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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Understanding Without Agreeing


Just before the U. S. election seems a good time to come out and say that I understand why some people are voting differently from how I voted.

“I understand.” That is not to say “I agree.” A distinction that seems often to be lost, especially in the polarized environment of contemporary U. S. A. politics. For many people, it feels impossible to be friends or even talk with people who will be voting differently; it feels like a personal assault.

And I can understand that too. There are aspects of what the national Republican candidates stand for, or say they stand for, that I can neither agree with nor understand. Like taking health care away from children, or denying it to people with pre-existing conditions. To go along with that platform seems really tough.

But I can understand some things without agreeing with them. One of the comments going around the Internet lately, from playwright Doug Wright, has gotten me thinking. “I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest,” this quote begins. “[L]ook me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, ‘My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights.’”

It’s a powerful quote in its entirety. But what it made me think is, is Doug Wright surprised? Do most people, however they identify and/or vote, really care about their neighbors’ civil rights more than their own economic issues?

It sounds horrible the way Wright puts it, but it’s kind of normal. If I’m out of work and struggling to feed my family, or otherwise at an economic loose end, I’m honestly probably not thinking as much about the civil rights, poverty, or health care situation of someone down the road. Maybe I should be, but most people are not prophets. The world is not made up of Martin Luther Kings or whoever your favorite American is.

Now, my understanding this does not mean I think most Americans’ financial situations would, in fact, be made better if Mitt Romney became the next president. Moreover, I’m not convinced either man being elected on the 6th of November would make as big a difference to voters’ pocketbooks as a lot of them, and both candidates, seem to think. The economy is a global monster, and even the president of the United States, whoever he is, does not have that much power to change it.

What the U. S. federal government does have the power to change is whether I could go home to the United States, or whether that country is even going to feel like home to me in the future. As I’ve explained before, the laws that made me leave were the responsibility of Democrats as well as Republicans. I am not optimistic that they would change in a second term for Barack Obama, and there seems to be no chance at all that they would change under a Romney presidency. But, Romney has changed his mind about a great many issues like this before. So who knows.

In the same way that understanding does not equal agreeing, people can be opposed to something without necessarily making it against the law. Again, this concept seems to pass a lot of contemporary Americans by, but it’s part of living in a free society. Many Democrats and liberals might point to social issues as an example of where we should “live and let live”; traditionally, Republicans and conservatives would tend to say that as few things should be against the law as possible.

And I can understand that also, to a point. I think a lot of kinds of speech are offensive and hurtful, but that doesn’t mean I want to take away people’s First Amendment right to say them. Of course, I draw the line of “as few things should be against the law as possible” where I think is a reasonable limit. I would draw the line at poisoning wells and letting E. coli into the food supply. Others would draw their own lines.

The aspect I can most understand—though not agree with—about Republican voters is the desire to throw out an incumbent. When people feel that things are not going well, they are disinclined to give the present government another chance. In general, voters on all sides exaggerate the extent to which an incumbent deserves blame, or credit, for everything that has happened in the past four years. (This was true in 2008 also. Luckily for Republicans, they did not have an incumbent to re-elect, and so everyone got to vote for someone new.)

Rather than leave you with a conclusion that tells you whom to vote for or condemns you to no longer being my friend (perhaps that would be a release?) I just wanted to share this basic thought. That it is possible to understand where someone is coming from without agreeing with him. It seems so obvious, and yet, I don’t believe it’s said enough these days, in the country I was born in and still care about.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Stove-Top Stuffing: What's in a Name?

Today in the U. S. A., the 2nd Circuit Court ruled that the federal statute defining marriage as between one man and one woman is unlawful, because it denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who are married.

DOMA, as it is not so affectionately known among queer types like me, is the Defense of Marriage Act. It was signed into law back when I was still living in the States, by Bill Clinton. No excuses accepted--Democrat or Republican, it's been a long time since a president didn't overreach and do unconstitutional things with his power.

This particular law is unconstitutional, for reasons that have essentially nothing to do with gays or what you think about gay rights. The Constitution (a document often quoted but less often read--see the Bible) makes it pretty clear that part of being the United States involves each state honoring the other states' contracts.

So, if some kooky, Mitt Romney-governed state like Massachusetts wants to start issuing marriage licenses to any old couple--straight or gay--it's all very well for another state not to do so. Say, Virginia. But that doesn't mean Virginia can insist that people married in Massachusetts aren't really married.

And it certainly doesn't mean the federal government can deny equal benefits to one kind of couple married in one of the states. At least, it didn't mean that, until DOMA came along.

"Defense of marriage" is such an odd name for this law. I mean, I left the country back when Bill Clinton was president, because of the denial of equality by the federal government. And I have been waiting ever since for one man and one woman to tell me how, thanks to DOMA, their marriage was saved. Without all those pesky gay American citizens around, trying to legally live with their partners in their country of birth.

Partners. Spouses. What's in a name?

Not everybody, gay or straight, wants to get married. Same-sex marriage may be the last frontier now, but not so many years ago, in Ontario, a province that passed it even earlier than Romney's state--well, it wasn't so popular there. Not among straights. Among gays.

What are we thinking? asked an Xtra! forum of the time. We don't want marriage. We're different. Queer! Queers are supposed to be different. We are supposed to be out and proud, pro-sex, living lives of activism and protest.

Or not. The other big gay argument has been that we are exactly like "everybody else." We raise kids, do laundry, pay taxes, and are too tired to have sex. Please, just let us get married and live our boring lives in peace.

Of course, both are true, and true even of the same people, at different times. Which brings me to Stove-Top Stuffing.

Do I need to get married? No. Do I think homophobia will end if only we can get married? I'm not holding my breath.

I don't oppose DOMA because it's marriage. We don't have marriage in the United Kingdom either, and some people are pretty upset about it. We have civil partnership, though, and--here's the crucial thing--civil partnership conveys all the same rights, legally, in this country that marriage does.

If through some other institution--call it Stove-Top Stuffing--the U. S. government granted equality to same-sex couples under federal law, then that would be fine. The divorce rate for straight couples could continue to go down, saved by the absence of gays from the sacred institution of marriage. Thousands of binational couples, meanwhile--couples where one partner is a U. S. citizen and the other is a $%*! foreigner--could make a free choice where to live, legally, and maybe even contribute to American society.

But immigration is federal (despite Arizona). So are hundreds of other matters, the equality of which is denied to us: veterans' survivor benefits, Sally Ride's pension, and so on. So it doesn't matter what individual states do, as long as DOMA is on the books. All fifty states could pass same-sex marriage--as if--and that wouldn't change anything at the national level. Which, from outside the nation, is what matters most to me.

It would be better for no state to have "marriage," if the country as a whole had Stove-Top Stuffing.