Saturday, October 11, 2008

Withdrawing for Cause?

This morning’s news is depressing: --

A majority of Florida voters in a new WESH 2 News Mason-Dixon Poll said they plan to vote in favor of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. The amendment will require approval from 60 percent of state voters in order to become law. While the current support level is below that threshold, historical trends suggest it will pass. "In other ballot amendment and initiative votes on gay rights issues taken in other states, undecided voters have generally broken strongly in the direction of the politically incorrect, anti-gay position," Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Managing Director J. Bradford Coker said.

I’ve been hoping that the measure would fall short. It is close both here and in California where a mere majority is required for the same measure on that state’s ballot. I keep hoping that perhaps this time the voters will reject the cheap demagoguery and appeals to their fears that such measures always entail. Maybe this time, the voters will do the right thing, the thing they know deep in their souls to be right.

But I also fear the permission that the darkness of the voting booth provides low consciousness if not overtly xenophobic voters to vent their spleens. As Mr. Coker suggests above, undecided voters often follow their gut, the realm of irrational and uncritically examined instincts. And it is precisely in this realm where Jung’s shadow dwells that the unexamined homophobia needed to pass Amendment 2 in Florida and Amendment 8 in California reside. It’s also the psychic septic tank where the racism of many white voters - operating in the shadow cast by the halo effect which prompts survey respondents to provide socially acceptable answers in public – may well provide the fodder for their decision to vote against Barack Obama despite the fact he is clearly the leader America needs now to take us in a new direction.

The fact this amendment is even close is a far cry from the overwhelming racist response to a proposition on the 1972 ballot in which Florida’s racist voters rose in force to vote through an anti-busing resolution. The measure had been placed on the ballot by Machiavellian conservatives who sought to draw out the racist vote as a means of supporting presidential candidate George Wallace. It worked. Wallace won Florida’s Democratic primary and despite heroic efforts by then-governor Reuben Askew, the anti-busing measure passed by more than 70%.

There’s a part of me that wants to believe that this state I have loved so many years - despite its history of xenophobia - has finally grown up. But here we are, 36 years later and the same kinds of irrational, unexamined arguments are being offered to sacrifice yet one more outgroup to the tribal god of misanthropy. And while I know everyone will not agree with this statement, I do not chalk this up to ignorance. Rather, I believe that deep down, Floridians know it is wrong to amend their constitution to enshrine prejudice and discrimination. We know better even if we have come to believe our own rationalizations and effectively repressed what our consciences are telling us.

The notion that a state would even presume the right to take a vote to single out a portion of its own citizenry for discrimination is ludicrous. Imagine how strange it would be to suggest that we have a statewide vote on banning heterosexuals from being married. It reminds me of the racist ”surveys” that circulated in my high school back in 1967 when the schools finally desegregated: “Do you favor sending the niggers (sic) back to Africa?” The same kind of paternalistic presumption is in place: that the majority somehow has the right to dispose of the minority in its presence.

Alexis de Tocqueville warned against this nearly 200 years ago when he observed in the young America a tendency to engage in what he called the “tyranny of the majority” – the willingness of the majority to use its numerical strength to act at the expense of its minorities. Henry David Thoreau described the problem well in his famous essay on “Civil Disobedience”:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is NOT because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? – in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expedience is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, on in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?

Thoreau was correct. Might can never make right, particularly when that might is used to harm those within one’s society who are politically vulnerable. Indeed, the use of superior electoral strength to harm the politically vulnerable is little more than predatory politics and makes a mockery of the fundamental justice that a true democracy requires.

This is where pollster Coker is wrong above (and his ability to provide objective interpretation of polling data thus drawn into question). A vote on an amendment which will strip rights away from whole classes of human beings is not a failure of political correctness – a rather simplistic explanation at best -and mischaracterizing the vote this way both reveals much about the agenda of the pollster at the same time it does little to elucidate what is actually happening. Rather, the willingness of a majority in a democracy to deprive its resident minority of basic human rights is a failure of that people to live into their own highest standards – of liberty and justice for all.

Indeed, in its most basic sense, political correctness is the imposition of an understanding by force and the repression of any contrary positions. What could be a more classic example of political correctness than a straight, moralistic (though not moral) majority protecting its privilege by imposing the burden of that privilege on a minority unable to defend its most basic human rights – here, the right to have marital relationships legally protected – and placing that burden out of reach of future reformers (assuming Florida will one day grow up) by enshrining it in the state constitution?

Last night in wake of this news Andy and I talked once again about the possibility of becoming expatriates. “We could live in Spain,” he said knowing I cannot tolerate a cold climate and how much I love Spanish culture (and the fact that Spain recognizes same sex marriages). But as I lay awake last night thinking of leaving this home we have just reclaimed after four years of hurricane repairs and the family and friends we love, I just don’t know if I could ever seriously consider leaving Florida even as I find my feelings about my home state shifting from loving it despite its shortcomings to holding its inveterate stupidity and immaturity as a culture in contempt.

So how does one respond to tyranny? Can one withdraw their consent to a social contract in which the government has failed to do its part to protect the rights of all its contractual members? Can one withdraw their support for a government which has become tyrannical without actually leaving the jurisdiction? What does one do with a life of engaging the world as teacher, lawyer and priest in hopes of making this place a better place in the wake of tyranny which relegates you to second class citizenship? Does one turn inward, curtailing one’s involvement with the outside world, letting go of hopes and dreams now dashed by a wave of stupidity and fear? What might resistance to the tyranny of the majority mean?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

No comments: