First of two articles.
Perhaps no columnist in town raises a liberal’s blood pressure more than Katherine Kersten.
For some time I’ve wondered how Kersten — a columnist for the Star Tribune in various incarnations since 1995, most notably in the metro section, and now in the Sunday opinion pages — feels about being a lightning rod for local liberal rage. So I met with her last week at her Edina home for a two-hour conversation and asked her about liberals and a lot of other subjects.
What follows is the first of two installments from that interview. In this installment, we discussed same-sex marriage, liberal rage and life at the Star Tribune.
But a little background first: Before becoming a columnist, Kersten was a senior fellow for cultural studies at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. A founding director of the center, she was its chairman from 1996 to 1998.
Kersten has written on cultural and policy issues for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, Christianity Today, Policy Review, American Enterprise and First Things. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame, from which she graduated summa cum laude, and a master’s degree from Yale. Kersten is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Now on to the interview.
MinnPost: You wrote a column recently for the Star Tribune on gay marriage that lit up their switchboard like a Christmas tree. You looked at the issue from an interesting perspective. Care to elaborate?
Katherine Kersten: The question we always hear is: How will same-sex marriage harm heterosexual marriage? That, I think, is the wrong question. You have to ask: How will it change the institution of marriage itself? And how will it change our lives going forward?
Marriage is a universal institution, across the world, through time. It has always involved two people of opposite sexes. The reason the institution came into being is that when a male and a female get together, a baby can be the result. The joining of an egg and a sperm is the only way a human being can come into existence. And, of course, without that, civilization will come to a grinding halt. The purpose of the institution of marriage — the fact that nature requires a mother and a father — there’s a reason for that: A child needs the complementary parenting of a mother and a father.
Some of us would like marriage to be a different institution, but it isn’t. Some think marriage should be focused not on the perpetuation of society and civilization, but strictly on individual adults — strictly on affirming a relationship between two people who want to be interdependent and who feel affection toward one another.
Marriage is already under such tremendous stress as an institution. We know what’s happening to marriage in this country in terms of divorce, cohabitation, out-of-wedlock births, etc. And when we add to those stresses to the transformation of the institution — the fundamental idea behind it — we essentially cut it loose. The redefinition of marriage will have a snowball effect: People will think to themselves, how is this institution relevant anymore? Why should I go to the hard work of getting married and making a public commitment to another person and to the idea of family, when the institution is essentially meaningless?
Interest in marriage among gay people, particularly gay men, is far less than it is among the heterosexual population. Two thirds of all gay people in legally recognized same-sex unions are lesbians. Which, of course, shows you that there is, in fact, a difference between the sexes.
If we redefine marriage to be an institution focused simply on two people who feel affection toward one another and who want to live interdependently, then, legally, there’s absolutely no reason down the line that we shouldn’t expect further redefinition — polygamous marriage, for example. Redefining marriage opens a Pandora’s box. Why shouldn’t a brother and a sister who are dependent on one another, or two female friends, who don’t have husbands and who live together and try to share responsibilities for raising kids — why shouldn’t the state acknowledge and respect their unions as “marriage”?
The reason, of course, is the central sexual component of marriage. Marriage honors that, holds it up as the means of creating children. This fundamental institution is so critical. Today, we are literally tampering with the foundation of society, and we have no idea where it could lead. As a society, we have an increasing focus on the importance of nature, the importance of natural systems and of ecology. We’re learning a lot about the unintended consequences of human actions. Why in the world, then, would we tamper with marriage as our critical, fundamental institution when no one has an idea of where it might end? It doesn’t make sense.
MP: Do you anticipate the legalization of same-sex marriage here in Minnesota, or elsewhere in the country? When the issue is put to the voters, it invariably goes down to defeat. Maine was the latest example. To what do you attribute that?
KK: I think there are a number of forces at work here. I think there’s the majority of gay people, who intend to live good, ordinary lives, and who don’t feel a vindictive loathing of norms and limits in human society.
But then there are people in the “gay rights” leadership — or in the leadership of the same-sex marriage movement — who take a radical view. They want to see an upending of the institution of marriage. I mean, that’s very clear. There’s lots of evidence that some of these people would like to see, essentially, the end of marriage as an institution altogether. In its place you’d see a variety of civil unions, of the kind I just mentioned.
I’ve seen so much anger on the part of these people. They often exhibit an authoritarian, totalitarian impulse. We see some of this in the schools, for example, with regard to the Welcoming Schools curriculum that was so controversial recently in Minneapolis. There is an attempt on the part of some of these leaders to place themselves in positions of great power in order to work a transformation in society — having to do with male-female relationships and marriage and families. There’s so much anger there, I sometimes think that a lot of those folks are unhappy, frankly, for reasons of how they are living, of choices that they’ve made, and they project that anger onto people like me.
If you look at my recent column on same-sex marriage, it is very rational, very calm in its tone. It simply presents arguments — arguments, in fact, that the majority of Americans would agree with. If you look at the comments that I got afterward, it was amazing. The vicious, ad hominem comments full of hate-crime-type language that you get from people who are clearly angry and unhappy, but accusing me of being the angry one. It is ridiculous.
MP: Do you get a lot of hate mail?
KK: I get many, many positive and encouraging emails — far more than the vitriolic emails I get.
After my recent same-sex marriage column, for example, I got a blizzard of supportive messages. Among them were a couple of really moving and private emails from gay people who said, “I agree with you, but I wouldn’t dare say this to my gay friends.”
It was clear to me that these people aren’t self-dramatizers — reflexive victims, like many in the gay leadership — and they are being silenced. The shrill tone of the leadership is having a chilling effect in the gay community.
The gay leadership includes many people who tend to want to make a splash, and they are looking for the most public forum possible. So they tend to flood the on-line Star Tribune with comments which can be seen publicly. These folks are waging a political campaign. I’ve noticed a pattern in their actions. They tend not to send me emails right away. Instead, they jump on the website, right away, get their comments out there in this public, self-dramatizing way, and then the next day they started sending me emails.
MP: How do you feel about being a lightning rod for liberal rage?
KK: I enjoy it! I really do. I have a very thick skin. There are often letters to the paper after my columns appear, and they tend to be weighted toward my opponents’ points of view. And you know, I think the more the better. Sometimes the angry responses make my point more effectively than I could. The average reader is pretty sensible and looks at these letters and thinks: “Whoa, this person is over-reacting” or “This person didn’t read what she actually wrote.”
I suspect that many of the people who attack me in ad hominem terms live surrounded by people who think just the way they do. The tunnel vision of the left is incredible. It’s not possible for me to live like that, hearing only one point of view. I read the New York Times and the Star Tribune, and I see CNN on-line. As a result, I can’t escape the worldview of the left — what Thomas Sowell calls “the vision of the anointed.”
Sowell describes “the anointed” as the intellectual and political elite who believe strongly that they are not only smarter and more able than everybody else, but that they are also better human beings. They see themselves as more virtuous, as having only good intentions — unlike those who disagree with them. If you’re surrounded by people like that — as many on the left are — it’s hard to get a sense of the complexity of life.
MP: In view of the tumultuous changes at the Star Tribune, how are things going there for you?
KK: It’s very different, because now I’m an independent contractor, not a regular employee. So, I’m in the position of, say, a Garrison Keillor. And, of course, [former metro columnist and now opinion pages contributor] Nick Coleman is in that position as well. It’s good in the sense that I have completely free rein. The one thing I don’t really do anymore is the kind of human-interest stories I tended to do as a metro columnist. I miss those. I really like people, and I did love meeting the extraordinary variety of people I met when I did the metro column.
MP: Have you ever had any column for the editorial pages, or column ideas, rejected?
KK: No, not for the editorial page, no.
MP: And your columns have never been limited in any way?
MP: When you were a metro columnist, how did you feel you were treated in the newsroom?
KK: Well, there are a lot of very nice people at the Star Tribune. And it was helpful for me when I started the metro column to have [former editor-in-chief] Anders Gyllenhaal there as my mentor. Anders saw a role for a person like me. As I explained to him, “You’re missing half the stories in Minnesota because your folks here, for whatever reason, tend to see the world pretty much the same way.”
The newsroom was an echo chamber of a kind, as is true of most mainstream media. Many of the journalists there have been working in the newsroom for 20 or more years. What that means is that, not only do they tend to be at the same end of the political spectrum, but they often haven’t had much interaction with the sort of people I know. I didn’t become a journalist until quite recently. As a result, I’ve spent lots of time with small business people, military people, people trying to make a living in the private sector — you name it. I come from a very different background than most journalists.
People always talk about diversity. Well, in the context of journalism, I’m a good example of what diversity of ideas and background can bring. When you are telling news stories, it can be very helpful to see the world through a different lens. Given my different experience of life, I saw a lot of things other folks in the newsroom didn’t see. Before I joined the newsroom, my perspective — and that of people like me — was largely missing.
MP: The newsroom has been characterized by some as left-liberal. Is that accurate?
KK: Oh, yes. Certainly. I would think almost everybody there would agree with that. Somebody who’s no longer at the paper, as unfortunately so many are not, told me when I joined the metro staff, sort of whispered to me, “You should have seen this place on the day after Election Day in 2004 [when President George W. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry]. It was like a tomb, it was like the world had ended,” he said. That’s not a good thing, especially if you’re trying to cover the news objectively.
That said, there are many wonderful people at the Star Tribune. There were many who extended themselves to me and who were friendly. I think it’s helpful, too, when you meet someone who represents a point of view that you don’t like, but are not exposed to very much — it does humanize the situation. It’s really easy to demonize a person you don’t know. But then when you meet that person, you see that he or she is a human being like you.
Friday: Kersten on the future of the conservative movement, the Republican Party, the Obama presidency, the shootings at Fort Hood, her world view and the role of religion in her life.