Friday, July 10, 2015

As Easy as Stepping on a Rake

I'm a firm believer in the usefulness of debate.  One of its uses is to help figure out what the issues are.  It's easy to become so obsessed with the formulation of a question that you develop tunnel vision and forget that the question can be asked in different ways, and that there are more than two sides in an important disagreement.  This is why the audience of a debate is at least as important as the debaters themselves.  As I've often said, the purpose of a debate is not for one of the debaters to persuade the other that his or her position is wrong, but to inform the spectators, so that they can better evaluate the controversy.

I had it in mind to apply this point to the current controversy over the Confederate battle flag, but then I read a post on same-sex marriage -- or rather, on marriage in general -- by Amanda Marcotte at Rawstory.  Marcotte tries to administer a dope-slap to reactionary opponents of same-sex marriage:
Basically, their real concern is that people are going to stop seeing marriage as a miserable duty to be endured and instead start thinking that love, happiness, and companionship should be what marriage is about. The marriage-for-love mentality is no doubt especially threatening to some of your more sexist men. There’s already a lot of fear that women prefer singleness to being with a man who isn’t loving and supportive. That’s what all that hand-wringing about single motherhood and singleness generally is about—anger that women might actually have standards and not just marry the first guy who will take them.
She then quotes Mike Huckabee speaking on CNN:
“Regardless, heterosexual marriage is largely in trouble today because people see it as a selfish means of pleasing self, rather than a committed relationship in which the focus is on meeting the needs of the partner,” he said. “That sense of selfishness and the redefinition of love as to something that is purely sentimental and emotional, has been destructive.”
Marcotte then denounces
this bleak view where marriage is about cosmic duty, not about being happy. In fact, there’s a suspicion of happiness underlying this, a belief that if you’re enjoying your relationship, you must be doing something wrong.
Jeez, where did Marcotte ever get the idea that marriage is about love and happiness?  She really should check out the century or more of feminist analysis and critique of marriage, and then all the research that found that the only people less unhappy than married women are unmarried men.  This research was cited by mostly male reactionaries to attack feminism (women totally owe it to men to sacrifice their happiness to propping up the male ego!), but that doesn't discredit the evidence.  This article sums up First Wave feminism's take on marriage, though it probably stereotypes Second-Wave feminism unfairly.  The best-known Second Wave critics of marriage are probably Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis.  The situation has changed slightly as married women gained more autonomy and have had their own outside-the-home jobs, and could control their own money -- which, perhaps oddly to this mindset, means that having a job makes you happier.

And then there's the "marriage equality" movement itself, which has made a big deal about all the zillions of "rights" that married people get.  Special rights, of course.  Right after the latest Supreme Court ruling I had an educational exchange on Facebook with a marriage-equality devotee who flatly angrily denied that the movement was about anything but Love!  Like, what part of "Love Wins" didn't I understand?

Marriage is not about equality: it's about inequality.  It privileges certain couples -- those who are registered with the State -- over other, unregistered couples, to say nothing of single people.  Marriage is, and always has been, about property, not about love, and certainly not happiness.  From what I see, most of my younger acquaintances, especially the gay ones, are really interested in having a wedding.  Preferably a big expensive spectacle of a wedding, like in the movies.  Preferably in a church, which is going to frustrate them when they learn that they can't force a church to be the soundstage for their spectacle.  How are they supposed to get a viral Youtube video and website out of their wedding if they can't have it in a church?
"We loved the T-Mobile advert spoof of Wills and Kate's wedding," [NIna, 28, the bride] said.

"Ever since I saw that I've always fancied giving it a go."
Back in the Seventies when I first began to realize that I preferred being single, I was bemused when to find that my coupled friends (mostly lesbians at the time) were saying that they needed to find me a nice boyfriend, so I'd be happy like they were.  When I replied that being in a couple hadn't made me happy, they would change their tune: Well, you're not supposed to be happy!  Being in a relationship is hard work!  You'll be miserable, but it's good for you! You're just selfish! ... and so on.  Bear in mind, they weren't talking about legal marriage (not available then to same-sex couples anywhere) or civil union or domestic partnership, but just about having a boyfriend.  Ironically, they succeeded in confirming my sense that being coupled was not for me.  For them, maybe, but not for me.  (A few years later, all those would-be matchmakers had broken up with their partners.  They found new ones, of course.)

Since then I've often observed that people to tend to stay in relationships long after after those relationships are making them miserable -- for fear of being thought a quitter, or immature, or selfish, or a failure -- or for fear of being alone.  Again, the propaganda that pervades the Culture of Therapy encourages those fears.  It isn't only old fundamentalist males who say this stuff.  And civil marriage makes getting out of a bad relationship even harder, as it's meant to.

Not only does marriage not equal love, love doesn't equal marriage.  I love many people; I'm not even theoretically interested in marrying most of them.  (My niece, my friends, my grandnephews, etc. -- but not my sex partners either.)  "Love" is a multivalent and confusing concept in many cultures, not just ours; often it's an outright euphemism for erotic desire or for copulation.  Equating love with marriage is propaganda, as is linking it to happiness.  One reason so many marriages fail is that people have unrealistic expectations about the institution -- again, it's not just old religious people who say this, it's a staple of the Culture of Therapy.   But what are realistic expectations?  Inflating the importance of marriage or even just of couplehood, making romantic love a prerequisite for happiness, is patriarchal propaganda.

But all this is the easy part, I think.  It's easy to mistake Amanda Marcotte for a radical: she's brassy, confrontational, and she talks dirty.  But confusing tone with content is usually a mistake. Her stated position here makes it explicit that she stands in the liberal tradition of the atomized individual.  "There is no such thing as society," Margaret Thatcher infamously said, "there are individual men and women and there are families."  Obviously Thatcher drew different conclusions from that premise than Marcotte and many other liberals do: that doctrine can be used to rationalize a wide variety of positions.  Mike Huckabee would probably be shocked to learn that Christianity as represented in the New Testament is an individualistic (though not liberal) cult, as religions of salvation usually are.  Jesus' teaching focused on the safety of the individual, who must be prepared to break with and defy all the institutions of his society -- family, marriage, religion, state -- in order to get into the Kingdom of Heaven.  As the Confederates found with their doctrine of states' rights, the early Christians had to contain this doctrine immediately if they were to survive as an institution themselves: the apostle Paul's letters show him balancing the freedom of the individual against the rest of the community (conceptualized as the Body of Christ), under his authority as Christ's deputy.  But the early Christian communities could only be built by taking individuals away from already-existing communities.  It's worth remembering that although most early Christians probably married, Jesus' and Paul's exaltation of sexual abstinence encouraged and empowered many people to reject marriage -- especially women.

You can't have individuals without community, or a community without individuals, and social history can usefully be read as an account of the tension between those poles.  Propaganda for same-sex marriage has cited the importance of social recognition and acceptance of Our Relationships.  Which, ironically, confirms the complaint of many opponents of SSM that ratifying same-sex civil marriage forces not just them but everyone to endorse those relationships against their religious principles.  You can make an argument that this isn't so, but the proponents of SSM tend to flipflop after having done so, and demand social acceptance and support from everybody for their marriages.  Civil marriage isn't about individual happiness, it's a social and political construct, and it can enable or obstruct individual happiness.

Individual choices are not (necessarily) determined by social or cultural forces, but they are pressured and limited by them.  The choices we make are limited by the options available, the rewards for compliance and the penalties for noncompliance.  So the question still has be asked, quoting Ellen Willis quoting Rosalind Petchesky: Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?  I agree with Marcotte's insistence that women have a right to choose their partners and relationships, to draw lines within their relationships to preserve their autonomy, and that men have no right to demand that women make all the concessions and provide all the service.  But she should consider the question whether (especially civil) marriage civil marriage, despite the reforms that have been enacted in parts of the West, is a gateway or an obstacle to personal happiness.

But, you know, if Firestone and Willis are too radical for you, there's always Nancy Polikoff's excellent and moderate Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage.  Simply negating the demands of the religious patriarchs isn't the only way to refute them, and such negation has a tendency to snap back and hit you in the face.