Archives For: Keepers


Though they lag behind other denominations, evangelicals are steadily becoming more supportive of marriage equality:

Over the past decade, evangelical support for gay marriage has more than doubled, according to polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. About a quarter of evangelicals now support same-sex unions, the institute has found, with an equal number occupying what researchers at Baylor University last year called the “messy middle” of those who oppose gay marriage on moral grounds but no longer support efforts to outlaw it. The shift is especially visible among young evangelicals under age 35, a near majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And gay student organizations have recently formed at Christian colleges across the country, including flagship evangelical campuses such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Baylor in Texas.

Even some of the most prominent evangelicals—megachurch pastors, seminary professors and bestselling authors—have publicly announced their support for gay marriage in recent months. Other leaders who remain opposed to gay unions have lowered their profiles on the issue. After endorsing a gay marriage ban passed in California in 2008, Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of one of the country’s biggest megachurches, said in 2009 that he had apologized to all “all my gay friends” and that fighting gay marriage was “very low” on his list of priorities. Just last month, the Presbyterian Church, a Protestant denomination with a significant, though declining, minority of evangelicals, voted to allow ministers to perform same-sex weddings in states where they are legal.

What can this mean, I wonder? I’d like to think that arguments like Matthew Vines’ about how the Bible verses related to homosexuality have been misinterpreted are behind it. And for any major shift to occur, I think those arguments will have to gain adherents. But what we have here, I’d say, is a shifting understanding of what homosexuality is, as a result of huge social and cultural changes.

For the longest time, evangelical Christians associated gay people solely with deviant sex – and the fledgling gay community, understandably entranced with sexual liberation, did little to dissuade them. But as the culture has shifted to see gay people as actual human beings whose lives encompass so much more than sex, and as gay couples have movingly expressed their desire to commit to one another, and as gay citizens continue to volunteer in the armed services with distinction and honor, the very idea of homosexuality that informed most evangelical conversations on the topic has changed. Even those within the evangelical or traditional Catholic orbits – like the dedicated gay celibates who call themselves B-Siders – have shifted away from shame or self-loathing toward something different:

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This blog has long been generally supportive of the attempt by a handful of sane and intelligent conservative thinkers to brainstorm some kind of future for the American right. And who wouldn’t be? If the alternative is the brain dead 1979 redux position of someone like Kimberley Strassel, you gotta love Ross Douthat. But it strikes me there are deep challenges for this fledgling group of now Tanenhaus-blessed scholars, and they may be hard to overcome.

The first is the lack of any clear unifying theme or rallying cry that can meld policy to politics. “Reform” seems too vague and goo-goo a thatcherreagan.jpgtheme to catch on. On the core axis of more or less government, the reformicons rightly answer smaller, better government – but the “better” part always ends up a little duller than “smaller”. A child tax credit may or may not be a decent idea – but it’s very hard to fit it into the broader tradition of less government dependency. Ditto attempts to alleviate student debt, or to encourage the hiring of the long-term unemployed, or the block granting of anti-poverty funds to the states. All of them are hard to do when you demonize government itself as regularly as the Republican rank and file.

Perhaps the best scenario for a raft of such small, but potent policy proposals would be a Republican version of the Clinton administration – which bored the pants off ideologues but still connected with the tangible needs and concerns of most people. Alas, it’s hard to imagine a Clintonism of the right without a Clinton. It was Bill’s astonishing charm, loquaciousness, relentlessness and seduction that made these tedious laundry lists so popular. I do not see any such charismatic figure with such a direct and personal grasp of so many policy issues on the right. Maybe he or she will show up as a charismatic and brilliant governor. Or maybe not. If Ted Cruz is the new archetype of a Republican, never.

Within British conservatism, there are, in contrast, two competing traditions – Whig and Tory – that mitigate this problem. The Whiggish triumviratetimsloangetty.jpgfaction had its high watermark under Thatcher, a conservative who embraced market liberalism as the best foil to socialism. But the Tory faction never disappeared completely. Its rallying cry – and historical legacy – is “One Nation” Toryism, rooted in Disraeli’s conservative embrace of the working classes, and abhorrence at the vast social and economic inequalities of his time. It has no problem at all with government and its benefits. This would be a natural and identifiable tradition to embrace in Britain for a set of reformers like the Levin brigade. In America? No Disraeli ever existed – and no Bismarck either. Eisenhower may be the best analogue. And re-introducing Eisenhower to the next generation is a pretty heavy lift. The trouble with American conservatism is that it is, in essence, so new, and so wedded to a particular era, that it doesn’t have the depth and reach of a European conservatism that can provide a leader like Angela Merkel.

And then the reformicons are operating at a disadvantage in a culturally polarized America. It would be great if this were not the case – but since a huge amount of both parties’ base mobilization requires intensifying the cultural conflict, and since the divide is rooted in real responses to changing mores, it will likely endure. And that kind of climate makes pragmatic conservatism again less likely to get a hearing.

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Perspective, Please

Jul 2 2014 @ 1:12pm

Supreme Court Issues Rulings, Including Hobby Lobby ACA Contraception Mandate Case

Below, I reflect on the astonishing success of the marriage equality movement in the last two decades. On an issue that became a must-win for the Christianist right, the American people have delivered a resounding rebuff. Think also of other profound shifts in social policy during the Obama administration: universal health insurance, to take an epic example; the shift in drug policy away from mere law enforcement; the speed with which marijuana legalization marches forward; the rise and rise of women in the economy and the academy and politics. Then consider the broad demographic shifts – the sharp increase in the religiously unaffiliated, the super-liberal Millennial generation, the majority-minority generation being born now, and a bi-racial president possibly followed by a woman president. When I see the panic and near-hysteria among some liberals in response to the Hobby Lobby ruling, I have to wonder what America they think they’re living in.

Damon Linker notes how over the long run, the religious right is still losing big – and this is the proper context to understand a ruling like Hobby Lobby:

Where once the religious right sought to inject a unified ideology of traditionalist Judeo-Christianity into the nation’s politics, now it seeks merely to protect itself against a newly aggressive form of secular social liberalism. Sometimes that liberalism takes the relatively benign and amorphous form of an irreverent, sex-obsessed popular culture and public opinion that is unsympathetic to claims of religious truth. But at other times, it comes backed up by the coercive powers of government.

That’s how the Hobby Lobby case needs to be understood: as a defensive response to the government attempting to regulate areas of life that it never previously sought to control … From advancing an ideological project to transform America into an explicitly Catholic-Christian nation to asking that a business run by devout Christians be given a partial exemption from a government regulation that would force it to violate its beliefs — that’s what the religious right has been reduced to in just 10 years.

And this is where I part company with some of my fellow supporters of universal healthcare and marriage equality. Although I disagree with Hobby Lobby’s position on contraception (I think widespread contraception is the best bulwark in modernity against the much graver problem of abortion and that sex need not be about procreation at all), I still live in the same country that they do. And in cases where values collide, I favor some sort of accommodation. Call me a squish; but I want to live in a civil polity, not a battlefield of absolutes. (As for marriage equality, I feel the same way. I just do not believe anyone’s religious freedoms are in any way curtailed by civil marriage licenses for gay people; and that no devout person’s marriage is affected either.)

Or look at it this way: with the ACA, for the first time ever, all insurance covers a wide array of contraception options.

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Some second day thoughts. (You can read a variety of new overnight bloggy reactions to the case here.)

First off, it still seems to me that the fury over banned contraception is de trop. Of the twenty forms of contraception mandated as covered in the ACA, Hobby Lobby agreed to fund all but four of them, the ones that could, in their view, be seen as abortifacients. I think they’re pretty obviously wrong about that as a scientific matter. In which case, the best counter-argument is to make is exactly that: their religious consciences are simply empirically misinformed. But that is not the argument being proffered.

Secondly, this case is effectively an affirmation of our new, libertarian order. Ross has a great blog post on this today. For the first time, evangelical Christians are pretty much a minority on a major social question (a few forms of contraception), and they are therefore, like many minorities before them, looking to the Court to protect them. Money quote from Ross:

On other culture-war fronts — same-sex marriage, most notably — the old dynamic still sort of shows up, with judges repeatedly overturning democratically-enacted (though, in many cases, no longer majority-supported) laws that religious conservatives tended to support. But on religious liberty, the old order is increasingly reversed, with conservative believers looking to the courts rather than the vox populi for protection against moves made by the elected branches, and especially the current national executive.

Why is this not overall a good development? I remain of the view that if this precedent leads to discrimination in employment against purported sinners, then it will be a death-knell for Christianity in America. If Christianity becomes about marginalizing groups of people, it will be a betrayal of the Gospels and a sure-fire path to extinction. And the Christianists will not win with that argument, as the marriage equality experience demonstrates. But if evangelical or orthodox Catholic Christians seek merely to protect themselves from being coerced by government in overly aggressive fashion – remember that the Obama administration lost this fight because they chose the maximalist position with respect to employer-provided health insurance and did not choose another, less invasive path of providing contraception – then I think that’s a paradigm worth encouraging.

Religion is best when it does not seek to impose itself on other people.

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The Best Of The Dish Today

Jun 30 2014 @ 9:30pm

I’m grateful for your many emails on the Hobby Lobby ruling. Almost all of them are dissents. And there’s one core point that we didn’t underline today that’s worth noting. When you consider this a “narrow” ruling because it is restricted to “closely-held” companies (i.e. those with “more than 50 percent of the value of its outstanding stock owned directly or indirectly by five or fewer individuals at any time during the last half of the tax year” and “not a personal service corporation”), you find that over 90 percent of companies in this country fit the bill. That’s not-so-narrow in the broad scheme of things. Alison Griswold notes:

According to a 2009 research paper from NYU Stern School of Business, these corporations account for 52 percent of private employment and 51 percent of private-sector output in the country.

Will they all decide they cannot furnish certain medications, based on religion? Of course not. But they could. And when the potential scope of this sinks in, and especially if more than a few companies start curtailing their female employees’ health coverage for religious reasons, I’d say you’re going to have a very divisive reaction.

Which raises the politics of this. I’d say it’s terrible for the right in everything but the short term. It may fortify the base, but the fact that this decision focuses exclusively on medications for women, and not for men, will surely fortify the other base even more. Even if you worry about religious liberty, why does religion in 21st Century America always seem to be about policing the sex lives of everyone but straight men? That may not be the intent of the ruling, but it is somehow always the effect. It’s not good PR. And neither is this attitude:

I have a feeling that the lack of any female votes in the majority will also sink in. If the Republicans want to add fuel to the Democrats’ charge of a “War on Women”, they just got a tank of gasoline. And this could even be a real fault-line in upcoming national politics. Bobby Jindal is now running as the religious freedom candidate; Hillary Clinton will be the first woman candidate for president with bells on. She has already declared the ruling “deeply disturbing.”

I’d say the gender gap just widened a bit more; and the Democrats – especially young and single women – have just been given a reason to turn out this November and in 2016. As often with culture war battles, the winners can easily become losers. And I don’t need to remind the right that those who have no problem with contraception are a growing, big majority demographic and those opposed to contraception are a tiny and declining one. If you’re going to take a stand on religious conscience, why does it have to be restricting women’s choices in their insurance coverage?

In non-Hobby Lobby news, we noted Facebook’s creepy manipulation of users’ emotions – all for your own good, you understand; Putin got his comeuppance as Ukraine signed a trade pact with the EU; and I penned a mediation on our age of libertarianism – and its growing impact on foreign policy.

The most popular (well, read, anyway) post of the day was Why Am I Not So Alarmed By Hobby Lobby? followed by Jesus vs John Galt. I can’t help wondering if part of the Court’s rationale isn’t somehow informed by American conservatism’s bizarre and disturbing attempt to create a Randian Christianity.

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See you in the morning.


[Re-posted from earlier today]

In a characteristically astute and bracing essay, Mark Lilla recently remembered - with mixed feelings – “the grand drama of political and intellectual life from 1789 to 1989.” It strikes me as an important piece, because it comes at a propitious time to regroup and rethink recent history a bit more seriously. The world really did change in 1989, finally ending a period of two centuries of ideological struggle – a struggle that gave meaning and structure to billions of people on both sides. By the 1990s, the organized, intellectual armies of right and left effectively and slowly peeled away from a battlefield in which democratic capitalism (with varying levels of social welfare) had triumphed by default.

And I think Mark is specifically emphasizing: by default. Yes, the right, in many ways, won the philosophical argument. But the right’s victory left us domestically with a profoundly unreflective libertarianism:

Whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not.

The core idea of this post-ideological new age was simply expanding the freedom of the individual – and it was embraced economically by the right, socially by the left, and completely by the next generation of pragmatic liberaltarians. Here’s what Mark posits as the core of the libertarian ethos:

This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of religion and sex, and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West. But outside the Islamic world, where theological principles still have authority, there are fewer and fewer objections that persuade people who have no such principles. The recent, and astonishingly rapid, acceptance of homosexuality and even gay marriage in so many Western countriesa historically unprecedented transformation of traditional morality and customssays more about our time than anything else.

Think also of the astonishing speed with which marijuana seems on its way to legalization.

One thing I’d emphasize: this outlook also deeply informs our view of the world and America’s place in it, in ways we are less familiar with. Just as government or some governmental authority Berlin During The Cold War: Then And Nowaxiomatically shouldn’t curtail an individual’s right to do what she wants and be who she wants, so a super-power, even a benevolent one, has no right to dictate the choices and fate of any other individual country, however despotic and evil its regime might be. This libertarian foreign policy is observed even in the breach. There is, for example, nothing to stop Putin from annexing Crimea – but he loses international standing and is increasingly isolated as a consequence. Ditto Israel’s constant excesses in the occupied West Bank; it goes on ad infinitum, but so too will Israel’s pariah status as a result. And, of course, the cause célèbre of this entire movement is the Iraq War, a catastrophe now regarded as utterly illegitimate by everybody on the planet, apart from a few Cheney dead-enders and Tony Blair.

In fact, the only addendum I would add to Mark’s argument is that libertarianism has had a much bigger impact in foreign policy than we care to admit.

To wit: if your axiomatic worldview is live and let live, and it permeates all your non-thinking prejudices, then interventionism abroad has a much higher bar to meet than in the past when it was justified by a dangerous and global state enemy or by a firm belief in a world-historical mission. In the wake of the triumph of the West in the 1990s, this was not obvious. So we over-played a somewhat triumphalist hand, expecting Western values, having vanquished Soviet and Nazi ideology, to spread spontaneously around the globe. So we pressed NATO to the Russian border, expanded the EU to 28 states, charted maps of democracy’s invincible rise across Asia and then, in a fit of hubris, actually decided to force it upon Iraq and Afghanistan of all places as a panacea to all the Islamic world’s ills as it struggles fitfully to come to terms with modernity.

We know better now – but that lesson means that the bar for intervention is future is likely to be extremely high. Legitimacy matters – and in the last ten years or so, America has lost most of its international legitimacy, whether the neocons and liberal interventionists recognize it or not. The question is: how do we respond to this? And there are, it seems to me, a liberal and a conservative option.

The liberal one is to fight back in defense of universal values, American droit de seigneur (also known as American exceptionalism), and democratization as a sacred duty. Which is why, when push comes to shove, David Brooks is a liberal. His column in response to Lilla’s essay uses a peculiar word – “spiritual” – to define his crusade:

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Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Hobby Lobby In ACA Contraception Case

The obvious damning answer is that I am a man and no one has taken anything away from me – indeed the all-male majority who upheld Hobby Lobby’s religious rights specifically barred any procedure other than female contraception. If they did that for prescriptions for Truvada, for example, I might react differently. And I take that point. But its flipside is that this was a very narrow ruling, and the limiting of it to closely-held corporations, in which a small group of people with identical religious convictions can dictate the details of health insurance coverage they pay for, is not the great exemption for religious beliefs that some were fearing. It does not apply to publicly traded companies, for example. Here’s the reassuring language from Alito:

This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.

Of course, employment discrimination against gay people is legal discrimination in many states, so this may not seem much comfort. But I suspect that if closely-held religious companies start firing people explicitly because they are gay and therefore not kosher, the prospects for both a federal employment non-discrimination law and a heightened scrutiny ruling for gays improve considerably. And the recourse in this case is a pretty simple one: just extend the existing third party arrangements for religious institutions to closely held, religiously based companies. The main worry – Ginsburg’s – that this could create a dangerous and expansive precedent seems a little overblown to me. If anything, the real precedent is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that remains at the Congress’s discretion, not the Court’s.

But none of this is to say I find this development a positive one for religion.

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Refugees Fleeing ISIS Offensive Pour Into Kurdistan

Every now and then, a blast of cold sanity greets the world. At least that was my reaction reading Tom Ricks respond to the idea that if Obama had somehow been able to leave 10,000 troops in Iraq, all would now be well. Au contraire:

That’s nonsense. If we had the force there, what we’d be doing now is facing this question: Do we retreat ignominiously and get the troops out of the country, or do we use them in a wayor do we find ourselves forced to use themin a way we don’t want to, supporting Maliki without reservation? Or do they just sit there inside their camp gates and everybody mocks the Americans for doing nothing?

So I think by not having troops on the ground there it greatly simplified the issues for the United States and actually gave the United States more leverage rather than less, because clearly Obama does not simply want to act on Maliki’s behalf. I think Obama sees Maliki more at fault here than he does the Sunnis.

Exactly. But what does it mean to say that we now have a “simplified” set of issues? Here’s what I think: we have a real fork in the road here. Only the deranged believe the Iraq war was anything but a disaster. But the question now is: will further intervention make already-horrible matters worse or slightly better?

My best bet (and, of course, I could be wrong) is that it will make matters immensely worse, entangling us in a completely lose-lose scenario from which we have only just extricated ourselves. I can’t see how we intervene neutrally; I can’t see how Iraq can be put back together again without some kind of sectarian and national catharsis; and I don’t think the US should be taking a position – and an inconstant one at that – in the epochal Sunni-Shia battle that goes back centuries. In fact, I think it’s verifiably insane that we should even think of taking such a position.

So what are the obvious costs of staying out? The main one is the danger posed to the US by a Jihadist haven in Sunni Syria and Iraq. But do we have a real grasp of that danger? Recall that – thanks to Obama – the chemical weapons threat has been removed from the table, just in time. Do they want to come find us here? Well, Mr al-Baghdadi has so threatened, but not even Dick Cheney thinks he’s ready to attack the US yet. Americans who have gone on Jihad in Syria? You bet. And if we don’t have extremely close monitoring of them, we need to.

But we’ve seen from the past that terror attacks can just as likely come from Jihadist servicemembers as well as troubled Boston teens from the Caucasus. Deciding that the religious fanatics in Syria are an imminent threat to the US – as opposed to all the other possible imminent threats – makes little sense to me, given that they currently have their hands extremely full preparing to face off against Shiite militias on their sacred soil. Perhaps that’s why the Cheneys have been going around doing their mushroom cloud act again. It’s only if you’re scared shitless will you do the kind of radical re-invasion of Iraq that Cheney is – yes he is – advising.

But what if we refuse to be scared shitless? What if we take a deep breath and see the resilience of Islamist terror as something we have little control over, as the Middle East enters a convulsive new era – except to exacerbate it by invasion, torture and, after a certain point, drones. What if we treat other people’s civil wars as if they are other people’s civil wars? If the Saudis and the Iranians want to get in each others’ faces, why should we insist on getting in between them, and inevitably failing anyway? The key for us to make sure WMDs are not in any equation to prevent any real catastrophe – which is why the agreement with Iran is more important now than before. If we can do that – and we’re almost there – it seems much saner to wait and see than rush in and regret.

The deeper debate is between those of us who long to see the US with a much, much lighter footprint in that hellish region, see energy independence as a real opportunity to pivot away for good, and get on with more pressing needs at home, and more relevant questions abroad – and those who see the US as an indispensable hegemon in the Middle East for ever. Check out Dick Cheney yesterday on the Hugh Hewitt show – a hathos-fest if ever there was one:

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President Obama Delivers Statement On Situation In Iraq

[Re-posted from earlier today]

If you’re looking for a majestically sweeping indictment of everything president Obama has achieved in foreign policy over the last six years, go read Walter Russell Mead’s screed. The rise of an ISIS-led Sunni insurgency in Iraq is, apparently, “a movement that dances on the graveyard of his hopes.” No one wants to take on the emperor with no clothes or “the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure.” He’s not done yet: “Rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.” And on it goes. The Obamaites “have piled up such a disastrous record in the Middle East” that they couldn’t be trusted to “negotiate their way into a used car lot.” And the final denouement:

The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next.

Inevitably, when one reads a piece like this, you expect the author to tell us what he would do next. If the results of specific Obama policies have been so disastrous, then surely he must be able to point to several mistakes, offer an alternative in hindsight, or, heaven forfend, provide a constructive proposal today. But you will, alas, find no such thing in the screed. The most you’ll get it this:

How could the U.S. government have been caught napping by the rise of a new and hostile power in a region of vital concern? What warning signs were missed, what opportunities were lost—and why? What role did the administration’s trademark dithering and hairsplitting over aid to ISIS’s rivals in the Syrian opposition play in the rise of the radicals?

Indeed, I’m sure those questions will be debated by pundits and historians. But Mead has no answers. He supported arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, sure, but even he acknowledged this could end up in tears. And when you grasp his admiration for ISIS’ strategic chops, it seems quite likely that American arms could have ended up in the Jihadists’ hands. After all, one result of the US’ arming, training and equipping the moderate Iraqi army are the humvees and arms being paraded around Iraq by the Sunni-ISIS insurgency today. Arming any single side in a complex, metastasizing conflict is fraught with unintended consequences and the constant risk of blowback. But even if we’d been able to arm genuinely “moderate” Syrian rebels, does anyone believe they would prevail in an internecine war with the true fanatics? From the record of the last year or so, almost certainly not.

Mead also manages to blame Obama for the failure of the democratic revolution in Egypt. Quite how the US president could have changed the course of Egyptian politics in a period of massive unrest and revolution is not entirely clear. And that’s really the deepest flaw in the case against the president. There is an assumption – even now! – that the world is controlled by the US and that everything in it is a result of American hegemony. So there are no places on earth where the US is not a factor, and any bad things that happen are ipso facto a consequence of poor foreign policy. The planet is “Obama’s brave new world,” and the actual actors in it, from Moscow to Fallujah, from Qom and Cairo, are denied the real agency they have and keep exercising. And of course, whatever Obama has done has failed. When we don’t intervene, as in Syria, the result is a disaster. When we do intervene, as in Libya, the result is “an unmitigated disaster from which not only Libya but much of north and west Africa still suffers today.” So what does Mead suggest? This is as good as it gets:

The U.S. might do better to try to strengthen the non-ISIS components of the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq than to look to Tehran and the Kremlin for help.

As they still say in Britain’s Private Eye, er…. that’s it. We should actually be arming the very Sunni forces that are trying to take Baghdad, and somehow hoping they’ll turn around and beat the fanatics if we ask nicely. Well, thank you very much, Mr Mead. How could the administration have ignored your genius for so long?

I think what’s missing from Mead’s harrumph is any sense that the world is, in the end, not about us; that the Arab and Muslim worlds are in a historic convulsion that has been fed by countless tributaries from the past and will forge many unexpected paths in the future; that the generational shifts, the impact of new technology and media, the decay of traditional Islam, the rise of an Internet Islamism, the legacies of the sectarian war in Iraq and the Assad despotism in Syria, and the rise of a new Shiite awareness … all these represent forces we have no way of arresting, let alone controlling, let alone micro-managing, as Mead suggests. Our role, if we are not to become insane, is not to manage the unmanageable; it is to understand that some historical processes have to take place and that some of them will not necessarily be in our interests.

Interventionists, in other words, can become like addicts.

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I watched the HBO documentary on the Prop 8 case over the weekend – and also had a drink in Ptown and then a lively breakfast discussion with the directors, Ryan White and Ben Cotner, who were as intelligent and as sincere as you could hope for in two young documentarians. And the first thing to say about the doc is that it is not as egregious or as misleading as the Becker book or the Olson-Boies exercize in self-love and credit-grabbing. Instead, its main impact on most viewers will be a net-positive in its portrayal of the moral and legal arguments for marriage equality. And the focus is mercifully on the human story of the plaintiffs, the best angle for a documentary that won’t bore you. I found its most affecting scenes to be toward the end, as the two plaintiff couples finally get their chance for a civil marriage that cannot and will not be taken away. You have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. And there are internal trial preparations that really spell out why civil marriage is non-negotiable if equal protection means anything in a civilized society. It was indeed great to hear arguments many of us honed in earlier, lonelier times come back in the words of the trial.

Maybe it’s because I’m used to these arguments at this point, but the film dragged a bit for my taste. It lost what would have been a key opportunity as it was being filmed – because the trial was supposed to be televised and then wasn’t. Without those scenes, the film focuses, understandably, on the plaintiffs. The trouble with this strategy is that, in a highly-visible lawsuit, they’ve been selected precisely because they are picture-perfect, squeaky-clean representatives of the gay community. There are no quirks in their background that could be exploited by the other side in the legal drama (or appeal to viewers); their families are all supportive; their blond, attractive children are behind them; their only conflicts, so far as we can tell, are which ornament to place where on the Christmas tree (a scene that is included in the soft-lens political-ad style of the movie). Similarly, there are no flaws whatsoever in any of the “good guys” and all the opponents are hateful, irrational bigots. No one among the good guys has a fight in the movie; no one even as so much as a disagreement. Ted Olson and David Boies get a treatment like subjects in an old Catholic “Lives of the Saints” primer. Griffin is portrayed as in the trailer above: a lone bucker of the trend who single-handedly brought gay equality to America. The number of hugs per frame is beyond counting.

It all feels like a really slick p.r. campaign – or a propaganda movie they’d show at some endless gay fundraiser – rather than an objective or inquisitive documentary. That was Hank Stuever’s view as well. It’s a movie not about a civil rights moment, he argues, but about “the values of show business and mass marketing.” And when you’re marketing something, you show no wrinkles or flaws. You carefully stage every single thing to advance the product.

So there are no interviews with any marriage equality opponents to make their case. There are no interviews with anyone who worried about the lawsuit’s possibly unintended consequences (they are dismissed by Chad Griffin in the film as in-fighting cowards). There is no mention of Olson’s unique demand in the history of marriage equality litigation to be paid $6.4 million rather than work pro bono. There is no interview with Charles Cooper, their chief legal opponent. No facts or ideas of arguments are allowed to get in the way of the triumph of Chad Griffin’s will. And that includes the actual denouement of the case, which was, as Mark Joseph Stern notes today, a clear and demonstrable failure.

Everyone knew from the get-go that this case could well turn on the rather mundane legal issue of “standing,” rather than on any deeper constitutional issues regarding the civil rights of gay citizens. That was one reason I was fine with the suit – because I thought it could play a role in the public education necessary to overturn Prop 8 at some point, and would probably not do any real harm on a federal level because it would likely be dismissed on technical grounds. But that’s emphatically not how the film portrays it.

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