The Bourgeois Change
Jonah Goldberg makes an interesting point about the particular victories of America’s homosexual movement:
… Watch ABC’s Modern Family. The sitcom is supposed to be “subversive” in part because it features a gay couple with an adopted daughter from Asia. And you can see why both liberal proponents and conservative opponents of gay marriage see it that way. But imagine you hate the institution of marriage and then watch Modern Family’s hardworking bourgeois gay couple through those eyes. What’s being subverted? Traditional marriage, or some bohemian identity-politics fantasy of homosexuality? …
Or look at the decision to let gays openly serve in the military through the eyes of a principled hater of all things military. From that perspective, gays have just been co-opted by The Man. Meanwhile, the folks who used Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell as an excuse to keep the military from recruiting on campuses just saw their argument go up in flames.
Deep tradition and culture travel through time more as planets than comets, so they tend to absorb radical satellites that orbit them, but over time, the relatively small changes do shift their course. This speaks to the basic distinction, I think, between a conservative approach to addressing social change and the liberal one: there are ways to domesticate the gay subculture (or, rather, to give homosexuals a more domestic option) that reinforce the purpose of marriage rather than undermining it; there could have been ways of advancing equal rights for women and ending institutional male chauvinism without damaging family structure and reordering education to the detriment of boys; and there could have been ways of ushering black Americans from segregation to true equality without creating lasting racial divisions and a racial underclass, especially in inner cities, for whom hope is little more than a political slogan.
Essentially, the better approach is to maintain basic structural principles — such as the integral relationship between marriage and procreation — and allow the culture to do the slow work of kneading injustices and unnecessary restrictions out of traditions. The more radical approach of pushing social change through legal manipulation and pop-cultural affirmation has the effect of undermining the critical structural principles even as the tradition moves along with its own momentum. Consider another paragraph from Goldberg:
As a sexual-lifestyle experiment, they failed pretty miserably, the greatest proof being that the affluent and educated children (and grandchildren) of the baby boomers have re-embraced the bourgeois notion of marriage as an essential part of a successful life. Sadly, it’s the lower-middle class that increasingly sees marriage as an out-of-reach luxury. The irony is that such bourgeois values — monogamy, hard work, etc. — are the best guarantors of success and happiness.
Those who are already educated and whose families are already on a healthy path draw from the lessons of tradition for their own benefit, but because the essential rationales of the traditions have been voided, they do not reinforce them. They marry, for example, because marriage ensures the best environment in which to raise children, but they do so as if of their own personal assessment of individual circumstances, not because the institution of marriage is such that it ineradicably binds two adults together and to the children that they create. The consequence emerges first with those who can’t articulate the value of marriage or the importance of their children, but who have in generations past felt compelled to follow the family model nonetheless. Younger generations that once benefited from their parents’ conformity no longer will, because their parents will understand marriage to be mainly about themselves and their own preferences.
In summary, Goldberg’s essay ultimately comes down to an observation that radical change does not repercuss instantly. Civilization is a long-term project, though, and its course can move from one of continued advancement toward one of dissolution.