Friday, July 1, 2011

The Withering Away Hypothesis

For the longest time now I’ve run hot and cold on Barack Obama. I fell victim to the American illusion (if not the world’s illusion) that the person who sits in the Oval Office runs the world, and find myself bristling constantly over the fact that he doesn’t run the world the way I want him to. Lately, I’ve been pissed off at him for declaring that his views on same-sex marriage are “evolving.” I was delighted to note that Dan Savage attended a function at the White House recently wearing an “Evolve Already!” button.

But being an admirer of Dan Savage as an articulate spokesman on the left side of the gay liberation team doesn’t mean I can’t also admire Andrew Sullivan on the right side. And I think he has just made a point that should go a long way in helping gays and lesbians, and others as well, obviously, to calm the beast within that rises up every time Obama seems to fall short on fulfilling our superhero dreams.

It’s a daily frustration to watch him act as if he had any common ground with his Republican opponents, who have shown their top priority, even ahead of the national welfare, to be the destruction of the Obama presidency so they can reclaim power in 2012 and beyond. And to watch him further the goals of a corrupt capitalist system and an imperial foreign policy.

But on the social issue where the rubber hits the road for me, the dreams of LGBT Americans of getting out from under the dead hand of religion, Andrew Sullivan has given me second thoughts on Obama’s strategy of wait-and-see.

Way back when the issue of same-sex marriage first came up, I didn’t understand why everybody failed to see an obvious solution. In many modern states, both states with a clear separation of church and state, like France, and states where the two are still tied together, like Germany, people have figured out that the most practical way to proceed is to view marriage as a civil contract, quite independently of anything the church may have to say. It’s the state that regulates who gets the kids in the event of a divorce, who is responsible for whom at the end of life, who pays the mortgage. The state puts the contract together, enforces it at the behest of its signers, and oversees the dissolution, if dissolution becomes necessary. And if the church wants to “sanctify” these unions, that’s not the state’s business. Go to city hall to sign on the dotted line, go to church in the white dress and do-si-do to Lohengrin to your heart’s content. There is absolutely no need for conflict. All this talk of discrimination goes up in smoke, if they choose not to sanctify you because you’re left-handed.

What we did in the U.S., unfortunately, was grant to clergy the right to act as agents of the state, and we’re still swimming in the muddy waters that lousy decision created. We gave the clowns an inch and they took a mile. Now, all over the land, we have to listen to jumping jack religios (“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”) who have persuaded themselves marriage is a religious institution that harks back to the Garden of Eden, without bothering to enlighten us on whether that theocracy was Methodist, Episcopalian or Quaker. And unaware, apparently, that the church didn’t start meddling in marriage until the Council of Trent, when it took away the right of religious to marry, which eliminated competition in inheritance rights, and forced the laity to marry in the church as a means of getting better control over their private lives.

Unfortunately letting the church believe they have the right to marry is a bed we made in America, and a bed we have to lie in, until (oh, dream on) we some day recognize that we don’t have to live forever with grandma’s furniture.

Another bed we have to lie in is our federal system and the distribution of rights between the federal government and the governments of the various states. This one I would not want to chuck out, actually. This one feels good. Even the part which says marriage is an issue for the states to determine, and not the federal government.

In the history of states’ rights, there have been issues where you want the feds to step in – ending segregation being the classic example. If Eisenhower had not sent troops to Little Rock in 1957, and federalized the Arkansas National Guard, who knows how many years or decades longer justice would have been beyond the reach of black Americans.

But Obama is following the argument that the right of gays to marry, while it is still about civil rights, is not of the same order of urgency as giving blacks a decent education, and satisfying as it would be for gays to get their due here and now, changing hearts and minds will ultimately assure a long-term solution. The sea change has taken place and the future is clear. Equal rights for gays is on the way. But as the one step forward, two steps back history of gay rights in California and Maine demonstrate, the struggle is messy and it seems to leave both sides bloodied. Better we should maintain the present course, these go-slow advocates insist. Let states reach their own decisions on a state level, whether through referenda, legislation, or court orders, over whether to allow gays and lesbians to marry. By moving more slowly, they give more and more people time to become convinced the arguments against the practice are built on the sands of prejudice and ignorance, and opposition gently dies a natural death. More and more conservatives, like David Frum, are coming around. Why fight enemies who are going to lay down their arms anyway?

When Prop. 8 went into effect, and Californian gays and lesbians lost their right to marry, the case went to the courts and it’s still in the courts two years later. As soon as one side wins a battle, the other side starts collecting funds for the next battle. And each new battle further entrenches the opposition.

In contrast, as straight people get to know gay people, opposition to gay people drops. As straight people get to know married gay people, opposition to gay marriage drops. And it doesn’t reappear. When you knock the opposition down, he gets up again. But when his will to fight has withered away, he no longer even needs to be defined as an enemy.

This is not to say, however, that this will happen automatically. On the contrary, it requires that gays and lesbians and those who support equal rights for gays and lesbians continue to provide time and money to keep the pressure up at the state level. It’s just that it’s far more likely that people will meet their neighbors and change hearts and minds at the state level than at the federal level, where we are at the whim of the likes of Justices Thomas and Scalia.

While I may have embellished Sullivan’s argument, the line of thinking is his. It’s an argument that asks us to think in terms of long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. His point is that while governors can throw themselves whole-heartedly into civil rights of citizens to marry on the state level, as Cuomo did in New York, because marriage is controlled by the states, presidents need to limit their actions to issues at the federal level, no matter how strong the temptation to micromanage and do the right thing at the state level.

Problem is, it’s also an argument which asks us to delay justice for long-term solutions, and that has never felt right. It asks the present generation to sacrifice itself for future generations, and that has never been pretty.

I am not 100% persuaded by Sullivan, so strong is my sense that I’m not getting any younger and justice for gays has been too long in coming already. But I am persuaded, for now, at least, that gays ought to maybe stop with the demonizing of Obama over his apparent foot-dragging when it comes to gay rights.

Consider this. Michele Bachmann and her quite possibly homosexually inclined husband Marcus, two provincials from East Jesus, Minnesota, are now capturing national attention as contenders for First Woman President and her First Man. Michele, a leading voice in the “small government” Republican Party, would take away from states the right to grant same-sex marriage, with an amendment to the Constitution, extending the disgrace of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and writing discrimination into law. Marcus has declared that gays are “barbarians” who need "to be educated…(and)…disciplined.”

On Obama’s watch, on the other hand, we have seen (to use Sullivan’s list) the HIV travel ban eliminated, legal support for DOMA withdrawn, and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell removed, so that, when fully implemented, gays and lesbians will have the right to serve proudly and openly in the armed forces.

To impatient gay liberation advocates, and I still count myself in their number, Obama is far from ideal. But let’s not inflate the rhetoric so that we’re talking about the “lesser of two evils.” The Bachmann types on the right are evil, if you will (“provincial” is adequate for me – I don’t need to call people evil.) But even the most bitterly disillusioned gays and lesbians cannot justify calling Obama evil. And that’s probably because he’s almost the perfect antithesis of these provincials from rural Minnesota.

If you live long enough, you may look back at Obama and wonder at his ability to keep his eye on the long-term solution.

Or not. As I said, justice here and justice now has a very nice ring.

But this is not a clear-cut issue. It’s an issue where both sides can differ without rancor.

And P.S. Minnesota need not be ashamed it has provincials. What place doesn’t? Minnesota, remember, also produced Garrison Keillor. And Walter Mondale. And Eugene McCarthy. And Kate Millett.

And Judy Garland.


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