In Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man, which has been revived and is currently running on Broadway, the presidential candidate William Russell is asked about his standing in the polls. He responds, “I don’t believe in polls. Accurate or not. And if I may bore you with one of my little sermons: life is not a popularity contest; and neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.”
In the same sex marriage debate, most politicians in the UK and the US are ignoring what should be a fundamental truth in a functioning democracy. Instead of educating people about the issue, which is an issue of equal rights, they are turning to polls, and acting as if rights should be put to the vote rather than be determined by fair play. The outstanding exception proved to be the US President, Barack Obama, who said in an interview with ABC, “it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
Obama’s historic declaration followed the vote in North Carolina to pass a constitutional ban on same sex marriage and civil unions. The wording of the ballot made sure that marriage was “the only domestic legal union that shall be valid”. In others words, that will bring an end to common law rights for heterosexual couples as well. This in turn followed the exclusion of same sex marriage from the Conservative government’s political agenda, as outlined in the Queen’s Speech. After the heavy losses in the local government elections last week, the Conservatives played the blame game, and so the same sex marriage rights that had been on the table before the election were excluded. Politics is being played with rights, and that is deplorable.
There is a trend in political commentary to deflect the argument away from rights and toward money. A loaded article in the Washington Post all but concludes that Obama’s support of same sex marriage is down to the fact that key campaign contributors are gay. So much for Jefferson’s “equal rights for all, special privileges for none”. It must be about money. The same argument was circulating last month in the UK press, and questioning whether the Prime Minister’s support for same sex marriage was financially motivated. And then of course there is the opinion of the MP Nadine Dorries, who thinks that only “metro elite gay activists” want equal marriage rights…
The dread Bristol Palin, of the challenged Palin clan, also lashed out at Obama. While this is no surprise, her rhetoric neatly sums up the opposing argument, which is not so much an argument as prejudice in democratic drag. She obsesses over Obama saying that talking the issue over of same sex marriage with his daughters changed his mind.
“Sometimes dads should lead their family in the right ways of thinking. In this case, it would’ve been nice if the President would’ve been an actual leader and helped shape their thoughts instead of merely reflecting what many teenagers think after one too many episodes of Glee.”
If she had listened to the ABC interview, she would have heard Obama talk about the evolution of his thinking over the years. This is what he said:
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbours when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
Obama may have dressed his support in terms of patriotism and traditional values, but that is simply astute politics. Palin’s objections are a childish, intolerant whine in comparison.
It is hard to speculate on what happens now, but the fact that a sitting US President has declared his support is a monumental step forward. If we could only now get journalists to stop calling it “gay marriage”, and instead use the term same sex marriage or equal marriage. Only then can it become marriage, with no labels necessary.