The Banterer Is a collection of conversations between our authors about a variety of topics from politics and Pop culture to sports and religion.

The Thing about Liberalism

By Francisco Goya - Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Public Domain,

By Francisco Goya - Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Public Domain,

As you may be aware, Buzzfeed recently posted a slanderous hack-jobby piece of imitation-journalism about Chip and Joanna Gaines, Waco residents and hosts of the HGTV show Fixer Upper. Since I’ve already tipped my hand about the piece itself, I want to balance my disgust with Buzzfeed by telling you that I’m not a fan of the show. In fact, I have a pretty strong prejudice against the show, not least because I think it’s contributing to the obnoxious commercial-hipster faux-gentrification of what used to be a real place. This gentrification has predictable results, driving up housing costs, attracting the worst sort of cookie-cutter, cave-beneath-the-cave-dwelling, fake-antique-buying entrepreneurs with terrible haircuts, and turning Waco into a place indistinguishable from Deep Ellum, the not-nasty parts of Portland (j/k, they’re all nasty), Ninth Street in Durham, Boston’s SoWa, whatever the hipster neighbor of Houston is called, all of Austin, and on and on and on. Potato donuts, craft beer, and fair trade coffee for all! It’s so authentic

Sorry, I got carried away there. Anyway, point is, I kinda hate the show (disclaimer: I’ve never watched it).[1] I should also say that I have deep reservations about the church in question. I know a little bit about it—in fact, unlike most people ranting about this one way or another, I can even say that I’ve been there (one time, on a fact-finding mission; don’t get worked up). And, having been there and having met people who attend, I can honestly say that their stance on gay marriage should be the least of your worries. But I’m not here to slam a church I consider weird, even heretical. Once again, culture warriors have forced me to side with people with whom I deeply disagree. So there’s my full disclosure: unsurprisingly, I’m not a fan of anyone involved in this stupid story.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here: some angry culture warrior[2] found out that some famous people might possibly express opinions she didn’t like—opinions professed by Barack Obama no less than eight years ago, and earlier (and by Hillary Clinton on numerous occasions). And it’s important to stress the “might possibly” part of that sentence. This isn’t going after some anti-LGBT activists. This isn’t even finding the only baker in Oregon who doesn’t want to work same-sex weddings. We’re talking about two people who have avoided wading into the political arena, whose business has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of marriage, and who, as far as I know, don’t talk much about religion at all. Even this self-appointed righteous inquisitor repeatedly admits that she has no idea what the couple believe privately. But the very possibility of these private citizens holding unorthodox ideological positions apparently sent the author into a dizzying fury, such that she took it upon herself to force these people to a crisis: either to break publicly with their place of worship or else, at best, be publicly shamed for their private opinions—opinions they were not forcing down anyone else’s throat—and at worst be fired from their network (which HGTV has disgracefully done to Christians before). But, frankly, I’m not as interested in this specific case of the New Inquisition so much as I am interested in the wider phenomenon of, for lack of a better term, left-wing intolerance (sorry classical liberals and tolerant socialists, but terminology constrains).

That is, I want to use this opportunity to consider something that has been puzzling me for a while now: what the hell are these people thinking? There are only two possibilities here. The first possibility is that maybe partisans of certain moral positions (pro-choice, pro-same-sex-marriage, etc.) constitute a majority of the population and therefore represent, in some sense, the popular will. If this is true, then what we see here is an instance of the strong trying to crush the weak, the majority going after the minority, and even after a minority that isn’t doing anything to anyone, whose only crime is associating with people who think the wrong thing. It’s somehow not enough that we have Roe and Obergefell, that even the GOP President-Elect has repeatedly said that same-sex-marriage is settled law, and so on. It’s not enough that bakers can get sued into bankruptcy for their religious opinions. Now the Inquisition extends to those who simply haven’t declared their position: “are you now or have you ever been an opponent of SSM? Can you name fellow opponents for the tribunal?” To quote LGBT activist and openly gay writer Andrew Sullivan, “the word magnanimity seems unknown” to “the gay left”—a group of which Sullivan is presumably a member. But let’s set aside complaints about the rise of the “regressive left.” Others have made these points far more eloquently that I can.

I’m more interested in the other possibility, the possibility that the march of progress is not inevitable, where the educated vanguard of acceptance and celebration of everyone in the LGBTQQIAAP & allies in-group (that is, of everyone whose opinions align exactly with our own) can’t count on continued popular acquiescence as a matter of course.[3] If this is the world we’re living in—and I think it is—then the descent of activists like the author of the Buzzfeed piece into name-and-shame social coercion is not (or not only) a moral failing, but a grave political misstep.

The legalization of same-sex marriage was made possible in part because many people in middle America looked at homosexual relationships and though “meh, why not,” and in part because that vanguard had the White House to a certain extent on their side. But those conditions do not necessarily obtain for these later fights. I don’t think the Trump White House will be an enemy to homosexuals; but I am certain that it will not be a partisan of the next wave (the varieties of “trans” people). More importantly, I don’t think that the majority of Americans have switched from being rabidly anti-homosexual to being rabidly pro-LGBT. I think they thought “well, that’s not so strange after all and at this point I’m not so sure why I thought it was bad in the first place.” That was due, in part, to conservative arguments made by people like Rob Portman (GOP Senator from Ohio) that gay marriage could be normalized, indeed that it would stabilize gay relationships. That fundamental implication was that same-sex couples could be just like “the rest of us.” Yet it seems to me that much of what motivates the post-Obergefell activists is the thought that they aren’t “just like the rest of us,” but that they should be accepted anyway.

I come at last to my point. Suppose that majority support for a certain kind of transgressive or ultra-progressive morality does not, indeed cannot, exist.[4] Suppose that most people are most of the time guided by prejudice. Suppose that being “woke” is difficult, and that people don’t like difficult things. Give it whatever cynical or critical color you’d like. But suppose that most people don’t like being constantly scolded and told that they are wicked. Suppose that progressive scolding provokes a backlash that elevates a vulgar demagogue to the White House, that delivers both chambers of Congress to the GOP, as well as the majority of State Legislatures and Governorships. Now suppose that you’ve spent years undermining the classical liberal norm of toleration. Suppose the executive has assumed to itself wider and wider powers in the name of coercing people into accepting certain moral opinions (suppose, for instance, that the White House issued a veiled threat to elementary schools across the country to the effect that six-year-olds should get to go into whatever bathroom they please). Can you possibly have any right to complain if those coercive forces are turned back onto you? I should be vehemently clear that I am not here advocating such a thing. But this was the entire point of the classical liberal articulation of limited government and tolerance in the first place: it feels good when you’re in power, but it really sucks when you’re not. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Thomas More from Robert Bolt’s excellent A Man for All Seasons:

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to [get after the Devil]!

More:   Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast […] and if you cut them down […] d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

So my fundamental confusion is something like this: one of the pillars of this kind of progressive morality is that the oppressive, heteronormative-standards-imposing majority unjustly represses minority sexual orientations. But that admits as a necessary corollary a relative weakness with respect to the ignorant, hetero-normative majority: there is a powerful majority that must be restrained to protect the minority. How on earth did it ever seem like a good idea to descend back to the level of coercion and the imposition of ideological orthodoxy when a premise of your own position is that you are, for lack of a better word, weak? That the prejudices of the majority must be repeatedly challenged? Without strong norms of toleration and live-and-let-live, majorities (historically speaking) kick around minorities. The strong historically oppress the weak. This is the most baffling thing to me about much of the contemporary discourse on the Identitarian Left,[5] which seems to me to fail to see that a return to warring factions won’t end in their favor because, quite simply, the numbers don’t add up.

And so maybe it’s not the best idea to kick around Chip and Joanna Gaines for the grave crime of you not knowing their private opinions about everything. Because people don’t like scolds and they don’t like bullies (wasn’t that the whole damn point of being a liberal in 60s, by the way?). If you want to sow the seeds of ideological enforcement, be prepared to reap the whirlwind when the GOP controls all three branches of government and damn near enough states to start passing Constitutional amendments. Or, if you prefer, continue to take the ascendancy of progressive morality for granted, as if the last five years is the natural equilibrium and not, say, the thousands of years that preceded them. Be like these idiot flag-burners who assume the eternality of their freedom of speech, who forget that barely more than a decade ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton herself cosponsored a bill to make flag-burning illegal. Play right into the hands of the people you hate and make sure you lose the sympathy of the majority while you’re at it. It’s not like there are dozens of red flags going up all across the West, right?

Tolerance is rare in human history and should not, perhaps, be so quickly discarded.

- @Crouchback_Bant

[1] Aaaand since I’ve never watched it, all of my ranting should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve also never met the couple. They may be lovely people.

[2] I wish there was a better term I could use. The author of the Buzzfeed piece isn’t a liberal in the classical sense, so “liberal” doesn’t work. Leftists (i.e., socialists and communists) are not ipso facto pro-same-sex-marriage or pro-choice (google “tradinista”). I suppose “progressive” could work, but I’m not a fan of that term either, nor of its polemical opposite “regressive.” Unfortunately, as you’ll see below, I eventually give in to the common usage, despite my reservations.

[3] This is in part because that vanguard doesn’t seem capable of being satisfied by the rate of change in the opinions of the masses, if only because part of what unites that group is precisely the feeling that those in the out-group don’t or won’t understand. The desire that the envelope be constantly pushed and that lines be constantly transgressed in turn seems to fuel the ever-expanding acronym to include all possible self-constructions over and against any attempt to impose categories from without.

[4] If 37% of America is still actively opposed to gay marriage, then you only need one in five people who do agree with same-sex marriage to have the sort of reservations I describe below and then you no longer have majority support for a left-wing inquisition.

[5] Especially that extreme position that seems to be hell-bent on creating a white identity so that it can castigate it, but I digress.

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