Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What is a marriage? Who has the right to validate a marriage?

This is the sixth installment in an ongoing debate/dialogue on same-sex marriage in America. All installments in this debate are indexed in order and can be linked from here. The letter below is a partial rebuttal to Steve Johnson's letter in the previous installment.

Dear Steve:

In my last letter to you I said I was disappointed because, in my eyes, you had hardly bothered to respond to my actual points. And I went after you with my historical hammer. But now I feel you might accuse me of the same selfishness: not bothering to respond to your real points, going off on my own rant. So I want to get this second letter off to you quickly. Because I'm well aware there were arguments in your last rebuttal I needed to address but hadn't.

What I didn't bother to address was your stress on “third-party verification”. You imply in your letter that this is crucial to understanding where you're coming from in this debate. You also point out that our legal system wouldn’t function without such verification. That you keep coming back to this point of licenses or certificates shows how important these questions are to you. In fact (though I think of the term third-party verification as something mainly used in telephone transactions) I have no argument with you as regards the necessity of like kinds of verification in a culture as complex as ours. An instance of what you mean, I suppose, would be the phenomenon of witness signatures on a marriage license. They verify they know the people involved and verify they were present for a civil wedding. Yes?

But even though we may agree on the necessity of such kinds of verification, our differences here are great. I've tried to make sense of what you're arguing, but, honestly, in places your argument still isn't all that clear to me. I will do my best to seize on your main point so that I may then show how it relates to my own way of thinking.

I may be able to get at what divides us by considering your remark about how people "mix up" the "two aspects" of marriage. "When I think about the issue of a marriage," you write, "I think that sometimes people confuse the value of the marriage ceremony with the value of the legal framework." I think I understand this sentence. I believe you would say, using this language, that I’m one of the people who stress the “ceremony”, whereas you would stress the “legal contract” (for which "third party verification" is necessary). Am I right on this? Or perhaps you would say that the "ceremony" is one thing, up to each religion or family to decide, whereas the "legal contract" is what is decisive, as it is indifferent to individual preferences (religion, sexual orientation, etc.). Yes?

The problem (and this will help you recognize our differences) is that I wouldn't use this kind of language myself--this language of "ceremony" vs. "contract". Once you understand why I wouldn't use this language, you'll better understand where I've been coming from since our debate began.

For me a ceremony is merely the culture’s way to mark that a valid marriage has begun. We can see this by looking at actual ceremonies. In almost every culture a marriage ceremony is a matter of showing the couple to the community for all to acknowledge. The success of the ritual, in the presence of the whole community, proves that all agree: “These two are now married.” The ceremony, then, is not the marriage itself, not even in my mind. The marriage, rather, is that couple’s particular manner of existence within the community henceforth. What does this mean? Perhaps I could say (although for some people the term will lead to confusion) that the marriage is that couple’s social status as it plays out between them and in the community starting from the day of the ceremony. Marriage in my thinking, then, is a particular kind of social status. The status married that a couple acquires involves certain rights and obligations between the spouses, yes, but it also, crucially, involves rights and obligations in terms of the couple’s relationship with the community. The couple and the community recognize each other in terms of the culture’s ideas of marriage. The couple says: "We are married, as you acknowledge, and therefore we claim these rights." The community says: "You are married. We can expect such and such behavior from you." That is how the status is lived, that is the meaning of the married couple, that is the marriage in its existence.

The fact is that I don't think your remark about people mixing up the "ceremony" with the "legal contract" applies to me. Or are you trying to say that in our debate I have been mixing up the "married status" with the "legal contract"?

In my view, all a marriage contract does is set out in writing what the terms of the agreement are. These terms, in America, are very slim indeed, because our society is so fragmented. As for a marriage license, all it does is record the status of the couple as married for legal purposes. Both are important, yes, but I think you will agree: There have been marriages for far longer than there have been agencies or state bureaucracies to license them. Would you want to claim, Steve, that the countless marriages effected over the centuries in Polynesia before the arrival of Europeans and their paperwork were somehow “invalid"? I doubt you would. And so: The marriage is not the licensure or the contract or even the ceremony--it is rather a special status conferred on married couples.

Please keep these facts in mind as you consider my next question: Who, Steve, has the right to confer this special status, who is it that must acknowledge that a couple is married? The answer is simple: It is the whole community that confers this status. Not 58% of the community, not state officials, no--the community as a whole confers it. Do you disagree with me here? When our parents married, back in the day, they married with the acknowledgment of their whole communities. No one would have come forward and said, "No, you two are not married."

Now where does this bring us? I'll tell you. A functional and truly representative government will only provide a marriage license to couples who are recognized as married by their whole communities. In other words, if most of the neighbors agree it's a valid marriage, but one in three insists it isn't, the government should not get involved in the business of giving a license. We might consider America as one huge community in this respect, it comes to the same thing. To the degree that America is a community, it must be at least near unanimous on what counts as a marriage. I think, for our purposes, 95% is near unanimous. Are we anywhere near that? We are nowhere close, not even in states that have legalized same-sex marriage.

Now you might raise the issue of anti-miscegenation laws in protest. In fact through much of our history it was illegal for blacks and whites to intermarry. So, you will say, what about the transition period, when interracial married couples were not accepted as such by some of their neighbors? Isn't this the same thing? "Are you then arguing, Eric, that state governments were wrong to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples?"

I think you'd have a point here; it is indeed a similar kind of situation. But I don't think it's "the same thing". And I'll tell you why. Because anti-miscegenation laws were not universal; they were not in effect in many of the cultures with which the US had contact; they were certainly not in evidence in the history that learned Americans could consult at any time. America, being a more universally minded nation, was likely soon enough to realize, if only half-consciously, that its laws in this respect were not in accord with its universalizing mission. Such laws, rather, were instead a matter of a local injustice, an instance of America not taking its rightful place in the community of nations. For these reasons, the laws disappeared, and the culture has largely followed suit. A man and a woman don't have to be of the same race to be married. Looking at the history of the world, this is an obvious observation to make.

The issue of same-sex marriage is very different. Because the validity of these marriages is so easily contested, and it is contested on good grounds. Communities throughout history, except for very rare exceptions, have only conferred the status married on heterosexual couples. In my 2012 essay I explained why this was likely the case. But why it is the case is not so important here as simply that it is the case. Since same-sex marriage is virtually non-existent as a human practice, those demanding same-sex marriage as a "right" have virtually no historical precedent on which to claim this right. They have in fact, in America's major religions, which are indeed very central to our culture, scriptural passages and traditions of moral teaching that insist homosexual desires in themselves are wrong and sinful. I personally don't accept the Christian teaching that homosexuality is inherently sinful. I don't find this teaching has such a strong grounding in the New Testament, and don't agree, in any case, that ancient people understood human sexuality well enough to make such strong judgments on sexual orientation. (St. Paul, though he was indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit and his writings most certainly are Holy Scripture, nonetheless was not 100% correct in every aspect of everything he wrote about.) But even so, I am not going to force my fellow Christians, who may disagree with me on this, to conform to my own religious interpretations. And the bare fact is, like it or not, that tens of millions of people in our nation think "same-sex marriage" a contradiction in terms. Tens of millions? Certainly well over a hundred million.

And they have history on their side; they are decidedly not, in fact, weirdos for refusing to recognize these so-called marriages. On the contrary: we may say pretty confidently that heterosexual marriages have accounted for around 99.9999% of marriages globally over the past 5,000 years. If we look specifically at Western cultures (and we are a Western culture) that number jumps to 100%. I know, Steve, you are not influenced by such numbers, you have faith that history is progress. But even so, please keep these numbers in mind as you consider my following assertion, which is, when push comes to shove, quite important to me:

With such a long and universal cultural norm as backup, any American individual has the right to look at a gay couple claiming to be married and say: “Sorry, I disagree. In fact you two are NOT married. Regardless of what the government says on this, you are certainly NOT a married couple.”
Will you disagree with this assertion, Steve? Will you say that American individuals don't have the right to take this stance? I personally think it is the right of a culture or religion to hold to its basic definitions. Especially on an institution as central as marriage. And especially when that culture or religion accounts for half of a nation's population.

But look what is happening now, what is starting to happen all over our country? If I am at work in a hotel or restaurant or bakery, even if I am the owner of said business, and if in talking to customers I refuse to use the word “husband” to refer to one of the so-called spouses in that gay marriage, if I insist on saying “boyfriend” instead, I may very well lose my job or possibly even be subjected to legal action. Perhaps such a refusal is not yet being defined as a “hate crime”, but it will be soon enough. Regardless of your own stance on same-sex marriage, do you think this situation is really just? Citizens unwilling to change their thinking on a fundamental cultural institution, unwilling to agree to a merely novel way thinking which is not even two measly decades old, being accused of a “hate crime”? Do you think this is right, Steve? Are you and other gay marriage supporters so confident you have a monopoly on truth?

Eric

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Different Ways of Touching (with Steve Johnson)

This is the fifth installment in an ongoing debate/dialogue on same-sex marriage in America. All installments in this debate are indexed in order and can be linked from here. The opening letter below, by Steve Johnson, is in reply to my closing letter posted in the fourth installment. Steve argues below in support of same-sex marriage.

Eric Mader

Steve's Letter of 01/19/14

Dear Eric:

Let me start by saying that I wasn't offended one iota by your reply. As a matter of fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think we are doing important work here, and that our debate, as long as it remains civil, will echo throughout history and could be the basis for university courses in the future. Honestly, I loved your reply. Okay, so let me begin with some of the basics of your argument.

It is often argued in these kinds of debates that a "slippery slope" of change could lead to all kinds of abhorrent behavior or notions that would seem utterly repugnant to us in our time. Indeed, yes, that is a definite possibility. Change is scary, and every time our species makes a course correction in terms of human rights, there is the distinct possibility of the change being warped directly, or being used as a basis for other warped changes that are undesirable to our current culture exist.

So, let us not create possible "what if" scenarios that give us cause to not focus on the actual matter at hand. As of this moment, I am hard pressed to imagine a scenario where I, or those of us who support gay marriage, would find it okay to eat dead human beings on the notion that it is merely protein. I would even go so far as to state that just like pork was considered a meat not to be eaten at one time due to the lack of refrigeration, there may come a time where eating human beings may make sense, though for me, and for other gay marriage supporters, it would be an abomination.

That particular scenario is nothing but a straw man, and you know it. Let us pick up with your point that does have value in my eyes, which is the one about the baby that is not provided with a birth certificate.

It offers a very valuable and highly instructive example of my thinking, and can prove of tremendous use in making the point that I "feel" you are very close to arriving at.

When a child is born, it exists, it is alive and it has value. It is a human being. This value of life itself is a not a matter of debate in our culture. It is, in fact, irrelevant for our valuation of human life that a birth certificate be issued for the newborn human life. Its value is intrinsic to us as adult human beings, because if the baby has no value, how can a human adult have value? And you have no debate with me on that point.

However, this is where we need to focus specifically on the notion of "third-party verification". Third-party verification is the sole aspect of our legal framework that is essential to the legal framework working in any way.

I am sure you get what I mean, but just in case, I will take a moment to describe what I mean. Third-party verification is the idea that you are who you say you are. When a human being claims "a right" or a "privilege," or access, or a capability, third-party verification is required. It is required simply because it asserts by a secondary source that the claim one makes is indeed valid. If you claim to have a right to drive, you need to prove it. If you claim you are a citizen, an adult, a parent, a male, an electrician, a doctor, an expert in the field of comparative literature . . . our culture, and indeed, our legal frameworks all require third-party verification.

I can explain why this is true, but you already know the answer. There is nothing that can stop a person from coming forward and claiming they have spent thousands upon thousands of hours comparing literary works and have come to understand the values and differences of such things, and that they are therefore qualified to speak and hold opinions about them. However, our culture would not hold this person's claim with in same esteem as the individual who can show a Phd. in the subject. Why? Third-party verification. The same goes for the fishing license, the drivers license, etc.

If you have a fishing license, you are authorized to pull fish out of a specified body of water.

A birth certificate is no different. It provides third-party verification that a new birth was in fact registered to have occurred, and that birth itself provides to the owner of that certificate all sorts of legal rights and privileges under our legal framework.

So, when I think about the issue of a marriage, I think that sometimes people confuse the value of the marriage ceremony with the value of the legal framework. According to the long line of data we have at our finger tips, there were many reasons people took on the construct of marriage, reasons that, as you say, predate our modern governments and legal frameworks. And you have no argument from me on what their reasons were, or why they found it appropriate for their time, their circumstances, and their cultures.

I take no issue with any of those notions. But we no longer live in those times. And our ways of making legal frameworks may come from the ground of those cultures, but particular reasons, particular social realities, that led to the earlier legal frameworks no longer get to define our current realities or the implications of our current realities.

I will make as ridiculous a point as I think the "cannibal" argument was to drive my point home. One could argue that the medicine was practiced long before there was modern medicine. And one could also argue that it was the ground for the creation of modern medicine. Additionally, one could continue to argue that many of the principles of modern medicine, many of the modern day cures, and many of the modalities of treatment all stem from ancient practices that are still held in esteem today. However, although those arguments are all verifiable and true, they are not helpful or even instructive when it comes to what we have learned in the last X number of years as it pertains to a specific treatment. Take the use of leeches or maggots. We have learned today that maggots if properly applied to specific kinds of rotting skin (gangrene) can effectively treat the problem.

However, we no longer use these particular treatments because they come with other kinds of risks that we have determined medically are more dangerous than the already known benefits that maggots can provide.

In short, we are grateful that our ancestors saw fit to practice medicine. We are grateful that they gave us frameworks, guidance, and notions that have guided and instructed our medical practices, for without them, we would not have reached the place we have reached in the practice of medicine. However, that does not mean that we must continue to honor many of their particular notions. Science itself, technology itself, knowledge itself has increased and expanded, and some if not many of the medical practices of old are now understood to be ineffective or simply incorrect.

So lets take quick look at Alan Liu's argument. It was a delight to read.

Here is the essence of his argument: whether God actually exists or not doesn't matter because "the majority of world cultures have come into existence, grown and developed along with their religious beliefs and practices. They have imbued nearly every aspect of their material and productive lives with religious meaning, to the point that their social organization, their laws, their ideas of birth and death and love--indeed, nearly everything that holds them together and defines them as a human culture--are tied in with their religion. So religious beliefs are factual things."

Let us first take a moment to understand how Christianity itself came to predominance in the world, to create his so called "factual" things.

In Western Europe, it is my full understanding, that history records that Christianity (the basis of our legal framework which is a factual thing) essentially murdered anyone that did not agree with their teachings. If you were a pagan, if you held a differing view, they tortured you, or killed you. They continued with this practice until what was declared to be "true" was accepted in all but the darkest of corners, hidden away from any actual debate.

It was not the merits of Christianity that stood in the marketplace of ideas and fought for and earned a deserved respect. It did not happen in the marketplace of thought, where all ideas could be fought and argued. It was rather that Christians, through power and might, murdered anyone that did not agree.

We could argue that by having the pure might to enforce their ideas, their ideas were stronger and of greater value, but we both know that intellectually speaking, any religious construct that informed our societies, that resorted to death to the non-adherents, simply is not sufficient today to hold sway or stand equal in a meritocracy of intellectual debate. Not in the marketplace of our ideas.

However, how or why our societies formed the notions they formed does tell us a lot about the notions themselves. It also tells us that the so-called factual realities, that Mr. Liu sees as real, are not actually a matter of making the unseen into the provable or factual. And cultural history does not in fact regularly make false beliefs into so-called "fact". As an example of this, we might consider the simple notion of human "touch".

When you use your keyboard to type a reply to me, you "feel" the touch of the keys on your fingers. So you know that you are touching the keys. This is undebatable, right? However, science has proven, without any doubt whatsoever, that you cannot actually touch anything. It is physically impossible. I will explain. We know for a fact that atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We also know for a fact they have huge amounts of space between them (on their scale). We also know for a fact that no two atoms ever touch. If they did, enormous explosions would occur, and great amounts of energy would be released.

We also know that as such, in the "material" world that we are able to observe around us, there is as much space between each atom as is necessary to prevent that world from collapsing and exploding.

Therefore, it is also a fact, that when your fingers "touch" the keyboard, you are in fact not actually touching the keyboard. It is not possible. However, your brain is informing you otherwise. So what is the actual fact? The actual fact is you are not touching the keyboard, but you are experiencing it as "touching".

So let me bring this full circle now. If you are willing to assent that from a legal framework that same-sex folks should have full protections under the law, and that there should be no differences legally between that and a marriage contract, you are 90% of the way to seeing it my way.

The 10% of you that viscerally reacts against same-sex marriage comes from culture, history, and a deeper sense of what is true or right. And these things deserve greater recognition than my offhand brushing them aside. And I hear you, brother Mader. But, I think that if you carefully walk through how our culture was informed, and how history show these notions came to be, you will eventually realize that the basis for this difference comes from a "feeling". A feeling, no different than the absolutely clear feeling you have when you touch the keyboard, that cannot be denied. However, that feeling is insufficient to me, it is insufficient as reason to maintain a "separate but equal" status in the legal framework for the concept of marriage.

Every marriage has two components that need to be separated and kept distinct. The first is the idea of a legal framework that provides contractual benefits and rights is one of the two components. That component is all the state and our governing bodies can deal with. The second component comes from the ceremony of the marriage ritual, the marriage's deeper notions, which are derived from things that may or may not have merit in any one person's eyes, and which in any case are not the purview of the state. That component, as Mr. Liu would argue, is as real as the first component. And although I may not see it his way, I do understand how he gets there. And I am not without empathy for his view. But I do feel that view is no longer sufficient to have the legal framework remain restricted simply because of the meaning of a word.

Keep in mind, I do believe that regardless of your arguments which are anti-statist, such as the notion that a government might declare things like "freedom is slavery" or the like, or "war is peace," as a long-term result of giving a minority its fair due in the legal framework--I do believe it is still worth the risk. And I simply do not think that using our culture as a guidepost for determining what is right or good is, on balance, the best method for informing our species how to proceed in the future.

It was a pleasure writing this, Eric. Maybe we can get through this and find a third path for the world.

Steve


Different Ways of Touching: 01/21/14

Again, Steve, I'm grateful you're still willing to pursue this dialogue. This time, however, I must admit that your reply has disappointed me. I don't think you're yet really engaging the points I raise--the problem of the depth level of human culture regardless of current technological or social development.

I really shouldn't complain I suppose. Mostly I should be grateful for your thoughtful formulations and your engagement in this debate. These days most people will just text their thinking, and this time, after so much back and forth already, you could have written me something like:
Still dont agree w you here dude. Really your getting too religious for me. Finally who r we to judge?
But you don't do things this way. You're a thinking person, willing to address issues at length. What's more: I know very well I'm not the only one who gets to set the terms of the debate here. Your points are valid, I've gotten much from them, and intend to address some of them directly. Your analogy built on the question of whether I actually "touch" my keyboard, for instance--I think it does pertain to our debate. I'm just convinced that it's more useful in support of my position than yours!

But before going into atoms and keyboards, Steve, I will have to voice my complaints. I'll do it because, simply put, it's more interesting to go after you, old friend. Besides, it may prove useful in the end, who knows? We may come to common ground; doing so, we may glimpse a way out of this cultural impasse. That our remarks will eventually become classroom material--well, I kind of doubt it.

And so . . . First, I must say that your remarks on how Christianity was spread around the world are totally inadequate. Why don't you look into these things before you begin to expatiate? Really, you should have suspected I'd smirk, if not laugh outright, at your "Rise of Christianity" spiel. Think about it, Steve, for you to lecture me on Christian history is kind of like me presuming to lecture you on futures trading or sales. How about this? "You really could be making more sales, Steve. I think the problem is that you're forgetting fundamentals. Try to remember: The successful salesman must convey an impression of messiness. In the customer's eyes, you want to seem unprepared, kind of strung out. It especially helps to have a mustard stain on your tie. This way, the customer, especially if it's a woman, will begin to feel sympathy for you. She'll want to help you in your career. This will help you you cinch the deal. Remember: Sloppy, unprepared."

Now go forth and make a killing, old friend! You can trust me on this. I'm an English teacher after all!

I've read a few good stacks of scholarly books on Christian history and how the faith spread globally. Believe me: The "history" you think you know is based on specific historical periods that have been blown up into little more than a trite caricature.

This is not to deny that violence and oppression occurred in different times and places. And sometimes the violence continued over centuries. But how is it that you've forgotten that for the entire first three centuries of Christian history the faith was often vigorously persecuted by pagan rulers from the Emperor on down to local potentates? Starting in Palestine, through its own vigor alone, the faith spread north into Syria, west through Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and up into Gaul, reaching the British Isles in the 4th century; it spread southward and westward across the north of Africa; eastward to the Arabian Peninsula and Persia as well as north into Armenia. None of this growth was a matter of conquest--quite the contrary: Christians were often viciously persecuted, often had to meet in secret, often were denied by family and neighbor. For centuries the faith was spread largely by itinerant preachers and small tradespeople ("free marketplace of ideas" anyone?) and women played a major role in its early growth. Before any swords were raised in its name, Christianity already had a strong following all across the Empire and in many other places besides. The Christians were not persecutors but victims. Have you forgotten--or perhaps you never learned?--the majority of saints from those early centuries died as martyrs. Christian men and women were tortured and executed by the pagan powers of the day, often as mere entertainment, those same pagans you're rooting for.

It wasn't until the conversion of the emperor Constantine to the faith in 312 that the dynamic began to change. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the ranks of the faithful were swelled by all sorts of powerful folk who wouldn't normally have been attracted to the Gospel message. The consolidation of the faith in the Empire is a very complex story, but yes, following it there began to occur the persecution of pagans. And the persecution, besides, of fellow Christians whose beliefs differed from what the bishops allied to the Emperor deemed to be orthodoxy.

Starting in this period, Christian history, as a matter of political and religious oppression, is mixed. In some places, the orthodoxy sanctioned by the emperors oppressed pagan cultures; in others, especially in the East, Christians continued to be martyred at the hands of non-Christian rulers (by Zoroastrian rulers in Persia for instance). This mixed character of the Christian record (Christians either committing or being victims of injustice and violence) continued over subsequent centuries, through the medieval period, the early modern period and up until the present. Christian culture has undergirded monarchs and dictators, but it has also been a force of liberation and revolution. The ethical universalism of the Enlightenment (our "unalienable rights") would have been unthinkable without Christianity. Slavery would never have ended.

Your caricature, preferred by contemporary PC Americans of recent decades, is totally inadequate to the actual history. It has a tendentious shallowness equal to that of, say, Fox News reporting on Barack Obama's youth. Really it is that one-sided. I expected better of a guy like you, especially given where you were educated. But I'm not mainly disappointed by this. By now I'm used to hearing this so-called "history of Christianity": half-educated young liberals and Hollywood movies have been promulgating it for decades. And what is America if not Hollywood movies and half-educated, opinionated shills?

What really disappoints me, Steve, is the following: NONE OF THIS DISCUSSION OF CHRISTIAN HISTORY IS EVEN REMOTELY RELEVANT TO OUR DEBATE. Because, as you apparently haven't yet noticed, my argument against same-sex marriage is not based on Christianity. Rather--AND PLEASE GET THIS--my argument is based on the strictures against same-sex marriage found in Christianity AND Judaism, Islam, all Buddhist cultures, Hinduism, Sikhism, all cultures of the Indian subcontinent, all known Asian and Austronesian cultures, all African cultures (except for one exception: the Dahomey, which allowed a specific kind of marriage between women), most Amerindian cultures (with exceptions, in North American tribes, of "Two-Spirit Marriages", in which a male couple marry and adopt the gender roles of husband and wife), ancient Greek and Roman cultures (except for some notable, actually notorious, Roman exceptions: the emperors Nero, Elagabalus), the ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, Akkadian and Assyrian cultures, the Phoenicians, secular Soviet bloc and Chinese-allied communist cultures, all known nomadic cultures, whether in the Eurasian steppe or Africa--and of course the list isn't complete. When you and other Americans, understandably sick of the hypocritical antics of the Christian right, argue in favor of gay marriage, you're not arguing against Christianity so much as against the collective wisdom of humanity; you are rejecting, based on a twenty-year-old liberal social movement, one of the few universal human insights. The local cultural instances where gay marriage was practiced historically are minuscule compared to the counter-evidence. What's more, in none of those instances were the couples understood to be composed of "husband and husband" or "wife and wife". Rather, the married individuals took up distinct gender roles: "husband and wife".

I have to say, Steve, it's almost maddening how you refuse to address this point. Refuse to address it except via banalities like "Times change", or "People get married for many reasons nowadays". It's as if you believed there was something unique about modern capitalist culture that allowed it to become, shall we say, post-human. That because of our iPhones and medical technology and the Discovery Channel we are okay as a civilization ignoring what all major civilizations before us have discovered and maintained--often independently of each another.

Finally, regarding my "cannibalism" story, that you find it ridiculous and irrelevant suggests, again, that I'm not really getting my point across. I'm not at all suggesting a connection between same-sex marriage and cannibalism! Or that same-sex marriage might lead to that future city-state. I'm only and very specifically making a point about the force of taboos and how you are also, very likely, recognisant of that binding force, if only in this instance of cannibalism. Believe me, it was hard to come up with a good example to make my point. But I'll rephrase things, and we'll see if I'm successful this time.

From a certain rational and materialist point of view, Steve, there really is nothing wrong with eating human flesh. If I offered you a piece of one of your relatives to chew, and you refused it in disgust--first, because it's human meat, and, second, because it used to be part of your aunt--you would be basing your refusal upon what is a mere "feeling" stemming from a primal taboo. I mean it very sincerely, Steve, when I say that in this case you have no rational argument for your refusal. Meat is meat. Remember that we are not hunting and killing people, only making best use of the flesh they leave behind. Now please think about this clearly. If you can accept the value of your ultimately irrational prohibition against eating deceased relatives, and I believe you do, then you've just legitimized what you and many secular Americans now like to describe as "magical thinking". And if you admit that this taboo about eating the dead is morally right, suddenly your whole argument against me in terms of "it's just a feeling" becomes fatally weak. Your argument collapses because, in fact, you yourself recognize the value of a purely "feeling-based" universal taboo. The gist: If you are right to refuse human flesh on such grounds, you should be willing to admit that opponents of same-sex marriage may be right, on such grounds, to refuse to recognize a husband-husband pair as actually married. This is important for the viability of the whole gay marriage movement, because, as I've argued before, marriage is not simply a status or agreement between two individuals: it is a status of two individuals that is recognized by society as a whole. In America we are now recognizing marriages that half the society doesn't recognize. And they have every right to refuse this recognition.

I hope now the point of my "cannibalism" story is clear. It was, as I said, very hard to come up with a suitable thought experiment that might compel someone like yourself to acknowledge the kind of primal and irrational weight a taboo can have. And to acknowledge that you too are under the sway of such taboos. In fact you acknowledged as much in your reply, but didn't see how my thought experiment applied to our debate. I hope you now do.

Personally I believe such taboos, especially to the extent they are universal, have something deeply right about them. And this is why, regardless of practical or "progressive" concerns, the widespread taboo against same-sex marriage must not be ignored. Not even in our postmodern, fragmented social order.

In conclusion, I want to repeat that I've much appreciated our debate. In this round, as I said, I was disgruntled by the fact that your arguments didn't actually relate to my own arguments, disgruntled besides by your bogus Christian history, which was in any case hardly relevant to the issue; but still, wrangling with you is always a great pleasure. If you have the time, I hope you will finally deign to tell me why you think modern capitalist cultures can safely ignore strong taboos rooted in our human, rather than simply Christian, past. Why is it that in terms of marriage our times are somehow different from all the past human times we have studied? I hope you really try to get to the bottom of this, and let me know. "Times change" is not an adequate response in my view, neither is the argument that past "reasons" no longer hold sway for us. What's more, I don't need to hear any more shallow Christian-bashing! So take off the PC bifocals. I'm doing you the decency of carefully not arguing from a Christian point of view, you should maybe do me the decency of addressing my actual arguments. How about you pretend, for the time being, that we're both committed secularists? My arguments, after all, could just as viably be offered by someone who doesn't believe in God. This is the deeper point of my quoting Alan Liu, a notional ball I think you had your hands on, but quickly dropped.

Eric

P.S.-- Having eating lunch, I'll now add at least a few words on the application of Alan Liu's thinking here. Just to get it over with. I want you to pretend as you're reading these sentences that it is not a religious person writing them, alright? That will help you get the point. As follows: The strictures upheld by religions across the globe against same-sex marriage were not imposed from above by a corrupt and hypocritical priestly caste. These rules were rather formed over generations of the culture's experience of being together--through good times and bad. They were formed collectively. Thus such rules were deeply informed by generations of practical observation as to how different kinds of relationships functioned in and affected communities. That these insights were finally given authority by being put in the mouth of the God or gods is secondary. The insights themselves were probably prior to this "religious step". Given that that is the case, the universality of such strictures against gay marriage is nothing short of stunning. And it should be deeply respected if only as a weighty anthropological fact about human communities as such. That we are technologically or scientifically advanced beyond these earlier communities is not really relevant. Being human, we are still within the purview of anthropological insights. We still live within communities that must function over generations.

Please take the trouble to understand why, in my view, the strictures of previous human communities, on such a primal matter as marriage, are still binding on us.

P.P.S-- It is now a couple hours later and I've just come back from a walk round my Taipei neighborhood. I love this city, although presently, being January, there is a cold front come down from Mainland China, and as usual when the cold arrives, it has brought with it some of that now world-famous Chinese air pollution. The pollution is a compound of Inner Mongolian dust, coal from factories, other noxious things, and without a doubt Taipei's air will only continue to get worse and worse each winter, until . . . when? In short, signs of the times.

I've returned to my computer because before actually posting this rebuttal to you, I might as well address your "touching the keyboard" analogy. In fact I do not really agree that your atomic physics explanation means that I'm not now "touching" my keyboard. Let me explain. What I think you've done in essence is merely added another layer to the definition of what we mean by "touch". You've shown a second, theoretical level on which the phenomenon can be explained. Knowing the structure of atoms doesn't, however, make any difference to the phenomenon of touch itself, or even to the semantic sense of the word, because, of course, the atomic structure you evoke is well below the threshold of the visual or tactile. Knowing some of the facts of atomic physics does not change daily realities. It will not help you improve your operation of a keyboard. If I were to push the analogy a bit, I might say, somewhat archly, that knowing these facts neither gives you the ability nor the "right" to change the realities of touch as we live them.

Now how does all this apply to our debate? As follows: Just as we exist within a set boundary of physicality, exist on a certain scale, so, I would say, we exist within human societies. These are complex structures of interrelation that we are bounded by. If in medieval Florence everyone believed that same-sex marriage was an impossibility because God had forbidden it, then that stricture stood as part of the bounded structure Florentine society lived within. That many scholars of medieval society no longer believe God exists does not prove that the medieval model was fundamentally incorrect as a practical matter. The medieval Florentines merely expressed in religious terms a practical reality that was part of how their culture held together. And it did hold together. Again, even if their stricture about marriage didn't come from God but came rather from their ancestors' experience, this didn't matter as regards the viability of their being together. Just as our knowing some of the facts of atomic physics doesn't matter as regards the viability of keyboards or the use of our hands. It would be wrong, then, and immature besides, for a modern scholar to believe that if he could only go back to those Florentines in a time machine, and demonstrate to them that it was likely their God didn't exist--then they would "wake up" from their illusions and would subsequently remove their strictures as to what constituted a marriage. Do you see this point? The naive time traveler might believe he was teaching the Florentines about human rights and bringing "progress" to their backward and oppressive culture. But almost certainly, if they followed his instructions, their culture would be undermined, it would begin to unravel, just as in recent centuries many tribal cultures have been fatally undermined by contact with our "more advanced" Western societies. Anthropologists are in agreement on this: the Florentines would likely be left worse off than they were before that modern do-gooder appeared. Their unique culture, after all, functioned as a very complex mesh of many factors, so complex that even we, with all our modern knowledge, cannot really account for all these factors.

Just like the material universe we live in and touch every day, so our cultural universe is bounded. For very many cultures, the great majority of them, the term God or gods has held an important place in the economy of their functioning as a people--it has played a crucial role in demarcating and maintaining the "boundaries". Modern secularists may argue that God is a myth and we needn't believe in Him, but nonetheless our own cultural economies still retain this concept God in much its same place, since our culture and its ideas of human freedom, justice and right were developed under its aegis. In other words, in large measure we are talking about structures in which we still live--even if we think we are largely secular-minded. Alan Liu made this same point in relation to Scandinavian cultures, which are more "secularized" than ours.

Understanding the facts of atoms doesn't alter how we need to deal with material things. Likewise, a scientist's ideas about the likely non-existence of God doesn't alter the facts of our being together. An important part of these facts has been the institution of marriage. As I've clearly shown, this stricture against gay marriage hasn't just been handed down to us by European Christians, but by all our ancestors. In this it is similar to the taboo on consumption of human flesh. And I would insist: Regardless of the specific features of our modern society--satellite transmissions, Sex and the City, nuclear weapons, the insufferably idiotic Sean Hannity--regardless of all these, we still exist as pretty much the same beings we have been for millennia. We have the same genetic makeup, emit the same pheromones, communicate through the same array of facial expressions, and reproduce in the same way. We have similar hopes for the continuation of our individual tribes into the future. It stands to reason that strictures that have been universal previously would remain so, because we are largely the same beings.

Your "facts" about touch, then, seem to offer a better analogy for my way of thinking than for yours. After all, while typing these last paragraphs, I've managed to forget about atomic physics at least a hundred times. Just like I regularly manage to forget what tone-deaf thinkers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have to say about God. These thinkers don't even bother to study the theologians who actually represent modern Christian thought. It's easier to attack straw men. There are in fact many ways of approaching the concept God that do not involve the kind of simplistic belief Harris and Co. take for granted as the default religious position. You may want to look into the theologian Paul Tillich, for instance, as regards his theory of God as the "ground of Being Itself". Or what he calls "the God above God". Or look into process theology, which frames the problems in strikingly subtle ways.

I hesitate to add these remarks because I don't want to distract you from my main points in the body of my letter. I hope, if you want to answer me in any way, you try to wrestle with these issues more and better understand where I'm coming from.

But all this is just the way I think about the relative value of our different ways of knowing. I'd much rather learn to use my hands to play the saxophone than learn that my hands are made of atoms composed of particles and wide empty space. But you, Steve, what about you? How has your knowledge of atomic physics impacted your way of being in the world? Does it change your way of typing or your way of moving about? Or when you are together with a beautiful woman, and you have your hand between her thighs, are you thinking about the necessary space maintained between atomic particles and that you are thus not actually "touching" her? For your sake, friend, I hope not. Really I hope not.

Eric

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage: Is there any such thing? A Dialogue

This page links to a somewhat unhinged collection of texts on same-sex marriage. The oddness of many of these texts doubtless derives from my own oddness. I'm an American Catholic writer and teacher, now living in Taiwan, who in 2011 posted an essay on the issue that has grown into a lengthy debate/dialogue. The whole of this debate is indexed below.

Since the marriage equality movement first started to gain steam in the mid-2000s, I've been very much on the fence: sympathetic but unwilling to support redefining a central cultural institution. Defense of my position, which is quite different from that of most Christians, takes up most of these posts. Though my thinking has been informed by Christianity, I've done my best here to argue from a more historical or anthropological perspective. (Also: Though nearly all the texts form part of an ongoing debate, much of the writing consists of attempts to work out the grounds of my arguments for my own sake--to get to the bottom of exactly what it is I'm opposed to.)

In the course of the debate, my position changed somewhat. While most of my writing below argues against recognition of same-sex marriages, I can no longer take that stance. My second thoughts came about as a result of my decision to press my arguments brazenly on the progressive online community Daily Kos, where I was predictably reviled, attacked, spat upon, etc., for opposing what to the community seemed such an obvious gain for civil rights. If saliva could fly online, my laptop would have short-circuited mid-debate. But I've no hard feelings. Though my fight with the Kossacks was a bitter one, it was worthwhile. At the end of the day I realized I actually needed to thank some of the people there (those who stuck to the issues rather than just the spitting) as it was they who showed me I was wrong in parts of my argument. Our lengthy wrangle might make for interesting reading if my own part in the debate hadn't been so "epic" (read: wordy) and fevered.

After reassessing my original arguments, I'd now describe myself, at least for the time being, as a marriage equality agnostic. There is much in the marriage equality movement that I oppose. Especially: I will continue to support the rights of religious organizations to maintain their own beliefs as they see fit and to opt out of recognition of these newly minted marriages, whether in their places of worship or in public life. I do not at all support those in the LGBT movement who seem hell bent on infringing Americans' religious freedoms.

Here I've presented mainly my own side of all this. But of course many people take part in the linked pages below, including my friends Steve Johnson and Renge Grace, who argued against me. In short: These texts are not all my thinking on the issue, but a debate/discussion.

Though Catholicism isn't mentioned frequently in these pages, I am a Catholic and my concerns about same-sex marriage grew in large part from this religious background. Pope Francis' efforts to promote more direct and open dialogue on issues of sexual orientation have always had my support. I'm proud to have this man leading my Church.

What, then, would I like to see from my Church on this? I have great respect for the teaching authority of the Church, but still can hope for change. Specifically, I'd like to see the Church finally develop a theological ground on which it can, as it were, legitimate the love lives of that 6% of the human population that is gay or lesbian. I'd like to see this because the people who make up this 6% really exist, they were born the way they are, and they are endowed with the same dignity and potential for grace that the Church respects in the other 94% of humanity. I cannot bring myself to believe their sexual orientation is sinful. LGBT people need the Church's guidance as much as anyone else, and for the Church to continue to insist they refrain from sexual relations throughout the whole of life seems to me misguided and cruel. Perhaps worst of all from a Christian point of view, such an insistence is surely responsible for keeping millions of men and women away from the Church. I propose a possible theological route for rethinking sexuality in the essay "Christian Homophobia for Beginners". I place this essay before the actual debate texts.

But Catholic issues take up hardly any space in the texts below. Debating with non-Christians, I've tried to fight this debate almost exclusively on secular grounds. Readers of what follows will nowhere be subject to homily or sermon.

I welcome anyone to weigh in on any or all of these posts, but hope that those who do so will be civil. I've wiped away enough spit for the time being.

Being now agnostic on this particular issue, I cannot say with confidence which way my final thinking will develop. Having studied mainly the anthropological and historical issues, I now will spend more time assessing the psychological studies (of children and their well-being in same-sex households) and the theological side of the debate, both pro and contra.

Eric Mader
Taipei
02/12/14

HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION:

Christian Homophobia for Beginners (An Essay in Dissent)

FOR CATHOLICS:

Homosexuality: Three Routes the Catholic Church Might Take

THE DEBATE SO FAR:

I. I support gay rights; I'm against gay marriage

II. On Same-Sex Marriage: Renge Grace

III. Against Same-Sex Marriage: Am I a "bigot"?

IV. Same-Sex Marriage: "Legal Reform" or Progressive Overreaching (with Steve Johnson)

V. Different Ways of Touching (with Steve Johnson)

VI. What is a marriage? Who has the right to validate a marriage?


VII. Kossacks Only Breed with Kossacks


VIII. Learning a Few Things at Daily Kos


IX. Marriage and Categorization in the Study of Culture: An Anthropologist Weighs In

X. Protecting Religious Liberty in the Era of Marriage Equality

XI. More Squabbles with Kossacks


Same-Sex Marriage: "Legal Reform" or Progressive Overreaching

This is the fourth installment in an ongoing debate/dialogue about the viability of gay marriage in America. The previous installments can be linked from here. This page can also be read on its own. The opening letter is Steve Johnson's response to my previous post: "Against Same-Sex Marriage: Am I a bigot?"

I choose to open with Steve's letter here because I find it representative of the way many Americans approach the issue. My own arguments follow. I am a Catholic, politically on the left, who is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.

Eric Mader

Same-Sex Marriage: A Simple Question of Fairness

Eric:

First off, no, you are not a bigot. There is a difference between what I consider a bigot to be, and your point of view. I believe your point of view is one developed in earnest, without the disposition of disgust, hatred, or vitriolic anger. You have an opinion, and that opinion is not one that is derived from a "distaste" or desire to deny "rights" to others. Therefore, in my view, you are not a bigot.

However, what I would like to share with you is how I believe your point of view is ideally suited to be the firmament for bigotry wherein the true bigots can "co-opt" aspects of your views for their own purposes.

Part of your argument rests on the notion that history has not seen fit to create the equal status of same-sex marriage to a heterosexual marriage, and likewise with marriages between siblings, a child and their parent, etc., etc. For me this argument is weak. It is weak for the simple fact that on balance, history as a guide in terms of social aspects of humanity has been seriously flawed, for it has drawn its reasoning from all sorts of "truths" of the time that were utterly bereft of any actual reasons stemming from anything factual: its logic has often been merely based on prior social considerations. I don't believe I need to make the case for what I am saying beyond stating that slavery, property ownership of females, etc., were all part and parcel of a series of historical views that were derived from ideologies designed specifically to support all sorts of notions, none of which was to the benefit of the "owned" humans, though it was sold culturally as either a "natural order", or a best fit for the realities of the time. So historically, I think culture itself has always been lagging behind the real nature of what is fair, or just, or right for all humans.

The movement to provide rights of marriage to same-sex couples is far less troubling to me than it is to many people. For me the issue is cut-and-dried; it is as boring a decision as many of the other legal decisions we face in our country yearly.

It will bore you for me to state it, but I will state it nonetheless.

Marriage is a legal construct, a legal contract recognized by the state. It is no different than a "credit card terms" agreement, or a fishing license or drivers license. There are criteria that need to be met to sign such agreements, and upon signing those agreements, the benefits and risks of that agreement then inure to the signatories.

It is often stated that once this view is adopted, it is simple enough to provide a legal framework for such contracts that do not require it to be called "marriage"; another term may be chosen with all the same "legal" aspects of a "marriage" contract. It is typically called a "civil union", and you are not blocking such things, therefore, you are not, by definition, a bigot.

However, I would ask you the question: Why set up a completely different framework if ALL the legal benefits of the contracts are identical? What is it about the term "marriage" that needs to have it set as a different standard? When separate but equal would actually work as it pertains to legal frameworks? The answer is simple.

There is no reason to set up a separate legal framework that is identical, just to maintain the sanctity, or differentiation, of the term "marriage" unless there is some specific quality of that term that is conveyed, that cannot or should not be conveyed to same-sex couples.

Additionally, although your argument regarding the purpose of marriage was and has always been that it provides a legal framework for procreation, and the rights and privileges of that process, I would argue, that in our current social system, procreation is not the only reason people get married. As a matter of fact, although that may have been the intent of such a legal framework in the past, the reasons why people get married are actually irrelevant. Old people get married when they can no longer procreate. And procreation itself as reason for marriage today is really, fundamentally, obsolete. So we cannot assign any specific reason for WHY people get married, and from a legal framework perspective, it is also irrelevant. Especially since the criteria and reasoning for any given marriage has no bearing on what benefits are conveyed legally.

So it comes down to a specific word. The word is marriage. And history has shown that it is the word that disturbs most. It is no longer even the meaning assigned to the word. Since by every legal measure, a civil union is identical. Which leads me to ask the deeper question: What is it specifically that the voices for "civil union" instead of "marriage" object to? Especially when those who are OK with civil unions are totally OK with every right and benefit legally being conveyed in equal measure to a marriage.

And I would suggest that it is something deeper. It is that there is a belief (one that I do not share) that a marriage derives some element from some "higher place", some thing that cannot be conveyed legally, that is "sacred" between two opposite sex persons.

And whatever it is that this feeling is, it is nothing more than that. A feeling. A sense of "it's different" between same-sex people than it is between heterosexuals. And perhaps it is. But, there is nothing that can be studied, no academic research, no real world explanation for this "feeling". It is, in the end, an opinion that is not verified empirically. It just is. And this is insufficient to create a separate legal class with all the benefits being identical. Especially given that the notion of marriage itself derives its standing from a religious notion, a notion that the state co-opted to provide a contractual framework for two humans to have "rights" that inured to one another by virtue of that contract.

What same-sex individuals want, and they should have it, is the same "standing" in the law and CULTURALLY that the word "marriage" conveys. It is just that simple. And since there is no actual intellectual argument to be made for this "standing", since it is built on things we think but do not say, or even fully comprehend, it is nearly impossible in my view to rationally argue a separate but equal status for same-sex marriage except: "I don't like it."

Now, I would also be open for all marriages to be renamed "civil unions" and leave the term "marriage" to churches and religions. But since the culture itself wouldn't allow for this, then the only fair thing to do, if you are already willing to provide a full legal framework in every regard to same-sex couples, is simply concede the word, and move on.

Unless you believe there is something different, and that difference comes from something outside the law or any legal framework. And if that is the case, then although it is well articulated, it merely amounts to a confession that marriage itself is something other than a legal framework, something that comes from a deity, or a religious order. And if that is case, then in fact, we do stand opposite as, although I believe in a larger deity, I have seen not a single religion or man-made organization that even attempts to convey the reality of such a deity. Moreover, until a deity actually shows up and in person proves its godhead in the real, on TV and in the world, it is up to humans themselves to find the truth and to act on what is fair and right. And it is fair, and it is right, that any two consenting adults who are willing to enter into a legal framework for their benefit may be able to do so.

That is, until the so-called god shows up and spells out the reasons for why it is wrong.

Sincerely,

Steve

Same-Sex Marriage: Cultural Considerations

Steve:

I much appreciate your arguments here. It's clear your position hasn't changed that much since you last wrote about it in 2012--even then you evoked "fishing licenses"! Since you're taking much the same tack, I might simply refer you back to my arguments from that debate, when you finally acknowledged you had been "changed" by what I had to say, and that you would have more empathy with the views of "socially conservative" people henceforth. But just repeating my arguments won't do, because, although you're defending much the same position, you've clearly, in the meantime, sharpened the implications of your position. I think here you've brought things to a very sharp intellectual point.

In responding I'm going to try to be brief. If experience is any guide, I'm likely going to fail at this. The issue is a complex one, and there are aspects of it, depths to which it reaches in our culture, that require some fathoming even to make a valid point.

This time you start by declaring marriage a kind of "legal contract" and move toward questioning the grounds on which one can then distinguish between same-sex relationships and male-female relationships. You argue that there are no legal grounds for such a distinction; that those who claim otherwise can only be basing their claim on a "feeling", or on an appeal to some "higher place"--in short, that the claim cannot be based on observable "facts".

Here's the lynchpin for most of what you argue:

Marriage is a legal construct, a legal contract recognized by the state. It is no different than a "credit card terms" agreement, or a fishing license or drivers license. There are criteria that need to be met to sign such agreements, and upon signing those agreements, the benefits and risks of that agreement then inure to the signatories.

In fact my main problem with your whole way of thinking stems from my disagreement with your founding definition of marriage. I do not accept that marriage is fundamentally a "legal contract recognized by the state". I won't go into this in detail here because I've already explained myself on this point in our last discussion. Suffice it to say: Marriage is prior to the state. Marriage existed long before the state did. Marriage licenses are a secondary phenomenon. Such licenses are provided by the state merely to record the fact that the people in question are married.

When we discuss a change marriage customs or discuss what constitutes a marriage, we should always bear these things in mind. Marriage law as codified in the United States, or indeed in ancient Egypt or China, did not even exist when marriage began to be practiced as a human institution. In fact, writing did not even exist.

Now I know there are many people in contemporary America who are not impressed with ancient credentials: they do not assume things are better or true or right because they are ancient. In fact, for many people, ancient things are less likely to be true or right than contemporary things. But I want you to consider the kind of leap you are making when you say that marriage is merely a legal contract.

In America each state also issues birth certificates. We may then begin to argue that the birth of a human being is merely a kind of "license" issued by the state, no? That the main point about any human birth is the recognition the state gives it in terms of date and time and name of the human that is born. "Being born from your mother's womb is like a fishing license. It is no different than a 'credit card terms' agreement." I could develop this in various directions you wouldn't like, but won't for now because I'm trying to keep it brief. How about just one: In some future political order it could become feasible to make the political or legal argument that a baby born is not a human being until it has received its birth certificate, which is, after all, the "real birth". And then certain conditions might be established for what entails the "right" to a birth certificate. Suddenly, because the ancient reality of birth has been defined as essentially a "legal document", the state has a new prerogative: it gets to decide who is truly "human".

I just want you to begin to see how your founding argument sounds to me: the degree to which it sounds offhand, demeaning, unconsidered. One of the reasons smart conservatives are against same-sex marriage is that they see it as a redefinition of marriage effected via the state which, in effect, establishes the state as final arbiter of what marriage is. This new power is cemented in place by precedent. We are seeing the precedent established right before our eyes. In America each state government that has legalized same-sex marriage has done so in opposition to a sizable minority (and often a majority) of its own citizens. This is how the state takes over a primal cultural institution that is far more ancient than the state is.

Being born or being married each far predate the state and legal contracts. They have a human meaning, both cultural and biological, compared to which the licensing laws or tax benefits or other state-related aspects of the matter are trifling. As cultural realities, they dwarf the state's documents and records and laws.

The degree to which both you and my other correspondent Renge are indifferent to the weight of human historical fact, the ease with which you can brush it off in the name of a 15-year-old social movement, is staggering to me. It suggests an extremely short-term historical lens combined with an inability to grasp the degree to which we don't completely understand what we are as beings. Philosophers and anthropologists realize this: we don't fully grasp our own nature; we are still a mystery to ourselves; many of our central institutions are mysterious even to us, even as we live among them. Further, we little understand the rhythms of our rise and fall as individual human societies. When something is mysterious, as we ourselves are, it is often wise to stick to what has been established over ages.

Yes, I know that in your view culture has always been "lagging behind the real nature of what is fair". Slavery, ownership of women as property, etc., were overcome, so there is doubtless an element of truth in what you say. But note that we also, with our "fairer" modern culture, impoverish and brutalize much of the world outside our borders through imperialism. We employ our advanced weapons to kill countless individuals we have never even met--children included. With impunity. In the name of our "fairness". So I would say the degree to which we have become fairer as we advance is arguable at the very least. But to pursue this would be to drift from my argument.

Armed with your definition of marriage as "legal contract", you proceed to analyze marriage as mainly a matter of rights and benefits that are afforded couples. Again you take the statist approach to the issue, looking at marriage from the point of view of tax breaks, inheritance rights, etc., and say, basically, "What is the difference between same-sex couples and male-female couples?" Well, in terms of these various rights, there is of course no significant difference.

From here you move swiftly to your main argument: People who think there is actually a difference are only basing their view on a kind of religious idea, a "higher authority", which, as you put it, is the same thing as basing it on a "feeling". Because religious ideas or higher authorities cannot be verified. They are just a feeling, and "there is nothing that can be studied, no academic research, no real world explanation for this 'feeling'." There is no basis in "empirical facts".

I see two important elements in your argument here, neither of which holds water with me. First, your claim that people's religious ideas are simply "feelings" and are not a matter of facts. I want you to listen to my friend Alan Liu here, an atheist and serious student of anthropology who thinks you don't know what you're talking about:

The idea that religion is simply a matter of individual emotional attachment to imagined beings and that it is consequently something not "factual" or "real" is a fatuous one. One of the intellectual weaknesses of the "New Atheism" movement is just here: that its arguments so often depend on this weak claim. The problem with the claim is that it misses what is really the essential point. Namely, that religion is a central and probably permanent part of human culture. The New Atheists somehow miss or (we might say) underestimate this very tangible fact. The fact is religion's centrality in culture. Never mind whether God or gods actually exist in a real space over, under or parallel to the earth. That is not the point here. God or gods may indeed be a kind of epiphenomenon projected by collective human imagination, which is in fact how most anthropologists understand deity and the divine. But that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because the majority of world cultures have come into existence, grown and developed along with their religious beliefs and practices. They have imbued nearly every aspect of their material and productive lives with religious meaning, to the point that their social organization, their laws, their ideas of birth and death and love--indeed, nearly everything that holds them together and defines them as a human culture--are tied in with their religion. So religious beliefs are factual things. These beliefs exist in the world and shape whole social structures. In this sense they are not "imaginary", and they are not going to go away once the science of Richard Dawkins persuades people that the earth is not just 6,000 years old. Indeed, and this is an important thing to recognize, even modern secular cultures, such as those of Northern Europe, where few people now identify themselves as religious, still depend in a very real sense on what we could call the "religious fabric" that was woven in their past. This religious fabric still holds much of their cultural life in balance: it founds their ideas of justice, of death, of progress, of individual rights and responsibilities. These "conceptual realms" of modern Scandinavian cultures can easily be shown to be derived from the religion(s) of their ancestors, despite how secular and modern Scandinavian people believe themselves to be. In the Western world no concept of inalienable human rights would ever have come about without Europe's Christian background. So religions and religions' cultural insights, though these insights may originally be linked to mythical stories, continue being central even in cultures that believe themselves to be "post-religious".

Religion is not just a feeling; it is eminently empirical. As a complex way of ordering the world, making sense of the world, it can be studied and can be shown to be operative even in our so-called "secular" societies. What's more, if a "higher authority", a deity or prophet speaking for a deity, makes some ethical stricture about this or that, it may matter in some respect whether the deity actually exists, but that is not the crucial point. The crucial point is that the culture, out of its own life and practice, came to generate this particular ethical stricture. That stricture may very well have been "put in the deity's mouth", it doesn't matter: the crucial thing is that the stricture was known to be important enough to merit being put in a god's mouth to begin with.

I am very sensitive to this empirical fact about culture, and this is one of the reasons why, even though I am Catholic myself, I chose to write my entire 2012 essay on so-called gay marriage without once referring to the Church or the Bible. Because whether you believe in God is not the main issue here: the main issue is the weight of cultural evidence.

So your argument that traditional ideas of marriage are unpersuasive because they are based on a "religion" or a "higher authority" that "can't be verified", that these ideas are based on a mere "feeling"--really, it doesn't move me in the least. In fact I think you're just factually wrong here. Besides which, you will find that it is also very easy, following your route, to argue that human rights are also based on a mere "feeling", that there is nothing "verifiable" in the "real world" to prove that an individual human being must be treated with more respect than a sponge. But I won't get into how deeply our Western idea of "human rights" is religiously grounded. Rather, I hope to get you to acknowledge a little more viscerally the perspective I'm trying to get across.

Imagine in the not-too-distant future a general global environmental collapse (not hard to imagine, is it?) and that a couple decades after the collapse there is an isolated future city-state, of mixed ethnicity, that is having serious problems feeding its population. Starvation is not occurring, but malnutrition may soon begin gnawing at the city's vitality. The challenge is getting protein into the people's diet. The city is set on an arid and isolated coastline, and the sea, which used to provide much of the citizen's protein, is now dead. The few species left under the pretty blue waves are thoroughly contaminated.

The ruling party is secularist and authoritarian and has a strong grip on power. The party proposes a new law: all local communities must eat their dead. Doing so, the party argues, will give at least a boost to annual rates of protein intake. Previously the city-state's people dealt with the bodies of the dead either through burial, in isolated tracts along the arid coastline, or cremation.

Some academics and citizens come forward in protest. They argue that the very idea of eating the dead is held in horror by much of the population. Note that I say much rather than most. In fact many party followers and young people feel the idea isn't a bad one and that it is merely old taboos or religious notions that keep people from applauding the new law. Christians and citizens from other religious traditions are prominent among those who refuse to follow the law.

The party leadership believes resistance to the law is temporary and will eventually be overcome as citizens get used to the new normal. The government cracks down and launches a campaign to break the old superstitions, which, it argues, are not based on any facts but are simply outdated "notions" or "feelings" that should be overcome or reformed away. As one party editorial puts it:

Every individual in our state is a citizen and compatriot, beloved by us all. Sadly, this citizen that is so beloved of us, that has been with us in life, no longer actually exists once the body has died. We remember him or her in our hearts and in our records and of course in our memories. But he or she can help us one last time in our struggle, by becoming part of the strength of those still alive! Those who find this offensive in some way are wrong. They are thinking in outdated ways. Because a dead body is not a person, but just meat.

The party organizes days each month when any community member who has died must be eaten in public by family members and neighbors. This is to force people, for their own good, to overcome their "superstitious veneration of the dead body", which cannot be proven to be anything other than meat. In fact, as the party puts it in another editorial: "there is nothing that can be studied, no academic research, no real world explanation for this 'feeling'."

I can't say where either you or Renge would stand in this imaginary future political debate. But people like myself would be arguing that civilization is a complex thing, that it is not easy to understand what holds it together, and that even though my dead relative's body is indeed, physically, just meat, still almost no human culture in history has considered eating the dead an acceptable thing. I would be arguing that this historical fact should not be considered important only for religious people in our city-state, but that eating the dead would have unforeseeable and long-ranging effects on people's understanding of life itself--and that we can't really calculate what these effects would be. At best we could make a few predictions. For instance: Continuing with the new policy would certainly alter people's ideas of death. Which is no small thing. Because death, an end to life that all humans face, a kind of ever-looming presence, profoundly influences the way we conceive the value of our lives. Also: It would certainly have an impact on citizens' ideas of the body, on their individual "body images", on their notions of pride in or disgust for theirs or others' bodies. Both of these factors and many others unforeseen may come to have an impact on the morale and viability of the society as a whole. In short, ignoring this "feeling" about not eating the dead will likely have very "factual" and "empirical" sociological impacts, many of which are hard to trace in the short term.

So where would you stand in this future debate? Do you agree that in this case the human historical record, with its taboo against eating the dead, is unimportant? Will you be with those arguing that "culture often lags behind"? But especially: Why is eating the dead not an acceptable an idea? How do we account for our feeling that starting to do so would undermine something fundamental in our being together as a society? If I might presume that feeling. Because I'm convinced that in that future city-state citizens might indeed soon overcome their revulsion, their sense that something wrong was being implemented. But even if they were to lose their revulsion, a hard-to-define cultural malaise would set in; some of the deeper effects of the change would begin to alter the city's previous sense of the purpose of life and their togetherness.

Please note that with this analogy I am definitely not suggesting that same-sex marriage is something as horrendous or offensive as eating the dead. This is not the point of my at all, and I know you have the intellectual subtlety to see that such a notion didn't even enter my head. What I am trying to do is get you to recognize that ancient and universal taboos, often tied up with religious beliefs, may still possess a very concrete social reality. The importance of any taboo, its importance for humanity as a whole rather than for just specific cultures, can be judged by its universality. Some religious traditions involve fasting or self-flagellation: nearly all, to the point of 99.7%, involve a taboo against eating the dead. Some religious traditions support polygyny or polyandry: nearly all, this time to the point of 99.9%, refuse to consider homosexual lovers as married. Is this verifiable historical fact simply irrelevant in our progressive age, as you and Renge both insist? How can you be so sure it is irrelevant?

I've met your father many times and consider him a decent guy, although I must say the last time I met him he kept looking at me like I was some kind of lowlife. In any case, if political push came to shove, I wouldn't want to stand on a sidewalk next to you and other neighbors while we eat your father in the form of wonton soup. And even if I, or even if you yourself, were to believe that eating him in this way is a progressive thing to do, would we really be right to look askance at other merely "religious" neighbors who might feel revulsion, who might feel that there is something topsy-turvy and ultimately wrong in what is happening, even though they might not be able explain this wrong in terms of protein intake and economic theory--in terms of what you call "facts"?

In terms of revulsion or repulsion, I believe the parallel with same-sex marriage here, for many, is not at all a repulsion for homosexual acts or people, but rather one felt at the specter of "same-sex marriage". I think these two kinds of revulsion can be clearly divided. In America, it's true, many men, especially, feel the first kind of revulsion: they feel uncomfortable next to gay men; they feel exceedingly uncomfortable in a gay bar. I've seen men squirming like this, and it is a sad sight. This kind of revulsion, I believe, is coded more by our American culture than it is a universal or ancient one. I think the Greeks and Chinese prove my point.

The second kind of revulsion, the feeling that there is something wrong with same-sex marriage, is different. It is not so much a physical reaction or phobia, but rather a deep sense that the social institution is being twisted; it is a refusal to acknowledge that these are actually marriages; it is an unwillingness to be forced into calling them marriages. In my view, as I've stated, they are not in fact marriages and shouldn't be so named, because once they are so named, the meaning of the term marriage becomes different. I don't want to change the meaning of this term. You point out, rightly, that we are arguing here largely about the meaning of a term. I'd stress that the term in question refers to an important institution; it is not just any old term. No, I will not "cede the term and move on".

I feel this second kind of repulsion, a deep sense that a central institution is being twisted.

Why do I go on about these two kinds of repulsion, why my story of the city-state, why all this writing? It maybe seems too much. I intended to be brief, but I've already way outdistanced your own letter in terms of word count. I think it's because I'm not simply debating here, and not simply trying to understand the intellectual issues of our debate, but I'm also trying to get at my own feelings: What is it, finally, that I'm so opposed to? I think it's important to get these things in the open if we are to resolve our national impasse--if a resolution is even possible, that is.

On your side of the argument, at least in terms of resolving the impasse, it might be worthwhile if you and other "progressive-minded" people were to sit down together and discuss these two questions: "First: Can we accept people like Eric, who seem to be okay with the existence of gay people and gay relationships, but who refuse to recognize gay marriage? Can we acknowledge that Eric's stance is a tolerable one or is it inherently 'offensive' and 'bigoted'? Second: Can we accept people who have that more 'redneck' kind of revulsion, who would feel a kind of horror if they were forced to drink in a gay bar, who twinge a little when they look at openly gay men?"

As for the answer to first question: Hey, it's all up to you. But please at least give it thought. As for the second question, it is a harder one to answer. As I've suggested, I think this kind of revulsion is a product of older American ideas of masculinity, and suspect it is lessening by the decade. Nonetheless, it is not going to go away soon, and I for one think progressives should at least take it into account when thinking about what is socially viable. At present, I think the push for same-sex marriage needlessly provokes these people, who exist in the tens of millions. If America's political order were to shift as a result of some crisis, which is certainly possible, the same-sex marriage push may end badly for LGBT rights in general.

Before closing: You also argue in your remarks against my linking marriage with procreation. You insist that people get married for many different reasons now and that the reason they get married is, again, irrelevant to the terms and agreements aspects of the legal contract. In fact, "procreation itself as reason for marriage today is really, fundamentally, obsolete." I could go into this in depth, but will merely ask, for the time being, if you have ever heard someone say: "Maybe it'd be good to settle down, start a family." Or: "After college I'd like to marry and start a family." What cultural institution are all these people referring to? Even for people who don't marry in order to have children, the birth of children is always a strong possibility. That is the reason their marriages are recognized as such. (Regarding the elderly or the infertile, I have things to say, but will save this question for some other time.)

I rest my case for now. I strongly believe that you, Renge, and obviously millions of other Americans do not adequately respect the depth of mystery in our most primal institutions. There are only a few such cultural institutions--marriage, funerals and family among them--and we are wise not to alter them radically. They are the boundaries of our being together as humans and as such they potentially impact nearly everything else in social life.

Excuse me if these remarks seem dismissive or even, in places (and I'm thinking mainly of Renge) "offensive". If at times they approach offending is it probably because, as a person who has spent my life studying culture, I am deeply struck, at times even pained, by the offhandedness with which both of you dismiss cultural and religious history as irrelevant to the issues of "today". Indeed, my argument, stated early in my first essay, that even major world cultures that respected homoerotic love (those of ancient Greece for instance) still never recognized a thing called homosexual marriage--this point neither of you has even bothered to address. To you it is all just part of the vast scrapheap of history, likely no more worthy of our consideration than Athenian democracy or Plato's political ideas. Yes, I am being ironic again, somewhat bitterly so.

As usual, replies are always welcome, whether from you, Steve, or from anyone reading this discussion who would like to weigh in.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Against Same-Sex Marriage: Am I a "bigot"?


On Facebook last week my friend Renge Grace posted the above picture of actor/activist George Takei, captioning it with the words: "Let's move beyond bigotry and let love be love! Who are we to say one type is better than another?"

I have to admit I was disappointed to be yet again implicitly labeled a bigot.

I don't know Renge well, but she's always posted things of interest to me, and I've become one of her regular "first responders". That she supports same-sex marriage isn't the least surprising. Many of my friends do. I've often avoided discussing the issue with friends, because I know how quickly misunderstandings can develop. Normally, in this vein, I will also leave alone friends' Internet posts on gay marriage. But that Renge felt she needed to drag out the epithet bigot--this challenged me to respond.

I posted a link to something I'd written in 2012, along with a challenge to her. She was to decide if I in fact deserved this epithet.

So I'm again taking up the question of same-sex marriage--specifically whether it is marriage or not. The essay I'd written on this, trying to clarify my thinking, became the opening of a discussion that Renge then entered in kind. Renge read my essay, and replied with a guns-blazing defense of her own thinking.

My opening barrage in this debate is here. Renge's spirited counterattack is here. One will best understand what follows if read in the context of these previous posts. But I know: Life is short, USW.

NOTE: I am an American Catholic who is on the left on most political issues. This might explain somewhat where I'm coming from in these remarks. I'm entirely supportive of our current Pope Francis' willingness to raise discussion of homosexuality within the Church. I don't believe there are any grounds for excluding gays and lesbians from full participation in political or religious life. Nonetheless I do not support same-sex marriage. If the Church, after thoughtful discussion, were to formulate grounds for accepting gay marriage, I'd almost certainly be in support. I say this with confidence because I know the Church isn't likely to make such a change unless it finds very good reasons, both theological and anthropological, to do so.

What follows is a whole new tack in the debate--a rant of sorts, written in reply to Renge's own ranty post. I'm surprised and not surprised I ended up writing at such length.

Eric Mader

On Same-Sex Marriage and "Progress"

Renge:

Though I've taken a few days to respond to your hard-hitting rebuttal, I'm afraid I still won't be able to do justice to all your points as I've too many projects on the burner now--editing and class preparation and such. Still, as you've written so well on the issue and linked it with such an array of other issues, I'm inspired to do likewise. So I'm going to give some something of a far-ranging rant in return for yours.

As you can gather, I'm more on the border on this issue than most people, but truth to tell, my thinking hasn't much changed since my 2012 essay.

Some of the arguments you make I agree with. In other places, where you strongly disagree with me, I still find your points pertinent to our debate. Other things you write, however, I have to label straw-man arguments. I will give you examples of each.

For instance, I can fully agree with you when you write this:
Someday I hope we’ll grow up enough to realize that sexuality is a continuum and we are all on the line somewhere. (This may even change as we age, adding further complexity to our human experience.) Very few among us are completely straight or completely gay. Under sufficient application of alcohol, most people will admit to sexual experiments with their own gender, but this openness is discouraged and people are shamed in both worlds for admitting their bisexuality.
I've long thought this way about sexual orientation, but can't recall anyone ever putting the point so well. It seems obvious that everyone is indeed somewhere on a continuum.

Your arguments seem most pertinent to our differences where you point out, as you do several times, that institutions need to be "updated" in order to keep up with a changing society. As I believe you would put it: Modern societies have created different ways of living, and our institutions--like marriage, parenthood, etc.--should adapt to contemporary realities. Do you agree with this? This seems to be your "general historical position", if I might call it that. It is how you explain and justify social change, it informs your thinking on gay marriage, and I presume that it underlies much of your thinking on other cultural/religious/political issues. For me it's a perspective on the world that can't be brushed aside. In fact I disagree with it, but that you adopt this angle is certainly pertinent to our debate. I'll address the issue later.

You're also arguing very much to the point when you quote Wikipedia on what marriage is. But I have my reasons for doubt here. I strongly suspect the very encyclopedia article you quote from has been pressured into shape by the same-sex marriage crowd. Why do I suspect it? First: Because I studied marriage and kinship in anthropology in the 1980s, and at that time the consensus was that marriage had only one universal meaning, one common element across cultures: marriage was a socially conferred status given to male and female partners that legitimated offspring. In other words, in cultures across the world and throughout history, marriage might feature a division of the daily labors necessary to life (distinct roles in the family); it might feature romantic love; it might feature this or that ritual; it might be monogamous or polygamous. The one thing that it always featured, aside from its character as a status established between the sexes, was the legitimation of offspring. This, then, was the essence of marriage, at least as anthropologists could then best define it. Why, I wonder, is your Wikipedia article suddenly listing this universal aspect of marriage after other features like companionship, mutual obligation, arguments over which drapes best offset the carpet, etc.? I have an idea why. I suspect the sudden shift in perspective has something to do with the era that has given us Wikipedia. (It would be very interesting to check a range of encyclopedia articles on this, comparing the 1980s versions with the current offerings. I haven't done this, but will when I have a chance. I can't be certain, but I have a strong inkling of what I will find. Anthropologists, being academics, work under special pressure from the waves of political correctness that have been sweeping our universities since, yes, the 1980s.)

Another place where your arguments are pertinent is where you write as follows:
Children are still at the whim of the mental/emotion/financial stability of their caregivers. Heterosexuals have absolutely no biological monopoly on sanity, stability, or ability to provide a healthy and loving home life. There is absolutely no reason I can think of that one man and one woman are somehow better biologically/socially/mentally/emotionally/spiritually/financially equipped to raise a child than two men, or two women.
You put your convictions here very strongly and in the clearest possible terms. But do you really believe what you write? There is "absolutely no reason"? I will be blunt about my own thinking on this question of child-rearing. All other factors being equal, I think the best home for a child to be raised in is one with a (female) mother and a (male) father. All other factors being equal, homes with single parents or same-sex parents are not as good for a child's social development. It is better for children to have both male and female role models in the house, as it helps with their own gender development and integration into the culture at large.

Please note the importance of my mitigating clause "all other factors being equal". It means, of course, that I fully recognize there are same-sex or single parents who do a great job raising kids, just as there are heterosexual couples who do a dismal job. I am certainly not claiming that children can only be raised well if they are raised in a traditional family. Still, I believe the battle over same-sex marriage has led progressive-minded people to overstate their confidence in the other direction. Me, I'm not convinced there is "absolutely no difference" between different kinds of household in terms of a child's well-being. (I know, by the way, what recent studies have shown.)

As to your straw-man arguments, these would include things like:
Truthfully, I am not sure how [seeing gays or lesbians as abnormal] is any different from bigotry against someone for their skin color? If someone doesn’t belong to a group which has more than (51%? 66%?) of the same shade of skin color in a given school/state/country, then they don’t deserve equal rights? If your sexuality is only reflected by 6-10% of the rest of the population, you are abnormal, deviant, disposable? At what point, what percentage, does some condition or state earn the right to be considered “normal?”
Here you're not debating me any more, but going after a generalized right-wing bogeyman (one that exists, to be sure, but one that is not me). In reply, I would remind you, and anyone else who lightly uses the term bigot, that it is entirely possible to strongly believe both of these statements:

1) Homosexuality is normal for 6-10 percent of any given human population; it is not perverse or anything to be ashamed of.

2) A man cannot marry a man; a woman cannot marry a woman.

I don't see how I'm treating gays or lesbians as "disposable" by being against same-sex marriage. I don't at all agree that I'm a bigot by taking this position. Please explain. I may point out, by way of illustration, that I also strongly believe both of the following statements:

1) In any given human population, a large percentage of people are raised with siblings; having siblings is not perverse or deviant.

2) One cannot marry a brother or sister.

Thinking this way makes me an incorrigible and unrepentant siblingphobe, right? Nonetheless, Renge, I will have to stand my ground here. Laws against inter-sibling marriage should be maintained, whatever you might say. (Before you scoff and try to claim my comparison here is merely glib, please note--irony of ironies!--: there is actually more historical precedent for sibling marriage than there is for same-sex marriage.)

The simple truth is that our culture and most world cultures currently share a few common exclusionary principles that inform the definition of marriage. One cannot marry one's parent, one's child, or one's sibling. One cannot marry a person of the same sex. I don't see any reason to change our basic definition of marriage on these fundamental points--but, again, that is exactly what same-sex marriage supporters are doing. They are not extending marriage rights to a previously excluded group; rather they are changing the meaning of marriage itself.

I was trying to stress this same point when I wrote that, in the strictest sense, gays and lesbians already have the right to marry; but that, since marriage is by definition between male and female, they understandably are not likely to pursue their right. I was not being, as you say, "disingenuous", but making a point about what the right to marriage entails.

When the Nineteenth Amendment to our Constitution was ratified in 1920, it extended voting rights to women, a group who'd previously been excluded from exercising that right. The Nineteenth Amendment did not, however, alter the definition of what it means to vote. This was a true extension of rights, not an attempt to tamper with fundamentals. People who liken the push for same-sex marriage to the suffragette movement or the civil rights movement are getting it very wrong. Neither of these movements tried to alter the meaning of the rights invoked. But same-sex marriage does just that. To put the difference metaphorically: One can discover a new species of bird. But deciding that we might also start referring to squirrels as birds is altogether different. It radically alters the meaning of the term bird.

The fact that I have long supported establishment of civil unions for same-sex couples means that the good points you make about hospital visitation, tax benefits, etc., are also somewhat a matter of straw-man arguments. I've long supported extending these rights. The compromise I discussed in my essay, suggested by Anderson and Girgis in 2009 (a compromise according to which conservatives would agree to support civil unions in return for the LGBT community agreeing to support DOMA, thus ensuring that civil unions not be used as a stepping-stone to force legalizing of same-sex marriage) would have been well worth pursuing, as it would have kept our country from becoming so bitterly divided on this issue. This route is now unavailable, since Section 3 of DOMA was declared unconstitutional in 2013. Which leave opponents of same-sex marriage where? I'll tell you: the serious ones no longer support civil unions. In this regard, because I recognize gay and lesbian rights as important, I'm not among these serious ones. But I'm on the edge here. The sudden aggressiveness of the gay marriage push, the demonizing of people who refuse to go along, is as disgusting to me as the virile homophobia we see on the lunatic right.

I consider the movement for same-sex marriage to be an impertinence. I mean this word in all its possible senses. The movement is an impertinence because it is an instance of aggressive provocation at a time when gays and lesbians were already doing very well. They already had laws preventing discrimination against them in universities, in the workplace, in housing. They could live their lives as they chose. But no--they had to take the further step of demanding a change to marriage customs.

The movement is also an impertinence because it has caused an enormous stir at a historical moment when there are, as you recognize, much graver problems to be addressed. The same-sex marriage crowd has only further exacerbated the "culture wars" that our current political class uses to keep itself in power. Though we are a two-party democracy in name, it is obvious we have become a one-party oligarchy in fact. Since rapacious corporate capitalism is the only politics available to American voters, our ruling class has come up with two "flavors" in order to create the illusion of a democratic process. And so, we must choose between the economically right-wing corporate servants (called Republicans) who stand against abortion and same-sex marriage, and the economically right-wing corporate servants (Democrats) who are okay with abortion and same-sex marriage. It is not a choice, but a not-so-subtle scam that allows the corporate powers to continue to run roughshod over the natural environment and the American people. I would insist that the push for same-sex marriage is an unlooked for gift to our ruling oligarchs. No doubt the corporate crowd chuckles together on their yachts about it. Starting in the 1990s, really picking up steam after the millennium, here they have the gay/lesbian community offering them this huge political gift on a Jean-Paul Gaultier silver platter, as if gays and lesbians everywhere were standing up and declaring in a loud voice: "Here, Oligarchs, we give you this to make the masses squabble while you continue to rob them and rape the earth under their feet. Let them squabble about us. We're kind of getting used to the attention you know!" What a gift! The Koch brothers are almost ready to dress up in leotards, they're so delighted at the LGBT contribution. But for me--what an amazing piece of political impertinence it is! After being on this earth 200 centuries, our species is likely to render itself extinct after a mere three centuries of "modern Enlightenment culture". According to many scientists, we may very well no longer even be here in 2200. But hey--why not introduce an entirely new kind of marriage to the world, right? Now is the time to devote ourselves to this historic push to reform marriage!

I suspect you feel I'm starting to go on a rant here, Renge, getting a bit ranty and drifting from topic. Actually I don't quite think so. It was you who raised the question of how the push for same-sex marriage fit in the general movement of history when you stressed repeatedly how institutions need to "change with the times". I'm just stressing how I think it fits with the current times. It will likely go down in history--if we have any long-term history--as an unfortunate distraction. I'm aware how in this debate I'm standing on what many people are starting to identify as "the wrong side of history". I believe this is likely so, that the momentum is now with gay marriage. So I probably am on the wrong side of history in terms of short-term history--the history, say, of US society and politics. In terms of the long picture, however, I'm more confident. And in terms of my rant, I'm only just getting started. I did promise a rant after all.

I want to return to consideration of what I mentioned above as the general theory of history you seem to be basing so many of your arguments on. You seem to believe that politics and history is a matter of moving "forward"--of growing into the future by developing and implementing our ever-expanding human wisdom. You refer to "outdated" religious thinking and insist that institutions must "adapt". I'll admit this is a strong way of approaching history and politics, and I'm also often tempted to think this way. But when I'm thinking honestly about the world, I snap out of it. I've come to believe there's something fatal in this approach to history, that it contains a fateful seed that still isn't finished sapping the life from us. I see this weed growing in most of us.

Such "onward" and "forward" thinking is a kind of virus we injected into ourselves during the Enlightenment. Infected with this virus, we cut an ever-widening swath of mayhem and destruction across the planet. Peoples and ecosystems go up in smoke at the touch of our burning scythe.

So certain religious ways of understanding the world are "outdated"? Maybe. But it's not just in religion or ethics that things get outdated. And when you confidently adopt this language of progress, as if it were somehow obvious or unproblematic, you need to remember that this is precisely the same ideology of progress that is causing so many of our most dire problems. Indeed, it is just this kind of thinking that is, on many fronts, enabling your enemies. I'm going to play Devil's advocate and speak in the voice of "progress" on some other issues here. See how it sounds to you in these registers. First off, Renge, when I hear about people running small local farms trying to grow produce for a local community, I really have to laugh sometimes. It's so "outdated"! Everyone knows we now have a huge world population to feed. Agriculture has come a long way toward meeting this challenge, and we now have genetically modified crops that offer much better yield. Why continue with ridiculous medieval methods of farming? Or, to use your precise language: agriculture needs to "adapt" to the "current social reality", no?

Feeling a bit warm around the collar?

Or what about public safety? Yes, there are still some quaint people out there who want us to hire police to patrol the streets and interact with and protect the citizenry. What a laugh! Don't they know it's expensive and impractical and, frankly, it's sooo twentieth century? Now we can just install security cameras on every street corner and one police officer can easily surveil a whole borough. And we can even make his or her job easier by using facial recognition software in the system. The system will then automatically identify and begin to track anyone who's ever been arrested the moment they leave their dwelling. A little red dot will come to float over the heads of any troublemakers who happen to be on the street. Of course we'll have to make wearing masks or obstructive hoods illegal. But that's a small price to pay for the leap forward in policing that these technologies will allow. Remember, Renge, we live in a dangerous world. Strict notions of individual liberty, the kind of thing you'd hear before 9/11, are "outdated" and we must "adapt". There are terrorists plotting this minute to murder us. Safety first, no? Besides, it's inevitable: the technology is there, so we should use it to our advantage.

Ditto with the Internet. The reality of ever more sophisticated terrorists demands that we record and follow every communication between citizens. Outdated concepts of privacy have to be tweaked a bit to ensure the security of our nation and economy. Our notions of what government can access in our private lives must adapt. It's progress. Why try to buck it?

I could go on with any number of examples of how we must accept institutions changing to keep up with a changing social reality. This is your same logic of history at work, Renge. Monsanto, security cameras, government making records of all communications between supposedly free citizens--all these are being justified in terms of inevitable "progress" and "adapting to current social realities". And this is just the start of a list of "progressive" initiatives we swallow without protest because we all, as Americans, have been somehow convinced that the new, the updated, is an improvement on the old, the time-tested.

Foreign policy? Foreign policy in the age of the Super Corporation is sure difficult, isn't it? It's best we just acknowledge the current reality and work with it. Concepts of the "nation state" are a thing of the past. It's a new world out there.

Or what about the university? It must adapt to the challenge of the modern job market. Humanities studies are a luxury and a waste of scarce university resources. Or what about our prisons? . . . Or what about . . .

The important thing is to make sure institutions keep up with the current social reality, right? Because our awareness of so many things is expanding. To stubbornly stick to concepts from the past-- It's outdated.

Your arguments are well put, and you're clearly a very articulate debater, but I'm sorry, these are the kinds of things I actually I hear when you talk about "outdated" religious ideas and the need to "adapt" to the new. I hear the massive ongoing onslaught of "the new"--from the food we eat to the way our government works to the way we educate the next generation. I hear Miley Cyrus and a culture made of tweets and soundbites, brought to you by BP ("Beyond Petroleum"). I hear Kanye and Kim missionary style on a Harley, motoring through a landscape shining gold with GM wheat. Each celeb has their own fashion label, their own style of "subversiveness", backup vocals by Monsanto. In short, I hear the claptrap of an out-of-control capitalism, where everything is malleable to the dictates of the market.

So many things that you hate, Renge, are being brought to you by this same ideology of "adaptation" and "progress" and leaving behind the "outdated". I would think you'd be a bit more skeptical of this way of thinking about history.

And mysteriously, the movement for same-sex marriage arises out of this same world. But why is that? I don't have a good theory why, but I think it's a valid question. In any case, no culture has ever recognized same-sex love as compatible with marriage. What exactly is pushing us to do so now?

I have long been doubtful of the viability of modern culture. I am not enthusiastic about our neoliberal capitalism, the "society of the spectacle" now thrown into hyperdrive by the Internet. (Cf. Guy Debord, with whom I can travel in some basic insights.) I am not convinced these things are here to stay. By the same token, I am not enthusiastic about same-sex marriage. To me, the fact that we can study millennia of human culture without finding precedent for it is not, as you see it, irrelevant. It is evidence there is something incompatible between homoerotic love and marriage, an "essence" of marriage that has established this border since time immemorial. Perhaps there is not an incompatibility for the same-sex individuals involved, but I suspect there is one for society as a whole. And that is my main frame of reference, because marriage is not merely a status between two individuals, but is also a status between the married couple and their larger community. Marriage is social before it is individual.

When I think of same-sex marriage, especially if I think of it in the context of the confident "forward thinking" you espouse, I have to ask myself: Is it mere coincidence that, although homoerotic love is as old and universal as humanity, yet it is only in our hyper-consumerist "postmodern" capitalist world that people are suddenly demanding gay and lesbian couples be recognized as "married", that this is suddenly somehow their "right"? In the comments section of my previous essay, which you may not have gotten to, I point out that in the past a minister conducting a marriage ceremony would say:
Into this holy estate these two persons now come to be joined. If any person can show just cause why they may not be joined together--let them speak now or forever hold their peace.
Given that marriage is a status conferred by the community, what does it mean for America that for every same-sex wedding now conducted there are literally tens of millions of Americans who might stand up to say: "Yes, I have a reason they may not be joined together in marriage. They are of the same sex." To me, this particular social reality suggests something of the arrogance of gay marriage activists. These tens of millions of people, many of whom do not deserve the epithet bigot, are part of the community in question, and have good reason to reject what is, after all, an entirely unprecedented re-definition of marriage. For the time being, I'm standing with them.


Responses

The above rebuttal of mine did not sway Renge's thinking. She repeated her assertion that my ideas were "outdated"--stressing that she had no problem with the term--and in fact she was deeply offended by parts of what I'd written. I apologized to her at length. I recognized that much of her offense came from the fact that she'd misinterpreted some of the ironies in my writing as my straightforward opinion. This has happened to me with readers before, and I apologized that I'd shifted around so much in terms of perspective in my piece. Renge accepted my apology, but didn't want to continue with the debate. Understandably, and I was feeling it too, we'd said more than enough about our positions for the time being.

Then my friend Steve Johnson weighed in. Steve had commented at length on my original essay. Reading Steve's rebuttal, Renge wrote as follows: "I am thrilled to read your friend Steve's comments--he has said it all for me as I could not, did not, do."

Steve's piece and my response to it are here

A complete index of all these posts in order is here. This index will be updated with any further new posts.