Andrew Sullivan reacted to my post yesterday criticizing Barack Obama for claiming that those who favor a California ballot measure banning same-sex marriages were engaged in a “divisive and discriminatory effort.” Here are some points in response:
1. Andrew says I’m offended because Obama described those who oppose the Supreme Court’s imperial decision to undermine the will of the people of California on same sex marriage as “discriminatory.” I would point out that Obama used the phrase “divisive and discriminatory,” and the added adjective is important. The way Obama framed it, those who are reacting against the state’s Supreme Court decision are somehow the divisive figures–even as the court is the one imposing an unpopular decision on the people of California. And the charge of being both divisive and discriminatory is clearly meant to convey the message that those who oppose the court’s decision are morally tainted and motivated by hate.
2. On the matter of discrimination Andrew asked of those who oppose same sex marriage, “How can it not be discriminatory”? To which I would respond: it is discriminatory in the same way that Andrew discriminates against those who want, say, polygamous marriages. Andrew may think opposing polygamy is “good discrimination” — but it’s still, in fact, discrimination. The question is whether the discriminations we make all the time are reasonable and wise.
3. The intent of Senator Obama, and the direct charge made by Sullivan, is that those who maintain the traditional view of marriage are by definition bigots. That strikes me as unfair. One can believe for a host of reasons, including utilitarian reasons, that gay marriage is unwise and that is should not be imposed on an unwilling public by the courts. The majority of the public still opposes gay marriages–and some of those who do are bigots. But many are not–and to use the term “bigot” to describe people who hold views different than your own is, I think, a mistake. It is the kind of argument which, for example, Jonathan Rauch–who I believe has presented the strongest case on behalf of same-sex marriage–would not make. Rauch wisely keeps the “divisive/discriminatory/bigoted” branding iron out of reach in part, I think, because of his core decency and also because he feels like his argument can carry the day. Others might want to emulate him.
4. In his December 2007 cover story in The Atlantic, title “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” Sullivan argued that the strongest reason for electing Obama president is that he “offers the possibility of a truce” – including a truce in the so-called “culture wars.” Sullivan laments the “bitter, brutal tone of American politics.” I wonder if Andrew thinks that accusing people who believe marriage should be defined as the union of one man and one woman as suffering from “the moral taint of being a bigot” will help us toward the truce he claims to want? And I wonder if, on reflection, he thinks that he’s improving the tone of American politics by making such charges?
Andrew Sullivan is a bright fellow and an able debater; he doesn’t need to resort to ad hominem attacks to make his case on this issue, or on other issues. It’s an easy habit to get into and a hard habit to break.