Saturday, October 4, 2008

On gay marriage

Or, I write an email to conservative talk radio, and they base a show on it.

A funny thing happened the other day- I found myself quoted without attribution on a radio talk show. In an effort to hear from the other side of the cultural divide, I had stumbled upon a radio show sponsored by the Lutheran synod of Missouri. The show, called Issues, etc. has intellectual pretensions, but is so conservative (featuring ads by arch-creationist Ken Ham) that the synod itself tried to shut it down recently, only to be fended off by a howling storm of protest from you-know-who ... the rabid right.

The story starts when I heard a segment against gay marriage (Sept 19). This was full of the usual tortured and mean arguments. For instance, gays have exactly the same rights that everyone else has- they can marry someone of the opposite sex! (You can almost hear a drum roll and a big "tee-hee"). However irritating, I let it go as red meat for the right wing. Then on Sept 24, they had a segment about family values, which included the observation that one of the general rationales for families is to serve as mini-mutual aid societies, thus taking the burden of caring for people off the government's hands ("a little community of the family", as Dr. Morse put it). In communist utopias, (such as Israeli Kibbutzim), everyone eats at communal tables, and children are raised in communal nurseries, putting most or even all societal burdens on the state rather than on the family. This is not how we do it, of course, yet the more atomized our society becomes, the more the state has to pick up the slack. Morse cited the high costs of family fragmentation in the US and urged everyone to do more to encourage family formation and maintenance.

Very well! This presents an obvious opportunity for comment. If society would benefit from more and stronger families (as I think most of us agree), why not encourage more families ... by allowing, even encouraging, gay marriage? I wrote them an email:

Hi, Issues, etc-

I was impressed by your economics segment with Jennifer Roback Morse. She is much better as an economic adviser than as a moralist. She was eloquent in support of families, in their economic role as institutions of mutual caring, lest we be government wards or worse as atomic units of humanity. Thus I found it curious that only a few shows back you were so adamant about prohibiting gay marriage. One would think that from moral as well as practical and economic perspectives, having more families would be better than having fewer, and granting gay citizens full rights to form families would be highly beneficial, for them and for society at large. Indeed, creating a normalized expectation of marriage for gay people would be beneficial in reducing disease rates and other problems of extreme gay culture along with all the other benefits above.

Am I getting something wrong here? They would not have children anyhow, so whether they do not have children in second class partnerships or in full marriages is not the issue, as it likewise is not for straight couples. This show helped fill in the intellectual blank from the previous gay marriage show, demonstrating that having children is far from the only relevant facet of marriage, and helping to clarify why it would be positive for us all to promote rather than demote gay marriage.

What I think you were getting at in your previous gay marriage show was that normalizing gay people (characterized as the "other" in this case) violates your sense of social purity and sanctity, and could cause gayness to spread in future generations. You probably are are aware, however, that people do not become gay by choice, but rather are made that way, by god or otherwise, so these fears are misplaced.

Sincerely yours- Burk Braun

They sent a brief reply, pointing me to a couple of anti-gay marriage propaganda sites, and I thought little more about it.

But what do you know- I listened to subsequent segment (Oct. 1- Is gay marriage pro-family?), again with Dr. Morse, where they quoted from my email almost verbatim. I certainly respect their willingness to broach my question and present this interesting case on the air. But Dr. Morse's answer was amazing in its hyperbolic rhetoric and incoherence, even desperation. Here are some quotes:

"... the issue is whether the legal definition of marriage should change from being a child-centered institution that is based on the differences of the genders ..."

What happened to the "little community" definition? What happened to childless couples of all sorts? This is the most tired tactic of the right- to hide behind a fanciful "child-based" definition of marriage like it was a hostage in a bank robbery drama.

"... I so far have not seen much movement by the gay community to say, you know, gosh- premarital sex is a bad thing, and I just can not wait till we have gay marriage so we can get married and we can tell everybody to be chaste until they get married."

This was a reply to my point about the benefits of building a societal expectation of marriage for homosexuals. One might ask how is it possible to be against premarital sex if for you, marriage is still illegal? And anyhow, why is it that not supporting Dr. Morse's far-right agenda of chastity-only makes marriage a bad thing for you? Perhaps unwed pregnant teenagers should be prevented from marrying, because of their obvious disdain for the institution!

"... to say that children are not an important part of marriage at all, as some of them do, as some of them want to say, there is no question then that dethrones children from the pride of place that they have in the marriage institution."

Ah, yes- note the grandiloquent "dethrones"! Are children necessary to marriage? Quite simply, no. This is, once again, simply grasping for straws, though using rather purple prose. We all like and appreciate children, and have been children at one time or another. That still does not make children essential to marriage (... though the converse is true- marriage is indeed good for children).

"... when a child is attached to a same-sex couple, they have to have first been detached from at least one of their other parents."

Oh, dear- here we get to the climax of the segment, the baby-snatching argument! Apparently, all children are currently being raised by 2.0 parents, who should be on their guard against gay couples prying open the windows and trying the doors in order to snatch their babies! What of all the Birthright centers that are trying to place out those abstinence-only oops-babies for adoption? What of all those single parents who are working their fingers off raising "detached" children? Obviously, if Dr. Morse would allow reality to intrude for a moment, relatively few gay couples are interested in raising children, and for those who are interested, there are many children in need of homes - children who will be taken care of far better by a married same-sex couple than, for instance, by a state foster institution. Can homosexual people have their own children, either via friends, or sperm banks and the like? Yes, they can and do right now, and here again, it is in every one's interest to have these children, rare as they are, raised in a marriage, not outside one.


In fairness, there is one argument that gay marriage opponents make that has some interest, which is the slippery slope argument (also made by Justice Scalia some time ago). If gay marriage now, why not polygamy, or marriage to pets, tomorrow? One can answer these with the same kind of fairness and utility arguments that argue for gay marriage above. As far as marrying pets, this hardly qualifies as a mutual aid society- it is utterly one-sided, and the relationship is in no way enhanced by giving it the status of marriage, especially in the legal terms of inheritance, medical rights, and tax status. Indeed, a New Yorker story recently illustrated the substantial problems of allowing pets to inherit money, as per the Leona Helmsley estate. Pets may be worthy of humane treatment, but they are not legal persons and do not constitute partners in any legal sense, whether for marriage or other contracts. Whether corporations are legal persons, and thus merit marriage rights, is a question for another day!

The polygamy issue is more intriguing, since it may well be an entirely voluntary arrangement among consenting adults. And it may even be socially beneficial when there is a shortage of available men. Muhammad encountered this situation after his various battles killed off many of the local men, so he stepped up to the plate to take in several women as wives, at a time when being a single woman was practically unheard of. Of course consummating one of his marriages with a girl of nine might detract from this altruistic narrative, but nevertheless, there is a point to the practice. Even today, the black community suffers from a very high incarceration rate of men and thus a shortage of eligible marriage partners. Would it make sense in the black community to allow polygamy, at least on a temporary basis, perhaps as an enticement for men to be responsible breadwinners? Hmmm.

Outside such extraordinary cases, there is the basic problem of the marriage market. In most societies, if men agree to have no more than one wife, then all have a chance at marriage and the (presumed) happinesses attendant thereunto. In fundamentalist Mormon communities, adolescent boys are actively and brutally exiled to the outside because there are not enough girls to go around- the old goats get first pick. In contemporary Islamic societies that allow polygamy, such as Saudi Arabia, much of the social discontent and extremism is attributable to hopelessness, not from the abstractions of modernism or the siren song of fundamentalist theology, but due to a deranged marriage market that drives men to despair and even to obligatory homosexuality.

Then there is the feminist argument. Is brainwashing and degradation of women a necessary component of polygamy? Would any sane woman participate in such a system? One hears many stories of women who were in polygamous households, said at the time that everything was peachy and wonderful, only to fall out at some later point and say that the polygamist life is inherently sexist and hopelessly riven with rivalry among the females. I have no personal knowledge of this, but it seems that polygamy only happens in male-dominated societies, where males dominate not only women but also other men in ways that are inherently incompatible with a fair and enlightened organization of society. Even in gender-unbalanced societies, is it not better to ameliorate the position of single women than to force or entice them into the fraught position of a second or third wife?

So, while it is dangerous to impute motives and impaired agency to people we don't know, in normal conditions there are plenty of reasons to favor the one-to-one system of marriage, and to enforce it to the exclusion of other systems so that on the whole, everyone can find their best chance of happiness in someone else's arms.

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