My Judaism hasn’t stopped me from embracing the ideals and emotions of the Christmas season–love of family, giving to those less fortunate, the time to reflect upon the year. And, as I think many other teachers would agree, the week off from school doesn’t hurt, either.
But this Christmas tastes sour. During a time of year when we ought to be celebrating the best of humanity, we have been left to question and comprehend the very worst. The events in Newtown left us dazed, grievously wounded yet looking forward, acutely aware of a horrifying truth: this could happen again.
Yet we will rebound. Each day since the attacks I’ve seen remarkable resolve: we recognize more than ever that there is so much work to be done. Though most of us will spend today celebrating the season with family and friends, parts of us are in Newtown, in Egypt, in Syria. How do we actually effect change in our stubborn political system, one might ask? When we allow our compassion and empathy to trump our self interest, just as we are seeing now. That, if nothing else, is good reason for optimism.
Our hearts are heavy, but they are full; our eyes are wet, but they are bright. I wish all of you a happy holiday season and a sweet new year. Be well.
The Trayvon Martin case was back in the headlines on Friday after a Florida judge revoked the bond of accused killer George Zimmerman. Apparently Zimmerman misled the court by not disclosing the $200,000 (!) that he has managed to raise for his legal defense through a website. He has been ordered to surrender to authorities within 48 hours.
The horror of the murder itself and Trayvon’s personal story have been prominent in public discussion of the event; hoodies and Skittles will forever carry a heavier, darker symbolism. And I will not attempt to compete with the many excellent pieces on that theme. But what is truly frightening to me about what happened is not that it happened, but that it may have been legal.
Now, I’m certainly not defending Zimmerman’s interpretation of the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida; I haven’t read enough about the law and its interpretation to give a fair opinion. (Though I find little to dispute in this analysis of my former boss Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.) The scary thing is that there is actually a legitimate debate about whether the murder–on its face such a horrible, indefensible act–is sanctioned by law. Though Martin and his family fully deserve our support, compassion, and empathy, we should not cast aside the urgency of changing these types of laws throughout the country.
Since the eruption of news about same-sex marriage in the past week, I have seen an increasing use of national polling data as evidence that the practice should be legalized. And on its face, it makes sense: there has been a precipitous rise in support for same-sex marriage in the last several years, and recent polls show more support than opposition. If it’s what the American people want, shouldn’t it be put in place?
Despite its elegance, that reasoning is the direct opposite of how our government was intended to function. In The Federalist #10—one of the most important theoretical foundations of American democracy, and a personal dorky obsession—James Madison warns against the dangers of “faction” in democratic society. In his words, a faction is a group of people “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion”; in modern terms, this could be anything from a political party or major interest group to a handful of people interested in protecting a forest. Madison isn’t terribly concerned about factions that are in the minority, simply because a vote should stop their views from becoming law if they are abhorrent. But a faction in the majority is a completely different issue:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
If a faction is in the majority, it can potentially dominate the minority and work against the public good. “The great object”—in other words, the plan for government, which we now call the U.S. Constitution—of the Founders was to stop that from happening. Our government was designed for the purpose of preventing majorities in support of single issues from imposing its will over the public. Slight national support for same-sex marriage is a perfect example of this.
Now, before you tear me apart, I want to note that I am pleased to see support for same-sex marriage gaining traction. But before we start screaming about injustice and how the country is “calling” for same-sex marriage, let’s remember that our government is supposed to be slow and deliberate in order to prevent the periodic roiling passions of the majority to change our laws. Nobody said it was supposed to be convenient.
It may be the cynic in me, but I’ve been rolling my eyes at the outpouring of adoration of Obama after today’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. To put it bluntly, it’s about time. A couple of points:
1) I can’t ignore the political calculus here. Obama’s statement was timed two days after Biden endorsed it, and one day after the passage of the amendment in NC. Progressives in the country, particularly young voters, were encouraged and then outraged by the country’s social progress. And then who appears to brighten sorrow faces? Our President, who desperately needs to mobilize that group of people so he can win the election in 6 months.
I don’t deny the fact that politicians can legitimately be convinced to change their opinions on key issues. But I think Obama has felt this way for some time; it just hasn’t been politically convenient until now. Why else would he wait until three and a half years in the White House and close to eight as a national figure? A coincidence of that magnitude is not a change I can believe in. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
2) His statement is weak, and will not result in a change in policy. He maintains that it should still be a state issue, which gives implicit support to the result in NC. This keeps same-sex marriage on the same level as abortion and slavery once were: not a right one way or the other, but controlled at the whim of the people.
I agree that this is a significant development. A sitting U.S. President who is seeking reelection has just endorsed same-sex marriage. . . and he may still win the election! But that is a result of a change in the views of the electorate, which is far more significant than that of one man, President or not. So let’s give a cheer to the progress of the American people, not to a well-orchestrated political maneuver. May the tide continue to turn.