Time to Enlist in the Culture War
July 27, 2005
By Patricia Goldsmith
continuing intense polarization of our country is a direct result
of the dominant Republican Party's refusal to fragment, even in
the face of massive corruption, ongoing scandals, and George Bush's
free fall in the polls. This unity is made possible, no doubt, by
corporate ownership of the media, but it is driven by a wartime
mindset - and I don't mean Iraq.
As far as most liberals are concerned, however, the Culture War
is like a high pitched dog whistle: outside their range of perception.
But you better believe the attacks dogs of the right hear it. There
is a reason they all start howling at the same time.
Bill Clinton was different. His success was based on understanding
the Culture War in his bones. I believe his tactics were often misguided,
but there is no doubt that he saw a country splitting along ideological
lines and, for a time, managed to keep the rift from exploding.
(Or rather, he limited the explosions to his own person.)
That explains why Clinton, who really was a uniter, is most often
described as a polarizing president. He was always, for better or
for worse, aware of the alternate reality being promulgated by the
right-wing education/spin/attack machine, and he was always reaching
out across the lines, refusing to let them harden.
Clinton advised gay people to come out: "Just keep telling your
stories." He changed the environment in which we live, by responding
emotionally and symbolically. When Matthew Shepard was murdered,
for example, Bill Clinton treated it as if it were an important
event. He mourned. This was the first time in my memory that a hate
crime against a homosexual received respectful national attention.
What Clinton did was so powerful that the right, always alert
to the emotional impact of symbols, has latched onto Matthew Shepard
for its own purposes. In a little-noted but extremely frightening
gesture, George Bush made October 12 the first day of Marriage
Protection Week. It just so happens that October 12 is the date
of Matthew Shepard's death. This is one of those coded messages
George Bush is always sending to his base - and what an unintentionally
apt description that is in this case.
Clinton, always straddling the divide, balanced his emotional
support of basic gay rights with "compromise" legislation like Don't
Ask/Don't Tell, which was an unmitigated disaster, causing the outing
and dismissal of untold numbers of gay people in the military. He
also supported DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which
provides that same-sex marriage is limited to the states that pass
such laws and cannot be used to argue for marriage rights in other
Intentionally or not, I believe Clinton did us a favor with DOMA,
buying precious organizing time for gay rights organizations, and
spurring us to pursue domestic partnership benefits state by state,
in court, and in the corporate world. It has been a solid success.
Indeed, as civil liberties have been shrinking in general, gay rights,
almost uniquely, have bucked the trend.
In "Beyond Gay Marriage," in the July 18/25 issue of The Nation,
Lisa Duggan and Richard Kim note that "...there is increasing support
for basic gay human rights. Large majorities favor employment and
housing rights for gay people (89 percent in the latest Gallup poll),
and a clear majority of Americans support some form of partnership
recognition for same-sex couples-either marriage or civil unions
(60 percent at the time of the election)." More importantly, we
all know the statistics showing that opposition to gay marriage
is generational, suggesting that in 20 or 30 years, there will be
majority support for full gay equality.
The right-wing is very well aware of these statistics, too; they
need accurate information just as much as we do when it comes to
devising winning strategies. Let's never forget that Karl Rove made
his money as a direct-mail marketer; he has a very sophisticated
understanding of demographics. The difference between the left and
the right, when it comes to polling, is that the right uses polls
to devise winning strategies, while the left uses polls to set goals.
But what is most critical - and this is Rove's genius - is the ability
to understand exactly what it is that is being measured.
I received a vital bit of information on that subject when I read
Gene Gerard's recent article, "Gay
Marriage Critics Are Misguided." Gerard cites a study by Steven
P. Martin, which not only shows that the statistical factor most
closely correlated with divorce is lack of education, but that lack
of education among women is the strongest predictor of divorce.
Women who have graduate degrees have only a 15 percent divorce rate
after ten years of marriage, as compared to 39 percent of women
who have not finished high school, a whopping 24 percentage points,
or a 160 percent difference. Men with the same educational levels
show only a five percent difference in divorce rates.
Martin's study fit snugly with another well-known statistical pattern:
the fact that red states have higher divorce rates than blue ones.
Tellingly, the state with the lowest divorce rate is also the sole
state to legalize gay marriage: Massachusetts. Other deep blue states
with some of the lowest divorce rates in the country are Vermont,
New Jersey, and Connecticut, all of which have some sort of civil
union laws for gay people. Conversely, the Bible belt states of
Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma, among many others, have some of the
highest divorce rates in the nation.
Less well known, perhaps, is research - carried out by a born-again
Christian, no less - that shows that fundamentalist Christians are
among those with some of the highest
divorce rates in the country.
Taken together, these studies demonstrate, first and most obviously,
that gay marriage correlates positively with low divorce rates.
To liberals, these statistics are solid evidence that convincingly
rebuts charges about the apocalyptic effect of gay marriage on the
traditional institution. But liberals and conservatives are not
measuring the same things. We can only make sense of conservative
claims if we understand that what is at stake is not the actual
institution of marriage, which can be measured in statistical terms,
but the continued existence of a certain hierarchy of power relationships,
especially within marriage and families.
Put it this way: it's similar to the difference between being
genetically and anatomically male and being what James Dobson and
others might think of as "a real man."
If we then realize that women's lack of education is a significant
quantifier of female inequality, the correlation between women's
lack of education and divorce meshes beautifully with statistics
about higher break-up rates in Bible belt states and among self-described
born-again Christians. It makes perfect sense that a man who requires
an unequal relationship, one who believes in hierarchy and traditional
male privilege, might wed a woman with little education and few
economic options. Problem is, the real world - or the wicked world,
depending on your point of view - offers women too many easy outs
from their proper, traditional role.
That is why James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and author
of Marriage Under Fire: Why We Must Win This Battle, is intent
on opposing not just the radical human equality of gay marriage,
but many other measures that support women's equality: no-fault
divorce, economic benefits/rights for heterosexual cohabitation
outside of marriage, abortion, and even easy adult access to contraception.
If there were truth in advertising, Dobson would have to call his
group Focus on the Father.
Dobson's definition of a good, biblically sound marriage rests
almost entirely on strictly defined gender roles [Marriage Under
Fire, pg. 11-12]:
When a wife believes in her husband and deeply respects him,
he gains the confidence necessary to compete successfully and
live responsibly. She gives him a reason to harness his masculine
energy - to build a home, obtain and keep a job, help her raise
their children, remain sober, live within the law, spend money
wisely, etc. Without positive feminine influence, his tendency
is to release the power of testosterone in a way that is destructive
to society at large. ... Successful marriages serve to "civilize"
and domesticate masculinity, which is not only in the best interests
of women, but is vital for the protection and welfare of the
And what do women get out of the deal? Well... men. Isn't that
Conversely, a woman typically has deep longings that can only
be satisfied through a romantic, long-term relationship with
a man. Her self-esteem, contentment, and fulfillment are typically
derived from intimacy, heart-to-heart, in marriage.
It's important to remember that not all religious people, including
evangelicals, see things the way dear old Dobson does. David G.
Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni point out in their book, What
God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage (pg.
112), "Many Christians believe that the key to a successful marriage
is a mutually supportive relationship in all areas of life."
Gay relationships are dangerous to Dobson's concept of marriage
precisely because they are not based on gender inequality. To the
extent that gay relationships do model gender inequality,
as in butch-femme role-playing but also in terms of our sometimes
ambiguous gender presentation, they act as a critique of male/female
power relationships, which to someone like Mr. Dobson must feel
like lampooning. Above all, the Culture War is about men like James
Dobson, male privilege, and "the power of testosterone" - which
he might as well just call power.
The Culture War is a fight for equality. It's time we all enlisted.