When I read the wonderful debate between Kerry Howley, Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthey about whether or not libertarians have an obligation to stake out opposition to social and cultural oppression, rather than only to governmental oppression, I was fascinated. Hooked. All three were articulate and I commend to you the link, again.
It raises the truly great question, what is the proper scope of insistence upon liberty?
It got me thinking about how one might resolve a specific politically charged cultural question with liberty as an ideological aim and with a conservative respect for private institutions and traditions.
Certainly one example of my affinity with Kerry Howley’s full-throated cultural libertarian distrust of coercion from any source, governmental or cultural: I support legal gay marriage. I do not believe gender preference in a private – and publicly institutionalized – relationship is a matter of government concern.
Should libertarians, as libertarians, support gay marriage? Yes, I believe they should. Should libertarians, as libertarians, support the gay agenda generally? No – or maybe so maybe no – precisely the discomforting and arguably irresolvable ambiguity that Todd Seavey and Daniel McCarthey highlight in their cautionary essays against Kerry’s cultural libertarianism.
Where government sanction is necessary, as with marriage, it should extend equally to hetero- and homosexuality. Where government sanction is not necessary, and the matter is a cultural or social question, any of the many varieties of libertarians may search their own consciences and conclude that they support or oppose the matter in question, without recourse to any inquiry into consistent libertarian philosophy.
I respect private institutions and traditions and their capacity to resolve individuals’ existential questions. I respect religion, tradition, cultural mores and ethnic identity because I believe all of these, in different ways, allow an individual human being to locate him or herself in a social and/or cultural context that is comforting, explanatory, and empowering.
And I am mindful (and this is sometimes a weakness of libertarian thinking) that not many of us are capable of the heroism of Howard Roark, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Most of us lead lives of quiet desperation, or perhaps once imagined ourselves heroic but now simply wish to give our children a better shot.
Libertarianism, for its viability, depends very much upon its effects on those who do not know what libertarianism is. And I do not mean merely that the rich get richer and the poor get richer. I mean that there must be an appreciation, writ large, for liberty and its consequences.
I believe liberty embraces tradition. It is inexcusably condescending, from a position of liberty, to question anyone who freely embraces tradition. I have the right to be just so free, and not more, as I wish. Moreover, even if I am weak, and merely capitulate to tradition, that is also my right. Your philosophy may not know the trade-offs, you may not understand the personal and social politics and the psychology, you may not understand me.
I am also mindful that any aggregation of power begets abuse. And this is my sympathy with Kerry. Like government – religion, tradition, cultural mores and ethnic identity give rise to power politics. When these power politics coerce human beings more brutally than any government mandate, how do we conscionably suspend our support for liberty?
When the Taliban mutilates or stones women, I am outraged. And I don’t mean pre-invasion Afghanistan Taliban government brutalization. I mean post-invasion, Taliban-on-the-run, “private sector” brutalization. Taliban-on-the-run still purports to act with proto-governmental authority. The impulse, before and after the invasion, is precisely the same. We will control you because you have no choice, and we will bring to bear quasi-governmental instruments of authority and oppression to ensure that you have no choice.
Which leads us to whether it is a libertarian obligation to support gay rights. If it is, then the first and most urgent obligation would target where gay rights are most egregiously oppressed.
What happens to homosexuals in rigorously Islamic countries? You don’t want to know. The oppression in these countries should have, one would think, given rise to an outpouring of leftist outrage: something at least calibrated to exceed the virulent outrage at Sarah Palin and Carrie Prejean, who oppose gay marriage, but wouldn’t kill, torture or even imprison gays. That calibrated outrage didn’t happen.
The answer is absolutely yes, it is a libertarian and humanitarian obligation to support gay rights in countries where governmental and cultural power politics brutally oppress, and kill, homosexuals, or where the government is impotent but cultural quasi-governmental power politics (e.g., rule by warlords) achieve the same result.
Why would some conservatives and some libertarians balk at supporting gay rights in America?
Part of the conservative discomfort with the gay political and cultural agenda in America is its selective outrage, its contempt for tradition, its relatively mild reaction to how horribly gays are treated in countries currently favored by the Left (as opposed to Israel, for example, where gays enjoy by far the most civil, political and cultural rights of any nation in the Middle East), its sometimes in-your-face promotion of gay sex (no different, in conservative estimation, than in-your-face promotion of heterosexual sex and hyper-sexualization of women), and its demonization of ordinary Americans for vague discomfort with gay culture.
Is a libertarian nevertheless obliged to support gay rights in America, based upon a cultural libertarian resistance to oppression wherever it occurs?
Consider a fairly recent cultural skirmish: Miss USA 2010. Here is the exchange between self-described “queen of all media” Perez Hilton and Miss California Carrie Prejean (who actually picked Hilton as her questioner):
Hilton: Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit. Why or why not?
Prejean: Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be – between a man and a woman. Thank you very much.
Hilton was outraged. On his blog, he called Miss Prejean a “dumb bitch,” described her as having “half a brain,” and said he would have stormed onto the stage and ripped off her tiara if she had won.
She didn’t, she was runner-up, likely to most observers because of her answer above. Some observations.
First, as Miss USA pageants go (and I am not fan), and more precisely, as Q&A with contestants go, Miss Prejean issued one of the more thoughtful and courageous answers in the history of the pageant. I strongly disagree with her conclusion. But she articulated a rational answer to one of the most politically charged questions in the history of the pageant with grace. So who is, really, the condescending, power-tripping, frankly dumb bitch here?
Second, the shocking imbalance of civility here should give pause. Carrie Prejean issued not a syllable of ad hominem attack, condemned no one, judged no one, and even expressly incorporated into her answer a desire not to offend. Perez Hilton did what he did, and spoke the vileness that he spoke, within a cultural milieu that tolerates, even sometimes celebrates, that kind of vicious bile. Do gays honestly wonder why conservatives feel a bit besieged, why their human instincts might actually favor good will but their survival instincts point another direction?
Third, the judicial strategy of the gay agenda turns, in part, on achieving protected minority status under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Essential to that legal goal is a showing of powerlessness, for that is what gives rise to the awesome and properly reluctant power of the Constitution to override free democratic enactments of legislative bodies elected by the people. Is the gay community powerless? Did the gay community look powerless in the exchange between Perez Hilton and Carrie Prejean and its aftermath?
The question of powerlessness plainly colors the cultural libertarianism debate. A cultural libertarian, like Kerry Howley, objects to liberty suppressing power-tripping wherever it occurs. And I respect that impulse as a personal distaste for bullies. (To wit, Perez Hilton.) It doesn’t dictate libertarian support for gay rights across the board, especially when gays are the bullies.
It is a libertarian imperative to support gay marriage as a political (not judicial) proposition because marriage is a government-sanctioned institution and the government has no legitimate interest in the genders of the spouses-to-be. It is not a libertarian imperative to support the gay rights agenda across the board, and it is the prerogative of any libertarian to be troubled by, and object to, some aspects of the gay rights agenda.
As it is the prerogative of any libertarian to support every aspect of the gay rights agenda, as I generally do, because I personally believe in a culture of equal respect and stature among gay, trans-gendered, and straight individuals. But that’s a political proposition, and it must be won politically, without recourse to heavy-handed absolutes.
Kendrick MacDowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.