Beyond the characters, writing and wardrobes, the reason I most enjoy AMC's superb television series "Mad Men" is that it disabuses Americans — whether or not they old enough to remember the nation as it really was 50 years ago — of the false conceit that the United States was pure and idyllic prior to the civil rights, feminist and environmental revolutions.
In the show, men routinely grope women at the office; black bellhops and elevator operators are treated like curios, or worse; Don and Betty Draper finish a picnic by lifting their blanket and strewing trash across a public park. American University historian Leonard Steinhorn concedes that the Greatest Generation courageously fought World War II, but argues that the ensuing "Greater Generation" admirably fought the important post-war battles for gender equality, racial desegregation and environmental protection.
Unfortunately, those battles continue. A half-century ago, homosexuality was so taboo that gay men often dated or even married "beards" to mask their sexual identities; presumably, many women who otherwise would have preferred to remain single or share their lives with female partners were similarly trapped in heterosexual marriages. "Mad Men" character Sal is a closeted gay man with a wife. He is petrified to be himself, at home or the office.
Opponents of gay rights would have us believe that sexual orientation is a choice, and thus different from race or gender, when in fact the primary difference is that sexual orientation can be kept private, but one's gender or race cannot. This distinction helps explain why it took longer to address anti-gay discrimination; beyond the 1969 Stonewall riots, two generations ago, few were calling for equal rights for gay Americans.
Not any more: Public attitudes about gay rights have changed dramatically in recent decades. Solid majorities, especially among younger Americans, now support marriage equality and other standards of equal treatment.
So it was a bit startling to learn that Republican legislators in Arizona apparently would prefer to load their state into a time machine and return America to the days of legal segregation. They passed a bill allowing those who oppose homosexuality based on religious beliefs to deny sales and services to fellow Americans simply because, well, they don't like them.
To those who protest that religious views excuse such discrimination — that somehow one can simultaneously "love the sinner but hate the sin," as conservative evangelicals often disclaim — consider the fact that anyone could start a new religion tomorrow and declare that their so-called moral objections allow them to deny service to groups they find repellent, including conservative evangelicals. Citing religion to justify hate sets a very dangerous precedent.
To her credit — I think — Arizona's Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill her state legislature passed that would have permitted those with religious objections to deny services to gay customers. But her statement explaining the veto was rather lukewarm; coupled with media reports, it seems Governor Brewer was motivated less by a commitment to equality than protection of her state's economy, which might have suffered financially, including but not limited to the possibility that the National Football League might relocate the 2015 Super Bowl, now scheduled for Glendale. (Arizona was at the center of a similar controversy two decades ago over the state's initial refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.)
Turns out, the deity that rules America is the almighty dollar, for it alone holds the power to unleash the horrible plagues of declining revenues and lost profits. Apparently, even many devout Christian businesspeople cower in the face of its wrath.
Late in "Mad Men's" second season, President John F. Kennedy appears briefly on a black-and-white television set. The president is delivering his September 1962 speech explaining the federal government's support for African American James Meredith's matriculation at the University of Mississippi. "Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law — but not to disobey it," said President Kennedy.
That's exactly right: In their hearts and minds, Americans are free to hate anyone they choose and for whatever reasons, religious or otherwise. Acting upon that hate, however, is illegal and unacceptable. Thank goodness for that.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.