Entry from February 23, 2009

Well, they don’t call them “progressives” for nothing, do they?. If you stayed up late enough last night, you must have heard Sean Penn at the Academy Awards ceremony putting his fine feelings on display as he accepted the award for Best Actor for his genuinely fine portrayal of the title character in Milk. He couldn’t resist telling his audience of many millions — which is also many millions more than have ever seen or will ever see Milk: “For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.”

Thanks for that, Sean. I’m sure the Academy appreciated it. And so, by the way, was he was sure the Academy appreciated it, as undoubtedly they did. You could tell because he had addressed his fellow thesps, who had just honored him and his film, as “You commie, homo-loving sons of guns.” That’s not the sort of thing you say unless you can be pretty sure that nobody is going to have to draw a diagram for the benefit of the dimmer Academy members or media hangers-on of the irony intended by it. Clearly, Mr Penn’s purpose was a jokey reminder to the beautiful people of one of the articles of faith in the American entertainment industry, namely that there never were any genuine “commies” — that is, old-fashioned slang for communists — in America but only a lot of wicked Republicans and conservatives who once, a long time ago, engaged in a “witch hunt” to try to find them and succeeded only in ruining the careers of some moderate liberals like themselves.

And yet there was also what I can only suppose was an unintentional irony in his rather feeble joke. For one of the salient beliefs of the commies, if there had ever been any, would have been that history has a predictable, indeed inevitable, course, and that this course was scientifically certain to terminate in the final victory of the revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat and, ultimately, the socialist utopia where once there was nothing but rotten bourgeois society. Mr Penn’s appeal to the inevitability of the fact that his audience’s grandchildren’s progressivism will exactly correspond to his own was, in this sense at least, precisely a commie idea, albeit one that would have come as a considerable surprise to Marx, Lenin or Mao. Maybe, in today’s Hollywood, “commie” is as much a compliment to the correct opinions of one’s fellow progressives as “homo-loving” — or, indeed, sons-of-guns, who received their imprimatur from the late Joey Bishop.

More likely, Hollywood’s best and brightest now take progressive opinions on the subject of gay marriage — among others things — as much for granted as their own prerogative as leaders of fashion. Put the two things together and you have an effortless assumption of historical inevitability that owes less to Karl Marx than to the fawning treatment they routinely receive from the media. The dialectic is them! Bill Maher made the same assumption in introducing the award for Best Documentary with a shameless if ungrammatical plug for his own doc, Religulous, when he said: “Now as a producer and a star of my own documentary this year, the one about religion that didn’t get nominated. I know, it’s a touchy subject. But someday, we all have to confront the notion that our silly gods cost the world too greatly. But there I go, ruining the ending.” Yeah, Das Kapital was full of spoilers too.

As I say, this kind of stuff is most likely simple ideological self-confidence, born of the cozy sense that everybody around you, more or less, shares your opinions about all the things that matter. You could see the same assumption in the words that someone gave poor Daniel Craig to read when he introduced the award for production design. In alluding to the nomination for Revolutionary Road, he praised that film’s designers for creating an image of “suburbia [in the 1950s] which looked like anything but the prison it was.” That there might have been present a few ex-prisoners who didn’t see it that way at all was, clearly, a thought that never crossed his mind.

As it happened, on the same day they gave out the Academy Awards, a remarkable piece appeared in The New York Times titled “A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage” by David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch. The former is president of the Institute for American Values and author of The Future of Marriage; the latter is a guest scholar at the Brookings institution and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights and Good for America. The two men’s views on gay marriage itself are still directly opposed to each other, but they find that they can agree on civil unions so long as these come with “robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will.”

It is an admirable idea to seek consensus and compromise on a highly divisive issue such as this, and I would support this one myself. But it still smacks to me just a little of the kind of moralization implicit in President Obama’s call to reduce the “politicization” of abortion. Less politics and more morality hardly seems like the way to greater civility to me. Though in principle it is a good thing to seek a break with the past and the hardened positions on both sides, those positions are the result of the Penn-like tactic of characterizing those on the other side not just as wrong or mistaken but as reactionary in the commie sense — that is, as barriers to inevitable progress who must be removed. If you’re one of the barriers, you may be excused for finding that a somewhat chilling prospect. You have been identified as being, in practice if not in name, evil — that is beyond the bounds of decency and not to be recognized as legitimate in your views by anyone who is decent. I do hope that Mr Rauch doesn’t end up being labeled as the gay equivalent of an Uncle Tom, but so long as the gays have champions like Mr Penn, I fear he may.

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