President Barack Obama waves as he and the NATO leaders arrive for dinner at Soldier Field in Chicago on May 20, 2012. Behind the President is France's President Francois Hollande. | Photo: Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
When the President came out of the closet to endorse marriage equality recently, he did so in a way that was typical of his "lead from behind" strategy. He dipped a tentative toe in the water and offered his personal support for the idea, but he left the heavy lifting of policy formulation to others. This has become a trope in the latter part of his first term. He is for a lot of things, just don't bother him to do anything about them. In a week that had, as its other breaking news, a story of Mitt Romney
acting as a bully to a student who may or may not have been a known homosexual, it was easy to find oneself wishing the President would channel his own inner bully, at least to the extent that he is willing to use the pulpit we have given him as a stage for urging action.
Instead what we got was a set up for another exercise in Rosie Ruiz politics. Ruiz was the Cuban American woman who stepped out of the crowd in 1980 at the last half mile of the Boston Marathon to race to the finish line in what would have been, had she actually completed the course, a new record for women runners. The only thing was… the judges noticed that she wasn't breathing all that hard and her legs were kind of flabby. Besides all of that, no one could remember having seen her during the actual running of the race. Mr. Obama's offering of personal support rang a little hollow because it was not followed with any discernible policy. He just hung around the starting line long enough to make sure everyone saw his face. But you can be certain he will be the first to climb to the winner's platform once this race is over. I suppose that is the exegesis of power, but if the President had detailed some of the exigencies of the matter he might have done something to turn the marathon into a sprint.
The fact that his move came about only after prodding from the loose lips of the always unpredictable gaffe-machine that goes by the name of Joe Biden does not inure to the President's benefit. The timing of his statement during a tough election season and the campaign fundraising that occurred immediately afterward suggest his motives were not entirely pure. It may seem cynical to think that the first thing the President and his advisors did in the ten minutes after Mr. Biden told Meet the Press that he was "entirely comfortable" with same-sex marriage was to pull out a calendar and see when the President should make his move to get the best bang for his fund-raising buck, but the fact that the sequencing of events just happened to work out so that he announced his own evolved position the day before he went to Hollywood and raised $15 million dollars is certainly, at a minimum, a happy accident. In the realm of evolutionary thinking, it was more of a rapid adaptation than a slow speciation. It leaves us searching for the missing links.
It also leaves us wondering what, if anything, his new position means. Had his party moved its convention to a state that had not, just a day before the President's announcement, passed an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in order to shore up a state law that already enforced such a prohibition, one could feel more comfortable in his support. This is called putting your money where your mouth is. Or had the President proposed a federal law that would put some teeth in his private belief, one might imagine his musings were more than just a show of empathy worded to suggest a hint of promise that could win votes from an important constituency. This is called action, and it speaks louder than words. Better yet, think what might have happened if the President had made his announcement the day before the vote in North Carolina, rather than the day after.
As it is, it just seems like a too-conservative, wait-until-the-time-is-right move by a politician who doesn't trust states to make their own policies about abortion, or healthcare, or medical marijuana, or immigration but, on the all-important question of who one chooses to spend one's life with under the full protection of the law, has suddenly fallen in love with states' rights.
If this seems too harsh a judgment, not giving proper credit to the bravery of a man who has reminded us recently of how he stood in the lurch and pulled the trigger against all advice and wisdom to take down Osama bin Laden, consider the President's own words. He told Robin Wright of ABC News the following:
"And what you're seeing is, I think, states working through this issue-- in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that's a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what's recognized as a marriage."
This is not exactly the stirring stuff you might want from one of the greatest elocutionists of our times. It echoes the Supreme Court decision in Brown which determined that a "separate but equal" education fundamentally denied blacks one of their most basic civil rights and then demanded that the nation move with "all deliberate speed" toward remedying the situation. As an evolutionary stance, it was not quite Neanderthalic, but it is certainly not yet Homo sapiens.
In many ways Mr. Obama's position on the issue resembles the position taken by Billy Graham during the civil rights era. Graham sometimes spoke to segregated audiences and sometimes refused to speak until the races could worship together. He was a man of faith but he also had a political nature. He didn't want to rock the boat too much, for fear of being discredited among those he ostensibly led. It was only through the strengthening movement led by the no-turning-back commitment of Martin Luther King, Jr. that Graham came to see the light and eventually steeled himself to step out in front of the parade. Mr. Obama seems to worry now, like Mr. Graham worried then, that the world is not quite ready for his advanced moral sensibility.
Fortunately, we have had occasional political leadership that has not taken the pulse of the nation before acting on fundamental rights. Following the Brown decision, Eisenhower sent National Guard troops to Little Rock to face down state troops deployed by Governor Faubus and the crowd of screaming bigots who had encircled Central High School to block its entrance, so that nine black school children could simply walk to the doors of the school, sit down at their desks, and receive an education next to white people. This was a difficult decision, to be sure. But it was necessary, given the fact that the "healthy debate" of the previous hundred years had yet to resolve the matter regarding such a simple civil right. As Robert Caro's recent book on LBJ points out, Johnson was counseled not to waste his political capital on pursuing the "hopeless" cause of civil rights, given the fact that many in the South were still not ready for it, to which he replied "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"
Mr. Obama, as the first black President, stands on the shoulders of such men. It seems particularly odd that he would take a wait and see approach, just nudging the edges of the issue until the country comes around to his way of thinking, especially since he showed such a willingness to go to the mat for a healthcare policy that was and remains unpopular throughout many regions of the country.
There are a number of possible reasons for Mr. Obama's reticence. It has been said that he would lose black votes. This is certainly a possibility. But before one jumps to this conclusion, one should note that the NAACP and such black luminaries as representative James Clyburn (D-SC) have subsequently deemed marriage equality a civil right that should be protected under the Constitution. This position clearly outdistances Mr. Obama's carefully-crafted gradualism. Did the President simply not have his finger on the pulse of black leadership? Did he not foresee that it might sit better with that constituency to argue that it is illegitimate to say, essentially, "well, I got mine, but you'll have to wait to get yours"? If he did, then he has bigger problems with that community than the issue of how they'll view his position on same-sex marriage.
Another possibility is that Mr. Obama hasn't yet found the right words to say to make the issue all about him in a way that he finds appealing. This is something that he likes to do. His only foray into the most important civil rights case of the present moment, for example, was to personalize it by claiming the family resemblance between himself and Trayvon Martin. In the case of marriage equality, he may be facing worries that if he steps too far in front of the parade too soon it will turn out to be one of those parades that feature middle-aged men with beards and leather biker shorts. Maybe he is worried that such an image will show up in a Romney ad, coupled with the Newsweek cover of Mr. Obama with his rainbow halo. These images, topped with Mr. Obama's penchant for breaking into song -- well, you take my point. Maybe he's worried he'll lose cred on the basketball court or be paired more often with the women golfers on the links. Certainly no fun in that for the man who brings a gun to a knife fight, who single-handedly pushed his raging fist into the chest cavity of the world's most notorious terrorist and pulled out his still-beating heart to thrust before the cowering eyes of the quivering nation.
But if that is his concern, I have a couple of possible suggestions. Perhaps the President can remember that Langston Hughes, too, sang for America. Maybe he could simply make a reference to this man while on the campaign trail, who was, next to Whitman, Dickinson, and very few others, among our nation's greatest poets. He could point out how shameful it was that Hughes had to keep his sexuality hidden because local standards did not approve of such behavior. Maybe he could say that if he had a son, he would look like Langston Hughes. That would warm the heart and have just the right mixture of truth and look-at-me-ism that Mr. Obama is wont to display.
Or maybe he could just decide that it's time to earn his Nobel Peace Prize.
But, of course, there is another possibility. Perhaps Mr. Obama, like many Americans, simply hasn't come around to really accepting the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, despite his election season rhetoric and despite the issue's inevitability and its inherent righteousness. If that is the case, let me take just a moment and give him some possible food for thought that might stiffen his spine.
As with all debates around social issues that our nation carries on, there are a number of complicated and multilayered arguments resting on both sides of the issue. We ar
|Maybe it's time for the President to earn his Nobel Peace Prize.|
e both a progressive and conservative nation in that we have continually advanced the notions of rights and equality throughout our historical evolution, but we have done so with a process that requires a constant reassessment of where we stand and where we are going. Our founding principles and the machinery of our government are set up to work in a constant tension so that we do not grow too lax in emphasizing our ideals, but we cannot move so quickly that we outrun our cultural agreements. All of this is fine as far as it goes, and it is in line with Mr. Obama's gradualism.
However, in the long run we are all dead, and there seem to be some rights that are so entirely in line with our demands for self-determination that they seem to be above the need for argument. If the choice of who we will spend our lives with in a consensual contract of marriage is not one of these fundamental rights, then I am hard-pressed to figure out what is.
What are the arguments against it? There are a number, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. But all of them seem to fail when put to simple common sense. The list includes the following: That it is unnatural. That it is against God's will. That it is unhistorical. That it cannot lead to procreation which is the supposed purpose of the institution. That it is unhealthy. That it is being forced upon America by a radical gay agenda. That it will lead to the slippery slope. Let us quickly take each of these in order.
For those who would say it is unnatural, I would simply ask if, while you were making that argument, you were growing your own vegetables, hunting your own meat, living in a shelter that you built yourself, or using the consciousness that sets us apart from the animal world. We live in an artificial world, one that is informed by culture and contractual agreements of every shape and sort. I won't even make the argument that there are myriad animals that display same-sex attraction behaviors, ranging from killer whales to black swans to, as irony would have it, albatrosses. Perhaps it is enough to point out that being born to a virgin, as many who would make this argument say is possible, is also an unnatural act.
Which leads to the question of God's will. But which God? The God of Christianity? Or Islam? The God of the Old Testament? The New Testament? These are not incidental questions. Because depending on where and when we decide to settle the argument, we can find God approving of multiple wives, incestuous relationships, public stoning for the transgression of adultery, and a whole host of other marital policies that do not seem to fall under the latest definition of what God would have us do according to the people who claim to know his mind. Even in those New Testament passages that are commonly cited as proof of homosexuality's "abomination," this human condition is typically included with such acts as drunkenness and fornication and idolatry and masturbation and jealousy and stealing – all of which will supposedly keep believers out of heaven. I suppose we could argue that every man who has ever masturbated should be ineligible for marriage, but then that would leave only women who could marry and we'd be back to square one. Jonathan, King David said, your love to me was better than the love of women. If only they could have gotten a marriage license. Then David could have saved himself all that trouble with having to kill Bathsheba's husband so he could win her over.
But surely homosexual marriage has not been accepted throughout history, right? Well, not if we discount Greek pederasty, medieval French enbrotherment, Native American Two-Spirit relationships, modern European marriage, and a host of other such examples. In fact, we might want to be careful when leaning too closely on history as an example for understanding marriage, lest we be forced to resort to widow-burning, childhood betrothal, and illegal divorce.
Let's be clear, same-sex marriage does not lead, at least with our current state of technology, to an ability to procreate. But should this be an argument against it? By the same argument, would we not also be forced to prohibit infertile couples from marrying? Would we have to sanction other types of relationships that clearly can lead to procreation, like incestuous marriage, or marriage to a minor who has passed through the stages of puberty?
I read this week an article on the Fox News website that detailed the agonizing evolution that a nurse had gone through to reach her opposition to gay marriage. She had treated numerous gay men who had attempted suicide. The implication was that it's an unhealthy lifestyle, and surely marriage should not enable such behavior. My reaction was to think that, if society continually degrades and marginalizes an individual to the point that he feels it preferable to take his own life, perhaps it is society that needs to change, not the individual. Maybe we have been looking at the problem the wrong way, like when we used to ask rape victims what they had done to deserve it. My late father once made the argument that he didn't support gay marriage because it would lead to increases in his insurance premiums from having to treat the partners of gay breadwinners who engaged in risky sexual behaviors. Then he leaned back in his easy chair, completing missing the irony, and took a drag from his cigarette.
The radical gay agenda idea is perhaps a little trickier, because I'm not entirely sure what the choice of a marriage partner has to do with it. This one seems to be a catchall fear-of-the-other that simply wants to deny the right of marriage to people that same-sex marriage opponents just do not like. Maybe, if they had their way, they would also deny marriage rights to toothless, pot-bellied yokels, seething Gothic vampires, and Jersey girls. If I could offer anything to change their minds, I would suggest that for the good, God-fearing people in the Midwest who don't want their society overrun by barbaric hoards in leather biker shorts, they may want to consider whether they would accept similar arguments that might be pointed in their direction. Would they, for example, be willing to forgo their pursuit of wealth as they strive to attain their version of the American Dream because those who have already achieved wealth wish to develop strictures designed to keep them from imposing their radical middle class agenda? Why shouldn't those who already have be allowed to define the game for those who don't? Is it a sheer numbers game? Will you be so ready to accept that kind of reasoning once the nation has fully turned, as recent studies show that it is certainly turning, into a nation that explicitly rejects religion and that has a minority majority? What is that phrase about payback being a bitch?
And, finally, we come to the slippery slope. What is to stop a man who wants to marry a goat from also claiming the same right? That one is easy. Once goats have acquired language and the ability to communicate their adult consent, we will have to revisit the issue. Until then, it's off the table.
And there it is. All possible arguments against marriage equality destroyed by a few editorial observations. Apartheid brought to its knees by an open letter. Jim Crow put in the ground with the stroke of a pen. Women's suffrage and Tibetan independence and the end of the Middle East conflict, all resolved with a whisper on the wind of a personal opinion.
Except it doesn't quite work that way, does it? It takes a damn sight more than well-wishes and fuzzy warm feelings. It takes action.
Either marriage equality is a right or it is not. If it is not, what do we care about what the President thinks?
If it is, then even God himself should not be allowed to stand in its way.