You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it

by Michael Bérubé on June 18, 2009

… as, for example, when the conversation is an exchange between Gail Collins and David Brooks on “Guns, Gays and Abortion” that begins,

Gail Collins:  David, can we talk hot-button social issues for a second? I know this is not really an area where you fly the conservative colors, but you’re the go-to guy on how America lives, and I’d like to hear your thoughts even if we can’t work up a fight.

This just makes me want to lie down on top of the Applebee’s salad bar and never get up again.

OK, I admit it, I did indeed finish that conversation.  But only because I was fortified by this old chestnut first.  Once I regained the will to live, I read Brooks’ final comment:

what I’m trying to say is that people seek to preserve the orderly bonds around them. Most people, even on these hot button issues, gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings. As a result, I don’t expect sharp change on any of these subjects. There is a gradual acceptance of gay and lesbian rights, but I think progress will take longer than people anticipate. On gun control and abortion, I don’t see much change of any sort.

There are fewer and fewer culture warriors in America. Most people want order and peace.

Right, of course, except for the people who don’t.

More importantly: to revive an argument I made in What’s Liberal and have been repeating ever since (like right now!), this kind of sober centrism doesn’t explain why seventy-something percent of Americans disagreed with the Supreme Court’s rejection of state bans on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, but only about seventy-something people consider this a “hot-button social issue” now.  (For those of you who still haven’t read What’s Liberal despite my most earnest entreaties: I note in the epilogue that TV’s first interracial kiss occurred the next year, in 1968, on Star Trek—and that the episode was widely banned in the South.  This despite the fact that (a) Uhura and Kirk, the kissers in question, were not acting under their own power at the time, and (b) Kirk kisses every woman in the galaxy eventually.  Not to mention the ancillary fact that since this is Star Trek we’re talking about, the kiss took place in the twenty-third century, so even in 1968 it hadn’t really happened yet, which should have reassured Southerners and racists everywhere that their unspoken communal understandings about such matters would persist for quite some time.  (Flash forward to the twenty-first century: a check of the Google tells me that the only people upset by the Spock-Uhura kiss in the new Star Trek movie are the people at Stormfront, and no, no link to them.)

I keep coming back to Loving v. Virginia not only because it’s the obvious reference point for contemporary debates about gay marriage, but also because I think it’s an especially good device for asking one of Ye Oldest Questions in Ye Olde Historicist Handbook, namely, how does seismic cultural change like this happen?  Base, superstructure, determination in the last instance, you know the tune—the last time I tried to sing it, I wound up with this three-part essay on Raymond Williams’ “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.”  When I was out at Reed College earlier this month, I mentioned this in the course of a talk on the history of cultural studies, and since my audience consisted of about fifty alumni most of whom were twentysomethings when Loving v. Virginia was decided, we had a spirited discussion of this and much else.  One younger alumna wanted to know why there seems to have been such an amazing liberalization of popular opinion with regard to gay marriage, gays and lesbians in the military, etc., while progress on gender equity, measured from (say) the Neolithic period, has been so glacial; I responded, of course, by saying “you know, when you feel like you’ve been leapfrogged by gay marriage, this is where Williams’ dominant/ emergent/ residual argument comes in really handy.”  Then someone asked how I would account for the decline in smoking over the past forty years.  I said, more or less, that (a) maybe, just maybe, sometimes enormous, decades-long public-health campaigns actually work! and (b) at some point over those forty years, as the social stigma of smoking got stronger and stronger, smoking got itself more and more strongly associated with the poor and the working class, which surely accelerated the process of stigmatization.  These are pretty obvious arguments, I know.  If only I’d waited until Henry’s post went up!

Anyway, the point remains that the “people gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings” argument is just lazy and bad and also wrong.  Because sometimes, those unspoken communal understandings turn out to be no more substantial than a puff of smoke.

{ 53 comments }

1

Dave Maier 06.18.09 at 5:32 pm

Speaking of taboo-smashing kisses on Star Trek, there’s one I’m a bit surprised didn’t get more attention, esp. given the big hullabaloo Ellen provoked a couple of years later. I won’t go into the details, which would give Derek Parfit a headache, but what we see onscreen is actress Terry Farrell and fellow distaff thespian Susanna Thompson in a passionate and very wet liplock. Naturally the newly ignited (or reignited, or whatever) romance cannot last, as the former is a regular and the latter a mere guest star. But the heat was palpable, and should surely have had Falwell’s head asplode (and indeed, the local context was one of taboo-busting. Trill taboo, but still.). But maybe wingnuts don’t watch DS9, who knows.

2

Barney Fife 06.18.09 at 6:28 pm

Unspoken communal understandings can lead to a lot of years-long unnecessary social taboos and prejudice. I think immigrants feel this brunt especially hard. This article indicates how bad it can be: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2009/05/14/most-removed-immigrants-not-criminals-data-shows/

3

P O'Neill 06.18.09 at 7:40 pm

Note: Brooks is a serial offender on the chain restaurant thing.

Also, interesting but totally accidental case study. Reading “Harry the Dirty Dog” to 3 year old. 1956 book. Besides the entirely traditional family structure (none of whom have names), I’m horrified by the particulate content in the smoke belching from that train. We’ve had good pollution warriors over the last 50 years.

4

David Byrne 06.18.09 at 7:42 pm

You don’t realize what you’re not saying.

5

David Byrne 06.18.09 at 7:42 pm

But I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.

6

Keith 06.18.09 at 7:47 pm

the “people gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings” argument is just lazy and bad and also wrong.

It’s also Conservative wishful thinking: that the majority have taken time to think about the issue and decided out of purely rational self interest, that they aren’t comfortable with all this modern progress like gay marriage (and a socially democratic safety net) and express this purely through the medium of voting for the old white man with the most homespun image. It assumes that there’s 1) a concerted effort of reflection being performed and 2) that the majority of Americans, upon performing step 1, decide that WASPy values circa 1955 are the best possible values to halt the heedless progressive agenda.

7

Rich B. 06.18.09 at 7:50 pm

It seems like a key variable is how much of the dissent is based upon a fear of “imminent destruction of society as we know it.” This sort of dissent quickly fades in the face of lack of total societal breakdown.

8

Tom West 06.18.09 at 7:58 pm

Anyway, the point remains that the “people gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings” argument is just lazy and bad and also wrong.

I suspect the point is right. *However*, what people understand the communal understanding to be can change quite a bit (and be manipulated, if you’re careful).

My example is drunk driving. When I was a kid, the government had just started to come down hard on drunk driving. The general feeling seemed to be that the courts were being unduly harsh and failing to understand social norms. However, for the middle class, another norm is that the courts are usually about right. Over time, in the eyes of many people, the fact that the punishment for this offense was draconian made the crime a terrible one in their minds.

What’s interesting is the people didn’t feel their attitudes changing. You ask people did they change, and the answer is generally no, because they’re measuring it relative to the social norm rather than in absolute terms.

So, Brooks can be right about this, and wrong about the long term stability of social norms.

9

Michael Bérubé 06.18.09 at 8:13 pm

However, what people understand the communal understanding to be can change quite a bit (and be manipulated, if you’re careful).

Indeed, this is central to my point. The only way to save Brooks on this one is to make him say “most people gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings that change over time,” which (a) is substantially different from what he said and (b) damn near tautological, because it means “people tend to be near the social norm at any one point in history.”

10

Righteous Bubba 06.18.09 at 8:30 pm

“people gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings”

That’s the way the founding fathers did it, by gum.

11

Keith 06.18.09 at 8:40 pm

…progressive agenda

Subsection 2a) that Progressives have an agenda (one other than, “Hey wouldn’t it be great if things didn’t suck so badly?”) is such a given in the Conservative mindset that it’s taken as a given that there is one, it’s monolithic in nature, and widely reviled by the majority of Americans despite constant an overwhelming evidence that none of these is true.

That it’s true of the Conservative agenda is never mentioned, other than as ap projected boogie man to distract people.

I will now stop talking to myself…

12

Ralph Hitchens 06.18.09 at 8:47 pm

Yo, Bubba! And Scalia reminds us that he interprets a “dead constitution.”

Saw a fleeting reference not long ago about Prop. 8 opponents who wanted the California Supremes to have it resubmitted to the public rewritten along the lines of: “Resolved, citizens with a particular sexual orientation shall be deprived of certain civil rights enjoyed by all other citizens.” Or something like that. Tell people in no uncertain terms what they are voting to do. Would it have made a difference?

13

D.R. Foster 06.18.09 at 8:53 pm

#6 – then take the disposition of “most people” relative to the social norm out of the equation and make him say “communal understandings tend to change slowly over time”. This is both more charitable to Brooks and less tautologous. Though it’s perhaps just as unhelpful.

14

nick 06.18.09 at 9:42 pm

Shorter Brooks: “times change, values don’t”–the language of a car commercial from a while back, which, I think, is just right, as Brooks’ job is to sell a fantasy America……

15

Sebastian 06.18.09 at 10:27 pm

Your Loving analogy might be ok for gay marriage, but it isn’t that good for Roe. Recent possibly illusory blip to the pro-life side put aside, the general societal understanding on abortion hasn’t changed much toward the extreme pro-choice side nor toward the extreme pro-life (protect every embryo) side.

16

Michael Bérubé 06.18.09 at 11:35 pm

True enough, Sebastian. But then again, as I argue in What’s Liberal, the days when the anti-abortion side could mount a national shaming campaign against someone like Sherri Finkbine are decisively behind us. For what that’s worth, and it is worth something.

The context of these arguments, btw, is something like this: liberals/ progressives/ leftists are wont to emphasize all the ground we’ve lost since 1973 or 1980, especially on the economic front, with neoliberalism and privatization and deregulation. Hardcore cultural conservatives, by contrast, can look at the US since 1960 and come up with their own litany: no more prayer in public schools, desegregation and affirmative action, gender equity initiatives, and a whole lot of getting used to people who are queer and here. In The Left at War (now in page proofs!), the last chapter of which deals with the history of cultural studies, this involves a discussion of the politics of recognition / politics of redistribution spectrum devised by Nancy Fraser (and hotly contested by, among others, Judith Butler).

17

Delicious Pundit 06.19.09 at 3:40 am

That’s so funny, I was just thinking this morning about “No Compassion”, also off Talking Heads 77, and how prophetic it was. (“Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good.”)

As for David Brooks’ America, I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.

18

novakant 06.19.09 at 10:43 am

As for David Brooks’ America, I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to.

Actually, Iowa for instance isn’t such a bad place to live. A bit boring and barren, granted, but that has it’s own charm and the people are pretty nice and tolerant.

19

Monte Davis 06.19.09 at 2:32 pm

Fine post, awesomely right title.

20

CJColucci 06.19.09 at 2:55 pm

the “people gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings” argument is just lazy and bad and also wrong.

It’s also Conservative wishful thinking: that the majority have taken time to think about the issue and decided out of purely rational self interest, that they aren’t comfortable with all this modern progress like gay marriage (and a socially democratic safety net) and express this purely through the medium of voting for the old white man with the most homespun image. It assumes that there’s 1) a concerted effort of reflection being performed and 2) that the majority of Americans, upon performing step 1, decide that WASPy values circa 1955 are the best possible values to halt the heedless progressive agenda.

I don’t think Brooks thinks people think that. I think he thinks that, precisely, they don’t think, and I think he thinks that it’s better that they not think. At least I think that’s what he thinks.

21

JP Stormcrow 06.19.09 at 4:19 pm

The media “go to guys” are an interesting bunch in general:

William Donahue — go to guy on how Catholics feel about stuff.
Charles Krauthammer — go to guy on what America thinks about Israel.
Howard Kurtz — got to guy on the media itself.
Chris Matthews — self-appointed go to guy competing with Brooks, specializing in what to order at diners.
Maureen Dowd — go to gal on how America might think about things if everyone in America were obsessed with the sex lives of politicians and had a badly repressed yearning for the good ol’ days when men were manly men.
Dick Morris — I’m still batshit insane, let me prove it.

22

JP Stormcrow 06.19.09 at 4:20 pm

I forgot:

Karl Rove — got to guy on what an unprincipled right-wing political operator like Karl Rove would think about things.

23

Sebastian 06.19.09 at 4:44 pm

Not that I want to insinuate that progressives could ever be wrong about anything ;)

But is it possible that the trajectory from Loving and the apparent trajectory on gay rights, but the lack of trajectory on abortion might mean that progressives aren’t as right on abortion as they were in the other cases? Is that at least worth looking at?

24

Salient 06.19.09 at 5:12 pm

But is it possible that the trajectory from Loving and the apparent trajectory on gay rights, but the lack of trajectory on abortion might mean that progressives aren’t as right on abortion as they were in the other cases?

regarding the US at least:

Has anyone investigated the possibility that folks collectively felt a little sheepish after (1) thousands of brave-as-hell homosexuals publicly announced their orientation and demanded recognition, and (2) the “being gay causes AIDS” frenzy washed out of the mainstream and the HI virus was causally isolated?

I still see “AIDS information” stickers all over the place in university bathrooms etc, patiently explaining that no, AIDS is not a curse levied on the homosexuals, and no, you won’t get AIDS by looking at them or being touched by them. Apparently there was something of a psychic crisis in the United States, somewhat recently in the past, over this virus and its means of transmission? Perhaps the fallout from that induced some sympathy?

Or it could be the religious right’s decades-long full-court press against Roe v. Wade. When I taught high school, a preacher would come in during lunch time, weekly, and have a Bible study session. The topics? (1) abortion is murder, and (2) intelligent design is being suppressed because it so obviously devastates conventional science with its Logic.

It’s all part of a well-organized and well-coordinated religious movement. They held annual “day of silence for the silenced” protests in school. I forget the website, but it’s a statewide thing, if not nationwide. They’d take weekend field trips to [local big city] to see screenings of movies together. The focus was 90% of the time “the abortion Holocaust” (actual phrase!) and 10% “the suppression of evidence” (for God, for ID, etc).

Is that at least worth looking at?

Yes. So is the sun. Exercising considerable discernment is necessary.

25

MarkUp 06.19.09 at 6:13 pm

Nova Actually, Iowa for instance isn’t such a bad place to live. A bit boring and barren, granted, but that has it’s own charm and the people are pretty nice and tolerant.

Being conversant in corn, CRP and weather helps as does being landed folk…
http://www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/wholefarm/html/images/c2-70fig1.gif
Having the caucus now for over 35 years means we have to tolerate a lot.

26

chris y 06.19.09 at 6:36 pm

I prefer Cicero. He may have regretted the trend in values, but at least he understood that there was one.

27

Righteous Bubba 06.19.09 at 7:12 pm

The merits of Iowa can be understood in the fond memories of the people who don’t want to live there any more.

28

Maynard Handley 06.19.09 at 7:33 pm

It is surely worthwhile, if you are investigating this as an academic, to consider the cases that go backwards; the most obvious recent cases of which are ERA and abortion.

ERA was way on track until Phyllis and friends stopped it (which would seem to indicate that the consensus Brooks is so proud of may not exist, even when the chattering classes claim it does, or may be very very thin).

Abortion, as I understand it, was widely accepted by Protestant churches at the time of Roe v Wade, and that in fact it was demonized not through grass roots agitation but as part of a deliberate strategy to deflect attention away from miscellaneous sins of Protestant churches at the time and in the recent past — if anyone is interested, here are some note I wrote on this in an email to a friend, because the topic struck me as both so interesting and so far from the story we’ve all been told:
(Sorry cut and past loses the formatting that made the email easier to understand, but the gist remains if you care to read through.)

—————————

Kevin Drum posts (on the occasion of the death of Jerry Falwell

The religious right’s creation myth holds that Roe v Wade so outraged the faithful that they could no longer sit passively on their pews. As the Columbia University historian Randall Balmer has shown, this is nonsense. The Southern Baptist Convention, Falwell’s denomination, was officially pro-choice throughout the 1970s; anti-abortion activism was seen as the province of Catholics, a group then widely despised by fundamentalist Protestants. No, what really galvanized the religious right were Supreme Court rulings stripping whites-only Christian academies, like the one Falwell founded in 1966, of their tax-exempt status. Fervent opposition to abortion, which eventually cemented the alliance between conservative Protestant and Catholics, came later.
A comment follows up with

The Christian right was morally humiliated by the civil rights movement. Preachers like Falwell who’d defended segregation were painfully aware that the wider culture viewed their politics as unchristian & immoral. In response, they sought to reassert their moral status, retake the high ground, put their tormentors on the defensive, by shifting the center of public moral discourse from issues of race & poverty to those of sexuality. If not for the tremendous resentment white Southern conservatives felt in the wake of the civil rights movement, the emotional energy behind fundamentalist Protestant anti-abortion activism would have been much weaker.

A subsequent comment adds

The first IRS restrictions were laid down under the Nixon administration, but the real firestorm came later. It was becoming evident that a number of segregation academies were still benefitting from tax-exempt status in the late ’70s, so Carter’s IRS Commissioner Jerome Kurtz tightened the regulations.
And

Another conservative myth is that the Supreme Court forced something on the states that no one wanted.

They forget about the wave of states that were liberalizing their abortion laws during the late ’60s and early ’70s. These weren’t just blue states like New York and California (where Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the abortion liberalization law), but also places like North Carolina.

And

I have argued for a number of years that a large portion of the Christian right has used abortion as a code for racism because it is a more acceptable stance in the wider culture.Instead of going after the “libruls” on race, they can go after them for abortions, tolerance of different sexual preferences, “activist courts” etc. The real proof is that they have stood by the Republican party which apart from paying lipservice to anti abortion policies really has not done as much on that score as it has in keeping policies designed to help minorities in check. The real problem for the Republicans is immigration–the Christian right hates the brown people as much as the black people, but too many Republicans like to exploit the cheap labor.

Evidenced by

Why the recognition of Zimbabwe? [Someone earlier mentioned Falwell’s views on Zimbabwe]

They supported the breakaway white government of Rhodesia, on which see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilateral_Declaration_of_Independence_(Rhodesia )

Similar to white racist support for the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Again, this reinforces the idea that anti-abortion politics for these people was driven in part by a displacement of resentment over their defeat by racial liberals. Most Southern white racists preferred to think of themselves as “just good people,” & anti-abortion moralizing represented a form of asymmetrical warfare against critics of their racism, an opportunity to reassert their sense of righteousness, which gallingly had been called into question by the civil rights movement.

And more evidence
As the anti-apartheid movement (the group of activists I came out of) was gathering steam in the 80’s, and Coca-Cola and Kodak were feeling the heat of boycotts, Falwell was advising his followers to invest in South Africa, and buy all the Krugerrands they could get their hands on.

29

magistra 06.19.09 at 7:48 pm

But is it possible that the trajectory from Loving and the apparent trajectory on gay rights, but the lack of trajectory on abortion might mean that progressives aren’t as right on abortion as they were in the other cases?

A lot of the changed views on gay rights have come because as more gays come out, straights have realised that they’re not just ‘freaks’. If you know a gay couple and they behave much like anyone else, it’s harder to explain excatly why they shouldn’t have the rights you have. Similarly with interracial couples.

Women who’ve had abortions haven’t generally been willing to ‘come out’ in this way (and given safety concerns, you can hardly blame them). The result is that the image people have of a woman who has an abortion is still that she is a child-hating slut, rather than the woman next-door who will lose her job and her home, or have to drop out of college etc if she decides to carry on with the pregnancy.

What George Tiller’s murder has done is get women prepared to stand up and say why they had late-term abortions and suddenly it’s making people think about that (and gets people like Ross Douthat scrambling to say that of course it’s not those kind of abortions they think are wrong, just the other sort). So I think the trajectory can change even on that, but it doesn’t change automatically, only when people are more honest about such matters.

30

Salient 06.19.09 at 8:15 pm

+1 What magistra said.

Also, abortion is a medical procedure, not an identity trait. It’s something you have done (to you), not something you are. It doesn’t make sense to compare gay rights to the right to have an abortion in a “coming out” context: it’s not reasonable to suggest that women who have had abortions should “come out” and identify themselves; chances are the abortion is not a scorned aspect of their identity.

31

james 06.19.09 at 8:49 pm

Maynard Handley – The 1971 Southern Baptist Convention position on abortion was that a Fetas was a human life and that abortion should only be performed “under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother “. Recall at that time, emotional and mental health was not being used as a justification for abortion on demand. The convention changed its stance ion 1976 due to “The practice of abortion for selfish non-therapeutic reasons want-only destroys fetal life, dulls our society’s moral sensitivity, and leads to a cheapening of all human life” and .. “change those attitudes and conditions which encourage many people to turn to abortion as a means of birth control.”

For the purposes of this discussion: The general Protestant sense of things in the early part of the 70’s was that a fetus was always a human life and abortion was a tragic medical procedure where the choice was literally the life of the child or the life of the mother. Having seen how society at large treated abortion, coupled with belief that a fetus is a human life, the stance naturally moved to the current anti-abortion position. In no way is this transition a result of anything you have suggested.

Really none of you points matches with reality.

Concerning the Civil Rights movement. Conservative Churches view both Reverend King and Reverend Fawell as Christian leaders. I know it drives liberals crazy but Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a preacher (as his father before him) and the Civil Rights movement did come out of the Churches.

32

Nick Valvo 06.19.09 at 10:26 pm

Off-topic, but here it is anyway:

A few years ago, when I was considering buying a used pickup truck, I thought I would decorate it with a decal of Calvin peeing on the words ‘David Brooks.’ It would have been impractical to have the truck, but almost worth it to have the sticker.

33

Katharsis 06.20.09 at 2:27 am

Another tie in could be Sweden’s ‘No Spanking Ban.’ Extremely controversial at first, but taken for granted years later. In Sweden that is.

One note, it wasn’t a ban per se. More of a declaration of what is socially acceptable. Where offenders were offered counseling, and real cases of abuse were made easier to prove without being obfuscated by the right of the parent to use physical discipline.

May not translate well in American politics, but a similar situation none the less. In my view anyway.

34

Barry 06.20.09 at 12:10 pm

Re: 28

I’ve heard the rise of the Religious Right referred to as the Fourth Great Awakening.

More and more, I think that it actually was the Last Gasp of the Confederacy.

35

BetsyD 06.20.09 at 4:28 pm

I’ve read that “norm switching” is often surprisingly quick–the example of this that I’ve seen is foot binding, which was quite prevalent at one point and almost completely extinct within the space of a generation.

36

jimmiraybob 06.20.09 at 4:46 pm

“…because it means “people tend to be near the social norm at any one point in history.”

Well there ya go. To actually point out change over time is antithetical to the conservative revolution…movement…noise fest. Near as I can tell, the uber-conservative, authoritarian impulse – the one that moves the movement – is to stop history. As long as “they” are the ones instituting and administering the social norm at the end point. This is “Left Behind” theology 101 and involves much death and destruction in the name of infinite peace, love and the correctly guided social norm. I digress.

37

Keith 06.20.09 at 6:12 pm

I know it drives liberals crazy but Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a preacher (as his father before him) and the Civil Rights movement did come out of the Churches.

It doesn’t drive us liberals crazy that MLK was a preacher. It drives us crazy that nowadays, Conservatives claim MLK as one of their own because he was a preacher, forgetting how they hated him at the time because he was black.

38

Tim Connor 06.20.09 at 6:24 pm

Why would anyone want to save Brooks? He’s professionally disingenuous, and given to misrepresenting research. When called on it, he always claims to have been looking at the big picture.

Basically, he’s a professional apologist for the corporatist state, with an appealing manner.

39

lemuel pitkin 06.20.09 at 6:43 pm

the Civil Rights movement did come out of the Churches.

Not really. The majority of black churches were never supporters of the civil rights movment, and according to Taylor Branch, much of the clergy was actively hostile.

40

Walt 06.20.09 at 7:02 pm

Come on. There are no liberals outside of your head that are bothered by the fact that King was a minister.

Plus, I was around and a devout Protestant in the 70s, and your description of the history is completely wrong. It happened almost exactly as Maynard described.

41

magistra 06.20.09 at 7:30 pm

There are no liberals outside of your head that are bothered by the fact that King was a minister.

There is a small subset within liberal atheists who are bothered by MLK being a minister because it goes against their belief that religion is always a regressive force and should always be kept out of politics. I have long ago stopped reading Christopher Hitchins (and I don’t know if he still counts as a liberal) but doesn’t he play down King’s religious side?

42

Righteous Bubba 06.20.09 at 7:41 pm

I have long ago stopped reading Christopher Hitchins (and I don’t know if he still counts as a liberal) but doesn’t he play down King’s religious side?

I don’t know. Does he?

43

Michael Bérubé 06.21.09 at 12:22 am

I used to be a democratic socialist, myself, but when I found out that liberals are driven crazy by the fact that MLK was a minister, I got really outraged about something I thought Christopher Hitchens might have said.

44

Walt 06.21.09 at 2:00 am

You know, that very sequence of events drove me to become an orthodox Maoist. I guess my commitment to the people is just a little bit greater than yours, Michael.

45

magistra 06.21.09 at 5:22 pm

Christopher Hitchins explaining why Martin Luther King was in ‘no real sense’ a Christian.

As I was trying to say, if you are an atheist liberal who believes that religion is wholy bad and should have no influence in politics, MLK is a serious problem for your position. If you are an atheist liberal who is prepared to admit that religion can sometimes or occasionally have a useful influence in politics, he’s not a problem, just an exception to the general rule. (It’s equally a problem for those who believe that religion is always a positive influence in politics to explain away Ian Paisley or the Dutch reform church in apartheid South Africa etc, etc).

46

Righteous Bubba 06.21.09 at 5:39 pm

As I was trying to say, if you are an atheist liberal who believes that religion is wholly bad and should have no influence in politics, MLK is a serious problem for your position.

Does not follow. Was it a cabal of atheists holding him down?

47

Keith 06.21.09 at 5:53 pm

As I was trying to say, if you are an atheist liberal who believes that religion is wholly bad and should have no influence in politics, MLK is a serious problem for your position.

Bullshit. This liberal atheist doesn’t care what rational a person gives for doing what is right in the face of opposition. MLK could have given credit to the Tooth Fairy but it wouldn’t have changed his actions any. He did right. That he was a preacher was immaterial to the cause, as hundreds of other civil rights leaders were secular and did as much good as MLK did. Considering how many other preachers opposed him, he stands out as the exception that proves the rule and shows what a person can do in spite of his religion.

My opposition to religion in politics still stands though, because for every MLK, there are a dozen Dobsons and Falwells.

48

magistra 06.21.09 at 7:42 pm

Keith,

If you want to try and read all of my comment, you will note that I specifically mention that some atheists might think MLK was an exception to the general bad influence of religion on politics. The claim by Walt @40 was that no liberals were bothered by the fact that MLK was a minister. I was simply trying to point out that a few atheists, such as Christopher Hitchins were, and that this was logically consistent with his view that nothing good could ever come out of religious belief. I don’t think that is a widespread view among atheists (although I presume many think that more evil than good comes out of religion), but it is a view that exists.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.21.09 at 8:20 pm

Hitchens, C., Dawkins (, Grayling) etc take a confrontational and polarising stance because that’s the nasty little niche they’ve carved out. They don’t speak for me nor I imagine most other atheists. Keeping (ineliminable mention of) religion out of politics is not the same as refusing to cooperate with / denying the good influence of those who happen to profess a particular religion. That would be stoopid.

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Katharsis 06.21.09 at 9:36 pm

I am no Atheist, more Agnostic than anything. I find religion to mirror the morals of society, rather than dictate it. In that sense it’s equivalent to an opinion really. Never absolutely coming out on any side of a debate. There are Evangelicals that feel differently about Gay Marriage albeit a minority. But some feel that religion does dictate morality and therefore is an authority on it simply because it is religion. I viscerally reject these notions. Otherwise religion is not a problem one way or another.

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Tim Wilkinson 06.21.09 at 9:59 pm

FWIW Should perhaps have made it clear that I meant a Christianity-relative atheist, and probably more generally an Abrahamic one. I don’t know enough about most other religions to have a conviction about the falsity (or indeed falsity-aptness) of their ontologies (or their mythologies).

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Ohio Teach 06.23.09 at 11:23 am

Salient,
I think it’s not quite that neat. Abortion/pregnancy is tied to the inescapable fact of being born a woman (and “distressed,” as E. St. V. M. put it). In that sense, since every act of sex potentially leads to one or the other, I would say we’re closer to “identity trait” than you think. An abortion may be something you have done to you (gahd, I hate that passive construction applied to female experiences) but it’s one half of the visible effect of an outcome from something women are; something that men are not. If, as magister said above, more women like me would come out about their elective abortions and the circs, maybe that would become clearer, but most women, like me, won’t come out, except on the anonymous internet, because the stigma –“murderess”–is far greater than than the stigma of, say, “pervert.” Being a pervert just got you jail in the olden days. Being a murderess, well, we know what that still gets you.

Even the burden of contraception falls harder on women than on men. Ask any college student you know what she’s paying for the pill since the last Republican Congress removed the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to supply college clinics w contraceptives at low cost–about $30+ a month whether she’s having it on or not, plus one mandatory doctor’s visit and pap per year $75. Then ask her if her boyfriend subsidizes any of this. Not likely. Then calculate the cost of a box of rubbers and no mandatory doctor expense. And if you skip the contraceptives, well it’s back to the choice: abortion or pregnancy, both emotionally and financially costly and fraught with demeaning and terrifying moments, with the whole world your judge. It’s a man’s world, friends, and that’s why gay rights had to leapfrog reproductive freedom.

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m. 06.26.09 at 10:25 pm

every act of sex does not equally lead to pregnancy for women, since they are not physically capable of continuous ovulation. there is a very narrow fertility window of just a few days per menstrual cycle during which sex acts can result in pregnancy, and most women (and men) are not aware that about 75% of the time, women literally cannot become pregnant from relevant sex acts.

honest sex education would include mentioning the realities of the full menstrual cycle in women (including that it is rather more than just a few days of bleeding and cramps) rather than just discussing proper condom use.

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