Thursday, December 16, 2004

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Michael Kinsley on the limits of conservatism

Post-election there was a lot of screeching that social conservatives wanted to roll back the "social progress" pushed largely by Northern Democrats over the past fifty years. Michael Kinsley's essay today in the Los Angeles Times points out the obvious -- at best, conservatives want to slow the accelerating change in social mores:

Gay marriage is on the verge of joining abortion rights on the very short list of litmus tests that any Democratic candidate for national office must support. Not gay rights, but gay marriage, or at least "civil union," which is an unstable half-step that is bound to turn into the real thing. Some say this just illustrates how far Democrats and liberals have drifted outside the mainstream. But the mainstream, and even the right, is not far behind.

Gay civil union, itself a radical concept from the perspective of just a few years ago, has widespread support outside of liberal circles. The notion that gay relationships should enjoy at least some of the benefits of marriage (hospital visitation rights being the unanswerable example) is probably a majority view. And even the most homophobic religious-right demagogue feels obliged to spout - and may well actually believe - bromides about God's love of gay people.

Today's near-universal and minimally respectable attitude - the rock-bottom, nonnegotiable price of admission to polite society and the political debate - is an acceptance of gay people and of open, unapologetic homosexuality as part of American life. This would have shocked, if not offended, the great liberals of a few decades ago - men such as Hubert Humphrey.

Such a development is not just amazing. It is inspiring. American society hasn't used up its capacity to recognize that it harbors injustice, and it remains supple enough to change as a result. In fact, the process is speeding up. It took black civil rights a century, and feminism half a century, to travel the distance gay rights have moved in a decade and a half.

This is also scary, of course, because there is no reason to think that gay rights are the end of the line. And it's even scarier because these are all revolutions of perception as well as politics. That means that all of us who consider ourselves good-hearted, well-meaning, empathetic Americans - but don't claim to be great visionaries - are probably staring right now at an injustice that will soon seem obvious, and we just don't see it. Somewhere in this country a gay black woman, grateful beneficiary of past and present perceptual transformations, has said something today in all innocence that will strike her just a few years from now as unbelievably callous, cruel and wrong.

Hat tip: Mickey Kaus.

posted by Dan on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM


I'm not so sure. I read somewhere that mainstream politicians talk a lot more about religion (for instance) than they ever used to. Also, the 1990s saw a turn against government as a whole that was far more extreme than mainstream conservativism would have allowed 50 years earlier.

I think the growing social liberalism applies mainly to private life. Along other axes, we are exactly where we were. And in some areas (the loss of faith in government), I think extreme conservative positions have come much closer to the mainstream.

posted by: Amardeep on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Conservatism always moves toward the "mainstream." The essence of conservatism is to perpetuate the values, customs, norms, etc. that dominate at a particular time. Once conservatives see that the times-are-a-changin', they change too.

Conservatism isn't a philosophy, it's a strategy. It's a strategy adopted by those interested in the status-quo, but it is always a strategy whose adherents are prepared to adapt to new thought.

Yesterday's liberals are in today's conservative camp. And so on.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

This reminds me of WEH Lecky's wonderful phrase: The Expanding Circle. He invoked it in his book, History of European morals, to illustrate how the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has grown as time has passed, from our family to our clan to our tribe and so on. Women and African Americans entered that circle in the last century, and it's now expanded to bring gay people so close to the center. What's next? Who cares? As long as it keeps expanding.

More here.

posted by: amit varma on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Kinsley's living in a dreamworld.

It is precisely the growing acceptance of gay marriage, gay families, gay sensibilities and so on that has the GOP's fundamentalist/reactionary base in a panic. The rhetorical attacks on gays is getting shriller. Far-right commentators have been hauling out old discredited chestnuts about pedophilia, cultural effeteness, AIDS, and Biblical law - as if the last 20 years never happened.

It's also part and parcel of a wide-scale attack on sexuality in general. Abstinence-only sex ed curricula peddles noxious, dangerous disinformation; people are encouraged to inform on anyone they think might be having inappropriate sex; female sexuality is under attack again, with more rules and laws designed to keep women from being able to get sex information, birth control and legal abortion; and sexual predator laws are being used to destroy teenagers who have consensual sex with one another.

Gay marriage and families are gaining, have gained, social acceptance only among the urban and urbane. Only, in other words, among "blue" communities.

Elsewhere, esp. in the "red" areas where the GOP and Bush have strong support, we are seeing a pendulum swing back towards repression, punishment, and prissiness.

Some reaction was to be expected: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and socially progressive movements are no different.

But this one is being amplified because it's expedient for the Party in power to do so. It's a way to keep the base excited, activist, and generous with money. It's a way to divert anxiety and attention about bad policies to more convenient targets. And it's going to get worse.

posted by: Learnin' to Love Armaggedon on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Conservatism isn't a philosophy, it's a strategy. It's a strategy adopted by those interested in the status-quo, but it is always a strategy whose adherents are prepared to adapt to new thought.

Close but no cigar. It IS a strategy, certainly, but it is also a philosophy based on the concept that our socity is a success in no small part because of the values we've brought with us, over time.

posted by: Bithead on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

"Marriage between one man and one woman has been the basis of Western Civilization for over 5000 years."

Sure it has! Oh, except for the guys who had harems and concubines and unofficial wives to go with the official ones.

And let's hear it for the arranged marriages and forced marriages, esp. the ones that could only be dissolved by acts of Parliament, or war, or accusing one's wife of adultery, witchcraft, and/or barrenness.

Oh, and let's also hear it for that other form of the sacred institution: marriage between one man and one underage girl, as practiced by Europe's finest dynastic families and America's backcountry hillbillies alike.

Oh, and did I mention the close-relatives-marrying-close-relatives option, as practiced by royalty and nobility in Egypt, Macedon, and Rome? Maybe we should bring that back, too.

Not to mention the classical Greek take on holy matrimony: Marry a woman, so you can have kids; but reserve your love for stripling youths.

"Same-sex marriage undermines the institution."

I've yet to hear anyone give a cogent explanation for how that works. It's like saying interracial marriage undermines the family - oh, wait; the anti's do say that. OK; it's like saying women voting and playing sports and pursuing careers will destroy Western Civiliz - oh, wait: conservatives used to say that all the time (and some still do).

"Marriage is primarily for the sake of having children. Same sex couples cannot have children; therefore, they have no legitimate right to marry."

So... that means we'll be outlawing marriages between older people, people who don't want kids, and people who can't have kids, right? And newly-married couples better spit out a baby within 5 years or have their marriage annulled, right?

I'll be very interested to see how this "No Children = No Marriage" works, legislatively. Will it be retroactive, or will there be a grandfather clause allowing currently-childless couples to stay married? Will there be a grace period in which childless couples can commence reproducing before their marriage license is yanked?

Hey! "No Children = No Marriage" could bring back another terrific old custom, from Medieval times. Back then, a couple "handfasted" for a year - had sex like crazy, in other words - and only got married after the girl proved she was fertile by, well, by getting pregnant.

If she didn't get pregnant, she was declared barren, the betrothal was dissolved, and the boy was free to seek someone more fecund. The girl, now no longer a virgin and publically declared unfit for matrimony, was free to enter a nunnery. Or become a prostitute. Or kill herself....Don't you love Christian-based marriage laws?

posted by: Learnin' to Love Armaggedon on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

amit varma -- It's certainly true that women's lives have often been much restricted, but to say that women, in the Western world, were not considered worthy of our moral consideration is silly. It's not just an overstatement. It's simply untrue.

posted by: Notary on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Sure, the conservatives' base is in a panic over homosexual marriage. They were in a panic over miscegenation 50 years ago, working women(I'll see your cultural effetteness and raise you a unisex bathroom) 30 years ago, the Irish 120 years ago, the Italians 100 years ago. Have you read what Jackson et al said about the Bank of the United States? Downfall of American Civilization time. The mantra of the conservative is "Slow down, you're movin' too fast. The status quo is working fine, let's take changing it, slowly."

That they are panicking is a sign that things are moving toward a change, not that they are in any danger of succeeding in preventing it.

Oddly, outside of social normative issues, it is the left which is conservative, today. School reform? A "right" issue. Welfare reform? From the center-right. SS/Medicare reform? Center-right. Leading the opposition? The left. (Anticipated reaction - "they are trying to ROLL BACK..." Uh, no. Private accounts is not equal to no SS. School choice is not equal to no government funded schools. Workfare is not equal to letting people starve in the streets. These are all proposals righties think will make these programs work better. Right or wrong, opposing them is conservative, even if it is also leftish. (Not liberal. A true liberal would have his own substantive alternative reforms to offer on each of these issues, beyond "more of the same" "more money" and "more taxes".)

For the folks who really do want to roll back stuff (abortion springs instantly to mind), the term is "reactionary", not "conservative".

posted by: rvman on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Notary -- Really? So you mean the Women's Rights movement was about nothing? And aren't many of the restrictions you admit to also a moral issue?

posted by: amit on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

One of the problems with comparing public reaction to gays with such reaction to other groups is that it misses a critical issue that has no application to issues revolving around women, blacks, Irish, and Italians - that being the debate over whether or not homosexuality is a psychological disorder.

Didn't the American Psychiatric Association settle that in 1973? No. Homosexuality was taken off the official list of sexual disorders, but this was done by a tiny minority of its membership. Was evidence on their side? What evidence? I'm sure that Dr. Robert Spitzer, the man who spearheaded the change, did present some sort of facts and figures. But nobody ever talks about it.

So why should we believe Spitzer? Why do so many people so self-righteously assume that his conclusion is so glaringly obvious that we should accept it without question? As I once blogged on the subject:

We're expected to believe that homosexuality is psychologically normal without being told why. "Because the APA folks are professionals and you're an ignorant bigot" isn't a scientific response.

I can find only three political issues where the question is (properly) relevant: adoption, military enlistment, and redefining marriage. And in all three, there are other unrelated factors that suggest policies opposed to the general wishes of the gay lobby: respectively,a) children's need for parents of both genders, b) "the common-sense notion that people should not be barracked with the gender to which they are attracted" (quoting the above post), and c) that the State, the world's second form of human government, has no authority to redefine the first; Orson Scott Card says it better than I can.

"But there are more gay rights issues than that," you might say. But in those cases, differences over the nature of homosexuality aren't the root of debate. Sex ed issues can be settled by privatizing education. Sodomy laws were gradually going by the wayside because conservatives were increasingly drawing the conclusion that if government force isn't the proper way to address other disapproved-of elements of the Sexual Revolution, it ain't proper for addressing gay sex, either. (We treat sex like we treat religion - fisk, don't criminalize.) There are other examples, but this has gone long enough.

I must say this about the many legal benefits associated with marriage: someone should find a way for not just gays but for all single people to enjoy them. For example, one should be able to have something on record listing people with visitation privileges. I, a single straight guy, could benefit as much as Andrew Sullivan from such a measure.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Andrew, blacks were thought by many to be morally inferior, needing to be restrained/punished, and to have whites look out for them. Similar things were said about the Irish (and Jews, and Italians, and Germans, and Hispanics, and all other low-power minorities). Women were once considered to have inferior judgment, and in need of a male guardian.

posted by: Barry on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Alan tipped his hand when he linked to Orson Scott Card. Card's a devout Mormon, and a homophobe. Card's homophobia was most unwrapped for all to see in his book "Songmaster," about a beautiful little boy who loves to sing, and whose voice is taken away by an act of childrape which is presented as homosexual rape. The really odd thing about Card's books is that the relationships between his male characters are always more atmospherically evocative, tender, and passionately drawn than any between his male/female characters. (I used to love Card's books, BTW. Now I won't read them.)

And Alan's challenge to discuss whether or not homosexuality should ever have been removed from the list of psychological disorders is vile. Psychological reductionism can make any sexual/romantic relationship look pathologic.

"I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad" is, for example, a celebration of the Oedipus Complex.

posted by: Learnin' to Love Armaggedon on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

What hand? I'm a Protestant, not a Mormon, and I've never read Card's stuff - except for the linked essay, which stands for itself. Card has a solid grasp on the history of marriage. Can't speak for the stuff I haven't read.

And Alan's challenge to discuss whether or not homosexuality should ever have been removed from the list of psychological disorders is vile.

What's wrong with a simple request for some freakin' evidence that Spitzer was right?

Interestingly, this is the same Dr. Spitzer who now says that some gays can change their orientation. Evidently he falls into that rare group that believes that homosexuality is not a disorder but is changeable - the diametric opposie of Fred Phelps, who believes the disorder part but, oddly, rejects the possibility of reparative therapy; his view of Calvinism may have something to do with that.

So if one of Card's works discredits another, does Spitzer's recent research disqualify his pronouncements of 1973?

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

I'm sorry, I'm having trouble following your logic. Are you saying that, per Dr. Spitzer, if sexual orientation can shift, that "proves" homosexuality is a psychological disorder?

I'm right-handed. I've always been right-handed. But for a few years, I made a point of doing writing exercises with my left hand. I was, for a while, ambidextrous - because I wanted to be. It took effort, and the results were never as good as if I wrote right-handedly, but it was possible.

So: am I right-handed? Am I ambidextrous? Am I potentially either or both? Am I psychologically unhinged, either way?

I will be honest; and if you twist what I say to support your prejudices, that's not my problem:

I do believe that an individual's sexuality may be defined as a continuum, not a straight line. I do believe that most people are bisexual to some degree, and their sexual expression is affected by a myriad of what researchers call "confounding factors": upbringing, sexual experiences, shifting psychological archetypes, social mores, life circumstances, even the availability of desirable partners.

I believe that sexual identification has become canalized over the past generation, mostly due to political pressures. Self-identifying as "gay" or "not-gay" became politically important during the AIDS crisis, when one's access to medical care, family support and public support depended on giving the "correct" answer; and also in angry reaction to that lethal bigotry.

I believe that homophobia is, like all bigotries, a psychological disorder and, like all bigotries, has no legitimate role in public policy.

I do not believe Biblical precepts have a legitimate role in public policy. Biblical precepts have a lousy accuracy record on scientific, medical, social and moral issues. From cosmology to epidemiology, from family structure to slavery, Biblical precepts are 0-for-all, never correct, always wrong.

posted by: Learnin' to Love Armaggedon on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

I'm sorry, I'm having trouble following your logic. Are you saying that, per Dr. Spitzer, if sexual orientation can shift, that "proves" homosexuality is a psychological disorder?

I'm saying that Spitzer holds to one belief normally associated with one camp and one normally associated with the other. A curious oddity - not an inconsistency, just an oddity.

I haven't made any attempt to prove that homosexuality is a disorder. I have stated that the cultural left does not offer a reason why a rational person should automatically assume that it isn't.

The handedness example is apples and oranges.

I believe that homophobia is, like all bigotries, a psychological disorder and, like all bigotries, has no legitimate role in public policy.

Can a person believe that homosexuality is a disorder without being a bigot? If not, why?

I haven't said anything about Bible-based policy. Why do you bring it up?

Funny you should mention slavery. Conservative Biblical literalists ended slavery in England. Paul of Tarsus did not defend the institution of slavery with his advice on obeying masters, any more than he advocated monarchy by advising obedience to government functionaries. He defended due process. (Just because I suggest obeying the TSA doesn't mean I support TSA's existence.) Paul didn't talk about policy; he was too busy with other concerns. The Methodist missionaries and some devout politicians, esp. William Wilberforce, lobbied the British government into becoming the first nation in human history to end slavery. They took seriously the vision of people as equals in Heaven, and logically concluded that it should be that way on Earth.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Alan, this isn't exactly what you asked for, but it's related.

I want to ask first, what does it take for someone to be competent at heterosexuality or homosexuality. And the obvious answer is that anyone can learn how to do either one, given a strong enough incentive.

Clearly almost anyone could learn how to perform oral sex on either gender. After a week or so broke and hungry, most of us would welcome a chance to do that for food. I feel lucky I've never had to test this myself....

If for some reason it was included in the Marines basic training they would learn as easily as they learn to kill people.

Similarly, if someone found that their ability to respond to oral sex depended on the other person having a beard or not being able to grow a beard, that would be a mildly interesting psychological kink that might be worth a short paper.

In the context of being able to respond physiologically, surely almost everybody is bisexual. Why would anyone expect otherwise? So what makes somebody a homosexual is that they are socialised in ways that tend to find them homosexuals to have sex with, and they choose to do so. These are cultural matters.

If a man fails to learn how to attract women but he does attract men, is that something he couldn't change? He could probably learn to attract women, and could probably respond sexually. Men who don't learn how and who think they have a disorder, may be fooling themselves. But unless they choose to learn, how would they ever find out?

Besides, the issue is less what people are capable of than it is what they enjoy. Like, suppose it's true that a few big hairy guys with whips could teach you very well how to respond to them in a few short weeks. And suppose you then escaped from them and never had any desire to do anything like that again -- I don't think the term "bisexual" would particularly apply. So we're stretching the concept of "psychological disorder" to a matter of what people like and enjoy. Myself, I'd tend to think people who like heavy metal "music" may have a psychological disorder. But it doesn't seem to cause them much trouble except a little hearing loss, so who should grumble?

It would seem to me that american homosexuals in the 1950's probably did have some sort of psychological disorder. Go have sex on the spur of the moment in a public restroom and maybe lose your job, go to prison with a bunch of violent rapists, and come out with a label that could cause trouble the rest of your life? It doesn't make sense to take risks like that, almost no matter how much you might enjoy it. But then the writer Samuel R Delany wrote an autobiography where the first time he had sex with a woman he got her pregnant and had an interracial marriage with lots of problems. And the second time the woman's husband came looking for her, and it was only his reputation as a flaming queer that kept the guy from barging in and finding her naked. Delany had lost count of the number of men he'd had sex with, with no particular drama. But sex with women was *important*, it caused him big troubles. I haven't had any homosexual experience but I can attest that women do lead to trouble.

I don't suppose that anybody in particular would agree with me, but to me it looks like three different pieces are involved here. There's what people are capable of: practically anybody is capable of learning to respond to men or women or for that matter weather balloons. Second, there's what people enjoy. This looks to me like a matter of taste and not worthy of argument except its effect on the larger community. Third, there's what people choose to do. None of this looks like it ought to be particularly confusing. But a lot of people claim to be confused. Maybe I just don't understand what it's like.

posted by: J Thomas on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

Kinsley is probably right in his prediction. Clamour loud enough and long enough about a newly discovered "injustice" and the left will quickly pick it up and make it an item of faith. And sooner or later, responding to the insistent foot in the door, the "pragmatic conservatives" (with an eye on electoral consequences) will go along with some compromised version of the same line--due to turn into the full version some ten years later. So that's what's happening on the "gay marriage" front--despite all serious concerns about what the consequences for real family formation may well be. All the same, it would be welcome if special pleaders like Kinsley would declare their interest, a la mode de Sullivan.

posted by: milton rosenberg on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

"Notary -- Really? So you mean the Women's Rights movement was about nothing? And aren't many of the restrictions you admit to also a moral issue?"

If I understand what Notary is saying, he is reacting to Amit's assertion that women were outside the sphere of human consideration. He is not saying that women were not discriminated against or treated unfairly and he is not saying that the Feminist Movment did not have injustices to fight against. But that's different than saying women were outside the sphere of human consideration. In fact, there were very much in it; women have always been considered an important part of western civilization, albeit with different roles than men. Women were never considered as a group not entitled to basic human consideration as were, for example, slaves to some extent and Indians. Their treatment was condescending, but they were hardly outside the realm of human consideration.

I have some questions for the people arguing that sexual identity is essentially a societal construct (whether homosexual or heterosexual). Are you arguing that there is no biological component to sexual attraction? That it's simply a matter of context? That seems to be a bit extreme to me. The fact that, under extreme circumstances, you could be forced to respond to someone of the same (or different) gender doesn't mean that the person is bisexual except in some broad sense. I can't really accept the extreme social construction position, ie, saying that the only reason I am attracted to women rather than men is environment, socialization, etc. seems to me to say too much. The very fact that gays in the fifties were willing to put up with social ostracism and potentially incarceration, doesn't that suggest that sexual identity is more than just environment?

posted by: MWS on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

I have some questions for the people arguing that sexual identity is essentially a societal construct (whether homosexual or heterosexual). Are you arguing that there is no biological component to sexual attraction?

Quoting this page at (emphasis in original):

"There is no scientific research indicating a biological or genetic cause for homosexuality. Biological factors may play a role in the predisposition to homosexuality. However, this is true of many other psychological conditions.

"Research suggests that social and psychological factors are strongly influential. Examples include problems in early family relationships, sexual seduction, and sense of inadequacy with same-sex peers, with resulting disturbance in gender identity. Society can also influence a sexually questioning youth when it encourages gay self-labeling."

My chief aim in this thread was to challenge the notion that finding fault with homosexuality is automatically bigoted. I can be proven wrong only by evidence that the innocuousness of homosexuality is a an obvious and undebatable fact. The lack of such evidence is sufficient not to prove the fault-finders correct, but to prove that the topic is debatable. Anyone with the time can comb through the NARTH site to get a better understanding of one side of that debate.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 12.16.04 at 06:00 PM [permalink]

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