The Moral Universe
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
- Martin Luther King
I live in Northern Virginia, which, for the most part, is more northern than Virginia. A large proportion of my neighbors are in the military, work for defense contractors or serve in law enforcement, but my street is diverse. We live amidst African American, Salvadoran, Filipino, Mexican and Pakistani families, and everyone seems to get along.
Most of the region is unashamedly progressive. The suburbs immediately across the river from Washington – Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church – don’t elect anyone for anything who doesn’t fit into progressive stereotypes. From their county clerks to their Congressional representatives, everyone leans left.
That’s never really been the case in my corner of Prince William County. Despite our diversity, we’ve been represented at the state level by some of the most conservative figures in Virginia politics. For years my delegate to the Virginia House was Bob Marshall, who had served for 26 years, won every election overwhelmingly, and bragged about being the state’s “chief homophobe.” He was as much a part of the landscape here as the traffic on I-66, and, like the traffic, no one held out any real hope for improvement.
And so this year’s election seemed to shape up as all the others, especially since Marshall’s opponent was a transgendered woman with no previous political experience. She was in so many ways the anti-Marshall. But she was brave, and articulate, and clear about the local issues that hold greater importance than which bathroom someone might use. She parried Marshall’s attacks on her sexual identity by ignoring them. Through all of it, she carried herself with impeccable dignity, intelligence and grace.
On election night, Danica Roem won, and she won handily, beating Marshall by 10 percentage points. I won’t begin to try to understand all the reasons. But I like to think that people in my neighborhood were voting ‘for’ something as much as they were voting against the hateful rhetoric of a closed-minded politician.
That night, before Danica Roem declared victory,. Joe Biden hunted her down and gave her a congratulatory phone call. Roem had driven to Delaware in 2015 to attend Beau Biden’s funeral out of respect for both Bidens, who have continually championed the rights of the LGBT community. Joe remembered, and so the call. Afterwards, when the realization of what she had just accomplished hit her, with Biden’s words still fresh in her ears, she collapsed in tears. When she collected herself, she went back out to the crowd gathered to celebrate, and, finally, let herself go.
Over a glass of wine that night, I thought about Danica Roem. I thought about the remarkable change that permeated the place where I’ve lived for the past 16 years. And then I thought about the arc of the moral universe, and Martin Luther King.
I thought about John Lewis, bloodied and beaten on the bridge in Selma. I thought about the quiet dignity and immense courage of Cesar Chavez. I saw Harvey Milk leading a march through the Castro. I heard again the words of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. Others, too – Bobby Kennedy, who spoke so well and so often of the need for compassion; the sacrifice of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador; the poetry of Victor Jara in Chile.
If the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, it does so irregularly. We suffer the setbacks attendant with greed, self-interest, brutality and repression far too often. Outrage can only go so far until it turns to despair. What of this species, and what of the things we do to one another?
But then Danica Roem wins an election, and cries with disbelief and joy, and we see that imperfect arc move infinitesimally back on course. It’s not a redirection; it’s only a slight jog.
But it reminds us of what might be possible. It shows us that, even if we do not see them, there are individuals of courage, commitment and principle who will stand against any odds for our collective dignity, for the integral value that each human being possesses, and that we must cherish the fact that, against all evidence, they’ve not abandoned their belief in what we might one day become.