Saturday, March 29, 2014

On the "Tipping Point" Metaphor, Gay Rights, and the Notion of Progress

Some of you pressed me this week (and here and here) about what it means to say American culture is at a "tipping point" regarding questions of gay rights. You were right to do so. 

My use of that phrase is never intended to imply some kind of automatic evolutionary progress. I don't believe in, have never believed in, that kind of progress. I'm much more inclined to agree with Ernst Bloch in his magisterial work The Principle of Hope that what we call progress walks a line that is more akin to a symphonic line than the single, ineluctable line of evolutionary development.

A flash of progressive insight and movement occurs over here in the bassoon section, and then the flash occurs with the percussion part of the orchestra. "Progress" occurs by fits and starts, and it is fragile and easily reversed, as quickly gone from the air around us as the quick sounding of the drums and bassoons, before the violins take over and claim the dominant melodic line of a symphony.

Significant human rights breakthroughs can be immediately reversed in heartbreaking ways, which can bring a society that had made timid steps in a progressive direction decisively back--back for decades. After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period, for a brief window of opportunity, African Americans were enfranchised and began to hold political office.

The reaction to those developments in the former slave states of the U.S. was swift and savage. The window of opportunity was slammed shut through acts of atrocious violence against people of color, through vigilante squads that terrorized black citizens of the states of the former Confederacy, and through Jim Crow enactments that created a barrier of adamant legal segregation that took a half century to abolish. By the 1890s, African Americans found themselves in a much worse political, economic, and social position, in many parts of the U.S., than they had been in the 1870s.

And so it can be with gay rights in the U.S. I do not ever take for granted that the advance of gay rights in the U.S. is inevitable, ineluctable, that it follows an "upwards" trajectory something like the line of biological evolution. I think that the forward slog of human rights movements requires painful solidarity among many people determined to settle for nothing less than justice, who are willing to see harsh reversals and betrayals that may set their causes back years, after they have made tiny steps in a progressive direction.

The Indian Supreme Court turned the clock in that nation back an entire century in a heartbeat, vis-a-vis the legal status of gay citizens of that country, through a single decision recently. The U.S. Supreme Court can do the same.

This is the world in which those of us who are gay live, at the good pleasure of those who are not gay. Everywhere in the world.

All this is a prelude for me to direct your attention to a good article at Salon today, by Elias Isquith. Isquith urges restraint on those who are now ready to write the obituary of anti-gay laws in the U.S., and to write a victory statement for marriage equality. Isquith critiques, inter alia, Andrew Sullivan, who, in Isquith's view, buys "into the idea of human progress as moving inexorably forward." As he notes, Sullivan implicitly celebrates the "victory" of the gay rights movement in the U.S., and thinks that most Americans are now willing to accept the full humanity and rights of those who are gay.

But, as Isquith also notes, while Andrew Sullivan is "D.C. and NYC-based," that elite little corridor of the nation is hardly the whole of the United States. While 17 states permit same-sex couples to marry, 33 don't. What people living in the elite corridors of the nation may be celebrating, those living in the rest of the country can't celebrate because we can't even see it.

What we do see is, well, a kind of elitism in the analysis of gay issues which implies that no one really exists or counts outside the elite corridors of the nation. Or which suggests that perhaps those who are gay and silly enough to live somewhere outside those elite corridors deserve to be ignored, as the rest of gay America celebrates "our" victory. Because they're silly enough to have roots in places that aren't within the elite corridors of the country.

What we also see is that those living in the elite corridors of the nation are highly inclined to pretend that the hostility or ignorance of those living in the heartland, insofar as it has historically been directed against those who are black and is now directed against those who are gay, is beneath notice, since it comes, after all, from uneducated, impoverished sectors of American society. It comes from People Not Like Us.

We see those living in the elite corridors of the nation who celebrate "our" victory minimizing the historic parallels between the movement for black rights and the movement for gay rights because they do not intend to admit that friends of theirs who now resist gay rights for reasons entirely parallel to those employed by racist bigots in the past can possibly be in any way akin to those racist bigots of the past. Since these anti-gay people of conscience are, after all, People Like Us.

And We Are Not Like Those People who once defended overt racism on biblical grounds, and claimed rights of conscience as the basis for their segregationist laws.

Here's Isquith to Sullivan (and to Molly Ball, who recently wrote a very fatuous Atlantic article arguing that Republicans [!!!] are driving the movement for gay rights): 

Until American same-sex couples have the right to marry, no matter where in the country they reside; and until LGBTQ people need not fear being fired from work for no reason other than who they are and who they love; and until LGBTQ people are no longer more likely to be poor than heterosexual people; and until LGBTQ people no longer risk being legally barred from private businesses because of nothing more than how they were born, let’s slow down on patting ourselves — and the American people — quite so much on the back just yet. America is absolutely improving its treatment of LGBTQ people, and the success of SSM movements in recent years is a testament to that fact. But at the same time, a guy by the name of Rick Santorum, who will hopefully be remembered as the gay rights movement’s version of George Wallace, came in second place during the last GOP primary, is frequently seen talking politics at conferences and on television and is quite possibly going to run for president again in 2016, still walks the halls of American politics. The work is not complete.

He's absolutely correct.

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