The Bible says that Solomon had 700 wives. David had wives too numerous to number. And Gideon had so many one wonders when he had time to practice with his trumpet.
These Biblical characters came to mind as I listened to people campaigning for a November ballot measure to overturn the California Supreme Court’s decision to strike down discrimination against same sex marriage.
People calling themselves “defenders of marriage” have qualified a ballot measure to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision. Their campaign will be built around the claim of ‘defending the institution of marriage’ by changing our State Constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman – “the way God intended.”
I’m no Bible scholar and I can’t seem to find a single passage in the Bible, Old Testament or New, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. I can’t help wondering whether some of these outspoken folks wouldn’t want to toss Solomon or David or Gideon into prison for their lifestyles. They could form a new group: Compassionate Conservatives for Convicting the Patriarchs (CCCP).
This campaign may seem ludicrous to any thoughtful reader. But it’s not a new idea, and it has been a successful basis for bigotry in the past. Most people know that marriage between black and white people was long banned in many states. The claim was always that such marriages would “mongrelize” the white race and lower our human abilities. Prohibiting such marriages protected the nobler, more advanced (ie: white) humans.
Not as many people know that California also protected the white race from mongrelization by prohibiting marriage between whites and the “heathen Chinese.” This policy also was to protect the white race. Today, when anti-asian bigotry is usually found in group characterizations like “they all study too hard”, and “they’re taking over our universities”, it’s hard to imagine decades when the law held that asian-white intermarriage would degrade human progress. But that was the law here in California.
Scientific knowledge has nothing to do with such bigotry. The concept of “heathen Chinese” shares the same roots as Howard Cosell calling a black athletic star “a little monkey.” It is the same as ‘knowing’ that all Jews are good at business or banking; all ‘beaners’ are good for is manual labor; and that every “sand n*gg*r” Moslem wants to die in the act of killing Americans.
People, we, all of us, are herd animals at our core. We want to belong to groups. We align ourselves with sports teams. We are loyal to our town, college or car brand. Even those of us who are smarter than the rest tend to brag: I only wear natural fibers; My fraternity/sorority was the brain trust, not those drunken jocks; My 30-year-old Mercedes diesel with 320,000 miles is vastly more cost efficient (with all factors considered) than those Toyota Prius environmental Johnny-come-latelies.
After his brain biopsy, Ted Kennedy went out on a boat race. Of course he raced a sailboat, nothing so plebian as the motorboats the Bush family uses to pollute Kennebunk. Can’t we all relate to the Kennedy tradition of more genteel boating? Herd behavior. We want to be better than someone / anyone else.
What better way to establish our class distinctions than by writing them into law? The law has a certain majesty. Law schools use the Socratic Method of teaching – you see, the law goes back to the roots of civilization. If it’s in the law, it must be right. So we legislate our bigotry into law and thereby justify it.
Some of this has a rational basis. I, for one, support gay marriage and oppose polygamy for perfectly logical reasons. As a straight man with a history of limited success with women, gay marriage promises a reduction in the pool of men competing with me. So I support it. Polygamy, on the other hand, threatens a reduction in the pool of available women for whom to compete. So I oppose it. Who can assail the logic? But is this logic on which we want to build social policy? And if it is, do we want to take the step advocated by “defenders of marriage?”
The California Supreme Court didn’t build social policy. Instead, it absorbed thousands of pages of legal arguments and evidence, submitted by a wide variety of groups. This included the best, most organized evidence the “defenders of marriage” groups were able to put together. After giving it all close consideration, the Court found, as a fact, that: “[R]etention of the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples is not needed to preserve the rights and benefits of opposite-sex couples.”
That’s right. After months of putting together evidence and arguments, the “defenders of marriage” were unable to present evidence that anti-gay bigotry is necessary to “defend” marriage.
The Supreme Court also said that: “the exclusion of same-sex couples from the designation of marriage works a real and appreciable harm upon same-sex couples and their children.”
This points to another historical aspect of the sort of bigotry espoused by the “defenders of marriage.” Traditionally, we have punished children for the ‘sins’ of their parents. Bastards were children whose parents were not married. They were, legally, “illegitimate.”
How can a child be illegitimate? The same way a child who has one “white” and one “black” parent is automatically “black.” Or the way the child of an explorer and an indian is always a “half breed.” This is bigotry. As the Supreme Court said, the effect is to “work real and appreciable harm.” And that harm is worked on both adults and their children, without logical reason. That is bigotry.
Past anti-misegynation efforts have legislated bigotry into our legal codes. But today’s bigots want more. The effort to prohibit gay marriage is an effort to amend the state Constitution to enshrine bigotry not merely into the law, but into the foundation document of our state legal system. This is a quantum leap for the pro-bigotry crowd. They seek an opportunity to give bigotry a legitimacy it has never had before.
They seek something more immediate and pragmatic as well. Putting the pro-bigotry measure on the November ballot is, first and foremost, a tactic to motivate the Republican base voters to go to the polls this fall. This year, the Republican Party stumbled into a quandry built on the natural conflict in interest between its corporate leadership and its lower middle class consumer base. After eight years of policies designed to shift assets from the base to the leadership, a lot of the base has been less than thrilled by the prospect of voting for a candidate who promises four more years of the same economic blight.
John McCain’s decision to oppose a G.I. Bill, despite his personal history, revealed that he would abandon the troops he claimed to love, when he had to choose between patriotism and corporate interests. So party strategists have to find emotional appeals which will convince the base to continue to vote against its own interests. And traditionally, bigotry provides a source for such emotional appeals: ‘Keep the… [blacks, Indians, Chinese, Mexicans, etc.] from marrying “our” women’; ‘Make all non-white immigrants speak only English’; ‘Women don’t have the intellect to be trusted with the vote’.
A few years ago, the same people and party who are now promoting anti-gay bigotry were telling us that our nation would be destroyed if we allowed women to have Equal Rights. Remember how opposing the E.R.A. was “defending our nation”? Was that really any different from today’s claim that we need to “defend marriage” by protecting it from people who love each other and want to get married?
The verbiage is the same. The economic interests are the same. Only the target changes with the mood of the decade. So it isn’t about supporting or opposing gay marriage. Same sex marriage is only this year’s target issue. If we can see that this “defenders of marriage” campaign is simply a business, designed to make money exploiting whatever is the currently popular bigotry, then we can see that the issue is not whether or not we support gay marriage, but rather whether we support bigotry or freedom from bigotry.
by Tom Hall
Tom Hall is a family law attorney. He is originally from Boston, where he grew up in the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quakers), thinking that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people to participate in highly disciplined nonviolent demonstrations (real disciplined nonviolence is just plain maddening to police forces who count on demonstrators giving them reason to get ‘messy’ during public demonstrations). After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make himself a comfortable life. The Bush administration has shocked him back into social concerns. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com.