This is not an April Fool’s post.
The first three months of 2009 have been among the very happiest of my life. My wife and I have had our first human child, a splendid baby girl, and we are both over-the-moon with joy and excitement (and a fair amount of exhaustion, too, but let that pass.) As befits a new father, my focus has at least temporarily gone inward, towards my family; I have paid less attention to the state of the world than I might normally. But as silly as it might seem, I can’t help but connect Obama’s ascent to the presidency with Heloise Cerys’ birth. This doesn’t mean that both events stir equal excitement, or are of equal global import. But they both mark radical departures with the past, and each has left me suffused with new optimism. Forgive the jaw-dropping parental hubris: the world will be a better place because my daughter is in it, and because of what it is she will grow up to do. And somewhat less jaw-dropping: the world will be a safer, healthier, better place because Barack Obama is president, and George W. Bush and John McCain aren’t.
I’m an optimist by nature, even if that requires taking very long views. I don’t know how long I’ll be on the planet, but I expect the planet to be here for a very, very long time. My God is a very big God, and He works — so all those who know tell me — on geologic time. Though no one knows the time or the hour, my suspicion is Jesus will continue to tarry on his return; contrary to the fervent hopes of many of the depressed and the downtrodden and the downright mean, we are not living, I suspect, in the End Times. There is more to come, much more to come, which is why (among other reasons) I want to see environmnental policies adopted which protect the earth not merely for my daughter’s generation, but for the creatures and ecosystems which will flourish here ten millenia from now.
I want government policies that in time will lead to fewer humans on the earth, living more just and sustainable lifestyles — two of many reasons why family planning and environmentalism are the two top issues on my agenda. And those causes are nearer to President Obama’s heart than any of his recent predecessors — hence, my mild optimism.
But I have friends — mostly conservatives, including social conservatives — who have grown grimly anxious about the state of the world. While the budgetary and environmental proposals of the new Administration are a source of encouragement (and, given Mr. Obama’s predecessor, sheer wonder) to folks like me, my friends on the right seem glum. This gloom is particularly strong among those who fight on the opposite side of the culture wars; those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, and what might generally be called “sexual freedom” are a confounded lot these days. Most social conservatives are deeply religious, and have the excellent consolation of prayer, but that doesn’t serve to soothe all of their growing fears and frustrations.
Despite temporary victories for social conservatives like the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the polling indicates a gradually growing consensus in favor of the freedom to marry, particularly among the youngest Americans. Legislative efforts to advance an anti-abortion cause continue to make tiny bits of progress, but much of their work has been undone both by the strongly pro-choice Obama Administration and by a series of disheartening defeats at the ballot box. Younger conservatives may still be anti-abortion, but despite the shrill cries of their elders, they are increasingly likely to see the “life” issue one among many; many young evangelicals are increasingly liberal in their views on fighting poverty and global warming, with many more inclined (rightly so, from a Scriptural perspective) to see the morality of the pocketbook as of more concern to Christ than the morality of the pelvis. And heck, as the headlines have told us just this past month, Americans are less religious than ever before, more likely to have babies out of wedlock than ever before.
Politics works in cycles; the GOP will come back eventually, and conservatives will come to power again. But culture doesn’t work in the same cyclical way. The genie of women’s liberation and cultural emancipation has been hard for the right to put back in the bottle, despite their most furious efforts for forty years. The Pill isn’t going away. Americans as a whole are not showing any signs of a renewed willingness to marry young and stay married to one spouse of the opposite sex for the rest of their lives. Oh, there are a few microtrends here and there that might gladden a reactionary heart — but for the most part, the narrative of American history holds true: rights once granted are hard to take away; freedoms once tasted are hard to give up. And that will be true if Obama is re-elected and it will be just as true if, heavens forfend, a Palin-Jindal ticket sweeps into office in a 2012 landslide.
I think social cons know that even when they win an occasional battle, they’re losing the larger war. This has led some to take some whoppingly extreme positions. Maggie Gallagher, one of the noisiest (and, to be fair, most hard-working) advocates of the limited marriage franchise, has been putting up a series of posts on the National Review’s main blog. This one from Monday is a stunner: The Amazing Power of the Culture (Part 9). Gallagher, who seems the poster child for the increased franticness of the right, is well aware that it’s possible for conservatives to win elections and lose the culture war; she suggests, rightly, that that is what has been happening for generations (but of course, particularly since that great bugaboo of all reactionaries, the 1960s). And in the past few weeks, the previously even-tempered Gallagher has begun to pull off the proverbial gloves, and in doing so has revealed some of the ugly underpinnings of the social conservative Weltanschauung. An excerpt from her latest:
“Marriage is about the love of adults for each other; it’s about caretaking intimacy, passion, not necessarily about children.” When I hear people claiming they are marriage supporters and saying these things about marriage, I cringe. They do not know what they are talking about.
A marriage culture means married men who fall passionately in love with their secretaries or their junior law partners saying, “My marriage comes before my happiness; my family comes first.” It means women watching Oprah and feeling underappreciated, like they are “settling” for less than they deserve, stepping back to say, “It’s not humiliating to accept less than I ‘deserve;’ it’s grown-up. It’s motherly. It’s what women have done for all of human history and it is good.”
And then stepping back and saying: “His mother can love him; if he were my son I would love him, there’s got to be a way for me to love him well and truly even though right this second I’m feeling humiliated and angry with how I’m being treated.” No marriage culture can survive unless adults are actively encouraged to surmount this kind of ordinary temptation…
Bold emphasis mine. Repost it widely, folks. Gallagher wants a world where wives baby husbands like mothers baby sons (she uses the mothering image too often for it to be careless). Her contempt for women and men is staggering; for Gallagher, a man is apparently an eternal child and every woman is called, perhaps like Mary, to be long-suffering, maternal, and self-abnegating. (Since when did the Jesus-Mary relationship become the model for good marriages? That’s a perverse twisting of Ephesians 5 indeed, more perverse than even Freud could imagine!) For Gallagher, humiliation and degradation are feelings to be suppressed, denied, and overcome, while happiness itself — especially for women — is a “dangerous temptation.”
Those who want to limit marriage to a man and a woman have rarely been so honest about the misogyny that undergirds their position. Here’s the shorthand: “marriage is about obligation and reproduction, not about desire. If gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, it will symbolize that marriage has become about love and feeling rather than solemn duty and reproduction. Heterosexual couples will look at gay couples and conclude that they are only expected to remain in a marriage as long as that marriage is fulfilling, because the non-reproductive nature of gay and lesbian relationships indicates that emotional fulfillment, sans reproductivity, is sufficient grounds to wed someone. And thus emboldened to choose happiness over duty, the divorce rate will spike, children will suffer, and the baby Jesus will cry.”
Good luck marketing this one, Maggie Gallagher. And you wonder why you’re losing the culture war?
I think the Maggie Gallaghers of the world are wrong. I think they’re wrong sociologically, wrong theologically, wrong psychologically. I’m not sorry that the tide has turned perceptibly against them, and and I’m absolutely not sorry that the sense continues to grow that though they might win an occasional ballot-box skirmish, the long-term demographic and cultural trend is likely against them. But because I’ve lived and worked among people like these, my schadenfreude is tempered with compassion. As an environmentalist, I know what it is to look at a world which seems to be heading ever faster towards self-destruction. As a vegan, I have a clear understanding of at least one meaning — not the right’s meaning — of what it means to witness a “culture of death” in action. I know what it is to despair of the choices my fellow citizens make, to despair of the seemingly willful ignorance of the majority, to worry deeply about the world in which my great-grandchildren will grow up.
Despair is not a pleasant feeling. It leads some to revolution, some to misanthropy, some to apocalyptic millenarianism, some to Zoloft, and some to unhinged postings at the National Review. As the evidence begins to grow that the battle to drag America and the Western World back to Calvin’s Geneva or Savonarola’s Florence is really and truly irrevocably lost, some essentially decent but misguided folks are struggling with despair. Watch with glee or empathy, but watch — because as they try and hold off despair, their rhetoric grows more honest. And that candor will hasten, I suspect, the irrelevance of the cultural right, as it reveals once and for all the deep-seated misogyny concealed beneath the lofty language of the “culture of life.”