Monday, June 27, 2011

Civil Rights - New York won, France 0!

It would have been hard to miss the news about New York becoming the 6th US state to allow same-sex marriage in the U.S. (after Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont).
The vote in NY was historic:
  • New York – the 3rd most populous state after California and Texas - is the largest and most influential state to grant legal recognition to same-sex weddings (California’s law was overturned by Prop 8 last year),
  • It was passed by a Republican held senate after being rejected by a Democratic senate 2 years ago. This time, the 29 Democratic senators were joined by four Republicans, one more than the minimum needed to get the bill approved.


This is another sign that our society is changing in this issue. In New York, in 2004, only 37% of the state’s residents supported allowing same-sex couples to wed, and now 58% of them do. (NYTimes). Even in the United-States as a whole, polls show that now a majority of Americans are now in favor of same-sex marriage.(Gallup, CNN, ABC, Pew all show similar trends)

In France, where there is already civil union for gay couples, this number is even higher – 63% support same-sex marriage (only 48% did in 1996) (TF1; Ouest France). However, France has now fallen behind the curve as its parliament rejected a same-sex bill only two weeks ago even though similar laws have now been adopted in Belgium, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and even in very catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal.


As in the United-States, it is the right wing of the conservative party that’s the most vocal opponent of same-sex marriage in France as well: from the far-right National Front to the old Catholic guard. A conservative member of parliament went as far as talking of “abĂ©rration ethnologique” (an ethnological aberration) (Le Figaro) while another said “why not marriage with animals too”. These are the extremes but the very fact that they belong to the ruling party in France and can get away with such nonsensical statement is a sign that there is still a long way to go.

In both France and the US, opposition to same-sex marriage is based on religious or moral grounds.

Of course, in the U.S. many religious groups believe that marriage should be defined according to their interpretation of what God says and that it is not the government’s business. But even in secular France, some conservative Christians (the catholic lobby is personified by right-wing member of Parliament Christine Boutin) have been staunch opponents to same-sex marriage, but because the religious rhetoric has fallen out of favor in France, they usually play on other types of fear, such as a threat to our civilization or the decay of society.


And this is the second objection to same-sex marriage – the decay of public morality and the defense of family values.
This is a very strange argument. You’d think that supporters of family values would want to expand their “traditional” family lifestyle to the rest of society and encourage homosexuals to lead a “normal” life, away from gay ghettos and lifestyles. Of course, I can see why they'd raise concerns about children, but the reality of today’s world is that already many gays and lesbians have children. In many states and in France, a single person can adopt, while other gay couples have children of their own.
So wouldn’t it be better for those families to be given more stable homes with all the legal and social protections covered by marriage?


The religious argument is also a moot one since we – French and Americans alike – live in Republics whose founding principle is separation between church and state. And this is a good thing unless you think countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia are your ideal forms of government. Granted that since in the United-States, marriage can be legally performed by churches, it should be their right to deny marriage on religious ground. That is exactly how New York went around it 6 by voting an amendment that protects religious organizations from lawsuits.
(As a side note: you may be a Christian and support same-sex marriage - some denominations do and there are theological arguments for it)

As it has been stated on this blog before, gay marriage is a civil right issue; not a religious or a personal one. It does not take away anyone's freedom. It gives more freedom to more people. It is the extension of a right that already exists. In this sense, it is hard to see how it may constitute a threat to society.
It is not like it is not going to turn heterosexuals into homosexuals; it is only going to make the lives of those that are homosexuals a little bit more “normal”, which is again something that conservatives should welcome.


Of course, conservatives, be they French or American have one thing in common – they usually don’t like change, that’s why they are called “conservatives”.
But there is more to it. Many conservatives are more comfortable with clear cut moral views. They tend to believe in absolutes – there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong, and not much in between. In the same way, they believe in clear gender differences with recognizable societal roles. Anything that does not fit those categories of absolute becomes a threat to their view of the world and even to their identity.

That being said, even conservatives can change their minds once they really study a topic. Some can even make a leap of faith into the unknown.
If anyone embodies this hope in change, it is certainly Republican NY senator Mark Grisanti who gave a remarkable speech on Friday night on the senate floor. It is a a testimony of his integrity, especially because he knows he may have committed political suicide to support something he now believes in :

I have struggled with this immensely. I’ve read numerous documents, independent studies, talked with a lot of people on both sides of this issue. As a catholic I was raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. I’m not here however as a senator who’s just catholic, I’m also here with the background as an attorney though which I look at things and I apply reason. I know that with this decision, many people who voted for me will question my integrity a short time ago (…)
I have studied this issue. For those that know me, they know I have struggled with it, To those who support I may lose, please that in the past what I was telling you and what I believed at that time was the truth. But by doing the research, and ultimately doing what I believe to be the right thing to me shows integrity. I would not respect myself if I didn’t do the research, have an open mind and make a decision, an informed decision based on the information before me. A man can be wiser today than yesterday but they’ll be no respect for that man if he has failed in his duty to do the work. I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage. Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife whom I love and have the 1300 plus rights that I share with her?

To end this on a cheerful note, Saturday’s Gay Pride Parade in Paris seems to 
have been embolden by the decision of New York’s legislature – a great way to advance America’s image in France and in the world.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sacred Freedom, Sacred Ground.

In both France and the United-States, freedom of speech is a constitutional right. In France it is guaranteed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which has constitutional value and in the U.S. it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. In both countries there are also some restrictions to freedom of speech: in France, for instance, denying the Holocaust is prohibited by the law and in the United-States, falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater is illegal, and these are only two instances.

But the United-States has a looser understanding of free speech than the rest of the Western World. Certain forms of hate speech are tolerated.

For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an anti-gay church has the right to picket military funerals, even though it may cause emotional distress to the families of the dead soldiers. (BBC news). It may be immoral and disturbing but it is still coherent with the way Americans value free speech.

So it was all the more surprising to read this piece of news:
A group of friends went to the Jefferson Memorial to commemorate the president's 265th birthday by dancing silently while listening to music on headphones. Park Police ordered the revelers to disperse and arrested them when they did not. The dancers sued on free speech grounds, but the appeals court ruled last week that their conduct was indeed prohibited "because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration" that Park Service regulations are designed to preserve. (Huffington Post, WP)

How can the solemnity of a monument be more sacred than that of the funeral of an American soldier who just died for his nation?

Apparently the sacredness of the space supersedes freedom of speech :
"A prohibition on expressive activities in a nonpublic forum does not violate the First Amendment if it is viewpoint neutral and is 'reasonable in light of the use to which the forum is dedicated,'" said the Judge, and "expressive dancing” does constitute an act that undermines "an atmosphere of calm, tranquility, and reverence" at the memorial.

And in an odd footnote that demonstrates the speciousness of the argument rather than its reasoning, the court added that Jefferson "discouraged celebrations of his birthday" (WSJ
Well, OK then.

Of course the court’s decision simply motivated more people to go to the Jefferson Memorial and because we are in the age of instant video, the arrest of the dancers was filmed and the video went viral. The arrest itself caused a larger disturbance than the dancers themselves who were, at least in the first instance, dancing in silence. The court’s decision only aggravated the matter.

Watch :

So how does one make sense of any of this? If we want to even begin to understand what this means, we should probably keep in mind that the Jefferson Memorial is not a simple monument but that it serves the function of a modern religious temple devoted to the Civil Religion (Belah) of the nation.

Visit Washington D.C. and you'll see that the monuments and memorials devoted to the Founding Fathers are modeled after Greek or Roman temples: the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial are the most obvious examples. Walk into the former and you’re immediately struck by the size of the statue which is not unlike those found in religious temples in ancient Greece. In the National Museum of American History in DC you can even see a statue of George Washington modeled after the great statue of Zeus Olympios, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Temples, according to mythologist Mircea Eliade, house the gods and give us a sense of the sacred in our world. The architects on the national mall knew this well and built sacred temples in which to honor those gods who built the nation: a creation myth.

The idea of myth here does not reflect the idea of something false, as it often does in today's parlance, but a story of the origin which has become sacred. Myths are stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to ascribe meaning to the world. One of the most powerful forms of myth is the creation story, which tells a story of our earliest beginnings. Every society has its creation myth and all are concerned with fundamental rather than historical truths. In the case of national myths, the creation myth represents in narrative form the founding of a nation. (see Robert Segal, Mircea Eliade). Rome had the myth of Romulus and Remus, France has the French Revolution and the US has the American Revolution.

The American narrative of the origins has all of the essential features found in myth: a sacred time which is the time of origins (the American Revolution), a sacred text (the US Constitution), nearly divine demigod heroes (The Founding Fathers), rituals (4th of July, Presidential Inaugurals, etc..) and sacred places, which can take the form of temples.

There are other national myths specific to the US as well (Manifest Destiny, self-reliance, the American Dream) but the story of the founding of the US is deeply felt. So keep this in mind the next time you intend to exercise your right to freedom of speech in the US:  one can dance on graves but not at the feet of the gods.