A Patch, or an Upgrade?

The jury is still out.

In the upcoming election, the real question is not whether the individual named John McCain or the individual named Barack Obama will be elected President. The choice before us is ultimately not between persons or even parties; it is nothing less than a choice between the past and the future, and that choice will have particular significance for the gay community.

As readers of the Word know all too well, the last decade will not rank among America’s shining hours. (Okay, the metaphor is mixed, but you know what I mean.) The country has been in the throes of a cultural and religious chauvinism not seen since the last Great Awakening/Nativist eruption. Such eras are never kind to minority groups or marginalized communities, and this most recent period has been no exception. The broader problem is that, unlike previous episodes, this prolonged national snit has occurred at a time that the globe has been shrinking. The threats we face—to national security, to public safety, and to our economic interests—require genuine partnerships with other nations, a partnership beyond the capacities of an arrogant “decider” intent on unilateral action.

This November, the American electorate will decide whether to abandon an approach to national affairs that has caused us to be disdained internationally and that has turned us into a fiscal banana republic at home. Voters in California will decide whether to snatch the hard-won right to marry from its gay and lesbian citizens, and bigots in Arizona will try again to add a same-sex marriage ban to that state’s constitution. In other cities and states around the country, voters will have to decide whether to risk similarly dramatic changes in the way we do the public’s business.

In any change election—which this one is shaping up to be—there will be winners and losers. One of the reasons that people fear change is that they fear being one of the losers.

If America is really on the cusp of a paradigm shift, what will be lost? For white people, the privileged status that we still enjoy simply by virtue of skin color, the “default” judgment that light skin denotes acceptability, if not superiority. For heterosexuals, the confidence that our orientation is “normal,” that non-heterosexuals are somehow deviants to be tolerated at best and scorned or abused at worst. For corporate bigwigs, the ability to hire lobbyists and obtain legislation that exempts them from the forces of the market they try to evade even while verbally extolling its virtues. Those who enjoy these and other advantages are unlikely to view their loss as insignificant.

But if we take the risk, and opt for a new governing paradigm, most ordinary Americans have a great deal to gain, because bigotry and anxiety burden both the oppressed and the oppressor. A refusal to understand that we are all in this together—that ultimately, we cannot escape the consequences of our neighbors’ misfortunes, that we all are poorer when stereotypes deprive us of our neighbors’ talents—is what has gotten us into the mess we’re in.

The election of Barack Obama—even with a Democratic House and Senate—will not usher in utopia or anything remotely like it. The damage that has been done to our constitution, our governing institutions, our economy and our ability to trust each other has been great; if it is reparable—and it may not be—that repair will take a generation or more. Obama is brilliant and talented, and he’s read and taught the constitution (a fact I find comforting), but he’s just one man and certainly not perfect.

The election of John McCain, on the other hand, would mean Americans have chosen the past over the future. It would be evidence that Americans fear change, that we simply cannot find the courage and discipline to extricate ourselves from a culture that has proven to be not just poisonous, but inimical to our own national interests and ideals. McCain is undoubtedly a good person (and surely must be brighter than he seems on the campaign trail) but he is firmly wedded to a cultural moment that needs to pass.

Somewhere, I read a description of John McCain as “an analog candidate for a digital age.” The quip was a reaction to the fact that McCain has not used the internet or “done a google,” as he phrases it. But the characterization rings true across the board, not just in the context of technology.

The basic question voters will face in November is whether we are going to upgrade from Bush 1.0 to 2.0, or whether we are going to adopt a new operating system.