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.
Link to doaskdotell book review (along with a Jennifer Roback Morse book review).
Picture: Blue Mountain Tunnel, PA Turnpike (sorry, no relation to marriage!)