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Time to Enlist in the Culture War

July 27, 2005
By Patricia Goldsmith

The 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 states.

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 next generation.

And what do women get out of the deal? Well... men. Isn't that enough?

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.

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