Timothy McCarthy teaches history; he’s also been a part of it. McCarthy is a historian of radicalism in America — especially those radicals who were later written out of more official histories. He was a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council, and gave expert testimony to the Pentagon Comprehensive Working Group on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He also teaches at the decidedly non-radical Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where I recently heard him give a remarkably thoughtful and detailed talk on the art of public speaking.
During the talk, he name-checked the “Hope” speech by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk: “When in doubt, give people hope. Not a false hope. But we can be better than we are.” Then, he added, as a caution: “A lot of people who give hope in the world get shot. Which perhaps contradicts my thesis. Being shot is a terrible thing. But people tend to remember you well.”
At Grist, I write about green activism. I also try to think about what environmentalism can learn from other great social movements of our time: civil rights, feminism, and gay rights. That’s why I asked McCarthy to sit down and talk about what he’s learned, how movements evolve, and what environmentalists might be able to learn from other movements.
Q. You were involved in the anti-apartheid divestment movement when you were in college. Why did you get involved in that, as opposed to all the other things you could have gotten involved in?
A. One of the things that I loved about it was that it gave American students who were interested in justice movements globally a way to be part of that. We weren’t in South Africa. We were never going to be in South Africa –- at least not the vast majority of us. It was a way to be on the right side of history without being where history was actually made. And it held Harvard as an institution accountable.
Q. In any kind of social movement I get the sense that people hold up the civil rights movement — and, now, marriage equality — as the gold standard. These movements got a lot accomplished in a very short time. Is there anything that the environmental movement can learn from them?
A. Comparing social movements can be very tricky. There’s a recent study done by GLAAD where they found that African Americans are much less likely to support LGBT rights when the framework of civil rights was used. Other frames — equality, discrimination, human rights — were much more powerful in moving the African American community.
We shouldn’t just easily borrow back and forth between movements. And that’s particularly true with the black freedom struggle, which has been the most longstanding and powerful movement in the nation’s history — beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries all the way down to the civil rights movement of the 20th century.
It’s very tempting for all social movements to borrow images and quotations and iconic figures and lessons from them. I think sometimes we do it too easily, and it creates more problems than solutions.
Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t compare social movements. It’s important for us to be looking at what other people are doing that’s successful. It’s amazing to me how many people have come to me and other folks involved in LGBT issues and say, “How did you get this stuff done? My god, things have changed so much! What are you guys doing?”
What is a problem for the environmental movement is that you have a powerful constituency that is opposed to what you are trying to bring about. And that powerful constituency is human beings. In a sense, the environmental movement is up against everyone. Because we’re all guilty in our own way. No matter what we eat and if we have a car and what we put in that car and whether we turn the lights on and off and whether we make sure our 401ks are not invested in horrible corporations that are pillaging the earth, we’re all complicit on some level.
That’s different from every other movement that I can think of. Because in the struggle against slavery, there were people — most of them black people — who had a vested interest in the dismantling of slavery. In the women’s movement, at least half the population has a vested interest in not being treated like chattel.
So with every social movement, there’s always a constituency of people who are the ones getting screwed. And in the environmental movement, we are all getting screwed — but we’re screwing ourselves. And that reverberates back on us because we’re eating food that’s contaminated, we’re drinking water that’s contaminated, we’re experiencing the effects of climate change — more frequent hurricanes, eroding beaches. In a sense, we’re participating in our own destruction.
A. Right. It’s a way of drawing a line in the sand and saying, “I’m here on the morally righteous side with these companies and you’re over there.” And so there’s a public shaming aspect of that.
For me, the destruction of the planet is an urgent matter and a great moral battle. The biggest problem I see — the other biggest problem, other than that you’re up against humanity — has always been: How do you create a consciousness around the fierce urgency of this?
Not only is this happening to us, it’s happening to us now. And if we don’t fix it now, it’s going to get worse. Any time you can make a direct link between an environmental disaster and the human suffering, that’s a winning strategy for social movements.
But you don’t want to create an apocalyptic message that turns people off. They want to be hopeful. They want to be optimistic. Sometimes people can’t handle the truth. If someone’s still at the level of sorting their paper for recycling and choosing different types of lightbulbs, and you come at them and tell them that the ice caps will melt and the locusts will descend and that we are at a point from which we cannot return, that’s counterproductive, even though it’s probably true. That’s not a winning rhetorical structure long-term.
Q. I grew up around evangelicals, and they were very apocalyptic. I think, in some ways, they really liked thinking about the apocalypse. It made things a lot more exciting. They weren’t just working all day in a factory — they were participating in a cosmic battle against good and evil.
A. Certainly the prediction of an impending apocalypse can be very mobilizing. It also draws a line in the sand, and it says “Which side are you on?” Are you going to be saved when the judgment comes or not? It has a powerful resonance for people who are looking for solutions that are clear. And often the solutions to our deepest social problems are not always that clear.
Evangelicals have been powerful agents of change in social movements. There were lots of evangelicals who were part of the abolitionist movement, lots of evangelicals that have been part of the black freedom struggle. There’s a deep evangelical strain in the left and on the right.
The evangelical Christian right was far more successful in the ’80s and early ’90s in its campaigns to discriminate against LGBT people than LGBT people were in their campaigns to not be discriminated against. Now that’s flipped, and evangelicals are going to places like Uganda with anti-gay laws.
Q. With all the different things that the gay rights movement was fighting for, why do you think that marriage is the issue that became the biggest?
A. I’ve always been struck by how quickly public opinion has moved in support for marriage equality. There’s been a lot more progress made on marriage equality than there has been on housing non-discrimination or workplace non-discrimination. The struggle to have some kind of federal legislation that bars discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace – we still don’t have that.
In the early days, most of the liberationists, as many of them were called at the time, were not interested in marriage. Many of them were revolutionaries, outside of the box in their thinking. They were definitely more radical than people in the mainstream LGBT movement are now.
Marriage equality is in a sense both the most conservative and the most radical issue. It’s not radical because marriage is radical – it’s not. Regardless of who’s in a marriage, you’re incorporating yourself into the state. You’re willing to commit to a particular sexual arrangement. You’re getting tax breaks from the federal government because you’ve decided to have this relationship that is authorized by the state. But then nothing makes the Right’s head explode more than two women or two men living happily and raising children together.
Debates about marriage have always been there. There was an intentional reorientation of the movement around marriage equality which has unfolded in the last decade. People were talking about “same sex marriage” then, and now we’re talking about “marriage equality.” There was a lot of public opinion testing and polling that went into creating that term as a strong one for the movement. That’s a very deliberate framing so that we are talking about marriage –which is a traditional institution that a lot of people like — and “equality” which is a value most Americans at least claim to support. Again, there’s a prehistory there. Evan Wolfson wrote something when he was a law student in the early ’80s about marriage.
It didn’t just happen. Some of it has to do with the fact that the people whose resources are funding the movement are folks who want to get married. Sometimes the people who give the money get to determine the agenda, and that certainly has been the case in this instance.
Q. So the people putting money behind marriage equality — were there a lot of small funders or one or two big funders?
A. You know, it’s hard to figure that out. I read a statistic last year that only 3 or 4 percent — a very small percentage of LGBT folks actually give to LGBT organizations. So the funding they get is actually from a very small set of the LGBT population. And there’s a lot of speculation as to why this is.
But it is clear that there is a vested interest in furthering the cause for marriage equality. Marriage creates all kinds of economic benefits and privileges. One of the reasons people want to get married is that they don’t get that same recognition and tax benefits that married people have.
When something explosive happens, people tend to date the history from that moment: like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, like the March on Washington, like the Harper Ferry’s raid in 1859 that helped spark the Civil War. Just as Stonewall was not the beginning, but it was a transformative moment that shifted a movement from what it had been to what it was becoming.
For marriage, that was the Goodridge decision in 2003. That made a case for same sex marriage within a frame of freedom and equality. There were lots of lesbians and gay activists here — myself included — for whom that decision was transformative. Subsequent battles about whether or not someone could undo that court ruling with legislation failed, and that too was an important part. Those battles were important for movement-building and a legal precedent that could be invoked over and over again in the battle for marriage equality.
If you can get a court to rule, then it becomes much harder to undo that ruling. Mobilizing on behalf a piece of legislation, like the Defense of Marriage Act, is much harder to do, both for the forces in favor and the forces opposed. And hearts and minds is always a much more difficult thing. Brown v. Board of Education was a watershed ruling, but we know that the desegregation of our schools has been much more difficult to accomplish.
But still, I think that when people see my husband and me, they see we’re not aliens. We’re not from another planet. There’s also been a pop cultural dimension to this: Modern Family, Will & Grace.
Q. You have a lot of students who plan to go out and change the world. When they get out of school, what happens to them? Do you have advice you give them that they either listen to, or consistently ignore?
A. What happens to my students? That’s the million dollar question. What happens to them is as diverse as who they are in the first place.
I would say that especially my Kennedy School students — there is a common denominator of public service — they’re all animated on some level by a desire to make the world a better place. The earlier you develop a set of values that animates how you think about the world and how you act in the world, the better. Ideology — a way of thinking about the world — is not the thing that matters the most. Values are what matter the most.
Education is a catalyst for the shaping of values and something that gives you the room to do some reflection and investigation of those values. One of the reasons I love teaching so much, and why I see teaching as a form of activism, is that I try to get my students to think more deeply about what they value in the world, not just what they believe.