Saturday, August 31, 2013

Discussion of Joseph Bottum's Essay on Gay Marriage Continues: Re-Enchanting Culture Requires Us to Ask, Who's Doing the Singing?

At CommonwealMatthew Boudway surveys the responses of conservative critics to the essay that Joseph Bottum published recently in Commonweal about Catholics and same-sex marriage. To be specific, Boudway looks at the critical response of Ross Douthat, Isaac Chotiner, Rod Dreher, Peter J. Leithart, Russell E. Saltzman, Robert Royal, and Philip Lawler. Boudway's list of links include Saltzman's article twice, though it appears he had intended to add an additional link to the list and not link to Saltzman twice.*

Notice anything about Matthew Boudway's list? Yeah, me, too. Every one of them. Every single one of them (please see the *; when I read Boudway's posting this morning, there were duplicate links for Russell E. Salatzar, and Calah Alexander's essay was not linked. Now that Boudway has corrected the duplicate links, there is a female name in his list--Alexander).

All males. Almost all heterosexual males, as far as I know. Most of them married heterosexual males. And if you want to get really specific in your description, white heterosexual males, most of them married, who occupy comfortable socioeconomic niches. In American society, very specifically.

Now, I'm not in the least opposed to seeing folks conduct in-group conversations about matters of importance to their in-groups. It's in the nature of things that social collectives will organize into sub-collectives that share similar interests, and that the sub-collectives will talk among themselves.

But as I observed yesterday, we're talking here about a little sub-collective of the human community that has a very large thesis involving all the rest of us, though the rest of us are not acknowledged in any way in the conversation except as objects of the discussion: this thesis maintains that, as Bottum puts the point, "we" have lost our enchantment. "We" folks in Western Christian cultures have lost the song of faith, the chant, "we" used to sing, which made our cultures enchanted cultures, and "we" need to find ways to re-enchant our disenchanted culture.

And doesn't something about Bottum's thesis--which is now being critiqued almost exclusively by other white heterosexual men, most of them married--strike you as more than a tiny bit odd, when the only folks doing the singing are a particular subset of the human community? Yet they're speaking as if they're "we"? And the rest of us are, well, "they"?

The "they" who have no voice at all in the song that should, we're told, enchant an entire culture . . . . 

Wouldn't you think that a sane starting point for a probing discussion of why "we" have lost our song might just be to ask whether songs that deliberately exclude huge segments of the human community from singing are designed to disenchant? The larger human community is bound to end up being disenchanted with songs that purport to be sung on behalf of everyone, while they're actually sung by only a minority of the human community purporting to stand in place of everyone.

And when they're sung by a segment of the whole that asserts its right to judge everyone except the members of its own sub-collective, the right to stand in the place of "we" while relegating everyone else to the place of "they" . . . . 

This is, it seems to me, a recipe for serious disenchantment of any community that aims at singing vibrant, transformative, hopeful, or redemptive songs, and it's difficult to understand why "we" (as in Messrs. Bottum, Lawler, Royal, et al.) don't quite see that point, and recognize that any critique of why "we" have lost our chant ought to begin with searching questions about why "they" themselves have so long imagined they speak for "us," and why "they" have an unquestionable right to define themselves as the normal and the rest of us as the subnormal. Why the discussion of why "we" have lost our enchantment doesn't start with an honest discussion of the role they themselves may have played--a very large one--in disenchanting the rest of us . . . . 

I'm saying, as I often say on this blog ad nauseam, the following: until the powerful inner sanctum of American Catholics who seen to control the Catholic conversation at sites like Commonweal about . . . everything . . . start looking at their unmerited heterosexual power and privilege, and critiquing that unmerited power and privilege and they way it depends on the abuse of their fellow human beings who happen to be born homosexual, as they offer descriptions of the reality of American Catholicism that are really prescriptions (their own heterosexual prescriptions), we're not going to move at all far down the road towards authentic catholicity.

Of the sort that enchants entire cultures . . . . 

To his credit, Matthew Boudway does raise this point in his response to Messrs. Royal, Lawler, et al. as these gentlemen respond to Mr. Bottum): Boudway asks why "we" single out the case of gay marriage in a very particular way as an incomparable threat to the enchantment of "our" culture, while not dealing with the cases of divorce and contraception, as "we" claim the culture has lost its enchantment and needs "us" to re-enchant it. Why do the gays constitute some kind of unique, unparalleled threat to the enchantment of Western Christian cultures, when what we're decrying about the gays--the severing of the link between marriage and procreation--has already been going on with contraception for ever so long now, while "we" weren't lamenting the total disillusion and disenchantment of Western Christian culture as even a majority of our fellow Catholics began to accept and use contraceptives?

And why haven't "we" been working to block people's right to divorce as fervently as we've been working to block some people's right to civil marriage, when divorce is, bar none, the biggest factor resulting in the dissolution of heterosexual marriages in the nation--while "we" claim that heterosexual marriages will begin falling apart only if we allow "them" to marry?

I think the answers to these questions are fairly obvious, don't you? The songs we sing depend pretty radically on whose ox is being gored and whose dog is in the fight. There is, as I have said more than once on this blog of late, a great deal of downright dishonesty in the American Catholic conversation, particularly regarding issues of sexual practice, sexual morality, and heterosexual power and privilege.

This dishonesty leads to inanity, to the astonishing pretense that "we" represent "them" when they are voiceless, and that "our" behavior is morally exemplary when we behave this way. It leads to outright inanities like Deacon Jim Pauwels's bizarre counterfactual claim, in the thread responding to Boudway's essay, that "large pluralities continue to oppose" the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. While, um, in the real world in which the church is supposed to conduct its business if it wants to have an effect on the real world, in the world of truth, the reality is that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. And that percentage grows apace with each passing day.

Deacon Jim, you'll recall, invited me in an effusive public demonstration of Christian kindness at the Commonweal blog site in June 201 to email and talk to him about why gay Catholics feel unwelcome in his church. And then he simply ignored the email I sent him in response to that invitation (and here and here). You see, Deacon Jim appears inclined to talk only to other Cabots and other Lodges, even when he graciously (and publicly) invites members outside his group to converse with him, while intending to ignore their response to such gracious public invitations. Hence his tenuous grasp on a reality wider than that recognized by his own small circle--on the reality of the real world, that is to say--since we begin to open to realities wider than the reality represented by own own little groups only when we listen respectfully to and engage respectfully with members of other clubs.

Even more bizarre than Deacon Jim's counterfactual claim about the "large pluralities" opposing marriage equality, here's the use to which Deacon Jim (a married heterosexual white man of comfortable socioeconomic status, by the way) puts that counterfactual and truth-skirting claim: the U.S. Catholic bishops and "we Catholics" would be silly to try to outlaw easy divorce and easy access to contraception in a culture where the majority of citizens support people's access to divorce and contraception. But as long as "large pluralities continue to oppose" same-sex marriage, it makes perfect sense--it's right and just, in fact--for the U.S. bishops and "us Catholics" to fight against same-sex marriage.

As long as you have clout on your side, you're engaged in a morally admirable crusade. As long as you can hold down a vulnerable minority group, put your boot across its neck, and accomplish your objective with impunity, you're behaving morally and admirably. How a majority decides to treat a powerless minority is not a measure of the majority's claim to be on the side of morality. 

Morality is what you can get away with, given enough power and privilege.

Might makes right.

The arguments "we" come up with when we talk only among ourselves, with no one to challenge us or interject other realities--as in plain truth--into the discussion can be downright stinky, in moral and intellectual terms, can't they? Downright stupid.

And stinky and stupid rarely enchant disenchanted cultures, do they?

*Later in the day: I see that Matthew Boudway has now fixed the double links for Russell Saltzman; one of the duplicate links now points to this statement by Calah Alexander, the sole female in the list. See this footnote discussing the inclusion of Calah Alexander's voice in the preceding discussion, and how that inclusion affects my thesis here.

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