Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005
I haven't said anything about France.
I haven't said anything about Murtha.
If I don't say something about Sharon, I should probably shut down this blog.

Sharon's new party is currently polling as if it is going to win the next election. There would be more reason to doubt this if there were a plausible alternative party that could win. But I do not think Sharon's party will outlast his next premiership, if there is a next premiership.

Why do I say this? Well, Israel has a history of centrist parties that make a big splash and vanish without a trace. Moshe Dayan pulled a similar stunt decades ago, as did Yitzhak Mordechai in 1999. Why should this instance be different? Yes, in this case the sitting Prime Minister left to form a new party, and took much of the old party's leadership with him; that's very different. But Sharon is very old. Without him, what?

What does the new party stand for, other than a "responsible" stance with regard to the Palestinians (which, I suppose, should be interpreted as staging an orderly, fighting retreat to defensible borders, hopefully in the context of a diplomatic agreement but if not, not)? Does it have a coherent economic policy? A stance on religious questions? Views on governmental reform? Why did Sharon leave Likud - because of corruption in the central committee? We're talking about Sharon here, remember.

Historically, Labor was a socialist party, a pragmatic-nationalist party, and a secularist party. Over the last 15 years Labor drifted to the right on economic matters, becoming a "Third Way" party on these issues, and left on national and security issues, flirting with post-nationalism and appearing soft on terrorism. It consequently lost any chance of returning to majority, or even plurality, status in Israel. Amir Peretz appears to be taking the party back to the past - he's far to the left on economic matters compared with where Labor has recently been, and while he's historically been a dove he notably did not leave Labor to join Meretz when the option presented itself, and he's arguably not far at all from where the Israeli center is right now on security and national questions.

Likud, meanwhile, was historically a liberal party, an ideological-nationalist party, and a centrist party on religious questions - it had no religious agenda per se but was more congenial to religious Jews than Labor was. Sharon, though, has precious few economically liberal credentials (I'm using the word in the European sense) - in fact, Sharon knows virtually nothing about economics and cares less. Netanyahu was the authentic liberal. Sharon, as well, while always supremely hawkish and unilateralist, was never an ideological nationalist in the sense that he never believed in the "Land of Israel" ideology of Jabotinsky's heirs, of the Irgun, of Menachem Begin. Sharon has left behind in Likud the most committed economic liberals and all the committed ideological nationalists. How, precisely, does his new party differ, in any important way, from its opposition?

And let's not forget the other potential governing party in the Israeli center: Shinui, which is economically liberal, pragmatic-nationalist, and profoundly secularist - secularism is their religion. Tommy Lapid very nearly outpolled Labor in the last election, and if Israel is really turning inward now that the Gaza withdrawal is done, who's to say there aren't a lot of Ashkenazim and Russians who wouldn't prefer to vote for Sharon's presumptive coalition partner than for Sharon?

My point is: you now have three major parties with views on security and the national question that are not notably distinct - and these are the issues that have most profoundly divided Israel for a generation if not for longer. That's not tenable. Which is why I have a hard time picturing all three parties surviving for any length of time. And Sharon's new party has got to be counted the most vulnerable to collapse, because its appeal is primarily the trust that Israelis have in its founder - to lead the country on the most important questions, and not be hostage to ideology or narrow interest. That trust does not extend far beyond Sharon himself, if it extends at all. And Sharon is very old.

It will be interesting to see what happens on the fringes. On the Left, Meretz needs to come up with a compelling reason to exist. An economic leftist can vote for Peretz rather than Meretz; a secularist ideologue can vote for Lapid. It seems to me Meretz will have to distinguish itself on the question of dealing with the Palestinians or other "peace" issues - but it's not clear how much space there is to the left of the "consensus" on these questions. Meretz has historically been the source of "vanguard" ideas on the left that slowly propagate into the Labor "mainstream" - but until we know what is to become of Labor, it's hard to know whether that ecological niche is going to be available long-term.

On the Right, meanwhile, there are now three parties of stature who opposed the Gaza pullout: National Union, the National Religious Party, and what's left of Likud under Netanyahu. Likud has a very short time in which to prove that it is either something other than a clone of National Union or that it is capable of absorbing National Union. And then there's Shas, which had drifted very far to the Right on national and security questions but has recently tried to correct this. These three parties (apart from the NRP) will be jockeying for leadership of the right-wing opposition to the next government. (If Sharon loses the next election, his party will probably dissolve, and if he wins, he'll almost certainly govern in coalition with Shinui and without any of the parties to his Right.) I think it's unlikely, but it's not inconceivable that a strong and united bloc on the Right makes it impossible for *anyone* to form a government other than a grand "national unity" coalition such as just recently collapsed. Such coalitions are inherently unstable, and so a successful consolidation on the Right would further accentuate the proverbial instability of the Israeli political system.

That political system is in profound need of reform. The parties are corrupt, MKs and even Ministers have no loyalty or honor, the Supreme Court is lawless, and basic disagreements between Israelis about the fundamentals of their country's political system are magnified by that system rather than brought to some kind of reasonable compromise. This has got to change. I hate to say this, but Sharon's pet project - making the Prime Minister into something more like a President, relatively independent of the legislature - is probably a good idea, but only if the legislature itself is reformed so it can act as a reasonable counterweight to the Prime Minister and does not become even more factionalized and dysfunctional than it is now. And that is, unfortunately, profoundly unlikely.

Thursday, November 17, 2005
Apparently, an old piece of mine on same-sex marriage is getting passed around two and a half years after I wrote it. So I guess I should revisit it for the sake of those who are coming to this blog through it for the first time.

First of all, having read through the post again, there are some things I still agree with and some things I'd back off from, plus some wording I'd change.

What do I still agree with? That marriage, to serve its social function, must be a social norm, not a lifestyle choice, and that marriage is unlikely to become a same-sex norm. And that women and men are equal but different, and that same-sex marriage would make it that much harder to speak about marriage in terms of the complementarity of the sexes and the nature of masculinity.

What do I no longer really agree with? Well, I think my last point is kind of a non-sequitur. It's true: marriage is not only about romantic love; probably, it's not even primarily about romantic love. But upon reflection, I'm not convinced this has anything to do with the same-sex marriage debate. More importantly, I think my first argument - about marriage being a social norm - cuts both ways. If the alternative to same-sex marriage is "marriage lite" for both hetero- and homosexual couples, then arguably same-sex marriage would do less harm to the norm. This is certainly at the core of Jonathan Rauch's argument. In the abstract, I think it's certainly true that a world in which this debate wasn't happening would be a world in which the marriage culture was stronger than ours is. Concretely, it's no longer obvious to me what is the least-damaging path out of our current dilemma.

Finally, I'm increasingly convinced that, politically, conservative leaders are "using" marriage rather than seriously trying to protect it. This is a pattern oft observed with "social issues" from school prayer to abortion. I don't want to be a part of that process.

I think there are broadly speaking six ways to approach the question of how the state should relate to gay couples.

(1) The state can anathematize homosexuality, full stop. I view that as unjust.

(2) The state can take a "don't ask/don't tell" approach, doing nothing to anathematize homosexuality but also nothing to recognize gay couples in any way analogous to the way marriages are recognized. Even if optimal in the abstract, I don't think such a position is tenable, and I am not convinced it is optimal in the abstract.

(3) The state can take a libertarian view of social relations generally, and withdraw public recognition of marriage as such. I think such a position would be highly destructive of the marriage culture and, at least as important, of our common culture generally, and accelerate the balkanization of our society.

(4) The state can adopt a "continuum" approach to marriage, recognizing various kinds of "marriage-lite" arrangements like benefits for domestic partners, joint adoptions by non-married couples, partial custody rights for "third parents" and so forth, while also retaining recognition for some kind of more stringent "traditional" marriage. This is the direction we have actually been headed in practice, and while it has alleviated some of the problems of gay couples it has done so at a serious cost to the marriage culture, and hence to our social fabric and the well-being of children. Some advocates of same-sex marriage, notably Jonathan Rauch, largely agree with this critique; so, obviously, so most opponents of same-sex marriage from the Right, notably David Frum. At least one conservative opponent of same-sex marriage - John O'Sullivan - advocated a variation on the idea of a marriage "continuum" as the solution to our dilemma. My response to his idea is here, and his follow-up (responding to me in passing) is here.

(5) The state can redefine marriage to mean an exclusive partnership, intended to be life-long, between any two individuals regardless of their biological sex. That's what advocating "same-sex marriage" means. My principal objections to this stand. That's not what marriage means, nor ever has meant, because the complementarity between men and women is at the heart of the meaning of marriage. Marriage has changed an awful lot over the centuries, and we in the West have ultimately repudiated the polygamy and consequent second-class status for women that were central to marriage for its first few thousand years as a legal institution. But the proposed redefinition would be, essentially, a linguistic falsehood. For that reason, I fear that it would have the practical consequences I identify in my original piece: because it would make the traditional language of marriage relating to complementarity of the sexes appear to be nonsensical, it would make it that much harder for men and women to learn how to relate to one another, and form stable marriages. And because it would have advanced under the banner of rights such a reform would implicitly concede that marriage is a choice rather than a norm - a choice we all have a right to make but, by the same token, the right not to make if we prefer to live otherwise.

(6) The state can recognize a new institution, call it what you will, exclusively for same-sex couples, that would have many - perhaps even all, if that's what people wish to vote for - of the rights and responsibilities of marriage. The public debate would be over which rights and responsibilities associated with marriage should be extended to this institution, along with the various presumptions associated with marriage. There would be many ways in which the institutions would be parallel, other ways in which they would not be (for example, the "marriage veil" could not logically be extended to gay male couples). I outline a bit of what this would mean in this post explaining why I oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment. In effect, creating such a parallel institution would mean legally recognizing gay people as a "third gender" rather than formalizing legal androgyny as option #5 would do.

Once upon a time, I favored option #5. I shifted over time to favor option #6. I shifted in part because of serious thinking on my own part about what marriage meant, which led me to the conclusions in my post from two and a half years ago. I also shifted in part because of serious meditation on the gay couples I know, and how their narratives are different from the heterosexual narrative, and my increasing conviction that the greater and greater acceptance of gays as part of the social fabric - an entirely welcome development - won't change the ways in which gays and straights are innately different. And I think our social institutions should be cognizant of difference as well as equality.

In the last year, though, I've been reconsidering whether option #6 is really optimal, even though I still think my main objections to option #5 stand. Why have I been reconsidering? For a few reasons.

First, I think I underestimated the threat posed by legal recognition in the West of traditional polygamy from the Muslim world. I now view that as a very likely event across the West - least likely here and most likely in Canada and Scandinavia, but more likely than not everywhere. I view this eventuality as disastrous. How does the same-sex marriage debate play into this question?

Most opponents of same-sex marriage think that it's the next step on a slippery-slope to polygamy. I'm beginning to think they are wrong. Rather, I think the "continuum" approach - option #4 above - is the most likely to lead to public recognition of polygamy, which would be presented (along with polyamory - a rather different thing) as just another part of the continuum, and a highly traditional one at that. So the question, in my mind, is: what is the most likely route off the train we're on right now, which is option #4. My option #6 - recognition of same-sex relationships as a separate category from marriage - seems at least as likely to leave the door open to recognition of Muslim polygamy as does option #5, redefining companionate marriage androgynously, if not more so.

Second, while I may think that our social institutions should be cognizant of difference as well as equality, that is not the tenor of the times. Rather, we live in an era when the hegemonic paradigm abhors difference - the constant paens to "diversity" are actually evidence of this. So, realistically, it's very hard to see the position I favor winning the kind of support necessary to become law. Rather, it's much more likely that folks like myself will be lumped together with other people "in the middle" and provide the bulk political support for a compromise more along the lines of option #4 - some kind of civil-unions or "marriage-lite" law open to same-sex or heterosexual couples, with some of the rights and responsibilities of marriage but not all. That certainly seems to be the preferred outcome in most of the bluer of the blue states, and that preference is likely to spread. Given my concerns about option #4, I can't be sanguine about this outcome.

Finally, as I said, I feel like the advocates for marriage are being used by the political process, that "gay marriage" is becoming a wedge issue rather than a serious topic, and is eclipsing the serious questions about marriage. We are talking about the non-existent "threat" from gay couples instead of talking about the real damage caused by no-fault divorce. Critics of mine such as Justin Katz have argued, in a nutshell, that advocates for a more robust marriage culture need to focus on stopping same-sex marriage because that's (a) a popular cause, and (b) a negative trend that has to be reversed before a positive trend can be started. I can't get on that train. I can't tell a lesbian couple with children that I oppose any effort to publicly recognize their relationship because fighting them is the only way to get other straight people's attention, and that I hope, some day, to use that attention to focus on the actual problems of marriage. That's simply not just. I point you to this piece of mine, particularly the last four paragraphs (though I would suggest reading the whole thing to get sufficient context).

So where does that leave me? Well, not in a very different place than I was before. I still think same-sex marriage is a linguistic error, and a bad idea legislatively. I still think the FMA is inappropriate for the Constitution and would have negative unintended consequences, and I would oppose its passage. So I guess was I thought before was a bad idea I still think is a bad idea, but I'm less sure than I was of what would be a *good* idea. Which is probably a good reason to take a rest from an issue and stop talking about it for a while. Which is what I did for about a year, and intend to do again.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
I cannot follow you where you're going here, Ross, and not only because I'm not a Christian. *All* successful literature is true - that's why it is successful: because it is truer than what is real. (Realist fiction is the special case that achieves its success by creating a fiction that is *realer* than what is real.) Allegory weakens fiction because it points outside to something truer than itself *by definition* - because that's what an allegory is. (By the same token, realism has failed when it reminds you of reality; it has succeeded when reality reminds you of *it*.) Tolkien is right: the allegory weakens the Narnia books, because it *has* to.

Now, that doesn't mean allegory is a bad thing per se. As a tool of philosophy, or theology, allegory is extremely useful, because it lends to those disciplines many of fiction's strengths. Allegorical stories make some of the best sermons. But they don't make the best stories.

And it is perfectly possible to construct Christian fairy tales that are *not* allegorical, but rather operate within a Christian framework. We know this because Hans Christian Andersen achieved exactly that. The Snow Queen is a whole lot better than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and one reason why (though not the only one) is that Andersen's fable, while making use of even more explicitly Christian content, is not the simplistic allegory that Lewis' is.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Some brief clarifications, and then I really want to drop the Supreme Court for a while.

First, I overstated when I said business groups got "nothing" from Alito. Clearly, he's been pretty favorably inclined to business on employment law issues, and to some extent on shareholder suits. What I meant was: he's not someone who brings a depth of experience in corporate law to the table. He's not the go-to guy on, say, anti-trust. Business groups clearly wanted someone with that kind of background, and they didn't get it. But Alito is not someone they would actively *dislike* - just not their first choice.

Second, I am more sure than I was yesterday that Alito will be confirmed without difficulty, because the smart guys in the Democratic camp are coming out, basically, in favor - see, for example, the latest New Republic online, with basically positive pieces by Akiba Covitz (arguing Alito differs from Scalia in background and, more importantly, temperament), Cass Sunstein (arguing that Alito is basically deferential to established institutions, and does not have a radical revisionist plan for the law), and Mark Tushnet (arguing that we don't really know whether Alito will be as deferential to the Executive as is currently assumed, and that anyhow it doesn't matter much because the courts are poorly placed to check the Executive; that's Congress's job).

What's my impression, personally? I think he's kind of boring, which, personally, I don't love, because I like things to be interesting, but rationally, boring is exactly what you want on the Court. I'm a bit disappointed that Bush picked someone so similar to Roberts in so many ways; I liked Roberts a lot, but I think the "portfolio approach" to the Court has some merits, and here we have another careerist judge with impeccable credentials. He also strikes me as very much a prosecutor - again, not necessarily a bad thing, but just a comment. I think Sunstein is right that he's in no way a libertarian, and I think that's all to the good; the Constitution is not a libertarian tract, whatever Anthony Kennedy and Janice Rogers Brown, each in their very different ways, might think.

Needless to say, he deserves to be confirmed, and quickly.