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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The changing face of marriage

Jake at Lying Media Bastards likes Dan Savage's straightforward, no-nonsense reasoning behind why gay marriage's time has come.  Simply put, gay marriage opponents are using homosexuals to fight a futile battle against changes that have already come to marriage.  Marriage has changed quite a bit for hundreds of years now--conservatives and liberals alike flatter ourselves into believing that the social upheavals of the past century were the cause of the changes, but they have been going on for a long time.
In no small way, feminism has profoundly changed marriage, chipping away at the old model bit by bit for centuries now.  Women mostly didn't exist in the legal sense in this country's beginning, a fact that feminists start resisting from day one.  Think of Abigail Adams's request that her husband consider pushing for women's rights while writing the Constitution.  John Adams laughed her off, thinking that feminism was a ridiculous idea, cheerfully ignoring the positive changes it had already brought into his life by making it possible for him to have an educated, engaging wife.  This is a tendency that marks conservatives and even a good number of progressives, a willingness to incorporate progressive change that suits them while convienently ignoring the implications.  
It seems to me (and this is just an off-the-cuff observation) that even without an articulate feminist critique of it, the "traditional" marriage was toast the minute that Enlightenment values took hold.  Even at the birth of this country, the concept of individualism and rights was already creating a class of people who stubbornly insisted that they make marriages according to love matching, that it was essential to their Pursuit of Happiness.  This obviously wasn't just and American tendency--you can see the lots of evidence that this was probably an even bigger issue in Europe, where the people had centuries of tradition and the church to fight on this to boot.  For one thing, in England there was a huge backlash of the traditionalists during the Victorian times, creating some of the most draconian marriage laws you can imagine--bans on young marriages, bans on certain foreign marriages, excessively complex marriage law that created "classes" of marriage (like civil unions!), and worst of all in its ability to devastate the lives of ordinary people, a nearly outright ban on divorce. 
When reading books from this time, it's amazing how the tensions between the individual's right to pursue happiness in love and the traditionalists desire to exert social control over sex and marriage is dominate theme--in my early-morning, pre-coffee state, I'm having trouble thinking of a single writer that didn't touch on it, and a good number took up the cause of the individual whole-heartedly.  (The tension between the liberal views of novelists and the uptight religious conservatives reminds me of the tension between Hollywood and conservatives now that I think about it.)  That's why I'm amused by ponderous conservatives who think that canonical works from the Victorian times support their beliefs.  Whatever--if George Will and William F. Buckley lived in the 19th century, both of them would be squalling about how novels are ruining the morals of women and the poor. 
It's helpful for those of us who are proponents of gay marriage to learn from those who were agitating for divorce rights in the 19th century--learn especially that even though we have a certain sense of historical inevitability on our side, that doesn't mean we can relax.     Clearly, once an unjust marriage law is enshrined, it can take a century or more to get it the injustice rectified.  And even when religious conservatives are clearly a minority out to destroy our the right to pursue happiness for the majority of people, they can still wield alot of power and it's hard to debate them because you're up against an enemy that has self-righteous piety as a disguise.  In the case of gay marriage, where their target is the right to pursue happiness for a rather small minority, the right's power is probably even greater.
The right's temper tantrum over losing "traditional" marriage does raise an interesting question, then--what tradition exactly are they wanting to draw on?  Every generation since the Revolution, and probably even before that has been redefining marriage in one way or another.  If they want to reach back and dust off the marriage model that last had any stability, they would have to reach back to before Jane Austen was writing about people's struggles to make love matches in a time when the old-fashioned laws and traditions meant that women, at least, had to take economics and family alignments into account when making their marriages. 
Or, another way to put this is--if you believe in Enlightenment values and the right of a person to marry for love, then it's illogical to be against gay marriage.  And almost no one actually rejects an Enlightened view of marriage.  Even the most backwards conservatives who construct elaborate arguments about how marriage is an Institution and it's about Family Values and Social Order are only doing a half-assed rejection of Enlightenment values, since they have almost surely made their marriages based on romantic love and expect a certain amount of sexual fulfillment from them.  And all but the most bug-eyed misogynists would argue that someone in an abusive marriage give up her right to leave because the Institution needs to be preserved over individual rights. 
That people in charge want to incorporate the benefits of Enlightenment for themselves while denying those to others is no great surprise.  And that they are willing to say to explain the contradiction between their belief in individual rights for themselves while arguing that others should sacrifice for some hazy social good because god has made others inferior beings undeserving of those rights in definitely no surprise.  It didn't make sense to offer rights to men and not women, or to whites and not blacks, etc. so it certainly doesn't make sense now to offer them to straights and not gays.  And of course, when bigotry doesn't make sense, god is invoked to fill in the holes.  Well, too bad for the forces of bigotry that we have a secular government.  If nothing else, one of the best reasons to keep a secular government is that it forces people to base their political arguments in reason instead of using religious faith to shove a square peg in a round hole.
The thing that interests me about this latest struggle over individual rights is that the opponents of the rights don't have a substantial self-interest to justify their oppressive urges.  In past struggles, you could clearly define what the oppressors would lose if oppressed individuals won certain rights.  Slavery is a perfect example--slaveowners had a financial interest in denying slaves rights.  The same economics and power games are still obvious in the struggle for racial equality.  The enemies of feminism may not be up front about what they have to lose, but it's easy enough to see how they benefit from the oppression of women.  But for the life of me, I can't see what homophobes get from oppressing homosexuals, except for a hazy sense of self-satisfaction at their own bigotry. 


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