Friday, December 19, 2008

False Analogies

A column in today's Washington Post decries President-elect Obama's selection of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the Inauguration in a month's time. The selection has caused an uproar in the Left blogosphere, with many arguing that the choice constitutes a betrayal of Obama's promise for a more equal and inclusive Administration. Already it is evident that Obama is likely to be in for a rough ride from an energized Left that believes it is responsible for his election.

It's hard to know where to begin on this issue, one that almost belies belief that it is an issue at all. What is most risible about the pro-gay marriage Left's response is that it reflects a view that Obama has betrayed them by selecting Warren, who supported Prop. 8 in California (recognizing marriage only between a man and a woman, and thus de-recognizing same-sex marriages that were sanctioned in the wake of a court decision). Yet, one could quite reasonably conclude that Obama is actually acting consistently, having throughout the primaries and general election declared his personal opposition to gay marriage, while insisting that civil unions would generally suffice. In this sense, Obama's views significantly mirror Warren's own, and he bases his opposition to gay marriage on a similar (if more soft-pedaled) view that marriage should be defined exclusively as a recognized bond specifically between a man and a woman.

In today's Post column, Joe Solmonese compares the selection of Warren to the hypothetical choice of an anti-Semite to deliver the invocation. He asks, "but would any inaugural committee say to Jewish Americans, 'We're opening with an anti-Semite but closing the program with a rabbi, so don't worry'"? Toward the closing of the column he decries the choice of the "anti-gay" Warren. Given that Obama also opposed same-sex marriage during the campaign, are we to assume that the support of Obama - even by members of the activist gay community - was "anti-gay" and comparable to the support of an anti-Semite?

Of course, it is widely believed that Obama didn't really believe what he said, and was only currying favor of Middle America (in which case, he arguably owes his election more to them, and thus must indeed respect the widespread opposition to gay marriage that many there hold. One could conclude that in selecting Warren he is being inclusive). After all, even while claiming to personally oppose gay marriage, Obama opposed the passage of Proposition 8, a curious if expedient position. Few have failed to notice that it was on his coattails - particularly his appeal to socially conservative black and Hispanic voters - that Prop. 8 passed. It's interesting that people like Rick Warren and the Mormon church bear the brunt of the fury of the gay community, while those ethnic communities - part of Obama's base - are given a pass. I have heard that they need to be educated, while it appears the Mormons need to be eradicated.

What this response begs for is a strong resistance to the notion that opposition to gay marriage constitutes a base and baseless prejudice akin to anti-Semitism or racism (another frequently invoked analogy is bans on interracial marriage). These are deeply flawed analogies, but their frequent repetition has the intended effect of convincing many well-meaning people that they are true and therefore there can be no argument. No one wants to be accused of anti-Semitism or racism, and if opposition to gay marriage is akin to these reprehensible prejudices, then clearly it's irrational and unjustified to oppose gay marriage.

The aim of this tactic is to paint opposition as irrational - purely faith-based, prejudiced, traditionalist and mean-spirited. Arguments that are brought by opponents to gay marriage are heckled, twisted or ignored. Solomnese alludes to a basic argument against gay marriage - that in sundering the connection of marriage to reproductive biology of one man-one woman, it wholly opens the definition of marriage to any combination of partnerships, such as polygamy, polyamory or incest (indeed, these relationships would biologically have a STRONGER claim to state-sanctioned legitimacy) - but summarily dismisses some of its main points without counterargument, but merely contempt. "More recently, he [Warren] even compared same-sex marriage to incest, pedophilia and polygamy. He may cloak himself in media-friendly happy talk that plays well on television, but he stands steadfastly against any measure of equality for LGBT Americans." Solomnese regards such analogies as outrageous, worthy only of ridicule or dismissiveness - refusing to address the legitimate claim that underlies them - even as he peddles analogies that are in fact outrageous. It is the word "even" that galls in the previous passage - as if such concerns are unworthy of consideration or below contempt. It's inconceivable that there is an reasoned basis by Warren or others who raise such concerns - rather, such considerations are further evidence of irrational and baseless prejudice.

It is a curious pass: we are not debating whether gays should or should not be arrested for illegal private acts, as was once the case. We are not debating whether or not gays should be rounded up and put in concentration camps, as the analogy to anti-Semitism is intended to intimate is the secret wish of opponents. In most cases, we are not even arguing whether or not gays should be accorded the rights and privileges pertaining to civil unions: indeed, my best understanding of Proposition 8 is that it would not have added a single civil benefit for gay couples already protected (and still protected) by civil unions. Yet, those who oppose gay marriage - including, apparently, President-elect Obama - are accused of being "anti-gay," of being comparable to anti-Semites and racists, and of being in the grip of wholly unreasoned and unreasonable set of fanatic religious beliefs and ugly prejudices.

I, like many of my friends on the Left and too few on the Right, deplored the usage of phrases such as "feminazi" used by the likes of Rush Limbaugh to mock and deride his opposition. Feminism in its many guises is a legitimate position to hold with reasons and arguments in its favor. It should be understood to be a basic requirement of citizenship to treat those positions respectfully, even if one opposes some or many aspects of its overarching argument. What we see happening now developing around the gay marriage issue is a similar and lamentable effort to paint reasonable and reasoned opposition to gay marriage - an opposition I share, and which I can elaborate more upon in a future post - as nothing other than sheer and spiteful prejudice. This might be a moment for a probing national conversation on this issue, but I fear the burden of irresponsibility falls on gay activists who have become so certain of the rightness of their cause that opponents to their position are increasingly being implicitly compared to members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi party. This slash and burn effort may in the end accomplish its aims, but only at the cost of any prospect of future civility and exchange of reasons that should rightly be the basis of democratic discourse. Of course mine is the audacity of hope.


Dan Miller said...

"Solomnese alludes to a basic argument against gay marriage - that in sundering the connection of marriage to reproductive biology of one man-one woman, it wholly opens the definition of marriage to any combination of partnerships, such as polygamy, polyamory or incest (indeed, these relationships would biologically have a STRONGER claim to state-sanctioned legitimacy) - but summarily dismisses some of its main points without counterargument, but merely contempt."

Professor, the problem comes because not everyone shares your view that marriage is "connected to the reproductive biology of one man-one woman". Where does this leave the elderly? The infertile? The "don't want kids right now"? For many people today, the purpose of marriage has nothing to do with reproduction, and everything to do with solemnizing and affirming a relationship in the eyes of the community (along with some legal benefits). To deliberately exclude gays and only gays from this seems unjustifiable except through bigotry.

Kane said...

A big part of it is this defense of marriage in terms of reproductive capacity seems to have come out of nowhere to serve as a too-convenient mumblyjum crafted to the very minimum requirements of "socially acceptable argument". I can't remember anyone talking like that, or acting in the ways that should follow from that, before gay marriage came up as an issue.

There's the sovereign autonomous individual tendency where children are irrelevant to marriage (go team rah rah), so that obviously wasn't the source, but even the hardly-insignificant countercurrent that declared children central to marriage and families treated childraising, not childbirthing, as the nexus.

And people keep bringing up the infertile and the adopted because that's an example where that distinction becomes more visible, and where it becomes clear that the hacks required to hold the logic together depart from the lived understanding of things. The validity of infertile marriages has never been in question, so to account for this, you have the family-for-children people thinking "They can't have children, but that's okay, they're still *child-having types*," when in practice I would submit that such people are far closer to thinking "They can't have children, but that's okay, they can still be *parents*."

You can see the same dynamics - likewise predating the mid-century unesttlement - at work in the other direction in the way our social and legal frameworks consider households that are abusive or neglectful (in the sense that they do not live up to our minimum expectations of "childraising") as "not a legitimate family", even if they are undisputedly composed of parents and their biological offspring who have always lived together as a legal and economic unit. To the extent that we derive the legitimacy of family (and the legitimation *of* family) from children, it seems that we do so not in terms of childbirth - and genetic descent - which is alien to homosexuality, but in terms of childraising - the intergenerational transmission of cultural capital - which is perfectly compatible with homosexuality.

Thus it feels to opponents like you've declared childbearing capacity as the key criterion here not because it reflects the established understanding of child-centered family (which is, meanwhile, still losing ground to us twins-and-an-underage-cocker-spaniel types), but because it's a close-enough-for-rhetorical-transposition maneuver that gets you where you want to go for unrelated and uninterrogated reasons.

Basically, we think the argument from biology is being made in bad faith, and if we overlook that argument, you're offering us little else that we can even remotely accept or respect even at face value.