After the War on Statues

January 2005 may be remembered as the Day It All Began.  At a Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce, Larry Summers lost his job as president of Harvard by suggesting there might be small differences in aptitude between men and women in STEM fields. That was enough to finish him. Although the penalty may have struck some as disproportionate no one attached any wider significance to the incident at the time.

In retrospect Summers' fall was the start of a sequence of events that is even now racing to a climax.  After Summers the vortex which pulled him down eddied on claiming further victims. By 2012 it had become unacceptable to think of illegal immigration as a crime. A CNN article marked the moment when "the words 'illegal immigrants' and 'illegal aliens," became verboten:

When you label someone an "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant" or just plain "illegal," you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.

Gradually, but with ever quickening pace a series of further breakthroughs occurred until the public almost ceased to notice that the once sacrosanct verities were no more. By 2016, when same sex marriage reversed the Defense of Marriage Act enacted just 10 years, the advance had become so rapid it surprised even its most ardent supporters. "What explains the rapid change?" asked Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic. His theory was that the very fabric of American society had changed to the point where tradition was no longer able to offer any resistance.

That change worried some observers. Without tradition to apply some sort of brake where was the limit?  If marriage could so easily be twitched aside where would the advance stop? Polygamy? William Rauch, writing in Politico argued that any notion society would fall down some "slippery slope" was ridiculous. "The shortest answer [to the slippery slope argument] is in some ways the best: Please stop changing the subject!" Legalizing same sex marriage he argued, was disconnected from polygamy or anything else.

But subsequent events were disturbingly suggestive. Shortly after the same sex marriage issue subsided, the headlines became dominated by transgender bathrooms. This time the opposition even feared to take the field. Katy Steinmetz writing in Time likened laws requiring transgender to the repeal of Jim Crow laws. "Bathrooms and fights for civil rights go hand-in-hand."

In the Jim Crow era, bathrooms—along with water fountains and lunch counters—were places that might be marked with “white only” signs. The bathroom has also been a battleground for women and handicapped workers fighting for equal treatment in the workplace. Because of the nature of things people do in the bathroom, it can be a space where they feel exposed or vulnerable and therefore resist change. It is also, as transgender icon Janet Mock says, “the great equalizer for all of us.”