A comment in the earlier Obama thread reminded me that I have something in common with the senator: I, too, have been accused of "ageism" after making a ringing defence of lower standards of PC for the elderly! After the jump, my November 28, 2003 column about the Larry Spencer ruckus, which at times bears weird tonal similarities to Obama's speech (and yet which seems to have bubbled up from some forgotten age, with its background of a disunited right in the House of Commons and a proudly Conservative Scott Brison).
If your grandfather had mumbled the same dozy monologue about homosexuality that Larry Spencer did on Wednesday, you'd probably just say, "Well, that's Gramps for you. He grew up in a different time." Larry Spencer was the Opposition critic for family issues: He had to be held to a higher standard. At this point in the CA/PC merger process, Mr. Harper had no choice but to give Mr. Spencer a swift, hard kick. But can we exercise a little sympathy for older people who are trying to keep up with frenzied social change? Someday we are, no doubt, going to need it ourselves.
In my occidentalist paranoia, I can already imagine Torontonians gesticulating at the newspaper and saying "That's all you can expect from these Alliance people, these Westerners. They'd burn gays at the stake given the chance." When Elsie Wayne goes on a tirade against gay pride parades, nobody suggests that her attitude is a pervasive problem within the Progressive Conservative party, or that it is a sign of cultural backwardness in the Maritimes. We're stuck with this double standard, but we should be at least a little embarrassed that it exists.
Mrs. Wayne has become a favourite punching bag for gay activists, and doubtless we'll be seeing amusing effigies of Mr. Spencer at pride parades next year. Is it relevant at all that she is 71, and he is 61? My reaction to the Spencer interview, as a wacko libertarian atheist, was: "You know, he's actually not doing so bad for a man who can remember the end of the Second World War." Yes, he proposed recriminalizing private homosexual acts, but added that he wouldn't want anyone to suffer a real legal penalty. He said he'd be happy to sit in a merged CA/PC caucus with gay Scott Brison: "He's a great guy, and he's got a lot of great ideas. If he can live with us we can live with him." If Mr. Spencer is a bigot, he's a mighty lukewarm one.
He said much else that got him into trouble -- but little that was not accepted wisdom in Canada 20 or 30 years ago. And, as I say, I'm a bit nervous about the implications of consigning our older citizens to the dungheap because their beliefs are inevitably a bit retrograde. If gays and lesbians stopped to consider how much they have gained since 1969, and how firmly Canadian society is now on their side in so many respects, they could entertain more tolerance for reflexive "intolerance" like Mr. Spencer's.
Mr. Spencer suggested that homosexuality can be instilled in a child accidentally by an "overbearing mother": This was an established pop-cultural fable, and an accepted doctrine of the psychological profession, not very long ago. I promise you that plenty of 61-year-olds, no matter where they live or how they vote, still subscribe to it. They may agree, too, with Mr. Spencer's position that homosexuality is bad for one's health, like smoking; one hesitates to mention it, but that's arguably the one thing he said for which there is some empirical warrant. In 1997, a Canadian demographer and HIV expert estimated that the life expectancy of gay men and bisexuals in Vancouver was between eight and 21 years less than for men in general. Retroviral therapy for AIDS will have closed the gap, but gay men still have to beware hepatitis and the cancerous effects of human papillomavirus.
Mr. Spencer's less excusable conspiracist blather -- a stream of weird, unsourced nonsense about gay recruitment -- should not be denounced without an effort to understand how someone who has witnessed 30 years of "gay liberation" (as it was once known) might reach those conclusions. We, as a society, have redefined one of the most revolting sins in the Christian cosmogony as a lifestyle choice. Those of us who haven't witnessed the whole process rarely stop to think how amazing this is, and how unsettling it might be to us if our birth date were different.
Many of us are baffled that anyone would care about someone else's sexual habits. But in the relatively recent past, the policing of sexual habits was an implicit basis of property, and hence of civilization. In an agrarian society based on primogeniture (and lacking DNA testing), chastity and fidelity are public matters. Prior generations didn't insist on them just because they were nosier than ourselves, or even because they were particularly keen on God. That old social order has come apart very quickly, and not with entirely happy consequences. It is hard for younger people to understand that conspiratorial explanations for its collapse might present themselves as natural to an older mind -- to sympathize, that is. Without agreeing.
Perhaps I will be suspected of patronizing the aged. That depends, I suppose, on your view of what should be done when an older MP's mouth outruns his brain. Would it be less patronizing to simply tell him he's full of crap, and move on, than it is to kick him out of caucus and tell him to go stand in the corner like a chastened toddler?