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Sour Grapes: A Reply To Christopher Caldwell

The conservative writer Christopher Caldwell appears in this month's Claremont Review of Books, reviewing Closet to the Altar, a history of same-sex marriage by Michael J. Klarman. I'm going to leave most of Caldwell's arguments alone—Klarman can defend his own work—but I do want to contest Caldwell's seeming assertion toward the end of his piece that what makes the gay marriage movement particularly odious is its use of nasty strong-arm tactics:
The most troubling aspect of the gay-marriage movement is that, more than any social movement in living memory, more than feminism at its bra-burning peak in the 1970s, it aims not to engage in lively debate but to shut it down. Scurrility has become a norm. In April 2009, Miss California, Carrie Prejean, told a Miss America judge she thought marriage should be between a man and a woman and got called a "dumb bitch" for it on the judge's website. If it is now easier to call people dumb bitches, then it makes no sense at all to extol the gay marriage movement as a moral advance.
Let me condemn in the strongest possible fashion the use of the term "dumb bitch" as a response to Carrie Prejean. It seems to me that fighters of sexism and fighters of homophobia should be natural allies, and to deploy hateful sexist terminology on behalf of gay rights isn't just odious, it also seems to surely be missing the point.

Nonetheless, it surely seems that Caldwell's trying to make the case that "dumb bitch" entered political terminology as a means of shutting down Prejean's anti-gay-marriage views. This, of course, is poppycock. As I've written elsewhere—and as basically any woman who writes for public consumption knows—the term is used to silence women all the the time, particularly—I would guess—women coming from a lefty or feminist point of view. Caldwell's shock at the term in this context is either naive or, I suspect, disingenuous. He's right to point out that it's an ugly bit of business; but's far from a unique weapon of gay marriage forces, nor particularly common to them.

Nonetheless, Caldwell continues down this track:
Shutting down debate can be more effectively done now that the internet has solved the organizing problem of mobs. Anyone who expresses the slightest misgivings about gay marriage can become the object of boycotts, blacklists, and attempts to get him fired. Restaurant chain Chick fil-A was boycotted when its chief operating officer speculated that gay marriage might be "inviting God's wrath." A theater director in Sacramento resigned his post after having been shown to be a donor to Proposition 8. The law firm King & Spalding refused to allow Paul Clement permission to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act on behalf of the House of Representatives. Defending O.J. Simpson will not get you booted from your firm, but defending a federal law will. Most companies are probably brave enough to defend their employees' freedom of opinion, but cowardice of King & Spalding's sort risks becoming the norm.
What I recall about the Chick fil-A boycott is that it turned out to be a tremendous success for the company after social conservatives rallied to its success. I recall, as well, that about the same time an anti-marriage-equality group calling itself One Million Moms (probably, ahem, a misnomer) vowed to boycott JC Penney after the retailer ran ads featuring Famous Lesbian(™) Ellen DeGeneres in holiday ads. If boycotts are an attempt to silence debate, rather than a form of it, then one would expect Caldwell to be shocked by the JC Penney action—or, at least, acknowledge that that Chick fil-A boycott comes in a context of back-and-forth boycotts over the subject of gay rights that have been going on for years.

The Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney in 1997 because of that company's perceived gay-friendly direction. It lasted eight years. The National Organization for Marriage is behind the Dump Starbucks campaign for similar reasons. Conservative Christian groups do this stuff all the time. The evangelicals I grew up with sometimes had trouble keeping track of all the companies (and sub-companies, and sub-sub companies) they were supposed to boycott: Were these paper towels the right ones to buy, or not? If boycotting is a pernicious form of trying to silence debate, Caldwell might want to pluck the log from his side's eye before pointing out the speck in his neighbor's eye. And, too, he might want to tell Martin Luther King Jr. about the moral illegitimacy of boycotts as a political measure.

Blacklisting is rather more problematic, admittedly. Does that term apply to Scott Eckern, the theater director to whom Caldwell refers? Possibly. But that seems tricky to me. Adults understand they have the right to make political statements—but they also recognize that that doing so might affect their ability to do their jobs. But again: Social conservatives feel free to deprive jobs to those who don't share their values on this topic.  If everybody should keep their job despite their political views, then everybody should get to keep their job despite their political views.

As for Mr. Clement, well: He wasn't booted from his firm, as Caldwell has it—he quit, after the firm decided it didn't want the job of defending the Defense of Marriage Act. It's an important distinction, a factual error that clearly undermines the case that Caldwell is trying to make.

Caldwell concludes:

In a decade, gay marriage has gone from joke to dogma. It is certainly worth asking why, if this is a liberation movement, it should be happening now, in an age not otherwise gaining a reputation as freedom's heyday. Since 2009, if Klarman's estimates are correct, support for gay marriage has been increasing by 4 points a year. Public opinion does not change this fast in free societies. Either opinion is not changing as fast as it appears to be, or society is not as free.
This is a baseless assertion, but I think it gets at the deeper conservative frustration on this issue: They're losing not just politically and legally; they're losing culturally. And when you lose the culture, that's when the debate really is over, at least for awhile. Conservatives never lost the culture entirely on abortion, which is why we're still debating the issue 40 years later. Will we still be debating gay marriage 20 years from now? Forget my answer: I'd like to know what Caldwell thinks.

Besides, Caldwell's wrong about public opinion: Big cultural shifts often happen little-by-little, then a lot all at once: It's fascinating to look at Gallup's list of long-term poll trends, measuring attitudes for most of the 20th century in America.

On the question of "would you be willing to support a woman for president," for example, barely half the country—53 percent—said yes in 1969. Two years later, than number was at 66 percent: A movement of 6.5 points per year, on average. It's about what you might expect with the women's liberation movement getting underway at the time. Similarly, in 1962, only 48 percent of Americans said they would support a black president—a number that rose 18 points, to 66 percent, by 1968: Around 3 percent a year. That's not quite as dramatic, but it's still plenty dramatic, and certainly indicative of a massive shift in racial attitudes underway during the era. Does Caldwell want to suggest that American society wasn't "free" then? Perhaps, but I don't think the case he'd make would be recognizable to most Americans.

Anti-gay-marriage conservatives have failed to convince an increasing majority of Americans of their views.  Of late, they have resorted to a final argument: That allowing gay marriage will lead to the victimization of those who believe in traditional marriage. It's an argument that does the neat trick of sidestepping the worthiness of gay marriage itself in favor of creating a needless zero-sum contest of rights. But the loss of privilege—the privilege, in this case, to disdain your gay neighbors' relationship without social consequence—is not the same thing as a loss of rights. If Caldwell believes he can win the gay marriage debate by painting a falsely negative portrait of the gay marriage movement, he should understand the lies will only comfort true believers on his side: For everybody else, facts and a sober examination of history will show his errors.

(Edited for clarity, spelling, boo-boos.)


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