Sunday, April 03, 2005

Hard Work and Fair Play

These two phrases have been volleying around in my mind lately.
I've been planning to write something along the lines of "Democracy Is Hard Work" for a few weeks now, ever since a commenter on this blog raised the question of how we can battle the co-opting of the press by the political right.
The concept of "Fair Play" has been and remains my favorite way of characterizing the aims of the left wing in American politics, in a way that I think could have some resonance with the public.
And this morning, for no particular reason but for many reasons in general, it strikes me that "easy" and "unfair" are two suitable ways of characterizing the aims of the political right in this country. The right, I think, is prone to easy answers that don't really fit the facts of the situations they are supposedly addressing. Furthermore, I think this easiness typically comes at the expense of any effort to play fair with the citizenry of the United States.
Fair play is a concept we all can understand. Our kids understand it. Every parent has had to try to uphold principles in the face of a disappointed and outraged child shouting, "That's not fair!" in situations where we know that we have done our level best to be fair.
Fairness is difficult almost by definition: In order to be fair, you have to understand and offer something to all sides. And in the same way, to be fair you generally have to deny something to all sides. The reason Republican answers often seem simple compared to Democratic ones is that quite often they are "fair" to only one group -- the Republicans' opposition to gay marriage may seem fair to religious conservatives, but it is obscenely unfair to gay men and women denied the right to sit at hospital with their dying loved ones, or to receive health benefits from their partner's employer, or to adopt children. To be told, "You don't count," is to be excluded from society's graces in fundamental ways.
Explaining why we need to assure the rights and privileges of citizenship to those whose lifestyles or opinions we may find distateful is hard work. And we often fail at it. The demonization of the American Civil Liberties Union over the past 20 years or so has been based on pointing fingers at some of the "outrageous" individuals and groups whose rights the ACLU has defended. It's hard to explain why it is so important that somebody take up these causes, why our own rights and privileges depend on preserving the rights and privileges of those with whom we thoroughly disagree. It depends on being able to get across the notion that what is being defended is the right to hold an opinion at all.
Monday morning's national edition of The New York Times includes two good pieces that illustrate what I am talking about when I go on about fair play and hard work. One article discusses lawsuits filed by gay couples over the new Michigan law denying spousal health benefits to gay partners of state employees. Below it is a piece on efforts to keep open public libraries in Salinas, California, in the face of budget shortages brought on by voters' refusal to increase taxes.
What I like about these stories is that they illustrate the personal consequences of political acts. The couples interviewed in the first piece are paying taxes, raising children, educating students and serving the public in other ways, and yet are denied the benefits given to their heterosexual colleagues because of the anti-gay marriage measure passed in that state last November. In fact, partner benefits they had previously received are now being taken away from them under the new law. The latter piece touches on the difficulties that will be experienced by low-income residents of Salinas if the libraries -- which are often their only access to books and educational materials -- are shut down. Was this consequence worth a refusal to pay a higher property tax?
Republicans around the country crowed on November 3 after they passed referendums against gay marriage in 11 states. Did the people who voted for these measures understand that there are real people whose lives they would be disrupting? Did they understand that their vote would lead to benefits being taken away from people who had previously received them -- children, partners with health conditions? Maybe, but I wonder how many people got beyond the simplistic Republican message and really considered the real-life consequences. Same with the Salinas libraries. Nobody likes to pay taxes: The Republican anti-tax fervor is bound to have an emotional appeal. But did people really want the libraries to close when they voted against taxes?
Looking around, looking ahead, explaining consequences and pointing out injustices is hard work. It would be nice to fall back on simple answers. But that goes against the grain of everything liberals stand for. If we are to have any hope of steering the country in a positive direction, each of us needs to realize that we will spend a lot of time talking, writing, volunteering and working our butts off to open people's eyes to the danger of simple answers.
But the alternative -- continued and growing unfairness in our society -- is too difficult to bear.