Thursday, March 05, 2009

It's Time to Go Back to the Future

In Sean Penn's acceptance speech at the Oscars this year, he said, "I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

Hear, hear.

Mr. Penn got a rousing round of applause and whistles from his audience.

I found this part of his speech to be particularly moving and memorable because it asks us to step outside the time and place in which we are immersed; it asks us to move away for a moment and to see with the help of the light shining back at us from the future; and because it asks us to remember the world our grandchildren will live in. I say "remember" not "imagine" (while Penn says "anticipate") because... we have been there already. We are all someone's grandchildren. We are all now arriving in what was once someone else's far-off future. That distant, futuristic time when black men could be President and the Red Sox could win the World Series. It's crazy, right? Except that it happened. Just like men on the moon and women on the Supreme Court. It really did happen.

Penn's speech reminded me of something I wrote in my journal about a month before the Academy Awards, just a few days after President Obama was inaugurated. I share it with you now, on the first night after the California Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the legality of Prop. 8, because I, too, hope that those who object to equal rights for everyone will, as Penn says, sit and reflect and anticipate the future--and then make the brave choice to open their minds in the way that suffragists did; to trust that even if your religious faith or your personal preference mean that you do not approve of gay marriage, that you will stand on the side of democracy, equality, the Constitution, and human kindness, just as abolitionists (and every civil rights advocate ever) did.

Here's what I wrote:

"If you think you are one of the people who--if transported back in time--would stand up for the things you know to be right; if you think you would fight for women's suffrage or to free the slaves or to stop the war in Vietnam; if you think you would protect child workers or poor immigrants or sharecroppers; if you think you would stop the Holocaust, or register black voters, or desegregate schools, or refuse to give up your seat on the bus--then I'm telling you: your time is now.

If you were to travel back in time and be given the chance to end discrimination, fight for freedom, or foster peace, what makes you think you would not tell yourself the same things you tell yourself now: that you are too busy; that it is too soon; that you cannot afford it; that someone else will do it?

What makes you think that you would not go back in time and worry more about whether you looked cool, fit in, or earned enough money? What makes you think you would not obsess about your weight/your love life/your job/or some celebrity's divorce/relationship/plastic surgery/wardrobe/weight gain or loss?

What makes you think you would not just watch TV and buy a house and work to pay your mortgage?

To us, looking back, it is obvious that slavery should end, the states should be united, people of color, poor people, and women should all be allowed to vote, hold office, become doctors or teachers. To us, looking back, it is obvious that blacks and whites could--and should--drink from the same fountains, attend the same schools, and sit wherever they like on busses. (Ditto recycling, wheelchair ramps, accessible bathrooms, and female athletes.)

But to the people of those times, it took vision, determination, and courage. It took imprisonment and hunger strikes and a war time resolution to finally get women the vote. It took even more than that to get it for black women. It even took more than what President Obama likes to call "hope."

To the people 40 years from now, we are 1969. You have traveled back in time from then and you can spark the change that your future self believes in. If you stood up for Barack Obama; if you elected the first black American President, then don't sit down yet. Stand up until a woman President is elected. Stand up until there is more than one black Senator. Stand up to protect a woman's right to make her own healthy, well-informed, reproductive choices. Stand up until the health care system is fixed. Stand up until corporations are treated like businesses (not people) and held acocuntable as such under the law. Stand up until tax dollars are spent responsibly. Stand up until there is an equal rights amendment. And, for the love of God--or if you prefer, for the love of democracy--stand up for same-sex marriage and family rights.

Whatever your religious or personal objections might be to same-sex marriages and families, those same things were said about blacks in the 40s and 50s and 60s, about women in the 1860s and 70s and 80s (and on...), and about Asians, Jews, immigrants, Catholics, Native Americans...

You can't go back to 1969 and tell everyone what their new President is about to do; you can't join the protesters who were trying to stop the war; you can't convince Robert McNamara that later on he'll regret it; you can't be there to help at Stonewall; you can't save Mary Jo Kopechne or Sharon Tate or the civilians at My Lai; you can't watch the first men land on the moon or attend Woodstock; and you can't stop AIDS.

But you do have a chance to travel back in time from 2049 to 2009, to the difficult and magical days just after the first African-American President was elected in this country; a time when the world found itself facing a nearly unprecedented financial crisis brought on and perpetuated by corporate greed, bureaucratic apathy, a bloated and distracted government, and a confused and overmatched electorate. The system is broken. This is an opportunity for change. You have a chance to go back to the future. So what will you do?"

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