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Yes, we did lose the culture war
By Barton Wong
Last week here in Toronto, it was Gay Pride Week. On Sunday, a massive Gay Pride Parade was held in the downtown neigbourhood known pejoratively as "Boystown." The news coverage was for the most part, low-key, but still extremely positive. This in itself isn't very significant, but what is, is the fact that it seems that conservatives were not only welcome to march in the Gay Pride Parade, but they appear expected to be there. That's what I gleaned from recent criticism the opposition Liberals threw at our much hated Conservative government in Ontario. It appears that our Minister of Tourism -- Tim Hudak -- along with practically everyone else in the provincial government (with one important exception), not only is not marching in the Gay Pride Parade, he made the fatal mistake of admitting that he didn't even know when it was. For this, he is being pilloried as a closed-minded ignoramus and being contrasted with Conservatives who are supportive of gay rights.
Joe Clark, a former Prime Minister and present leader of the federal Conservatives is a regular at the Calgary Gay Pride Parade. Our populist mayor, Mel Lastman, who once ran as a Conservative MPP, was seen having a ball of a time, indulging in a water fight with other marchers at last year's parade and the Minister of Tourism's predecessor and present head of our provincial public broadcasting television network, Isabel Bassett, the wealthy scion of a well-known Establishment family is a regular marcher as well. All three of these Conservatives are being praised in all quarters (rightly, in my opinion) as being representatives of a more inclusive and tolerant conservative movement. Even our Premier, Mike Harris, who runs (if you believe the hysterical liberal press) the most right-wing government anywhere in Canada today, isn't exactly mounting the battlements in defence of "family values." Right in the middle of his re-election campaign a few years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada extended family benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Rather than make this a huge election issue, the Premier wisely defused the situation and shrugged it off with remarkable sangfroid by essentially saying, "Well, it doesn't fit my definition of what a "family" should be, but we nevertheless accept the ruling of highest court in the land," and that was that.
My personal reaction to this week long celebration of Gay Pride was a mixture of indifference and bemused acceptance. After all, it's not like I'm going to advocate the mass arrests of all these homosexuals and forcing into re-education camps or putting them into asylums because they suffer from a "mental disorder" as some conservatives seem to think. As well, there hasn't, as I said before, been any annoying wall-to-wall and in-your-face, "you have to be there or you're a bigot" sort of media coverage as there has been in previous years. You have the option to ignore it and not attend if you wish. Pride Week has simply ceased to become a special celebration and as now accepted as just another officially-sanctioned mainstream event commemorating yet another officially-sanctioned minority group, like Chinese New Year, Hanukah, and Kwaanza. The $45 million dollars in extra tourism revenue is an additional sweetener as well. So it's far be it for me, to tell half a million people (yes, it's that many) to get out of the sun and stop having fun.
What is annoying about Pride Week is the fact that the city and media of all ideological stripes have joined forces in promoting the week and the parade as "family occasions," that any healthy nuclear family would be eager to attend. Unless you consider having your young children before they can make mature decisions for themselves exposed to masses of bare, writhing, sexually-suggestive flesh, a "family occasion," I would advise that you consider a lot before taking any malleable minds to see any Pride events or the parade itself, which can often resemble a strip show or soft-porn movie set in motion. A "family occasion" it manifestly is not. As Andrew Sullivan and The Onion pointed out long ago, Gay Pride parades might actually be very retrograde to the cause of homosexual rights, because they promote the image of gays as being promiscuous and outrageously sexually irresponsible, which are stereotypes that conservatives like to hurl at gays on a regular basis. And I hate to burst their bubble, but stereotypes aren't exactly always true.
Which brings me to the point. I am a 19 (verging on 20) year-old Canadian university student who is proud to be a self-proclaimed right-winger. I believe in lower taxes, increased privatization, and decreased government regulation. I am glad Harris is our premier and that Conservatives are in charge of my province, I eagerly await an actual right-wing opposition to dethrone the governing federal Liberals, I despise Bill Clinton, believe Al Gore to be a desperate "win at all costs" liar, and I am very happy that Bush is President and leader of the free world. In fact, I was actually hopping up and down and cheering with joy on election night, when Dan Rather declared Bush the winner, so elated I was that eight years of political brinkmanship and obscene corruption were at an end. The resulting Florida election debacle only strengthened my impression that Clinton and his ilk needed to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. By all accounts, this should make me a strong conservative, so why can't I exactly rouse myself and bring myself to support such conservative agenda items as the so-called "family values," opposition to gay rights, or opposition to abortion? Well quite possibly, because the generation I am part of, despite David Brooks' or Christina Hoff Somers' belated hopes for another "Greatest Generation," (a much over-inflated group of people as it is), is certainly not going to meet these bloated expectations nor are they in any way socially conservative. Social conservatism as a cultural and political movement is already dying on its feet in this generation; but we'll certainly finish it off in the next. The culture war is over and it's the social liberals who are the winners.
Why do I think social conservatism is dead among young people like myself and destined for a quick, unlamented end? Well, I hate to rely on chiefly anecdotal evidence and hoist myself up as a "spokesman for my generation," but nevertheless it is worth telling the older generation of conservatives why I personally think their brand of social conservatism just isn't very appealing to just about anyone except themselves anymore.
First of all, a matter of semantics: is it "social liberalism" that is winning or "social libertarianism"? Conservatives might sneer that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two, but the distinction is worth making. Liberalism represents the left, of course, while I once read to my shock a liberal newspaper label the Libertarians, "extreme right-wing" as if they were the equivalent to militia groups and Timothy McVeigh. Going by the cynical adage that perception equals reality, it would be more politically useful for right wingers, if the public were to perceive that it were not Liberals and leftists that have won the culture war, but Libertarians who have won it, because they are, in Jonah Goldberg's phrase, "operationally... still members of the capital 'R' Right." That's why I prefer to think that it is "social libertarianism" that has in fact won the day, not "social liberalism." It serves the purpose of convincing myself and others in the general public that the right-wing's defeat in the culture war can, and will be, spun into a victory, made by people who are "operationally members of the Right."
So why has "social libertarianism" swept away all opposition before its wake? Paul Weyrich, in a famous editorial written right after Bill Clinton's acquittal in the Senate, summed up the conservative dilemma fairly eloquently. "I no longer believe that there is a moral majority," said Weyrich. In this letter to fellow conservatives, Weyrich described "a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics." It might be time to "drop out of this culture," said Weyrich, perhaps even time to abandon efforts to influence the American political process. Weyrich got it only half-right, of course, as events only a year a half later would prove. Abandoning efforts to influence the American political process was the last thing that Bush and his fellow Republicans were about to do. But the part about the "cultural collapse of historic proportions" from a social conservative's viewpoint is almost certainly correct. There is a kind of moral majority left in the Western world, but it is neither very "moral" nor is it very conservative. Social conservatives are now in the minority in Europe, Canada, and maybe even in the United States (they are definitely in the minority in the major cities), and their number is shrinking by the day.
Of course, social conservatives have had their fair share victories, but they've been hollow victories at best. Thanks to Ward Connolly, the cause of affirmative action suffered a national humiliation in of all places, California. But this has only forced its supporters into adopting the more cunning University of Michigan approach and attempt "affirmative action by stealth," the effects of which even the supposedly 'conservative" Bush administration hasn't escaped (see below). As for political correctness, what was most frightening about that, was not the concept itself, but the fact that its many well-versed and literate proponents actually took the cause seriously and with a utterly straight face. Political correctness might be a laughing stock in comedy circuits, newspapers, and talk shows across the country, but as the recent treatment on university campuses of the Horowitz reparations ad and the more recent Independent Women's Forum ad debunking feminists' myths reveals, the hydra still has many heads left to destroy.
So is history on the side of "social libertarianism"? Well, among leading intellectuals such as Peter Singer and Alan Wolfe, it certainly is. Singer, of course, is now infamous for his book review, which advocated the legitimacy of bestiality as a normal sexual practice, which is a particularly extreme instance of the espousal of sexual freedom and liberation at all costs. While for Alan Wolfe, the concept of "moral freedom" is the inevitable wave of the future. And it must be remembered that it has been well-said that what is said in the Academy in one generation, will be disseminated among the general public in the next. When even a staunch Thatcherite such as Andrew Sullivan accuses his fellow conservatives of monumental hypocrisy in the case of the Boy Scouts, one is inclined to think that despite the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling and the Helms Amendment, full integration and gay scoutmasters will eventually be allowed. The Scouts always did will continue in the future to have many gay members. Like all cultural issues, it'll simply be a matter of time until public attitudes come around to libertarian viewpoint. Nathan Glazer once wrote a book entitled "We Are All Multiculturalists Now." That still might not be true, but most of the American public could very well stand up and say "We are feminists now," in as much we all by now take for granted the concept of equality for women and women's rights. The way things are going, the American people in the not too distant future could pretty well join our present-day Beltway chattering classes in standing up and saying "We are all social liberals now," or "We are all sexual libertines now," or even "We are all gay rights' advocates now."
At FreeRepublic.com, I read a FReeper declare that her favourite show was that scourge of censorship laws all around the world, South Park. Even in the leading conservative magazines, the growing rot can be discerned. The National Review Online, unlike the conservatives of the past, has fully embraced pop culture. There have been articles posted on Bob Dylan, the Ramones, U2, the Sopranos (by the great William F. Buckley Jr. himself no less), and the game show, The Weakest Link recently. And remember when the first President Bush said that real nuclear families aren't like The Simpsons? Well, in the era of the second President Bush, the editor of NRO, Jonah Goldberg, drops regular references to The Simpsons in his triweekly columns and lauds it as one of the few popular network primetime shows which centers on a (barely) functioning nuclear family and regularly skewers political correctness (all true, of course) as well as once devoting an entire column to Star Trek's Klingon language. Over a decade after the dean of popular culture, Andy Warhol, died, it appears that pop culture has finally achieved a certain place in the conservative pantheon and it can't happen too soon for young conservatives so often exasperated by their elders' lack of coolness and inability to be "with it."
The failure of social conservatism among the young is really very easy to explain. We are victims of our circumstances. Being born around say 1981, instead of say 1941, many conservatives already have low expectations for the mores and morals of young people like me as it is. So why should I bother to conform to what these people think? And anyway why should I hold myself to a high moral standard when the leader of the free world himself has a tawdry sexual affair, lies about it, gets away scot-free, and then ends his political career with record approval rating? Whatever happened to our elders setting us an example to follow? For my generation at least, the Moral Majority is best known from a song by Green Day that mercilessly mocks it and "family values" is less something that you have, and more like the name of a tour made by alternative rock bands. As for the case for marriage, which social conservatives often view as a save-all for society's ills, I can hardly better this typical Gen-Xer's letter to the National Review Online for why marriage is viewed so negatively among the younger generation. She writes, "I, personally, am scared to death of getting married. Actually, I'm scared of getting divorced. My parents divorced before I was four years old. I've never had a steady relationship last a full year. The idea of committing myself to a relationship for the rest of my life is a frightening concept; how can I be sure it won't fail? I'd be willing to bet that many of my peers feel the same day. Almost everyone I know in my age group who has been married isn't anymore... Maybe that means I'm a coward, afraid of the challenge, but I don't want to end up 30 years old, divorced with two kids. From what I remember, it's no fun." Her fear, some might say even paranoia, regarding marriage is more than amply justified, given a divorce rate which hovers somewhere between 45 and 50%.
On the issue of gay rights, conservatives can too often seem just as hypocritical as their liberal counterparts. When Andrew Sullivan (a man I quite respect) announced he had gotten an e-mail from some anonymous person at FreeRepublic calling him the usual slurs, he was inundated with counter e-mails from other FReepers assuring him that they did not share this person's attitude, and that we really, really liked having him on our side. Gay conservatives like Justin Raimondo are highly respected as well and have their articles regularly posted. Yet, FreeRepublic is the same site where I have never read an even remotely racist or sexist post, yet often read posts which are often flagrantly homophobic. This kind of selective attitude reminds me of an infamous mayor of late nineteenth century Vienna, Dr. Karl Lueger, who was elected on an anti-Semitic ticket, but counted many Jews as personal friends. When are conservatives going to decide? Are we going to reject the homosexual lifestyle altogether or have we decided that the only good gay people are conservative gay people?
But there are many other reasons why social conservatism is such failure among the young. Republicans have been aptly coined as "the Stupid Party" (the Democrats are "the Evil Party," but you knew that already) and for young people, conservatives have done nothing to improve that impression. It doesn't help when the only time you hear in the media from anti-abortion activists is when some insane man has blown up an abortion clinic or has shot an abortion doctor. It doesn't help the cause that such perceived "wackos" like Pat Robertson and Patrick J. Buchanan (who in reality is as probably as anti-Semitic as Eric Alterman) with their extreme "war for America's heart and soul" kind of rhetoric associated with right-wing causes. The fact that a prominent right-wing philosopher such as Roger Scruton could actually advocate in a leading conservative intellectual magazine such as City Journal bringing back stigma and the shame society is simply bad enough. Such a thing conjures up images of the McCarthy hearings and Puritan witch trials for people like us. Then there's the bible literalists. They show up on just about every thread at a place like FreeRepublic.com that involves gay people. Quite frankly, many young conservatives find them a touch embarrassing to have on our side.
For example, take the first tenet, which I found on the Christianity Today Statement of Faith: A. The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error. They constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice. How can this not seem totally naive and laughable for a young person, when they're taught (as I was) in their very first year of university, that the bible is full of inconsistencies, was written by various authors with various ideological agendas, can be viewed at times as little more than religious propaganda, and whose main character, "God," my Literary Studies Professor once called a sadomasochist who liked to inflict pain on human beings? How can I take Christianity Today seriously when tenet G on their statement of faith appears to involve their literal belief in the resurrection of the dead and when this very same magazine recently put Ned Flanders on the cover as if he was evangelicalism's new mascot? Did these people not even see the episode where Ned, their new representative, was teaching Rod and Todd, how to make a pipe bomb in order to blow up a Planned Parenthood Clinic? Ignorance on this scale once prompted my colleague at the Houston Review, Jim Versluys, to pen a conservative case against religionism. And they'll probably be many more in the future.
The main problem with conservatism is that it seems to be essentially a passive and reactionary ideology, rather than a dynamic one. Conservatives today and in the past seem to take far too literally, William F. Buckley's principle that "conservatism is standing in front of the train of history, yelling 'Stop!'" They are simply standing around waiting inertly for the next wave of barbarians to arrive, so that they can rush to defend the so-called "traditional values," event though they never notice that the territory they are defending shrinks year after year. Does anyone recall the time when social conservatives were telling us that jazz was the work of the devil? Then it was Rock n' Roll. Then it was Elvis' pelvises. And today, this very same phenomenon can be seen at work. Whether its calling on the censorship of a harmless (hey, my sisters listen to his music for god's sakes) artist such as Eminem or William F. Buckley meditating on the soft porn Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, or blaming such things as rock music or video games or even abstract concepts like pessimism, nihilism, and post-modernism for the Columbine massacre (if conservatives have a strong case for not blaming the killings on guns, then liberals would probably have an equally strong case for not blaming the surrounding culture), conservatives always seem exasperatingly behind the times. You can't stand in front of the train and stop its inevitable momentum. You'll simply get run over as conservatives have proved over and over again in recent history. Maybe it's about time conservatives got on board the train of history and tried changing its course instead. At the very least, it would be better for our health.
Of course, to use Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous phrase, society as a whole pays an enormous price for "defining deviancy down." Take television for example. L. Brent Bozell's columns are a useful chronicle of the decline into mass decadence of prime time television, the circus-like atmosphere of reality television shows being a prime illustration. One of the most uncomfortable experiences I've ever had watching TV, was the most recent episode of the hit NBC reality show Fear Factor. The premise is simple: the contestants must overcome three dangerous tests that try their nerves to a rather extreme degree to win $50 000. The most recent show had a test where the contestants had to first eat up to five worms and then lie in a tank full of them for four minutes. This was accompanied by the obligatory close ups of meandering masses of worms. This wasn't all that bad; what was bad was the reaction of one of the female contestants. This was a woman who had jumped between two speeding trucks the day before and was obviously determined to win the contest, but the prospect of eating a worm and lying in a bed of them seemed to have cracked her up. Instead, we were subjected to shots of her looking increasingly nauseous and upset, until finally she broke down and walked away in tears.
Even worse, on the show's web site, a close-up of her tortured face is "the picture of the week." This was the gratuitous exploitation of one woman's emotional degradation for motives of profit, nothing more. And even worse is to come. Peter Singer is laughed at now for advocating the legitimacy of bestiality, but other such deviancies, sexual or otherwise, are slowly finding acceptance in the general public. In Europe, a recent travelling freak show calling itself an art exhibit, displayed the "plasticized" and dissected remains of real dead people, whom the artist had managed convinced for his use. "The culture of death" was literally on display. Also in Europe, there is a slow, creeping movement to legitimize pedophilia and protect it as a justifiable lifestyle. Even more alarming is that this movement might have already come to America. In Wisconsin, a 17-year old teen recently beat a man to death he thought was a child molester. That was bad enough, but the boy wasn't charged by the sheriff with just murder, but with having committed a hate crime as well, the subtle implication being that child molestation was now a sexual orientation and that alleged pedophiles are now covered under hate crime laws. The long cultural slide continues its course unabated.
The final demise of social conservatism can be shown operating at the highest political levels. Even the second Bush administration, which thus far has reached or even exceeded conservative expectations seems to be unable to free itself from the effects of eight years of Clintonian political correctness. Not that social conservatives seem to be able to do much of anything about it. Attempts to stop the appointment of the abortion-supporting Republican governor of Massachusetts, Paul Celluci, as Ambassador to Canada, fizzled even before they got off the ground. According to Reed R. Heustis Jr., Bush, a born-again Christian, is leading an increasingly gay administration, but to just about every other mainstream political commentator out there except Heustis, it makes perfect sense to appoint a Log Cabin Republican such as Scott Evertz as AIDS czar. With one million gay votes cast for Bush in the last election, it would in fact, be politically suicidal for him to go back to any retrograde policy regarding homosexual rights. A quiet acceptance of homosexuality as a perfectly legitimate lifestyle appears to be now the consensus at the highest reaches of the Republican Party.
A perfect example of this is the advertisement for a gay and lesbian program specialist in the Agriculture Department of the administration. To quote OpinionJournal, the job "develops training programs designed to educate and train agency management as well as non- supervisory employees in gay and lesbian skills, policy, approaches, and advantages." The department is also advertising for "program specialists" to serve the department's blacks, Indians, Asian-Americans, Hispanics and women--separately, of course. As Evertz recently said, "The President gets it." What Bush also "gets" is that it isn't exactly politically and even constitutionally viable to overturn Roe Vs. Wade; all you can really do is try to delay its expansion as long as possible. Bush, unlike anything you might hear The Nation tell you, has never shown any racial, sexual, homophobic prejudice in his life. He could actually be veering too far in the opposite direction. According the Weekly Standard, Bush's administration might in fact be an example of the much-hated "affirmative action" in action, complete racial and sexual quotas, where the only bias is a bias against hiring able white males.
I started by musing on Gay Pride Week and that is how I'll end. I made an appearance at the Gay Pride Parade on Sunday (no, not to protest and definitely not to march), but to observe, because I plan to write a column telling about my impressions there. All too often, conservatives make generalized statements (like I have here) about homosexuals which they cannot back up with any real world facts. The least I can do is see if the Gay Pride Parade is better (or worse) than I have stated here. As for social conservatism, in the end, it is rather sad, but I can only come to the conclusion that it is dead as a cultural and political force. Ultimately it died from a mixture of benign neglect and obsolescence, and in the future, those who mourn for it will be few indeed.
Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Houston Review and is studying Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto in Canada.
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