Sunday, July 18, 2004

The "Culture War": Who Cares

Earlier this week, the ill-conceived and misguided Federal Marriage Amendment was mercifully voted down on a procedural matter by the Senate. Personally, the issue of gay marriage doesn't bother me. I have no problem with two gay adults wishing to marry. Gay marriage won't mean the end of marriage, western civilization, or the republic, and I fail to see how allowing consenting adults to live their lives as they see fit will harm anyone else. I don't believe that opposing gay marriage automatically makes one a bigot, or that a case can't be made against it, but I strongly feel that amending the Constitution over this issue is silly. Let it be decided at state level. While I support George Bush due to his vigorous prosecution of the War on Radical Islamist Terror, this is one issue where I definitely think he's wrong.
To me, the issue of gay marriage has become symptomatic of a broader problem with American politics; the desire of many on both left and right to portray differences over social and cultural issues in apocalyptic tones. If we allow gay marriage, traditional marriage will be destroyed, or the FCC fining Howard Stern for his over the top verbal crudity means the end of free expression in America.  Such statements are nonsense. Janet Jackson showing her boob on national TV does not threaten the moral fibre of the nation, any more than preventing her from doing so means we're headed for a police state.
That doesn't mean that we shouldn't debate such issues. America has always debated cultural issues, it is a normal and healthy part of our democracy. What troubles me is the notion that such debate is part of a "Culture War" that will result in the doom of America if the appropriate side does not prevail. Mercifully, the idea that such a manicheaen struggle is actually taking place has been refuted. As Jeremy Rabkin put it in a brilliant essay in the August 1999 issue of Policy Review:
The truth about America seems to be far messier than a "culture war" between "orthodox" and "progressive" forces. We are in the midst of many overlapping and cross-cutting social conflicts. Yes, there are deep divisions regarding public recognition or accommodation of religion and on sexual morals and "family values." But the same is true for attitudes about gun ownership. And also for views on multiculturalism. There are also deep divisions in attitudes about risk and security in economic affairs, about the aims of developers and the concerns of environmentalists, about animal rights and human needs, about the claims of children and the potentialities of pharmacology — and on and on and on. Quite a lot of these disputes elicit a moralistic rhetoric on one side and an answer of skeptical hooting on the other. But they don’t at all line up neatly as cultural divisions between religious conservatives and secularizing "progressives." We are a nation of Puritans and a nation of scoffers and we do quite a lot of arguing. And we have long been so. (Mark Twain’s scoffing — and his immense popularity — a century ago should remind us of both: "To be good is noble but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble.") That doesn’t quite add up to a "war."
Or, as Mark Steyn once put it
The fanatical Muslims despise America because it's all lapdancing and gay porn; the secular Europeans despise America because it's all born-again Christians hung up on abortion;
America is a complex quilt of various values, belief systems, and lifestyles. This is one of our greatest strengths as a nation, the essence of who we are. As long as people don't violate the law or harm others, this country gives them the right to live as they want. Of course, just because you have the right to do something, doesn't mean that you should do it. In my view, personal rights bring personal responsibilities. People have to accept that actions have consequences, and that if you freely choose to do something, you are the person most directly responsible for what happens. If you decide to gorge yourself on Big Macs for months at a time, don't go looking for a lawyer when you weigh 300 pounds, look in the mirror instead. Similarly, if you go on TV or radio and spew obscenities or racial slurs, don't be surprised if you're not invited back. You're guaranteed the right to say what you want, but not the right to be paid to do so on air.
It is especially troubling when the inevitable debates over cultural values  in this country are described as a war. Such terminology only further adds to the coarsening of political discourse in this nation. I find talk of a "culture war" especially appalling because we find ourselves engaged in a real war that has claimed the lives of 3,000 American civilians and nearly 1,000 of our men and women in uniform. It is not Jerry Falwell or Howard Stern who threatens America's survival, it is Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Is it that difficult for us to get our priorities in order? Never mind the "culture war", let's worry about how to win the real war.


Blogger Athena said...

The problem is those on the left (and some on the right) refuse to accept that we are "at war."

1:56 PM  

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