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.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

Steven Tyler are you reading this? This is living on the egde right here brother. ;)