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On Same-Sex Marriage

On Same-Sex Marriage

I was at the first same-sex civil union performed in Connecticut, and for that I consider myself privileged. After the brides slowly walked down the aisle to the altar, the Unitarian pastor performing the ceremony told us, through tears, that they symbolically took their time getting to the altar because it has taken them a long, long time to be able to get married. For a couple that had been together for more than 20 years, and had each spent a lifetime fighting for their right to get married, it was about bloody time they were allowed to openly, proudly declare their love for one another and have that love recognized by the state.

enhanced-buzz-21299-1355130638-5That was in 2005. It would still be three more years before Connecticut became only the third state to enact same-sex marriage legislation. Other states followed suit, but not without problems. In 2008, California’s infamous Prop 8 banned same-sex marriage in my current home state, rolling back a right that had been granted to gay couples previously, and prompting a litany of suits that have now reached the Supreme Court. But even in 2005, although it was still an uphill battle for millions of gay couples in the United States, it wasn’t unthinkable that the nation was at a tipping point. In just seven years’ time, a blink of the eye in legislative terms, nine states now allow same-sex couples to marry, with the first to allow it by popular vote in the last election. The president of the United States, for the first time, publicly acknowledged his support of the issue. Multiple Republicans and GOP insiders have acknowledged that there is little they can do about the eventual legalization of same sex marriage nationally. And in a stunning symbolic blow to the sadomasochistic social conservative movement, conservative-turned-libertarian Glen Beck is joining Bill O’Reilly and the ranks of the right who finally acknowledge that small-government conservatism means the government should stay out of love as well.

Pictures of couples marking their 40 years of commitment to each other with wedding rings say more about the necessity of righting this fundamental injustice nationally than I ever could, but it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how we got here, and just how important this is to the nation. There are people today who still remember when “miscegenation” was illegal, and when blacks couldn’t marry whites. Hell, there are people today who were around when women first got the right to vote. It is a painful legacy of our history that only until recently have all people, of all kinds, truly been a part of the national project. And nothing is more odious than the interjection of government power into private lives of citizens (if you ask me, we’re going in the wrong direction: we should be ending government involvement in marriage altogether). But especially when sex and love have been used by countless regimes in history to drive wedges between people of different races and faiths (especially where religion is concerned), it has finally become somewhat of a banality at this point to stand up and declare openly, “I can love who I want and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

enhanced-buzz-13310-1355130194-9I could say a lot about this, particularly about South Africa which went from apartheid’s strict regulations on sex and marriage to full-blown marriage equality within 20 years, but it is amazing how steadfastly civil liberties can be protected as long as people keep speaking out for them. For there are plenty of people who would like this “sin” to be punishable by death. There are plenty of people who would like to see gays “cured” by the state, or see religion in general imposed upon children in classrooms. And, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of our friends on the left who would like to tell people what foods they can eat, or what lightbulbs they can use, or what is appropriate to say and in which fora. There will always be people who believe they have a right not to be offended by someone else’s personal choices and beliefs, and they will work to take away our rights in turn.

The test of the immutability of the right to marriage is not whether it becomes national law in 5 years, but whether in 30 years, or 50 years, people take it for granted, the way I fear many people today take their right to a fair trial for granted. Whether people realize how difficult it was to acquire these rights, there are always sinister forces looking to defeat them. We must be vigilant and continue to fight to protect our natural rights, rights that should and will belong to us even if our universe has been clouded with totalitarianism.

The wedding bells today in Washington are a welcome sound to all who can hear them. And may they soon ring out in Mississippi and Georgia and Idaho. And may they soon ring out in Indonesia and Iran and Uganda. And when they do, let us not forget how hard it is to gain our rights, and never fail to protect them.

As an aside: if you are a supporter of gay rights, but also believe in conservative ideals like small government, free minds and free markets, I recommend donating to GOProud, an conservative gay rights organization that supports states’ rights (that wonderful feature of federalism that has allowed gay couples to get married all across America even while many people oppose it). Whereas they are a little controversial on their narrow line on same-sex marriage, they get points for fighting discrimination and pushing for more acceptance in the conservative movement.

December 11, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
On the History of White People

On the History of White People

Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is wide ranging in scope and historical depth, covering the history of those people we deem “white.”  In short, it is a remarkable work, taking a historical long view of the perception of the white race and its race discourse throughout history, starting with the ancient Greek perception of the light-skinned Scythians and Celts, through the Roman period, skipping over a thousand years of medieval race-mixing and slave trading, and then focusing her historiographical lens on America, where her work delves deeply into race theories, racial sciences, anthroposociology, eugenics, anti-immigrant nativism and black civil rights.

In the nascent field of whiteness studies, this book is critical to understanding the delicate interplay of race and class that is at the core of how “white” evolved as a social concept in the United States.  The story begins with the ancients, as the civilized Greeks looked at the barbarian Scythians and Celts with their lighter skin and brutal lifestyles.  (Of course, no sources survive from said barbarians, and Painter is fair to moderate her reading of the sources she does have with humor and skepticism throughout the book.)  The Scythians and Celts quickly expanded into many varieties in the eyes of the Greeks and later the Romans:  Colchians, Celts, Gauls, Germani, and in turn these peoples had their own subdivisions.  Painter is quick to establish that “race” as it is perceived today (i.e., of the pigmentation of one’s skin) mattered little to naught to the ancients, who saw peoples primarily in terms of their sexuality:  the virility of the men, the beauty of the women, various mating rituals real and imagined.  Bloodlines throughout Europe undoubtedly mixed a great deal throughout the Roman period and beyond, culminating in an extended period of slave trading throughout Europe that saw as many as a third of Europeans in captivity in the middle ages.  The tradition of slavery as it relates to sex and beauty is carefully examined, and the particular appeal of the light-skinned girls from the Caucasus region plays a significant role in the shaping of white perception of beauty later on.

It is here that Painter turns to the history of racialism in the figure of J. F. Blumenbach, the pioneering German scientist who made a thorough investigation of over 200 skulls from around Europe, Asia and Africa to determine the measurable structural characteristics inherent in his races.  Classification and taxonomy were all the rage for natural scientists in the 18th century, so it is no surprise that a compelling narrative of humanity developed that could explain the races scientifically, culminating as Blumenbach’s study did in the “Caucasian” race, which curiously enough did not include many light-skinned people in Europe including the “Slavics” and “Laplanders.”  It is a theme throughout history that racial differences were not only presumed predetermined, but they were required by the rigid rules of scientific taxonomy to be free from intermixing or impurity, and of course always prone to inherent prejudice.  It is not surprising that certain light-skinned people were not classified as “Caucasian” until well into the 20th century.

From Blumenbach, Painter takes us to the bulk of her scholarship, and a third of the book, which traces the white racial theories and Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism of countless scientists and anthropologists of the 18th and 19th centuries such as Germaine de Staël, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Z. Ripley.  As the scholarship begins in the intellectual center of Europe, Germany, in the 18th century, it is not surprising that the most preeminent racial theorists were also Teutonists who traced the superiority of German stock from Roman times.  Germaine de Staël, a woman before her time who excelled intellectually and politically in high academic circles, took the Germanic history and expounded about German superiority and greatness, connecting the success of German, or Saxon, breeding, with the success of the industrializing English-speaking world.  The “Anglo-Saxon” link was a particular favorite of future American race theorists as it made complete the path of superiority in the white race throughout history.  The Anglo-Saxon superiority was trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who looks at the English history as a story of a superior German stock supplanting the inferior Celts, who were less civilized, poorer, and, incidentally, Catholic (not surprisingly the political environment in Emerson’s time was highly anti-immigrant and virulently anti-Catholic).

We see several explosive political cartoons from Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist (and inventor of the modern Santa Claus) who apparently harbored some violently anti-Irish views.  The preeminent racial reading of the tail end of this age was the 1899 book Races of Europe by William Z. Ripley, which expounded on the taxonomy of the white race to minute levels of detail including eye color, hair color, head shape and face length.  Ripley’s work gave even more scientific validity to the racial hygienists of the 20th century who sought to put racial theory into practice, advocating eugenics as a means to population control.  (The focus of white racism on other white people occupies a substantial portion of this book, which is what might distinguish it from other histories of racialism.)

At the core of Painter’s thesis is the evolution of “white” from a very narrow definition covering the so-called direct blood descendants of Saxons and excluding pretty much everyone else–including Irish, southern Europeans, Jews, and of course Africans–to an increasingly widening definition as the political and social needs of whiteness grew.  With waves of American immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whiteness encountered several enlargements that not only affected how those within the Anglo-Saxon “pure” whites saw themselves, but created an easier social and economic opposition to blacks.  Of course, she does not ignore the Civil Rights movement which played a crucial role in altering the political consciousness to see “black” and in doing so, see “white” as a much more expansive category opposite to “black.”  But she does not drive this point home as well as she could, that whiteness until very recently had very little to do with blackness as a social construct.  Whereas today, we view “white” as being in many ways the antithesis of “black,” the race theorists of the 19th century were not preoccupied with blacks at all.  In fact, Emerson himself was a well known abolitionist.  The intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries who sought to create and define races were more concerned with the races among white people than the races aside from white people.  To be white was not to be non-black, insofar as an Irish immigrant in New York was often seen as being as little deserving of inclusion in the white race as a black man from South Carolina.

Painter cuts a sizable swath out of white history, but by the author’s own admission, the book is mistitled.  Past the colonial era, it addresses exclusively the history of white people in America, and more importantly focuses on the successive enlargements of American whiteness as it relates to class, economics and sociology.  The book does not, sadly, focus on the peculiar postcolonial state of whites in the non-Western world, including the unique case of the Afrikaners in South Africa I have researched in the past.  The book also does not delve deeply into perceptions of whiteness or anti-white discourse past the 19th century, preferring instead to focus on the white perception of white identity, making the book, ironically enough, too white-centric.  In most histories of a race, the focus is on that peoples’ placement in society as an agent and erstwhile victim of change (or focus on the discourse or influence of that group on society at large).  In The History of White People, we are more interested in the development of American nativism, the modern perception of whiteness as it differs from earlier perceptions of whiteness, and of course the retelling of a very old story indeed:  a story of how people love to compartmentalize and control their own identities through artificial definitions with dubious historical consistency.

June 14, 20121 commentRead More
Moving Forward

Moving Forward

Today, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California decided that Proposition 8 to the California constitution violated the United States constitution.  This decision marks one more step in the historic–and seemingly endless–march for gay rights in the United States and the world.

California has long been a center of gay activism and progress in the area of gay rights.  San Francisco was the first city to elect an openly gay city supervisor, Harvey Milk, in 1978.  In that year, California’s Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, which would have prevented gays and lesbians from working in the school system, was defeated.  However, gay marriage was still not valid or recognized in California.  In 2000, California passed Proposition 22 which constitutionally defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman.  In 2008, the Supreme Court of California overturned this amendment, legalizing gay marriage in California for several months until the November election, when Proposition 8 was passed which overturned the court’s decision.

Time and time again, the courts have upheld the rights of homosexual couples to marry, and time and time again, populist movements have put an end to this basic human freedom.  Today, a Federal judge issued an invalidating ruling, meaning that in California, for the time being, the only hope for defeating gay rights is in the Supreme Court.  (For you constitutional purists out there, the reason we have courts in the first place is to provide guidance on law and prevent unjust laws when we don’t know any better.)

Today California once again joins the ranks of the few states in America that extend this privilege to homosexual couples:  Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, DC, New Hampshire and Vermont.  We will see soon if the Supreme Court upholds today’s ruling.  In my opinion, there is no valid argument–constitutional, moral, religious, or otherwise–against allowing homosexuals to marry to the fullest extent of equal protection under United States federal law. The only valid constitutional argument from a Federalist perspective is the separation of powers and the States rights doctrine.  This is certainly a valid argument to make, but keep in mind that if the Supreme Court had consistently strictly upheld the States rights doctrine when it came to matters of equality, segregation would still be legal.  Interracial marriage would still be illegal.  Plus, we have the Fourteenth Amendment for a reason!

It is important for Americans of all races, religions and orientations to remember that our ancestors also faced opposition to their basic human rights and freedoms.  Indeed, the past four hundred years of history in America has been a story of groups gradually winning the right to be viewed as equals.  In the struggle for gay rights, we see a similar endurance and persistence that has occupied every civil rights movement in our history.  The same endurance that led blacks to freedom, that led women to the ballot box and that even led Jews to Israel.  There is no doubt that, like these movements of the past, the movement for gay and lesbian rights in America will succeed.  The decision today in California is a vital step on the road to justice.  The more the opponents of this movement try to hold the country back, the louder its drive for justice, and the sweeter the victory.

It is easy for Americans to forget, being as secure we are in our citizenship and our persons, how hard it was for our parents and grandparents to fight so it could be this way.  Think about the progress we have made as a nation in just the last century–but also think about how much further we have to go, not just in terms of gay rights but in terms of many basic human rights, worldwide, that we take for granted.

If you are interested in the legal thought going into today’s decision, check out the text of the ruling here (  There is also a great article by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Ted Olson, in Newsweek called “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” (  Olson explains quite eloquently that the fight for gay rights is not just a gay issue or a liberal issue, but an American issue.

August 4, 2010Comments are DisabledRead More
The Slippery Slope

The Slippery Slope

The most disturbing story to come out of the news of late has not been the Michael Pfelger videos (although, unlike Wright, he has managed to issue a somewhat sincere apology).  Lost in the Politico’s election analysis and the media’s echo chamber has been a little-noticed story about Dunkin’ Donuts, who just pulled an ad from the air which included Rachel Ray wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabic scarf.

Facing severe criticism that the wearing of the scarf was symbolic support for Islamic terrorism, Dunkin’ Donuts, as the BBC reports, issued a statement that the scarf was not intended to offend and that “given the possibility of misperception the commercial was no longer being used.”

What misperception?  The wearing of a traditional dress, cultural dress, is somehow a support of Islamic extremism?  Conservative bloggers have pointed out, correctly, that the scarf was worn by Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian liberation movement until his death in 2004, and is routinely worn by Islamic extremists and Palestinian nationalists.

True.  But the scarf is also worn by millions of Arabs, and non-Arabs, around the world, and an overwhelming majority of them would rather not perform extreme and violent acts of terror, thank you very much.  Most people who wear the keffiyeh are not extremists, and are certainly not terrorists (and I’m sure Rachel Ray would agree).

Not only do Arabs wear the keffiyeh, but Urban Outfitters sold the scarves until January 2007, when, responding to public pressure, they pulled it from the shelves.  In their statement:  “We apologize if we offended anyone, this was by no means our intention.”

What’s next?  The pulling of Middle East products off store shelves?  The sacking of Arab journalists?

This is symbolic of a much larger undercurrent of American Islamophobia that has swept the United States (and much of Europe) since before September 11.  Indicators of this movement have been rampant: Brigitte Bardot’s incendiary anti-Muslim comments that recently got her fined, riots in the streets of Paris, the Danish cartoon fiasco and of course, conservative commentators’ incessant ranting about the “Muslim problem.”  Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh are especially to blame.

Of course, now that Barack Obama, a black man with the middle name Hussein, is running for president, the ugliest of the hatred of Muslims in America has come out in full force.  In all the talk about racism in this Democratic primary season, the mainstream commentary has forgotten about the real issue of race in this election—not whether Obama is “too black” to be President, but whether or not he is a Muslim.

It was Barack Hussein Obama’s connection to Islam—through his father—that led to the Fox report, later proved to be false, that Obama had attended a radical Islamic school as a schoolboy in Indonesia.  It was this false religiosity that led to the famous “Madrassa Hoax” email, which circulated the internet widely in the early months of the primary and has since emerged again.  The email implored Americans “Let us all remain alert concerning Obama’s expected presidential candidacy,” and that “The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level – through the President of the United States, one of their own!”

Remember Hillary Clinton’s famous “3AM” ad, in which she asked who would best be able to answer a 3AM phone call to the White House in the midst of a catastrophe?  Orlando Patterson wrote for the New York Times that the ad played on subtle racism and the classic white fear of “the outsider within”—the criminal black man infiltrating the safe neighborhood:  “The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.”  However, the more subtle sub-message, the one that did not have to be stated, was the fact that “Something is happening in the world,” and the terrorists behind that “something”—well, you get the picture.  The very idea that a Muslim—a guy who shares a name with the late Iraqi dictator—could be the one answering that call in the White House came across clear enough.  Clinton’s margin of victory in Ohio, much larger than the pre-election polls, suggest that late-deciding voters broke for her, and whether the subtlety of the “3AM” ad had something to do with this final push will never be known for sure.

A Pew poll taken in late March found that one in ten Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim.  The number is telling in part because 10% of Democrats—most of whom already were Clinton supporters—believed this fact, and because 8% of Independents—a group who Obama needs to depend on to win the election in November—believes it as well.  Furthermore, a whopping 19% of rural voters—that’s one in five—believed this to be true.

The fact that the son of a Muslim Kenyan joined a radical black Chicago church, and then stayed in that church for 20 years, does not help diminish the rumor that he is a Muslim.  America is familiar with images of radical black Muslims like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, and should now be equally familiar with Jeremiah Wright’s praise of Farrakhan.  The tendency to equate Islam with radicalism of course has been swollen since 9/11.  But the underlying assumption is that it is Islam that implies radicalism—not blackness.  The fear of Islam “penetrating” American society cannot be understated.

It is disturbing that I have received these emails about “Barack Hussein Obama” being a “secret muslim” who “joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.”  These claims are not only outright false, but they force Obama to sink to the level of divisiveness by having to respond.  “No, I’m not a Muslim!” he has had to say, as if being a Muslim were somehow like being a bunny eater.  Such stringent, politicized denial only reinforces the claims, not diminishes them.  It reminds me of the high schooler who insists “I’m not gay!” when he is hit with the G-word in a routine downsizing of his character by his peers.  (Harry Truman, when we was running for a judicial seat in Missouri, was rumored to be Jewish due to his close ties with a Jewish childhood friend and business partner.  “I’m not Jewish,” he is reported to have said, “and if I was, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”)

This is a major problem, and one that shows no sign of letting up.  Let the keffiyeh remind us that hatred of Muslims has increased in recent years.  How would America respond if, tomorrow, a skullcap-toting news anchor stepped down because “given the possibility of misperception Mr. ____ will no longer be working with us,” because, after all, “we don’t want anyone to think that we work with Jews.”  It’s unacceptable.

Milton Friedman wrote that in the long run, the free market will work against discrimination.  It’s in the best interest of industry economically, he said, for employers to seek the most qualified people regardless of race, religion, gender, etc.  However, the free market in this case has spoken in another direction:  “Don’t sell this item because people associate it with terrorism, and thus we will lose business if we keep it on the shelves”–this might be good business, but morally it stinks of bigotry.  The underlining assumption is fed, not starved, and thus the evil wheel of bigotry continues to turn, turn, turn.

June 3, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More