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May 23, 2004

When Defeat Isn't Utter Defeat

Supporters of same-sex marriage have been making a big deal out of defeatist columns by Max Boot and Cal Thomas. Although the opposition's ploy gives a vague sense of spuriousness, the columns are, for different reasons, worth addressing.

In Boot's case "defeatist" may not be an accurate term, inasmuch as I don't know what his position has heretofore been. At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest that he hasn't done quite as much reading from the side that he might or might not consider to be his own on this issue. In this, he can be forgiven, considering that pieces laying out the arguments are rare in the mainstream media, and that those arguments are almost nonexistent in ostensibly objective coverage of the debate. Still, it's disconcerting to find Boot essentially paraphrasing the points from the other side.

Opponents of same-sex marriages may have most of the public on their side for now, but they've already all but lost this battle.

How do I know? Simply by looking at the arguments being advanced by both sides. Advocates of same-sex marriage speak in the powerful language of civil rights and liken their cause to that of African Americans fighting anti-miscegenation laws in years past. And what do opponents say in response? Once upon a time, the case would have been open and shut: Sodomy is a sin, period. Many people may still believe that, but that's no longer a tenable argument in our secularized politics.

The truth of the matter is that I've heard almost no opponents offer that as a response. In fact, probably a majority, including myself, have professed opposition to sodomy laws. Boot is correct, however, that many of us have made the marriage argument from tradition. His answer to it, though, with all due respect, is of the sort that I fielded in high school classroom debates:

They argue, first, that we shouldn't tamper with thousands of years of tradition that holds that marriage is between a man and a woman. But 141 years ago we tampered with an equally old tradition: slavery.

One struggles to articulate the difference between the primitive labor practice of slavery and the family structure of marriage to a conservative for whom it isn't obvious. Traditional marriage? Well, hey, we don't scourge thieves in the public square anymore! It seems the victory that Boot presumes to concede is much broader than simply of same-sex marriage; radical feminists surely feel vindicated in their equation of marriage to slavery.

Therein emerges the strange echo that underlies Boot's next point:

Their second argument is the slippery slope — first gay marriage gets legalized, then polygamy, pederasty, incest and who knows what. But this kind of reductio ad absurdum can be applied to just about anything. If liquor is legal for adults, why not for children? Society always draws the line somewhere.

And yet, embedded in his declaration, a few paragraphs before, that the opponents of SSM have "already all but lost this battle" is this very same unstoppable movement, whether he wants to see it as slipping down a slope or being pushed by an avalanche. "Contraception and abortion — once taboo topics — have been enshrined into law... On TV, characters used to say 'gee whiz' and sleep in twin beds; now they curse as if they had Tourette's syndrome and flash skin as if they were Gypsy Rose Lee":

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws last year. The Episcopal Church has appointed an openly gay bishop. Many newspapers carry the equivalent of wedding announcements for gays. Same-sex kisses, once shockingly daring, are now almost as common on TV as commercials for Levitra or Prozac. Given this seismic cultural shift, anyone who makes avowedly moral arguments against homosexuality now gets treated the same way homosexuals were treated only a few years ago — as a sex-mad pervert.

Note whom Boot cites for evidence: the Supreme Court. The Episcopal Church. Newspapers. Hollywood. The elite. To Boot, there is apparently no Culture War, in the sense that sides actually disagree in fundamental ways. Liberal elites push the boundaries and call it progress; the rest of us follow. It's the classic liberal view of conservatism — a temporary reluctance. The reaction to Janet Jackson's boob doesn't, apparently, exist in this world. The success of The Passion of the Christ is a matter of cinematic taste. Such events are little but the last spasms of recalcitrance, sparked when our betters turned up the controls just a little too much in our transformation:

Republicans would be wise not to expend too much political capital pushing for a gay marriage amendment to the Constitution. They will only make themselves look "intolerant" to soccer moms whose views on this subject, as on so many others, will soon be as liberal as elite opinion already is.

And despite all that has preceded this point, Boot writes — with the confidence of the opinion-page researcher — that "it's hard to imagine that legalizing gay marriage will make much difference in the lives of most people" and that homosexuality "always has been and always will be the preference of a tiny minority; most of us are biologically hard-wired for heterosexuality." Are those two statements what legitimates Andrew Sullivan's characterization of Boot as a "leading conservative"? That he declares our traditional lives inviolable and asserts that homosexuality remains unnatural for most?

I suppose there's consistency to be found; moral arguments don't apply to homosexuality, because homosexuality is simply a matter of biology. Building on that, what is unnatural for most can be natural for some, and it is immoral to restrain the natures of a minority merely because what they wish to do conflicts with the preferences of the majority. It's all written in our immutable beings — stenciled on our souls by God. That's the story, anyway. We'll have to wait and see whether "polygamy, pederasty, incest" can be in the natures of some, as well.

For now, same-sex marriage is a done deal, says Boot. "Since the ultimate concern of conservatives is to preserve the institution of marriage, they would probably be better off caving on gay marriage rather than acceding to the most popular alternative: civil union." Somehow, in a world in which it is in homosexuals' nature to marry, it is not in heterosexuals' to do the same. We must open the doors of marriage, because otherwise, heterosexuals will wade across the swamp to the less onerous citadel of civil unions.

Cal Thomas's conclusion is oddly consonant with Boot's:

"Pro family" groups have given it their best shot, but this debate is over. They would do better to spend their energy and resources building up their side of the cultural divide and demonstrating how their own precepts are supposed to work. Divorce remains a great threat to family stability, and there are far more heterosexuals divorcing and cohabiting than homosexuals wishing to "marry." If conservative religious people wish to exert maximum influence on culture, they will redirect their attention to repairing their own cracked foundation. An improved heterosexual family structure will do more for those families and the greater good than attempts to halt the inevitable. A topical solution does not cure a skin disease whose source is far deeper.

As the population within the marital walls increases, Thomas suggests, traditionalists' only chance of making a difference is to rush to mend the floor. What's stunning about Thomas's column is that he sees same-sex marriage as inevitable because it is a "cultural tsunami" that began with a "subterranean earthquake": "this 'wave' was preceded by a seismic shift in the moral tectonic plates." Yet, he advises as if marriage is the highest ground it will reach, before receding to sea level, the landscape irrevocably changed.

Although approached from positions of belief and rejection, respectively, Thomas and Boot's answer to the "slippery slope" is the same. Thomas has faith that traditionalists can build a platform, Boot that a line will just be drawn... "somewhere."

Yes, I agree that part of securing long-term victories is the ability to make advantages out of short-term defeats. Perhaps conservatives can capitalize on some thread in the same-sex marriage movement to swing public opinion toward stiffened divorce laws. We'll have to try, at least. But in their advice to redirect efforts, both Thomas and Boot imagine that we are stepping onto firmer ground — that the assault will not continue.

In all of the varying arguments, and arguments about the arguments, few have thought to point out an obvious factor: it wasn't the "tiny minority" of homosexuals alone who pushed their cause this far. Homosexuals do not control the Supreme Court, the media, Hollywood, or even the Episcopal Church. As far as I know, the politicians and town clerks who have sought to undermine their individual legal systems were not universally, or even primarily, gay. And yet, the "gay cause" has advanced.

Both of our defeatist conservatives refer to an inexorable "seismic shift," but my mind keeps coming back to Boot's example: "anyone who makes avowedly moral arguments against homosexuality now gets treated the same way homosexuals were treated only a few years ago — as a sex-mad pervert." Way back, before the rumbling earth rolled us down the slope, society used to lock up perverts and didn't think freedom of speech included theirs. What do we face further down?

Posted by Justin Katz at May 23, 2004 7:02 PM
Marriage & Family