“Don’t hold your breath, ‘cause the pretty things are going to hell…”
In the social spheres in which I circulate, both personal and electronic, reactions to the Supreme Court’s twin same-sex marriage rulings Wednesday have tended to fall fairly neatly into one of two categories, each sprinkled liberally with that unique brand of wry humor that long, bitter struggles breed. On one side, the watch-phrase of the day is that it is “the end of an era,” a legal victory so pragmatically important and symbolically immense as to mark a break with a past of marginalization and oppression, a coda or at least a caesura in a national timeline of violence. On the other side, there is a weary gladness that nevertheless casts a wary eye at the map of state-level battles won, and cautions that jubilance be tempered, slightly at least, with the reality that the race is still quite far from run.
You hear relatively few of those somber cynics of the legal system who otherwise are generally keen to point out that historically, grand Supreme Court victories tend not to turn out very well for civil rights movements in the end. Then, these tend to be a disagreeable sort to invite to a victory party, anyway.
In that description of my social world, though, lie the seeds both of a kind of beautiful promise and a form of quiet peril in this political moment that is easily lost behind the spectrum of satisfaction and still images of weeping couples. And how and if and what we capture and carry from this moment hinges, a little at least, in whether or not we can find it in ourselves to tarry on these two things for a time, before resuming our march to where we will have been. These musings should be taken for no more than that: no parades are meant to be rained on here, nor cynics bashed, nor innocence dispelled by piercing insight. Simply a tarrying. A more homemade kind of caesura.
Supreme Court decisions always reveal as much in what they do not settle as in what they do, and the palette of reactions I’ve described does too. In both cases it is the unsettled, the absent which is both silent and intrusive. It didn’t strike me until I began to work on this that I know literally not a single person who supported the Defense of Marriage Act (at least I don’t know that I do, which would simply signal another part of the same difficulty). Not one, and my places of birth generally make the politics of my friends rather diverse (or perhaps more appropriately, in the older sense, queer). And if that or something close to that experience is a fairly widespread one when we tarry long enough to notice – and I think it is, on both sides of the coin – that is deeply troubling, or ought to be deeply troubling as we paint each other pictures over tables and glasses of the road to come.
Some of the bitter fractiousness that marked Washington’s heights has died down a bit in recent months…this morning brought an until recently unthinkable immigration bill through the Senate, and while it faces a bloodier road in the House, that it may yet reach to foot of the road at all is an extraordinary thing, viewed through the eyes of ourselves a year younger. But the at least temporary waning of the sheer, violent ugliness of that divisiveness should not obscure the deeper truth that was revealed in those days of “death panels” and other repeated invocations of cold, dead hands. That the nation is deeply politically divided is facilely true, but also true of nearly all of its short history. But it is possible that we face now something new, or at least a dangerous new incarnation of an old imp from our democracy’s outlands.
One of the reasons some activists will now focus on finding state-level legal cases in which to use the emphasis on dignity in United States v. Windsor’s majority and Kennedy’s quite sweeping description of DOMA’s violation of equal protection is that there is a fear in parts of the movement that, without the power of the court, there remain what might be called “The Unreachables”: a handful of states (or more) in which opposition to non-hetero marriages is so entrenched that they cannot be won politically for the foreseeable future.
The idea of the Unreachable hints at something much deeper than a simple statistical diversion of views. If this were the only problem, then demographic trends are, if too slow for some couples who still wait to marry, at least strongly on the movement’s side. One of Hannah Arendt’s consistent concerns across her writings is the possibility of shared worlds. Underlying the idea of the unreachable state, whether or not it is recognized, is the possibility that the divergences in politics between various parts of this country are only the symptoms of a deeper reality that individual experiences of the world around them are so different, share so little in common from which to draw a common weal, that in some politically and socially salient sense they are no longer sharing a world. And in a nation with an ideologically divided media culture, extraordinary and accelerating wealth disparity, and any number of structural mechanisms that favor political extremism over moderation, there is more to this worry than we might be willing to admit. If I try to cast my soul into the shoes of an evangelical preacher – whose experience of consumption may be far different from mine, whose experience of events of the outside world comes to her or him described in terms immensely unlike mine and contain figures barely recognizable to me, whose social frames and urban structure are radically disparate from my own – who is today mourning with all sincerity, and not cheering…in that moment it’s not moral difference that concerns me, as Scalia invoked in his dissent. It is the vanishingly thin fabric of a jointly sensed world that seems at stake, a jointly sensed world from which a nation has to be imagined.
There’s a sense in which the one thing that Supreme Court decisions do not do, ironically, is decide. At least, they do not decide much: they must be interpreted by lower courts and in the process extended or evacuated, they are subject to legislative challenge and circumvention, they have to be enforced and pursued by those outside the legal system. In that sense, at least, a Supreme Court decision is not an end to anything, let alone an era, and this is why proponents of non-hetero marriage have cautioned each other against over-optimism, the piece of truth in the curmudgeonly dismissal of the power of the High Court. But this essential malleability and chimeric strength becomes a particularly acute problem when filtered through the problem of un-shared worlds. There will be some, in those 36 states that have banned non-hetero marriage (a fact which formally at least remains unchallenged by United States v. Windsor) who will be swayed by the rhetorical and symbolic power of Kennedy’s words, that handful that will actually be heard. But those words, such few of them as trickle down the communicative chain, and the content of the decision, will by necessity be received filtered through social worlds both rich and rigidified. And as sociopolitical soil for Kennedy’s words, some of those worlds are very hostile worlds, indeed.
But in another way, that is exactly the promise in moments like Kennedy’s decision. What’s important about decisions, contra their image and verbiage, is precisely that they are never an end to anything. Their more significant function is not their symbolism, but that they begin.
The irony of a legal judgment is that, from the moment it is uttered, it becomes itself the subject of judgment. It is judged by lawyers, it is judged by lawmakers, it is judged by commentators…and it is judged by janitors and welders and artists and firefighters, equally. And as we circle our collective judgments around a mass of words uttered into our national vocabulary, a possibility is born. Certainly, we may simply pat our social selves on each other’s backs, and revel in our joy (or anger) that we know already to be shared. That’s not such a terrible thing itself. But the greater promise of the day, and the institution, is that it begins something that is shared, however thinly, between Farragut, Tennessee and Coolidge, New Mexico. It raises the possibility that our thoughts and judgments, a few at least, through those connections that remain in our worlds across lines built by mobile histories, might find their way into corners of other worlds. It is in those moments, those moments when we are confronted by someone who is a part of our lives, national or personal, for whom the experience of the day is profoundly different, that a thin tissue of sharing an object of judgment is vital. It may lead to the discovery of commonalities, it may lead to violent disagreement along all-to-familiar lines, but either way, a language is being born across worlds. Here, in this issue, that language is a language around what is most intimate to us, the most precious and tumultuous and defining parts of our lives: our lives with intimate others. And if we can share our lives with intimate others across the bounds of un-shared worlds, even in fraction and splice…then that world will not remain so un-shared, and another small bridge has been built between that which joins ourselves and our partners, our friends, our paramours, to each of our impish outlands. And that, that is cause for hope.