"Discrimination," he said, "is horrible. It's hurtful. It has no place in civilized society ...."
You would think that statement, delivered recently in the Kansas Legislature, is a noble sentiment no right-thinking person could argue with. But we are gathered here today to argue with it.
It turns out that when Republican legislator Charles Macheers said "discrimination," he didn't mean, well ... discrimination. Macheers sponsored a bill -- passed overwhelmingly by the Kansas House but killed last week by the Senate in an attack of common sense -- that sought to exempt any business or government employee from providing "any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges" related to any "marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement" if doing so would conflict with the employee's "sincerely held religious beliefs."
In other words, if the customer seeking these services, et cetera, were gay.
You see, Macheers' idea of fighting discrimination is to protect the right of alleged "Christians" to discriminate against gay men and lesbians. Apparently, Jim Crow is alive and well and serving in the Kansas legislature.
The comparison is not an idle one. Macheers' babblespeak, his brazen attempt to paint the oppressors as the oppressed, is straight out of the white supremacist playbook of the 1960s, when opponents of the Civil Rights Act bewailed it as an incursion upon their sacred rights -- by which they meant their sacred rights to discriminate.
Moreover, a state governed by Macheers' law, a state where you could be denied a haircut, a wedding cake, hotel accommodations or police services based on sexual orientation, would of necessity have to erect the kinds of signs this country has not seen for over two generations:
"We Don't Serve Homosexuals."
"No Gays Allowed"
This was a hateful piece of legislation (there are rumblings it may be reintroduced), but there was also something starkly ridiculous about it, some sense of the garage door being locked after the car has been stolen, the fence fixed after the cows have wandered off, some sense of fighting a battle already lost. Consider:
Moreover, as Russia embarrasses itself with an anti-gay prohibition and Uganda appalls the world by imposing Draconian punishments for the crime of existing while homosexual, Americans begin to realize this is great company not to be in.
So extremist bills like this one, promulgated by extremist people like Macheers, carry the unmistakable stink of desperation. One is reminded of how, as late as 1970, with the Civil Rights Movement won and its aims vindicated, the state of Mississippi banned a certain children's TV show. Seems they could not abide the fact there was integration on Sesame Street.
They didn't know then -- as people like Macheers evidently don't know now -- that history had overtaken them and that they were just dead-enders standing before the onrushing freight train of change, holding up a stop sign. Such people always look spectacularly foolish in hindsight, their fears rendered cartoonish and buffoonish, their proclamations of noble cause silly and self-refuting. They are the last folks to "get it."
So it is with Macheers, so will it be with the next politician who believes there is anything "moral" in denying people based on sexual orientation, who thinks change can be gainsaid. There's a word for what happens to people who don't have sense enough to get off the tracks when the train is coming through.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Fla. 33172. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.