Sullivan’s Rhetoric

I would not be writing on Chicagoboyz if somewhere along the line I hadn’t heard about Andrew Sullivan, then started reading him on a regular basis. He sent me erratically to Instapundit. And Reynolds brought me to Chicagoboyz. This is the trajectory that found me in a place where I feel remarkably comfortable; for the first time in my life I’m forced to give some order to my musings. I am grateful – to the Chicagoboyz and, therefore, to Sullivan. I admired his work; I teach his essay on “coming of age” as a homosexual. It with clarity and wit emphasizes the biological, the innate nature of his preferences – preferences he didn’t understand at first. I pair it with Scott Russell Sanders’ “Looking at Women,” an essay about Sanders’ growing awareness of the “otherness” of women moving to a joyous tribute to the relation between opposites, a man and a woman. It is easy to treat both essays with respect – and my students do. Sullivan’s award-winning essay, “The ‘He’ Hormone” also emphasizes the influence of the biological.

I haven’t been reading Sullivan much lately, but Reynolds posted a response to him, and, remembering how much I owed, I wandered over this evening. But his tone and arguments polarize. Given the state of heterosexual marriages, I have my doubts gay ones are going to make things worse. I’ve always been half-heartedly in favor anyway. For all sorts of pragmatic & respectful reasons long term relationships should be acknowledged legally. But his stance makes me hesitate. I can’t go all the way with religious conservatives but they aren’t evil; besides, I don’t find paranoia persuasive.

In 1971 I took one of the first homophile courses in the country, from Lou Crompton, who was a remarkable scholar (his specialty was Shaw); he founded the MLA Gay Caucus. At that time, I was living with two guys who had been together or 6 or 7 years and are still together today, in a loving homosexual relationship. The only true friend I’ve retained from the sixties is gay. I’m hardly a theocrat; I only began attending church with anything like regularity in the last year because my daughter wanted to go to a different church than her father’s. My husband goes regularly; my middle daughter is majoring in religious studies; my eldest is an elder in her small church. But their spiritual lives have developed in spite of rather than because of me. In short, I am not unsympathetic to Sullivan’s agenda nor am I of the religious right.

But I also believe marriage submerges self in family; a large part of my decision to marry and who to marry lay in who would be a good father. For, in the end, I saw marriage in terms of family. Its priority is not self-expression, is not an individual right, but a commitment to the nurturing of the next generation (and each of those children is also submerged, in part, in this family as well – nurturing their siblings, gently prodding their parents.) That institution – marriage – is larger than the parts and central to society. I wasn’t surprised by the Wood essay – like who ever thought that the basic building block of culture wasn’t a heterosexual union with children? Of course, if we still had arranged marriages, the procreative/cultural purpose would be obvious and we’d see the seduction of romance as the honey trap it is; we would be more aware of the work to keep a marriage going.

Sullivan’s virtue was that he understood, indeed, emphasized, the universal nature of man. That emphasis leads us to sympathize with the like/yet also unlike “other,” to expand rather than narrow our sympathies. That appreciation is at the core of western thought, of the rule of law, of the “open market place of ideas,” which he described eloquently. We share much more as humans than we don’t. Such an emphasis arises both from a belief we share the spark of the divine as well as biological constants. I liked him because he wrote well and because his contrarian position gave him broader sympathies.

But tonight his generosity and breadth of spirit had narrowed. Before, he seemed to understand gay marriage was a goal best won through the ballot box, through open discussion, through the compromises, perhaps, that are a part of living in a democracy. (His position, then, seemed little different from Bush’s – and Bush hasn’t changed.) Sullivan of a relatively short time ago was not ready to turn to a few judges to enact by fiat what he wanted. He knew what John Adams noted in his letter to his wife, as the Declaration of Independence was ratified, that it followed talk – talk across back fences and in town meetings, in churches and pubs, in homes and on the street. Then what we arrive at we can live with, even fight for.

Many people I like – some of whom are made uneasy by gay men and some of whom count more than one gay man among their closest, long-term friends – are not in favor of gay marriage. They are not as Sullivan describes them. None of them want gay men unhappy and marginalized; all would like their gay friends to have long-term, loving, warm relationships. They rejoice with their friends when they find someone with whom they can establish that kind of intimacy; they console their friends who have lost their partners. Their lives are not made happier by others’ unhappiness.

I know no one (and I do know people who feel such a marriage goes against natural law which they value) who doesn’t wish gays well. This was not a battle they picked – it began with gay cases taken to court. Now, you can say if you believe in the civil rights parallel that the South hardly picked the fight that took place in places like Selma. Still, the religious right was cheerfully minding its own business – which it considered topics like evolution. Everybody knows some homosexuals and lesbians. The religious right are no exceptions. It was when they were faced with the reality of gay marriages that they were prodded into action. But Sullivan’s paranoia includes his apparent belief the right was waiting for a chance to assault gays. He conflates those who are disturbed by Schiavo’s death with those who would subject gays to endless humiliations. His arguments seem to arise first from a basic misunderstanding of marriage and second from an attitude toward much of the public that means he’s about ready for an aluminum foil deflector beanie.

Here, for instance, he characterizes his opposition:

The trend toward coupling among gay men continues – . . . And no doubt social conservatives are appalled. Gay men settling down? Or seeking intimacy and commitment? I’m sure Stanley Kurtz and Maggie Gallagher are horrified. Don’t gays realize that our role is to be forever marginalized, in bath-houses or alone? How else will straights keep their social structures healthy if they cannot point to “sick” gay people as psychological reinforcement?

Yeah, that’s what heterosexuals want – lonely, unhappy gays hanging around bathhouses or sobbing silently at home. (This reminds me of that insane movie review in The New Yorker that argued conservatives were appalled at the thought of a black/white friendship. That review was a couple of years ago – about, what, forty years after Culp & Cosby spied and tennised their way across the world; after, of course, Condi Rice & Colin Powell. I stopped my subscription to the New Yorker shortly after – after a lifetime of waiting for that magazine every week. I knew, then, what they thought of me.)

On an earlier post, he notes:

Reader asks: Do you mean to say that the war is being used as political cover to push a theocratic agenda (sounds about right), or that the reason we undertook the war was as cover for a theocratic agenda (sounds cynical and hysterical)?

Sullivan answers: I mean the former. I’m sorry if I confused anyone. Or more simply: many people voted for Bush on national security grounds, a position with which I have much sympathy, and decided that fretting about the religious right was overblown. My position was that the national security differences between Bush and Kerry were not so great as to risk the domestic Kulturkampf that the religious right would unleash if Bush were to win. Others believed I was “hysterical” and concentrating too much on the gay issue.

Well, at least he didn’t go for the latter.

I’m sure same-sex marriage ranks higher with him than with me and if he found Kerry’s positions more attractive on those grounds (though it is beyond my comprehension how he could have felt that Kerry showed tolerance toward homosexuals and Bush did not, but I realize he did), I can see why he would have been for Kerry. Needless to say, for many of us, this kind of proportionality just doesn’t work at all.

Of course, Bush’s stand on the war & its importance has resonance with those of us with children (more, I suspect those with children younger than mine). Kerry might well have stood in the doorway, as Thomas Paine’s Tory pubkeeper does, and told us that we’d have peace in our time. We look at our children and realize, as Paine notes in a scathing comment in the Crisis Papers, what could be a more unfatherly remark? Indeed, that is the core of marriage – that parents sacrifice in their time so their children need not in theirs.

And yes, I know I’m older than most on this blog and yes, we boomers have loosened the bonds of marriage, defined our rights in terms of our desires. Thus, we have defined marriage down; we’ve begun to accept the facade for the real. Thus, we’ve come to see it much as Sullivan does and much less closely to the way it has been defined for millennia. (For all of us are tempted; as Melville notes of Claggart, we let our conscience be lawyer to our will. We got by with it in our time because our times have been remarkably comfortable.)

10 thoughts on “Sullivan’s Rhetoric”

  1. I know many people – some of whom are made somewhat uneasy by gay men and some of whom count more than one gay man among their closest, long-term friends – who are not in favor of gay marriage.

    What about gay women?

    I suppose you would have included them if there was a female supporter of gay marriage that was as eloquent as Sullivan.


  2. A major reason I cannot trust the pro-marriage side at present is the absolute refusal to acknowledge any possible downside to its implementation, and the smearing of all opponents as anti-gay.

    The rejection of or inability to recognize marriage as a pillar of civilization suggests a poverty of intellectual thought. Name-calling and shouting down those who argue otherwise does not create support but dissent. Judicial imposition of gay marriage will cause as much of a rift as did Roe v. Wade.

  3. Gay women: (1) statistically, there are far fewer of them, (2) they already are very likely to form permanent monogamous relationships — more so than heterosexual couples — so they probably have less need for the public drama of fighting for legal recognition of a marriage, (3) women, especially younger women, who engage in homosexual conduct are far less likely than men to limit themselves exclusively or permanently to same-sex relationships. All this suggests that the omnibus term “gay” does not really describe similar phenomena when you are talking about same-sex male relationships and same-sex female relationships.

  4. Ginny, my thoughts about Andrew mirror yours. Only I could not take the time to summon the words that sensitivity for the gay community, as well as his lifetime of lucid prose, both demand.

    You have written them here with great care. Thank you.

  5. Double posting isn’t frequent. I’d rather delete the occasional comment manually than figure out how to create a “delete” button that doesn’t cause more problems than it solves.

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  7. This reminds me of that insane movie review in The New Yorker that argued conservatives were appalled at the thought of a black/white friendship.

    This would be David Denby’s review of 8 Mile.:

    People who are convinced that Eminem is destroying America might want to consider the delicacy of the white-black friendships in “8 Mile.” (Perhaps the spectre of such friendships is what right-wingers actually hate most.)

    I had admired Denby’s Great Books, to the point of having my copy autographed. Too bad he didn’t learn all he could have from them.

  8. I feel the same way about Andrew Sullivan. He was an inspiration because he is eloquent, and he dared to think outside the stereotype. That he was in favor of classically liberal ideals was also attractive. However, he has since become a one-issue voter, and his buying into the caricatures of politicians was a bit disappointing, to say the least. But, just as he continues to credit Bush for “getting the big picture right”, I’ll still pay tribute to him for having the guts to say he what he thinks, and with such eloquence. His clarity of thought may have slipped of late, but it may be just a phase.

  9. Sullivan lost me when his coverage of Bush on non-gay-related issues changed sharply when Bush came out against gay marriage. Sullivan showed himself to be biased in a way I found intellectually dishonest, and too obvious not to be on purpose. It was trasnparently the case that he decided he wanted the Democrat elected and he found reasons to criticize Bush on all kinds of issues, and it was obvious that it was all “about” gay marriage for him. This was distasteful, but more importantly very disappointing. I had found that his grasp of the importance of freedom and the threat posed by terrorism was exactly correct and very well expressed. I think for a period of a couple of years he was a valuable voice, and it was possible to disagree with him on gay marriage and still respect him on other matters. I wish it had stayed like that. I too hope this current monomania is a phase and that he will get his moral, political and intellectual priorities back in alignment. But for now, for many months now, I have given up reading him.

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