Gay marriage has been prominent in the news this week, which got me thinking about recent events. Some of you may recall the recent case of Carrie Prejean, a contestant in the Miss USA Pageant. In the course of the pageant, the contestants were asked their opinions on various social and political questions. When asked what she thought of gay marriage, Prejean answered:
Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. You know what, in my country, in my family, I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised and I believe that it should be between a man and a woman.Something of a media shitstorm followed in the wake of this, with Prejean vehemently condemned in many quarters. I disagree with her comments, though I think the torrent of loathing and ridicule directed towards her in the media has been excessive and cruel. In any case, Miss Prejean enjoyed a period of infamy for the remark and was roundly condemned as a bigot in the media and many places online. It was, I thought, an oddly disproportionate response to a near-nobody expressing what is still, unfortunately, the opinion of most Americans. In 2007, a political figure of some note who had been asked his opinion on gay marriage said:
I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.This statement does not seem substantively different from Prejean, though it is certainly better-expressed. As well it should be, since these words were spoken by none other than Barack Obama, then a Senator from Illinois. Obama’s supports civil unions, but his opposition to gay marriage remains unchanged since making this statement.
So, where’s the anger? Large swathes of Prejean’s critics- and many supporters of gay marriage in general- have argued that any opposition to gay marriage is necessarily rooted in bigotry, and regard support for it as not merely right but a requirement to be considered morally decent. You’d think Obama’s stated opposition would draw more fire. Likewise that of Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, who believe the same thing.
Some figures on the Left have, to their credit, taken Obama to task for his views on this issue. For the most part, though, not a whole lot is said, or at least not loudly, and certainly not with the same fury, and it seems odd to me that Prejean gets the hammer dropped on her while the President of the United States- who probably has a bit more potential influence on the matter- largely gets a pass.
Of course, when people have invested their hopes in a leader or savior, or in an organization or movement, they can often start screening out or rationalizing things that would otherwise anger or disgust them. (See Cheryl Cline’s posts here and here. Hell, see most “limited government” Republicans during the Bush Administration. Or the previous Bush’s administration. Or the Reagan Administration. Or the Nixon administration. Or the Eisenhower administration.) I’ve also seen how many liberals- a few admirable dissenters aside- are reconciling themselves to Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for civil liberties, and quietly accepting things that people were screaming bloody murder about under Bush.
On several occasions while growing up, I hit a wall hard enough to leave my knuckles bleeding. The wall had nothing to do with why I was angry on these occasions, but I was so agitated that it was either the wall or somebody’s skull. I couldn’t confront the person who had actually caused my distress. That was partly because I feared facing him, but it was also partly because it was too upsetting to fully, consciously acknowledge the truth about this person. I wanted to believe that he was good, that he valued me. To stand up and say, “The way you treat me is wrong” would have clashed with that. This is a common defense mechanism.
I suspect a lot of Obama supporters who support gay marriage don’t know his actual position on the subject; they just assume, because they admire him, that he shares their beliefs. However, I’m sure plenty do know. If you believe that opponents of gay marriage are despicable bigots, AND you’re one of the many people who greatly admire Obama and consider him a great man, you’ve got a problem on your hands. The Obama phenomenon fired many people’s hopes and won their hearts in a remarkable way. I don’t think Bush ever had that kind of effect; he had plenty of admirers and even a messianic aura for some, but he didn’t create the sort of ecstatic “in love” sensation that Obama brings out in a lot of people.
As I’ve written on before, having hopes raised and then smashed is painful. So, too, is accepting that someone you’ve put on a pedestal isn’t what you thought they were. Even if you don’t have an especially strong attachment to Obama, seriously criticizing him can be uncomfortable if your friends or colleagues do. This is especially true on an issue where, if liberals were to take their own rhetoric seriously, many of them would have to declare Obama not merely mistaken but morally reprehensible.
Enter Carrie Prejean- a person who prominently displays the same flaw as Obama for the whole country to see, but in whom liberals have no emotional investment. She’s an ideal human punching bag. And just like a punching bag, you get a satisfying thump when you hit her without having to worry about hurting your hands or ticking off someone who knows how to punch back. Her pageant remark was a perfect opportunity to make a stand for gay rights without the costs, either emotional or social, of going after someone more relevant. Her very unimportance makes her ideal. I think this idea has implications for a lot of issues, and not just for Democrats, but this is long enough for now.