Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gay Couples? What Gay Couples?

One of the essentials to understanding politics is to spot the ways words are used to mislead. “We are the party of small government,” goes the Republican party line. “Keep the government off our backs,” says the rightwing demagogue, and the masses cheer.

By now the secret is out. Small government was a codeword for a return to Robber Baron democracy. What it meant was keep the government regulators out so laws could be written for the benefit of the super-rich. If anybody got an inkling of what was going on, it was explained away by the trickle-down theory.

Small government was Bush-Cheney-speak for government big enough to wage war in several countries at once, big enough to get their friends at AT&T (you remember them – they once overturned elected democracy in Chile ) to listen in on your conversations, powerful enough to put in place an attorney general who would help get rid of political enemies, a judiciary that would justify torture.

Orwell must be rolling over in his grave to see words “small government” used to hide the phenomenon of “big government.” It was never a question of big government on the left, small government on the right, but big government on both sides. The difference was only in what government was used for. The left wants it used to make sure contracts are kept, minorities are protected, the environment is protected, water is safe, schools and hospitals and bridges are built. All this takes big government. Murdering government in the bathtub sounds good if you are a rightwinger, and might actually make it easier for you to privatize your wars, but in the end you need government to pull it all together. You don’t run an empire on volunteer labor.

But while all eyes are turned to our economic woes, we miss other evidence that the “less government” party-line on the right is a crock, little more than a slogan for a game of bait-and-switch. At the heart of right-wing politics are the folks who are pedaling as fast as they can to assure the government is run “on Biblical principles.” They want the government out of their business affairs, perhaps, but certainly not out of the lives of citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike, when it comes to what they tell us is “God’s law.”

We like to contrast ourselves with tyrannical governments. In the American legal tradition you are innocent until proven guilty, and that which is not expressly forbidden is permitted. Oppressive governments work the other way around. Republicans, if they were consistent with their claim to favor small government, would not be dictating who should marry whom, for example. Here’s one case where it’s the left that favors minimal government interference. The right wants government front and center in determining who marries and how marriage is defined.

We recently went to the polls in California and took away the right of gay people to marry. The Supreme Court appears to be leaning in favor of allowing that decision to stand, arguing that the majority can, in fact, remove the rights of a minority it doesn’t like, provided that that minority can find equivalent benefits by some other means. The jury is still out, and this could change, but that’s how it appears to be at the moment.

When the California Supreme Court found gays have the right to marry in the constitution, San Francisco Archbishop Niederauer phoned his Mormon friends in Utah, and his own boys in the Knights of Columbus, and a few dozen million dollars later, we have this retrograde limitation on individual rights the court declared in writing “serves no state interest.” To be sure, freedom loving gays and others need to take much of the blame here for not getting their asses into the voting booths to counter this force, but that doesn’t change the fact that what was going on was government swinging into place to impose the religious views of some of us on all of us.

It actually gets worse. It turns out the Census Bureau has determined that in the upcoming census in 2010 census takers must mark same-sex married couples who live together as "unmarried partners." Why? Because the government, in the form of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) does not recognize same-sex unions sanctioned by states. Get that? If you were married in Massachusetts or Connecticut, or if you are one of the 36,000 people married in California, but happen to be married to a person of the same sex, you will be registered by government as unmarried. Despite the open secret that only certain religious groups favor limiting the civil rights of gays, and 83% of those polled after the election who say they never attend church favor gay marriage, government continues to do the bidding of the religious right.

But isn't this "the people" voting? Don't Christians have the right to vote their principles? How is government to blame if people take their cue from religious leaders?

The problem comes when the state throws its weight behind one side or the other instead of staying out of religious fights. If you look at who is pushing prayer in school, it's invariably Christians who have problems with believers of other faiths. In order to make atheists and followers of other religions not feel like second-class citizens, we hold back on the appearance of state endorsement. If you look at people pushing for the ten commandments to be posted in the public arena, we see the same kind of people - those who want their views to dominate all Americans, not just those who follow their faith - and they want the government to help them pull it off.

The neutral position in the marriage issue is for government to recognize the categories created by its citizens, and not override their categories. In this battle over rights, the very heart of the issue is recognition. Gays want their relationships recognized; religious folk want them not to have it. Prohibiting the Census Bureau from using the categories defined by the states is taking the side of biased groups as surely as if they had chosen to define Jews or Hindus as non-religious simply because they are not Christian.

Martin O'Connell, chief of the Census Bureau's Fertility and Family Statistics Branch, argues that his hands are tied. It appears to be a bureaucratic hang-up, and not a prejudice on his part. "It's not something the bureau could arbitrarily or casually decide to change on a whim, because our data is used by virtually every federal agency." They don’t want to falsify information, he said, but if government doesn’t recognize your marriage, well then, you’re unmarried. After all, government has to publish data in a way that “is consistent with the way every other agency publishes their data."

Gay couples? What gay couples?

No comments: