Monday, October 20, 2008

Is Gay Marriage in California an Obama Issue?

Proposition 8 is a ballot initiative in California which would repeal same sex marriage laws now on the books. If people vote "yes," the right for same sex couples to marry will be taken away. The fight for gay marriage in California, as for gay rights in general, has been a messy, confusing affair, not so much "two steps forward, one step back," as having the bases loaded and yet never quite crossing the plate. What one has in California as a result is the most vibrant, confident, and politically active Gay Community in the world . . . and they are frustrated.

They are frustrated because all of the hard earned gains of the past fifty years amount to a hodgepodge of court decisions, statutes and acceptance of local customs which are always overtly under threat by conservative activism. As with Slavery in the 19th century, whatever decision a municipality or state makes is not truly final; each local decision is actually a chess move in an as-yet unresolved national struggle. Of course, Gay Rights activists are angry that they have to fight for their rights at all: as they see it, there shouldn't have to be a special struggle to assert their full citizenship.

As with so many national controversies, the rather disingenuous default compromise is to let states decide the details while leaving the overarching philosophical issue undecided. As a matter of historical record, this approach has proved unsatisfactory for a host of reasons, constitutional as well as ethical. But as the culture wars grind on with the exasperating stamina of a Mexican revolution, the idea that we can defer answering these questions indefinitely is irresponsible. Proposition 8 has become a national issue, and socially conservative activists are pointing to the results of gay marriage in Massachusetts to sound increasingly shrill alarms. The war is being fought nationally, the battles only seem local. But how will peace come to the land?

Andrew Sullivan is right that Proposition 8 needs a big endorsement. It is far from certain to be defeated. But is it wise for Obama to become the Gay Rights candidate after Joe Biden famously parsed the issue during the vice presidential debate? As SNL parodied the lawyerly response, Biden was enthusiastic in his support for gay rights, up to and including civil unions, but jarringly said no to gay marriage. It was funny. But it shows a potential weakness in what has yet to be established as the new concensus. Obama's carefully crafted new-middle-ground positions on everything from abortion to gun control are masterpieces of live-and-let-live liberalism. Mr. Sullivan apparently believes these positions are a matter of expediency rather than the result of an evolution. He may be right, but many voters will feel betrayed if an Obama candidacy which seemed predicated on flanking entrenched partisan positions was in fact a Trojan Horse.

This historical moment is not unique because of all the divergent ethical galaxies we observe; on the contrary, Human history has been the story of their divergence and occasional friction. Our time is utterly unique in the collision of all ethical systems at once. Saudis are constantly confronted with a world culture utterly at odds with their own; a senior Saudi cleric even recently condemned the Olympics. Yurts in Chinese Turkestan, the most landlocked region in the world, have satellite dishes (I know. I've seen them.) Sporadically, gay marriage is popping up all over the Western World, even on tiny Greek islands. Revolutions in technology and travel mean that regions which were once isolated, or which could maintain a sense of isolation, are now always in the presence of the global community. There is no po-dunk town or swamp village anywhere on the planet that is not now a suburb of Babylon. In no single country is the whole range of issues, the full import of the new configuration and its attendant struggles, being played out more publicly -- and peacefully -- than the United States. With respect to Mr. Sullivan, perhaps Obama's greatest contribution to Gay Rights will be to usher in a new politics which takes this new global reality into account.