Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence
by DPW, Fri Oct 26, 2007 at 06:06:24 AM EDT
[Note: This is admittedly a very long diary. I sort of got carried away with setting up the discussion. The beginning may seem excessively academic, but I thought it might be helpful. If you hate moral and political philosophy, you will find this to be the most boring discussion of sex you've ever read. For those of you without patience, you may want to get directly to the meat of my argument, which picks up roughly after the first blockquote.]
I imagine most of you have had your fill as it concerns the recent Donnie McClurkin dust-up, but I'm not quite ready to bury it just yet. On the other hand, I have no interest in simply revisiting the same old flame war. Instead, my concerns are more abstract, you might say. Basically, I'd like to address what strikes me as an anti-liberal element underlying the outrage/criticism directed at Obama. However, this diary isn't just written in defense of Obama. Clinton, too, has faced similar criticism as a result of her association with Reverend Harold Mayberry (who evidently has preached against homosexuality to his congregation. So, although I focus specifically on the McClurkin situation, my argument is directed at a trend that concerns all the candidates and, more fundamentally, the terms of our social co-existence in general. In short, this isn't the occasion for partisan warfare.
I assume everyone knows the basic story, but I'll offer a brief summary. The Obama campaign will be hosting three gospel concerts in South Carolina this weekend "to bring South Carolinians together for a few evenings of song and praise." The controversy surrounds grammy-award winning singer Donnie McClurkin, who is one the singers scheduled to perform at the Columbia, SC show. McClurkin, according to Wikipedia, "has spoken out against homosexuality on several occasions" and believes that "homosexuality is not God's intention" and that one can "be delivered from homosexuality through the power and grace of God." (I should also add that McClurkin, in recent phone interview stated that "he does not believe in discriminating against homosexuals.") In response to the controversy, Obama issued a statement denouncing McClurkin's views and affirming his support for objectives important to the gay community; moreover, all indications are that McClurkin is only there to sing.
Obama's statement notwithstanding, this has angered some in the gay community. I have even seen some declare that this is a "deal-killer"; or, even more strongly, some have announced that they wouldn't even vote for Obama in the general election. I must admit that this reaction puzzles me and, as this diary indicates, has motivated me to consider the social/political/moral significance of such a reaction.
A good place to start, I suppose, is with a thought expressed by MyDD's own Todd Beeton on Monday, to wit: "The paradox of running a campaign based on inclusion is that you're more than likely going to alienate somebody at some point based on who you're including." I think that's a fair assessment of the tension that inevitably confronts the effort to attract broad political support from a pluralistic electorate. It seems odd, though, to maintain that this problem uniquely afflicts Obama. A political order "based on inclusion" is essential element of liberalism. To put it another way, any candidate worthy of the term "liberal" is going to invite this kind of tension. Indeed, if there is one organizing theme that characterizes modern liberal political philosophy, it is the rejection of partiality as it concerns the diverse, irreconcilable personal doctrines which invariably exist in a pluralistic society. We accept as granted what philosopher John Rawls called "the fact of reasonable pluralism" and aim to determine fair principles of cooperation on which ALL reasonable people could agree, assuming they are reasonably committed to cooperation for mutual advantage (see here if you're interested in the particulars of this Rawlsian take on liberalism).
Conversely, liberals have traditionally rejected as tyrannical and oppressive strong forms of perfectionism that insist on allegiance to a single comprehensive conception of the good. If political legitimacy requires broad consensus among citizens affirming a plurality of irreconcilable moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines, then the most contentious issues among us will remain unresolved in the public sphere. Thus, liberalism is forever faced with the challenge of finding common ground between deeply divided people. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more inclined to just tell some groups to go to hell (witness the Republican NAACP debate, where only 3 of the 8 candidates showed up).
Anyway, as I've been saying, people invariably hold a wide range of conflicting conceptions of the good and reality that can't be resolved by reference to an agreed-upon epistemic framework. Certainly, religion comes to mind, but the problem is more extensive than religious disagreement. Relevant to this diary are the intractable divisions surrounding the subject of sexual morality. As philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote, "We will never reach a point at which nothing that anyone does disgusts anyone else. We can expect to remain in a sexual world deeply divided by various lines of imaginative incomprehension and disapproval." No matter how open-minded you may claim to be, a few curious minutes on the internet will reveal your ability to be disgusted by the consensual sexual acts of others.
That is not to say, however, that a liberal social order is helpless to deal with conflicts of this sort. On the contrary, a liberal society carves out a sphere of autonomy for its citizens (assuming a certain threshold of competence, awareness, and rationality is met, of course). Moreover, the requirement of public justification--so-called liberal neutralit--prevents governments from favoring types of sexual relationships over others. Finally, principles of equality of opportunity justify laws preventing employers (among others) from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation (with some obvious exemptions to protect freedom of association). These principle, of course, involve correlative rights protecting citizens' liberty of conscience (among other liberties), allowing citizens to disagree/disapprove of homosexuality. More related to that later.
As it concerns these matters, Obama's record is able to withstand any kind of harsh criticism. In an article in "Lesbian Life," a review of Obama's strong record on LGBT issues is presented:
Barack Obama and Gay Rights in Illinois: Barack Obama supported gay rights during his Illinois Senate tenure. He sponsored legislation in Illinois that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
. . . .
Barack Obama on Hate Crimes: Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to expand federal hate crimes laws to include crimes perpetrated because of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Employment Non-Discrimination: Barack Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and believes it should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell - Gays in the Military: Barack Obama believes we need to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. His campaign literature says, "The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve."
Co-Sponoring Legislation: Barack Obama, in line with HRC [Human Rights Campaign], co-sponsored legislation to bring Medicaid coverage to low-income, HIV-positive Americans and the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act which would expand federal jurisdiction to reach serious, violent hate crimes perpetrated because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability of the victim.
He also supports civil unions, though he regrettably does not support gay marriage. He has stated that individual states may decide whether to legalize full gay marriage. Finally, I'll add that he received as score of 89% on HRC's scorecard (see prior link). I don't know the comparative scores, but I doubt anyone but Kucinich and Gravel are significantly higher. (Bill Clinton, to be sure, signed DOMA into law.)
In any case, the criticism of Obama cannot justifiably be attributed to the public policies that he supports and espouses. Nor has he sought the endorsement or advice of McClurkin. No, Obama is suddenly unacceptable because his campaign hired a Grammy award-winning gospel singer who happens to believe that homosexual conduct is contrary to God's intention and that one's sexual orientation can be re-oriented, so to speak, through spiritual engagement of some kind.
Now, as I've hinted, this reaction seems completely inappropriate to me. Don't get me wrong. I fully support gay rights, including marriage (although I kind of wish the government would stay out the marriage business altogether). I don't think there is anything remotely objectionable about same-sex relationships. So, don't get the impression that I'm defending McClurkin's views. I am emphatically not. What bothers me is insistence by certain activists that Obama's campaign avoid even tenuous association with those who disagree with gay sexual practices.
Although most of my preliminary remarks have related to the limited reach of political agreement, I think similar limitations apply to social interaction more generally. Thomas Nagel, a philosopher to whom I've referred already, published a great essay years ago called "Concealment and Exposure" in which he argues this point quite effectively (the essay itself isn't exactly on point, but I highly recommend it to everyone with a brain.). Early in the essay he writes:
There is an analogy between the familiar problem that liberalism addresses in political theory, of how to join together individuals with conflicting interests and a plurality of values, under a common system of law that serves their collective interests equitably without destroying their autonomy -- and the purely social problem of defining conventions of reticence and privacy that allow people to interact peacefully in public. . . .
I think there is a natural way in which a more comprehensive liberal respect for individual autonomy would express itself through social conventions, as opposed to legal rules. In both cases a delicate balance has to be struck, and it is possible in both cases to err in the direction of too much or too little restraint . . . .
In culture as in law, the partisans of particular conceptions of personal morality and the ends of life should be reluctant to try to control the public domain for their own purposes. Even though cultural norms are not coercive in the way that law is, the public culture is a common resource that affects us all, and some consideration of the rights of members should operate as a restraint on its specificity. We owe it to one another to want the public space to preserve a character neutral enough to allow those from whom we differ radically to inhabit it comfortably -- and that means a culture that is publicly reticent, if possible, and not just tolerant of diversity. Pluralism and privacy should be protected not only against legal interference but more informally against the invasiveness of a public culture that insists on settling too many questions.
The natural objection to this elevation of reticence is that it is too protective of the status quo, and that it gives a kind of cultural veto to conservative forces who will resent any disruption. Those who favor confrontation and invasion of privacy think it necessary to overthrow pernicious conventions like the double standard of sexual conduct, and the unmentionability of homosexuality. To attack harmful prejudices, it is necessary to give offense by overturning the conventions of reticence that help to support them.
Against this, my position is in a sense conservative, though it is motivated by liberal principles. While we should insist on the protection of individual rights of personal freedom, I believe we should not insist on confrontation in the public space over different attitudes about the conduct of personal life. To the extent possible, and the extent compatible with the protection of private rights, it would be better if these battles for the soul of the culture were avoided, and no collective response required. Best would be a regime of private freedom combined with public or collective neutrality.
Although Nagel's essay is primarily about sex, I think broadening its reach adds some perspective to the McClurkin episode. Specifically, because I think there is a stronger tradition in our political culture of respecting conflicting religious beliefs, I would like to look at that as a model.
I should note right away I am an atheist (of a softer variety) who has lived in South Carolina for most of my life--including now. This has presented a problem or two since many in my family are deeply religious--particularly my mom's side of the family. In no uncertain terms, members of my family have expressed their sincere belief that I'm going to hell, absent any conversion before judgment day. Lest this seem like a bunch of self-pity, I should add that my family has been generous in its love for me. However, my grandmother believes the good book (and her minister) with every fiber of her being and is quite sincerely concerned for my soul. I have to respect that to some extent. I doubt I could ever shake her faith, and frankly, her sense of purpose and identity is so wrapped up in that understanding at this point that I don't dare question it to her face. She likewise hasn't broached the subject for years (although she still occasionally asks me to say "blessings" before dinner when I go see her--and I do it for her, rather clumsily). It's no coincidence that polite and politics have so many similar letters.
Now, I hate to be so prejudicial, but I imagine many on that gospel stage believe that God will punish me eternally for my beliefs. As do the majority of Christians in the country.
Accordingly, I see no relevant difference between my position and that of the gay community. Many of the attendees at Obama's gospel event--not to mention millions of Christians across the nation--probably believe I'm damned to hell. My question is, would it seem excessive for me and fellow atheists to demand that Obama avoid any affiliation with Christians who hold this view of non-believers? That would include at least 50% of the country, I would bet. Were he to honor such a request, then he would certainly ruin his chances at a nomination. But more importantly, he would be effectively dismissing half the people a president is obliged to serve. Admittedly, he would be wrong to favor a religious group--by, say, implementing Christian-specific educational initiatives--but he still must engage them in the political process. Liberal democracy requires it. Reaching out to Christians should not offend me, an atheist, though giving them priority should. Likewise, including a gospel singer unfriendly to same-sex relationships at a campaign event should not offend gay people.
But, I fear I'm mixing up two distinct objections I have: (1) Politicians have an obligation to govern the entire citizenry impartially--and inclusively--such that demanding of politicians that they disavow association with large portions of the electorate promotes illegitimate governance; and (2) Because disagreement/disapproval regarding sexual practices will forever divide a pluralistic society, it is childish and unreasonable to demand that everyone reach a consensus on such matters. Moreover, such an effort displays an eerie similarity to thought control by conditioning cooperation upon submission to orthodoxy.
This is a dangerous and illiberal way to handle our differences. Where does it end? I'm also an animal rights advocated. That's right, I think pigs have rights. Is it a deal-killer that Obama, Edwards, Clinton, etc. eat meat? Do I have to vote for the vegan Kucinich? Should I not vote for Hillary because Timbaland held a fundraiser for her? I'm sure some interest group would cry foul over these lyrics. Perhaps there are some kinds of associations that should not be tolerated, but I think it would have to be far more egregious than this (the person, I think, would have to be pro-violence or something).
But, a look at this particular case is reveals mitigating factors, to say the least. I don't know this McClurkin fellow all that well, but his story is a haunting one. He was raped at a very young age by his uncle, on the night of his younger brother's funeral. He suffered further sexual abuse throughout the course of his formative years. All of this coincided with his heavy involvement with the church. So, it doesn't surprise me that his faith played an important role in the way he sought to escape the hell to which he'd been exposed. His view of sexuality is unsurprisingly controversial, given this background. Add to that the influence of traditional church teachings, and another level of complexity appears. Even if you disagree with his beliefs, it's takes a callous mind to just dismiss him as pure evil, unworthy of any empathy.
But, the cost to a liberal vision is the point to hammer home. Here we have a man opposed to homosexual practices who is willing to perform for Obama's political benefit--despite Obama's public support of gay rights, and despite McClurkin's reported affiliation with republicans in 2004. This is an opportunity to involve McClurkin (and other social conservatives who see more promise in a democratic nominee) in a conversation about equality. Yet, the loudest voices in our party right now are calling on us to throw him under the bus. I've heard similar outrage at the idea of Obama teaming up with Senator Coburn (who holds controversial social views, himself) to pass a bill requiring disclosure of all recipients of federal funding. Here, again, there is an opportunity to find common ground and political agreement on matters that should warm progressive/liberal hearts. There are serious social costs if we continue this kind of stubborn unwillingness to coordinate with others just because they fail to commit fully to the progressive orthodoxy.
Many of us found a lot to cheer about as we listened to Obama's 2004 DNC speech about the need to overcome our differences in the service of common objectives. To me it captured the spirit of liberalism in an astonishing way. He was able to translate the cold ideas of Rawls, et al. into a sermon worthy of MLK (well close, anyhow). And, he has put his vision into action by reaching out to every group imaginable (see the subgroups of supports on his site), letting them know that they all get a seat at the table--but not with disproportionate influence. However, by asking Obama to throw McClurkin (as well as others who sympathize with his views) under the bus over his personal sexual beliefs (even though Obama plainly rejects those views as public policy), they are asking him to choose sides rather than foster the political agreement we desperately need. That doesn't jive with the liberal ideal.
That's my view, anyway. But, what do I know. I'm going to hell.
P.S.--For a great speech Obama gave some time ago on how religion fits into the political framework, take a look here. It's hard not to come away impressed with his effort to re-introduce liberalism to religious America.