Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Salman Rushdie and gay marriage walk into a blog . . .

When a thing happened that had not happened before, a confusion often descended upon people, a fog that fuddled the clearest minds; and often the consequence of such confusion was rejection, and even anger.  A fish crawled out of a swamp onto dry land and the other fish were bewildered, perhaps even annoyed that a forbidden frontier had been crossed.  A meteorite struck the earth and the dust blocked out the sun but the dinosaurs went on fighting and eating, not understanding that they had been rendered extinct.  The birth of language angered the dumb.  The shah of Persia, facing the Ottoman guns, refused to accept the end of the age of the sword and sent his cavalry to gallop suicidally against the blazing cannons of the Turk.  A scientist observed tortoises and mockingbirds and wrote about random mutation and natural selection and the adherents of the Book of Genesis cursed his name.  A revolution in painting was derided and dismissed as mere impressionism.  A folksinger plugged his guitar into an amp and a voice in the crowd shouted “Judas!”
                             - Joseph Anton, A Memoir (p. 343), by Salman Rushdie

So writes a man who spent more than ten years in hiding in fear for his life because someone in Iran didn’t like a book he wrote.  He should know.  

For those of us who remember 1989 quite clearly (it was the year I graduated from college, moved into an apartment, got a job and started paying rent), the issuance of a fatwa by the Ayatollah Khomeini decreeing that Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses was "blasphemous against Islam" and, therefore, that Rushdie should die, was a startling lesson in just how small the modern world has become.  That illegitimate and oppressive governments in China, the former Soviet Union and numerous banana republics banned or censored books and jailed their own citizens for perceived cultural, artistic and political infractions was well known, but that a religious leader in one country might seek to impose an extraterritorial death sentence on a citizen of another country (and offer a bounty to anyone willing to carry it out) was something altogether different.  And all over a novel.  It was so .  . . so . . . harsh.  

And un-American. [1]

The fatwa issued against Rushdie, of course, is not the only child born of the fecund ancestral parents of ignorance and fear.  There is a long lineage to be traced, with the same cracked teeth and crooked smiles recognizable across cultures and generations.  We all know the family.  The paperwork goes back in this country at least to Salem in the 1690s.  The more recent branches of the family have included notable figures such as George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy, Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly, and of course, the present-day heirs Jan Brewer, Fred Phelps, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Rick Santorum and the "rapey" twins -- Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock -- to mention just a few.

The family business, it seems, is one of prescriptive (and proscriptive) line-drawing.  They like to get out their cans of moral paint and draw thick lines around society, telling everyone just where the line is, why they are the ones to draw it, and why it most certainly cannot be drawn in any other place.

Indeed, the self-appointed moral line drawers have always wanted to hold the line right where it is, convinced that, though we have moved the line in the past, it is finally in the right place and need not be moved any further.  Yes, we moved it to end slavery and we moved it to give women the vote and we moved it to permit interracial marriage and we moved it to eliminate Jim Crow and segregation and we moved it to allow women to have equal access to athletics and we moved it to provide access to birth control and legalize abortion and we moved it to allow gays in the military, but NOW, NOW I PROMISE YOU it is really in the right place.  Really and truly we have it right this time.  We have drawn the line right where it should be and to even think about moving it further is to consider the end of Western Civilization As We Know It.  Move the line?  Might as well just drop nuclear bombs on ourselves.  Same result.

One senses and suspects that the puritanical line painters are just plum tired of painting over the old lines and moving 10 yards down the road to paint a new one only to repeat the process over and over again.  "Is there no one we can marginalize and discriminate against through legislation?  Are we never to have something or someone to fear and demonize  -- our very own Rushdie -- ever again?"

Ah, but there is.  Rest assured, my line-drawing friends, your quarry has not escaped.

[Enter gay marriage, stage left.] 

Yes, gay marriage is the answer to a weary moral line drawer's prayers.  Because clearly this time the fucking line (or the line regarding fucking) simply cannot be moved.  As with most fervent line drawing, the line drawers are certain of the accuracy of this line's location based on at least two unassailable principles: (a) my religion says so, and (b) I am uncomfortable with gayness in any amount.   But assail I shall, because neither of these rationales can survive even modest scrutiny. 

Although marriage may have religious meaning for many, or even dual meaning (secular and religious), the reality is that the piece of paper you received when you got married was issued by the state.  By your government.  Not by your church.  (Go look.  I'll wait.)  That's right, Virginia, what you really got when you got married was special legal status in the eyes of your government.  True, your state and federal governments have chosen to include religious marriages among the types of marriage that they will recognize -- and religious marriages may even be the most popular type of marriage -- but that is different than marriage being the exclusive provenance of the church or solely a religious construct.  

Take me, for example.  I'm married and went nowhere near a church or religious official during my wedding.  I said "I do" in the beautiful Minnesota History Center in a ceremony officiated by a family friend who happened to be a judge.  And as Hollywood likes to remind us, thousands of us drop-by city hall for a quickie wedding with a justice of the peace or take advantage of the $40 drive-thru wedding at the world-famous A Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas.  (Hello?  Was I the only one who paid attention to The Hangover?)  So clearly, marriage is not only a religious institution and indeed it can be a completely non-religious event and occasion. While you can choose to have a religious wedding, you can mostly certainly choose not to have a religious wedding and still be just as married.  

But the best part of all for those with religious objections to gay marriage is this: when state and federal governments uniformly recognize gay marriage (and I say "when" because that day most certainly will come), absolutely nothing will change for the proponents of religious marriage and/or opponents of gay marriage.  Zippo.  Nada.  Zilch.  Any marriage that you already have will not suddenly become gay.  If you are not married, you will not be forced to get a gay marriage.  You will not even be forced to attend one.  Your church, synagogue, temple or mosque will not be required to perform them AND you can continue hating and fearing homosexuals and their unions as much as you want.  Truly.  (One of the best things about us lefties is that we still look out for you on the right, even though you don't do the same for us.)  

As for the second rationale ("I can't handle the gay"), this is admittedly a harder nut to crack, so to speak.  First, this is less often an overtly stated rationale for opposition, though a few brave warriors have been willing to stake out explicitly anti-homosexual territory.  (See, e.g., Michelle and Marcus Bachmann, Pat RobertsonJerry Falwell and  Fred Phelps.)  Still, for many this is an unsurfaced but real influence on their view of gay marriage.  Not only are they uncomfortable with gayness, they are even uncomfortable acknowledging or admitting that they are uncomfortable.

But democracy, if you truly believe in it and support it, does not guarantee your comfort.  (Indeed, don't we have a presidential candidate running an entire campaign against "the takers?"  Those nasty, greedy, lazy people who want outrageous comforts like health care if they are sick and food if they are hungry and shelter if they are homeless.  You know the kind of people we're talking about.   People like war veterans, the elderly, the disabled, students and other scum.)

Democracy does not guarantee, much less require, that you like your fellow citizens or agree with the way they live their lives or the choices they make so that you will be more comfortable.  In fact, as we are reminded in painful detail during an election year, there is a lot we don't like about each other already.  For example, I would be more comfortable in a world without Jay Leno, Playboy Magazine and the music of Lady Antebellum.  I also don't like guns, Nascar and any beer with the words "Miller" Bud" or "Lite" on the label.  So you wanna know what I do?  I don't watch Leno, don't buy Playboy and most certainly don't listen to Lady Antebellum.  I also don't own a gun, don't watch Nascar and refuse to let watery beer cross my lips.  I exercise my right to curate my own life.  To include things that matter and avoid things that irritate (though admittedly as long as other people insist on driving on my roads the latter goal will be unachievable.)

And that's the thing about gay marriage or any marriage.  No matter how much you try to make it about you (and there is a long tradition of bridesmaids wanting to upstage the bride, I'll remind you), it really isn't about you unless it's your wedding.  It doesn't require you to take any action or endorse anyone else's decision.  Marriage, when you really think about it, is just a legal status.  It is a way of raising your hands, waiving them at the state and saying, "hey, we want to be a family, o.k?"  And the state says, "o.k.  If you guys want to be a family then we will require that you be responsible for each other and take care of each other.  And for that, we will extend to you a certain legal status in matters of property rights, insurance, health care, and taxes, among other things."  It's really that simple.  Gay marriage is about your chosen family, just as any other marriage is.

"Ah, but the children," you say.  "We don't really have anything against lesbians and gays per se, but the children, you see.  We need to think about the children.  Marriage is about children."

Yes, yes.  People love to invoke the children, apparently under the mistaken belief that saying the word "children" is like kryptonite to the forces of logic, fairness and common sense.  But I call bullshit on that argument.  Marriage is not about children.   How can I say that?  Hmmm, let's see:

(1) you aren't required to have children if you are married;
(2) your marriage doesn't become null and void if you do not have children;
(3) you can have children without being married;
(4) you can have children with more than one other person;
(5) you can adopt a child if you are not married; and
(6) we do absolutely nothing to qualify people for raising children.

That's how I know.  You can be an asshole and have kids or get drunk and get yourself or someone else pregnant.  We really care very, very little about how children happen.  Just so long as there is no gay sex in the house, though, then everything should work out just fine.

Sounds like a fine bit of confusion and discomfort and tuckered-out line painters to me.  So again, I find Rushdie's experience and wisdom informative:
At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses, . . . behind all the accusations and abuse, was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story?  Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told?  For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives.  The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third.  As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power.  We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirize them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times.  We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically or however we chose.  That was our right as members of an open society.  In fact, one could say that our ability to re-tell and re-make the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free.
(Joseph Anton, A Memoir, p. 360.)  

Rock on, gay storytellers.  Rock on.

  [1]  But of course, even the great liberty proclaiming American democracy has a seamy history of banning artistic expression in the hope of avoiding an awkward introduction to new ideas, too.  On a prominent list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, 46 of them have been widely challenged or banned right here in the United States:  

1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
11. Lolita, by Vladamir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
15. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
26. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
27. Native Son, by Richard Wright
28. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
29. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
30. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
33. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
36. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
38. All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren
40. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
45. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
48. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
49. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
50. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin
53. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
55. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
57. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron
64. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
66. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
67. A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
73. Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs
74. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
75. Women in Love, by D.H. Lawrence
80. The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
84. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
88. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
97. Rabbit, Run, by John Updike]