Aesthetic Battles Of Left Vs. Right Leave A Sour Taste

Posted: June 29, 1998

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's declaration that homosexuality is a sin, and the elites' appalled reaction to this declaration, illustrate a point: The large fights of American politics these days are not between liberalism and conservatism, but between competing schools of illiberalism.

This is to some degree the result of the American genius for (eventually and often after bloodshed) arriving at consensus answers to the big questions. No one asserts anymore that Jim Crow was not an evil system or that the Soviet Union was not an evil empire, or that 90 percent tax brackets are a good thing or that unhealthy water and air are a necessary attendant to a healthy economy.

This is generally to the good, but it has one unintended consequence: The implosion of politics' old warring factions has allowed once-fringe issues to move to the center. As a result, we are cursed with a politics dominated by the culture wars, a politics defined on both sides by people whose chief conviction is that their fellow Americans aren't quite good enough.

The culture wars are not about conventional politics. They are about the politics of moral aesthetics.

In conventional politics, an opponent is someone who is wrong in his choice of party or on an issue, and this is something that can be argued about. But the politics of moral aesthetics are about taste; and about taste, there is no arguing. An opponent is not just wrong in his views; he is wrong as a person. It is not what he espouses that is appalling; it is the fact of himself.

Lott's remarks were a perfect illustration. He did not say that it was a sin to commit a homosexual act. He said, or seemed to say, in response to an interviewer's question, that being homosexual is in itself a sin.

This is wrong, in the biblical sense. Sin involves the willful commission of a sinful act. So the Bible says sodomy is a sin, and (to stick with the line of sin that interests the majority leader) so are adultery, fornication and masturbation. But the predilection to be susceptible to the desire to commit sodomy (or whatever) is not a sin. It is a state of being human, that is, subject to temptation, in its nearly infinite varieties.

What Lott seems to be saying, then, is that it is not what a person of homosexual inclinations does, or even feels, that is an offense in the sight of God. No, God finds offensive the homosexual's existence. This is the politics of moral aesthetics, and it is not conservatism but illiberalism.

But so too on the other side of the wars, the side that pretends to liberalism. Lott's opponents seized upon his statement with the usual loud expressions of horror, and the mainstream media, overwhelmingly and patently on one side, issued the usual tut-tuts.

The point of this was to attempt to place Lott's words outside the pale of acceptable public utterance. This is how the liberal illiberals always greet any expression of personal belief or prejudice by those who disagree with them.

And it is how they never greet prejudice from their own side. A playwright portrays Jesus as a gay man who engages in sex with a disciple. That is declared to be high art, and anyone who objects to having his religion debased by people who enjoy the fashion of anti-Christian bigotry is treated as a bigot.

How can liberals maintain, without shame, such tolerance for expression of their own prejudices and such intolerance for expression of prejudices from the other side? They can because, in their hearts, they regard people like Lott as Lott seems to regard homosexuals - as wrong not merely in what they say or do but in their state of being.

Their views are not legitimate because they are not legitimate. And they are not legitimate because they are not, really my dear, our sort of people.

Michael Kelly is a senior writer for National Journal.

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