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March 26, 2015

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When myths clash with today’s realities

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Justice Anthony Kennedy nailed it when he said the Supreme Court was in uncharted waters when considering same-sex marriage.

He might also have said that this means that society is unburdened with myth and legacy on this issue and can consider it almost on its merits; whereas homosexuality is as old and permanent as time, marriage between homosexuals is a new concept in the organization of human affairs.

Actually, the justices are facing something antithetical to their purposes: a clean slate.

For the rest of society, a clean slate is almost unachievable. But when it does happen — when law, conduct and invention are unhampered by the legacy of the past and myths that are codified into principles — wonderful things happen. For example:

• The U.S. Constitution, where the old building blocks of political organization were rearranged into something totally new and marvelous.

• The computer age, where ideas and inventions — largely because they weren’t limited by previous ones — have changed the entire human system of work and communication.

• Modern art, where millennia of tradition had established rigidities that defined what was art and its production, added to the sum of the medium and allowed a new voice of expression.

• Rock ’n’ roll, where a new form eclipsed the popular music of the time and was able to borrow from the blues, jazz and other sources without accepting their rigidities. It vastly enlarged the musical firmament.

The shadows of history and its attendant myths reach down into the present; sometimes informing and guiding, but also inhibiting. The old way of doing things, the old way of thinking, the old slavery to myth is comforting and provides society with order and stability. But at the frontiers of human experience it is distorting.

That’s why innovators have to leave their old-line companies and branch out on their own, why new art is at war with critics and the artistic establishment, and why medical research is often inhibited by the traditions of medicine.

The European Union, for all its faults, was a bold attempt to free Europe from the bonds of its history and the internecine war which they created. The Middle East is in chaos, as ancient and modern history play out — from Biblical times through World War I and World War II. History won’t let go of it, denying it a new beginning. Ireland’s inability to shake history has cost it dearly, as has the bitter relationship between Greece and Turkey. Ditto Kashmir and other trouble spots.

Happily, the implosion of the Soviet Union left little myth to perpetuate its failures; there’s not a lot of yearning for a failed idea. The myth of the system’s superiority perished with it.

Alas, Congress is always convulsed by the past; not the past of ancient history, but the past of the last election. One of Washington’s wiser political figures, former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., who later served as Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff, told me that to understand Congress you have to understand that it’s a retrospective body, always reacting to the last election. Indeed.

My reading of this is that if President Barack Obama can’t refocus Congress, take it to a new place with new ideas, even if they are new ideas about old issues, then Congress will perpetuate the rancor of the last election with its outrages, false facts and perpetuated myths. That’s what the president must be indicted for — not for being a Democrat, or the tragedy in Benghazi, or for trying to revamp our health payment system.

Inappropriately, Congress doesn’t have a clean slate; uncomfortably, the Supreme Court has one.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS.

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  1. The truth of the matter is that the U.S. Supreme Court justices have an easy task on the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA 1996] and Proposition 8. It's not the Court's role to legislate. That belongs to the 50 States, the American people, and the U.S. Congress. The legality of same sex marriage belongs on the ballots not the courts. It's the States' decisions on the matter that matters. Not the U.S. Supreme Court's.

    Carmine D

  2. Extending civil union status to same-sex couples will involve the existing church/state/federal complex. "Marriage" requires federal regulation, such as income and inheritance taxes. It also conveys medical privileges, such as next-of-kin authority, to spouses.

    The church and state parts could be eliminated, not the federal. Couples can get married by judges and justices of the peace. Today the majority of Americans believe that same-sex couples are entitled to civil-union legal rights.

    We have a separation of "The United States" and churches. The varying opinions of churches belong to churches. Churches don't make federal law in this country.