Pride and Prejudice

Allow me to briefly weigh in on the Great Spears Debate between Sullivan, Douthat and Salam.

Sullivan says:

How does allowing gay couples to get married somehow impact the illegitimacy rates of the Spears family? The only conceivable linkage is that many rednecks’ disdain of gays means that allowing us to marry inherently debases the institution and thereby makes it less attractive. But this argument requires raw prejudice as a premise. And a premise that Ross and Reihan – who have not a soupcon of homophobia between them – just assume as a given.

Here’s the thing: conservatives ought to hold that, all else being equal, it is right and proper to respect and even cater to irrational prejudice – that, indeed, the fact of such prejudice’s irrationality is the very reason why it should be respected and catered to, since if it were founded on reasons that could be refuted, there would be no problem presenting such refutation. This is, I would argue, a cornerstone of the conservative temperament. So it should not surprise Sullivan that a conservative like Ross who does not hold with an irrational prejudice nonetheless accept that prejudice as a premise – because they recognize it even if they don’t share it. That just proves he’s a conservative.

Sullivan’s argument must be either that the prejudice is not so strong as conservatives believe it to be, or that there is a strong enough claim to justice to override the presumption that is otherwise given to irrational prejudice, or both.

As for Ross’s and Reihan’s point: one must distinguish between explaining and justifying the social conservative position. It makes perfect sense to say that people in unstable family situations are more likely to find a family values pitch appealing, and that, therefore, there’s nothing paradoxical about downscale voters being more likely to get divorced and more likely to support politicians who promise to strengthen the institution of marriage. But that amounts to an explanation of the appeal, not a justification; a justification would require an argument that, in fact, the proposed remedies will address the identified problem. Both Ross and Reihan are pretty sophisticated about the limited efficacy and even counterproductivity of certain social conservative shibboleths (for example, Ross knows that abstinence education doesn’t work any better than sex education – which is to say: it basically doesn’t work). I’m pretty sure Reihan favors same-sex marriage, which presumably means either that he accepts that the claims of justice outweigh the negative consequences of flouting popular prejudice, or that he accepts Sullivan’s arguments that same-sex marriage would in fact have the effect of strengthening marriage for everyone, and therefore that socially-conservative prejudice against it is not only irrational but counterproductive in its own terms. (I’m not sure what Ross thinks.)

In any event, the challenge for someone with Reihan’s views is: how do you move social conservatives to your position without it backfiring on you by convincing them that you’re another brie-eating Havard-educated God-denier. (Which, as it happens, he is.) And the fact of that challenge probably does more than anything to explain the phenomenon – the implicit or explicit acknowledgement rather than the denunciation of the claim from prejudice – that is perplexing Sullivan.