Originally published in Official Artur Davis
My tardiness in updating the responses and feedback section has created a backlog. Not surprisingly, my columns on gay marriage have generated some of the most extensive feedback we have received, most of it actually thoughtful and a legitimate effort to engage the subject—the rest, promptly ignored. My essay on the Americans Elect fiasco proved topical (and as a few of you kindly acknowledged, prescient) and a number of you weighed in on the subject when I wrote about it several weeks ago. Finally, my thoughts on Elizabeth Warren and liberal hypocrisy on race provoked some interesting reactions. So, some thoughts in response:
-I was struck, but not surprised, by the number of responses on gay marriage that disagreed with my proposition that it was possible for civil discourse on the subject—which was frankly more my focus than finding the “middle ground” that some of you referenced. One reader caustically asked if I believed there was room for debate on whether segregation is legal; another argued from the opposing perspective that gay rights opponents have actually yielded too much ground and have not been emphatic enough in attacking the social costs of same sex marriage.
First, as one who remains a critic of same sex marriage, I reject the civil rights comparison. Without even attempting to resolve the imponderable question of whether race and sexuality are equally unchangeable, or in the lingo of constitutional law, “immutable characteristics”, I would distinguish the civil rights movement as an answer to the rigidly discriminatory economic and political fabric that prevailed in America at the time; but one that was never really preoccupied with social equality, and that rarely evoked the language of individual fulfillment or empowerment. It was also a crusade of Americans who were beleaguered and suppressed at every turn, by the force of law in the South and by custom elsewhere. Any historically faithful reading of the fifties and early sixties reminds that the movement was essentially a survival enterprise in a country that frighteningly resembled an Apartheid-like prison for the vast majority of blacks.
Marriage and social equality, for all of their desirability, are not foundations of earning a living or functioning in civil society; as a result, they are different from access to education or employment, or the right to contract, or to move into a neighborhood. Interestingly, the gay rights lobby has not made any of these conventional civil rights claims much of a priority (the Obama Administration put little effort into an employment discrimination law, even when Democrats controlled the House and had 60 seats in the Senate, and there has still been no notable pushback at the omission). My guess is that the relative silence on these questions is the strongest proof that the GLBT community is not suffering the systematic or widespread exclusion that drove the civil rights agenda in the sixties (after all, the gay rights effort has been a highly strategic enterprise that has not been accused of misreading its constituents’ aspirations).
True, it may be for a gay or lesbian American that marriage is a higher order priority, and it may be that their very identity is implicated in a fight over marriage rights, but those subjective possibilities don’t rewrite the history of the respective movements. The fact that one constituency based its effort on one set of threshold rights, while another is engaged in a fight over an entirely separate set of claims, doesn’t settle the argument, but it does undercut the notion that gays at the turn of the decade and blacks in the fifties and sixties occupy anything near the same position.
As for the arguments from the right, opponents of same sex marriage do have different reasons. As Gallup’s recent data makes clear, roughly 40 percent of the country still voices a pretty blunt moral disapproval of homosexuality, a position, of course, that is regarded in elite circles as hopelessly bigoted and one that has fallen out of favor with the under 30 crowd (it’s also a fight that can turn tedious: I read with alternating amusement and boredom a protracted Facebook debate between black professionals in the DC area over varying interpretations of forbidden biblical practices). There are others of us who leave the cosmic question to a Higher Power but fear that the consequences of same sex marriage for say, adoption, are too unpredictable. Yet others (I’m in this camp too) treat the issue as fundamentally a constitutional one and conclude that there is no federal constitutional right that is at stake and therefore no constraint on the 36 states that have banned same sex marriage.
I am of the opinion that whatever our religious teachings, a debate in the public arena does deserve a secular response that doesn’t rely on theology. It also happens that this is probably the only sort of debate that can stay civil and avoid fracturing us even more. That’s not a hedge on the merits; it’s recognizing that civility is a powerful value in its own right.
Having said all of that, religion is relevant to gay marriage in another sense. The institution of marriage is a heavily sectarian force in our culture, given that most of our marriages are religious ceremonies performed by a preacher, rabbi, priest, or Imam. Whether critics like it or not, our faith institutions will drive the consensus around marriage as much as politicians and judges. To be sure, that is an unsatisfactory position for a number of you, but it is a position that has obvious force in at least some contexts: even New York’s gay marriage law exempts churches from forced compliance with it; for that matter, the law exempts religious adoption agencies that won’t make placements with same sex couples from the state’s anti-discrimination statutes. The presence of these provisions is a reminder that liberals hardly treat marriage as just another contract, and that at least some advocates of full scale gay equality have given a nod to the fact that religious freedoms are at stake in the gay rights debate too.
-Several readers wondered if my critical take on Americans Elect means that I have abandoned my view, expressed in a Montgomery Advertiser column in 2010, that an independent party was a viable pathway. One correction: if you read that essay, which is apparently no longer online, I do distinguish between the obstacles around a national effort and the easier path for a state effort. I do think, though, that any independent effort in any partisan contest will face two barriers that are hard to overcome: the force of voter habit in picking Democrats or Republicans and the fact that most political dollars are tied to one party or another.
Therefore, I am not surprised that disaffected moderate to conservative Democrats in my home state are finding their way into the Republican Party, which for all its excesses on immigration is a consistent force for reform in ethics and education, and which favors the pro-growth economic policies that Southern moderates know are critical to attracting new job sources. Similarly, for Democrats who recoil at the influence of the gambling lobby, the Republican Party is a natural alternative to that influence. So, as for the viability of an independent state political movement, it will have to wait on an unusual donor coalition and on a candidate with an appealing nonpartisan record (maybe a visionary CEO or Mayor who has been very effective in building alliances across different lines); perhaps, it will be unnecessary if Alabama Republicans stay open to meaningful reform and don’t just become another party that always lines up with the special interest grid that runs Montgomery.
-Several readers felt that my complaint about Elizabeth Warren was unfair given that her representations of her minority status happened a while ago and apparently only surfaced in obscure academic contexts. While the distance from her claims may keep them from being disqualifying, I find it hard to believe that a candidate’s carelessness with her racial identity is an inconsequential thing. That kind of mis-labeling reflects either a shameful bid to get a job at the expense of more deserving candidates, or a shameless willingness to assist an employer in exaggerating its diversity record. I have no idea which is the case, and of course there are weightier matters this election year, but it’s another thing to say there is nothing to be gleaned from such a revelation. Especially given how much weight Warren has put on her authenticity and genuineness.
There were a few spirited suggestions that I was less than charitable in my observations about diversity at establishment, liberal leaning institutions. One reader made the case that it is inconsistent to criticize the Harvards and the elite law forms of Washington and New York for not being more diverse in their employment while I have criticized affirmative action in a variety of contexts. Sounds like a clever enough point, but consider: does the small number of blacks in administrative or faculty ranks at a place like Harvard, or the near invisible numbers of black lawyers at the top rank firms, really come down to whether affirmative action has been given a fair try? Are there really so few black top 50 firm caliber attorneys, and so few black Ivy League academic types, that it would take racial quotas to get them inside the tent? And in the case of the colleges and grad schools–if there is a dearth of qualified contenders–why do the same institutions that put so much stock in making their classrooms “look like America”, to deploy the cliché in admissions offices, have a much weaker interest in giving their teaching and leadership ranks the same all-American look?