Kim Davis is now in jail. On the one hand, it probably didn’t have to be this way. She could have deputized another member of her office to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Or, even more simply, she could have resigned à la St. Thomas More. Davis’s position—forbidding her entire office to authorize any marriage licenses—is untenable.
On the other hand, it was always going to be this way. The state can’t demand total obeisance to a new fundamental right that directly contradicts a widely-shared religious conviction without breaking a few dissenters. If it wasn’t Davis, it would have been (and may still be) someone else.
What we have here is a quixotic local bureaucrat from a sparsely-populated county in the Appalachian foothills who has been rebuked by every authority she has come up against and whose cause has been championed only by the most reflexive revanchists in social conservatism (although jailing her is expanding her base of sympathy). In other words, the media would have us believe, we have a Major Constitutional Crisis.
Within 12 hours on Tuesday, BuzzFeed had published three stories on Davis by three different writers—and they have dispatched a reporter (writer number four) to Morehead, Kentucky. As I write this, BuzzFeed has splashed an unflattering photo of the middle-aged clerk across its homepage with the enormous caption, “In Contempt, In Custody.” I received a rare breaking news notification on my phone when a federal judge ordered her to prison.
This is the media equivalent of tossing a grenade to shoo a fly. Davis’s mainstream support is thin and qualified. She has lost in the courts, and was always going to. The media pretense is that this is a test case, but the fact pattern is so incredibly weak for Davis that it’s more like a show trial meant to demonstrate what happens to marriage dissenters.
Bring Out the Stocks
Most telling of all, journalists have gleefully picked up BuzzFeed’s “scoop” that Davis, a recent convert to a fringe Christian denomination, is on her fourth marriage. As Ian Millhiser, a ThinkProgress writer and attorney, put it on Twitter: “She’s the perfect villain.”
The legal sanctions aren’t enough for progressive activists and their media advocates. It’s all too sterile, too procedural. She must be personally destroyed and the rolling hills of Rowan County salted in her wake. Pour encourager les autres.
It’s nothing less than the modern stocks where smarmy bien pensants lob combox rotten tomatoes at the stupid religious mountain lady. Of course these are the same people—both the journalists who set up this voyeuristic freak show and the eager onlookers—who wrote their Georgetown University application essays about the passion for independent thinking they formed in reading “The Scarlet Letter” and “The Crucible.”
(Public humiliation has always been and will always be part of maintaining community standards. What’s galling is that modern progressives continue to claim the legacy of Hester Prynne rather than her tormentors, whose methods they have modernized.)
We Will Crush You
But the disproportionate attention being paid to eastern Kentucky is about more than the public humiliation of a heretic. It’s about maintaining the peculiarly effective narrative on which the same-sex marriage movement has rested.
Many years before Obergefell, same-sex marriage activists accurately identified the underbelly of their opponents’ political and cultural position: Most support for “traditional marriage” was not based on a sophisticated and principled conviction, but rather the social intuition that supporting marriage-as-it-has-always-been was the safe, respectable opinion. What LGBT activists needed to do, then, was not so much defeat a collection of arguments but undermine the perceived respectability of traditional marriage.
This was a task of tearing down rather than building up. In truth, any ambitious social movement depends on demonizing its opponents for long-term success. So we ended up with sit-coms portraying conservative religious types as silly, hypocritical, irrational, and mean-spirited. And we ended up with the taking of increasingly prominent scalps—culminating perhaps with Mozilla’s Brendan Eich and Atlanta’s nationally-awarded fire chief Kelvin Cochran—to demonstrate where the power is, and where the socially and professionally safe ground is.
But the villains LGBT advocates identified have continued to shrink in number and stature as the movement’s legal and cultural gains are being consolidated. That a Podunk county clerk is the best monster-du-jour they can scrounge up should be proof enough that the baddies bench is running a little thin. But Davis’s relative insignificance is exactly why she must be so thoroughly eviscerated. No one must feel themselves to be safely beyond the reach of the new orthodoxy.
Obergefell Was Only the Beginning
More than that, though, activists and activist media must maintain the fiction that the same-sex marriage movement remains a plucky grassroots uprising against the dark strength of institutionalized ignorance and bigotry. If this really is a new civil-rights movement, it can’t just stop with Obergefell.
The “marriage equality” folks have won, legally and culturally and so on, for the foreseeable future. With a few exceptions, even the GOP presidential candidates want nothing to do with marriage. But the momentum must be continued, lest the excited millennials whose Edmund Pettus Bridge was that incredible Twitter takedown of Todd Starnes fall into apathy. Most mainstream opposition having been effectively scythed, they now conjure rural poltergeists to slay for the benefit of the rest of the country.
The conventional idea is that this will, eventually, settle down. Good liberal societies are supposed to be self-regulating. There will be a new respectability equilibrium where it will be considered uncouth—a violation of fair play—to drag out into the public square a marginal sexual counterrevolutionary for humiliation. The only question is how marginal marriage traditionalism will have to become before the referee calls the bout and we go back to an uneasy but workable live-and-let-live.
But what if we are no longer (or never were) a good liberal society? What if there’s a new dispensation? What if decades of casual relativism has resulted in a void that is being filled not by a self-critical broadmindedness but by a pious commitment to autonomy, especially sexual autonomy? What if the unprecedented freedom to express introduced by the Internet becomes a more effective (but less easily recognized) means to enforce orthodoxy rather than to proliferate heterodoxy?
Well, then we should expect to continue to see increasingly insignificant citizens’ faces splashed on the home pages of BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post and Slate and MSNBC and CNN and the Washington Post and The New York Times and whatever other media are invented going forward. That’s because even after opposition to the new marriage orthodoxy is well and truly squelched, public humiliations are great fun. And someone has to click those ads.