I'm writing this from a north side branch of the Chicago Public Library. Across from me there's a poster on the wall: two people about to kiss, a padlock chain around them; underneath, a list of famous books banned for having sex in them. 'Read a Banned Book!' the caption says.
It's an ugly poster. Faded and a little campy, it looks like the ones nearby featuring pictures of rainbows and Oprah Winfrey quotes exhorting kids to read, the ones you're more or less required to scoff at if you have any rebel credibility at all. How pedestrian, how establishment, how utterly lame! Yet I can't help remembering how recently it was that The Public Library was the one doing the book banning. Now they're so hip to controversy that their endorsement of the black list seems mundane.
It's like hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit piping over the speakers in the grocery store. When did that become OK? More importantly, when did playing Nirvana in a suburban supermarket cease not only to be forbidden, but become not even a little bit remarkable? The times they are a'changin', I suppose. Remember when that wasn't a well-worn cliché?
As oral arguments over California Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act begin before the Supreme Court, I can't help feeling that marriage equality will soon follow indecency and rock and roll into the halls of blasé consensus. Regardless of how the Court rules this summer, acceptance is inevitable. It always is. What begins controversial, even criminal, always, always finds endorsement in this country when the dust finally settles. Homosexuality, pornography, equal rights and feminism -- it's what I've always failed to understand about social conservatives: Haven't they noticed that their side always seems lose these things? Don't they ever want to be on the right side of history? Rick Santorum must be aware how Strom Thurmond looks to history these days.
Legal equality is around the corner. The day when that equality will seem mundane, when the sight of a gay couple in the marriage license line won't provoke a second thought, cannot be far behind. We're going to win. Off to the next battle, my friends!
Unless there isn't one. I've been wondering recently if there'll come a point when we run out of social controversies in this country, when the Culture Wars come finally to a close. We tend to assume that every generation will have its causes -- from media to civil rights -- and that we young crusaders will one day transform into reactionaries, appalled by whatever our grandchildren end up fighting for. But is that really true? Will we not reach a point, perhaps, when there's no music left that offends moral ears? When there's no group left without their rights and dignity? The oppressed classes are not infinite, and some day soon, doesn't it seem feasible that we might liberate them all, declare victory, and go home? Forget Nirvana, I've heard Wu-Tang Clan in the produce aisle. What else is there?
Don't get me wrong. I know that we are far from finished. I know that marriage equality is only a small, arguably establishment-endorsing step in the fight for gay rights, much less trans or pansexual recognition. I know there are still bigots amongst us, racists, sexists, and classists; I know we still live in a palpable rape culture. But if Steubenville taught us that that culture still exists, shouldn't the immense and mainstream backlash against the shameful coverage teach us that we've made immense strides from the days when a rape like this wouldn't have been covered at all? When the police truly would have looked the other way? What happened and how it was covered are neither excusable nor acceptable, but goddamn, this is not 1963. It isn't even 2003. On social media, the only media that matters anymore, the mainstream view was that rape culture would not be tolerated. To me, that means that despite the many battles left to fight, despite how many pockets of intolerance and hate still remain in our society, the day when this is all over must be drawing near. Our issues are becoming more technical, aren't they? Becoming the stuff that activists of even 20 years ago would have regarded as a pipe dream? We're winning these battles faster, too, and those fighting them aren't -- even when there's backlash -- being banished to the "radical fringes" by anybody more than two steps from the grave. It seems to me that we've come to a point where, at the very least, everything is on the table for discussion, and the winds of history are at our backs.
Unsurprisingly, I think it has something to do with Millennials. I know that every generation is supposed to be more enlightened than the last: the Boomers were going to banish racism, and Gen X were finally set on sending "traditional values" to the grave. I know. But with generations past, there has always been some particular target of enlightenment, some specific form of oppression they'd be ending, from the Boomers back to the Reconstructionists, who, for example, changed California law after the Civil War not to give all people equal testimonial weight in court, but to move blacks into the privileged class where before only whites had been protected from the testimony of Mexicans and "Chinamen." It was called "Negro equality", not "total equality," after all.
Not so with the Millennials. As I look around, I see a generation not bound to a particular front of the culture wars. Not limited to the fight for gay equality, or trans equality, or class equality, or ending rape culture. Rather, I see a generation to whom the entire notion of bigotry, or banning books, and people, and music, isn't just wrong, but -- like Nirvana in the grocery store -- laughably mundane. Sure, there are still secret reactionaries among us, and purported liberals blind to their own privilege and complicity, but the generational consensus around not just tolerance but assumed acceptance is so strong that it hardly takes more than a Facebook shaming to bring these guys around. And that's the key: we can win all the battles we want, but with the coming of a generation where civil rights aren't even a question, when an issue is as quickly accepted as raised, how much longer can it be until there are no battles left? It doesn't feel like long. Perhaps this is all a little too starry-eyed -- didn't the hippies make the same mistake about themselves? -- but, as the highest court in the land -- the epitome of the Establishment -- prepares to bring our laws in line with a question Millennials settled yesterday, I think a little cautious optimism is in order.
Hell, if we sow things up on the domestic front, maybe at long last we can turn our attention outward and get serious about promoting these same values in the rest of the world, in bringing some light to starving places where the crushing yoke of heteronormativity is the last thing on people's minds (or at least getting them to a point when such latter-day controversies will be what's left on their minds). Of course, that'd require us to get over our squeamishness and moral relativism on the international stage but -- well, that's a battle for another day.