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Barney Frank, atheism, and representation


So Barney Frank came out last night– again. This time as a “pot-smoking atheist” on Real Time With Bill
Maher, when Maher gave himself that label and Frank responded by jokingly asking Maher which one he meant:

Bill Maher: … you were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those Congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show, and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you…
Barney Frank: [Pointing back and forth to himself and Maher] Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?

Maher was saying this in the context of asking whether Frank felt “liberated” now that he’s no longer in Congress, which is apparently the only time a congressperson can be liberated– when he/she is an ex-congressperson. Presidents can be liberated when they’re ex-presidents. They can start claiming to honestly believe and support things they should have openly believed and supported while in office, but it was too “dangerous” to do so (read: it might damage their chances of re-election). Gay equality. Ending the drug war. Secularism. Etc. It can leave a person wondering if “no taxation without representation” still applies when elected officials will only represent you when they’re no longer in office, that is, when it no longer matters.

Okay, yes, there has been only openly atheist sitting Congressperson– Pete Stark, who was actually the second longest-serving congressman until he lost his seat last year to another Democrat. But given that people without religion are believed to comprise roughly 10-20% of the American population, depending on how you define things, shouldn’t we be at least a little better represented than that? Among 535 voting members…maybe?

Whenever discussion of representation of demographics in government comes up, there is an inevitable argument which comes from people who– quite frankly– seem to oppose a particular candidate and everything he/she stands for, regardless of whatever demographic is applicable, which goes something like this: elected officials should represent the people, which means they should represent everyone. We shouldn’t want officials who represent only those like themselves, which means that demographic shouldn’t matter which means…basically, shut up and be happy with more old white heterosexual Christian men. (I’d say “wealthy,” but that’s so beyond being a given it’s already given before it was given.)

When you hear people talk about the “other” or “othering,” and they’re not talking about Lost, this is what they’re referring to– the unspoken assumption that there is a default, and the default represents everyone, whereas everyone else, that is everyone who is not the default, represents only their specific factions– whatever those may be.  Women can only represent women, black people can only represent black people, gays can only represent gays, secularists can only represent secularists, but straight white old religious guys? They are generic; they are Everyman; they can represent all of us.


In reality, we all have experiences, and those experiences teach us. And those experiences are shaped by our demographics. Our race, our gender identity, our sexual orientation, our religious affiliation (or lack thereof), our class. Etc. No matter how empathetic a white man is, unless he’s John Howard Griffin, he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black man. Griffin did not know what it’s like to grow up as a black male. The reason that colorblindness is misguided and actually racist rather than racism-alieving is that it ignores the experience conveyed to a person growing up as a human being in their particular race. Experience gives perspective; colorblindness pretends that it has all of the perspective (or that perspective doesn’t matter) without the experience.

Wanting to be represented is wanting people who have shared your experiences, and therefore have the ability to understand your perspective, standing for you. Representation is standing-for. When it comes to government, it is also making-decisions-for.

Unfortunately when it comes to politics, the populist trend pretends that we only want people who have had similar experiences to ours (or at least, what we would like to pretend our experiences have been) representing us, and so you get ridiculous feats of pretension like George W. Bush dressing up as a cowboy. We often use the word “pretension” to refer to elitism, but actually it’s closer to just pretending, in this case pretending to be just folks. To, of course, white heterosexual Christian middle class folks. They want to be represented. In regard to three out of four of those attributes, they always have been and always will be. It would be nice if they’d notice and pay attention to the fourth, as well as the equal need and desire for representation by the rest of us.

Or at least…stop saying that it doesn’t matter.

It matters.

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