Wednesday, March 02, 2005

In Praise of Reticence

"These boundaries between what is publicly exposed and what is not exist for a reason. We will never reach a point at which nothing that anyone does disgusts anyone else...

"If your impure or hostile or politically disaffected thoughts are everyone's business, you will have reason to express pure and benevolent and patriotic ones instead.  Again, we can see this economy at work in our present circumstances: The decline of privacy brings on the rise of hypocrisy."
–Thomas Nagel, Concealment and Exposure

"Those whose agenda it is to normalize homosexuality win when we don’t push back. Just look at the word gay for instance. Homosexuality has nothing to do with being gay or happy. As a matter of fact, research proves that homosexual relationships end more frequently than heterosexual relationships and homosexuals have a higher incidence of depression and suicide. The average longevity for a gay man is 45 years. No, it isn’t about being gay, it is about being homosexual. These people need help to return to normalcy, not acceptance of their lifestyles."
-“Mario”, Guerilla Reporter, Senator Bachman Speaks on Gay Manifesto

Thomas Nagel is not talking about the thoughts of practicing deviants like the Kansas scout leader/serial killer, the altar-boy-preying priest or the charismatic minister whose position supplies him with a perpetual stream of vulnerable women seeking his "counsel." He is talking to each of us when he says: "There is much more going on inside us all the time than we are willing to express, and civilization would be impossible if we could all read each other's minds."

Point taken. If you're fed up with the exploitation of morality for political ends, Nagel's long essay is worth reading. (Thanks to a post on Left2Right for recommending it.)

Nagel covers ground similar to Thomas Frank's in What's the Matter with Kansas?. (Frank chronicles how the right wing's recent political success has been precisely crafted around picking fights they can't ultimately win, but can be used to charge up the faithful to elect their candidates, who simply want to help the rich get richer, return to environmental exploitation, dismantle public education and remove any remaining social safety nets.)

Nagel makes the case for steering clear of unwinnable skirmishes over what's going on in other people's minds, advising "the persistence of private racism, sexism, homophobia, religious and ethnic bigotry, sexual puritanism, and other such private pleasures should not provoke liberals to demand constant public affirmation of the opposite values." It only inflames the righteous to insist that private behavior become a matter of public policy, says Nagel. And while it may be satisfying to tell them just how idiotic and bigoted they are, it reinforces the conservative's fantasy of persecution by a culturally dominant intellectual elite.

Instead, he suggests holding fire for the political battles over issues that are the real business of government — "about how people are required to treat each other, how social and economic institutions are to be arranged, and how public resources are to be used." 

Nagel again: "There are enough issues that have to be fought out in the public sphere, issues of justice, of economics, of security, of defense, of the definition and protection of public goods. We should try to avoid forcing the effort to reach collective decisions or dominant results where we don’t have to. Privacy supports plurality by eliminating the need for collective choice or an official public stance. I believe the presence of a deeply conservative religious and cultural segment of American society can be expected to continue and should be accommodated by those who are radically out of sympathy with it — not in the inevitable conflicts over central political issues, but in regard to how much of the public space will be subjected to cultural contestation."

So far, so good. In isolation, "concealment" — an agreed upon form of don't ask, don't tell — might appear to be a sound liberal political tactic and a reasonable, divide-crossing premise that would promote greater civility and focus public discourse on matters that are everyone's business. But What's the Matter with Kansas and other critiques make it clear that if gays were back in the closet, the conservatives would still have to invent them — just as Mario, Guerilla Reporter, and politicans like Minnesota's Michelle Bachman are inventing them now.

Would tolerance truly be easier if we knew less of each other and none of each other's secrets? Perhaps. But the "deeply conservative religious and cultural segment" needs evil to believe themselves good. Could it be the righteous are terrified not of the "gay agenda", but of revealing their own complex inner lives?


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