Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tradition in twilight?

After seventeen years, a policy of national disgrace and hypocrisy is finally on its way to the garbage heap where it belongs.  The so-called straight talker John McCain bemoans overturning what isn’t broken.  Speak of disingenuous hypocrites.  Have we evolved into an America where blatant discrimination and forcing sworn truth-tellers to lie isn’t considered eminently broken?  Apparently sixty-five colleagues of the man who bequeathed us that Alaskan unreality show, thought so.  Many see Saturday’s vote as an encouraging moment for America, I among them.  More so, it was a day of correction too long delayed.  In that, repeal just is another step in addressing the unfinished business of upending some of our once cherished, but long outmoded, traditions.

Weeks earlier, Proposition 8 found itself in another California courtroom.  Digressing a moment, it made for two hours of fascinating TV reinforcing my view that the Supreme Court’s refusal to open itself to such coverage is both wrongheaded and a disservice to democracy.  Whatever you may feel about WikiLeaks, it’s clear that the public has a right to know much more, not much less, about the workings of its government.  Transparency, especially when what’s involved has such an enormous impact on the nation and our lives, is essential.  Watching those three Appellate Jurists engaging with litigants over the fine points of law was fascinating, even uplifting.

What’s been striking since Prop 8 has come to court is that its proponents can’t muster a credible case in favor of denying marriage to same sex couples.  Even the argument that there is such a thing a traditional marriage belies reality.  Real life marriages are so varied, so idiosyncratic, so often unstable that to label them traditional is only to raise a question.  What exactly is that tradition?  However expressed, until death do us part, while sincerely voiced, speaks to an idealistic but often unattainable (even unrealistic) dream.  In that, same sex couples probably have no better odds of success than heterosexuals, but they should have the same dream rights.  No one can predict what the tradition-bound Roberts Court with its originalists will do, but some day this bit of discrimination is bound to come to a legal or de-facto end, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Both Prop 8 and Don’t Ask have their roots in a narrow religious ideology still preached in many places across the country.  As with the opposition to abortion and stem cell research, it’s the totally unsubstantiated God’s Will (or way) argument, the one assumed to trump any reality or logic, which is used most.  Expect greater near term support for this approach among the newbies coming to Washington next month, including renewed attempts to erode the Wall of Separation.  But that may not stand in a country where 25% of the young – theoretically the most likely to join the military, to tie the knot and to control our future — have moved from religion not to it.  Some of their alienation can be tied to what they see as outmoded and meaningless traditions.  The God says argument no longer has the force it once had, if any force at all.   That’s something opponents of same-sex marriage should keep in mind.  Rather than protecting marriage, they might actually be undermining the institution.

As recently reported, civil unions in France are growing in such popularity that they may exceed marriages in the years to come.  As in the United States, they were created (in 1999) to accommodate same-sex couples, a kind of faux marriage aimed at containing any challenges to the traditional one.  There were unintended consequences.  Today for every three marriages in France there are two civil unions and the overwhelming majority of them are between a woman and a man.  In one youth dominated Paris district, civil unions already outnumber marriages.  To be sure, there are some compelling legal advantages to these French civil unions especially in the context of that often-unfulfilled death till us part promise.  But there is reason to believe that moving from religion — the traditional — may be at play as well.  Beware of how you define and thus confine institutions.

The bottom line is that the so-called defense of marriage movement may be no defense at all, perhaps the exact opposite.  Ironically one of its byproducts is that the word tradition has come into disrepute — devalued and tainted rather than cherished.  When many of us were marching for civil rights alongside African Americans, we understood that their inequality ultimately threated the equality of us all.  Denying military service to some Americans because of who they are or withholding marriage from them puts the nation and the ideals for which it claims to stand in jeopardy.  Tradition can be a good thing, but only when it’s inclusive and embracing — when it is an enlightened tradition being revitalized rather than clinging to an outmoded, often irrelevant, past.  Let’s hope that overturning Don’t Ask and then putting an end to discrimination in marriage signals our commitment to forging new and more enduring traditions, ones that carry a universal rather than parochial message. That may be asking too much of those who, as with the truth, see tradition as their exclusive property.  If that’s the case, so be it.   More of us than ever are moving on with or without them.


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