Credit where it’s due to the National Review, for mounting what is, at least to me, the most cogent and rational defense of the restrictivist vision of marriage I’ve seen in some time, accomplished without referencing religion even once. That said, it’s typical National Review writing — lots of big words to hide small ideas — and certainly falls apart in due course. But it remains worth review and response.
The authors’ operative thesis seems to be that there exists some unique type of marital love that can only exist between a man and woman, as ultimately deriving from the procreative power. (This is nothing that hasn’t been heard and rejected by a growing number of courts: setting aside proffered philosophical justifications for the limitation, its over- and under-inclusiveness dooms it as a limiting criterion.) Along the way, the argument also rejects, by necessity, romantic love as a justification for marriage.
It’s true that, for gay marriage to make sense, the institution’s justification must rest almost exclusively on romantic love. But that’s a shift that’s long since happened, such that we’re stuck with its (overhyped) consequences regardless of whether we let men marry men. A trip to the theater will prove as much: we no longer marry to have children, to join families, or to cement power. We marry to love. And for that desirable transformation, we can blame Disney as much as “The Gays.”
And yet we’re told a number of reasons why romantic love is an undesirable, or insufficient basis to support the institution of marriage. For one, apparently, romantic love is selfish. (Has the author has ever been in love?) The article leads with a description of a micro-scandal that erupted this past December, when the New York Times spotlighted and celebrated, in their exclusive “Vows” section, the marriage of a couple who met while both were already married… to other people. This American Life previously covered the same phenomenon. To the Review, heartbreak and broken families are the results of basing marriage on exclusively romantic love, which is fleeting, and readily transferable.
I don’t buy it. Blaming broken marriages on shifting modern morals, and yearning for an idyllic bygone era, has a distinctively underthought Miniver Cheevy quality to it. If we hear about infidelity more “these days,” it’s because we hear about more everything “these days.” But more — and here’s where the Review proves profoundly internally inconsistent — if this is true, it’s not a problem that can be solved by legalizing some unions, and forbidding others. Each couple must decide for themselves why marriage matters to them. Some will choose bad reasons; those unions may fail. Banning some marriages, as a way of banning a basis for marriage, will miss the target, do nothing to arrest a decline in personal morality (if such a thing exists, which I do not concede), and accomplish the same legislative coercion that other Review authors inelegantly style “fascism.” Aren’t conservatives supposed to reject legislation as a way of controlling emotion?
Second, we hear, love is fleeting. Well… sometimes… certainly not always. But so is the reproductive power, and while the fact that some loves don’t endure may speak to the rarity and value of true love, it fails to rebut its reality.
So we come to the author’s critical point: that if marital love equals romantic love, the institution is diminished and trivialized, reduced to a special case of friendship (a thing defined by “degree”), when it should instead be unique and set apart by something firm from all other human relationships (a thing defined by “type”). Our author settles on reproduction as that signifier.
This is a narrow way to look at love. A change of degree can accomplish a change of type. As anyone who’s fallen in love with a friend — and who hasn’t? — would tell you, the depth of emotion hardly suffers for its origin, and there is a point along that continuum, a kick galvanic, where the character of feeling changes, and there’s no going back. Like progress in Kuhn’s paradigm of scientific revolutions, emotion flows over the channel lock, into a new way of thinking. And when it does, there’s no risk of confusing lover with friend.
More, settling on reproduction as the sole distinguishing factor between marriage and lesser relationships proves too much, and ignores reality. First, if the reproductive act so transmutes mere love into Love that it, alone, is capable of sustaining the institution of marriage, as a corollary, gay love can never be anything more than a pale shadow of straight love… and I thought we’d moved past the pathological view of sexuality. Second, marriage is what we make of it: we don’t need the law, or God, or anyone to tell us that marriage should be special. It is special. Each couple takes the institution and makes it their own, using distinctions as varied as the human experience to separate their marriage from the other meaningful relationships in their shared lives. True, some distinguish it by having children together; but more distinguish it by raising children together. The only consistency between married couples is that all view their marriage as conveying something important.
Remember, we’re only having this debate because more people want to get married than we’ll currently allow. This is a good problem for an institution to have.