I’d love to put it to bed, but it’s still up and walking around
Pam’s piece below debunking the idea that the anti-gay lobby can be compromised with on gay marriage really got me to thinking, as did Jesse’s post on Lord Saletan trying to find some brilliant compromise on abortion. I’m (shockingly) feeling 90% on Obama, which is much better than I’d hoped for at this point, but I think one effect of his campaign strategy is that the same old pundits (mostly straight and male and living in parts of the country where their friends and relatives have state protection) who think that they can put to bed the culture wars with a compromise here and a tweaking of semantics will be emboldened, because Obama somehow had the magic formula to chip off just enough socially conservative people to win an election during an economic crisis that put these issues on the back burner. But putting Rick Warren up to pray at the inauguration will not put the culture war to bed, and compromises and semantics will not appease culture warriors.
There’s also a tendency to play “pox on both your houses” in these kind of articles that feels aesthetically pleasing, but unfortunately has no basis in reality. Saletan’s the master of this, pretending that each side has one card it can give up, and peace will be at hand. He has to tweak the facts to get there, particularly minimizing the importance of abstinence-only education and anti-contraception activism in the “pro-life” movement. David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch play this game by setting up a situation where both sides are equally motivated by goodness and purity, and that each side demonizes the other. Pam’s retort says it all:
Sorry to say, our opponents are acting in bad faith. They attempt to sway positions with outright lies, such as conflating homosexuality with bestiality, thus leading to, say, man-goat nuptials, something that has nothing to do with any sane religious conviction, btw. That’s extremism and intellectually bankrupt fear-mongering. The problem with the religious right is that they don’t want any compromise, because the ultimate goal is to have government intervention and control on all matters of sex and reproductive freedom—those are issues that extend way beyond civil marriage or social security benefits for same-sex spouses.
I have never seen a “please, let’s compromise and put this to bed” article coming from the anti-gay or anti-choice faction. At best, I’ve seen people who personally don’t like abortion, but are still pro-choice. This interesting fact should tell them who is the side with all the stubborn people. I personally don’t like to feel stubborn on these issues—if there was a compromise that could put the war to bed with just a few minimal tweaks, I’d probably snatch it up—but I know what Pam knows, that if we concede some ground, they’ll just demand more. They’re not going to rest. And so, sadly, neither can we. That was the gist of this article I wrote for RH Reality Check that was a reply to Aspen Baker. I feel it’s a tad unfair including this, because Aspen is not at all pushing a centrist angle—I think she’s actually striving for a radical third way instead of a compromise third way—so I want to make clear that I wasn’t really disagreeing with her about her strategy’s usefulness. I just think that the traditional pro-choice rights-based approach complements it, and cannot be supplanted by her strategy. I’m including it, because I made a point that I think is relevant, which is that the culture wars are long-standing and going nowhere because there is a genuine difference of values here, and values are not amendable by evidence in the same way differences of strategy might be.
The national conversation over abortion feels like war because it isn’t about abortion per se. It’s the most important battle in the struggle over the existence of the patriarchy. The dictionary defines patriarchy as, “a form of social organization in which the father is the supreme authority in the family, clan, or tribe and descent is reckoned in the male line, with the children belonging to the father’s clan or tribe.” This explains why abortion matters more than anything else–if we believe that “life” begins at conception, then the father gets all the credit for making children, and this in turn justifies male authority over women and official “ownership” of children. If we believe that “life” begins at some other point in fetal development, then the credit for new people goes to women, and patriarchal justifications dry up.
The presumption that Blankenhorn, Saletan, Rauch, and pretty much all these dudes who think there’s a compromise point is that they can only make this argument by employing a false assumption, which is that since we’re all Americans (yes, these battles are worldwide, but they’re only speaking to Americans), we share a fundamental values system, and that the battles are about gradations of difference. Therefore we can all just move over a little and tah-dah! We all agree. That’s why Saletan thinks that it will be easy enough for anti-choicers to give up their hostility to contraception and for pro-choicers to give up our belief that an embryo’s value is defined strictly by the mother. And Blankenhorn and Rauch appear to think that the homobigots will be mollified by a few religious protections. And I sort of feel sorry for these dudes, because they are working under the assumption that everyone involved is arguing in good faith. By doing so, they encourage cultural conservatives to continue the strategy of lying about their motivations, because it’s so effective. It’s painfully obvious that the opposition to gay marriage isn’t rooted in a genuine fear that there will be religious persecution in a country that has strong protections for freedom of religion and speech. Why? Because the anti-gay marriage movement also supports sodomy laws, fights against hate crimes legislation, and otherwise, as Pam said, engages in dehumanizing gay people on a routine basis. This isn’t and was never about freedom of religion. It’s straight-up bigotry, and the only way to get the right to stop lying about this is to scoff when they lie.
The conservative and liberal views on culture and family issues are wildly different, and we have to face this with bravery. I’d characterize the views as patriarchal and feminist, but use whatever words you wish. The conservative view is rooted in hierarchy, authority, and conformity, and the liberal view is rooted in equality, freedom, and diversity. The conservatives believe that the ideal is heterosexual, male-dominated marriage, and everyone who cannot or will not conform should be punished and shunned (which would make more people conform out of fear). Liberals believe that people are more important than institutions, and if our institutions are making people unhappy—and we consider gays and women to be people—those institutions should change. It would be nice if we all had the same values and merely disagreed about how to get there. Compromise pushers would like to believe we’re all pro-people and just have a different strategy to get there. But actually, I think we’re all in agreement on what the policy choices each side supports would do. We both get that abortion bans and massive restrictions on contraception would probably lower the age of marriage, force women seeking abortions to risk their lives, and make it harder for women to pursue careers and agitate for equality within their marriages. Both sides get that bans on gay marriage would reinforce homophobia and effectively punish gays for choosing relationships based on desire and not on duty. We just disagree on whether or not these are good things. Unfortunately for all of us, one side’s going to have to win out before this is over.
The good news is that our side is winning. Not as fast as we’d like, no, but we are winning. Not if we give up, no, but as long as we keep fighting, there’s no reason to think we won’t win this one. The fact that one side has to lie about their motivations and the other can be pretty straightforward tells you who has the upper hand on the values argument. We do. Which is why it’s important to refuse to play into right wing narratives about how this is about religious freedom or fetal life or whatever decoy they set up to sucker the well-meaning.