‛Liberals do not want to destroy the family,” reads the headline over a Thomas Edsall column in the New York Times. Maybe not “liberals,” but Edsall is older than I am, and I am old enough to remember when sundry feminist factions, gay-rights crusades, and liberationist movements of varying degrees of outright bonkers-ness were quite frank about their desire to destroy the family, which they regarded as a bulwark of patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism, whatever. There were anti-family feminists, womynists, Marxists, post-Marxists, post-post-Marxists — and that was just in the English department.
Edsall owns up to as much when he writes, “In practice, many, if not most, liberals are as deeply disturbed by familial dysfunction as conservatives. . . . Scholars on the left now acknowledge that the sexual revolution and the personal autonomy movement had significant costs as well as notable gains.” The word “now” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that sentence. People who do not know the history do not know how truly destructive those liberationist movements were, e.g. the daft 1960s–1970s crusade for “deinstitutionalization,” prefaced on the belief that the unhappy people languishing in state mental facilities were not sick but only different, prisoners (literally) of the narrowness and uptightness of square society. The prisons are full of fatherless men, and now “scholars on the left acknowledge that the sexual revolution” was a pathetically delusional recipe for anarchy. Better late than never!
But Edsall is correct in that progressives really have changed.
Which makes me think: God bless the pointy little head of Pete Buttigieg, the insufferable and smug embodiment of what’s left of bourgeois values and McKinsey-certified respectability among Democrats. Not since David Brooks was ensorcelled by the crease in Barack Obama’s slacks has simple propriety seemed so remarkable.
Mayor Pete has one or two things in common with Barack Obama. Barack Obama was the first African American elected president, and Buttigieg, if elected, would be the first gay man elected president. That parallel puts some light on a basic fact of American life that is routinely ignored: Every minority-rights movement models itself on the civil-rights movement led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., but in reality there is no group of Americans — including other Americans who have been oppressed and marginalized and who have legitimate complaints about civil rights and justice — whose experience is really like that of black Americans.
One of the great disappointed hopes of Obama’s presidency was the belief, terribly naïve in retrospect, that electing a black man would back American race relations down from the Defcon 2 they’ve been sitting at since the 1990s (they were at Defcon 1 in the 1960s) to something less dramatic and more livable. That didn’t happen. A little bit of that is the fault of Barack Obama, with his insufferable self-righteousness (criticized for his association with the grotesque racism of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama responded by lecturing the public at large on racism with absolute impenitence), his reflexive anti-police rhetoric, and the rest. Some people theorized that Obama, the son of a Kenyan academic and a white woman from Kansas, was not “black enough” to carry the African-American heritage on his shoulders, though he certainly was black enough for the bigots whose unprintable assessment of him was frequently within overhearing distance during his presidency, and still is.
(Mea culpa: I certainly was among those who underestimated just how prevalent old-fashioned Robert Byrd–style racism remains in American life.)
But though Buttigieg would be the first gay man elected president, he does not seem to have been invested with anything like the historical import that was attached to Obama. Partly that is because Buttigieg is a less charismatic figure than Obama and one who, so far, has resisted Obama’s messianic pretensions. But the more important factor there is that the discrimination and violence that have been inflicted on gay Americans are, while by no means trivial, not nearly as consequential to American national political culture and history as the enslavement and relentless oppression of African Americans, which is without equivalent in our past.
Buttigieg is sometimes criticized by those who want him to be what I suppose we must describe for lack of a better term as “more gay.” In a now-infamous (and almost immediate suppressed) essay in The New Republic (which still exists, if only in name), Dale Peck, a gay writer, reviled Buttigieg as a the “gay equivalent of Uncle Tom” and worried that the mayor, who made his sexuality public only later in life, had not sufficiently sown his wild gay oats and thus probably could not be expected to concentrate on the responsibilities of the presidency. No marching through Chelsea in leather chaps for the Man from McKinsey. Peck complained: “The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his” [Milhous Nixon]. To a great many people, not all of them socially conservative, that surely sounds like a best-case scenario: “He’s gay, but, more important, he’s just another knucklehead Democrat.” There are perfectly reputable reasons for despising Buttigieg.
As Andrew Sullivan and others have written, there is a particular mode of gay life that began to disappear rapidly as gay people were integrated into the mainstream of American culture. Gay bars have been disappearing for years, and gay resorts have a lot more baby strollers than they used to. Some people miss that and complain about the domestication of gay culture in the same way some New Yorkers purport to pine for the good old days of crime and mayhem and block after block of porn emporia on Times Square. Perhaps they are sincere. What is beyond doubt is that American culture, with its consumerism and crass materialism, its liberality and its democratic manners, can absorb all sorts of subcultures and tendencies and lifestyles, and, in many cases, remake them in its own image.
There were legal pushes along the way when it came to gay rights, including two Supreme Court decisions that were, in my view, wrong on the legal merits: Lawrence v. Texas and Obergefell v. Hodges. When Lawrence was decided, there were many conservatives who believed the decision was an unconstitutional overreach, but very few (none at all known to me) who believed in principle that homosexuals should be locked up for consenting sexual acts between (or, I suppose, among) adults.
The integration of gay people into ordinary American life has largely been a matter of organic evolution. That it was even possible speaks to the fact that the question of gay rights is and always has been of a fundamentally different character from the question of civil rights for African Americans. In 2004, William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of this magazine, was asked about past errors in judgment. “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow,” he answered. “I was wrong: Federal intervention was necessary.” Those who criticized such measures as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as overly broad applications of federal power may not have been entirely wrong as a matter of philosophical principle, but the facts on the ground cried out against that principle applied in that way. Principles and particulars do not always line up in ways that are convenient for our political allegiances.
The election of Barack Obama was, as even his most energetic critics understood, a historical watershed for these United States. If the electorate should be so foolish as to choose Pete Buttigieg as president, his sexuality would be only a footnote. And that’s as it should be. Sometimes, we manage a little bit of success here and there, and Americans can at the moment rejoice in their general indifference to Buttigieg and his sexual orientation, if they bother thinking of him at all.
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