There are two types of controversy. With one, a genuine conflict of genuine principle is involved. You may abominate the stance taken by the other side, but it at least possesses the validity of being a stance. Consider, for a current example, the debate over "don't ask, don't tell". I personally regard DADT as offensive and discriminatory, and believe it should be repealed forthwith. But those who think otherwise have at least an argument to make. Their argument may not be persuasive, but you can nevertheless acknowledge its existence as an argument, and acknowledge that reasonable people might differ. Indeed, over time, some reasonable people have even managed to differ with themselves. Like Colin Powell: In the '90s, he felt that unit cohesion, a subject he might be expected to know something about, would be undermined by the presence of gay soldiers in the ranks. In the years since, he has come to feel differently. Serious people can debate the point. They can also debate the underlying question of whether the desirability of unit cohesion trumps the mandate for equal treatment under the law. It's a valid debate, even if we've gone through it already. The same argument was heatedly joined in the months before Harry Truman settled the matter by integrating the armed forces with a pen stroke.
But there's another kind of controversy, the fake, ginned-up kind. The kind where all the respectable argumentation is restricted to one side, and on the other you find only prejudice, demagoguery, and vague, inchoate anxiety. You can usually identify examples of the latter fairly easily by the transparent vacuity and illogicality of the arguments adduced by one of the sides, along with flagrant misstatements of fact. Such positions aren't merely unconvincing or mean-spirited or repellent. They literally don't survive scrutiny.
Take the recent trial challenging California's Proposition 8*. Judge Vaughn Walker, in rendering his opinion, was harshly critical of defense counsel for failing to mount any discernible case at all (and for offering only two witnesses, one of whom, without intending it, effectively substantiated the plaintiffs' position). I don't believe this failure was an accident, let alone a product of lazy or inept lawyering. I believe there was no real alternative. I have yet to hear an even semi-cogent argument for denying same-sex citizens the right to marry. Is there any? What possible harm can it do? Even for family-values zealots who believe traditional marriage conduces to social stability, why deny a legal equivalent to those whose affectional preferences are different from their own? In what possible way can it impinge on them, or threaten the integrity of the institution? Does even a nut like Rick Santorum honestly believe, as he asserted on the Senate floor some years ago, that there's a slippery slope between gay marriage and people marrying their dogs? With arguments like that, the untenability of the position is patent. Surely, if there were less ludicrous arguments to be framed, some intellectually resourceful person would have stumbled upon them by now.
There are, I think, only three reasons to oppose equal marriage rights. One is simple novelty; because it hasn't existed in the past, a certain conservative temperament might be inclined to instinctively resist so dramatic a social change. This is humanly understandable, but hardly qualifies as a logical argument. Another is religion --- there are those who believe scripture condemns homosexuality, and that it is therefore their obligation to enforce the condemnation --- which has no bearing whatsoever on what is purely a matter of civil law. And the third is straightforward homophobia.
Dress up your objections any way you like --- see Ross Douthat's recent op-ed column in the New York Times for a particularly tortured example --- they still lack cogency. People oppose same-sex marriage because it's a new and alien concept to them, because they think they're channeling heavenly opposition, or because they don't like homosexuals. None of these positions deserves to be called an argument.
Another example is the absurd and obnoxious brouhaha over the construction of a Muslim study center in Lower Manhattan. Tellingly, there have been plenty of outright misrepresentations on the part of those opposed to it --- falsely accusing the Imam in question of radicalism or of terrorism, calling the complex (which will contain a prayer room) a mosque, situating it directly at Ground Zero rather than several blocks away, etc. --- but nothing resembling a compelling case. "It shows insensitivity," is about as close as anyone has come. And God knows it might well show insensitivity if 9/11 had in fact been perpetrated by the Muslim religion as a whole, rather than a handful of politico-religious fanatics recruited by a small sect of very dangerous nutcases.
We've seen this same deliberate distortion before. The Bush Administration was happy to foster confusion about who was responsible for 9/11 in order to muster popular support for the invasion of Iraq. At the time the war commenced, thanks in part to the administration's obfuscation, an outright majority of Americans were convinced Saddam Hussein had masterminded those attacks. Hell, we'd already fought him once, hadn't we? And they're all towelheads, aren't they?
Similarly today, with the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still painful and relatively fresh memories --- still wounds rather than scars --- and with rabid anti-American sentiment so prevalent in the Arab world, it's easy enough to persuade traumatized people that the perpetrators of those outrages and the community that wants to establish a study center in Manhattan are essentially the same. They're all towelheads, aren't they?
This isn't only a matter of the community's legal right to build their study center; the First Amendment leaves no wiggle room whatsoever on that question. It's also a matter of whether the study center's placement puts an objectively justifiable strain on the city's tolerance. But unless you feel as a matter of principle that it's perfectly okay to tar all Muslims with the same terrorist brush, there is absolutely nothing insensitive about that community's establishing a gathering place near Ground Zero. When Newt Gingrich asserts that the existence of the study center in that location is analogous to planting a Nazi flag near the Holocaust Museum, he is either being abysmally stupid or, more likely, deliberately, dangerously demagogic. (In Sarah Palin's case, it's even harder to be sure, but regardless, her tweeted entry into the debate is thoroughly appalling.)
Any student of history knows how easy it is, especially in times of economic or social disquiet, to rally popular sentiment against a minority group, to single it out for contumely and blame. It's no longer socially or politically permissible in the United States to invoke familiar old reliable scapegoats like the Irish, the Jews, or African Americans, for this purpose; those prejudices no doubt still exist, but they are no longer part of acceptable public discourse. Muslims, however, are another matter. They represent a small segment of the population, they are not yet well-organized politically for purposes of self-defense, and, because of the horrors of 9/11 and the undeniable dangers posed by Al Quaeda, they can easily be associated with a very real terrorist threat. But to do so in this undiscriminating manner isn't only ignorant and bigoted, it's dangerous. For politicians like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Harry Reid, and all too many others, to involve themselves in it is shameful; such sentiments are easy to exploit but impossible to control. The short-term political advantage they may hope to gain from fanning those flames isn't worth the price that may ultimately have to be paid. The last thing America needs now is a collection of penny-ante Slobodan Milosovecs in our midst, exploiting fear and prejudice for their own narrow purposes.
If I have to guess, my suspicion is that the Muslim study center ultimately will not be built in Lower Manhattan. A compromise will be reached and, with the Bloomberg Administration's active assistance (by which I mean connivance), the project will be re-located to a less contentious site and the volatile situation will be defused (and soon forgotten). That, by itself, isn't an outrage. What is an outrage is that things were permitted to reach the point where such a compromise was deemed advisable. The controversy qua controversy is entirely artificial and without foundation. The willingness of policy-makers and journalists to treat it as a legitimate source of political contention is a stain on our public discourse.
*As a practical matter, I doubted, and continue to doubt, the
political wisdom of initiating that litigation. And in the period since
the action was filed, having spoken privately both with an advocate
intimately involved with the plaintiffs' side of the case, and also,
separately, with someone who has experience weighing exactly these sorts of questions, I
can say with some confidence that the strategic calculus guiding the
plaintiffs was calamitously unfounded. This observation is independent
of the actual merits of the case, which strike me as incontestable; it's based solely on the probable outcome. If
there's an eventual reversal by the Supreme Court, as seems more likely
than not, the whole issue could be set back for a generation. In
addition, while conceding the powerful precedent of Brown v. Board
of Education, and while acknowledging that constitutional rights exist independent of majority opinion, I still think it's generally better to settle such questions
through the political rather than the judicial process where feasible.
And it seems increasingly feasible; the outcome of the Proposition 8
vote in 2008 may well have represented a last gasp for the opponents of
same-sex marriage. It's much harder for demagogues to demonize a majority vote than an act of judicial fiat.