Thursday, December 11, 2008

United we fall

Nice to see that the gay marriage issue has finally been laid to rest in the US. The people have spoken, the decision is made, now we can all...

... pardon? Jon Stewart grills Mike Huckabee over... gay marriage?

I saw that interview last night. Both sides are predictably, and pointlessly, claiming victory. Stewart won because Huckabee couldn't refute his argument that marriage has been redefined many times without "breaking" anything. Huckabee won because Stewart couldn't refute his argument that the American people have rejected "gay marriage" by a substantial margin every time they've been asked.

When the decisive argument against a party calling itself "Democratic" is that "the majority doesn't agree with you", you have to wonder: what's wrong with this picture? "Ah", the Democrats would say. "That's not democracy, that's populism." (Which is what we call democracy when the majority doesn't agree with us.)

But there is a valid human-rights argument here. Why should gay people have less legal rights than straight people?

Good question, and one that goes to the heart of what marriage is. Is it, or should it be, a right? If so, whose right?

"Human right" is no answer. You can't argue for universal marriage rights unless you're prepared to defend polygamists, polyandrists, paedophiles, and Muslims who think that "divorce" is something that happens when a husband tells his wife "I divorce you" three times. Any lesser position than that, and you're accepting arbitrary limits on what marriages should and shouldn't be recognised. (Talking of which, I look forward to the debate, possibly in my lifetime, on whether androids should be allowed to marry.)

Where do "human rights" come from? The American Declaration of Independence says they're "Endowed by their Creator", which makes an uncomfortable starting point for atheists. Most formulations have confined themselves to listing "things that rulers aren't supposed to do to their subjects", although they've mostly been pretty weak on enforcement. The only position that makes sense is that "human rights, in any given society, are what that society says they are".

I have a friend, an old and close friend in the UK, who takes his religion very seriously. He says:
"I don't mind if gays want to live together. Let 'em, it's no skin off my nose. Give them the tax breaks, the next-of-kin rights, let them adopt kids, why not. Only don't call it 'marriage'."
I'm not quite sure why he feels so strongly about the word as distinct from the condition. But apparently he's not alone. Because that's precisely what the UK has done -- following the footsteps of New Zealand and dozens of other countries. And gays, by and large, seem to be content with it.

But not all of them. There's still a vocal minority who feel that nothing less than "marriage" will do. And it seems that that minority has hijacked the debate in the USA, and is keeping any hint of compromise in the form of "civil partnerships" firmly out of the limelight.

At this point, I say -- get over it. "Civil union" addresses the "human rights" issue. It's a compromise; if it's put to the vote, it will attract enough centrists to pass -- and stick. But if you insist on going for broke, you'll never have peace -- the issue will be back again on every ballot for fifty years.

Or is that what they really want? Perhaps "human rights" and "defence of marriage" are two names for the same smokescreen, all that both sides really want is to turn out their voters so they can get or hold power.

Now that I think of it, that looks more than likely.

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