Op-ed: The High Stakes of Bad History
“Those who control the past control the future.” — George Orwell, 1984
In 1991, I was a high school history teacher in Concord, Mass. I began each year by reviewing the above Orwell quote with students, helping them understand how what version of the past we accept often shapes the vision of the future we fight for. Orwell’s observation helped students understand the intensity (and importance) of battles over different accounts of history, and it helps us understand the furor prompted by the publication of Jo Becker’s Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality, touted by its publisher as “the definitive account of five remarkable years in American civil rights history … [an account that] encompasses all aspects of this momentous struggle.”
To understand this furor, we first have to have a little history lesson ourselves. In 1991 three same-sex couples sued Hawaii to force the state to issue them marriage licenses. This wasn’t a new idea: in 1970 two University of Minnesota students, Jack Baker and James McConnell, sued their state after being denied a marriage license. They lost. Numerous unsuccessful suits had been filed in the intervening decades. What made the Hawaii case different was that in 1996 the courts agreed with the plaintiffs and said the state had no compelling reason to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples.
This ignited a firestorm. In 1996, Congress quickly passed — and President Clinton signed — the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and denied federal government recognition to these marriages. Hawaii’s voters would snatch the victory back in 1998, passing a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to restrict the definition of marriage to one man and one woman.
Undaunted, visionary civil rights attorneys like Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders fought on, bringing suits that first compelled the state of Vermont to grant civil unions to same-sex couples (2000) and then led Massachusetts to grant marriage equality in 2004. Recognizing that regulation of marriage has traditionally been the prerogative of the individual states, savvy strategists like Evan Wolfson developed a comprehensive and collaborative plan to win marriage nationwide in the Supreme Court by building a critical mass of states with marriage equality and widespread public support for the concept. Despite fierce opposition from religious conservatives, this plan has now led to the passage of marriage equality in 17 states as of this writing.
You wouldn’t know much about this history from reading Becker’s “definitive” account, which positions the famous Proposition 8 Supreme Court case argued by Ted Olson and David Boies as the turning point in the fight for marriage equality. Leaving aside the very basic fact that Olson and Boies failed in their goal of getting the Supreme Court to issue a sweeping ruling granting marriage equality to same-sex couples — a somewhat glaring problem to overcome when writing a hagiography, but hey, whatever — the author plows on with her thesis, facts be damned. Becker’s account is also riddled with flat-out historical inaccuracies that have been documented thoroughly by writers like Chris Geidner on Buzzfeed and Noah Feldman in The New Republic, among others.
Why does all this matter? Because the version of the past we accept as “true” will shape what we do in the future, as Orwell so presciently warned us.
How did the marriage equality movement come to succeed to the extent it has? What does its history teach those of us fighting for social change? Becker has bought into the so-called great men theory of history, claiming that the actions of Olson and Boies and former PR executive Chad Griffin (now at the Human Rights Campaign) were the keys to the current momentum around marriage equality. Putting aside the troublesome fact — and I repeat — that Boies and Olson failed to win their stated goal of a sweeping decision for marriage equality in America, such a conclusion is problematic not only because it is historically inaccurate but also because what it suggests about how change occurs is deeply and dangerously wrong.
One would not understand how change truly occurred with regard to marriage equality from Becker’s account, with its ahistorical “great men” analysis. She all but ignores decades of work that built up to where we are today. Becker fails to recognize the bravery of the long line of plaintiffs (from Baker and McConnell in 1970 to Edie Windsor in 2013) and discounts (and in some cases even denigrates as misguided) the work of savvy litigators like Bonauto, organizational strategists like Wolfson, and gay philanthropists like Tim Gill who helped set the stage for victories in the courts and at the ballot box. She pretty much ignores everyone who mattered except the protagonists of the inaccurate story she seems determined to force on readers.
The problem with “great men” versions of history is that they neglect historical reality and perpetuate the misconception that one or two people can change history acting alone, whereas it is almost always a broader movement that creates change.
Individuals undoubtedly are key to progress: Witness Martin Luther King Jr., the most prominent example that we teach to our children. But individuals like King do not spring from nowhere, as Athena did from the head of Zeus. They build on the work of those who came before — in King’s case, people like Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells Barnett, and A. Philip Randolph. They work in concert with organizations pursing different strategies; King collaborated with strategic litigators like Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Together, they inspired everyday people to take a stand — people like the Freedom Riders and 1964 Freedom Summer volunteers who risked their lives to challenge segregation and voter disenfranchisement in the South. King was the first to credit these front-liners for their important work, as he and Rosa Parks (to whom Griffin is compared in the book) understood that they were part of a movement, not Lone Rangers who had ridden to the rescue. No one organization or individual (or subset of individuals) “owns” the victories that have been won: Boies, Olson, and Griffin would do well by themselves and the future of the movement were they to publicly rebut Becker’s distortion of its history.
There is a tremendous amount at stake here. Thirty-three states still do not recognize the right of same-sex couples to marry. It’s dangerous to write history while a movement is still ongoing, partly because one lacks the perspective of time and also because one’s account can be taken as a road map for the next phase of the struggle. That puts a tremendous burden on the historian to get it right. Becker is not a historian: she is a journalist, charged with providing what legendary Washington Post publisher Phil Graham called a “first rough draft of history.” This rough draft gets it wrong and points us in the wrong direction in an ongoing struggle. This former history teacher gives it an F.
KEVIN JENNINGS is an educator, social justice activist, and author of six books. He is executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a private grant-making institution dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world.