Monthly Archives: October 2005

Iraq: Silver lining? Rose-colored glasses?

My new Boston Globe column, “A silver lining in Iraq,” is now up. Some of you may think that it should have been titled, “Iraq through rose-colored glasses.” Time will tell, to use a time-worn cliché. It seems to me that since we cannot undo the invasion, the most humane alternative is to hope that something good may still come of this.

On a related note: Despite the insurgency, the resentment toward U.S. and British troops, and the uncertainty of day-to-day life in Iraq, there are many Iraqis who are bravely and actively working for a better future. Several such people — women who are working as armed guards for a security firm — were profiled recently in The Washington Times. Not to bring in a note of frivolity, but I found this passage particularly heartwarming:

“I used to watch action movies when I was a kid, I loved them,” laughed Xena, a conservative Muslim who chose her pseudonym from the film character, Xena the Warrior Princess. “My favorite actor is [Jean-Claude] Van Damme.”

Xena lives! Let’s hear it for female empowerment.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Joan Kennedy Taylor, R.I.P.

Joan Kennedy Taylor, author and libertarian feminist, died on October 29 at the age of 78.

Joan was one of the few people to be a part of both Ayn Rand’s Objectivist movement in the 1960s and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Her Objectivism was never dogmatic, and neither was her feminism. Unlike many feminists, she embraced a consistently individualist perspective. She was passionate in her belief that the true independence and autonomy for women meant self-reliance, not replacing dependency on men with dependency on the state, and in her opposition to paternalism of all kinds.

I knew Joan fairly well in the early to mid-1990s, when we were both active in “dissident feminist” causes, including alternative approaches to such issues as sexual harassment (Joan authored an excellent book on the topic, What to Do When You Don’t Want to Call the Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment), pornography and speech codes (Joan was active in the anti-censorship group, Feminists for Free Expression). Unfortunately, we had drifted apart since, and in recent years I only saw her a few times at public events, looking very frail as she struggled with cancer. (I have not been able to find Joan’s birth date anywhere, but I believe she was in her seventies.) She was a wise, insightful, and gracious woman who had strongly held convictions, and was nonetheless capable of civilized and respectful disagreement — an increasingly rare quality in public life today. She will be missed.

Past issues of the ALF (Association of Libertarian Feminists) Newsletter, edited by Joan and featuring many of her essays, interviews, and book review, can be found here. (Hat tip: Jesse Walker at Hit & Run.)

A more detailed biography of Joan can be found here (thanks to Walter Olson for the pointer).

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

It’s not racist (or sexist) if they’re Republicans

I’m coming a bit late to the blogspat between Robert George and Steve Gilliard over a racially offensive item Gilliard put on his blog. Gilliard went after Maryland Lt. Gov Michael Steele, a black Republican who is now running for the U.S. Senate, because Steele wouldn’t condemn Gov. Robert Ehrlich for holding an event at an all-white golf club. His method of attack was extreme racial caricature: the blog item, titled “Simple Sambo Wants to Move to the Big House”,” featured a doctored photo of Steele as a minstrel in blackface, with such language as, “I’s Simple Sambo and I’s running for the Big House.” (The photo and most of text have now been removed; see explanation at the end of this post. Update: Michelle Malkin has the original “Sambo” image here.)

George lambasted Gilliard for “trading in racist imagery” to “mock and denounce [Steele's] very existence as a black man who chooses to be Republican.” After more publicity from Andrew Sullivan, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine, a Democrat, withdrew his ads from Gilliard’s blog, prompting Gilliard to fulminate against Kaine and Sullivan and then against George. Gilliard and George, by the way, are both black.

This is not the first example of racist rhetoric being used against black Republicans. In 2002, for instance, singer and actor Harry Belafonte referred to Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice as “house slaves.” And it’s a pretty despicable tactic. Commenting on Belafonte’s remarks, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wrote, “Name-calling is the last refuge of the intellectually bankrupt. In this case, it shows a certain moral bankruptcy too.” If so, Gilliard has been in Chapter 11 for quite a while: he’s yet another Ann Coulter clone (differences in gender, race, and politics notwithstanding) who thinks rudeness equals wit and that people of opposing viewpoints are not to be debated but ridiculed, slammed and demonized. He has already made up his mind that conservatives hate black people, so what’s the point of dialogue?

Gilliard evidently thinks that no one should have a problem with his use of malicious racial stereotypes because he is black. He also thinks it’s outrageous that some people evidently thought he was white, since no white liberal or progressive would dare employ such racial caricature against a black man. (Yet it’s all right for him to peddle this imagery to his readers, including ones who aren’t black.) But actually, Gilliard may be off-base about that. Ted Rall, who over a year ago drew a cartoon that had Condoleeza Rice referring to herself as Bush’s “house nigga,” is white. So is Jeff Danziger, who depicted Rice as Gone with the Wind‘s Mammy saying “I don’t know nuthin’ about no aluminum tubes.” While Danziger was referring to a movie character and probably wasn’t thinking of race, his cartoon was at the very least racially insensitive.

It seems fairly clear to me that such racial putdowns are more likely to be used against black conservatives, in the same way that some progressives think sexist slurs against right-wing women are all right — because, being politically incorrect, they don’t share in the protected status of victim of racism/sexism. (If anyone has examples of racist imagery being used to mock liberal/left-wing black public figures — other than on openly racist websites — please send them in.)

And speaking of sexism: if Steve Gilliard feels that he’s free to use racist images and language because he’s black, may we assume that he is also female, since he has no compunction about mocking conservative women in blatantly sexist terms? About a year ago, Gilliard wrote about the wedding of journalist and serial plagiarist Ruth Shalit, using the event as an occasion to make fun of Shalit. There’s certainly plenty to make fun of; writing for The New Republic and plagiarizing from Washington Post columnist David Broder is right up there with committing robbery just outside a police station. But Gilliard’s mockery has a specific twist. He mentions that after being fired by The New Republic, Shalit was hired by Salon.com to write about advertising but lasted there only a short time before getting caught in another scandal. Then, Gilliard writes (my apologies for the language):

Now, why did Shalit have such a charmed career? Because she and her sister Wendy were, for lack of a better phrase, fuckable. Nobody cared what Shalit wrote as long as they could hop in bed with her. Now, to be fair, this has nothing to do with Talbot, who was 3000 miles away from his writer, but it sure cut her slack in Washington. While Wendy made a point of her virginity, Ruth, well, that wasn’t the issue with her.

Lack of a better phrase, indeed.

Note the impeccable logic. Ruth Shalit’s hiring by Salon shows that she had a “charmed” career, and it was charmed because she was willing to hop in bed with men who were willing to promote her career … except that the man who hired her for Salon was 3000 miles away. For some reason, Wendy Shalit is smeared by association as well, even though Gilliard tells us that she “made a point of her virginity” (actually, I believe she merely urged young women to forgo premarital sex but refused to discuss her own personal life) and thus clearly wasn’t doing any bed-hopping.

This is vile stuff, and vile in a peculiarly sexist way. (Shalit was, in fact, a talented journalist, just an ethically challenged one.) And there is, of course, the political factor: according to Gilliard, “Ruth Shalit in her New Republic career, was a race baiter. She wrote a long, nasty and racist article for the New Republic, on I think DC.” Actually, the 1995 article was about racial politics at The Washington Post and asserted that the push for “diversity,” while laudable in some ways, had created a lot of tensions and problems. While it contained some embarrassing errors, the former president of the American Journalism Review wrote that it touched on some real issues, and called it “a layered and textured piece.” To Gilliard, any discussion of problems with preferential hiring is obviously racist.

To sexism, add a strong whiff of Jew-baiting. Gilliard’s swipe at Shalit is titled, “Plagerist (sic) marries, turns husband into a jew (sic)” — a reference to the fact that Shalit’s husband converted to Judaism. It is also accompanied by an antique photo captioned, “Jewish Wedding. Plagerist (sic) Ruth Shalit had one of these.” Somehow, I doubt that Gilliard’s “you’re allowed to use slurs against your own kind” rule applies in this case.

As for the “Sambo” affair: the “Sambo” image is now gone from Gilliard’s site and replaced with this. Why? Apparently, the picture Gilliard had Photoshopped with blackface was copyrighted to The Washington Post, whose lawyers promptly contacted Gilliard. Gilliard replaced it with a public-domain photo. Only this time, he didn’t “minstrelize” it but superimposed it on an image of money. “Now, some people might mistake this as regret,” Gilliard writes. No, of course not.

Update: More from Jeff at Protein Wisdom. Astoundingly, some black leaders are openly saying that racially tinged slams are all right if directed at Republicans.

Speaking of sexist slurs against right-wing women: back in my college days, I heard a male student who prided himself on being pro-feminist quote, with great gusto, some comedian’s joke: “Have you noticed that all the women in those anti-abortion marches are so ugly, no one would want to f*** them anyway?” To this day, I regret that I didn’t ask him if he would have told (or laughed at) the same joke if it was directed at women in anti-rape marches. And I’m pro-choice.

46 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Rosa Parks, American hero

This past week has been a busy one, with magazine-length blogging on same-sex marriage and two deadlines for the work that I actually get paid for. So I’m a little behind on current events.

As I’m sure you know, Rosa Parks died at the age of 92 — just a couple of months short of the 50th anniversary of her rebellion against Jim Crow.

I thought I knew the Rosa Parks story, but it turns out I didn’t. I thought she was arrested for taking a seat in the “whites only” section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But no, it was worse. According to the Voice of America obituary:

On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks had finished her work as a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama, store and boarded a city bus to go home. She took a seat in the 11th row, behind the seats reserved exclusively for white passengers, as required by the city’s segregation law at that time. Blacks were entitled to seats from the 11th row to the rear of a bus. However, the city law said if the first 10 rows were filled, a white passenger could request a seat in the back of a bus. Rosa Parks remembered the bus was crowded with people standing in the aisle when several whites boarded. A white man told the driver he wanted a seat. The driver, who had the authority under city law, went to the rear of the bus and ordered Mrs. Parks and three other black passengers to get up. The others reluctantly stood. Rosa Parks, tired after a day of work, refused.

“When they stood up and I stayed where I was, he asked me if I was going to stand and I told him that ‘no, I wasn’t,’ and he told me if I did not stand up he was going to have me arrested. And, I told him to go on and have me arrested,” Mrs. Parks said.

The bus driver called the police and when they arrived he told them he needed the seats for his white passengers.

“He pointed at me and said, ‘that one won’t stand up.’ The two policemen came near me and only one spoke to me. He asked me if the driver had asked me to stand up? I said, ‘yes.’ He asked me why I didn’t stand up,” Mrs. Parks said. “I told him I didn’t think I should have to stand up. So I asked him: ‘Why do you push us around?’ And he told me, ‘I don’t know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.'”

Mrs. Parks said her decision to remain seated was based on her desire to be treated with decency and dignity:

“This was not the way I wanted to be treated after I had paid the same fare this man had paid – he hadn’t paid any more than I did but I had worked all day and I can recall feeling quite annoyed and inconvenienced. And I was very determined to, in this way, show that I felt that I wanted to be treated decently on this bus or where ever I was,” Mrs. Parks said.

As you read the story and it sinks in, it’s almost hard to believe that there was a time when human beings in America were treated this way because they had black skin.

Of course, this was just one of the many indignities African-Americans had to put up with. The first chapter of Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s wonderful book, America in Black and White, opens with this story:

In 1962, Colin and Alma Powell, recently married, packed all their belongings into his Volkswagen and left Fort Devens in Massachusetts for a military training course in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “Driving through Dixie with a new wife was … unnerving,” General Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography. “I remember passing Woodbridge, Virginia,” he went on, “and not finding even a gas station bathroom that we were allowed to use. I had to pull off the road so that we could relieve ourselves in the woods.

1962. That’s just one year before I was born. This happened to a man, an outstanding American, who is alive today and who isn’t that old.

It’s profoundly humbling to think about this not-so-distant past. I don’t feel guilt — I wasn’t even born at the time, and when I was born it was in a different country; but I do feel shame that my country, the country that I consider mine, allowed these things to happen. I know that racial, ethnic, and religious oppression has been an all-too-common feature of human history, common in every country for most of human history, and in all too many countries. But we were the only country founded on the idea that all men are created equal. So, yes, we deserve to be held to a higher standard. And we should accept nothing less.

Today, there are some people on the right who, partly as a reaction to “political correctness,” the culture of victimhood, and racial demagoguery, act as if any acknowledgment of America’s shameful history of mistreating blacks were just a sign of liberal wimpiness. Maybe they should read Rosa Parks’s story, again. Even if, as some assert, she deliberately pushed matters to get arrested in order to challenge the city’s segregation policy (and Parks firmly denies it, though by the time of her arrest she worked for the NAACP), so what? What happened to her was still outrageous. And what she did was still a small heroic act that helped change history.

Thinking about Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle in America has made me think of a couple of more things.

1. Conservatives often warn about the dangers of recklessly tossing overboard established cultual norms and traditions. And they have a good point: often, traditions are there for a reason, and abandoning them may have unintended consequences. But excessive deference to established cultural norms and traditions is not good, either: it can lead us to accept odious injustices “just because.” Just because it’s been done that way as far back as we remember. A mere fifty years ago, most white Southerners and quite a few white Northerners — many of them, no doubt, good and decent people in their own way — thought it was perfectly acceptable to treat black people as subhuman. Who knows how history will judge our own attitudes fifty years hence?

2. On the other hand, can we stop comparing every social injustice to the oppression of blacks in America, and every progressive cause to the civil rights movement? Yes, many other groups have been discriminated against and mistreated, but not all wrongs are equal. Think of what segregration and the social subordination of blacks meant in day-to-day life; then think of claims that legalized domestic partnerships rather than actual marriage for same-sex couples amounts to being relegated to “the back of the bus.” Think of white middle-class women in the 1970s making fatuous analogies between their state and that of blacks in the Jim Crow South. Surely, women, gays, and other groups can make their legitimate claims for justice and equality without piggybacking on the cause of blacks.

And now, back to Rosa Parks, a hero who helped remind America that it had betrayed its own ideals. I know little about Parks’s life, but from what I do know, I think she was a fine example of true values. She never embraced hate, and she never embraced the pernicious idea of victimhood as an excuse for bad behavior. I was reminded of this when I read an excerpt from a 1995 interview with Parks in Christianity Today posted at Don’t Let Me Stop You. Some time before the interview, Parks was robbed and beaten by an African-American youth who broke into her home. Discussing the incident, the interviewer asked, “What kind of social conditions would push someone to attack and rob an elderly woman?” Parks replied:

I wouldn’t say these young people are being pushed. Many people these days go astray by using drugs and attack people in order to get money. They are making those choices.

I regret that some people, regardless of race, are in such a state of mind that they would harm an older person. Too many of today’s youth don’t know who they are or where they have been. And therefore, they don’t know where they’re going.

I live in hope that things will be better. If we get to children at an early age and see that they get the proper guidance, then they will not fall into that behavior that is harmful to themselves and others.

Amen. R.I.P., Rosa Parks.

Update: Excellent post Rosa Parks post by Jane Galt, with an interesting though at times depressing comments thread.

See also Tim Cavanaugh at Hit & Run eviscerate some incredibly tasteless “Rosa Parks on a bus to Heaven” editorial cartoons. One of which, amazingly, manages to turn Parks into an elderly white woman (click on the image for the full-size picture):

Update: Juan Williams has an excellent op-ed in the New York Times discussing some less-known details of Rosa Parks’s famous bus ride.

The truth is that Mrs. Parks was not someone who one day, out of the blue, decided to defy the local custom of blacks sitting in the back of the bus. That story leads some people to the cynical conclusion, once voiced by a character in the movie “Barbershop,” that all Rosa Parks did was sit on her bottom. That’s not only insulting but a distortion that takes away the powerful truth that Rosa Parks worked hard to develop her own political consciousness and then worked hard to build a politically aware black community in the heart of Dixie.

Before that one moment of defiance on the bus she was a civil rights activist who had long fought to get voting rights for black people in Alabama. Apparently it is too confusing to mention that as far back as 1943 she had refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And it invites too much complexity to mention that in the late 40’s, as an official of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she was forming a coalition with a group of black and white women in Montgomery to fight segregated seating on city buses.

Her education in rural Pine Level, Ala., came at Jim Crow schools that taught her only enough to work for white people as a washerwoman, maid or seamstress. In Montgomery, she worked mending dresses. One of her employers was Virginia Durr, the wife of a powerful white lawyer. Mrs. Durr, a member of the interracial Women’s Political Council, became Mrs. Parks’s ally in a long-term effort to use political pressure to end the daily indignity of riding segregated buses.

Mrs. Durr introduced Mrs. Parks to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The school taught strategies to empower white and black people to get better wages, to register to vote and organize as a political force. Even before Highlander, Mrs. Parks had championed the rights of a teenager, Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white people on a Montgomery bus.

All of this preceded the moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her own seat on the bus. Even after her arrest she had to agree to fight the charges of violating segregation laws, and risk angering the white establishment in town and losing her job. Her husband and her mother told her she was going to be lynched for becoming the named plaintiff in a challenge to segregation. She made a deliberate decision to take up the fight. There was nothing spontaneous about this. And she knew that she would not be fighting alone.

The courage of black men and women who fought segregation is inspiring; but it’s also heartening to know that from the start, there were white women and men of conscience who fought on the right side of this battle.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Some closing thoughts on the same-sex marriage debate

I wasn’t planning to devote quite so much space to commentary on the same-sex marriage debate, but Maggie Gallagher’s guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy piqued my interest. (My earlier blogposts on the subject can be found here and here.)

First, my basic position. I think that ending the social and legal persecution of homosexual men and women has been one of Western culture’s greatest cultural and moral victories in our time. I think that sexual orientation is largely innate, and that discrimination against gays in the workplace, housing, and other matters is gravely wrong (and should be illegal if we agree that other types of identity-based discrimination by private businesses can be outlawed — in other words, you can’t be selectively libertarian about anti-gay discrimination if you have no problem with the government prohibiting race or sex discrimination). However, like the movements for gender and racial equality, the gay liberation movement has had its excesses and extremes, including attempts to portray heterosexuality itself as an oppressive institution and/or a social invention. To state the obvious, sexuality evolved as a reproductive mechanism, which strongly suggests that the primary biological template of human sexuality is heterosexual (though a large percentage of humans probably have some bisexual potential). It seems fairly clear to me that homosexuality is a morally neutral variation on that template. Equal treatment for gay men and women is a laudable goal; dismantling “heteronormative” culture is a socially divisive utopia.

As various polls show, the vast majority of Americans now support full equality for gays in most areas of life. What’s being debated now is equality not just for gays and lesbians as individuals, but also for same-sex relationships.

On one level, I believe this is a question of basic equality. When a gay man is barred from making medical decisions on behalf of his longtime partner; when a lesbian who wants to be a stay-at-home mom cannot get coverage under her partner’s health insurance plan; when a same-sex couple is not allowed to pool their credit the way a married straight couple would be — the injustice is obvious. What’s more, for some gay couples, the unavailability of marriage effectively amounts to denying them the opportunity to live together. If I go to Russia, meet the perfect guy and decide to bring him home, I’m allowed to do that. If the same thing happens to a gay man, he’s not. I would like to know how any non-homophobic opponent of equal rights for same-sex couples can explain to a gay man or a lesbian why this is right and why this is “moral.”

For these reasons of basic fairness, I have long been sympathetic to equal rights for same-sex couples (see, for instance, my articles here and here). I am somewhat more dubious when the demand for, specifically, marriage — as opposed to civil unions or domestic partnerships with all the basic privileges of marriage — is used as a symbolic affirmation of equality and inclusion. I can certainly understand that to many gays, “marriage in all but name” feels like a statement of second-class citizenship. But there are also a lot of Americans who support legal protections for same-sex couples yet, for the reasons I outlined in my previous posts on this topic, feel that the male-female union should retain a special cultural status. And I think this is a disagreement that can and should be settled through a democratic debate.

The state of the debate, however, is endlessly frustrating to me, and that’s part of the reason I’ve waded into these treacherous waters. Here’s a quick survey of the battleground as I see it:

1. Bad arguments. Plenty of those on both sides. My favorite stupid anti-SSM argument: “Gays and lesbians already have the right to get married — to someone of the opposite sex!” Wonderful. It’s a bit like outlawing all non-Christian religious services and then telling Jews, Muslims and Buddhists that they do have the right to worship — in Christian churches. My favorite stupid pro-SSM argument: “The government has no business telling me whom I can and can’t marry.” Oh yes, it does. The government has no business telling consenting adults whom they can and can’t sleep or live with (constitutional originalism or not, I believe that Lawrence v. Texas was rightly decided). But marriage is a set of legal privileges, protections, rights and obligations the government bestows on some relationships. Besides, if taken to its logical conclusion, this argument takes us directly to the anti-SSM parade of the horribles: establish the principle that the government can’t tell you whom you can and can’t marry, and next thing you know, some guy will want to marry his horse. (By the way, that’s my second favorite stupid anti-SSM argument.)

2. Hidden agendas (and charges of hidden agendas). Gay rights activists typically charge that conservative opponents of SSM are simply using the issue as a smokescreen for bigotry and gay-bashing, and in many cases this happens to be true. The rhetoric from some of the social conservative groups positively drips with disgust for gays, with a lot of references to disease, pedophilia, and graphically described sexual practices. The frequent habit of invoking bestiality as a parallel to homosexual sex also has strong overtones of literally dehumanizing gay relationships; and the fact that many right-wing opponents of SSM also support anti-sodomy laws is telling as well.

Meanwhile, many conservatives charge that SSM advocates have covert agendas of their own — that they are not interested in marriage so much as in an official affirmation that homosexual relationships have equal worth to heterosexual ones. Of course there is some truth to that as well. I don’t think that the destigmatization of homosexuality represents some kind of nefarious agenda, but there are gay activists who clearly want to go beyond that — who want to subvert the “heteronormative” culture and to radically overhaul marriage itself. There clearly are supporters of SSM who openly regard gay marriage as a way to destabilize traditional family insitutions, and I think reasonable SSM advocates need to do more do distance themselves from them.

3. Secrets and lies. The anti-SSM right routinely trafficks in misinformation about gays and “the homosexual lifestyle,” from “studies” showing that gays have an average life expectancy of 43 years to claims about the success of “reparative therapy.” At the same time, some real facts relevant to this debate tend to be surrounded by taboos. For instance, in my earlier thread on SSM, a commenter says:

Take, for instance, Maggie’s claim that male-male couples do not regard fidelity the same way that male-female couples regard fidelity. There’s the faint odor of bigotry, but I’d rather challenge the statement than attack the person making the statement.

Odor of bigotry? I think a University of Vermont study reported on Vermont’s premier LGBT website, Out in the Mountains, should pass the smell test:


Seventy-nine percent of married heterosexual men felt non-monogamy was not okay, compared with only 34 percent of gay men not in civil unions and 50 percent of gay men in civil unions. Over 82 percent of the women in the study, regardless of sexual orientation, said monogamy was important.

There are specific examples as well: the very first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in Provincetown openly declared that they had an “open marriage” and that “the concept of ‘forever’ is overrated.” If a substantial number of legally partnered gay men do not regard sexual fidelity as an essential feature of marriage (and the 50% figure in the Vermont study is consistent with other studies I have seen), is this a problem worth discussing? Is there a need for a conscious effort in the gay community to deal with this issue as we head toward some form of same-sex marriage (whether as formal marriage or marriage-like legal partnerships)? If not, is it possible that as SSM gains more widespread acceptance, there will be a push for greater acceptance of open marriage as well? (Which, in my opinion, would qualify as a negative.) I have absolutely no doubt that a lot of gay men have relationships as loving and as committed as the strongest of heterosexual marriages. But it won’t do to simply sweep the non-monogamy issue under the rug as an anti-gay slur.

4. The “marriage culture” and the SSM debate. In many ways, the same-sex marriage debate is part of a larger debate about marriage, sex, and relations between the sexes. SSM opponents such as Maggie Gallagher say that allowing gay marriage pushes us toward a view of marriage as nothing more than the pursuit of individual happiness, shorn of obligations and ties to the future generations or to the wider community — and as just another lifestyle choice rather than a social norm. Others argue that we have already shifted toward such a view of marriage, or at least are shifting toward it; and I think that’s largely true, at least in more urbanized and socially liberal parts of the country.

There is still a social expectation of marriage, but a considerably weakened one. In a 1994 New York Times poll, 73% of adolescent girls (but, interestingly enough, only 61% of boys) said that they could have a happy life even if they did not marry. And here’s another interesting statistic I got from Helen Fisher’s book The First Sex: In a 1965 survey, more than three out of four female college students said they would marry a man they were not in love with if he otherwise met their standards for a perfect husband. Men were actually the romantics, with two-thirds insisting they would only marry for love. By 1991, about 90% of college students of both sexes said that they would not marry someone they didn’t love.

As I said in my earlier post, preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage is not going to reverse the trends Gallagher and other social conservatives deplore. But social conservatives do want to reverse them at least somewhat and to return to a more marriage-centric culture and a more traditional vision of marriage; and I do think that, for better or worse, legalizing same-sex marriage will make that goal more difficult. I also think it’s possible that SSM will lead to greater cultural and legal acceptance of other alternative family forms — from polygamy and polyamory to child-rearing partnerships between straight women — and while a part of me feels that society is resilient enough to survive such a development, the other part sees the proverbial handbasket headed to hell.

Perhaps the best response to Gallagher & Co. is that vague concerns about the possible social repercussions of SSM, and even vaguer hopes to roll back some of the cultural changes that conservatives believe have harmed families, are a pretty poor reason to deny a minority equal rights (i.e., at the very least, civil unions with all the basic “incidents of marriage”). On the other hand, the claims of some conservative SSM advocates such as Jonathan Rauch that legalizing SSM will strengthen the marriage culture strike me as rather strained. In his 1996 New Republic article advocating gay marriage, Rauch writes:

If it is good for society to have people attached, then it is not enough just to make marriage available. Marriage should also be expected. … When grandma cluck-clucks over a still-unmarried young man, or when mom says she wishes her little girl would settle down, she is expressing a strong and well-justified preference: one that is quietly echoed in a thousand ways throughout society and that produces subtle but important pressure to form and sustain unions. This is a good and necessary thing, and it will be as necessary for homosexuals as heterosexuals. If gay marriage is recognized, single gay people over a certain age should not be surprised when they are disapproved of or pitied. That is a vital part of what makes marriage work. It’s stigma as social policy.

If marriage is to work it cannot be merely a “lifestyle option.” It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better, on average, than other ways of living. Not mandatory, not good where everything else is bad, but better: a general norm, rather than a personal taste. … And heterosexual society would rightly feel betrayed if, after legalization, homosexuals treated marriage as a minority taste rather than as a core institution of life.

Whether the legalization of SSM will create equal familial and social pressures on gays and heterosexuals to wed is very much an open question. For one thing, such pressures do have a lot to do with expectations of procreation: I doubt that a man and a woman in their sixties who are dating get a lot of “so when are two you getting married?” questions. But perhaps more important, I’m not convinced that the gay community, at least at this point, would agree to Rauch’s 1950s-style vision of a marriage culture. (For that matter, I suspect that plenty of heterosexuals would find it much too stifling, too.) Not long ago, Andrew Sullivan linked to an interesting article about efforts to bridge the cultural gap between gay men and lesbians. This is the part that struck me:

Knight [Cathy Knight, a lesbian invited to discuss gender issues with a gay men's group] suggested that even if some stereotypes are accurate, they shouldn’t serve to divide a community that needs unity.

“More lesbians are coupled, homebodies, they don’t go to bars as much, and men are more sexually active,” she said. “My response is, ‘So what?’ If that’s what they choose, it doesn’t have anything to do with having less moral values. It’s about expressing yourself.”

Evidence suggests that lesbians are indeed more drawn to monogamy than gay men — two-thirds of the same-sex couples who have married in Massachusetts or entered civil unions in Vermont are women. But prominent lesbians balk at using such statistics to question the multi-partner dating preferences of many gay men.

“I don’t have any judgment about how they order their lives,” Kendell [Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights] said. “Lifestyle choices that are damaging and self-destructive — that’s the problem, not gay men having more partners.”

I am not for a moment suggesting that gays are innately “less moral” than heterosexuals. I’m not even convinced that because of innate sex differences, men are less interested in monogamy in the absence of pressure from women (in Sweden and the Netherlands, gay men and lesbians marry or enter civil unions in roughly equal numbers). However, given the fact that the gay rights movement started out as a sexual liberation movement, I wonder if the gay community is reluctant to stigmatize any sexually “liberated” behavior between consenting adults?

I’m hoping to wrap up my Maggie Gallagher-inspired same-sex marriage discussion with this post, and to leave the topic alone for the time being (there are other things going on in the world!). But this is an important topic — one that, incidentally, isn’t going away just because some people in my comments threads would like to pretend it doesn’t exist — and it needs a better caliber of civil, honest debate.

Update: If you haven’t seen it already, check out Jane Galt’s very interesting post on the topic from last April. Long, but definitely worth reading.

41 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Same-sex marriage and polygamy

A commenter on the thread about the same-sex marriage debate raises the issue of SSM and polygamy. My Reason column on the subject from March 2004 can be found here.

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Marriage, sexual complementarity and difference

Some more thoughts generated by Maggie Gallagher’s guest-blogging at The Volokh Conspiracy.

In one of her posts, Gallagher writes:

SS couples are being added to the mix precisely in order to assure that society views them as “no different” than other couples.

To this, one of the commenters responds:

This seems as close as we’ll get to a candid admission that her opposition to SSM is actually all about keeping them homos subjegated. (sic)

So here’s a question. Is it bigoted to regard same-sex relationships — even aside from the issue of procreation — as different to male-female relationships?

The belief that men and women are profoundly different is common in American culture. (Just look at the popularity of John Gray’s “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” cottage industry.) Even in liberal segments of society, talk of sexual difference, once frowned upon as anti-feminist, has become socially acceptable again (unless done in a way that seems to justify inequality for women, as Harvard president Lawrence Summers painfully learned). Despite overwhelming support for female achievement in the public sphere and career opportunities for women, the majority of Americans still embrace a degree of sex-role traditionalism. Even in liberal California, 69% of all parents surveyed by the Los Angeles Times in 1999 believed that it’s “much better” for the family if it’s the mother who stays home with young children (though 70% also felt it was acceptable for the father to be the stay-at-home parent).

All this raises the question: to what extent do many people see sexual differentiation and sexual complementarity as an essential feature of marriage and family?

Personally, I think that sex difference is vastly overhyped in our culture today. I believe that men and women are far more alike that different — not that “everyone is the same,” but that the individual variations within each sex vastly eclipse the differences between the sexes. But that’s me.

Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, strongly believes that biology — specifically, testosterone — makes men and women radically different: ambition, risk-taking, action, competitiveness and aggression are male traits, while empathy, patience, the desire for stability, and interest in relationships are essentially female. In his April 2000 New York Times essay on the subject, Andrew allows for individual differences and variations, but he also makes it clear that in his view, men and women overall approach and experience the world in deeply and fundamentally different ways.

I admire Andrew’s writings on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and I find a lot of his arguments very powerful and persuasive. But I see a basic contradiction between his strong belief in deep, important, innate differences between the sexes and his equally passionate belief that same-sex relationships should be treated as fully equivalent to male-female ones. After all, if men and women are so different, then isn’t there at least some rational basis for believing that one goal and one essential element of marriage is to bring these two profoundly different halves of humanity together in family units based on a mix, and a balance, of male and female traits?

In fact, I suspect that the belief in sexual complementarity underlies many people’s support for civil unions but not full marriage for same-sex couples. So I ask again: If someone fully accepts same-sex relationships and does not regard them as either “icky” or immoral but also believes that sexual complementarity, biological and psychological, makes male-female unions unique and deserving of special cultural recognition, is that person a bigot?

Incidentally, this is a basic difference between the legalization of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the ban on interracial marriage, a parallel that often comes up in this debate. The traditional language of marriage is steeped in sexual dualism: we can speak of a couple and identify each partner by gender or gendered role, not name. (“The husband works in a bank, the wife is a schoolteacher.”) Interracial marriage does not challenge this dualism. Same-sex marriage obviously does. In fact, after SSM was legalized in Massachusetts, marriage license forms were changed, eliminating the words “husband” and “wife” and replacing them with “Spouse A” and “Spouse B.”

To traditionalists, this change is undoubtedly appalling: it symbolizes the official adoption of a literally neutered version of marriage, as well as its downgrading to a bureaucratic formality. I myself don’t think too many people care about what’s written in their marriage licenses. And yet if same-sex couples are justified in seeking official affirmation that their unions are equal to heterosexual ones, aren’t traditional couples justified in seeking official affirmation of the gendered nature of their marriages?

I think, too, that this is a part of Maggie Gallagher’s concern when she frets that the legalization of same-sex marriage will attach the stigma of bigotry to defenders of traditional marriage. At present, defenders of traditional male-female roles may be seen as old-fashioned, but they are not seen as bigots (in part, perhaps, because women are just as likely as men to endorse such roles). The use of racial analogies in the discussion of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, threatens to place the traditional view of marriage beyond the pale.

Again, the views I am defending are by and large not my own. I don’t think that men are inferior to women in relational skills or that women are less competitive than men; or rather, I think that whatever innate sex differences exist in these areas are flexible and outweighed by individual differences. I don’t think that “gender-neutral parenting” is a danger to the family. I do believe that the interplay of maleness and femaleness — more as intangible “energies” than specific psychological traits — creates a unique and valuable dynamic. (In a purely biological sense, human beings do come in two basic kinds — male and female — making the male/female couple a microcosm of humanity.) But in my view, that doesn’t make the mutual commitment of two women or two men any less genuine or less deserving.

My point is that there is a legitimate debate here, not just the forces of bigotry aligned against equality and civil rights.

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized