The essence of bigotry is treating people unequally -- giving rights, privileges, and respect to one group that are denied to another group. The people with the rights and privileges pretty quickly get used to having those advantages. After a while the inequality becomes tradition, the way things have always been. As long as things stay that way, the world seems familiar, predictable, and therefore safe.
But as soon as there is any substantial step toward more equality -- whether it’s women getting the vote, blacks going to school with whites, undocumented immigrants getting a path to citizenship, same sex couples getting married, or whatever -- conservatives think, “Hey, if this can happen, who knows what can happen next?” As Justice Alito wrote, “No one ... can predict with any certainty what the long-term ramifications” will be.
So the right-wing justices did get something right. As they made clear, resisting same-sex marriage is merely the most current example of what’s always the really crucial issue for conservatives: continuity versus change; the familiar, which is predictable, stable, and safe (or so they want to believe), versus the unfamiliar, which feels so unpredictable, unstable, and scary. The essence of their arguments, whatever the issue, always comes back to conserving the old so we can avoid the uncertainty of the new.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion, pointed out part of what the conservatives got wrong. If you really want to live in a stable, predictable society, he wrote, you should strike down DOMA. “By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect.”
Kennedy recognizes the value of stability and predictability. But he understands that sometimes you get more of it by allowing change than by keeping things rigidly the same. That’s what makes him the swing vote on the Court...
After all, conservatives constantly tell us that marriage is a bedrock institution for preserving social stability. Maybe, maybe not. But if it is, then the more couples who are married, of whatever gender, the better off we all are. The conservatives on the Court seem to have missed that obvious point. They’re so scared of change that they can’t see when it is promoting their ultimate goals. That’s what they really got wrong.
Now, with the Court’s decision in hand, more courageous and clear-thinking conservatives can join with moderates and liberals across the country to honor the “personhood and dignity” (as Justice Kennedy put it) of every American by granting everyone the right to marry whomever they love.
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