The new statehouse liturgies
We need more words and acts of defiance like in Nebraska, Tennessee, and Kentucky
Three announcements up top:
1. My brilliant friend Lyndsey Medford, author of My Body and Other Crumbling Empires, had me as a guest on her podcast this week! You can check out the episode and read a transcript via her hopeful cynic newsletter:
2. A bunch of friends and I, including some local authors and the new poet laureate of Charleston, will be reading passages from our favorite dangerous books tonight from 5-7 p.m. at a Read Across South Carolina event at Buxton Books (160 King St., Charleston, S.C.). It’s a free event; you can see some more details on the event listing. Come out and let’s talk about fighting back against book bans, teacher censorship, and all that noise!
3. If you happen to be in Columbia, S.C., I’ll be leading a workshop next Thursday, April 27, about how to use South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act to pry out public information and hold powerful people accountable. This will be 4-5 p.m. at the South Carolina State Library (1500 Senate St., Columbia). Details and registration link are here; hopefully we’ll figure out a way to record the session too.
I keep checking in on the Nebraska state legislature. Two state senators from Omaha, Machaela Cavanaugh and Megan Hunt, have been holding an old-fashioned filibuster since late February, and a part of me hopes they never quit.
Sens. Cavanaugh and Hunt are demanding that their colleagues abandon a bill (LB 574) that would ban transgender healthcare for Nebraskans under age 19. Until this happens, they are loading up every bill in the legislature with amendments, talking at the stand for hours about unrelated topics such as their favorite foods, and trying every procedural trick in the book to grind the entire lawmaking process to a halt.
Until yesterday, not a single bill had passed in 2023.
“I will burn the session to the ground over this bill,” Sen. Cavanaugh warned her colleagues back in February.
Lawmakers in any state could have picked a similar fight. The ACLU is currently tracking 467 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S., including bills that would undermine employment protections, ban trans kids from school athletics programs, ban books mentioning trans and nonbinary people, and ban life-saving healthcare and counseling for trans youth and adults.
I’m fascinated by the Nebraska filibuster because, at times, it seems to be working. The bill has not passed. Cavanaugh in particular has brought national media attention to the fight, showing her counterparts in other states what it means to dig your heels in.
Part of Cavanaugh and Hunt’s effectiveness is due to political savvy, part of it due to pure stubbornness. Nebraska is unique among the states in having a unicameral legislature. Republicans hold a majority in the technically nonpartisan body but are one vote short of the supermajority needed to break a filibuster. Cavanaugh and Hunt knew this going in.
Finally, exasperated Republicans changed the rules of the legislature March 28, restricting the number of times per day a senator can make certain motions on a bill. The filibuster continued, but the legislative process began crawling forward.
Yesterday, April 18, the Omaha World-Herald noted that the legislature had just passed its first bill of the year, a mundane change in the state liquor laws. The World-Herald gave the context at the very bottom of the article: “Legislative action has been slowed this year by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, who has mounted an ongoing filibuster in hopes of killing a bill that would ban gender-altering care for transgender minors.”
I’ve started to think about political speech, particularly speech in our state and local government chambers, as a form of liturgy, or ritualized call and response. The purpose of a liturgy is not to persuade opponents, but to reaffirm belief and feed the faithful. At times liturgy is a tool for education, like during a catechism. It is sometimes called “the work of the church” in Christian circles.1
We have a few tired formats for the liturgy. We hear the familiar soundbites on the news and we call out the hypocrisy of our opponents: “So much for the ‘pro-life’ party,” we grouse as anti-abortion lawmakers pass laws to end public health efforts during a pandemic and speed up the executions of prisoners.
At other times we call out fake piety. We reject the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians who are determined to do nothing (or worse than nothing) about the proliferation of guns after the latest school massacre. We talk about the blood on their hands, their fealty to the gun lobby, their fecklessness in a moment of crisis.
The purpose of these liturgies can’t be to shame our opponents (they are immune to it) or appeal to common values (we don’t share common values). Instead, we can use our words to inspire one another. We can help each other keep the faith, so to speak.
When I see the two state senators from Nebraska standing strong, pissed off and righteous, I’m reminded that we fight for a worthy cause. If they can slam the brakes on 1 of the 467 bills attacking LGBTQ people in this country, I can do my part against the attacks here in South Carolina.
As Congress is deadlocked, we’re seeing a renewed struggle in our statehouses, those laboratories of democracy and fascism. Two weeks ago, we saw Tennessee Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson mount a protest for gun control on the floor of the Nashville statehouse and get expelled by Republicans for breaking decorum – and teenagers in the audience loudly and correctly called their enemies fascists for what they had done.
March 29 in Kentucky, as Republicans overrode a veto to pass an omnibus anti-trans bill and cops arrested chanting protesters who locked arms in the gallery, Rep. Pamela Stevenson stood to rebuke her colleagues:
“Somebody’s going to have to atone!”
Statehouses have always been sites of struggle, and they have often been the places where oppression is enacted. This has been another devastating year for all but the most comfortable benefactors of patriarchy and white supremacy. But in the middle of all the hate and chaos, it’s been bracing to see real acts of defiance. This is how we keep fighting.
I want to give a special shoutout to Erin Reed, whose Erin in the Morning newsletter has been a vital resource on the attacks on trans people and their families in statehouses across the country. Erin’s anti-trans legislative risk map has been a particularly important project. Not everyone has the means to pack up everything and move to a free state, and the map highlights the danger for our trans friends and neighbors.
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle and education in the American South. If you would like to support my work and get access to the complete archive of subscriber-only stuff, paid subscriptions are $5 a month.
I know that I’m using religious language to describe the secular work of government, and I know that these metaphors are going to be imperfect. Nonreligious readers, please forgive me — for better or worse, this is a lens I use to make sense of the world.