The Marriage of True Minds

Ross is kind enough to link to me in a discussion of his latest column on his blog. I’ll return the favor (not that my links are worth very much in the scheme of things) to make a few brief points.

First, I’ll quibble with his historical anthropology. Ross seems to think that monogamy is a Judeo-Christian invention. But it’s not. It’s a Greco-Roman invention, and what it’s “about” is the equality of male citizens. Ancient Rome did not have love marriage; there was too much money at stake for that. But it did have monogamy, because one woman to one man was an expression of a civic ideal. Whether that’s still relevant today is a good question – we’ve got “serial monogamy” and Lady Gaga but Rome, of course, had orgies and celebrity courtesans. But whether it’s relevant or not, it’s not obvious why same-sex marriage would be problematic from this civic perspective. Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that most of those who are seeking for historic justifications for same-sex marriage wind up looking back to Greece and Rome for precedents – the same societies that from which we derive the ideal of lifelong monogamy. And while the complementarity of men and women is central to the biblical account of creation, that view is emphatically compatible with polygamy. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that Ross has the story entirely backwards – nor that homosexuality was uncontroversial in the ancient world, which it clearly was. I’m just pointing out complications to his version of history.

Second, I would, in fact, dispute that we need an ideology of marriage. With a few beers in me, I’d try to dispute that we need an ideology of anything. We do, of course, need rules, and no doubt generalizations and ideals of one sort or another lurk behind those rules in various ways, but the ultimate test of the validity of rules is in their confrontation with reality. One of the realities of our world is that there are gay couples living in what are in-effect common-law marriages: sharing a household, rearing children, supporting each other financially and emotionally, etc. The question put before our society, like others, is whether the law will recognize that reality or not. The answer Ross gives amounts to “no, we must not, because while those relationships look like marriages to us, that’s only because we’ve forgotten – or, perhaps, never yet discovered – what marriage truly is.”

I’m taking a hard line against arguments like that. I have come to be very much against the practice of living inside an idea, rather than living inside of life, and that’s really what I was writing against in my piece of a few weeks ago. But I don’t think you need to take so hard a line as mine to argue against Ross’s position. All you need to say is: if your ideal is so far removed from actual practice, then the law is the wrong vehicle for the change you seek.

Third, one final point. The “divorce revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s – the revolution that ended my parents’ marriage and the marriages of so many of my peers’ parents – is, as Ross knows, over among the “upper half” of our society, educationally and/or economically. For those with a college degree and a middle-class income, lifelong companionate marriage is again the norm, along with a later age of childbirth. The revolution and counter-revolution, if that’s what we want to call them, were two parts of an adjustment to new facts: new economic opportunities for women, pharmaceutical birth control, and substantially longer lifespans. What Ross rightly worries about is that anything resembling stable family life continues to unravel for the other half, with rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce at alarmingly high levels and continuing to rise. I worry about that problem as well. But it is not at all obvious to me what the question of same-sex marriage has to do with this problem. Hidden behind the argument is some kind of populist notion: same-sex marriage is an elite project and the elites don’t need any more projects, thank-you very much – it’s time to do something for those left behind. But if the argument is that we need the “elite” of society to set a better example for the plebes – well, in this part of life at least, they are, aren’t they? They’re deferring childbirth and staying married and all the rest of it. Listen to the way educated people talk about divorcing couples – particularly men who divorce their spouses. It’s not a high status move. Leave the celebrity aristocracy aside – if we’re talking about ordinary educated people, we’re far enough along in reestablishing the high status of lifelong monogamous marriage that there’s a new crop of rebels like Sandra Tsing Loh coming up, chafing against the restrictions on their libidos. So what’s the argument? Is it a version of Steve Sailer’s pure argument from prejudice – that young men will refuse to get married because it’s too gay?

Or, perhaps, the argument is a paternalist one masquerading as a populist one. That is to say: the problem isn’t that the elites aren’t behaving well; the problem is that the elites are behaving well but are doing so in ways that the plebes can’t imitate (because they aren’t smart or economically resourceful enough) or won’t imitate (because the elites appear culturally alien). So the elites need to adopt enough of the manners and prejudices of the plebes to be culturally credible, so that the plebes will actually try to imitate them. Forgive me, but I just find it very unlikely that a wide swathe of society, having developed adaptations to technological and economic change that works for them, will abandon those adaptations in favor of a return to a model that failed for them a generation earlier, simply out of a kind of noblesse oblige. Perhaps it might make sense to look at ameliorating the cognitive/educational and economic deficits instead.

Meanwhile, there’s nothing stopping the LDS Church or the Catholic Church or any other tax-exempt private enterprise from working to establish exactly the kinds of subcultures Ross favors. I no longer aspire to membership in one of those subcultures – but I will defend to the death their rights to exist, and to follow their own rules.