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24 February 2004

Tired…from the day and of Bush

Everyone I seem to run into around campus is pretty tired right
now.  Not sure why….  But we’re all dragging.  And the
semester just got going, it seems.

Bush sanctioned a constitutional ban against equality of
marriage.  I’m not going to comment on his statement at length, both because I’m
tired and because the statement demonstrates a pretty inane,
anti-historical, uninformed understanding of social institutions and
this one in particular.  The best insight that I have seen in this
whole debate, especially as a social scientist who studies
institutions, came from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker,
dated 1 December 2003.  He opened the piece with a discussion of
drug use in the NFL and the league’s stated concern for its
players.  He ended thus:

Despite the N.F.L.’s claims that it is concerned about the health of
the players, it is more concerned about the health of the N.F.L.
Football’s governors make a distinction between natural violence and
artificially aided violence, and it’s their contention that the former
has a good deal more market appeal than the latter, in the same way
that consumers are believed to be willing to pay more for pure orange
juice than they are for the adulterated version. What the N.F.L. really
cares about is the institution of football. That is the reason
players, when they are not smashing into each other on the field, have
to behave like Rotarians, and dress up nicely in suits, and visit sick
children in the hospital, and not smoke marijuana. The idea is that
there is some abstract thing out there called “football” that is bigger
than them and will long outlive them all, and that it needs to be
nourished and protected with socially appropriate behavior.

If this argument sounds familiar, it is because the idea that institutions-and not the constituents of institutions-need
our support is very much in vogue right now. The case against
affirmative action, for instance, has become an argument in defense of
the institution of higher learning-which is, apparently, so
fragile that it will crumble in the face of a few sub-par test scores.
The same logic was at work last week in President Bush’s response to
the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that gay couples have
the right to marry. “Marriage is a sacred institution
between a man and a woman,” he said. There’s that word again, and
notice how the sentence doesn’t quite make sense. It should read: “a
sacred bond between a man and a woman.” But the President had to say “institution,
because nobody imagines that the court’s decision will actually
jeopardize the personal bond between any particular man and any
particular woman. Notice, as well, that neither the President nor the
N.F.L. bothered much with the principles involved in these causes. That
is why the N.F.L., in its statements about the health of its players,
had to obscure the fact that there isn’t any appreciable ethical
distinction between the profound physical harm caused to football
players by playing football and the harm caused to football players by
taking drugs. Massachusetts officials, for their part, in criticizing
the court’s decision, maintained that the purpose of marriage
was procreation, that children were better off in male-female unions,
and that gay unions would pose a burden to the state. None
of those
arguments are derived from principle; they are arguments of expediency.
They are appeals to the institution of marriage, and institutions-on
and off the football field-are where we hide when we can’t find our
(emphasis added)

I believe that my political and spiritual duty — and I hope yours too
— lies in standing up for the principles of justice and mercy. 

What the president does is unjust.  It denies people — citizens
— of their right to equal treatment under law.  It lies in the
same moral plane as anti-Semitism and racism.  It refuses to
affirm the dignity, equality, and worth of all human beings.  What
the president does is not only unjust; what the president does is sin;
what the president has done is to fall prey to evil.

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