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Not an Issue

From Sarah Lyall's story in today's Times, "Gay Britons Serve in Military With Little Fuss, as Predicted Discord Does Not Occur":

Some Britons said they could not understand why the United States had not changed its policy.

“I find it strange, coming from the land of the free and freedom of speech and democracy, given the changes in the world attitude,” said the gay squadron leader, who recently returned from Afghanistan. “It’s just not the issue it used to be.”

Ms Lyall notes that Britain was forced to adopt tolerance of gays in the military by the EU. Similarly, American courts have led the way toward implementing civil unions and gay marriage. What this suggests to me is that while voters may reject a progressive legislator, they don't get worked up about progressive developments.

What's that about? It's a matter - or mystery - of perception. Our judgments are heavily dependent on context. Voting for a pro-gay representative implies that the voter is also pro-gay (although Republicans are famous for their "hold my nose" discipline). Living next door to a gay couple doesn't imply anything.

Another story in today's paper, Adam Liptak's column, "Positive He's a Killer; Less Sure He Should Die," highlights the huge difference between the general and the particular. Americans are broadly (if lamentably) in favor of the death penalty - as a principal. But juries have been sentencing convicted criminals to death in greatly dwindling numbers. When it's up to you to decide whether somebody will live or die, your mind works differently. You might say that it works.

Thus the inherent worthlessness of polling. Calling up people at home is itself a problem. At home, people are "themselves," "relaxed," more likely to say the first thing that comes to mind. In other words, polling occurs in a context that incompatible with the deliberation required by participatory democracy.

More to the point, asking general questions about matters of no immediate concern might yield interesting, "disinterested" responses, but the answers are unlikely to to indicate what the responders would actually do if doing something were necessary. I'm reminded of the old joke about how the man in the family makes all the important decisions - who's president, how to fight a war, and whether taxes are too high - while his wife takes care of the little stuff - where the family lives, what it eats, and how it's clothed.

"It's just not the issue it used to be."


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