Friday, June 13, 2008

The Last Civil Rights Movement

Recently in an interview in a local weekly, one of the members of the Indigo Girls said that gay rights was "the last civil rights movement". This is also the subtitle over at the National Youth Rights Association's website. Doing a quick googling, I also found that this moniker has been adopted for disabled rights, and it shows up in connection to immigrant rights. What does this preponderance of last movements mean?

I'll hazard a guess and say there is no last civil rights movement. I'll go further, saying there will never be one. The thing about civil rights movements is that they aim at conferring rights granted some people onto a segment of the population previously denied those rights. As long as humans find a way to have unequal rights enshrined in law, people will protest it, and as long as law is decided by messy legislative interpretation of majority whim, society will have rights they want to deny people.

While I support GLBTQI people, am hugely in favor of youth rights, am all for disabled people's rights, and think immigration law needs a re-thinking, there are aspects of humanity currently discriminated against by law that I'm not all that much in favor of. NAMBLA, for example, is a group that feel oppressed but whose perceived oppression I can stand by. While I hate the "let gays marry and you legitimize bigamy, polygamy, and bestiality" line of thinking, the matter remains that agitation for change will never end, and the new majority will either have to accept the dissidents with new recognition, or it will have to understand that it contains some hypocrisy. Some of this is easy - NAMBLA's stated objective is legalizing sex between minors and adults, in a way that is hard to intrepret as anything but exploitative. Other times it's tricky - if people are allowed to marry who they want, should a marriage contract consensually entered into by all parties be illegal just because the marriage is between more than two people?

And as an aside before moving on, the previous civil rights movements still haven't worked themselves out - women still earn less than men, and people of color suffer a string of abuses that would be much harder for the general public to take if their weren't success stories as well. The latter part is what made the Jena Six so fascinating - it was a movement for the civil rights of known wrongdoers (degree of wrong and deserving-ness of punishment variable according to the observer, but wrongdoing is still a more or less accepted fact of the case). And the Jena Six ran into trouble when people realized it wasn't exemplar pillars of society being kept down, but that it was everyday flawed mortals who were suffering for a crime they committed. They were suffering unfairly, certainly, but they were still being punished for something wrong. Criminal rights as a subsection of civil rights still have a long way to go in this country, and we need to treat those who err the same, and not just make it easier for everyone to succeed but with two sets of failure available.

Really, the point of this is not to knock any civil rights movement, but to knock the notion of a "last" civil rights movement. "Next" would maybe be appropriate, but never last. And certainly neither term is valid until the previous civil rights movements are done.

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