Is discrimination un-American?

In the course of giving four reasons why the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is doomed, this article quotes Jay Michaelson, a gay rights advocate who has a JD from Yale Law School. who says, “Marriage has always been a matter of state law, and DOMA has been unconstitutional since the moment it was passed. Moreover, DOMA targets a specific minority group, and discriminates against it. Discrimination is un-American.” [My italics-MS]

Really? It surprises me when people show such little sense of history or self-awareness that they can say something like that. And although I am picking out this one example, one hears this kind of thing over and over again, that something bad must necessarily be ‘un-American’. I wrote three years ago that this is a form of pandering, part of the effort to make the speaker and the speaker’s message more attractive to the audience by making them feel good about themselves. But in the process, it perpetuates the damaging myth of Essential Goodness of the American people.

Such people take a recent positive development and act as if it was always part of the nation’s DNA, ignoring the long history that preceded it. In reality, discrimination is as American as apple pie, aimed at various times with various levels of intensity at Native Americans, African Americans, Irish, Jews, Poles, Hispanics, women, Japanese, Chinese, and gays. I am sure that I have left some groups out that at one time or other were also marginalized or even persecuted.

I think this need to say such absurdities arises almost unconsciously from the internalization of the idea of American exceptionalism, that the people of this nation somehow have a superior moral sense and do not share the same failings as people elsewhere in the world.

All we can truthfully say is that we, along with much of the rest of the world, are getting better at recognizing and eliminating discrimination. There is no question that in many areas, America has made great strides forward. It can be justifiably proud that it has done so, without distorting the past or making patently absurd claims.


  1. machintelligence says

    We did write it into the constitution, though, with the adoption of the 14th amendment. This is not to say that it has always been enforced. Perhaps discrimination is unconstitutional would be the more accurate statement.

  2. says

    Sadly, I can give you two “logical” explanations for your arguments against DOMA based on reading the comment threads to some recent posts on The Verge about the outcry against Orson Scott Card being selected to write the premiere issue of the latest Superman reboot.

    Card, as many know, is an outspoken homophobe and has given time and money to the major lobbying organization for odious laws against same-sex marriage like California’s Prop. 8. Ultimately he was booted out of the debut issue when the artist, Chris Sprouse, refused to work with him at what sounds like real risk to Sprouse’s career, since DC backs Card all the way and says he will write a future episode of the series once they can find an artist who’s willing to work with him.

    Anyway, there is a lively discussion in the comment threads dominated by a couple of homophobes and a couple of people valiantly arguing against them. The homophobe arguments, as far as I can tell, boil down to two repeated shibboleths,

    1) we must “protect” the institute of heterosexual marriage, because marriage = babies and “homosexuals” apparently aren’t able to biologically reproduce, therefore only straight people get to get married, because …? If you want to argue this point, be sure to refuse to listen to reason, equate LGBT people to pedophilia, incest, bestiality, and every other sexual perversion you can think of (don’t forget to insult polyamorists by referring to >2some relationships as equally gross and disgusting and unworthy of recognition), and always to refer to LGBT people as “homosexuals” rather than some phrase ending in “people”, in that casual bigot way (feel free to use “females”, etc. in the same way).

    2) Card is the real victim in all this because comics fans and other non-homophobic people are pointing out his support of odious causes and that someone who publicly proclaims that homosexuality should be illegal and fights to make gay marriage illegal through political means, isn’t exactly a good representative to have for the debut issue of a comic whose main character is supposed to be a proxy for all that’s good about the “American way”, i.e. tolerance, helping the weak, etc.

    Of course, these are things that aren’t necessarily associated with America or Americans in practice, but it is the way we like to think of ourselves in our national narrative, and it’s sad to see that there are still a lot of people out there who think that their right to fight against the human rights of others and to tell the world how wrong they think it is for LGBT people (to exist, though they won’t put it in those terms), is somehow more threatened and more worthy of protection than the rights of LGBT people to live authentic lives and have the same civil rights as people in heterosexual unions.

    Oh, I actually saw the argument used, completely unironically, that homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals, because they’re equally allowed to marry someone of the opposite sex. Again, complete refusal to listen to reason as to why that argument doesn’t work, you know, with actual people who are affected by this stuff.

  3. smrnda says

    Discrimination has always been American, and when it can no longer be done through the law, it is usually done through private channels.

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