A few days ago, council workers in New Orleans tied ropes to a 6-metre bronze statue of General Robert E Lee, the best known of the Confederate generals, and lifted him off his pedestal with a crane. Some spectators jeered, others cheered at the removal of what they saw as the symbol of the dark historical underbelly of the American South: the slavery, the secession, and the war to protect the right of one human being to own another.
A few days ago, closer to home, A, B, C and D grade celebrities, ranging from Martina Navratilova to Peter FitzSimons, have called for renaming the Margaret Court Arena, after the elderly tennis legend unleashed a shitstorm of controversy with her refusal to fly Qantas over the airline’s vocal support for same sex marriage. Asked the grown man wearing a red hankie on his head: “Does Melbourne Park really want to have an arena named after someone who stands so firmly against such inclusiveness, who is becoming a byword for bigot?” Sam Stosur meanwhile raised the possibility of players boycotting the Arena at next year’s Australian Open. Not boycotting Margaret Court herself, boycotting something named after her.
Karl Marx might have been monumentally wrong about almost everything, but he was right about some things. Commenting on the political decline from the great Napoleon to his vaguely ridiculous nephew Louis Napoleon in The Eighteenth Brumaire, the bearded prophet of communism famously said that historic facts and persons appear twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
The long modern era of civil rights struggles in the Western world, which began with Wilberforce’s victory over slavery, and continued through female suffrage, Selma, and Stonewall, is now officially over. What began as tragic struggles – six hundred thousand white American died so that millions of black Africans no longer would – has ended in a farce of online bullying of an old lady over her personal views, which don’t actually affect anyone, and Ben & Jerry’s deciding not to sell two scoops of the same ice-cream until two men or two women can officially marry.
The fact that the issue seemingly as boutique as same sex marriage has so thoroughly dominated the political and public debate in Australia and generated more heat and passion than arguably any other in recent years, including the republic referendum, to me shows that we have pretty much arrived at a state of social nirvana where all the other big issues of political, legal, civil and economic rights and equality have been solved. Never mind “big ones” like slavery or universal suffrage; wherever you look, the previously oppressed and/or underprivileged minorities (or, in case of women, majorities) have now all achieved de jure equality, and in most cases the equality of opportunity, if not always (yet) equality of outcomes (which is a different issue to equal rights). You disagree? Then explain to me why obtaining the government’s blessing of a union between two people of the same gender, an issue which directly affects some undetermined percentage of about 40,000 couples in Australia, which other than the official name, enjoy exactly the same rights as all the other couples, has become a national preoccupation that would have made the suffragettes, black civil rights leaders, first and second wave feminists, and gay rights pioneers purple with envy.
A lot of my friends, including many of my gay and lesbian friends, no doubt will vehemently disagree with me, not to mention not invite me to their future wedding. And the irony is I’m not even addressing this controversy from the position of opposing same-sex marriage.
Personally, I’m not just agnostic on the issue – I’m positively atheist: I believe it has been a gross mistake to allow the state to take control over what for millennia has been essentially a religious ceremony. Get your government out of my engagement, I say. Leave marriages to the churches – and indeed to non-religious celebrants – to be conducted however people want, following whatever tradition or no tradition they want, and be called whatever they want. The laws regulating de facto relationships are by now so robust that both the government and the justice system can easily handle all the consequences of people of same or different genders forming and dissolving their partnerships. If that’s somehow not enough for you, the state can sanction some sort of a civil partnership requiring a ten minute visit to a government registry. Under this scenario everyone would be happy, from gay activists to religious conservatives.
One can dream; the government, having once assumed, is unlikely to ever relinquish its power. Same-sex marriage will happen, sooner rather than later, by the grace of God, I mean the state. It’s obviously an issue of great importance to the LGBT community, and most Australians support it. Democracy will prevail and so be it. I will, however, be left wondering, once #lovewins, what other outstanding civil rights issue can our society possibly move onto next.
It is a variant of Pareto’s 80:20 rule that fixing the final 10 percent of a problem can consume as many resources as fixing the initial 90 percent. This is very much the story of the modern civil rights era as it descends into a farce of safe spaces, micro-aggression, and transgender toilets. We are now living in a Pareto universe where more and more attention and passion focuses on smaller and smaller problems, until perhaps we finally arrive at a Shakespearean singularity where we will truly see not just much but all ado about nothing.