Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Let's Make a Deal

American Prospect Online - ViewWeb

Most liberals don’t want to hear the message that these voters and others in the red states are sending. But in a democracy, you can only make so many enemies until you can no longer do any good for the people who depend on you. Liberals need to decide what is central to the great moral achievements of the past half-century—and what isn’t. Going down to perpetual defeat isn’t a moral choice.

Ok, Utilitarians--let's get down to brass tacks. Here are some trade-offs I propose:

(1) Compromise on abortion. No late term abortions and parental notification for minors. This is all that most Americans want (check the statistics, please). They are not interested in keeping all women barefoot and pregnant, they are not steamed up about the rights of stem-cells and they are not hoping to use restrictions on abortion to push down the slippery slope to a total ban. They don't like late term abortions because they're think late term fetuses are enough like infants (or for that matter dogs and cats) to be objects of serious moral concern. They want parental notification requirements for minors because they want control over their adolescent daughters. I don't personally want a parental notification requirement but I have a daughter in high school and can understand their motivation.

Let us trade off unrestricted access to abortion for strict enforcement of equal opportunity regulations, affirmative action for women and support for affordable child care so that women, particularly working class women, can get decent jobs at decent pay. The number of women who would be affected by restrictions on abortion is miniscule compared to the number of women who do lousy, underpaid, dead-end pink-collar work because they cannot get the kinds of jobs that similarly (un)qualified men can get and because they can't get their kids looked after so that they can work full time and have the flexibility to maintain the work schedules their employers want.

(2) Drop gay rights as a political agenda and never, never mention it in the same breath as equal treatment for women and minorities. There's a really big difference: gays can pass. Going into the closet even temporarily may not be much fun, but women, blacks and members of other visible minorities would just love to have closets to get into when they apply for jobs, mortgages and car loans.

Public attitudes are changing fast and, if gay marriage hadn't been promoted as a political issue and generated massive backlash, domestic partnership arrangements would have quietly been legally recognized in most places within a decade or less. As the trade-off, promote legislation recognizing domestic partnership contracts for any adults who want to set up housekeeping together on a long-term basis, including not only gay couples but elderly people and their caregivers, unmarried siblings living together, and friends of either sex. Same sex partners could buy into these contracts and get all the material benefits of marriage. Of course, that wouldn't provide the symbolic benefits of having their relationships recognized as comparable to heterosexual marriage, but that's tough.

(3) Support the externals of religion in the public sphere--Bible reading and prayer in the public schools, "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, creches in parks at Christmas, invocations by clergy at public events, two-ton boulders with the 10 commandments inscribed in county courthouses, Buddha statues, Hindu idols and any other religious paraphernalia locals want where appropriate. Support religion practices and the display of religious symbols so long as they are external and trivial, and real substantive issues are not at stake.

But do not give an inch on substantive issues: exclude any mention of bogus pseudo-scientific theories like "scientific creationism" and "intelligent design" from the classroom and see to it that teachers make it clear that evolution is not "just a theory."

Some Jews will object to the public school prayer and creches and militant atheists will be mad as hell about the whole program but that's tough. Most conservative evangelical Christians will be thrilled with all the religion and not worry about what goes on in biology classes--after all, they can just tell their kids that the stuff they're learning there is false. Parents do that all the time: I had to tell my kids that their 3rd grade teacher was wrong when she told them that Italian, French and Spanish were called "Romance languages" because they were the languages of love and that the anti-drug "DARE" program, which promoted the idea that social drinking was all of a piece with using illegal hard drugs ("don't start") was BS. If fundamentalist parents don't even want their children to hear about evolution at all they can pull them out of biology classes (undermining their chances of college admission) or kick in the bucks to send them to private Christian schools. Life is full of tough choices.

So that's my proposal. Comments and addenda welcome--I am zipping up my asbestos suit.

Let's Make a Deal


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on late term abortions and not simply as a pragmatic concession. It makes moral sense and re-affirms our general commitment to protecting the unprotected and promoting social responsibility. The real questions is - how do you then resist the inevitable call to maintain consistency and roll back abortion entirely. I suspect it's fear of the consequences of giving one inch in the debate that makes pro-choice activists so strident. It's that stridency and inflexibilty that then make the Democratic party look heartless and out of touch on this issue.

I'm wary of your stance on gay rights. We can't simply abandon those who suffer discrimination for their genetic make-up. Justifying this position as you do, by claiming that gays can pass, is like justifying anti-Semitism on the grounds that Jews can pass. A slower march to gay marriage is an acceptable trade-off. Framing domestic partnership law as you do is also fine, though I'm certain the right wouldn't let us get away with that neutral framing. Where real discrimation against gays persists we must stand against it. We stand against preventible human misery in all its forms, not just the economic. Otherwise we are hypocrites and our center does not hold.

I don't have much problem with religion in the public sphere. I'm Jewish and don't feel particularly threatened by the notion, so long as it's handled with care. Futhermore I'd be happy to see religious Democratic politicians and activists framing party policies in religious/moral terms. This wouldn't require acrobatics and would not be a cynical ploy. Our principles lend themselves to such a frame. We couldn't and wouldn't necessarily want to appeal to the grimmest of the Christian right, but others would listen who aren't hearing us now.

You're on the right track. Keep thinking.

H. E. said...

Lots of issues lend themselves to slippery slopes including end-of-life and animal rights issues that are akin to the abortion issue. Even if the lines are fuzzy and we try to err on the safe side we can still draw lines that stick. Most people believe quite firmly that healthy adult dogs and cats shouldn't be put down solely for their owners' convenience but don't have any compunction about exterminating termites.

With gay rights, I confess I live a sheltered life as an academic so I'm probably inclined to underestimate discrimination against gays. But I am convinced pushing for gay marriage has been counterproductive--social attitudes have changed very fast on this and if gay marriage hadn't become a grand public crusade, domestic partnership laws would have gotten through if they hadn't been promoted as arrangements for couples in non-marital sexual relationships. I'm a little puzzled why it wasn't done that way in the first place. Even if a few fundamentalists sniffed out the fact that these innocuous sounding arrangements would benefit gay couples as well as elderly spinster sisters living together as in Arsenic and Old Lace, most people wouldn't care. Now it's too late because the public perceives "domestic partnership" as code for gay marriage and sees passing them as a symbolic gesture putting the imprimatur on gay relationships. I don't see how that's going to change in the forseeable future.

I'm curious though about the evidence for discrimination. I don't have the references on hand but one item I read indicated that there was no gay-straight wage gap. Another that cut things more finely had data indicating that the earnings of gay males, whether in a domestic partnership arrangement or not, were comparable to those of demographically matched single straight males. There's a marriage dividend for males because most can take advantage of the unpaid support services of wives and also, I think, because employers perceive them as more stable and motivated and because of the lingering idea that married men ought to be paid a "family wage." Gay males can't take advantage of it because they're not married to women rather than because they're gay. Women, straight or gay, have the same problem.

As far as "passing" goes, in Nazi Germany most Jews couldn't because the state delved into people's geneologies--a friend's German mother-in-law still has papers certifying her as "Aryan"--sort of like the AKC papers I have certifying that my chocolate lab is Britynic Cadbury of Bournville out of Kyla Love and Jake My Dear (labs are required to have silly names). The Wittgensteins, Austrian, Catholic and stinking rich, were involved in a long correspondence with the authorities arguing that one of their Jewish-born grandparents was illegitimate in order to crank down their Jewishness quotient. This at least from Wittgenstein's Poker

Anonymous said...

Re: the slippery slope -- my concern was that entrenched Democratic party interests might make change impossible for fear of it. I'm willing to support the late term ban and parental notification as sound policy, not simply expedient compromise.

You might be right on discrimination against gays - I'm not an expert. However, if the ostracism gays once experienced has been reduced, it's in part because our party was willing to speak out on the issue. That willingness promoted a social change which may well have been more important than any legislation, since the injuries to be redressed were more social/emotional. It's hard to regret this speaking out on the grounds that gays could ostensibly retreat to the closet and still get their car loans (which reminds me of a Geico commercial). I don't disagree so much with your strategic suggestions here as I do with your justifications.

Brian Larry said...

I agree with you on the concept of abandoning the non-essential in favor of the critical. Absolutism and Extremism is a sin committed by both sides. Either side would claim quite a few more moderate votes if they'd stop defending every inch of turf. Abortion is an example--Democrats have already won the war. As you suggest, they should give a little ground and concentrate on getting a guy in the White House who won't make it a mission to attack their cause with Supreme Court nominees.

I've linked to you and responded with what I think would turn the tide for the Democrats, here.As a moderate/conservative with leanings in both directions, depending on the issue, (I'm evidently more liberal than you, where religion is concerned) I'd specifically like to see the Democrats stop promising new ways to SPEND money.

I don't mind who and where they tax, in fact I generally agree with them and I'll bet that's true of plenty of "Red" America. But I always feel like they're trading tax dollars for votes. Senator Kerry's bid for the presidency was full of such promises to spend more money.

Democrats need to move away from being the party of "spenders". That move alone would get my vote.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's easy to be cavalier about somebody else's life. Before you toss abortion over the side (oh, those hussies, seeking to get out from their responsibilities on a whim), find out about it, huh? Start here: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2003/oct2003/abor-o24.shtml
Still think it's a "lifestyle" issue?

H. E. said...

Please read more carefully, Anonymous 2:38 PM. I didn't suggest tossing abortion over the side. I suggested compromising and making trade-offs--both tried and true procedures in real world politics.

As far as "taking responsibility"--I'm against it. There is no more reason for women who have babies to keep them and act as "primary parents" than there is for men who beget babies to keep them and act as "primary parents."

Because contraception and abortion are readily available--in my opinion a good thing--women who have babies, including teenage girls who don't have the means to care for them, are a largely self-selected lot. It's nice that nowadays young, unmarried girls who have babies aren't automatically expelled from high school any more, and that there are a variety of support services for them and their children. IMHO it would be even nicer if people concerned with their welfare made the case to them that they would do better to put their babies up for adoption--or, perhaps, dump the babies on their fathers--and get on with their lives.

Anonymous said...

You said “(1) Compromise on abortion. No late term abortions. . . . Let us trade off unrestricted access to abortion. . . . The number of women who would be affected by restrictions on abortion is miniscule. . . .” Late-term abortions are about saving women’s health and lives. Did you even read the links I provided?


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that the problems experienced by gay people are largely social and psychological, rather than economic. You're also right that sexual orientaton can be hidden more easily than race or gender. For an interesting discussion of this very issue, I can recommend Andrew Sullivan's "Virtually Normal".
However, a few personal observations:
- passing is lying: in environments where gays have to pass, they are lying to the people around them. Gay people who do not tell this lie are often criticised for their "blatancy" or "flaunting"; yet if they do tell the lie, and are found out (which is easier than people often think), the lie is held against them.
Passing requires developing one's capacity for lying and deception to the fullest. This dishonesty, and the fear and stress that result, can do serious psychological damage.
- passing means relying on secrecy to survive, which in the past has exposed people to the threat of blackmail.
- passing means invisibility not only to society in general but to other gay people. Most gay people (especially those aged over 30) have spent at least some of their lives not knowing any other gay people, either personally or by reputation. They were in the closet to start with, and will vouch that this isolation is not healthy.
I'm not arguing that this is worse than the disadvantages suffered by women, ethnic minorities or religious minorities. However, it's one thing that members of these groups generally don't have to live with (unless they are gay as well).
This problem may be less for young gay people today, but only because enough gay people have made themselves known.
And on a (slightly) facetious note: to see what can happen when gays are required to pass, we need look no further than certain Christian churches. It isn't gay people in general who are rejected from these, only honest gay people. Those prepared to lie often carve out brilliant careers.

H. E. said...

It isn't the business of the government to help people with social and psychological problems that don't have significant material or economic consequences.

That I think is what was behind sentiment favoring domestic partnership arrangements that conferred all the benefits of marriage while opposing gay marriage. Before backlash got whipped up, a small but growing majority of Americans favored civil unions because they did not believe that sexual orientation should put one at a material or economic disadvantage. Most however opposed gay marriage.

My first reaction was, how stupid (of both advocates and opponents of gay marriage) to make such a fuss about a semantic distinction without a material difference. I've since learnt that it's not a merely semantic issue. Some gays at least don't just want the material benefits of marriage--they want official recognition of their relationships as on a par with heterosexual marriage and affirmation that being gay is as good as being straight. Opponents of gay marriage don't want the state to make that affirmation in their name.

I don't sympathize with their motivation but I don't think the state should adopt policies in the interest of "affirming" people or promoting good attitudes either--it doesn't win hearts and minds and it generates backlash. In fact now that I think of it, one of the things that alienates people from lots of good liberal programs they might otherwise support is the preoccupation of the Left with symbolic gestures like this across the board. Just look at how dumb little things, like campaigns to eliminate "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance play in Peoria, or how people respond to the whole glossary of "politically correct" language mandated in the public sphere, the fuss over calling people "indians," "native Americans" or members of the "First Nation," "disabled," "handicapped" or "differently-abled."

What matters are the economic and material things--fix that and everything else will take care of itself. Bash discriminatory practices and attitudes to minorities will, eventually, take care of themselves. Fix the job market for women and "patriarchy" will dissolve. If gays had pushed for strong legislation to prohibit discrimination in employment and housing, and promoted neutral domestic partnerships rather than gay marriage, gay marriage would have been a non-issue within a decade.

Anonymous said...

Again, I'm in agreement with you on most of this. Like many other gay people I've never believed that anyone could legislate to change attitudes; also like many gay people, I think that as long as people have the practical freedom to live as they choose they don't actually need to be loved by everyone.
Some thoughts on the gay marriage movement: from what I can see, I suspect you may be right about the US situation. I'm in Australia, and we have never had a movement for same-sex marriage, or anyone equivalent to Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch and the other self-styled "gay conservatives" who are making this case. Activists and lobbyists here have tended to work for things like inheritance rights - specific and achievable practical changes.
It was actually the leader of our conservative government who took the initiative on same-sex marriage, speaking out "in defence of marriage and the family", warning of moral dangers and proposing legal amendments opposing any changes to marriage laws in the future. There was a conservative movement opposing same-sex marriage in Australia before there was a gay movement supporting it (or rather opposing new laws against it, since there still isn't a clear gay majority here who positively want it).
Allow me to congratulate you on this blog - it's rare to find such rigorous, imaginative, stimulating and refreshing discussion anywhere.

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