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On fanaticism

Andrew Sullivan, as staunch a proponent of gay marriage as has every picked up a keyboard, denounced the jihad against former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

The broad outline of his criticism is well-taken: people who spent their lives complaining about how they were forced into a closet shouldn’t be forcing people into closets.  No one should be surprised by the fanaticism Sullivan denounces; for one thing, it follows the usual pattern of fanaticism and vengeance that occurs when most revolutionary movements gain power.  Fortunately, our guillotines are digital in the modern United States, and when we talk about “heads rolling,” we mean people losing their jobs.

This is a topic we should be having a robust debate about, with plenty of room to respect dissent.  It shouldn’t be a battle royale between opposing groups of fanatics, with the louder and more aggressive group carrying the day.  There is good reason to be suspicious of those who think the debate will be “settled” by intimidating the other side into silence.  

Personally, I think re-defining marriage is a bad idea, and it’s unsettling to watch the most reasonable arguments I heard in favor of it, four or five years ago, get trampled into the dirt by the fanatics.  (“No, there’s no way people will be forced to participate in gay marriages!  It will never compromise anyone’s religious liberty!  No damage will be done to the esteem of traditional marriage!”)  But if it’s something our society truly want to do, as expressed through the often slow and difficult machinery of the democratic process, then so be it.  Unfortunately, that’s not really what I see happening.  It’s all being done in a lightning-fast rush of intoxicating fanaticism – everyone who disagrees with us is a non-person who should be hounded from the public square!  A great deal of this change has been imposed by judicial fiat, rather than being ratified through the democratic process.  Our society is not changing; it’s getting beaten into a new shape.

To return to Andrew Sullivan: when, exactly, has the “religious right” done anything like this?  He’s comparing the gay marriage movement to his dark fantasies about what he thinks organized religion would like to do, if they had the power.  How far back into history must we dig to find anything comparable to the Eich purge that could be pinned on mainstream religious organizations?  (When Sullivan fulminates against the “religious right,” he’s not talking about fringe kooks like the Westboro Baptist Church, which has no place in any rational left-right paradigm anyway.)

Remember, Eich wasn’t even pushed out for anything he said – his fate was sealed by a five-year-old, thousand-dollar donation that was made public by the media two years ago.  It didn’t even become a crisis until Eich became the CEO of the company he co-founded.  Some of the people who hung him out to dry have admitted they didn’t know about his opposition to same-sex marriage until they read about his Prop 8 donation in the L.A. Times, so it’s clearly not a subject the man just couldn’t shut up about.  

There was surely a time when society made it difficult for gay people to come out, without damage to their careers, particularly if those careers involved a high public profile.  How long ago can that era be fairly said to have ended- twenty years?  Thirty?  At any rate, those conditions did not exist because a small but powerful group of “religious right” fanatics were patrolling society as morality enforcers; it was an attitude held by society at large, and it changed.  There’s precious little about the religious right of the past generation or two that can be fairly compared to what the brownshirts just did to Brendan Eich.

Update: Speaking of the Westboro Baptist Church, Andrew Klavan playfully suggests sentencing the witch-burners who persecuted Eich to spend eternity in Hell in a room with recently departed WBC founder Fred Phelps.  That would make for an interesting update to Sartre’s “No Exit,” which Klavan references.

Klavan also says “gay people are among the nicest, most civilized and broad-minded folks I know,” praises them for their senses of humor, and suggests “most of them, like any civilized person gay or straight, would be disgusted and horrified” by what was done to Brendan Eich.  

Really?  They’d better speak up, then.  Which nice and civilized gay people have spoken up in defense of Eich, or expressed disgust and horror with the brownshirts who forced him out?  Andrew Sullivan, and who else?  

This is not a moment for quiet clucking of the tongue in mild disapproval; the only way to shut down this mob is to denounce them loudly, in the strongest possible terms.  Ideally, the scalp they claimed from Eich would be taken from their hands, perhaps by naming him to a prominent position with a different tech company.  I can’t remember who it was, but I recall someone suggesting that a prominent gay business leader should make a big show of hiring Eich, to deliver a strong lesson in the true nature of “tolerance.”  That would be an awe-inspiring act of American patriotism.  What are the odds of it happening?


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