Just Above Sunset
July 18, 2004 - The Importance of Martyrdom to the Conservative Movement

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Thomas Frank is the fellow who wrote the recent book "What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America" - mentioned in Just Above Sunset by The Book Wrangler last weekend.  There are lots of reviews available, should you find the topic of interest - how the “heart of America” is now solidly conservative evangelical Christian Republican and pro-big-business, anti-gay, anti-abortion and of course totally anti-French and anti-UN and anti-Canadian, and certainly against any kind of special treatment for “colored folks” and against any public services for those dusky immigrants who talk in funny languages, and against the public school system and all the rest.  You know, the folks who long for a Christian theocracy to counter the evil folks out in Hollywood – like me.

How did that happen?  Oh, read the book.

But in Friday’s New York Times Thomas Frank has some words on this week’s Senate voting that sunk the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) that would have made same-sex marriages unconstitutional.  The vote was 48-50 as those in favor of the FMA didn’t even get a majority – and, dang, sixty votes were needed, as this was to be a change to the actual Constitution of the United States.  And the 48-50 vote wasn’t even on the amendment – it was on cloture, stopping all the talking and calling an actual vote.  The FMA supporters couldn’t even get a real vote.  DOA - dead on arrive, or alternatively, delusions of adequacy.

The original language in the FMA not only called for the ban on same-sex marriage but also on any kind of “civil unions” too.  The idea was even the legal rights and benefits married people have – in taxes and with contracts and with hospital visits and in inheritance matters – well, that was a very dangerous set of items to allow flaming queens and butch dykes to acquire.  One has to be careful.  That way lies madness.  Or something.

There was a lot of maneuvering and the FMA language was, at the last minute, revised to allow states to grant some sorts of rights in civil unions of same-sex couples (with review and approval by both houses of Congress) – but it was too little too late.

The Federal Marriage Amendment failed.  At least this time.

A defeat for the conservative evangelical Christian Republican and pro-big-business, anti-gay, anti-abortion and of course totally anti-French and anti-UN and anti-Canadian forces.

Mais, non!

Thomas Frank wryly suggests this was in fact a great victory for “the heart of America.”  And the emphases are mine.


... The amendment may have failed as law, but as pseudopopulist theater it was a masterpiece.  Each important element of the culture-war narrative was there.

Consider first its choice of targets: while the Senate's culture warriors denied feeling any hostility to gay people, they made no secret of their disgust with liberal judges, a tiny, arrogant group that believes it knows best in all things and harbors an unfathomable determination to run down American culture and thus made this measure necessary.

Sam Brownback, senator from my home state, Kansas, may have put it best: "Most Americans believe homosexuals have a right to live as they choose.  They do not believe a small group of activists or a tiny judicial elite have a right to redefine marriage and impose a radical social experiment on our entire society."

What's more, according to the outraged senators, these liberal judges were acting according to a plan.  Maybe no one used the term "conspiracy," but Mr. Brownback asserted that the Massachusetts judges who allowed gay marriages to proceed there were merely mouthing a "predetermined outcome"; Orrin Hatch of Utah asserted that "these were not a bunch of random, coincidental legal events"; and Jim Bunning of Kentucky warned how "the liberals, who have no respect for the law" had "plotted out a state-by-state strategy" that they were now carrying out, one domino at a time.

Our age-old folkways, in other words, are today under siege from a cabal of know-it-all elites.

The common people are being trampled by the intellectuals.  This is precisely the same formula that was used, to great effect, in the nasty spat over evolution that Kansans endured in 1999, in which the elitists said to be forcing their views on the unassuming world were biology professors and those scheming paleontologists.

And, as do the partisans of each of these other culture-causes, the proponents of the marriage amendment made soaring, grandiose claims for the significance of the issue they were debating.

While editorialists across the nation tut-tutted and reminded the senators that they had important work they ought to be doing, the senators fired back that in fact they were debating that most important of all possible subjects.  Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who took particular offense at the charges of insignificance, argued that this was a debate about nothing less than "the glue that holds the basic foundational societal unit together."  Wake up, America!

Of course, as everyone pointed out, the whole enterprise was doomed to failure from the start.  It didn't have to be that way; conservatives could have chosen any number of more promising avenues to challenge or limit the Massachusetts ruling.  Instead they went with a constitutional amendment, the one method where failure was absolutely guaranteed - along with front-page coverage.

Then again, what culture war offensive isn't doomed to failure from the start?  Indeed, the inevitability of defeat seems to be a critical element of the melodrama, on issues from school prayer to evolution and even abortion.

Failure on the cultural front serves to magnify the outrage felt by conservative true believers; it mobilizes the base.  Failure sharpens the distinctions between conservatives and liberals.  Failure allows for endless grandstanding without any real-world consequences that might upset more moderate Republicans or the party's all-important corporate wing.  You might even say that grand and garish defeat - especially if accompanied by the ridicule of the sophisticated - is the culture warrior's very object.

Losing is prima facie evidence that the basic conservative claim is true: that the country is run by liberals; that the world is unfair; that the majority is persecuted by a sinister elite.  And that therefore you, my red-state friend, had better get out there and vote as if your civilization depended on it.


Short form?

They lost the vote.  They captured the narrative, and the narrative is far more important.

This is a fight for something very odd – for just who gets to tell the story.

Last weekend in Just Above Sunset you’d find Who gets to tell the story? Narrative Theory. - which you might have thought was about what Ric Erickson saw in Paris when Michael Moore’s film hit town – but actually it suggested Moore’s danger to the news organizations and to the administration was that he was seizing control of the narrative.  He was taking the same facts, and the same available film clips, and building an alternative narrative that showed what no one wanted to admit.

That is just what the FMA supporters did this week.  They lost a meaningless vote, and built a narrative myth of great power - the oppression of the common Christian man by elitist judges and strange gay folks.

Yep, they won.





My friend Ric in Paris had a few words to say on Kansas conservatives - and what he said reminded me of the words of Jon Stewart - "I was feeling really threatened by the idea of gay marriage, until I realized it wasn't being made mandatory."


Ric’s note from Paris?

Bonjour Alan -

It isn't a 'culture' war, it's a 'societal' wrangle.  The boobies want society to force - by law - everybody into boobism.  It is anti-culture, anti-everything, except boobism.

Plus, the boobies would like you to live in the Republic of Paranoia....

Where a minority 'sinister elite' persecutes majority boobies.  Are boobies too stupid to know that they are supposed to defer to their betters - an, the, elite?  What point an 'elite' if the boobies don't knuckle under?  Don't they have any respect?

In France the administration temporarily sacked the mayor for performing a gay marriage.  He's been parked for a few months, but the marriage itself hasn't been annulled yet.


[Covered in these pages here - June 6, 2004: Gay Marriage and Angry Conservatives (but not Bush this time!) - if you want details.]


In any case, the gay couple could have formed a legal union under the existing PACS legislation.  This permits forms of marriage between any couples.  It fills a legal hole for couples who were in limbo.  Some of the legal details aren't as favorable as in 'classic' marriage, but the PACS are an improvement over the previous vacuum.

What your conservatives really need are true stories about 'elite' judges forcing hapless Kanseans into unnatural alliances.  What these might be I leave to your ample imaginations.  Finding an 'elite' judge may be no easy matter though.

It's a scummy trick, trying to make these poor boobies in Kansas fear some abstract 'elite.'  As far as I know, in the United States, everything is about money.  Who makes money out of making boobies paranoid?  Or, are boobies being robbed blind by conservatives, and this is all a distraction?  'We are foreclosing your farm and you can blame it on gay marriage and 'elite' judges 'in Boston'

Where there's smoke there's money.

- poor in Paris, ric


Even from six thousand miles away, one can smell at rat.


Someone is just being used?  Yep.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....