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Savage Exodus, ctd

August 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Earlier this year Dan Savage upset the sensitivity of our future journalists by exposing them to views that differ from their own. Afterwards, Brian Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage and self-appointed nanny of Christian teens, challenged Savage to a debate. Here’s the result:

The moderator Mark Oppenheimer asks Savage and Brown if there “is any evidence that could come that would cause you to change your mind and your positions in any way?” That question is the benchmark of reasonableness, as I’ve argued before. Savage would change his mind if the harms outweighed the benefits.

Brown’s answer:

I disagree with your experiential Karl Popper analysis in the first place with something like this because this is an area of first principle. This is an area of basic reason. It’d be like saying, ‘would you find evidence… what would convince you that a square could be a circle?’

So, no, nothing would change his mind. To Brown and many like him, it doesn’t matter whether depriving citizens of the right to enter into a legally binding relationship with the person they love causes harm to those people. It doesn’t matter if children of gay parents suffer if their parents can’t get married. Marriage equality ought not happen and nothing can (even in principle) change his mind, according to Brown, because marriage is definitionally a union between the two halves of humanity and changing it would “fundamentally damage” the institution. Here we have a revealing illustration of same-sex marriage opponents’ priorities. They care more about lexicographical rigidity than the wellbeing of actual people.

Categories: Gay Marriage

The Roads to Equality

February 16, 2012 Leave a comment

On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Reihan Salam argued that it’d be better for gay marriage’s “stabilty” if it was passed democratically rather than by court order. In a certain sense, he’s onto something. It’s almost tautological: if a majority of citizens in a democracy support gay marriage, we don’t have to worry about the majority undermining gay marriage.

To bolster his argument Salam and The Economist’s Zanny Minton Beddoes compare gay marriage rights to abortion politics. Salam and Beddoes suggest that without persuading a majority first and passing it democratically, gay marriage rights won’t seem as legitimate and we’ll be left with a tension similar to the one that’s followed Roe v Wade for 40 years.  As you can see, although public opinion waxes and wanes in the short term, support hasn’t changed dramatically.

I don’t fully disagree with their case; it’d certainly be wonderful and especially validating if marriage equally was reached by popular vote. Yet, we don’t need to look at abortion or any other social issue for speculation.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered marriage equality in 2003. At the time, “50 percent [of the Mass residents] agreed with the justices’ decision, and 38 percent opposed it.” Nine years later the Massachusetts’ public isn’t unsettled by court-mandated gay marriage, risking its stability; instead, 60% now believe same-sex marriage should be legal. Living with equality has increased support to a 2 to 1 margin over opponents. Now, maybe it will be different in states like South Carolina where 20% of likely Republican primary voters think interracial marriage should be illegal! But the trends in all states seem positive any time marriage rights are expanded for race or sexuality. The most likely reason why?

I hope and am confident public opinion will continue to shift toward equality, yet if the Supreme Court gets there before voters do, there is no need to worry. We’ll just have to celebrate with our fellow citizens a bit earlier.

Santorum’s Case Against Gay Marriage: Polygamy is Bad

January 6, 2012 4 comments

One of the more common tactics by opponents of equal marriage rights challenges same-sex relationships by bringing up polygamy. In the video above a student asks Rick Santorum how he can deny marriage rights to gay couples if he believes that all men are created equal and “have the rights to happiness and liberty.” In response, Santorum asks if marrying 5 other people is ok. The students say that’s not the point, while Santorum thinks he’s got one.

I never understood this line of reasoning. When else can someone ask you to justify your position on something and changing the subject to something else constitutes a valid response?

  • Why don’t you think adults should be able to drink alcohol in moderation? Well do you think they should be able to get hammered and drive a car!? 
  • Why shouldn’t I be able to play music in my room? Well should you be able to blare sirens blasts at 180 decibels!? 
  • Can my family buy a second truck? Well should you be able to own an M1 Abrams tank!?

It’s also worth noting that Santorum is utilizing a sort of traditional-marriage-of-the-gaps argument. As we gain more knowledge about gender, sexuality and non-traditional relationships there is less of a reason to restrict marriage rights, so opponents must retreat to more abstract and shaky arguments to preserve their particular notion of marriage.  Many people can’t really explain off the cuff why they think plural marriage is wrong while gay marriage isn’t – they just sort of have a visceral negative reaction to it. I’m sure when people first started debating interracial marriage some traditionalist asked if same-sex marriage is ok. If you don’t fully understand precisely what defines marriage only traditional marriage can exist!

If you’re going to deny an entire class of citizens a fundamental constitutional right it seems necessary to make an actual case against gay marriage rather than frightening people with polygamy or man-on-kethup marriage.  The case against polygamy centers around abuse of women and children, unstable gender ratios, judicial chaos, and other reasons that have nothing to do with the gay marriage. In other words, there is a rational basis for not  giving state sanction to plural marriages.

I’m fairly encouraged by this. It demonstrates that the illiberal religious right continues to lose the argument. They can’t just exploit the taboo and strangeness of gay marriage anymore. The only way they feel they can win is to attack something else.

Categories: Gay Marriage Tags:

“You Don’t Have Sovereign Power Over The English Language”

June 27, 2011 3 comments

Opponents of full civil equality for gay citizens stress the importance of the definition of marriage, but like Judge Perez they don’t seem to have any problem changing the meaning of the word “bigot.” Apologies to those who think it’s too far to compare gay marriage opponents with racists; the above video clearly demonstrates that they only think and argue like racists.

(video via The Daily Dish)

Categories: Gay Marriage Tags:

The Right Side of History

June 24, 2011 5 comments

New York state lawmakers voted 33-29 to legally extend marriage rights same-sex couples. Now the sixth state in America treats its citizens as more important than dogma. Good people across the state of New York won’t allow the godly to settle for bigotry and moral poverty.

God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago. -Senator Ruben Diaz, the lone Democrat opponent

Everyone that fought for this bill should be joyous that we continue to write our own history.

Here are some of my past posts on same-sex marriage. Feel free to search around the blog for others.

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

Judge Walker: A Modern Jeremy Bentham

The Wisdom of Silence

It’s All About Tradition, Right?

(photo: Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times)

Homophones, Homosexuals, and the Essence of Marriage

April 25, 2011 21 comments

Some days I feel a bit radical and think the state should just get out of the whole marriage business altogether – problem solved. But I have some sympathy for the conservative case that state sanction is a useful encouragement of a valuable institution. Then again, would people pushed into marriage by such incentive really be in society’s interest? Regardless, if the state is going hold the official stamp of approval it seems unjust to prohibit same-sex couples from participating.

Previously I praised Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that found that the state has no legal cause to deny homosexuals the right. A reader, Cyberquill, protested that creating a new right was unwarranted given the traditional definition of marriage. We proceeded to have a long debate on the topic in the comments if anyone is brave enough to dive in. Recently he refined his argument and sent us the link. He infuses the argument with a bit more flourish than typical but his argument rests on the standard case that granting the right through courts just opens it up to everybody and dilutes the institution making it essentially meaningless. Thus, if a constitutional right to marriage exists for homosexuals, why not for ketchup bottles? Yes, that’s really his argument, but its reasoning is not that uncommon.

Since marriage itself would remain legal in Connecticut and the laws of the land must apply equally to all, how could it be constitutional to permit marriage for some but not others solely based on who or what they are? What if the law were to ban marriage between Heinz and Heinz but not between Heinz and Hunt’s? And even if it applied to ketchup across the board, marrying ketchup with mustard or mustard with apple sauce would still be allowed.

Samuel Johnson, evil genius?

The provocative and game Cyberquill considers noticing that  “marriage” is a polyseme a profound and meaningful observation. Following his logic, he’d have you believe that we need a constitutional amendment to prevent homonyms from breaking the binding of society. I admire Strunk and White as much as the next guy, but I never thought verbal traditionalism carried such high stakes. As a resident of  Massachusetts, where we love Barney Frank but (apparently) hate Samuel Johnson, I await the linguistic apocalypse.

Until the armageddon, let me tempt the fates further by explaining why traditionalists miss the essence of marriage.  But how is one to decide what properties make up the fundamental components of marriage?  Cyberquill – after partially conceding marriage’s varied history – believes marriage is defined by numbers and gender. Why? I suppose it’s convenient to his argument. It seems he’s confusing marriage’s participants for its properties. Given his fetish for tradition allow me to reach back through history to Plato and Aristotle. They taught us that purpose is the crucial underpinning of nature. Teleology, not lexicography, ties the knot of marriage.

In PGA Tour v Casey Martin, the justices sought to determine the goal of golf in order to decide whether a handicapped golfer should be allowed to untraditionally participate (use a golf cart) in the official tournament. Was walking essential to the sport? More broadly I could ask what relationship the participants themselves have for the purpose of marriage.

If the state has an interest in regulating marriage, we must ascertain what the purpose of marriage is for the state. I return to Judge Walker’s decision. He writes,

The state regulates marriage because marriage creates stable households, which in turn form the basis of a stable, governable populace.

I’ll leave it to lawyers to certify whether that squares with legal precedent, but it appears that the purpose is clear and is relevant to the state interest. Permitting same-sex marriage satisfies that criteria, whereas “automarriage,” condiment matrimony, and other extreme unconventional unions don’t.  Some religiously motivated campaigners might argue procreation defines marriage’s telos. But unless the state were to ban all infertile couples, it seems tailoring the prohibition to gays won’t fit with the Fourteenth Amendment.

Marriage need not be arbitrary or trapped in the inertia of orthodoxy. The union of equality and marriage share a purposeful bond. Although I still might leave ketchup off the wedding menu.

The Wisdom of Silence

August 24, 2010 12 comments

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. 

      Mark Twain 

When Twain made this remark he probably didn’t have American presidents in mind, but it captures an important lesson in an unintended way. Of course, Twain meant that if you’re a fool and you speak, your intellect will be more obvious to others than if you kept your mouth shut. Presidents often aren’t fools (yes, I did just write that) but speaking out even with wise words may be a foolish move. 

Over at The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog, the writer, while staking out an odd position on gay marriage (one I happen to disagree with), observes that “for presidents, words are political actions.”

What would have been the actual political consequences of a decision by Barack Obama to come out in favour of gay marriage in the past year and a half? I don’t think there can be any doubt that such a move would have re-politicised an issue that, remarkably, has become steadily less partisan in recent years. Presidents can’t simply speak their minds. For presidents, words are political actions. A president who voices an opinion without considering the political consequences is acting irresponsibly. Presidents’ voiced opinions about social justice are very sharply constrained by whether voicing those opinions is likely to advance their visions of social justice at that political moment. And that means that presidents’ spoken views on such questions may lag far behind the pace of progressive opinion, and may become much less progressive when they are in power than they were before they were elected.

I happen to believe that Obama speaking out in favor of gay marriage would be beneficial to the cause (and would certainly put him on the right side of history), but it’s not preposterous to think that the opposite effect would result. There is no question that it would further politicize the issue just when a majority of Americans now believe in full marriage rights for gays and lesbians. 

On August 11th Matthew Yglesias wrote a post arguing that often presidential leadership can be counterproductive. He was talking about immigration, but this clearly applies to all issues. He was piggybacking off of Ezra Klein’s post on Francis Lee’s book Beyond Ideology which argues that “presidential positions” increase the partisanship on issues.

[The] American people — and the media — expect a lot of bully pulpit leadership. But that bully pulpit leadership polarizes the other party against the initiative, even when the messaging is effective.

Grasping this dynamic is key to understanding the wisdom of President Obama in not offering his full opinion of the Islamic center near Ground Zero. If anyone has any doubts of the effect, notice how the issue became more polarized when he just commented on the constitutionality of it. This isn’t to say that presidents shouldn’t ever speak out on controversial issues; it is to only notice that “A president who voices an opinion without considering the political consequences is acting irresponsibly.”

Given that, I think it’s unfair for writers on the left, right, and center to blast President Obama for being cowardly for not commenting on the wisdom of the choice or to give his personal opinion. Clive Crook’s latest FT column is a perfect illustration of this. This expands on his previous blog post on what Crook thinks Obama should have said. Of course, all this presumes Obama is, in fact, in favor of the mosque and thinks it is wise. If he thinks it is unwise and insensitive, does Crook still think it’d be unifying? Lee’s research suggests that had Obama spoken out by praising the wisdom of the mosque it would have made the polarization of the issue even worse. If he strongly argued that equating this mosque and Sufi Islam with the Islamic fanatics that attacked the US is completely irrational he would have been skewered for being insensitive to the 9/11 families. 

Presidents’ words also have effects diplomatically. Had Obama given too much sympathy for the sentiments of the 9/11 families by saying that it isn’t completely irrational to feel disgust at putting a mosque so close to the site of a horrendous attack by Islamic terrorists, how would that have played with our Muslim allies? To not consider the unintended consequences would be ill-advised. 

None of this is to argue that presidents shouldn’t take politically unpopular or politically dangerous stands if strong principles are at stake. Commentators just need to recognize the possible effects of a president’s words; after all, a president speaking out may be counterproductive to justice or diplomatic goals and these effects aren’t necessarily going to run in the same direction. Crook or Krauthammer or whoever can plausibly argue that the president should take a stand that they agree with because it is the right thing to do, but to argue that it is cowardly not to or that it would be “unifying” if he did is disingenuous or foolish – on this they’d be better off remaining silent. 



(image: abc news)

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