Monday, August 23, 2010

I love my terrible job

Every day, I go to work, and I am beset by several shelves full of computers whose owners have been waiting too long to get them back. I select four or five of the most urgent machines and get started (leaving the remaining 15 or so for another day) and I push hard to make progress on their repair. All the while, I frequently put my screwdriver down to answer phones and assist customers at the counter. In fact, in a given day, I may spend three quarters of my paid time at the counter, receiving new computers, talking with angry customers, and doing damage control for unexpected issues.

Every day, I expose myself to near constant negativity. And I love my job. I love it because it keeps me here in an existence that I love.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

"If fertility is important, shouldn't infertile heterosexuals be disallowed to marry?"

No. That would be silly.

When this question is raised, it is important first to address a pernicious intellectual obstacle.

The phenomenon of human fertility is not subsequent to marriage (like some kind of "add-on feature") but rather, prior to it. The fact that we have been rendering childbirth technologically optional does not change this. But our sense of control over childbirth is artificially inflated. We have lost touch with the socially organizing power that fertility naturally holds.

Fertility is prior to, and the basis of, all manner of human interactions. We should not be surprised at its central role in early and nature-based religions. In civilizations where women were accorded a solemn reverence, it was their fertility that was the source of their sanctity.

The existence of fertility in general is, anthropologically, the basis for the existence of marriage in general. I do not believe this is a controversial statement in itself.

However, reflecting on this reveals something new. Comparing a same-sex union to an infertile gender-complementary marriage involves a mental seppuku. Neither is bearing children, it is true--like two trees that had no apples for the harvest. One tree may be suffering a disease. The other is made of plastic. One couple fails in spite of participating in the socially organizing powers behind civilization. The other never participated.

Consider the justifiable outrage if NIA support groups around the country began being attended by same-sex partners.

One must also consider that infertility is not fully understood in the same way that same-sex infecundity is. Children born to couples who believed themselves to be infertile are not uncommon. Even so, an couple that is infertile because of a vasectomy is still infertile for accidental, not constitutive reasons.

The phenomenon of gender-complementary fertility in general is the basis for the existence of marriage.

Therefore same-sex infecundity, infertile-by-definition, means that there is no basis for same sex marriage.

EDIT: Clarification based on questions from friends:

Wyatt: Wait, I'm lost in syntax. How is a vasectomy accidental? And how is something constitutive necessarily not accidental?

I meant "accidental", not in the sense of "unintentional", but rather being the result of an external occurrence. If a dog has three legs, or is wearing a knit sweater, or has a notched ear, those are all "accidents"--none of them are the result of the dog being a dog. They just happen, whether by chance or invention. Accidental. It's philosophy jargon.

A gender-complementary marriage might be infertile, but that infertility is due to random incident--not to any constitutive feature of the couple, as is the case with a homosexual pair. There is a difference between being infertile in fact and infertile by definition. C.f. sick tree vs. plastic tree.

Typically when I make this distinction, the common reaction is, "Well, you're just splitting hairs, they have the same results, so they're the same thing." But that's reducing things to their function and result, and we don't do that in other areas, not even legal ones.

Wyatt: And how is homosexuality not both [constitutive and accidental]?

The jury's still out on whether homosexuality is a constitutive element of a person. Probably that answer is different from gay person to gay person and there are different varieties of homosexuality.

Regardless, homosexuality doesn't cause infertility. A homosexual union is infertile, not in the way a hetereosexual couple /can/ be infertile (external incident, disease/belief/surgery), but in the way a chair, a cloud, an antler are infertile--by definition.

Katlin: What about heterosexual couples who choose not to have children for religious reasons (believing the end times to be near) or personal morality (believing the world is already overpopulated?

On a personal (not legal) front, I might question the point of the people in your examples getting married in the first place. But even their decisions are "accidental," in the sense of being the result of something *external*--i.e., their heterosexuality didn't *make* them believe those things.

Katlin: There ARE people who do not believe in sex outside of marriage but who still refuse to have children. Should they also be forbidden the right to marry in a courthouse because they define marriage as being between two individuals WITHOUT the intention to procreate?

Recall my earlier statement: the only reason marriage exists at all, for anybody, is the generalized phenomenon of human fertility. Gender complementarity is not an optional component of that.

There is a difference between something being "forbidden" and being simply a contradiction in terms. Matrimony cannot be forbidden anyone for whom it is a possibility. But its origins define it. Matrimony without gender complementarity might as well be matrimony without two people. Either variance takes the union utterly outside any resemblance to its known origins, and outside any participation in its distinctive social character.

Infertility, voluntary or imposed by circumstance, does marriage no favors, but it does not create a contradiction.

An aside: In Catholic Canon Law, it is impossible for a couple to be married in the Catholic faith if they are not at least sincerely open to the possibility of children. This impediment does not prevent a (by chance) infertile couple from marrying, since they are still participating in the same formal structure, and anyway, children have been born to couples thought to be infertile.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Problems in the Conservative Strategy

Alas, conservative activists for sexually complementary marriage are not, by and large, philosophers.

If they were, they would find in the annals of history some formidable allies, among them Plato and Aristotle.

But the the popular case against recognizing same-sex unions as marriages has run aground of bad presuppositions, bad language, and bad ideas. Conservatives lost the intellectual battle before they started. They entered the coliseum and promptly stabbed themselves.

Their first mistake was attempting to use sociological arguments in favor of sexually complimentary marriage.

Sociology is a child of the Enlightenment and it will always be loyal to she who bequeathed its operating maxims: that humans are discrete units, that the most important conclusions are reached by statistical observation, and that there is no such thing as an inherent, stable human nature.

I must constantly remind that I am not the Enlightenment's (or sociology's) enemy.

So, back to conservatives using sociological arguments. There are basic problems on the face of it.
  • It takes a lot of effort for a conservative to persuade progressives that his information comes from credible sources. Short of studies published by the competition's own favorite outlets, any other use of studies is largely wasted effort. Progressives understand that studies are easy to distort, whether by poor methods, obscuring of relevant data, loose interpretation, or simple human error. However, they are only likely to raise such matters when said studies arrive at conclusions that challenge the Enlightenment's (or the sexual revolution's) presuppositions about human nature. Ultimately, if any studies are cited that might favor such conservative shibboleths as valuing two-parent homes, delaying sexual experience in youths, marriage prior to cohabitation, or natural family planning, the result will almost always be a side-tracked debate about the reliability of sources.

  • Presumably, on matters of family and sex, conservatives would like to see some norms established for the long term. This renders questionable the strategy of basing their arguments in sociology, whose results are constantly changing. Please note that I do not thereby question sociology's usefulness in general--only its usefulness for establishing long-term norms. What sense does it make for conservatives to argue that sex-complimentary marriages are statistically better for children? Could anything be more difficult to prove in a legal setting? If ever there was a donkey jawbone wielded against the Philistine army, that's it (in which case, God help you).

  • Sociology alone makes no value judgments. Placing one's fate in the hands of sociologists (because, for the moment, they seem to be allies) is a bit like mistaking a wind-vein for a compass.

    Sociological studies of marriage are as necessary as digital thermometers inside of a computer.
    One must know a computer's optimal temperature before a thermometer becomes useful. Sociology, like a thermometer, is a "dumb" measuring tool, not a basis for arriving at overarching conclusions. Taking the analogy even further, the technician might be monitoring the temperature of a dozen laptops and watching them reach 95°C and above, and proceed to shut off. If that technician were like some of today's sociologists, he might say, "Oh, I guess that this is the new standard of laptop behavior! We should issue cautions to consumers not to start any computer work they can't finish or save within 15 minutes."

    In other words, too many sociologists measure trends in human behavior, but will not name the proverbial overheating when they see it. They understand correctly that sociology itself cannot make value judgments (any more than a thermometer can). But some of them write as though every new trend of human behavior is seen as a "new standard". But trends are trends. Surely there is a deeper basis for action and value-forming than the mob.
In short, conservatives should never uphold sociology as a standard for weighing fundamentals. Sociology does not deal in fundamentals. It deals with superficials. This is not to say that conservatives should never cite sociological studies. Yet if they do, they should be wary of the way that citation will be interpreted, understood, and reported.

Progressives in the "gay marriage" issue have been trumpeting the weakness of conservative sociology-based arguments for a long time. That weakness may be the single most important drive behind Judge Walker's striking down Proposition 8. Conservatives allowed themselves to be cornered into a position of relying on a harm-benefits analysis, and they predictably lost. They will continue to lose if they continue to play that game.

This is unfortunate. Progressives are guilty of no small amount of card-stacking when it comes to matrimonial and reproductive issues in the last fifty years. Elizabeth Anscombe understood in 1972 that widespread artificial contraception removed the keystone from sex's social benefit--the integrity of the triad of "sex-marriage-family". Pope Paul VI understood the ripple of social repercussions even earlier. In the present day, looking back, Jean Twenge's "Generation Me" sites studies documenting the slink of generations into divorce, learning disability, and mental illness.

So if sex-complementary marriage today does not shimmer in sociological terms, this should come as no surprise, least of all to those who have favored its continued dissolution in the individualistic waters of the Enlightenment. What is surprising is that marriage's struggles are now used by progressives as evidence against its deserving distinct public respect, relative to its novel counterpart. Well, say I, of course the dog doesn't walk anymore--you kicked it!

Unfortunately, this narrative--that the sexual revolution ruined marriage before it offered it to same-sex couples--will win no points on a legal front. Sociology cares not for whatever matrimony may have been; history and narrative are not its trade. If gender complementarity is in a shambles right now, there it lay. The case for gender complementary marriage will not be made via sociology or historical narrative, harm-benefit analysis or nostalgia.

It does not, however, need to be.

The United States government is not, and never has been, predicated on a mere harm-benefit analysis. That government would look very different. Conservatives can take heart in the fact that the Constitution lacks modernity's preoccupation with (and pseudo-sociology's belief in) a capriciously shifting human nature. That is to its credit. In fact, without a stable human nature, there is nothing inherent to individuals such that rights need always be respected.

Conservatives have a basic understanding, though they have not been very good at declaring it, that a fluid notion of human nature is coextensive with a fluid notion of human rights. This is bad. What the government can giveth, the government can taketh away. People with long memories and a historical sense (more, mind you, than an ability to proof-text old documents) are justifiably leery of the expanding sphere of State powers.

Judge Walker knows this, which is why he correctly phrases the terms of his decision as whether homosexual couples are seeking a "new right" or a right which has always existed but never manifested.

Developments in constitutional law have not aimed to reverse any tenet of the Constitution but to elucidate its implications for new scenarios. Judges understand that the trajectory of a Constitutional mandate may, if applied consistently, have surprising results.

Nevertheless, for Walker's decision to hold, it needs to be shown that same-sex marriage is not a new right; only an (inalienable human) right of which we are newly conscious. A careful and considered response to his statement is overdue, but it will not happen here, save for one note.

Recent history has, it is true, witnessed the rapid encroachment of Enlightenment and sexual revolutionary ideals--individualism, self-determination, identical public treatment--into marriage. However, that same history has revealed ever increasingly that sexual complementarity is a constitutive and vital component to human beings, including homosexuals. Elevating same sex unions to the level of marriage enshrines in public law a statement which is untrue: that sexual complementarity is of no consequence to human individuals or to society.

In order for a human right to be a human right, it needs to be bound in some respects by the human (in all of its biological irrationality)--and not an Sartrean narrative about what the human ought to be (a rational, disembodied, perfectly autonomous, self-creating en soi).

To an extent, the conservative inability to effectively vocalize the precise benefits of complementary marriage is to its credit rather than the reverse. It uncovers the preposterous nature of the challenge that is put to them: "What concrete advantages do heterosexual unions have over homosexual ones?" "Why should trees be made of wood and not something else?" "Why is a blue sky better than a green one?" Who could blame them for being a little inarticulate?

Forcibly submerging the sex-complementary quality of matrimony does not contradict a "tradition;" it contradicts us, collectively and individually. On the natural plane, heterosexual intercourse is the origin of individual life, and so (though it may raise eyebrows to say it), sex is the closest thing to God civilization encounters on this earth.

Moreover, it will continue to be so, regardless of public policy. Denying gender complementarity its unique role in the public is a bit like denying photosynthesis its unique role in agriculture. A State-sponsored fiction. Yet when the State begins to rule by fictions, where does this leave citizens who are in tune with reality?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Marriage vs. the Enlightenment: The Prop 8 Debate

Not everybody will be able to read this in a mature spirit. It is not addressed to them.

I do not believe that the state should recognize the union of same sex partners as a marriage.

Unfortunately, that means that I will be known (outed, as it were) to the current activist public, including some friends and family, as a bigot.

That's a little bit painful, since as a child of the 80's and coming of age in the 90's, we learned about all of the institutional evils that were "ancient" history: the slaughter of Native Americans, oppression of blacks (slavery, Jim Crow, segregation), the Japanese internment camps, disenfranchised women, etc. And so people who had any ties such past evils, even if they disavowed them, were marked; and if they did not disavow them, they were more than marked.

So I'm already reconciled that in a decade or three, I may come to be known as a dangerously deluded relic, much like today's segregationists are. Oh well.

What opinions I hold strongly, I do not base in cheap sources, political mantras, or a lack of awareness of contrary arguments. I am not confident I could say the same for many people who support gay marriage. Or who oppose it. Politics, like sports, is all loyalties and passions and not a lot of discussion. Those on either side are simply too indignant that sincere opposition exists. The time for conversation has ended. History has made its decision. Now there is only one choice remaining: get on the right side or fade away.

Well. That is the way people are going to be. I don't need to play by their rules.

Why I am not hopeful for a strong defense of gender-complementary marriage in the US.

Opponents of gay marriage have never successfully made an accessible case for their side. That's not entirely their fault. The cards were stacked. To date the only "popular" manifestation of traditional marriage activism feels territorial and petty compared to the more attractive liberal image. Traditional marriage activists are not likely to shake the notion that they are simply mean.

They are not, by and large, mean or territorial. They are conscious that matrimony makes a contribution to public society, and legally blurring and loosening of marriage definitively obscures that contribution. But what that contribution is, conservative activists have failed to make clear and attractive.

I hope that they do. I might offer a suggestion. Instead of "traditional marriage," I believe conservatives should find a term that more accurately encapsulates what is really at stake, which is not, after all, a "tradition" but a facet of humanity. I propose an alternative: "gender complementary marriage."

The dynamics of ideas at the heart of the debate.

The liberal attitude is born out of Enlightenment individualism. The Enlightenment champions Equality--and not just any equality, but an equality that views differences between humans with suspicion. The Enlightenment attitude satisfies its impulses by publicly battling those differences.

This is not a criticism. I have no value judgment toward this tendency except when it is misapplied. Many times in recent history it has been correctly applied, and I applaud it.

Society remains in thrall to the Enlightenment, and no activism will succeed without believably honoring its cherished values--freedom, equality, democracy, self-determination. Yet marriage and the Enlightenment cannot coexist easily. Not without great concessions to one or the other.

Marriage demands sacrifice; the Enlightenment resists demands. Marriage is born out of compatibility, which is born of difference; the Enlightenment stresses equality, at times at the expense of difference. Marriage evokes permanence; yet the private, autonomous will chooses nothing permanently. Marriage embodies a communitarian view of the human person; the Enlightenment embodies an individualistic view.

Marriage is older than the Enlightenment and has roots in nature, making it therefore mysterious and integral to our human makeup. It is a part of us. It is both organic and institutional. The institutions of marriage are not so much a human construct as a human scaffolding around what is fundamentally not a construct. A tree is a tree before it becomes a treehouse.

The Enlightenment is novel and it is a construct, but again, this is not a criticism. The Enlightenment offers important correctives against common evils. Nature is cruel and brutal and unenlightened. Human inventiveness is necessary for survival, peace, and civilization. Thus we should not be too "romantic" about the naturalness or organicness of things. Nature is worthy of awe and reverence but not idolatry; it is not the only source of wisdom and it cannot alone provide us with peace.

Why the Enlightenment should not be taken too far.

Yet our innermost selves are natural. We are animals. Human inventiveness (like the kind expressed in the Enlightenment) forgets this at our peril.

When human inventiveness becomes drunk on its own accomplishments, it oversteps and begins to treat its natural, animal masters as if they themselves were its creations, and subject only to its machinations. Regimes based upon invented models of humanity have a habit of devouring people in the name of the models. The worst experiments in this manner of world-reinventing have come and gone, however. I will not name them. Godwin has no home here.

If such human inventiveness is likened to an unruly drunk, then perhaps it has gone through the 12-step program. Mr. Brooks has been clean for a long time. But William Hurt hasn't gone away yet.

An allegory.

In the recent history we have of making proverbial tree houses, we have discovered that houses can also functionally be built onto telephone poles. (They even get free cable).

Initially, tree-house dwelling society was taken aback, but reactions to this innovation eventually softened.

Only lately, those who once advocated for the acceptance of telephone-pole houses, now ask that telephone poles be called trees.

Those who objected, on the grounds that telephone poles are not trees, were called backwards thinkers.

Those who pushed for the recognition of the unique and distinctive character of trees were called bigots.