What do you do when both sides are tossing rhetorical bombs? Aside from ducking, the only thing is to try to defuse them. The best way to do that is to try to demonstrate how little relation each side’s words bear to reality..
Last week, in National Review Online, George Weigel accused Washington Post columnist Phillip Kennicott of lobbing an undeserved h-bomb — that is, an accusation of homophobia. Kennicott himself claims to be responding to a double-C bomb, or warning of creeping communism. Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, compared support for gay marriage to the invasive policies of China and North Korea; to Kennicott, this served as “uncanny reminder of the virulent homophobic rhetoric used against artists in mid-20th century America, when homosexuals were often likened to the Red Menace.”
Foul play, says Weigel. “Crying ‘homophobia.'” he writes, “is a cheap calumny, a crypto-totalitarian bully’s smear that impresses no serious person.”
In a sense Weigel is right. The charge of acting from an irrational and blinding prejudice is a serious, and can be made disingenuously, or at least recklessly. In fact, it’s a tried-and-true tactic, if not quite a respectable one. Critics of Israel run the risk of being labeled anti-Semites; critics of the Church hierarchy can expect, in some circles, to be denounced as anti-Catholic. If Kennicott were really making that accusation so baldly, Dolan would deserve as stout a defense as Weigel offers him.
But by my lights, Kennicott isn’t. His essay, “Art Has Yet to Face Up to Homosexuality,” just isn’t that simpleminded or inflammatory. On the face of it, his thesis, that the art world has – partly for nefarious reasons — failed to give gay artists the credit they deserve, sounds like a bit of home-team boosterism. But Kennicott avoids any schema so self-serving as gay = good, straight = homophobic and bad. He acknowledges, for example, infighting among gay artists, and concedes that museums who downplay homoerotic material “are not actively in the business of anti-gay bigotry.” Stating that Dolan’s line of argument reminds him of the homophobia of an earlier age isn’t the same thing as saying the bishop shares in it.
Of course, Weigel goes on to play his own game of free-association. In justifying Dolan’s evocation of the Red East, he warns that legalizing gay marriage may cause the state to stop recognizing sacramental marriage. This will force religious couples to endure two ceremonies — one at the altar, another before a government functionary — just like in communist Poland:
Americans will say, “It can’t happen here.” But it can, and it may. Before the ink was dry on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature on New York’s new marriage law, the New York Times published an editorial decrying the “religious exemptions” that had been written into the marriage law at the last moment. Those exemptions do, in fact, undercut the logic of the entire redefinition of marriage in the New York law — can you imagine any other “exemption for bigotry” being granted, in any other case of what the law declares to be a fundamental right?
Either the recently enacted New York marriage law is nonsense, or its religious opponents are bigots whose prejudices should not be given the protection of law. To use Mr. Kennicott’s sociological term of art, it’s a matter of cognitive dissonance to try to have it both ways. In any event, pressures like that of the Times and its activist allies will continue, for the logic of their position requires them to try and strip away religious and other exemptions from recognizing “gay marriage.”Should those pressures succeed, the Catholic Church will be forced to get out of the civil marriage business — as it has been forced in some states to stop providing foster care for children and young people, thanks to the pressures of the really phobic parties in these affairs: the Christophobes. Priests will no longer function as officials of the state when witnessing marriages.
Weigel seems to be operating off a double-standard. As long as it allows priests to serve as functionaries — to double as “appartchicks,” as he puts it in another context — then government’s okay. The minute it cuts them loose, it becomes an uber-nanny. Come on; make up your mind. Only according to a very narrow definition is a state that ignores the sacraments more intrusive than one that gives them the force of law. Of all the forms of oppression at work behind the Iron Curtain, obliging couples to appear before a government clerk at a minimal cost of time and zlotys was surely the least oppressive, and the least definitive. Weigel himself admits it was an affair that could be giggled through.
Not that I especially blame Weigel — or, for that mattter, Dolan — any more than I rule Kennicott out of bounds. Opponents of gay marriage are running out of arguments. To cite Sodom and Gommorrah is to look like a zealot, and, well, possibly a bit of a kook. Warning of threats to traditional marriage hasn’t cut much ice, either. Warnings against big-government social engineering form a logical last resort for two reasons. First, they’re bound to resonate with the anti-statist anxiety prevalent in the country today. Second, they are exceedingly difficult to conflate with homophobia. If you say, “We have nothing against gay people, we just don’t want tanks in the streets,” not even Philip Kennicott will call you a liar outright.
As As Susan Jacoby points out, this new suspicion of government marks somewhat of a departure for Catholics:
Until now, the Catholic Church (like fundamentalist African-American churches) has performed a delicate balancing act in this area, because while the Church wants the state to privilege conservative religious doctorine on matter such as abortion, assisted dying and gay marriage, it does not share the general opposition to big government and social spending promulgated by those white evangelical Protestants who are also economic conservatives.
Ah, you gays, you gays. You may make good libertarians out of us yet.