Thursday, June 01, 2006

Herding Cats: When in Doubt, Polarize

The first sections of this blog dealt with the challenges of the two major adoption reform organizations to develop and implement national strategies. The next sections will deal with suggested solutions.

Imagine you are seated in front of an immense raised semi-circular dais in an oak-paneled hearing room in the capital building of your state. You’re there to testify in favor of an open records bill. You begin to speak into the microphone, and attempt to make eye contact with the committee members seated above you. Some regard you with boredom tinged with hostility, some smile down at you patronizingly, some ignore you altogether and chat with their neighbors or compose emails. As you blaze through your prepared statement, trying to build to a climax of solid argumentation, you notice that the most liberal member of the committee, an urban Latina Democrat, has pulled an over-sized beach ball from under her desk. She lifts the ball up with both hands and gently lofts it over the length of the hearing room to the most reactionary of her peers, a Mormon deacon, who in turn tosses it to the legislature’s sole openly gay member, who artfully arches the ball to a fiscally-conservative-socially-liberal suburban ex-used-car salesman who’s changed political parties twice as the demographics in his district have evolved. . You stop your speech and look up as the ball bounces from one side of the hearing room to the other, and the committee members hoot and laugh, not at you, but at their own antics. Ties are loosened and high heels are kicked off as the legislators really get into it. You notice that the ball has the words “Your Rights” surrounded by corporate logos and the state seal emblazoned on its side. You gather your papers and rise from your chair to leave. As you hit the door, you turn back and see that the committee hasn’t noticed you’ve left, they’re so wrapped up in their game of keep-away….

I was describing the topology of adoption politics a couple of weeks ago to a friend of mine who has twelve years of experience as an urban community organizer. At the end of my somewhat pessimistic spiel, she asked me why “we’, the adoption reform community, hadn’t tried to frame adoptee rights as a “progressive” issue. This is what she had been taught to do, indeed, she could just as easily have asked why we hadn’t attempted to frame our issue as a “conservative” issue. We live at a point in history in which the political culture of the United States is polarized into two camps, “Liberal” and “Conservative”, and issues or individuals who don’t fall easily within this dichotomy are marginal by definition. Adoptee rights politics, unframed as a conservative or liberal issue, suffers precisely from this marginalization.

The American adoption system has historically been deployed as a non-partisan consensual whole under the stewardship of the state. Liberals and conservatives have put down their ideological weapons of choice and have joined hands in the political no-man’s land to sing a round of Kumbayah in defense and enhancement of the sealed records adoption system. Adoptee rights politics have been shaped, constrained and defined by the non-ideological presentation of the American adoption system, its politics and mythology it intends to reform. Adoption reform politics in general mirrors the non-partisan “nature” of the American adoption system. Left-wingers, conservatives, libertarians and those generally described as non-political adoption reformers have worked diligently to hammer out arguments and discursive threads describing their grievances with the adoption system as devoid of ideological bias or context as the adoption system itself.

One way to shake up the politics of adoption would be to polarize it as an issue; define it as a “liberal’ or a “conservative” issue. Polarizing along ideological lines would take work, arguments and narratives would have to be forged in synch with liberal or conservative party lines, and the first skirmishes would be internal, but the benefits would be an expanded base of alliances with other “liberal” or “conservative” groups and bases of support. Polarizing could knock apart the unexamined bipartisan consensus that has kept records sealed.

Polarizing will be uncomfortable. The AAC and Bastard Nation are both “non-partisan”, and a polarizing strategy will alienate members who don’t hew to the party line. While this is regretable, I wonder if the possibility of growing beyond the Pale of Adoption World isn’t worth a little pain.

Next: When in Doubt, Organize!

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Blogger Administrator said...


Loved you article. I am trying to reach Ron to ask about a potential interview on The Adoption Show, Voices Ending the Myth - a web radio program aired every other Sunday on @ 8:30 PM EST. The next show is July 9, 2006 and the topic is Late Discovery Adoptees.

I would like to have you as a guest on the show (by phone as we broadcast out of Toronto). If you're interested, please email Michelle at

Michelle Edmunds, adoptee
Host, Producer
The Adoption Show
Voices Ending the Myth...

3:45 PM  

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