Thursday, May 10, 2012

Tradition! or, Cultural Relativism For Me, But Not For Thee



It looks like President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage is going to inspire a lot of, erm, discussion for a while.  Based on what I'm seeing so far the discussion, in the grand tradition of American democracy, isn't going to be very rational or thoughtful or enlightening. (Richard Kim's post at The Nation is an exception, quite sensible.  If you read it, be sure to look at the first comment too, from a frenzied Obamabot for whom anything less than gushing adoration is "hatred of the president."  Robert Scheer does a good job too:
There is only one essential point to be made about gay marriage: To acknowledge one’s own sexual being and to define the relationships that follow is a basic human right. How dare anyone intrude on a life choice that is not his to make for others? Whether the president’s family knows gay couples who are monogamous and nice to their children has no more to do with the issue than the old argument of enlightened racists in the American South that there were many fine Negroes who were not at all uppity.
I differ with Scheer on one point, though: seeking State ratification and enforcement of one's relationships isn't what I'd call "defin[ing] the relationships" oneself: it looks to me like inviting others to define one's relationship.  A lot of people seem to think of marriage as a naturally-occurring object instead of something that societies and individuals have invented.)

The BBC, for some reason, chose to give the American Christian Right pundit Rod Dreher a soapbox on their site.  In fairness, they also linked to a celebration of "Obama's historic stand" by Sarah Wildman, "a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University", but they gave Dreher precedence in their RSS feed.

Dreher, a Southerner by birth and relocation, disputes the popular analogy between same-sex marriage and the Civil Rights movement.  I agree with him to some extent, because as it's commonly drawn the analogy doesn't hold up, but as I've pointed out before, attempts by antigay Christians to deny the analogy don't work very well either.  In particular, the claim that same-sex marriage is a religious issue, not a civil-rights issue, founders on the fact that racial segregation was also defended as a religious issue.

Similarly, though Dreher made a good point (and one that is usually ignored) when, in recounting his experience as part of the first generation of white Southerners "to attend racially integrated schools from the beginning of our education", he wrote:
Yes, I went to school with black children. But despite this it was not as hard as you might think to maintain one's prejudices.
But he made a revealing blunder when he explained that since local attitudes remained racist, young Southerners were also exposed to different values in "liberal" media:
It was impossible to watch TV back then and not notice that the conventional racial opinions held by local whites were treated as backward and immoral.

They were, in fact, precisely that, but my point here has to do with media ecology. 
This sustained onslaught of media propaganda "made old-fashioned views obsolete and even embarrassing. The rigid old way of thinking, happily, did not survive a single generation ... Racism is seen as trashy - as vulgar - even here in a former segregationist stronghold."  Maybe Dreher isn't old enough to remember that open and explicit racism was seen as vulgar and trashy by genteel white Southerners in the Fifties and Sixties as well.  You weren't supposed to judge racism by low-class trash; you were supposed to judge it by the nice people, who would never use racial epithets in public.  You were supposed to judge it by discreet racial covenants, exclusive country clubs, and maximum quotas for colored and persons of the Hebrew persuasion in institutions of higher learning.  These expressions of white civilization were deployed all over the United States, which showed that the Communists were unfairly picking on the South.

Analogously, Dreher argues, today's youth are more accepting of homosexuality because liberal media are spreading the gospel of gay marriage.  But by his own analogy, it might be correct for the media to treat antigay beliefs as "backward and immoral," and of course he doesn't want to go there.
The collapse of Christianity's cultural authority has been profound.

Prejudice - either in the bad sense of mindless bigotry, or the good, Burkean sense - is the only thing keeping gay marriage at bay.
The collapse of Christianity's cultural authority might also turn out to be a good thing.  But it's the work not of media liberals, but of Christians themselves -- not, as Dreher claims, the kind of liberal Christians who "believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled - and that's about it", though that mindset is well-entrenched among conservative evangelicals.  It's the work of the Enlightenment values enshrined in the Constitution.  The first American colonists weren't interested in religious freedom or tolerance.  They came here to create little enclaves of intolerance where they'd have the cultural authority.  By the time the thirteen colonies declared independence, though, pre-postmodern cultural relativism had gained in influence, and religious prejudice had come to be viewed as backward and immoral, vulgar and trashy.  America was on the slippery slope to gay marriage.

I don't believe that even Dreher, who converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy, would want to live in an America where traditional Christian cultural orthodoxy still prevailed.  Traditional Catholicism is hostile to the whole project of modernity, but not to the point where it thinks that intolerance should be turned against itself; and to traditionalists, any interference with their attempts to impose their views on everyone else constitutes intolerance and persecution. 

On the other side, an old friend of mine posted this on Facebook.  (I give him credit for posting stuff he actually writes himself there, instead of just "sharing" other people's work as most do.)
Regarding arguments evoking the long-standing traditionalness of marriage: it used to be "traditional" that women couldn't vote. And before that, for literally eons, it was "traditional" that nobody could vote, and we were ruled by hereditary kings and queens. A lot of bad things were "traditional" for a very, very long time - until people got smarter and refused to put up with them any more.
Here's another slippery slope, I think.  The prestige of marriage is also a matter of "tradition," a bit of "tradition" that seems to be harder to dislodge.  I suppose all the little bribes (of benefits and privileges) help, but they don't explain to me why this exploitative and unequal institution has such staying power.  As I write this I'm listening to Tony Kushner talking about marriage on Democracy Now!  He talks about legal marriage, but the perquisites that go with legal marriage derive from "traditional" marriage.  In the United States this means that the husband is legally head of the household, with responsibility for his dependents, and provision for their needs is tied to him.  That can be seen in so many of the issues that advocates of "marriage equality": insurance, immigration status, child support, legal recognition of parenthood, Social Security and other benefits, and so on.  These issues traditionally are tied to women's loss of personhood when they marry, as well as the general disenfranchisement of single women.  Over time these have become more equalized, as more women have gained personhood through wage work and political independence, so that an uninsured husband benefits from his wife's health insurance for example.  By the same token, the exclusionary aspects of marriage have been tempered: it's no longer against the law to have sex outside of marriage, for example, and the social pressure on women to marry is less than it used to be.  Children born out of wedlock are less stigmatized than they used to be.  But marriage still privileges couples over single people, as it's traditionally meant to.

These are questions that are rarely even noticed in the contemporary debate over same-sex marriage, but its opponents are no more interested in them than its proponents are.  Both sides agree that marriage is a positive thing, and that it should grant special privileges to the married; both agree that polygamy is out of bounds, despite its traditional, biblical status.  (To say nothing of other currently taboo couplings.)  Look at Tony Kushner talking to Amy Goodman:
AMY GOODMAN: So, for you, it’s about commitment.

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah, it’s—you know, I love him, and he loves me, and I think we have a great connection. And getting married in front of witnesses in the context of your community is—you know, taking your vows in public helps make a marriage, which is not easy for anyone, work. And so...
Aside from the circularity here -- having a wedding helps make a marriage, which is not easy but it's still somehow a good thing -- nothing that Kushner says here really requires legal marriage.  That's another point on which opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage agree: that the state ought to be involved in marriage.  Why should couples, even childless couples, get state subsidies, but not single people, or unmarried couples, even when they have children?  What's at stake here is privileging some couples over other couples, and where's the "equality" in that?  Again I recommend Nancy Polikoff's book Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law (Beacon, 2008) and her blog for an important differing perspective.