Monday, June 18, 2007

Compromise: our national tradition

The genius of the American system is compromise. The primal compromise is enshrined in our very name: the United States. The identity of the component units is signified by the word “states.” “United” attests their resolve to remain a whole.

Successful compromises are not easily attained. It took us several tries to get it right. The first attempt, the Articles of Confederation of 1781, gave too much power to the states. The Constitution of 1789 found a better balance between the states and the central government, as well as setting the pattern for the separation of powers among the branches of the federal government. Ultimately, this arrangement was not consolidated until the Civil War, which established the principle that the states are not entitled to go their own way, breaking the union.

A good example of compromise at work is our national compact on religion. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, while at the same time barring government intervention in favor of a particular religion. Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. Some Christianists want to have their religion ensconced as the law of the land. A much smaller group--the atheists who have recently found their voice in the writings of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others--would severely limit the role of religion in our national life. It is safe to say that most people are satisfied with the present compromise. At all events, the constitutional safeguards protecting it are firmly in place.

While the principle of compromise belongs to the “deep structure” of the American Republic, its effects are not always benign. After Reconstruction failed in the South in 1877, the appalling system of racial segregation set in throughout the region. It took the sustained efforts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s to right this wrong.

Today the outlines of an unfortunate compromise are emerging with regard to same-sex marriage. To be sure, I am glad that Massachusetts turned away the effort to challenge gay marriage in that state.

We hear some rather expansive jubilation. “Hooray, equality has been achieved!”

The sobering truth is that equality has not been secured. Massachusetts provides the honorific title of marriage to the gay and lesbian citizens who want it. But it has not, and cannot, offer the more than 1000 federal benefits that are the immediate perquisite of any and every heterosexual couple who get married in that state. Equality has not been achieved in Massachusetts.

Moreover, it is widely assumed that Massachusetts is the model for the other states. In a sense it has been for those states, mainly in the northeast, that have some form of civil unions. Yet so far, Massachusetts is the only state that has “full” marriage--and as we saw even there true equality is not the norm.

I take no joy in this patchwork. Only lawyers could do so, and I trust that they will be discrete enough to curb any public enthusiasm for what is happening. The lawyers will take the situation to the bank, though, for the complexity of jurisdictions is inevitably leading to all sorts of disputes regarding cross-state recognition, divorce, child custody, and many other matters.

Since there are quite a number of red states that remain adamantly opposed to gay marriage, the stalemateå is likely to last for a long time. Given the present composition of the Supreme Court we cannot look for help in that quarter.

If there is a silver lining in this tangle it is this. The patchwork assures the defeat of one particular conservative concept of gay marriage. That is to say, the idea that same-sex marriage will bond with the efforts to strengthen marriage in general in order to create a new regime of virtue. For such advocates, “promiscuity” (that is individual choice in the matter of sex and partnership) is the ultimate horror. Yet as we move in the direction of Scandinavia, that particular rollback is not in the offing.

Some of the same-sex-marriage virtuecrats remain hopeful Yet as Jonathan Rauch, the most eloquent and tenacious of their number, recently conceded, most of those who are seeking the benefits of gay marriage and civil unions tend to see the matter in individualistic terms. That is to say, they seek security and dignity for themselves, their partners, and their children. They are not enrolling in a new campaign for moral rearmament.


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