Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Just 16 years after a Democratic president signed the fatuously named Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage in the United States as requiring one man and one woman, the debate about gay marriage is over.
Isn't it? Even though DOMA is still on the books, even though most states that have voted on the issue have voted against same-sex marriage, all the energy is in the opposite direction.
What seemed at first like a bizarre idea has become utterly conventional. By judicial decree interpreting the state constitution, by act of the legislature and someday soon by popular referendum, one state after another is falling. Same-sex marriage is legal in Canada.
Does anybody believe that five years from now it will be harder than it is today for two women or two men to marry? It's no longer all that hard today. I suspect -- don't you? -- that even many of those opposed have given up in their hearts and have resigned themselves to taking comfort in one more example of how the country is going to hell.
"What's next?" opponents of same-sex marriage have sometimes asked, they thought rhetorically. If a man can marry a man, what about a man marrying two men? Or two mixed-sex couples merging into a married foursome? Or -- the inevitable reductio ad absurdum -- why shouldn't a man marry his German shepherd if he wants to?
No doubt these opponents enjoyed (and deserved, actually) a warm I-told-you-so moment over a recent headline in The New York Times: "Measure Opens Door to Three Parents, or Four." It was about a bill in the California Legislature -- California! Home of the successful ballot initiative to outlaw same-sex marriage -- to allow adoptions by more than two parents.
The bill is about parenting, not about sex, but the bill recognizes the reality of unconventional families: divorced dads who want to keep a close relationship with their kids, lesbian couples who want to adopt each other's children, and so on.
And the opponents of gay marriage are right. Once that initial wall is breached, a lot of this suddenly seems to make perfect sense. Where they're wrong is to think that this is a good argument against same-sex marriage.
Every big societal change carries more change in its wake. And every change is a revolution in perceptions. From the present, you look back 20 years and think, "Why did we find the idea of same-sex marriage so weird?" Twenty years from now, it will be so common that people might be forgiven for thinking that the Defense of Marriage Act was passed to protect gay marriage.
This is one good reason for reserving some sympathy for those who aren't wholly on board as the train of change comes whistling through: There is something you think today that will seem preposterous and even offensive to your 20-years-from-now self, if you're still around. Some injustice that will seem obvious, although right now we can't see it at all. What will it be? It would be nice to get a heads-up.
"Not every disputed institution or practice is destined to be discredited," the Princeton philosopher Anthony Appiah wrote a couple of years ago. He contrasted abolition (a cause that came "to represent moral common sense") with Prohibition (a cause eventually seen as "quaint or misguided.")
Appiah suggested three signs of a practice that seems harmless today but will seem indefensible tomorrow (or, presumably, vice versa).
* "A particular practice is destined for future condemnation" if the argument against it has been building for a while. "The case against slavery didn't emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity."
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