LOS ANGELES -- As the Supreme Court debated last week over the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, Justice Antonin Scalia noted the number of states that are permitting gays and lesbians to marry. "There has been a sea change," he said, "between now and 1996."
He was right about that, but it's not just gay marriage. A range of change is taking place socially, culturally, legally in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter, advocated "rebellion" every 20 years for the nation to keep up with itself. That may be too strong a word. Matt Miller, a Washington Post columnist, probably comes closer with the phrase "accelerated evolution." Whatever word one chooses, the times they are a-changin'.
I am talking not about the Internet and all that, though obviously, like Gutenberg's press, new technology is always a game changer. I mean social and cultural changes, and soon enough legal changes -- from sexual attitudes to tea party ideology. American attitudes, thinking and actions are changing faster than many of us, particularly holders of power, can easily handle.
In the same week, last week, there were hints of more critical thinking than usual. Studies reported in The New York Times that more women are in colleges than men, and the number of men applying is in decline exactly as the economy is demanding more and more education and specialization. The day's Los Angeles Times, citing different studies, showed this headline:
"Women Outshine Men as Corporate Leaders; they are more likely to consider competing interests in making decisions, study finds."
That study, done jointly by American and Canadian universities, published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics, was based on interviews with 600 members of corporate boards of directors -- 25 percent of them female. "Our findings," states the journal, "show that having women on boards is no longer just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do." Women are less constrained by rules, reported the Times, and more likely "to use collaboration, cooperation and consensus-building."
To put that into harder numbers: Businesses with female directors are 20 percent less likely to go bankrupt.
Next to its Supreme Court coverage on Thursday, The New York Times had this headline:
"States Shifting Aid for Schools to the Families"
That story reports that many states are beginning to redefine education. Among the things they are doing or considering are voucher systems, tax-credit schemes and directly financing private schools.
That same day's Los Angeles paper mocked a local junior high school flag football league for forcing its undefeated champions to forfeit all their games because the champions had a girl linebacker. Sequoyah School in Pasadena (eight wins, no losses) was then pushed out of the league.
There is enough statistical evidence to show that government can't keep up with individuals determined to broaden their horizons and stretch their options. Nor can courts or athletic leagues.
Whatever the Supreme Court in its wisdom decides this time won't matter in the long run. The change has come in individual decisions by millions of people. The driving force in the marriage case is the same as in disputes and debates about immigration, legal and illegal. In both cases, the dams of law and discrimination are up against forces many leaders cannot defeat. That force, or fact, unrecognized by many politicians, is that the legal and illegal immigrants are related; they are family. The same is true of attitudes toward homosexuality: Gays and straights are related; they are family.
The moral of the story, I suppose, is that lawmakers and judges tend to look backward, at tradition and "precedents." The future is the other way. Deal with it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Rob Portman had to when members of their families declared they were gay.
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