In 1990, Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt challenged incumbent Senator Jesse Helms for the Senate in North Carolina. Gantt sought the endorsement of perhaps America’s most famous Tarheel, NBA superstar Michael Jordan. But Jordan, early in the stages of building what would become the first global sports-entertainment brand based on an individual, shrugged off the opportunity, noting glibly, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
That would never happen today. Though most athletes still prefer a safe spot on the bench in policy bouts, very few challenge prevailing cultural or political ideologies. Some even see embracing those issues as a smart career choice. Consider NBA journeyman Jason Collins. At the end of a mediocre career and not affiliated with any team, the revelation of his homosexuality landed him the cover of Sports Illustrated and made him the topic of talk radio shows nationwide. Compare that success to the condemnation of NBA commentator Chris Broussard, who—when asked about Collins’s Christian faith—respectfully articulated the biblical position on human sexuality.
Celebrity endorsements help policy advocates too. Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo played major roles in advancing the same-sex marriage causes in Minnesota and Maryland in 2012.
And political influence isn’t limited to sports stars, as we know all too well. Actress Eva Longoria co-chaired President Obama’s reelection effort, leading a long list of Hollywood A-teamers that includes Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jessica Alba, George Clooney, and Natalie Portman. And prime-time shows like Modern Family and The Office serve as humorous, lovable vehicles for liberal values as well.
The two-way street between celebrity and policy is evidence of the most significant culture shift since the invention of the printing press. In light of recent IRS and NSA scandals, many are warning that Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian state is upon us.
They are wrong.
As the media ecologist Neil Postman foresaw in his classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, ours is Huxley’s dystopian future, a Brave New World in which the people are not taken by force, but controlled through the willing surrender of their liberty in return for soothing pleasures. (Don’t worry, Orwell fans, the fifteenth season of Big Brother premieres June 26 on CBS.)
The technological-internet revolution began a new era of entertainment in which everything is a commodity. We are no longer a nation of ideas. Policies are products; people are brands. We pay no attention to intellectual boxing matches such as those between Lincoln and Douglas, or Hayek and Keynes. Instead we have beauty pageants in which contestants primp and pose for the affections of the audience voting from home.
No issue demonstrates this more than marriage.
Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George recently wrote a masterful defense of what marriage is and why it matters. It is no exaggeration to say that their argument is the intellectual foundation for marriage advocates, used by the National Organization for Marriage, the Heritage Foundation, and others (including my own Manhattan Declaration).
What did the same-sex marriage movement do with this seminal book? They ignored it.
They don’t have answers to the authors’ claims; they don’t need them. Advocates of same-sex marriage aren’t concerned about the logic of their arguments or the precedents they establish. Forget facts; theirs is a more powerful weapon in the era of amusement: fad.
On a recent visit to the veterinarian I noticed a gentleman holding a leash emblazoned with the Human Rights Campaign logo. You know the one: two yellow lines form an equal-sign on a field of blue. I thought a leash an odd place to lobby for one’s political preferences, so I visited the HRC.com store to see what other products an enthusiastic supporter of marriage redefinition might buy. Here’s what I found (ready?):
T-shirts, hoodies, key chains, bracelets, necklaces, cuff links, Frisbees, mugs, tumblers, luggage tags, windbreakers, picture frames, baby bibs, rings, sunglasses, candles, magnets, calculators, blankets, beach towels, stuffed animals, pens, staplers, watches, pins, mittens, earmuffs, scarves, and—my favorite—the equality doggy poop bag holder.
This is really weird, until we understand what the Human Rights Campaign understands. The fate of their movement doesn’t depend on convincing a majority of Americans that they have the best ideas; it hinges upon convincing them that they can either be an “insider” or an “outsider.” They can be on the side of justice and equality, or hate and oppression; to their grandchildren, they can be George Washington or George Wallace.
This is the same force that drives standard consumer marketing. You don’t buy a Louis Vuitton bag because you’ve made a judicious evaluation of the quality of the leather; you buy it because you want to be the kind of person who buys Louis Vuitton.
What are marriage advocates to do? How can marriage—a thorough defense of which requires deep theological reflection or the complex natural law web of anthropological, historical, social, and scientific ideas contained in What is Marriage—compete with “all you need is love”?
More broadly, how can conservatism—whose rich intellectual foundation includes philosophers such as James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith—win in an age when Glee and Lady Gaga carry the real cultural heft?
Here’s what we must not do: sacrifice our principles. Better to lose a thousand elections than win in sycophantic appeals to the lowest common denominator. Christians, at least, can rely on the long view of God’s redemptive story. We have already read the final page of human history; we know how the story ends. How utterly meaningless is the next election cycle viewed from this perspective?
Until that final chapter comes to pass, the responsibility is ours to be active in the present. And since we aren’t about to gain a slew of celebrity endorsements, we have to make ourselves and our ideas as attractive to the “persuadables” as possible. Forget beating the entrenched opposition. When we debate in the public square and in social media, our goal should be to win those silent observers whose commitments are shallow and subject to change.
This week, the Supreme Court will issue decisions in two cases involving the meaning and purpose of marriage. Whatever the results, our work to rebuild a culture of marriage and family will continue. Restoration will require that we better brand ourselves and make our case more attractive.
In a 1972 article in Philosophy & Rhetoric, Wayne Brockriede describes the art of communication in terms of sexual conduct. Like sex, argument occurs between human beings who bring their whole selves to the conversation, including personal histories and philosophical presuppositions (whether they know it or not). And, as in sex, participants in conversation can be considerate of these facts and lovingly negotiate them as part of the act, or manipulate them to personal advantage, or ignore them completely and carry on without regard for the others’ welfare at all. The first is arguing as a lover; the second as a seducer; the third as a rapist.
Too often, conservatives—including me—fall into the third category with our derision and condemnation. Not only is this unbecoming of people aspiring to virtue, it is ineffective in winning others to our cause.
Arguing as a lover is better. It frees us to acknowledge our personal faults and the faults in our arguments while remaining committed to our position and allowing our interlocutor to save face in the majority of instances in which our case is superior. As we woo the person across from us (and—remember—the audience watching from home) we are funny, self-effacing, merciful, and confident.
Winning the affections of the audience also means using sources of authority that appeal to them. This is not a new idea; it goes back as far as Aristotle. In contemporary culture, the Constitution is not considered authoritative. Though it pains me to say it, few people care about what the founding fathers said. (Those who do are already interning at the Heritage Foundation.)
I know what you’re thinking. “But the Federalist Papers are important!” Indeed, they are, and there’s a time and a place for discussing them. But when we lead with them and rely solely on such works, we fail. The current generation is more interested in doers. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a phenomenal thinker and writer, but if not for his actions he would not be the iconic leader we consider him today. Thanks in part to writers such as Eric Metaxas, the lives of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer provide us with examples of conservative men of conviction whose values were reflected in their actions.
Each of us ought to be part of the recovery of a marriage and family culture. The work of academics and policy advocates is vital, but artists, musicians, pastors, teachers, and all the rest have a contribution to make. The most compelling source of authority in any argument is your own life. Your conversation partner wants to know how your values have changed the way you live, and whether yours is a life worth emulating. Do I want to be that kind of person? If you can tell your own story, you will win.