Monday, October 31, 2005

The McMartin postscript

One of the alleged victims in the McMartin case, the mother of all day care sexual abuse panics of the 1980s, has recanted and now says that he was never abused. Like the other "victims" in the case, Kyle Zirpolo initially insisted to the investigators that nothing happened at the preschool, and was badgered and cajoled into making up stories that grew more and more bizarre: Satanic rituals held in churches, animal sacrifice, the accused teachers flying their children on airplanes to other locations (somehow without the parents suspecting a thing). This young man was in fact a victim -- not of pedophile day care workers, but of therapeutic, prosecutorial, and journalistic malfeasance.

Kudos to Debbie Nathan for breaking the story.

Kevin Drum has an excellent post about this, but he doesn't quite cover all the bases when he names "hysteria, local newscasters, and bad child psychology" as the culprits. First of all, it wasn't just local newscasters (will Geraldo Rivera apologize for his substantial role in taking the hysteria to the national level?). Second, let's not forget the ideology the 1980s wave of day-care sex abuse witch-hunts: feminist panic about child sexual abuse. See this article by Alexander "even a broken clock is right twice a day" Cockburn on the feminist role in these events.

It is often forgotten that radical feminists played a key part in bringing the issue of child sexual abuse out into the open, as part of their critique of the patriarchal family. (A good recap by Rael Jean Isaac can be found here.) Obviously, raising popular consciousness about child abuse -- particularly by family members and trusted authority figures, rather than the stereotypical predatory stranger lurking around the playground -- was a good thing, and the feminists deserve credit for it, even if their interest was often driven by some pretty demented ideas (such as Florence Rush's claim that our society condones sexual abuse because it's the process by which girls are trained to acquiesce in their subordinate role). But this achievement had a very dark side: a wave of false accusations of sexual abuse, including the "recovered memory" craze and grotesque stories of ritual sexual abuse in Satanic cults. The Los Angeles County Commission on Women even formed a Task Force on Ritual Abuse.

When some voices of sanity -- including feminists such as Debbie Nathan, Carol Tavris and Wendy Kaminer -- began to speak up against the hysteria, some of their "sisters" did their best to silence dissent by labeling it as collusion with patriarchy. Here's Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Judith Herman chastising the left-of-center magazine Mother Jones for having the temerity to publish a piece about false memories:

Violence against women and children is deeply imbedded in our society. It is a privilege that men do not relinquish easily. So it's not surprising that we would see serious resistance to change. Historically, every time a subordinate group begins to make serious progress, a backlash occurs. This is what happened one hundred years ago when Freud created the myth that hysterical women fantasize about sexual abuse. It makes perfect sense that we would now see another backlash in the pages of Playboy or even the New York Times. But I have to admit that I'm surprised at Mother Jones.
Gloria Steinem was also in the forefront of pushing the "recovered memory" agenda. Among other things, she narrated the 1995 HBO documentary The Search for Deadly Memories, and as far as I know she has continued to insist that the McMartin defendants were guilty.

Some point out that the other ideological foundation of the day care sex abuse craze was right-wing hostility to day care. There probably was some of that: the alleged abuse seemed to confirm the worst fears about the children of working women being "dumped with strangers." But I don't recall any conservatives of Steinem's prominence lending his or her voice to the witch-hunts, or any conservative magazine running a lurid cover story titled, "Satanic Ritual Abuse Exists -- Believe It!" (That particular honor goes to Ms. magazine.)

The radical feminists who pushed the "sexual abuse is everywhere" meme were interested in vilifying conventional masculinity and depicting "patriarchal culture" as a cesspool of misogynist atrocities; but the bitter irony is that so many of the victims of the resulting hysteria were women. That includes several of the McMartin defendants, as well as Margaret Kelly Michaels, the New Jersey preschool teacher who spent five years in prison after begin convicted on lurid charges of sexual molestation.

The reversal of Michaels's conviction in 1993 marked the beginning of the end of the 1980s sex-abuse witch-hunts. The McMartin recantation may well be the final nail in the coffin.

Someone tell Gloria and Geraldo.

Note: The excellent HBO docudrama about the McMartin trial, Indictment, first aired in 1995. The script by Abby Mann was pitched to the networks but rejected because it took the unequivocal position that the defendants were innocent, and that was just too controversial at the time. Highly recommended, with great performances by James Woods as the lead defense attorney, Henry Thomas as defendant Ray Buckey, and Lolita Davidovich as therapist Kee McFarlane.

Iraq: Silver lining? Rose-colored glasses?

My new Boston Globe column, "A silver lining in Iraq," is now up. Some of you may think that it should have been titled, "Iraq through rose-colored glasses." Time will tell, to use a time-worn cliché. It seems to me that since we cannot undo the invasion, the most humane alternative is to hope that something good may still come of this.

On a related note: Despite the insurgency, the resentment toward U.S. and British troops, and the uncertainty of day-to-day life in Iraq, there are many Iraqis who are bravely and actively working for a better future. Several such people -- women who are working as armed guards for a security firm -- were profiled recently in The Washington Times. Not to bring in a note of frivolity, but I found this passage particularly heartwarming:

"I used to watch action movies when I was a kid, I loved them," laughed Xena, a conservative Muslim who chose her pseudonym from the film character, Xena the Warrior Princess. "My favorite actor is [Jean-Claude] Van Damme."

Xena lives! Let's hear it for female empowerment.

Joan Kennedy Taylor, R.I.P.

Joan Kennedy Taylor, author and libertarian feminist, died on October 29 at the age of 78.

Joan was one of the few people to be a part of both Ayn Rand's Objectivist movement in the 1960s and the women's liberation movement in the 1970s. Her Objectivism was never dogmatic, and neither was her feminism. Unlike many feminists, she embraced a consistently individualist perspective. She was passionate in her belief that the true independence and autonomy for women meant self-reliance, not replacing dependency on men with dependency on the state, and in her opposition to paternalism of all kinds.

I knew Joan fairly well in the early to mid-1990s, when we were both active in "dissident feminist" causes, including alternative approaches to such issues as sexual harassment (Joan authored an excellent book on the topic, What to Do When You Don't Want to Call the Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment), pornography and speech codes (Joan was active in the anti-censorship group, Feminists for Free Expression). Unfortunately, we had drifted apart since, and in recent years I only saw her a few times at public events, looking very frail as she struggled with cancer. (I have not been able to find Joan's birth date anywhere, but I believe she was in her seventies.) She was a wise, insightful, and gracious woman who had strongly held convictions, and was nonetheless capable of civilized and respectful disagreement -- an increasingly rare quality in public life today. She will be missed.

Past issues of the ALF (Association of Libertarian Feminists) Newsletter, edited by Joan and featuring many of her essays, interviews, and book review, can be found here. (Hat tip: Jesse Walker at Hit & Run.)

A more detailed biography of Joan can be found here (thanks to Walter Olson for the pointer).

Sunday, October 30, 2005

It's not racist (or sexist) if they're Republicans

I'm coming a bit late to the blogspat between Robert George and Steve Gilliard over a racially offensive item Gilliard put on his blog. Gilliard went after Maryland Lt. Gov Michael Steele, a black Republican who is now running for the U.S. Senate, because Steele wouldn't condemn Gov. Robert Ehrlich for holding an event at an all-white golf club. His method of attack was extreme racial caricature: the blog item, titled "Simple Sambo Wants to Move to the Big House"," featured a doctored photo of Steele as a minstrel in blackface, with such language as, "I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the Big House." (The photo and most of text have now been removed; see explanation at the end of this post. Update: Michelle Malkin has the original "Sambo" image here.)

George lambasted Gilliard for "trading in racist imagery" to "mock and denounce [Steele's] very existence as a black man who chooses to be Republican." After more publicity from Andrew Sullivan, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine, a Democrat, withdrew his ads from Gilliard's blog, prompting Gilliard to fulminate against Kaine and Sullivan and then against George. Gilliard and George, by the way, are both black.

This is not the first example of racist rhetoric being used against black Republicans. In 2002, for instance, singer and actor Harry Belafonte referred to Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice as "house slaves." And it's a pretty despicable tactic. Commenting on Belafonte's remarks, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wrote, "Name-calling is the last refuge of the intellectually bankrupt. In this case, it shows a certain moral bankruptcy too." If so, Gilliard has been in Chapter 11 for quite a while: he's yet another Ann Coulter clone (differences in gender, race, and politics notwithstanding) who thinks rudeness equals wit and that people of opposing viewpoints are not to be debated but ridiculed, slammed and demonized. He has already made up his mind that conservatives hate black people, so what's the point of dialogue?

Gilliard evidently thinks that no one should have a problem with his use of malicious racial stereotypes because he is black. He also thinks it's outrageous that some people evidently thought he was white, since no white liberal or progressive would dare employ such racial caricature against a black man. (Yet it's all right for him to peddle this imagery to his readers, including ones who aren't black.) But actually, Gilliard may be off-base about that. Ted Rall, who over a year ago drew a cartoon that had Condoleeza Rice referring to herself as Bush's "house nigga," is white. So is Jeff Danziger, who depicted Rice as Gone with the Wind's Mammy saying "I don't know nuthin' about no aluminum tubes." While Danziger was referring to a movie character and probably wasn't thinking of race, his cartoon was at the very least racially insensitive.

It seems fairly clear to me that such racial putdowns are more likely to be used against black conservatives, in the same way that some progressives think sexist slurs against right-wing women are all right -- because, being politically incorrect, they don't share in the protected status of victim of racism/sexism. (If anyone has examples of racist imagery being used to mock liberal/left-wing black public figures -- other than on openly racist websites -- please send them in.)

And speaking of sexism: if Steve Gilliard feels that he's free to use racist images and language because he's black, may we assume that he is also female, since he has no compunction about mocking conservative women in blatantly sexist terms? About a year ago, Gilliard wrote about the wedding of journalist and serial plagiarist Ruth Shalit, using the event as an occasion to make fun of Shalit. There's certainly plenty to make fun of; writing for The New Republic and plagiarizing from Washington Post columnist David Broder is right up there with committing robbery just outside a police station. But Gilliard's mockery has a specific twist. He mentions that after being fired by The New Republic, Shalit was hired by to write about advertising but lasted there only a short time before getting caught in another scandal. Then, Gilliard writes (my apologies for the language):

Now, why did Shalit have such a charmed career? Because she and her sister Wendy were, for lack of a better phrase, fuckable. Nobody cared what Shalit wrote as long as they could hop in bed with her. Now, to be fair, this has nothing to do with Talbot, who was 3000 miles away from his writer, but it sure cut her slack in Washington. While Wendy made a point of her virginity, Ruth, well, that wasn't the issue with her.

Lack of a better phrase, indeed.

Note the impeccable logic. Ruth Shalit's hiring by Salon shows that she had a "charmed" career, and it was charmed because she was willing to hop in bed with men who were willing to promote her career ... except that the man who hired her for Salon was 3000 miles away. For some reason, Wendy Shalit is smeared by association as well, even though Gilliard tells us that she "made a point of her virginity" (actually, I believe she merely urged young women to forgo premarital sex but refused to discuss her own personal life) and thus clearly wasn't doing any bed-hopping.

This is vile stuff, and vile in a peculiarly sexist way. (Shalit was, in fact, a talented journalist, just an ethically challenged one.) And there is, of course, the political factor: according to Gilliard, "Ruth Shalit in her New Republic career, was a race baiter. She wrote a long, nasty and racist article for the New Republic, on I think DC." Actually, the 1995 article was about racial politics at The Washington Post and asserted that the push for "diversity," while laudable in some ways, had created a lot of tensions and problems. While it contained some embarrassing errors, the former president of the American Journalism Review wrote that it touched on some real issues, and called it "a layered and textured piece." To Gilliard, any discussion of problems with preferential hiring is obviously racist.

To sexism, add a strong whiff of Jew-baiting. Gilliard's swipe at Shalit is titled, "Plagerist (sic) marries, turns husband into a jew (sic)" -- a reference to the fact that Shalit's husband converted to Judaism. It is also accompanied by an antique photo captioned, "Jewish Wedding. Plagerist (sic) Ruth Shalit had one of these." Somehow, I doubt that Gilliard's "you're allowed to use slurs against your own kind" rule applies in this case.

As for the "Sambo" affair: the "Sambo" image is now gone from Gilliard's site and replaced with this. Why? Apparently, the picture Gilliard had Photoshopped with blackface was copyrighted to The Washington Post, whose lawyers promptly contacted Gilliard. Gilliard replaced it with a public-domain photo. Only this time, he didn't "minstrelize" it but superimposed it on an image of money. "Now, some people might mistake this as regret," Gilliard writes. No, of course not.

Update: More from Jeff at Protein Wisdom. Astoundingly, some black leaders are openly saying that racially tinged slams are all right if directed at Republicans.

Speaking of sexist slurs against right-wing women: back in my college days, I heard a male student who prided himself on being pro-feminist quote, with great gusto, some comedian's joke: "Have you noticed that all the women in those anti-abortion marches are so ugly, no one would want to f*** them anyway?" To this day, I regret that I didn't ask him if he would have told (or laughed at) the same joke if it was directed at women in anti-rape marches. And I'm pro-choice.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Rosa Parks, American hero

This past week has been a busy one, with magazine-length blogging on same-sex marriage and two deadlines for the work that I actually get paid for. So I'm a little behind on current events.

As I'm sure you know, Rosa Parks died at the age of 92 -- just a couple of months short of the 50th anniversary of her rebellion against Jim Crow.

I thought I knew the Rosa Parks story, but it turns out I didn't. I thought she was arrested for taking a seat in the "whites only" section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But no, it was worse. According to the Voice of America obituary:

On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks had finished her work as a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama, store and boarded a city bus to go home. She took a seat in the 11th row, behind the seats reserved exclusively for white passengers, as required by the city's segregation law at that time. Blacks were entitled to seats from the 11th row to the rear of a bus. However, the city law said if the first 10 rows were filled, a white passenger could request a seat in the back of a bus. Rosa Parks remembered the bus was crowded with people standing in the aisle when several whites boarded. A white man told the driver he wanted a seat. The driver, who had the authority under city law, went to the rear of the bus and ordered Mrs. Parks and three other black passengers to get up. The others reluctantly stood. Rosa Parks, tired after a day of work, refused.

"When they stood up and I stayed where I was, he asked me if I was going to stand and I told him that 'no, I wasn't,' and he told me if I did not stand up he was going to have me arrested. And, I told him to go on and have me arrested," Mrs. Parks said.

The bus driver called the police and when they arrived he told them he needed the seats for his white passengers.

"He pointed at me and said, 'that one won't stand up.' The two policemen came near me and only one spoke to me. He asked me if the driver had asked me to stand up? I said, 'yes.' He asked me why I didn't stand up," Mrs. Parks said. "I told him I didn't think I should have to stand up. So I asked him: 'Why do you push us around?' And he told me, 'I don't know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.'"

Mrs. Parks said her decision to remain seated was based on her desire to be treated with decency and dignity:

"This was not the way I wanted to be treated after I had paid the same fare this man had paid - he hadn't paid any more than I did but I had worked all day and I can recall feeling quite annoyed and inconvenienced. And I was very determined to, in this way, show that I felt that I wanted to be treated decently on this bus or where ever I was," Mrs. Parks said.

As you read the story and it sinks in, it's almost hard to believe that there was a time when human beings in America were treated this way because they had black skin.

Of course, this was just one of the many indignities African-Americans had to put up with. The first chapter of Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom's wonderful book, America in Black and White, opens with this story:

In 1962, Colin and Alma Powell, recently married, packed all their belongings into his Volkswagen and left Fort Devens in Massachusetts for a military training course in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "Driving through Dixie with a new wife was ... unnerving," General Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography. "I remember passing Woodbridge, Virginia," he went on, "and not finding even a gas station bathroom that we were allowed to use. I had to pull off the road so that we could relieve ourselves in the woods.

1962. That's just one year before I was born. This happened to a man, an outstanding American, who is alive today and who isn't that old.

It's profoundly humbling to think about this not-so-distant past. I don't feel guilt -- I wasn't even born at the time, and when I was born it was in a different country; but I do feel shame that my country, the country that I consider mine, allowed these things to happen. I know that racial, ethnic, and religious oppression has been an all-too-common feature of human history, common in every country for most of human history, and in all too many countries. But we were the only country founded on the idea that all men are created equal. So, yes, we deserve to be held to a higher standard. And we should accept nothing less.

Today, there are some people on the right who, partly as a reaction to "political correctness," the culture of victimhood, and racial demagoguery, act as if any acknowledgment of America's shameful history of mistreating blacks were just a sign of liberal wimpiness. Maybe they should read Rosa Parks's story, again. Even if, as some assert, she deliberately pushed matters to get arrested in order to challenge the city's segregation policy (and Parks firmly denies it, though by the time of her arrest she worked for the NAACP), so what? What happened to her was still outrageous. And what she did was still a small heroic act that helped change history.

Thinking about Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle in America has made me think of a couple of more things.

1. Conservatives often warn about the dangers of recklessly tossing overboard established cultual norms and traditions. And they have a good point: often, traditions are there for a reason, and abandoning them may have unintended consequences. But excessive deference to established cultural norms and traditions is not good, either: it can lead us to accept odious injustices "just because." Just because it's been done that way as far back as we remember. A mere fifty years ago, most white Southerners and quite a few white Northerners -- many of them, no doubt, good and decent people in their own way -- thought it was perfectly acceptable to treat black people as subhuman. Who knows how history will judge our own attitudes fifty years hence?

2. On the other hand, can we stop comparing every social injustice to the oppression of blacks in America, and every progressive cause to the civil rights movement? Yes, many other groups have been discriminated against and mistreated, but not all wrongs are equal. Think of what segregration and the social subordination of blacks meant in day-to-day life; then think of claims that legalized domestic partnerships rather than actual marriage for same-sex couples amounts to being relegated to "the back of the bus." Think of white middle-class women in the 1970s making fatuous analogies between their state and that of blacks in the Jim Crow South. Surely, women, gays, and other groups can make their legitimate claims for justice and equality without piggybacking on the cause of blacks.

And now, back to Rosa Parks, a hero who helped remind America that it had betrayed its own ideals. I know little about Parks's life, but from what I do know, I think she was a fine example of true values. She never embraced hate, and she never embraced the pernicious idea of victimhood as an excuse for bad behavior. I was reminded of this when I read an excerpt from a 1995 interview with Parks in Christianity Today posted at Don't Let Me Stop You. Some time before the interview, Parks was robbed and beaten by an African-American youth who broke into her home. Discussing the incident, the interviewer asked, "What kind of social conditions would push someone to attack and rob an elderly woman?" Parks replied:

I wouldn't say these young people are being pushed. Many people these days go astray by using drugs and attack people in order to get money. They are making those choices.

I regret that some people, regardless of race, are in such a state of mind that they would harm an older person. Too many of today's youth don't know who they are or where they have been. And therefore, they don't know where they're going.

I live in hope that things will be better. If we get to children at an early age and see that they get the proper guidance, then they will not fall into that behavior that is harmful to themselves and others.

Amen. R.I.P., Rosa Parks.

Update: Excellent post Rosa Parks post by Jane Galt, with an interesting though at times depressing comments thread.

See also Tim Cavanaugh at Hit & Run eviscerate some incredibly tasteless "Rosa Parks on a bus to Heaven" editorial cartoons. One of which, amazingly, manages to turn Parks into an elderly white woman (click on the image for the full-size picture):

Update: Juan Williams has an excellent op-ed in the New York Times discussing some less-known details of Rosa Parks's famous bus ride.

The truth is that Mrs. Parks was not someone who one day, out of the blue, decided to defy the local custom of blacks sitting in the back of the bus. That story leads some people to the cynical conclusion, once voiced by a character in the movie "Barbershop," that all Rosa Parks did was sit on her bottom. That's not only insulting but a distortion that takes away the powerful truth that Rosa Parks worked hard to develop her own political consciousness and then worked hard to build a politically aware black community in the heart of Dixie.

Before that one moment of defiance on the bus she was a civil rights activist who had long fought to get voting rights for black people in Alabama. Apparently it is too confusing to mention that as far back as 1943 she had refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And it invites too much complexity to mention that in the late 40's, as an official of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she was forming a coalition with a group of black and white women in Montgomery to fight segregated seating on city buses.

Her education in rural Pine Level, Ala., came at Jim Crow schools that taught her only enough to work for white people as a washerwoman, maid or seamstress. In Montgomery, she worked mending dresses. One of her employers was Virginia Durr, the wife of a powerful white lawyer. Mrs. Durr, a member of the interracial Women's Political Council, became Mrs. Parks's ally in a long-term effort to use political pressure to end the daily indignity of riding segregated buses.

Mrs. Durr introduced Mrs. Parks to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The school taught strategies to empower white and black people to get better wages, to register to vote and organize as a political force. Even before Highlander, Mrs. Parks had championed the rights of a teenager, Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white people on a Montgomery bus.

All of this preceded the moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her own seat on the bus. Even after her arrest she had to agree to fight the charges of violating segregation laws, and risk angering the white establishment in town and losing her job. Her husband and her mother told her she was going to be lynched for becoming the named plaintiff in a challenge to segregation. She made a deliberate decision to take up the fight. There was nothing spontaneous about this. And she knew that she would not be fighting alone.

The courage of black men and women who fought segregation is inspiring; but it's also heartening to know that from the start, there were white women and men of conscience who fought on the right side of this battle.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Some closing thoughts on the same-sex marriage debate

I wasn't planning to devote quite so much space to commentary on the same-sex marriage debate, but Maggie Gallagher's guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy piqued my interest. (My earlier blogposts on the subject can be found here and here.)

First, my basic position. I think that ending the social and legal persecution of homosexual men and women has been one of Western culture's greatest cultural and moral victories in our time. I think that sexual orientation is largely innate, and that discrimination against gays in the workplace, housing, and other matters is gravely wrong (and should be illegal if we agree that other types of identity-based discrimination by private businesses can be outlawed -- in other words, you can't be selectively libertarian about anti-gay discrimination if you have no problem with the government prohibiting race or sex discrimination). However, like the movements for gender and racial equality, the gay liberation movement has had its excesses and extremes, including attempts to portray heterosexuality itself as an oppressive institution and/or a social invention. To state the obvious, sexuality evolved as a reproductive mechanism, which strongly suggests that the primary biological template of human sexuality is heterosexual (though a large percentage of humans probably have some bisexual potential). It seems fairly clear to me that homosexuality is a morally neutral variation on that template. Equal treatment for gay men and women is a laudable goal; dismantling "heteronormative" culture is a socially divisive utopia.

As various polls show, the vast majority of Americans now support full equality for gays in most areas of life. What's being debated now is equality not just for gays and lesbians as individuals, but also for same-sex relationships.

On one level, I believe this is a question of basic equality. When a gay man is barred from making medical decisions on behalf of his longtime partner; when a lesbian who wants to be a stay-at-home mom cannot get coverage under her partner's health insurance plan; when a same-sex couple is not allowed to pool their credit the way a married straight couple would be -- the injustice is obvious. What's more, for some gay couples, the unavailability of marriage effectively amounts to denying them the opportunity to live together. If I go to Russia, meet the perfect guy and decide to bring him home, I'm allowed to do that. If the same thing happens to a gay man, he's not. I would like to know how any non-homophobic opponent of equal rights for same-sex couples can explain to a gay man or a lesbian why this is right and why this is "moral."

For these reasons of basic fairness, I have long been sympathetic to equal rights for same-sex couples (see, for instance, my articles here and here). I am somewhat more dubious when the demand for, specifically, marriage -- as opposed to civil unions or domestic partnerships with all the basic privileges of marriage -- is used as a symbolic affirmation of equality and inclusion. I can certainly understand that to many gays, "marriage in all but name" feels like a statement of second-class citizenship. But there are also a lot of Americans who support legal protections for same-sex couples yet, for the reasons I outlined in my previous posts on this topic, feel that the male-female union should retain a special cultural status. And I think this is a disagreement that can and should be settled through a democratic debate.

The state of the debate, however, is endlessly frustrating to me, and that's part of the reason I've waded into these treacherous waters. Here's a quick survey of the battleground as I see it:

1. Bad arguments. Plenty of those on both sides. My favorite stupid anti-SSM argument: "Gays and lesbians already have the right to get married -- to someone of the opposite sex!" Wonderful. It's a bit like outlawing all non-Christian religious services and then telling Jews, Muslims and Buddhists that they do have the right to worship -- in Christian churches. My favorite stupid pro-SSM argument: "The government has no business telling me whom I can and can't marry." Oh yes, it does. The government has no business telling consenting adults whom they can and can't sleep or live with (constitutional originalism or not, I believe that Lawrence v. Texas was rightly decided). But marriage is a set of legal privileges, protections, rights and obligations the government bestows on some relationships. Besides, if taken to its logical conclusion, this argument takes us directly to the anti-SSM parade of the horribles: establish the principle that the government can't tell you whom you can and can't marry, and next thing you know, some guy will want to marry his horse. (By the way, that's my second favorite stupid anti-SSM argument.)

2. Hidden agendas (and charges of hidden agendas). Gay rights activists typically charge that conservative opponents of SSM are simply using the issue as a smokescreen for bigotry and gay-bashing, and in many cases this happens to be true. The rhetoric from some of the social conservative groups positively drips with disgust for gays, with a lot of references to disease, pedophilia, and graphically described sexual practices. The frequent habit of invoking bestiality as a parallel to homosexual sex also has strong overtones of literally dehumanizing gay relationships; and the fact that many right-wing opponents of SSM also support anti-sodomy laws is telling as well.

Meanwhile, many conservatives charge that SSM advocates have covert agendas of their own -- that they are not interested in marriage so much as in an official affirmation that homosexual relationships have equal worth to heterosexual ones. Of course there is some truth to that as well. I don't think that the destigmatization of homosexuality represents some kind of nefarious agenda, but there are gay activists who clearly want to go beyond that -- who want to subvert the "heteronormative" culture and to radically overhaul marriage itself. There clearly are supporters of SSM who openly regard gay marriage as a way to destabilize traditional family insitutions, and I think reasonable SSM advocates need to do more do distance themselves from them.

3. Secrets and lies. The anti-SSM right routinely trafficks in misinformation about gays and "the homosexual lifestyle," from "studies" showing that gays have an average life expectancy of 43 years to claims about the success of "reparative therapy." At the same time, some real facts relevant to this debate tend to be surrounded by taboos. For instance, in my earlier thread on SSM, a commenter says:

Take, for instance, Maggie's claim that male-male couples do not regard fidelity the same way that male-female couples regard fidelity. There's the faint odor of bigotry, but I'd rather challenge the statement than attack the person making the statement.

Odor of bigotry? I think a University of Vermont study reported on Vermont's premier LGBT website, Out in the Mountains, should pass the smell test:

Seventy-nine percent of married heterosexual men felt non-monogamy was not okay, compared with only 34 percent of gay men not in civil unions and 50 percent of gay men in civil unions. Over 82 percent of the women in the study, regardless of sexual orientation, said monogamy was important.

There are specific examples as well:
the very first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Provincetown openly declared that they had an "open marriage" and that "the concept of 'forever' is overrated." If a substantial number of legally partnered gay men do not regard sexual fidelity as an essential feature of marriage (and the 50% figure in the Vermont study is consistent with other studies I have seen), is this a problem worth discussing? Is there a need for a conscious effort in the gay community to deal with this issue as we head toward some form of same-sex marriage (whether as formal marriage or marriage-like legal partnerships)? If not, is it possible that as SSM gains more widespread acceptance, there will be a push for greater acceptance of open marriage as well? (Which, in my opinion, would qualify as a negative.) I have absolutely no doubt that a lot of gay men have relationships as loving and as committed as the strongest of heterosexual marriages. But it won't do to simply sweep the non-monogamy issue under the rug as an anti-gay slur.

4. The "marriage culture" and the SSM debate. In many ways, the same-sex marriage debate is part of a larger debate about marriage, sex, and relations between the sexes. SSM opponents such as Maggie Gallagher say that allowing gay marriage pushes us toward a view of marriage as nothing more than the pursuit of individual happiness, shorn of obligations and ties to the future generations or to the wider community -- and as just another lifestyle choice rather than a social norm. Others argue that we have already shifted toward such a view of marriage, or at least are shifting toward it; and I think that's largely true, at least in more urbanized and socially liberal parts of the country.

There is still a social expectation of marriage, but a considerably weakened one. In a 1994 New York Times poll, 73% of adolescent girls (but, interestingly enough, only 61% of boys) said that they could have a happy life even if they did not marry. And here's another interesting statistic I got from Helen Fisher's book The First Sex: In a 1965 survey, more than three out of four female college students said they would marry a man they were not in love with if he otherwise met their standards for a perfect husband. Men were actually the romantics, with two-thirds insisting they would only marry for love. By 1991, about 90% of college students of both sexes said that they would not marry someone they didn't love.

As I said in my earlier post, preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage is not going to reverse the trends Gallagher and other social conservatives deplore. But social conservatives do want to reverse them at least somewhat and to return to a more marriage-centric culture and a more traditional vision of marriage; and I do think that, for better or worse, legalizing same-sex marriage will make that goal more difficult. I also think it's possible that SSM will lead to greater cultural and legal acceptance of other alternative family forms -- from polygamy and polyamory to child-rearing partnerships between straight women -- and while a part of me feels that society is resilient enough to survive such a development, the other part sees the proverbial handbasket headed to hell.

Perhaps the best response to Gallagher & Co. is that vague concerns about the possible social repercussions of SSM, and even vaguer hopes to roll back some of the cultural changes that conservatives believe have harmed families, are a pretty poor reason to deny a minority equal rights (i.e., at the very least, civil unions with all the basic "incidents of marriage"). On the other hand, the claims of some conservative SSM advocates such as Jonathan Rauch that legalizing SSM will strengthen the marriage culture strike me as rather strained. In his 1996 New Republic article advocating gay marriage, Rauch writes:

If it is good for society to have people attached, then it is not enough just to make marriage available. Marriage should also be expected. ... When grandma cluck-clucks over a still-unmarried young man, or when mom says she wishes her little girl would settle down, she is expressing a strong and well-justified preference: one that is quietly echoed in a thousand ways throughout society and that produces subtle but important pressure to form and sustain unions. This is a good and necessary thing, and it will be as necessary for homosexuals as heterosexuals. If gay marriage is recognized, single gay people over a certain age should not be surprised when they are disapproved of or pitied. That is a vital part of what makes marriage work. It's stigma as social policy.

If marriage is to work it cannot be merely a "lifestyle option." It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better, on average, than other ways of living. Not mandatory, not good where everything else is bad, but better: a general norm, rather than a personal taste. ... And heterosexual society would rightly feel betrayed if, after legalization, homosexuals treated marriage as a minority taste rather than as a core institution of life.
Whether the legalization of SSM will create equal familial and social pressures on gays and heterosexuals to wed is very much an open question. For one thing, such pressures do have a lot to do with expectations of procreation: I doubt that a man and a woman in their sixties who are dating get a lot of "so when are two you getting married?" questions. But perhaps more important, I'm not convinced that the gay community, at least at this point, would agree to Rauch's 1950s-style vision of a marriage culture. (For that matter, I suspect that plenty of heterosexuals would find it much too stifling, too.) Not long ago, Andrew Sullivan linked to an interesting article about efforts to bridge the cultural gap between gay men and lesbians. This is the part that struck me:

Knight [Cathy Knight, a lesbian invited to discuss gender issues with a gay men's group] suggested that even if some stereotypes are accurate, they shouldn't serve to divide a community that needs unity.

"More lesbians are coupled, homebodies, they don't go to bars as much, and men are more sexually active," she said. "My response is, 'So what?' If that's what they choose, it doesn't have anything to do with having less moral values. It's about expressing yourself."

Evidence suggests that lesbians are indeed more drawn to monogamy than gay men -- two-thirds of the same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts or entered civil unions in Vermont are women. But prominent lesbians balk at using such statistics to question the multi-partner dating preferences of many gay men.

"I don't have any judgment about how they order their lives," Kendell [Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights] said. "Lifestyle choices that are damaging and self-destructive -- that's the problem, not gay men having more partners."

I am not for a moment suggesting that gays are innately "less moral" than heterosexuals. I'm not even convinced that because of innate sex differences, men are less interested in monogamy in the absence of pressure from women (in Sweden and the Netherlands, gay men and lesbians marry or enter civil unions in roughly equal numbers). However, given the fact that the gay rights movement started out as a sexual liberation movement, I wonder if the gay community is reluctant to stigmatize any sexually "liberated" behavior between consenting adults?

I'm hoping to wrap up my Maggie Gallagher-inspired same-sex marriage discussion with this post, and to leave the topic alone for the time being (there are other things going on in the world!). But this is an important topic -- one that, incidentally, isn't going away just because some people in my comments threads would like to pretend it doesn't exist -- and it needs a better caliber of civil, honest debate.

Update: If you haven't seen it already, check out Jane Galt's very interesting post on the topic from last April. Long, but definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Same-sex marriage and polygamy

A commenter on the thread about the same-sex marriage debate raises the issue of SSM and polygamy. My Reason column on the subject from March 2004 can be found here.

Marriage, sexual complementarity and difference

Some more thoughts generated by Maggie Gallagher's guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy.

In one of her posts, Gallagher writes:

SS couples are being added to the mix precisely in order to assure that society views them as “no different” than other couples.

To this, one of the commenters responds:

This seems as close as we'll get to a candid admission that her opposition to SSM is actually all about keeping them homos subjegated. (sic)

So here's a question. Is it bigoted to regard same-sex relationships -- even aside from the issue of procreation -- as different to male-female relationships?

The belief that men and women are profoundly different is common in American culture. (Just look at the popularity of John Gray's "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" cottage industry.) Even in liberal segments of society, talk of sexual difference, once frowned upon as anti-feminist, has become socially acceptable again (unless done in a way that seems to justify inequality for women, as Harvard president Lawrence Summers painfully learned). Despite overwhelming support for female achievement in the public sphere and career opportunities for women, the majority of Americans still embrace a degree of sex-role traditionalism. Even in liberal California, 69% of all parents surveyed by the Los Angeles Times in 1999 believed that it's "much better" for the family if it's the mother who stays home with young children (though 70% also felt it was acceptable for the father to be the stay-at-home parent).

All this raises the question: to what extent do many people see sexual differentiation and sexual complementarity as an essential feature of marriage and family?

Personally, I think that sex difference is vastly overhyped in our culture today. I believe that men and women are far more alike that different -- not that "everyone is the same," but that the individual variations within each sex vastly eclipse the differences between the sexes. But that's me.

Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, strongly believes that biology -- specifically, testosterone -- makes men and women radically different: ambition, risk-taking, action, competitiveness and aggression are male traits, while empathy, patience, the desire for stability, and interest in relationships are essentially female. In his April 2000 New York Times essay on the subject, Andrew allows for individual differences and variations, but he also makes it clear that in his view, men and women overall approach and experience the world in deeply and fundamentally different ways.

I admire Andrew's writings on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and I find a lot of his arguments very powerful and persuasive. But I see a basic contradiction between his strong belief in deep, important, innate differences between the sexes and his equally passionate belief that same-sex relationships should be treated as fully equivalent to male-female ones. After all, if men and women are so different, then isn't there at least some rational basis for believing that one goal and one essential element of marriage is to bring these two profoundly different halves of humanity together in family units based on a mix, and a balance, of male and female traits?

In fact, I suspect that the belief in sexual complementarity underlies many people's support for civil unions but not full marriage for same-sex couples. So I ask again: If someone fully accepts same-sex relationships and does not regard them as either "icky" or immoral but also believes that sexual complementarity, biological and psychological, makes male-female unions unique and deserving of special cultural recognition, is that person a bigot?

Incidentally, this is a basic difference between the legalization of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the ban on interracial marriage, a parallel that often comes up in this debate. The traditional language of marriage is steeped in sexual dualism: we can speak of a couple and identify each partner by gender or gendered role, not name. ("The husband works in a bank, the wife is a schoolteacher.") Interracial marriage does not challenge this dualism. Same-sex marriage obviously does. In fact, after SSM was legalized in Massachusetts, marriage license forms were changed, eliminating the words "husband" and "wife" and replacing them with "Spouse A" and "Spouse B."

To traditionalists, this change is undoubtedly appalling: it symbolizes the official adoption of a literally neutered version of marriage, as well as its downgrading to a bureaucratic formality. I myself don't think too many people care about what's written in their marriage licenses. And yet if same-sex couples are justified in seeking official affirmation that their unions are equal to heterosexual ones, aren't traditional couples justified in seeking official affirmation of the gendered nature of their marriages?

I think, too, that this is a part of Maggie Gallagher's concern when she frets that the legalization of same-sex marriage will attach the stigma of bigotry to defenders of traditional marriage. At present, defenders of traditional male-female roles may be seen as old-fashioned, but they are not seen as bigots (in part, perhaps, because women are just as likely as men to endorse such roles). The use of racial analogies in the discussion of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, threatens to place the traditional view of marriage beyond the pale.

Again, the views I am defending are by and large not my own. I don't think that men are inferior to women in relational skills or that women are less competitive than men; or rather, I think that whatever innate sex differences exist in these areas are flexible and outweighed by individual differences. I don't think that "gender-neutral parenting" is a danger to the family. I do believe that the interplay of maleness and femaleness -- more as intangible "energies" than specific psychological traits -- creates a unique and valuable dynamic. (In a purely biological sense, human beings do come in two basic kinds -- male and female -- making the male/female couple a microcosm of humanity.) But in my view, that doesn't make the mutual commitment of two women or two men any less genuine or less deserving.

My point is that there is a legitimate debate here, not just the forces of bigotry aligned against equality and civil rights.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The same-sex marriage discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy

For several days last week, Maggie Gallagher guest-blogged at The Volokh Conspiracy, laying out -- or trying to lay out -- her case against the legalization of same-sex marriage. Her posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Some commentary can be found at Hit & Run, Crooked Timber, and Ann Althouse.) This was not exactly what I would call a successful venture: Gallagher meandered a lot, made some rather disjointed arguments and scattered points, and never really coherently explained her view that allowing same-sex marriage would undermine the traditional heterosexual kind. In her last post, she explained that she had not quite laid out her case due to "bad time management," and concluded with a rather startling and over-the-top metaphor: legalizing same-sex marriage would not be merely "the straw that breaks the camel's back" -- traditional marriage being the camel in this case -- but more like chopping off the camel's front legs.

This has led a lot of commenters at both the Volokh Conspiracy and other sites conclude that there simply is no reasonable defense for Gallagher's position and that, in fact, her arguments are a thin cover for anti-gay bigotry.

Here's where I stand in this debate. I strongly believe that same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples (though I'm not opposed to the civil union/domestic partnership solution, as long as it truly confers similar rights on the partners). At the same time, I don't believe that everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot or a hater, or someone who necessarily regards gay sex as "icky" and gays as inferior. And I think that the legalization of same-sex marriage does have potential social and cultural repercussions that cannot be easily dismissed.

On the "bigotry" issue: In particular, as someone who has read a lot of Gallagher's past work (I reviewed her first book, Enemies of Eros, for The Detroit News in 1990), I have to say that she has never struck me as anti-gay. If there an animus toward anyone in Enemies of Eros, it's heterosexual men who (in Gallagher's view) exploit women -- either by having sex with them without any intention of marriage, or by walking out on their wives and children, or even by staying married but balking at taking on the sole-breadwinner role so that the wife has the choice of devoting herself to nurturing children.

I strongly disagree with many if not most of Gallagher's ideas, from her 1950-ish view of sex roles in the family (she is not opposed to women having careers but firmly believes that nurturing children and caring for the home is, biologically, the woman's role) to her insistence on treating women as victims (in Enemies of Eros, she asserts that if a woman who is not prepared to shoulder "the burden of paternity" in case of conception is being exploited, even if she consents "fully, knowledgeably, enthusiastically" to such "exploitation"). But I don't believe she's a gay-basher, and I don't believe that her opposition to same-sex marriage stems from bigotry. Gallagher's chief concern for her entire career has been the protection of traditional marriage for the benefit of women and children -- some of the commenters seem unaware of her longstanding opposition to no-fault divorce -- and I'm sure she sincerely views her stance on gay marriage as being in the same category.

As for Gallagher's argument, which some of the commenters managed to summarize better than she did: the crux of it is that legalizing same-sex marriage is going to deal a death blow to the already weakened link between marriage and procreation, by formally recognizing the union of two people who are biologically incapable of reproducing. Many of the commenters seem to assume that Gallagher is saying that heterosexuals get married primarily for procreative purposes, and proceed to easily knock down that assumption. But to some extent, they are knocking down a straw man. Somewhere in the midst of her ramblings, Gallagher explicitly states that she is not arguing that people marry solely or mainly in order to have children. Rather, she is arguing that the reason the sexual union of male and female is and has always been surrounded by special legal protections, and has been accorded a special status, is that such unions are known to result in children. Take away procreation as a crucial element of marriage, and the rationale for special government sanction for marriage vanishes (and perhaps the rationale for cultural support, as well); it becomes just another private relationship in which society has no special interest. The end result, Gallagher predicts, will be "the de-institutionalization of marriage altogether." And like it or not, she has a point. Unless children are an issue, why should the government take an interest in whether we settle down with a steady partner in a sexual relationship? Yes, there is evidence that married people are happier and healthier than singles, but that doesn't necessarily justify government involvement; there is also plenty of evidence that people who have a network of close friends are happier and healthier than loners, but we don't have special legally mandated benefits for friendships.

I think Gallagher is probably wrong about the "de-institutionalization of marriage," if by that she means that the marital "benefit package" will be abolished. Taking away benefits people already have is never a popular move (which is one reason the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts is likely to stick). It is more likely that some of the benefits now associated with marriage will be extended to other close relationships. Actually, The New Republic's Gregg Easterbrook, a supporter of same-sex marriage, predicted this very scenario in an online column shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling on same-sex marriage:

If significant numbers of gays and lesbians begin to wed, the 100 million single people may become more dismayed that still more people wearing rings get special deals while they do not. Equally important, for every gay or lesbian pair who weds, winning benefits, a couple of single people must be taxed more to fund these benefits. Benefits can't just be demanded; someone must provide them. Marriage benefits for gays and lesbians will not come from the pockets of those in traditional one-man-one-woman unions. The benefits will come from the pockets of the single.

You chortle now, but as same-gender unions gain acceptance, prejudice against the single may become the final frontier. Marriage definitely isn't for everyone; some people were made by God to be single, and why should society punish them for that? Millions of people wish to marry but cannot find suitable partners; why should society punish them for that? The single makes substantial contributions to society, including often assisting in the all-important raising of children. Many single people form long-term or even life-long bonds to each other based not on eros but Platonic friendship; why shouldn't such people be able to pool their credit, inherit each other's property without taxation, and so on? ... At any rate, complaints from the single seem the next logical progression of this debate, and complaints from the single are going to be hard to rebut.

Indeed, one could argue that when married employees are permitted to include their spouses in their health and retirement benefits, this effectively amounts to a "marriage bonus" that single employees are denied (unequal pay for equal work?).

If some of the benefits of marriage are extended to non-marital relationships, will it harm marriage? Probably not in any practical sense (how many people weigh their spouse's insurance policy as a factor in deciding to marry?), but marriage would lose its special status and hence, probably, some of its prestige as well.

A radical decoupling of marriage and procreation would bring about other cultural changes -- or rather, accelerate them, since they have been underway for some time. Straight couples would probably face less of an expectation that, once married, they will have children as a matter of course. And that expectation definitely still exists: in a comment at the Volokh Conspiracy, "Law Student Kate" writes that on many occasions, when she has told people she doesn't intend to have children, she has been asked why she bothered to get married. (For the record, I find that incredibly rude; however, I do think that less obnoxious pro-natalist social pressures serve a useful purpose.) However, I think a more pressing concern for Gallagher is not that people will stop having babies, but that fewer babies will be raised by a mother and a father. And again, I don't think her worries are wholly groundless.

The other day, I read a very moving article by Jonathan Rauch about a wedding of two young men he attended recently in Massachusetts. Asked by Rauch why he wanted to marry, one of the grooms replies, "I wanted the stability, I wanted the companionship, I wanted to have a sex life that was accepted, I wanted to have kids." Perhaps this is very old-fashioned of me, but I found the last part of this comment rather striking. Obviously, in a biological sense, this young man does not need marriage to have kids. (A partnered gay friend of mine who adopted a child from a Russian orphanage actually had to pose as a single guy for the adoption to go through.) Rauch would no doubt say -- and I think it's a strong argument -- that this young man's desire to raise children in a marriage even though he didn't biologically need a spouse for the purpose is actually a powerful endorsement of marriage as an institution. But one can see another side to this as well. Once you take away the ideal of the procreative couple, is there any reason to believe that the family unit best suited for raising a child is a pair whose union is based on romantic love? Sure, two caregivers are better than one, but why shouldn't the other caregiver be a relative or even a friend?

In the past 20 years or so, there has been a growing trend of women becoming single mothers by choice. Many other women are held back by the fact that the prospect of solo motherhood is too daunting, financially and practically. But what if two close female friends, who are straight but haven't found "the right man" -- or, perhaps, aren't very interested in having a permanent male partner -- decide to pool their resources and take advantage of marriage laws, perhaps even enabling one of them to stay home or to work part-time? In a culture where female friendships are often viewed as more central to women's lives than romantic bonds with men (a year ago ran an article provocatively titled "Girlfriends Are the New Husbands"), could full acceptance of same-sex marriage lead to acceptance of such child-rearing partnerships between heterosexual women? I think it's (pardon the inevitable pun) conceivable. To me, this would be indisputably a bad thing, since it would result in the further alienation of men from children and family life.

One more point to ponder: if the primary purpose of marriage is the romantic happiness and satisfaction of adults, then staying together for the sake of the children even if romantic passion and intimacy have one out of the marriage -- an ideal many people who are neither reactionary nor bigoted would like to reclaim -- becomes a far less tenable proposition.

The argument that procreation is a fundamental element of marriage, however, has a serious weakness: opposite-sex couples in which one partner is infertile, or in which the woman is past childbearing age, are permitted to marry. Gallagher says that "both older couples and childless couples are part of the natural life-cycle of marriage. Their presence in the mix doesn’t signal anything in particular at all." What she means, I believe, is that infertile male-female couples are in some important way exactly like couples who are planning to have children but don't have any yet, and elderly husbands and wives are in some important way exactly like parents with grown children; a same-sex couple is fundamentally different, since non-generativity is inherent in their very gender (rather than being a medical problem or a life stage).

While the pro-SSM commenters at the Volokh Conspiracy seemed baffled by Gallagher's argument, I can see her point: A male-female coupleis the basic biological unit involved in reproduction , even if this particular couple happens to be non-procreative for one reason or another. But there are some pretty powerful counterarguments, too. Surely in some ways, a same-sex couple that plans to adopt or to have a baby biologically related to one of the partners has far more in common with an opposite-sex couple planning to have children than either of them has with newlyweds in their '80s, or with a career-oriented couple "child-free" couple in which both husband and wife have opted for sterilization. If older and infertile couples can be "the exception that proves the rule," why not same-sex couples?

Another important counterargument to Gallagher's reasoning is that the trends she deplores -- the shift toward a view of marriage centered around romantic love rather than procreation, divorce, single mtoherhood, the weakening of traditional sex roles in marriage and of social pressures to marry and have children -- are already here. So is de facto gay marriage (some churches and synagogues have been marrying same-sex couples for years). Preventing state recognition of same-sex marriage is not going to reverse those trends. But I think that for Gallagher and many other social conservatives, the legalization of same-sex marriage amounts to an official death certificate for traditional sexual arrangements and an affirmation that the forces of modernity have won.

This post is threatening to meander, so I'll sum up my basic view of the debate. I think it's possible that the legalization of same-sex marriage will lead to social changes that will result in the loss of the special status of marriage as we know it, and perhaps in more children being raised in family units other than married couples (straight or gay). It is also possible that it will lead to none of these consequences, and will have a marginal, if any, effect on heterosexual marriages. It could even, as Rauch argues, have the effect of increasing respect for marriage. I think that we need an honest discussion of these possible outcomes, and of how we as a society can manage the recognition of same-sex unions (which I think is a matter of basic justice and dignity) in such a way as to minimize potential negative repercussions.

My view of marriage and family is very different from Maggie Gallagher's, but I do agree with her that a healthy society should ensure that children, in general, are raised by their mothers and fathers. The small number of gay couples with children hardly poses a threat to this social norm. Let's talk about how we can respect their rights, and promote more stable heterosexual families as well.

Update: Maggie Gallagher responds.

Update: See also my other posts on this topic:

Marriage, sexual complementarity and difference

Some closing thoughts on the same-sex marriage debate

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Witch-hunts: hysteria then and now

The New York Times has a Halloween-related story by Peter Steinfels debunking many of the popular modern myths about witches:

In a search for historical roots and moral legitimacy, some feminists and many adherents of neopagan or goddess-centered religious movements like Wicca have elaborated a founding mythology in which witches and witch hunts have a central role. Witches, they claim, were folk healers, spiritual guides and the underground survivors of a pre-Christian matriarchal cult. By the hundreds of thousands, even the millions, they were the victims of a ruthless campaign that church authorities waged throughout the Middle Ages and early modern centuries to stamp out this rival, pagan religion.

Robin Briggs, an Oxford historian, is only one of many contemporary scholars rejecting this account. What unites most "common assumptions" about witches, witchcraft and witch hunts, Mr. Briggs writes in "Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft" (Viking Penguin, 1996), is "one very marked feature," namely "that they are hopelessly wrong."

In fact, writes Steinfels, witch persecutions were fairly rare in medieval Europe (the biggest witch craze paradoxically occurred during the Renaissance, in 1550-1650, possibly as an expression of Catholic-Protestant tensions). They were also predominantly a grass-roots phenomenon, and in many cases not directed by the Church at all. Here's a particularly surprising tidbit: Spain and Portugal hardly saw any executions for witchcraft at all, due mainly to ... the Inquisition:

In the course of its preoccupation with other scapegoats like Jews and Muslims, it had developed rules of evidence that meant most accusations and even confessions of witchcraft were dismissed as delusions.

It's not often that you see the Spanish Inquisition as the (unwitting) good guys!

Most of the accused were women, and the witchhunts often did have misogynistic overtones; but a sizable minority of witch-hunt victims were men (Steinfels says 20%, other estimates put the number at about 25%, and in some regions men were the majority of the accused). What's more, many of the accusers were also women. The total number of those executed on charges of witchcraft in Europe is estimate to range from 40,000 to 100,000.

This is not exactly "new" news. Laura Miller had an excellent piece on the subject in in February, built around a review of Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany by Oxford historian Lyndal Roper. Two Canadian debunkers, Lara Apps and Andrew Gow, published their book, Male Witches in Early Modern Europe, in 2003; and Briggs' Witches & Neighbors appeared in 1996.

Yet the myth of the witch-hunts as a patriarchal Holocaust in which as many as 9 million women were burned persists in women's studies courses, where students are routinely exposed to propaganda materials like Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology and the 1990 PBS documentary The Burning Times. (Since the radical feminists love to make up ridiculous words like "herstory," can we call this "hystory"?) Yes, of course the witch-hunts were horrific; of course medieval Europe was an oppressive patriarchal society. But it did not wage a Holocaust against women. As Steinfels writes:

Do such unfounded myths do anyone any good? Certainly many feminists, including some identifying themselves as neopagans, agree with contemporary historians about the answer: No.

Many presumably do. Others, shamefully, have actually compared historians who challenge the witch-hunt myths to Holcaust deniers.

Meanwhile, Ann Althouse writes that until reading the Times piece, she believed the 9 million figure to be real ever since reading Gyn/Ecology. Oddly enough, the revelation of Daly's false claim does not change her mind about the book's merits: she concludes her post with:

Have any of you folks read "Gyn/Ecology"? Oh, that is a rousing book!

I have great respect for Ann Althouse. I read her blog regularly, and I think its excellence is not in question (her commentary on the Harriet Miers nomination, for instance, has been among the best). But ... first Andrea Dworkin, now Mary Daly? Gyn/Ecology is a hate-filled, paranoid screed that excoriates men as agents of the patriarchy, "lethal organs" of a "rapist society," misogynists who feed parasitically on female energy and invent evil technologies to compensate for their inability to bear children. The birth-control pill and estrogen therapy are denounced as "the poisoning of women," a medical plot to end women's irritating tendency to live longer. The only contraception women need, Daly asserts, is a "mister-ectomy." Women who don't accept her views are derided as "honorary white males." (For a sampling of quotes see this page.) I'm not sure I understand Prof. Althouse's tolerant attitude toward this kind of hysteria and anti-male bigotry.

Update: Prof. Althouse responds:

I just said it was rousing, not that it was good or right. I went through a period when I read a lot of Dworkin and Daly's books. They were very stimulating, but also ultimately stimulated me into wanting to distance myself from them. There are plenty of things in the treatment of women to be outraged about, but polemical works that demand that you reach and maintain a permanent state of anger just seem sad after a while (or dangerous, if they are actually effective).

I understand Ann's point, of course, and I don't for a moment think that she agrees with Dworkin and Daly. However, I am still troubled by the fact that feminist hate speech (which is what Dworkin/Daly are to me) seems to get a "pass" in a way that other kinds of hate speech do not. "Rousing" is not necessarily a positive adjective, of course, but not a negative one either. In my view, reasonable feminists need to be more judgmental on the subject.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The last word on Katrina media coverage

I've never watched South Park, but now I wish I had. Featured on the site, a clip and partial transcript from a hilarious episode aired the other day lampooning the hysterical response to Hurricane Katrina. (Hat tip: Protein Wisdom.) Two of the boys, Stan and Cartman, accidentally crash a motor boat into a dam and cause the flooding of Beaverton, "home of the world's largest beaver dam." There ensues breathless media hype (Reporter:“We’re not sure what exactly is going on inside the town of Beaverton, Tom, but we’re reporting that there’s looting, raping and, yes, even acts of cannibalism.” Anchorman: “My God, you’ve actually seen people looting, raping and eating each other?!” Reporter: “No, no we’ve haven’t actually seen it, Tom. We’re just reporting it”) and political finger-pointing, as some of the citizens blame Bush ("George Bush doesn't care about beavers!") while others see the work of Al Qaeda terrorists ("they've been buiding beaver dam WMDs for years now")!

Kudos to the creators of South Park for creating a funny and smart episode (at least the roughly two and a half minutes I watched were funny and smart!) on a subject that doesn't easily lend itself to humor.

Check it out. Quite amusing, too, is the comments thread at Newsbusters where people are arguing about whether South Park is poking at conservatives or liberals. Is our culture so polarized that, for many people, "a plague on both your houses" doesn't resonate anymore?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Science, right and left

An anonymous commenter on my post about left-wing bias in academia offers this explanation for the preponderance of liberals in science departments:

[I]n some fields, like biology, you can watch evolution happen in a lab. You can manipulate and measure the process. It is hard to come out of that experience and relate to social conservatives who take the bible literally.
As I said in my response, I think this is a bit of a red herring. True, according to a Harris poll taken earlier this year, only about 16 to 25% of self-identified conservatives in the population at large fully accept Darwinian evolution as the explanation for human origins, compared to 32 to 56% of self-identified liberals (the disparity in the numbers is due to oddly contradictory answers to different questions in the poll). But that leaves a large pool of political conservatives from which to draw prospective scientists.

At the same time, I do think that in recent years the increasing indentification of conservative Republicans with the anti-Darwinist backlash has made political conservatism less attractive to the scientifically literate.

Also in the comments, Jason H. Bowden, a graduate student in physics at the University of Illinois, writes:

The GOP used to be the pro-science party even as late at the 1950s, obtaining the majority of votes from scientists. Republican efforts to politicize science, either for the benefit of corporate donors or the evangelical base, have made many scientists think twice about voting Republican, even if they are conservative on a lot of issues like myself.

In fact, conservatives were also the pro-science faction in the "science wars" of the 1990s, when it was the academic left that rejected the ideals of scientific objectivity and dispassionate search for truth, regarded all scholarship as essentially political, and assailed mainstream science as guilty of sexism, racism, Western ethnocentrism and assorted other sins against political correctness. The 1994 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, which championed traditional science against assaults from radical feminism, radical environmentalism, Afrocentrism, postmodernism and other far-left ideologies, received positive responses from the major conservative magazines -- National Review, Commentary, First Things. In a preface to the 1998 softcover edition of the book, however, Gross and Levitt noted the reemergence of creationism as a major influence on the right and stated that if they were writing the book at that point, "the 'academic right' would have to join the academic left in its subtitle and there would have to be a chapter on 'Intelligent Design Theory'" as one of the pseudo-scientific ideologies threatening science.

Alas, these days it's not unusual to find anti-science claptrap in a respectable, intellectual conservative magazine such as The Weekly Standard. The latest issue features a review by Charmaine Yoest of the book, Does God belong in the Public Schools by Ken Greenawalt. (The link is subscriber-only.) Accusing Greenawalt of an ideological bias, Yoest writes:

He similarly dismisses creationism and intelligent design. Those opposing Darwinian evolution do so out of "distress" because it "threatens the grounds of religious belief and of morality." Although Greenawalt notes that no less a figure than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his 1987 dissent to Edwards v. Aguillard recognized a scientific basis for creationism, he himself only allocates one footnote for evidence. Breezily, he states that "whatever the possible misapprehensions of not very well informed legislators, teaching scientific creationism is teaching religion, and that is not permitted."
Oh, well -- if that noted scientific luminary, Justice Scalia, said that creationism has a scientific basis, then obviously it must be true!

This is a good way to alienate not only scientists but anyone who cares about the integrity of science.

For more on the topic, see also:

The evolution wars are here again

Judicial nominations and ideology

Just saw Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), one of the leading social/religious conservatives in Congress, on Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, on the subject of Harriet Miers. He says he's still undecided on whether he'll vote to confirm her. When asked by Hume whether the issue was Miers's lack of intellectual heft or her judicial philosophy, Brownback said, without hesitation, that it was the latter. He is not certain that Miers is a constitutional originalist; he wants to know how she would rule on abortion and same-sex marriage issues, whether she regards Roe v. Wade as binding precedent, and whether she believes there is a constitutional "right to privacy" in sexual matters as first articulated in Griswold.

Haven't conservatives, in the past, assailed Democrats for denying confirmation to judicial nominess on the basis of political and judicial ideology? Haven't they argued that ideology should play no role in judicial confirmation, and that the president should be free to appoint judges based on his own judgment and his own preferences, with excellence the only criterion? (And haven't liberals taken the position that judicial ideology matters?) Haven't conservatives been particularly angered by the Democrats' attempts to find out how Bush nominees will vote on particular issues, decrying such questions as illegitimate?

Or do these standards only apply as long as the nominee is believed to subscribe to conservative ideology?

Update: On the other hand, I agree with John Cole: this is embarrassing.

The Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers suffered another setback on Wednesday when the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked her to resubmit parts of her judicial questionnaire, saying various members had found her responses "inadequate," "insufficient" and "insulting."

Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee chairman, and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat, sent Ms. Miers a letter faulting what they called incomplete responses about her legal career, her work in the White House, her potential conflicts on cases involving the administration and the suspension of her license by the District of Columbia Bar.


Academic bias: in the eye of the beholder

The other day, New York Times columnist John Tierney published a column on the liberal tilt in academia. Because Tierney is held hostage by TimesSelect, non-subscribers won't be able to access the article, so I'll give a brief recap: Tierney challenges several common (liberal) assumptions about why relatively few conservatives go into college teaching, such as, "conservatives do not value knowledge for its own sake," "conservatives do not care about the social good," "conservatives are too greedy to work for professors' wages," and "conservatives are too dumb." In response, he points out, for instance, that "plenty of smart conservatives have passed up Wall Street to work for right-wing think tanks that often don't pay more than universities do, and don't offer lifetime tenure and summers off."

Tierney argues that the reason for the glaring political imbalance on college faculties (according to a recent study by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte, 72% of professors self-identify as liberal/left and 15% as conservative/right) is "the law of group polarization":

"If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs," said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left."

Of course, the dynamics of group interaction also suggest that people who spend all their time among like-minded others will start to assume that theirs is the only legitimate and acceptable point of view. A person who doesn't share conventional left/liberal beliefs is viewed as a moral leper, as "not one of us."

Yesterday, the Times ran four letters in response to Tierney's column, all of them critical (and all of them from academics). James Henle, a professor of mathematics at Smith College, takes issue with Tierney's claim that the political imbalance is explained by liberal bias:

[I]f this were a significant factor, wouldn't we see a difference between the makeup of a political science department and that of a mathematics department?

Mathematical scholarship has no political coloring. Politics doesn't appear on the résumé of a mathematician. Politics doesn't come up in job interviews. But from where I stand, mathematics departments are as liberal as any in academia.

Any explanation of liberals on campus has to explain bleeding-heart geologists, socialist computer scientists, tax-and-spend physicists and knee-jerk mathematicians. Bias can't do that. But one idea, not mentioned by Mr. Tierney, could.

Perhaps in the marketplace of ideas some ideas are winning - and some are losing.

First of all, there is a difference between political science departments and mathematics departments. Here are the percentages of self-identified conservatives among professors in various departments in the Rothman/Lichter/Nevitte survey, conducted in 1999:

English 3%
Political science 2%
Sociology 9%
Philosophy 5%
Mathematics 17%
Physics 11%
Chemistry 29%
Computer science 26%
Biology 17%
Economics 39%

Obviously, conservatives are a minority in all departments, but the disparity is far more pronounced in the humanities.

Second, I'm not at all sure that subtle political prejudices cannot operate in departments in which the fields of study are apolitical. I may be wrong (my academic experience consists of teaching a 4-week course on feminism and gender issues in the political science department of Colorado College), but don't prospective hires arriving on a campus usually spend some time socializing with the faculty at lunches, dinners, etc.? In such settings, it would hardly be unusual for the conversation to touch on political issues, and that's where the "not one of us" factor could come into play.

And third: since there is no marketplace of political ideas in science and mathematics departments, what exactly is Professor Henle implying? Conservatives are dumb?

An even more revealing letter comes from Neil J. Diamant, associate professor of political science at Dickinson College in Pittsburgh Carlisle, PA:

John Tierney's column about bias against conservatives in academia only proves liberal skepticism about conservative scholarship.

He quotes a conservative professor at Emory who suggested, Suppose that "you were a conservative who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of the European welfare state."

The professor claims that because of liberal bias, this hapless conservative would face mounting and politically motivated obstacles to getting his work published, and therefore would be unlikely to get tenure.

But the problem isn't liberal bias; it's basic scientific methodology. This conservative has already concluded that the effects of the welfare state are debilitating. The question is biased.

Good scholarship begins with an open-ended research question, not one whose results are prejudged. Hmmm ... why does this sound vaguely familiar?

Now, I wonder: Would Prof. Diamant have the same critical reaction to the mention of "a feminist who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of sexism"? Somehow, I doubt it.

Maybe the professor's letter mostly proves conservative suspicions about liberal bias.

In the same vein, many critics of the notion of left-wing bias in academia argue that conservatives of a traditionalist bent are hostile to the scientific method. In this follow-up to their article (free registration required), Rothman, Lichter and Nevitte write:

Indeed, within the academy the most prominent attacks on scientific method ... come not from the Christian right but from the ideological left, in the forms of postmodernism, deconstructionism, and some variants of radical feminism. As a thought experiment, imagine a debate between the academic right and left on [the] proposition that the university’s mission is to apply scientific reasoning to determine the truth. Representing the right are Harvey Mansfield, James Q. Wilson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Robert George. Representing the left are Stanley Fish, Stanley Aronowitz, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Wendy Brown. Now ask yourself which side argues in favor of the proposition and which side argues against it. (Hint: Pick the side that is more likely tosurround the word “truth” with quotation marks.)

Finally, Melvyn Conner, an anthropology and human biology professor at Emory University asks rather plantively if liberals can't have at least one institution, a "marginalized and ridiculed" one at that, to themselves. I'm not sure an institution where people pay $12,000 to $30,000 a year (or more) to send their kids is all that marginalized and ridiculed. But that aside, the political one-sidedness of the academy is the academy's own loss. It's not good for any group of people to spend a lot of time listening only to like-minded others. It's especially bad for a profession whose lifeblood is exchange of ideas.

My own take on the subject, from last April, can be found here.

Update: See the comments for some very interesting discussion, including responses from Prof. Henle and Prof. Diamant.