Thursday, June 08, 2006

Let us all praise rotund men

Kudos to former Secretary of Education, Drug Czar and American Idol hopeful, Bill Bennett on his unaccustomed restraint while appearing on The Daily Show June 6th. Bennett was there to promote his new book America: The Last Best Hope.
Given the book’s discussion of freedom and Bennett’s role opposite Andrew Sullivan (in a buddy comedy yet to be named) in the original hearings about the Defense of Marriage Act, Jon Stewart took the discussion immediately to the Federal Marriage Amendment. Bennett grabbed for that old chestnut, the slippery slope if we let the gays marry what next? But, to his credit, Bennett did not take the argument to bestiality as he has been wont to do in the past, but merely went to polygamy. It was almost as if a reasonable discussion were taking place. He was even willing to admit that family relations, for instance in the case of Dick Cheney, might soften even a social conservative’s view of the matter.
The only sad aspect of the exchange: one must watch either fake news or public broadcasting to see reasoned discussion of national issues.

16 comments:

John said...

The fact that polygamists haven’t demonstrated the same kind of organized political near-clout as the gay rights activists suggests that a legalization of gay marriage probably wouldn’t (immediately) lead to legalized polygamy, but I haven’t heard any argument for why, morally, it shouldn’t. If we contend that marriage and family should be defined by the consenting adults involved, and not the government, shouldn’t that extend to polygamists? Is there an argument against polygamy any more convincing than the ones that the “pro family” crowd has offered against gay marriage?

Then again, I haven’t heard a convincing argument for why the government should be involved with marriage in the first place.

Tyler said...

There is an argument from, among others, Jonathan Rauch, that is supposed to achieve both. It goes something like this: society has an interest in getting its members paired up so that they have responsibility for one another. This is particularly, though not wholly, of interest in the case of men, since the pairing up of men (with men or women) decreases their likelihood to commit crimes, have psychological and some physical illnesses, increases their life expectancy, etc. In addition, it is better for people to be responsible for one another than to have to rely on society's graces. Thus, society has some interest in (even childless) marriages. And, since a mere pairing up is enough to achieve this, it has no interest in multiparty unions. You might not be convinced but that is probably the best one out there that isn't merely pro-traditional-family.

Brian said...

The argument also contains the germ of an idea that I've seen to explain the resentment of Islamic men. They don't have enough women that they can marry because high status men have claimed too many. If some men get to marry more than one woman, a corresponding number of men will not get to marry, leading to frustration, resentment, and totally bad times.

John said...

You make a reasonable case for interpersonal human relationships in general, but I still don’t see why the government has to be involved. It’s great when two people fall in love, but do they really deserve a special tax status because of it? Why can’t marriage remain a religious institution? It seems like that would still serve the same purpose without forcing me, the single guy, to foot the bill for someone else’s wedded bliss. Next year I’m claiming my B.F.F. as a dependant.

I’m also not convinced that monogamy is really “enough to achieve” what you say. Or at least not for everybody, because some people still seem to want mo’ bitches. I’m not sure what the success rates for polygamous relationships are, but marriage is, at best, a 50/50 shot right now, so it’s tough to argue that it is the glue holding society together. In any case, the fact that polygamy isn’t necessary doesn’t provide a sound reason why it should not still be available to people who want it. Although, for argument’s sake, at some point a limit on the number of partners a person could have would have to be set --because if you could marry 5,000 people, someone would eventually do it (probably in the South) and that could cause some legal entanglements—and 1 is just as logical a number for that limit as any other. Personally I think polygamy is a lot like same-sex cousins hooking up; there’s not a concrete argument against it, but it’s still a little altogether ooky. But if I’m going to tell people that I should be able to marry whomever I may choose, I don’t feel so comfortable pointing my finger and calling someone else’s lifestyle deviant just because it’s not for me.

Tyler said...

To address a few of your points:
1) I didn't claim that there ought to be any special tax advantages for being married. But, it might be that if marriage achieves a stabilizing effect; and, it seems to, though this result is mostly one for men and not for women, then the government ought to encourage people to engage in marriage, so maybe there is an argument for a tax break there. And, for what it's worth, other kinds of interpersonal human relationships don't seem to have the same kinds of positive effects that marriages do, partly because there is something extra about being responsible for and to a person in the way that a unique commitment imposes. Moreover, since single guys are statistically more likely to commit crimes, have mental problems, severe physical ailments, etc., and since they will not have partners who are legally responsible for them, we all end up footing the bill (through our taxes) for the unwedded bliss of the single guys. (Now I know that correlation isn't causality, but I'm following through with the argument here.)
2) Though a large number of marriages end in divorce, the majority of those people end up entering subsequent unions (and such it has been since the days of the Romans, to whom, along with the Hellenistic world, we owe the idea of two-party marriages), so the fact that marriages end doesn't show that it isn't in the best interest of society to have people in marriages (even if they are second or third marriages).
3) Monogamy (in its true sense, which is that there is only one spouse at a time, quite apart from whether the marriage is open, closed, traditional, or whatever) is the lowest level at which these effects can be produced, so, the government, if its interest is stability has no interests beyond one-on-one marriage.

Tyler said...

For what it's worth, I have little interest in marriage per se. I just want a guarantee that my partner counts as my next of kin (and a few other things), so when I'm laid up in the hospital with some mysterious disease, he is both allowed to visit me and to order the plug pulled--as he will.

John said...

1) A: There are a lot of things that are probably beneficial to society that the government hasn’t seen fit to subsidize because they don’t reinforce, and sometimes contradict Judeo-Christian principles. I don’t have a problem with said principles, but marriage got along just fine before the US government stuck its fingers in the pie, and would continue to do so if it pulled them out. S’all I’m sayin’.
B: I don’t know if there are statistics to back this up, but the correlation between marriage and civil behavior probably also has something to do with civil men being more attractive mates, and therefore more likely to get married in the first place.

2) True, a lot of people bounce from marriage to marriage, but some of them stay divorced, and some of them end up more bitter and damaged by the whole experience than they started out. Even in the best case, this means that marriage is acting like a tourniquet, temporarily keeping people stable, but eventually failing under the increasing pressure and needing to be changed, hopefully before something ruptures. Might there be a better solution?

3) Good point, but if someone told me that same-sex marriage should not be legalized because the whole thing would be too bureaucratically complicated, I would hit them with sticks.

4) I think you should have a big wedding. And it’s your day damn it, you wear white if you want to.

Tyler said...

1A) Marriage has been a governmental matter for as long as it's been a religious matter, so I'm not sure what the point in time was when both the US existed and marriage wasn't a matter for the American government (at least at the level of the states). The fact that there were miscegentation laws, that there are laws establishing degrees within which one may not marry, that establish inheritance based on marriage, etc., shows that marriage has always been a legal matter. This is also why, in Europe, when a country disestablished its church, it was forced to institute civil marriage; simply because the religious marriage could no longer be seen as ipso facto a governmental one.
1B) You may well be right; as I said, what studies there are are merely correlative. (And as Hume taught us, you can't see causality anyway.)
2) There might be a better solution. But you are stuck with the world you have. If we had the chance to start it all anew, then perhaps there would be a better way to organize families, societies, VIP lounges, and booze cruises, but we aren't starting a new society (and attempts to start anew too often end up either coopting the old models [the USSR and the gay rights movement] or end in flames [Branch Davidians]) we are presumably attempting to find a modus vivendi in the one we are in. I am sympathetic to the idea of removing the civil benefits of marriage, but then I think of how hard it is to adjust an entire society to such a radical re-organization and how nice it is for there to be a system to assign default paternity and default familial status. You may say that I'm a dreamer...but you'd be wrong.
3) I wasn't saying that it would be too bureacratic. I was saying, rather, that if some entity X wants an effect E and there are two ways to get it, either by process A or processes A and B, it makes sense for X to opt for A. So, if society gets its stabilizing effect through two-party marriages, it has no reason to opt for two-party plus multi-party marriages. And assuming that no one is by nature more polygamous than anyone else (and probably all men are naturally polygamous to some degree) society need not opt for polygamy. Bureacracy be damned!
4) I don't look so good in white. And, I just wouldn't be comfortable having any sort of ceremony.

John said...

Any of those arguments could have, at one point in time, been made about government and religion – that religion is the basis of society, that government and religion have historically been intertwined, that however flawed any religious institution is, it’s all we’ve got to work with, that drastically changing a religion would be impossible – and yet all of these have been disproved. Although I wouldn’t point to the US right now as an example of this, it’s not crazy to think that a government can function without religion, that religion can continue to functional as a source of societal cohesion without being necessarily state-sponsored or endorsed, that large shifts in the structure and function of religious institutions can and do occur. So, if you can do that with The Church, why can’t you do it with marriage? Why can’t a government function without marriage? Why can’t marriage continue to work as a source of societal cohesion without being state-sponsored and endorsed? Why can’t you drastically change the nature of marriage? (It’s been done before.)

I don’t think you have to “start a new society” so much as look around and see that society has changed, that marriage is kind of an archaic institution, divorced (no pun intended) from its original economic purpose, that now functions mostly as a spiritual tradition. And that’s great, I think wedding ceremonies are beautiful things, but I think they belong in a church. And if your church says that two men can get married, then you get to do that. And if your church says they can’t, then you can find another church.

AND, if you still want legal status for things like power of attorney and inheritance…well they already exist.

On somewhat of a tangent: why wouldn’t you assume that some people are more polygamous than others? In what other social trait are all people equal? Some people are more outgoing than others, some people are more violent than others, some people are more sexual than others, some people are more homosexual than others. Why can’t some people be more monogamous than others?

Tyler said...

As for the argument that religion is the basis for society that someone might offer, there are ample examples of societies without religions in the modern sense (Roman and Greek religion were, towards the end, little more than civic religions--refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor was a crime because it denied the importance of the state) but it's hard to find one that didn't have some form of marriage (even if different from ours). So, marriage might have a foot up, here. Now, clearly, it is false that the one-man one-woman form of marriage has been dominant since the dawn of history.

Some people may be more or less polygamous than others, granted. I meant, rather, that probably most men, if we are to believe the evolutionary biologists et al, have a drive for multiple partners.

I don't think marriage originally had an economic purpose, unless your sense of "economic" is as loose as Marx's. It had a procreative purpose, perhaps.

As for whether some people are more homosexual than others, well some of the work in that area suggests that in females it is a matter of degrees and in males its relatively binary, so who knows.

John said...

I think that the only problems inherent to procreation that marriage solves are economic ones. Mostly it's there to settle matters of ownership and inherritance of proptery (and historically, this "property" has included the bride, who came with a pricetag or a dowry, depending on the culture.) You might be able to argue that in small societies and nomadic cultres it is necessary to keep track of bloodlines in order to prevent inbreeding, but such cultures tend to rely on systems of cross-cutting ties and sexual taboos that are 1) exponentially more complex than marriage, and 2) polygamous.

Tyler said...

Quite independently of clear-cut economic issues, I might not want to raise other people's children. So, I might want to bind a woman to me.

John said...

Possibly, although I'm not sure your desire not to raise someone else's children is without economic motivation (it would certainly have economic consequences), or that you would have the same ideas of "legitimacy" had a legitimizing institution never existed in the first place.

Tyler said...

Since, in at least some species, males are very concerned that their offspring are actually theirs, I don't think that I would need a legitimizing institution to be concerned about paternity (legitimacy is a legal term in origin). I don't think chimps killing the offspring of other males relies much on any institution granting legitimacy, though I do think it is very much about paternity.

There is a way of thinking of "economics" that ends up covering everything, since every decision is, in some way, concerned with resources of one sort or another, so I will concede that my concern would be economic in at least that way, though it wouldn't need to be in any way consciously economic. People care about their relatives more than more distant others without engaging in any sort of calculation, conscious decision or economic calculus.

John said...

I think one of the issues here is that there isn't really a single instant in history when coupling as a human behavior became marriage as a societal institution, nor, as you pointed out, can economics of resources be completely separated from economics of currency. At some point, a debate about the origin and purpose of marriage becomes a matter of symantics. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed the discussion.

(Also, I would like to note that many species display natural adoption behavior, primates among them.)

Tyler said...

Generally adoption is more likely when there is already a genetic connection between the adopted offspring and the adoptee, though not always, since there are even cases of cross-species adoption in nature.

It's a good place, as you indicate, to stop on this one.

For what it's worth, I went to see the new X Men tonight, finally, and besides finding it problematic in so many ways, no matter what it might be an allegory for, it became apparent to me that Halle Berry really ought to give her Oscar back.