Monday, August 9, 2010

The Proof from Diorama


Marriage as exactly one woman and one man is an "ideal," writes Ross Douthat, trying his best to frame up a coherent, non-shrieking, last-gasp defense of legalized inequality.

Fair enough -- let's suppose it is an ideal. So what? Douthat:
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.
I would say the "organic connection between human generations" is embedded somewhere in the word organic, signifying, as it does, the fact that human beings make approximate copies of themselves by reproducing. This is inescapable and natural -- in recent decades, it is more and more volitional and technology-assisted, but this has not undercut its connectedness-making qualities, but has only expanded its availability and reduced its risks. This organic connectedness has no necessary relationship with the legal constructions of marriage. Concretely, Ross Douthat would still be as connected to his ancestors and to his children if no legal papers had ever been filed with the county clerk, or indeed even if no one had ever waved incense smoke around or recited phrases in Latin.

As for "a microcosm of civilization," that's going to require some more fleshing out, because as Douthat presents it, it has no obvious relevance to what he seems to be arguing. Suppose X is a "microcosm of civilization" -- does that make it ipso facto a good thing? I wouldn't think so. A human lifetime from squalling infant to wise old fart could also be construed as a microcosm of civilization, as could a 5th grade diorama of the rise of agriculture, as could the everyday motion from waking, to showering, to going to work, to back to bed at night. As could the process that begins with frog eggs, passes through the tadpole stage, and arrives at full-grown frog; as could the course taken by an apple on a tree to apple remains deposited in a toilet. Microcosms of civilization are fairly easy to come by; none of them supplies a cogent rationale for legalized inequality.

The "microcosm" Douthat has in mind is the one he learned at church --- that one and no other, in all its scintillating particularity and smell of incense, can possibly do:
[I]f we just accept this shift [to permit gay people to marry], we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
Really, this has gone past maudlin all the way to lugubrious: Douthat (speaking for many, no doubt) has so little confidence in the convictions and institutions whose "loss" he bewails that he doesn't realize they're perfectly intact -- he can still consider Jesus his honorary best man, he can still expect a priest to whisper sweet Latin nothings over all the same baptismal ceremonies, he can still rest easy knowing the regional archdiocese will always elevate his "ideal" union far above any paltry gay copies -- indeed, the church will remain free to damn the gay unions in the harshest terms, if the mood strikes them.

Somehow that is not enough for Douthat and company; all the incantations of priests, bishops, and popes are nullified if a county clerk accepts the fee and stamps "OK" on a marriage certificate issued to gay people.

I didn't think much of his convictions before this; now it's clear he doesn't think much of them either.

(image source)

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