Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Always Bending Toward Justice


The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. ~MLK

When I was born in 1962, interracial marriage, abortion, and same sex marriage were all illegal in large parts of the United States. In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Loving v. Virginia that laws forbidding marriage between people of different racial backgrounds were unconstitutional. In 1973 the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal across the country and now, with Independence Day approaching, we are celebrating Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision that made marriage equality the law of the land.

The court's decision last week felt to me both like a foregone conclusion as well as a miracle. Even ten years ago, the idea that same sex couples might legally marry was a scoff-worthy concept. Some of us thought that maybe we could get to civil unions or another contractual arrangements that would provide the legal protections and benefits of marriage, but the idea of marriage was one that lived in the realm of impossibility. 

I've been told by my elders that both Loving and Roe felt the same, impossibilities suddenly, almost magically, becoming real. I imagine people felt that way in 1920 when the 19th Amendment passed giving women the right to vote. I don't mean to in any way minimize the hard work and individual sacrifice that went in to making these social changes happen, but in a very real sense, these are victories of democratic self-governance.

Bloomberg Business has recently updated its collection of charts (I would embed them, but I don't know how) entitled "This is How Fast America Changes It's Mind." I came across these many months ago and bookmarked them so that I could revisit them in the aftermath of Obergefell, or whatever event eventually signaled the beginning of marriage equality. Just imagine, it was only in 2004 that Massachusetts courts ruled that their same sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. Honestly, at the time, even as a supporter of gay rights, I was certain that opponents would find some way to get around that court ruling, but that decision turned out to be the trigger, even though it was a long four years before Connecticut finally joined them. Then a year later it was Vermont and Iowa, then New Hampshire in 2010, then New York in 2011, then Washington and Maine in 2012. The floodgates had been opened. In 2013, eight more states joined them, then 19 more in 2014. With Florida legalizing same sex marriage earlier this year, there were 36 states already on board and the Supreme Court decision was, frankly, a foregone conclusion even as many of us waited on pins and needles for the announcement.

It's a familiar pattern, one that most major social change seems to follow in America. For centuries it's unthinkable, then some event gets us all thinking and talking until a tipping point is reached, and then we the people make it happen. Even if Obergefell had been decided otherwise, last week was still a foregone conclusion given that expanding majorities of us, and particularly among younger generations, wanted this to happen.

In Leo Tolstoy's great novel War and Peace, the Russian general Kutusov demonstrates a deep understanding of this concept of historical inevitability. As Napoleon's army advances, he embraces a strategy of retreat, choosing to fight only when absolutely necessary: that is, only when the soldiers, of their own accord engage in battle. His army retreats in this way until the French walk into Moscow. He alone knows that his army has already fatally wounded the French army, the trigger, in a seemingly minor battle and that the pendulum, as pendulums must, was poised to return and the Russians then, more or less, simple followed the French forces as they return to France. Tolstoy's idea is that "leaders" have little to do with history and that it is inevitably the people, the troops in this case, who decide when and where great things will happen, and the role of leaders such as himself is to serve simply as a cog in the machine of history.

I see this phenomenon very clearly in the major social changes that have taken place and continue to take place in America, and indeed, around the world. I remember the utter shock I felt when the Berlin Wall came down after a lifetime of Cold War fear mongering, yet a part of me always knew it was coming. South African apartheid was a fact of life until, in a flash, it wasn't. Again, I don't want to discount the struggle, but in historic terms, these changes were like one day to the next. There are leaders, of course, and heroes, often of the reluctant variety, but at best they serve as cogs in our inevitable democratic moral arc of justice.

This is why it is so important to me that the children I teach learn to think critically, to think for themselves, to question authority, and to, perhaps most importantly, speak their minds. As long as we have this, we're going to be okay.

This is how democracy works, indeed, this is how human beings in all societies work. The people always lead. We may retreat and retreat and retreat, we may lose and lose and lose, but it is a foregone conclusion that we will ultimately win because we the people always bend toward justice.

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