Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Sullivan on Marriage

Andrew Sullivan is worried about amending the Constitution recently, implying that the practice is unconservative especially with regard to "wedge issues" (gay marriage). So the defender of bohemianism turns for support to Burke and the respect for tradition. That's quite a trick he tries to pull off.

First of all, Sullivan should spare us the rhetoric of protecting the Constitution. It is activist judges (such as those in Massachusetts) running roughshod over state constitutions who lack respect for constitutionalism. Amending the Constitution is not a conservative's usual preference, but it is constitutional. And what other choice is available to thwart judges reading their political preferences regarding social policy into Constitutional law?

Sullivan is perfectly entitled to his opinion about gay marriage. But to wrap his opinion up in constitutionalism, when judges have clearly abused their positions to the detriment of constitutionalism, and to cast his opponents as enemies of constitutionalism is hypocritical. Sullivan's reliance on judges to create the laws he wants is unconservative and unconstitutional.

Second, what is so interesting about Sullivan's defense of gay marriage is the romantic or Rousseauian view of marriage in which it is grounded. This is a view of love and marriage based on sexuality out of which more serious or "spiritual" things grow. This view has arguably failed the institution it sought to sustain, and Burke basically called it pornographic. Rousseau did his best to prevent the breakdown of marriage in the wake of the individualism of Hobbes and Locke. He was right to notice their neglect or thin discussions of marriage and the potential for the disintegration of the family. But he approached the subject (as he did all others) from the same "ontological" basis that Hobbes and Locke did (the state of nature teaching), and it is doubtful that this approach, leading to the modern notion of romantic love, ultimately succeeded in supporting marriage. Romantic love, by itself, may be just to weak to support marriage.

When Sullivan isn't trying to wax poetic on romantic love and the pleasures of domestic life, he relies on a kind of liberal argument that homosexuality is the same as heterosexuality and should be treated as such politically. Sullivan unfairly compares racist bigotry and the opposition to interracial marriage to an unwillingness to elevate homosexual relationships to the same or equal status as heterosexual marriage -- as if racial prejudice is the same as trying to distinguish between and rank serious activities, some of which produce children. To seek to distinguish between the two acts and the meanings implied by them is to risk incurring the brand of bigot from Sullivan. But we should resist this kind of terror tactic seeking to stifle thought and promote closed-mindedness.

So are the acts effectively the same? Do they imply the same thing? It's a difficult question, to be sure. But one thing is true: heterosexual relations generally lead to procreation and homosexual relations do not. One may argue, on this basis, that the political community has a vested interest in elevating the heterosexual couple as it is responsible for rearing the young. As long as children need their fathers, both economically and otherwise, the heterosexual family remains a special institution.

Additionally (and somewhat against the traditional family), some of the oldest arguments about homosexuality imply that it may be freer than heterosexual relations because it does not result in children for whom responsibility must be taken. Toleration of the act in the political community implies an elevated level of civilization or human development, where the traditional family with all its insularity and limitations has been weakened. This does not mean that homosexuals are necessarily more civilized or less limited intellectually or that homosexuality should be elevated to equal status with the heterosexual family. But the practice seems to find its home, so to speak, in places where other political and intellectual possibilities than what is normally available in simple, rustic villages present themselves.

Obviously, there is too much here to include in a blog post. But one wonders why Sullivan argues so strenuously that heterosexuality and homosexuality are simply the same. His is a willful attempt to deny inquiry into the larger meanings of the acts. We live in an amazingly tolerant country. To push tolerance of homosexuality, however, to "sameness" as heterosexual marriage in the eyes of the political community is both utopian and corrosive of honest discussion around the meanings of man's deepest longings.


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