Saturday, November 22, 2008

"May I take your little girl for a ride?"

Rod Dreher, "On gay marriage, no tenable compromise" (Beliefnet, November 16, 2008):
Here's my column from today's Dallas Morning News, in which I write that conservatives may have won the Prop 8 battle, but we're losing, and are going to lose, the war over same-sex marriage rights. Why? Two reasons, basically: demographics, and the loss long ago of a settled view of marriage as anything beyond a contractual arrangement. In other words, conservatives are going to lose this war because we've lost the young, and we've lost the young because we've lost the culture. I might have added, gays had nothing to do with that; this battle was lost to traditionalists long before gays began to campaign for marriage rights. [N.B., if you're at all interested in this topic, I encourage you to read past the jump; I've appended a long passage from a 2005 Policy Review essay by Lee Harris, a partnered gay man who criticizes gay marriage on the grounds of tradition; it bears thoughtful reflection.]

I advocate in the column conservatives concentrating their (our) energies on a strategic retreat to more defensible ground, to protect religious freedom:
Should conservatives surrender? No, but it's important to deal with the world as it is. Marc D. Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, warns of a substantial impact on traditionalist churches, synagogues and mosques if gay marriage is constitutionalized under current conditions.

"If there is to be space for opponents of same-sex marriage, it will have to be created at the same time as same-sex marriage is recognized, and, probably, as part of a legislative package," he counsels.

Well, California gays had marriage in all but name, but still successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court over the word "marriage." Still, if religious liberty can be protected while statutorily granting same-sex marriage, that's a deal prudent conservatives and fair-minded gay activists should take.

Otherwise, get ready for a culture-war cataclysm.
I have no faith that this will happen. As a reader put it recently in one of the threads below, there really doesn't seem to be any tenable middle ground -- if by "tenable" you mean a middle ground that gays are willing to concede. I think a sufficient number of social conservatives could be convinced to yield on gay marriage if we could be assured that our religious institutions would be left alone. This could be accomplished, I think -- lawyers, correct me if I'm wrong -- if gay marriage were granted statutorily, instead of ordered by a court as part of civil rights jurisprudence. But as I indicate in the column, I don't think gay activists want any part of that -- they want full equality in every sense of the word. And I believe, along with Marc D. Stern and Eugene Volokh that having secured marriage rights in civil rights jurisprudence, gay activists will not be content to leave churches, synagogues and mosques alone, but will press hard to punish them for adhering to traditional religious teaching about homosexuality. This is why I have a lot of respect for Prof. Chai Feldblum's position: I don't agree with her pro-SSM views, but coming from an Orthodox Jewish background, she understands what religious groups would be required to give up under a full gay civil rights regime.Read the whole thing.

Ultimately, there is no tenable middle ground because a) we live in postmodernity, under an Enlightenment constitutional framework that makes the fulfillment of individual desire the summum bonum of political life, and, more basically, b) what's at issue is what homosexuality is. Let's assume, as I believe most people do, that homosexuality is not a choice. Given that premise, is it an immutable, morally neutral condition (like race)? Or is it an immutable, morally deficient condition (like alcoholism) that can be accomodated to some degree by law and custom, but which has no civil rights claims?

The view of gay rights activists and their supporters is the first option; the view of traditional religious believers is the second. The polls are clear that the first option is going to be the majority view before long in this country. Those who hold the second view have lost the philosophical grounds on which to make a plausible case, I fear; all we have to rely on is prejudice, both in the bad sense (i.e., bigotry) and in the good, Burkean sense (i.e., you shouldn't hastily tear down an institution that has lasted so long and served society so well). And gays, understandably, find their personal dignity insulted by people who believe that their sexuality is in any way deficient -- particularly because for many gays, their sense of moral, cultural and psychological personhood is so bound up in their sexuality. Besides, our culture has taught everyone to think only in terms of one's individual rights. "Rights" are not something granted; they are only recognized, as they inhere in a person by virtue of his personhood. This is why both gays and religious people are not predisposed to compromise on something they think infringes upon their full personhood.

This is why we're going to have a very nasty culture war. Just wait until more people understand -- no thanks to the news media -- what the full implications of gay civil rights are for their churches and schools.

Lee Harris, a gay conservative who lives with his longtime partner, opposes gay marriage because he sees in its institutionalization a sign and a means of the decline of our civilization. This long passage from a 2005 Policy Review essay of his on the meaning of tradition today bears thoughtful reflection. This is what traditionalists see as the ultimate stakes in this war -- and why we will not, we must not, go quietly. This civilization will do what it wants to do, and I see nothing to stop its rapid deconstruction. Protecting religious freedom in this matter at least gives breathing room for the Benedict Option -- for the formation of religious communities that can keep traditional wisdom and practice alive amid a hostile world:
In the culture war of today, the representatives of one side have systematically set out to destroy the shining examples of middle America. They seem to be doing so with an unconscious fanaticism that most closely parallels the conscious fanaticism of the various iconoclastic movements in the history of Christianity. They are doing this in a variety of ways -- through the media, of course, and through the educational system. They are very thorough in their work and no less bold in the astonishingly specious pretexts upon which they demand the sacrifice of yet another shining example. In the current debate on gay marriage, its advocates are cast in the role of long-oppressed suppliants demanding their just due. Indeed, the whole question is put in terms of their legal and moral rights, against which the opponents of gay marriage have nothing to offer but "residual personal prejudice," to recall again the memorable words of the chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court.

But it is a mistake to conflate the automatic with the irrational, since, as we have seen, an automatic and mindless response is precisely the mechanism by which the visceral code speaks to us. It triggers a rush of emotions because it is designed to do precisely this. Like certain automatic reflexes, such as jerking your hand off a burning stovetop, the sheer immediacy of our visceral response, far from being proof of its irrationality, demonstrates the critical importance, in times of peril and crisis, of not thinking before we act. If a man had to think before jumping out of the way of an onrushing car, or to meditate on his options before removing his hand from that hot stovetop, then reason, rather than being our help, would become our enemy. Some decisions are better left to reflexes -- be these of our neurological system or of our visceral system.

This is why for most people, including many gay men and women, the immediate response to the idea of gay marriage came at the gut level -- it somehow felt funny and wrong, and it felt this way long before they were able to spare a moment's reflection on the question of whether they were for it or against it. There is a reason for that: They were overwhelmed at having been asked the question at all. How do you explain what you have against what had never crossed your mind as something anyone on Earth would ever think of doing? This invitation to reason calmly about the hitherto unthinkable is the source of the uneasy visceral response. To ask someone to reason calmly about something that he regards as simply beyond the pale is to ask him to concede precisely what he must not concede -- the mere admissibility of the question.

Imagine a stranger coming up to you and asking if he can drive your eight-year-old daughter around town in his new car. Presumably, no matter how nicely the stranger asked this question, you would say no. But suppose he started to ask why you won't let him take your little girl for a ride. What if he said, "Listen, tell you what. I'll give her my cell phone and you can call her anytime you want"? What kind of obligation are you under to give a reason to a complete stranger for why he shouldn't be allowed to drive off with your daughter?

None. A question that is out of order does not require or deserve an answer. The moment you begin to answer the question as if it were in order, it is too late to point out your original objection to the question in the first place, which really was: Over my dead body.

Marriage was something that, until only quite recently, seemed to be securely in the hands of married people. It was what married people had engaged in, and certainly not a special privilege that had been extended to them to the exclusion of other human beings. Who, after all, could not get married? You didn't have to be straight; you could be gay. So what? Marriage was the most liberal institution known to man. It opened its arms to the ugly and the homely as well as to the beautiful and the stunning. Was it defined as between a man and a woman? Well, yes, but only in the sense that a cheese omelet is defined as an egg and some cheese -- without the least intention of insulting either orange juice or toast by their omission from this definition. Orange juice and toast are fine things in themselves -- you just can't make an omelet out of them.

Those who are married now, and those thinking about getting married or teaching their children that they should grow up and get married, may all be perfect idiots, mindlessly parroting a message wired into them before they were old enough to know better. But they are passing on, through the uniquely reliable visceral code, the great postulate of transgenerational duty: not to beseech people to make the world a better place, but to make children whose children will leave it a better world and not merely a world with better abstract ideals.

We have all personally known shining examples of such human beings, just as we have all known mediocre parents as well as some absolutely dreadful ones. Now suppose we are told, as we often are told in the gay-marriage debate, that the institution of marriage is not what it used to be. What does this mean? Does it mean that the shining example of a good marriage, of a good father and a good mother, and of a happy family has ceased to be one that we want to realize in our own lives? Not at all. We may in fact be farther than ever from living up to the shining example -- but that is hardly proof that we should abandon it as an ideal to which to aspire. If the crew of a ship is developing scurvy because limes have gone out of fashion, is this a reason to throw the limes overboard or a reason to change the fashion?

The shining example of a happy marriage and its inherent ideality was something that we once could all agree on; but now it is a shining example that has been subjected to the worst fate that can befall one: It has been become a subject of controversy and has thereby lost its most essential protective quality: its ethical obviousness in the eyes of the community. Once the phrase "gay marriage" was in the air, marriage was suddenly what it had never thought to be before: a kind of marriage, a type -- traditional marriage, or that even worse monstrosity, heterosexual marriage.

The high solemnity of marriage has been transgenerationally wired into our visceral system. We must take it seriously and treat it solemnly, and this "must" must appear to us at the level of second nature; it must possess the quality of being ethically obvious. Marriage must not be mocked or ridiculed. But can marriage keep its solemnity now? Who will tell the rising generation that there are standards they must not fail to meet if they wish to live in a way that their grandfathers could respect?

This is how those fond of abstract reasoning can destroy the ethical foundations of a society without anyone's noticing it. They throw up for debate that which no one before ever thought about debating. They take the collective visceral code that has bound parents to grandchildren from time immemorial, in every culture known to man, and make of it a topic for fashionable intellectual chatter.

Ask yourself what is so secure about the ethical baseline of our current level of civilization that it might not be opened up for question, or what deeply cherished way of doing things will suddenly be cast in the role of a "residual personal prejudice."

We are witnessing the triumph of a Newspeak in which those who simply wish to preserve their own way of life, to pass their core values down to their grandchildren more or less intact, no longer even have a language in which they can address their grievances. In this essay I have tried to produce the roughest sketch of what such language might look like and how it could be used to defend those values that represent what Hegel called the substantive class of community -- the class that represents the ethical baseline of the society and whose ethical solidity and unimaginativeness permit the high-spirited experimentation of the reflective class to go forward without the risk of complete societal collapse.

If the reflective class, represented by intellectuals in the media and the academic world, continues to undermine the ideological superstructure of the visceral code operative among the "culturally backward," it may eventually succeed in subverting and even destroying the visceral code that has established the common high ethical baseline of the average American -- and it will have done all of this out of the insane belief that abstract maxims concerning justice and tolerance can take the place of a visceral code that is the outcome of the accumulated cultural revolution of our long human past.

The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?

Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles. Reject the theology if you wish, but respect the ethical fundamentalism by which these people live: It is not a weakness of intellect, but a strength of character.

Middle Americans have increasingly tolerated the experiments in living of people like myself not out of stupidity, but out of the trustful magnanimity that is one of the great gifts of the Protestant ethos to our country and to the world. It is time for us all to begin tolerating back. The first step would be a rapid retreat from even the slightest whisper that marriage ever was or ever could be anything other than the shining example that most Americans still hold so sacred within their hearts, as they have every right to do. They have let us imagine the world as we wish; it is time we begin to let them imagine it as they wish.

If gay men and women want to create their own shining examples, they must do this themselves, by their own actions and by their own imagination. They must construct for themselves, out of their own unique perspective on the world, an ethos that can be admired both by future gay men and women and perhaps, eventually, by the rest of society. But there can be no advantage to them if they insist on trying to co-opt the shining example of an ethical tradition that they themselves have abandoned in order to find their own way in the world. It will end only in self-delusion and bitter disappointment

One of the preconditions of a civilization is that there is a fundamental ethical baseline below which it cannot be allowed to fall. Unless there is a deep and massive and unthinking commitment on the part of most people to the well-being not merely of their children, but of their children's children, then the essential transgenerational duty of preserving the ethical baseline of our civilization will become a matter of hit-and-miss. It may be performed, but there is no longer any guarantee that it will be. The guarantee comes from shining examples.
[Hat tip to J.M.]

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