Saturday, January 3, 2015

County Clerks in Florida Refuse to Permit Anyone to Marry if Gay Couples May Marry: Segregationist Roots of "Principled" Resistance to Marriage Equality

I remember it as if it happened yesterday. And as I read the announcements of several county clerks in Florida that, rather than marry same-sex couples, they'll shut down courthouse weddings for everyone, the memories come flooding back all over again:

Arkansas, 1964. The Civil Rights Act has passed, knocking down the last barriers to full integration. The act requires the desegregation of all "public accomodations." That includes, of course, public swimming pools. Where black and white children, black and white citizens, meet under quasi-intimate circumstances . . . .

An unthinkable thought to most white Southerners, and so here's what we decided to do rather than share "our" publicly funded swimming pools with "them": we simply shut the pools down. If we're going to be required to share our goodies with them, we'll deprive everyone of said goodies. Historian John Kirk cites historian Kevin Cruse on the ignoble period of Southern history when we white Southerners decided to dissolve social bonds rather than extend them to everyone and to permit everyone to share "our" goodies:

In the end, court-ordered desegregation of public spaces brought about not actual racial integration, but instead a new division in which the public world was increasingly abandoned to blacks and a new private one was created for whites.

And that's, of course, precisely what those county clerks in Florida are now proposing as a strategy to deal with the demand that civil marriage be opened to same-sex couples: If we have to share our goodies with them, we'll just deprive everyone of access to those goodies. In the most direct way possible, this strategy of in-your-face resistance to marriage equality is rooted in the in-your-face gesture that white Southerners made to the federal government when it required us to extend rights to citizens of color: rather than make the circle of rights larger and draw despised others from the margins into the center of society, we chose to fragment society, to tear up the social contract.

If they're expected to have a piece of it, we'll tear it up for everyone.

Mark Joseph Stern gets this strategy right in his commentary yesterday at Slate:

This strategy—denying benefits to everybody to avoid having to grant gay people equality—is a losing play by a losing team trying to salvage some modicum of dignity from its inglorious defeat. It would be repulsive if it weren’t so overwhelmingly pathetic, so childish and small-minded and uncharitable. At the end of the day, these clerks aren’t doing much harm by closing off their courthouses to wedding ceremonies. On Jan. 6, thousands of gay couples will walk out of those courthouses with a marriage license in hand. They’ll be leaving behind a handful of clerks who are so wrapped up in their own hateful prejudice that partaking in a gay couple’s joy gives them nothing but disgust. 

The historical parallel here is so glaringly obvious that it baffles me when I read articles like Mark Oppenheimer's piece in today's New York Times, which treat the "conscientious" resistance of right-wing religionists like Catholic journalist Rusty Reno to marriage equality as a "debate" between two equally compelling, equally thinkable visions of American democracy. Oppenheimer reports on the movement now gathering steam in church circles resistant to the extension of the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples to encourage ministers to withdraw altogether from the business of marrying couples in the civil arena.

If they're expected to have a piece of it, we'll tear it up for everyone.

As Oppenheimer reports on this movement, he seems entirely oblivious to its historical roots in the futile, ugly, socially destructive gesture white Southerners made to integration in the 1960s. He seems unaware that this movement to tear social institutions up for everyone rather than make those institutions more broadly accessible to previously marginalized minority groups can trace its lineage in the most direct way possible to the refusal of white Southerners in the period of integration to share "our" goodies with people of color when the federal government required such sharing.

If there was a "debate" about these matters in the 1950s and 1960s, then the South lost that debate. American society chose a fork in the road to participatory democracy which determined, once and for all, that certain ideas and practices (e.g., racial segregation) are simply not compatible with democracy. There's no going back, no matter how much formerly privileged groups kick and scream about their loss of privilege.

Those who seek to attack the common good because that good opens itself to groups on the verges of society are not expressing one among a number of thinkable impulses for doing democracy in the contemporary world: they're, quite precisely, working to destroy the very notion of democracy in the contemporary world. As opponents of participatory democracy, they deserve condemnation and resistance, not to be heard in a spurious "dialogue" in which both sides are proposing equally rational, equally thinkable, options.

Even when said opponents of participatory democracy claim, as we white Southerners resistant to integration in the 1960s claimed, that they stand on the side of "traditional" Judaeo-Christian values . . . . Which is to say, when they claim the "principled" position now held by the Catholic bishops of the U.S., their allies in the evangelical right with deep historical connections to slavery and segregation, and the Rusty Renos of the Catholic journalistic club . . . .

(Please see this footnote to this posting.)

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