Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's an institute you can't disparage, ask the local gentry



Barack Obama's election victory has been heralded as a significant triumph in the long - and continuing - fight for civil rights in the United States. Sadly, in the very same election, California's Proposition 8 succeeded. It rescinded the right for gay couples to legally marry in that state. The state of California, that is, not the state of being gay. The latter is a condition for which I knew no adjective for most of my formative years: there were merely poofters and normal people. I hope this shows you how far I've come in battling my own predjudices. (Although I am still deeply suspicious of South Africans, and delighted to use the tag 'poofters' in two blog posts already, so there's still some way to go).

Like most fair-minded, compassionate and Damn Well Right people I find the Proposition 8 success deplorable. However, without forgetting the very real pain caused, I also think it's a fascinating example of democracy in action. There's been many protests about the decision. Such protestors have a right to express their views, but it could also be argued they have no cause for complaint: everyone voted, and they lost. Simply put, more people don't want gay marriage than do want it. It's not like a despot decreed that loved up batty boys can't tie the knot. It's not even like a group of elected representatives passed the When A Man Loves A Woman Act to enshrine our traditional values. Every single voter was asked and the majority said "ban it, please".

Majority decisions are fundamental to democracy. If you're in the minority, you have to suffer the consequences, or have a revolution and start your own damn country. (I'm now visualising a South Park episode in which Gaymerica secedes from the Union under the leadership of Big Gay Che). If there were a law were passed by referendum that said everyone had to wear hats outside, the minority who opposed it would have to suck it up and just live with the fact it would be totally Mad Men and AWESOME. Majority rulez ok. But take this law in particular. It affects everybody, but it doesn't mandate any action - it merely removes the right to take an action to those who would do so. In this case, gay people who want their Big Day. Many laws are like this - homicide law, for example. However, most of these laws exist because the action being restricted in some way harms other people. Murder, last time I checked, harms people a good deal, not least murder victims. Actions can harm people directly and indirectly: murder harms murder victims, polluting cars harm a city, corporate monopolies harm the economy. So: does gay marriage harm anybody? We have arrived at the crux of the issue.

Proposition 8 proponents believe same-sex marriage harms society. I won't go into detail about why they believe this, but it boils down to: making gay stuff legal legitimises it. They usually then claim, Seinfeldesquely, that's there not anything wrong with being gay, but...well, we still don't want anyone hearing about it in schools or anything. It doesn't take a disciplined application of intellectual rigor to see this doesn't make sense. I don't want to go over the arguments again. What's interesting here is: should we make laws that attempt to protect society from social change? My libertarian gut response is no. Yet I think we should reserve the right to make such laws. Most people wouldn't think a law to ban derivative, misogynistic rap music is fair, even though a large majority may despise such music, and having it around may encourage acceptance. But what about, say, a law banning simulated child pornography? No one is harmed in the making of such material, but will its availability encourage acceptance of paedophilia? Maybe, maybe not. But the point is there may be situations where such laws could be useful to combat social ills - or at least what a current majority of people thinks is a social ill. I'd like to avoid ever making laws that curtail freedoms, but I can't guarantee I'd never support one.

In any case, a society cannot make it impossible to make certain types of laws - even Constitutions, in part designed to do just that, can be changed. Even laws that are passed are only as good as the society that obeys and enforces them. I digress.

There's a kicker to all this democracy discussion: the original right to same-sex marriage wasn't granted by a Proposition. In fact, in 2000 there was a Proposition, but with an opposite intent: it wanted to change existing legislation to clearly define marriage as a union between a man and woman. Californians voted it in by a significant margin. Thus, gay marriage was explicitly banned. In May this year, the California Supreme Court ruled this alteration unconstitutional, meaning same-sex marriage was legal again by way of being, well, not illegal. Proposition 8 will add the marriage definition to the Constitution itself. Without wanting to digress even further into a judiciary vs. legislative branch argument, it seems fair to assume voters in 2000 knew what they wanted, and the majority can reasonably claim they had it taken away on a technicality. Does this make Proposition 8 less evil? Perhaps, but it definitely makes it even more democratic.

This may depress you, but I think we can take some heart from it. People are free to talk about the issue, attempt to change opinion and have their say at the ballot box. Then, if attitudes change; they can debate, lobby and vote again. This is a better situation than most people around the world enjoy - most people in history, for that matter. Winston Churchill famously said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried". (He also reputedly said "the biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter", but let's not go there.) Things will change. When Barack Obama's parents married in 1960, they were lucky they lived in Hawaii. Their marriage was a felony in over half the States in the Union.

6 comments:

Rian said...

"Majority decisions are fundamental to democracy."

Majority decisions made by an educated and informed populace are fundamental to democracy.

I'd be very surprised if the majority of the "Yes to Prop 8" people were educated and informed of the issue.

Probably similar on the other side of the vote too :-)

Paul said...

"Majority decisions made by an educated and informed populace are fundamental to democracy."

Alas, if only that were true! Actually, I don't even mean that - making judgements about who's fit to vote is a slippery slope. We all think there's idiots who shouldn't be allowed to vote - but who decides who are the idiots? You have to give the vote to everyone or no one. One hopes a result of a fair, democratic society is an educated and informed populace.

I'm not disagreeing with you, just saying there's nothing we can do about it. This is why I quoted Churchill. It's not a very good system but it's the best we have.

(Coming from a country with compulsory voting, there's some interesting ideas about idiot self-selection to discuss, but I'll leave that for another day...)

Paul said...

Furthermore, there's every reason to believe many people knew at least something about Prop 8, because both sides raised over 35 million dollars for campaigning. If Wikipedia can be believed, that's the most expensive campaign in the country except for the presidential contest itself. Whether they're educated enough to make informed decisions about what they hear...well, there we are again.

There's an interesting side point I didn't mention in my enormous, rambling essay above. Blacks turned out in record numbers to vote for Obama. The black community has much higher rates of church attendance, making them likely to vote Yes on Proposition 8. So electing a black man to the Presidency may well have prevented gay marriage in California. Civil rights have a long way to go. After all, supposedly around 90% of blacks voted for Obama. When we achieve true equality, their vote should reflect that of the general populace. But it's hard to be mad at them, they've had a pretty rough deal for a pretty long time.

Rian said...

The solution to the uninformed populace problems would be a high quality edumacation for all and sundry.

Sadly that would require politicians to "want" an informed populace, which would be much more difficult to manipulate, so it's not going to happen any time soon.

Perhaps I've become a little cynical ;-)

Jason B. Standing said...

You might have already seen this about the place, by way of relevance.

The flaw with "majority" in a non-compulsory voting scenario is that it's limited to the majority opinion of those whose votes were counted, and manipulating how many and which votes are declared "valid" has been an effective rigging technique in the US in the past.

I just can't see why if, as these religous clowns believe, judgement is passed on your soul after you die - then why do they have to go around dictating to other people how to behave? Surely it'd just do to let everyone know your (and God's, allegedly) thoughts on the matter, and then remain eternally smug in the afterlife.

What other rambling contributions can I make? Looking at the results distribution it seems that once again it's the people who live near water who hold the more open-minded views.

I guess I'm hopeful that the people who supported Prop 8 for reasons of ingrained predjudice are happy that they're protecting the sanctity of an institution which, though based on the infallible will of God, only mandated church involvement in the 16th century, and state involvement in the mid 1700's. And which of course is taken as the serious lifelong commitment championed by Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peaches Geldof, Britney Spears, Henry VIII....

Paul said...

Rian: you need to be more cynical about the competency of government. I don't think they're organised, smart or even just evil enough to deliberately misunedumacate the populous. They're perfectly capable of doing it accidentally though. This is why I am always highly skeptical of X-Files-style government conspiracies - they're just not that good at keeping secrets. No large organisation can.

Jason: Thanks - I think I was posting that graph as you wrote about it :-) I even stole the Ghostbusters quote from Reddit :-)

Votes can be rigged, but I think there are transparent systems that can work well. As for non-compulsory voting...I think if you don't vote, don't complain. It's good and bad: it means people who don't care aren't voting, but it can also mean special interest groups get a disproportionate say for issues that fly under most people's radar (gay marriage ain't one of those).

Judge not lest ye be judged: I couldn't agree more mate. One of the many problems with Religion is that it sets itself up as the most important thing in someone's life - almost by definition in many dogmas. Thus, it's natural people who truly believe feel obliged to push it onto people - or, put another way, save them.

Water: the cities are near the water. Look at the presidential voting maps for each state. The cities voted for Obama, the countryside for McCain.

And finally, you're right about marriage being a 'legalised' thing relatively recently in history. Others have pointed how fascinating it is that it's right-wingers, who are usually for small government, saying "Please, government, tell us how and where and who we should marry!".