Monday, August 9, 2010

Did He Just Douthat?

Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times, has decided to weight in on Judge Vaughn Walker's now-historic decision (something I wrote about last week) which finds California's (odious, insupportable, inhumane, indefensible) Proposition 8 Un-Constitutional under the law.

Douthat gets credit for immediately lining up a platoon's-worth of justifications for opposing gay marriage, then roundly shooting them all in the face without hesitation. Were that all he'd done, I doubt I'd publish another of these eye-rollingly-earnest missives.

"Luckily" for you and for me, Douthat didn't stop there.

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

Let's stop there, shall we?

Remove the words "two sexually different human beings," "reproductive" and "biological" from that chunk of verbiage and what do we have? A definition of marriage that applies just as powerfully and as equally to gay Americans as it does to straight Americans. A commitment to lifelong fidelity? Check. Mutual surrender, arguably, of self-interest? Check. A domestic life in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their parents? Check.

What's missing? The ability to biologically procreate. So, all heterosexual marriages in which one or both partners is incapable of doing so, but nonetheless loving? You're not "the ideal." All of you children of divorce? You're not "the ideal" either. I'm not sure what that has to do with anything, since you're presumably sane and functioning members of society who love and are aggravated by your family in largely the same measure as those "ideal" folks out there, but apparently Mr. Douthat just wanted you to know that, ultimately, you aren't measuring up to his invisible ideals.

And - by the way - those ideals being lionized so very vaguely by Mr. Douthat have been in place for less than a hundred years. So they are obviously Ancient and Wise and Should Not Be Disturbed. Not when it might somehow, indefinably, make some dude from the NY Times a little uncomfortable when he mingles with The Gays at Sunday brunch.

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.

Oh, now I see. The point isn't that other relationships have no value. The point, apparently, is that they have lesser value. For no definable reason that Douthat can offer us.

That clears things right up. Oh, and also?


Sorry, but sometimes you have to call them like you see them. Douthat pulls a (theoretically) impressive rhetorical trick here by lining up the Usual Ideological Suspects against gay marriage and killing them off all at once; he's apparently done this so that he can then, Lazarus-like, resurrect the hoariest, most insupportable, most insubstantial, gossamer-thin argument of all and drop it, as if in innocence, back into the substance of his editorial without us having noticed.

What Douthat is arguing for here, boiled to the essence, is the state-sponsored protection of his preferred family experience - an experience that, as he himself admits, is a decidedly new, decidedly Western conception of the Marital Institution - one that is already flawed aplenty, fractured from the blasé societal acceptance of things like divorce and infidelity:

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

Or at least, it was the Western understanding. Lately, it has come to co-exist with a less idealistic, more accommodating approach, defined by no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.

So....what was Douthat's point again? How, exactly, do we get from the regrettable-but-Eternal fact of marriage's constant volatility to Douthat's contention that Walker's opinion was wrong?

If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.

Ah. That's how. Douthat, for all his posturing and his "reasonable tone," is apparently something of a bigot. No culture that pretends to a Democratic ideal has any business discriminating against the love of homosexuals - those folks being, in point of fact, a participatory body within that Democracy. The lifelong commitment of any couple, regardless of orientation, is more impressive than serial monogamy. Anyone who's been married longer than a few months knows that very well.

But if we just accept this shift, 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.

Well, that's a pretty string of words, but they don't mean anything - not if the Constitution means something to you. The United States does not discriminate against its own citizenry. Despite the obvious fact that this country has done so in its past and will continue to do so in its future does not, and should not, prevent us from losing sight of the ideals embodied in that formative document.

If Ross Douthat wants public acknowledgment of lifelong monogamy, unrestricted by bigotry, then he'll get that once gay marriage becomes a "norm." If what he wants are public acknowledgements of lifelong HETERO monogamy, then he'll need to be content with making those public acknowledgements from the relative comfort of his cozy, nation-wide editorializing berth at the Times. Because, no matter how the bigots twist and pull at Walker's decision it is solidly grounded in the Rosetta Stone of America's secular law - a law that We The People established precisely so that people like Ross Douthat couldn't decide that their marriage is worth more/is more special/is healthier/promotes-better-teeth-cleaning-habits than your marriage.

But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea.

Y'know, when a columnist misrepresents the law and its workings so fundamentally and so egregiously I think it's best to let the experts take over. So, on this last point - a point which mangles and warps the legal nature of this decision - just click on over and read Glenn Greenwald. He strips Douthat's legal fig leaf away faster than The Flash at a Red Bull Flugtag.


  1. Nice.
    Why aren't you writing for a big publication? Your input here is every bit as valid.
    BTW: Watched "A Town Called Panic" twice this weekend. My 7 year old read the subtitles and laughed like a little monkey. Such a great film!!!

  2. Hey, Matthew.

    That's awfully nice of you to write/say. I write for Chud, and I write for you folks here, but I really wouldn't know where to begin writing for a larger publication. If you know where a guy like me can get a toe in the door I'd love to know about it. Feel free to drop me a line at my email address, or just inundate your favorite publications with demands that they hire me forthwith.

    So glad to hear that you and your 7 year-old enjoyed A Town Called Panic. I was floored by how charming and genuinely funny it was ("FANTASTIC COFFEE!!!")

  3. It looks like you and I might be reading some of the same sites at the same time. I also just did a follow-post on Douthat's article and Greenwald's response -- but took it in a slightly different direction.

    Another fine post on your part. Good work picking apart Douthat's column piece by piece. Cheers.

  4. and by "follow-post," I meant "follow-up post"...