Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Legitimacy, and who controls it

So this morning Janet and I got into a newspaper-and-coffee-on-the-porch conversation about the paganism package (which I wrote and she's designing), and it dawned on me it might make a good post.

Janet was a little amazed that there were people around the newsroom who apparently feel no pang of conscience when it comes to making disparaging remarks about the pagan story -- or pagans in general, for that matter. Her point: If anyone had said something similar about Christians, people would have been upset about it.

And this is where it led me: If you really want to understand the cultural conservative position, you've got to think about the issue of legitimacy.

First, let's establish that not all cultural conservatives are alike.

About one of out every five Americans holds a set of beliefs that effectively takes them out of most conversations: The Bible is literally true; everything that operates outside of the church's blessing serves the interest of God's enemy, Satan; evolution is a lie, the planet is 5,000 years old, dinosaur fossils were created by the devil; and the prospect of Hell and eternal damnation is so awful that the truest act of love that one can have for one's neighbor is the tough-love act of bringing them from sin to salvation. My aunt, uncle and three cousins believe much -- if not all -- of what I just described (Bob Jones University graduates all).

These people catch a lot of grief in modern culture, and a lot of times they've caught that grief from me. Of course, it's also true that many of them give as good as they get, but let's set that topic aside. They are roughly 20 percent of the population and as a group they are not concerned about dialog with the rest of us. So to understand what I'm talking about, you have to understand that this group is off in its own little corner. There's no changing them, and I'm OK with that.

Then there's maybe 1 percent that's just whacked out of their minds at the other end of the dial: 5 percenter Muslims, Earth First! eco-terrorists and a couple of leftover Weatherman Underground types.

The rest of the culture is, in one way or another, negotiable: maybe 79 percent of the country, co-existing (though sometimes just barely) on a flexible continuum of beliefs and values.

So why is it that people get so upset about the thought that a newspaper in the South would do a big feature on pagans and neo-pagans? We've written practically nothing about this growing religion in the 11 years that I've been with the paper, but Christianity and Christian ideals are practically a daily topic for stories. As Janet asked, "What is so threatening about just explaining the beliefs of a different religion?"

In the past I've said "Well, because for some people the Bible teaches that a pagan is someone who is doing the work of the devil, whether they know it or not." But that's really just the 20 percent I spoke of previously. The relevant reaction comes from a different group.

On Friday I interviewed local lawmaker John Graham Altman III, who recently became a target of national scorn for his comments about domestic violence. Our topic was South Carolina's referendum on amending the state constitution to ban the acceptance of out-of-state gay marriages and civil unions. You might imagine that JGA3 belongs in that 20 percent I descibed earlier, but the surprising thing is, he doesn't. His reason for disapproving of homosexuality is secular and amazingly simple: He just doesn't like weirdos.

The Altmans of the world are generally viewed as racist, sexist and homophobic, and that's true, at least at some level (many of us are flawed in these areas). But Altman is also often described as being hateful, and I honestly don't find him to be personally hateful -- although there is no doubt in my mind that the effect of his actions in the public sphere have a hateful and hurtful effect on people.

Instead, I believe that JGA3 and those like him are animated by basic socio-biology. Our brains are hard-wired to pick up on the normative cues of groups to which we belong. We instinctively figure out who the Alphas are. We know within minutes who the outcasts are. There is a pecking order in every human social group, and the ability to understand one's place in that order is a survival skill. Life, as someone said, is high school without the mascots.

So no matter how we dress this up, no matter what "values" the JGA3s of the world use to rationalize their dislike of "deviants," the most basic reaction against minority groups is this instinctive one. You don't have to give a lot of rational thought to what you believe to know that non-conformists of any stripe are thumbing their noses at the order by which you live.

Rationally, such a belief is un-American (well, it is if you believe in the ideal America as the melting pot, where all people are created equal, pursuit of happiness, liberty and justice for all, yada yada yada). But the people who are actively "defining" Americanism today are people for whom "America" is more or less an intuitive cultural norm. That's why the people who sing the most about "freedom" are also the most likely to criticize those who use their freedom.

Their message: Sit down and shut up. You're only making this harder on yourself. You ought to be ashamed. Stop fidgeting. Get in line. Stop calling attention to yourself. Why do you have to be so weird?

And it almost goes without saying that the norm to which they bend is a myth to begin with: it's straight, white, middle-class, Protestant, moderately Republican. It is tolerant, but only of those who know their place. It is spirtual, but only for those who are religious in moderation. It is the dictatorship of the Bell Curve.

Its adherents display an instinctive nostalgia for a cultural era in which the majority's dominance was so unquestioned that everyone who existed outside it nevertheless bowed to it. From their perspective, they're not opposed to ANYBODY. Instead, they are FOR positive things: strong, loving families; personal responsibility; integrity. The norm bestows such virtues on those who love it. Why can't everyone just see that things go better when we all agree?

And so long as everyone accepts that the norm is good and right, then even those who cannot abide by its rules live quietly and keep their deviance to themselves.

Consider my Army buddy, a Louisiana gentleman who describes himself as a traditionalist: In his small town, the man who has run the hardware store for 20 years is gay. Everybody knows it, my friend says, and everybody likes him. No one complains that the hardware store owner has lived with the same male "roommate" for two decades. Why? Because the man doesn't "demand" anything of his neighbors. He allows everyone to pretend that everything is normal.

My friend is a good man, and I believe him when he says that he feels no hate for gay people. He says he wouldn't want to do anything to hurt his "good" gay friend at the hardware store, but he tells the same story several times about how one day he bumped into a gay pride parade in New Orleans and a gay man in a diaper scooted past him on rollerblades. For my friend, that's the dividing line. There's something wrong with the country when gay men can rollerblade in New Orleans wearing a diaper and not feel bad about it.

JGA3 says much the same thing: Be gay if you want to be, but don't ask me to treat "your deviant behavior as normative behavior."


This is why gay rights drives so many Americans nuts. It's why some people don't want newspapers to write about Wicca as if it were just another religion (which, by the way, it is). It's not that they hate people who are different, it's just that they think that tradition is better than change, that the only security lies in instinctive defense of cultural norms.

"Ah," you say, engaging your conservative friends in debate, "but 30 years ago tradition said that black people were second-class citizens." And this makes them mad. Why? Well, in part because tradition has changed. Now that white people and black people have been going to school together for a few generations without the world coming to an end, legal equality is the norm. Being black is now normative. Sort of.

I think their big fear is that in a few more generations, it's gonna be normative to be gay, too.

So what you hear is "Well, those people can do whatever they want to do, but they better not do it in my face." Or, "I don't care that people worship trees. They can worship my lawn for all I care, but why do you have to put that in the newspaper?"

So Janet says "If they don't want to look at it, why can't they just put that section down and move on to the next one?"

And that's the answer. Of course they can. That isn't the point. They aren't objecting to people having different beliefs or sexual practices: They're objecting to those practices and beliefs being treated as normal, legitimate, just another choice. That's the mantra we hear from everyone now. Cultural conservatives, for the most part, don't want to make paganism or homosexuality illegal -- they just want pagans and gays to remember that they're supposed to be ashamed of themselves.

That's just not good enough in the 21st century. The more we learn, and the more honest we get, the more myths about homosexuality get swept away. "Common sense" looks less and less sensible.

Why write such a long essay on this topic? Well, for starters, I'm all about ending the pointless arguments. I think the way you change a pointless argument into a productive conversation is to find out what ideas are really in play behind the rhetoric. My mother-in-law would sooner cut off her head than offend a gay man if he sat down at her kitchen table for coffee. If a gay couple across the cul-d-sac needed help, she'd go out of her way to give it. But she instinctively opposes gay marriage. We are surrounded by such jarring truths. How do we find common ground?

I think we start by not shutting down and walking away when we disagree. There's too much value in people to discard them, and I think that's a fairly common belief for the 79 percent of us who are actually involved in the culture.

Today, media confers legitimacy. That's not what people say when they complain about liberal bias, but for many of our critics, that's what they mean.