How (Not) to Change Your Mind

The most popular post I’ve ever written here is my “Practical View of Gay Marriage” at the end of April. I argued that legalized same-sex marriage in the US is now inevitable, and for conservative pundits to continue opposing it is foolish and short-sighted, whatever their actual beliefs.

Shortly after I wrote that, President Obama publicly reversed his position on gay marriage. Lucky timing, but it reinforced the trend I was describing.

Today there’s a new minor scandal brewing, after the conservative magazine Commentary fired its literary critic, D.G. Myers, allegedly for this post arguing that conservatives should drop their opposition to gay marriage. John Podhoretz, Myers’ editor, denies the charge, and in doing so he becomes the latest prominent conservative to come out in favor of gay marriage. Actually, he says that he already came out in favor of gay marriage in this piece that he wrote shortly after Obama’s change of position.

I’ve read that piece twice, and I can’t find the part where he says that he’s changed his personal views in any way at all. He seems to be saying what I did — that it’s a lost cause — although he does so in such vague and flowery language that it’s hard to be sure of even that:

Faith traditions and august institutions that had been designed to uphold the age-old pillars of society grew besotted with the possibilities of wholesale social change. By confusing their own fashionable politics with timeless truths, they ceased speaking with authority.

First of all, what exactly does this even mean? And second, what does he think about it? What Podhoretz did here is a master class in evasion. For readers to his right who are still anti-gay marriage, this piece can be read as pure pragmatism: “I’m still with you, but we’ve lost the fight, so let’s make the best of it.” But it’s also the kind of thing he can point to later and say “See? I’m in favor of gay marriage too.”

One of the few clear and direct sections of that piece is here:

Everybody knew Obama was lying in 2008 when he said he was opposed to gay marriage. He was given a pass by gay advocates because they knew he was on their side and they also knew open advocacy of their cause might harm his bid for the presidency. Now, for reasons that surely include the need to loosen some purse strings he found surprisingly hard to open this year, Obama has stopped lying for political gain and instead has told the truth for political gain.

Yes, exactly. And the corollary is that if you are sincerely against gay marriage, you will soon stop telling the truth for political gain and instead start lying for political gain and saying you’ve changed your mind. Or if you’re just indifferent to the subject (as I suspect of Podhoretz) you’re about to stop telling one lie for political gain and start telling the opposite lie. If you’re savvy, you can stall for a bit with a piece like this one. But not forever. It’s only five months since that piece, and today he’s already had to come out more directly in favor of gay marriage. He insist that Myers is lying about this being the issue that got him fired, but even if that’s true, it proves my original point. Opposition to gay marriage is rapidly becoming an embarrassing position to hold, so it’s just the kind of thing people will tag you with if you’re at all vulnerable to it. So if you’ve publicly criticized gay marriage and you want to avoid this, you will have to publicly and explicitly change your mind. You can’t have it both ways.

What does Podhoretz really believe in his heart on the subject? I don’t really care, and I can’t imagine why anyone would. As a political movement, opposition to gay marriage is dying faster than any other I can think of. What’s bizarre to me is all the individuals choosing to cling to that sinking ship. As I wrote then:

…it’s amazing to me that so many smart people are unable to see the writing on the wall and get themselves ahead of this issue. Take this NYT column by Ross Douthat, a young and relatively moderate conservative pundit, in which he rejects almost every rationale for opposing gay marriage but still finds his own complex reason to object to it. I don’t know why he would write a column like this, but I do know that one day he’ll be embarrassed that he did. Actually, in some ways this kind of qualified intellectual defense of prejudice is harder to live down than just the crude prejudice on its own.

Looking again at Douthat’s piece, which appeared back in 2010, I think he prefigured Podhoretz in burying his own views in so many qualifications and conciliatory gestures that it would be as easy as possible to publicly “change his mind” in the future. But he’s stuck to his guns so far, still describing himself as a “gay marriage skeptic” — although when it comes to why, he plays the “I’m asking questions” game. Here’s Douthat on a recent “study” showing that kids in “traditional” marriages turn out better:

Same-sex marriage is a social experiment, and like most experiments it will take time to understand its consequences. We don’t know how relationship norms and expectations will evolve in the gay community – where the ongoing Dan Savage-style debates about monogamy and fidelity will lead, for instance, or how closely same-sex marriage will be associated with childrearing. We don’t know how plausible Saletan’s vision of wedlock and parenting running on parallel tracks for gays and straights really is. And the near-universal liberal optimism on the subject notwithstanding, we don’t really know how straight culture will be influenced on the long run by the final, formal severing of marriage from procreation. If gay marriage gains ground on its current trajectory – state by state, steadily but still somewhat gradually, driven mostly by generational change – then there will be time to watch these trends and debate their implications. But if the Supreme Court (that is, Anthony Kennedy) simple nationalizes gay marriage, there will be no room for debate and no chance for any reconsiderations.

Compare to Eric Cartman as a Glenn Beck-like student politician on South Park:

Stan: I looked through your stupid book! It’s five hundred and forty pages of ripping on Wendy and calling her a slut!

Cartman: I do not directly say she’s a slut!

Stan (reading aloud): “Wendy Testaburger has proven time and time again that she will do anything to pleasure her vagina. Whether it is the school football team or the janitors on their break, Wendy spends her time as president on her knees or on her back taking the old in-out for hours on end”!

Cartman: You didn’t read the rest, dude.

Stan: “Or does she?”

Cartman: “Or does she?” See, that’s a question. I’m asking questions, Stan!

As the thinking man’s Cartman, Douthat may believe it’s safer to “ask questions” about whether gay people are good parents than to come out and say that he doesn’t believe they are. But it’s not safe enough. I will double down on my original prediction: within the next ten years, Douthat will publicly reverse himself on this issue and disavow these “questions” and concerns. I’d bet money on it. Email me if you want to take that bet.

Of course, to Douthat and many others, I probably sound like part of the exact “problem” he’s decrying, that gay marriage supporters have “framed the debate” as a black-and-white moral question and we’re being intolerant of thoughtful truth-seekers like him. Actually, it was his own party that framed the debate that way — it’s just that they lost. And he clearly knows why:

If gay marriage is simply a basic natural right, of course — the formal legal expression of our right to love as we wish — it shouldn’t be up for reconsideration under any circumstances. This is a widespread view of wedlock, and it may already be the dominant one. But…

Do you really care what comes after that “but”? I know I don’t. As with Podhoretz, I’m skeptical that Douthat really believes his own rhetoric here, but I also don’t think it matters. At this point, like Cartman, he’s just trolling us.

And for other social conservatives, my original advice holds: you are almost certainly going to drop this issue, whether you think so now or not. And if you’re a mainstream political writer who’s taken a public position on it, and you want to stay in the mainstream, you’re almost certainly going to reverse that position. Don’t be cute about it and draw out the process. You’ll retain a lot more credibility with your readers if you just get it over with now.