Well, thanks to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, same-sex marriage moves from simmer to full boil. It nothing else, the spectacle of Bush attempting to appease the Religious Right by head-faking toward a constitutional amendment while managing to never really go that way and alienate the majority of Americans will be equalled only by the spectacle of the Democratic nominee (whichever one is deemed "electable" this week) trying to appease the left wing core activists in the party by supporting "something" for same-sex couples but not having the guts, or risking the same votes Bush risks, by actually being in favor of calling it "marriage." In but a few years we've gone from what "is" is to what "marriage" is. Progress? Eh.
In the WSJ this morning, Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachusetts, has an op-ed that exemplifies one of the main problems with the conservative position on this issue: its historical ignorance. He writes:
Contrary to the court's opinion, marriage is not "an evolving paradigm." It is deeply rooted in the history, culture and tradition of civil society. It predates our Constitution and our nation by millennia. The institution of marriage was not created by government and it should not be redefined by government.
Yes indeed, it does predate "us." But in that long and lovely history, marriage has taken many forms, and the participants in marriage have had a dizzying array of rights, options, and roles. And cross-culturally, we are all, I think, aware of the range of arrangements that constitute marriage. So, Mr. Governor, marriage IS an evolving paradigm. If it hadn't evolved, we'd still be back at women as chattel and same-color only, just to mention two contemporary examples.
And yes, it wasn't created by government, but the question at hand is who is redefining it? Heterosexuals have, over even just the last 100 years, significantly redefined marriage and governments have normally, though not always, followed in their wake by changing the law to reflect de facto practice. The reality of the early 21st century is that same-sex couples are, in many case, de facto married. Granting those relationships legal protection is not redefining marriage - that's already happening. It's simply codifying practice and recognizing the ongoing evolution of the institution. Much as marriage evolved to recognize women's full equality and our lack of concern over the skin color of the partners, it is now evolving to include same-sex couples. That's not government redefinition, that's social evolution.
Marriage is a fundamental and universal social institution. It encompasses many obligations and benefits affecting husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter. It is the foundation of a harmonious family life. It is the basic building block of society: The development, productivity and happiness of new generations are bound inextricably to the family unit. As a result, marriage bears a real relation to the well-being, health and enduring strength of society.
All fair enough. In fact, it would be wonderful if heterosexual marriages actually did all that! But the question is what all of this has to do with excluding gays and lesbians. If it's so damn important, why don't we want more people involved in it? (And watch out when "new generations" gets invoked - that's heading for trouble.)
Because of marriage's pivotal role, nations and states have chosen to provide unique benefits and incentives to those who choose to be married. These benefits are not given to single citizens, groups of friends, or couples of the same sex. That benefits are given to married couples and not to singles or gay couples has nothing to do with discrimination; it has everything to do with building a stable new generation and nation.
Oooooooooh, "stability" is it? You mean there's something "unstable" about same-sex couples? (Not to mention all the "stable" heterosexual couples that are keeping marriage and families so healthy.) So it's not about discrimination, yet allowing same-sex couples into the institution will destablize it. Unfortunately, the governnor chose not to expand on this point, but I'd love to hear what he thinks is so unstable about same-sex relationships, or how they will destabilize society writ large.
And look what's back! Our old friend "new generation." Once again, marriage rights are linked to procreation to justify the exclusion of gays and lesbians. Tell me Governor, if it's all about building a "stable new generation," will you ask the people of Massachusetts to support a law banning marriage by infertile couples, and requiring all married couples to have children? If not, what damage is done to a "stable new generation" by allowing same-sex couples the same freedom to share their lives together that is enjoyed by heterosexual couples who either can't have, or don't want, children?
As I noted in an earlier post, there are plausible arguments against full legal recognition of same-sex marriage, but those arguments, at least from a broadly liberal perspective, are going to have to show some demonstrable harm to third parties from it, and further demonstrate, in my view, that such harms aren't already at play with current practice. If same-sex marriage poses a threat to "stable new generations," then why aren't we outlawing other practices that do, e.g. divorce, childlessness, and putting kids in day care, if the conservatives are to be believed? The inconsistency, if not hypocrisy, of most of the conservative arguments against same-sex marriage is so transparent that it's no wonder they face the accusation of discrimination, and feel compelled to be defensive about it. Most conservatives are smart people. Given that, how else to explain the obvious weakness of their arguments other than it being a case of a tortured intellectual opposition to something they just find "icky"?
When I read these conservative anti-same-sex marriage screeds, my belief that Margaret Atwood's wonderful book The Handmaid's Tale is a bit overwrought as a cautionary tale just gets eroded away a little bit more.