Monday, June 4, 2012

The Politics of Intransigence

William Buckley, in the first issue of National Review in 1955, famously distilled conservative instincts down to the desire to “stand athwart history yelling stop,” and ever since that’s just what conservatives have been doing.  They haven’t stopped history, but that hasn’t kept them from yelling, even when history has long since passed them by.  And particularly in the age of Tea Party purity, to be a conservative is to be forever fighting wars long lost.  Tea Partiers throw themselves into the debt limit breach like Spartans at Thermopylae, though the fiscal Persians passed through long ago.  They denounce the progressivism of Franklin Roosevelt and even Woodrow Wilson.  They call Social Security a Ponzi scheme.  They wish to eliminate Progressive Era reforms like the Federal Reserve, the income tax and the popular election of senators.  They rail against radical cultural developments like the widespread use of contraception.  And – the cultural battle du jour – they hope to forestall gay marriage.  But now President Obama, canny leader from behind that he is, has publically joined the fight for marriage equality just as conservatives are losing that war, too.

And make no mistake, that war is lost.  First there were civil unions.  Then there were state supreme court decisions.  Then there were democratically elected state legislatures (such as New York and Washington).  Last year the Obama administration announced it would not defend DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act, the Clinton era law preventing the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages).  Now federal courts are striking down key provisions of DOMA.  It looks like some states, such as Maryland, are about to legalize gay marriage by popular referendum.  Sure, there are states which will never accept it (North Carolina comes to mind), but that won’t matter if the US Supreme Court rules that marriage is a civil right that cannot constitutionally be confined to heterosexuals.

And this is a big loss.  It might just be the last big loss for cultural conservatives, only because they have little left to lose.  Since the days of Bill Buckley’s exhortation to intransigence, conservatives have resisted racial inclusion, gender equality, drug usage, secularization, and the entire sexual revolution, including the acceptance of contraception, pornography, experimentation, abortion, homosexuality, and blatant sexual expression in the popular media.  How many of those battles have conservatives won?  Drug use may be the only one.  (And thank God they did win that one, though not without some terrible repercussions; for example, the war on drugs remains blindingly irrational.)  A generation from now, the vast majority of Americans will think about gay marriage the way we now think about inter-racial marriage.  That is, we won’t understand why anyone was ever against it.  (Presumably, though, even then some small stubborn conservative contingent will still be struggling to reverse it.)

Why do conservatives keep losing?  What is it about the cultural evolutions mentioned above that have proven so irresistible to standing athwart?  What do those developments have in common? Some commentators sense the unifying theme: Andrew Sullivan explicitly draws out the connection between acceptance of homosexuality and acceptance of recreational marijuana use; Rod Dreher sees parallels, as well.  Daniel McCarthy casts his net much wider, claiming that these recent developments are “a consequence of a shift in the foundations of Western civilization that has been taking place over centuries—a shift from Christian to liberal foundations.”  Could any conservative disagree?  That is, all the cultural developments listed above are about individuals defining their own meaning and controlling their own lives.  They’re about liberating individuals from cultural constraint.  In the good old conservative days, each person was expected to fulfill well-defined social roles – father, employee, countryman – each with powers and duties that could not be ignored or questioned.  And each role fit neatly into its spot in the social hierarchy.  That is, each role dictated who owed deference to whom: women to men, children to parents, non-whites to whites, etc.  And it was the job of social institutions – family, church, community – to define and enforce those roles and that hierarchy.  But individuals and groups that were exploited or oppressed by that hierarchy began to rebel against it; first blacks, then women, then gays, and so on.  That’s the problem: and so on.  The engine of individual liberation, once set in motion, is exceedingly hard to stop.  In 1955, the notion that black Americans could control their own lives, unconstrained by white supremacy, was radical.  But once you accept it, how can you demand women stay in their place?  What about other races?  What about gays?  What about the sexual impulses of white suburban kids, previously constrained by Puritan repressiveness, but now urged to liberation by the irresistible physicality of rock-n-roll?  The cultural scolds of the 1950’s were right: Elvis’ dancing was revolutionary!

And, as Noah Berlatsky nicely explains, present-day conservatives are just as right when they claim that allowing gays into the institution of marriage fundamentally changes that institution.  More precisely, it caps marriage’s evolution into an instrument of personal development, all as part of the liberal cultural movement described above.  Conservatives are dead right when they stress the centrality of marriage as a social institution.  They know that when marriage has completely succumbed to the philosophy of personal liberation they will have lost one of their most important battles.  But once again, they’re fighting a battle already lost.  The meaning of marriage has been changing for a very long time, and the changes started long before anyone considered that gays might marry each other.  (Conservative historian Garry Wills explains that marriage was not even a Catholic sacrament until the 12th century!)  Stephanie Coontz provides an excellent summary of the fundamental changes in the understanding of marriage over the last couple of centuries.  “For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than mutual attraction. It was a way of forging political alliances, sealing business deals, and expanding the family labor force. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty.”  But then it became permissible to marry for love.  Then the need for parental approval was dropped.  In the 60’s the Supreme Court struck down state bans on contraception within marriage and on interracial marriage.  And, most relevant to our discussion, in the 60’s and 70’s marriage lost its patriarchal strictures and became thoroughly liberalized.  Coontz writes, “The collapse of rigid gender expectations and norms has fostered the expectation that marriage should be an individually negotiated relationship between equals, replacing the older notion of marriage as a prefabricated institution where traditional roles and rules must be obeyed.”  Marriage is no longer about the political or economic merging of families.  It is no longer even primarily about fostering the proper setting for child-rearing.  The arrival of no-fault divorce in the 1960’s made legally explicit the notion that marriage is about individual choice and individual happiness.  Contemplating this history makes clear that the conservative fight against gay marriage is essentially symbolic. Liberal individualism has already changed marriage immeasurably; allowing gays to marry merely completes that change and makes it undeniable.

But marriage is a special case; it’s different from the other cultural developments listed above: it is not a merely an individual choice.  The point of marriage is to employ the weight of society to buttress a personal relationship, for social and individual good.  It used to be that there were three parties to marriage: the bride, the groom and the rest of society.  (Check out Roderick Long’s excellent depiction of the understanding of marriage in 19th century America; it showcases wonderful historical expressions of the view that society has much to say about the particulars of individual marriages.)  And as a social institution with a pragmatic social purpose, its particulars could be defined collectively through the democratic legislative process.  But it’s not just that the purpose of marriage has changed from economics and child-rearing to personal fulfillment.  That change effects a much more radical transformation: marriage is no longer a social institution.  If it’s just about personal fulfillment then it’s simply a contract between individuals.  Society is no longer a party.  Society no longer has any justifiable claim upon marriage or one’s duties as a spouse and parent.  I decide if I marry or divorce in the same way that I decide if I eat chocolate or vanilla.  And my spouse and I define our roles within our marriage.  No one has any right to tell me what to do.  And it follows inexorably that neither can anyone tell a gay person whom to marry.  The triumph of liberal individualism simply and starkly prohibits society from constraining personal choices.  And it makes marriage into merely another such choice.  For good or ill – actually, for good and ill – all social relations are now choices.

But consider the question: Could conservatives have allowed gays to marry each other while maintaining the general framework of well-defined, hierarchical social roles?  Could there have been room for gays in the old conservative vision of marriage?  Theoretically, yes; but realistically, no freakin way!  You’d have to put aside the fact that acceptance of gays and gay marriage came much later than the transformation of heterosexual marriage, and put aside the tenacious Old Testament revulsion of homosexuality (and of sexual expression in general), and put aside centuries of irrational prejudice and oppression.  Even putting aside all those stumbling blocks you’d still be stopped short by the deepest of conservative fears: the fear of mixing categories and blurring boundaries.  Hierarchies demand discreet roles.  Men must be men and women must be women.  The God of Genesis made each animal distinct and separate; one never gives rise to another.  If a man marries a man it confuses those separate categories, it blurs the distinctions between the sexes.  To conservatives, gay marriage is a moral monstrosity, like the miscegenated giants of Genesis 6, born of the daughters of men, fathered by the sons of God.  And hierarchies, particularly ones based on social categories like gender, race or sexual orientation, cannot help but oppress.  The logic of conservatism seems to require a subject class.  It’s no longer acceptable to advocate subordinate status for non-whites or women.  Once gays are safely on that no-oppression list, conservatives may have no one left to bully.  (Thank God for Muslims!)

Liberalism taught subject classes that their subjection was unjust.  The rest is merely the inevitability of that idea.  But there’s more: there’s conservative complicity in the overthrow of their own worldview.  Conservatives hold that freedom and equality are enemies, that more of one means less of the other, but the broader debate surrounding gay marriage nicely demonstrates how closely bound freedom and equality can be.  As we’ve seen, the goal of the liberal cultural project is the complete liberation of the individual from cultural constraint.  But this dauntingly vacant freedom implies an equally daunting and radical egalitarianism.  For each person to be free no one can claim power over another.  No person or institution has any justified authority over anyone’s meaning, goals or standards.  Thus, as conservatives have argued for almost perfect freedom in economic affairs – sounding like anarchists – they have inadvertently undercut their own arguments about cultural and moral truth.  But not just in the obvious way that conservative embrace of market freedom contradicts their defense of cultural control.  When they argue for freedom they unknowingly argue for equality as well, and that equality is a dagger aimed at the heart of cultural authority.  Modern conservatives thought they could be cafeteria liberals, simultaneously champions of freedom and warriors against equality.  But they were wrong: hierarchy and freedom are as much enemies as allies.

When gay marriage becomes widely accepted, it will have become so through liberal process and in liberal form.  It will be seen as the culmination of the liberal cultural revolution whereby all social institutions have been relieved of their authority to shape individual judgments.  It will not be an accommodation of gays into the conservative notion of marriage, though some conservatives – most notably Andrew Sullivan – have long urged such accommodation.  Sixty years ago, American social conservatism was about hierarchy composed of well-defined social roles that themselves expressed received moral truth.  But all the standing athwart in the world could not withstand the righteous power of those demanding liberation from that hierarchy.  Rhetorically at least, conservatives have repudiated that old-fashioned hierarchy; now all they have left are the well-defined social roles and the received moral truth.  But those roles and that truth are quickly succumbing as well. And it could not have been otherwise.  As an important conservative theorist once said, ideas have consequences.  More to the point, they have momentum.  Conservatives, being conservatives, waited too long to lose the hierarchy.  They defended it so long that the notions of well-defined roles and moral truth have become conflated in the public mind with that hierarchy, and they have all been rejected as a whole.  Thus the new non-hierarchical conservatism is punished for the injustices of its hierarchical progenitor.  The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons.  By forcing impulses of liberation into liberal channels, conservative resistance against social developments like gay marriage has only added to the triumph of the new individualism.  What started as emancipation from arbitrary and unjust power became emancipation from every possible external constraint.  In the new liberal vision, persons are not the roles they play, but unique, growing, complicated, uncertain creatures; each one a project, a growing, an ongoing liberation.  Modern freedom is self-actualization defended with relativism.  My life is entirely mine and entirely not yours.  Granted, conservatives have much to say against that disposition and they are furiously standing athwart it and yelling stop.  The history of the last 60 years promises that there will indeed be much yelling, but no stopping.

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