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Going against the grain: An interview with Rep. McDermott

    By Mark Brians. March 29, 2014 - 9:54 am

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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.

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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.

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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.

9 Responses to Going against the grain: An interview with Rep. McDermott

  1. Pavel Stankov Reply

    March 29, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Is there an agenda here, Mark?

    Is the right wing in Hawaii seeing itself in some odd psychotic martyrdom?

    Because, while i saw a lot of nice words and impressions of the before and after, i didn’t read much of the ARGUMENT which i’m sure Mr. McDermott shared during the meeting. Let’s clarify: just what is he opposed to? What alternative does he suggest? Why what he opposes is morally wrong? Why what he suggests, if anything, is morally superior? This is the real conversation here. Let’s share this with the readers.

    If we move beyond warm fuzzy impressions and into rigorous thinking, i personally see only one half-argument in his support: a reverse ad hominem – you see, this white man has married a Samoan lady ergo he CANNOT be a bigot.

    Yes, but it doesn’t follow. Just because someone is not racist, that doesn’t mean he or she is not homophobic. And if we admit that Mr. McDermott is homophobic, we need to truly hear his case. I happen to know him as well and i’m sure he gave his reasons. I’m also sure they’re flawed, but they do deserved to be heard and evaluated.

    But back to the case in point: here’s a recent story to illustrate. Perhaps people would remember that Mor(m)on nutjob who declared a hunger strike against marriage equality and compared himself to Gandhi. (Wow! What a noble fighter for humanity!) Terry Firma, journalist and a founder of moralcompassblog.com/, noticed a curious detail from that person’s Facebook page: his girlfriend (quite cute!) is Asian.

    And here’s an argument against his particular brand of hatred: it’s temporally conditioned. The zeitgeist of early 21st century has put this conversation on our table. But is it fundamentally different from the conversation about interracial marriage of the middle of last century? If poor guy were to live a hundred years ago and have the misfortune to be raised with a dogmatic worldview to color everything he sees gray, would he feel indignant against the possibility that Caucasians could have legitimized and equal romantic relationships with people of other ethnicities? Exogamy outlawed out of the a priori narrowness of tradition?

    It seems like we need to define moral goodness on more stable foundations than the precepts of tradition, doesn’t it?

    Here’s a link to Firma’s post, it’s worth looking at:http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/01/05/mormon-comparing-himself-to-gandhi-vows-to-continue-hunger-strike-until-utah-stops-allowing-gay-marriage/

    I’ll be curious to hear more about McDermott’s issues with oral and anal sex. What is the rational argument against them? What sort of “sickness and injury” are we specifically talking about? Maybe good old Bob is opposed to forms of sexuality that don’t harm anybody simply because they are profoundly foreign to his comfort zone.

    But could it be that he hasn’t met the right person yet?

  2. Just Another Anon Reply

    March 29, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    After reading this article I thought “going against the grain” meant McDermott supported homosexual marriage and sex education in Hawaii. A little research showed this is not the case.

    McDermott wants to CONTINUE DISCRIMINATION against homosexuals.

    McDermott wants to STOP EDUCATING our keiki on important sexual issues.

    McDermott is not “going against the grain” He’s just another cog in the socially conservative machine that dominates political discourse across our nation. He may be pleasant to talk to, but I would point the reader to Proverbs and remind them that sweet words are used to hide evil.

  3. Mark Brians Reply

    April 2, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Aloha,

    This is the author of the above article. Thank you for your comments, they are encouraging. It is nice to know people have read my article with close enough attention to respond intelligently. With regards to the comments, I will only take up as much space as it is necessary to clarify the goal of the interview.

    Pavel, as I talked with you before. Contemporary journalism often does a disservice to itself and to the community by feigning ‘impartiality’ as it systematically dehumanizes the issues and subjects of it’s investigation. Case in point, under a pseudo-unbiased stance, members of the local media have figured the Rep. as a bigot. I refuse to treat my subjects as remote objects. My bias is the bias of a human being in vital communication with my world. My bias is the bias of a poet and of a scientist, where the very nature of my work requires my lucid humanity. To do otherwise is merely the legacy of late modernity; a voyeuristic, solipsistic franchise. I do in fact believe in an objective truth to the story. But I also believe that the dehumanizing process you seem to advocate in journalism precludes it’s discovery and revelation.

    With regards to the concerns of ‘Just Another Anon’ I am concerned with a mode of logic implicit in your remarks. Namely, that anyone who disagrees with your point of view is either a bigot or a ‘cog in the… machine’. That seems entirely narrow. Do you honestly think, and I mean no disrespect, that everyone who doesn’t support the content of this proposed educational policy is as wrongheaded as you propose? To operate as though no rational human being could stand opposed to your opinion(s) seems to me (maybe only to me) a bit on the side of arrogance.

    Finally, just so that we respect the space herein provided for dialogue, I encourage any further discussion to be done via my facebook or my contacting me via email @ mbrians@my.hpu.edu

    Mahalo for your kokua.

    • Just Another Anon Reply

      April 4, 2014 at 11:59 pm

      Mark-

      Thanks for you thoughtful response. You titled your article “going against the grain.” I assumed you were aware that your statement was false; however, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and provide some links to statistics on public opinion in America.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_opinion_of_same-sex_marriage_in_the_United_States#Polls_in_2014
      -34% oppose homosexual marriage

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17088519
      -only 65% of Americans support teaching proper condom use

      In no way can holding these views be construed as unusual; McDermott is in office because of his beliefs (you allude to this in your article). That seems to be more like “go with the flow” than “against the grain.”

      • Mark Brians Reply

        April 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm

        Mahalo for your concerns with the title of my article. I did not choose it. The original was “Rep McDermott Drinks Coffee”. I assure you of two things: First, that I did not intend to be misleading, thank you for the benefit of the doubt. And secondly, I have full assurance in our team of editors. They have more experience in these sorts of things than I do and I fully trust in their better judgement.

        • Just Another Anon Reply

          April 5, 2014 at 7:04 pm

          “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’m supposing this is where your editors got the title from. This is highly misleading,as I pointed out before.

          While I don’t support calling anyone a “bigot” I think there is a clear case to be made that he is ignorant. Most anti-homosexual material in the USA is based on an interpretation of two verses of Biblical scripture. The first is in Deuteronomy, proscribing the death penalty for homosexuals. Fortunately for modern Christians, this passage is superseded (like the laws about not eating shrimp) by the New Testament. The second is in the first chapter of Romans; the purpose of this passage is not to say that homosexual marriage should be illegal but rather to point out the need of a Savior.

          Compare this very weak case for outlawing homosexual marriage to the very strong case that Christians should give their possessions to the poor or at least support the poor.

          Which is McDermott more concerned about?

          If McDermott starts with faith in the God of the Bible, his actions show either hypocrisy or ignorance. He seems like a pleasant fellow, so my suspicion is ignorance. If that seems harsh, it’s really not. Remember, we live in a country where many of our politicians deny basic science like the age of the universe.

          • Mark Brians

            April 5, 2014 at 10:36 pm

            Thank you again for your response. I see where you get your point. And yet, I stand by the comment as it stands in the context of the article. “Against the grain” does not necessarily entail going against the majority but can, in certain cases, mean holding an opinion against pressure to conform with a trend. Which in McDermott’s case comes from some of his closest friends and colleagues.

            In terms of your “proofs” of his ignorance, I must disagree on two points: 1) poor biblical exegesis (no offense), and 2) the idea that there are not good reasons beyond rigid biblicism for which a person may be disinclined to support this type of educational program and/or same-sex marriage. Am I to understand that you believe that anyone who does not agree with your opinion is ignorant? Numerous friends and colleagues of mine who are not christian fundies do not support these measures on radically different terms. To assume that everyone with whom you disagree is ignorant, is to be on the side of closed minded. I mean no offense. Thank you for your level tone. All I can do is remind you that the article’s purpose was not to argue an opinion of same sex marriage but to present an interesting story on a man who challenged the preconceived ideas I had in my head about him. Mahalo.

  4. Pavel Stankov Reply

    April 4, 2014 at 9:51 am

    Thanks for your response, Mark.

    I will comment here as opposed to your Facebook or email because this conversation is bigger than both of us and people, voyeuristic as they may be, deserve to see it. Out of respect for our readers and their intelligence we ought to share relevant thoughts openly and freely, and not in secret.

    I think you misunderstand my point about objectivity.

    I have no problem with Bob’s humanity: as another human i appreciate and love it. His humanity is what connects him to me in a most direct sense. But that’s DIFFERENT from the real issue. I have a problem with Bob’s ARGUMENTS.

    You see, arguments are NOT us; we can come up with them or hear them from somewhere else, develop them or leave them half-baked as long as we’re satisfied with their half-bakedness, cling to them for our dear lives or drop them when they begin to sound silly and dated. But they are different from us in the sense that a great person – a moral and reasonable human being – can lapse into a BAD argument. And have you heard the good news? – that’s okay. We can change our minds when presented with novel information as long as we don’t regard our ideas as some infallible dogma structures.

    When we met earlier this week you referred in passim to that popular Jain tale about the blind men and the elephant. I love that image because it illustrates the precarious condition of epistemology, as we – busy, conceited, self-involved, but also caring and empathetic, lumps of carbon and hydrogen – access it and attempt to construct that human thing we call “meaning” out of it. We have occasional fortunate glimpses of how things really are and even those are colored by our life stories and identities. And because i dislike postmodernist anthropological feminist frenchness and its inherent relativism as much as you do, i strive to create a pathway for those glimpses to reveal themselves more often and brighter. It’s wrong to say that we’re all correct. It’s wrong and self-defeating.

    Education to the ways of the world has value for its own sake, but it also has value for the development of our relationships with other conscious beings.

    These ways are objective facts that are only partially knowable, but they nevertheless demand our full seriousness, honesty, and attention. To say that it is normal to have a bias because all human beings have biases and it is therefore not only admissible, but preferable to approach reality from such stance, is very akin to surrendering intellectual integrity for the sake of conforming to the same misguided relativism eloquently ridiculed in the response above. Being biased without even trying to describe reality impartially can lead an impressionable mind to conclude that everybody is right. No.

    Two final points. First, there’s a difference between an opinion piece and an interview. Because Kalamalama is independent and brave we should not permit agendas in articles outside of clearly labeled opinion pieces. And second, as idealistic as i am, i’d like to think that honest and intellectually curious people who follow this highly politicized debate care for proposals and solutions, and not for the personalities of the opposing sides. I’m sure Bob is a wonderful person who loves his wife and kids and does all the good human things we do. I actually know he is someone i’d enjoy to spend an afternoon with and talk about the world. And so what? People don’t, or at least shouldn’t, vote for that, but for the arguments and policies he proposes. These are separable. And this is why i advocate their own places in our discourse.

    Because otherwise we risk falling in the awkward situation of thinking we’re touching the trunk when in fact we’ve been playing with the …non-trunk.

    Well, it’s awkward only if we know it.

  5. Mark Brians Reply

    April 5, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    Pavel, your ability to write a lot and think a lot I do not question. What seems to be lacking in your responses is your ability to read carefully and closely. My point is not, nor has it ever been, that “personality” is superior to “argument.” My point is in fact that whereas you and others divorce the two, I cannot. I do not acknowledge what philosophers call an inside/outside split in being. Such a dichotomy is neither true nor necessary; argument is situated in being and being proceeds dialectically. The interview served to situate the arguments, which have been elsewhere disclosed, within the realm of human being. That “argument” can exist in some disembodied space of non-personality smacks of a deeper sort of relativism than that of which you accuse me. As I stated earlier, I absolutely believe in Truth. I do believe that some are wrong and others right. But I also believe that Truth is understood only as it becomes incarnate in the history, personality, and relationship to which our lives are irrevocably anchored. The argument is made flesh and dwells among us. To pretend at your being verily objective is to exult in the vertigo of the mind.

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