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When Good Men Don't Do Nothing
Perhaps, after all these years, Edmund Burke may have got it wrong: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is not, as the wise Englishman once opined, for good men to do nothing. Sometimes men blunder into evil by the sheer force of their own cowardice. Evil was done in Massachusetts this week, and it was as unnecessary as it was pointless. From the first, we need to tease apart the lie that the state legislature "made room" for civil unions; or worse, that they were trying to avoid "promoting gay marriage."
When the SJC's Goodridge decision demanded that same sex couples be allowed to marry, local lawmakers could have done a number of things. They could have jumped for joy, knowing that they would witness the inevitable triumph of the power of love and progress over ignorance and bigotry-all without having to lift a finger or spend any precious political capital. No heroics, no "promoting the gay agenda," whatever the hell that means. Just the slow wheels of Justice grinding their inexorable, logical, inevitable way through history, adapting to the obvious reality that if civil marriage is a state function and not a religious sacrament, then biblical concepts of coupledom have no place in the debate.
Instead, the august body went ahead and did something. And boy, did they ever. Scared to death that Massachusetts might actually light a beacon of progress by being the first state in the Union to recognize same-sex marriage, they decided they would rather be known for a different first. Our beloved Commonwealth just took away a right which the Supreme Judicial Court just told us was constitutionally protected-in fact, it was precisely because of having been told it was protected This bears repeating: all the claptrap about "legalizing gay marriage" is, quite deliberately, I think, putting the cart before the horse. The courts are increasingly waking up to the realization that same sex marriage is legal, that the structure of the law cannot survive the hypocrisy of continuing to exclude one group from legal protections offered to others.
So in response, the religious right, along with its craven allies in both parties, is trying to turn back this clock, to put the genie back in the bottle-or the closet, as it were. All the arguments, from "tradition" (where is Tevye when we need him most?) to "the right to vote" are nothing but smokescreens to hide this grim reality: gaybashers helped along by what one former Massachusetts Governor once referred to as "gutless wonders." I have not seen a single argument against same-sex marriage that I did not consider either craven, cynically expedient, or flat out bigoted. With one exception: Alexander Cockburn calls the gay marriage hoopla a "sidestep on the road to freedom," basically by saying that since the institution itself is a bourgeois sham, it does not further human progress by shackling yet another demographic in its tentacles. While I adore Cockburn's writings, I could not, as a straight man who chose to get married (and could), sincerely argue against another's wanting to do so.
In fact, the two experiences are more related than it might seem. It is with some irony, and a heavy heart, that my wife and I celebrate our own seventh anniversary as the dust settles on the creepy Constitutional Convention. Half a century ago, our own marriage would not have been legal. The SJC referred to this historical analogy in its Goodridge decision, saying, in effect, that it was no more logical to restrict marriage rights on the basis of gender than it had been earlier to do so on the basis of race. I'm sure there are still counties where a majority might still be "uncomfortable" with our union-but of course, the law requires them to stuff it. Basically, who cares what the majority thinks? When minority rights are subject to nullification by the vote of the majority, democracy has begun to devour itself.
But it is just this aspect of the whole episode that is the most chilling, and the one which has the least to do with the content of any amendment. The money and the power of the Church have certainly played a shameful and inordinate role in this charade; but it is not the fire and brimstone of the right which made the difference. The final vote of this round passed by only four votes: those of the leadership…Democrats….liberals. Not all, of course, put their consciences in blind trust. Ted Speliotis, of a district adjacent to mine, had this common sense observation: "Two people love each other. They want to get married. Who the hell am I to tell them they can't get married? You have no business being a state Rep. if you can't stand up for this decision." Indeed.
And yet, many Democrats, liberals among them, will try to mischaracterize this as a victory. There is absolutely nothing positive about slowing the path of progress with a permanent, constitutional ban on same sex marriage. Unless, of course, one were to point out that it was positively reactionary...positively spineless. Gay marriage is now legal in Massachusetts, and my prediction is that it may never be illegal again. The ban has several hurdles yet-not the least of which is being ratified again by the same body after a new set of elections, thousands of happy, legal couples, and the slowly dawning realization that one group's attaining rights doesn't diminish those of another. The Framers, it seems, were wise enough to know that weaseling politicians couldn't be trusted not to cave in to baser instincts.
All this, sad to say, will be accomplished without the help-and largely against the active opposition-of party "leaders." Serves them right. They think they have dodged a bullet, when in reality they have missed an opportunity. They really think they will lose zillions of votes by taking credit for the slow expansion of civil rights. So be it. Their calculus has always been curiously lacking as to how many they would lose by not having a backbone. They can't avoid being slammed as the Queer Party: hate crimes legislation, anti-bias statues, not to mention that almost all elected gays seem to be Democrats. They still have a shot, however, at picking up another mantle: the party that turns its back on a loyal part of its own base. For that alone, they deserve the losses they will reap. Craven or bigoted isn't much of a choice to offer people. Edmund Burke must be rolling over in his grave: sometimes, it seems, the only thing necessary to prevent the triumph of good is for weak men to refuse to just shut up and sit down.
© 2004 Daniel Patrick Welch. Reprint permission granted with credit and link to
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Welch lives and writes in Salem, Massachusetts, USA,
with his wife, Julia Nambalirwa-Lugudde. Together they run The
Greenhouse School. Past articles are available online:
index on request. He has appeared on radio [interview
available here] and his columns have been aired as well:
those interested in rebroadcasting the audio may contact the
author. Some columns are available in Spanish or French, and
other translations are pending (translation help for more
languages welcome). Welch speaks several languages and is
available for recordings in French, German, Russian and
Spanish, or, telephone interviews in the target language. See