Harry Anderson, a magician and comic (made famous by his stint as the judge on the old sitcom "Night Court"), used to have a routine where he'd promise to juggle George Washington's ax. I'm quoting from memory here, but he'd say something like: "I have here George Washington's original ax -- the one he used to chop down the cherry tree." He'd wait a beat, and then add: "Of course, a few years ago the blade broke and had to be replaced. And about a decade before that it got a new handle. But in spirit this is George's ax."
Maybe that's a weird way to get into it, but that bit keeps coming to mind as I listen to pundits, reporters, politicians and activists try to compare every cause under the sun to Jim Crow, slavery and the black experience in America generally.
For instance, in the debate over gay marriage, one commentator after another likens arguments against same-sex marriage to arguments against interracial marriage. They said blacks and whites couldn't marry and now they say men and men can't marry!
Gay marriage is not my chief worry by any means, but this is nonsense on stilts. Indeed, one can be entirely in favor of same-sex marriage and still reject the comparison. For starters, if denying the right to marry is all it takes to be akin to anti-miscegenation laws, then that door is open to virtually any prohibition on marriage. "They said blacks and whites couldn't marry and now they say brother and sister can't marry!" Or, "They said blacks and whites couldn't marry and now they say the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys can't marry!"
Of course there are important differences between an incestuous or a polygamous marriage and a loving committed relationship between two homosexuals. Indeed, it's instructive that many gay rights activists take offense whenever opponents say that legalizing gay marriage will lead to polygamy, incest or bestiality. They insist such comparisons are ridiculous. And they're right! But it's also ridiculous to equate Jim Crow prohibitions on interracial marriage to prohibitions on gay marriage.
If you can't see the problem, it's this: the whole point of the civil rights movement is that skin color is superficial. Sex -- i.e. male, female -- is actually a real and deep biological difference. You could look it up.
But such distinctions are meaningless in an era when both the handle and the ax of Jim Crow were replaced decades ago. All that's left is parody. Just this week Princeton's Cornel West -- a proud man of the left -- despaired that under Obama "we black folk are just being pushed to the back of the bus."
What bus are you talking about, professor?