Marriage: A Hill to Die On

April 11, 2009

American Spectator:

Back in the 1970s, William F. Buckley Jr. was invited to debate feminist author Germaine Greer at the Oxford Union, but found that he and Greer were unable to agree on the wording of the resolution to be debated. After a long exchange of trans-Atlantic telegrams, Buckley in exasperation cabled his final proposal: “Resolved: Give ’em an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

In that simple phrase, Buckley summed up a basic truth about the conservative instinct. Over and over, we find ourselves fighting what is essentially a defensive battle against the forces of organized radicalism who insist that “social justice” requires that we grant their latest demand.

We know, however, that their latest demand is never their last demand. Grant the radicals everything they demand today, and tomorrow they will return with new demands that they insist are urgently necessary to satisfy the requirements of social justice.

When they refer to themselves as “progressives,” radicals express their own basic truth: Their method of operation is always to move steadily forward, seeking a progressive series of victories, each new gain exploited to lay the groundwork for the next advance, as the opposition progressively yields terrain. Such is the remorseless aggression of radicalism that conservatives forever find themselves contemplating the latest “progressive” demand and asking, “Is this a hill worth dying on?”

My own instinct is always to answer, “Hell, yes.” Nothing succeeds like success and nothing fails like failure. Ergo, to defeat the radicals in their latest crusade (whatever the crusade may be) is to demoralize and weaken their side, and to embolden and encourage our side. Even to fight and lose is better than conceding without a fight because, after all, give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile.

This explains much about why I disagree with some conservatives who say we should not expend much effort defending traditional marriage against the gay-rights insurgency.

Some conservatives are wholly persuaded by the arguments of same-sex marriage advocates. Others, however, are merely unprincipled cowards and defeatists. Concerned about maintaining their intellectual prestige, some elitists on the Right do not wish to associate themselves with Bible-thumping evangelicals. Or, disparaging the likelihood of successful opposition, they advocate pre-emptive surrender rather than waging a fight that will put conservatism on the losing side of the issue.

Yet if the defense of traditional marriage — an ancient and honorable institution — is not a “hill worth dying on,” what is? In every ballot-box fight to date, voters have supported the one-man, one-woman definition of marriage. As indicated by exit polls in California last fall, this is one issue where the conservative position is widely endorsed by black and Latino voters. Should such a potentially promising political development be abandoned?

Buckley’s “give ’em an inch” response to Greer is instructive in more ways than one. In the 1970s, women’s equality was a cause with even more elite prestige than gay marriage enjoys today. Legalized abortion and no-fault divorce were but two of the specific policy innovations easily won by what was then called the “women’s liberation” movement.

With few exceptions, even most conservatives viewed “women’s lib” as relatively benign. Conservatives were then mainly concerned with fighting Communist aggression — the central uniting principle of Frank Meyer’s “fusionist” coalition — and feminism seems to have struck them as a rather silly domestic distraction from the big game of stopping the Reds. Thus it was that Richard Nixon and others endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment without caveat.

Phyllis Schlafly, however, had a more perceptive understanding of the profound issues involved. The woman who had backed Barry Goldwater in 1964 by insisting that the GOP must offer voters A Choice, Not an Echo saw that in endorsing the ERA, Republicans were once again guilty of echoing liberalism. It was Schlafly who played the key role leading the long battle to prevent ratification of the ERA in state legislatures.

Feminists have never forgiven Schlafly for her success in that cause. Arguably one of the most influential American women of the 20th century, Schlafly has been smeared as a “traitor” to women’s rights and caricatured as a puritanical reactionary seeking to relegate women to second-class citizenship — barefoot, pregnant and toiling in the kitchen.

Schlafly’s opposition to feminist ideology, however, never made her an opponent of women’s freedom or achievement. She worked her way through college during World War II test-firing machine-gun ammo in a munitions plant, and later earned a law degree. Even while raising six children, Schlafly was constantly active in political and civic life, and she mentored many other conservative women leaders. (Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter both extol Schlafly’s example.)

Schlafly discerned that the ERA sought to embed in our Constitution a radical egalitarian ideology alien to our nation’s traditions and contrary to fact. Feminist ideologues insist that men and women are not merely equal in the Lockean sense — having the right to life, liberty and property — but are radically equal in the sense of being inherently identical.

The differences between men and women, according to the egalitarian view, are so trivial that the law must forbid any recognition of such differences, so that the sexes are treated as interchangeable. As I argued in January, it is from a careless acquiescence to this egalitarian falsehood that Americans have been steadily — one might well say “progressively” — marched to the point where the Iowa Supreme Court mandates gay marriage and anyone who questions that ruling is dismissed as an ignorant, hateful bigot suffering from the mental disorder of “homophobia.”

It is only by the activist rulings of judges and other officials, never at the behest of voters, that the radical crusade for same-sex marriage has advanced this far. We know which side the people are on. Even Barack Obama was shrewd enough to declare his opposition to same-sex marriage during the presidential campaign. We have seen voters in 30 states pass constitutional amendments to defend the “one-man, one-woman” definition of marriage, and conservatives in Iowa are now planning efforts to add their state to the list.

Having been given an inch, the radicals now attempt to take a mile. But this is a hill to die on.