"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Marriage, Personal Freedom, And The State

David Brooks has written in the New York Times (4.2.13) about marriage and how despite all the American crowing about personal liberty, many are cheering what he feels is our most confining and limiting institution.  Why, he asks, should we, insistent champions of freedom, liberty, and individualism, be clapping about gay marriage; and cheering the demise of a formerly free and easy lifestyle?  Once, not so long ago, we were all about free love and anti-war, and now we are warmly thanking soldiers for their service and delighted that two men can now get married.  Brooks is for equal rights for all.  He is just disappointed that gay people have so willingly and happily wanted to put the on the harness of bourgeois society.

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Marriage is one of those institutions — along with religion and military service — that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda. They committed themselves to an institution that involves surrendering autonomy.

Worse, says Brooks, they have willingly submitted themselves to the state.  In clamoring for the right to marry, gays and lesbians have asked to be part of the Great Government Bureaucracy, and its tangle of red tape, piles of indecipherable regulations, inspectors, overseers, mid-level managers.  They have asked to enter the shabby and corrupt halls of local city halls and face questioning about residence, legal status, and race. 

Finally gays and lesbians have said, “Please give me the sanctity of sanctimonious priests, the official stamp of near-sighted Justices of the Peace, the confetti and rice thrown from loving families, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.

There is no doubt that all societies, conservative by nature, want to corral the outliers, tame their exuberant excesses, and bring them fully and completely within an acceptable, recognizably prudent, safe, and predictable confines of bourgeois life.  Life is safer knowing that troublesome homosexuals, challenging religious beliefs and sexual and social mores, spreaders of disease and moral turpitude, have been brought to heel.  We also want to do this with rebellious black men, uppity women, and teenagers.  None of this is new.

Brooks invokes many serious thinkers – Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, and Emile Durkheim among them – to bear on the argument for reining in individualistic impulses.  They and our Founding Fathers understood that the Pursuit of Liberty did not mean unbridled expression of personal desires for personal satisfaction, but individual enterprise for the good of the many.  Enshrined in the Bill of Rights is Burke’s concept of responsibility:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. ... Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

This hifalutin disquisition of Brooks is all well and good, but up to a point.  It correctly recognizes the all-homogenizing impulses of society, the need for institutions, and the importance of placing individualism and personal freedom within a larger social context; but why pick on marriage? None of us have lived in Thoreau’s State of Nature, free to contemplate the harmony and inter-relatedness of the world; or emerged from it, enlightened by the experience and ready to share our communalism with society. All of us have grown up in America, the land-of-no-reflection; the land of ever-Westward expansion, of enterprise, bare-knuckle competition, and dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest. We have created institutions to bridle ourselves.  Marriage is nothing compared to the justice system which has done more to tame our viciously self-serving nature than any other institution.  We can put the gloves on and sue competitors civilly.

I appreciate Brooks’ polemics and mock-serious picking on marriage to make a point; but perhaps the wrong one.  It is not the obvious point that societies create structures to save themselves from self-destruction that needs to be made, but the more important one that structure and discipline are spiritually liberating.  Very Hindu, I know, but marriage and other civic institutions with their limiting architecture and definable rules help to damp the social noise and limit unnecessary choice.  Marriage, although parodied by Shakespeare, hated by Edward Albee, and put on the grand guignol stage by O’Neill, was always the only real crucible within which individuals could ever mature.

Society may want us in safe, predictable, and bourgeois institutions; but I think few of us would want to live in the unprotected chaos of a structure-less world.  Besides, marriage has never been the repressive, freedom-killing institution of lore.  All things considered I would rather live in the brutal world of Macbeth, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Mourning Becomes Electra than the depressingly introspective books of Richard Ford.

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

I am pretty sure Brooks is kidding; but if he is not, I think he should get a divorce.

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