Speak to me, Muse. Sing about a continent spawned in chaos, sustained by the wild and untamed hope of tomorrow. Tell me of the promises made to the tired, the poor, the weak. Rage about the day that never came, the night that beckons, how a city on a hill became a fortress, frightened, unable to chart a course from one day to the next. Tell me of America, the land of discordant dreams hard pressed against truths we cannot face.
Tell me, Muse. What land is this? What new world dawns amid those afraid to hope? Tell me the dream has not died. Tell me lies; make me believe. I do believe; help thou my unbelief.
The song you heard last week during Supreme Court arguments about gay marriage was new wine being poured into old skins. The old skins were straining, about to break. But the justices could not see it. They cannot hear it. A new world is bursting at the seams of the old. We are dumbstruck, deaf and blind before the fury unfolding in our midst.
The fact is there is no principled reason to prohibit gay marriage other than the weight of tradition. To suggest that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for the purpose of procreation is to mock the bonds that tie those unable, or unwilling, to conceive a child. It is to suggest that what sanctifies marriage is the blind rutting of beasts in heat, making a sacrament of blind necessity.
Forget for the moment the turgid abstractions of justice. On the one hand, we respect the rights of states to decide; on the other, a nation of many states requires uniform laws. We still chant federalism’s hymns as though the world never changes; we still pay homage to a founding generation dead now for generations, the custodians of a world expired.
I watched the debates about gay marriage as though I were attending the wake of a stranger. I recognized the participants. I understood the arguments. High constitutional principle was at stake. But there was a mournful irrelevance to it all. The court can no more police the bonds of affection, the real law of life, than it can make water flow up hill.
The court must decide whether to treat all people as equal, or to insist that accidental distinctions without difference shall remain the law of the land. At the end of the day, the only argument in favor of bans on same-sex marriage came down to the simple assertion that it has always been so. It brought to mind those who used the Bible and Aristotle to justify slavery in the antebellum South.
What really seems to be at stake in the gay marriage debate is what vision of the future shall bind us as a people. We gave birth to the promise of freedom amid the keeping of slaves. We then promised equality to all men, but failed to recognize women. We held the doors to the land open to all, until the competition for the fruits of the earth got too keen, all the while treating the land’s original owners as little more than animals. Even now, we spawn riches for few while ignoring the multitude in need — did you notice the record highs of the stock market last week? Or is your home in foreclosure?
Our bluff is being called in the gay marriage cases. Full equality for all can be denied by legal artifice. Judges are good at that. A judiciary that wants to avoid an issue can declare that the parties lack standing, that the issues are not ripe for adjudication. The court’s unwillingness to give good reasons for an endorsement of inequality puts it on a collision course with irrelevance. Yes, it can make binding and final judgments about the law, but when the law fails to respond to the felt necessity of the times, the law itself loses its moral suasion.
Everywhere and often in this land of principle we have been happy hypocrites. Our social contract was signed by generation after generation of people wearing blinders: Sign on the dotted line, but don’t look too close at the words. Reality can make a mockery of ideals. I saw nine uneasy consciences on the court last week. They looked at the language of our dreams, and blinked.
I could not care less about the libidinal compasses guiding my neighbors. The state has no business policing bedrooms or the bonds of affection. My marriage is not diminished because others choose a different way of life.
But culture wars rage. What is really at stake in the silly fights over who can live with whom under cloak of marriage?
An old world has passed. Ask the Republicans, busily trying to remake themselves after finally realizing that you can hold a majority of old, white male votes in this nation and still lose a general election. Ask the folks at Home Depot, who recently remade all the signs marking the aisles in their stores so that they now read in English and Spanish. Mitt Romney’s America, the land of mom, dad, and a nuclear family revolving around its singular of vision of domestic bliss, is a thing of the past. How much of the right’s hatred of the federal government is fueled by its bitter nostalgia over this paradise lost?
What say you, Muse? Can we remake ourselves, cast our image in new molds, pour new wine into old skins without bursting? I have my doubts.
I watched news reports of prosecutors gunned down in Texas. Suspicions turned to white supremacists. These killers exercised their right to bear arms. They shot to kill. Did they do so in rage because they live now in a world lost to privileges they once took for granted? Why the national preoccupation with an apocalypse if not a suppressed wish to wipe clean the slate and to start all over again? Immigrants flood our shores in search of a new life; we prepare for the end of the world. Rome, meet the new barbarians.
Speak, Muse, I beg you. We’re adrift. The center no longer holds. The very words we use to describe the world are now vessels carrying new and threatening meanings. What song, Muse? What melody binds a people who have lost their way?