Thursday, November 11, 2004

Actually, No - More on the Culture War

Despite J's promises that his word on the culture war was the last one, I'd like very much to discuss this whole "moral values" thing for a moment. What I think I want to ask is this: why do moral values, as expressed so recently by the electorate, involve stopping abortion and gay marriage, but not social justice or stopping the war or other issues that liberals claim to have morals about? Why doesn't the "moral issues" crowd care about social injustice, poverty, or despotic regimes other than that of Saddam Hussein? I mean, why are those values particularly conservative values? Another question we could ask ourselves, but that we will reserve for another time, is that of why members of both "sides," myself included, typically favor one type of intentional death - abortion on one hand and capital punishment on the other - and abhor another.

But lets start with the moral values issue. What is it about gay marriage that so galls the right? Is it really, as they say, a threat to the sanctity of their own marriages? I suspect not - certainly enough public figures on the right and left have done plenty on their own to spoil the sanctity of the institution. I think that the real quesion is one of power. French social theorist Louis Althusser has argued that the foundation of state power rests on a series of "naturalized" or "obvious" power relationships. Certain institutions serve to legitimate the operation of capitalism. They make it seem as though unequal power relations are right and good, or they make the relations seem so completely natural that they ought not to be (or can't be) questioned.

The family, particularly the nuclear family, is one such institution. Although the power structure of a family is demonstrably arbitrary, it is made to seem true and right through its association with certain symbols and metaphors, particularly those of blood and semen - real world , "natural" substances. Now, the structure of the family is somewhat parallel to that of the state, and metaphors of paternity (father of the country and and so forth) are often used to describe those in political power. In fact, Althusser argues, the apparatus of family and the apparatus of state power are interchangeable, and to some extent rely on each other.

So gay marriage, to those interested in maintaining capitalist domination, is a direct challenge to their ideological control of the country. Gay marriage breaks down the substantialized correctness of the family which is the foundation for creating obedient little citizens. If it can be demonstrated on a cultural scale that the traditional understanding of marriage is not the only natural or available option, then it might follow that capitalism is not the best or most appropriate way of running an economy, and that the people in charge might not really deserve to be.

I think that the abortion issue is similar. Women having control of their own reproductive cycles messes with people's conception of what is right and natural. Its not an issue of life and death but one of power.

I should make it clear here that I think that there probably are a lot of convinced, religious activists who believe that abortion and gay marriage are really wrong -an affront to god, if you will. I'm arguing that it is in the interest of a few much more cynical elites on the right to have them be so. The question is really one of how they do it , and ultimately how we undo it. In order for folks like Bush to keep power, they have to convince people not only that they share interests with the right-wing elites, but that they are on the dominant side of the dominant/dominated scheme that makes up our current political structure.

Historically, this feat of cognitive wizardry has been accomplished by creating perceived or social divisions in a population of the dominated. From the seventeenth century on, race has been one of these major divisions. When the pool of poor white people got too large for this to work in the 19th century, nationality and lineage became another. Most recently, with the increasing failure of race as a workable metaphor, these divisions have been constructed along the lines of ideology and sexuality. This is where we see the current debates over gay marriage and the popular villification of liberals enter the public discourse. Replace the word "liberal" in something that Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly says with the word "black" or "jew" and you'd have a speech worthy of a Klan rally. By creating arbitrary divisions in the populace, right-wing elites not only split them into more managable numbers, but also get half of them on their side.

While the promise of lower taxes might have garnered Bush a few extra votes, I think that the promise to be culturally linked to the political leadership was a more powerful motivator. The question for the left now becomes how we go about convincing folks that they've been taken advantage of, voted against their own class interest, and that liberal political leadership will do a better job of defending them. Does it start with values? Do we all have to start going to church on Sunday and joining the altar guild? Hopefully not. I think that what it really involves is dismantling the operative metaphors that make the Bush II reign seem right and good, despite all evidence to the contrary.