Critics of gay marriage often find themselves simply confused by the terms of the debate. They seem to encounter the same unbending opposition, whether their approach is an appeal to the prudence of political gradualism, an invocation of the natural order, or a warning about the risks of casting aside centuries of habit and custom.
That’s not because of anything that special about gay marriage. There’s a larger pattern at work. It’s the reason why conservatives find themselves playing defense so often. And it’s the reason why Central Park’s horse-drawn carriages are headed for the scrapheap of history—even though the venerable conveyances have habit, nature, public opinion, and Liam Neeson on their side.
Yes, Liam Neeson. In an impassioned plea in The New York Times, the actor adeptly made the conservative case against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to ban the carriages. Neeson took the mayor to task for ignoring the industry’s good regulatory standing, its hardworking drivers and stable hands, and its polled support among two-thirds of New Yorkers. He invoked the carriages’ proud history and privileged role in Central Park’s landmark status.
But then he gave the game away, with a turn of phrase that promptly made its way into headlines and contemptuous write-ups. “Horses have been pulling from the beginning of time,” he ventured. “It is what they have been bred to do.”
The minute those words hit the page, Neeson should have packed up and left New York. Both those sentences appeal, in an interrelated way, to the things people hate most when they live in democratic times.
No, it’s not suffering that tops the list—despite the reminders we keep hearing about how “inhumane” it is to have horses draw carriages. We small-d democrats do despise pain. But we don’t actually believe cruelty is the worst thing we do. As the philosopher Richard Rorty explained, that sentiment defines a liberal society, not a democratic one.
Though there’s a lot of overlap between liberalism and democracy, our deepest feelings are democratic, not liberal, as Friedrich Nietzsche understood. Investigating the historical and conceptual source of morality, Nietzsche bemoaned “the democratic prejudice in the modern world toward all questions of origin.” The origins of superheroes’ identities make for a safe fantasy; meanwhile, it repels us to think that our own real-life identities were destined by our own beginnings—or, even worse, those of our ancestors, or those of humanity itself.
Sure, some of us might still poke around for a few hours on Ancestry.com. And many of us, superficially, believe that our human origins are basically what Darwin said they were—in part of the same big tree of life that led up from the primordial ooze billions of years ago. The fact is, those are very tame and domesticated versions of a full-on inquiry into origins. Nietzsche’s investigation led him to an idea he knew people like us would do anything to combat and disbelieve: that our identities are forged by millennia of inequality, caused by millennia of human “breeding.”
Shuddering yet? Well, there you have it: The thing we hate most of all is breeding anyone, or anything, for lives of inferiority. Yet in justifying horse-drawn carriages, Neeson’s closing argument invokes exactly that process, in its worst possible form—carried out from the dawn of time!
Nietzsche’s idea of breeding was more nuanced than we’re inclined to fear: He meant to describe “a means of storing up the tremendous forces of mankind so that the generations can build upon the work of their forefathers.” But our democratic prejudice against origins and breeding makes us deeply skeptical even of inheriting life goals. Where humans used to see in that process a storehouse of meaning and stability, we’re now more likely to see oppression and unfairly narrowed choice.
And as for breeding animals for servitude, we’re swiftly losing our residual respect for our forefathers’ equine fancy—just as more and more of us are turning against the idea of orca husbandry.
Yet there are uncanny reasons why we’re not about to usher in a bold new utopia for our animal friends. There’s more hypocrisy lurking behind our crusades for horses and orcas than we’d like to admit. Why are so-called “crush” fetishes on the rise? Why are we so deeply delighted by the cutest little pets? Take a look at the toy poodle tottering down the street: Does any creature so powerfully reflect our stubborn urge to breed animals for deep, ornamental servitude?
We love equality in our democratic age. Sometimes, however, we hate loneliness and sexual dissatisfaction even more. We’re not all would-be crush fetishists, of course, but we could all take a more clear-eyed look at where our intense devotion to equality starts to break down—even when we pretend it doesn’t. We don’t just use animals to make ourselves feel powerful or loved. Every day, we use each other. It’s just so much easier to foist our demands for equality onto politics instead of ourselves.