If I spent all of my time railing against right-wingers with whom I disagree, I would have no breath left in my lungs. However, I recently came across a column I thought was so subtly nasty, that I was compelled to write about it.
Like most snooty American liberals, I read the New York Times editorial page. Paul Krugman is probably my favorite avuncular bearded economist, and I find Thomas Friedman sort of amusing, as he usually gets quite enthusiastic about issues that broke five or so years ago. (I recall him being very excited about cell phone cameras in the mid 2000s. It was cute.)
Yesterday at dinner my friend L asked me if I’d read it that morning, and I said that I hadn’t. She alerted me to a piece by Ross Douthat, the NYT‘s resident token conservative who isn’t David Brooks. Douthat’s column was basically a screed against gay marriage, but not for the reasons that you’d expect. He does not seem to oppose gay marriage for religious reasons or because it will lead to polygamy. He says, basically, that heterosexual marriage is special because:
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.
Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.
This is utter sophistry. This is ahistorical dreck. This is nothing but thin apologetics for bigotry. A few points:
1: Douthat’s last section, about “equality of the sexes” is particularly laughable, especially when juxtaposed with Christian and Jewish beliefs. The ideal of sexual equality is new, and we don’t have religious traditions to thank for it. Thank the feminist movement. Thank women’s liberation. Thank Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem for that. Prior to that, wives were pretty much property. You’re actually going to claim that “later ideas” “supplemented” religious beliefs? No. Just the opposite. These later ideas overturned religious beliefs.
2: He is also equating marriage with monogamy. Admittedly, this is most people’s expectation, but it is entirely possible for married couples to have any array of sexual arrangements open to them. There are plenty of happily married non-monogamists out there, and their marital unions are as legally binding as anyone else’s. Marriage, really, is about whatever the people in it say it’s about.
3: Douthat also brings children into the equation. Aside from the fact that the children of gay couples tend to be just fine, who says marriage has to be about children? Matrimony doesn’t equate to kids.
4: Heterosexual marriage, says Douthat, is distinctive. All relationships are. Heterosexual relationships are distinct from each other, and homosexual relationships are also distinct from each other. For instance, an elderly couple who get married late in life and can’t have children will have a very different relationship than young people who pop out tons of kids. Both relationships, though, are worthy of legal sanction.
Douthat ends his column with this bit of semi-coherent vileness:
[I]f we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
“But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea
Douthat obviously thinks highly of heterosexual marriage. Great. Wonderful. Good for him. However, we’re not just talking about how we feel about people’s relationships, here. We’re talking about the law.
We’re talking about health care and inheritance, tax breaks and hospital visitation rights. We’re talking about partner benefits and unique legal protections that apply to spouses. We’re talking about a whole array of privileges that come with marriage. Very real privileges that translate into rights, money, and legal recognition. For that state to deny such things just because “lifelong heterosexual monogamy is a unique and indispensable estate” is indeed “bigoted and un-American.”
The state, in matters sexual, really ought to be neutral. We would balk at the government taking official positions on religious beliefs, political parties, or journalistic entities. Theoretically, the state is neutral with how it treats with all of those in their various forms and kinds. It should be likewise so with sexual behavior.
I would not be nearly so incensed about this if it weren’t in the New York Times. Not because the NYT is a liberal newspaper, but because it’s serious one with standards, an editorial board, and all that. Even though they carry Maureen Dowd, I still expect them to maintain a certain degree of intellectual cache.
Douthat would be a more honest person if he just said his thesis directly- that he does not like the idea of gay relationships. He is, I imagine, uncomfortable with the idea of two men having sex. Such queasiness is not the basis for law. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of two fat people having sex, but I still believe they should get to have their relationship sanctioned.
There is nothing left for the opponents of gay marriage. No argument that carries any sort of serious weight. Nothing for them to say that is at all persuasive. On every meaningful philosophical point, they have lost. Douthat and others like him are grasping at straws, and those straws are slipping away.
Have Joe Communicate For You.
Joe is available for freelance writing assignments and speaking engagements.