Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Reading

Ten Days in June — David Remmick in The New Yorker on the days that changed America.

What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace. As President Obama led thousands of mourners in Charleston, South Carolina, in “Amazing Grace,” I thought about late 2013 and early 2014. Obama’s Presidency was surely dwindling, if not finished. His mood was sombre, philosophical—which is good if you are a philosopher; if not, not.

Obama described himself to me then in terms of his limits—as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” More than a few columnists believed that Obama was now resigned to small victories, at best. But pause to think of what has happened, the scale of recent events.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court (despite an apocalyptic dissent about “pure applesauce” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery” by Justice Scalia) put an end to years of court cases and congressional attacks against the Affordable Care Act, which means that millions of Americans will no longer live in a state of perpetual anxiety about health costs.

On Friday, the Supreme Court (despite a curiously ill-informed dissent about Kalahari, Aztec, and Han mating rites by Chief Justice Roberts) legalized same-sex marriage nationally—a colossal (and joyous) landmark moment in the liberation of gay men and lesbians.

Meanwhile, throughout the South, governors and legislatures are beginning to lower the racist banner of the Confederate flag. Cruelty on a horrific scale—slaughter committed in the name of racism and its symbols—has made all talk about the valuable “heritage” of such symbols absurd to all but a very few. The endlessly revived “conversation about race” shows signs of turning into something more serious—a debate about institutional racism, and about inequities in the criminal-justice system, in incarceration, in employment, in education. The more Obama leads on this, the more he sheds his tendency toward caution—his deep concern that he will alienate as many as he inspires—the better. The eulogy in Charleston, where he spoke as freely, and as emotionally, as he ever has about race during his Presidency, is a sign, I think—I hope—that he is prepared, between now and his last day in office, to seize the opportunity.

Finally, in recent months Obama has also, through executive action, made solid gains on immigration, wage discrimination, climate change, and foreign-policy issues, including an opening, after more than a half century of Cold War and embargo, to Cuba. These accomplishments—and potential accomplishments, like a rigorous, well-regulated nuclear arrangement with Iran—will help shape the coming election. In no small measure, Obama, and what he has achieved, will determine the parameters of the debate.

The Next Battle: “Religious Liberty” — Zoë Carpenter in The Nation on the next tactic the Religious Right will use to oppress the gay community.

As a jubilant crowd at the Supreme Court celebrated Friday’s 5-4 ruling that same-sex couples have a right to marry, moans of impotent fury emanated from conservatives in and out of the Court. “The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie,” Justice Antonin Scalia fumed in his dissenting opinion. In his own dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the Court should not worry about human dignity: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved,” he wrote. Justice Samuel Alito, also dissenting, fretted that homophobes now “will risk being labeled as bigots.”

Among the field of Republican presidential candidates, the responses ranged from outrage to resignation; none embraced the ruling. Some were quick to throw red meat to the conservative base, ignoring yet another thing the GOP supposedly learned after getting crushed in 2012. But a few of the more serious candidates, who have read the polls and know that aggressive opposition to gay marriage spells trouble in a general election, tried to shift the focus to one of the next issues in the marriage debate, which Nan Hunter explores in detail here—the attempt to frame discrimination as the exercise of “religious liberty.”

“This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision,” squawked Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who recently issued an executive order designed to shield business owners who discriminate against same-sex couples. “The government should not force those who have sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage to participate in these ceremonies,” he argued in his statement.

Though his take was cautious, former Florida governor Jeb Bush also highlighted religious-freedom protections. “Guided by my faith, I believe in traditional marriage. I believe the Supreme Court should have allowed the states to make this decision,” Bush said. “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side. It is now crucial that as a country we protect religious freedom and the right of conscience and also not discriminate.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio was somewhat resigned. “I believe that marriage, as the key to strong family life, is the most important institution in our society and should be between one man and one woman.… While I disagree with this decision, we live in a republic and must abide by the law.”

But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker urged opponents of gay marriage to keep fighting. “I believe this Supreme Court decision is a grave mistake,” he said. “As a result of this decision, the only alternative left for the American people is to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reaffirm the ability of the states to continue to define marriage.”

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum were predictably affronted. Huckabee declared that he would “not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.” Santorum blasted the Court majority for “decid[ing] to redefine the foundational unit that binds together our society without public debate or input.”

[…]

As with the Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, the ruling against gay-marriage bans is really a win for Republican candidates. They can use it to direct attention to the 2016 election, as Rubio, Walker, and former Texas governor Rick Perry did. “As we look ahead,” Rubio said, “it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood.” Perry promised, “as president, I would appoint strict Constitutional conservatives who will apply the law as written.” And by taking the basic marriage question off the table, the Court offered candidates an exit from a debate they can’t win. As to who will actually take it—ask the nearest hippie.

Two Friends — Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi talk to Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times about gay pride.

Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi 06-27-15When Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi come sailing down Fifth Avenue in convertibles at the Gay Pride March on Sunday, they will not only be grand marshals at the annual event but also first-time attendees.

So on Thursday morning, these revered British actors, who appear together in the PBS sitcom “Vicious,” were wondering what awaited them beyond an afternoon of waving to fans and onlookers.

“I’m just a sponge for anything that might happen,” said Mr. Jacobi, the soft-spoken star of “I, Claudius” and countless stage productions.

Mr. McKellen, the “Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” star, whose utterances are either deeply serious or extremely arch, opted for the second. “You may be in for a very, very happy weekend,” he replied.

On a visit to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in the West Village, these two performers, who are both 76 and are gay, had come for a quick education on New York’s Pride events and their significance to the city on a weekend following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on same-sex marriage. (At this year’s 46th parade, Mr. Jacobi and Mr. McKellen share grand marshal duties with the artist J. Christopher Neal and Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera, a Ugandan activist.)

Along the way, they revisited their personal histories and reflected on the progress they had seen in their often parallel lives.

Even if his and Mr. Jacobi’s principal goal in participating in the parade was simply to have “a lovely time,” Mr. McKellen said that their mere presence in it, as living links between a less progressive era and the present day, made a statement of its own.

“That’s what we’re doing by being here and waving,” he said. “We don’t have to be reading out a long list of demands.”

The two friends, who play a longtime gay couple on “Vicious,” first met as students at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s, where they bonded over their interests in acting, their working-class backgrounds and their sexuality.

“We knew we were both gay,” Mr. Jacobi said, “but we didn’t call it gay.” Euphemisms like “camp” and “queer” were the norm, they explained, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain.

Both men went on to illustrious stage and screen careers, to play Richard III and King Lear, and to receive knighthoods — “We’re pretty much the same person,” Mr. McKellen joked.

Unlike their industry forebears, who they said never acknowledged even to confidants that they were gay or bisexual, Mr. McKellen and Mr. Jacobi said actors of their generation could be open about their sexuality with friends and colleagues.

Yet Mr. McKellen did not come out publicly until 1988, at age 49, during a radio broadcast in which he and the conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne debated Britain’s so-called Section 28 legislation, which forbade authorities from “promoting homosexuality.”

As Mr. McKellen recalled it, “When he said something particularly nasty about gay people, I said I’m one of them myself.”

Mr. Jacobi, by his own reckoning, did not come out at all. “I kind of oozed out,” he said with a laugh.

While still in college, Mr. Jacobi said he told his mother he was gay, and her reaction was, “Oh, all boys go through this phase.”

Doonesbury — Regrets?