Thursday, March 29, 2007

David Blankenhorn: The Future of Marriage


David Blankenhorn. The Future of Marriage. Encounter Books, 2007, ISBN 1-59403-081-2, 325 pages, hardcover, with appendices and index. This book is supposed to be the lynchpin of the newer, more collective “conservative” ideological opposition to same-sex marriage. The central theme has to do with a concern of de-institutionalizing marriage, or literally letting gays redefine it out of existence. That seems a little hard to believe if only 5 percent of the population (to be generous) would ever usually try to use full legal recognition for gay marriage. However, Blankenhorn reluctantly and gradually admits that he has to cast the problem in terms of balancing rights. Here, the balance is the birthright of a child to two married parents of the opposite sex, biological parents whenever possible (that is, a legal structure that makes that as likely as possible for any particular child that gets born), against the rights of adults to live their expressive and personal lives without interference from others. And there can, honestly, be some real problems. Rights, he says, are meaningful because they do come into conflict and create real conundrums to be resolved. And here it is worth noting that Blankenhorn labels himself as a mainstream Democrat.

The practical concern for families, of course, is that a competitive, individualistic world of “extreme capitalism” is very hard on many of them. Liberals will tend to want to fix these problems with social programs (some of them certainly well intended, such as universal health care and maybe even single payer), and with regulations against big business to stop it from racing to the bottom by exporting well-paying jobs overseas. But of course you can’t do that without eventually addressing the “sacrifices” to be made by individuals, whether businessmen, consumers, or sometimes childless adults or particularly homosexuals. In particular, an unpleasant topic is the degree to which childless adults (or people not inclined to have children) should share the burdens of families, out of the moral idea that we all owe debts among generations and have a stake in the next generation.

Some of the “sacrifices” are everyday things that I am used to and have no real problem with. I start this observation with a bit of merciless logic: in mathematics, two elements (number) are either equal or not, and you can always well-order things by "measuring" them. As a single, childless gay older adult, I don’t object to sharing reasonable real estate taxes to support public schools, although I admit some selfishness here, as I have employment with the school systems. I don’t object to laws regarding public “indecency” as they usually are implemented in a reasonable fashion. But the problems get much deeper. There have always been some employment areas in which my presence would not be welcome – the most obvious right now would be the United States military, at least in uniform. It used to get much worse. And there are jobs (including education of younger children, at least) where people presume that I have the social communication skills that people usually learn in marriage and intense family commitments, and not in the ordinary competitive world.

Getting into this, I mention that Blankenhorn gives a pretty detailed history of marriage from the view of anthropology, with all of its perks, rituals, ceremonies, and legal complications, most of all in earlier tribal societies. Although people tend to think of marriage as a private relationship now and of the legal structure as having to do with property and lineage, it is certainly much more. Particularly, marriage socializes men (literally, as Blankenhorn points out, conditioning the flow of their brain hormones) to break out of the usual adolescent competitive self-interest (which often itself has a strong group component) and redirect themselves emotionally in order to become stable husbands and fathers, and remain sexually interested in one person. Human biology, Blankenhorn argues, does some of this by concealing estrus in women, so that men have more incentive for long-term “investment” of their erotic selves into families. But the real reason this is necessary is not just social stability; it is specifically to raise children, and, to some extent, to provide immediate caretaking of other less competitive blood family members in kinship settings. It does work.

Now, we get to a logical paradox. To work, marriage needs to “own” sexuality, the way a root segment owns child segments on a database. Whether that ownership is just social approval of heterosexual intercourse (and giving it a somewhat patriarchal or matriarchal "meaning" that includes the natural right to demand deference from others when needed badly enough), or whether it should encompass all sexuality, certainly forms the center of moral debate. But we all know what “public morality” used to mean. Men were supposed to grow into learning to protect women and children and set aside sex for marriage. To accept any other lifestyle or psychological paradigm as morally legitimate would undermine the whole system, so, sporadically, people who could not or would not conform to these public expectations needs to penalized and stigmatized. To work as a socializing model, marriage needed to transmit its own version of moral self-righteousness, even if its original purpose was only generativity with respect to children and objective neutrality about the outside. It needs to coerce those who could contradict its aims. In the modern world, this has led to a number of issues and debates that often wind up getting turned into illogical circles. But what we do know is that, in some areas, the need for personal sensitivity to the needs of families and the sharing of their burdens may be very real. But that is in itself the problem. You really do have to debate rights and responsibilities, and not play the software engineering game of “information hiding” with marriage.

The desire to keep marriage issues under the rubric of familial emotion leads to some rather odd confrontations. People can challenge me, for example, by trying to get me to perform as a conventional protective male role model (for disadvantaged males in a school setting) and then come back and say, “If we are to listen to you and read your public writings, why don’t you think enough of your own family (and genes) that you would have wanted to give it children?” In a sense, that’s a good question, even if it’s word salad. It certainly turns the usual moral spin about abortion around. Now it’s a sin to claim “the knowledge of good and evil” and decide not to procreate when having sex. (But then, contraception became legally protected in 1962, forty years before Lawrence v. Texas). The point is, if a gay man is public about his upward affiliations, other straight men may feel that he is passing personal judgment on who really is a fit future ancestor, and given their socialization, that makes them very uptight. Understandably.

I still think that this whole line of reasoning of Blanhenhorn (and Maggie Gallagher, in her many columns) is a heavy dose of institutionalism, defining policy in terms of how large numbers of people can be predicted to behave if society’s “institutions” (marriage, for one) can manipulate or channel their sense of self-interest. The modern classical liberal, or libertarian, sees collective efforts to do just this as morally repugnant. Perhaps, accepting socialization really does have a religious component, as it can be viewed as “evidence” of faith. By focusing on institutionally manipulated good, Blankenhorn can outflank the obvious idea that social manipulation will pressure people to pair off and marry and have kids for the social perks and approbation, and that such "carrots" will corrupt the private part of the marital relationship. After all, Blankenhorn says, marriage isn't about the couple as individuals, its about their kids and, in that sense, our collective vicarious future. He doesn't want a future world of "Children of Men."

Blankenhorn, to say the least, should have given more details about how he would handle the contributions of gays and lesbians given the symbolic threat that they (or their values) represent to the abstract birthright of a child to a mom and a pop. Maybe he would favor lifting the military ban and repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” so as to make it clear publicly that gays can carry their share in defending freedom and our way of life. This was indeed my priority back in the 1990s, as I saw marriage as a private matter that could be settled in the vocabulary of rights and responsibilities. The collective argument has, however, become pernicious, and impositions upon my own space have occurred as a result.

A person focused on individual rights and "personal responsibility" (in the modern sense) would wonder if the over pampering with perks and "institutionalizing" of marriage -- even for the sake of kids -- opens marriages to corruption. The "moral traditionalist" would say that this is the wrong question to ask. Accept, and participate fully in a social structure (the nuclear and extended family) that raises the next generation (the kids) optimally and takes care of the less competitive persons in that structure (those "second class citizens" or "less than" people in the view of the global world), before you even talk about your own station in life and your own expressive aims. Do not claim to "know" more than your own family until you first emphathize with its needs (and the people in it). That sounds like the world of the 50s, and it may have been utopian for some. Arguably, the structuring of sexuality through family and procreation helped adults learn and maintain empathy, and therefore some cohesion, at least within their families and local communities. The expressive capacity of some people (especially gay men) to question the whole institution of procreative heterosexual marriage can undermine the capacity of some less "competitive" men to remain focused on marriages that they already have or for other men to even attempt marriage and family. But there has never been a successful society that socialized people through coercion without serious injustices on a much larger, macro or global scale.

There is ultimately no real choice but to get our debate back to fundamental rights and the responsibilities that should go with them. Hopefully, if we did so, the polarizing issue of gay marriage would become less contentious and less easy to use as bait. In practice, then, the practical future of marriage could be rather bright.

Related post:

Link to doaskdotell book review (along with a Jennifer Roback Morse book review).

Picture: Blue Mountain Tunnel, PA Turnpike (sorry, no relation to marriage!)

1 comment:

aaronjasonsilver said...

Is marriage a religious institution?

Maybe I’m just a whiner or overly sensitive, but I feel at times I am the only gay person that is not comfortable or satisfied by the term “civil union”. To me it feels like a consolation prize given as a means of pacifying gays. Truthfully, I hope that we gay men and woman will not stop our belly aching about the issue of “gay marriage” until our work is done, and we have all the same rights that we deserve. Whiney or not, I am saddened to see that even many gays are willing to accept second class citizenship. Our entire gay civil rights movement that is being courageously fought by a very few, has been about equal rights, not just some equal rights. This of course means marriage as well.
We should not be satisfied by civil unions. Unions to me are not equal. It is a concilation prize. It’s not about doing the right thing, it’s about politics. Even the politicians that are in favor of calling our civil unions marriage are afraid to speak openly about it, with the exception of a few impassioned politicians that have a strong sense of integrity and also what is right and what is wrong.

We cannot look to the bible for any answers regarding equal rights. Those laws were written at a different time and for uneducated illiterate people. They were also a very superstitious people that made many of their laws in regards to those superstitions. We therefore cannot be influenced by scripture. Besides many religious institutions have the belief that sexual relations is solely for the purpose of procreation. Does that then mean that married couples with children are less married? Or does it mean that they shouldn’t have sexual relations even though they know it will not produce children. I wonder then why God would make sexuality very pleasurable. It wouldn’t need to be enjoyable if it were only for the purpose of having children. Beside we live in a country that has a law about separation between church and state. That’s the wonderful thing about our country.

Somebody please help me understand why marriage by many is considered a religious institution. For the sake of discussion I would like someone to tell me why atheists are then eligible for marriage? It seems to me that heterosexual marriages are afforded just about any opportunity and environment they choose to take their vows. Even those damned heathens.

Straight men and woman can choose a church marriage; they can get married underwater, on a mountaintop, by a justice of the peace or even by a ship captain. However, the most romantic and holy place I can imagine to pledge ones vows of love and fidelity, is driving through a drive-in chapel in Las Vegas, as one would order a family meal. I’m sorry, I’m only human and I got a bit choked up when mentioning that. I love happy meals. The best part is, no one even has to get out of the car, and the best man and woman are provided for one of the most important events in ones life; holy matrimony. How can one compete with that kind of service? I’ve heard that they even change your oil, but that may be just hearsay.

Has it dawned on anyone that the constitution of the United States says very clearly that all people shall be treated as equal? There are no clauses added to that, such as, except gays and African Americans. What was stated in that document then still rings very clear yet today and likely for many years to come. We don’t have to look too awfully far back into our history to find examples of how we ignored the constitution for selfish heterosexual Anglo-Saxon citizens so we could still own people. It wasn’t until the early part of the nineteenth century before woman were allowed to vote. Not so long before that, slavery was legal. It wasn’t until nearly fifty years ago that African Americans weren’t allowed to marry whites. If we are to learn anything from our nations history, we should then know that whenever we veer off from what that beautifully crafted document we call our nations Constitution for whatever convenient reason, it is eventually overturned and changed for reasons of being unfair and not following the principals set forth in that document Back to my original question, I am hoping someone can give me a valid reason to prevent any two people that love each other from having the right to marry. I have heard some reasons that make no sense to me. One being that if gays were allowed to marry it would have the impact of destroying traditional marriage. We only have to look at the statistics of the success of heterosexual marriages to discover that more than half end up in divorce. Gays did not cause that. Fidelity within marriage has a terrible track record as well. Therefore I would truly like to hear some reasonable argument posed that would make sense why gay marriage ought not be allowed. Thank you, Aaron Jason Silver www.aaronjasonsilver.com; Fennville, Mi 49408 For more information on issues within gay culture please read; “why gay men do what they do”, an inside look at gay culture.