Monday, October 6, 2008

"Liberal Democrat" Identity Politics

You may have heard of marriage defender David Blankenhorn. A while ago, I reviewed his anti-gay marriage tome The Future of Marriage. Recently, he wrote an op-ed piece in the LA Times opposing marriage equality.

Now, I have respect for Blankenhorn because in his zeal to "defend" marriage he doesn't demonize gay men and lesbians in the process. In fact, unlike many on his side, he goes so far as saying things like "I reject homophobia and believe in the equal dignity of gay and lesbian love." Such a sentiment is commendable and appreciated.

Yet, I do question his often-use tactic of irrelevantly stating his alleged identity as a "liberal Democrat" in his anti-marriage equality pieces. For instance, he begins his LA Times op-ed by saying:

"I’m a liberal Democrat. And I do not favor same-sex marriage. Do those positions sound contradictory? To me, they fit together."

Now, Blankenhorn may very well be a liberal Democrat. But the way I see it is that this constant mentioning of his identity is nothing more than an attempt to appeal to the LGBT community's natural liberal Democrat allies. In a sense, he's attempting to make it morally okay and justifiable for other liberals to support a fundamentally un-liberal position.

Furthermore, this extra-special glimpse into Blankenhorn's identity is simply irrelevant to the legitimacy of his position on same-sex marriage. A person's arguments for or against same-sex marriage should be focused on the pros and cons of same-sex marriage, not on the arguer's political identity or label. After all, most of us are more than our political ideology. We may be Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians or Greens, but very few of us support the entire platforms of our respective parties 100%. That Blankenhorn happens to identify as a "liberal Democrat" who opposes marriage equality is unique inasmuch as it's also "unique" for a liberal Democrat to favor the death penalty or conservative Republican to be pro-choice. Blankenhorn's position goes against the "party line" but it certainly doesn't make him any more "right" about it than a conservative "Republican" who also opposes marriage equality.

In short, don't tell us who you are. Tell us why your position is correct.

All that being said, there is, substantively, much to take issue with in Blankenhorn's op-ed. Once you get beyond the "liberal Democrat" label he's given himself, he's basically recycled the same faulty arguments against marriage equality that he made in The Future of Marriage (that I've previously addressed in my review of his book).

What I've noticed is that Blankenhorn over-relies on his "liberal Democrat" cred and seems to overestimate both his competence and the authority of his opinion when it comes to the marriage debate. For instance, in his book he conveniently-but-not-convincingly dismisses historian Stephanie Coontz's extensively-researched book (Marriage, A History, which I also read) by simply saying that her tome was "superficial and unsatisfying" without, you know, actually explaining what was so "superficial and unsatisfying" about it. Perhaps those who already agree with Blankenhorn about all this would find such a denouncement satisfying, but the rest of us were left wishing he would support such bold statements with reasons, evidence, and facts.

His op-ed piece had a similar tone. While the central claim of many marriage defenders, Blankenhorn included, is that marriage exists for the purpose of a man and woman to raise their biological children together the central claim of many marriage equality advocates is that marriage is a private relationship between two people. Blankenhorn begins his denial of the marriage equality advocate's position by saying "...I spent a year studying the history and anthropology of marriage, and I’ve come to a different conclusion." Okay. Wow, he studied marriage for a whole year! That's neat-o and all but, again, some of us are left asking how that minimal amount of time studying marriage gives him more authority than actual historians and anthropologists.

As a general rule, the arguer should try not to get in the way of his or her arguments. Yet, Blankenhorn often clumsily inserts himself and his self-described identity and "expertise" into his arguments. When a writer does this, we should always be asking why he or she is doing so. As John B. Eisenberg wrote in an op-ed response that Blankenhorn "makes his op-ed foremost about his political profile, inviting scrutiny of who he claims to be." And, when politically-motivated people opportunistically play identity politics and make their arguments be about themselves, their identities become fair game for scrutiny (see, eg, Sarah Palin). Accordingly, all "liberal Democrat" readers of Blankenhorn's op-ed piece, I am sure, would be very interested to know why a self-proclaimed "liberal Democrat" and his alleged "non-partisan" think-tank would be funded by ultra-conservative Republican groups that have given him millions of dollars over the years. That sort of info makes one question what Blankenhorn's definitions of "liberal Democrat" and "non-partisan" are and why he is trying to present that image to the public..

Frankly, I don't care what David Blankenhorn's politics are. It shouldn't be an issue. When I become interested in someone's identity politics is when I see him opportunistically using the "liberal Democrat" card when the evidence suggests that the label is not an accurate reflection of reality. It makes me think that maybe that person is shouting his political identity from the rooftops hoping that no one will notice that his position and arguments are fundamentally conservative ones.

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