Monday, August 30, 2010

Obama vs. The Magicians

cross-posted at Dagblog

President Obama's response to crazy conspiracy narratives about him is predictable and cool. He doesn't want to wade into the nonsense, and in that much he's absolutely right: you can't argue people out of their irrational beliefs. And in general, Obama has put his faith in the public's preference for real-world results over conspiracy theories.

"I trust ... the American people’s capacity to get beyond all this nonsense and focus on, ‘Is this somebody who cares about me and cares about my family and has a vision for the future?’ ” Mr. Obama said. “And so, I will always put my money on the American people."

Obama is right. Americans prefer results over crazy mumbo-jumbo. And that's why Obama's in trouble.

If Obama's going to overcome the nutty mumbo-jumbo with practical results, he needs an actual plan that will lead to practical results. Reason trumps fantasy by bringing home the groceries at the end of the day. If all reason has to offer every day is yet another sensible, pragmatic explanation for why the cupboard is still bare, fantasy starts to look like the only game in town.

The various strands of right-wing lunacy over the last two years, the birther conspiracies and "secret Muslim" fantasies, the scapegoating and hatemongering and Glenn Beck's chalkboard and the recent Palingenetic "Rebirth of a Nation" rhetoric (h/t Digby) are all just various kinds of magical thinking: attempts to deal with overwhelming or insoluble realities through acts of belief. Can't deal with the fact the President of the United States is black? Believe that there is a piece of paper somewhere, a secret document, that will undo the election. (The giveaway with the birthers is that they don't demand that Biden be sworn in, but fantasize about overturning the last Presidential election entirely and getting rid of the Democrats.) Can't cope with the rubble of our economy? Blame a conspiracy by ACORN or The Tides Foundation or the Jewish Freemasons, a conspiracy whose effects can be reversed if you can just find and punish the conspirators.

People indulge in magical thinking for the same reason people once believed (or still believe) in magic, because it helps them deal with things they can't control. Drought killing your crops? Sacrifice a ram to Zeus, or dance the Rain Dance, or make an offering to the crocodile god. Mysterious illness killing your livestock? Use a ritual to redirect the evil magic onto a goat, and if that doesn't work, find the witches who've caused the illness and kill them.

Magic doesn't do anything, but it makes you feel like you're doing something. It takes away feelings of powerlessness before they become intolerable. And it allows you to release your fear and rage in the unholy pleasure of the witch hunt.

People give up on magic when they get better options. If you can irrigate your crops and take your cattle to the vet, you don't bother making sacrifices to the gods or dunking witches in the pond. You don't need magic to make you feel like you're doing something, because now there's actually something you can do. Modern people still resort to fantasy and superstition, of course, but mostly when their circumstances make them feel powerless or when science fails them. Superstition seems much more attractive when you can't see your way out of poverty, or when you depend on someone else for your livelihood. The anti-vaccination movement is a classic example of turning to magical thinking when science disappoints; medicine hasn't got a great list of solutions for autism yet, and so frustrated parents of autistic children look for a scapegoat to attack, and that lets them feel like they're doing something.

The sorry truth is that a large percentage of the human race, even those of us surrounded by modern technology, don't quite believe in the principles of science and reason. It's more that people believe that the bus comes in the morning, and that food you put in the fridge stays good for a few extra days, and that if you point the remote at the TV it will show you the channel you want. The average person on the street doesn't necessarily believe, deep down, in anything that happens at the Large Hadron Collider, because those things can't be seen or touched. But if the Large Hadron Collider eventually leads to, say, a new generation of tiny, powerful batteries, people will totally believe in the batteries. Reason beats superstition because it's better at miracles.

Our country is full of anxious and frightened people, who are right to be anxious and frightened. Our economy is broken. Our foreign military engagements look bleak. The future is unpredictable, so few people feel safe. People need to know that there is a plan for them, and their family, and a vision of the future, and they need a little more than that. They need that vision to start paying off.

Telling voters that the stimulus saved the economy from being much, much worse isn't useful. That statement is true, but it's only a description of the past. It does not answer the practical question, "How will we make this better?" If you're the smartest and most pragmatic leader in the world but unemployment is at 10% and you don't offer any way to fix that, people are going to start looking for someone dumber and less pragmatic. And if there are genuinely no rational solutions, you might as well sacrifice a chicken or two.

Glenn Beck is a huckster, but he's not just a huckster. He's a shaman. A white-bread witch doctor. He offers to solve his followers' problems with political voodoo. He's going to bring back the buffalo and make everyone impervious to bullets. He's going to make Obama disappear. He doesn't have real solutions, but he promises the illusion of solutions, and an illusion with no real solution looks better than no illusions and no solutions either.

Obama and his Administration can no longer appeal to "confidence" or "optimism" about the economy over the long run. Nobody pays their rent in the long run. And if the only solution people are offered is magical thinking, people are going to flock to those who can at least make that magical thinking entertaining. Obama is never going to beat our country's political witch doctors at their voodoo game.

Nor can Obama wait for the nation's economy to fix itself. The whole country can't bear to wait and do nothing. So if they're forced to wait, more and more people are going to gravitate to the magicians' tents and listen to what the magicians tell them. That has already started. And sooner rather than later, the magicians are going to tell them what every shaman or witch doctor says when their spells and and chants don't work fast enough: Someone must be interfering with the magic. Someone is keeping the spell from working. Then the magicians will send their followers to cast out the sinners, the witches, the evildoers responsible for the evil magic, and to punish them. And once that hunt begins things will happen that no reason can repair.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Deniers and Caretakers, Republicans and Democrats

cross-posted at Dagblog

American politics these days doesn't make a lot of sense if you expect people to act with sensible self-interest in mind. The Democrats, who were elected with large majorities after the other party's policies led the country to disaster, are apparently afraid to argue for their own policies. The Republicans, after suffering a resounding defeat because their policies led to disaster, have handed their party over to an angry faction that wants to push those failed policies even further. The Democrats can't win this way, and anything the Republicans win will come with a mandate to follow deeply unrealistic policies that will damage the country and ultimately enrage the electorate. "The best lack all conviction," as Yeats said, "while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."

But American politics makes more sense if you imagine our political establishment as a dysfunctional family: say, the family of a drunk or addict who can no longer work steadily. Like our country, addicts' families are consumed with the hope that the central problem will fix itself. Any day now, Daddy will stop drinking and start holding a job, and then everything will be happy, the way it used to be. Any day now, the economy will turn around, and there will be jobs and growth and profits for everyone. Like addicts' children, we look with pathetic hopefulness for any small sign of the impending miraculous turnaround. Daddy's been sober for two whole days! He even halfway apologized to me for that thing the other day! The stock market's up 200 points this week! Green shoots!

But Daddy (or Mommy) is never going to start coming home from work after just two beers. If s/he ever recovers from addiction, it will be a long and difficult process, and there's nothing anyone but the addict can do to make that recovery start. Neither is our economy going to replace all of the jobs it's lost in the next quarter, or the next eight quarters, through any natural cycle. Nor is victory, in any sense of the word, around any of Iraq and Afghanistan's many, many corners. None of these problems can be fixed quickly or easily, and none will fix themselves.

Of course, from outside, it looks like the addict's family should just get as far from that person as possible. It's true, they'd be better off without him or her. But there usually many reasons, some emotional and some practical, that make breaking away difficult or impossible. If both your parents are addicts who can't keep a job and you're twelve, you don't have a lot of good options. You don't even want the ones you have. Lots of people, for completely understandable reasons, prefer their own dysfunctional parents to foster care (which isn't always terrific). So kids with alcoholic or addicted parents choose two basic approaches to dealing with their unmanageable reality.

Many of the Republicans have chosen the denial strategy. Daddy is not a drunk! Everything is great! We. Are. A. Happy. Family. We just need to get out of the way of Wall Street, and let the free market do its work, and everything will be like old times, except better! Also, if we simply "persevere" in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will win completely. Except, hooray, we've already won! If you weren't so ungrateful, and would just appreciate Daddy a little bit more, there wouldn't be all this unhappiness!

Denial tends to carry with it an enormous amount of scapegoating. Denial is always very fragile, and facts are constantly threatening the illusion of happiness and tranquility that the deniers work so hard to maintain. That's why they tend to lash out in a rage at anyone who (even inadvertently) brings up any of the unbearable truths and thereby forces the denier to think about them. Those people are ruining things for everybody. On the other hand, Daddy or Mommy, who actually are ruining things for everybody, have to be lionized, because the alternative is just too hard to take. That also means Daddy's or Mommy's many failures need to be explained away, by off-loading them onto yet more scapegoats, who are off course merely "out to get" the addicted parent and by extension the family.

And there you have the Tea Party. They don't so much have a plan as they have rage and a need to put it somewhere. Dealing with the actual structural problems of our economy is off limits, and recognizing the actual causes of the crash and the current depression recession is too painful, so somebody else has to be for blame. Wham! Obama caused the recession! Illegal immigrants caused the recession! The stimulus caused the recession! You know how everything was going fine before the stimulus! This is all straightforward denial. Let's take our country back!!!

On the other hand, you have the Democrats, especially Obama and the rest of the party leadership, who take on the role of caretakers. Caretakers are the children (or the spouses, in cases where the spouse can't get the kids away from the addict) who take on responsibility for the family's survival, trying to work around the addict and avert the worst consequences of their addiction. They can't fix the underlying problems, but they can try to keep the house from being taken away and their younger siblings split up in foster homes. So maybe the caretaker kid tries to use his or her pay from bagging groceries to make sure the younger kids are fed. Maybe they lie to their parent's boss when the parent is too hung over to work and lie to the landlord when the rent's past due. Maybe they try to manage the family's food stamps or welfare check. Maybe they hide things to keep the addict from selling them. They almost always do their best to manage the addicted parent, to keep them more functional: making out rent checks to be signed, cleaning up their work clothes, trying to get them to work on time. (The great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth got taken out of school as a boy so he could go on tour with his actor father and keep him sober enough to perform.) In every case, the caretaker learns to work around the addicted parent's intractable and unreasonable moods, which can't be contradicted.

Obviously, this kind of caretaking lies firmly on the spectrum of behaviors called "enabling," because it allows the addict to continue being an addict. But it's unfair to ignore crucial distinctions and judge people, often minors, who are trying to protect young siblings and themselves. The shibboleth is that you need to let the addict bear the full weight of her or his own actions, but that weight doesn't just fall on the addict. A teenaged kid with a drunk father, three younger siblings, and an eviction notice on the door can't afford to get thrown on the street so Dad can have another chance at achieving clarity. She's going to keep her dysfunctional parent going as best he can for as long as he can, because she needs to.

So it is with Obama and many of the Congressional Democrats. The economy melted down two years ago and a number of influential people didn't want to do anything about it. So Obama accepted the caretaker's role, trying to fix what he could given his circumstances. He couldn't get a stimulus bill that would have fixed the economy through Congress, but if he didn't get any through Congress that was going to mean people out on the streets. So he accepted the smaller stimulus. The economy is still dysfunctional, and there's no way to fix its underlying problems, and it will still cause lots more misery. (That's one of the downsides of being a caretaker: even after you nearly kill yourself to fix one problem, your addict parent goes and creates another one a few weeks later. You lie to help them keep a job, or scrape to get their work car back from the tow yard, and next month they get fired anyway and total the car.) But at least Obama tried to limit the damage when he could.

"I did my best to limit the damage," isn't a winning slogan, and never will be. But the Democrats' failures are, by and large, the failures of basically responsible people trying to avert concrete and imminent bad results. It's easy to say that the Democrats should have gone bigger, staked everything on a large-scale economic recovery plan and forced the Republicans to vote it down. But saying that ignores that the Republicans and Blue Dogs almost stopped the stimulus that actually did pass, and proposing a larger, more sensible program would have meant no stimulus at all and an even deeper mess. It's easy to talk about what would be better in the long run, but no decent person finds it easy to make that kind of human sacrifice for a strictly hypothetical "long run."

It's easier still to simply scapegoat the caretaker for everything that goes wrong. If he's got all the answers, why aren't things better? Almost every dysfunctional family has its share of deniers who scapegoat the caretaker most of all. Because after all, the caretaker's incessant labors are also an incessant reminder that everything isn't right. Everything else aside, Obama will earn the wrath of the deniers simply by trying to help the economy. Because as long as he tries to fix it, he will be reminding people that it's broken.

None of this is to excuse Obama from his choices, or to take those choices out of context. He has always had a choice, legislative possibilities aside, in the economic advisers to whom he chose to listen. If he could never have gotten a larger stimulus package passed, he could still be taking advice from the economists who understand the true scale and scope of the problem, and who would argue for more bottom-up solutions designed to help middle Americans. Instead, he has consistently given ear to the Geithners and Bernankes and Summers, who recognize that things have gone drastically wrong but prescribe a series of smaller-bore solutions focused on preserving large firms and major investors. Some of their suggestions, such as using TARP to rescue General Motors, have worked admirably while others, such as HAMP, seem to have done very poorly. Obama has clearly chosen the advisers who urged him to save enough of Wall Street to keep it from taking all of Main Street with it, rather than those who urged him to save Main Street for Wall Street's long-term health.

Even this choice, though, seems largely an attempt to deal responsibly with the hand Obama has been dealt. The truth is, elected during an economic crisis he did not foresee even when he was accepting the nomination, and having little previous interest or knowledge of economic policy, Obama was forced to choose between two sets of experts. One set told him that things were bad, but that they could fix things and that they could fix them using the resources that Congress would be willing to appropriate or had already appropriated. The other set told him that things were far worse than that and there would need to be a massive series of interventions, starting with a massive stimulus that Congress would never be willing to approve. Obama chose the team that told him things could be fixed with the tools at hand; if the other team turned out to be right, there was nothing to be done about it. In the same way, if you give a fifteen-year-old kid who's the caretaker in a dysfunctional family a choice between a plan that relies on short-term fixes and a plan that involves getting her addict parent to quit drinking or drugging, she's going to go with the short-term plan. There's no way to make the other plan work anyway. And to be honest, from a policy maker's perspective attempting a fundamental fix on the economy is much, much scarier than listening to plans for tweaking it. The big interventions might seriously lead to dangerous places. Like kids in an abusive drunk's home, the Democrats aren't going to do anything drastic unless circumstances force them to.

But in the end, certain problems have to be dealt with. After we run out of all of the safe, reasonable fixes, it's drastic steps or failure. Denying the problems won't change that.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dear Right Wing: Is This War or Not?

cross-posted at Dagblog

How many times have we heard the phrase War on Terror over the last nine years? How many times have the very people who are now frothing and screaming about the Cordoba House community center (the alleged "Ground Zero Mosque") also screamed the words "War on Terror," and frothed at anyone who they felt was not acting (and I do mean acting) seriously enough about that "War?"

Now many of those very people have turned the serious business of dealing with Islamic terrorism into a clown show. And their hysterical shrieking about Cordoba House proves at least one of two things. Either the right wing doesn't really believe in the War on Terror or they don't care who wins.

The phrase "War on Terror" isn't my favorite, because our previous national Wars on Common Nouns, like the War on Poverty and War on Drugs, proved unwinnable, and because the phrase implies that terrorism can be fought mainly on a conventional battlefield, with tanks perhaps, which is exactly where terrorists cannot be defeated. But all the same, there is a real struggle here ... there is a violent international movement intent on murdering large numbers of Westerners, and they will attack the United States again if permitted. This is not propaganda cooked up to win elections. It is true, and it must be taken seriously. Using the War on Terror to gin up votes but actually setting us back in the War on Terror is an admission of complete moral depravity.

What does it mean to fight a war? Not a lot of shouting and hollering. This isn't a sporting event. Making the loud noises about wanting to win doesn't help us win.

Fighting a war, for real, means destroying the enemy's ability to do us harm. In conventional warfare, that means destroying their weapons, killing or capturing their troops, destroying their manufacturing and transportation infrastructure, and so on. Sometimes it's shooting down their bombers. Sometimes it's bombing their electrical plants so their anti-aircraft radar won't work. Sometimes it's destroying a bridge or a road so that they can't get reinforcements to the front. But it's always the same idea: destroy the enemy's ability to fight.

What al-Qaeda and its affiliates need to fight is money and recruits. Because they don't field conventional armies, they don't need much else. All they need to do their dirty work is the cash to fund operations and a fresh supply of people to keep carrying those operations out. So while we need to keep constant pressure on terrorist organizations as a defensive measure, defeating them will always involve disrupting their funding and recruiting.

Where do they go for donations and volunteers? To other Muslims who sympathize with the cause, but even among the minority of Muslims who do sympathize with them not every sympathizer will do. To keep going, al-Qaeda needs support from a certain slice of the Westernized Muslims, the affluent and educated people who can contribute to their missions and who can operate in the West itself. (You can't just pick a bunch of illiterate kids off the street in Peshawar and mount an international attack; the September 11 attacks required a bunch of German-educated engineering students, all of whom had to be sacrificed in the attack.)

Where bin Laden gets fresh money and fresh blood is from the belief among educated and relatively cosmopolitan Muslims that the West is fundamentally hostile to them. Calling Islam a religion "dedicated to murder" and calling Allah a "monkey God" is a damned good way to achieve Bin Laden's goals. Attacking Cordoba House tells Muslims around the world exactly what Bin Laden tells them: Muslims are unwelcome in the West, and we are out to destroy their faith. Except now Muslims are hearing Bin Laden's propaganda out of our own mouths.

That isn't symbolism. That has real practical effects. It means al-Qaeda will have more money to spend on killing us, and more promising young men to send on terrorist missions. That's a real difference. And if there's anything I learned on September 11, it's how a big a difference there is between a plane with five terrorists on it and a plane with four.

If we're actually trying to win the War on Terror, the question of what to do about Cordoba House is a no-brainer. Build it, dummy! Build it! It's the best move possible! It says "Bin Laden is wrong," in big letters that can be read around the world. And every time Bin Laden is proved wrong, some people will decide not to die for him.

Building Cordoba House is also the right thing to do in terms of preserving our Constitution, honoring the rule of law, and staying Americans. Those are important things. But it also happens to be the right thing to do to fight Islamic terrorism. What can be better than honoring the Founders and reaffirming our values while also giving bin Laden a swift kick in his undisclosed location? I say it's a win/win, baby.

Osama bin Laden wants to kill Westerners because he is afraid of the Muslim world becoming Westernized. Full stop. He doesn't simply "hate us for our freedoms," not enough to give up his whole life to wage terror campaigns against us. Americans exercising their freedom in Iowa and California and New Jersey might strike him as a bunch of loathsome infidels, but wouldn't really be worth bothering about. What frightens and enrages him is the prospect of Muslims getting those freedoms too. That hits him where he lives. That is what he's willing to commit mass murder to stop. He's afraid of an Islamic world where faith coexists with liberal secular values, where the West is a constant ally and partner, and where reason and moderation are not only mainstream Islamic values but become thoroughly unassailable core values of daily life. He is afraid that we will welcome his fellow Muslims into the West and assimilate them.

The thing he fears is the thing that we should do. We will win the War on Terror when the Muslim world is forced to choose between our embrace and bin Laden's raving hatred.

We can win by opening Cordoba House. If Obama goes to the grand opening, that's better. We can win by closing Guantanamo. Tomorrow would be a good day for that. Closing Camp X-Ray will help our cause more than anything else we could do, including capturing or killing Bin Laden. We can win by strengthening Westward-looking Muslims everywhere and by reaching out to them. Stop telling Muslims that we despise their faith. Stop telling them that they can't really assimilate, and stop telling them that their efforts to assimilate have not been enough. And talk about their faith with a little shred of decency and respect, instead of shrieking and frothing like some lunatic hatemonger in the mountains around Peshawar. They've heard plenty from that guy. We should not sound like him.

It's time to get serious. This is war.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Judicial "Overreach" Since 1783

cross-posted at dagblog

The inevitable talking point about Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case overturning Proposition 8, is that it's "judicial overreach." Reason snaps together the prefabricated argument here. For the last generation at least, the allegedly "conservative" position is that judges should not be allowed to "make law" or to defy the will of the voters by ensuring justice or allowing equal protection under the law. Apparently, the self-described "conservative" position is that the judicial branch does not have equal Constitutional authority with the other two branches, the plain text of the Constitution notwithstanding. Obviously these complaints aren't about genuine conservative principle. And for those who complain about the "tyranny" of lawfully appointed judges, guided by centuries of common law, I have one question:

How do people think slavery got outlawed in this country?

We all know how it got outlawed in the South, through the bloodshed and destruction of the Civil War. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about how slavery was abolished in the North.

We never talk about that. It's easier to imagine that the Northern colonies were always slave-free, from the moment that the Pilgrims got to Plymouth Rock. That's a flattering story for Northerners, and dwelling on the unflattering details would only cast yet more unflattering light on the South, which didn't even manage the slow, grudging abolition that took place in the North. So we all conspire in tactful silence. But here are the facts:

In 1776, slavery was legal in all thirteen of the American colonies. Every one of them.

In 1787, during the Constitutional Convention, slavery was legal in twelve states. Twelve. Sure, slavery was unpopular in the Northern states. It was relatively rare. But it was still legal. Which state's voters had decided that "all men are created equal" actually meant what it said, and outlawed human bondage?

None of them. It wasn't the voters.

Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts by the court decision Commonwealth v Jennison, handed down in 1783. Judicial overreach, my friends. Judicial overreach by some judge in Massachusetts. What is this country coming to?

Should the judge have waited? Should the judge have waited for some referendum, or some vote by the state legislature? Would that have avoided "backlash?" If he had, then a man named Quock Walker, a living human being who had been attacked and brutally beaten with a cane, would have been handed over to his attacker as a slave. The judge had to choose between Walker's freedom and the voters' mood. No contest, I say.

If the courts had to wait for the voters to correct injustice and uphold basic equality, Quock Walker would never have been free. The voters were quite content to let just a few people be held in slavery (or what seemed like a few if you didn't happen to be one of them) rather than make a fuss. Should the courts weigh the public's aversion to controversy more heavily then an individual's rights? No contest, I say.

Let's be frank: when people claim about judicial overreach, they are complaining about courts protecting people's rights. Have you ever heard about "judicial overreach" limiting someone's freedom of speech, or depriving defendants of the right to a trial? No, the complaints come when other Americans get their rights. The people complaining about "judicial overreach" are angry that black schoolkids get to go to desegregated schools. They are angry that Americans can get a lawyer before they're forced to sign a criminal confession. They're angry that black Americans and white Americans can get married without asking the neighbors for permission.

At this point I'd like to quote that dangerous raving lefty, George Washington:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.

Washington isn't worried that courts will overreach by protecting citizens' inherent natural rights even when the rest of the voters don't happen to be feeling tolerant or indulgent. He expects those natural rights to be protected, whether the majority feels like it or not.

When people get angry about judges overreaching, remember this: those people are angry that you have rights. They don't want you to have rights that are unconditionally or absolutely your own. They want your freedom of religion and speech and assembly, your freedom to marry and raise children and think your own thoughts, to be privileges that can be taken away from you, gifts from the neighbors that they can take back if they don't like how you use them. And of course rights that you can't use without permission aren't rights at all. The people who complain about meddling judges are complaining because they want the power to meddle with you. What they want is the power to nullify your rights, whichever rights they please, anytime they can get 50.1% of the neighbors to agree.

It's not judicial overreach but voter overreach that menaces our freedom. When a majority of voters, however large or however slender, decides that they can take away the rights of their fellow citizens with a vote, they are overreaching. When voters decide that their personal comfort or discomfort or their own traditional beliefs outweigh someone else's right to marry as they choose or be paid for their honest labor or worship the God in which they believe, those voters have overreached. My rights are mine, and yours are yours. They do not expire on election day, and I do not need your votes to renew them. When I decide to get married, there are going to be exactly two people who get a vote about that. And if you don't like who I choose, I have two words for you, neighbor: sue me.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Undermining Traditional Marriage (Amen!)

cross-posted at Dagblog

A judge has overturned California’s Proposition 8 as unconstitutional, because it is, and our country has moved one more step toward making marriage a universal right. Those who want marriage rights restricted will complain that this decision “undermines traditional marriage,” and in a way they’re correct. It does. And that's a good thing.

Don't get me wrong: heterosexual marriage will be fine. No one is going to prevent opposite-sex partners from marrying or interfere in straight relationships. This is why all those complaints about "undermining marriage" sound so strange and irrational, because straight people's right to marry is in no danger and the idea that someone else's marriage can undermine one's own is clearly illogical. But when marriage restrictionists say that same-sex marriages undermine "the institution of marriage" or "traditional marriage" or "marriage," they don't actually mean heterosexual marriage. They mean a specific kind of heterosexual marriage. They mean a "traditional" marriage where both partners are required to play stereotypical gender roles. "Marriage is between a man and a woman," is a code phrase. It means, "Marriage is between a man playing the traditional masculine role and a woman playing the traditional feminine role."

The key to this code is no secret. The religious groups who campaign most ferociously for restrictions on marriage are the same groups who promote wives' "godly submission" to their husbands. Many explicitly describe marriage with terms like "dominance," "authority," and "submission," and a few will come right out with terms like "hierarchy" and even "patriarchy." They purport that such dominance and submission and hierarchy are "ordained by God." Others will say that hierarchy is part of a natural order. The more euphemistic denominations resort to "complementarianism," with genteel rhapsodies about how men and women were created equal, of course, but also "fundamentally different," with each made to fill its own "complementary" equal-but-separate role. (Translation: women get to be "equal" by doing what their husbands say. Some deal, huh?)

If that's what you mean by "traditional marriage," then it's obvious why same-sex marriages feel threatening to you. There's no way that a marriage between two men or two women can stick to the old patriarchal arrangements. Show me a marriage between two men, and I'll show you at least one husband who does the dishes. Show me a marriage between two women, and I'll show you at least one wife who makes the financial decisions. Even when a same-sex marriage happens to include one spouse who tends to dominate the partnership and a spouse who acquiesces to that dominance, those roles can't be typecast by gender. They're expressions of individual personalities, not secondary sex characteristics. And of course many marriages just dispense with the old hierarchical patterns completely, as something unnecessary and unhealthy. Every same-sex marriage is living evidence that marriage does not have to be the way the traditionalists say. The man does not have to be in charge. The woman does not need to obey. If you have that old-fashioned arrangement, you're free to do so, but that's just your preference.

That's where the "undermining" thing comes in, and the rage and the fear. Freedom to conduct their own marriages in their own way, obedient to their own beliefs, is not enough for the marriage-restriction crowd. They need the rest of us, gay or straight, to actively affirm their values and world view. Whenever we do not, it is perceived as an attack on their values. Because of course part of the ideology of "traditional" marriage is that it is the only kind of marriage that can succeed. The husband and wife are kept to their "ordained" roles, no matter how poorly they fit or how much the old patterns of submission and domination and hierarchy damage their shared lives, by the fear that nothing else will work. Religious conservatives know all too well that most people, given a choice, will decide that "traditional" patriarchal marriage is a pretty bad deal. It's obviously a rotten deal for the women, and given enough time plenty of men can figure out that they're happier and better off with a marriage that's more like an equal partnership than a deranged remnant of feudalism. So the "traditionalists" have to insist that married couples have no choices, that it's men's authority and women's submission or chaos is come again. Without their mythology, without the idea that there's only one model that works, there's no way to keep people buying what they're selling.

If the people ranting against marriage rights truly believed that same-sex marriages were unhealthy or unworkable, they wouldn't be upset by them. That would be a lovely teachable moment for their cause. ("See what happens when you disobey God's laws?") No. They're frightened and furious because deep down they know that same-sex marriages do work, and because as universal marriage rights spread more and more people in more and more places will see more and more successful marriages that don't bother with the old gender rules at all. They are terrified that people will see marriages with two happy husbands or two happy wives. Because on the day that happens, the "traditional" marriage will be revealed as one option out of many, and that option will only be attractive when it makes both partners happy. The traditionalists know that's a competition that traditional marriage can't win.

So please, my soon-to-be-married friends, undermine away. Show the whole world how well marriage works without a patriarch or a handmaiden. And please accept my thanks, from the bottom of my hetero heart, for helping the world see that truth a little more clearly. I know this struggle is about your rights and not about giving straights some opportunity to learn and grow, but the fight for universal marriage helps the straights, too, and so deserves our gratitude. Thank you for helping men who want to marry women and women who want to marry men free ourselves from those old ingrained roles just a little bit more. Thank you for bearing witness to the many kinds of marriages that can survive and thrive. Thank you for reminding us that the roles we take inside a marriage aren't about our genders but our choices. Thanks for undermining traditional marriage and bless you for it. You're doing the Lord's work.