Thursday, February 28, 2013
Fag Marriage and
The Naked Theocrat
WEARING A FIG LEAF STILL COUNTS AS NUDITY. Evening. We have a lot of ground to cover. Read for comprehension, if you don't mind.
I first learned to hate the left from their intractable, deliberate blindness on the abortion question. The right's argument against abortion is clear: Embryos and fetuses count as human beings so are therefore entitled to the same protection of life as everyone else. Debatable, but still a sensible position to take. But the left persists in pretending that Life Begins at Conception is somehow an impossible thing to believe. When they do address it, they insist it has to be some sort of racist old guy code for "keep women in the kitchen." Their preferred tack is to act as though any opposition to abortion— including to George Tiller-style flat-out murder— is an elaborate conspiracy to subjugate women. (Or keep them subjugated, or re-subjugate them, or whatever the narrative du jour.) They pretend the argument hasn't been made. The self-styled "reality-based community" ignores large swaths of reality.
Time to explode a popular false dilemma: Conservatism is better than progressivism, but that doesn't mean it's good enough. The right can be just as obtuse about their particular bugaboos as the left is about theirs. Monday's daily reminder of this tragic state came from social conservative Mollie Z. Hemingway. Her long excoriation of journalism's bias against "religious traditionalists" (her euphemism) is worth the read because it so clearly lays out... (deep breath)... the opposition to the opposition to the opposition to gay marriage. In it, she looks at a particularly revealing article from the Washington Post's outgoing ombudsman. The key pull quote:
The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. … Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”
Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”
The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.
The reader is right about the purpose of journalism (conservatism is better than progressivism), but not about the legitimacy of "traditional marriage" craziness (but it still isn't good enough). There is currently no legitimate opposition to gay marriage. Period. Legitimate opposition is possible. But conservatives aren't doing it. All their arguments under the umbrella of "traditional marriage" are bullshit. Bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit bullshit. And they all know it, on some level. A few of them know it consciously.
The Burden of Material Significance
All opposition to gay marriage is a symptom of general religious antipathy to homosexuality. The idea of dude-on-dude action squiks them out (as it does most of us), and God said "no homo," so for them the thinking is done: Homosexuality must be kept out of both society and reality. Consider the fuming and hand-wringing over the Boy Scouts of America's mere consideration of letting in gay kids after all. A blogger named Michael Quinn Sulivan articulates social conservatism's foot-stomping well:
As an Eagle Scout and current Cub Master, I am disappointed to learn that the Boy Scouts of America is considering a change of policy that would allow homosexuals to serve as adult leaders. This is a radical shift in policy after fighting— and winning!— years of legal challenges mounted by the cultural left.
The BSA has long stood on bedrock principles— Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, Reverent— and asked young men to commit themselves to being “mentally awake [um, sic?] and morally straight.”
Capitulating on foundational values and principles for cultural convenience is a violation of all we have spent generations teaching young men through scouting.
The BSA’s moral trustworthiness is being undermined by capitulation and cowardice. Our obedience to timeless values is being undermined by an attitude of religious irreverence pervasive in the America’s cultural elite.
The BSA adult leadership seems ready to cash in our organizational honor so they can be socially accepted by those who despise them. Attempting to appease the cultural left is a fool’s errand. For some quick-cash and invitations to cocktail parties with the cool kids, the BSA leadership is betraying everything we are and they claimed to be. Unfortunately, you will find the admiration you gain from the left to be short-lived. [emphasis added]
Give me a moment to pinch the bridge of my nose.
Let's take this from the top. The very top.
In a free country, that enjoys religious freedom, no law can rightly derive exclusively from religion. For any civic law to have a legitimate claim on the conduct of a free man, roots in the realm of faith won't do. (A free man can choose faith, of course, but that's the point— his faith is a commitment he chooses, not an ineluctable duty he's born under.) A law might overlap or coincide with faith-based views, but it must have its ultimate justification in objective reality. It must be of practical, demonstrable concern to liberty and individual rights.
But there's more! That standard goes for all moral prohibitions. Reality is the source of real morality. Not any hypothetical maybe-it-sorta-exists-ish divinity. I call this The Burden of Material Significance, and if you can think of a better term for it I'd like to hear it.
I'll let a gay former scout elaborate. One who doesn't simply want to destroy the institution, but promote and ensure the continuation of its authentic value.
...really, that’s the question—a question of reverence, of what is sacred—that’s being considered when we talk about “letting gays into the Boy Scouts.” ....What people such as Zach Wahls, Rick Perry, and President Obama, and the BSA itself and the rest are debating is what scouting means in our cultural lexicon—what, at its core, does scouting deem reverential and what should we revere about it.
On this point, it’s helpful to... turn to boy scouting’s pledge of allegiance, the Scout Oath. Here are the parts that, in practice, matter: “I will do my best.” “[I will] help other people at all times.” “[I will] keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” It’s true that I’ve left out the “God” part in my highlights, even though much of the current dustup is swirling around it. That’s because I disagree that Boy Scouts is inextricably religious, even though atheists, like gays, are officially banned from scouting. Religion played a very minor role in the day-to-day life of my troop, really extending only so far as the Presbyterian roof over our meeting space and the performance of an occasional prayer.... Regardless of the organizational fine print, it was a pretty secular experience.
If faith is not the most reverential concept in real-world scouting, what is? Based on the oath, the answer is easy: care for others and care of the self. These simple twin ideas are, of course, worthy of the utmost respect, and more to the point, salutary to all young men regardless of their sexual orientation. This much will be clear to anyone who is not trying to use scouting as a pawn in the culture-war chess game. The fact that many troop leaders have already expressed that openly gay scouts and volunteers will not affect those core values reveals just how much of the anxiety is coming from the outside. If scouting means being an ethical agent in the world—being “morally straight,” as the oath ironically puts it—a scout’s sexuality is irrelevant.
Sexuality is irrelevant to morality. I'll anticipate the obvious nitpicking: Sexuality is relevant if it leads to destructive, rights-violating behavior. If you get off on car crashes or kiddie diddling, that's an issue. But it's the car crashing or kiddie diddling itself that's the problem. (Maybe car crashes could be enjoyed in a controlled, consensual environment, but that's one expensive nut.) The object of a compulsion, and its context, make it moral or immoral. A carpenter is right to swing a sledgehammer at the walls of a home; a five-year-old child is probably not. Lack of discipline is the problem, not surplus of excitement.
To repeat: Morality means respecting the rights of others. Morality does not, cannot mean obeying the maybe-commands of a maybe-God no matter how unrelated those commands might be to life on earth. Traditional morality— i.e. Theistic Essentialism— was only ever moral insofar as it happened to meet the standards of individual rights. Judaism was immoral when it slaughtered the Hittites and the Whoeverites on the sole provocation of Yahweh's say-so. Christianity was an immoral source of profound human misery for its first thousand years or so. Islam briefly flirted with morality and intellectual progress, but that was only a phase. I hate that this needs to be said: Theism is no guarantee of morality.
At best, one could make a real moral case for a temporary, situational prohibition against homosexuality— and not in modern circumstances. Three thousand years ago, a desert community of refugees facing dwindling numbers and especially susceptible to the dangers of vice could have justified constraining homosexual behavior. As a package deal that also constrained pretty much all other types of sexual conduct, excepting the coitus required for reproduction. And that's assuming all members of the community were there voluntarily. Outside those conditions, faggotry isn't even in the top ten thousand things worth worrying about. The declared personal preference of a perhaps-real-perhaps-not-God notwithstanding.
A temporary rule is not a principle— If microbes enter the water supply, "don't drink the water" might be a life-saving rule, but it's a terrible principle carry through your life and apply to any and all water, regardless of its source. If gay-exclusion is a "foundational value" in your post-Bronze Age culture, you may as well have picked your foundational values at random. How about we ban the color turquoise? There's gotta be a line or two in Deuteronomy that'll work for that. And if someone digs up a verse explicitly mandating turquoise jewelry? Well, that won't be the first passage of scripture that our mood dictates we ignore in favor of a competing passage.
Here's a very simplified way to tell if an action is moral or not. A two-question test. First ask Question One: "Does this action further my happiness in the short or long term?" It does? Great. Now ask Question Two: "But does this action violate anyone's rights?" No? Have at it. Genital parity qua genital parity passes Question One for a few and Question Two for everyone. Gay sex as such is not a real moral issue.
Is the BSA "trying to appease the cultural left"? Or are they asking themselves if this silly "principle" is worth breaking any more sweat over? And would it kill the Mikey Sullivans of America to ask the same question? Would it literally kill them to find a better yardstick for morality than inflamed theological provincialism? Would they physically drop dead if they tried to do better? How "morally straight" are they if they can't tell the good from the bad in their beloved ethos? How "mentally awake" are they if they can't discern between the germane and the parochial?
tra·di·tion·al /trəˈdɪʃənl/ adjective: comfortably nostalgic
An august body of thinkers, including Thomas Sowell and many of my favorite pundits, have attacked gay marriage under the pretext of defending "traditional marriage." Traditional marriage, they claim, is by definition the union of a man and a woman. (They used to say "one man, one woman" more often, but when people started finding polygamy in the Bible, the more astute theocrat intellectuals veered away from this formulation.) Further, this arrangement is the bedrock of civilization, and therefore must be protected from any and all threats, including even the symbolic or voodoo undermining of the institution that formal acceptance of gay marriage would represent. They way they lay these arguments out seems sensible; they're very good at adopting a pose of reasonableness.
But history belies their narrative. Their constant framing of the issue as traditional marriage vs. same-sex marriage is a sophisticated rhetorical trick, designed to imply that marrigae has remained essentially the same since before mankind started keeping records. But that's obviously, undeniably not true. A quick look in the chart in my previous post proves how alien marriage norms were in ancient Israel— the Judeo in our avowed Judeo-Christian culture. Marriage has undergone a long and winding evolution to become what it is today. Marriage norms have changed time and again, with increasingly little regard for tradition. Imagine if a 21st century man insisted his brother's widow marry him. Better yet: imagine two families in a western country attempted an arranged marriage today. Really imagine how that would go over. And imagine if their defense was "but... it's traditional!" Society, which supposedly crumbles into Mad Max anarchy without traditional marriage, wouldn't tolerate that for a second. And rightly so.
For almost the last hundred years, marriage has primarily been the union of two people in love who commit to spend their lives together. This, more than anything else, has been what marriage has meant in our culture for decades. Look at any cinematic love story made after, say, Sunrise. What is the point of marriage in those films? To start a societally-mandated family? Or to affirm committed love? And if the former and not the latter, why? Could the last eighty or ninety of cinema be a fairly reliable cultural barometer? If not, then what society has ever attempted to ban marriages where childbirth wasn't possible? Oh, you say childless man-woman marriages are OK because they're symbolic of starting a family? Are you sure that's not just... you know... plain ol' bullshit?
People used to think gender complementarity was essential for sexuality. Now we know better. It shouldn't break anyone's brain to make a similar conceptual hop for marriage. Especially since such an expansion will have no material impact on the institution. Outside of being the only positive PR push it's received since the 50s.
Here's how else we can tell the "traditional marriage" tack is bullshit. If traditional marriage is as vital as they now claim, then explain why: 1) they only bring up single motherhood in the context of sex education, 2) they only EVER bring up high divorce rates and lax divorce laws as a quick parenthetical to their anti-gay marriage agitation, and 3) they never utter the "children have a right to be with their biological parents" line, or anything like it, in the context of adoption by heterosexual couples. Where was such a robust defense of traditional marriage before gay marriage looked like a real possibility? Only the crickets answer.
The civil union argument bears consideration on its own. If gays want the legal protection of marriage, why not just get civil unions, which were designed expressly for this purpose? I can tell you why in two words: Scott Walker. His otherwise excellent administration attempted a de facto abolition of civil union protection, including denial of hospital visitation to gay partners. All in the name of defending traditional marriage. Conservative apologists would paint this as a fluke. Gays are right to take it as a warning shot. Who can blame them for wanting the same real protection of their relationships that straight people have? What's to stop religionists from trying worse down the road? Not any moral prohibition— at least none that any theocrat knows of.
And where is the one legitimate objection gay marriage opponents could raise: That legal enshrinement might lead to gay marriage being forced upon private religious organizations? Gee whiz, they must keep forgetting to bring it up. Sure, sometimes it comes to mind. Except as an occasional afterthought, like an optional spice or garnish on the main course of "traditional marriage." Or when gay marriage advocates include exemptions for religious organizations in their legislation. Then conservatives remember that there's an actual threat to religious liberty somewhere in all this noise (and claim the exemptions are just a ruse). But it's promptly forgotten. Then it's right back to the idiot chorus that letting gays marry will cause straight husbands and wives en masse to throw up their hands and abandon the whole marriage enterprise. What a load. Men and women get married because they want to join with each other for the rest of their lives. Not because they're entering into some neato secret exclusive club that makes them special because they have biologically compatible pelvises. What devoted wife will turn to her husband and say "Hell, Mort, I love you and I want to stay with you, but now that homos can tie the knot, it's like... what's the point? Pack your bags. I'm keeping the house. Are the kids too old to abandon at the fire station?"
The Naked Theocrat
Gay marriage opposition is the early stirrings of the theocratic urge. Our modern theocrats are people fed up with the animating contest of differing opinion who just want everyone to shut up and accept God's law as the law of the land. All of conservatism's arguments against gay marriage are fig leaves for theocracy.
And they know it. In 1990, before much of the cultural heat was on, author Orson Scott Card wrote frankly about his desire to enforce God's law at the point of a gun.
What we do with small children is to establish clear boundaries and offer swift but mild punishment for crossing them. As their capacity to understand and obey increases, the boundaries broaden but the consequences of crossing them become more severe.
Within the Church, the young person who experiments with homosexual behavior should be counseled with, not excommunicated. But as the adolescent moves into adulthood and continues to engage in sinful practices far beyond the level of experimentation, then the consequences within the Church must grow more severe and more long-lasting; unfortunately, they may also be more public as well.
This applies also to the polity, the citizens at large. Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.
The goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail. The goal is to discourage people from engaging in homosexual practices in the first place, and, when they nevertheless proceed in their homosexual behavior, to encourage them to do so discreetly, so as not to shake the confidence of the community in the polity's ability to provide rules for safe, stable, dependable marriage and family relationships.
...if we allow ourselves to be intimidated by our fear of the world's censure into silence in the face of attempts by homosexuals to make their sin acceptable under the laws of the polity, then we have abandoned our role as teachers of righteousness. [emphases added]
This is the Naked Theocrat. God's law is righteousness is morality is ethics is civic virtue. "Liberty" is a word to love because it has traditional sentimental value and occasional sanction in holy writ. But in practical terms, liberty is to be heavily constrained, because it mostly only leads to deviations from The Lord's Way. Sin against the afterlife is crime in this life, and ought to be policed accordingly. When you think morality only comes from your God, you must think your God is mandatory for everyone else. The two notions necessarily correlate. To value liberty— which includes religious liberty— your ethics must meet a standard that is outside, beyond, above religion. Your moral compass is broken if it only points to God.
What's worst of all is this: Card knew his religiously-motivated policy demand would need a temporal justification. So, despite having whipped out his theocratic urge and wiggled it around for everyone to see, he contributed a meme that was then still in its early days. That a public presence of gayness would somehow destabilize marriage itself. (As though the world of concepts just isn't big enough for the both of them. And as though, even in 1990, the genie of gay discretion could go back in the bottle. Pshaw.) Any honest reader can see this is pure non sequitur. "People I'll never meet in another state are having a homosexual encounter! Is no marriage safe?" Come on.
In a reprint of his essay more than a decade later, he attempted an ass-covering disclaimer:
This essay was published in February of 1990, in the following context: The Supreme Court had declared in 1986 (Bowers v. Hardwick) that a Georgia law prohibiting sodomy even in the privacy of one's own home was constitutional. I was also writing this essay to a conservative Mormon audience that at the time would have felt no interest in decriminalizing homosexual acts. In that context, my call to "leave the laws on the books" was simply recognizing the law at that time, and my call to not enforce it except in flagrant cases was actually, within that context, a liberal and tolerant view -- for which I was roundly criticized in conservative Mormon circles as being "pro-gay." Those who now use this essay to attack me as a "homophobe" deceptively ignore the context and treat the essay as if I had written it yesterday afternoon. That is absurd -- now that the law has changed (the decision was overturned in 2003) I have no interest in criminalizing homosexual acts and would never call for such a thing, any more than I wanted such laws enforced back when they were still on the books. [e/a]
So when you say a law "should remain on the books," that means you're glad when the law gets taken off the books? There really isn't a "context" that can make that work. That fig leaf isn't big enough to cover your massive balls, Orson.
Meanwhile, the welfare state is unsustainable. It was unsustainable before Obama, but now that we've inflicted him on ourselves, the crash is coming all that much sooner. Here in the real world, we've got a major short term and two major long term challenges. In the short term, we've got to figure out how to make it through the next four years (maybe even the next eight?) with as much of our personal autonomy and standard of living intact as possible. The long term challenges are a) figuring out how to reform and reinforce the national character so an Obama never happens again, and b) figuring out how to transmit that character down through the coming generations. We the good guys have a lot on our plate.
I'll make an appeal to any theocrats who might be reading this, though I despair of it doing any good. It's time we put the old Ghost to rest. Or at least on the shelf for a bit, while we deal our real problems. We don't have to agree to hate God— we just need to prioritize. Confine the idle speculation on the supernatural— and it's all speculation, don't lie— to idle moments. Get on with the business of tending to the real world. Save the uptightness for real things, instead of phantom-maybe things. Don't hold up a broken compass as true north. And pretty please with a cherry on top, don't try to make your God anyone else's problem.
In the name of all that merits reverence.