26 November 2008

Culture War by Any Other Name ...

The Obama victory edition of The American Prospect, a liberal monthly, arrived with my mail today. It's not that celebratory, since the Prospect is a fairly dry, wonkish journal, but Ann Friedman's column still stood out for contrarian grumpiness. She's disappointed at several setbacks for gay rights: bans on same-sex marriage in three states and a ban on adoption by same-sex couples in a fourth. These results belie hopeful talk about the end of the "culture wars," Friedman claims. Rather, they reveal the need for a new offensive, only with a twist. Friedman wants progressives to keep fighting the "culture war," but not to call it that anymore.

We'll continue to lose (Friedman writes) until we can successfully relabel LGBT rights a civil-rights issue situated firmly within the context of other civil-rights struggles, not an issue mired in the culture-war swamp of moral controversy...."Culture" implies we are comfortable with different parts of our country and different groups of people seeing the issue differently. It implies that there is no absolute right or wrong -- just two sparring factions -- and that we'll simply have to wait for the rest of the country to come around.


"I'm sorry," she adds, "but that's just not good enough." Unfortunately, her proposed approach won't be good enough if it means denying that there is, in fact, a cultural war going on. If she means that advocating equal rights for homosexuals should not be seen as a "cultural" thing, I can accept that. The problem is that denying equal rights for homosexuals is a cultural thing. The most vocal homophobes believe that homophobia is part of their cultural birthright. What does someone like Maggie Gallagher say nearly every week? That being compelled by the state to tolerate same-sex marriage would be a violation of her cultural rights, her right as a believer and her right of conscience to say that homosexuality is wrong.

Friedman thinks it would be effective to equate same-sex marriage with interracial marriage. It almost seems as if she thinks no one has ever suggested this before. Yet homophobes themselves frequently invoke that argument in order to express their outrage at the equation. Giving at least some homophobes the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they're not racists, their view seems to be that there is no moral basis for objecting to interracial marriage, while their religion requires them to make moral objections to same-sex marriage. Culture enables and empowers their homophobia. Friedman is kidding herself and her readers if she thinks she can run around that obstacle instead of confronting the culture of homophobia. No matter what she says or what flag she wants to fly under, the other side knows it's waging a culture war, and it fights with the desperate fanaticism of those who feel that everything they know is at stake. They think that, if they lose, their culture goes. Their opponents should not necessarily disagree.

While criticizing Friedman's strategy, I can't deny her conclusion: "The harsh reality is that, just as the country wasn't rabidly conservative when it elected and re-elected George W. Bush, today's America is no progressive wonderland." Nor does it need to be one for Friedman's cause to prevail. The culture war itself is fought on a different plane from partisan politics. Libertarians are among her most likely allies, but they think "progressive" is a dirty word. The key to securing same-sex rights may be to decouple the cause from the bipolar partisanship typical of this country, find more allies outside one's preferred party, and surround the cultural enemy in a constantly shrinking space. They've been forced to retreat before and can be made to do so again. But that's not likely to happen if you don't acknowledge your enemy for what it is and act accordingly. If this be culture war, as a postmodern Patrick Henry might say, make the most of it.

5 comments:

crhymethinc said...

One would think, therefore, that the answer lies within the Gay community demanding religious protection. If Homophobes insist that banning same-sex marriage is a cultural right because their religion dictates intolerance of same-sex marriage, gays ought to demand that their "religion" allows for same sex marriage and that the government should therefore not be allowed a say in the matter for positive or negative. In fact, they could push the issue insisting that marriage has a religious basis, therefore making it unconstitutional for the government to create any laws regarding marriage.

Samuel Wilson said...

This is a brilliant idea. Maybe they could contrive a takeover of the "Jedi" religion and get it recognized by the government as it has been in other countries. But in all seriousness, it probably is past time for the next revelation in the Abrahamic sequence, the one that tells Jews, Christians and Muslims that they've all got it wrong. It'd be a recipe for trouble in the long run but it might help solve the immediate problem.

crhymethinc said...

The problem is, such a thing has happened already - it's called The Church of Latter Day Saints or "Mormons". (And Letterman, using the delete function on the chest of his varsity sweater turns "Mormons" into "Morons" and there is truth in advertising at last.)

Samuel Wilson said...

But as far as I know the Morons, er, Mormons pretty much endorse the Bible as given, offering Joseph Smith's translations from the gold tablets as a supplement rather than a replacement. It's time for someone who'll say the Bible and the Book of Mormon and the Qur'an are all FUBAR, so you should all listen to him or her instead. It'll have to happen someplace where "miracles" can happen away from the immediate scrutiny of the media and the "prophet" can be eliminated quickly once his word is out, so that a new Paul can really get the ball rolling.

crhymethinc said...

You mean in Hollywood? Could it be that L. Ron Hubbard was the Messiah and we missed it?