Monday, April 08, 2013

The Problems of Heterosexual Marriage Can't Be Attributed to Things That Haven't Happened

Before going out of town, I apparently opened a browser window to Ross Douthat's latest editorial on gay marriage, one in which he reverts to his traditional form of not coming to a clear conclusion. Instead, he implies that gay marriage is somehow causing problems for heterosexual marriages:
“Proponents of gay marriage can only get what they want,” [David] Frum wrote, “by weakening Americans’ attachment to the traditional family even more than it has already been weakened,” and speeding the “process of social dissolution” that the 1960s and 1970s began....

Yet for an argument that has persuaded so few, the conservative view has actually had decent predictive power. As the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward, the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before. As the public’s shift on the issue has accelerated, so has marriage’s overall decline.

Since Frum warned that gay marriage could advance only at traditional wedlock’s expense, the marriage rate has been falling faster, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has been rising faster, and the substitution of cohabitation for marriage has markedly increased. Underlying these trends is a steady shift in values: Americans are less likely to see children as important to marriage and less likely to see marriage as important to childbearing (the generation gap on gay marriage shows up on unwed parenting as well) than even in the very recent past.

Correlations do not, of course, establish causation.
No, they don't. But more to the point, there's no meaningful correlation. If there were, Douthat could point to the more market collapse of heterosexual marriage in states and nations that have legalized gay marriage, or in cities with larger numbers of gay couples.1 He could point to opinion polls showing that states or regions with the highest opposition to gay marriage have the strongest heterosexual marriages. As it stands, he may as well be saying, "I'm not saying that the deterioration of heterosexual marriage is caused by the Earth orbiting around the sun, but you can't deny the correlation."

If you were to look through history, to look at cultures and communities that were troubled by high rates of birth outside of marriage, unstable relationships and the like, you might learn something. Such as, when the people of those communities are given a path into a stable middle class lifestyle, they start to behave in a way Douthat would deem acceptable. Not the way he behaved before his personal rejection of the hook-up culture of his college, but the way he has ostensibly behaved since his revelation. And when you pull the economic carpet out from under a community, the same issues predictably arise. That's a correlation you can believe in. Douthat gives it a nod:
The economy is obviously playing a leading role in the retreat from marriage — the shocks of recession, the stagnation of wages, the bleak prospects of blue-collar men. Culturally, what matters most is the emergence of what the National Marriage Project calls a “capstone” understanding of marriage, which treats wedlock less as a foundation for adulthood and more as a celebration of adult achievement — and which seems to work out far better for our disciplined upper class than for society as a whole.
Our "disciplined upper class", as compared to the undisciplined, perhaps unwashed masses? It's almost as if Douthat wants to slip into the caricature of the manor born, sniffing at the shiftless behaviors of those of lesser birth. As if it's discipline that allows him to live a life of relative leisure, while that shameless hussy of a scullery maid was caught kissing a footman during her half-day off from her 16-hour work shifts, and thus had to be dismissed without a reference. You cannot claim to be disciplined in the face of a recession, and loss of career and income potential, unless you actually feel the effect - and sorry, Ross, "The Princess and the Pea" is a fable, and no matter how sensitive you believe yourself to be, having a pea under your 100 mattresses is not the same thing as sleeping on the floor.

Douthat huffs,
For 10 years, America’s only major public debate about marriage and family has featured one side — judges and journalists, celebrities and now finally politicians — pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.
Certainly, that was a decade with not one voice speaking against gay marriage. There was no concerted, multi-million dollar campaign to defeat gay marriage in California. Maggie Gallagher wasn't, in effect, a paid spokesperson for "traditional marriage". Ross Douthat and his anti-gay marriage peers found themselves strangely unable to speak on the subject. Opponents of gay marriage didn't push ballot initiatives across the nation not only to prevent gay marriage, but also to weaken civil union laws and block gay employees from receiving benefits for their partners. And then there's the real world. Look, I'm sorry Ross found himself losing in the marketplace of ideas... no, scratch that, I'm not at all sorry... but there was a contest of ideals. Douthat prefers to pretend that gay marriage supporters were not opposed, but the fact is that his faction fought a bloody fight and despite its best effort is now on the verge of total defeat. Why? Because the anti-gay marriage arguments they present, as exemplified by the columns about which I am writing, were feeble, and the fall-back position of "tradition!" was not found to be compelling. What do we see now? Douthat attempting to rewrite history and caricature the positions of gay marriage advocates. That's the best he can do.

As I recall it, it was not advocates of gay marriage who brought procreation into the discussion. It was culture scolds like Douthat. If you take away procreation from his effort to wall off marriage as a heterosexual institution, what's left of Douthat's already weak argument? I think it's fair to say, also, that some of those bringing procreation into the mix wanted to evoke a visceral reaction against gay marriage - "We can't let them raise children." If Douthat resents that there was push-back against that type of argument that left its proponents looking foolish, even if by stating the painfully obvious truth that nothing about somebody else's gay marriage affects my ability to procreate and raise children within my own marriage (or Douthat's)... oh well.

Douthat continues,
Now that this argument seems on its way to victory, is it really plausible that it has changed how Americans view gay relationships while leaving all other ideas about matrimony untouched?...

A more honest, less triumphalist case for gay marriage would be willing to concede that, yes, there might be some social costs to redefining marriage. It would simply argue that those costs are too diffuse and hard to quantify to outweigh the immediate benefits of recognizing gay couples’ love and commitment.
No, actually that would not be an honest argument. It might reasonably be deemed "Throwing a bone to Ross Douthat", but beyond that it's a position without substance. There might be some social costs to redefining marriage, and there are social costs to not redefining marriage. The former, the costs upon which Douthat would have us place all of our attention, are theoretical. The latter are real, and are substantiated. This is the art of distraction - hand waving. There is no need to perform a weight of theoretical, unarticulated, unsubstantiated "costs" associated with allowing gay marriage and the costs of maintaining the status quo, as one side of the equation is a null set.

Douthat whines,
Such honesty would make social liberals more magnanimous in what looks increasingly like victory, and less likely to hound and harass religious institutions that still want to elevate and defend the older marital ideal.
Honesty? The honesty of "admitting" that, as the future is uncertain, some unanticipated development could somehow detrimentally affect gay marriage? One might say, "There's no harm in throwing somebody like Douthat a bone, in ceding to him that as the future is uncertain something negative could result from gay marriage." Except that Douthat's whinging about "honesty" is itself dishonest - he still can't identify any actual harm that is likely to result from gay marriage. Is this demand for a concession anything more than his asking us to feed his smugness, give him the self-satisfaction of saying, "See? Even supporters of gay marriage admit that bad things can happen."

You know what I wouldn't mind seeing? I wouldn't mind seeing Douthat demonstrate some honesty for once. I would like to see him admit that he has been unable to provide any evidence or support for the notion that gay marraige causes any harm to the institution of marriage. I would like to see him admit that gay marriage could strengthen the institution of marriage, as the option of marriage becomes available to a greater number of committed couples. I would like to see him admit that gay marriage could benefit the children of gay couples who are presently legally barred from marrying. I would like to see him admit that his opposition to gay marriage, whether it is rationalized based upon his religious beliefs, "tradition", or the sort of gut reaction that he had to "chunky Reese Witherspoon", is at heart bigotry. He should relax - the churches that offered a religious defense of slavery, the subjugation of women, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation laws are still with us, and many have evolved to the point that it's easy to forget where they once stood. Instead he grouses that when you call bigotry what it is, it makes bigots look bad.2

Douthat continues,
But whether people think they’re on the side of God or of History, magnanimity has rarely been a feature of the culture war.
As Douthat believes himself to be on the side of God, to be supported by history, and to be a champion of the correct side in the culture wars he fights, I guess that's his way of saying, "Don't expect any magnanimity or honesty from me."
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1. It's fair to point out that the social trends Douthat laments are more visible in states in which there is broad opposition to gay marriage, and are less visible in states that allow legal gay marriage.

2. Douthat argues that the position that marriage has a strong connection to procreation and the rearing of children has historic truth, and that in the past that as recently as the early 1970's nobody found that argument to be "transparently silly". But here's the thing: You can accept that history of marriage, not dismiss it a silly, and still find it to be wholly irrelevant to the question before us. You can observe that we do not require straight couples to be fertile or to agree to have children before we allow them to marry, and that the institution of marriage has not been weakened by those non-procreative partnerships. You can also point out that the 1971 Minnesota case he mentions came a mere four years after the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down anti-miscegenation laws, which had previously been upheld by state courts who treated the mixing of the races as a very serious matter.

You can observe that, shocking as it may be to Douthat, gay parents are capable of parenting children and many gay parents are presently raising children. Is Douthat prepared to go into the puerile, "But kids need a biological mommy and a biological daddy" argument to distinguish the children of gay couples from those of heterosexual couples who adopt, who use an egg donor, sperm donor or surrogate due to fertility issues, who raise stepchildren, who take in the child of a troubled family member?

Douthat again whnes that it's "almost impossible for liberals to show magnanimity in victory, and accept the continued existence of people and institutions that still take the older view of what marriage is and means." When Douthat demonstrates the honesty I previously invited from him, when he demonstrates an iota of humility about his stance, we can talk about "magnanimity". As it stands, I don't feel any greater need to give Douthat a shoulder to cry on than to give similar comfort to the alumni of Oral Roberts University when it finally abandoned its prohibition of interracial dating. I don't need to "rewrite the past" to make Douthat look bad - he's doing fine, all by himself.

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