Of Mosques and Marriage

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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  I personally regard DADT as offensive and discriminatory, and believe it should be repealed forthwith.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?

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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