This week I've watched conservatives pundits—that is, the New York Times version of conservative pundits—grapple with gay marriage. "The conservative argument still has serious exponents," Ross Douthat wrote, "but it's now chuckled at in courtrooms, dismissed by intellectuals, mocked in the media and (in a sudden, recent rush) abandoned by politicians."
All Douthat could say on behalf of the conservative argument was to assert that as "the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward, the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before"—not that the first is necessarily the cause of the second or that the second is necessarily a bad thing. Douthat's not saying that. Even so, it requires a "certain willed naivete" to believe "that the advance of gay marriage is unrelated to any other marital trend."
So is Douthat fuming? No, he's wistful. He's asking the victors to be kind. "A more honest, less triumphalist case for gay marriage would be willing to concede that, yes, there might be some social costs to redefining marriage. [Though Douthat can't say exactly what they are.] It would simply argue that those costs are too diffuse and hard to quantify to outweigh the immediate benefits of recognizing gay couples' love and commitment.
"Such honesty would make social liberals more magnanimous in what increasingly looks like victory . . ."
David Brooks followed by pitching a column with so much English on it it broke 90 degrees halfway to the plate. Brooks understands that in the end it doesn't matter to a columnist which way the tide of human events is flowing as long you can come up with something smart to say about it.
So he was clever. Brooks began his piece sounding like a conservative's conservative. "Over the past 40 years, personal freedom has been on a nearly uninterrupted winning streak," he said ruefully, invoking Tocqueville and Burke to help make his case that a virtuous life requires "restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence." But the "balance between liberty and restraint" is now "out of whack," said Brooks. "People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited."
Suddenly the pitch broke! "Last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom," Brooks went on. "A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage. Marriage is one of those institutions—along with religion and military service—that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come."
So hip-hip-hooray for same-sex marriage, a victory for a society "that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations."
In the name of freedom we run away from freedom. This isn't a new idea about human nature, but it offers a graceful way to think about irresistible change. What they call rights we'll call responsibilities, and we'll all see this through together.