Sunday, March 27, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World (Part 1)

Whenever I despair over the state of the planet Earth, I recall that I am old and dying, and that this is a very good thing.

No, I don't mean that I look forward to death as an escape from the disappearance of Bangladesh, the desertification of Beijing, the nuking of Jerusalem, or the inauguration of President Gingrich. Rather, I figure that if I am dying, so are my age-mates. And not a moment too soon.

The Tunguska Impactor didn't kill anyone--or threaten to.

Here's a key statistic: most Americans over the age of 50 are opposed to legal- izing same-sex marriage, whereas most of those under the age of 30 are in favor. This simple factoid reveals something very profound about America, about its future, and about the future of the species. For I believe that an indi- vidual's attitudes toward homosexuality hint at that individual's basic attitudes toward a broad range of issues--issues that must be confronted, attitudes that will make or break the civilization of the 21st century.

From a strictly legal standpoint, gay marriage is a no-brainer. The 14th Amend- ment to the US Constitution clearly and firmly guarantees equal protection under the law, and that equality cannot be denied without due process. A century's worth of Supreme Court decisions have established that dividing people into categories and treating the members of each category differently--that is, creating "differen- tial standards of treatment"--is only permitted within narrowly defined limits. In par- ticular, a differential standard must serve a definite and necessary social purpose, and it must not be "arbitrary and capricious."

The legal drinking age is a good example of a properly established differential standard. Setting the legal minimum for consumption of alcohol at 21 means that all human beings are divided into two categories (those above and those below the limit) and that members of one category are treated differently from those of the other (those above 21 may drink legally, those below may not). Twenty-one is certainly an arbitrary number---it could as easily be 20, or 37---but it is not capri- cious, because society has a clearly rational need to discourage people from drinking before their brains have finished maturing. The boundary has to be set somewhere, and 21 is a traditional and convenient number. (Teenagers may disagree, whereas on scientific grounds the legal age should be 25.)

Yes, this law is frequently broken--but that does not make it irrational. Law is not just about coercion or punishment: law also serves to embody society's values: in this case the value that society places on the health of its young people. Society can't hold anyone to a standard unless that standard is set up somewhere where people can see it, and in America that somewhere is the law.

Barack Obama is personally opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Yet he's also a scholar of constitutional law--it's what he taught at the University of Chicago--and he has instructed the Justice Department not to defend DOMA, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" forced through Congress by Newt Gingrich, and which forbids the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Obama knows that DOMA won't hold up in the courts, and he sensibly wishes to save the taxpayers time and money be refusing to defend an indefensible law.

Social conservatives such as the members of the Tea Party claim they wish to "restore the Constitution" and to "return to the values of the Founding Fathers." So why do they continue to oppose same-sex marriage? Their arguments amount to calling for a differential standard of treatment under the 14th Amendment. Mind you, those in favor of same-sex marriage need prove nothing--the onus is entirely on the tea-baggers and their ilk. To succeed in court they must prove that such a differential--treating homosexuals as different from and inferior to hets--is neces- sary to the proper functioning of society in the same way that setting the minimum drinking age at 21 is necessary. And they must also prove that such a standard is neither arbitrary (what about bisexuals? transgendered people? masturbators?) nor capricious (i.e., based on personal prejudices).

What kids really need--tiger moms take note.
Yet the anti-gay-marriage forces can mus- ter no such arguments. In fact, they don't even try. Instead, they focus entirely on gay sexuality per se, as if sex were all that gay people did, leaving them no time to raise families, care for sick partners, join the army, or any other myriad other things my gay friends, neighbors, and co-workers do. By claiming gay sex is wrong conserva- tives claim that gay marriage is wrong, as if sex and marriage were the same thing--which, in the eyes of the law, they are not. (The eyes of various churches are another matter.) When not claiming that the Bible forbids gay sex (which it does not, and I can prove it), social conservatives claim it's "unnatural" (so is underwear--do you see any other animal wearing any?), or that "the union of a man and a woman is the foundation of society" (which it certainly isn't, and here's a summary of the evidence). These three claims--from the Bible, from nature, and from social structure--simply don't hold water legally, logically, or morally. So why do so many of my fellow elders continue to make them?

When people are being grossly illogical there's usually a perfectly logical reason for it. That reason is emotion. Emotions don't just pop up at random: they are caused by certain experiences. Experiences that link regularly to emotions are commonly called "triggers"; when someone has a powerful emotional reaction to a seemingly innocuous trigger, we suspect an illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes the relation between trigger and emotion is evident--a smiling baby makes us happy, a Simpson's rerun makes us laugh, the brilliant acting talent of Rondo Hatton inspires a feeling of awe.

But the relation of trigger to response can also be buried in the unconscious, and here is where things can get tricky. And dangerous--it can be all too easy to blame the trigger for the severity of the response. We've all heard of cases in which a war veteran cannot tolerate exploding fireworks because they remind him (or her) of bombs. However, I know of no veterans who consciously think fireworks are bombs, or who think that July 4th celebrations are sponsored by Al Qaeda. A diagnosis of PTSD, oddly enough, may help protect the veteran from making the mistake that conservatives make in reacting to homosexuality--reading into the trigger stimulus something that isn't there.

No gay person I've ever met is any more dangerous, offensive, immoral, or annoy- ing than any straight person I've known, and I have no reason to believe my ex- periences with human beings are fundamentally different from those of most people. If the majority of my conservative age-mates find gay people more dan- gerous, offensive, immoral, or annoying than they find straights, I am forced to conclude that my age-mates are reacting to a trigger in much the same way that veterans with PTSD may react to loud noises. That is: by venting their spleens at queers, they reveal themselves to be reacting to something not in their triggers, but in themselves. Like shell-shocked veterans they have a mental disorder: one captured as well as may be by the term "homophobia."

If homophobia were merely a garden-variety irrational fear like arachnophobia or claustrophobia, we as a society might sympathize with it or offer its sufferers some kind of thearpy. But since homophobia is a fear of a particular kind of people, it is potentially damaging to those who are feared (because they are likely to be targets of violence--think Matthew Shepard), and thus damaging to the society of which they are members. And it seems that, like PTSD, homophobia is positively correlated with a wide variety of other anti-social behaviors, so that a homophobe is likely to be several other brands of bigot

Chicxulub--Yucatec Maya for, "Bye-bye dinosaurs."
The tendency of illnesses to appear together--e.g., PTSD and alcoholism--is called "co-morbidity." Co-morbidity explains why the same people who would make the lives of gay people miserable would also do nothing about global warming (or make it worse); would interfere with women's ability to control their own bodies; would sabotage Obama's presidency because he's smart, good-looking, and Black; would do nothing to rein-in the reign of the rich; would let the poor and downtrodden die painful, preventable deaths; and would cheat the rest of us out of our only opportunity to obtain health care. Homophobia, in other words, is co-morbid with racism, sexism, climate denial, class warfare, and mindless worship of the Invisible Hand. Homophobia is just one part of a complex of attitudes and behaviors--fears, resentments, greeds, hates-- that has made the Republican Party and its astroturf offshoot the greatest threat to the health and well-being of this planet since the Chicxulub Impactor.

And the GOP's core constituency is old people. My age-mates are trying to kill the planet. And they're succeeding.

But the youngsters . . . there's more to being a progressive than being in favor of same-sex marriage, and I daresay the under 30s have their fair share of fears, resentments, greeds, and hates. Yet from my observations I would say that those in favor of same-sex marriage are also more likely to want us to get below 350 ppm, to advocate for the rights of women, workers, minorities, the poor, and children, more likely just to be aware. They may not know just what actions to take, but they want to do something, and they care about the future. They are going to be living there, after all, as I and my fellow elders are not.

And so we return to this mother of all generation gaps, the profound differences in attitude and outlook between the over-50s and the under-30s, the gap I am sum- ming up in shorthand terms by dis/approval of same-sex marriage. Why the big diff? What can anyone do about it? Should anyone even bother?

And what does it have to do with the four men who will save the world?

to be continued

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