Friday, June 02, 2006


Remaining "Civil": On Rights & Unions

At the risk of seeming like a Johnny-one-note of late with discussions veering back and forth around the topics of marriage/divorce (albeit of the comic-book variety) and homosexuality (albeit of the comic-book variety), I thought this piece at the Weekly Standard's Web-site was really worth noting. It speaks to the issue of same-sex marriage in the context of the African-American civil rights tradition.

Now, I preface this by saying, if I haven't made it clear before, I tend not to have a problem with the idea of legal recognition of gay relationships -- whether one calls it "marriage", "civil union" or something else. I don't think that homosexuals being united in the face of the law -- with all the priveleges and responsibilities that goes with that -- endangers heterosexual marriage. In a similar vein, I don't think the Constitution should be amended for the purposes of enunciating social relationships.

That said, authors Eugene Rivers and Kenneth Johnson make a good point in articulating the unique aspect of the black struggle for equality in the United States and why the "civil rights" mantle can't be likened to anything else -- whether feminism, gay rights or the new movement for marriage equality.
One must, in the current discussion, address directly the assertion of discrimination. The claim that the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman constitutes discrimination is based on a false analogy with statutory prohibitions on interracial marriages in many states through much of the 20th century. This alleged analogy collapses when one considers that skin pigmentation is utterly irrelevant to the procreative and unitive functions of marriage. Racial differences do not interfere with the ability of sexually complementary spouses to become "one-flesh," as the Book of Genesis puts it, by sexual intercourse that fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation. As the law of marital consummation makes clear, and always has made clear, it is this bodily union that serves as the foundation of the profound sharing of life at every level--biological, emotional, dispositional, rational, and spiritual--that marriage is. This explains not only why marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but also why marriages cannot be between more than two people--despite the desire of "polyamorists" to have their sexual preferences and practices legally recognized and blessed.

Moreover, the analogy of same-sex marriage to interracial marriage disregards the whole point of those prohibitions, which was to maintain and advance a system of racial subordination and exploitation. It was to maintain a caste system in which one race was relegated to conditions of social and economic inferiority. The definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman does not establish a sexual caste system or relegate one sex to conditions of social and economic inferiority. It does, to be sure, deny the recognition as lawful "marriages" to some forms of sexual combining--including polygyny, polyandry, polyamory, and same-sex relationships. But there is nothing invidious or discriminatory about laws that decline to treat all sexual wants or proclivities as equal.

People are equal in worth and dignity, but sexual choices and lifestyles are not. That is why the law's refusal to license polygamous, polyamorous, and homosexual unions is entirely right and proper. In recognizing, favoring, and promoting traditional, monogamous marriage, the law does not violate the "rights" of people whose "lifestyle preferences" are denied the stamp of legal approval. Rather, it furthers and fosters the common good of civil society, and makes proper provision for the physical and moral protection and nurturing of children.
The overall point here is that there may be logical and moral rationale for allowing legal same-sex unions however it is not in the same realm as the historical "civil rights" movement. That movement was sui generis in U.S. history. And the current movement is a major transformation with respect to universal cultural mores of centuries long standing. In that respect, it is a more closer to the women's rights movement. But, again, even that was not exactly the same (though it certainly benefited from) the black civil rights movement. It would be good if all sides recognized these differences and avoided the rhetorical short cuts.

On a mildly related note, kudos to Jonah Goldberg
for hitting exactly right the politics of gay marriage in the Senate:

I think it's largely true that the GOP is picking up the gay marriage card as a cynical ploy during an election cycle. If you think gay marriage is the threat to Western Civilization many Republicans claim, why wait to talk about it at election time? If gay marriage isn't a big enough deal to actually do something about it before election season rolls around, why campaign against it at all?
He's also right on the cynicism that most Democrats -- and Howard Dean in particular -- demonstrate on this issue:

[Dean] says the Democrats oppose gay marriage when it's convenient and he says they support it when his base attacks him. In 2004 he himself opposed gay marriage while at the same time he's always given every indication he would be delighted if the Supreme Court unilaterally and undemocratically imposed it on the entire country.
Jonah's sentence construction is a little off: He means "When it's convenient, Dean says Democrats are opposed to gay marriage -- and says they support it when his base attacks him." However, the way he actually wrote may be a better reflection on how Democrats feel about gay marriage: "The Democrats oppose gay marriage when it's convenient."

Ramesh Ponnuru, who is even more strongly opposed to gay marriage than Jonah, recently made a similar point about the
GOP's "repulsive" (his word) use of the issue.

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