Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ross Douthat's Response to Marriage Equality in New York: Let's Find New Ways to Blame the Gays

I've said before on this blog that I don't usually pay much attention to what Ross Douthat writes.  I read Douthat the same way I read David Brooks.  Though centrist conservatives--an ever-waning and now infinitesimal minority within the movement that calls itself conservative in the U.S. (which has no solid foundation in traditional conversatism at all)--profess to find both of these spokespersons refreshingly moderate and deep, I find both embarrassingly shallow.  Both have succeeded in passing themselves off as profound thinkers offering cover to intellectuals who still find it respectable to affiliate themselves with a Republican party long since gone off the tracks intellectually, morally, in just about any sense one can imagine.

And yet both are, at base, shameless shills for the same economic interest groups and task masters who pull the strings of the Republican party as a whole, and of the tea party (and, yes, in many ways, of the Democratic party as well)--whether the Republican party is defined as moderate and intellectually respectable or off the deep end in its "conservatism" (which, I repeat, isn't any longer authentically conservative in any classic sense of that term at all).

Though I don't give much mind room to Ross Douthat, I do want to make at least a passing reference to his op-ed statement about marriage equality in New York in yesterday's New York Times.  This statement deserves attention because it's going to become, I suspect, the new talking point of the "respectable" and "intellectual" cadre of the Republican party, about the dangers that same-sex marriage poses to "real" marriage in American society.

Here's what I see Douthat attempting to do in this piece: for starters, you know how conservatives have long informed us that same-sex marriage will destroy marriage as it has existed for, oh, oodles and oodles of millennia?  Well, it's here.  And it hasn't.

Same-sex marriage is here in many places in the world, and "traditional" marriage as God intended it (or so the conservative party line goes) keeps trucking right along, juddering mightily here, shimmying off the tracks there.  Doing what it has been doing--to itself--for ever so long now, with no help at all from same-sex marriage.

Falling part all by itself, that is, and in the process, producing quite an embarrassment for those "traditional" heterosexuals who would vastly prefer to argue that the only perceivable threat to "traditional" marriage anywhere in the world is gay marriage.  And so those who want to blame the introduction of same-sex marriage for the manifold, very perceptible problems of "traditional" marriage have a problem on their hands, as they try to make any credible argument that same-sex marriage threatens heterosexual marriage.  And here's how Ross Douthat wants to handle that problem, now that marriage equality has come to New York:

He wants to maintain that the future of "traditional" marriage hinges on same-sex marriage, but in an entirely new way, one not previously predicted by his conservative brethren who predicted that same-sex marriage would spell the doom of heterosexual marriage.  Douthat wants to maintain--and to me, this is perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of his argument--that traditional marriage has actually been doing quite well in recent years, thank you very much.

It was, don't you know, strengthened by the neoconservative movement that swept the nation from the 1980s forward.  By the political movement that dominated our national political life in the final decades of the 20th century.  (And wrecked our economy, causing tremendous stress to one family after another, but never mind about that.  It has no bearing at all on Douthat's argument that marriage began to right itself after the swinging sixties, since his argument is all about crediting the neocons for saving marriage from the hippies, and he himself freely admits that he's not even particularly interested in what has happened to the marriages of anyone except affluent folks in this time frame.)

And so Douthat maintains, 

In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong. But far from being strengthened by this outbreak of realism, their marriages went on to dissolve in record numbers.

This trend eventually reversed itself. Heterosexual marriage has had a tough few decades, but its one success story is the declining divorce rate among the upper middle class. This decline, tellingly, has gone hand in hand with steadily rising disapproval of adultery. 

And now marriage equality is making its way to various places in the U.S., and the revival of strong marriages that Douthat imagines we've been undergoing in recent years--well, among the "upper middle class," at least, and who else really counts?--is threatened in a new and unexpected way.  It's threatened because--get this--gay columnist Dan Savage has been suggesting that many marriages, whether gay or straight, are tacitly open marriages--are monogamous in name and profession more than in reality.  

And so the gays, by marrying, are reintroducing the swinging sixties--you do see this clearly, don't you?--and that peak of marital fidelity to which we had slowly and painstakingly climbed in the era of the divorced Mr. Reagan who never set foot in church and had seriously unhappy relationships with most of his children, and in the era of the Messrs. Bush, is insecure once again.  That peak of marital fidelity to which the upper middle classes had climbed in the neocon era, I mean to say.  And who else counts, really?

There are so many ways in which Douthat's fantastical argument is laughably wrong that I hardly know where to begin to point them out.  In the first place, almost any reliable index of the state of marriage in one Western nation after another finds the institution undergoing profound change--entirely apart from the introduction of same-sex marriage--change that conservative thinkers characterize as the dissolution of traditional marriage.

A dissolution occurring entirely apart from anything same-sex marriage has done or will do.

Divorce has skyrocketed.  It has become the norm in many societies, such that serial monogamy is now the norm in many "traditional" marriages.  Many young couples are choosing to live together without benefit of matrimony, and may or may not marry in time.  And if they take the latter option, they're not rushing about it.

As to adultery and fidelity, I wonder what reliable data Douthat might advance to show that the "steadily rising disapproval of adultery" of which he's so confident, the disapproval that has increased as a result of the virtuous Mr. Reagan and Messrs. Bush, translates into actual eschewal of adultery?  People can disapprove mightily of what they themselves practice on the sly.  Societies with Anglo roots are notorious, in fact, for "disapproving" while practicing.

I'm not confident, myself, that all those upper middle-class marriages Mr. Douthat idolizes--the ones in which spouses say that they vigorously disapprove of adultery--are as spotlessly monogamous as Douthat imagines they are.  Or as their participants maintain they are.

And I find it laughable in the extreme that the proposal of a gay columnist for more honest and open discussion about what has long since gone on in many "traditional" marriages, along with many gay ones, is going to reinvent the swinging sixties in American society and undermine upper middle-class heterosexual marriages.

Where is Douthat wanting to to go with this argument?  In his "moderate" and "intellectually respectable" way, he wants to hang desperately onto the argument that the gays are going to destroy heterosexual marriage, if we let them marry or civil-unionize.  But since he knows that the empirical evidence moves heavily against that argument, and since it is also increasingly eminently unrespectable to blame the gays for the problems of heterosexual marriage--unrespectable in bona fide intellectual circles--Douthat is looking for a back door through which to reintroduce the gays-as-threat argument.

And he thinks he's found it in Dan Savage and Savage's musings about monogamy.

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