Saturday, December 2, 2006

Marriage: The Long, Strange Twilight

How does one, amidst the contemporary turmoil, affirm the importance of marriage? Evidently, by refusing, or declining, to marry. Confused? Last Sunday's New York Times makes all clear in, The Sit-In at the Altar: No ‘I Do’ Till Gays Can Do It, Too which documents the movement among heterosexual couples to defer marriage until their gay and lesbian counterparts enjoy the same right, or priviledge, or burden, depending upon your experience of marriage.

Perhaps this latest civil rights initiative has passed you by. Obviously, you don't read the New York Times carefully enough. In the October 15 issue (now archived), the same phenomenon surfaced in an article trumpeting the fact that traditional households, made up of traditional families, i.e., two parents (presumably a man and a woman), living with one or more children (presumably their offspring) are now the minority. In an attempt to understand why the traditional family has become a receding bit of Americana, the reporter noted: "A few of those couples [not marrying] said they were inspired by solidarity with gay and lesbian couples who cannot legally marry in most states."

Since the Times is now expanding its coverage of this issue, we must assume that there are indeed growing legions of "Straight - but not Narrow" gay marriage supporters across America making their sympathies known by not visiting jewelers, not investing in tuxedos and gowns, and not flocking to the chapel. Well, that should bring the walls of bigotry crashing down.

The only other plausible explanation is that the Times, in a seizure of nostalgia for the era of Howell Raines, is "flooding the zone," i.e. magnifying a peripheral social issue, incessantly editorializing about it, preferably in the news section, and then watching as it assumes the moral dimensions of the struggle against the Waffen SS. You may remember the unprecedented success this strategy enjoyed in altering the gender composition of the Augusta National Golf Club.

As it turned out, nobody cared about that issue either. But this can hardly be blamed on the Times, which fervently believes that our moral consciences can be awakened, or aroused, or simply bludgeoned into compliance through the combined blows of unshakable orthodoxy and stolid prose.

So why am I not jumping on the bandwagon? Well for one thing, it's too late for me. I'm already married, and I'm sure as hell not getting divorced in support of gay marriage. (That would be difficult to explain to the wife, eh?)

The more interesting question, it seems to me, is why abstention from marriage, rather than marriage itself, should ever have taken on the status of a noble sacrifice? I'm not alluding to "take my wife, please . . . " jokes here. What I mean is that we are so far removed from the primal origins of marriage that we have only the dimmest emotional instinct as to what led our ancestors there in the first place.

In the interests of brevity, I will take it as given that marriage is first and foremost about raising children. In the earliest days, you needed to create a next generation simply to keep the little band alive. People were dying all the time, and families no doubt increased the odds that a few lucky children would survive long enough to sustain the tribe. Once people settled into a sedentary agricultural societies, they needed field hands, support in their old age, and inheritors, though these were hardly the only benefits that family life provided. It would seem, however, that for the past two centuries, tradition has been engaged in one long and losing battle to reconcile this aboriginal or agrarian institution with a less hospitable social environment. Marriage, perhaps, is no longer fitted for survival.

Among other things, marriage doesn't work well in a society predicated upon doing whatever you want, because co-existing with another person while raising several other persons is rather emphatically not about doing whatever you want, at least, not most of the time. This doesn't mean that marriage is inevitably a form of imprisonment, though most people who have ever been married have probably felt that on occasion. It just means that marriage, as traditionally understood, was in part a form of sacrifice. One surrendered a measure of freedom and emotional independence in order to gain the satisfactions, and - let's be honest - the respect conferred upon responsible parents. Marriage may have been tricked out in fancy clothes and a day of dancing and feasting, but that was not the substance of the thing. We dress up soldiers in colorful uniforms and march them around in parades, but that's not the essence of soldiering. In both cases, the costumes and the pomp are really more about enlistment.

Abstaining from marriage in the 21st Century is about a dramatic a sacrifice as refusing the Marine Corps until Ru Paul can be your drill instructor. Admittedly, that might make boot camp a good bit more entertaining, but how well it would prepare you for the trauma of combat, I'm not sure. Of course, much of the pompous grandstanding surrounding gay marriage can be laid at the feet of our Hollywood aristocracy. For where Brad and Angelina dare to tread, multitudes will follow.

"These couples have gone mostly unnoticed (except by parents waiting to send out wedding announcements). Then Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie took up the cause. In an Esquire article in October called “(My List) 15 Things I Think Everyone Should Know,” Mr. Pitt writes, “Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able.”

Quite the noble gesture on the part of Brad and Angelina, between whom I count three and a half divorces (I'm including the engagement to Gwyneth . . . Brad's engagement to Gwyneth). But this moral highground need not be the exclusive domain of the celebrity class. There's room up there for us all. Just be sure to bring your sandwich board and megaphone.

". . . some couples see no point in resisting marriage unless they’re going to publicize it. They do so mostly by correcting people who assume they are legally married.

Sam and Fawn Livingston-Gray of Portland, Ore., have the same last name and wear matching white-gold rings engraved with Celtic designs. Still, when someone refers to Sam, 31, a computer programmer, and Fawn, 33, an administrative assistant, as husband and wife, they point out the mistake, even if it’s the guy at the car-rental counter."

“I go out of my way to say we’re not,” Ms. Livingston-Gray said. “It’s a really important dialogue with people I wouldn’t get to talk to otherwise.”

Wouldn't you love to be the harried car-rental clerk who - while tracking and shuffling incoming and outgoing keys, credit cards, and paperwork, has the pleasure of being corrected by Fawn regarding her marital status? What a fruitful dialogue that must be.

Fawn, I'm afraid, like the New York Times, suffers from a common contemporary malady. Both believe that the world is engaged in some raging moral conflict to which their existence and opinions are central. Both expect immense personal credit for advancing the line of battle. And both, while absurdly sanctimonious, remain oblivious to both their sanctimony and their absurdity.

But this delusion characterizes everyone quoted in this story.

"I usually explain that I wouldn’t go to a lunch counter that wouldn’t allow people of color to eat there, so why would I support an institution that won’t allow everyone to take part,” said Ms. White, 24, a law student at the University of California, Davis. “Sometimes people don’t buy that analogy.”

The reason why "sometimes people don't buy that analogy" is that the two situations clearly are not analogous. A lunch counter is a privately-held business, dependent on a steady flow of customers for its economic survival. Shouldn't a UC Davis law student grasp that marriage, despite its contractual obligations, is something other than a business enterprise? Who exactly, other than florists, dress designers, and caterers, will suffer financial hardship if she chooses not to wed? And aren't these the people she's claiming solidarity with anyway? It's difficult for me to square smug self-congratulation with classical virtue, particularly when both are clouded by muddy thinking.

“I didn’t have the wedding fantasies some little girls have,” said Sarah Augusto, 25, a sociology graduate student in Davis, Calif., who has been committed to Jon Bell, 26, a museum exhibit designer, since college graduation three years ago.

But some honestly wish they would walk the aisle, Mr. Bell for one. “Sarah has changed the way I thought about things a ton,” he said. “I was really excited about getting married. Going into high school that was the goal, to meet a nice girl and get married to her.”

Mr. Bell, despite your moving paean to Sarah's ability to change your thinking "a ton," she's cheating on you.

Some sacrifice their own dreams of matrimony for family members denied the right to connunbial bliss, though even their own grandmothers struggle to understand. (Jesus, it is a hard world, isn't it?):

"Mary Lunetta’s grandmother, 77, doesn’t understand why her granddaughter is putting off marriage, either. Ms. Lunetta, 24, a community studies major [a what?] at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explained to her grandmother that she is waiting to make it official with Max Hartman, her boyfriend of five years, because her aunt, who is a lesbian, can’t marry.

Ms. Lunetta said she did not expect her grandmother to get it or agree. “And she didn’t.” Her grandmother, though, did tell her about Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie. “They’re copying us,” Ms. Lunetta said.

Affirming your principles, yet living the dream, just like Brad and Angelina.

On the issue of gay marriage itself, as opposed to this predictably trite piece of NY Times boilerplate, I'm fairly agnostic. Yes, it probably is one more step down the long road to marital obsolence. Not that I expect marriage to disappear completely, it's just likely to become increasingly whimsical, nostalgic and pointless, rather like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

To add a further twist to the downward spiral of marriage, it is amusing to note that "Civil Unions" have become the latest lifestyle option among French heterosexuals. I don't mean campaigning in favor of them; I mean entering into them. Evidently, the confines of marriage are now more suited to those who will never be encumbered with children, while breeding, or at least heterosexual coupling, is less terrifiying under the looser strictures of Le Pacte Civil de Solidarité .

Or, you could just forget the whole thing and produce a slew of bastard offspring, which is clearly becoming the default option for increasingly bewildered and indifferent couples. The effects of this little cultural lab test, however, have yet to be agreed upon by the American Anthropological Association.

Marriage used to expand the possibility of stability and permanence, because people, particularly children, needed this, and stability and permanence have always been in short supply. This may have entailed patience and sacrifice, but evidently it enriched, or simply made more feasible, people's lives in some now increasingly unfamiliar way. Perhaps this was because, as I have tried to argue, it created the necessary space in which to raise the next generation.

Apart from that function, marriage really doesn't mean much other than a symbolic recognition of the temporary intersection of two lives, and while that may matter to those two people, it doesn't matter that much to the world. So, homosexual marriage or hetero-sexual "unions," polygamous triangles or quadrilateral couplings, in-vitro conceptions, sperm-bank fathers and surrogate wives plucked from the pages of a catalogue, let the new millenium begin in earnest.

But I do have one request for those boycotting marriage in support of their same-sex brethren. Couldn't you carry your boycott just one small step further? Until and unless nature herself makes procreative sex available to all, including homosexuals, could you please abstain from that as well? It seems little enough to ask for the coming generations.

Addendum: The Voice of Humility, an excellent blog, has a most interesting post on this topic, called "Another Social Problem Not Solved," which links to an article by Jane Galt, which will provide you with some reasons to oppose gay marriage, should you wish to shore up your bigotry.


Theodore Breehn said...

Thank you for your kind words about my blog.

Interesting stuff about the French. I only hope same sex couples in this country will refuse to enter civil unions until straight couples have that right.

We Shall Overcome!

Anonymous said...

Community Studies should have been capitalized.

I dont think that people who refused to sit at white-only lunch counters were intending to put manufacterers of deli meats out of business. The point was to show how unfair discriminatory policy was, and it's a sad and unfortunate thing that such problems still exist in a society that prides itself on equal access to life, love and liberty for everyone.

"Not that I expect marriage to disappear completely, it's just likely to become increasingly whimsical, nostalgic and pointless."

I take my relationship with my long-time partner very seriously, as I do committment and marriage. I certainly do not consider marraige "whimsical" or "pointless", but just the opposite. I feel that marriage is incredibly sacred and important, and that is why I cannot willingly participate in the institution right now; because, as a heterosexual woman who would very much appreciate the 1,000+ civil rights marriage would give me, it also denies those same rights to those I love- my friends, my neighbors, my family. I can't recieve in good conscience what they are being denied.

People who are fighting for marriage to be inclusive and nondiscriminatory do so because they value it so much, not because they seek to destroy it or destablize it at all. Much the contrary.

Black Sea said...

That section of the post in which "community studies" appears was copied and pasted directly from the New York Times.

Hence, you will have to take up the issue of whether or not to capitalize "community studies" with the Times Editorial Board.

Thank you for your comment.

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