Tag Archives: social change

The Times They Are A-Changin’

I’m beginning to wonder whether GLBT folks are today’s canaries in the coal mine.

For those of you unfamiliar with the canaries’ function, the phrase refers to the fact that well into the 20th century, coal miners would bring canaries into the mines to serve as early-warning signals for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide. The birds were more sensitive to the presence of the gas, and would become sick before the miners had been exposed to dangerous levels.

I began to consider this (admittedly odd) analogy yesterday, when members of the Indiana General Assembly—as retrograde a group as one could find outside, perhaps, Mississippi or Alabama—announced that they would not hold a vote during this year’s session on a measure to amend the Indiana Constitution by inserting a ban on same-sex marriage.

Only those of us who have lived in Indiana the past few years can appreciate the magnitude of this announcement. Legislative homophobia has been a given, and the prospects for this particular piece of bigotry had been considered bright.  Those of us who oppose the measure had pretty much settled for strategies meant to “kick the can down the road.” (Indiana is one of those states where amending the constitution is difficult; a proposed amendment must be passed in identical form by two separately elected legislatures, after which it goes to the public in the form of a referendum. Opponents focused on getting changes in some of the more ambiguous and mean-spirited language of the proposed amendment; changing the language would at least delay what seemed inevitable.) The working assumption has been that the ban was a slam-dunk to emerge from the General Assembly, and that an eventual public vote would likely lodge discrimination solidly in the state’s charter.

The legislature can still vote on the ban during next year’s session, of course. But the postponement is significant.

Consider the context: The 2012 election ushered in Republican super-majorities in the Indiana House and Senate. Worse, we’ve elected a dyed-in-the-wool culture warrior as Governor. In the wake of the election, prospects for defeating or even delaying the ban looked even more hopeless than before.

But that’s where it gets interesting. A couple of statewide polls show a solid majority of Hoosiers—whatever their position on same-sex marriage—oppose amending the constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has accepted two significant cases, one involving a challenge to DOMA, and one an appeal of California’s Proposition Eight. The President was re-elected handily, even after his very public endorsement of marriage equality.

What seems to be a sea change on gay rights issues increasingly seems to be only part of the story, a leading indicator of a broader social/political shift that is just becoming visible.

Here’s my current analysis (and it’s worth every penny you are paying for it—in other words, nothing): The upheavals we now refer to as “the sixties” created an enormous backlash. All of a sudden, there were uppity black folks, bra-burning feminists, anti-war activists and other troublemakers undermining the natural order of things. Those various movements—womens’ movement, civil rights movement, antiwar movement—permanently changed American society, but they also engendered huge resentment and push-back. That backlash ushered in the so-called “Reagan revolution,” and energized the culture warriors and “family values” organizations.

Just as the 60s movements became excessive, and spawned reaction, the GOPs rightward march has now gone much too far. Women, minorities, young people and reasonable, moderate Republicans are abandoning the party in droves. Except for a remaining fringe of old white Southern heterosexual men, Americans have become comfortable with diversity and the other results of the disorienting sixties—at the same time they are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the extremism and “us versus them” worldview of today’s conservatives.

Gays are among the first to benefit from what I think is beginning: a swing back from the precipice, and a long-overdue reconsideration of what America should look like.

The canaries are breathing. It’s a good sign.








Social Justice

I was asked to talk to a group of scholarship students yesterday about effecting social change and achieving social justice.

I began by sharing a bit of my personal history with social change (there should be some lessons to be learned from living through a significant period of American social history). In my case, I grew up Jewish during the 50s and 60s; I watched the civil rights movement “up close and personal;” I took part in the women’s  movement; and I span the time between when “gay” meant “happy” and no one ever uttered the word “homosexual” and the current fight for same-sex marriage. So I have some perspective. And as I told the students, I can attest to the fact social change is not only possible, it’s inevitable.

Change, of course, is not synonymous with improvement. I’m absolutely convinced that if we want to create progress–good change–our efforts must be framed in ways that are consistent with what I like to call our “constitutional culture.”

“Constitutional culture” is simply a shorthand for the recognition that legal systems shape worldviews. The attitudes and expectations of people ruled by the Taliban are vastly different from the attitudes of people living in a country that emphasizes values of personal liberty and political equality.

The values incorporated in the American legal system, fortunately, are entirely consistent with an emphasis on social justice.

In the wake of the horrific shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s Town Hall in Tucson, PBS’ Mark Shields made an “only in America” observation that illustrates the point. Shields said:

“This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African-American President.”

There, in a nutshell, is what most of us would consider the triumph of American culture—the fact that the nation has moved, however haltingly, toward a vision that allows all of us to be members in good standing of our society, equal participants in our national story, whatever our religious belief, skin color, sexual orientation or national origin.  What makes us all Americans isn’t based upon any of those individual identities, but upon our allegiance to what I like to call “the American Idea”—a particular worldview based upon an understanding of government and citizenship that grew out of the Enlightenment and was subsequently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As I told the students, my argument is pretty simple: Social justice has to be approached from within that worldview, and arguments for social change need to be framed in ways that are consistent with it—or it won’t work.

Take the recent votes on same-sex marriage. The four victories at the polls on Nov. 6th were an exciting sign that public opinion is moving in the direction of equality and social justice. Of course, fundamental rights should never have been put to a vote of the electorate in the first place.  No one got to vote on whether the government should recognize my marriage, and it is constitutionally improper to give me the power to vote on anyone else’s.

The Bill of Rights marks off certain areas of our lives where government doesn’t belong—areas where we get to make our own decisions about our lives. Very few Americans seem to understand that in our system, the issue isn’t whether the book you are reading is good or bad—it’s who gets to decide what book you read. It isn’t whether you are praying to the proper God, or praying at all—it’s who gets to decide whether and to whom you pray. Constitutionally, the issue isn’t who you marry—it’s the propriety of allowing government to decide who you marry.

It’s because our system is based upon protecting our personal autonomy—our right to decide for ourselves how we shall live our lives—that social change so often begins with the courts. When majorities insist on making decisions that are not theirs to make, we need the courts to step in and remind us that in our system, fundamental rights are not subject to popular passions. Theoretically, our courts should all be “activist” when majorities try to make decisions they are not entitled to make, but the truth is, courts inevitably reflect the social attitudes of their times. Brown v. Board wouldn’t have been decided as it was unless popular sentiment had already moved. The fact that we have a judicial system charged with protecting minorities doesn’t relieve us of the duty to create the attitudes that enable the courts to do their job.

That brings us to the importance of framing. If we want to change social attitudes, and produce a cultural environment in which desirable change can occur, we need to frame the issues in ways that appeal to our sense of what it means to be an American.

Successive groups of outsiders have done that. They’ve staked their claims as Americans to equal treatment under the law. In the process, they’ve not only won social acceptance–they’ve made America’s Constitutional culture stronger–and life better and more just for us all.







Speaking of Love…

A friend of mine takes some sort of twisted delight in sending me the Indiana Family Institute’s newsletters. I think he just enjoys my incredulous reactions.

The latest one was filled with “the usual suspects.” Planned Parenthood is prowling the state killing babies, the poor economy is another consequence of our departure from morality–or something. And of course, allowing same-sex couples to marry is no different from incest or pedophilia.


Are people really unable to distinguish between a relationship that rests on the mutual love and desire of willing, consenting adults and those in which a person in a position of power abuses that power to exploit someone younger and/or weaker?

I’m not a fan of government intrusion into private, consensual relationships. If you and your significant other get your kicks hanging from the chandeliers or making love in wet suits, it really isn’t the business of the state to intervene. If, on the other hand, realizing your fantasies requires the “participation” of children under the age of consent, government has the duty and obligation to prevent that. The difference isn’t that hard to see.

Those who insist that same-sex marriage is a slippery slope to a hellish society in which marriage itself has lost all value have been making that argument at every social turn. Divorce would destroy the family. Women working outside the home and birth control would thwart God’s plan.

These attitudes are part of a fantasy world–a remembrance of imagined times past when children weren’t born out of wedlock, grandma and grandpa’s marriage lasted sixty glorious years, and grandpa went to work every day to support a passel of kids (none of whom, of course, were gay). As social scientists remind us, that wasn’t the way it ever was. At the turn of the last century (1900), thanks to death and (common) desertions, the average marriage lasted 12 years. Fully a third of women were pregnant at the time of their very early marriage. Men had no legal obligation to support their children until the 1920s, and plenty didn’t.

Every social change makes people uncomfortable. Those who simply can’t deal with the discomfort–those who feel diminished by changes in the culture and by efforts to the include others at the table–are sad reminders of how fragile the human ego can be, and a cautionary tale about how and why people hate.

Age and Perspective

One of the (very few) benefits of growing old is that you gain perspective. Sometimes, that also leads to a modicum of wisdom, sometimes not–but it does mean that one’s frame of reference is larger and longer. To use a very common example, you can’t truly appreciate how dramatically the internet has changed society if you were born after the invention of the world wide web.

This morning’s Paul Krugman column reminded me again that those of us born in the mid-twentieth century have a vantage point to assess political change that younger folks don’t have.

My students are frequently aghast when they learn that I was a Republican for most of my life–that I even ran for Congress as a fairly conservative Republican, and won a primary. But as Krugman points out, and as I try to explain to my students, the positions that made me “conservative” in 1980 make me a pinko/socialist/liberal today. Most of my students grew up in an environment where conservative Republicans reject evolution and the science of climate change, talk a lot about fiscal prudence, but practice “borrow and spend” economic policies, and are totally without compassion for the less fortunate. The only Republicans they’ve known are those who preach limited government while insisting on their right to control women’s reproduction and their right to discriminate against gays. They are shocked to learn that I was pro-choice and pro-gay rights and still was able to win a GOP primary.

Krugman explains the change with his usual clarity, beginning with the example of the Tea Party’s “let ’em die” eruption at the recent GOP Presidential debate:

“In the past, conservatives accepted the need for a government-provided safety net on humanitarian grounds. Don’t take it from me, take it from Friedrich Hayek, the conservative intellectual hero, who specifically declared in “The Road to Serfdom” his support for “a comprehensive system of social insurance” to protect citizens against “the common hazards of life,” and singled out health in particular.

Given the agreed-upon desirability of protecting citizens against the worst, the question then became one of costs and benefits — and health care was one of those areas where even conservatives used to be willing to accept government intervention in the name of compassion, given the clear evidence that covering the uninsured would not, in fact, cost very much money. As many observers have pointed out, the Obama health care plan was largely based on past Republican plans, and is virtually identical to Mitt Romney’s health reform in Massachusetts.

Now, however, compassion is out of fashion — indeed, lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base.

And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.”

What Krugman fails to note, and these radicals fail to understand, is that if they actually are successful in their frantic efforts to keep government from “stealing” even a penny in taxes to be distributed (in their fevered imaginations) to the “less deserving,” they would also be impoverished. What Hayek understood–and what those who invoke his name without reading his arguments do not-is that, just as a rising tide lifts all boats, an ebbing tide lowers all boats. They remind me of a two-year-old snatching a toy from a playmate while screaming “mine, mine, mine.”

What we are seeing from this radical fringe is not a political shift. It’s a tantrum.

Times that Try Us

It seems to be increasingly fashionable—at least among angry Teabaggers—to quote (selected) Founders. So perhaps I should begin this column with Thomas Paine’s famous “These are the times that try men’s souls…” 

Of course, Paine was writing during some of the darkest days of the Revolution, not during a sustained snit by people with a very tenuous grasp of American history. Whatever the temptation to over-react to the over-reactions all around us, those of us who haven’t yet lost all our marbles should probably exercise some restraint.

And yet…as Charles Blow recently wrote in the New York Times,

“The far-right extremists have gone into conniptions.

  The bullying, threats, and acts of violence following the passage of health care reform have been shocking, but they’re only the most recent   manifestations of an increasing sense of desperation.

 It’s an extension of a now-familiar theme: some version of “take our country back.” The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.”

 We are experiencing a perfect storm—a confluence of rapid social change, economic stress (or worse) and electronically distributed demagoguery that could easily ignite into something profoundly ugly. And lest we forget, minorities and marginalized people do not fare well at such times.

 Angry and frightened people want someone to blame. In the past, it was Catholics or Jews or blacks. To a considerable extent, those groups are still “on the line;” anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and racism all spike upward when times get tough. But today, the targets of choice are those most in the news: immigrants and gay Americans.

 In the “old” America that these people are so nostalgic for—those better days that exist primarily in their imaginations—Americans all looked pretty much the same. Sure there were black people, but they knew their place. They certainly weren’t occupying the White House and Congress! Women were in the kitchen or nursery where God meant for us to be—we sure weren’t in charge of American foreign policy, or presiding over the House of Representatives. Gay people—out ones, anyway—weren’t chairing the House Banking Committee, or hosting popular television programs, or holding elective office. And they certainly weren’t marrying each other! And everybody who wasn’t black was white and spoke English without an accent.

 For a great many Americans, the resentments they have harbored over these signs of change have simmered below the surface, waiting for some trigger that would release them. And now, the demagogues on the Right are providing that trigger, many of them knowingly. The rhetoric that has been employed during the healthcare debate has been deliberately provocative (and the purported grievances mostly fabricated, but that is a somewhat different issue.)  As I write this, the media is reporting on an epidemic of brick-throwing, aimed at windows of Democratic party offices around the country. The instigator has shown no remorse; he is proud, he says, that he is leading a protest against a big government that is taking over responsibilities that government shouldn’t have. Ironically, he lives entirely on Social Security Disability.

 When people are this delusional—when protestors are screaming things like “keep government out of my Medicare!”—it can be a short trip to murderous dementia. And the first attacks won’t be against the “good ole’ boys.”

 They’ll be coming after you-know-who.