Whose Revolution Is It, Anyway?

When will we know for sure that “Obamacare” is a success?

When Republicans stop calling it “Obamacare.”

I’ve been carting around that joke for a while now.  I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with it, although I certainly wish I had.

It’s the perfect little joke, because it’s founded on a basic truth about human nature, and about the nature of partisan politics in particular.  No one needs to explain the joke, because everyone understands the dynamics of taking credit and assigning blame.  I refer you to the old proverb, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”

Indeed, if we are to devise a general rule of thumb from both the joke and the proverb, it is that the success of a given policy or social movement is directly related to the number of people claiming credit for it.

That is why I am so delighted by the petty squabbling that has broken out in the last week over the legacy of gay marriage.

Here’s what happened.  This past Tuesday saw the release of new book called Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality.  Written by Jo Becker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, the tome purports to be the inside story of the gay marriage movement from 2008 to the present—in particular, the effort to overturn Proposition 8 in California and, in so doing, attempt to bring gay marriage to all 50 states.

The book is told through first-hand accounts of several key players, including now-president of the Human Rights Campaign Chad Griffin, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and the famed legal team of Ted Olson and David Boies.

Fair enough, except that according to a veritable avalanche of critics, Forcing the Spring presents these characters and their legal adventures not as simply the most recent (and most fruitful) phase of the struggle for gay marriage rights in America, but as the whole damn story.

(I have not read the book, apart from a few excerpts.)

According to Becker, Griffin et al. were bold revolutionaries—Griffin himself is compared to Rosa Parks on the very first page—who rebelled against a do-nothing gay “establishment” that had effectively driven the cause into a ditch.

As the book would have it (according to these naysayers), nothing that occurred in the struggle for same-sex marriage really, truly mattered until the moment in 2008 when Griffin and like-minded allies made wholesale changes in strategy—legally and rhetorically—that would lead directly to the domino of successes the country has experienced ever since.

Long story short (too late?), the charge against Forcing the Spring is that Becker allows her sources to claim nearly all the credit for the fact that gay marriage is now legal in 17 states and is endorsed by a clear majority of the American public, at the expense of countless others who deserve equal, if not greater, credit for carrying the fight as far as they did.

Among these unacknowledged factors are a legal showdown in Hawaii in the 1990s that set the template for all that would follow; people like Andrew Sullivan and Evan Wolfson, who articulated the now-mainstream arguments for gay marriage decades before they were taken seriously; and the mere fact that, before public support for gay marriage rose from 40 percent to 54 percent between 2008 and 2013, it rose from 27 percent to 46 percent between 1996 and 2007.  (Yes, apparently support dropped six points between 2007 and 2008.)

As the book’s dissenters make plain, to say the anti-Prop 8 crowd is singularly responsible for effecting same-sex marriage, as the book implies, is analogous to crediting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 entirely to Lyndon Johnson, while failing to even mention figures like Martin Luther King, A. Philip Randolph or, indeed, Rosa Parks.

For the most part, this contest over the history of the gay rights movement can be categorized as a family quarrel.  All sides wish to achieve the same ends; they disagree, if at all, only about the means.

What is most encouraging is that this argument is happening at all, because it means that the history of bringing same-sex marriage to America is one that its participants can be proud of.  Those on the struggle’s front lines are falling all over each other to claim responsibility because their efforts have proved successful after a long period of failure, and they feel they deserve their due.  I am positively thrilled that we, as a society, have come this far.

Of course, we still await the moment when we’ll know for sure, and beyond all doubt, that gay marriage is here to stay:  That is, when members of the GOP begin to claim that it was their idea all along.

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