Musings on culture, politics, and anything else I hope others can help me think more thoroughly about.

Monday, September 18, 2006

2004 Elections: Why two dudes kissing was more important than the failure to find Bin Laden.

Liberal Democrats were shocked at the result of the 2004 elections. A few days before the election democratic guru James Carville had said:

“If we can’t win this damn election with a Democratic Party more unified than ever before, with us having raised as much money as the Republicans, with 55% of the country believing we’re heading in the wrong direction, with our candidate having won all three debates, and with our side being more passionate about the outcome than theirs — if we can’t win this one, then we can’t win shit!

Well, despite all of these factors, Along with a war not going well, and the man who had ordered the murder over 3000 Americans still thumbing his nose at us, George Bush won with more votes than any candidate had ever gotten.

Even more shocking as the defeat, for liberal democrats was the perceived reason for the defeat.

An associate press poll showed that for 22 percent of the voters moral values had been the most important factor in their decision. Of these moral values voter, 80 percent chose Bush. Which moral values? The polling didn’t say. But it was tempting to conclude that gay marriage was central, since issues having to do with sex are quintessential moral values issues, and since gay marriage was on the ballot in 11 states. The idea that opposition to gay marriage was large responsible for Bush’s win, quickly became a one of the most common narratives in the innumerable discussions of “Why Bush won” in media discussions following the elections. On the country’s most watched political comedy program, “The Daily show, John Steward, shook his head in disbelief that none of the democtic issues seemed more important to voters than “two dudes kissing”

The fact that voters would elect someone with such a mixed record on military and economic issues because he seemed much more strongly against gay marriage than the other candidate, was especially shocking to liberals in a day in age when there seemed to be an unprecedented amount of tolerance for gay people. In 2003, a striking NINE gay themed shows aired on prime time TV. Some cities elected openly gay mayors. The Episcopalchurch ordained a gay bishop. Gay people also seemed to be moving in a direction that one would have thought advocates of traditional moral values would applaud. In contrast to the promiscuous hedonism celebrated in the seventies and eighties, large numbers gay people sought to marry to show their devotion to committed monogamous relationships. How could such this sort of behavior produce virulent anti-gay feelings that were sufficient to re-elect a president who presided over the biggest job loss in US history?

What I want to do today is say why this shouldn’t have been perplexing to anyone. I don’t actually agree with the theory that anti-gay feeling was the predominant factor that put Bush in the white house, but it was certainly a factor. But that it was a factor shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Despite a big increase in tolerance for gay people, gays have been and remain one of the most abhorred subgroups in America. Despite the divorce rate, marriage is still considered the most revered institution in civic life, something not to be altered lightly. Allowing gay marriage, which some states seemed on the brink of doing, would be to allow the practices of one of the most despised subgroups to be officially legitimized via our most sacred institution. If there was every anything that would motivate people to set forth on political crusades in America, it would be opposition to gay marriage. Given American attitudes towards gays and marriage, we should expect that huge numbers of people would do almost anything to stop gay marriage – even vote enthusiastically for George Bush.

So I don’t think that liberals should be perplexed at the idea that gay marriage should provoke such animosity. But its certainly not clear why and gays should be so reviled and marriage should be so revered. What I want to do today is try out some speculations on you.

Why would marriage be perceived to be such a sacred inviolable institution, that the idea of expanding it to be more inclusive would be seen as threatening to our entire way of life?

My speculation is this: Whatever else marriage is about, its about making sure sexual access is restricted to certain people. If societies allowed more indiscriminate sexual activity, there would be a variety of deep social costs. Instituting marriage means that one’s partner is supposed to be sexually off limits to anyone else. As anyone who’s read any accounts of life on a commune knows, the absence of such restrictions usually leads to terrible jealousy and all of the maladies that go with it. The restrictions of marriage also mean that sex should only be given to those who prove themselves worthy of making a presumed lifelong commitment to. That will make it the case that the more impressive males and females will be the more likely to reproduce. And the next generation will then carry genes of those capable of impressing, rather than the genes of anyone capable of having sex. Now the parents of such children (of any children) have always sacrificed and striven to provide as many resources as possible for them. But without marriage, men are much less likely to know who are their children, and much less likely to make sure that they are cared for. Without marriage, then fewer children would grow up to be healthy parents themselves.
Without the institution of marriage, our rules regarding sexuality might well be, “Find someone willing, and you can have sex with them (but so can everyone else). With the institution of marriage, the rule is -- find someone whose future children you are willing to care for, and you and you alone can have sex with them. Societies seem to prefer this.

Now that’s not surprising. Communities, and even the species as a whole, seem to be strengthened when they adopt rules whereby people give up the benefits of unrestricted sexual access, in order to enjoy the even greater benefits of living where people are expected to be responsible for the well being of the people they have sex with and their offspring. We shouldn’t be surprised that nearly every society has sexually restrictive marriage practice. These are usually accompanied by elaborate rituals enacted to put everyone in the community on notice that this couple how has certain rights and responsibilities toward each other, and everyone else is to treat them as such.

Ok, so much for marriage. Now, interestingly, I suspect that these same notions of the importance of sexual restriction have a lot to do with the taboos so many societies put on homosexual sex.

Societies seem to benefit from the idea that sexuality should to be restricted to partners who you’ll take responsibility for, whom your willing to have children with, and whose children you are willing to provide resources for. But for society to get those benefits, people need to be thoroughly instilled with the idea that decisions about sex need to be decisions about which procreative results you are willing to be responsible for. Homosexual sex throws a monkey wrench in all that. With gay sex, you don’t need to think at all about the procreative consequences – there aren’t any. For marriage to really benefit societies, people have to thoroughly absorb the idea that sex cannot just be about pleasure, sex is about rights and responsibilities as well. But with Gay sex, there just aren’t the same social costs to having sex which around pleasure. An afternoon of heavy petting can’t result in an offspring that will require twenty years of expensive care. Having gay sex there as a possible live option, encourages people to think about sex in an entirely different way than the responsibility-centered way that enables marital sex to bring benefits. One way to for societies to try to help protect marriage and the benefits it brings, then, would be to continually stress that gay sex is bad bad bad bad bad; not a live option. We should not be surprised, then, to find the many societies have strict taboos against homosexual activity. I suspect that such taboos are there partly because people consciously or unconsciously see them as helping to protect the institution of marriage. People disposed to break those taboos, gay people, are seen as pariah’s.

Now I am certainly not saying, that making gay people pariah’s is the only way of protecting the idea of sexually restrictive marriage, or that it is a morally good way. But it is a way. Making a taboo on sex which is primarily about pleasure, and where weighty future responsibilities aren’t part of the equation , can be a simple common way of helping to emphasizing marriage and getting the social benefits the institution of marriage brings.
It appears to be a route to those benefits that is often taken.

Now when you think about it marriage is a somewhat shaky institution. People aren’t going to willing to give up sexual freedom lightly. But they will give it up it up if they hear over and over again that marriage of a certain sort is a sacred institution, that must be revered and protected at all costs. They will give it up if those who have sex without thinking about procreation are made into pariahs. The very shakiness of marriage could lead societies that enjoy the benefits of marriage, to continually propound these ideas with special vehemence. And if these ideas are seen as being challenged, many in society will see it as their duty to propound them with even more vehemence. Gay marriage challenges the pariah status of gay people AND our commitment to a certain conception of marriage at the same time. We should expect that if members of society see the possibility of gay marriage looming on the horizon, many will feel that the very foundation of society is under assault, and will be moved to participate heavily in political activities.

I think that that’s what’s happened in 2004. The conservative activist Paul Weyrich said of the response of conservatives to gay-favoring court decisions: “I have never seen people so energized and activated, even more so than at the time of Roe v. Wade.” He said a full year before the 2004 election. In the wake of a Massachutesets court decision that appeared to setting the state for making gay marriage legal, citizens in 11 states put anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot. They passed in all 11. And in those eleven, support for Bush, the more strongly anti-gay marriage candidates was seven points higher than in other states.

Liberals are shocked that anyone would think that two individuals in a loving committed relationship shouldn’t enjoy the same rights to marry as everyone else has. I think they forget how much animosity there is toward the idea of giving gay people any kind of legitimacy.

Noam Chomky once wrote that anti-communism was America’s true national religion. I think anti-homosexuality is far more deep and pervasive. “That’s so gay” is used as a term of derision on American playgrounds at least a million times more often then “you communist.” (And it’s intresting that when the term “communist” has been used as an insult, it was usually using the term “pinko communist”.) It’s likely that no American teenager ever killed themselves because they thought they actually might be… communist. I find anti-homosexuality morally reprehensible, but I don’t think that liberals do themselves or gay people any favors by pretending it isn’t there, or isn’t pervasive. And liberals will have no success in combating an anti-gay sentiment if they don’t understand the source of it. If I am right, a large part of the animosity toward gay marriage doesn’t stem from an incomprehensible irrational hatred of gay people. It’s ultimate roots lie in this notion that we need to be every vigilant in fighting the uphill battle to control our urges get sexual pleasure from source we can. And we must be extra vigilant in the uphill battle to make sure that people are wholly committed to the welfare of ones children before having sex with anyone. It’s probably true that maintaining these beliefs about sexual morality has been one route to social stability.

The challenge to liberals is for them to see how gay marriage can quite plausibly be seen as a threat to social stability. Rather than dismiss the anti-gay marriage movement as the work of ill informed predjudiced nutcases, liberals need to
1.) realize how deep, pervasive, and fundamental these ideas about sexuality are. And,
2.) try to quell peoples fears by making the case that gay marriage could actually strengthen societies fundmental committement to responsibility centered sexuality.

That’s a difficult challenge, but it is arguably one no more difficult than the challenge of getting people to see the advantages in giving up some sexual freedom. And four more years of a Bush presidency. should convince liberals that it is a challenge well worth taking up.