Worlds in Collision

There have been several interesting items in recent issues of The Nation.

Reviewing John Judis’ Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Bernard Avishai argues that President Harry S Truman had far fewer options in formulating policy towards events in and around Mandatory Palestine than Mr Judis claims.  Mr Avishai’s closing sentences are worth quoting:

Understanding Israel’s founding in 1948 as a necessary event with tragic consequences, and not as a presidential mistake forced by political pressure, will not make Obama less wary of AIPAC or his relationship with Netanyahu less tortured. But it could make his tact more obviously noble.

“Tact” may itself be an extraordinarily tactful choice of words to characterize Mr O’s relationship with Israel and the Americans who support the Israeli right-wing, but I would say that “necessary event with tragic consequences” is usually an accurate description of major occurrences in world history.  There may be some agent or other who was at some point in a position to alter the course of events, but that point may have passed long before anyone realized the significance of what was going on.  Certainly by the time President Truman took office, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine was beyond the power of any US president to prevent, even assuming any US president were to be so heedless of public opinion as to want to prevent it.  The fact that President Truman so thoroughly convinced himself of the contrary as to announce to the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953 that “I am Cyrus” serves to remind us that the extreme self-confidence that men need if they are to rise to high political office often leaves them vulnerable to the most absurd self-deceptions.  Not that politicians have a monopoly on self-deception; Mr Avishai mentions Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Culture of Defeat, a book which shows how little relationship the commonly accepted opinions on all sides in the USA have to any facts concerning their country’s Civil War of 1861-1865.

A book about Immanuel Velikovsky prompts Paula Findlen to write an engaging essay about Velikovsky’s career and her own youthful enthusiasm for his work.  For my part, I wonder if Velikovsky’s eccentric theories about comets and colliding heavenly bodies set science back significantly.  Scientists are now comfortable talking about impacts that led to the formation of the Moon, triggered mass extinctions, etc, but in the 1970s, when Velikovsky’s work was in vogue, they were noticeably reluctant to consider such theories, perhaps for fear of being mistaken for Velikovskyans.

In September 2000, Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech in which he spoke ill of Thomas Jefferson, and explained why he had the right to do so.  I speak ill of Thomas Jefferson myself quite frequently.  I often read Jefferson’s deplorable works and study his deplorable acts, the better to deplore them, and my education advances in proportion to the amount of time I spend in his deplorable presence in this way.

In a recent issue, Richard Kim expressed exasperation with social conservatives concerned that the declining popularity of their views on sex in general and on gender neutral marriage in particular has destined them for marginalization.   Mr Kim points out that social conservatives still wield a great deal of power in the USA and that American courts have been quite deferential to religious liberty concerns.  The magazine rather undercuts Mr Kim’s point by running his piece under the headline “The Bigot’s Lament” and giving it a subhed saying that “the religious right nurses its persecution complex.”  If people are going to label you a bigot and dismiss your concerns as symptoms of a “persecution complex,” you are probably right to worry that you are being pushed to the margins.  Rod Dreher wrote a series of posts on his blog at The American Conservative a few weeks ago in which he speculated that in the future, people who share his belief that homosexual relationships are not the same kind of thing as heterosexual relationships may have to keep that belief a secret or face loss of employment and public humiliation, even as same-sexers have long had to keep their sexuality secret in order to avoid the same penalties.  Responding to a critique from Andrew Sullivan, Mr Dreher wrote:

This line from Andrew is particularly rich:

In the end, one begins to wonder about the strength of these people’s religious convictions if they are so afraid to voice them, and need the state to reinforce them.

This is the crux of the problem. Let’s restate this: “One begins to wonder about the strength of the love of gay couples if they are so afraid to come out of the closet, and need the state to protect them.”

How does that sound? To me, it sounds smug and naive and unfeeling, even cruel, about the reality of gay people’s lives. If they aren’t willing to martyr themselves, then they must not really love each other, right? And hey, if they need the state to protect them from a wedding photographer who won’t take their photos, how much do they really love each other?

You see my point.

I am glad we don’t live in that world anymore. We don’t live in that world anymore because people like Andrew insisted that gay lives had more dignity than the majority of Americans believed. Again, they did us all a favor by awakening us morally to what it is like to live in a country where what matters the most to you is treated in custom and in law as anathema.

I do think there is a realistic chance that in a decade or two it will be a career-killer virtually everywhere in the USA to profess religious beliefs that disapprove of same-sex sex and elevate opposite-sex sex to privileged status in the moral order.  I’m not entirely opposed to this happening; I think such beliefs are wrong, and the sooner they are consigned to the status of exhibits in a museum of discredited ideas the better off everyone will be.  On the other hand, while antigay beliefs may be losing popularity in the USA and other rich countries, and also in regions like Latin America that make a point of reminding the world of their affinities with the rich countries, they are far from dying out altogether.  That means that we can expect a sizable minority of closeted antigays to persist in the USA for quite some time to come.  And outside the rich countries, especially in Africa and the Muslim world, hostility to same-sexers is certainly not fading.  If immigration from these regions to the USA rises in the years to come, as it seems likely to do, a strong stigma against beliefs that oppose same-sex sex may lead to bitter confrontations and harsh stands on both sides.  An American counterpart to the late Pim Fortuyn may not be an impossibility for long.

These are concerns for tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, it is possible that a new stigma may attach itself to same-sexers, the stigma of membership in a genetically unmodified lower class.  In that case, it might be desirable that the period leading up to the shift should reinforce norms of mutual respect and fair play, rather than aggression and triumphalism.  Or it might not be; perhaps the collision with the new world will blot out whatever habits we may have  cultivated in the old one.  Assuming, of course, that there is enough of a genetic contribution to the physical basis of homosexual attraction for genetic modification to bring this particular collision about in the first place.

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