Another Outrageous Comparison by Ralph Reed and Some Overt and Not So Overt Implications
I’ve been paying attention lately to the outrageous comparisons and analogies used by the Right. In my previous blog, I discussed Grover Norquist’s tweet comparing government to ticks that suck blood. Another example was discussed earlier this week by Chris Moody of Yahoo News, who reported that Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, compared the fight against gay marriage to the fight against slavery. Reed was speaking at the Road to Majority conference, described by Reed’s organization as “the premiere event for people of faith and conservative activists.”
Moody reports that Reed “gave a speech in which he suggested the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision —which ruled that African American slaves remained the property of their owners even if they traveled to or resided in free states — held a lesson for contemporary conservative activists concerned about what they see as judicial overreach on the issue of gay marriage.”
The comparison by Reed has several overt purposes, and some not so overt purposes or consequences. Let’s start with the overt purposes.
Reed is trying to rally the troops to not give up on the fight against same-sex marriage, despite recent setbacks in the courts. To do so, he is reminding them that all looked lost in the fight against slavery when the Supreme Court made the Dred Scott ruling, a ruling that is widely regarded as the worst decision of that august body. Reed was thus reminding his audience, that when the cause looks bleak, one should not give up the good fight, even when the Supreme Court takes a contrary stand. He is also suggesting by analogy that the court today is on the wrong side of justice and that like the abolitionists, those who are against gay marriage should not give up the good fight just because the courts seem to be moving in the other direction. Reed wants to evoke the great fight by those against slavery to inspire those who fight against gay rights.
Those are the overt purposes of the analogy and the ones that Reed would defend as the purpose of his analogy. Of course, analogies can carry other covert or even unintended consequences and meanings. The analogy of the fight against slavery to the fight against gay rights is of course not only provocative but offensive to those favoring marriage equality. Anyone thinking about the impact of the analogy would know that, though Reed himself claimed he did not intend for a deeper comparison, even if he likely knew he was being provocative.
Here is Reed: “You notice some similarities [between the two fights]? I’m not comparing slavery to same-sex marriage, OK? I’m just pointing out that when you have these fights, what’s interesting is that if you look at same-sex marriage, it’s now legal in 17 states.”
Reed claims he is not comparing slavery to same-sex marriage. Of course, he is smart enough to know that other people might understand him that way. If we are being cynical, and there are reasons to be, we can assume he knew perfectly well that the implicit comparison would be offensive and that that was at least a welcome outcome if not part of the intent.
If we are being generous to him, we can assume that the comparison of the fight against slavery and against same-sex marriage was not the real purpose of Reed’s analogy, though he clearly was aware of its presence, since he denied it. But even if Reed really didn’t intend to make the comparison between the fight against slavery and same-sex marriage, the comparison is still implicit and the language has implications.
So what do we think of this implicit or covert comparison?
The analogy equates the fight against slavery and the fight against gay marriage. Of course, there is a deep paradox here. The better analogy seems to be the fight for the rights of slaves to the fight for the right of same-sex marriage. In the case of the abolitionists, they were fighting to expand the equal rights of African Americans [“Negroes” in the then current language]. The fight over slavery was a fight over the meaning of being “created equal” in the Declaration of Independence and over the meaning of property. Thus the fight for gay rights seems self-evidently like the fight for the rights of slaves.
Reed has reversed that relationship, trying to create an analogy between those who fought for slavery and those who fight against marriage equality. Of course, from Reed’s perspective, if asked, he might argue that they are fighting for the rights of Christians or Americans who defend the traditional view of marriage. But even if he tried to make that case, there is still a disanalogy since Christians are fighting against a change of status quo and abolitionists were fighting for a change in status quo.
At a deeper level, however, there is another potentially disturbing undercurrent to the analogy. There is no way to prove this one and it is way more subtle. Whether one sees it present depends on how one understands language and the power of language to carry meanings that may or may not have been part of Reed’s intent. As anyone who studies literature and language knows, language often carries many more meanings than those who use the language may have been aware or intended. In this case, the invocation by Reed of the fight against slavery arguably evokes negative visceral or emotional associations for those from the South who lost the fight over slavery and who are now fighting the fight for traditional marriage.
The end of slavery, and then the subsequent enfranchisement of blacks, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were all ultimately perceived as victories for the North against the South. The South is predominantly Red politically today, though that was not always so. That there are underlying emotional ties still to the South as a symbol is evident in the popularity of the Confederate flag in some quarters. We also know that the Right and “movement conservativism” came to power in this country in part because the South turned Conservative and left the Democratic party in part in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, as Paul Krugman has argued.*
An allusion to the end of slavery, therefore, can readily evoke a visceral emotional response from a segment of the audience that identifies with the South, even as the language cloaks the message in a comparison that seems to suggest the opposite, namely, that that those fighting against gay marriage are like the North that fought for the end of slavery.
Whether or not one thinks Reed is being genuine in disclaiming any comparison, we see here again, as in other contexts, a willingness and even a desire to use provocative rhetoric, that inflames the opposition and evokes visceral reactions from the target audience. What the best response is to such language is surely one that the other liberal side has to consider. Whether picking apart the inflammatory rhetoric and its implications is enough, as I have done here, or whether the adoption of similar tactics is required is something that we all have to ponder.
*See argument in Paul Krugman, Conscience of a Liberal