by Greg Mayer
An op-ed piece in The New York Times by Sasha Issenberg claims “Cancel Culture Works. We Wouldn’t Have Marriage Equality Without It.” The Times even sent me an email heralding the piece, adding “Naming and shaming were key parts of the campaign to make gay marriage legal.” I was expecting something about the public mockery of Rick Santorum, the Republican talking head and former politician known for his anti-homosexual views, or some similar figure or figures.
I was surprised to find that the piece is not about this at all, but about the efforts of “a retired Republican political operative named Fred Karger . . . [to] defeat . . . Proposition 8, a ballot measure [from 2008] that if passed, would ban same-sex marriage in California.” Karger publicized who the supporters of Proposition 8 were, targeting them for opprobrium and boycott. Issenberg writes that he targeted a car dealer in Utah named Ken Garff
because one of Mr. Garff’s relatives had given $100,000 to pass Proposition 8. “Individuals and businesses gave a vast amount of money to take away our equality, and we want you to know who they are,” Mr. Karger wrote.
So, by Issenberg’s account, Karger was targeting someone who was not supporting Proposition 8, and who didn’t even live in the state!
I was even more surprised when Issenberg revealed that Karger had failed– Proposition 8 passed! By disdaining “to mobilize voters or move public opinion”, Karger’s inaptly named group, Californians Against Hate, had failed in a referendum that was decided by a margin of only 2.5%. What if they had tried to shift opinion just a little bit, instead of shaming supporters?
Issenberg is just flat wrong here. Marriage equality was achieved not through shaming and boycotts of its largely conservative opponents, but by convincing judges of the arguments for marriage equality. Andrew Sullivan, a tireless campaigner for marriage equality, summarized his argument for it at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges:
Homosexuality, at its core, is about the emotional connection between two adult human beings. And what public institution is more central—more definitive—of that connection than marriage? The denial of marriage to gay people is therefore not a minor issue. It is the entire issue. It is the most profound statement our society can make that homosexual love is simply not as good as heterosexual love; that gay lives and commitments and hopes are simply worth less. It cuts gay people off not merely from civic respect, but from the rituals and history of their own families and friends. It erases them not merely as citizens, but as human beings.
We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings.
(The first paragraph is from an article Sullivan wrote in 1996, while the second is his added reflection at the time of the 2015 decision; Andrew’s whole, brief, piece from which the above excerpt is taken, is still worth reading.)
The vote of generally conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 Obergefell decision, was, dare I say, not determined by fear of “shaming”, or by boycotts of car dealers in Utah, or of any businesses anywhere. He was persuaded to vote as he did by the arguments of the proponents of marriage equality. Kennedy’s views, as so often on the court, were developed over a series of decisions, the most notable earlier one being United States v. Windsor, in which, writing for the same majority, he held certain parts of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
I suspect Kennedy was influenced by arguments, in much the same way I was. At the time of the Obergefell decision, I wrote here on WEIT:
When I first heard of the idea years ago, gay marriage seemed to me like a contradiction in terms– it was Andrew [Sullivan] who convinced me otherwise. He worked very hard, against opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, to promote the idea, and did so just by the power of reasoned argument– he led no army of followers, no political party, no phalanx of lobbyists.
(I am not suggesting Kennedy was influenced by, or even read, Sullivan’s writings on the matter, but that it was reasoned argumentation, not threats, that persuaded him.)
What Karger did to Ken Garff, and what Issenberg praises, was, and remains, odious—it is a most blatant example of guilt by association. (Recall that, fide Issenberg, it was a relative of Garff that donated to the pro-Proposition 8 campaign.) The dragnet of condemnation ensnared the large and the small, the guilty and the innocent; and it didn’t even work– it cannot even be redeemed by necessity.
The one nugget of enlightenment to be drawn from Issenberg’s piece is the doleful influence of big money of all sorts, and of corporate money in particular, on politics. Issenberg’s ‘solution’ is to threaten businesses until they support the position he advocates. But this no solution at all—it’s merely an invitation to dueling protection rackets by all sides in a political debate.
The best recent statement about the influence of corporate money on politics, and the inkling of a potential real solution, was uttered recently by, of all people, Senator Mitch McConnell:
My warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It’s not what you’re designed for.
McConnell doesn’t actually believe this; he just wants corporations to say what he wants them to say, just as Issenberg does. (McConnell and Issenberg differ, of course, over what they want corporations to say.) A step on the way forward is to take McConnell’s statement at face value, and work to get corporations out of debates which they were not designed for.