Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Gay Marriage, Civil Rights, & High School Dress Codes (28 March 2013)

`That's it!'' Jerry exulted, smashing 
his fist into his palm and wincing. 
 ``That's it! Don't you see what that means? 
For the very first time in the eons-old 
history of the universe the civilized, 
intelligent races are banding together against evil, 
to combat it wherever it is found. A band of brothers, 
fighting together, dedicated to the pursuit of 
 liberty, equality and fraternity.''

``I wouldn't exactly phrase it that way,'' 
Lord Prrsi commented. ``I would rather say w
e are fighting for the maintenance of the 
class system and the continuancy of 
special privileges for the few.''
Harry Harrison, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers 


 I will cheerfully admit to being occasionally an asshole, but I don't like to be thought totally weird or totally insensitive. So I'll start with a quick story on a background principle: to wit, that people can behave as effective political agents without being conscious of what they're doing.

          The quick story has me lobbying in the Illinois General Assembly for the Graduate Student Association of the University of Illinois at Urbana, during the "Troubles" of, primarily, 1970-71. What I was lobbying on isn't important here, but just that I got to observe the Illinois General Assembly doing its thing in a period (a) of great stress and (b) when they had a fairly decent reputation for competence.

         The Illinois General Assembly had its corrupt politicians — "Best gol-darn legislature money can buy," as the joke had it — but, as US State legislatures went, it wasn't bad.

         And the Illinois Gen. Ass., as I observed it, had some pretty stupid people as members, and a couple or three borderline loons.

         What struck me, in one of those low-key epiphanies, was that the people who elected most of the dummies and the two looney-tunes had done all right by themselves: those elected officials would do what their hard-Right-to-reactionary constituents and, say, benefactors, wanted.

         They would "Do the right thing," in the views of their supporters, without particularly understanding what it was they were doing. "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," they'd do the Right-wing thing loyally and consistently.

         So when I say that something is a smart move, that doesn't require the people doing it to be smart; if a policy functions to support larger political ends, that doesn't mean that the people implementing the policy intend those ends — or even think of any consequences beyond the utterly immediate.


         So let's look at high school dress codes and more blatant acts of over-control and even petty harassment by Those In Authority. Mark Twain wrote, "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards." There's little I'll argue with Mark Twain about and (allowing for hyperbole) certainly not with that assertion — but I will insist that dress codes and petty harassments can be, politically, smart moves.

         These are hot-button issues with the kids and their parents, and arguing them and resisting them takes time and effort. Usually The Powers That Be win in these kerfuffles, and if they don't, so what? In a liberal system, the faculty still sets the curriculum, and The Powers That Be — the principals, school boards, superintendents, and the State — still make all the most important decisions — and they mess around with curricula if they take a mind to.

         In Jerry Farber's formulation on the college level, "The faculty and administrators decide what courses will be offered; the students get to choose their own Homecoming Queen." Or the students get to choose to wear their hair long, or short, or get tattoos and/or piercing and perhaps wear T-shirts, maybe even T-shirts with risqué slogans.

         Keep the kids and parents arguing over dress codes and haircuts and Zero Tolerance for whatever, and they won't bother you about the budget and salaries for top administrators. They won't get down to such basics as who gets what, and from whom: they won't get around to contesting just who runs, and possibly profiting most from, The System, in this case some school system.

         Similarly with gay marriage and, more generally, civil rights, especially for American Blacks and, relatedly, for women, and other traditionally marginalized groups. And also similarly with "the Culture Wars" and "social issues" very generally.

         Gay marriage definitely, and to some extent voting rights, are basically conservative issues in the sense that the people demanding a share of The System want, mostly, a share of the existing system — and if Those In Authority accede to their demands it will, in the long run, help preserve the system. At least expanding the set of people invested in the System will help preserve the system in its larger outlines.

         Letting gays marry increases the number of married people, especially, potentially, the number of married young men. Conservatives want young people married and domesticated, especially people of the otherwise rambunctious male persuasion: married men with mortgages, and maybe kids, cause less trouble than the single men, and this law of social order will, I am sure, apply also to domesticated guys who are gay.

         And conservatives ultimately want minorities and — often an overlapping set — recent immigrants assimilated into The System and therefore tending to support the system, as opposed to, say, getting out on the street and blowing things up or burning things down or trying to shoot such symbols of Authority as cops or firefighters. If you want to preserve the System, you need people to buy into the System, which means getting them, eventually, to participate in the system.

         Still, it is a smart political move for conservatives to figuratively dig in and, later, when forced to move out of the bunker, drag their feet. It is prudent for conservatives to change slowly if at all on social issues, even if conservatives fairly soon find themselves on various losing sides.

         First off, something politicians recognize — e.g., much of the Republican Party ca. 2008 f.: Where minority people are poor, giving them political clout will get them to elect people who might serve their interests a bit more than those of the rich, so proficient red-neck Machiavellians do well in the short term to suppress the votes of, say, poor Blacks.

         And they do very well to make a big deal over gay marriage, drug use, and this month's scare about cultural degeneration.

         Like dress codes in high school, such moves distract.

         As long as the peasants are arguing gay marriage, we're not talking seriously about to what extent the State should be involved in marriage at all; we're not talking about the Greater and Lesser Arcana of the US tax code and whether or not, or to what degree, the tax code favors the married in any combination.

         As long as the peasants are arguing about who gets to marry whom — or the older issue of who's putting what to whom where — we're not talking much about who gets what in an economic system that is moving rapidly toward concentrating American wealth at the top.

         So long as Blacks, the poor, the young, and the lower-class elderly have to fight to vote, they're not using their votes — or rowdier political action — to get a better cut.

         And African-Americans arguing about gay marriage or abortion or contraception sure as hell aren't talking about what "Forty acres and a mule" would mean in today's terms: If you figured in compound interest on the value of "forty acres and a mule" for a century and a half or so, the US of A may owe a lot of Black people serious money.

         If people are talking about allowing gays to marry — and we obviously should be since gays have a right to marry — we aren't having radical discussions about marriage as such.

         If people are trying just to get the vote, they aren't getting rambunctious over reparations (about which surviving American Indians might also have a thing or two to do, although allowing them to fleece the innumerate and pathologically optimistic through gambling operations is a good first step).

         You may know some Right-wing Republicans who aren't too bright. You may watch on TV gatherings of US-style "conservatives" and conclude that a fair number of them are two or three cans short of a six-pack — but they can still make moves that are, as moves, very clever.

         Gays should have the right to marry; private militias and individual kooks shouldn't find it easy to stockpile military-grade weaponry. And consenting adults wanting to damage our bodies and damn our souls should be allowed to do so, so long as we keep the noise down, the blinds drawn, and try not to annoy the neighbors. OK?

         But so long as we Americans argue about our current "hot-button" social issues, we're not getting down to business on whether or not the State in the 21st century should be deeply involved in marriage period. We're not talking about really radical possibilities for families — two adults may be at least one too few to raise kids effectively; we're not talking about whether reparations to the descendants of slaves or massacre victims would be a good idea and, if so, how best to manage reparations.

         And — however much some of our fellow citizens are screaming "Socialism" — we certainly aren't arguing robustly enough or seriously enough about strengthening the Republic by ensuring more equitable distribution of wealth.

         Kids need to exercise their political skills and sense of fairness by protesting dress codes and the petty tyrannies of the schools. Until they and their parents have some serious say in, say, budgeting, however, it's only exercise: proper play for children but far from serious politics.

         We Americans need to resolve our "social policy" issues. The really tough issues are who gets what and who is going to sacrifice what to make the American economic game fair. As someone only in part a conservative, I want us to get past those social policy issues quickly and get down to business.

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