The Social X-Ray

The flap over over Rick Santorum's remarks about homosexuality shouldn't be lamented, but welcomed.

In the past week, as Washington types chose sides in the great Santorum dustup, there was one point on which everyone agreed: This was a most unfortunate episode.

To those who chided or denounced Rick Santorum for his remarks on homosexuality, it was unfortunate for what the Republican senator from Pennsylvania said and apparently believes. To those who defended him, it was unfortunate for the way the big bad media pounced on this "inclusive man" and tried to turn him into something they claim he's not, i.e. a sexual bigot.

Worst of all, some argued, this story signaled a return to the business-as-usual rancor that defines and poisons our political culture. Or as J. Bottum put it in The Weekly Standard: "There was Trent Lott on one side, and now Rick Santorum on the other. Like bookends, they seem to frame the war with Iraq—each subject to an attack in which an offhand comment is taken by opponents for a steed and ridden to death with spurs. Some commentators (and many, many politicians) hoped that in the high seriousness of a nation at war, this trend in public discourse would wither away. But it clearly hasn't. Welcome home, boys. Politics is back."

Before we send this much-regretted story packing, I want to say a few final words in its defense. First, the argument that there's something bad about "politics"—that evil twin of good, gray policy—is a Washington canard that really needs to be put out of its misery. Democracy is about people of vastly dissimilar views getting together and working out their differences in public, a process that, yes, often gets a little nasty. Welcome to America. The war's over, politics is back, and we should all be grateful for it. The issues that Santorum's remarks raised couldn't be more serious—freedom, privacy, the meaning of the word "family"—and deserved every second of attention they received.

More broadly, I think we should give thanks for the Lott and Santorum brouhahas, and others like them that, if we're lucky, are coming. Not because they increase partisanship and divide us along the old conservative-liberal fault line, as some commentators love to argue. Rather, because they do precisely the opposite. Look closely at these stories, and what you'll notice is how many of the pols and media people who jump in and thrash around don't choose sides in predictable ways. Through these incidents, the politico-media establishment is revealed as a far more complicated, nuanced place than we generally assume it to be.

If Washington were as bifurcated a city as its critics often suggest, we would be able to predict how every Santorum-like affair would play out. When a conservative was under fire, every "conservative" would dutifully defend him, and every "liberal" would stomp him to pieces. Funny, then, to recall the way Washington chewed on Trent Lott's predicament for a while and collectively decided to spit him out. It wasn't the Democrats or any liberal media cabal that did the deed, it was a conservative president. Politics, sure, but with a very agreeable, indeed harmonious, ending.

The Santorum picture is even more interesting. Though read by the pundits as another Right-Left split (with President Bush sticking by his man this time), it was actually something else entirely. The most interesting divide in the United States isn't between Right and Left, it's between elites and non-elites. There's an elite consensus on homosexuality, arrived at slowly over the years and solidified in the 1990s. It has nothing to do with the Supreme Court or any legal niceties. What it says, simply, is, These are human beings, and they should be free to live and love as they choose.

Judging from pop culture (Six Feet Under, Will & Grace, Queer as Folk—and that's just television), non-elites are moving rapidly in the same direction, despite what the polls say about mainstream views of homosexuality. Polls lag reality. On this question, Santorum and social conservatives like him are exceptions within the elite and increasingly in American society, which is why his remarks caused such a stir.

To see these nuances, all you had to do was watch the media. For instance, Santorum was the topic of the hour the other day on CNN's Crossfire, where the liberal seat was filled by Democratic honcho Bob Shrum, who naturally excoriated Santorum. On the conservative side was Tony Blankley, a former Newt Gingrich aide and the current editor of The Washington Times editorial page. Here's how this paragon of the Right opened his remarks on Santorum: "I disagree with almost everything he said, both his legal analysis, which is—I don't think it's sustainable. I'm confident the Supreme Court can distinguish between consensual conduct by gays and lesbians in private and incest, which is not consensual, by definition of the relationship. So I don't buy his argument. I don't buy his argument that American families are in danger from the 1 percent to 2 percent of homosexuals in the country. We've had that population since the beginning of time, and American families are fine."

It could have come from a New York Times-man. What to make of Tony Blankley? Or of Andrew Sullivan, whose weblog, www.andrewsullivan.com, was the place to be this week if you wanted to see Santorum taken apart by another Catholic conservative. They don't fit the mold. But then, what's the point of the mold, anyway?

These stories don't come from nowhere, and there's a reason they're so mesmerizing. They X-ray the culture, show us what's happening under the surface of a society that isn't nearly as simple or predictable as it sometimes seems. So bring on the next Santorum, please.