03.16.11 Gay Marriage: Del. Alston’s (Ir)responsibility

This is cross-posted with (a somewhat milder version on) the Washington Post’s All Opinions Are Local.

Maryland State Del. Tiffany T. Alston campaigned in the fall as a supporter of marriage rights for all Marylanders. When legislation was introduced a few weeks ago to make our state a pioneer for this fundamental civil right, Alston didn’t just voice support, she signed on as a co-sponsor. But when the bill came up for a crucial committee vote, Alston simply didn’t show up. Though she continues to proclaim that guaranteeing marriage equality is the right thing to do, she ended up voting against the bill in committee, and her opposition was one reason why the bill never made it to the House floor for a final vote.

What happened to Alston? It’s simple: The African American religious community made her phone ring off the hook. They put on the squeeze and she sold her soul.

This brings up a fundamental dilemma in representative government: Does a legislator owe allegiance to “what’s right” or to the clamor of constituents, when those two principles are in opposition?

On the one hand, I simply don’t believe in the ultimate wisdom (or virtue) of most politicians. I think they should listen carefully to constituents and be guided by them a good deal of the time. On the other hand, enlightened democracy is not about mob rule: Not every question of public policy should be subject to the whims of whoever can whip up the most fervor or contribute the most money.

But here are two reasons why Del. Alston’s behavior was clearly wrong in this case: The minor reason is that she ran publicly as favoring gay marriage. She didn’t spring her position on an unsuspecting electorate as some sort of purposeful subterfuge. The voters knew whom they were electing, which attenuates their right to demand a change of position.

The major reason why Alston is wrong is that civil rights and civil liberties ought never be subject to majority will. Otherwise, would school desegregation or interracial marriage have become the law of the land in the middle of last century?

So, why is it right to follow the hatred and vitriol of constituents when they demand discrimination against one of the last minority groups in this country whom it is still “ok” to hate? Bigotry is bigotry and must be opposed whenever it rears its ugly head.

Two more points:

• Homophobic African Americans who fought to defeat gay marriage should be ashamed of themselves. I have special contempt for oppressed people who — when they gain some measure of power — turn it against others who are oppressed. (Are you listening, Israel?)

• Religion has no place in the formation of public policy. I don’t give a shit what your particular interpretation of your particular holy text suggests to you about the need to persecute someone else. Separation of church and state cannot stop you from hating in your heart, but it ought to prevent you from legislating based on that hatred.

Here’s hoping that Maryland eventually rises above the bigotry. Advocates for equal rights will be back next year and — just as with the train started by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. — we may well be detoured, but our eventual victory is assured.

©2011 Keith Berner

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4 Comments on “03.16.11 Gay Marriage: Del. Alston’s (Ir)responsibility”

  1. Ken Plotkin Says:

    Outstanding post. I wonder…does she believe that moral cowardice and absence of integrity are removed when she does her Sunday wash, or does she just buy a new wardrobe like most of our politicians.

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  2. Seth Berner Says:

    I have come to believe that the great divide between peoples is not religious necessarily, but in a more general sense the degree to which one feels a connection to those not part of one’s immediate family or race. There are religious people who follow a loving god, a god who directs them that all humans are equally beloved – and there are those who don’t. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is rhetorical nonsense if what is being defined as sin is part of what makes a person human. But too many of the intolerant who profess sanctity don’t make any pretense of splitting hairs – they simply hate.

    All of which is an introduction to other of my beliefs: a) that government should solicit feedback from the people; and b) that a would-be official should make clear during campaign season how broad a definition of “community” (s)he ascribes to. If I campaigned as a “broad community” candidate my constituents should be able to assume that at times of doubt I will err on the side of inclusiveness. And if my constituents bring to my attention that I might be violating my stated principles I should be prepared to change. That is, a politician should be prepared to examine and re-examine positions, and should adopt and change positions in accordance with principles known to the people who did or will be asked to support.

    I disagree with the intolerance of anyone who lets personal beliefs form the basis for governmental policy. I wish Keith had not focused on the ethnicity of those who telephoned Alston. That’s irrelevant to the discussion, and only contributes to a readiness to divide society according to superficial characteristics. The phone callers acted not because they were African-American but because they, apparently, have an unfortunately narrow view of community, and have adopted a god who supports them in this narrow-mindedness. The problem is not racial, it is dogmatic.

    Having said that, I do agree that the willingness of those who have long been victims to treat others badly is particularly saddening. I also shudder at those who have survived anti-Semitism being willing to adopt the tactics of their oppressors. And I expect more compassion from those who face racial bigotry on a daily basis, never mind the historical fact of slavery. But just as those who were abused as children statistically are likely to become abusers themselves those who are abused by society may respond in ways not helpful to society. This too is not racial, it is unfortunately human in the broadest sense.

    Alston is wrong not because she took input from the public, but because she acted without principle. Those who support such politicians do so at their own peril. Today those who oppose equality for the LGBTQ community may be happy, but Alston’s willingness to follow some unstated agenda can just as easily turn on those who approve of her today. If we want government we can count on we need to chose politicians we can count on. And if someone we thought we could count on proves otherwise then we should let the person know of our disappointment, and if that fails to link action and principle for that person we should replace that person with someone we can hope for better from.

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    • Keith Berner Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Seth. I can understand why you wish I hadn’t mentioned the ethnicity of Alston’s homophobic constituents, but for me their ethnicity is far from irrelevant. I had two stories to tell: one about the obligation of the lawmaker to defend civil rights and civil liberties regardless of popular opinion; and one about the outrageousness of the oppressed turning on and oppressing others. That second story has no meaning if I fail to identify the homophobic constituents as African-American.

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      • Seth Berner Says:

        The problem is that they are two different stories. The story about Alston is about Alston, and it does not matter what special interest group she caved in to, the story is her lack of principle. (And, honestly, in most places the Black churches do not have enough pull to influence politicians motivated by votes and dollars in quantity, though it might be different in that part of Maryland). And in the story of victims becoming oppressors the actions of the Black church matter but Alston is irrelevant. In conflating the stories you appear to care about the race of those who influenced Alston, as if to say that Alston is more to be despised because of the race that reached her. This does neither you nor your story any good. As I tell clients about to take the witness stand (I am a criminal defense lawyer): it will be tempting to let “the whole story” come out all at once. Resist it. Tell that part of the story that is relevant at the time, and trust that other parts can come out at the right moment. The story loses power when it loses focus.

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