Some more critical exuberance, and disappointment

by zunguzungu

I’m persuaded by the people who have been arguing that it’s wrongheaded to talk about whether the courts are the right front for attacking the issue of gay civil rights. The alternative — pointedly not discussed — always seems to be something like “wait for the problem to go away,” and it seems to me like that’s the same kind of argument as the one where people say, for example, that the worst thing the democrats could possibly do right now is push their agenda forward. That is, a stupid, bad, and wrong kind of argument. You advance your agenda by advancing your agenda, and while two steps forward can lead to one step back, it’s the cumulative effect that matters.

But I wonder to what extent Prop 8 has been such a devastating body blow not because “marriage” is, itself, an important civil right, but because so many people have chosen to use it as the metaphor for the larger issue of gay citizenship and humanity, such that it has become exactly about that, for both sides. I wonder, in other words, if gay marriage is significant less for what it is than for what it represents. Listen to this perspective I heard on NPR this morning. For this guy, the battle over Prop 8 was only about marriage only because it was about his status as a human being, and it was devastating when it passed for that reason.

In that vein, people who point out that marriage is itself such a small subset of the larger issue aren’t wrong — it is, as Frankie Leon points out, deeply important to think about what defeating Prop 8 would have done to prevent, for example, specific hate-crimes against queer people — but it also elides an important point. Synechdoches are powerful things, and part of why Duanna Johnson could be killed without serious consequence was that her life, her citizenship, and her rights were all deemed to be second-class by people with the power to make their bigotry matter. So maybe the right to get married wouldn’t have helped her in any real concrete sense. But the fact that being second class was the reason she would not have been allowed to get married, and that the latter is an expression of the former, has to be part of the equation. Spectacles have consequences, and what makes me hopeful about the spectacle of a president who is black is the same thing that makes me feel shitty about the spectacle of Prop 8’s passage: not the extent that it reflects the popular will, but the extent to which it will help to produce a new one.

This, again, is what Judith Butler fails to talk about in that “Uncritical Exuberance” essay I went on and on about: by pathologizing people who could vote for what she frames as contradictory things — in ways which Sepoy flagged Nate showing to be empirically suspect — she gets to divine the causes of the election while downplaying its effects. It takes a curious faith in the myth of democracy to imagine that a California ballot measure actually “represents” anything like the people’s popular will — since the whole process has long been appropriated in ways which are democratic only as a euphemism — yet she makes this assertion at the same time as she presumes people who voted for a candidate who was black weren’t really voting for a black president. As I said, I think this is exactly and precisely backwards: what’s hopeful about Obama’s presidency isn’t who he was before the election, but who he might become as a product of the election. The fact that race-baiting failed, that the alliance between bible conservatives and laissez fair conservatives is falling apart, and that a candidate won the presidency on the strength of being a socialist Muslim has a great deal to do with what people will think are electoral strengths and weaknesses in the future, a prophecy that will, to a certain extent, fulfill itself. We may not have been voting for a truly progressive candidate, but electing someone who is thought to be a progressive candidate (as we did) has at least the potential to make that spectacle a bit more of a reality. And while we may not have been actually voting for a Muslim socialist, the spectacle of an “income re-distributor” and a “that one” (which is what those terms signify in the right wing hive mind) being elected president will have a powerful effect on de-pejoratizing them as terms and as identities.

But this, too, is exactly what’s shitty about Prop 8: not that it was an election about marriage, but that because “marriage” was the code we agreed to use for “queer humanity,” its rejection also becomes — for the time being, at least — a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s a huge setback.