Sunday, August 13, 2006

Coturnix on Politics, part II - political ideology in the context of changes in the institution of marriage

Being kinda sick all day Saturday, instead of writing a whole new post I reworked and heavily edited another recent post of mine, about the history and future of the insitituion of marriage, starting with links to some interesting posts on the topic showing up in blogs recently:

First off, Lance Mannion wrote a couple of days ago on Polygamy, voyeurism, and other fun things to do on the weekend:
"...a lot of Right Wing America lives on the frontier between civilization and Trailer Park choas. The reason they are so terrrified by change and the prospect of sexual and personal freedom is that where they come from all those things are aftereffects of social breakdown."
Richard Chappell wrote Open Relationships a few months ago:
"Armchair speculation (the most entertaining form of speculation, requiring only tenuous links to reality) leads me to wonder whether open relationships might be under-rated in our society."
This really fits in the theme - is the institution of marriage going to lose its official institutionality, the way it is already happening in places like Sweden, Netherlands, etc., and become something much more private?

Oneman in The End of Marriage writes:

"Be that as it may, I think conservatives are right about one thing: if the institution of marriage is going to survive, it does need defending. Not because marriage is the only or best source of truly moral living, but precisely the opposite: marriage is increasingly irrelevant in modern society. In the absence of many good reasons for marriage to even exist, those who value it as a tradition are going to be more and more hard-pressed to perpetuate it."
I disagree with his attempt to make correlations between marriage-types and life-styles, e.g., nomadic vs. stationary peoples (research by Stephanie Coontz and others found no such correlation), but the rest is fine. Notice a commenter from Sweden who has a completely different concept of marriage - he completely ignores the central point of the American marriage institution: the legal and religious aspects of it. In his world, cohabitation IS marriage.

Oneman also ends with:
"One final note: None of this is meant to belittle the efforts of same-sex marriage advocates to legalize marriage for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation. That battle has an importance quite distinct from the question of what marriage does or does not do in our society."
I agree wholehartedly (which means I changed my mind since 2003 when I wrote some of my own posts linked below in which I thought that if marriage is on its way out why bother to have gays enter an obsolete institution at a high cost of the struggle). It is essential that we win the battle for gay marriage, so we can proceed to alter the whole insitution to fit the times.

What I think is missing from all of the above posts is a clear definition of marriage (so the Swedes in comments do not get mixed up), and what recent developments are responsible for the change in the definition. I wrote about it a long time ago (ignore the wishy-washiness on gay marriage - I have changed my mind since I wrote that):

Definition, Semantics and Future of Marriage:
"The thousand provisions in various laws are not favoring just hetero- over homo-sexual marriage. It also favores a particular, narrowly defined type of relationship over all others, including over living alone. That narrow definition of marriage contains several criteria: 1) church-sanctioned, 2) state-sanctioned, 3) monogamous, 4) exclusive, 5) heterosexual, 6) fertile, 7) indefinite (till death do us part).
Vast increase in life-span, invention of contraceptives, cures for most STDs, gender equality, increasing secularity, as well as economic forces are making the 7 criteria obsolete, whether you like it or not."
It is interesting to compare and contrast that list (you'll have to click to read the extended explanation of each item) with the list that Ampersand presents in Beyond Marriage (and Amanda also gamely dissects):
To have our government define as “legitimate families” only those households with couples in conjugal relationships does a tremendous disservice to the many other ways in which people actually construct their families, kinship networks, households, and relationships. For example, who among us seriously will argue that the following kinds of households are less socially, economically, and spiritually worthy?

· Senior citizens living together, serving as each other’s caregivers, partners, and/or constructed families

· Adult children living with and caring for their parents

· Grandparents and other family members raising their children’s (and/or a relative’s) children

· Committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner

· Blended families

· Single parent households

· Extended families (especially in particular immigrant populations) living under one roof, whose members care for one another

· Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households

· Close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships, serving as each other’s primary support and caregivers

· Care-giving and partnership relationships that have been developed to provide support systems to those living with HIV/AIDS

Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others. While we honor those for whom marriage is the most meaningful personal ­– for some, also a deeply spiritual – choice, we believe that many other kinds of kinship relationship, households, and families must also be accorded recognition.
I am not advocating dismantling by decree or revolution each of the 7 criteria one at a time. Just rethinking what marriage was, is and will be. Seeing if it will get completely outside of the realm of both church and state (laws) and be left to people to redefine organically any way they want, in any form they want, i.e., quit being a contract of any kind and become an inter-personal relationship, each one different from the next, perhaps called 'marriage' perhaps not.

What's wrong with freedom from governmental and church control of our lives? Why can't marriage be based ONLY on love and nothing else, no laws, no traditions, no gender inequality? Let each person (couple) decide for themselves what kind of relationships they will have and if they want to call it "marriage" or not. Get the govenment (and the church) out of our private lives and out of our bedrooms. Isn't that the key result of democracy and enlightement?

Since then, I have read the currently best book on the topic - Stephanie Coontz On Marriage. She analyzed many different types of marriage in many different cultures around the world and tracked their changes over time.

It is often stated that marriage, through history, was an economic insititution. Saying that usually results in some people saying "Sure it was", others saying "Not really", and yet others saying "Dont' give me that Marxist crap". In other words, nobody tries to dissect what this means.

The brilliance of Coontz is that her one-liner summary is that marriage used to be about "getting the best in-laws". This is such a novel idea that everyone will stop and think what it means before jumping in to make a statement. It also leaves vague exactly who is picking the in-laws: the young people looking for marriage partners, or their parents, i.e., in-laws picking the other set of in-laws? And that vagueness is appropriate as Coontz shows that the "chooser" was different in different places at different times.

What is supposed to be accomplished by a good choice of in-laws? It could be money for the newly weds (dowry), which is a most direct economic reason for marriage. But it could be because the in-laws' land shares a border with your land, so the marriage will consolidate two smaller pieces of land into one larger one which will be easier to farm - an indirectly economic reason. Or it could be because in-laws have connections to someone in the King's court so, even if they are currently poor and cannot give a big dowry, they are potentially useful if protection is needed - an indirect economic motive again.

Another way one can look at it would be from an evolutionary perspective - not silly evolutionary psychology as nobody is selecting in-laws for their "good genes". In other words, in order to increase their own fitness, people have to provide for their grandchildren. They do this by carefully selecting the parents of the person who will marry their child. Thus, as in-laws provide half of the provisioning for the grandkids, good choice of in-laws aids the survival of the grandchildren, which raises one's own fitness.

This is why Laura Kipnis' book "Against Love" is so deeply unsatisfying - it dismisses history in one paragraph and it dismisses biology in a half paragraph. Without both, what edifice is she hanging her argument on? Although, I must admit, it is a thought-provoking rant worth reading not for its faulty conclusions, but for the questions it raises. And some of those questions are answered, in much calmer tone, by authors of essays in "Bitch in the House" and "Bastard on the Couch", showcasing varieties of relationship/marriage experiences that modern Americans are experimenting with today.

According to Coontz, the so-called "traditional marriage" that conservatives are trying to defend these days existed only from 1945-1961 in the USA and 1947-1963 in Western Europe. It lasted a short time and vanished for a good reason - and good riddance! And it is not just marriage out of love that is identified as "traditional". She is much more precise about it in the book than I am, but she had 350 pages to do so. It is an excellent read. She does not deny love and is very careful to differentiate between kinds of marriages made by different classes at different times in different places. So, marriage out of love is nothing new as it happened among the poor in many nations in history, for instance. But the 1950s marriage has a number of other aspects that she discusses in detail and it is this type of marriage that the Religious Right is trying to "defend" with new legislation and Constitutional amendments. Coontz writes:

"Forget the fantasy of solving the challenges of modern personal life by re-institutionalizing marriage. In today's climate of choice, many people's choices do not involve marriage. We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married. We cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been canceled.
People will continue to marry, but it is too late to "defend" marriage; Coontz says flatly that it will never again be an important cultural institution. It strikes me that the strident debate about gay marriage masks a deep anxiety; it might well be a distraction from acknowledging the diminishing importance of marriage. Isn't it ironic that those who now sentimentalize marriage are denied entry?"
In Hooked on Hooking Up, Or What's Wrong With Conservative View Of Marriage I took an editorial by Stanley Kurtz and two editorials by William Raspberry as examples of what is wrong with the conservative "defense" of marriage:
"Yes, gay marriage and the evolution of straight marriage go hand-in-hand. But Kurtz is afraid of it, instead of celebrating it. This is yet another step in a long line of advances towards equality of sexes. First, women managed to win the battle for not being their husband's property. Later, they won the right to own property. Choosing a husband, not paying dowry, divorcing , working outside the house, voting, taking contraception, having an abortion, running for office, .... those are all victories that women won over the past century or so, always against the screaming horror of conservatives who thought, at each of these junctures, that the fabric of the society is unravelling and that the End of the World will result from those immoral shameless practices."
Finally, I think that marriage, gender-relationships and sex are the core of all politics, not just the Culture Wars:Book Review: George Lakoff 'Moral Politics' and E.J.Graff 'What Is Marriage For?':
"The history of marriage can be seen as a constant struggle between the two ideologies, one bent on keeping the moral authority of the white straight adult rich male, the other fighting for equality of all people. Every change in the definition of marriage was a blow to the conservative core model, and a victory for the liberal worldview. Giving women right to own property, granting legal equality, allowing contraception, or divorce, allowing inter-racial marriage and, currently, allowing same-sex marriage, are some of the stages of evolution of marriage, from a feudal economic arrangement designed for the strengthenig of the clan, towards marriage as a love relationship between two equal human beings."
So, what do you think? How is the institution of marriage going to change over the next few decades? How should we prepare our children for such changes?