Politics

Survival of the Meekest

SpineYou could say that my reaction to Barack Obama’s interview with Robin Roberts on the topic of same-sex marriage is “evolving.”

What you have to understand is that this has been an ongoing process for me. I had been in the middle of writing a few hundred words trying to articulate my outrage over the White House’s deplorable behavior over the past few days. The Vice President of the United States had made a simple, genuine, and already sufficiently qualified statement that gay people should be able to marry the person they love. And the Obama camp went into overdrive spin control, treating that sincere statement as a gaffe. Oh, that crazy Joe, is the insultingly vapid storyline they chose to perpetuate about an accomplished senator, You never know what he’s going to say next, always going off-script with his wacky ideas about human dignity! They did everything they could to try and roll it back to the same non-position they’ve had for the past few years, all but closing their eyes tightly and wishing the question away.

It was the perfect example of how disillusioned I’ve gotten with the Obama administration and the Democratic party in general, who seem not just willing but eager to capitulate with an increasingly unhinged opposition.

None of us who voted for Obama (and plan to vote for him again, just to be clear) can claim that it’s a case of bait-and-switch. He made the idea of unity and cooperation the recurring theme of his campaign. But it’s a perfect example of something that sounds great in theory but turns out horrible in practice. It’s not rational to entertain an irrational opinion. It’s not equitable to cater to the fringe’s desire to discriminate against other people. If a man says, “I believe we should start dismantling the past 50 years of progress in women’s rights,” it’s not a good thing to respond, “Hang on everybody, calm down, let’s hear what he has to say.”

But in the middle of writing, I heard that the President had made a historic announcement. It was a landmark moment in the history of gay rights. People were saying that they were moved to tears. I read snippets before I could see the actual transcript, and saw mention of his daughters and their friends with same-sex parents. I’d expected an epiphany, an eloquent and sincere statement about the equality of all Americans.

What I saw was a lengthy reminder of how they totally just repealed of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, followed by this:

At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that– for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that– I think same-sex couples should be able to get married. Now– I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has also been I didn’t want to nationalize the issue. There’s a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized.

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.

Now, I’m most definitely not an expert on Constitutional Law or history, but wasn’t Loving v. Virginia, historically, a federal issue, specifically about what’s recognized as a marriage? (Almost ten years between the instigating incident and a Supreme Court decision. Is that really what Obama wants to see repeated?)

I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Robin Roberts now, for having the backbone to break with the past decade of journalistic tradition by actually challenging a statement made by her interview subject, instead of letting it stand:

ROBIN ROBERTS: Well, Mr. President, it’s– it’s not being worked out on the state level. We saw that Tuesday in North Carolina, the 30th state to announce its ban on gay marriage.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well– well– well, what I’m saying is is that different states are coming to different conclusions. But this debate is taking place– at a local level. And I think the whole country is evolving and changing. And– you know, one of the things that I’d like to see is– that a conversation continue in a respectful way.

I think it’s important to recognize that– folks– who– feel very strongly that marriage should be defined narrowly as– between a man and a woman– many of them are not coming at it from a mean-spirited perspective. They’re coming at it because they care about families. And– they– they have a different understanding, in terms of– you know, what the word “marriage” should mean. And I– a bunch of ‘em are friends of mine– you know, pastors and– you know, people who– I deeply respect.

And as hard as I try, I absolutely cannot be convinced that a person’s basic right to equality is a topic on which reasonable people can disagree. Even people you respect can have opinions that are simply wrong.

I’ve been trying to explain the objection to calling it a “state’s rights” issue for years, but I couldn’t possibly do a better job of it than Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ did in less than five minutes:

“It’s ridiculous and offensive that we’re still having this debate.”

I’ve seen people claim that Obama’s statement is huge, no matter what the context was for his making it, because it’s the first time the active President of the United States has publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage. “Look how far we’ve come.” Well, this morning, I turned on one of the burners on my stove, and it lit. I didn’t marvel at how amazing an accomplishment it is that we’ve mastered fire. Later, I got in my car and started it up, and I wasn’t moved to tears at the wonder of the internal combustion engine. After that, I went into a store and while talking with the clerk, I mentioned having a boyfriend. And I didn’t drop to my knees and praise the heavens that nobody ejected me from the store, called me a faggot and started beating me up, or had me arrested for sodomy.

We’re human beings. We’re supposed to be advancing as a society because that’s pretty much our thing. The Stonewall riots were 43 years ago, two years before I was born. It took 21 years for the American Psychiatric Association to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental illness, and they did it 39 years ago. Harvey Milk took office 35 years ago and was assassinated 34 years ago. For more than my entire lifetime, people have been saying “this is bullshit,” and I’m not a young man. When anyone points out that this is a “process,” and uses the decades-long Civil Rights movement or the decades-long-and-still-ongoing Women’s Rights movement as examples, that’s not reassuring. It’s horrifying. It suggests that we’re incapable of learning from past experience. That we need to go through decades of violence and deliberation every time, before people will be able to differentiate right from wrong.

“Hooray! A stranger in Washington has said that after three and a half years sending gay people to fight for their country and having gay people work for him, he no longer believes that their relationships are inferior!” seems to me like a depressingly low bar to set for celebration.

I’ve seen people claim that Obama’s statement was bold and politically risky (including an implication from Obama himself). I don’t believe it was. First, because so many people already believed that he’d taken a stand in favor of gay rights from the start. As the New York Times Caucus blog was live-reporting reactions to the statement, and they quoted several respondents who were surprised that Obama speaking in favor of same-sex marriage was a new thing. I can’t figure out how to link to individual updates on that blog, but I don’t need to: I’ve been seeing it for years. For whatever reason, people have been talking up Obama as a champion of gay rights ever since he was elected.

The second reason I don’t see it as significantly risky is that the number of people who regard same-sex marriage as the defining issue of a Presidential campaign is vanishingly small. I’m as good an example of that as anyone: same-sex marriage is the only political issue I’ve written about at length. It’s an issue that could affect me directly. It’s an issue that could very well save lives, as more people realize they don’t have to commit suicide out of loneliness or because society treats them as inferior. And most significantly, it’s an issue to which there is absolutely no valid rational objection. And yet, in 2008 I voted for a candidate who explicitly said that he was against same-sex marriage.

Of course there’s no way I’d ever vote for Rick Santorum, and his ridiculously offensive statements on the topic are a big part of that. But if Mitt Romney flip-flopped (as if that were possible) and suddenly announced that he was in favor of it, there’s still no way in Hell I’d vote for him, either. And based on everything I’ve read about it, that’s pretty common: few of the people in support of it would change their vote based on that one issue, and few of the people against it were likely to vote for Obama anyway.

There’s been a good bit of comment, including from Roberts in the ABC interview, about how the black and latino population has traditionally been opposed to same-sex marriage and gay rights in general. I say as long as you’re reducing human beings to demographics, why not just come right out and say it: Obama’s no less black now than he was before he made the announcement. If the story you’re trying to tell is that Obama’s election was ensured by black and latino voters, then you’re saying that race was the most important factor for them. Not marriage equality. And if Obama really is courting pastors of predominantly black churches to influence his electorate, he’s given them ample material to frame the issue, since he’s qualified his statements over and over again, and hasn’t changed his actual practical position one bit.

Obama’s policies on gay rights have been at best an example of “Not My Problem.” Make no mistake: the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was absolutely, unquestionably a great thing. As he said in the interview, it’s unconscionable to expect men and women to sacrifice everything for their country while forcing them to hide or disguise their sexual orientation. It also has to be said, though, that it was a move that was long overdue, and that it already had the support of 70% of people in the service.

Saying that it’s not politically risky doesn’t automatically mean that it was politically advantageous. It’s damage control. It’d become necessary for the Obama campaign to claim that he’d taken a firm stand on the issue, and to claim that it was consistent with what he’d been doing throughout his administration. Otherwise, they’d lose their opportunity to take advantage of the “flip-flop” perception of Romney. (Notice that Obama does exactly that in his ABC interview).

The Obama administration has also been getting praise for the decision to no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act. The decision is, of course, a good thing. The praise isn’t. It strikes me as if I took credit for the Grand Canyon because the last time I was in Nevada, I did nothing to stop the Colorado River.

This post on the “Poliglot” blog of MetroWeekly.com says that I’m wrong, and it chastises other blogs for dismissing Obama’s statement as ineffectual. It attempts to explain that leaving the issue to the states to decide isn’t half-assed capitulation, but is actually part of a three-pronged master plan to ensure equality for everyone:

Obama’s position now is three-fold: (1) he personally supports same-sex marriage; (2) he believes as a policy matter that state, and not federal, law should define marriages, as it always has been in this country; and (3) he believes that there are federal constitutional limitations on those state decisions.

The writer fails to mention that (4) He understands that by the time any of these state decisions are challenged by a suit at the state level, appealed, raised to the federal level, appealed, stayed, and then finally advance to the position where those supposed federal constitutional limitations actually take effect, he’ll already have finished his second term, and it will no longer have to be his problem. Remember that Proposition 8 was voted into effect four years ago along with Obama, and it’s still nowhere near making it to the Supreme Court. Maybe if we wait long enough, all the gay people will just naturally die off, and it won’t be an issue anymore!

The best part of that post is the first comment (at the time I’m writing this), from a writer named Darren Hutchinson. “Anyone with a knowledge of US history, however, should know how harmful and dangerous the words ‘states’ rights’ are to civil rights.” Leaving the equality of millions of Americans to the states to decide individually is simply not a “moderate” position. It’s time we started calling it what it is: inaction.

So that’s why, when I say I’m in favor of marriage equality, I’m not going to say “I Stand With Obama.” (And I’m going to continue to be annoyed at those who do). I don’t see how anyone living in California, North Carolina, or any of the other 30 states that have redefined marriage to discriminate against homosexuals, can say that leaving the rights of a minority up to the states to decide is a strong, positive decision.

But while Obama was condescendingly scolding Biden for expressing a genuine sentiment, he made one thing absolutely clear: it’s a personal decision. He doesn’t want to see it politicized, or exploited, and he would’ve preferred to do it “without there being a lot of notice to anybody.”

Of course, his take is better than the alternative. That should go without saying. But here’s the thing: I don’t give a rat’s ass what Romney thinks. I actually care what Obama thinks. Not to decide my vote; of course I’m going to vote for Obama again, just like I did in 2008. And once again it’s not going to matter, since my state has basically already guaranteed all of its electoral votes to the Democratic candidate. My vote is almost completely symbolic, which is convenient because Obama’s campaign was almost completely symbolic. It got us excited about the idea that we’re actually living in a meritocracy — the smartest and most well-spoken candidate could rise above any trivialities like his race, or his unusual name, and become President of the United States simply on the strength of his ideas.

You could say that it’s hypocritical of me to judge Obama for taking so long to come around, when it took me at least 20 years to get comfortable with it. But the difference there is that Obama is a lot smarter than me. That’s why I voted for him. And it just seems like he should’ve known better all along.

So forgetting all the political motivation, campaign-year spin, backpedalling, exploitation, and speculation of what the practical effects will be, what did he actually say?

But– I think it’s important for me– to say to [opponents of same-sex marriage] that as much as I respect ‘em, as much as I understand where they’re coming from– when I meet gay and lesbian couples, when I meet same-sex couples, and I see how caring they are, how much love they have in their hearts, how they’re taking care of their kids. When I hear from them the pain they feel that somehow they are still considered– less than full citizens when it comes to their legal rights– then for me, I think it just has tipped the scales in that direction.
[…]
They’re respectful of religious liberty, that– you know, churches and other faith institutions– are still gonna be able to make determinations about what their sacraments are– what they recognize. But from the perspective of the law and perspective of the state– I think it’s important to say that in this country we’ve always been about fairness. And treating everybody as equals. Or at least that’s been our aspiration.
[…]
It would have been hard for me, knowing– all the friends and family that are gays or lesbians, that for me to say to them, you know, “I voted to oppose you having the same kind of rights and responsibilities that I have.”

And you’d be a fool to argue with any of that.

Biden’s comments seemed genuine to me, and he actually gave credit to Will & Grace for educating Americans on what gay people are really like. I’m not aware of anyone crediting minstrel shows and Amos & Andy for sparking the Civil Rights movement; I’m guessing Biden didn’t watch enough Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to recognize that as a more accurate, positive, portrayal.

But that’s what it eventually comes down to: if I can respect Biden’s statement as genuine even knowing that something so awful helped motivate it, why shouldn’t I be able to ignore political spin and motivation and just accept Obama’s statement as a useful and valid sentiment, delivered to a huge audience, with the weight of the Presidency of the United States? A symbolic message that we’re all equal, from a presidency that derives so much of its strength from symbolism.

If it actually motivates people to evolve enough of a backbone to do something about it, all the better.

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11 thoughts on “Survival of the Meekest

  1. Chuck,

    This is a better place to discuss this than Twitter. I hadn’t seen the Cory Booker statement, which is fantastic, and I completely agree with. And yeah, by contrast, Obama’s statement is pretty mealy-mouthed. But Booker doesn’t have to try to carry North Carolina in November.

    I guess my thinking on this is that it’s always been obvious that Obama supports full civil rights for gay people, but for calculating (and craven) political reasons, didn’t think he could say so publicly. He supported gay marriage in 1996, for God’s sake. You say that it seems like he should have known all along–well, I think he did, or at least since 1996. Now not using the bully pulpit is worth condemning (though he did make an “It Gets Better” video, right?) And pushing him to be on the right side of this issue — well, that’s what just happened, right? But I’d rather have a Lyndon Johnson in office, uninterested in being on the right side in a defeat while simultaneously accomplishing as much as possible. I mean, sure, I’d rather have Corey Booker. But better Johnson than Strom Thurmond. And if some kabuki about evolving on the issue is the price for making real progress, well, let’s pay it.

    I do think you underestimate the difference between people thinking Obama supports gay marriage and giving Karl Rove video footage of Obama saying it, which he can (and will) cut into hundreds of Citizen’s-United political ads and run 24×7 in Ohio and North Carolina and other swing states with a sufficiently bigoted population that they’ll help get the gobshits to the polls. Those ads could have implied that Obama was more gay-friendly than he actually was, before, but they couldn’t outright lie. Now they don’t have to — and that carries a real political price. The issue is not that Obama will lose the black & latino vote. The issue is that the evangelicals will all, every last one, go to the polls because their preachers have been telling them God will destroy the country and make them have the gay marriages they keep thinking obsessively about, for some reason, if they don’t vote.

    Finally, getting rid of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may have been long overdue, but that doesn’t make it less of an accomplishment. Every civil rights advance was long overdue. (By the same token, I don’t think not defending DOMA was as inevitable a decision as you seem to; the Justice Dept. often defends laws the administration ostensibly doesn’t support). I guess what I’d say is this: the moral calculus for these decisions is simple, and mind-bogglingly easy. And that makes anything less than full support seem stupid and craven. But politics is stupid and craven. The more the GOP can mobilize the bigots, the less likely it is that any progress will be made after 2012 — a lot could have happened between 2000 and 2008 that didn’t, because Bush was in the White House.

    It’s obviously much easier for me than you to say, “yeah, but you gotta look at the political costs,” and so on–I realize that. I’m not saying “Look how far we’ve come,” or “You should be grateful!” just to be clear. I just think, based on Obama’s actions, his true position is probably closer to Corey Booker’s than he’s letting on. Anyway if I understand your conclusion correctly, we basically feel the same way about his statement–it’s not earth-shattering, and it should be obvious (and he shouldn’t be saying these things should be voted on) but it’s still a good thing.

  2. Matt,
    If I could consolidate this entire post into what is the one most important point, it would be this: claiming that civil rights issues should be left to states to decide is not a moderate position. We have to stop acting like it is.

    Earlier, I said it was “inaction.” It’s actually worse than that; it’s inaction in the face of clear injustice. I think it’s ridiculous that Obama is getting praise and thanks for making what is practically the same statement Chris Christie was vilified for.

    If you leave the rights of a minority up to a majority vote, the minority loses. If you leave the rights of a minority up to individual states, the minority loses, as their rights change from state to state. That’s not rhetoric, we’ve seen it happen. Not long before NY legalized same-sex marriage, there was a piece in the Times from a woman who’d gotten married to another woman in Vermont, moved to NY, broke up, fell in love with a man, and she couldn’t marry him, because she couldn’t get divorced from a marriage that wasn’t recognized by the state of NY! It’s an untenable position.

    An expert on constitutional law should know that. And no, it might not be fair, but I’ll say it anyway: a black man should know that, and a child of an interracial relationship should know that. And the question might be melodramatic, but it’s still perfectly applicable here, on a smaller scale: where would we be if slavery had been left to the states to decide? The essence of a relationship doesn’t change when the couple crosses state lines, so why should the recognition of it? Anyone who asserts that it’s perfectly valid to leave this to individual states is either ignorant or lying. Obama isn’t ignorant. That’s what I mean when I say that Obama should know better.

    I guess my thinking on this is that it’s always been obvious that Obama supports full civil rights for gay people, but for calculating (and craven) political reasons, didn’t think he could say so publicly. He supported gay marriage in 1996, for God’s sake. You say that it seems like he should have known all along–well, I think he did, or at least since 1996. […] I just think, based on Obama’s actions, his true position is probably closer to Corey Booker’s than he’s letting on.

    Here is a timeline of Obama’s “evolution” on the topic of same-sex marriage. I think you’re projecting beliefs onto Obama that not only has he never shown evidence of having, but he’s been actively denying for years. Between 2004 and last Tuesday, his campaign and his administration have taken every opportunity possible to make it absolutely clear: he’s against same-sex marriage.

    While running for senate, according to that timeline, he said that he doesn’t believe marriage is a civil right. I would genuinely like to hear any rational defense of that belief.

    Also, again I can’t find the link anymore, but someone pointed out that the issue of same-sex marriage is the only one in which Obama claims to have an anti-federalist position. For just one instance, he’s got absolutely no qualms in backing federally-mandated health care.

    Now not using the bully pulpit is worth condemning (though he did make an “It Gets Better” video, right?)

    Have you watched it? It’s an anti-bullying message. (At least Biden’s compared homosexuality to his own stuttering problem, which made it seem less robotic). It’s as generic a message as you can possibly make without ending up with a Disney film. He talks about not discriminating against people while his administration was speaking out repeatedly in favor of a discriminatory policy against homosexuals.

    And pushing him to be on the right side of this issue — well, that’s what just happened, right? But I’d rather have a Lyndon Johnson in office, uninterested in being on the right side in a defeat while simultaneously accomplishing as much as possible. I mean, sure, I’d rather have Corey Booker. But better Johnson than Strom Thurmond. And if some kabuki about evolving on the issue is the price for making real progress, well, let’s pay it.

    The parts of his statement that I quoted at the end of the post above speak out on the right side of this issue. Practically every other word he said on the topic, however, is almost verbatim the same terminology that same-sex marriage opponents use to justify introducing constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in state after state. Different conclusions. Healthy debate. Has to happen at a local level. People aren’t doing it out of malice (or homophobia). We have to respect everyone’s opinions. No one with intelligence or backbone has a responsibility to “respect” opinions that are wrong, they have the responsibility to correct them.

    You say that it’s all the price of making progress. In 2008, CA wrote bigotry into the state constitution. In 2012, NC did even worse, restricting civil unions as well. Everything Obama said regarding policy in that interview says that this is exactly how the system is supposed to work. Where is the progress, exactly?

    I do think you underestimate the difference between people thinking Obama supports gay marriage and giving Karl Rove video footage of Obama saying it, which he can (and will) cut into hundreds of Citizen’s-United political ads and run 24×7 in Ohio and North Carolina and other swing states with a sufficiently bigoted population that they’ll help get the gobshits to the polls. […] The issue is not that Obama will lose the black & latino vote. The issue is that the evangelicals will all, every last one, go to the polls because their preachers have been telling them God will destroy the country and make them have the gay marriages they keep thinking obsessively about, for some reason, if they don’t vote.

    So we’re supposed to believe that there’s a significant demographic of evangelical gobshits who are swayed by FOX News and Karl Rove-driven GOP ads, who were going to vote for Barack Hussein Obama? Seriously?

    The only way I’d even entertain the idea that this was politically risky is if you could present some demographic of Obama supporters who would suddenly be turned away by a half-assed and heavily-qualified support of same-sex marriage. This group of gullible evangelicals you’re talking about don’t cut it — they’re still convinced he’s Muslim. The only reason I even mentioned blacks and latinos is because the analysts who point to the high voter turn-out and support for Obama in the 2008 election still aren’t quite sure whether race or gay marriage is the defining issue for them.

    The Daily Show had the best take on it, when they showed all of the reactions on FOX News (even including the execrable and moral compass-free Michelle Malkin) complaining that the announcement was opportunistic. Not that it was a violation of the natural law that will destroy the moral fiber of the country. In fact, only Limbaugh, out of all the bullshit blowhard responses that I’ve seen, tried to take the tack of fear-mongering about the institution of marriage being under attack.

    Let that sink in: even FOX has figured out which way the wind is blowing, and they’ve begun to realize that there’s not much life left in bigoted, apocalyptic talk about pedophilia or men wanting to marry their dogs. It hurts them more than it helps. They’ve already demonstrated that if they use this at all, they’re going to use it to portray Obama as inconsistent and opportunistic, and they’ll mock his use of the word “evolution.”

    I guess what I’d say is this: the moral calculus for these decisions is simple, and mind-bogglingly easy. And that makes anything less than full support seem stupid and craven. But politics is stupid and craven. The more the GOP can mobilize the bigots, the less likely it is that any progress will be made after 2012 — a lot could have happened between 2000 and 2008 that didn’t, because Bush was in the White House. […] I just think, based on Obama’s actions, his true position is probably closer to Corey Booker’s than he’s letting on. Anyway if I understand your conclusion correctly, we basically feel the same way about his statement–it’s not earth-shattering, and it should be obvious (and he shouldn’t be saying these things should be voted on) but it’s still a good thing.

    But I think that it sounds like you want it both ways: it’s both an important symbolic statement, and an unfortunately necessary example of political theater. I say that it simply can’t be both.

    Insincerity robs a statement of its symbolism. If you have to take everything a politician says and run it through the filter of political strategy, staying on message, possible motivation for saying it, possible repercussions for saying it, how is it going to play to the swing voters — at that point, you can’t take any of it as genuine. You can only look at it as a statement of policy. Obama’s “message” says one thing, his policy says the opposite. I don’t know on what “actions” of Obama’s that you’re basing the belief that his true position is the same as Booker’s: he’s actually said the opposite. “I continue to believe this is an issue that’s going to be worked out at the local level.”

    Booker’s talking about referendums and popular votes in particular, and he doesn’t explicitly talk about it in terms of “states’ rights” vs federalism. But it would take uncharacteristically tortured logic to say that it’s wrong to make a person a 2nd class citizen based on the opinions of a majority of voters, but it’s perfectly fine for a person to be a 2nd class citizen in 30 states, a full citizen in 8, and of some indeterminate status in the rest.

    And what’s the most galling is that Obama’s campaign — the reason I gladly voted for him, instead of begrudgingly voting for him as I did with Kerry — was full of the sentiment that political machinations were bullshit. He gave one eloquent speech after another, all talking about unity, bipartisanship, equality, and hope. Saying “Yes! ‘Hope’ plays well to the disillusioned 18-24 demographic” robs that of all its meaning.

    Yes, it’s great that Obama issued a statement that same-sex couples should be able to get married. The bit I quoted at the end hits all the right points: it’s about creating families, not threatening them; it’s not a threat to religious freedom; many gay couples have children; and civil unions aren’t sufficient because it’s fundamentally an issue of equality, not just marriage.

    But by the looks of my web stats and what links readers are following, nobody got what I was saying when I pointed out that Obama said he didn’t want his statement politicized, exploited, or turned into some type of big issue for everybody. And that’s a shame, because here’s how he didn’t want it politicized (released on YouTube immediately after the announcement), this is how he didn’t want it exploited (promoted to the top of the campaign page on the day of the announcement), and this is intended to make sure that it’s done without a lot of hoopla or notice.

    I was being absolutely sincere when I said that I care what Obama thinks. Believe me, I would love to be able to believe that this was a sincere and genuine statement. Even if I still thought his actual policies were bullshit, just having that statement out there would have some kind of symbolic value. But the eagerness and swiftness of his campaign to capitalize on it won’t even let me have that. And forcing Biden to apologize for raising the issue at all just robs the entire spectacle of any meaning. It replaces the statement with a different statement: “Stop whining about your so-called ‘civil rights’ and just give us money.”

  3. Making it clear that I don’t agree with Andrew Sullivan on the particulars of this issue, a couple of useful links from his blog:

    First, a demonstration of how anti-gay fear-mongering is losing its value to the GOP. (the heart of that is essentially Obama’s position, not Romney’s)

    And between these two discussions equating Obama’s stand here to LBJ’s stand, I agree almost completely with Jonathan Chait’s description:

    The Johnson comparison is pretty nuts. Johnson’s primary contribution to the civil-rights cause was to pass a federal law. The need to pass a federal law was the central problem of the civil-rights crusade, and the barriers to passing such a law in Congress had been the main impediment to the cause for two decades.
    Obama has not passed or even proposed a law. The gay rights question remains a state matter. That’s exactly why Obama was able to maintain his obviously insincere formal opposition to gay marriage for so long — because his formal endorsement had no practical consequences.
    Now, symbolically, it matters. Obama’s imprimatur will probably hasten Democratic loyalists who don’t accept gay marriage — and there are a lot of them — into more readily accepting it.

    Sullivan responds, “But he has withdrawn the DOJ’s defense of DOMA.” But that does nothing except emphasize the idea that it’s an issue that should be handled at the state level. Which is exactly the defense that’s been used to rationalize every single state referendum to write discrimination into states’ constitutions.

    Of course it’s nice when a person says, “I believe gay people have every right to be married as heterosexual couples.” Unless you do something to back it up, though, there’s no appreciable difference between saying it on ABC News and saying it in a Facebook status update.

    For years I believed that debating the topic with strangers on the internet was constructive, because at the very least I was helping fight misconceptions. And over the years, the “it’s wrong and unnatural!!” comments slowly started to dwindle; for some reason, people who have no problem spouting homophobic sentiment absolutely hate being called homophobic. But it didn’t go away; instead it’s turned into one of two things: 1) “Look, I’m totally in support of gay rights. I just believe that… some variation on the argument that’s totally not in support of gay rights.” or 2) “This is what I believe, and I’m entitled to my opinion.” That’s what passes for civil debate these days. Obama’s statement is a classic example of (1).

    And putting so much emphasis on its symbolic value as a statement from a sitting president is just a facilitation of (2). Changing “hearts and minds” simply doesn’t work. If we accept that the opinion of the person saying “I’m in favor of gay rights!” makes a difference, then we have to accept that the opinion of the person saying “I can’t condone it” is equally valid. It’s not. Somebody has to step in and say no, your opinion doesn’t trump my opinion when it comes to my equality. Because it’s not about opinion.

  4. You’ve convinced me that doing this state-by-state is not a moderate position. I was actually going to send you the Republican strategy memo that you linked below, because the more I see, the more I think you’re right, that there won’t be that great a political cost for this. But to clarify one thing:

    “So we’re supposed to believe that there’s a significant demographic of evangelical gobshits who are swayed by FOX News and Karl Rove-driven GOP ads, who were going to vote for Barack Hussein Obama? Seriously?”

    Of course not. But it’s not unreasonable to think there’s a significant demographic of evangelical gobshits who weren’t enthusiastic about voting for Mitt “Jesus-In-Missouri” Romney who will now drag themselves to the polls to show the world how bigoted they are. That’s was the theory behind the anti-gay amendments in 2004, right? They got people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t have, and once they were lured to the ballot box, they naturally voted Republican? (I’m aware there’s a debate over whether or not that’s actually what happened; I’m just saying that was the theory behind it.) I wasn’t saying anyone’s mind would be changed, I was just saying it might affect turnout, especially since Romney was not the first choice of the evangelicals. But if Republican pollsters are starting to think they can’t win on this strategy any more, then first of all yay, and second, I’m wrong about Obama paying a huge political cost.

    Obama using this as a fundraising thing is, yeah, a bit like the HRC bullshit Sullivan is always going on about, tasteless and tacky and not entirely earned. He may have done more for gay civil rights than any other President so far (an execrably low bar to clear, but if you don’t think he’s cleared it, who do you think has done more?) but he’s not the great liberator. Although I have no problem at all with the ad where he contrasts himself with Romney, because obviously in comparison he’s MLK, Jr.

    Re: the last paragraph, I do think that to some extent you can have it both ways on a statement like this, because what will trickle down to high schoolers, low-information voters, and non-voters is “the President supports gay marriage, full stop.” And that matters, doesn’t it? I don’t think, at that level of discourse, people will say, “Yeah, but he supported doing it state by state, and it took him forever to get to that point publically, and who knows if he was being sincere or just trying to wring more money from wealthy gay donors?”

    At the same time, surely publically coming out in favor of the correct solution to this issue (a law or amendment or court decision legalizing gay marriage on a national scale) has the potential to be politically disastrous. If that large a percentage of NC voters would vote for something so horrible, a public statement that the federal government should overturn that decision would, I think, hand the election to Romney. Because once you get into those specifics, state-level Democrats will start running away. But I’ll be disappointed if we don’t see further “evolution” in his second term, or in November. Like you said, he’s either ignorant or lying and he’s not ignorant.

  5. That’s a very good point about voter turnout, which I hadn’t been considering. When analysts where trying to make sense of the 2008 election, the significance of the black and latino vote wasn’t just that they voted for Obama, it was that voter turnout was higher than it’d been for other elections.

    If that’s the case, it is possible that it could still have legs as something to encourage apathetic or cynical voters to show up and vote. The only reason this still has as much attention as it does is that it’s so easy to frame as a simple, easy-to-digest ideological/moral debate, which is harder to do for the economy. Realistically, it should be a non-issue: it directly affects such a small part of the population, and it’s a slam-dunk by any rational definition. You wouldn’t have so many people claiming that it’s a nuanced, complicated issue with lots of gray area if it didn’t have value as a “wedge issue”, tricking people into thinking they were standing up for their beliefs, instead of just passing arbitrary judgment against a minority.

    I’m still inclined to think that the people who’d be fired up to go to the polls to take a stand against the homosexual lifestyle, would be more turned off at the idea of voting for a Mormon. But that may just be another case of over-simplified stereotyping.

    And I’m still uncomfortable even with the idea of saying that Obama has done more for gay rights than any other President. It’s more that he’s done less to oppose gay rights. Which is why seeing the huge billboard over the health clinic in the Castro this morning — THANK YOU OBAMA! in big letters — just further annoys and frustrates me. Obama said, essentially, that he disagrees with Prop 8 in principle but still believes that the system worked exactly as it’s supposed to. And all the people who were in tears at the injustice of it are now saying that they’re thankful for it, almost as if that’s the best they deserve.

    Trying to articulate exactly why it annoys me so much has made me realize that the past 6-7 years have basically destroyed my trust in people. I used to take people’s arguments at face value; now it just seems like nothing more than stalling tactics or at best, apathy. “This is what I believe” used to be important; now, it always takes the form “This is what I believe, and I won’t do anything about it,” or “This is what I believe, and no rational argument will convince me otherwise.” And since public opinion has changed to the point that even the GOP is starting to realize they can’t capitalize on anti-gay sentiment, but anti-gay rights referendums are still getting passed with pretty much the same frequency, it seems like plenty of people are saying “This is what I believe” and then going to the polls and secretly voting the opposite.

    And again, what made me enthusiastic about voting for Obama, as opposed to just begrudgingly voting for Kerry, was the ideal of getting away from that, using plain talk to address everything instead of spin, and getting at the facts instead of passion or dogma. I wish it were possible to just take Obama’s statement as a good thing just on its own merits. Again, a lot of people, especially younger people, will be reassured by the message and end up being less afraid. But when it’s impossible to defend the policy other than by talking about being politically savvy, or saying it’s better than most, then for me it destroys the idea that anyone’s being honest anymore. I’m just no longer confident that there’s going to be any justice around this issue in my lifetime. And it seems so unnecessary.

  6. I hope you don’t take what I’m saying as “This is what I believe, and I won’t do anything about it.” It’s more like “This is what I believe, and I expect politicians I support to do everything they can to move the ball down the court, short of self-immolating and putting Republicans in office.” Which certainly doesn’t mean those politicians deserve thank you banners. But if we end up with a Republicans controlling the White House and both houses of Congress in the middle of an economic downturn, I think we’ll all be more worried about Splicer attacks than marriage.

    It’s difficult to talk about this stuff without sounding like a member of the Church of the Savvy, but surely you lost faith in politicians before 2005-2006? The Bush v. Gore opinion was the last nail in the coffin for me; I used to think the Supreme Court was the one branch that basically argued in good faith, instead of finding ways to justify their preferred policy goals. I know what you mean, though–Obama, as candidate, seemed to be promising to basically step away from bad faith arguments, but as president hasn’t done that. (If I hear one more statement about how the government needs to tighten its belt in hard economic times, just like American families I’m going to puke, then assume the metaphor goes both ways and start printing my own currency.)

    Unfortunately I do think mouth-breathers are more likely to turn out to vote against gays than they are to stay home instead of vote for a Mormon. They don’t beat up Mormons in high school, or pray outside Mormon tabernacles, or faint and moan about their kids being recruited by Mormons. Unless you are blogging from Missouri in the 1830s. In which case I highly recommend relocating to California before 1860.

    As far as justice around this issue in your lifetime, I guess it depends what you mean by “justice” and how long you live, but game it out. If we don’t have gay marriage in California within a couple of years I’ll be amazed, either because of a Prop 8 decision affirming the 9th circuit or because of another proposition in 2014 . I would bet that, if Obama is reelected, one of the issues in the 2016 Presidential election will be federal recognition of gay marriage (for taxes, federal law, &c.) in the states that recognize them. Once that happens (and it will) we’re one court case away from national. So even if we assumed gay marriage didn’t become any more popular than it is right now, the worst case scenario is what, 2014 for California, 2025 for Alabama? But the fact is, even with the lag between polling and the way people are actually voting, gay marriage is becoming more popular by leaps and bounds, so I don’t think it will take anywhere near that long to pass on a national level. Ten years? Even in the worst case scenario, I expect you’ll be around to see it.

  7. Avistew says:

    I had a similar reaction when I heard about it. Not as strong as yours, I’m sure, as I’m neither gay nor American, but basically I read about it, saw a short clip video and thought “so, what does it change?”
    Even the very short clip was obviously Obama saying “I personally think people should be able to marry someone of the same sex… but I’m not going to do anything about it. You know, it’s just my personal opinion”.

    When people started praising him, I tried to understand what the big deal was. People said it’s the first time a US President has stated his support for marriage equality. Maybe the symbolism is important to them because now, people might be able to state publicly that they’re in favour of it, rather than have to hide it to have a chance to be elected.
    If that’s the case, I find it pretty sad. The personal opinion of political figures should not matter. I wish the President was able to make a statement to that effect. Even if he was against it. I would have preferred if he had said “I’m not comfortable with homosexuality. But what I think doesn’t matter. What individuals think doesn’t matter, no matter how prominent they are. What matters is that human beings should be treated equally. So I’m going to pass marriage equality into the law, because what matters isn’t my personal feelings, it’s not my comfort level, what matters is that I’m the President of all Americans, regardless of religion, sex, race or sexual orientation, and I owe it to them to give them all the same rights.”

    It might sound ridiculous that someone who isn’t comfortable with homosexuality would put his personal feelings aside and make same-sex marriage legal, just because it’s right and fair. But Obama basically did the opposite. He stated his personal feelings, and then put them aside, in favour of injustice.

    Now, he’s running for President while openly for gay rights, and I hope he gets elected. But I’m not convinced it will make a huge difference if he still insists on doing nothing about it. Maybe some people will feel like they have an ally at the White House, but will it really helps? If you’re being bullied, does it actually help to have a friend sit idly if you know that in their heart, they’re on your side? I’m not convinced. Maybe you’ll feel a little bit less lonely knowing that you have some silent support, but they’re still a lousy friend.

  8. I agree pretty much completely, and I think you hit on exactly what it is that bugged me so much about the reaction to the statement: I would rather have Obama (who’s frequently described as an expert on Constitutional law) say that he’s personally against marriage equality but that to deny it to homosexual couples is irrational and unconstitutional; than to say that he’s personally for it but he’ll do nothing about it.

    Of course, it shouldn’t matter what a politician thinks, but it did to some degree for Americans (especially liberal/progressive-minded Americans) with Obama, since his campaign relied so much on symbolism and so much on him being the opposite of Bush — not just Democrat vs. Republican, but an intelligent and well-spoken man from a modest background vs. well, Bush. The fact that he’s black and has an unusual name just sealed the image of a President who was going to be progressive and all-inclusive, even before he made any of his speeches. It’s been clear from the past 3 years that he’s more interested in capitulation than being actually progressive, and of course I’ve been completely against his stand against marriage equality from the start. But this statement — election year damage control dressed up as a victory in gay rights history — effectively killed the last bit of me that cared whether he was on “my side” or not. I just want to see fair policy put into place; he can take his opinions with him when he goes away at the end of his second term.

  9. I’m definitely not accusing you of being on the wrong side of history or anything. But as for “doing anything about it,” I think it’s the opposite of political savvy to pretend that we, as left-leaning residents of California, even can do much about it. Even with the Prop 8 surprise, it’s still a foregone conclusion that our electoral votes are going to Obama; after all, if you believe the post-election analysts, one of the main reasons Prop 8 passed is because it got an unprecedented turn-out from traditionally anti-gay black voters. I’ll accept the idea that evangelicals may be more passionately anti-gay than anti-Mormon, but I won’t accept the idea that minorities will believe Romney will do more for them than Obama will.

    If anything, I’m (mostly jokingly) accusing you of being an enabler, for perpetuating the idea that a toothless, heavily qualified, damage control PR interview on ABC News (which was even there quickly followed by a “let’s get onto serious issues”) counts as a powerfully symbolic statement. And I still insist that if you’re judging it on its merit as a symbolic statement of principle, you cannot bring questions of political risk into it — it’s either a statement of conviction, or it’s a sound bite. It can’t be both. If you’re judging it on its merit as a platform or a statement of policy, well good luck, because there is no policy to back it up.

    In response to avistew’s comment, I started looking for quotes that betrayed LBJ as at least a little bit racist, as a pithy example of “I’d rather have someone say this and institute a federal policy against discrimination, than the opposite.” The problem was that all the LBJ quotes re the Civil Rights Act that I could find online were powerful statements in favor of equality, including a condemnation of the KKK. (And he didn’t need to talk about his daughters’ black friends to make them). So the comparison between Obama’s interview and LBJ are even more laughable.

    And I lost faith in politics a while back, but not in politicians. Once you’ve detached yourself from the idea that people with good intentions can work within and/or change the system, you might as well stop pretending to be engaged at all, and acknowledge that you’re only looking at it as a game. (Which is why I believe that defending Obama’s statement by talking about its political fallout isn’t a defense at all, but an accusation). I’ve prided myself on being able to distinguish BS like Sarah Palin’s desperate attempts to portray John Cain as a maverick outsider from someone who’s genuinely interested in making a difference. And I thought Obama genuinely was a man of conviction — he made it clear up front that he wasn’t as interested in being progressive as he was in backing the country away from the ridiculously polarized partisanship it’d fallen into after the Bush & Clinton years. (Or I guess more accurately, the Karl Rove years).

    And by “justice” I mean marriage equality in particular, but civil rights in general. I’ve been calling it “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage” all this time (since the law doesn’t ask people if they’re in love before it gives them a marriage license, so technically two straight guys should be able to get a license, even though that violates the spirit of the institution). But really I should’ve been calling it marriage equality, since that’s what I mean when I say that there’s no rational objection: the law doesn’t make any demands on heterosexual couples for civil marriage that would disqualify homosexual couples. The end result, of course, is a victory for gay rights, but in the eyes of the law, discrimination based on genitalia is patently unjust.

    Which is relevant because for the longest time after I came out, I felt like I was obligated to help other people from having to go through the same BS, which I thought meant winning “hearts and minds.” I used to believe I was in some unique position to say, “Yes, I believed in all these stereotypes, and I thought it was a big, scary deal, and I thought it was incompatible with religious belief, and here are all the ways that I was wrong.”

    But over time, I’ve realized that a) it doesn’t do much good, if any; and 2) it’s unnecessary. We obviously didn’t end racism before the Civil Rights Act was passed. We obviously didn’t end sexism before the 19th Amendment was ratified. Nobody should have to give a rat’s ass whether gay marriage is becoming more popular, and nobody should have to care what other people think of them before they can get a civil marriage license. I don’t believe anything short of policy at the federal level is going to achieve that. If Romney (and Bush) can pledge a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, then Obama (or Democratic Candidate 2016) can propose one protecting it.

    Until then, it’s a blatant case of unfair law that’s been used as a bargaining chip for decades, and it’s been met with nothing but stalling tactics and empty promises that it’ll happen when enough people get comfortable with it. I like to think that even if I weren’t a homo I’d still be appalled at seeing such an unfair policy kept in place. And I’d be disgusted that a President talks about the need to be considerate of people’s religious beliefs when we’re talking about United States law, and I’d be disgusted that anyone would say it’s an issue that’s best left to the majority vote.

  10. The thing about black anti-gay voters and Prop 8, I don’t think holds up. It might be the case that if no blacks voted, the amendment wouldn’t pass–but by the same token, if no men voted, it wouldn’t pass, and you don’t see people claiming that high male turnout was the problem.

    The comparison to LBJ is not to the LBJ who was pushing for the Civil Rights Act as President (while running against Goldwater and Wallace right after the Kennedy assassination; let’s just say Johnson wasn’t running too much of a personal political risk, regardless of what he did to the Democratic party.) The comparison is to the LBJ of the Senate, who went far further than Obama ever has–he was a race-baiter, whose first major Senate speech was a defense of the filibuster’s use to strike down Truman’s proposed anti-lynching act. (Read about it starting at the bottom of the page here.) This is the guy who sent Eisenhower’s 1957 civil rights bill to a committee headed by James Eastand to have all of the enforcement provisions pulled out. The result was that LBJ got to say he’d passed civil rights legislation while in the senate without actually pissing off any Southern Democrats. He pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and spoke eloquently in its favor, because he thought he could get it passed. (And he got it passed, and it was a huge deal!) But he didn’t do anything to hurt his political chances in 1949 or 1957. Anyway, to be clear, that’s the comparison, and if anything Obama will come out looking better if he gets anything important done in his second term; he never won an election by smearing gays, while Johnson used racism to ingratiate himself with powerful Southern Democrats and build his own political power. (And that power is what allowed him to jam through the Civil Rights Act as President, and around and around we go.)

    I agree with the rest of what you’re saying; I just wanted the point of the Johnson comparison to be clear.

  11. Oh, one more thing: the point of Johnson in 1949 and 1957 was that Truman’s anti-lynching bill wasn’t going to pass, no matter what Johnson did, nor was Eisenhower’s in 1957 (without some major changes). It’s not that Johnson scuttled these bills, it’s that since whatever he did wouldn’t affect the outcome, he played them to his own advantage rather than be on the right side of a losing issue. When he thought he could win by being on the right side, he fought like a maniac.

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