EDITOR’S NOTE: Last Wednesday, in a column that was longer than and almost as disjointed as the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter, I wrote a long column criticizing Andrew Sullivan for having a solipsistic interpretation of conservatism, and “cultural libertarians” for encouraging a whatever-floats-your-boat individualism derived, in part, from an arrogant nihilism. Andrew Sullivan, Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie, and Virginia Postrel (scroll down to “Yeah, Yeah”)have all written counterpunches to my column (as have a number of libertarian and “neo-libertarian” bloggers, and scads of angry libertarian readers). I decided not to make the same mistake twice, so I am responding to Sullivan as a stand-alone first (in part because his was the more challenging rejoinder). And I’ll turn to the cultural libertarians tomorrow.
Still, if this recap alone bores you to tears, read no further. I think these sorts of arguments are useful and rewarding, but Lord knows I don’t expect everyone to agree with me (you could read my syndicated column). And, yes, to answer your many questions, I will be reviewing The Lord of the Rings this Wednesday. And, yes, you guys sent me some phenomenal stuff on Canine Civilization. Anyway, let’s get started.
Where We Agree
I must confess that my heart is not in it to have a big brouhaha with Andrew. I think we agree on a great deal, and I’ve long been a fan of his intellectual courage and all of that very flattering stuff I never know how to write.
Speaking of agreement, I applaud Andrew’s attempt to emphasize the anti-ideological tradition in conservatism. As I’ve noted many times, Russell Kirk was fond of repeating (H. Stuart Hughes’s observation) that “conservatism is the negation of ideology.”
Conservatism dislikes big, sweeping new ideas fresh off the drawing board. Conservatives want to study ideas for a long time, kick the tires, try them out in a few test markets first, and so on. It was the perfidious French Revolution, and its many imitators, that championed the notion that the mind of man could rewrite the organic constitution of society in a single moment or generation. The conservative reminds us that the beaches of history are littered with the human wreckage of bad ideas rushed out too quickly.
I also agree that conservatism must be willing to accept some change, or it risks becoming an ideology of nostalgia (in fact, the only piece I’ve ever written for Reason was on this very point). It was Burke who understood that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”
Doing “Good” Versus “Good For Conservatives”
But it’s from here on that the disagreements emerge. I did not (I don’t think) argue that Andrew’s arguments for gay marriage and the like were, in his words, “solipsistic or liberal.” In fact, to the extent I am sympathetic to the case for gay marriage it is due to Andrew’s (and Jonathan Rauch’s) arguments.
My point was something else (and I’m certainly open to the idea that the fault is on my end for not being clear enough). To the extent that conservatism has any utility, it must be hitched to a political project. There’s no point in having people call themselves conservatives if they aren’t part of something trying to do something — even if that something is yelling stop at those doing misguided things.
Of course, that something is certainly open to a very wide range of opinions and interpretations, and Andrew’s idiosyncratic views are valued more than most. But if there is no social-political project — if the people who call themselves conservatives aren’t dedicated to changing (restoring) the country and its politics in some meaningful way — then conservatism is nothing more than a dead-languages society or dress-up club for the sorts of people who like to quote Burke and Aquinas. In short, the conservative must engage the world, particularly the political world, or else retreat into the role of reclusive hobbyist. I don’t think Andrew would disagree with me on this.
When I raised the charge of solipsism in his New Republic essay, it wasn’t because he advocates a nuanced “conservative” gay political agenda, but because he suggested that advocating this agenda is in the strategic interests of conservatives, namely the GOP.
“And why not win some gay votes,” Sullivan writes, “by noting and praising the way in which gay Americans . . . acted as patriots and heroes in an integrating national crisis?”
Now, I confess, I don’t see anything wrong with praising heroes, no matter what uniform they wear in the culture war. But, the tendentious “And why not…?” formulation steals a lot of territory not seized by argument or analysis. It’s certainly no news to Sullivan that gays are a more controversial group than, say, the Shriners in American politics — and particularly in the conservative camp. To suggest that conservatives can cavalierly “pick up” those “gay votes” — a quarter to a third of which Republicans get anyway — without any consequences for the conservative project, is a small example of the solipsism I was referring to.
We all know Andrew Sullivan believes that, as a matter of morality, gays should be welcomed without distinction into just about every institution in American life — from marriage to the Boy Scouts to the conservative movement. But that wasn’t what Andrew was talking about in his New Republic essay. He was talking about what is good for conservatism — “And why not pick up a few gay votes . . . ”
You don’t need to be a cynic like Dick Morris to understand that what you might think is right personally, might not make for good politics strategically. For example, I’ve written — and still believe — that we should essentially invade Africa in order to fix it, but I’m under no illusions that this is a political winner of an idea in the conservative movement, or in America generally. It’s one thing to argue that George Bush should court the “gay vote” because it’s the right thing to do; it’s another thing entirely to argue that it is a wise electoral strategy. And it’s not always crystal-clear to me that Andrew sees it that way.
This, in part, is what I meant when I wrote that Andrew extrapolates his personal beliefs into a broad political philosophy. Perhaps the better example is Andrew’s continued antipathy toward what he calls “theocons.” Picking up on a persistent theme, Andrew writes about the war against fundamentalist Islam: “It is hard to fight a war against politico-religious extremism if you are winking at milder versions in your own political coalition.”
Well — assuming his characterization of some theocons is accurate — is the analysis really true? I get a lot of e-mail from theocons, including more than a few creationists and people praying for my conversion. Taking the hard-core isolationists out of the mix, from what I can tell, these folks are more dedicated than are most any other members of the conservative coalition (except maybe their bêtes noirs, the neocons) to the idea that this is a justified conflict between Western civilization and Islam.
And since religious conservatives certainly make up a plurality, if not an active majority, of the conservative Republican base, it seems to me at least problematic that a born-again, narrowly elected president should have Sista Souljah moments with all sorts of theocon leaders in order to win the support of a mainstream he already seems to have on his side, and the votes of a tiny number of gays.
And I don’t agree with Sullivan’s characterization of the theocons, either. I thought the phrase “Taliban wing of the Republican party” was idiotic and unfair before September 11. I think it’s reprehensible now. Sullivan doesn’t use the phrase, but he makes an argument which amounts to the same thing. To conflate American religious conservatives with Muslim extremists is a profound category error along the lines of confusing the American Left with the Khmer Rouge.
Sure, there are religious extremists in America, just as there are Leftist wackos. But they are American extremists and wackos, and their intellectual, cultural, and political lineage and context is incomparably different from that of, say, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Taliban. For instance, American religious conservatives became part of the conservative movement by signing on to the “leave-me-alone” coalition Sullivan ascribes to the libertarians. Their arguments are invariably couched in the constitutional categories of the First Amendment and federalism.
The Gay Marriage Thing
Now, since I’m already here and I don’t know when I’ll be back, I guess I should say a few words about the actual substance of Andrew’s arguments for gay rights, specifically homosexual marriage. And this, no doubt, will win me no praise either from Andrew or from the theocons I just spent so many pixels defending.
I generally find Andrew’s arguments quite persuasive. I don’t buy them entirely by any means. I don’t think, for example, that the analogy he and others use comparing black civil rights and gay rights holds much water. Gays aren’t blacks, and blacks aren’t gays. I don’t mean that Little Richard is straight, mind you — just that the arguments for, say, interracial marriage are inherently different from the arguments for homosexual marriage.
But I also think the position that mere wishing, or perhaps some sort of intensive “re-education” effort, will make gays go away, is silly. It’s not going to happen. So we’re left with the question, what is to be done about gays?
Personally, I always liked the old British ideal where everybody adhered to one norm in public, and did whatever they wanted in private — so long as they kept it private. This don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy applied to gay dudes and heterosexual foot-fetishists alike. By having a single public standard that was inconvenient to everyone, but not tyrannical in its implementation — Oscar Wilde’s gaol time notwithstanding — there was no moral tragedy of the commons. And, to the minimal extent that homosexuality is a nurture rather than a nature thing, it kept the potential waverers to a minimum.
But, even if such an arrangement actually existed, there’s no chance of bringing it back. Radical individualism and sexual-identity politics aren’t going anywhere in our lifetime. Gays are not Marxists or Fabian Socialists; they are people who, for all practical purposes, were born that way. Which means they cannot be argued away the way Marxists can be. And besides, as Rousseau noted, censorship is useful for the preservation of morals but not for the restoration of them.
And that’s why Andrew’s argument is so persuasive to me. He recognizes that a certain number of people are always going to be gay, and that therefore the question is, “How do we socialize them?” Do we denounce homosexual promiscuity out of one side of our mouths, while out of the other declaring that gays can never, ever, have socially recognized and respected monogamous relationships?
Men are horny goats by design — which is the short answer to why homosexual men are more promiscuous than lesbians or heterosexual men or women: There are fewer speed bumps and toll booths on the road to Getting It On. If society refuses to steer young gay men onto the roads with those speed bumps and toll booths, it’s pretty unfair for us to criticize them for speeding. If I were a gay teen (soon to be an essay topic in every public school, no doubt) and I was told that marriage and monogamy were just as shameful as promiscuity — then why the hell wouldn’t I take the Nestea plunge into a pool full of buff dudes at a Fire Island beach house?
Where I disagree with Andrew is that we should therefore immediately conclude that gay marriage is, automatically, the right and only solution. He’s adamant that civil unions — or any other middle-ground compromises — are completely unacceptable. I think he’s wrong. But going into all of my reasons at this point would make another unforgivably long column even longer. Rather, I would like to go back to conservatism.
Andrew writes: “My nuanced argument for gay equality, for example, is not some knee-jerk pro-gay polemic, but a carefully constructed, classically liberal, temperamentally conservative argument.” He’s right in every sense, save perhaps one. I’m not so sure his case is “temperamentally conservative.”
The core of temperamental conservatism is patience and careful discrimination. (Which, by the way, is why I agree that pot should be legalized but most other drugs shouldn’t. But I’ll save that for another time.) That’s why Disraeli defined his brand of conservatism as “muddling through.”
It was only in 1973 and 1975 that the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, respectively, removed homosexuality from their lists of mental disorders. I fully believe that was the right decision, but it does go to show you how profoundly young a “mainstream” gay culture is. Andrew, however, believes the time is already long past due for rewriting the charters of all of our fundamental institutions, in order to incorporate homosexuals fully and completely into our culture. As I said, I am sympathetic to many of Andrew’s arguments — but, unlike him, I’m unwilling to say I know this is the right step (which is why I think he’s more ideological on this issue than I am).
Marriage is an ancient, bedrock institution born thousands of years before anyone even knew how to spell democracy. It is impossible to even guess how many other institutions it supports. As Friedrich Hayek noted, such institutions are the real storehouses of human knowledge: “[M]ore ‘intelligence’ . . . is incorporated in the system of rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts and surroundings.”
And that’s why I’m willing to wait a while longer — to muddle through as we sort all this out — before we radically redesign marriage. If Andrew is right about gay marriage, waiting is no doubt unfair to gays seeking to have their monogamous relationships legitimized by the state. But it was Edmund Burke — the champion of temperamental conservatism — who noted that sometimes we “must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes.” Indeed, the conservative must point out that the beaches of history are littered not only with the human wreckage of bad ideas rushed out too quickly, but with the wreckage of good ideas rushed out too quickly as well.