspiration and meaning.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Stuck in Traffic

My daughter started kindergarten last month, and recently she was invited to the birthday party of a pre-school classmate. Naturally, the kids turned to playing and the adults turned to dissecting just what was going on in kindergarten. Our children are at different schools, and people were happy and unhappy about different things, but there was parental consensus that the traffic light discipline phenomenon is occupying too much of our children’s attention and interest.

In case readers aren’t familiar with the phenomenon, it’s a “behavioral management system” used frequently in elementary schools. Students who behave are “on green”. If you get into a little bit of trouble, you’re “on yellow” until you get yourself back to green again. From yellow, if you continue to commit infractions you can go down further to red. Not sure what happens there, since my daughter has been on green since day 1, and according to her the only child to get as far as yellow so far is one boy who tends to talk to the other children at his table.

It sounds fairly sensible as a means of maintaining order, and I am certainly sympathetic to classroom teachers’ need to do so. What’s alarming is that in the minds of so many kindergarteners, one’s primary purpose in school seems to be staying out of trouble.

I’m juxtaposing this with my discovery last week that 75% of the undergraduate students in one of my classes could tell me nothing about Karl Marx. Not even that he was one of the Marx brothers, which I almost would have settled for, as some indication of cultural literacy. It’s hardly news that our schools put a lot of energy into behavioral management and not enough into intellectual content, but it’s worth paying attention to again and again. Programs like KIPP and other successful charter schools have drawn our attention to the importance of teaching pro-school behavior. As Arne Duncan and the Department of Education address the problems of failing schools, they would do well to remember that behavior is only part of what matters.

I suspect kindergarteners may in part be enthralled with the traffic light system because they’ve figured out that it’s the key to what school is all about. She who controls the traffic lights holds the power, and kids are savvy enough to see, by the fourth week of kindergarten, that power, norms, and regulation are as much the point as learning to read. When my daughter and a neighborhood friend played school, they gleefully moved my younger daughter from green to yellow when she played with blocks at “storytime” instead of listening. Traffic lights, and the control of social nuisances they made possible, were (and are) the very heart of the game. In a recent article in Ed Week, Alfie Kohn suggests that alternative educators may be inspired by the traditional classrooms they grow up in – inspired to be different and do better. The insights of kindergarteners (which of course still need to turn into critical analysis, rather than tools for oppressing one’s little sister) are reason to think he might be right.