The bitterness of so many Kerry supporters over President Bush’s election victory begins to look as if it is giving birth to a new politics of paranoid fantasy. The old politics of paranoid fantasy, as you may remember, was popularized by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 and concentrated on the themes of the “stolen” election of 2000, the Bush family’s interests in the Carlyle group and its ties to the Saudi royal family, and the dark hints about the President’s corrupt motives for waging the war in Iraq. These fantasies have not gone away — and the stolen election one shows some signs of being revived in a new and improved, 2004 model, most notably by Keith Olbermann of “Countdown” on MSNBC.
But another one now seems to be dominant. This is the fantasy of a nightmarish world of theocratic rule from Washington by fanatical Christian fundamentalists who, at least according to Garry Wills in the New York Times, are all but indistinguishable from the fanatical Islamic fundamentalists who blew up the twin towers and killed 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.
Anyone who believes anything so absurd is unlikely to care very much about any dispassionate reasoning around the subject, but the evidence adduced by these true believers for their pet theory seems to depend rather heavily on the fact that 22 percent of those who responded to exit polls taken at the time of the election said that the single issue which had mattered most to them in deciding how to cast their vote had been “Moral Values.”
Charles Krauthammer did an excellent demolition job on this theory in the Washington Post, but he might have gone on to make the point that the real moralists in this election and even more so after it were the more extreme Kerry supporters whose influence on the candidate himself and those around him was perceptible and who tried so hard to make the case that their opponent was not just a bad president but a bad man. Certainly it can only be a form of moral judgment that has made so many of them suggest, in their bitterness since the election, that Bush and his supporters are tainted with the stigma of bigotry, hatred, and dishonesty.
Their morality also, however, and paradoxically takes the form of anti-morality. Or “morality.” For what they understand by the term is not really morality itself, if by that we understand a whole system of rights and duties and proscriptions that have been worked out over centuries and is constantly evolving but rather a sort of fabulous monster, a symbol of the oppression of certain traditional and mainly sexual moral constraints that have come to seem intolerable. This feeling has now extended outward from the sexually libertine metropolitan centers to the up-scale suburbs and a significant proportion of American voters elsewhere, and the moral fervor of these children of the sexual revolution in denouncing traditional morality really was a factor in the election. Gay marriage was their symbolic issue, voted down wherever it appeared on the ballot, and it seems to me that the otherwise puzzling charge of “bigotry” against Bush voters must have had its origins in the disappointment felt by its proponents and champions.
This is because, to them, their sexuality isn’t a matter of what they do but of who they are. As they see it, their sexual “orientation” is as much a part of them as the color of their skin. Therefore, any sort of discrimination in the way the law treats them is as much a violation of their civil rights as racial discrimination is of the civil rights of black people and others against whom it is practiced. I think the analogy a false one for all sorts of reasons, but it is a subject, like that of abortion, on which reasoned discussion has become almost impossible. For once you accept the equation sexuality = identity, then any attempt by anybody anywhere to cling to such shreds and patches as remain today of the moralized view of sexuality that was universal up until 40 years ago becomes a threat to your very existence. It becomes easy to believe that those who would vote against your right to marry must also hate you, which in turn means that they are disposed to hurt or even kill you, or to look with indulgence on those who do.
For those who harbor such fears, “Moral Values” are likely to be far more important than they are for the majority who just don’t like the idea of a radical re-definition of an institution that’s been around for as long as marriage has. It’s true that the passive traditionalism of the latter has a moral coloring, and many if not most of those who feel it are likely also to believe that homosexual acts are wrong. But it would be foolish to ignore the extent to which this moral conviction has been weakened by 40 years of sexual “liberation.” Real gay-bashers today are rarely moralists and are much more likely to have psychological problems. Belief in sexual rights and wrongs of any kind has been so degraded by the culture that it is much more likely than the libertarian position to be held apologetically and even — wonderful irony! — solipsistically. I don’t approve of sex outside marriage, but then that’s just me. Such people may not even think homosexual behavior wrong, yet they have a predisposition against the self-definition by sexuality that has become the first article of the gay credo — and that has created the remarkable moral fervor of the anti-moralists.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.