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The Culture War Hangover


It’s only March, but this year is already looking like a particularly bad one for religious freedom. Here in Minnesota the grim saga is continuing this week as our legislature attempts to slip HF 826, the “Safe Schools Bill,” through both houses with a minimum of fuss. Readers nationwide may not be familiar with this piece of legislation, so let’s just cut to the most interesting part of the FAQ: Is it another attempt to empower liberals to take our money without asking, so that they can indoctrinate our kids with lessons we may find offensive and immoral, and get intimately involved in their personal affairs without informing us?

Why, yes! It turns out that’s exactly what it is. When opponents of the so-called “Bullying Bill” complained that the mandate was unfunded, legislators paired it with a specific levy (HF 1917) that will empower school districts to levy a property tax without taxpayer approval for the sake of “improving school climate.” How will schools do that? All we can say for sure is that the bill itself is exactly the kind of nightmare one would expect liberal educators to construct. It is quite specific about the complex oversight and reporting procedures in which all school employees are obliged to participate. (Because after all, when kids are being mean to one another, it would never do to trust the adults who know and love them to exercise prudent judgment on a case-by-case basis. Committees and reams of paperwork are a far more effective solution.)

Meanwhile, on the meatier philosophical questions the bill is disturbingly vague. “Bullying” is defined in a way that conspicuously says nothing about the intent of the “bully” but only about the effect his words or actions have on other students. In other words, it doesn’t matter what your intention was; bullying is measured by the other kid’s feelings. The school doesn’t have to inform anybody’s parents of the incident or the punishment, and schools are expected to introduce “developmentally appropriate programmatic instruction” to diminish bullying, the content of which is unspecified. Taken in a broader context, parents understand that this will almost certainly involve curricular efforts to normalize homosexuality and transgendered behavior, with the obvious understanding that students who oppose the message are vulnerable to being labeled as bullies and punished.

Proponents of such legislation (a similar bill is being considered right now in Massachusetts) obviously have no sense of irony. We already knew that liberals were happy to use state power to steal our lunch money and indoctrinate our kids. Calling this a “strike against bullying” is a little much. But everyone understands that why anti-bullying legislation is suddenly such an urgent priority for liberals. It’s not because at-school bullying is on the rise (it isn’t). It’s because liberals feel they need a still-more invasive and grassroots way to get into the homes of conservatives who stubbornly refuse to yield to their social agenda.

Progressive liberals are on the fast track to complete victory in the culture wars. So why aren’t they in a better mood?

The bill will probably pass, though. And with the dust barely settling from Arizona’s recent religious liberty debacle, it feels like progressive liberals are on the fast track to complete victory in the culture wars. So why aren’t they in a better mood? Watching even “moderate” journalists fume about Arizona’s new “Jim Crow” legislation, one would have thought that liberals were fighting a desperate rearguard action against a dominant (and wildly bigoted) conservative culture. You would never have guessed that same-sex marriage has made enormous strides on both legislative and cultural fronts these last two years. Watching liberal journalists cry about how the country is going to hell in a handbasket, it’s easy for a conservative to become confused. Aren’t things going more or less according to plan for progressive liberals? Can they really believe that they just don’t have enough cultural influence?

Actually they do believe this, and if we consider their position in a through-the-looking-glass sort of way, it can even become somewhat understandable. Liberals are experiencing something of a “morning after” moment in the wake of their many legislative and judicial victories. Their marriage agenda is not yet fully achieved, but it is close enough that they are getting a realistic picture of what the view will look like from the summit. It’s disappointing.

The Hangover

The sense of let-down really has two sources. One relates to the fact that liberal progressives live for the thrill of the chase. They are addicted to self-righteous rebellion, and nothing quite satisfies that craving like tearing down traditional mores. Activists are bound to experience some withdrawal symptoms as they come down off the incredible high of waging war against one of the most fundamental cultural assumptions of human history. Like all addicts, they will probably trespass somewhat on decent standards of behavior as they plummet back to earth. This partly explains the outrageous media response to the Arizona bill.

Activists are bound to experience some withdrawal symptoms as they come down off the incredible high of waging war against one of the most fundamental cultural assumptions of human history.

To illustrate the second source of liberal disappointment, I hearken back to a conversation I had 12 years ago with a gay friend, in which he explained to me that it was a “hard, but exciting” time to be homosexual. As a somewhat private person, he suspected that it would have been easier for him to live in an era in which many people were content to pretend that same-sex couples were just close friends, or that established bachelors or spinsters simply had no inclination to marry. There might, he suspected, have been upsides to building a homosexual culture that was transgressive enough to thrive under the cover of blind eyes.

Still, he was mostly happy about the gay rights movement, because he believed that it would succeed in re-structuring society such that blind-eye cover would no longer be necessary. He spoke in glowing terms about how, 25 years hence, people would not blink at the sight of a gay couple playing with their child in a park, or think twice about including such a family in neighborhood social gatherings. Soon homosexuality would be so completely normalized that same-sex couples could comfortably move in any professional or social setting. They would no longer need to worry about “what people think” because it would be understood by all respectable people that homosexual and heterosexual pairing were absolutely morally equivalent.

Like most liberals, this friend obviously took some pleasure in the idea that he was riding the wave of transgressive progress. But his vision was thoroughly conventional among the center-left, and I’ve since heard it articulated many times by other hopeful liberals. Of course, I can easily sympathize with my friend’s desire to feel normal and accepted. At the same time, I remember thinking privately that this Orwellian vision was rather drastic even by post-1984 standards.

Only a quarter-century to totally eradicate the significance of biological parenthood?

Only a quarter-century would be required to bury, even in the vestiges of thought and private conviction, a millennia-old recognition of the uniquely fascinating, specially complimentary relationship that exists between man and woman? Only a quarter-century to totally eradicate the significance of biological parenthood? That seemed unlikely. It still does, even despite the enormous ground progressives have covered on both legislative and cultural fronts.

Racism and Heteronormativity

The progressive “marriage equality” narrative has always been modeled on the African-American Civil Rights movement, which makes the recent invocations of “Jim Crow laws” particularly interesting. It also explains why “marriage equality” proponents have focused so intently on changing laws. For Civil Rights activists, legislative battles really were to a great extent determinative, because laws played a significant role in keeping the segregated South segregated. Without Jim Crow, ethnic groups would naturally have started to mingle more as slavery receded into the historical distance. White supremacists did not want that, so they deliberately constructed a slate of racist laws designed to fend off the inevitable. Removing those laws did not, of course, bring a complete and immediate end to all racism, but the social transformation that took place over the next few years really was quite dramatic. Racism is now viewed in all polite company as completely unacceptable, and young people today are completely unphased by inter-racial romance.

If you don’t even know what marriage is, you won’t be inclined to get persnickety about who does it and how.

Working out of that same playbook, liberals have blithely imagined that the overthrow of “heteronormative” laws will allow a more “natural” family ethic to emerge on its own. They have repeatedly assured us that society will be transformed once we’ve all had the opportunity to know some nice homosexual people who seem to love their partners and kids as much as we ourselves do. Until very recently, they seem not to have worried about the possibility that that sword might cut the other way.

Initially, their presumptions might seem justified. Having a homosexual friend or relation does immediately tend to increase a person’s sympathy for the “marriage equality” cause. That makes sense, because the movement has publicly been presented as a way of enabling homosexual people to fulfill their aspirations for normalcy and a fulfilled life. Of course we all want the people we know and like to lead fulfilling lives. This largely explains why young people so overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage, which for most of them is just a way of asserting that they want everyone to be happy.

We should be careful not to attach too much significance to the opinions of young people on marriage. As I have argued elsewhere, they themselves are deeply uncertain as to what they believe marriage to be. This made it easy for the marriage equality movement to persuade them that same-sex and opposite-sex coupling were morally equivalent. If you don’t even know what marriage is, you won’t be inclined to get persnickety about who does it and how. But while unreflective ignorance can often be exploited as a means to passing laws, it’s harder to build lasting social change on such a foundation. This is what liberals are now discovering as their legislative victories fail to usher in a velvet revolution of understanding and love.

Over time, the pleasantly transgressive character of progressive social movements wears off, and we have to slog our way through actual social realities.

Over time, the pleasantly transgressive character of progressive social movements wears off, and we have to slog our way through actual social realities. Children growing up now under the totalitarian regime of “bully-free” public schools will never experience the righteous thrill of jumping on the marriage equality bandwagon. Instead, they will get to see what follows in its wake. That’s something of a problem for the architects of marital justice, because they assured us that same-sex and opposite-sex coupling are the same in every way that matters. They aren’t. This is going to be obvious to our kids.

Differences That Matter

Whenever I feel discouraged about current social trends, I project my mind 30 years into the future, and imagine today’s young cultural crusaders reaching middle age. They will no doubt be shocked to find that their hip, fresh ideas about marriage equality have become completely outdated and trite. That is what fresh cultural ideas inevitably do as their proponents begin sporting wrinkles and receding hairlines. Liberal progressives can transition from trend-setters to dinosaurs in a Washington, D.C., minute.

Mind you, I do not assume that sanity will ultimately prevail. I can envision a number of dark, dystopian futures for America that are completely realizable. What will not prevail, however, is the assumption that same-sex and opposite-sex coupling are fundamentally the same thing.

Sociologically, it is clear that same-sex couples behave differently from heterosexual ones. Opponents of same-sex marriage have sometimes been excoriated for making this point, but liberals themselves occasionally celebrate it and even speculate whether same-sex couples might school the rest of us in true marital bliss. Notably (and disturbingly, from the standpoint of children’s welfare), same-sex couples are significantly less likely to conform to the traditional conjugal ideals of fidelity and permanence. This is obviously relevant as same-sex couples begin raising children in greater and greater numbers. At present, it’s hard to start a conversation about this without being labeled a homophobe, but a generation hence that ban will surely be lifted.

No doubt fidelity seems less important when young couples know with perfect certainty that sex will never lead to pregnancy.

Homosexual activity is never, under any circumstances, naturally procreative. This dramatically changes the character of a romantic relationship. No doubt fidelity seems less important when young couples know with perfect certainty that sex will never lead to pregnancy. For homosexuals, it isn’t even necessary to have an awkward conversation with a person in order to establish that you will never accidentally end up raising a child together. This opens the door to sexually permissive cultures such as heterosexuals could not possibly sanction without swift and catastrophic consequences. It also fundamentally changes the character of committed love. The marital intimacy of a husband and wife naturally overflows into a completely new human being, who will pass the family’s name, and genes, and cultural understanding, on through future generations. That fact cannot suddenly cease to be significant on the day the county clerk starts issuing formal documents to same-sex couples.

On top of all of this, there is the fact that our cultural and historical and literary references to marriage (which influence our understanding more than most of us consciously realize) are overwhelmingly heteronormative. Heterosexuals can draw on that rich history, which includes a thousand happy and tragic tales (from Cinderella to Romeo and Juliet), a host of images and symbols (white dress, dark suit), and more sappy love songs than I care to count. Homosexuals might read those stories too, but they cannot relate to them in the same way. Enjoying sexual difference is critical to almost all of these romances, and while homosexuals do have Plato’s Symposium and the poetry of Sappho, their stock of cultural associations is much, much thinner.

This is why marriage crusaders are feeling so peevish, and so eager to rain down holy fury on anyone who still dares to privilege opposite-sex coupling as normative.

These things matter. Over time that will become obvious. In fact it is becoming so already, which is why marriage crusaders are feeling so peevish, and so eager to rain down holy fury on anyone who still dares to privilege opposite-sex coupling as normative. The tide certainly hasn’t turned yet, and in the immediate future we will probably see acceptance of same-sex marriage continue to climb in polls. This is a reflection of the fact that the uninformed and uncommitted middle perceives the debate as over; they are shrugging their shoulders and accepting what seems inevitable. Progressives are beginning to perceive, however, that their social victory is much broader than it is deep.

We are reaching the point in the liberal narrative when dissipating bigotry is supposed to usher naturally in a gloriously transformed social order. Instead we’re bickering over whether Christian bakers should have to cater same-sex weddings, with a large number of Americans expressing sympathy to their cause. Progressives are beginning to sense that their narrative is based on a heavily strained analogy between racism (which really does attach exaggerated importance to minor and morally insignificant differences) and heteronormativity (which recognizes truly that men and women are not the same, and that their differences are very much consequential to romance).

The upshot is that we are in one of those unfortunate moments of history in which everyone feels that they are losing the battle. In a sense, everyone is. This makes the present moment particularly perilous, because cultural losers are rarely magnanimous, and they often feel justified in making desperate “last stands”, as liberals appear to be doing now.

The Road Ahead

The good news, such as it is, is that precarious cultural moments like this open the possibility of moving in a new and more promising direction. Contrary to what the media would have us believe, most Americans are not hardened liberal progressives. Even the supposedly-intractable young are still busy making up their minds about life’s most important questions, and among the liberal elite there may still be some who are capable of overcoming their disappointment and re-evaluating the wisdom of “marriage equality.”  We need to be assiduous about looking for those inroads, actively seeking opportunities to propose livable cultural and legislative arrangements that can offer both freedom and a tolerable level of cultural stability for everyone.

Of course, we should make every effort to make the case for religious liberty, and to diffuse the lies of the panicked left. We should also recognize, however, that it will be exceedingly difficult to protect religious liberty if we abandon every other cultural outpost. People are not easily persuaded to protect views that they regard as rank bigotry. Thus, we must continue engaging in the cultural conversation concerning sexual and marital norms, parenthood, gender identity and the like. Public opinion on these matters is far less settled than liberal journalists would like us to believe, which is why media outlets (left, right and center) are regularly running pieces about them.

Most importantly, we should remind ourselves that fundamental truths about human nature cannot be buried forever. As conservatives we should know this, but in our despair over liberal “narrative control,” we tend to forget. In a way, progressive social engineers are always fighting an uphill battle, because they are always fighting against human experience and common sense. It remains to us to make good use of these tools, so that our children can inherit a freer, wiser and more prosperous America.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.