Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Joy of Amateur Punditry

Usually the feedback loop isn't quite this short. This morning, in this feature, I said the following in the wake of the North Carolina referendum that banned both gay marriage and civil unions:

You won't hear much about Barack Obama's "evolution" on this issue, at least for the remainder of the campaign.

It only took 8 hours or so for that particular observation to become, ahem, non-operative:

President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage Wednesday, just hours after North Carolina adopted a constitutional amendment to ban it -- one of 41 states where same-sex marriage is illegal.

President Obama's declaration does not change any law, but it does inject a contentious social issue into the race for the White House.

"For me personally it is important for me to affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," Mr. Obama said.

Got that one wrong. So it goes. The value of my punditry has a direct correlation to the price my readers pay for it.

There are plenty of political implications to Obama's decision to speed up his "evolution," but I'm not thinking about that today. We'll be talking about the politics for the next six months, I'd wager.

In the article I've linked, CBS News points out something that is worth mentioning because, in my view, it's absolutely crucial to understanding the larger dynamic on the topic of gay marriage:

Support for same sex marriage is generational and the president said today his children don't understand why same-sex parents would be treated differently.

"It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective," Mr. Obama said.

Emphasis mine. If you have school age children, which I do, one thing becomes immediately evident; they are being taught, in no uncertain terms, that gay marriage is right and proper and that opposing it, for any reason, is wrong. The views you hear from young people on these issues are astonishingly unified on this topic, because questioning the idea of gay marriage is about the same as questioning gravity. It may be different in other parts of the country, or among parochial school kids or home schooled kids, but I'd wager that support for gay marriage among young people is, if not 100%, awfully close, especially among kids who attend public schools. It is a generational thing and those of us who are older are going to lose the argument in the end. Obama is just swimming with the tide.

And because of that impending reality, as I've thought about the issue, I've come to realize that my own views on the subject don't matter especially. I tend to be libertarian on social issues of this sort, because I have little interest in telling people how to live their lives; it's trouble enough living my own life. But since I am a free amateur pundit, I'm going to offer some views anyway.

I worry that we are simply embarking on the latest leg of what's been a 50+ year social experiment that has fundamentally altered the meaning of marriage, at least as far as it has been traditionally understood. And while we can find various counterexamples throughout history, especially if you consult with the right anthropologist, this statement shouldn't be especially controversial -- in most cases, in most societies, the primary purpose of marriage has been to provide a framework for the upbringing of children. Sex is part of the enticement and love is a happy byproduct, but given the amount of arranged marriages that have happened throughout history, romantic love has often been at best a tangential consideration.

The point I'd make is this -- marriage was, at one point, a much different deal than it is today. Plenty of couples take their marriages seriously and view their roles in a traditional sense. I have no reason to believe that plenty of gay couples wouldn't take their marriages seriously. But the traditional reasons and understandings of marriage aren't the same, especially in a world where the message is that marriage is about love, or (in some cases) simply codifying infatuation. We are also living in a world where a lot of people don't bother with marriage when they start a family. And as a practical matter, plenty of women are essentially married to the state because the men who happened to be the biological father of their children aren't available, or even expected, to provide for their progeny. And we are also living in a world where traditional sources of morality, especially certain mainline Protestant denominations, aren't especially interested in fighting for the traditional understanding. My Catholic Church is fighting, but it's getting the hell beat out of it, and a lot of my fellow Catholics are at best ambivalent about the wisdom of the fight. Our associate pastor gave a stemwinder of a homily on the subject last week and while some of the parishioners were applauding, a lot were sitting on their hands.

None of this should be surprising. In our world, in 2012, the traditional understanding of marriage is a tough sell, because the idea of sex when you want, with whomever you want, has a lot of appeal to most people. Once the widespread availability of the birth control pill gave at least some control of female sexuality to something other than the menstrual cycle, or a father with a shotgun, the game changed. And because the goal wasn't preserving a framework but rather seeking "love," no-fault divorce came next, because everyone deserves a chance at happiness, right? And since humans are human and sometimes don't get the birth control right, the legalization of abortion followed that. Each of these changes has had an enormous impact over time and in ways that we're only beginning to understand.

And since love is now the goal and since love is, for many people, simply the practical application of the biological imperative, it's tough to justify keeping gay people out of the party. Normalizing gay relationships was always going to be inevitable in such a world. If marriage is more about mutual self-actualization than it is about making sacrifices for the next generation, there's no good reason to keep gays out of it, at least as a matter of public policy. In some respects, it's almost surprising that all this didn't come sooner. I suspect that if the AIDS epidemic hadn't happened, we'd have reached this moment 15-20 years ago.

Sex/love is a hell of a lot more fun than abstinence. That's a given. And if sex/love is mostly decoupled from its end-stage biological implications, it's going to be the winning message. Even when social norms were a lot different, plenty of people were still looking for a little strange if they thought they could get by with it, because that biological imperative is powerful indeed. I live in a good sized metropolitan area. Over the course of any given day, I'm likely to see dozens of women who are attractive enough to momentarily attract my attention. I don't pursue the matter, but it's tough not to notice them. And I have no reason to assume that women don't notice attractive men, too. Nor, for that matter, would it be particularly surprising that gay men and women see the same things that I see, although their focus would differ.

The nagging, conservative voice inside of me tells me that there are good reasons for traditional marriage, but that voice isn't strong enough to counteract the cacophony of voices that proclaim otherwise, especially when the competing voices celebrate a biological imperative that's plenty strong without the chorus. A lot of people don't hear the nagging voice at all, or choose not to listen. No one enjoys being on the business end of nagging, no matter how sterling the motives of the nagger. So we're going to have gay marriage added to the buffet line of love, sooner rather than later, regardless of what the good citizens of North Carolina might think at the moment, or what is decided here in Minnesota later this year. I fully expect to be dead and gone by the time we take a reckoning of the wisdom of these decisions. Maybe that nagging voice I hear is wrong. But it would not be surprising if, some day in the future, it starts to regain strength.


W.B. Picklesworth said...

Our society is hell-bent on throwing out old rules and introducing new ones. We are grasping at freedom and giving it away. We may think that we are winning in the process, but we're not. People are already suffering from the sexual revolution (not least children) and this will continue. The Gods of the Copybook Headings applies here.

Perhaps one day people will look back, shake their heads and laugh at us, "What the hell were they thinking? Why did they want to throw their civilization away?" Why indeed? If I had to come up with an answer I'd say, "Good intentions."

Gino said...

dude, you summed up everything as if i wrote it myself, but with better grammar and diction.

Bike Bubba said...

Someday, when the real weaker vessels of family life--women and children--are left completely unprotected, we will look back at a slew of decisions we've made (of which gay "marriage" is only one) and ask ourselves "what were we thinking??"

By making marriage about benefits and "love" (or "lust," perhaps more accurately), we're undermining the only real reason for government to be involved in marriage at all; to protect those weaker vessels when the marriage breaks down or ends.

Brian said...

I hope you don't mind if I simply re-post something I wrote elsewhere.

"People who oppose legal recognition of same-sex partnerships claim that they are defending families. Here's the thing: families that consist of same-sex partners and their children aren't some hypothetical thing that could happen. They exist, now. They exist in North Carolina, right now. They are your neighbors. They are your children's classmates. They are my friends.

Amendment 1 will never prevent one single child from experiencing the pain of her parents divorcing. It will never prevent one single child from growing up not knowing who his father is. It won't keep any children out of poverty, and it won't protect any children from the chaos of domestic violence or an alcoholic parent.

But it will prevent some children from having their parents recognized as a legal family, and all the protection and security that goes with that. It will make orphans of children who lose their one legal parent. It will tell them that the only family they have ever known doesn't even exist, as far as the state is concerned.

There is nothing "pro-family" about this."

It may surprise you to know that I agree marriages and families are important, stabilizing forces in society. Broadening the civil institution to include families that exist (whether your church or the state recognizes them or not) increases the governments "protect[ion of] those weaker vessels when the marriage breaks down or ends".

And specifically excluding same-sex couples from the civil institution not only fails to protect has the exact opposite effect.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

"It may surprise you to know that I agree marriages and families are important, stabilizing forces in society."

Not at all. Many people act from good motives and it's best to assume it in the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary.

But I disagree on this. The majority of North Carolinians did not vote for a major change. They voted try to hold on to a longstanding understanding. To blame them for hurting families is like blaming the ground for hurting someone who has jumped off of a roof. There will be a great deal more pain for everybody in the years and decades to come as we come to terms with throwing away longstanding cultural and moral traditions.

None of which is to say that I'm in favor of busting up same sex marriages or removing children who have already been adopted. But plowing full speed ahead isn't going to help either. At least, I don't believe that it will.

Brian said...

There will be a great deal more pain for everybody in the years and decades to come

OK, this is the problem.

You're talking about things that might happen in the future, that you think might be bad. And you aren't being terribly specific about it.

I'm talking about people that are materially hurt right now. People who lose their children. Children who lose their parents. Survivors who have their joint bank accounts raided by spiteful in-laws. Partners who are deported.

This is happening, right now. It isn't hypothetical.

About half of adults are married. Somewhere between 2 and 5% identify as gay. Assuming that gay people would marry at the same rate as the rest of us (probably a very generous assumption) we are talking about 2% of the population, at most.

What is this seismic change in society that you anticipate by simply broadening a civil institution to a currently excluded minority of a minority?

W.B. Picklesworth said...

First of all, are you saying that by the passage of the NC law that the State now has the power to remove children or raid bank accounts? IF this is the case, this is very clearly wrong. At the very least there should be some kind of grandfathering.

"What is this seismic change in society that you anticipate by simply broadening a civil institution to a currently excluded minority of a minority?"

The seismic change is already in full swing (and I'm certainly not blaming it all on gay marriage; I'm talking about the broader changes that Mr D spoke of.) Children born into or raised in instability have all kinds of problems: increased drug abuse, difficulty in school, etc... The very nature of relationships has changed. Women are demeaned and then many claim it for themselves and we get slutwalks. Men have gotten hurt because the court system does little to protect their interests: wives walk out, take the children and say, "Pay me." And so they get jaded, obsess over sports and the whole macho player thing has become huge.

That's all just a mish mash; I understand that. But I'm not pointing to a hypothetical either. The whole social experiment thing (that gay marriage is a part of) is messing people up. It's hurting people in all categories.

Now it's a fair question whether or not standing against gay marriage does any good at this point. The horse is already out of the barn. There is now a prevailing story about our sexuality and our intimate relationships that is going to destroy this country. I think it's right to try to stop further change, but I might be wrong. Maybe Nock's idea that you should just speak the truth and trust a remnant to hear it makes more sense?

Mr. D said...


I don't mind you posting something you've written elsewhere, because it's on point. Thanks for sharing it.

One point of order, though -- you didn't take the entirety of WBP's quote, which read in full:

There will be a great deal more pain for everybody in the years and decades to come as we come to terms with throwing away longstanding cultural and moral traditions.

We've thrown away a lot of other cultural and moral traditions, which was part of what I was trying to say in this post. You may be right that, in the greater scheme of things, gay marriage may turn out to be a nothingburger for most people and an unarguable benefit for others. But we don't know that. And I think the second part of WBP's statement is important in understanding what he's saying.

Brian said...

I excerpted for brevity, not in an attempt to misrepresent. Sorry if I gave any other impression.


If what you are really concerned about is the erosion of family stability, generally, then why wouldn't you want to enlarge the portion of the population able to form stable, legally protected families?

It is very difficult for me to see intransigence on this point as originating from anything other than a fundamental objection to the existence and/or acceptance of gay people.

I mean, you can say that at the core, you simply object to (or worry about) the discarding of traditions and institutions that you believe have served well. On that point, we will never find a common ground, because I'm simply not a conservative (in the broadest sense.) The "traditional" state of humanity includes a few thousand years of grinding poverty, despotism, tribal violence, and slavery. Appeals to tradition do not move me. I believe we can do better, and are obligated (to future generations!) to try.

Night Writer said...

Events of the week have caused me to recall one of my favorite poems:

“On Faith,”
by Cecilia Woloch,

How do people stay true to each other?
When I think of my parents all those years
in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever
longing for anything else—or: no, they must
have longed; there must have been flickerings,
stray desires, nights she turned from him,
sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently,
smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath
and tangled limbs must have seemed
not enough. But it was. Or they just
held on. A gift, perhaps, I’ve tossed out,
having been always too willing to fly
to the next love, the next and the next, certain
nothing was really mine, certain nothing
would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all;
faith that this latest love won’t end, or ends
in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard.
When he turns his back to me now, I think: disappear. I think: not what I want. I think
of my mother lying awake in those arms
that could crush her. That could have. Did not.

Mr. D said...

I believe we can do better, and are obligated (to future generations!) to try.

Sure, but defining what is better is where things get sticky. We are going to find out, one way or another.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

I believe we can do better, and are obligated (to future generations!) to try.

It's not that conservatives reject change out of hand. It's that the manner of change matters. Any one generation in a particular location might have the power to fundamentally change society. But that is to ignore and disrespect the many who have come before and it is to be (at least partially) heedless of those to come. Change can be very good indeed, but when it is pursued recklessly it causes damage.

In talking with people in my congregation it is clear that there is an enormous, gaping chasm between kids and grandparents on moral issues. Sexual morality hasn't just changed; it is unrecognizable. To me, this is change that has occurred far too quickly, even if there is some merit in it.

Gino said...

if its about gays having sex, they are and have been doing that anyway, and a for a longer time than the Bible has been around.

Bike Bubba said...

Brian; your points are well taken,and yes, this is one of a series of things where the country has made the wrong choice because we've frankly forgotten what marriage law and family law is supposed to be about.

We've gone from preserving families and sparing the weaker vessels to "whatever makes you happy" and benefits. In doing so, what have we found?

Men are complaining that the child support system--and no fault divorce-- actively incentivizes divorce. I know a bunch of women whose "baby daddies" are merely "sperm donors." We have tax and college funding systems that actively work against people marrying.

And now we're giving people the incentive to shack up--coitally or otherwise--for a range of supposed federal benefits without even the possibility of the situations (e.g. naturally achieved pregnancy) for which family law is made.

The consequences are not that subtle, really.