The election is over. History made. But last night on Countdown, Keith Olbermann made a comment that I think is central to the work of the humanities. You can view it in the embedded video below -- and it is worth viewing in its entirety.
California voted in favor of Proposition 8, which denies same sex couples the right to married. A right hitherto granted same sex couples in the state was banned, dissolved. An electorate actively voted to deny others the rights they themselves enjoy.
If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want—a chance to be a little less alone in the world.
Only now you are saying to them—no. You can't have it on these terms. Maybe something similar. If they behave. If they don't cause too much trouble. You'll even give them all the same legal rights—even as you're taking away the legal right, which they already had. A world around them, still anchored in love and marriage, and you are saying, no, you can't marry. What if somebody passed a law that said you couldn't marry?
Olbermann goes on to point out that we have done this before. Inter-racial marriages were illegal in 1/3 of the country until 1967. Marriages between slaves were not recognized in the era of slavery.
What strikes me more than anything else Olbermann says in this comment is how unthinkable a choice this is when you put it in terms of the literal heart of the matter -- when you put it in terms of love.
What is this, to you? Nobody is asking you to embrace their expression of love. But don't you, as human beings, have to embrace... that love? The world is barren enough.
It is stacked against love, and against hope, and against those very few and precious emotions that enable us to go forward. Your marriage only stands a 50-50 chance of lasting, no matter how much you feel and how hard you work.
And here are people overjoyed at the prospect of just that chance, and that work, just for the hope of having that feeling. With so much hate in the world, with so much meaningless division, and people pitted against people for no good reason, this is what your religion tells you to do? With your experience of life and this world and all its sadnesses, this is what your conscience tells you to do?
With your knowledge that life, with endless vigor, seems to tilt the playing field on which we all live, in favor of unhappiness and hate... this is what your heart tells you to do? You want to sanctify marriage? You want to honor your God and the universal love you believe he represents? Then Spread happiness—this tiny, symbolic, semantical grain of happiness—share it with all those who seek it. Quote me anything from your religious leader or book of choice telling you to stand against this. And then tell me how you can believe both that statement and another statement, another one which reads only "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
I realized yesterday that I've spent seven years of my life -- nearly a quarter of it -- studying Anglo-Saxon literature. And if there is one thing that Anglo-Saxon literature speaks most clearly to me, it is the centrality of human love to any kind of real life, to any kind of ethical stance against the very barrenness described here. It reminds me, as so often this modern life does, of the Wanderer, of his travels in a barren place, a wintery sea, and the ice-flecked waves that bear him ever farther from human love and belonging:
Storms buffet rocky slopes, and snowfalls
cover the earth with the silence of winter.
Darkness falls, night’s shadows grow gloomy
hailstorms beat down from the sky,
they are hateful to men.
All men are miserable in earthly kingdoms,
for fate leaves no-one under the heavens unchanged.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsmen are fleeting.
This earthly resting place becomes empty.
So many threatening forces beat upon humankind from the outside in the Anglo-Saxon poetic world. The world stands cold against the warmth of a hall -- and in the imagery of Bede, life flies by, as might a sparrow through a hall, and for a single, sparkling moment, the winter fades away, and all is warmth and light. ac þæt biþ ān ēagan-bearhtm and þæt læste fæc, ac hē sōna of winter on winter eft cymþ. "But that is only an eye's twinkling, and that least interval -- and he soon out of winter into winter again comes."
The hall is where we come together, to share, however imperfectly, a kind of human love which can warm the coldness of a wintry world. I feel the hurt of the passage of Proposition Eight as a human being, because I care for and about other humans. But I care about it as an Anglo-Saxonist and a medievalist too. Because the winters of the past are done and gone, and still I hear the pain that resonates down the centuries of what it is like to be alone, to be cast out, to be without love, and moreover -- to be without an official status, a place of stability.
You don't have to help it, you don't have it applaud it, you don't have to fight for it. Just don't put it out. Just don't extinguish it. Because while it may at first look like that love is between two people you don't know and you don't understand and maybe you don't even want to know -- It is, in fact, the ember of your love, for your fellow person just because this is the only world we have. And the other guy counts, too.
Knowing all of this -- how could I deny others a right to "permanence and happiness," to the rights still others enjoy simply because they fit into an artificial idea of a "norm"? How could I not, as Olbermann suggests, embrace that love?
Put another way: how could I stand in the way of a wanderer who longs for a place to call home?
The title of this post is from a Brian Andreas poem, which you can access here.