Monday, August 9, 2010

Marriage v freedom: a modest proposal

Boy, oh boy. There sure has been a lot of cheering and moaning about U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker's declaration that a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Haven't been following the story? You can find broad coverage of the issue & trial in the SF Chronicle; the NY Times or FoxNews report on Wednesday's decision; read Walker's 138-page decision yourself; or check out an analysis thereof.

All that coverage, not to mention endless chatter in the blogosphere, absolves me of the obligation to cherry-pick quotations from the decision. Of course, as many have pointed out, the game's not over: appeals to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal are on the horizon, and the U.S. Supreme Court may have a thing or two to say about Judge Walker's 138 pages of prose as well.

Naturally, the disinformationistas were waiting to pounce on the district court decision. So what's the argument against same-sex marriage that makes my head spin fastest?

Nope, not the "activist judges" argument, which is so very laughable when advanced by conservatives who support (or are blind to) the activism of judges with whose ideology they agree -- say, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, to give just one itty-bitty example.

Nope, not the populist argument that people voting for some fly-by-night ballot proposition trumps essential law, e.g., the constitution under which the U.S. government operates, and to which each U.S. state is existentially bound. Not even when said populists hold both that a fleeting majority's vote supersedes all other law & precedent and that responsible judges hold strictly to the U.S. Constitution in light of intentions "the founders" had when they drafted it.

Here it is, the true head-spinner in this writer's book: the "marriage is a heterosexual word" argument. As articulated by William Moore of Red Bluff, California, and published in the SF Chronicle's Letters to the Editor section of 5 August 2010, the argument goes something like this:

[T]he purpose of Proposition 8 for many of us was to uphold the long-standing tradition that marriage is a heterosexual word. Pick you [sic] own word. For thousands of years, this word has had significant meaning to the husbands and wives who have made a sacred pledge to each other. You now have a population that is accepting alternate lifestyles as a part of that fabric. Just pick your own word to define your commitments to each other, and honor the one that represents our commitments to each other, and we can live in harmony.

Now it wouldn't be fair to blame only Mr. Moore for this argument. And yet, it would be tedious to review the nearly eight million hits I get when I type marriage heterosexual institution into the Google search interface. Or even the 2.5 million results yielded by Bing. It would be worse than tedious to try to link to a dozen or three arguments similar to Mr. Moore's, because doing so would elevate their relevance in search engines, if not in actual fact or law. Not going there. So I'm going to use Mr. Moore's argument as a stand-in for all those people who oppose marriage equality. Instead of using Mr. Moore's name -- to avoid making Mr. Moore into a martyr or a whipping-boy -- I'll just call all those people who oppose marriage equality by an acronym: ATPWOME. Got it? Who cares if it's hard to pronounce? It's pretty darn hard to make rational sense of the arguments, why should the people who advance them be anything but unpronounceable?

So let's clear up some facts in the argument Mr. Moore has advanced on behalf of ATPWOME.

First, to the "for thousands of years..." assertion. I happen to have beside me a compact edition of Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press 1971), the one in two volumes with very small print; it came with a magnifying glass. The OED has a lot of terrific stuff in it, and among the most terrific are its etymologies -- complete with citations from the written record in which any given word appears. The earliest citation for the word "marriage" in English comes from Robert of Gloucester in the year 1297, same date and author as the word "marry" from which it is derived. 1297 was 713 years ago. The arithmetic sciences hold that 713 is less than one thousand, and much less than multiple "thousands." Oh! But the English word comes from Old French! And what do we know about Old French? Let's consult our old friend, Wikipedia: "Old French was the Romance dialect continuum spoken in territories that span roughly the northern half of modern France and parts of modern Belgium and Switzerland from the 9th century to the 14th century." There you have it. 9th to 21st century: 1,200 years in round numbers, which is still less than "thousands." My condolences to ATPWOME, whether they live in Red Bluff, California or elsewhere.

Second, sticking to our solid reference volume, the word "heterosexual" is defined in OED as ... wait! The word "heterosexual" is not in my 1971 Compact edition! Have no fear, the intertubes are our friends (though my access to the electronic OED is restricted by subscription, so I can't share the link; if you feel an urge to check my transcription, head to any reasonably well-provisioned public library). Heterosexual, the adjective, says the OED, is:

1. a. Characterized by a sexual interest in members of the opposite sex. b. Pertaining to sexual relations between people of opposite sex. 2. Pertaining to, characteristic of both sexes.

Once again, ATPWOME lose. There is no such thing as a "heterosexual word." Heterosexual is a term that pertains to things that have sex. Words, which may have grammatical gender, do not have sexual interest, sexual relations, or, well, sex.

Third, can ATPWOME please get over the strategic ignorance that relentlessly debases discourse on this topic?

Here's an excerpt from the Publisher's Weekly summary of Stephanie Coontz's 2005 volume, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage:

When considered in the light of history, "traditional marriage"—the purportedly time-honored institution some argue is in crisis thanks to rising rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, not to mention gay marriage—is not so traditional at all. Indeed, Coontz (The Way We Never Were) argues, marriage has always been in flux, and "almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before." Based on extensive research (hers and others'), Coontz's fascinating study places current concepts of marriage in broad historical context, revealing that there is much more to "I do" than meets the eye. [...]

As it happens, Coontz contributed an op-ed piece titled The Heterosexual Revolution to the New York Times on 5 July 2005, and that op-ed came up second when I typed marriage heterosexual institution into my handy Google search interface (#21 on Bing). Ms. Coontz concluded her op-ed piece as follows:

Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional. Many people may not like the direction these changes have taken in recent years. But it is simply magical thinking to believe that by banning gay and lesbian marriage, we will turn back the clock.

Magical thinking. There you have it.

ATPWOME should know that Ms. Coontz' book is available for less than ten bucks from Amazon, but all those people who oppose marriage equality but support America's small businesspeople should check their local independent bookstores first.

So. In any event. Here's my modest proposal.

Let us consider the word "freedom." From the OED again, the first of fifteen definitions, each with its own tidy little set of usage citations: "I.1a. The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty." If you're interested in the other definitions, through, including, and beyond "I.1.c. Exemption or release from the obligations of a contractual agreement; spec. release from a marriage, divorce," I again recommend any reasonably well-provisioned public library.

In light of the quoted definition of the word "freedom," I propose the following. To wit. Ipso facto.

So long as ATPWOME wish to constrain and inhibit homosexuals from marrying (each other), ATPWOME shall cease and desist from application of the word "freedom" to any description of their politics or values, whether spoken, in print, on-line, or even wildly fantasized.

That seems reasonable, right? Because, clearly, ATPWOME have a program, and it ain't about "freedom."

In fact, now that freedom to marry a same-sex partner in California is looking like it may be reinstated, it could soon become accurate to say of ATPWOME that they hate our freedoms! (To think that I'm quoting George W. Bush right here on the intertubes. Wonders will surely never cease...)

All you people who oppose marriage equality? The comment box is free for all.

This post appeared, with minor differences, as a Daily Kos diary on 6 Aug 2010.

1 comment:

  1. I think we should get to vote on the definitions of words. It would make the California ballot only slightly longer than it is already.

    The legislature every election season would throw a few on; popular ballot initiatives would add another handful. But no dictionary would be allowed in California that contradicted the will of the people, said will determined by majority vote. Thus, if voters want to vote an apostrophe into the possessive pronoun "its" (making it "it's"), no grammarian could say boo about it.