Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Winning for the Wrong Reasons

So the Whip Up the Bigots Amendment -- er, I mean, the Marriage Protection Amendment -- has gone down to its expected defeat today, with the vote on whether or not they should vote (doncha just love Senate rules?) failing 49-48 (a failure because a closure vote requires a 60 vote majority).

I should be delighted. I mean, the forces of equality and justice have won a victory over the forces of bigotry and intolerance. The result is unquestionably good. So why don't I feel cheerier about it?

Part of it, I suppose, is that all we have to hold on to is this sort of beating-back-the-dark victory when the situation of our country is so grim. But mostly it's because while the forces of good won, they won for the wrong reasons. Or at least the wrong reasons were spoken.

This was brought home to me last night when I happened to be driving around 5 p.m., and heard the top-of-the-hour NPR news summary. They mentioned the amendment's defeat, and then said, "opponents say that the amendment will violate states' rights", and quoted John McCain.* And then it quoted people for the amendment.

That's it. State's rights.

And it's not just that NPR decided to balance the proponents of the socially conservative Republican's amendment with comments by a socially conservative Republican. Even democrats, for the most part, were harping on the fact that this was a blatant pander to the base, an attempt to change the topic from the dismal situation that the current ruling party has brought our country to. And this is all true. But it's hardly a ringing endorsement of the merits of equality and the humanity of our gay and lesbian citizens. Particularly since a lot of the more "centrist" Democrats (where "centrist" seems to have its usual meaning of "invertebrate") also made the argument that this was unnecessary because the (so-called) Defense of Marriage Act was still in force.

It's just bloody depressing.

I mean, sure, it's sort of amusing in an "irony's kind of ironic" sort of way to hear "state's rights", that old segregationists' argument, turned around and used to defeat a measure designed to put a new type of segregation in the constitution -- to be used by the Senator now holding the seat that then-presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater held when he invoked it to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And of course it would have been a disaster if the biases of the current day were written into the constitution, where it would have taken that much longer -- and that much more effort -- to erase them.

Because, of course, they would have been erased. Unless this country falls into a full-fledged theocracy -- not, alas, impossible -- this is the one issue on which I feel quite confident that the side of justice will win. We may engage in unprovoked nuclear war against Iran, we may cook the globe to the point where our costal cities drown, we may throw away the constitution and install, at last, a new King George. But gay marriage is coming.

It's demographics, you see. The younger generation -- roughly, people younger than I -- simply don't have a problem with this. Oh, not uniformly -- there are bigots aplenty that wish to write their own religious views into the law of the land, even among the younger folk -- but the overwhelming majority think it's obvious that marriage should be equal to gays and straights on an equal basis. Growing up seeing gays and lesbians presented as people in the media, growing up far more likely to know out gays and lesbians themselves -- it simply comes to seem obvious. (As, in the end, it is.) So that, in time, this view simply will become a majority view. It might even be sooner, since public views on this are shifting so quickly -- hell, even George Bush has come out for civil unions, which a decade ago were a forlorn hope of the radical left. So yes, in the end, we'll win.

So why can't Democrats stand up and make the real argument here? It's not that hard. Last night John Stewart got it in a sentence: "it's a debate about whether you think gay people are part of the human condition or just a random fetish". Why do Democrats -- liberals -- have to defend this on the true-but-really-not-the-point grounds of there are more pressing issues, or the true-but-it-ought-not-to-be grounds that DOMA still stands? Why can't they come out and say that gay and lesbian citizens must have equality under the law -- period? That gay marriage is, in fact, something that we ought to have in all fifty states, just as interracial marriage is now legal in all fifty?

(And while I'm at it: will someone please ask Bush, and all the other politicians who are decrying "activist judges", whether or not they think that Loving v. Virginia was correctly decided in 1967 -- when, it should be noted, interracial marriage was far less approved of than gay marriage is now. Whatever the state of the debate on this issue, no one should be able to hide behind the fig leaf of blaming judges unless they are prepared to come out for anti-miscegenation laws.)

I know the answer that Democrats would give: they'd lose votes. But frankly I doubt it. This simply isn't a priority for most people -- people are concerned about other things: Iraq, say. Since the Democrats have resolutely embraced the position of the majority of the American people that we should withdraw from Iraq, then people will see that they support their... oh, wait. Right.

As I said, depressing.

Although in all seriousness, I don't think that Democrats would loose a lot of votes on this. Those who really care won't vote for Democrats anyway (unless they really care on the other side, in which case a principled stance would help, not hurt); most people will simply not focus on it. Nor do I think anyone is fooled by legalisms. If we're going to be tagged as the party of gay marriage, we might as well make the (ultimately unanswerable) moral case for it, rather than pussyfoot around.

In truth, there are, I think, two moral cases for it. The best one is simply that, as John Stewart said last night, "gay people are part of the human condition" and there is nothing even remotely immoral about that: it is simply a condition like left or right handedness, nothing that should have the slightest meaning about anyone you're not trying to date. But even if Democrats aren't ready to say that -- and much as I might wish it, they aren't -- there is a simple moral case that should be clear, even to those whose religious views are against homosexuality: this is simply not something about which the state should discriminate. Objections to gay marriage are, ultimately, rooted in religion; religious views should not be public policy. (All other supposed arguments have been repeatedly eviscerated: they simply don't hold up in the slightest. That's why gay marriage keeps winning in the courts, where arguments are taken more seriously than they are in legislatures. (Which is not to say that the current Supreme Court is likely to do anything other than ratify their own religious and political biases. But it's been stacked for just that purpose. You can always find people to say what you want, however ridiculous, if you look long enough.))

My iTunes mix just threw up the song "Wallace" by the Drive-By Truckers, in which the Devil celebrates (segregationist Alabama Governor) George Wallace's arrival in hell:

Throw another log on the fire, boys,
George Wallace is coming to stay.
When he met St. Peter at the pearly gates,
I'd like to think that a black man stood in the way.
I know "All should be forgiven",
But he did what he done so well
So throw another log on the fire boys,
George Wallace is a coming…

We will win on this once all the Rick Santorums of the world have gone up to the pearly gates and found that God has ratified a Heaven Protection Amendment and that they are therefore barred from entry. But it would be nice if, in the meantime, those who are actually fighting on the side of right on this issue would speak as if they were fighting on the side of right, and not make legalistic arguments along the lines of segregationists thirty years ago -- arguments that people make when they are afraid to stand up for what they believe in because they think that the real argument won't fly.

Its nice to win. But if we want to keep winning, we need to argue as if we deserve to. Since we do, it shouldn't be that hard. We're on the side of right, here: we should say so. Get used to it.

*Yet further evidence of the pernicious, and potentially disastrous, crush that the media has on that unrepentant, power-seeking panderer. But that's another post.

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