Friday, November 29, 2002

The marrying kind, part 2

When I blogged yesterday about Noah's gay-marriage post I hadn't read all of the Stanley Kurtz article he was responding to (my bad) so I didn't think of another form of "polygamy" Kurtz suggested -- gay people who form families with surrogate mothers and inseminators and whatnot. Those families do exist, though again I can't imagine they'd be that common. And perhaps the larger point is, they already exist even without official sanction.

Anyway, as promised, on to no-fault divorce. Noah's objection to it stems from his fundamental vision of marriage:
Marriage is a covenant between two individuals and between those individuals and the society. It is a social institution that involves the entire community, and not just the individuals in question. As such, to allow it to be dissolved at will is a crime against the community.

The first question that sprang to my mind was: what community are we talking about here? Family and friends? Church? Town? State? Country? I ask this because both Noah and Kurtz want to enforce marital norms at a high level -- state or even federal government -- but I don't know if that does much of anything if the lower-level community isn't doing the same. In fact, I can tell you from my own background that some local communities have rather different norms.

Noah seems to think you can influence these subcultures by changing the law, but I doubt it. I would think that for people who see love and family as a private business, the idea that marrying would mean a pact with the government as well as the spouse would make them less likely to get married in the first place, and more likely to shack up. Indeed, the whole shacking-up trend seems to have started from a feeling that the institution of marriage is a sort of state imperialism upon private life. If the state acts too imperialistic, that might only drive more people away from it.

I suppose you could see this as a good thing for marriage, in that it would mean only the people who agree with the covenant model would do it. But I am assuming (though they don't exactly say so) that the societal interest both these guys are positing in marriage is the proper rearing of children, and in particular the prevention of broken and single-parent homes. And it's true that children from those homes are more likely to be trouble to society, whether through crime or welfare (though the latter is less true since 1996). But of course, if more people are cohabiting instead of marrying, that will mean more single parents, not fewer.

And really, the single-parent problem isn't with the affluent shacker-uppers I would know. The larger mass of single parents out there are poor. And with them it seems that the problem isn't so much divorce as failure to marry in the first place. So again, it's hard to see how changing divorce law would help.

It's not that I don't sympathize with how Noah feels. It's that the divorce-law approach is all stick and no carrot. For a lot of couples the local family-friends-church community isn't really there, or if it is there it's not very helpful. The dispute I personally have with the it's-all-private view of couplehood is that it yields a kind of Darwinian attitude towards love: if things go wrong, that's your problem. Sink or swim. To have the state then come along and say, things went wrong but you still can't split up, is not going to make these relationships any healthier.

So I think it's the change and dissolution of local community, not divorce law, that's pushing family toward the matrilineal model Noah indicated. The state is a blunt instrument, and can't really handle the delicate business of relationships. Without the support for good marriages at the intimate level, I fear the law would only trap people in bad ones.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

The marrying kind

Noah Millman has another good post about intelligent design, and another making a conservative case for gay marriage. In the latter post, Noah raises an issue that comes up a lot in these discussions: if you allow gay marriage, what's to stop polygamy? Or any weird arrrangement among people who claim to love each other?

Noah has a complicated answer involving child-raising, but I always thought this objection was a bit of a red herring. The reason I think this doesn't matter is that, even if the option were available, so few people would actually do it.

I think conservatives fear polygamy for two reasons: its prevalence in world history, and the propaganda of sexual revolutionaries. As to the latter point, I grew up in basically the heartland of the sexual revolution, and I can tell you, propaganda ain't practice. I do not personally know anyone who's successfully managed to pull off a polyamorous relationship, in the sense of having more than one partner of equal intimacy. The more usual arrangement is a pairing that allows a certain amount of adultery, but even that tends to get riven with jealousies. There are people who claim they can do it, but I just don't think this is a model that's going to conquer the world. For most people, it fights their own emotional nature.

So what about polygamy in world history? I think that's largely the product of two (related) things: patriarchy and pro-natalism. You can see both of these at work in probably the best-known example of a polygamous society, the Hebraic one of the Old Testament. Everyone is clearly obsessed with having as many children as possible. God's promise to Abraham isn't heaven or eternal life, but progeny: "as many as grains of sand on the beach." There was also the dubious business with the handmaids.

This is the norm in a lot of agrarian societies, and it's not hard to see how it would lead to polygamy. With every wife a man adds on, his descendants increase exponentially. This also explains why polygamous societies almost always are really polygamous only for men. Reproductively speaking, women have nothing to gain with multiple husbands, and men have everything to lose.

Without this pressure, monogamy (albeit imperfect monogamy) seems to be the human norm. It's interesting to note that, although polygamy is the rule for agrarian societies, monogamy is the rule for hunter-gatherers. As with those of us in the industrial age, they have no great motive to have a lot of kids (indeed, their nomadic lifestyle means they can't handle too many babies). So as with us moderns, their marriages are based mainly on personal affection.

This doesn't mean that polygamy, if it were allowed here, would never happen. Obviously, some people are doing it already. I just don't think it's any real threat to the monogamous model, so we shouldn't worry about it. For that matter, the same is true of gay marriage. Some conservatives, weirdly, seem to agree with the sexual revolutionaries that enforced Judeo-Christian values are all that keep us from total sexual chaos (or freedom, depending on how you look at it). But I don't think the available evidence supports that.

Noah is correct, I think, that conservatives' real beef with the way marriage is headed is precisely that it has become based largely on personal affection. This would generally push marriage away from polygamy rather than towards it, but it does push it toward things like gay marriage and more frequent divorce. Noah says that the real battle should be with divorce laws, since those have more to do with the actual destruction of marriages than gay marriage ever would. I think that's a more internally consistent position, though I see problems with that too. However, right now I'm getting tired and headachy, so I'll blog about later...
When I look at the world

Rachel Cunliffe is grooving on some U2 lyrics. Yep, that's pretty much the story of my life...

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Name that deviance

Somehow, I've fallen way behind on my New Yorkers. It's not that I meant to, but this great pile of them seems to have materialized overnight. Which is my way of explaining why I'm just now commenting on an article from the Oct. 28 issue, on a Vermont town's battle with skinny-dippers.

Only it's not called skinny-dipping now, apparently; it's "clothing-optional recreational swimming." I note this because it seems that ever since the counterculture brought certain habits into general view, their practitioners have given them the clunkiest, most bureaucratic-sounding names imaginable. What used to be called "open marriage" or "swinging" has turned to "consensual non-monogamy." When I lived in San Francisco, this S&M group turned up at the gay-pride parade who called themselves, as I recall "People for Consensual Power Exchange."

What I also remember about the group was that they, like their name, seemed totally drained of eroticism. They were walking along in leather and chains, with one person (lighly) flagellating another and someone else be led by a leash, but they were smiling and waving like Miss America contestants. The church service I went to on Sunday was sexier than these folks. What this says, I think, is that sooner or later every fun activity is going to be taken over by the committee people.

I expect that America has a lot of people who swim nude, or swing, or do bondage, without being part of any movement or "scene." But every subset of the population has its organizers and club-formers, the sort of people who would be on the PTA or the neighborhood association. And part of this personality type is a yen for numbingly accurate language. In the New Yorker article, a leader of the skinny-dipper faction says, "I don't call myself a nudist, and most people who participate in nude recreation don't call themselves nudists. Although one in four Americans, based on a Roper poll, go skinny-dipping, it's something people like to keep private about themselves. A 'nudist,' by way of Webster's belongs to a cult. And I'd hardly call one in four Americans doing something cult behavior. The proper term is 'naturist,' which I don't mind, but, basically, I despise labelling of any type. I'm simply not clothing-obsessed."

There's a palpable insecurity under this. I doubt most people would think of a nudist as part of a cult, but clearly what's unusual about him and his friends is not that they swim naked but that they do it with each other (and, at this particular lake, sometimes hundreds of people). But clearly he doesn't like being thought of as weird. He seems to be saying, "This is perfectly normal, and if you don't think so, there's something funny about you -- you're clothing-obsessed."

I felt a similar insecurity underlying the People for Consensual Power Exchange, and that was what made them even weirder. It's like they were worried about what Middle America would think of them. It's just a little consenting power exchange between adults -- it's not like we're sickos or anything! I felt like saying, look, there's nothing politically correct about S&M, it's dark and deviant, and that's exactly why you like it. So give it up already.
I must be in a nitpicky mood today...

First I went after Aziz Poonawalla's etymology (see the comments). Then I read Tony Woodlief's essay on Whitakker Chambers, and all I could think was, there are no "Hollywood beach houses," because Hollywood has no beach! The Hollywood Hills are where movie stars live...the beach houses are in Malibu...

I should say, lest anyone get the wrong idea, that I think Aziz's website is really cool. Islam is probably the major world religion I know least about, and he's an invaluable source of smart, learned commentary on it. (Tony's website I've been to less, but it looks interesting. Great design!)

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Under the water

I went back to the Christian Assembly today, sans Telford this time, but the service was of added interest. It was a special Thanksgiving service that included about 20 people getting baptized. I'd never seen a baptism before, even the infant kind.

The CA baptizes by full-body immersion, which didn't surprise me -- the soaking, messy, over-your-head-and-up-your-nose method is pretty much how they do everything. Watching this I remembered a former boyfriend of mine who briefly attended a Church of Christ, but left when he was told his childhood Methodist baptism by sprinkling was not going to save him, and he had to be rebaptized by immersion. I don't blame him for getting annoyed at the idea that his immortal soul depended on such minutiae, but what I observed at the church must definitely be different from the genteel infant drizzling that he probably got. The mood was excited, charged, frankly kind of sexy. The baptizees were practically vibrating with anticipation as they came to the pool; one young man about to get dunked suddenly looked at the congregation and broke into a huge, mischievous grin, as if he were about to get lucky in a big way. ("Hold him under for a while," the pastor advised drily.)

I was maybe thinking along these lines partly because there was communion before the baptism. This was my fifth trip to the CA, and it was the first time they'd done communion. There's something creepily erotic about putting someone's flesh and blood in your mouth, even if only symbolically. I do not say this to imply there's anything smutty about it, but it's just a bit disconcerting to be brought up against the intimacy of Christian practice. When you spend your time interpreting Bible passages or debating the problem of evil it's easy to forget. Heck, I'm sure a lot of Christians take communion without thinking about the full implications. But for me, watching from within but from the outside, the metaphor of the bride and the bridegroom never seemed more vivid.