Monday, July 10, 2006

Marriage needs a divorce

Bora has put up an engaging post on Blog around the Clock. He threads together a number of thoughtful essays on the state, past and future, of the institution of marriage. Bora's commentary and redactions of the other works is 32%, the several authors make up 66% of the ideas on the matter. It warrants more active commenting and you owe it to yourself to do a little reading. The missing 2% is a focus on the constant at the heart of marriage as we imagine it: children. Not on the "having" or the begetting but on the situation from their point of view: we lack a focus on the entitlements of the helpless little beings.

I agree with most of the observations in Bora's post, Coontz's particularly, that culture and history have ebbed and flowed their load of economic, social status, religious and symbolic identification [that's what love has to do with it] attributes through marriage as an institution. I see quite clearly that marriage as a publicly sanctioned institution is about power and the preservation of privilege and parochialism more than anything else. Most liberals bristle at the statement that "marriage is for having kids" and that objection is OK but incomplete unless you have SOMETHING that is for having kids. The 7 criteria Bora suggests as the past standards are not quite adequate to the challenges of founding a safe and just society because stipulating fertility creates a commitment the other criteria don't completely support. Someone has to RAISE those kids and lovingly but history and the rot at the margins of our own society show that some "couples" and the society as a whole don't always want that job. [No one should read me as saying we are all supposed to want or try for kids. I consider having no interest in bearing children as perhaps less common but just as natural as wanting kids: both are organic behaviors]. My own suggestions were too poorly written up to draw any attention but basically, I say we should free up marriage to be whatever society wants it to be by separating the procreation issues under a procreation contract. All the other issues are matters of culture and fashion with marginal impacts on the mental health of the next generation. How you will make strong those who come here weak and without any choices is how you really prevent that collapse of societies that the conservatives fret about so much when all the other alterations to the tradition [which was constantly altering anyway] are up for debate.

Marriage is now commonly said by conservatives to be "about the family". It was. It was in spite of the notion of family morphing from time to time. It was also about the dynasty. And back when 2 kids out of 7 or 8 survived, maybe that made some sense to focus less on the individual and more on the clan. The slight change of words to "about the children" is a much bigger deal than it looks. The conservative ideals about marriage that are being pushed these days only accidentally produce healthy productive citizens. Their results are nothing like their rhetoric.

The great natural disaster that is my writing ability made my 2% on this topic an uninteresting ramble back when I wrote it but I am serious: consider my proposal to divorce the institution of marriage from the complex and lengthy commitments of procreation.

Let me explain why the time is ripening if not ripe for such change. The tendency I and others spy for our society's pluralism to fragment into ideological enclaves is but one symptom of the advent of melting pots and national harmony losing ground to the cultivation of disrespect and distortion. We in western cultures are reaching a point where we think we can afford to relax the discipline of living within larger communities. We have enough choices of community and news sources to live as if our favored ways were the only ways. Western societies, but especially the US, which strove for, or at least claimed, tolerance of mildly diverse ethnicities and creeds now change direction: we actually were faking it. We smothered the little cultural differences with the blanket of WASP flavored civility, shed languages at Ellis Island, bet heavily on public schooling as the path (and the price) of progress. But now the right rails and legislates against different views but doesn't leave its neighborhoods. Pluralism fades. It was always a compromise between getting things your way and getting along. In a society where the media and even some politicians find benefit in fomenting ideological and inevitably cultural balkanization, marriage, as the institution of cultural propagation, must either undergo the same fragmentation or come loose from its role. I don't care what happens to the institution but I do care what happens to the kids.

Children may be the present's hope but they are not, in spite of conservatism's bent, its property. Kids will, if we nourish them properly, grow up to do better things than we have done and "better" often means different.

What did you think school prayer, verses from Exodus on the courthouse walls and a narrowing legal formalization of the meaning of love are all about? Throughout history, marriage has been about power. Control of who married whom and what goods and rights that cost and gained them have been at the center of the institution's many passing variations...and sometimes only vaguely related to sex or procreation. Since power is being sucked out of the shared secular culture and pulled back into the halls and enclaves of sectarian interests , why should one group have the power to establish its standards, shallow as they are in practice, as the only choice for the rest of us? All the more reason for the divorce of the institution from the inherent obligations toward children. I will not stand in the way if the fundamentalists wish to secede from the future but if they want to stand in the way of everyone else's future, expect a fight.

History has been such a dismal tale in part because most cultures have focused on securing familial or dynastic or clannish power and privilege, marriage being one key vehicle, when it could have been a much happier story if the focus had been on the next generation, on the children.


coturnix said...

You have cut to the core of what is most important - childrearing. And I agree that it has to be completely reconceptualized...which will further marginalize the importance of marriage as an (politicsl/legal/religious/social) instituition.

If love, sex and marriage have already been disconnected form each other, and we move to also disconnect it from raising kids, what is left?

GreenSmile said...

whats left is a kind of slip cover labeled "marriage" that means whatever you want it to [ a state we are approaching though some of us can't admit it]. You can drop this slipcover over any cohabiting or property sharing arrangement you happen to like. The benefit I am reaching for is to take off the pressure for marriage to be any particular thing [or everything for some people] so that it ceases to be a battle ground and comfortably signals all kinds of special relationships. What ever it already is, one thing marriage does not do now in this country and may never have done well enough is assure that a birth triggers an appropriate long term commitment of resources. We have to quit making victims...who mostly grow up to make more victims.

Davo said...

GS, I have one son. Can i tell him what to do, no. Can i influence his direction in life .. perhaps, but only from afar.

Can only quote ï shot an arrow IN THE AIR, where it lands, i know not where.

Gs, yup, i read history. BUT, how can i relate to 32 tr old son. Is it trite to tell him that .. yes, i have been your age .. you have yet to reach mine?

Davo said...

marriage and divorce? Gs, was once married to a human being. These days it seems to be all about 'quikfix'. Please send money ......,

Davo said...

And NO, am not going to apologise fer being a vague larrikin on your preterponderous site GS ..

i read the damn thing with wondrous interest.

Davo said...

OK.. this is very "off post" but do americans really understand how much they, and their policies are depised, worldwide?

Davo said...


GreenSmile said...

[not to worry, dear readers: Davo is a friend and he has got his answer by other channels.]