Obama and Arendt on Marriage Equality

A reader writes:

On February 19 this year I saw Obama speak at a fundraising event in San Francisco. There were about 80 people, at $2300 a person. He was asked about gay marriage (or "marriage equality" as I recall the questioner phrased it). In that small setting, without ever saying so outright, Obama made it very clear that his decision not to support gay marriage was political and not principled. In a perhaps anxious attempt to get us to understand his predicament, he drew an analogy. 

He mentioned that under the miscegenation laws existed in the 1960s (before Loving v. Virginia in ’67) his own mother and father could not have married in many states.  And so he understood personally the importance of "marriage equality".  But then he drew the audience’s attention to the work of Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s – those same years leading up to Loving v. Virginia – on issues such as voting rights, employment discrimination and education. He told us that he had asked himself many times, if he had been in King’s position in 1963, would he have "leaned" on the issue of miscegenation — or would he have postponed it?  His answer of course was that he would have put it off — even if it meant that his own parents’ marriage would have remained illegal in many states.  This pragmatic argument – coupled with a rueful mention of the mixing of the term "marriage" with religious traditions in many people’s minds – was the best he could offer. In effect he was saying, I can’t do this now – I can’t even say anything more … We have to wait.

Strangely, his tone was so personal and thoughtful that, from what I saw, he won the crowd to his side – at least in the moment.  It helped that he finished his answer with a direct look at the questioner and then a scan of the audience as a whole, saying very clearly, "I will continue to listen to my gay and lesbian friends on this."  It almost felt as if he was winking at us in some solemn way (I can’t say it, but I am with you!).

The best response is Hannah Arendt’s, written in the heat of the African-American civil rights struggle, in 1959 in Dissent. It’s excerpted in my same-sex marriage anthology. She believed that marriage equality was the sine qua non of the civil rights movement. Money quote:

"The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’ are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs."

Obama reflects what was then the consensus of the civil rights movement. Arendt’s insistence on marriage rights as more fundamental than employment or segregation was so controversial that Dissent originally refused to publish it. But Arendt’s position stemmed from her strict understanding of the limits of politics, and the distinction between the civil and the political spheres. She was not the kind of redistributionist, big government liberal that Obama is. She saw what was integral to civil equality in a system of limited government. She lost the argument at the time, although her view was later upheld by the Supreme Court. But by then, by 1967, so much damage had been done to the notion of limited government that the model was anachronistic on the racial question. I tried to revive it in Virtually Normal, and with more positive results. I thought the gay rights movement could avoid the leftist traps of the African-American civil rights movement. We’ve had some success reorienting the movement, but its natural state of entropy is, sadly, still leftist. I’m unsurprised Obama won’t challenge this. But I am quite sure he will be more supportive of gay equality than Clinton. She will pivot against gay people for her own political advantage at the drop of a hat. We know this already. We saw it happen once before. And yet, like Charlie Brown and the football, the gay movement looks to Lucy once again.