Monday, June 29, 2009

Exercising Freedoms Responsibly


I wish Ross Douthat had taken the time to watch Idiocracy before writing his latest column, a pointless ramble about the sustainability of love and marriage. It might have given him a different perspective on this observation about the authors of the essays that inspired his column:
Their complaints about this world’s romance deficit are substantially overstated, obviously - and shot through with a dash of self-justification. (Tsing Loh had an affair; Nehring recently became an unwed mother.) But both do put their finger on a post-sexual revolution paradox - namely, that the same overclass that was once most invested in erotic experimentation ended up building the sturdiest walls against the passions it unleashed.
I was only able to read one of the essays Douthat references, Sandra Tsing Loh's Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. But with due respect to Douthat's recognition of the essay as self-justifying, I think he missed the larger point. My father has the opinion that marriages tend to continue, even if one or both partners are unhappy, until one of them finds somebody else. Then that person seeks a divorce. It's a simple point that, in my observation, largely rings true. Tsoh admits that she had a comfortable, stable marriage, so why divorce?
Heart-shattering as this moment was—a gravestone sunk down on two decades of history—I would not be able to replace the romantic memory of my fellow transgressor with the more suitable image of my husband, which is what it would take in modern-therapy terms to knit our family’s domestic construct back together. In women’s-magazine parlance, I did not have the strength to “work on” falling in love again in my marriage.
She fell in love with somebody else, and chose not to surrender that passion in favor of returning to a marriage that she believed (probably correctly) would never inspire a similar level of passion. That's part of the normal progression of relationships. Perhaps the issue is that Tsoh, who doesn't "generally even enjoy men", had never before experienced "falling in love", but if she wants to live the rest of her life with a similar level of passion she must eschew long-term relationships and marriage (or at least monogamous relationships and marriage), as over time the happy, giddy, "I just fell in love", "I never want to be apart from you" moments, will inevitably change and evolve into something else.

Tsoh also describes a friend of hers, married to a husband who is a gourmet cook, remarkably neat and organized, a good carpenter, and a fitness freak. She describes her friend as also consdering divorce:
“Ian won’t have sex with me,” Rachel says flatly. “He has not touched my body in two years. He says it’s because I’ve gained weight.” Again, we stoutly protest, but she goes on. “And he thinks I’m a bad mother—he says I’m sloppy and inattentive.”

The list of violations unfurls. Last week, Rachel mistakenly gave the wrong medication to the dog, a mistake Ian would never make. She also forgot to deglaze the saucepan and missed the window to book the family’s Seattle flights on Expedia, whose chiming bargains Ian meticulously tracks.
I don't doubt that Ian has managed to present his wife with a list of complaints that make her unattractive to him. But it's all window dressing. I would bet good money that, like Tsoh, the reason Ian is finding so much fault in a stable marriage is that he's having an affair. Care to guess how long ago the affair started, or at least when it got serious?

Douthat appears quite uncomfortable with any departure from traditional, or should I say "Ozzie and Harriet", gender roles:
So which is the real America? Is it Tsing Loh’s dystopia, where everyone “works” grimly on their relationships, and post-feminist husbands happily cook saffron-infused porcini risotto but rarely practice seduction on their wives? Or is it tabloid country: The land of Jon minus Kate, and governors who vanish to “hike the Appalachian Trail” — not to mention gossip-column fixtures like Britney Spears (rumored last week to be contemplating her third marriage in six years) and the mistress-parading Mel Gibson?
Perhaps Douthat doesn't eat at many restaurants, but the world of the gourmet kitchen has long been dominated by men. A speculative explanation in which Douthat would probably find comfort is that women have traditionally learned to cook in order to feed their families, while men have had the opportunity to be self-indulgent, to approach cooking as art instead of sustenance. But whatever the reason, Douthat seems to find fault with the fact that a documentary filmmaker who spends most of his time at home between assignments, and who loves to cook, in fact cooks for his "chronically overworked" lawyer wife. In Douthat's "pre-feminist" world, would she (a) quit her job so she could "properly care for her family," (b) order a lot of prepared foods, take-out and delivery, or serve up frozen dinners, or (c) somehow find an extra four hours per day so she could be home to cook breakfast and dinner, and package up box lunches for the kids?

Douthat pontificates,
As Nehring observes, our hyper-educated, socially-liberal elite is considerably more romantically conservative than its blasé attitude toward pornography or premarital sex would lead you to expect. The difficult scramble up the meritocratic ladder tends to discourage wild passions and death-defying flings. For bright young overachievers, there’s often a definite tameness to the way that collegiate “safe sex” segues into the upwardly-mobile security of “companionate marriages” - or, if you’re feeling more cynical, “consumption partnerships.”
Or it could be something else, entirely. It could be that people who exercise their freedoms responsibly believe that the state has no place peering through their bedroom windows and telling them, "Your sex partner is the wrong gender. No, sorry, anything but the missionary position is 'gross indecency.'" It could be that people who intentionally postpone marriage and child rearing until they're stable in their careers don't believe the government should be restricting their access to birth control, or that Douthat's brand of moral opprobrium is appropriate should they experience an unwanted pregnancy and have to choose how to proceed. Although in what is becoming his trademark, Douthat declines to follow through with any conclusions - his editorial suggests that he disapproves of single parenthood, but he can't bring himself to say that single mothers "should get married". In fact, he seems to be internalizing the stereotypes presented in Idiocracy - an "overclass" (his word) of austere yuppies forever postponing children until the "right time" versus a population that, I guess, Douthat would describe as the underclass.
Better, perhaps, if this dynamic were reversed. Our meritocrats could stand to leaven their careerism with a little more romantic excess. (Though such excess is more appropriate in the young, it should be emphasized, than in middle-aged essayists and parents.) But most Americans, particularly those of modest means, would benefit from greater caution and stability in their romantic entanglements.
I get that latter part - Douthat believes that the poor and uneducated should breed less often. But what am I supposed to make of the former part? "Meritocrats" should marry earlier? Have children outside of marriage? Have more affairs? Engage in more premarital sex? Douthat's usually short on specifics but come on. That's a contention he needs to explain. And how would any of that be consistent with the "pre-feminist" world for which he pines?

Douthat seems to be suggesting that there is a world of people who act responsibly, don't need others to tell them how to behave, and don't like it when the government or moralistic preachers start trying to regulate or criminalize their available choices. He also is suggesting that there's another population - "Americans, particularly those of modest means" who don't exercise sufficient caution or seek appropriate levels of stability "in their romantic entanglements." He doesn't find it obvious that politicians and religious leaders who lack self-control are often the vanguard of those who argue for more meddling in private romantic relationships, or that many of their "incautious" followers (and, for that matter, Douthat) don't understand why people restrain themselves out of anything less than the threat of prison or eternal damnation.

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