Rosin, Sullivan and Douthat

…walk into a bar…


I might be a little biased, but evidence is growing that TAS alum Ross Douthat is the greatest newspaper columnist alive. Take that into consideration when I say that I think his column yesterday on gay marriage — on marriage, really — is one of his best ever.

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”! 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.

While I disagree with Ross that snubbing gay couples is acceptable “collateral damage” in trying to strengthen these ideas in contemporary society, that is certainly a goal I associate myself with. And more importantly as it relates to this debate, I think these are ideas that are very important, but easily misunderstood, and thus glibly dismissed.