A Thought On Gay Marriage In Maine

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From Rod:

Unless I'm missing something, in the 31 states in which voters had a say on whether or not gay marriage was going to be the law of the land, they all rejected it. Every single state. Even California, the national bellwether state on liberalizing social trends. Even Maine, in the most liberal region of the country.

You can come up with all kinds of theories about why this is, blaming the voters for being bigots, accuse the churches of playing dirty, whatever. The plain fact is, every single time it's been put to a popular vote (as opposed to allowing a tiny number of elites to vote on it), gay marriage has been a loser.

Do I think it always will be? No, I do not, in part because homosexuality is far more accepted by young Americans, and in part because heterosexual America has already conceded the philosophical grounds on which traditional marriage was based (which is why younger Americans are more comfortable with gay marriage). Nor do I believe that the voters are always right. But unless you're prepared to call more than half the country bigots -- and I have no doubt that many, perhaps most, gay marriage supporters are, and let that self-serving explanation suffice -- maybe, just maybe, you ought to ask yourself if there's something else going on here. And that maybe, just maybe, serious attention should be paid, instead of paying attention long enough to insult people who disagree with you as evil people who deserved to be excoriated and harrassed.

I probably wouldn't use the word "bigot." I don't think, for instance, that half this country thinks hate crimes against gays is a good thing. But I have no problem believing that half the country--maybe more--is deeply prejudiced against gays. This generally fits into my view of all -isms. I think prejudice is part of who we are as humans, and thus as Americans. Following from that, I think prejudice is one of the many forces that influence how we vote. Hence the notion that half this country is deeply prejudiced against gays really doesn't shock me. 

The obvious parallel is civil rights. It's quite clear to me that Jim Crow in the South could not have been struck down by a majority vote; interracial marriage was banned in Alabama until 2000, and even then, some 40 percent of Alabamans voted to keep it. It's quite clear to me that Jim Crow in the North, enforced through housing segregation, restrictive covenants, block-busting realtors, and the federal government red-lining could not have been defeated by a majority vote.

But more than that, the sense that prejudice is actually not a common and potent force among straight people today, and white people then, that the group intent on discriminating is "essentially good" is the most remarkable parallel. Rod believes that most of the people voting against gay marriage aren't prejudiced against gay people per se. That reminds me of  National Review, in 1957 arguing that most of the people intent on preventing blacks from voting weren't actually anti-black:

The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

Thus those who are known to be primarily motivated by ethnic prejudice were, in their time, seen by conservatives as guardians of civilization. Likewise heterosexuals now are presumed to be about something more than base prejudice.

Conservatives pride themselves on their skepticism, and generally dismiss liberals as soft-headed Utopians. But in so many ways, political conservatism is Utopianism for the powerful. It isn't broadly skeptical of human nature, so much as it's broadly skeptical of people its agents don't particularly like. Hence the sense that Americans are intrinsically "good people," that this country "is the best nation that ever existed in history," that the South is home to "the greatest people that have ever trod the earth," and that the murder of four little girls in Birmingham was the work of a "Communist" or "crazed Negro," which had "set back the cause of white people."

Hence the notion that those voting against gay marriage, are not actually, in the main, motivated by bigotry, but a belief in tradition and family. But very few people would actually ever describe themselves as bigots. We think we know so much about ourselves. This is a country--like many countries--which is deeply riven by ethnic bias, and gender discrimination. And yet we don't seem to know any of the agents of that discrimination.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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