Chronicles, March 2009

same-sex-weddingI first became aware of the political question of same-sex marriage in 1980.  I was in fifth grade and we were supposed to conduct debates in class about issues of the day.  I was assigned to the group opposing this proposition: “The Equal Rights Amendment should be passed.”  Researching for my part in the debate, I found an argument that the plain wording of the proposed amendment (“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”) would grant men the right to marry other men and women the right to marry other women.  This was in the context of an article opposing the amendment. 

At first I was excited to find this claim.  Up to that point all that I had been able to find were dry legal arguments that would never capture the attention of my classmates.  Here at last was a point that would grab the imaginations of everyone in the room and hold them for as long as I needed. 

But as I thought it over, I realized that there was an obvious question that would stump me if anyone asked it.  Why shouldn’t same sex couples be free to marry?  The only argument in the article was that same sex couples couldn’t reproduce.  My immediate response to that was to think of my grandmother.  When my grandfather died, she was in her fifties, most assuredly past childbearing.  Yet she remarried, and no one thought to object.  So why was the sterility of same sex couples a reason why they should not be allowed to marry? 

In the decades since, I’ve kept an eye on the debate.  I’ve found some very sensible arguments supporting the right of same sex couples to marry, and some intriguing arguments to the effect that no one should marry.  But what I have not found are many substantive arguments in favor of reserving marriage for heterosexual couples.  This is quite surprising.  One would assume that by now someone would have come up with a worthwhile argument  in favor of the status quo

In this issue of Chronicles, Thomas Fleming explains why he is opposed to same sex marriage.  He begins by describing a discussion between Governor Mike Huckabee and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  Huckabee cited the Old Testament’s definition of marriage as necessary heterosexual.  Stewart replied that the Old Testament conceives of marriage quite differently than do contemporary societies, for example allowing polygamy and assuming that households will own slaves.  Fleming summarizes this conversation thus: “Governor Huckabee was slaughtered by the host of The Daily Show.  He refused to confront honestly either polygamy or slavery… Huckabee had, after all, subscribed to the liberal notion that ‘all people are created equal,’ and now he was restricting the equal rights of homosexuals.  When he could only defend his position by citing the law, Stewart quite appropriately asked, “What if we make it that Hispanics can’t vote?”

Fleming agrees with Stewart that marriage as it is conceived in the USA now is something that might as well be opened to same sex couples.  What Fleming opposes is that current conception.  Fleming’s view is complex, and at odds with mine.  I can be fair to Fleming only if I quote him at length:

In the marriage debate, the champions on each side make fundamental mistakes that corrupt the discussion and make it impossible to begin the process of defending marriage.  It is easy to spot the errors of the left, both the Marxist left and the libertarian left:  They hate marriage as it has existed throughout our history and would replace it with a voluntary ad hoc attachment that can be entered or abandoned with ease.  For them, marriage is no longer a serious contract, as liberals once wanted it to be, but only the sort of paperwork a tourist fills out when he is renting a car.  Naturally, he agrees to take out certain insurance, pay traffic tickets, and be held liable for damages.  Beyond that, he only expects to drive the car– or bed the woman– for a limited time.  For them the purpose of marriage is  (as Jon Stewart and his ‘gay’ friends might argue) mutual affection within a stable relationship. 

Conservatives, although they are right in their instinctive reverence for the institution, typically make the mistake of accepting the old liberal view of marriage, which made it a contract between individuals that is enforced by the state.  As a result, they concentrate their efforts on beefing up state regulation of marriage and divorce– as if governments had not already done enough damage– and, by forever speaking of marriage as made between two individuals, they can never entirely escape the liberal-libertarian trap.  If a man and a woman can enter freely into a contract, why can they not, by mutual consent, find an exit?  In forever speaking of marriage as a human right– and, to use Governor Huckabee’s first-grade syntax, “a one man one woman life relationship” formed by two individuals– they will always have to fall back on law or prejudice as their ultimate defense of normal marriage.      

The fundamental problem reveals itself in the vague language, a distant echo of Rousseau and Marx, used to defend traditional marriage.  By “life relationship,” did Huckabee mean an unbreakable bond throughout their lives or merely a relationship to enjoy life together?   

It is as obvious to Fleming as it is to those of us who support same sex marriage that a same sex couple can display “mutual affection within a stable relationship,” and that such a couple is perfectly capable of “a relationship to enjoy life together.”  So, grant that either of these definitions is an adequate description of the purpose of marriage, and same sex couples will be entitled to participate in it. 

Of course, Fleming does not grant this.  His view is radically different.  First, he points out that the definition of marriage as a “one man one woman life relationship” is rather peculiar  in historical terms.  It goes back only to the Enlightenment and is by no means universally accepted in today’s world.  “[T]here is every reason in the world why [Christians] should reject the Enlightenment’s redefinition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman who wish to enjoy life together.”  If it was only in the eighteenth century that Europeans began to regard marriage as a relationship between the spouses, between whom did earlier generations regard it as a  relationship?

In any free society, households can only be independent if, first, they are embedded in a wider network of kin and clan, whose members will aid them, and, second, if they possess sufficient property to maintain their existence and keep from falling into dependency, either on the rich and powerful or on the government.  This link between marriage and property endured, for the responsible classes, down to the end of the nineteenth century.  Men often put off marriage until they were sufficiently well fixed to be able to provide a home and necessities for their future family. 

In the twentieth century, however, governments… made it possible to buy a house on easy terms– and at perhaps three times the price.  We no longer have to take care of our children or provide for their education, and we no longer expect our children to take care of us in old age.  The lord– that is, the government– will provide.    

So, Fleming’s criterion of marriage is to be found in extended family systems.  For him, the purpose of marriage is to situate a household within “a wider network of kin and clan, whose members will aid them” and to ensure that the household will “possess sufficient property to maintain their existence and keep from falling into dependency.”  Marriages formed as the result of romance and dissoluble by easy divorce can hardly be expected to create and maintain such networks or to regulate the accumulation of property as effectively as can the barely dissoluble arranged marriages of premodern Europe.  Fleming might also have cited such nonindustrialized contemporary countries as Afghanistan, which seem to closer to qualifying as “free societies” by his definition than do states under capitalism.  What are the political implications of the sort of family relationship Fleming favors?    

The ancient conception of marriage and family– from Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas, Dante, and Althusius– as the foundation of the social order means exactly the opposite of what Huckabee and Stewart would like it to mean.  The family constructs the lower orders of society, which in turn construct the state; therefore, no legitimate state, whether a republic or a monarchy, will strip the province, village, or family of their traditional prerogatives.  A healthy society may, indeed, pass laws, good and bad, to confirm the family forms that have been inherited from earlier generations, but it will never innovate, for example by liberalizing divorce or legalizing same-sex marriage.

Now at last we’re getting somewhere.  Fleming opposes same-sex marriage because it is incompatible with his belief that we ought to recreate social and economic conditions that existed in the preindustrial world.  I can see why Fleming believes that a society composed of independent households “embedded in a wider network of kin and clan, whose members will aid them” is more compatible with the dignity of the human person than is a society composed of atomized individuals subject to the demands of the market and the will of the State.  I don’t as a matter of fact agree with him- I suspect that life within one of the patriarchal households he wants to reestablish would be pretty stifling.  After all, there must be a reason why so many people have chosen to seek their fortunes in towns far from home since the outset of the Industrial Revolution.  But I can see his point. 

What I don’t see is how he can call his position conservative.  The view of marriage that emerged in the Enlightenment may have been radical in its day, but it accorded very well with the needs of the economic system that was rising at the time.  Households can hardly be independent when they make their livings, not from land they own and work together, but from jobs they hold at the pleasure of employers.  Extended family networks can hardly exist where the majority of the population makes its living as participants in a labor market which rewards those who relocate frequently and penalizes those who are willing to move only short distances from their ancestral home.  Fleming seems to suggest that we in the West should scrap, not only the last three hundred years of thought about what marriage is, but the last three hundred years of economic and social development. 

To call for a return to an earlier form of society is in fact to call for revolution.  If the USA were to scrap industrialization and the concepts of family that go with it, we would be carrying out the most extreme disruption of society imaginable.  If undertaken in a spirit devoid of Fleming’s evident compassion and urbanity, such an effort might easily replicate the horrors the Khmer Rouge inflicted on Cambodia.  Surely the conservative approach, the approach that would “confirm the family forms that have been inherited from earlier generations,” is precisely to legalize same sex marriage.

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28 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  February 28, 2009

    “Why shouldn’t same sex couples be free to marry?” Answer this question: “Why shouldn’t opposite sex couples be free to marry?” and you’ll answer the first question.

    If you want to marry the same sex, marry the same sex. If you want to marry the opposite sex, marry the oposite sex. If you don’t want to marry anybody, don’t marry anybody. It’s really not that difficult.

    “bed the woman”- er, seriously?

    “A healthy society may, indeed, pass laws, good and bad, to confirm the family forms that have been inherited from earlier generations, but it will never innovate, for example by liberalizing divorce or legalizing same-sex marriage.”- EPIC FAIL . . same sex marriage has always existed in some form or another, will always exist in some form or another, and confirming pre-existing norms does not always equal “good.”

  2. acilius

     /  February 28, 2009

    ““Why shouldn’t same sex couples be free to marry?” Answer this question: “Why shouldn’t opposite sex couples be free to marry?” and you’ll answer the first question.”

    Well, Fleming agrees with you there. He does offer an answer to the second question.

  3. cymast

     /  March 1, 2009

    I guess I should’ve stipulated that the answer has to make sense.

    “a wider network of kin and clan, whose members will aid them” . . “possess sufficient property to maintain their existence and keep from falling into dependency.” There are no gender specifications in those statements. Gee, I wonder why. 2 men can raise a dozen orphans just as easily as 2 women can raise a dozen orphans. Ditto for 2 adults of differing genders.

  4. acilius

     /  March 2, 2009

    In the USA, I’ve seen networks of same-sex households operate in a way that comes as close to meeting Fleming’s description of what an extended family is supposed to be as do any of the extended families based on heterosexual coupledom that I’ve seen in operation. So you and I basically agree with each other. However, if we went to Fleming and made that point to him he could reply that we were damning those networks of same-sexers with faint praise.

    Our modern form of society, where people routinely move hundreds of miles from their birthplaces and where a household supports itself not by work blood relatives perform in concert with each other, but by the labor that its individual members perform separately as a result of attention they have gained by placing themselves on the open market, is a poor cold way of living. Everything about it drains the meaning and value out of family relationships. So, while Fleming might very well grant that a group of homosexual couples can achieve the same level of mutual support and intimacy under our system as can an extended family based on common biological ancestry, he would likely argue that this fact says less in favor of homosexuality than it says against our modern economic and political system.

  5. cymast

     /  March 2, 2009

    “So, while Fleming might very well grant that a group of homosexual couples can achieve the same level . . he would likely argue that this fact says less in favor of homosexuality than it says against our modern economic and political system.”

    Switch “homosexual” and “homosexuality” to “heterosexual” and “heterosexuality” in the above.

  6. lefalcon

     /  March 3, 2009

    “I’ve seen networks of same-sex households operate in a way that comes as close…”

    Eh? You’ve seen “networks of same-sex households”? The clinical language makes it tough for the reader to quite get what this is. Can you explain? Sounds like you went out to some interesting cattle-raising facilities around Farmland.

    And this guy’s article is basically bullshit. Maybe it’s legit as a little exercise of thought / verbal expression. But it’s not a serious statement about sociological issues in the US. What? We’re all supposed to revert to the norms of the 18th century or something? No matter how many fluffy layers of argument you put on top of that basic idea, the basic idea remains some weird fantasy that you’d think someone would be embarrassed to articulate in public. If he just said, “I think samesex marriage is weird,” I could respect that. But he comes off as a nut. I imagine him to look somewhat like George Will: that basic physical type. Am I on target?

  7. acilius

     /  March 4, 2009

    Here’s a picture of Thomas Fleming:

    Sorry if “networks of same sex households” sounds like clinical language- I was trying to be consistent with Fleming’s language, so that it would be clear which of his points I was answering. I was saying that I’ve known groups of same sexers who’ve worked together in something like the way he describes extended families working. That in fact those groups have come at least as close to what he describes as have the extended families based on heterosexual coupledom that I’ve known. So just Monday night, Mrs Acilius and I had dinner with a group of about 10 people, most of them same-sexers, a very close knit group that we’ve often turned to when we had real problems.

    Of course I don’t agree with Fleming that we should revert to the norms of the 18th century. As I say above, the only way Fleming’s criteria for healthy family structure could be satisfied would be as a result of a Khmer Rouge-style destruction of Western society.

    But I think his article is far from bullshit. He makes several points that I think we can all accept as fact: that the most common idea about the purpose of marriage in the West is “a relationship between a man and a woman who wish to enjoy life together.” That this idea is relatively new and far from universal. That has been more common among the cultures of the world for the idea to prevail that the purpose of marriage is to cement bonds among extended families. That an isolated nuclear family based on a love match is an extremely unstable social unit. That this system is a prescription for widespread loneliness and dependency on impersonal bureaucracies.

    In view of these facts, if it were possible to revert to the norms of the 18th century and before, or to adopt the norms of the many other cultures where marriages are still arranged to cement bonds among extended families, I’m sure there would be a very strong case to be made for doing so.

    I would oppose that case. Going back to those old ways would require abandoning capitalism and affirming patriarchy, and I’m not willing to do either of those things. But there is enough to be said in favor of the system Fleming supports that you can learn something in the course of making an argument against it. That’s more than you can say about most of the stuff people say against same sex marriage.

  8. lefalcon

     /  March 4, 2009

    I guess that what I was really driving at, was that when somebody’s life is devoted to emulating George Will, you gotta raise an eyebrow. Something’s up. If Will grew a beard, they could be twins. And even without a beard, I bet Will could write a similar article.

    Sure, I agree there are some interesting angles to consider. And I haven’t read the article itself. BULLSHIT! might be a severe judgment, since he did have to go to all the trouble to type it and everything. From my perspective, the dynamic in our culture, going toward official mainstream recognition of same-sex partnerships as it is, represents pretty much where we are. Theorizing about “a Khmer Rouge-style destruction of Western society” (to use your vivid phraseology): what does it get it? Esp. since we could be using our time to discuss the roots of gender differentiation or Scots English or a strange character that I had created.

  9. acilius

     /  March 4, 2009

    “Theorizing about “a Khmer Rouge-style destruction of Western society” (to use your vivid phraseology): what does it get” us?

    Well, it doesn’t get us anything that could be called conservative, that’s for sure. But it does help to show us how it came to be that “the dynamic in our culture, going toward official mainstream recognition of same-sex partnerships as it is, represents pretty much where we are,” and why opponents of that dynamic have such a hard time coming up with anything at all to say in defense of their views.

  10. cymast

     /  March 4, 2009

    “That an isolated nuclear family based on a love match is an extremely unstable social unit. That this system is a prescription for widespread loneliness and dependency on impersonal bureaucracies.”

    Sounds like Fleming is desperate to marry a man. Why else would he be grasping at straws to find a reason not to?

    While we’re at it, we should outlaw eating meat. After all, we all agree that a vegetarian diet is healthier, right?

  11. acilius

     /  March 4, 2009

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at by quoting those two lines and saying Fleming is “grasping at straws.” Do you take issue with those claims? They seem to me to be pretty well established.

  12. lefalcon

     /  March 4, 2009

    I was thinking that maybe he should get together with George Will: two nearly-identical-looking dudes, only one has a beard (so you can tell them apart).

  13. cymast

     /  March 5, 2009

    Yeah, I take issue with Fleming, his “arguements” are laughable. Sorry. Like I said, interchange “homo” with “hetero” and vice versa.

  14. cymast

     /  March 5, 2009

    Fleming and Will wrestling in a tub full of Arby’s roast beef- now that’s HOT!

  15. cymast

     /  March 5, 2009

    “Mrs Acilius and I had dinner with a group of about 10 people, most of them same-sexers, a very close knit group that we’ve often turned to when we had real problems.”

    I’m sure this close-knit group of friends is more qualified to explain Fleming’s fallacies.

  16. acilius

     /  March 5, 2009

    Make that switch and you have no effect on the argument. For Fleming, the issue isn’t whether same sex couples are equal to opposite sex couples. He doesn’t think that marriage is primarily about the couple at all, but about the place of the household in an extended family. That’s why he advocates arranged marriages and opposes love matches. This is an unusual view in America today, not so in most places or at most times.

    If marriage is based on the passionate sexual relationship of the couple, of course it should be open to same sex couples- Fleming grants this explicitly. This is why his article is so important. It shows that there is no way to oppose same sex marriage and be conservative at the same time. Only by adopting a radical anti-modern, anti-capitalist agenda can you construct a coherent alternative to it.

  17. cymast

     /  March 5, 2009

    “Make that switch and you have no effect on the argument.”

    Exactly! Which is why Fleming does nothing but talk in circles.

    “Only by adopting a radical anti-modern, anti-capitalist agenda can you construct a coherent alternative to it.”

    Still no. Same-sex marriages can be arranged marriages. Homosexual women (and now men) can, and do, become pregnant. Homosexual women and men can, and do, adopt children.

  18. acilius

     /  March 5, 2009

    “Fleming does nothing but talk in circles.” I must not be presenting his argument fairly. I still have the magazine, I’ll photocopy his article and mail it to you so that he’ll have a chance to speak for himself, without my filtering.

    I take it you are saying that the sort of system Fleming favors does not, even in the context of “a radical anti-modern, anti-capitalist agenda” represent “a coherent alternative” to same sex marriage. I don’t see why not. Throughout history many societies have had systems in which patriarchs have arranged marriages for their offspring in order to bind households into kinship networks, designate the offspring of some couples as legitimate and those of other couples as illegitimate, and secure the transmission of property from generation to generation. To prove that such a system was incoherent as an alternative to a system that would allow for same sex marriages, it would not be enough to prove that patriarchs could in some possible world arrange or have in this actual world arranged same sex marriages and thereby achieved these same goals. Instead, we would have to prove that patriarchs could not achieve those goals without including same sex marriages among their arrangements.

  19. lefalcon

     /  March 5, 2009

    But, if I’m understanding A correctly, Flem’s argument goes in the following steps:

    Gay marriage bad!; Hmmm, how can I justify that position?; All current values surrounding marriage bad!; Therefore, return to values of some earlier century!

    If he’s arguing against gay marriage, then why does he mount an argument against marriage across the board? It’s like arguing that nobody should buy a foreign car…but then suddenly changing gears and arguing that nobody should buy a car of any sort. So what’s his beef? If he’s against foreigns cars, why does he turn around and start arguing against ALL cars?

  20. lefalcon

     /  March 5, 2009

    BTW my question in the prior comment is sort of rhetorical. I’m not really wondering, “Why?” I think it’s just a poorly-constructed argument.

  21. lefalcon

     /  March 5, 2009

    “…there is no way to oppose same sex marriage and be conservative at the same time.”

    I think I understand what you’re trying to say, but I think I could understand it more immediately if way and conservative were replaced with long descriptive phrases. “…there is no big long argument like what a lawyer or logician would construct whereby one can oppose same sex marriage AND be concerned with preserving certain particular things one thinks are good, at the same time.”

    Anyhow that’s just my opinion. I think I’m understanding what you’re saying.

  22. cymast

     /  March 6, 2009

    OK Acilius, send the photocopy over, and I’ll rip it to shreds, figuratively.

    ” . . we would have to prove that patriarchs could not achieve those goals without including same sex marriages among their arrangements.”

    Here’s where we lose track of the original argument. My argument is “there’s no valid reason to ban same-sex marriage.” Your (Fleming’s) argument seems to be “opposite-sex marriages and earlier values are compatible, while same-sex marriages and earlier values are not.”

    Yes, thanks LeFalcon, you gave an analogy of the “reasoning” Fleming uses that I, in turn, interpret as talking in circles.

  23. acilius

     /  March 6, 2009

    No, I think same sex marriage is really a secondary issue for Fleming. He wants to reaffirm traditional patriarchal modes of family life, and opposes making the personal fulfillment of the spouses the goal of marriage. He is quite calm about acknowledging that if that is the goal, same sex marriage is one of the logical consequences.

  24. acilius

     /  March 6, 2009

    Well, I’d say there’s no argument at all that anyone would construct to support love matches as the basis of marriage, but limit them to heterosexuals only. That’s why same sex marriage opponents all sound so stupid.

  25. lefalcon

     /  March 6, 2009

    I don’t know how other people feel about this, but I would prefer the comments in the old format where it was really simple to understand that it was just a chronological succession of posts. This business about responding to a specific comment from earlier in the thread and then having the new comment appear way far back in “thread” .. it’s so confusing. You have to look back in earlier parts of the conversation to find the new parts. I wonder what Dreyfuss’s position would be on this?

  26. acilius

     /  March 6, 2009

    I’m willing to reset the comments to the old, non-threaded format. Unless I hear an objection, I’ll do that sometime this weekend.

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