Entry from February 12, 2010

Here’s an interesting example of what it means to be cut off from history — a subject I have recently written about here and here. Mr Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic online, has taken up the cudgels, as is his wont, on behalf of gay marriage and against Rod Dreher, his “old sparring-partner” on that subject. The two were now sparring, it seems, over a New York Times article last month which reported on a study by Colleen Hoff of San Francisco State University that “reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.”

As soon as he saw the article, Mr Linker claims, he knew that the opponents of gay marriage would be citing it in support of their case, but it took a while for Mr Dreher to come forth and show that he had “taken the bait.” He quotes Mr Dreher’s words as follows: “If it’s true that half of same-sex couples live in an open marriage/relationship, then concerns from SSM opponents that extending marriage to gay couples would redefine our culture’s understanding of marriage can’t be dismissed as unfounded.” Or, as Mr Linker would prefer to put it:

Whereas proponents of same-sex marriage have spent much of the past two decades arguing the Andrew Sullivan position — namely, that permitting homosexuals to marry would lead them to assimilate to bourgeois social norms — opponents of same-sex marriage have made the opposite claim, asserting that once gay marriage is normalized, the morally dubious practices of the gay community would seep into and corrupt the traditionalist marital practices of everyone else. And now it seems the conservative case has received empirical confirmation: roughly half of homosexual marriages and relationships are non-traditional. Instead of producing the embourgeoisment of the gay community, the advent of same-sex marriage has sent us careening [sic] down the slippery slope toward the society-wide dissolution of traditional marriage. Right?

Not surprisingly, Mr Linker answers himself: “Wrong.” The fact would hardly be worth remarking upon but for the assumptions which, as he subsequently reveals, lie behind his contemptuous dismissal of the traditionalists’ case. Is traditional marriage so fragile, he asks rhetorically, that “the practices of roughly half of the members of a tiny minority who choose to marry will decisively influence the marital practices of everyone, or even anyone, else”? Do not traditionally married couples already know of the possibility of open relationships and are they not free to choose them for themselves as it is? And then there’s this:

Don’t traditionalists believe that heterosexual marriage is rooted in nature? And isn’t homosexuality an unnatural abomination? That’s what we’ve always been told. But if so, what sense does it make to assume that news of gay open marriages will lead heterosexuals to adopt those practices as their own? Is nature really that malleable? Can the desire for exclusivity in love really be erased? Is jealousy really likely to disappear from human relationships? Does monogamy really depend on universal moral disapprobation to back it up? But we’ve already lived through nearly a half-century without a social consensus on sexuality. Surely a handful of non-monogamous gay marriages isn’t going to make the decisive difference in mainstreaming polyamory. Or is it?

Oddly, he doesn’t answer his own question in this case — which suggests, perhaps, the shadow of a doubt. But there is no doubt that monogamy really does depend on universal moral disapprobation to back it up. Leaving aside the provocative language of “unnatural abomination,” has Mr Linker really no knowledge of what monogamy used to be like in the days of that “social consensus” we have now spent half a century without? And does he really suppose that what the lack of that consensus has produced can still meaningfully be described as “monogamy” in the sense that the word had for many centuries that preceding the last one?

Of course, it is precisely the concern of the other party, the party that he is mocking and ridiculing here, that traditional marriage has already become almost a mockery itself. How is that inconsistent with a concern that it should not become any more of a mockery than it already is? Does the lack of a social consensus in itself invalidate the claims of those who wish to return to that consensus? Yet, to me, the most interesting question of all is why is it that Mr Linker thinks he can assume that his New Republic readers will be unable or unwilling to remember the vital role of “universal moral disapprobation” in the survival of monogamous marriage for the several millennia leading up to the 1960s?

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