A recent Mark Steyn essay raises an issue that ought to be at the forefront of consideration and planning not only for social conservatives and cultural traditionalists, but for anybody who thinks rule of law and a separation of civic power and religious worldview are important concepts:
Most of us are not cut out to swim against the tide. For one thing, it’s exhausting. Tides ebb and flow, and it’s easier just to go with it. In Germany, maybe if your very best pal was Jewish, you’d say something. But, if it’s just the greengrocer or the elderly couple in the second-floor flat that you nod to on the stairs, do you really want to make a fuss and have arguments with your family and friends all the time? Isn’t it easier just to say nothing?
In the end, most people want to be like most people. That’s why they tell you the weekend movie grosses on the Monday morning news and put the Top Ten bestsellers at the front of Barnes & Noble – so that you can like what everybody else likes.
So I find the idea that tens of millions of American “traditionalist” conservatives are going to lead their own lives immune to the broader culture somewhat unlikely. Were the same-sex marriage decision, for example, merely a judicial ruling, Barack Obama would not have lit up the White House in LGBT rainbow colors. It is after all “the people’s house” and half the people aren’t entirely on board with this. But he chose to see this not as a mere judge’s ruling but as an ideological victory – and to celebrate it as such. And he’s thereby telling you that this shift is an official one, backed by the state, and state power, and it won’t stop here.
Look, for example, at the bureaucratic railroading of an Oregon couple who declined to bake a same-sex wedding cake. David French lays out how the process ought to be of concern even beyond the particular issue. This isn’t a limited one-time-only interaction between traditionalists and the government on a narrow social issue. This is a determination of the authority of government, elected and unelected.
Given the pop-culture push, it should be easy for anybody to understand the reasoning on the other side: Gay rights is a simple, straightforward application of tolerance, and that, they believe, is the highest virtue. So, if judges have to bend the rule of law a bit to move the country along on the single issue of same-sex marriage, then that’s a minor transgression. If a state bureaucracy has to make an example of an unfortunate couple, well, it’s only a little bit of pain, like the pop of pushing a dislocated joint back in place. Once it’s done – once the few holdouts accept the change — we can all move on. And won’t everything be better then?
The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. An entire infrastructure has been built to get us to this point. As Steyn puts it:
Most people want to be like most people. Even Anthony Kennedy’s just going with the flow, wouldn’t you say? It doesn’t have to start out as a numerical majority. It can be quite a small group of people, as long as they’re the people who make the running, who frame the issues, who book the panel guests on NPR, and write all those nice domesticated characters on “Modern Family”, and are marching marching marching 24/7 on that long march through the institutions. Which turned out to be not that long after all. If it’s too much to expect a Supreme Court justice to stand against “Modern Family”, why should anybody else?
This isn’t just a matter of how culture changes; it’s a matter of our social infrastructure. It’s a distribution of power, not unlike apparent cooperation between the Obama Dept. of Justice and the Obama IRS in targeting the president’s opponents. It won’t stop at a single issue or even with just the broader single principle of “tolerance.” The concept should be familiar to anybody who has heard Martin Niemoller’s famous “first they came for” construction.
Moreover, this power won’t be given over just because the culture shifts in reaction to overreach. We once prioritized distinct organizations, “live and let live,” and meritocratic advancement. Now everything is political, and the prioritization of superficial diversity provides cover for pushing ideological conformity.
One thing Steyn has wrong is that we’re not really talking about a “tide,” as in a large cultural flow. It’s more like an amusement park pool with fake waves. There’s nothing random about the current; it’s just an application of power. In the terms of this metaphor, the Constitutional and social system of the United States could be seen as an attempt to build barriers and channels that would empower the people to counter the false waves.
We’re allowing those barriers and channels to be broken apart, and it’s getting more and more difficult to avoid the guards and get out of the water.