Don't Call it a Culture War

As the election-night results rolled in -- and even before that, as the polling leaned heavily toward Barack Obama -- some liberals gleefully declared the end of the so-called culture war. This war's two most reliable weapons, demonizing same-sex marriage and decrying abortion rights, failed to propel Republican candidates to victory -- supposedly indicating that so-called cultural issues had lost their bite. Wrote Peter Beinart in The Washington Post, "Culture war no longer sells."

Obama's landslide victory prompted many progressives to declare that the long-awaited Democratic majority had finally emerged. But watching the most momentous election in a generation was bittersweet. Despite the supposed ceasefire in the culture war, Nov. 4 saw the passage of four heartbreakingly bigoted ballot measures: same-sex marriage bans in California, Florida, and Arizona, along with an Arkansas initiative designed to prohibit same-sex couples from adopting or foster-parenting. This is a call to arms. Progressives should not declare the culture war dead; we must reframe it and keep fighting.

We'll continue to lose until we can successfully relabel LGBT rights a civil-rights issue situated firmly within the context of other civil-rights struggles, not an issue mired in the culture-war swamp of moral controversy. (To a lesser degree, the same goes for abortion rights.) "Culture" implies we are comfortable with different parts of our country and different groups of people seeing this issue differently. It implies that there is no absolute right or wrong -- just two sparring factions -- and that we'll simply have to wait for the rest of the country to come around. Culture changes slowly. This is something I've heard a lot in the wake of the passage of California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage. "History is on our side! Don't worry, the demographic trends are with us!"

I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough. These are the kind of conciliatory comments that go part and parcel with the culture-war frame. Civil-rights era activists knew history was on their side. But their goal was not to make every white American comfortable with the idea of sharing public spaces and power with people of color. It was to guarantee people of color those rights, regardless of where the culture stood. That's the thing about rights. You have to claim them.

We won't win victories on LGBT rights as long as we see the issue as part of a liberal--versus-conservative war. If we're at war, it's not with conservatives. Our enemy is not James Dobson or Sarah Palin. It is the sadly accepted notion that anti-gay measures are shoo-ins on the ballot, and that same-sex couples just have to sit tight for a decade or two and wait for public opinion to catch up.

A civil-rights frame is not only more proactive -- because it doesn't allow progressives to swaddle themselves in comforting demographic trends -- it is more persuasive. It is also less divisive. The very act of invoking the term "culture war" signals that we think something is controversial, when in fact, equal rights should be the furthest thing from it. In California, the opposition to Proposition 8 reached out with an appeal to empathy, instead of an appeal to fundamental civil rights and justice. (From a typical ad: "What if you couldn't marry the person you love?") Who knows how effective a civil-rights frame would have been in persuading California voters to reject Prop 8, with a series of ads featuring interracial couples who were legally barred from marrying just 40 years ago?

It's tempting for progressives to see Obama's election as a sign the country is becoming more liberal. It's tempting to look at his progressive stance on a range of issues and determine that, if the public elected him by a landslide, it must agree with the bulk of his agenda. It's tempting to get choked up when he declares that, gay or straight, we're all Americans. And it's tempting to ignore that although the president-elect opposes state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, he has said he can't support gay marriage itself. The harsh reality is that, just as the whole of the country wasn't rabidly conservative when it elected and re-elected George W. Bush, today's America is no progressive wonderland. This is laid bare by the passage of the anti-gay measures, and it's the reason I chafe at the notion that these are the first days of a new progressive era. Because if our time had truly come, bigotry on the ballot wouldn't be a sure thing. And fundamental civil rights wouldn't be perceived as a minor culture-war skirmish.

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