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Tutu To-Do

By Michael Blankenship · August 17th, 2000 · Power of One
  What Desmond Tutu didn�t say at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center�s event on Aug. 5 was nonetheless important.
Jymi Bolden

What Desmond Tutu didn�t say at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center�s event on Aug. 5 was nonetheless important.

When you live in a place like Cincinnati, it's always nice to get a high-profile visitor once in a while. It validates our city's existence. It says, "Obviously the place can't be that bad. After all, (insert VIP name) went there."

This strategy works by inserting the name of almost any social or cultural entity, with the exception of the touring company of Cats. Cats, you see, doesn't discriminate; it goes everywhere. The strategy can even work to lure the Olympics, as long as money is involved. As those fine, civic-minded organizers in Salt Lake City can attest, money can run circles around ethics.

Now, sometimes you have to pay a buttload of money just to get the intended VIP to come (or pay for their kids' college); but once you've done that, you can expect them to be on their best behavior, right? I mean, your VIP isn't going to blow into town, pick up his five-figure check and then say that the painted pigs downtown are ugly, is he? Or that the river stinks? VIPs know better than to do that; it's just not good form.

Our most recent VIP was Desmond Tutu. The archbishop was brought in by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Aug. 5 as the second recipient of its International Freedom Conductor Award. (Last year's recipient was Rosa Parks.)

Now, for a man who's also received the Nobel Peace Prize, coming to Cincinnati to pick up another trophy for the mantle might seem a step down -- or three. But hey, money is money, right? I don't know what they paid, but I heard it was a buttload. And even an archbishop in retirement has bills to pay.

Personally, I think it's great when we can get internationally respected leaders of morality to come to our city. It helps to balance all of the self-appointed leaders of morality that clutter our streets like so many of those godawful pigs. As with the fibergalss swine, local morality mongho need more than a gaudy exterior to make up for their lack of substance or originality by design. But, under the right conditions, moral VIPs provide an objective view of exactly how far our collective head is shoved up our collective ass.

Unfortunately, those best-behaved guests feel weird about commenting on their host's cranial/rectal relationships and/or insertions. Give them a chance, and they'll gladly ignore the subject altogether, out of either respect or embarrassment. See, VIPs whose appearances are paid for are like commercial actors: They smile, stick to the script, eat the varnished food, refrain from swatting the children and keep their thoughts to themselves until after the shoot is over.

That's why last week I scrambled to track down Archbishop Tutu before he arrived. I wanted to get his views on some of the more sticky issues that I imagined weren't on the agenda for his Cincinnati visit. I knew he was teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, so I called the press office there. They said his teaching gig was over, but they'd be happy to forward my request for an interview. But I think they lied. More likely it just wasn't convenient for them. Everything these days is done via computer and e-mail, and I'm still stuck on the phone in the 20th century.

Next I tried some of the bigwigs on the local event committee. They were sympathetic but directed me to the offices of the Freedom Center. So whatever my approach, it would have to go through the people who were paying a buttload of money to bring in Tutu and get good press for their organization. And here I was, wanting to ask the archbishop how he felt about receiving a Freedom Conductor award in the only city in America to specifically legalize discrimination against a single class of citizens. Gays, lesbians, queers, for godsakes!

So am I way off base here? What might be the best way to characterize our city's most egregious cranial/rectal insertion in a way that sounds positive and uplifting? "Yes, here in Cincinnati we've worked hard to get our head as far up our ass as it is, but what we're really proud of is how long we can hold our breath!" Hmmm. Better try something else. But what?

I knew it was doable. Desmond Tutu has spoken strongly on the subject of human equality (including queers) in the past. But did he even know about the situation in his city of destination? Did Rosa Parks? Is it even in the interest of an organization that wants to guarantee itself a place on the lips of those who speak of freedom to acknowledge its home as a center of intolerance? That's where things might get tricky.

I took a deep breath and explained my objective for an interview to Ernest Britton, the Freedom Center's communications director. He said he'd be happy to forward an e-mail along those lines (the "legalized discrimination" lines, not the "head up our ass" lines). No guarantee I'd get through to the archbishop, but I could write some questions and hope for some answers.

My kind colleagues at CityBeat set me up on the computer, and off went the e-mail. And answers I got. Not to every question I had sent, but enough to contrast Archbishop Tutu with our own local Grand Poobah of Morals, Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values.

"I would oppose the unjust discrimination against gays and lesbians," wrote the archbishop, "and I am proud to come from a country whose new constitution (South Africa's) outlaws all forms of discrimination."

Meanwhile, in a letter to the Republican National Committee, Burress was advocating the arrest of openly gay Congressman Jim Kolbe upon his return from the GOP's convention in Philadelphia. "He engages in sodomy," Burress reasoned. "Did you know that in Arizona, sodomy is against the law? Mr. Kolbe should be arrested when he returns to his home state for violating state law."

Now there's some compassionate conservatism for you!

At that same convention, while the "criminal" Kolbe was speaking from the podium, many of the Texas delegates doffed their cowboy hats to bow their heads "in prayer for him." When asked by reporters why, one delegate responded, "He needs praying for. We all do. We're all sinners." Yet it was only Kolbe whom the delegates singled out for special treatment. How about that for brotherly love?

Of course, it's convenient to have a religious justification for bigotry. Many cite the Bible.

But Tutu doesn't think you can pick and choose when it comes to the Bible, such as quoting from Leviticus to condemn homosexuals. Responding to my e-mail, he said, "I am opposed to treating the Bible as a textbook and quoting from it piecemeal and selectively, to justify whatever position is being trumpeted. St. Paul said it was wrong for women to appear in public worship unless they had covered their heads. Nobody pays much attention to this prohibition nowadays, quite rightly. The Bible should be interpreted with reference to Jesus Christ and the kind of God he revealed."

What kind of a God was that? Tutu gives us an idea in another interview from 1996. "What sort of God are we commending, when we say God has made you as you are, and then clobbers you because you behave as God makes you? I've always said that that doesn't make sense to me, if you say that sexuality involves all that you are. Being human means, in many instances, being able to express your sexuality in acts of love."

And on the subject of gay marriage, also from 1996, "I would, myself, say, 'Why not?' I mean, I've met very many people who are gay, and they are incredible people -- gifted, some of the most gentle, most compassionate -- and we treat them like dirt. I, for myself, would say, 'If that is how God wants us to treat them, then, thank you, that God I don't want. I will not worship that God!' The God that I want is one that says 'You are beautiful, and I have made you as you are, and I want you to develop to the fullest possible extent, all that you are, become all that you have it in you to become.' "

Wrapping up his responses to my questions, the archbishop wrote, "Racial discrimination penalizes people for something about which they can do nothing, their ethnicity, their skin colour. Gender discrimination penalizes women for something about which they can do nothing, their gender. Discrimination against gays and lesbians penalizes people for something about which they can do nothing, their sexual orientation. Could any sane person choose an orientation that exposes them to so much homophobia, violence, and oppression?"

I don't know, Archbishop. Maybe we're all just crazy.

Of course, none of this was even mentioned at the dinner for Tutu on Saturday night. As I said, it has to do with best behavior, niceties and ignoring egregious cranial/rectal insertions.

But Harry Belafonte was there. So was Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton. (It was on that side of the river.) So were about 1,200 other paying attendees in formalwear. I didn't get to go, but I did arrange for an observer to report back.

Tutu spoke about how African Americans are working to escape the "slave mentality" and the lowered expectations that accompany it. He said today's blacks can free themselves from that way of thinking just as slaves rejected it and used the Underground Railroad -- a secret network of abolition activists -- to escape north into freedom.

What became of that secret network? And how about those dedicated activists? Did they all just disband because the immediate objective was achieved? Are all Americans safe in their freedoms and liberty? Is there no more need for underground action? Is their work all done?

I find it supremely ironic that more than 100 years after the Underground Railroad, the north shore of the Ohio -- for generations the goal for those seeking freedom from cruelty and oppression -- is today the starting place for such oppression. It is a cruel joke for those who profess a belief in social justice.

I think we all need a new way of thinking. We need to free ourselves from a mindset in which discrimination is the exclusive domain of racism, and "equality" is only skin-deep. If the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is to mean anything when it is built, it must be involved in the ongoing struggle to free not just all Americans but all people everywhere from the slave mentality of lower expectations and diminished protections for those considered something less than equal. Otherwise the Freedom Center will be a continuance of that slave mentality from which most Americans still suffer today, the one that says, "I got mine. You go get your own."

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken offered an optimistic view of the Freedom Center as "a wonderful statement of what kind of community we want to be." Those are telling words, meaning we're not there yet. The mayor hopes the Freedom Center will help erode the city's reputation for intolerance.

I hope so, too, Mayor Luken. But if everybody's too well mannered to act as conductors and nobody's got the fuel or fire to address the situation directly, then this train ain't goin' nowhere.



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