When Things Actually Change

A few weeks kicking around alone in Paris each December can be bad for you. There’s too much history there, involving far too many philosophers, who spent far too much time sitting in cafés being world-weary, in a sophisticated deeply intellectual way, sipping cognac and smoking bad cigarettes. No, wait – Sartre smoked a pipe – as if it matters. Sartre’s primary idea is that people are “condemned to be free” – and that’s a bitch. We have to make up our own meaning, by what we choose. The world is indifferent to the individual – there’s no external help for you, sorry. You’ve got to figure it out on your own. He wrote of Nausea and then of Being and Nothingness – and Camus wrote of absurdity, using the metaphor of the Myth of Sisyphus – the guy condemned to roll the same big rock up the same big hill forever. The damned rock rolled back down each time, so Sisyphus had to roll it up that hill again. It’s absurd, but life is like that, and you cannot choose not to roll the rock up the hill. That would be giving up entirely, accepting a life of not doing anything at all, thus not being anything at all.

The existentialists weren’t a cheery lot. They specialized in ennui – they’d seen it all and weren’t going to be fooled by this or that enthusiasm that had claimed to be the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything – and maybe that’s a French thing. The First World War had killed a full generation of the best of them and the Second World War had been a disaster – but it’s more than that. The culture has always favored a witty sophisticated stylish skepticism about everything. That’s what Colin Powell faced from Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin back in 2003 at the UN – the raised eyebrow and sly smile. Maybe war with Iraq was not the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. There were other ways to deal with Saddam Hussein and the inspections weren’t finished – so what you say is dire and something the world has never seen before may be something quite manageable. This may not be the historic crossroads you claim it to be.

Americans hated to hear that but the French have an old saying about such things – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change the more they remain the same, or literally, the more it’s always the same damned thing. That’s what you start to feel in Paris on a December afternoon in a warm café, sipping cognac and watching the cold hard rain through the steamed up windows. That sly but world-weary skepticism rubs off on you – there may be no ultimate answers and nothing is new under the sun and the cognac is good in a clean well-lighted place. That meant that it was always a shock to take the polar non-stop flight back to Los Angeles and arrive in the bright sunshine where everything is always the next big thing, something that no one’s seen before, something that will change everything. Half the billboards say that – buy this thing or watch this movie and nothing will ever be the same again. You know you’re back in America again.

That’s why kicking around alone in Paris each December can be bad for you. You become jaded. Few things change the world so that nothing will ever be the same again. The afternoon of Wednesday, August 28, 1963, might have changed the world forever – Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech really did reset moral thought in America. After that there was no way to oppose the civil rights movement, even if many still did, for many years. They just ended up on the wrong side of history. That speech became the dividing line, but one must be wary about deciding such things. The 1969 moon landing should have changed things forever – there was a lot of talk of that at the time – but not much followed that first step on another world. The year 2001 wasn’t anything like the Kubrick movie – but then 1984 wasn’t anything like the Orwell novel. Politicians say 9/11 changed everything, and maybe it did, or it’s the same old same old with different players. Politicians say 9/11 changed everything because they want something from voters they’d dare not ask for otherwise, just as Nike might say some new sneaker changes everything, to get you to part with your money. Not everything is historic.

That’s hard to decide. There is the argument that this week was historic, presented here by the New York Times’ Charles Blow:

Witnessing a historic moment is such an odd and exhilarating thing. It is hard to register the full scope of it because you are chest deep in it.

That is how I feel about the gay-marriage arguments made before the Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday.

However the court rules on California’s Proposition 8 and the federal government’s Defense of Marriage Act, there is no denying that something historic has just happened: an aggrieved group has taken a stand and given voice once again to the American – and indeed Democratic – ideals of justice and fairness and freedom.

The arguments against gay-marriage simply fell apart and that was that:

Regardless of the final ruling, the tables on this issue have already turned. Democratic lawmakers are jumping over one another to get to a microphone and declare their support for same-sex marriage, and conservatives appear resigned to – or possibly overcome by – the change.

Blow sees a dividing line here too:

I haven’t heard a single credible argument - either intellectual or moral – that can long sustain the codification of this particular injustice.

He even mentions this:

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on Tuesday said those in favor of equal rights on the issue have a “compelling argument” against religious conservatives.

“The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals,” O’Reilly said during a segment with Fox colleague Megyn Kelly on the Supreme Court hearings. “That’s where the compelling argument is. We’re Americans. We just want to be treated like everyone else. That’s a compelling argument – and to deny that, you’ve got to have a compelling argument on the other side. And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.”

The next day there was also this:

Conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage must accept that they’ve “lost the issue,” radio host Rush Limbaugh argued Thursday.

“This issue is lost,” the conservative firebrand said. “I don’t care what the Supreme Court does, this is now inevitable – and it’s inevitable because we lost the language on this.”

Limbaugh went on to assert conservatives “lost the issue when we started allowing the word ‘marriage’ to be bastardized and redefined by simply adding words to it.”

“Marriage is one thing, and it was not established on the basis of discrimination,” he continued. “It wasn’t established on the basis of denying people anything. Marriage is not a tradition that a bunch of people concocted to be mean to other people with. But we allowed the left to have people believe that it was structured that way.”

There’s a great deal of nonsense in what Limbaugh says – no one anywhere ever argued that marriage is a tradition that a bunch of people concocted to be mean to other people with. Everyone wants to be married, even gay folks, so no one is using it as a weapon. But there was Justice Elena Kagan arguing this about the Defense of Marriage Act:

“Do we really think that Congress was doing this for uniformity reasons, or do we think that Congress’s judgment was infected by dislike, by fear, by animus and so forth?” she asked.

She read a passage from the House record at the time that said the law had been animated by a “collective moral judgment” to “express moral disapproval of homosexuality.”

Mr. Clement responded: “Of course, the House report says that. And if that’s enough to invalidate the statute, then you should invalidate the statute…”

It is enough to invalidate the statute. It’s over for these folks. This was historic, and the folks at Time magazine told us so with its new cover story on how Gay Marriage Already Won:

A court still stinging from controversies over Obamacare, campaign financing and the 2000 presidential election may be leery of removing an issue from voters’ control. Yet no matter what the Justices decide after withdrawing behind their velvet curtain, the courtroom debate – and the period leading up to it – made clear that we have all been eyewitnesses to history. In recent days, weeks and months, the verdict on same-sex marriage has been rendered by rapidly shifting public opinion and by the spectacle of swing-vote politicians scrambling to keep up with it. With stunning speed, a concept dismissed even by most gay-rights leaders just 20 years ago is now embraced by half or more of all Americans, with support among young voters running as high as 4 to 1. Beginning with the Netherlands in 2001, countries from Argentina to Belgium to Canada – along with nine states and the District of Columbia – have extended marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples.

True, most of the remaining states have passed laws or constitutional amendments reserving marriage for opposite-sex partners. And Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, declares that the fight to defend the traditional definition is only beginning. “Our opponents know this, which is why they are hoping the Supreme Court will cut short a debate they know they will ultimately lose if the political process and democracy are allowed to run their course,” he said.

But that confidence is rare even among the traditionalists. Exit polls in November showed that 83% of voters believe that same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide in the next five to 10 years, according to a bipartisan analysis of the data. Like a dam that springs a little leak that turns into a trickle and then bursts into a flood, the wall of public opinion is crumbling.

The two days of argument in front of the Supreme Court exposed the truth about that. It’s over and Charles Pierce has this to say about the Defense of Marriage Act:

It is a law born of casual expedience. It arose from the blind sex panic of conservative congress-critters that erupted when Hawaii’s Supreme Court demanded that Hawaii show a compelling state interest in banning same-sex marriage. It was introduced in the Congress by Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, one of the unquestioned stars of what later would become the pursuit of the presidential penis around the Beltway. (Barr wrote a book advocating impeachment long before anyone ever heard of Monica Lewinsky.) In addition to being a proud demonstration of bigotry, DOMA also was a deliberate bear-trap set for Democratic politicians, which definitely included President Bill Clinton. It passed both houses of Congress overwhelmingly, with quite a few Democrats deploring the law prior to voting for it. Clinton signed it on September 22, just as the homestretch of his walkover campaign against Republican Bob Dole was hitting the homestretch. It was exactly one month to the day after he’d also signed the more-punitive-than-it-had-to-be welfare reform act that essentially ended the federal welfare program. Both acts bore the signature of Dick Morris, the dark genius of triangulation…

That calculation reaches its final limits in front of the Court today. Clinton himself has disowned it. The current administration essentially has orphaned the law, refusing to defend it before the courts. … It’s taken a proper beating in the lower courts and, of course, the political calculus on the issue has been turned completely on its head…

The old days are gone, and Jonathan Chait offers another way that has played out:

In 2004, the campaign to prevent gay marriage was in its heyday. The Bush administration had seeded an initiative banning gay marriage in Ohio to mobilize activists and peel off traditionalist Democratic voters. Democrats nationally were running for cover, and even Howard Dean’s pro-civil-unions stance appeared risky.

Now the movement is in a state of total collapse, with every day seeming to bring new converts to the gay-marriage cause and the opposition losing all of its courage. There is no more telling sign of the opposition’s surrender than the public demoralization of Maggie Gallagher, the leading anti-gay-marriage activist and writer.

The unusual thing about the campaign to ban gay marriage is that it was dying from the moment it was born. Even at its peak, at the very outset, the portents of doom were visible on the horizon – polls showed that young voters strongly supported gay marriage. The best case for Gallagher and her allies appeared to be holding on for years, or even decades, but eventually gay-marriage opponents would age out of the electorate.

Maggie Gallagher just didn’t see the dividing line:

Today, the movement has advanced far more rapidly than expected, and it is hard to find much hope at all in Gallagher. She increasingly casts those on her own side as victims. Gallagher insists, in an interview with National Review – she has given up her column – the cause is about “the core civil rights of seven million Californians to vote on the marriage question.” The rights of a gay couple to marry cannot be allowed to trample on the rights of heterosexuals to vote to ban them from getting married.

The surest sign of resignation is that Gallagher has redirected her focus from stopping gay marriage to preserving the dignity of her reputation and those of her fellow believers. She now presents her cause as a kind of civil rights movement to protect her fellow believers from the stigma of advocating bigotry and discrimination. “I worry when I get an email from a woman who’s a nurse in a hospital,” she told NPR, “who wrote a letter to the editor opposing gay marriage, and finds that she fears her job is in jeopardy.”

But even she knows that’s nonsense, and Chait quotes her saying this:

What future commentators write about me (if they write about me at all which I doubt) when I am dead won’t matter much. I will by then be in the hands of a Judge both just and (thankfully) merciful, a world where truth counts. I’m not triumphal about that fact, I suspect we will all be surprised to discover first-hand how dark the sins we justified in this world really are – when our self-imposed veils of ignorance are removed. We’ll see how much we all require mercy. In the meantime let’s love each other as best we can, but always, always in truth.

Chait sums it up:

There is no last-minute generational twist, no reversal of the tide, lying in store to save Gallagher and the gay-marriage opponents, and she knows it full well. Regardless of any Supreme Court ruling, her movement is lying on its death bed, and she is making her peace with it.

History doesn’t change often, but sometimes it does. The appropriate response is difficult and the New York Time’s Thomas Edsall looks into how the Republican Party is handling all their now deadly social-issues positions, like the gay marriage stuff. Their Christian Right and Tea Party has left the party in shambles, and Edsall discovers one way they are dealing with the devastation. In a conversation with Grover Norquist he hears talk of de-politicizing cultural issues by developing a parallel political philosophy that no longer relies on government to vindicate “traditionalist values” at all:

Norquist told me in a phone interview that he thinks policies initiated by Republicans at the state and local levels, by breaking the link that joins individuals and families to government, are laying the groundwork for a continuing expansion of the conservative electorate.

Nearly two million children are now home-schooled, Norquist said, and their families have rejected government-run public schools and decided that they can do a better job on their own. Some eight million men and women have concealed-carry handgun permits, with the result that they feel “more self-assured, more independent, not as worried police will draw chalk marks around their body” and certainly less inclined, according to Norquist, to support a pro-gun-control Democratic Party. Along similar lines, Norquist notes, the number of poor students receiving vouchers to attend private schools is rising steadily as the passage of state right-to-work laws is gutting dues-paying membership in public employee unions, a financial mainstay of the Democratic Party.

“I’m reasonably confident that at the state level we are creating more people who want to be part of the ‘leave us alone coalition,’” Norquist said. He predicts that within the next decade, Republicans will take control of the Senate and regain the White House.

That’s hopeful, or whistling in the dark, and Ed Kilgore comments:

In other words, having been thwarted repeatedly in political efforts to impose their views on the country through public policy, the Christian Right just needs enough “room” to build its own enclaves, beyond which it can happily cooperate with less “traditionalist” conservatives in disabling government’s role in the economy.

This is precisely the strategy for the Cultural Right that the late Paul Weyrich decided on in 1999, before George W. Bush’s election revived prospects for the achievement of its goals through government action.

Paul Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation and was quite a guy – kind of the Robespierre of the right, a homophobic theocrat and a bit of an anarchist, or the hero who created the religious right to save America, depending on your politics. Edsall is concerned with Grover Norquist, not Weyrich, so Kilgore adds this:

For people like Norquist, this is obviously an ideal scenario: conservative evangelicals will stop pressing their politically unpopular demands on the GOP but will continue to support its non-cultural agenda.

It sounds pretty pat, but there are, of course, problems with this approach. On abortion, for example, conservative evangelicals who believe we are living in a genocidal society like Nazi Germany can’t solve that problem by minding their own business and building up their own counterculture of God-fearing women who are told to view themselves as divinely ordained vessels for procreation. And even on such fronts as education, it’s not as though homeschoolers and private-schoolers can have their way without political action to destroy the funding base for “government schools.”

Kilgore then goes all French, saying the more things change, the more they remain the same:

If you look at the history of radically conservative evangelicalism in this country, there is an alternating pattern of political activism and “quietism,” with the latter characterized by the resolution to form a “righteous remnant” of obedient Christians who simply refuse to play the devil’s game of politics. Perhaps Norquist is sure we are approaching a “sweet spot” where these folk stay out of sight on cultural issues but still flock to the polls to support a libertarian economic and fiscal agenda.

It’s not so clear he’s right, but it is decidedly useful as a happy-talk analysis that turns today’s defeats into impending conservative victory.

There will be no conservative victory now, or for some time. Historical shifts don’t happen often, but sometimes they do happen and this might be one of them. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change the more they remain the same – except when they actually change.

That might be wrong of course. Perhaps nothing has really changed here. Things might seem different if all those trips to Paris hadn’t been so long ago. Roll the big rock up the big hill and it will roll down again, and what we have here is just another damned rock.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to When Things Actually Change

  1. Madman says:

    I approach “Being and Nothingness” with fear and trembling!

    Best bumper sticker: Sisyphus LOVES Rock ‘n’ Roll

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