July 2010: Straight talk on gay marriage, passive evasions, and other observations

A tip of the Panama hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE LEGAL BATTLE SPARKED BY CALIFORNIA’S PROPOSITION 8 BAN ON GAY MARRIAGE HAS OBSCURED SOME SIMPLE TRUTHS. Some, if not most, of the opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage comes from those with religiously-founded objections. Yet what is at question is the status of civil marriage; gay marriage proponents are right to argue, as did Judge Vaughn Walker in his ruling on the legality of Prop 8, that private moral or religious judgments about what is deemed acceptable behavior shouldn’t determine the definition of marriage in a secular state.

While a majority of Americans still oppose gay marriage according to the opinion polls, and President Obama has consistently voiced his opposition, the constitutional logic for allowing same-sex couples to marry is clear. Marriage is a civil right. Under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the government can’t deny citizens that right absent a compelling state interest. There haven’t been any convincing arguments that same-sex marriage will result in any societal harm; unlike incest or polygamy, there aren’t genetic or social reasons to support a ban. And the positive experience of Massachusetts, which has allowed gay marriage since 2004, suggests any threat to civil society is imagined, not real.

In the end, the expansion of civil marriage to same-sex couples is inevitable. California’s Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act are unlikely to survive legal challenge, and a majority of Americans under 35 support the idea.

IN ENGLISH, THE PASSIVE VOICE SERVES AS A REFUGE FOR ALL THOSE HOPING TO AVOID RESPONSIBILITY. By avoiding the first person, it obscures exactly “who struck John” (so to speak). Remember Ronald Reagan on Iran-Contra: “Mistakes were made”?

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs recently employed the passive as he sought to shift blame from Obama administration officials for the maladroit sacking of Shirley Sherrod: “Look, a disservice was done, an apology is owed.” Gibbs clearly wanted to insulate his boss from the situation: as it was, President Obama contritely apologized to Sherrod.

Washington pundit William Schneider once called the passive voice defense the “past exonerative.” There are other, less flattering, terms for it.

MASSACHUSETTS HAS BEEN THE “CANARY IN THE MINE SHAFT” FOR OBAMACARE, AND RECENT RESULTS ARE DISTURBING. Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson notes that the Bay State’s 2006 health care reform expanded insurance coverage but “evaded the hard part: controlling costs and ensuring that spending improves people’s health.”

Samuelson worries about the results of Obamacare: “Unchecked health spending shapes government priorities and inflates budget deficits and taxes, with small health gains.” He asks, rhetorically, if this is what is meant by reform.

HARVARD HAS APPARENTLY DECIDED ON “NO-STAKES” TESTING. According to an article in the National Review (“Harvard Wimps Out on Testing“), America’s oldest university has decided that, beginning in September, “courses in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will no longer routinely require final exams.” A sign of declining academic rigor? Or of “everyone gets a trophy for playing” lowered standards? Perhaps neither: reducing the focus on finals may actually improve accountability as students are challenged to demonstrate mastery on a more continuous, and comprehensive, basis.

SCOTT TUROW’S LATEST, “INNOCENT,” IS, AS THE CLICHE GOES, A PAGE-TURNER. The novel brings us Rusty Sabich, the protagonist of Turow’s well-received “Presumed Innocent,” as a 60-year-old Chicago-area judge who discovers that it is possible to make the same mistakes of the heart. Let’s hope Harrison Ford, Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, and Joe Grifasi are available for the movie version.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL (1874-1965): “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
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