Part 3—Assuming the worst about Them: Last Tuesday, David Brooks wrote a column about Indiana’s newly-passed “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”
Two days later, the New York Times published eight letters about his column. All eight letters challenged some part of the column. All eight echoed the Times editorial line, which had been stated in this editorial on that same Tuesday morning.
We thought those letters provided intriguing examples of contemporary “liberal” instincts. But first, let’s summarize the basic points in Brooks’ column, with most of which we agree.
As he started, Brooks referred to “a growing consensus that straight, gay and lesbian people deserve full equality with each other. We are to be judged by how we love, not by whom we love.
“If denying gays and lesbians their full civil rights and dignity is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” Brooks said as he continued his description of this growing consensus. “Gays and lesbians should not only be permitted to marry and live as they want, but be honored for doing so.”
Brooks seemed to agree with that “growing consensus.” A bit later, he seemed to applaud the fact that “the evangelical movement is evolving. Many young evangelicals understand that their faith should not be defined by this issue,” by which he meant same-sex marriage.
Does Brooks support same-sex marriage? It seems that he actually does. He doesn’t seem to have written about the topic much. But in a colloquy with Gail Collins in December 2012, he said this:
“My guess is that the courts will gradually allow gay marriage and gradually forbid affirmative action, at least based strictly on race. Of course I want both those things to happen, so perhaps I'm allowing the wish to be father to the thought.”
We’re going to rule that David Brooks is part of that “growing consensus.” Needless to say, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a bigot to boot!
Here’s the problem! In that same column last week, Brooks also spoke in general support of “religious tolerance.” He suggested that an ascendant gay rights movement could afford to be respectful toward those whose religious views may reject the concept of same-sex marriage.
(As he noted, it generally has been.)
Does that make Brooks a bigot? To us the modern liberals, almost everything does! In this passage, Brooks made a claim which may cause some modern “liberals” to unsheathe our tribe’s favorite bombs:
BROOKS (3/31/15): On the other hand, this was a nation founded on religious tolerance. The ways of the Lord are mysterious and are understood differently by different traditions. At their best, Americans have always believed that people should have the widest possible latitude to exercise their faith as they see fit or not exercise any faith. While there are many bigots, there are also many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage. These people are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion.Say what? There are “many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage?” Can David Brooks say that?
For ourselves, we wouldn’t sign on to that view. We’d be slow to say that there are “many wise and deeply humane people” on the present-day scene at all!
Like Anne Frank, we think most people are good and decent. But we’re slow to assert the vast moral greatness we humans are all too strongly inclined to confer on ourselves.
That said, we agree with a view Brooks later stated. Many people have been raised in religious traditions which don’t accept same-sex marriage!
Naming names, we’d start with Pope Francis, and work our way down from there. Until the last year or so, this list would have included Hillary Clinton. Also a fellow named Obama, to whom we liberals extend a pass because we’ve heard he was lying when he kept stating that view.
Whatever! But if we had to list the potential bigots, we’d start with well-known people. Many modern pseudo-liberals are inclined to a different approach.
They seek out the least among us and start raining their B-bombs on them. They find the “slack-jawed yokels” and “hillbillies” and bomb their pizza joints.
If you don’t support same-sex marriage, some in our tribe are inclined to say that this proves you’re a “bigot.” Especially if you’re from the South!
Can you be a decent person without supporting same-sex marriage? We’re pretty much going to say that you pretty much probably can.
Can you be a decent person while dropping your bombs on the slack-jawed yokels who inhabit your mind? For us, that’s a tougher call.
All last week, the slack-jawed yokels of our own liberal world marauded about in pursuit of “pizza-gate,” the name the geniuses at Salon bestowed on this latest fight.
At Salon, you could see comments from our own yokels. Last Thursday, those eight letters about the David Brooks column provided examples of modern thinking from the top of the liberal deck.
We thought those letters were instructive. In some instances, we thought they helped display the limits of our modern liberal imagination. In the case of the letters from the rabbi and the minister, we thought they showed that we may perhaps have a Dimmesdale or two within our own self-impressed tribe.
The eight letters are here. We’ll assume that they were written by good decent people, though they may perhaps show the small imperfections which may exist in our tribe.
On their face, all eight letters were responses to Brooks. We’d have to say that they often carved out rather narrow complaints.
In our view, the most fair-minded writer was a woman from Indiana. We admire her decency, though we’ll note that she lodges a fairly narrow complaint:
LETTERS TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (4/2/15): As a liberal who tries to analyze issues with a mind open to conservative viewpoints, I often find myself agreeing with David Brooks, especially when he sounds pretty liberal, and sometimes even when he does not. Today, though, he lost me with this observation:“How can anyone who is deeply humane define marriage in a way that excludes so many humans?” We’re not sure how to answer that question, which someone should take to the pope!
“While there are many bigots, there are also many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage. These people are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion.”
How can anyone who is deeply humane define marriage in a way that excludes so many humans? If you are deeply humane, you should be able to fully embrace a belief system that includes heterosexual definitions of marriage while also welcoming those participating in same-sex marriages into your businesses and circle of friends.
In the end, I agree with Mr. Brooks that the people he writes about are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion. Just not protection to discriminate under an archaic law.
We’ll only note that the nation’s leading Democratic pols were in that camp just a year ago. So are large numbers of everyday American liberals and Dems, even now.
This writer dropped no major bombs in her letter. On this basis, she stood out from the crowd. Other writers described the “hate” they seem to see all around them. They also sounded historical calls of alarm, as in this passage from a writer in Princeton:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: David Brooks is urging L.G.B.T. Americans to be polite, know their place and patiently wait for acceptance by those whose religious beliefs would condemn them to second-class status. Are we really going back to the lunch-counter days of 1963 Mississippi?Were there “lunch-counter days” in Mississippi? We don’t much think so, but the point was clear, in this and other letters. If a florist doesn’t want to service a same-sex wedding, we’re back in Mississippi!
It’s 1963 again! We’re back at those lunch counters!
There were quite a few such suggestions. A second reference to the lunch counters came in this letter from an actor in Princeton:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: David Brooks seems to give not only religious organizations a pass on discrimination but also businesses. This goes beyond wedding photographers and bakeries for gay marriages.As a letter had said two days before, Indiana is Selma!
What is the difference between denying an L.G.B.T. person a seat at a lunch counter and denying a black person?
In fairness, Brooks didn’t really express a view as to what particular conduct should be permitted on grounds of religious tolerance. As far as we know, no one has expressed a desire to deny gays the right to sit at lunch counters, or to eat in restaurants generally.
These letters in the New York Times didn’t deride any “slack-jawed yokels” or “hillbillies.” That is the language one finds at Salon. Such uncouth language isn’t likely to make its way into the Times.
That said, these letters often seemed to assume that people who oppose same-sex marriage must be motivated by hate. Four of the letters evoked the civil rights fights of the 1960s, the ultimate standard of hate-filled bigotry in modern American history.
Is it obvious that this is what’s at issue here? Is it obvious that this kind of framing is decent and fair? On some occasions, are we possibly just a tiny bit “hate-filled” over here in our own liberal tribe? Are we determined to assume the worst about everyone who isn’t narrowly inside our tribe?
We were struck by the confidence of the writer who declared, “I understand those who created this legislation.” Soon, he was saying this:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: ...Make no mistake about it, there are people who would prefer that all gay people be dead. There are people who want their way of life to be the only way of living, for all people.This writer was certainly fervent. Does he know that the large majority of African-Americans don’t support same-sex marriage at this time? Does that necessarily have to mean that they’re filled with “the hate that existed in the 1960s?” Do they automatically have the “hateful attitudes” referenced earlier in this letter?
I have seen many changes over my 60 years. What I am seeing today, in regard to Indiana and now Arkansas, is reminiscent of the hate that existed in the 1960s, when African-Americans began to say “enough” and demanded the equality they deserved. So it is with gays, lesbians and others who are denied their rightful place in society.
For our money, the real Dimmesdales in the crowd were the rabbi and the minister. Selecting a rather narrow objection, the rabbi told us this:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: David Brooks argues that we should be deeply polite to those who use the excuse of their religious freedoms to refuse service to gays and lesbians. He equates this “deep politeness” to the courtesy extended by a man to an Orthodox Jewish woman who will not shake his hand. But this is a false equivalency.It’s clear that this particular rabbi has no plan to be “deeply polite!” He starts by assuming that those with religious objections in this area are merely hiding behind an “excuse.” He ends by declaring such people “bigoted” and saying they’re showing their “hatred.”
The Orthodox woman will not shake the hand of a man not her husband because of her own spirituality, her own belief in the need to maintain her modesty. There is no animus directed against the man. The bigoted merchant who denies service to a gay person is expressing hatred of the other and is showing no spiritual humility of his own. The equivalency is false.
Such people show no “spiritual humility,” the rabbi declared. Look who’s talking, one analyst quickly replied.
Up in Rhode Island, a Baptist minister told us this:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES: We live in an America where our diversity is in constant dialogue with our fundamental belief in equality. In our heart of hearts, who among us doesn’t believe that this Indiana law isn’t about the struggle of some evangelical Christians to accept a new element of modernity in their cultural environment?We don’t disagree with the minister’s view of what those other parties could do. That said, in heavily Catholic Rhode Island, he focused on “evangelical Christians!” He let us Catholics slide!
Some may feel distress about L.G.B.T. equality. But reacting with rejection and negation are not elements of a healing solution. Tolerance requires respect, not agreement.
Evangelical Christians can reach into the spiritual well of their souls and grasp the qualities of humility, kindness and generosity to guide them to a polite, if not compassionate, response to their neighbors.
The New York Times had now published eleven letters on the new Indiana law. All eleven had agreed with the Times editorial posture.
They didn’t use terms like “rednecks” and yokels,” but they did seem to say Indiana is Selma. They were quick to see hatred in The Others, who seemed to be white, evangelical, Southern.
For ourselves, we could almost imagine we saw a tiny bit of the hate in our own self-assured tribe.
In fairness to Brooks, he never really said what should be permitted in deference to “religious tolerance.” He did suggest that it may not be helpful to dump big fines on Christian florists who don’t want to take part in what they may see as a religious event.
Beyond that, he made a larger suggestion. As a general matter, we think this makes sense:
BROOKS: Certain basic truths are inalienable. Discrimination is always wrong. In cases of actual bigotry, the hammer comes down. But as neighbors in a pluralistic society we try to turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems in which different people are given space to have different lanes to lead lives. In cases where people with different values disagree, we seek a creative accommodation.Wherever this leads in the present instance, we tend to agree with those general views. But within our modern liberal tribe, a contrary impulse exists:
In the Jewish community, conservative Jews are generally polite toward Orthodox Jews who wouldn’t use their cutlery. Men are generally polite to Orthodox women who would prefer not to shake their hands. In the larger community, this respectful politeness works best.
The movement to champion gay rights is now in a position where it can afford to offer this respect, at a point where steady pressure works better than compulsion.
We seem to have a very strong impulse to think the worst of The Others. We love to call The Others “bigots.” We seem inclined to use dog-whistles to target white Southerners. Everyone else gets a pass!
Our favorite letter-writer joined the minister in suggesting what The Others could do. We agree with what they said.
That said, none of the writers followed Brooks in suggesting that We The Liberals could imaginably “reach into the spiritual well of our souls and grasp the qualities of humility, kindness and generosity to guide ourselves to a polite, if not compassionate, response to our neighbors” too!
We seem good at giving moral advice to Them, more slow when it comes to Us.
The truth is, we liberals sometimes love to hate. Our liberal loathing has been active for decades. Quite often, it leads to bad outcomes.
Tomorrow: O’Hehir finds the hate