08 June 2006

Obligatory Blogging, Muses, and other detritrus

Something tells me that I really ought to be blogging about Bush's recent renewed support for a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to folks like this (and no, I don't mean tmcd, I mean that brilliant, wonderful, insufferable character he somehow managed to call up yesterday). After all, this is my 'thing', right? I've been studying the debate over gay marriage for almost a decade now; I can sort through the recent history – from the Hawaii case, to the Defense of Marriage Act, to the first wave of state doma laws, to the first round of support for the FMA (last election time), to this one – without really thinking about it; and there are very few political issues about which I feel more strongly (or which resonate more personally).

Nonetheless, I just can't get inspired to say anything about it. What is there to say? Probably the best line to take is to mock the entire idea, which is what Tmcd does so beautifully. But I'm no good at satire. And there's only so many times that one can point out the hypocrisy of the whole thing. As Emery notes, the hypocrisy of it is now just a natural, normal element of the story. Of course it will never pass. Of course Bush isn't really all that interested or concerned about 'defending marriage'. Of course this is just a bone to the base.

Makes me think a rather awful thought: perhaps racist segregationists of the mid-20th century had more integrity than today's 'homophobes'. At least segregationists were fighting to defend entrenched economic interests; at least they were honestly defending privilege; at least they really believed in racism. (OK, maybe I can learn the skills of satire.) In contrast, and as both the MsM and they themselves would tell you, the politicians today who support the severe disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the population, and who wish to enshrine second-class citizenship status into the constitution itself, aren't reallly all that homophobic.

It's 'just political'. It's not politically efficacious policy, it's just the hollow statement. Just like that insane, evil guy (Phelps, I think is his name) who likes to 'picket' the funerals of gay people (specifically victims of hate crimes and victisms of AIDS), the statement is clear: 'we hate fags'.

And I suppose this, then, demonstrates two things: 1) why, if you're a writer, you need to write every day, and 2) why I find Butler's theory of performativity persuasive. Because I wasn't really all that worked up about the issue before I wrote about it; I didn't feel much over it. Now, I am. Now, I do.


tenaciousmcd said...

You're right: it's really hard to write about this issue. I spent a few days trying to figure out what I could possibly say about this mess before my satirical id took over and belched out that post. It probably helps that I've got more of that knucklehead in me than either you or Emery do. As Orwell said, you've got to have a little fascist in you before you can fully write against them.

That said, I'd make a couple of substantive points. First, the old segregationists were no different than today's right-wing panderers. George Wallace got his start as a racial progressive but famously switched after losing an election ("I'll never get out-n--gered again!"), and Strom Thurmond had a black baby to whom he was personally warm and providing. These guys were opportunists, first and foremost, just like Frist and Bush.

Second, to play contrarian, gay marriage IS potentially radical in a way that interracial marriage is/was not. When the Supreme Court overturned miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, it didn't fundamentally alter the definition of what "marriage" was: an exclusive bond between a woman and a man to serve procreative purposes. Gay marriage opens that door wide, divorcing the institution from its traditional procreative purpose and anchoring it in a more free-floating notion of "consent." I'd say that Locke finally displaces Aristotle in the private realm, except that even Locke argues that the purpose of marriage is procreation and child rearing (which is why he scandalously OKs divorce after the kids are grown). For Locke, "contract" was what made public or political authority DIFFERENT from the household. To get back to the original point, once you disconnect marriage from procreation and make it purely a matter of consent, you do have to answer a series of questions about socially oppressive (but consentual) practices like polygamy. The wingers are not wrong about this connection (although the bestiality link is a lame scare tactic.)

Now, one way around this is to say that gay marriage allows gays the possiblity of constituting familes precisely FOR childrearing purposes. One or both partners may have children from previous heterosexual relationships, or there's always the in vitro and adoption options. This, I think is what really scares a lot of the right-wing base,at least subconsciously, because it suggests children being raised on a relatively large scale outside the national heterosexual consensus. As I recall, some preliminary studies say that such children are somewhat more likely to become gay themselves (though maybe not dramatically more so).

There are two primal fears here: 1) gay families will not be "as good" as straight familes. This isn't a completely irrational fear. A M/F parent pair serve as a relatively complete microcosm of the adult world, ideally helping children develop stable relationships to to both men and women. This is what guys like Tom Coburn are geting at when they rant about children growing up in gay homes "without mothers or fathers." In some circumstances, this may genuinely create problems. For example, boys do need fathers. I'm generalizing here--so this is obviously not true in every case--but think about the inner city experience. There are some things involving imposing authority and setting an example that mothers just can't, as a general rule, do for young men. So I think you can make a reasonable argument that, as a general rule, same sex marriages may be less effective parenting models than opposite sex marriages. But here's the catch. We already allow single parents (how could we not?), and those situations are obviously far worse than either opposite sex or same sex partnered parents. The "ideal" is already out the window, at least as far as legality goes, which means that denial of parenting rights to gays becomes nothing more than arbitrary discrimination.

2) Bisexuality. On its own, I don't think homosexuality should be that threatening to traditional family structures. After all, if some people are just born gay, allowing them to marry, giving them social approval for a long-term monogamous relationship, helps to mainstream and normalize homosexuality, so that it gradually loses its scary, disease-carrying, bath house orgy rep. Gay marriage would contribute to social restraint, not libertine excess. (This theme, I think, is one of the best things the gay marriage movement has going for it; those gay couples getting married certainly don't look very scary or creepy--it seems heart-warmingly sweet and wholesome.) But all that goes out the window if gayness is not inborn but heavily dependent upon experience, socialization, and choice, which it may be (studies, for example, suggest that gayness is less physiological in women than in men). So a society where gay lives are mainstreamed may become a more sexually diverse and ambiguous society. The problem is that bisexuality MAY be a threat to marriage where homosexuality is not. Call it the Brokeback Mountain threat. Can you ever fully trust your spouse on their weekends with same sex friends again? How many wives let their husbands vacation with women friends (or vice versa)? Not many, I'd say--it is a source of constant possible suspicion for infidelity. Widespread bisexuality would greatly multiply the threats to marital fidelity and make trust within the marriage and friendship without it more difficult to maintain. In a society where divorce is already a huge peril and a real psychological scar to most kids who have to endure it, that's not a trivial concern. But conservatives can't really raise this concern because it completely undermines their black and white categories, which suggest to them that homosexuality is the real buggaboo, and that less of it is always better.

Social moderate (and Southerner, and Xian!) that I am, I understand the fears a lot of conservatives have here about marriage, although I can't say I've ever heard one articulate those fears in a coherent way. Most of what you get is just knee-jerk biggotry. But that doesn't mean the changes that are-a-comin' will be wholy positive. The great positives (and those WILL be significant in terms of human dignity) may have a less welcome flip side. That's why this is a great social experiment we're embarking on, and I don't think anybody should be too confident in saying they know how it will all turn out. As a result, I'd prefer a state-by-state approach driven by legislatures not courts. It may be slower, more cautious and more tentative. But, in the long run, it has a better chance of building legitimacy and responding to potential problems.

Frances said...

Tenaciousmcd -- Marriage is already about consent, not procreation. That shift happened years ago in the US. The transformation in terms of ethics--the validation of the love match--occurred in the early 19th century. The transformation in law occurred with the liberalization of divorce laws and the end of the stigma on divorce, even no-fault divorce. The revolution is over already. Gay marriage is a MINOR innovation compared to those two previous shifts.

Frances said...

Although I agree that segregationists were probably more sincere in their bigotry than homophobes, there was plenty of opportunism in the former. The GOP's Southern Strategy was undertaken with tremendous cynicism. As Lee Atwater once explained the approach, "You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff."

Of course, racism is a more powerful societal force than homophobia. So as a result it's a more powerful weapon for the cynical, but it's also more likely to infect the sincere.

Taken more broadly, the example casts new light on the value of "sincerity" in politics generally. A racist politician's sincerity shouldn't make him any more sympathetic; it means he's even more deluded and twisted as a human being.

In the end, justice and fairness are more important than sincerity in politics. Even if politician's motive is base self-interest in reelection, if he pursues justice who can hold his self interest against him? LBJ shifted his position on civil rights from hard core segregationist to the nation's most significant civil rights policy-mover all because of his political ambitions. In the end, does it matter why he did it?

I suppose the really sad thing is that democratic politicians are so often tempted into cruel and bigoted policies by the public's preference for those policies. It's a shame that political self interest so frequently fails to reinforce politicians' incentives to pursue the good and the right.