Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, February 04, 2003
Andrew Sullivan ruminates today in a quite thoughtful manner on sex, risk, HIV-envy and other topics I thought I wouldn't return to so quickly. But I thought it only fair to give him credit when he's thinking through things I think are very important.

Sullivan starts off by praising Richard Posner's book, Sex and Reason, and since I am deeply skeptical of Posner's whole project this is as good as any grounds to outline where Sullivan and I fundamentally disagree.

Sullivan takes the sexual revolution for granted as both permanent and good. I don't. I do take for granted a certain loss of reticence; that's a permanent change in culture, for better or worse. And I take for granted the end, outside of certain subcultures, of old courtship rituals. That's another permanent change, again for better or worse. And I also take for granted - and applaud - the emergence of gay men and lesbians from the closet. The closet is a dark and lonely place, and I don't wish anyone to go back in.

But I don't accept a fundamental change in the nature of marriage, or the status of marriage in society. And I think Sullivan does. Maybe he doesn't think so, but I think his arguments betray him. For him, I believe, marriage is a choice. It may be a good thing for some people, a bad thing for others, but it's ultimately a choice individuals make to marry or not, whom to marry, and what kind of marriage to have. So long as society has minimal protections in place for children, people should be able to find their own happiness in whatever arrangements they feel make sense.

I don't agree. I believe that marriage, if it is anything, is not one choice among equals but a social norm. It is, by its nature, an institution that asserts itself as the proper destination for people in general. It expresses a societal view about the proper shape of a human life, and as such it is an exception to the general Liberal proposition that our social order does not have a common conception of the good, only a system for helping us find our own individual goods. On this one matter, and perhaps a very few others, our generally Liberal civilization does believe there is a Good with a capital "G."

None of this is to say that society is intolerant of singletons, divorcees, widows, or even people who have "alternative" family arrangements. But tolerance is very different from equality. And if marriage is to mean anything, what it means is: this social arrangement is not equal to other arrangements; it is superior.

Sullivan has complained in the past about right-wingers who think gay men need to be "tamed" and asserted that his advocacy of gay marriage has nothing to do with this motivation. But domestication of the human species is a primary reason for marriage. We ALL need to be tamed, straights and gays alike - and men and women alike. It seems to me that if you don't accept that, then you must be a Rousseau type convinced that we are born virtuous. The reality is that we are born not just with the capacity but with the innate urge to sin, and we must be trained to resist this impulse. And marriage is a key discipline in that training, turning one of the strongest motives to sin - sexual desire - in a Godly direction.

I cannot endorse the promiscuity that seems to be an important feature of gay culture. I think promiscuity, gay or straight, is a sign of serious spiritual and moral failure. Sullivan has waffled on this question, sometimes decrying promiscuity and sometimes celebrating it. Where he comes down usually is on the side of letting individuals sort it out without having the state or society express much of an opinion. I think that's totally inadequate, and does a disservice to the next generation whom he rightly worries about, who deserve moral guidance and not just a speech about personal responsibility.

Since I cannot endorse promiscuity, the whole question of the integration of gay people into the social order - which, it seems to me, is what the gay marriage debate is about - revolves around two questions. First, can gay culture and sexuality change, and become "virtually normal," or is it essentially and fundamentally different from straight culture and sexuality? Second, if the answer to the first question is "no," then can the aspects of gay sexuality and culture that, if replicated in the straight world, would (and do) wreak havoc be contained, and how?

I am optimistic that the answer to the first question is "yes." I know gay male couples that are long-term, loving partnerships that look like marrieds. I don't know whether most gay men could come to think of these people as the models to be emulated rather than as admirable freaks. Right now, I think it's closer to the latter, and gay men look at gay "marrieds" something like the way that, 50 years ago, lay Catholics looked at priests: their sexual choice (monogamy on the one hand, celibacy on the other) is admired, but not seriously considered for emulation. But I don't see why, a priori, this couldn't change. Sullivan thinks it will take a generation for gay marriage or something similar to change the gay world. I think it depends a lot on what else is going on in the culture; it could go more quickly, and it could actually go the other way, and gay marriage could do more harm than good. Sullivan is right that the only way to find out is to do the experiment. So we come to the second question: how to run the experiment in such as way as to get the most benefit with the least potential harm if it goes awry.

I think the latter requires that the law, if it is to recognize gay unions that are functionally equivalent to marriage, nonetheless distinguish in nomenclature between such unions and marriage. I also think it is essential that any move towards gay unions be preceded or accompanied by a serious effort to reform marriage itself. I have expressed the opinion several times in this space, in disputation with Stanley Kurtz, that the most important fight to have over the nature of marriage is not over gay unions but over no-fault divorce. So long as no-fault is the law of divorce in America, marriage is officially understood as a mere contract between two parties, and as such there is no plausible rationale for discriminating against gay couples - or, for that matter, against polyamorous groups. Only when no-fault divorce is ended will it be possible to reconstruct the idea of marriage as a covenant, entered into before and, in a sense, with the community (and, for the religious, God), something public and not merely private. And once no-fault divorce is ended, I think integrating gay unions will be much easier and less threatening.

But the law is going to be a blunt instrument in this matter. The real heavy lifting is going to be done in the private sphere, by both gays and straights, and in the liberal and even the more conservative religious denominations. That's one reason I get annoyed at Sullivan for harping on this whole question as a civil rights issue. That's the easiest part of the argument, and framing the question that way is really a way of making all sorts of tougher questions appear out of bounds. But they are not out of bounds, and these questions, questions of culture, are somebody's problem. If they are not Sullivan's, the leading gay "conservative" out there, then whose are they?

I want to know what Sullivan thinks marriage is, really. I want to know why he thinks it should exist as an institution. If he rejects the covenantal model of marriage, then why should the state care about marriage at all? And if he does embrace the covenantal model, then I want to know what it should look like for gay couples. What, for example, should the text of a gay commitment ceremony, enacted with due solemnity and not with Hallmark treacle, be about? What should the words be? How should older gay men communicate to younger ones that their right destiny is not an endless round of relationships but the creation of a new and larger self in partnership with another man?

I have my own thoughts on the subject. Gay unions, obviously, cannot be built on the complimentarity of the sexes. So a gay partnership must have another founding myth. Sullivan has written movingly on the subject of friendship. Well, maybe gay male unions are more like friendships, of a particular and unique order. As marriage is a binding of complementary individuals to produce a new thing and to keep both individuals from sin, a gay union could also be such a binding.

I've left out what the sins are that a gay union would guard against. That's deliberate. It's obviously implausible to imagine, in our current cultural context, celibate unions. That said, it's not inconceivable that, a century hence, in a different cultural moment, such unions could seem reasonable. It may be implausible to argue, in our current cultural context, for monogamous gay male unions. That's one reason I think there needs to be a legal and cultural distinction between gay and straight unions; the end of monogamy would mean the end of marriage, so if gay unions turn out to be overwhelmingly "open" in character it's important that everyone think of this as a peculiar feature of gay unions, and not a new norm. But even if monogamy as a gay norm is unrealistic today, it might not be unrealistic in a generation or so. An understanding of a gay union as a species of alliance against evil, while leaving vague the precise nature of the evil allied against, would allow for cultural development over time. It would not try to freeze our current cultural moment, at the potential expense of longstanding and enormously valuable institutions like marriage. (And, perhaps, it will turn out that non-monogamous gay unions are reasonably stable, and the current cultural moment is preserved. I'm not saying it's impossible, and the framework I'm outlining would certainly allow for it.)

But honestly, this is not my job. It's a gay man's job. Sullivan is a big Oakeshott fan. Well, Oakeshott would probably argue apropos of gay unions that it's a lot more defensible for the state to recognize an existing institution that emerged from the culture rather than try to change the culture by creating such an institution on its own. I'd be curious to know whether there are gay commitment ceremonies out there that express the ambition to serve as a partnership not only against suffering but against temptation. I'd be curious to know whether Sullivan thinks such a ceremony would be more profound than a mere expression of mutual affection and regard, or whether he would consider it self-hating.

To circle back to the original topic: Sullivan talks about his worries about the rise in HIV infections in young gay men as a species of rational choice problem. Gay men want sex, but they want to live. If living with HIV looks more plausible, they will have more and riskier sex. He rightly argues that a public health message based on implausible scare stories is going to do more harm than good. He worries that segregation of HIV+ from HIV negative men may help, but may also cause harm. He worries about HIV envy. He notes, correctly, that how to get people to behave sexually is difficult, and not only for gay men; contraception, as he notes, is now widely available, but the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies has gone up, not down. He concludes by fretting that a certain level of disease may simply be inevitable because it's hard to ask people to be "extremely careful in a sphere of life where fantasy and passion rule."

But this conclusion is as good a summary of what's wrong with Sullivan's whole outlook as I can think of. Our desires are not - or should not be - our masters. That is what distinguishes us from animals. To Posner, NOTHING distinguishes us from animals. He's an economist to the core. For him, it's not just that in a Liberal order we generally let people figure out the Good for themselves. It's that there is no Good, only goods. So why not just pursue your desires? Why try to change your desires? Why try to sublimate them for the sake of something greater than mere sensual gratification? Posner cannot adequately explain why someone would have children or how someone can face aging and death. His philosophy, a blend of libertarianism and utilitarianism is a philosophy for healthy, unattached 30-somethings. You can't build a civilization, or even a single life, on such a foundation.

Look, I believe in pleasure. I'm not an ascetic, and the spiritual tradition I ascribe to rejects asceticism. I enjoy sex. For that matter, I enjoy good food and I enjoy having spending money. But the choice between asceticism and libertinism is a false one. The whole Jewish approach to sexual and other desires is to say that they should be trained to operate in the service of the divine. That implies that they CAN be trained, that we are not at the mercy of our desires. Passion and fantasy, in a healthy mind, do not "rule." They are trained to serve. But to train them requires men of stature to serve as an example to us of how to live, to show us how they can be trained, and, yes, tamed. Sullivan is, I think no one would dispute, a man of stature, and as such, he has his obligations.