I’ve been out of pocket. Last night I saw the entire run of Yacht Rock, including the new 11th episode, which covered the secret origin of the song “Footloose.” As a result, I missed Andrew’s post on same-sex marriage.
First, I’ll note that Noah is right to note that I favor civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. Noah poses a question at the end of his very insightful post, and I’ll try to tackle it by addressing Andrew’s thoughts.
The second assumption is that same-sex marriage is, in Reihan’s words, a “socially liberal measure”, and therefore legitimately opposed by social conservatives.
I actually don’t think this “therefore” is right, but we’ll bracket that for now.
But why is it “socially liberal” to encourage mutual responsibility, caring, fidelity, economic prudence, and an institution that fosters self-esteem, family integration and social responsibility? In a society where gay people exist, why is it a socially conservative position to ensure that they are discouraged from mutual caring and responsibility and encouraged – by stigma and marginalization and legal discrimination – to engage in all those activities that the depressed, alienated and despised often do: drug use, alcoholism, sexual irresponsibility, instability, and social isolation?
Why is it not socially liberal
to encourage mutual responsibility, caring, fidelity, economic prudence, and an institution that fosters self-esteem, family integration and social responsibility?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I tend to think social liberals try to encourage these and other values. I mean, of course there is an aspect of liberalism, a neutralist political liberalism, that in theory doesn’t aim to encourage any civic virtues at all. But in practice my sense is that most social liberals are Millians, who do favor certain social outcomes. The notion that social conservatives have a monopoly on endorsing mutual responsibility and caring strikes me as giving them rather more credit than they deserve. I don’t think that “social conservatism” equals good and that “social liberalism” equals bad, which is one of the reasons I find Andrew’s characterization of my views surprising and disappointing. Social liberals, lest we forget, made the case against segregation, caste, and enslavement. That’s a pretty good record.
I tend not to think of social conservatism as an abstraction, a set of ideas that yields determinate conclusions on social questions, but rather as a mostly reactive or situational ideology. Perhaps social conservatives should, in some sense, endorse the radical remaking of the human genome so that a new race of neohumans will be more socially responsible. Yet I nevertheless think that Leon Kass would object, right or wrong. My guess is that Andrew would as well.
Of course, social conservatism is more than just “irritable mental gestures.” But social conservatism will always be at a disadvantage in our “culture of freedom,” as Peter Berkowitz argued in a brilliant essay in 2005.
And yet opponents of same-sex marriage must reckon with the fact that over the past 40 years the very meaning of marriage has undergone a substantial change. The sexual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s have pushed the bearing and rearing of children from the core of marriage’s social meaning. Ask twentysomethings and thirtysomethings what they hope for from marriage. They will, of course, tell you that they want love and that they definitely want companionship — indeed, that they expect their spouse to be their best friend. And obviously they want to share the pleasures of sex. Then ask them about children. Many will pause and say well, yes, certainly, they are thinking about children, and eventually, somewhere down the line, they expect to have one or two. But children, once at the center of marriage, have now become negotiable, and what used to be negotiable — love, companionship, sex — has moved to the center. Under these circumstances, legal recognition of same-sex marriage will not represent a change in the meaning of a venerable social institution through law, but rather an adaptation of law to a profound change in social meaning.
So perhaps social conservatives ought to embrace this new social meaning, and perhaps there should be no push and pull over same-sex marriage as all Americans of all generations and moral and religious sensibilities immediately recognize its undeniable virtues. But I tend to think, as a matter of intellectual history, that it falls on social liberals to advance the case of adapting law to profound changes in social meaning, particularly because conservatives, by definition, tend to resist profound changes in social meaning.
The trouble is, social conservatives have a decent case to make that many of these profound changes, which go far beyond the fight for gay and lesbian rights as Andrew explained in his brilliant “We’re All Sodomites Now,” which is amazingly and unconscionably not available on the web, have had decidedly mixed results, particularly for members of the so-called lower-middle.
My own view is that this is unresponsive to the important questions when it comes to same-sex marriage: sure, the birth control pill has led to some severe social dislocation. But does that mean we should stigmatize same-sex couples at this late date?
Unlike Andrew, I tend to think the legalization of same-sex marriage will have a pretty limited impact on the culture. The transformative impact he describes has more to do with child-rearing, which a large minority of same-sex couples has enthusiastically embraced. Relatedly, I think the fact that child-rearing is no longer at the center of marriage among non-gays is the main reason marriage has become a radically different and in some respects very vulnerable institution. To use Berkowitz’s framework, love, companionship, and sex are and always will be “negotiable.” So I tend to think both sides of the debate advance arguments that are pretty unconvincing, but that’s neither here nor there.
In a society where gay people exist, why is it a socially conservative position to ensure that they are discouraged from mutual caring and responsibility and encouraged – by stigma and marginalization and legal discrimination – to engage in all those activities that the depressed, alienated and despised often do: drug use, alcoholism, sexual irresponsibility, instability, and social isolation?
Social conservatives also tend to oppose the legalization of pornography, despite the strong evidence that easy access to pornography reduces the incidence of sexual assault. Why is that? There are many reasons, which tend to fall outside of my broadly utilitarian framework. I understand and sympathize with some of them, including the idea that the defense of our moral ecology demands that the state take up certain totemic stands against, for example, the degradation of women. Much the same can be said of the death penalty or abortion or euthanasia. Like most Americans, Andrew finds this kind of thinking extremely distasteful. Though I don’t always agree with it, I think this idea of the importance of taboos has a valuable place in the intellectual conversation.
I’m thus left with a position that is easy to caricature and difficult to characterize. As a “brie-eating Harvard-educated God-denier,” I think of myself both as an enthusiastic participant in American life and also as an observer, at a slight tangent. In a quirk of biography, I have close friends who are ardent liberals and ardent conservatives, which could be why I’m un-eager to demonize or even dismiss arguments others consider beyond the pale. Because I don’t think Americans are all that different from, and certainly not superior to, Kazakhs or Poles or Senegalese or Frenchmen, I don’t share Andrew’s high expectations. Narrowness and chauvinism and some level of bigotry is to be expected. Given how dramatically and how fast this country has changed in its mores and demographic composition, a subject Andrew addressed in “Goodbye to All That,” I tend to think, “Wow, Americans have handled this remarkably well!” rather than “Goddamnit, prejudice still exists in the hearts of men! Something must be done!” I mean, of course something must be done. One thing that must be done is the steady, decentralized establishment of equal marriage rights. But as 2007 draws to a close, and as my birthday rapidly approaches, I suppose I’m pretty optimistic about our capacity for decency and mutual understanding.