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Raising the Volume

Candidates of both parties want to sit out the culture wars, but that's not possible.

February 29, 2004|Jonah Goldberg | Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and a syndicated columnist.

WASHINGTON — Here's how the Washington Post's Dana Milbank began his Page 1 analysis of the White House's newly announced position on gay marriage: "With President Bush's embrace yesterday of a marriage amendment, the compassionate conservative of 2000 has shown he is willing, if necessary, to rekindle the culture wars in 2004."

This neatly encapsulates everything that's wrong with inside-the-Beltway discussions of the culture war we currently find ourselves in. Presidents do not start culture wars; they react to them. They can fan or soothe passions, but they cannot create divisions that don't already exist.

Indeed, both Bush and the major Democratic presidential candidates, neither of whom supports gay marriage, would have preferred not to have addressed the issue. Why? Because nobody in the moderate, swing-voting center of American life wants to talk about it. This is why Bush and the Democratic front-runners circled each other for more than a year, each side hoping the other would be the first to, literally, make a federal case out of it. Both sides knew that whoever did would be blamed by millions of moderate Americans for inflicting the issue on the rest of "us."

The two parties would still be circling each other like gunslingers afraid to draw their Colts were it not for events in Massachusetts, where a laughably activist court recently asserted that the centuries-old Massachusetts Constitution has always protected the right of any two people to marry, and that any compromise short of actual gay matrimony, including civil unions, would offend the constitution. Across the country in San Francisco, they didn't even bother to rewrite the law; the mayor there just opted to defy it.

Bush didn't create these events. He was, however, forced to respond to them because millions of Americans -- including a huge chunk of his political base -- were deeply offended and angered by what they saw. As a political matter, then, Bush had no choice but to engage this issue even if he didn't want to -- just as President Clinton, politically speaking, deduced he had no choice but to sign the Defense of Marriage Act. The Democrats were in an even tighter spot. The portion of the Democratic Party base that cares passionately about gay marriage is tiny compared with the base of the GOP that passionately opposes it, yet once the issue was on the cultural agenda, there was no choice but to address it.

But let's -- please! -- stop talking about gay marriage, which is, at the end of the day, merely one front in a culture war that will be with us for a very long time. Conservatives and liberals alike are going to have to learn how to deal with it. Both sides might look to something called the Beaconsfield position for guidance.

One of my heroes, Whittaker Chambers, refused to call himself a conservative -- favoring instead "Man of the Right" -- because he believed the conservatives of the early 1950s refused to grasp what he called the "Beaconsfield position." In Chambers' view, Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British prime minister and earl of Beaconsfield, had transformed British conservatism into a forward-looking philosophy of incremental reform and adjustment, something American conservatives in the mid-20th century also needed to do. Chambers believed his cohorts on the right were failing to grasp the fact that technology, capitalism and the organic nature of an open society necessarily required adapting to the changing needs and desires of the public. Conservatives such as William F. Buckley, he thought, were more inclined to advocate the philosophy enshrined in National Review's founding charter: to stand athwart history, yelling "Stop!"

American conservatism has changed much since then, and I'm not sure Chambers was being entirely fair, but the dynamic he identified is as valuable as ever. Intellectuals, journalists and political activists have a tendency to look for their car keys where the light is good rather than where they might have the best chance of finding them. So, when it comes to the culture war, we too often assume that change is the product of human will, of strange ideas that escaped German laboratories or women's studies departments. My fellow conservatives complain about the erosion of stable communities and traditional values as if Gloria Steinem and Bill Clinton had personally destroyed them with schemes hatched in the Yale faculty lounge. But the fact is that the automobile did more to overturn established norms than all of the feminist theorists and suffragettes combined. The problem is that it's very easy to argue with someone else's ideas; it's very hard to argue with a Buick.

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