Much of Democratic politics seems to now consist of embracing and fanning similarly comforting, but ultimately deceptive, liberal memes. Enron has fatally damaged Bush, Abu Ghraib has fatally damaged Bush, Katrina has fatally damaged Bush, Abramoff has fatally damaged Bush, the Plame investigation will fatally damage Bush--you can catch the latest allegedly devastating issue every day on Huffington Post or Daily Kos (and frequently in the NYT). If you believe the hype--if you don't compare Michael Moore's box office with Mel Gibson's box office, in effect--you'll believe that Democrats don't need to change to win. They just need to push all these hot memes forcefully. If you don't believe the hype--if you think that netroots Dems are too often like the Iraqi Sunnis who think they're a majority--you'll look for a Bill Clinton-like alternative with greater red-state appeal.
More specifically, if you believe Brokeback Mountain is sweeping the heartland, you won't hesitate before presenting gay marriage as the obvious next step in the evolution of civil right--a step that's already been taken, really, according to Frank Rich. After all, they swooned over Ennis and Jack in Plano, Texas! If you don't buy the Heartland Breakout spin, you'll press the gay marriage issue much more cautiously (and will especially avoid the moralistic, guilt-tripping attitude that allows Republicans to pull off the Democrats-are-the-real-elitists act that Tom Frank writes about in What's the Matter with Kansas.)
Misjudging the depth of cultural antipathy to homosexuality can be costly for political groups aside from Democrats. Did gay activists realize, when they pressed the incoming Clinton administration to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military, that the result would be to formalize an often-oppressive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy? Why, wondered Andrew Sullivan in 2001, do "we seem to be going in reverse"? Which brings us to 3.
3. If the Heartland Breakout Meme is B.S. with respect to Brokeback, it's B.S. for a reason: A big reason gay rights advocates might underestimate the difficulty of their campaigns is that they accept a facile analogy of civil rights for gays with civil rights for racial minorities. Didn't Harry Truman integrate the armed forces by decree? Well, why couldn't Clinton do the same? Answer: Because integrating by sexual orientation isn't the same thing as integrating by race. Sexual orientation involves actual differences in behavior (at least a strong tendency--orientation!--toward such behavioral differences). The military might well have difficulty openly assimilating male soldiers who want to have sex with other men--the culture of many military institutions runs on sublimated hetero impulses (something dramatized effectively in the movie Jarhead, among other places). Marines use the idea of "Jody," the mythical civilian back home who is screwing your girlfriend/wife, to get soldiers committed to battle. The trick might not work so effectively on Marines who are less hot for the women back home than the men in their own units. No doubt other tricks could be developed to motivate gay Marines. The point isn't that gays shouldn't be able to openly serve, but that it's not a simple adjustment to make. Less simple than opening the Marine Corps to all races.
The Brokeback Breakout idea is both a symptom of this oversimplification--after all, why shouldn't the red states embrace the benign modern counterpart of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"--and a cause. If you think the visceral straight male reaction against male homosexual sex has effectively disappeared--look at Plano, etc.--you won't spend a lot of time trying to figure out the possible deep-seated, even innate, sources of resistance to liberalization, and you'll tend to be surprised and baffled by their persistence. At worst, you'll pass them off as sheer redneck bigotry--a proven way to lose the red states for good.
Maybe the truth won't set you free. But B.S. seems even less likely.
**--The Brokeback Heartland Breakout story is similar in this respect to the hardy perennial "Seniors Are the New Peace Corps Workers" story that my old boss, Charles Peters, used to talk about. According to Peters, a former Peace Corps official, reporters are unable to resist the idea that kindly Americans in their sunset years would give something back to the less fortunate overseas. They're probably still writing this story even today. The only problem, Peters says, is that the story isn't true--seniors, by and large, make terrible Peace Corps volunteers. But do you want to be the schmuck who points that out?
Update: Sullivan responds, distinguishes himself from Frank Rich, and makes a good point about "putting love at the core of gay identity, rather than merely sex." ... He's also right, I think, that the movie's not that good! (That doesn't stop him, of course, from condemning as sadly homophobic anyone else who doesn't appreciate the "classic tale of star-crossed lovers.") ... Reader E., echoing another Sullivan argument, says I
underestimate the difficulties in integrating the races back in the day. Racial riots in the military were not uncommon in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I remember being trained as a junior officer back in the 1990s how to deal with and respond to racial riots, should one occur.
I seriously doubt there would be nearly as many anti-homosexual riots in today's military, should it be openly integrated (remember it is de facto integrated in many units already). To that extent, integrating homosexuals would actually be easier than integrating the races in the military.
1:31 A.M. link