"Same-sex marriage is very new, it may turn out to be a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing," commented Justice Alito. "But you want us to step in and render a decision."
Maureen Dowd was unimpressed. The Chief Justice sounded inane for a "big brain," while Anthony Kennedy grumbled about "uncharted waters".
She concluded "the fuddy-duddies seemed to be looking for excuses not to make a sweeping ruling. Their questions reflected a unanimous craven impulse: How do we get out of this?"
A less cynical mind might see the trepidation as an attempt to mark the limitations of the Supreme Court, without quite doing yourself out of a job.
Dowd and gay marriage advocates won't like to hear it, but the moral victory they seek is not within the remit of democratic institutions to deliver. Doing the right thing, treating others fairly, is only ever revealed by the individual, unconditionally. It has no interest in the relative ways and means of politics, no need of man-made laws or ideologies.
The stated goals of civil society – freedom, equality, happiness – are unrealisable politically, which is exactly why they're so special, why Jefferson resigned American democracy to a "pursuit". Common governance, helpful in improving worldly conditions, is ultimately useless, insofar as what matters most requires something of our humanity, an inner metaphysical quality that refuses to be devolved to politician, priest or lawyer.
Which makes for an unnerving irony, one long forgotten by progressives like Dowd.
A society conscious of its political inadequacies is likely to be muted and lethargic, its people uninterested in progress and social justice. Human beings come together on the assumption their shared enterprise will prevail. Best, then, to promise an all-encompassing moral triumph, notwithstanding the blissful finale is a fiction. For without it, the impulse to redeem this fallen world would surely yield to ambivalence before the quest had even begun.
Unsurprisingly, this practical gesture comes with a latent price tag. Disguising the truth empowers the misconception our liberation lies in political activism, not personal responsibility. A modern progressive culture is prone to be destroyed by its own success. Positive change has a bewitching effect, convincing us welfare budgets and legal judgments can end the trials and sufferings of existence.
The Western world is still reeling from this overreach. By promoting a clinical approach to human affairs, the bribes and coercions of centralized political power end up contributing to the social decline and economic degeneration it seeks to cure. Confused and infuriated by an inability to grasp and control what forever exceeds its competence, a vast and restless democratic complex has little option but to foreclose on the human spirit and regress into a tyrannical, vapid end in itself.
Disabusing a defensive left-leaning elite of its suspect motives is a subtle challenge.
Writing alongside Dowd at The New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni celebrated the "aura of inevitability" for same-sex marriage. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides in the two cases presently before it, rising public support means the "question isn't whether there will be a happy ending. The question is when." The "final chapter" has been written.
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