Ross Douthat at NYT:
Here are some commonplace arguments against gay marriage: Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril. Lifelong heterosexual monogamy is natural; gay relationships are not. The nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.
These have been losing arguments for decades now, as the cause of gay marriage has moved from an eccentric- seeming notion to an idea that roughly half the country supports. And they were losing arguments again last week, when California’s Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that laws defining marriage as a heterosexual union are unconstitutional, irrational and unjust.
These arguments have lost because they’re wrong. What we think of as “traditional marriage” is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy. The default mode of child-rearing is often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological children.
Nor is lifelong heterosexual monogamy obviously natural in the way that most Americans understand the term. If “natural” is defined to mean “congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable. In crudely Darwinian terms, it cuts against both the male impulse toward promiscuity and the female interest in mating with the highest-status male available. Hence the historic prevalence of polygamy. And hence many societies’ tolerance for more flexible alternatives, from concubinage and prostitution to temporary arrangements like the “traveler’s marriages” sanctioned in some parts of the Islamic world.
So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.
Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.
Or at least, it was the Western understanding. Lately, it has come to co-exist with a less idealistic, more accommodating approach, defined by no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.
In this landscape, gay-marriage critics who fret about a slippery slope to polygamy miss the point. Americans already have a kind of postmodern polygamy available to them. It’s just spread over the course of a lifetime, rather than concentrated in a “Big Love”-style menage.
If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.
But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
I don’t think most people realize how epochal the social shift we’re living through now, with regard to the big tangled ball involving sex, sexuality,marriage, civilization and Christianity. I take it for granted now that we are going to have same-sex marriage in this country, because the elites are all for it, young adults are all for it, and their support of it makes sense for the reasons of “postmodern polygamy” Ross identifies. But few people seem to have thought through the deeper ramifications of this civilizational shift. Most people seem to think this is merely a matter of moving the lines a bit more to the side, to bring gay couples into a stable social framework. In fact, it’s revolutionary to the core.
Look at how diverse current civil marriages are in the US. The range and diversity runs from Amish families with dozens of kids to yuppie bi-coastal childless couples on career paths; there are open marriages and arranged marriages; there is Rick Santorum and Britney Spears – between all of whom the civil law makes no distinction. The experience of gay couples therefore falls easily within the actual living definition of civil marriage as it is today, and as it has been now for decades. To exclude gays and gays alone is therefore not the upholding of an ideal (Britney Spears and Larry King are fine – but a lesbian couple who have lived together for decades are verboten) so much as making a lone exception to inclusion on the grounds of sexual orientation. It is in effect to assert not the ideal of Catholic Matrimony, but the ideal of heterosexual superiority. It creates one class of people, regardless of their actions, and renders them superior to another.
Ross’s view is increasingly, therefore, one faction of one religion’s specific definition of Matrimony out of countless arrangements that are available for cohabitation in civil society and world history. It’s a view freely breached within his own church itself. And it has already been abandoned as a civil matter in some of the most Catholic countries on earth, including Spain and Argentina. And heterosexuals-only marriage is only a microcosm of civilization if you exclude all other relationships from civilization – friendship, citizenship, family in the extended sense, families with adopted, non-biological children, etc.
And – this is my main point – Ross’ argument simply ignores the existence and dignity and lives and testimony of gay people. This is strange because the only reason this question has arisen at all is because the visibility of gay family members has become now so unmissable that it cannot be ignored. Yes, marriage equality was an idea some of us innovated. But it was not an idea plucked out of the sky. It was an attempt to adapt to an already big social change: the end of the homosexual stigma, the emergence of gay communities of great size and influence and diversity, and collapse of the closet. It came from a pressing need as a society to do something about this, rather than consign gay people to oblivion or marginalization or invisibility. More to the point, it emerged after we saw what can happen when human beings are provided no structure, no ideal, and no support for responsibility and fidelity and love.
If you have total gay freedom and no gay institutions that can channel love and desire into commitment and support, you end up in San Francisco in the 1970s. That way of life – however benignly expressed, however defensible as the pent-up unleashed liberation of a finally free people – helped kill 300,000 young human beings in this country in our lifetime. Ross may think that toll is unimportant, or that it was their fault, but I would argue that a Catholic’s indifference to this level of death and suffering and utter refusal to do anything constructive to prevent it happening again, indeed a resort to cruel stigmatization of gay people that helps lead to self-destructive tendencies, is morally evil.
What, in other words, would Ross have gay people do? What incentives would he, a social conservative, put in place to encourage gay couples and support them in their commitments and parenting and love? Notice the massive silence. He is not a homophobe as I can personally attest. But if he cannot offer something for this part of our society except a sad lament that they are forever uniquely excluded, by their nature, from being a “microcosm of civilization”, then this is not a serious contribution to the question at hand. It is merely a restatement of abstract dogma – not a contribution to the actual political and social debate we are now having.
First, the mere fact that the State does not use the mandates of law to enforce Principle X does not preclude Principle X from being advocated or even prevailing. Conversely, the fact that the State recognizes the right of an individual to choose to engage in Act Y does not mean Act Y will be accepted as equal. There are all sorts of things secular law permits which society nonetheless condemns. Engaging in racist speech is a fundamental right but widely scorned. The State is constitutionally required to maintain full neutrality with regard to the relative merits of the various religious sects (and with regard to the question of religion v. non-religion), but certain religions are nonetheless widely respected while others — along with atheism — are stigmatized and marginalized. Numerous behaviors which secular law permits — excessive drinking, adultery, cigarette smoking, inter-faith and inter-racial marriages, homosexual sex — are viewed negatively by large portions of the population.
The State’s official neutrality on the question of marriage does not even theoretically restrict Douthat’s freedom — or that of his ideological and religious comrades — to convince others of the superiority of heterosexual monogamy. They’re every bit as free today as they were last week to herald all the “unique fruit” which such relationships can alone generate, in order to persuade others to follow that course. They just can’t have the State take their side by officially embracing that view or using the force of law to compel it.
But if the arguments for the objective superiority of heterosexual monogamy are as apparent and compelling as Douthat seems to think, they ought not need the secular thumb pressing on the scale in favor of their view. Individuals on their own will come to see the rightness of Douthat’s views on such matters — or will be persuaded by the religious institutions and societal mores which teach the same thing — and, attracted by its “distinctive and remarkable” virtues, will opt for a life of heterosexual monogamy. Why does Douthat need the State — secular law — to help him in this cause?
Second, Douthat is quite confused about what Judge Walker actually ruled. He did not decree that there are no legitimate moral, theological or spiritual grounds for viewing heterosexual marriage as superior. That’s not what courts do. Courts don’t rule on moral, theological or spiritual questions. Such matters are the exclusive province of religious institutions, philosophers, communities, parents and individuals’ consciences, but not of the State. That’s the crux of this judicial decision.
Thus, one can emphatically embrace every syllable of Judge Walker’s ruling while simultaneously insisting on the moral or spiritual superiority of heterosexual marriage. There would be nothing inconsistent about that. That’s because Judge Walker’s ruling is exclusively about the principles of secular law — the Constitution — and the legitimate role of the State. That legitimate role ends where the exclusively moral and religious sphere begins. That’s why we call it “secular law.” Judge Walker’s ruling concerns exclusively secular questions and does not even purport to comment upon, let alone resolve, the moral and theological questions which Douthat frets can no longer be “entertained” in a society that affords legal equality to marriage.
The court ruled opposite-sex-marriage-only laws unconstitutional not because it concluded that heterosexual and homosexual marriages are morally equal, but rather, because it’s not the place of the State (or of courts) to make such moral determinations. Moral and theological debates are to be resolved in the private square — through the kinds of discussions Douthat claims he wants to have — not by recruiting the State to officially sanction one moral view or the other by using law to restrict moral choices. Judge Walker, citing decades of clear precedent on that question, made as clear as can be that the issue Douthat seems to think was resolved by his ruling — namely, whether heterosexual marriages are morally or spiritually superior — is the exact issue he refused to adjudicate, precisely because those are the issues that courts have no business addressing and the State has no business legislating
Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:
Now, I gather that Greenwald is a pretty radical civil libertarian (of the hard leftist variety, of course), but we aren’t talking about his preferences. When he writes that racist speech is a fundamental right that is (and should be) widely scorned, I’m with him. But is it really treated as a fundamental right? What about speech codes? Hate-crimes laws? Similarly, secular law does permit cigarette smoking, but lots of states regulate it and essentially ban it in all public areas. Try smoking in public in California. Try getting a job at some hospitals if you smoke. Meanwhile, tax dollars are routinely used to stigmatize smoking and excessive drinking. And then there are the countless exhortations in public schools and elsewhere against racist speech and attitudes as well. Whatever the merits of these policies, I don’t see anything like the state neutrality Greenwald is alluding to and he would certainly be livid if the state of California (or the federal government) countenanced public-service advertisements against gay marriage or homosexual behavior (I wouldn’t like it either, for the record) or if government treated gay couples the way it treats smokers (“Do that in the privacy of your own home, but not on the job or near children!”).
Douthat responds to Greenwald:
Well, first of all, I don’t believe that having the truth on your side is any kind of guarantee of success in public debate. (Nor, I’m sure, does Greenwald, or else he would have abandoned his views on torture and executive power long ago.) This is particularly the case when the truth in question asks men and women to engage in sacrificial and frankly counter-biological behavior, in pursuit of an ideal that few societies in history have even attempted to achieve. I will return to this point again and again throughout my responses, but let me be clear: The marriage ideal that I’m defending would be in equally serious difficulties in contemporary America if homosexuality did not exist, because what it asks of straight people is in deep tension with what straight people want to do, and with the way that the incentives of modern life often line up. This is why I’ve spent much more time writing about divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates (and pornography, for that matter) than gay marriage over the years — and I wouldn’t be writing about gay marriage today if Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision wasn’t poised to throw the issue before the Supreme Court, where it might be settled legally once and for all.
Second, I think that most of Greenwald’s examples of cultural norms that aren’t legally enforced actually tend to back up my belief that law and culture are inextricably bound up, rather than his case that they needn’t be. A stigma on racism, for instance, would hopefully exist even in a libertarian paradise, but it draws a great deal of its potency from the fact the American government has spent the last 40 years actively campaigning against racist conduct and racist thought, using every means at its disposal short of banning speech outright. The state forbids people from discriminating based on race in their private business dealings. It forbids them from instituting policies that have a “disparate impact” on racial minorities. It allows and encourage reverse discrimination in various settings, the better to remedy racism’s earlier effects. It promulgates public school curricula that paint racism as the original sin of the United States. It has even created a special legal category that punishes crimes committed with racist intentions more severely than identical crimes committed with non-racial motivations. In these and other arenas, there isn’t a bright line between the legal campaign against racism and the cultural stigma attached to racist beliefs; indeed, there isn’t a line at all.
Or take alcohol and cigarettes. Why are Marlboros more stigmatized than Budweisers in contemporary America? Well, in part, it’s because there’s been a government-sponsored war on tobacco for the last few decades, carried out through lawsuits and public health campaigns and smoking bans and so forth, that’s far eclipsed the more halting efforts to stigmatize alcohol consumption. Here again, public policy, rather than some deep empirical or philosophical truth about the relative harm of nicotine versus alcohol, has been a crucial factor in shaping cultural norms.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The American Scene:
In his column, Ross puts forward the most eloquent defense I’ve seen of “lifelong heterosexual monogamy” as an institution that should be afforded special status by a society’s laws.
Unfortunately, responses to Ross’s column have been predictably dire. Supporters of gay marriage are increasingly candid about their belief that there can be no legitimate, non-bigoted argument against gay marriage, a view which I believe to be false and says more about a certain kind of narrow-mindedness than about anything else. (At this point I should probably produce my non-troglodyte Ausweis and state that I am in favor of legalizing same sex marriage.) Most responses make a spectacle of the author’s incapacity to consider viewpoints that do not fit neatly into her own biases.
Two interesting responses to Ross that stand out from this sorry lot have been from Hanna Rosin and Andrew Sullivan, two writers whose work I admire.
I’ll start with Andrew Sullivan. Reading Mr Sullivan is often frustrating to me because of what I take to be a reflexive tendency to cast anathema upon ideological opponents with inflamatory language (I don’t find it correct or useful, for example, to describe the Catholic Church’s stance on women in the priesthood as “un-Christian”).
Yet Mr Sullivan put forward what I think is the best response to the column, largely even-handed, generous, and very touching. His post is very much worth reading. If Ross puts forward the best argument on one side, clearly Mr Sullivan puts forward the best response. Even though at times Mr Sullivan comes close to reaching for the flamethrower (I don’t believe, as he seems at one point to imply, that Ross is “indifferen[t]” to gay victims of the AIDS epidemic; and I don’t know what it means to say that the Church is in a “High Ratzinger phase”), he is very generous and lucid.
He (and one would not think it should be noted, but given the other responses it must) actually understands Ross’s argument and gives what I think are the two best responses. That while the ideal Ross extols might be wonderful as a religious or even a moral ideal, it does not necessarily follow that the law should promote it at the exclusion of everything else. And that even if that were true, the fact of countless homosexual unions exists, unions that are worth something, and that denying them the legal protections of marriage is a very heavy, to the point of being inhumane, price to pay for a theoretical protection of another kind of ideal.
But really I don’t do it justice. I basically agree with Mr Sullivan, and felt more attention should be given to a great piece of writing.
“Hanna Rosin’s take”!http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/marriage-was-awesomein-17th-century is also worth reading, considerate and rooted in the teachings of history as it is, although she fails to actually grapple with Ross’s argument in certain key respects.
Where Ms Rosin fails is that, after acknowledging that Ross’s argument is substantially different from the regular litany of gay marriage opponents, she still takes it as a nostalgia argument. Ross wants to “go back” to an era where marriage was defined a certain way. She asserts that the kind of marriage that Ross defends never actually existed, or only existed at the cost of “love or choice.” I actually think that’s highly debatable, but I also think it’s beside the point. Her assertions that “[t]here is no barbaric Orientalist marriage which contrasts with a pure, Western one” and that “[m]arriage in the Bible was almost always polygamous” are correct but also irrelevant, because Ross never claimed any of that.
Just as Ross is a very effective critic of the sexual revolution because he recognizes that it has had many positive repercussions, his critique of gay marriage is worth taking seriously precisely because it doesn’t harken back to some mythical era which he starts out by acknowledging never existed.
If Ross wants to “go back” to anything, it’s not so much an era as ideas — ideas that have been with us for a very long time, even if they were all too rarely practiced.
Adam Serwer at The American Prospect:
I can’t speak to the Catholic view of marriage, but I will say this: My parents met in the 1950s when they were teenagers in a small town in upstate New York. They married in their early 20s, and went on to raise two kids. In many ways they are the embodiment of Douthat’s religiously inspired ideal of heterosexual marriage. Except that for about the first five years or so of their relationship, it would have been illegal in many parts of this country for them to get married, because my father is white and my mother is black. My parents’ relationship was startlingly apolitical given the era — they told me they weren’t even aware of Loving v. Virginia at the time despite being married only two years later.
I don’t know what it’s like to be gay and not be able to marry one’s partner, but knowing that my parents, who are more in love with each other than any two people I’ve ever known, could have been legally prevented from getting married within their lifetime because they are not the same race has always framed the issue of marriage equality for me. It’s heartbreaking for me to think of my parents not being able to be married for no other reason than because of entrenched cultural taboos against miscegenation, because their kind of love is so rare that denying it implicates the state in an indefensible act of cruelty. Reducing marriage to a matter of procreation seems ridiculous to me because I don’t consider myself or my brother the most meaningful product of my parents’ marriage; it’s the fact that more than 40 years into it, my mother and father are still each other’s best friend. I’m not in awe of me, I’m in awe of that.
I can’t help but reflect on my own parents when I think about how many people are denied that experience simply because they happen to share the same gender. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could see that as any kind of justice.
Paul Waldman at Tapped:
These are the words of a defeated man. And they may reflect what’s currently going on in the conservative elite. If you’re a part of that elite, by now you’ve probably had plenty of exposure to gay people — at college, in the course of your work, and in the place where you live. So you probably find the kind of naked bigotry still expressed by some in the religious right to be repellent. The rhetorical shift of recent years — in which conservatives take pains to stress that they aren’t denying gay people’s humanity or rights, just trying to defend tradition — is something you genuinely believe. But that leaves you with the sentiment reflected in Douthat’s column, which is this: Yes, gay unions are meaningful and worthy of respect. But straight unions are really, really awesome. The problem is that marriage-equality opponents can’t define what gets taken away from the straight couple when the gay couple gets married, so they have nowhere to fall back to except vague encomiums to marriage between a man and a woman. Which is all very heartwarming, but it still doesn’t tell you why same-sex marriage should be illegal. And I’m pretty sure Douthat and other people making this argument know it.
Choire Sicha at The Awl:
The reason I always make fun of low-level Times semi-conservo-wonk Ross Douthat being unwilling to publicly explain his opposition to gay marriage is that he said it was too personal, essentially. (I know: quite unlike being singled out by society your entire life for being gay—though I guess some people take that personally too? Anyway, that’s why they call it privilege, Ross! Privilege literally means you don’t have to deal with such things.) So good news! He has laid it out, and I really encourage everyone to sit down and read it slowly. I found it an amazing experience. I won’t spoil the actually stunning conclusion—I was actually stunned! I had to sit down for a few minutes to gather myself!—but, in short, he apparently believes that gay marriage is some seven-week-old fetus that needs to be thrown out along with the bathwater of the society that straight people have so thoroughly fouled. After that, you can read the incredibly well-reasoned comments that were allowed on the Times site before they were shut down (hmm!) and then Glenn Greenwald picking apart a few points nicely—but in an incredible way, Douthat is literally unaddressable. Douthat really does want people to be happy, I think. But this all reads like he’s never met a person before, so how would he know?
UPDATE: Noah Millman at The American Scene
And even more Douthat
UPDATE #2: Douthat responds to Sullivan
Patrick Appel at Sullivan’s place responds