OBAMA AND SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: Joe Biden’s recent garbled statement on Meet the Press that he’s “absolutely comfortable with…men marrying men, women marrying women” sparked a frenzy of speculation. Did Biden actually come out in support of same-sex marriage? (Not really, said Andrew Sullivan.) Was it a calculated attempt by the administration to moonwalk into a pro–gay marriage position? (Possibly, said Josh Marshall.) Or was Biden off the leash in an unscripted break from the White House? (No, said David Axelrod.) But once Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed same-sex marriage on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the anticipation that President Obama’s “evolving” position on gay marriage would reach its final, logical conclusion by November went into overdrive.
The irksome thing about Obama’s narrative on same-sex marriage is not his position on it so much as the insincerity of his homophobia. To take him at his word, same-sex marriage is something he “wrestles” with and might even support but for a deep conflict with his Christian faith. I’m not privy to what goes on in the president’s head, but frankly, this smells like bullshit.
Obama unambiguously supported same-sex marriage in 1996. In response to a survey from Outlines, a gay newspaper in Chicago, he wrote: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages”—a position that put him on the progressive edge of his party. Since then, in striking contrast to members of his generation who have moved to support same-sex marriage, Obama has “evolved” rightward. There’s no other way to explain this shift except as a matter of sheer political calculation. The further up the political food chain Obama went, the more he concluded that being adamantly pro-gay wasn’t to his electoral benefit. In other words, his current view isn’t a product of evolution so much as it is of intelligent design.
Except that it doesn’t look so smart now. Young people and independents have embraced same-sex marriage in significant numbers during his first term. I have no doubt that Obama would like to be on the right side of the “arc of history” on this one (and on others, like “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he has been). But his current muddled position makes it hard to draw a sharp contrast with Mitt Romney (who has done his own share of waffling). Then there’s the awkward matter of stage-managing a sitting president as he publicly wrestles with his conscience, only to reach a conclusion he likely already believes (and had earlier endorsed).
Obama needs an exit strategy. Maybe in his second term he can attend the wedding of some gay staffers and then get misty in the Rose Garden. “Until I saw Chip and Ru united in matrimony, I didn’t understand how hurtful it was to deny gay and lesbian Americans this profound right…” Yadda yadda yadda. You can write the script now.
On the plus side, I do believe there are older Americans who are conflicted about this issue—and who show it by saying they support civil unions, but not same-sex marriage—and perhaps the president’s bit of theater could provide a template for their own moral conversion. Yes, this is all breathtakingly cynical—but then again, so is Obama’s “evolving” position. RICHARD KIM
THE TRUTH ABOUT TASERS: In 2004, while driving her son to school, Malaika Brooks was pulled over by a Seattle police officer for speeding. When he handed her a ticket and asked for her signature, Brooks mistakenly assumed that signing it would be an admission of guilt. She refused. Two more officers arrived; when Brooks declined to get out of the car, one of them flashed his Taser stun gun threateningly. Panicking, Brooks revealed that she was pregnant. After a brief discussion, officers decided to administer three 50,000-volt shocks to her thigh, arm and neck, before dragging her from the car and handcuffing her facedown on the ground.
The Seattle Police Department is just one of many forces across the country that have prompted outrage with their dangerous use of Tasers. In April the American Heart Association released a report showing that when used improperly, Tasers can cause cardiac arrest and death. Just two months earlier, a Georgia man became the 500th person in the country to die after being tased by police.
The report makes clear the need to re-examine so-called nonlethal weapons like Tasers, which are too often used in low-risk situations to elicit obedience. Most states do not regulate their use, meaning policies are inconsistent and often lax. Worse still, many police departments train officers to use Tasers with materials provided by the device’s manufacturer, which downplay the weapon’s harmful effects. “What is most disturbing about the police use of Tasers,” says Susan Lee of Amnesty International, “is that the majority of those who later died were not a serious threat when they were shocked by police.” CONNOR GUY
A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF NEW YORK: On May 4, with the energy of the May Day protests lingering in the air, the Museum of the City of New York opened its newest exhibit, Activist New York—an investigation into the ways that environment can provoke and shape social change. Fourteen modular installations display hundreds of artifacts spanning the history of activism in the city—from the Quaker movement in the seventeenth century to modern fights for everything from bike lanes to gay marriage to Park51, Lower Manhattan’s Islamic center. Each exhibit is a case study “focused on grassroots community activists,” says Sarah Henry, the museum’s chief curator. “The activity that New York has engendered is not an accident,” she adds. “The tumult, the noisiness, the argumentativeness” of its condensed population have pushed simmering conflicts, but also unlikely alliances, to the surface.
The museum began curating the exhibit three years ago—long before the Occupy movement was conceived—but the phenomenon at Zuccotti Park last fall helped shape its ethos. “We look to connect the historic activists with people who are active on these issues in the city today,” says Henry. Indeed, each installation includes a touch screen that allows visitors to e-mail activists directly and learn about their work. But Occupy’s influence is most prominent in the back of the gallery, where New Yorkers can submit photos of social action, from protest signs to community gardens. The exhibit will be up indefinitely, with the various installations replaced by new ones—a living tribute to grassroots activism as it continues to evolve. HANNAH MURPHY