Friday, June 15, 2007

History on The Run

A few years ago, I went to a newspaper editors' conference and bought a T-shirt that said, "Journalism: History on the Run."

This news week was a good example of that as the two major stories that dominated the headlines on our Web site focused on labor unions and gay marriage, one institution (perhaps) going out of vogue, one (perhaps) coming in to vogue. I qualify with "perhaps" because it's difficult sometimes to truly gauge a trend when you're living in a state like Massachusetts, which is either a bell weather state or incredibly out-of-step with the rest of the nation. You wouldn't be hard-pressed to find people to argue either point of view.

The fact of the matter is, we're still the only state in the union to have made gay marriage legal, so you couldn't exactly call that a trend. On the other hand, several other New England states have recognized some form of civil unions for gays, so Massachusetts may indeed be in the vanguard of change, although I'm not sure I will ever live to see the day a state like Oklahoma legitimizes gay marriage. From this bastion of extreme liberalism, it's hard for many here to understand that we're an anomaly on issues such as this, but it is the truth.

Over the past 25 years, probably beginning with stories I did on the PATCO strike in the early 1980s, it seems we've seen a decline in the influence of organized labor, a good concept to begin with but a victim of its own excesses and the changing nature of the American work force. We are no longer an industy-based economy, we're an information-based economy. In this week's story, a local teacher's union went on strike because their city asked teachers to pay 20 percent of their health care costs, instead of 10 percent.

The teachers said the increase would wipe out any pay hikes they might receive. The problem was, the taxpayers in their community didn't have a lot of sympathy for their cause. One man said he didn't have any health insurance at all, so why should he pay for theirs. In the end, they didn't come out with much and had to go back to work or face stiff fines. Almost every labor story I've covered for years has ended this way. The unions lose. It begins to beg the question whether they're necessary at all anymore, except to the union officials who draw their paychecks from union dues. I'm not sure how much longer unions will be relevant (or if they are any more at all.) In a country like China, however, they might be able to do amazing things.

My gut tells me, however, that the gay marriage question will begin to consume the national debate for years to come. Gay rights activists have pledged to take their fight to the national level, where no doubt it will be passionately hashed over for decades, much as the intractable abortion issue has been. Abortion has been legal here for 30 some years, but that hasn't kept if from being the divisive issue it is. It's interesting how some issues take so long to germinate in the U.S. Slavery was an issue even before the Revolutionary War, but it percolated for almost another century before boiling over, and even after the Civil War it was far from a done deal.

So many of the issues that create conflict in America center on personal freedom versus morality. Our Founding Fathers established the country on (among other things) the notion that freedom was the penultimate goal and good of man. That notion, however, is predicated on a philosophy (Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau?) that man is inherently good and will do the "right" thing if given the freedom to make his own choices. The problem is, the prevailing notions of what was "right" and "moral" were different in the 1700s and there was much more consensus then. The Founding Fathers were assuming, wrongly I think, that the nation would continue to have moral consensus into perpetuity, which we can now see, is incorrect.

As strongly as gays may believe they have as much right to "pursue happiness" and marry, there are just as many people who believe, just as passionately, that homosexuality is morally wrong. Back in the 1700s, such a debate would have been inconceivable. Notions of morality across all ethnic groups and nationalities were much more uniform and all were pretty much governed by religious precepts. That's just not the case any more. The gay marriage question mirrors the abortion question and the right-to-die question. All put the concept of personal freedom at odds with various notions of morality.

The problem is, in the U.S., the idea that personal freedom IS moral is ingrained in our collective consciousness, but events in recent years belie that idea. People with unlimited freedom do NOT always act in a moral fashion. In fact, history has shown us that increasing levels of freedom seem to have gone hand-in-hand with the decline of some formidable ancient civilizations. We have only to study the decline and fall of the Roman (or Greek) empires to provide a compass to our own future. I'm not so sure that mankind is or ever will be "enlightened" enough to be able to handle unlimited freedom. I guess that may mean I'm not convinced that mankind is fundamentally good. Working in the news business as long as I have, that's no big surprise.