Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking encouragement from odd sources

Just a few days ago, Proposition 8 was struck down in California, making gay marriage again legal in that state. The court case leading to this decision has been fascinating, and Judge Vaughn Walker's ruling will likely stand as a milestone decision in the history of human rights.

There are many, many aspects of this decision that are encouraging about the mainstreaming of the presence of gays and lesbians in contemporary culture. I want to cite two of them today.

Here's one: the principal lawyer in the team arguing against Prop 8 was Ted Olson, a conservative most famous for representing George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore 2000. Olson did an extraordinary job of taking down Prop 8 on its constitutional flaws, and we see his mad skillz here in an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace:



That this former Bush proponent can argue so eloquently for the right of gay marriage doesn't encourage me so much because he's a conservative taking a stereotypically non-conservative position, as that the intellectual basis for his constitutional argument is so solid. Don't get me wrong: I'm always happy to see conservatives endorse socially liberal philosophy, but it's comforting to see so strong a vindication of a secular humanist reading of the U.S. constitution.

The second thing to which I want point was Ross Douthat's editorial the day before yesterday in the NY Times. It was a little garbled. From what I can gather, he attempted to articulate his opposition to gay marriage by way of a defence of heterosexual monogamy as something somehow exceptional. He writes:

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 ... 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.

To my mind, it's the bit suggesting "lifelong heterosexual monogamy" is "a microcosm of civilization" that makes this art. Seriously? This would be less absurd a claim if he had not already, in the name of acknowledging certain anti-gay-marriage arguments as wrong-headed, dispensed with a clutch of their standards in his opening paragraph. For example, he cites the old saw that "Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril." These arguments, he admits, "have lost because they're wrong."

They may be wrong by Douthat's own admission, but he then essentially advances the same argument by different means. The argument by way of nature doesn't work, he acknowledges; anyone claiming homosexuality as unnatural must needs account for genetic and biological evidence, to say nothing of the Central Park Zoo's homosexual penguins. So he reverts to an argument by way of civilization. Heterosexual monogamy, he further acknowledges, is unnatural in itself: "If 'natural' is defined to mean 'congruent with our biological instincts,' it's arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable." However—and here is his basic point—it is in its unnaturality that heterosexual monogamy deserves to be enshrined and protected, as it is the basis of Western civilization: it is in fact, to repeat his words, "one of the great ideas of Western civilization."

I'm not really sure where to begin here. Maybe pointing out that heterosexual marriage was not the sole provenance of Western civilization—I'm pretty sure ancient Chinese and Indian cultures practised something comparable. Secondly: dude, have you read Plato's Symposium? If there's any consensus on what the cradle of Western democratic and humanistic ideals was, ancient Athens is kind of it. And, um, not to put too fine a point on it—but they did quite love their man-on-man encounters, to the point where Plato (he to whom all of Western philosophy is but a footnote, remember) enshrined it as the most perfect expression of aesthetic love. Also, Sappho—let's not forget Sappho either.

But really, that kind of nitpicking (as fun as it is) is kind of beside the point. The point is the sheer incoherence of Douthat's piece. It reads as the flailing of a conservative thinker—a religious conservative at that—who on one hand is too intelligent to accept the standard anti-gay arguments but also cannot abandon the basic precepts of his faith and political convictions. Which leads to a kind of desperate re-framing of the issue: same-sex marriage isn't the natural order of things, but it's a great idea we abandon at our own peril—much like school prayer. Or white presidents.

Of course, once Douthat acknowledges same-sex marriage as an idea among other ideas, he cedes the absolutist ground on which the Right tends to frame the issue of marriage—kind of like how those Biblical passages "proving" the earth's centrality had to be re-read as allegorical in the face of the Copernican Revolution, or legislative racism gave way before the U.S. constitution's basic promise of human rights. There's still a long way to go, but it's always comforting to have indicators of hope.

1 comment:

Polly said...

This is an excerpt from "Homosexual Neurosis " , written by Wilhelm Stekel , a fascinating read --- He writes in the first chapter, "Our investigations thus far have repeatedly shown us that in the case of homosexuals the heterosexual path is merely blocked I have proven that the individual, as representative of our modern culture, find it impossible to maintain his bisexuality; therefore he represses either his homosexuality or his heterosexuality."