Wednesday, November 01, 2006

November 7th Referenda Challenge Wisconsin's Progressive Tradition

On November 7, Wisconsinites will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and restricting the rights of unmarried partners along with an advisory referendum on reinstating the death penalty. The passage of either measure will be a rebuke to Wisconsin’s long progressive tradition and set our state firmly in a course back to the 19th century, if not further.

For those who study the right wing – its history, leaders, goals and tactics – these proposals are emblematic of a movement that has consistently used fear and scapegoating to divide us and misdirection to divert us from the true course of justice.

On a more basic and immediate level, civil rights for lesbians and gays and the death penalty are classic wedge issues, used by right-wing politicians to stir the emotions and to ensure heavy turn-out of their constituencies at the polls.

The Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature used its clout to intentionally delay approval of the marriage amendment until it would coincide with the 2006 gubernatorial race. In a more cynical ploy, they rammed through the death penalty question this Spring so it would also be on the ballot this Fall at the same time that accused murderer Steven Avery was set to go on trial for the gruesome and widely publicized murder of Teresa Halbach. This is hardly an example of responsible public policy-making. (Avery's trial has since been re-scheduled.)

Regarding capital punishment: a public execution in Kenosha in 1851 drew thousands and was described by one observer as resembling “circus day.” That spectacle and the passionate advocacy of Christopher Sholes moved the legislature to abolish the death penalty in 1853. They recognized it did not deter murder then, and there is no evidence that it does so today.

Capital punishment is costly litigation-wise and in practice, it is implemented unequally, and it is not fool-proof, even with DNA evidence. It’s a reactionary policy motivated by fear and vengeance. Instead of doing the hard work of designing policies to address the underlying issues that promote crime – joblessness, poverty, untreated illness, lack of education and role models – and devising more effective policing, we are racing to build more prisons and to re-institute the death penalty. It reminds me of Emma Goldman's bitter quip that every society gets the criminals it deserves.

Meanwhile, the proposed marriage amendment goes way beyond banning gay marriage. It threatens virtually any legal protections for unmarried couples in Wisconsin – gay or straight. For the first time in our history, it would single out a group of citizens to deny them and their families any legal identity or protections for the foreseeable future.

Colorado once adopted an amendment that repealed all civil rights protections relating to sexual orientation and forbade local governments from adopting any such laws in the future. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that measure in 1993, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared:

“Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. …This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws."

From the racism of segregationists to the fear-mongering of nativists (having a big comeback lately with the anti-immigrant movement), from the Jew-baiting of old-line right-wingers and the witch-hunting days of the Red Scare, we have now arrived at the demonizing of homosexuals and the threat they allegedly pose to the “traditional” family. Knowing all that we know about past injustices, how can we possibly make this mistake again?

Right-wing fear-mongering divides communities and damages public discourse. It deflects attention from substantive issues that require intelligent discussion and problem-solving. It’s a given among those of us who study the Right that it aims to reverse the gains made by the labor, civil rights, women’s, environmental and consumer rights movements of the last century. But it goes much further than that, undermining the principles of human reason and pluralism that emerged from the Enlightenment and that once defined America.

This essay is slightly modified from the one that first appeared in the Fall Newsletter of the Wisconsin Center for Pluralism.