Judgment is mine, pundit says: We had tried, and we had failed, to read Ross Douthat’s column. Two separate times!
We refer to his recent column concerning same-sex marriage, its inevitable ascendance and its aftermath. We find Douthat hard to read. In this case, we tried and failed two times.
In truth, we didn’t try very hard. Then we read Brian Beutler’s new piece in Salon. Puzzlement about Beutler’s piece returned us to Douthat’s column.
What did Beutler write that puzzled us so? He started by quoting part of Douthat’s column, the column we still hadn’t read. Before he quoted Douthat, he built a snarky frame:
BEUTLER (3/4/14): New York Times columnist Ross Douthat...mourns the ascendance of same-sex marriage as a kind of avoidable divine retribution for the outright bigotry of the recent past.In the passages we highlight, Douthat is correctly describing thousands of years of intolerance directed at gays. He attributes this behavior to his fellow Christians, although we’d have to say that plenty of others pitched in.
“The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform,” he wrote this weekend. “I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities—thousands of years’ worth—to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status—this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.”
He says it will be uncomfortable to be marginalized or sued in some sort of future world; examples of what he’s talking about exist in his fuller column. But he says his fellow Christians should remember all those past sins. And nobody should describe those future discomforts as persecution, he says.
Reading that, Beutler comes to a surprising conclusion. According to Beutler, Douthat believes that those future discomforts will be persecution:
BEUTLER (continuing directly): I agree that nobody should call this persecution, because that’s not what it is. Douthat seems to believe that it is persecution, but that religious conservatives can’t complain because they brought it upon themselves. And yet every act of oppression he foresees—diminished social acceptability, accountability for unlawful acts of discrimination— is only oppressive if you believe social toleration of religiously motivated actions, in all realms of life, is a necessary condition for the free practice of religion. (Beutler’s italics)We found that passage very strange—so strange that we went back and read Douthat’s column.
We can’t exactly recall what it said—we find Douthat hard to read. That said, the column made more sense, read as a whole, than it did after being excerpted.
What about Beutler’s reading of the column? We found it surprising and sad.
To Beutler, if you say no one should call something persecution, that means you think it is persecution! For that reason, you apparently think it’s “oppression” as well.
Beutler’s less than charitable reading set off a wave of ugly inanity in the Salon comment thread. We're always surprised to find progressives defending gender and marriage equity with clever plays on the word “douche,” to cite one set of examples.
We would suggest this conclusion:
Talk radio and comment threads have served as major learning tools over the past several decades. Through those populist media, we’ve been able to observe the ways we the people reason. We’ve been able to see who we the people really are.
As it turns out, we the people are no walk in the park.
Talk radio came first, and it was largely conservative. It let us liberals see how dumb, dull-witted and ditto-headed conservatives will often be, especially when encouraged.
During the age when talk radio rose, we liberals often assumed that we weren’t like that in our tribe. The subsequent rise of comment threads has given the lie to that notion.
On talk radio, dumb, disingenuous radio hosts brought out the worst in their callers. Today, thought leaders like Beutler open the gate to waves of dumb, unpleasant conduct by lofty, high-minded liberals.
In our view, Beutler is a million times smarter and fairer than this piece makes him seen. But the piece defines what it means to refuse to take yes for an answer, to refuse to let someone from The Other Tribe agree about how wrong that tribe has often been.
Douthat didn’t say that the ascendance of same-sex marriage is a kind of divine retribution. He didn’t say that getting sued for X, Y or Z will be a form of persecution or oppression—unless you’re determined to think the worst of those in The Other Tribe, determined to read what they write in the most negative way possible.
(For results, see Salon comment thread.)
It’s sad to see ourselves playing this dumb, familiar, hateful game. This is how Sean has always behaved. But as the last ten years have shown, We can be a lot like Them!
In our view, Beutler had an off day. Clever jibes about Douchehats to the side, do you think that’s what Douthat said?