Late last Friday, the New York Senate finally voted, by a margin that’s still surprisingly slim for those who know New York state, to permit gay couples to use the appellation “marriage.” Why did it take so long? Because the New York Senate is not a representative body, and when political reapportionment fails, I expect a federal court will say just that. But in the meantime, we on the left should celebrate, and those on the right should engage in absurd fearmongering. Cue the National Review, which responded to the news with an academic debate about whether the vote effects “tyranny.” Kathryn Jean Lopez:
We are witnessing tyranny today that is fostered by a false sense of freedom, a tyranny that faux tolerance ferments.
Charmingly alliterative, and shockingly inflammatory. We’ve heard the argument that gay marriage subordinates Christians, because everytime the state diverges from a fundamentalist theocracy, it abridges what fundamentalists apparently view as their basic right to live in a theocracy. But I’ve never heard it put just this way.
Neither, apparently, had Mrs. Lopez’s colleagues. After some called her on this bit of hyperbole, she doubled down, comparing the Senate’s (democratic and legitimate) recognition of same-sex unions to Athens’ (democratic and legitimate) decision to put the philosopher Socrates to death. For her, the two votes share the sin of unmooring democratic discretion from external moral limits. In New York’s case, that limit is the fundamentalist Christian definition on marriage. In Socrates’ case… well…
I’d actually like to hear her define it. Athens put Socrates to death for “not believing in the gods of the state,” or, teaching that the gods did not exist, or were capricious, amoral, and unworthy of reverence. This strikes me as a cautionary tale about the danger of letting fear, fed by fundamentalism, overwhelm our sense of community, and our basic moral duty to deal with dissent and difference respectfully. Athens’ error was putting faith above reason. To the extent that Athens’ experience with the dangers of direct democracy bears any relevance to an action taken by a constitutional republic consistent with its founding documents — especially when the action taken gives respect, rather than takes a life — it seems to cut the other way. No?
An actually analogous situation would be when Colorado used a ballot initiative to override a city-by-city initiative to extend the equal protection of the laws to gay citizens. Here, as in Socrates’ case, the state let fear overcome the basic, constitutional requirement of equal protection. Thankfully, in that case, the Supreme Court stepped in to rectify the error, and prove the superiority of constitutionalism over direct democracy.
We can acknowledge that this kind of hyperbole is ridiculous. But still, conservatives will persist in their remarkable ability to construe the equality of their fellow-citizens as a direct affront to their privately-held beliefs (Santorum calls the vote a “nullification” of marriage). Perhaps there’s no cure but time.