6.19.2009

Another way in which I hope Obama is like Lincoln

I hear Dan's anger at the Obama administration's slowness to act on gay rights. While I probably don't see him and raise, I at least second it (although I hope those dissenting voices are correct that the DOMA brief is not so bad as it initially appears -- I'm no legalese expert). I am also, generally speaking, an Obama admirer, and it is discomfiting to see him punting on something I hold so dear. I have hope, however, that he has more in common with Lincoln than lack of executive experience, principled opposition to an unpopular war early in their respective political careers, unlikely primary victories, and announcing their candidacies in Springfield, Ill.

It is worth remembering that Lincoln was anti-slavery, but not an abolitionist. He opposed slavery in principle, but was unwilling to enact major social change by top-down fiat. He was elected in the primary as a moderate on the slavery issue over others who had much more radical anti-slavery views than he, and it is worth noting that the Emancipation Proclamation did not happen until almost two years after he took the oath of office. The proclamation also only covered those territories over which Lincoln had, at that point, no jurisdiction, so was sort of toothless. The thirteenth amendment was not until much later. This was by no means with the approval of most of the anti-slavery north, who excoriated him repeatedly for his foot-dragging on the issue.

Lincoln waited, in part, because he believed in the greater efficacy of following public opinion than in an imposition of values, even if those values are the correct values. More can get done with less resistance, if the demand for change is from the bottom up.

So, like Dan, I don't believe that the president is waiting on gay rights because he has other fish to fry at the moment, and when he has a spare instant, he'll get to it. Unlike Dan, I believe there is a justification for waiting a year or two other than Obama's lack of caring about gay rights. The public is clearly in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the military, but the military is behind on this issue. Right now Obama is in charge of a military who is, on the whole, leery of his intentions. On gay marriage, public opinion is changing rapidly. Right now, sweeping changes to gay rights could incur a serious backlash among those who feel that they are being led by those who do not have their interests at heart. In a year or two, after public opinion continues to change and the military comes to realize that Obama is indeed attentive to their interests, the backlash will be lessened and the change will go much more smoothly. Gays will be hurt in the meantime. But it may well be that Obama calculates that more will be hurt by a backlash if he does not wait. I will wait until the end of his first administration to conclude that he simply does not care about gay rights.

The top-down appraoch can sometimes work and may sometimes be necessary (integration of public schools, etc.) But Obama may sense that we are quite close to not needing such an approach, that comes with so many costs. In the meantime, I do not at all mean to suggest that anyone should not criticize Obama's slowness. Protest, criticize, agitate! This is what changes public opinion. I am merely saying that I hope, and cautiously believe, that this is exactly what Obama would like to see happen.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, Elizabeth. I appreciate your weighing in.

    The Salon article links to an interview that The Advocate conducted with Laurence Tribe. Tribe defends the administration's filing, and I'm in no position to argue with a legal mind as brilliant as his. So, I am willing to temper my anger a wee bit.

    Having said that, I still find the DOMA brief objectionable. I don't protest the purported parallels drawn to incest (which I think are weak) as some of the blander language, which essentially says that states have the right to protect its citizens from paying taxes for marriages they find objectionable. This, of course, ignores gay and lesbian couples whose taxes support benefits from which they themselves are barred.

    If the administration had chosen to stymie the California case (as Tribe says they are right to do) simply by arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing, I think the outcry would have been much less.

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  2. ARGH! "...states have the right to protect their citizens...," that is.

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  3. nicely put Elizabeth, I thought along the lines of Lincoln myself but was too lazy to draw the parallels. Frederick Douglas had a great speech about Lincoln in his Oration at the emancipation memorial April, 14, 1876, here is a very brief part:

    Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

    Obviously, the gay rights issue is a very different issue, yet I hope by the end of his second term people might say the same about Obama with regards to this.

    charo

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