The Degree to Which You Resist
Victories have been coming in batches for those who find the prohibition of gay marriage to be an intolerable and absurd hindrance to human freedom. The last election found voters deciding for themselves that they found nothing threatening about two adults of the same sex choosing to participate in the same expression of love to which the rest of us are entitled, a strong rebuke to the religious right; but perhaps of more importance is the fact that the Supreme Court has chosen to hear a pair of cases in its next session relating to the gay marriage issue.
This is an eventuality I’ve been hoping for, and predicting would lead to the final destruction of the gay marriage prohibition. I’m not the world’s best prognosticator when it comes to guessing what the Court will do (see Bush v. Gore 2000 for an example), but given the enormous amount of precedent, it would take a convoluted effort I don’t even believe Antonin Scalia is capable of to somehow find that denying gays the right to marry is somehow different than allowing people of different races to do the same. The law is one thing, and the appearance of impropriety is another, and both of them are on the side of striking down barriers to gay marriage; to do otherwise would be to make hash of dozens of previous court rulings in order to satisfy the demands of a demographic that is literally dying out. It is for this reason that gay marriage opponents have always sought an amendment to the U.S. Constitution; they are well aware that, as currently written, there is nothing in it that supports such a ban.
There is ample reason to believe that not only will the end of the gay marriage ban be a boon for our gay brothers and sisters, but to the country as a whole. It will represent the slow fade of the power of the religious right, long a cancer on the body politic; it will move us forward along with a generation that has wisely grown up thinking of sexual identity and behavior as a malleable and personal thing, and one that is not subject to the dictates of public whim; and, for the practical-minded, it will create numerous possibilities for the making of profit, always a big motivator for social change in these United States. For me, it will mean that a number of my friends, too long treated like second-class citizens, will be able to enjoy the full fruits of citizenship, and the kind of state-sponsored benefits that help keep families together.
There is one thing only that worries me, and that is this: when this significant and long-standing stigma against gays is finally washed away, it will wisely be seen as a victory; but I fear that for some, it will be seen as a final victory. Not that, for any gay man or woman of age in America, the very notion of bigotry and prejudice will disappear overnight, any more than blacks began to live in a world completely free of racism the day the Civil Rights Act was passed. But there is a disease, inimical to the struggle for freedom, that strikes at the souls of those who fight for freedom the most, and the name of that disease is I Got Mine.
Because you can polish your bank account much more easily than you can wipe your skin white, those Americans not privileged with Caucasian heritage are the least likely to succumb to I Got Mine; when Marge Schott talked about her “million-dollar niggers”, the important thing was the name, not the number. But economically, I Got Mine is everywhere. The billionaire does not pity the millionaire, the middle class does not feel for the working class, and no one but the poor understand the poor. To even the most sanctified liberals, a decrease in the unemployment rate is all too easily flipped into praise of the Democratic president rather than properly expressed as concern for the millions who remain jobless, or for the even more desperate millions who have been out of work so long that they are no longer figured into such calculations.
Women’s rights have been a particularly battered victim of I Got Mine: the last two generations at least have been populated by ladies in their tens of thousands eager to distance themselves from feminism, as if they were not its primary beneficiaries, lest it get in the way of a good husband, an ambitious career or a boyfriend who might think them not game for a good joke. Even more curious is the recent manifestation amongst those who should know better, in the so-called “social justice” subculture, to make oppression into a parlor game, a competition: a parsing of every iota of text to find “problematic” language on behalf of one’s affinity group, and to tot it all up on a cosmic scoreboard, with the endgame being not liberation but the victory of having it worse than anyone else.
And believe me, I understand. I have been guilty of this sort of filtered thinking, this more-oppressed-than-thou tunnel vision as much as anyone. I have battled against the racism, sexism, and homophobia pounded into me by a white Christian suburban background, just as much as anyone else from a similar background. Even today, I tend to put matters of class over all others; while there is an honesty to this — I truly believe that economic and class injustice is the manacle that must be shattered before any of the other links in the chain of oppression can be broken — it is an honesty that can blind me. It can make me callous against the more immediate sufferings of my brothers and sisters.
But you are either in favor of freedom or you are not. You cannot cherry-pick the fruits of liberation. No matter what gains are made by your peer group, you cannot take them as tokens in a game that only you can win; as long as anyone is suffering, your job isn’t finished. You have to make the decision, and stick with it: are you simply looking for an advantage, a privilege, a chance to become the prison trusty or the house nigger? Or are you pushing all in for the project of human freedom, the only cause that’s worth a shit? Every day, I hear some new case of I Got Mine monkey-wrenching that project. Adam Corolla, a champion of sexual freedom, dripping contempt on immigrants and working people who aren’t lucky enough to have earned his defense; Brad Falchuk, who did so much to normalize homosexual men on television, refusing to accept that women, lesbians and bisexuals deserve the same degree of normalization; politicians to numerous to name who protect the freedoms of their fellow Americans while viewing the lives of foreigners as statistics on a tally of state power.
This kind of gamesmanship is not suitable for something as important as human liberation. You’re either in or you’re out — for keeps. There is no endgame for defending the rights of your fellow man, no finish line you can cross and be done with the race: only a series of mile markers against which to count how far you’ve come. This can be done with pride, with joy, with celebration and a real sense of accomplishment, but it can never be done with finality. If all you are doing is celebrating your victories — and condemning those who do not share them — then you’re not playing the game. You’re just a fan, and your ‘social justice’ is little more than an argument over statistics. Utah Phillips said it: the degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free. It is devoutly to be hoped that we are about to be more free than we have ever been; but there is no increment of freedom at which we may call the game. Each hand may be easier to win than the one before, but we have to go all in every time.