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Miss California and Gay Marriage

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By Michael Kinsley
Friday, May 22, 2009

SEATTLE -- I want the next Supreme Court justice to share my views on the Constitution. I don't care how she looks in a bathing suit, or halfway out of one. Miss California is a different story. Her qualifications, as a general rule, should be up to the people of California. Here in the state of Washington, we expect our beauty-contest winners to be able to split a log and appreciate good coffee. But Miss California's views on gay marriage have nothing to do with her qualifications for the job and shouldn't disqualify her for it.

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This is really Liberalism 101, and it's amazing that so many liberals don't get it. Yes, yes, the Bill of Rights protects individuals against oppression by the government, not by other private individuals or organizations. But the values and logic behind our constitutional rights don't disappear when the oppressor is in the private sector. They may not have the force of law in that situation, but they ought to have the force of understanding and of habit. The logic behind freedom of speech is that "bad" speech does not need to be suppressed as long as "good" speech is free to counter it. Or at least that letting the good and bad do battle is more likely to allow the good speech to triumph than giving anyone the power to choose between them. Congratulations to Donald Trump for making the right decision in this case. But we can't count on every employer to be as sensitive and understanding as The Donald.

In Hollywood, especially, they ought to know better than to try to destroy the career of a professional beauty contestant because she spoke out -- ever so politely and tentatively, and only when asked -- against gay marriage. During the blacklist period, people's careers were destroyed because, as members of the Communist Party, they had admired Stalin's Soviet Union and wished -- or, occasionally, worked -- to see some of its finer features established here. Not every blacklist victim was communist, and even fewer had kept the faith, but we now recognize that even those who were believers had a right to their views. Maybe some people don't recognize this even today. But liberals ought to.

The Hollywood communists of the 1930s and '40s might have found the idea of gay marriage more bizarre and offensive than Miss California does. They probably would have regarded it as a particularly decadent example of late-stage capitalism. This shows how far the gay rights movement has come, and how fast. Has it been so far and fast that people have forgotten when being gay could cost a person his or her job and career? Outside of Hollywood, that still happens. Defeating this discrimination would be a better use of activist energy than demanding discrimination against people who disagree.

So what am I saying? That mindless bigotry always must be tolerated?

What about racism? Should an overt racist be allowed to wear the crown of Miss California, and even to compete for the title of Miss USA? No, not an overt racist, and not an overt homophobe. And no, I can't tell you exactly where to draw the line between bigotry that's intolerable and bigotry that ought to be tolerated, at least to the extent of not ruining someone's life because of a bigoted remark. But that line is somewhere north of Miss California.

The progress of gay liberation, though not complete, is one of the inspiring triumphs of the past four decades. Every time we think the American project of freedom is finished, along comes someone else to point out that it's not, and every time we realize after a while that this someone else is right. But the route of gay progress was not inevitable or preordained. Marriage did not have to become the central issue. This was a strategy, and a good one. It's going to work, because the arguments for it are so reasonable and appealing to so many people across the political spectrum. But unlike, say, racial integration, or gay issues that fit the traditional civil rights template -- freedom from job discrimination, for example -- the issue of gay marriage and the arguments for it are surprising when you first hear them. If someone is a bit slow to wrap her head around them, that is not intolerable bigotry.

Everywhere you look, the blight of umbrage continues to spread through our political system. The end of the campaign last year didn't slow it down. Blogs speed it up. Taking offense is your ticket to attention from the media. You can't win if you don't play. And it's not all on the left, either. Liberal columnist Joe Klein makes an ill-considered remark about conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, and every other conservative faints from the shock, awakening only to demand that the scoundrel be silenced. Can't anyone just shrug anything off anymore?

kinsleym@washpost.com


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