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By Mark Brians. March 29, 2014 - 9:54 am
Rep. McDermott drinks coffee. Glancing quickly over his shoulder, the towering former Marine, chucks the old coffee filter into a rubbish bin with a deft flick of the wrist. Rep. Bob McDermott presses start on the coffee maker and looks up through his square-rimmed glasses at me.
He asks me if I’m the student here to interview him. I answer in the affirmative.
He tells me that he’s going to a meeting, that I’m welcome to come along and that afterward we can do the interview. He reaches down to check the status of the coffee.
In the office are two other men. One is an older, kind-looking, man who introduces himself as legal professional and kindly shakes my hand, smiling before he excuses himself to take an incoming call.
The other man is far younger. Raised locally, he left the islands for college to study law and politics on the mainland. After returning to Hawaii, he practiced law for a short time before coming to the Capitol to work as an administrative assistant and legal researcher for several members of the legislature. Rep. McDermott is his current post, a post he enjoys.
The coffee has finished brewing.
I follow the men to a meeting regarding several legal action issues in which the Representative and several local advocates are involved.
As the meeting continues, more people enter, the majority of whom are Hawaiians who are teachers, farmers, parents, attorneys, and educators. They are concerned with a bundle of educational and social measures that certain activists from both governmental and private spaces are advancing in Hawaii. The unifying piece that ties this group of measures together is the way in which they approach human sexuality.
Among them is the proposed educational program which has been the subject of various media coverage of Rep. McDermott and has been the ‘final straw’ for which certain public voices have labeled him a “bigot” in language which, regardless of it’s truth value, smacks of the selfsame bigotry.
For those of you who don’t know, Rep. McDermott is one of the key figures at the heart of the continued controversy over same-sex marriage laws in the state of Hawaii. He is also the legislator who has recently stood-up against certain unethical practices by both the DOE as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The meeting is little of what I expect. There are no derogatory terms thrown about, none of the vitriol which friends in politics had told me I would encounter in meeting McDermott. He expresses his concerns manner that is frank, open and honest without being mean-spirited or victimized.
Rep. McDermott showing a copy of an 11-year-olds sex-ed lecture notes. Photo: Rep McDermott’s Facebook page.
His central concerns are twofold: First he expresses his concern over an educational program for early elementary students which explicitly ignores the reproductive and conjugal aspects of human sexuality while promoting anal, oral and non-nuptial forms of sexuality without expounding the potential risks of sickness or injury.
His second concern is the method by which this sort of ‘social justice’ is being meted-out. By ignoring judicial precedent, by private law centers “bribing” educators, in caucus machinations and lobbyist intrigues, he feels that his opponents aren’t dealing fairly with the people he represents. And we are not talking primarily about the white military families that help populate Ewa Beach, but the larger aggregate population he serves. One composed mainly by socially conservative but politically liberal lower-income families of Hawaiians, Micronesians, and Catholic Filipinos who feel bullied by unions and powerful politicians. McDermott’s election might serve as proof to this sentiment.
The meeting is over. Rep. McDermott slings the last bit of his coffee and leaves early, leaving behind a crowd of people. He’s not good at politicking, and he despises the back-room drama that entangles so many local politicians.
Besides, it’s Friday afternoon, and he has his family to get back to.
Bob McDermott, his wife and their 8 children. Photo: Rep McDermott on Facebook
Later, in his office, we discuss family, religion, politics, his life and mission. He proudly points to a large photograph, which portrays his Samoan wife and their eight children. He is the only haole in the photograph. He proudly points to the photo.
“I’m no bigot,” he chuckles, “people who know my family, know this.”
He explains that he has raised all of his children to respect and tolerate others and their beliefs. He pauses and looks wistfully at his family again, before looking back at me. He doesn’t feel that to tolerate means that everyone has to agree, nor does it mean that everyone should have to be taught to celebrate it.
An old silver rosary hangs where he left it, across the screen of the computer. He tells me about his Catholicism. He criticizes the flaws of the Roman Church. He hands me papers of research about clergy abuses, his humor now muted under a tone of deep pain and remorse. He looks at me again through those glasses that seem too small for a man his size.
It is unpopular to go against the grain, even with the best intentions. And though he tries, he can’t seem to make his opponents understand that his activities are not spiteful, bigoted or ignorant. Nor does he seem able to communicate his belief that there may be images of human flourishing and justice, which are charitable and equitable, without being sexually androgynous.
“I never thought I’d go back into politics,” he confesses. But, he continues, he is a part of this world, and therefore, in some small way, responsible for it.
“I’m old and getting up there,” he continues, “and I’ve got to make an account of my life before my Maker … I want to hear Him say, welcome home good and faithful servant, enter into your Master’s rest.”
We shake hands and I depart. I go down the elevator and make my way from the open forum of the capitol building along South Hotel Street toward campus, pondering my time with Rep. McDermott.
It is easy and popular to write seemingly unbiased articles, which implicitly anathematize people and ideas according to preconfigured cultural values. It is harder to write articles that humanize the unpopular; articles that clarify improper and ungrounded accusations.
Given the current trend of hyper-polarizing media it seems unbecoming to write the sort of stories which confront the idea that anyone who opposes a certain political agenda is either a bigot or ignorant. Perhaps, in our world of many-dappled potentialities there are other options for classifying those who oppose certain ideologies.
Such discipline in our thinking and writing may not stop certain people from calling men like Bob McDermott names, but they would perhaps inform us that such names are not true.