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The Marrying Kind

The real enemy here is not Foucault but what is now called “queer” politics. It is exemplified in the explicit theatrical performances of ACT UP, showing, for example, the suffering of people with AIDS; the bared breasts of the Lesbian Avengers; the “kiss-in” at the local mall. Mr. Sullivan objects to all of this activity on grounds that it mistakes culture for politics. In a free society, he argues, “cultural redeployment…is always subject to a cultural response…. The techniques of ACT UP lend legitimacy to the techniques of Operation Rescue”—the group that violently attacks abortion clinics.

Culture”—in the sense of deep-rooted attitudes—obviously makes a difference; and there are cultural battles to be won. Theater—of the sort that ACT UP sponsored in its battle to speed up the approval of drugs to treat AIDS by the FDA—has been successful as politics. All this Mr. Sullivan concedes. What he opposes is the notion that this is the only way to act. He resents the view of some activists that politics—conceived of, in Mr. Sullivan’s humane manner, as reasonable conversation about the formal political institutions of the state—is inevitably pointless. He argues that any approach to liberation that ignores the power and politics of the state (whether or not it is inspired by a Foucauldean conviction that the state must always be a source of constraint) will simply fail to

achieve actual results, to end persecution of homosexuals in the military, to allow gay parents to keep their children, to provide basic education about homosexuality in high schools, to prevent murderers of homosexuals from getting lenient treatment….

Mr. Sullivan quotes Michael Walzer’s telling characterization of Foucault, turning it against such militant groups as Queer Nation, which use rhetoric dismissing the entire society as hopelessly sick: “Angrily he rattles the bars of the iron cage. But he has no plans or projects for turning the cage into something more like a human home.” At this point, the argument is utterly convincing. But what convinces us has little to do with the critique of Foucault, and much to do with Sullivan’s sensible acknowledgment of practical politics.

Liberationists, on Mr. Sullivan’s account, are skeptical of marriage, because they see it as yet another of the traps of power. The liberationist agrees with the old comic’s line: “Marriage is a fine institution, if you want to live in an institution.” Mr. Sullivan’s reply is that there is no reason why we cannot, through politics, turn it into “something more like a human home.”

The people Mr. Sullivan calls “conservatives”—his terminology here can be confusing—accept the basic liberal assumptions of the American constitutional order. For them, homosexuality is an essentially private matter; it is not the government’s business. But the public acceptance of homosexuality is another thing entirely; and this conservatives reject because it would offend “the identity…of married heterosexuals and so make it harder for them to practice marriage as it should be practiced. It devalues the social meaning of sex and undermines the very basis of familial life.” What conservatives endorse is a combination of private tolerance and state-endorsed public disapproval.

The conservative, then, is opposed to gay marriage not, like the prohibitionist, because gay sex is immoral; not, like the liberationist, because marriage is yet another form of imprisonment; but because the recognition of gay marriage will undermine straight marriage, which is the central institution of American society. This is a surprisingly widespread conviction, and Mr. Sullivan provides good answers to each of its arguments.

The entire notion that public acceptance and respect for gay relationships would undermine straight ones is very hard to make sense of. What, after all, are the effects of the current public disapproval of homosexuals? First, many people who are strongly inclined toward homosexual love enter into unhappy heterosexual marriages. Second, many young people have the agonies of adolescence intensified by the discovery of gay desire. Third, insofar as social recognition is part of what sustains relationships, gay couples are less likely to sustain them; and, if one accepts the narrative of bourgeois romance, many of them will therefore live less fulfilled lives. Fourth, some who have the choice—because they are bisexual or able to shift their desires—will choose straight marriage over a stigmatized gay relationship.

Of these results, only the last could be thought by any decent person to be a good thing: and only then if that person thought that it was intrinsically better to live a heterosexual life than a homosexual one. But even someone who thought this would also have to hold that it was appropriate for the state to place the burden of suffering on homosexuals in order to tilt the scales in the right direction for the odd bisexual.

The conservative arguments assume, bizarrely, that straight marriage is so intrinsically unappealing that enormous burdens must be placed on homosexuals in order to keep it attractive. After all, if you really want to encourage straight people to stay married, why not toughen the divorce laws and increase the tax advantages? Taking it out on homosexuals is not merely mean; it is ineffectual.

Mr. Sullivan identifies, I think, the key difficulty for conservatism: and it is, again, an objection from the world of practical politics. More and more homosexual men and women are refusing to live in the closet that conservatism prescribes for them. As a result, the combination of private toleration and public stigma that is the essence of the conservative position is no longer a practical possibility.

In this climate, conservatives who wish to maintain public disapproval of homosexuality…will be increasingly forced to resort to crude moral arguments, or publicly express ugly contempt for gay people or for gay practices. They will find this disagreeable in the extreme, especially since they are required by the exigencies of the moment to cooperate, and even join forces with, the prohibitionists, whose illiberalism they disdain.

Mr. Sullivan suggests that there is a different strategy that better suits conservativism’s fundamental respect for liberal notions of privacy and its concern for sustaining the family; and that, of course, is to endorse gay marriage. In so doing conservatives could, if they wanted, try to recruit gay couples for the purposes of the campaign to restore the family, combining private tolerance with its more natural partner, which is a public respect.

Mr. Sullivan’s final argument is with what he calls liberalism; but here he has to go carefully. For surely his own position “that every right and responsibility that heterosexuals enjoy as public citizens be extended” to gay people is a liberal one. In fact, however, Mr. Sullivan wants to argue something different: that a modern liberal will be inclined to grant to homosexuals the affirmative action and anti-discrimination protections that are currently available to another stigmatized group, namely African Americans. Since he has, to put it mildly, doubts about affirmative action for blacks, he is also against affirmative action for homosexuals.

To put the matter this way is to imply (wrongly) that political creeds can be identified with clear principles clearly articulated with respect to one another and embodied in settled understandings of the proper conduct of politics. Mr. Sullivan points out that fewer and fewer people are willing to call themselves “liberals.” But he fails to see those who still do, like the many more who did so before the 1980s, are not defined by a single, articulate political creed. They are heirs to the liberalism of the American Founding Fathers, a liberalism that is expressed in the Bill of Rights, to the extent that they believe in the importance of freedom of expression, association, and religion, and in civic equality. But they are heirs also to the liberalism of the New Deal in their conviction that the state has a part to play in guaranteeing the basic welfare of all citizens and in protecting employees from exploitation by powerful corporations.

Mr. Sullivan’s disapproving account of the genesis of the modern liberal position begins in the nineteenth century with John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant, and continues by way of the civil rights movement and affirmative action, without, it is fair to say, so much as a nod toward the New Deal.7 As history goes, this is eccentric. To begin with, although Mr. Sullivan wants to portray Mill’s idea of liberty as the previously accepted standard of liberalism, he has to concede that no nation or party—certainly not the United States or the Republican or Democratic parties—ever conducted itself according to Mill’s postulates assigning equal liberties to all.8 Furthermore, freedom of expression and association have, in any case, expanded in the United States since the nineteenth century, as has freedom of religion; they have not, as Mr. Sullivan seems to imply, declined. What has declined is freedom of contract, for instance the freedom to contract with labor at below minimum wage or minimum age. And what accounted for that was the recognition by New Deal liberals, especially in the 1930s, that allowing a few people who ran banks and other large corporations to do as they wished with their property could lead to the poverty of the many and to the kind of social crisis created by the Great Depression.

Mr. Sullivan, on the other hand, wants to persuade us that it was dealing with race that forced Americans to abandon Mill’s dream. He objects, for example, that liberals now want “to deny others…complete freedom of contract and…complete freedom of expression, in order to protect a specific minority,” i.e., blacks. These illiberal horrors are achieved by such means as “antidiscrimination laws in employment and housing, and forced integration—busing—in school areas, to achieve what free human beings refused to achieve on their own.”

It would not be difficult to show the inaccuracy of Mr. Sullivan’s account of American political history or to challenge his distorted descriptions of the current practices of anti-discrimination and affirmative action. But to do so is not necessary. Someone who sees the end of “complete freedom of contract” as the result of legislation aimed to protect black Americans, or who does not notice that the institutions forcibly integrated by busing were public institutions, is not a safe guide through this difficult territory. (Remember that Mr. Sullivan wants forcibly to integrate another public institution—the armed forces—in the name of avoiding discrimination by the state.)

What Mr. Sullivan essentially argues is that the modern laws intended to mitigate the consequences of social prejudice ignore the boundary between public and private that is the key to a proper liberalism. I agree that the distinction between what is public and what is private is critical to understanding liberalism. But Mr. Sullivan doesn’t seem to understand its significance. The private, for liberalism, is indeed the sphere into which the state should not intrude: but that is just a definition of privacy. The question that must be decided is where the private lies. If a man beats his wife at home, he is, in a sense, acting in a private relationship in a private place: but this is, for the liberal, a public act, in the sense that, as an assault, it is the government’s business. When the Supreme Court respects the privacy of the marriage bed, it does so—rightly—only to the extent that what happens there is consensual. By contrast, loud and excited discussions of politics in a public park between citizens are, for the liberal, protected from the control of the state; they are, in the relevant sense, private.

  1. 7

    My discussion here owes much to a conversation with my colleague Tim Scanlon.

  2. 8

    Of course, such a sterile edifice [of generic human liberties] was never fully constructed—much of liberal politics existed in cultures where minorities were oppressed in every sense of the word.” Sullivan, p. 146.

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