Monday, June 1, 2009

Against (Gay) Marriage

My musings today on the Front Porch, excerpted here:

Marriage is a condition in which individuality is subsumed to the larger considerations, demands, and obligations of culture and commonweal. At the most basic level, we sacrifice our autonomy on behalf of the good of a "unit" now defined as a couple, not two individuals. At a basic level, that unit is the source of future generations - the very source and conduit for the conveyance of human life and particular cultures. But the unit is itself an expression of, and draws from, the community as a whole. Thus (as I've written elsewhere), marriage is entered into through the blessing of and in the presence of community, not (as Las Vegas versions would suggest) as a contract of individuals. Marriages derive from, exist for, and are legitimized by the community and culture from which they derive. Thus, in their earliest instantiation marriages had nothing to do with the wishes of the individuals who composed them. They were the arrangements by families who looked to the continuity of a way of life (and, yes, family status) rather than the individual wishes of the partners.

Even when the consent of the individuals became a central feature of marriage - an innovation of Christianity, as Remi Brague reminds us (see the last paragraph of the interview that Mark Shiffman kindly linked for us) - it was still understood by all parties that marriage was most fully a union by and for the greater community. Blessings of parents and the publication of "the banns" was a necessary precondition for a wedding. This was especially because the married couple - by committing to marriage - was not merely joining to each other in an official capacity, but was in fact becoming a constitutive unit of the community and the conduit for the continuation of culture. Marriage was thus essential to the life and future of culture, and could not be permitted to take place between two individuals who happened to love each other but who were culturally unrelated. Rather, and necessarily, marriage was the union not simply between individuals, but between two people who would convey the lived traditions of a culture - most obviously (for instance), a man and woman of the same religious faith (this is one of the main points of Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye can brook the choices of his two older daughters - even marriage to a communist - because they are both Jews. It is only when his youngest daughter proposes to marry a Christian that he withholds consent). Marriage was most essentially a commitment to a community, not the sum of personal choices of individuals.

What can it possibly mean to defend marriage when one cannot also defend or even conceive of a culture in which individualism is not the reigning basis for self-understanding? Our "debate over marriage" is emaciated and unsatisfying precisely because the contending parties - Left and Right alike - are not even capable of discerning the more fundamental issues at play, and are content to play out the drama in the most deracinated and culture-less venue imaginable - the legal brief. At the distant end of a broken connection, we debate over an institution - marriage - that carries ancient connotations but for which the cultural preconditions have ceased to exist. We debate over a dried and dead husk.

For proponents of gay marriage, marriage is a right, a personal entitlement of full individual expression. Just as heterosexuals sought to be liberated from the constraints of marriage in the name of individual liberty, so now gay individuals seek access to the positive connotations of the word marriage (even where they currently have all the rights and privileges of marriage other than the name, as in California) in the name of rights. Yet, it is this very underlying set of justifications that have eviscerated the actual significance of marriage: by making marriage into an option - a "lifestyle choice" - as an institution it does not possess in fact what it is thought to represent in theory. What gays desire, then, is the imprimatur of an institution whose positive connotations derive from a pre-liberal inheritance - its essence a culture-bearing institution - and which has been in fact largely emptied of those features as the primacy of demands of individualistic self-satisfaction have trumped its culture-bearing features. Ironically, at the point at which gays may achieve legal access to the word marriage, marriage will largely have ceased to be in any way the institution that was so desirable in the first instance. But I suppose that's the point. One doesn't see gay marriage advocates demanding a reassessment of no-fault divorce laws, or calling for the introduction of "covenant marriage," for instance. Marriage - ironically enough - is yet another expression of individual autonomy, a lifestyle preference.

Meanwhile, conservatives largely defend the institution of marriage in two ways - either as a traditional organization that should not be so easily or blithely remade, or an institution based in the natural features of humans, namely, focused on reproduction and basic facts of human sexuality. While I am sympathetic with both of these arguments, they do not seem to me to get to the core of the matter - namely, that marriage as an institution is simply the crowning part of a culture that must necessarily reject individualism as its basic feature. Contemporary conservatives have largely endorsed an economic and political system that places individualism at its core (again, it's worth noting that those parts of the country that are most mobile and where divorce is highest typically vote Republican, and it was, after all, a Republican president - the great hero of the Republicans, Ronald Reagan - who was the nation's first divorced President). David Brooks (and Peter Lawler) have embraced the exurbs as the natural place for "conservative" values to flourish, when in fact this particular living arrangement has contributed profoundly and perhaps irrevocably to the erosion of residual conservative impulses that are closely connected to place and memory. These "conservatives" basically adopt the "haven in a heartless world" viewpoint, defending marriage as a locus where nature, self-sacrifice, duty, obligation, submission of personal autonomy must be promoted - but, the ONLY place where that is the case. Any such view, of course, is pure fantasy, dooming marriage to failure if only by asking it to bear too much weight, to carry to much of the load of an otherwise radically individualist society.


Gerald said...

While the description of the relationship between the pre-modern conception of marriage and community is apt, this post seems to lack empathy toward our gay brothers and sisters. And it seems to me that empathy, or better, fraternity, is something that is more necessary for the re-invitalization of community than anything else.

Anonymous said...

It is not empathy but actually lack of empathy to condone something in others that you believe to be wrong. Gay marriage proponents often try to paint their opponents as "against" them qua people, when in fact they are merely against the principle and the act. If you believe, as Plato expressed in the Laws, that homosexuality is the deliberate destruction of the human race, since it assumes as natural a form of sexuality that is not reproductive, or for the same reasons as Thomas Sowell says that homosexuality is not a lifestyle but a deathstyle, then there is no cloak of victimhood and empathy-seeking to be worn by those seeking gay marriage.

Anonymous said...

I’ll post this in two segments because it is simply too long.

Part I:
Those ideal "communities" you point to were oft forged by voiceless women shouldering the work and reproduction needed to constitute, consecrate and maintain them. What lovely communities those were! In modern times see examples with arranged marriage in Asia, or FGM in Africa, the Middle East and the US, or Bedouin honor killings, and purdah everywhere. Now there are marriages for a community purpose larger than the individuals involved! No tattooed individualism polluting those communities, eh? Your bizarre argument serves to defend America's perverse, history of miscegenation as well. Who’s “community" was that? Oh, yes, white, men, who held dominion over peoples from Africa, poor males, women, children and animals.
We can be so bad at community! Our history is rife with examples of heterosexual men forcing ‘community’ through raw power, violence, cruelty and terror. See the Inquisition, Hitler's Final Solution, the Congo or Darfur. Your ideal community is too small for me and my friends, who would build family bonds with others like or unlike ourselves, who constitute a "mongrel" collection of mixed races, ethnicities, religions, genetics, geographies, and sexualities. You are not alone, of course. See N.Korea, Myanmar, the Amish, the FLDS, the Wahabi, Taliban, Jim Jones, or Salem. Of course, your community isn’t like that. Yours is better, truer, and more righteous. Certainly superior to my heathen, conglomerate, of valueless, liberals. But my community, with warts and all its transitions, permutations, porosity, and unpredictability, is plenty big enough for you and yours.
Your fear of a world eluding control compels you to destroy difference; my embrace of difference allows me reflective interaction with it. Reason and empiricism are not synonyms for relativism: you know that. The Greeks taught us that we are a paradox: we long for homogeneity, even as it eludes us. We pine for stability, mastery, sameness, safety, predictability, immortality, but what we can have is but chaos, change, transition, revolution, death, birth, mutation, and heterogeneity. You point to values steeped in your god's design, but I see nature's evolution, change, and adaptation. Communities are dynamic entities, not static prisons. A community that embraces possibility is a place where democracy can thrive. But faith denies possibility. Augustine's predestination checks his free will. If people wish to marry and have children in new or different combinations, if women even cease to marry, how does this eviscerate our community? They – we – are our community. Our children, if we have them, need love, nurture and continuity; heterosexual families have thus never been sufficient. A community with homosexual marriage is surely different from Augustine's community, but his community wasn't all that for children, either, now was it? I want a community of joy. What do you want? The Bhutanese measure the GDH; what would you measure? GDC?

Anonymous said...

Part II of my post:

Finally, as I link to your anti-abortion blog, your view of women’s subordination emerges as sadly adolescent. That all men must reproduce with surrogates means that for many, controlling women seems necessary. Thus, men’s androgenetic drive may be assuaged by patriarchal institutions, practices and cultures, but the result is rarely a happy community for women. Your sacred, heterosexual marriage, has, for many women, meant only a personal prison, a community of tyranny, violence, and poverty, a life of labor amidst a sea of idle men playing with petty toys, the din of men’s voices drowning out women’s thoughts, needs, and selves, a community of death through unwanted childbearing and childbirth -- all for the sake of men’s ‘wider’ community. Exercising my "right" to end a pregnancy, for my "convenience" (to save my life, my children’s lives, or because I did not want to be pregnant) did not "damage" our community; rather, it strengthened it. As a result, I’m a hell of a mother, a damn good academic and an extraordinary citizen now.
I almost didn't marry because marriage is so often unhealthy for women. If our gay and lesbian friends and fellow citizens can marry, then perhaps the grip you heterosexual-identified men hold around women's necks through the marriage vow will finally loosen. Losing your hold on our communities, letting women escape your grasp, and letting men who look at you as prey, terrifies you patriarchs. But as both S.Pottinger and S.Tepper have noted, perhaps that's not such a bad thing, after all.

hb said...

I take it that you haven't read Andrew Sullivan on the subject. If you had, I'd find it hard to believe you'd lump his arguments in so carelessly with those viewing marriage solely as a right.