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Death, Hatred, and Fear. Or: “What Really Makes a Wedge Issue?” (A Response to “Is Pot the New Gay?”)

2010 April 27

Pot is not the new gay. Nothing can be the new gay.  Homosexuality occupies a completely unique place in American consciousness and politics.  I believe there are a few reasons for this, and the most important of which is that LGBT population is an unpredictable one, by which I mean you never know where the next homo will come from.  We belong to every gender, every race, ethnicity, nationality, religion.  We are able-bodied and disabled.  We are young and we are old.  We are rich and we are poor.  We can pass ideals, culture, and history on to the next generation, but we cannot guarantee that our children will be gay.  Equal rights for the LGBT population became a wedge issue because our straight allies– our hetero-parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, coworkers, children, and even some clergy- believed we were worth protecting.  They got angry, they got heated, and they joined us to mobilize for change.

It is heat that makes a wedge issue.  It’s anger, it’s fear, it’s death.  Race.  Abortion.  Stem-cell research.  Marriage equality.  The economy.  Health care.  They are wedge issues, and tempers run HOT when people talk about them.  People invoke death- lynchings, “the murder of unborn children,” hate crimes, death panels.  They spark fear- “They’ll bring crime and violence into the neighborhood!” “We’ll create a culture that doesn’t value life!”  “They’ll kill babies for the sake of science!”  “They’ll destroy the American family!” “We’re turning socialist!”

Make no mistake- I think the legalization of marijuana is important.  But I don’t think it has what it takes to be a wedge issue.  My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was 12, and spent the next six years in round after round of brutal chemotherapy treatments.  I saw the crippling nausea, headaches, and listlessness.  A few of the women in her support group recommended smoking, and it was the only thing that ever worked for her.  (She was certainly no “dirt bag stoner.”)  Of course, this was illegal.  And very hush-hush.  This may be exactly the problem with the marijuana lobby- too many pot smokers and pot supporters are “in the closet;” abstinent allies are not coming out in droves to support marijuana rights.  Has there been a major march on Washington?  Even celebrities that back the cause tend to be seen as jokes.  (Woody Harrelson?  Matthew McConaughey?  Willie Nelson?  Snoop Dogg?  Found a worthy spokesman yet?)    Even I chuckle when I hear Willie on those ads for NORML.  It’s not an issue that people take seriously enough.

Marijuana legalization is certainly gaining momentum these days, but it is not a make-or-break issue for candidates.  It’s not controversial enough, sexy enough or dangerous enough.  Perhaps that’s because for so many people, it’s completely non-controversial.  It’s easy to get your hands on some weed, smoke it in your living room or your basement, and go to work or school or church the next day without anyone knowing.  (Unless, apparently, you’re Michael Phelps, who after apologizing for his bong rips suffered a comparatively minor backlash, as compared to celebrities who come out as gay, for example.)  I went to Bard; I know plenty of “potheads.”  Legalization would be nice because it means they could smoke out in the open, like we did at Bard.  But even if legalization doesn’t happen for a while, they’ll keep smoking.  And few people will care.

3 Responses
  1. April 27, 2010


    You and I have very different standards for what constitutes a wedge issue. It seem that your litmus test for wedgeness (better, I think, than wedgitude, in this context) is the impassionedness (not, on the whole, much better than impassioneditude) of the people who take a position. There is a sense in which that’s indirectly so, but bypasses the heart of the matter.

    My understanding is much closer to the first sentence from the relevant Wikipedia entry: “A wedge issue is a social or political issue, often of a divisive or otherwise controversial nature, which splits apart or creates a “wedge” in the support base of one political group. ” So: there has to be passion on the sides of the issue, but only inasmuch as makes the issue politically worth exploiting. You may be right that pot isn’t associated with stakes that high (pun firmly intended), but it is precisely the material of a wedge issue: it is divisive, it is to be exploited by one side or the other (or both) to invigorate a base with interests not necessarily aligned with a larger political philosophy, &c. In that way it is very much like other wedge issues of note.

    The problem is that you listed “the economy” as a wedge issue. The economy is the classic non-wedge issue. It’s not a social cause, employing it for political gain does not seek to divide but to unite, &c. When politicians deprecate their opponents for using wedge issues, they mainly accompany their remarks with a plea to talk about “real” issues, like… the economy. If the economy is a wedge issue, I’m afraid nothing isn’t. And that’s not the pot talking.

    • April 27, 2010

      Should have read that before posting. Fraught with errors. All apologies.

  2. Genya Shimkin permalink
    April 28, 2010


    I totally see what you’re saying. (I, too, read the Wikipedia article before writing this piece.) It seems I may have skipped a step in my logic; I failed to point out the WHY. It is all of this fear and anger and death that makes these issues so divisive and exploitable. I suppose I could have done a better job of making that point. Also, I left out a discussion of political parties and philosophies because as you point out, the issue “is to be exploited by one side or the other (or both) to invigorate a base with interests not necessarily aligned with a larger political philosophy.” Though we like to see wedge issues as left vs. right or DEMs vs GOP, that’s not the case. (See: Bart Stupak the the pro-life lobby in the Democratic caucus.) Wedge issues confuse these lines, and I think that adds more fuel to the fire, so to speak.

    So based on the wikipedia definition, I can see how marijuana could, maybe, if you squint really hard, be seen as a wedge issue. But from what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think weed has what it takes. I don’t think it’s worth exploiting, and I don’t think the lobby on either side has enough power to convince the right politicians to exploit it. Even Dennis Kucinich’s support has become more of a liability than an asset- few take him seriously enough.

    Regarding your point on the economy, you’re right; I should have used “the bank bailout” which I think is much more illustrative of the point I was trying to make. The economy itself is used as a unifying issue, while the bailout was used divisively. Apologies for the poor choice of words…

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