Monday, October 20, 2008

social authority

James Poulos becomes the latest to ruminate on Red State/Blue State divisions and "values" and miss this point: which side is bent on coercion?

Poulos writes

city liberals have for decades now been very interested in being ‘progressive’ about sex — and getting their progressions into the law. It’s obvious to me that the culture wars are really just sex wars, and if the sex issues went away life would be far more placid. Conservatives are generally down on cities to the extent that they can support a large number of radical individuals with radical attitudes about sexual ethics, who can band together to push their sexual program through the exercise of political power. It’s important to remember that this fact shouldn’t poison anyone’s picture of cities. But there’s also no way around the particular limitations our various cities impose on what most people would acknowledge as good clean living, and the appealing opportunities for self-indulgence that they are particularly good at creating and maintaining.

Please, James, I beg of you: what is being pushed on conservatives, exactly? What are they made to endure? What does this "sexual program" (enforced by political power) entail for people who are disinterested in pursuing it? What, exactly, are "values voters" compelled to do by the coastal liberal elite?

The answer: nothing. Nothing, whatsoever. There is no sexual practice that is being pushed on conservatives by anyone. No one is being compelled, by law or political pressure or cultural conformity or anything else, to do anything. What they are being asked is to respect the rights of other adults-- adults they are free to have nothing to do with-- to participate in whatever consensual sexual or romantic practices they wish to engage in. At no point whatsoever does the right to have whatever sex one wants to have with any other consenting adult become a duty to perform in the same, or even to morally excuse that behavior. All that is lost, to social conservatives, is the right to tell others not to do something, and to expect the coercive power of government (who else?) to enforce those desires.

I am deeply, deeply confused about what exactly are these limitations to the ability of conservatives (or whoever) to pursue "good clean living" in the cities, or anywhere else. There aren't churches, in cities? There aren't religious schools? There isn't non-offensive television? No one is forced to invite godless sodomites into their homes. No one is required to attend a gay wedding. The truth of the matter is, social conservatives can raise their children and live their lives in the cities without having to endure much more than, perhaps, having a homosexual serve them their coffee, or bumping into a S&M fetishist on the bus, or simply living in the same building as people whose sexual mores are their own. This is why the Onion has made so much comedic hay out of headlines like "New Bill Would Force Everyone to Gay Marry" (or whatever). Social conservatives insist that they are being forced to accept (in Poulos's words) "radical attitudes". If the profoundly conservative virtue of leaving other people alone can be meaningfully rendered radical, radicalism is a weak brew indeed. Democratic civil governance asks very little of is citizenry, depending on your views on taxation. But it does require that you have a thick enough skin to deal with the fact that, somewhere, people do things you yourself would not do. You'll excuse me if I fail to see in this requirement the hand of oppression.

This is the sad caricature of liberty that social conservatism asks us to embrace: freedom becomes not the neutral right of not being forced to do what you would not want, but the positive right to not have to "endure" other people doing what they want in some geography around you. It asks government to remove by force the threat of others living in a way consonant with their values, their vision of a morally and socially just world. In this spirit social conservatism, of course, is not a conservatism at all. It's anti-conservatism, the relegation of community mores and values to the power of government. My conservative friends admonish me that I have "government consciousness", where the government has grown as a concept in my mind to be the default engine of social change. What other mode does social conservatism consider the default? If the question is simply a matter of the fact that "morality" and "values" no longer have the ability to enforce social conformity, that is a factor of the failure of these institutions, and true conservatism insists that on this question government must remain silent.

Polous, to his credit, is unwilling to ask that government force city-dwellers to live according to a particular sexual morality. He wants minimal sex laws, and says that the country needs all kinds of cities, towns, and villages. But I'm perplexed by his invocation of the language of coercion and his notion that social conservatives are forced to endure anything in particular at all. It seems that once again, the social conservative question-begging asks social libertarians to prove the positive value of a right to unfettered consensual adult sexual practice. The socially conservative viewpoint is simply understood to be the default state of man. I'm not a big fan of Bill Maher, but I come back to the wisdom of his rejoinder: I'm not out of touch with conservative values. I disagree with conservative values. The notion that disagreement can only come from misunderstanding is, frankly, unAmerican.

There are, of course, countries and governments that are more than happy to enforce morality on their citizens. But these countries have little to do with democracy, and even less to do with conservatism.


James said...

Freddie, point taken, indeed, but the sexual rights regime promulgated by the left, in the incarnation that I'm referring to, is clearly a nationalizing project, and has been for some time. Because it's framed in rights language! Right?

More recently, a state-by-state project has developed that I'm much more amenable to. Unfortunately it has resulted in some bad court rulings about gay marriage. They're not bad because of the outcome. They're bad because the courts are ruling on the nature and character of marriage by simply stipulating it as a matter of philosophy. It'd be much, much better if gay marriage were simply put to a vote in state legislatures. And of course no state legislature would be empowered to force churches to marry same-sex couples. Right?

I recognize that the language of coercion is oftentimes badly abused. But the vested interest on the left of using as high a court as possible to impose a set of sexual ethics on the entire United States as a matter of law -- and their success in doing so -- is a kind of phenomenon that can really be treated honestly without at least some kind of reference to coercion. ...Right?

william randolph said...

There are some fairly tangible coercions. The first thing that comes to mind is the situation in which Catholic adoption agencies either have to shut down or place children with homosexual couples. Then there's the hiring pressures that religious organizations face.

I can't speak to how common these things are, or whether there's any real equivalence between them and the situation of the various groups that social conservatives might try to stifle.

I think that a great deal of conservative cultural grievance hinges on the analogy of public space to the natural environment. “Obscenity” is the abstract equivalent of physical pollution*. Why does it matter that somewhere someone has dumped a bunch of toxic waste, even if they own the property? Because there is a sense in which the natural environment belongs to all of us.

In my opinion, this metaphor should have more to do with public discourse than private behavior, but the lines can get pretty fuzzy there.

And I'm open to the possibility that this analogy could ultimately be misleading. Furthermore, even if it holds, I am skeptical towards the idea that it justifies extensive state federal regulation of various consensual behaviors.

But, to the cultural conservative mind as I understand it, the pollution/environment metaphor is a big part of why they would use government to regulate discourse.

However, as a fairly pragmatic pluralist, I want to disassociate my own point of view from the way I've presented this metaphor, without giving up the possibility that it could be relevant to a narrower reading of the First Amendment.

Freddie said...

As a tactical matter, I'd prefer that the state legislatures vote to allow or disallow gay marriage, as many have done in "defense of marriage" acts. I disagree with those amendments, but if you don't want state Supreme Courts finding rights to equal marriage within state constitutions, the way to do it would be to amend the state constitutions to specifically prohibit the same.

My problem with the idea that every social right must be delivered by the state legislature is that it doesn't seem to be in keeping with American tradition. Look at our liberties in general: they are enshrined by the constitution, and limited by the state governments. What you are allowed to do is the purvue of the country. What you are forbidden from doing is the purvue of the states, to the degree to which those things don't infringe on the previously delineated rights. People are free to approve or disapprove of that model, but it is our model, and has been since the Bill of Rights-- powers not specifically delineated by the federal constitution revert to the states, but the states can't override federally protected rights.

Of course, the obvious rejoinder is that no such protection of gay marriage exists in the federal constitution. Further, if liberals want a constitutionally-protected right to equal marriage, they should pursue a constitutional amendment. As a general rule, I think that's right. What is frequently elided by social conservatives is the fact that many liberals believe that some of these social rights are already protected by the constitution. The Roe v. Wade decision avers that there is a constitutional protection of privacy that ensures the right to an abortion. Many people, of course, howl at this notion. Fair enough. But it is a constitutional interpretation. I think the only reasonable response to that is to either amend the constitution to ban abortion, assert that the federal constitution should not have legal priority over the state constitutions (which is a big, Bill of Rights destroying ball of wax) or stop claiming that this decision is an affront to federalism.

Here's my challenge: many conservative states have enacted "defense of marriage" amendments to their state constitutions. Connecticut has no such specific amendment, only a law establishing civil unions. The Connecticut state Supreme Court ruled rthat this law was unconstitutional according the state constitution. Social conservatism are free to agitate for an amendment. But a Connecticut court overruled a Connecticut law, in part because of the absence of a anti-marriage amendment in Connecticut-- because of the lack of political will for such a thing from Connecticut's lawmakers and Connecticut's voters-- and I can see no way in which any of that is the product of national pressure from above. Indeed, it seems downright federalist to me.

paul said...

Social conservatism is indeed not identical with conservatism (Andrew Sullivan has gone on ad nauseam about this); but I think the social conservative argument is either (1) Christian moralists fighting for what they perceive to be a 'good' society, or (2) a sort of natural law or 'civic virtue' argument, that you need certain basic family structures and other 'natural' aspects of society in order to have a basic 'public morality.' Which I'm actually at least somewhat in agreement with, though it's always done wrong, i.e., via coercion and bigotry.

But as for what 'values voters' are compelled to do by the coastal liberal elite; they're required to live in a progressively more unethical and diseased (from their perspective) society. It isn't just having to run into an S&M enthusiast on a bus, or whatever, but rather that aggressively 'tolerant' i.e. 'value-free' postmodern/liberal people get onto school boards and determine what to teach their children (hence all the home-schooling among social conservaties), and set public policy, define media/entertainment culture, or undermine what is perceived to be a basic public morality.

It actually might be the fault of the medievals, oddly enough, where moral instruction was transferred from the state to the Church, and the state just administered very basic 'public' duties ('conservatism' before conservatism, but only allowed because the Church had such a prominent role). But then once you lose a single hierarchical Church, it seems like (especially after modernity) government can't possibly take on the role of providing a moral exemplar for people, as this would be "impinging on their freedom," etc., even though this was quite normal in the ancient world. But I think some conservatives (and Hegel!) want something like this; and of course it's impossible, since there's no possible universal agreed-upon 'public morality' beyond, maybe, "hospitality", or not killing innocent people, etc.

Matthias said...

I'm a conservative/libertarian that doesn't particularly care one way or the other about the "sex war". Let people do what they want to do, I don't care.

But some of the people I know who do care mostly care to the extent that they don't want to have to choose between spending thousands of dollars sending their children to a private school and having their children taught in the public school that homosexuality is a good and proper thing. I think this is the extent to which they feel they are being forced into something... they fear that they will be forced to send their children to schools that will teach a radically different sexual orthodoxy than they would prefer.

I don't know to what extent this fear is valid, but that is what I have understood is their concern.

Ben A said...

Coercion isn't a necessary condition for complaint. Even if we don't find explicit coercion, there are at least two alternate ways of viewing the social con complaint about the sex wars than "there's nothing to see here, move along" which might be one (unfair!) way of characterizing Freddie's position.

Point #1: Millian liberal individualism is a false model of culture. Social norms change. Some practices used to be generally anathematized and now are generally not. By way of example: having kids out of wedlock, aborting a pregnancy, divorcing your wife, putting a song about oral sex on a top 40 radio station, being gay. These changes occurred at least in part from pointed cultural advocacy. They didn't just happen. Now as it happens, I support some of these changes in values; others I don't. But it seems willfully blind to suggest that no one is "made to endure" anything by the common culture. Of course they are.

Many people -- indeed, many progressive people -- find pop culture overly sexualized. When they have kids, they need to spend substantial effort insulating them from the culture than would have been unnecessary in 1950. This state of affairs was abetted by explicit efforts to 'push the boundaries' of what could be shown publicly. Some of those responsible were motivated by money, some by ideology. But I hope we can agree basically none of these people were right wing evangelical Christians. Right?

Viewpoint #2: Cultural advocacy almost always intermingles with the political and legal realm. To note the areas of involvement -- divorce law, welfare policy, marriage law, abortion law, obscenity law, church-state separation, etc. -- is just to compile a list of culture war hot spots. Is the secularist "made to endure" In God We Trust on the coins? Some certainly feel this way...