Last term, the New York Senate defeated a bill that would’ve legalized gay marriage after almost fifteen Senators spoke in favor of it on the floor, and just one against it. The message was clear: this is the politics of bigotry, or time to play cover-your-ass for a tough election year, and we’re not interested in engaging on the merits. But most defeats come interspersed with tales of nobility. Senator Dan Squadron’s floor speech is one.
Though I over-use this clip, it’s a good one. New York politics has its problems, but there are a few rising stars — incorruptible, dedicated, brilliant — and Squadron is one of them. (Another I had the privilege of working for… but as a matter of professionalism, I shouldn’t use his name.) Senator Squadron also offers the best, most compelling response to the types of emotional appeals we’re about to get from the right, because Governor Cuomo has just reintroduced the marriage bill, and this time, he has the votes. Last term’s defeat was largely a product of bad whipping, but Democratic leadership won’t make that mistake twice.
Against that, we get the usual histrionics, with one interesting point:
Lopez: How is this not a civil-rights issue for Americans who identify themselves as homosexuals or who otherwise have homosexual desires?
Mechmann: To call it a “civil rights” issue begs the question. Usually, when we’re speaking of a “civil right” we’re talking about something that is deeply rooted in our history and tradition, something that is intrinsic to ordered liberty and full participation in our society and the political process. How can something that nobody even imagined 15 years ago fall into that category? If anything, the redefinition of marriage is denying the civil rights of married couples to have special recognition and protection of their union — which is undeniably deeply rooted in our history and tradition, something that is intrinsic to ordered liberty and full participation in our society.
This is an interesting way of looking at battles that, though long-past, were always fought in the future. Civil rights law is settled now, but it’s tautologically true that each change was, at the time of its occurrence, not “deeply rooted in our history and tradition.” Yes, when we look for new due process rights, we turn to “history and tradition.” But in equal protection law — and in due process law, post-Lawrence — we also look at what history and tradition should have been. It’s the baseline American assumption that life can always be better, in action. Our history painfully illustrates that if civil rights rights are things we’ve always known, their proper application is something we’ve had to update on a continual basis, as we learn more about ourselves and our countrymen. Conservatives, as defenders of the status quo, have imagined that journey was complete at each step. But they’ve always been wrong.
It’s hardly any different here. Looking to tradition is the easy way out, and that’s not our way. The right thing to do is to follow our principles to our logical conclusion. That comports with the “history and tradition” of civil rights in America, and that leads directly to gay marriage.
(I need hardly add that it’s not a “civil right” to enjoy another’s lack of the same. “Freedom is merely privilege extended, unless enjoyed by one and all.”)
The nature of civil rights is progress. We’ve always won these fights, and we’ll win this one too. We just might have to put up with some absurd whining for a little while.