Friday, January 1, 2010

Virtually Normal

Catholic gay uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan’s first book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality is beautifully and subtly written. I was at first put off by his characterisation of four broad positions as sets of people (prohibitionists, liberationists, conservatives, liberals) rather than sets of arguments—the modern habit of personalising positions so that “wrong” opinions are a failure of moral character I find deeply distasteful and profoundly corrupting, particularly of scholarship. But Sullivan is as much engaging with different sensibilities as arguments, so it works.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book did not change my mind on any significant issue, but it was informative and enlightening. Googling™ for reviews of the book, it has patently sparked strong reactions. (Particularly, it seems, from the gay left, the tone of whose reviews are typically rather more angry, dismissive and personalised than those from conservative reviewers.)

Reading Virtually Normal I was, for example, better informed about the official Catholic position as it stood in 1995 (when the book was originally published). In 1986, in a document authored by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, the Church did declare that a homosexual person was, like all people made in the image and likeness of God. But only in an odd sort of way, since:
… although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder (p 38-39).
So a particularly inferior model of the Image then.

Sullivan discusses many aspects of the experience of being homosexual with careful clarity. He talks about how homosexuals can “pass” as straight in ways that blacks, women, even Jews cannot pass as white, male or gentile. (Which, of course, leads to accusations of deceitfulness when someone presumed to be straight comes out as not.) He stresses the essentially (and, in the end, irredeemably) isolated nature of the homosexual experience of growing up, yet how they do not suffer the cumulative effects of second class status generation after generation. Though, even in the worst periods, blacks, women and Jews were not treated as inherently excluded from family life.
While the meditations on the experience of being homosexual were subtle and moving (one could very much see the Oakeshottian influence), the most penetrating section was his discussion of where (US) liberal politics had gone wrong (pp 158ff). Sullivan is very much in favour of the state being publicly neutral between gays and straights (so permitting gay marriage, gays in the military etc). He is against anti-discrimination laws. His adherence to a classically liberal position helps him zero in on how (US) liberalism’s adoption of identity politics (and gay activism’s adoption of victimhood politics) has undermined liberalism by becoming a politics that does seek to intrude into private lives and private choices.

His discussion of the gays in the military issue is also pointed, noting that Don’t ask, Don’t tell comes down to:
… the prohibition was against homosexuals’ being honest about their sexuality because that honesty allegedly lowered the morale of others.
In other words hypocrisy as a rule of combat (pp 173-4). He argues US liberals performed poorly during the debate because they don’t understand the original principles of their own politics (p.174).

What Sullivan is arguing for is a liberal-conservative position that
… marries the clarity of liberalism with the intuitions of conservatism (p.186).
It is not an argument for permitting gay marriages—in a real sense, they already exist. It is one about recognition and protection. Indeed, the equal protection of the laws from the public neutrality of the state incorporating gays within the basic institutions, including civil marriage (Pp171ff).

Prohibitionists don’t seem to like his discussion of Biblical injunctions, liberationists his treatment of Foucault, his endorsement of such traditional institutions such as marriage and the military and being far too respectful of prohibitionists in particular. Conservatives don’t accept that allowing gays to marry would have a conservative effect. On the contrary, they clearly feel it would have a deeply destabilising and “slippery slope” effect (particularly in giving no basis to bar polygamy).

Reading conservative responses, it is quite clear that they don’t really accept his fundamental argument—that gays are just folks and so entitled to equal protection of the law (including of their relationships and serving their country). One way this clearly comes out is to take such responses and replace gay or homosexual with Jew or black.

Take, as example, a passage from this respectful conservative review and perform such an operation (as I have done):
I can't help feeling that Mr. Sullivan has very badly overestimated the degree to which conservatives have become comfortable with Jews and Jewishness. He is probably right in saying that most conservatives "regard some level of comfort with Jews as a mark of civilized conduct." But I suspect, if personal feelings and experiences are any guide at all, that this level of comfort extends only to the point of being courteous. The picture he draws of conservatives adding cache to their social occasions by inviting Jews may obtain on the Coasts, but seems preposterous as a vision of Middle America.
Or similarly with this passage from a review in Catholic journal First Things:
Conservatives do not fear that legalizing interracial marriage would send whites the message that they are settling for second best. Conservatives are concerned that the more society broadens the definition of "marriage"—and some would argue that the definition has already been stretched to the breaking point—the less seriously it will be taken by everyone.
But this is always the point about bigotry—the fundamental argument is over what counts as fully legitimate examples of the human. And to claim that letting whatever the specific anathematised group in will undermine some fundamental social institution. Precisely because the relevant group is defined as outside the legitimately human (either intrinsically, or through some act of forfeiture), so are not incorporated within the normal, they become unbounded in their projected malefic effect. Not being included within the familiar confines of the normal, any level of corrupting power can and will be projected upon them. So normalising homosexuality will increase adolescent sexual uncertainty (but if both heterosexuality and homosexuality are seen as normal—even if there was such an effect—that is a problem why?). It will weaken marriage because male homosexuals are promiscuous and including them (notably relationship-stable) lesbians would undermine sexual complementarity (and whatever percentage of all 2-3% of them who choose to officially marry will affect the rest how?).

Letting women vote, run for office, own property changed politics and economics. Letting Jews, Catholics, Protestants vote, run for office, changed politics. And there were plenty of voices claiming it was not worth the risk, it would destabilise basic institutions. But, it turned out, not in any way that was genuinely a problem: because they were all, ultimately, just folks. Which is, in the end, Andrew Sullivan’s point about homosexuals.

Indeed, what is most odd about the conservative concerns is gays are already doing those things: so all the alleged problems would come from simply legally recognising what is already happening. Which just emphasises how much the fight is about the notions in folk’s head, about accepting homosexuals as legitimate forms of the human, not the social facts of the case.

It is no small part of the achievement of Virtually Normal that the reaction to it is so revealing.

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