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Ignorance In Action

September 15, 2004
By John A. Olmsted

Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher of the 19th century, once said that all truth passes through three stages: first, it is ridiculed; second it is violently opposed; and third, it is accepted as self evident.

Few statements better describe America's slow and begrudging steps towards social equality. Equality was described as self-evident in our own Declaration of Independence, but nonetheless an empty promise throughout the greater part of our nation's history. The right to vote, at first reserved for landholding white males, the aristocrats of early America, was eventually granted to the entire male population, then blacks, and finally women over the course of more than a century.

If history has taught us anything, it is that any and all attempts at reform will be met with bitter opposition from society's conservatives - although they never admit to it in retrospect.

Popular suffrage would inextricably lead to bloody revolution; ripe with enough murder to make even the most sanguinary sans-culottes shudder. America's freed slaves would quickly outnumber and slaughter their former masters. The female voter would soon grow a beard, wear pants, and eat her children.

As ridiculous as they sound now, these were all considered perfectly reasoned and rational arguments against social reform. Nonetheless, like a toddler suddenly being told that he has to share, America's conservative population was dragged kicking and screaming to sense.

If history has taught us anything, it is that old habits die hard. While the political landscape has changed radically over the last century, its basic divisions remain. The rise of the religious right in the early 1980s helped spark the rebirth of American social conservativism, which had been marginalized by the civil rights movements of the fifties and sixties. In the emerging crusade for "traditional values," America's largely white, protestant "moral majority" found a scapegoat in the increasingly vocal gay population of the United States. Long victims of society's pervasive homophobia, gays were finally demanding equal protection from discrimination and hate crimes.

More recently, gays have demanded many of the legal rights enjoyed by straight couples, most notably the right to marry. They have met with modest success. Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to gays in May of 2004. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco allowed the distribution of marriage licenses to hundreds of gay couples, only to have them collectively annulled by California's Supreme Court this summer.

All the while, the gay marriage movement - and any part of the "gay agenda" - has been met with stiff and venomous opposition from America's conservatives. Interest groups of the religious right such as Focus on the Family and the Traditional Values Coalition have decried gay marriage as an assault on the "sanctity of marriage," demonizing gays as perverts and child molesters who seek to destroy the very foundations of America and Christianity, which conservatives see as synonymous.

Such claims are of course patently ridiculous while altogether too familiar. There is little difference between claiming that gay weddings will destroy the "sanctity" of marriage, and claiming that desegregation will destroy the "sanctity" of white drinking fountains. Conservative activism, self-described as a fight for "tradition," is what it has always been - a fight for the social status quo, bigotry, and the consolidation of power. The socially conservative population has always been composed of those long entrenched in power - whether they be plantation owners or white Protestants of the religious right. They are indeed fighting for "tradition" - the social system that empowers them, a social system based unwittingly on hate.

But the system will change, slowly but inevitably, as it always has. The truth that was once opposed will be accepted as self-evident, and the gay rights movement will blossom and become as successful as all other civil rights movements have. But that time has not come yet, and America's progressives - those who see the truth before others - must remain vigilant. The third stage of truth has yet to mature, and all the while conservatives will try to stop it; with petitions, water cannons, and Constitutional amendments. We must remember the words of Johann Goethe: "Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action."

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