Debating Marriage

11.1.2004

By

From: EJ Graff
Sent: Thursday, September 28, 2004 10:35 AM PM
To: Jonathan Rauch
Subject: Re: Your 'Out' article

Dear Jonathan,

Thank you for writing. So sorry you found my comments cheap. That's not how I meant them. I meant, rather, to express profound disagreement with your argument, in a way that would be engaging for the reader, and would acknowledge my own obviously biased point of view. It was hard to do justice to so many books in such a short space; given that I made clear
that I was writing an essay that would give a quite personal reaction to these books, therefore leaving room for readers to disregard my ideas entirely, I felt free to give my own opinion directly, if pithily.

As for the profound disagreement: it is considered, not superficial. I did indeed read every page of your book, and have read your work in the past. I was quite surprised, when we met, that you thought highly of my work; I had begun writing about marriage because of my frustration with arguments that I saw coming from you, Andrew Sullivan, and Bruce Bawer (not the same people, I realize, but you see my point). I always saw my work as a clear alternative to the marriage-is-good-for-people line of thinking, on the one side, and the marriage-is-always-bad-for-women-and-other-living-things line of thinking, on the other. (And, yes, my work has been treated quite scathingly in that world, which I've always thought was fair: they and I genuinely disagree, although some of my best friends')

Here's what I think of myself as doing: taking a feminist, pragmatic, historically grounded look at why it's possible to talk about same-sex marriage now, and why it was impossible before. Because of what capitalism has done to marriage, today we fit with the ongoing feminist and egalitarian direction of marriage law. This is distinctly *not* a moral argument about the importance of marriage; it is a pragmatic argument about marriage's actual incarnations over time. (I've even been told it's Marxist!)

I absolutely disagree that *civil* marriage'complete with social pressure, etc.'is good for people. Rather, I tried to argue that having rules for marriage are inevitable, because 1) human beings do in fact pair off; 2) humans being human, they will disagree; 3) society has an interest in ensuring that when private disagreements occur in a common social institution that those disagreements are adjudicated in a way that would be fair for others who share that institution; 4) what gets defined as 'fairness' changes with the context'hence ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) or Napoleonic codes ordering husbands to support their wives financially looks like justice in one generation, but seems appalling in another; 5) and, given what we consider fair today, same-sex couples could use some help from the same rules as different-sex couples.

You misleadingly quoted my book as suggesting that legal marriage brings health benefits. Well, that's just frustrating for me. I thought I clearly summarized the research about the marriage health benefit as showing that *simply living together* conveys that benefit'in other words, that it's the inner marriage (the bond and the companionship), not the external ceremony or the legal recognition, that matters. Informal marriage does it just as well as formal marriage.

Perhaps I did not emphasize this strongly enough. Further, living together while hating each other *does not* convey the marriage benefit. But the point in that subchapter was this: since living together, or informal marriage, is a good thing, then society should offer those people who do it the legal recognitions that help that *inner* marriage fulfill its promises, or resolve differences in the commonly agreed upon ways. I most distinctly do *not* believe that anyone should be pushed toward marriage; such a push has been too disastrous for too many people, children and adults alike.

In fact, I find myself insisting to my circles that, no, the *possibility* of same-sex marriage will not (and should not) create an expectation that same-sex couples should marry. I do not see how this expectation can be reimposed'or why it should be. The short version of why I think it impossible: The way we make our livings (capitalism, to be a Marxist once again) actually tears individuals in very different directions. The conservative argument seems to utterly ignore powerful market forces. Mine is rather a somewhat Weberian argument: in the absence of law, the strong rule the weak, so we should have law.

As for symbolism: I agree that the ritual, the ceremony, the symbolism of the wedding is incredibly powerful. I am a religious person; I experienced Madeline's and my vows in 1991 as overwhelmingly sacred, and that ceremony did transform the quality of and commitment within our relationship. That wasn't because it was a legal marriage, however, which it was not (and still is not'we've been a little slow in getting to the jp!). And as you'll see in my next Out piece [Editor's note: in the December issue], I see perfectly well that the civil recognition of same-sex couples has an emotional and symbolic power as well.

But, Jonathan, that's not what you were arguing. Let me quote you: 'Getting married is the normal thing for adults to do. More than any other action, institution, or designation, it separates the grownups from the kids.' In the context, you make it clear that you see this as a positive thing, something to be reinforced by adding same-sex couples to the mix. Some pages later: 'For eons, human communities have favored more marriage over less. They have believed that marriage is a powerful stabilizing force; that it disciplines and channels crazy-making love and troublemaking libido; that stability and discipline are socially beneficial, even precious' their belief is a deeply conservative one, based on the age-old wisdom that love and sex and marriage go together and are severed at society's peril' <3 graf jump> It is not enough just to make marriage available. Marriage should also be *expected*' It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be better than other ways of living'a general norm.' You go on to argue that legalizing same-sex marriage would help re-inscribe that norm, warning that not doing so helps leave marriage to unravel: 'The growing visibility of unmarried gay couples may legitimize cohabitation instead.'

Well, nonsense. Sorry, but I couldn't be more opposed to every single contention in this sequence. Sex and marriage go together and are severed at society's peril??? (Men should be held responsible for any children they spawn, but that's not the same thing.) Oh, please! Based on what? Marriage should be expected, a general norm? Getting married designates you as an adult? Legalizing same-sex marriage will help strengthen that norm? I could not disagree more strongly with everything that's implied here.

Here's how I see it: post-industrial capitalism's economic forces are pulling families apart, making it harder and less economically essential to pair off. The resulting effects on marriage can be seen everywhere in the developed world. (I could write an entire book on this alone'and on marriage as resistance to consumer capitalism's incessant encouragement of random desire!) Nevertheless, people will continue to pair off, because humans are social/sexual creatures. And because humans are humans, law will continue to be necessary when those pairings run up against disagreements'with each other, with their families, with hospitals (e.g., Terry Schiavo, the Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state). But the same principle'the ability to make an independent living without your family's backing, and therefore, the ability to make your own decisions about your bedroom'that accounts for the rise in cohabitation and divorce is also what accounts for the rise in the acceptance of gay and lesbian pairs. Letting us marry isn't going to slow down capitalism's centrifugal spin.

Nor will it turn the wedding into the symbolic threshold of adulthood. A wedding is a symbolically powerful passage for the couple, yes'with or without law's backing. But adding legal (as well as the existing religious, social, and emotional) force for same-sex weddings will not reinscribe the idea that you're not a full adult until you marry. Making a living is the moment of adulthood now: that's when you leave your parents' house and begin making a home of your own, living by your own rules, being responsible for yourself (and perhaps to others, like your employer or clients or roommates), etc. Work is when you leave home and are in charge of your life. Marriage used to be that moment, putting you in charge of your sex and work lives at the same time. Barring some truly dramatic change in the social and economic structure, those two moments will not merge again. I said what I meant, Jonathan, and I meant what I said, if you'll forgive a little Dr. Seuss here.

While I back all these ideas quite strongly, I do not hold any personal animus about our profound intellectual disagreements. Honestly! I come from a family where we argue in the strongest possible language. My apologies if my phrasing seemed personal rather than intellectual.

Sorry I went on so long'I'm apparently too tired to edit.

EJ

READER COMMENTS ()

AddThis