Monday, June 16, 2003
Had an enjoyable weekend away with my synagogue on a retreat; drank too much scotch around the campfire Saturday night and so had a rather subdued first Father's Day. Upon returning to civilization, I have to see if anything important happened in the world while I was gone. So of course I check out the Corner.
Turns out the weekend was spent on a three-cornered debate between John Derbyshire, Andrew Stuttaford and Stanley Kurtz about Canada's judicial innovation of gay marriage, pending similar innovation in Massachusetts, and whether (ignoring the whole question of the democracy deficit of imposing such an institution judicially) such innovation is a good idea. In order, their posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
To me, it's striking that all sides seem happy to debate this question entirely in terms of social science. No further proof should be required that NR has indeed been taken over by the neo-cons.
What, exactly, is marriage? It's not an arrangement cooked up by social engineers. It's not just a convinient way to enable multi-generational accumulation of capital. It's an institution that shapes the entirety of a human life, the dominant element in our private mythic universe. (I've been reading a bunch of Robertson Davies novels lately; can you tell?) When a Jewish boy is circumcised, one of the prayers recited is the hope that the boy will be reared to torah, huppah and ma'asim tovim - study, the wedding canopy, and righteous deeds. Our account of the Creation culminates first with the creation of male and female as natural and equal partners, and then retells the story of our creation specifically to illustrate how we are one flesh, working the myth of marriage into the very fabric of the universe. These myths are present at every wedding ceremony, and they are essential cement to help hold a marriage together through the inevitable tough times. As patriotic myth gives a young man something to inspire sacrifice (of, potentially, his life) for the nation, and thus become something greater than he was before (a soldier, maybe even a hero), so matrimonial myth gives him something to inspire sacrifice (of a portion of his freedom) for family, and thus become something greater than he was before (a husband, and hopefully a father).
What is the myth of homosexual union? What does gay marriage mean, finally? The primary myth of homosexual unions that I am aware of in Western literature comes from the Symposium, and it is not encouraging that the speech it is a part of is put by Plato in the mouth of Aristophanes. No culture can institutionalize a parody of its myths, and most same-sex commitment ceremony language I have seen that is not merely bland and meaningless is just that: parody.
For some time, I've advocated some institutional equivalent to marriage designed particularly for homosexual couples. I think Jonathan Rauch's argument that the lack of such an institution (or, as he would prefer, the opening up of traditional marriage to gay couples) has fuelled the progressive legal deconstruction of traditional marriage - the granting of marriage-like rights and privileges to cohabiting couples, the encouragement of adoptions by unmarried individuals or couples, etc. is very strong. We've gone a very far way down that road, and I think that, politically, refusing to create any legally sanctioned institution for gay couples only weakens the fight to firm up the exclusivity of marriage, and encourages those who would eliminate the institution altogether for practical purposes.
But there is essential cultural work to be done, and done in the gay community, to make such an institution work. Gay couples need their own myth if their unions are to be something other than and greater than friendships. I do not belittle friendship, and certainly one's spouse should be one's friend, but friendship is not the same thing as marriage, and the advocates of gay unions sometimes suggest that it is - that marriage is, to use a phrase current in the college set, "friendship with privileges."
Whether this cultural work can be done is not something I can confidently predict. Culture and nature alike continually surprise us with both their mutability and their resiliency in the face of efforts to remake them. But I would be more encouraged if an occasional advocate of gay marriage sounded less like a Millsian liberal and more like a Jungian.