Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Love and marriage

by Thomas Dollar

When it rains, it pours, and since last November’s setback in California, advocates of equal marriage rights have had a good 2009. The Iowa Supreme Court declared heterosexual-only marriage to be unconstitutional. And more promisingly (at least for those of us who like democratic change), activist legislatures in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire approved same-sex marriage. (NH Governor John Lynch has 10 days to sign or veto the bill, or let it become law without his signature.) New York could be next, depending on how a notoriously craven and slippery club of 62 people decides to act.

The last three months notwithstanding, opponents of same-sex marriage claim to have millennia of tradition and history on their side. Princeton’s own Professor Robert George wrote in 2003 - after the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts struck down discriminatory marriage laws in that state—that the Court “ignored the philosophical and social reasons that have, for millennia, provided the ‘rational basis’ for understanding marriage as the covenantal commitment of a man and a woman.”

The Rev. Rick Warren, who gave the invocation at Obama’s inauguration last January (and has since begun to back off slightly from his anti-gay marriage position), claimed that:

“I'm not opposed to [hospital visitation rights] as much as I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage. …For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion - this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews - historically, marriage is a man and a woman.”

So, from what these guys say, we’re supposed to believe that during 5,000 years of beautiful tradition - from Moses down to Sandy Koufax - marriage has consisted exclusively of one man and one woman. If you believe this, I have a bridge in Sierra Leone to sell you. Not only has heterosexual monogamy not been the exclusive definition of marriage, it hasn’t ever even been the most common form of marriage. “Traditional marriage” looks a lot more like “an older guy marrying a child” and “one guy having multiple wives” than like Ward, June, Wally and the Beav.

Most societies throughout history have accepted polygynous marriage (one man marries multiple women), although most men in these societies could not accumulate the resources necessary to take more than one wife. Today, polygyny is legally recognized and practiced in most majority-Muslim countries and most countries in Africa - including by some presidents.

I live in Sierra Leone, which is a traditional country with traditional values. Homosexuality is illegal here, but Traditional Marriage is one of four legal categories (along with Civil, Christian, and Muslim Marriages). A man may marry up to four women in Muslim and Traditional Marriages. The 2007 Gender Act sets 18 as the age of consent—but 56% of girls are married by that age. This should surprise no one: it’s a very poor country, and clothes, food, and schools (only primary schools are free, and those only in theory) cost money. Men have stuff, women have sex. The more stuff a man has (which usually means, the older he is), the more women and girls he’ll get. That’s tradition.

Of course, Prof. George and the Rev. Warren aren’t really talking about traditions in Darkest Africa—they’re talking about tradition in The West. And they’re right, inasmuch as the Christian West has advocated institutional monogamy (at least in theory) to a much greater extent than other parts of the world. But even the traditions of the English-speaking peoples are not really what today’s society is looking for. Philippa of Lancaster married King João I of Portugal in 1387 so that her father, John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and 1st Duke of Aquitaine, son of King Edward III of England, could cement England’s alliance with Portugal to combat the growing menace of the Franco-Castilian Axis. And it wasn’t just the weird royals and aristocrats who did this: for all classes, marriage was an economic institution. It was about money; it was about guarding titles and properties; it was about protecting children from illegitimacy (which had legal, not just social, consequences); it was about accumulating and consolidating fortunes—but it was not about love.

And therein lies the problem with the “traditional marriage” argument: that what we call traditional—a man and a woman falling in love and marrying out of mutual affection, somewhere in some little chapel - is actually quite novel. Contemporary, Western, heterosexual marriage is the product of an egalitarian, urban-industrial society; the decline of land-based wealth; and the cultural importance of personal freedom and autonomy (for both sexes). It’s revolutionary—and the fight to extend this concept of marriage to same-sex couples is merely a logical extension of a revolution that already happened. If you want to stop them from redefining marriage, I’m afraid you’re a century too late.

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