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One step forward, another step back

OPINION

  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced in that he had reversed his stance against same-sex marriage because his son, Will, is gay.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced in that he had reversed his stance against… (Getty Images file photo )
July 07, 2013|By Stephen Markley, @stephenmarkley | For RedEye

As an ardent supporter of LGBT equality, I was pleased by the two recent Supreme Court decisions on California's Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act—while also being disturbed in equal measure. Because while I've long championed this civil rights revolution, let's not lie to ourselves that its warp-speed nature is more about wealth than anything else.

Politicians, media elites and their economic backers all have gay friends or family members, but few of them share many beers or Thanksgivings with the working poor. Senators like Rob Portman and his gay son or our own Mark Kirk can more easily dig up the empathy for the hero of a Lady Gaga song than they can for the single mother earning minimum wage. So as we watched civil rights expand, we also watched it contract just as quickly with the effective fall of the Voting Rights Act. Now dead is a bill that people died for, and right-wing state legislatures are free to throw up as many barriers to voting as they can dream up. (It took Texas all of two hours to pass a bald-faced attempt to disenfranchise its poor minority voters.)

Yet it's kind of like, "Iceberg, meet your tip." After all, our schools are as effectively segregated as they were during the days of Brown v. Board of Education, we held a presidential election in which one party's primary policy goal was to redistribute money from the bottom of society to the top, and the House Republicans' primary concern of late has been getting rid of nutritional assistance to families in need.

The only nice thing to be said about all this is that public antipathy seems to have expanded toward economically disadvantaged whites as well people of color (#Progress).

I tend to hang out in the privileged parts of town with kids of relative privilege (at least until those higher student loan rates kick in or they start a third unpaid internship), so if I get into a political argument at a bar, it's usually over some variation on, "Why should my tax dollars go to people too lazy to help themselves?"

Ignoring the lack of self-awareness inherent in such attitudes, my point is always the same: People who hate the welfare state are in deep denial because America already has an expensive social policy. It's called prison, and our incarceration nation is far more costly in the long run than if our tax dollars just fed, housed, educated and gave free health care to everyone who needed it (or paid full tuition for prisoners to go to Princeton University, as the research group Public Administration once pointed out).

So when one sees the celebration over the inevitable normalization of gay marriage and gay rights, it's hard not to wonder if we've traded in the more difficult fights for the clearly winnable ones. The homophobic status quo won't even last till the end of the decade, and yet the trends for the rest of society are all running in the other direction. Our massive deficit of empathy continues to expand politically, gobbling up lives, rationality and justice as it tumbles along.

RedEye special contributor Stephen Markley is the author of "The Great Dysmorphia" and "Publish This Book."

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