Is Blankenhorn Anti-Gay? Jonathan Rauch Goes After Frank Rich

With closing arguments about to begin in the Prop 8 trial, an interesting letter to the editor tomorrow in the New York Times defending the defendants’ star witness, David Blankenhorn, from criticism by Frank Rich. His supporter: gay journalist and same-sex marriage supporter Jonathan Rauch who recently left the National Journal and is now at the Brookings Institute.

Frank Rich, for the third time since February, unfairly criticizes David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and a witness in the trial over Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The implication of these columns has been that Mr. Blankenhorn is antigay.

But Mr. Blankenhorn, with whom I’ve debated gay marriage for years, is the sort of decent, moderate opponent we could use more of. He favors civil unions for same-sex couples. He supports gay adoption. And he has publicly and repeatedly stood up for “the equal dignity of homosexual love.”

Those are not the words of an antigay bigot — and believe me, I’ve heard my share.

Mr. Blankenhorn’s desire to help gay couples while stopping short of marriage may be the wrong answer, as I believe. But it reflects the thinking of millions of centrist and unbigoted Americans who will ultimately determine the fate of gay rights and gay marriage. Treating those moderates as if they were haters only drives them away.

Jonathan Rauch
Washington, June 15, 2010

At issue is Rich’s recent column where he described Blankenhorn as:

Their stated reason for opposing a television record was fear that their witnesses might be harassed. But in the end the Prop 8 defenders mustered only two witnesses, just one of them a controversial culture warrior. That “expert” was David Blankenhorn, president of the so-called Institute for American Values. Blankenhorn holds no degree in such seemingly relevant fields as psychology, psychiatry or sociology. But his pretrial research did include reading a specious treatise by George Rekers, the antigay evangelist now notorious for his recent 10-day European trip with a young male companion procured from Rentboy.com. And Blankenhorn’s testimony relies on the same sweeping generalization as Rekers — that children raised by two biological parents are so advantaged that all alternatives should be shunned.

What was the unqualified Blankenhorn doing at the Prop 8 trial? Like Rekers, who had a lucrative history of testifying for pay in legal cases attacking gay civil rights, he also profits from his propaganda. Public documents, including tax returns, reveal that Blankenhorn’s institute, financed by such right-wing stalwarts as the Bradley and Scaife foundations, paid him $247,500 in base salary in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, and another $70,000 to his wife. Not a bad payday for a self-professed arbiter of American marital values who under oath described his sole peer-reviewed academic paper (from the University of Warwick) as “a study of two cabinetmakers’ unions in 19th-century Britain.” That the Prop 8 proponents employed him as their star witness suggests that no actual experts could be found (or rented) to match his disparagement of gay parents.

The battle between Rich and Blankenhorn in the NYT is not new. Rich connected Blankenhorn to George Rekers, of Rentboy fame, and Blankenhorn denied relying on Reker’s work. He then had to amend his defense in another letter acknowledging he had read Rekers’ work, but forgotten about it. At his blog, he said the NYT cut his letter which gave more context to his explanation.

So what to make of it all.  First, Rich is an opinion columnist and has a right to express his opinions. He can call someone a bigot if he wants, no matter how well supported that position may be.  He shouldn’t, however, be misrepresenting Blankenhorn’s position to fit a specific narrative.  Rich’s allegations in relation to Rekers are correct–to a point–but lacking in context, at least according to Rauch.

On a larger level, Blankenhorn is often described as anti-gay because he opposes same-sex marriage. Rauch would argue that’s a simplistic assessment that fails to capture his position. On the stand, Blankenhorn was not a ‘central casting” anti-gay bigot but instead a witness who appeared to have trouble explaining his nuanced position on why same-sex marriage was bad for marriage and kids, but who acknowledged support for gay rights and for the stigma and discrimination created by not allowing same-sex marriage.

What Rauch points out is that there are opponents of same-sex marriage who aren’t bigots or anti-gay.  Some may argue they are as rare as the black swan, but they do exist and journalists, columnists, and citizen journalists owe their readers and viewers a favor to not just dismiss everyone as an anti-gay bigot out of hand.

UPDATE: Also coming to Blankenhorn’s defense–at Blankenhorn’s blog a blog st Blakenhorn’s Institute for American Values– is Professor Dale Carpenter, a well-known law professor and scholar who has written extensively in favor of  same-sex marriage at Volokh Conspiracy.

On the subject of same-sex marriage, I believe David is a man at war with himself. He has spoken publicly, in a forum of anti-SSM conservatives, of the equal dignity of homosexual love. Note the words dignity and love. This is not the language of liberal toleration of some hateful thing, like Nazis marching in Skokie; or of some filthy thing, like disgusting sex acts; or of some offensive thing, like burning a U.S. flag. They are not words of a grudging tolerance. They are words of affirmation, approval, and acceptance. When he says he believes we would be a more American America if we let gay couples marry, I think he is saying that he would be a better American if he could support it: truer to the country’s traditions of pluralism, liberty, and equality. Truer to his own American values.

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8 Responses

  1. Is Blankenhorn anti-gay? Well, let’s just cast our minds back to his testimony:

    “He added that allowing gays to wed would weaken the institution of marriage, leading to lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates for heterosexuals, as well as more children born out of wedlock. He said the weakening of marriage could also lead the legalization of polygamy.”

    Hm.

  2. It’s not “Blankenhorn’s blog.” It’s my blog — I’m the editor. Blankenhorn is my boss, but the blog is my baby. I’m glad he blogs there : )

  3. Dale Carpenter writes: “When he says he believes we would be a more American America if we let gay couples marry, I think he is saying that he would be a better American if he could support it: truer to the country’s traditions of pluralism, liberty, and equality. Truer to his own American values.”

    I don’t quite see how this is a defense of Blankenhorn. It just says he is “unAmerican” (which I agree) and untrue to his own values. I wonder if the reason he is unable to support same-sex marriage has anything to do with the large salaries he earns for opposing same-sex marriage? Frank Rich is usually right about these things.

  4. One more point about Blankenhorn’s testimony. He was chosen to testify because he was the only person they could find who was not so clearly anti-gay that he could clearly be said to be acting out of animus. Someone like Rekers would be mincemeat in any cross-examination by David Boies. It was necessary for the proponents of Proposition 6 to pretend that they were not motivated by animus in deprives us of civil rights; otherwise the Supreme Court’s ruling in Romer v. Evans would be invoked to invalidate the referendum. Hence, Blankenhorn had to give the impression of someone who was motivated only by principled policy objections. As it turned out, this put him in the position of actually having to support most of our arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, when David Boies had him on the stand.

  5. I don’t know if I can express myself in the way I’d like, but there is something really wrong with Jonathan Rauch’s enabling view of people like Blankenhorn. Substitute “inter-racial” for “gay” in the statements above and you’d call someone an Uncle Tom for espousing those views in 1967.

    Rauch says, “treating those moderates as haters only drives them away.” One thing I’ve learned over the years is that hate doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with homophobia or being bigoted. Would Rauch have told Rosa Parks to wait and sit in the front of the bus when those moderates are more comfortable with that notion? You need some courage to stand up to people who are wrong, if you believe that. Don’t placate them with notions of not hurting their feelings. Their beliefs hurt gay people and Mr. Rauch might not want to rock the boat, but as far as I’m concerned, they can have that hurt right back as gay people move forward. I rebuke you, Jonathan Rauch.

  6. Martin Pal is exactly right to say that there is something really wrong with Rauch’s enabling view of people like Blankenhorn. A lot has to do with a simplistic view of civility and not wanting to hurt people’s feelings. The anxious desire to be thought well of that Blankenhorn expresses reminds me of my Louisiana grandmother, who in many ways was a very nice person. She did lots of good works of charity in helping poor Black people, yet was also an ardent supporter of segregation. Her Baptist preacher explained to her that God had located the different races on different continents so that they would not mix. This made her support Jim Crow laws and vote for the likes of Jimmy Davis (for Governor) and George Wallace (for President). She was incensed to be called a “racist” by “yankees” and progressives, because she said that she loved people of all races and wished Blacks well, both individually and as a race. Blankenhorn is similarly appalled that anyone would think him a bigot despite his actions in furthering bigotry. He is also more sophisticated than my grandmother and realizes that he is on the wrong side of history. I think he doesn’t want his legacy to be a legacy of bigotry so he busily tries to get people to sign letters attesting to the fact that he is really a nice guy. I also think that Blankhenhorn’s dilemma is smoked out by Frank Rich: the money, the money. He is paid well to be a bigot and so it is difficult for him to walk away from such attitutdes.

    As to Rauch, he deserves rebukes for more than his support of Blankenhorn. His NY Times op-ed in effect asking the Supreme Court to rule against same-sex marriage is a disgrace. I rebuke as well.

  7. On the Institute for American Values website, there is an open letter to the New York Times signed by 13 “experts” saying that Blankenhorn is not a bigot and that he is a great expert on marriage.

    What no one seems to have pointed out is that Frank Rich does not call Blankenhorn a bigot. That word does not appeal in the Rich columns they cite.

    It seems that these people play very fast and loose with the truth.

    It is also clear that Judge Walker did not regard Blankenhorn as much of an expert either. In his opinion he said that his testimony was unreliable and should be accorded no weight.

  8. I find it problematic that a national conversation about same-sex marriage has become less about LGBT families and more about what a purported Nice Guy David Blankenhorn is.

    Yes, it is admirable if Blankenhorn doesn’t hate gay people and isn’t a bigot, but that doesn’t make his policy position any more rational or his opinions any more reliable. One can be “nice” while still being wrong. Does the LGBT community really have to coddle every Nice “marriage defender” who comes along, making sure we know that They Aren’t Bigots?

    Doesn’t this only reinforce how the heterosexual majority’s feelings, whether about homosexuality or being called bigots, always take first priority?

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