Into the culture wars


With all the gay marriage going on, culture war topics are likely to dominate the political landscape for at least the next few months. We expect the political campaigns will settle on war and economy as main topics, but for the moment we are stimulated to ruminate on the morality issues.

Suddenly, as Janet Jackson's breast was being stuffed back in the fold, gay marriage exploded everywhere. In San Francisco, City Hall decided to marry same-sex couples. Ditto for Portland, Ore. and San Bernalillo, Calif., and New Paltz, N.Y. among others. Thousands and thousands of gay couples came out of their homes. "Rosie (O'Donnell) Takes a Wife," said one headline. In Washington, with the Christian Right gearing its battle, President George W. Bush decides to support the Federal Marriage Amendment recently introduced by Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., Ralph Hall, D-Texas, Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., David Vitter, R-La.

The proposed new Federal Marriage Amendment (H.R. 56) reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

Nationally, the anti-gay marriage fervor is at 65 percent against, although the amendment - seen by many as over-reaching and motivated by the presidential campaign - faces an uphill bi-partisan battle in Congress.

The gay marriage question brings to the table the legal protections and structuring that the institution provides heterosexual couples. This, despite the railings of the religious right, appears a reality whose time has come and is a right that persons perhaps can not be denied. It is generally true that approaches to gay behavior among Native peoples has gone from the times of natural acceptance to a period of sporadic intolerance to more understanding these days, as contemporary society opens up to the reality of a percentage of people who naturally bond with their same-sex. It is an issue best contemplated in the context of family, where compassion can enter the picture. As a "wedge" issue in the culture "wars," it can have nothing but uninformed, negative and destructive uses.

Regardless of how one views the marriage of same-sex couples, one thing is certain: when it comes to degradation by the media, almost all of us feel our own decency and our senses insulted and assaulted regularly. There is a sense of progressive collapse of American societal values in the media. Perhaps this is just a parallel reality, but: more children are being abused more horribly and earlier than at any other time in history. And many more children do more horrible things earlier than at any other time in history.

Traditionally, good morality is predominantly taught in the family. In Native communities, by and large, the old morals were very strict. The need to maintain reasonable relations among the extended families of siblings was paramount in the ways of tightly-knit clans and tribes. This dictated that proper behavior govern marital and all intimate relations. Children were understood to learn best by example. Passionate disputes that emerged from de-stabilizing behavior on the part of a man or a woman were severely sanctioned. For most of our generations, tribes and communities and families needed to sustain good working harmony within the group or survival itself was threatened.

On the other hand, the personal and spiritual nature of each being was generally respected. Earthy commentary and humor, and tolerance for the dictates and requirements of young love, was the norm as well. Different or strange people, who perhaps did not pair off just as most people do, might be let alone, to fulfill the best roles and relationships they might engage. Tolerance for the making of necessarily difficult, or even bad choices in life, still survives as a value in most Native societies, some say to the detriment of more effective discipline among the young people.

Pundits bemoan the loss of "family values," but family life is difficult in modern times. Finding a compatible mate, bonding as a spouse, forming a family to raise children, setting goals in a long-term approach to life and happiness that sacrifices to provide a decent, perhaps even prosperous life for others - this requires profound daily commitment. We are quite conservative in our respect for that type of commitment: what it takes for a woman and a man to marry and raise children through 20-odd years to bring those young people to fruitful lives as adults. These days, this is a huge and comprehensive task. Not nearly enough appreciation is given to those heads of family, male and female, who do this day in and day out.

Among our peoples, customary conduct varied from nation to nation, and of course, 500 years of contact and change has altered much of that; nevertheless, the wish for good behavior in the families and good treatment for all remains the most positive goal of Native social prerogative. The love of our children remains the basis of our unity. Wherever elders have maintained their own integrity in the treatment of their families, they are recognized by their offspring for their successful lives. That part of the general Native culture - respect for the good elders - survives and still strongly informs Native family life today. It is the braid of decency that struggles against the disintegration that also plagues family life: severe and grinding poverty and alcohol abuse over generations. These have done generational damage that often calls for incisive and long-term tribal intervention, beyond the possibilities of the particular family.

Complex enough? These deep, personal issues need to be, and to achieve positive solutions requires discussion far apart from the shrill of political campaigns. We dislike the definition and the approach to such personal questions as "cultural wars." Strength of family, respect for women and men of good character, vigorous support, defense and protection of children, tolerance of personal choices and acceptance of natural inclinations among adults - these things we support. We don't like government in the bedroom. We severely dislike those who preach religion in our faces and pretend to dictate morality through political manipulation. We don't like crass behavior; vulgar language; disrespectful or angry or hateful words.

Speaking of culture: it behooves all of us to maintain a watchful eye on the media. It wantonly distorts for the sake of buzz and has become completely corporate in its pursuit of provocative material. These days, the aim is to push the envelope to the worst possible taste allowed. Western Civilization is not going to crumble, whatever the president says, but the media - in its growing monopolies - and its so obvious lack of ethics, does need attention. Media informs and affects our daily lives. More than ever, media dictates how people think and act. Sex and violence and often violent sex, abound all around, as pornography becomes increasingly mainstream. In particular young people coming up on television culture get saturated with it early. Patience, dedication, commitment to elders and the young; love of family - these are not values easily found in most profitable and popular media programming today.