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Gay Marriage & The Tragic Sense

From the NYT’s report on Prop 8 arguments at the Supreme Court today:

But Justice Kennedy also spoke of uncertainty about the consequences for society of allowing same-sex marriage. “We have five years of information to pose against 2,000 years of history or more,” he said, speaking of the long history of traditional marriage and the brief experience allowing gay men and lesbians to marry in some states.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the court should not move too fast.

“You want us to step in and assess the effects of this institution, which is newer than cellphones and/or the Internet?” he said.

You all know where I stand on the same-sex marriage issue, so there’s no need to go back into that here. I will be surprised if SCOTUS doesn’t grant same-sex marriage rights, though who knows, maybe they will take the wiser view indicated by Kennedy and Alito. I would simply point to Roger Scruton’s NYT essay from the other day, “When Hope Tramples Truth,” which has a lot to say about this cultural moment, and this cultural issue. Scruton points out that there’s something about us that wants to trust our hopes over our experiences, and in turn to banish naysayers as motivated by malice or some other bad-faith rationale. You can easily see this throughout history, he says. Excerpt:

Consider one of our own day: gay marriage. What could be more sensible than to extend marriage to homosexuals, granting them the security of an institution devoted to lifelong partnership? The result will be improvements all around – not just improved toleration of homosexuals, but improvement in the lives of gay couples, as they adapt to established norms. Optimists have therefore united to promote this cause, and, as is so often the case, have turned persecuting stares on those who dissent from it, dismissing them as intolerant, “homophobic,” “bigoted,” offenders against the principles of liberal democracy. Of course the optimists may be right. The important fact, however, is that hope is more important to them than truth.

People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavilings of mean-minded bigots. Here in Britain, discussions on gay marriage have been conducted as though it were entirely a matter of extending rights, and not of fundamentally altering the institution. Difficult issues, like the role of sexual difference in social reproduction, the nature of the family, the emotional needs of children and the meaning of rites of passage, have been ignored or brushed aside.

It is easy to trace disasters, in retrospect, to the bursts of unfounded optimism that gave rise to them. We can trace the subprime mortgage crisis to President Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which required lenders to override all considerations of prudence and fiscal rectitude in the pursuit of an impossible goal. We can trace the current crisis of the Euro to the belief that countries can share a single legal currency without also sharing loyalty, culture and habits of honest accounting. We can trace the disastrous attempt to introduce responsible government into Afghanistan to the idea that democracy and the rule of law are the default conditions of mankind, rather than precious achievements resulting from centuries of discipline and conflict. And we can trace the major disasters of 20th century politics to the impeccably optimistic doctrines of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and the many others for whom progress was the inevitable tendency of history. Pessimism, so obviously vindicated in retrospect, is almost always ineffective at the time. Why is this?

Note well: Of course the optimists may be right. The important fact, however, is that hope is more important to them than truth.

Ten years ago, conservatives (and others) who warned that the Iraq War was dangerous folly were condemned as “unpatriotic.” Today, conservatives (and others) who warn that formalizing the radical alteration of the character of marriage is going to be dangerous folly are condemned as bigots. Hope is always more important to people than truth.

Oh men, your destiny.
When all is well a shadow can overturn it.
When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,
and the picture’s blotted out. And that,
I think that breaks the heart.

— Cassandra, from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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