Friday, August 06, 2010


What I don’t get is why everyone is so interested and hot about the issue of same-sex marriage when it seems to me obvious that the real issue is the status of marriage itself. What was once a religious covenant and legally binding economic relationship has now become merely a social event (a wedding or even a divorce party) and -- as the famous persuading phrase goes -- “just a piece of paper.” Unless you live in the Third World.

Sexual acts are no longer confined to marriage. Legal responsibility for offspring is no longer defined by marriage. Permission to commit violence against a spouse is no longer granted. Ownership, inheritance, tax and debt obligations -- those are now the substance of marriage, but they needn’t even be defined in terms of marriage. Religion is revealed rather than revelatory.

It seems clear that the key variable is economics, since economics is survival. The arrangements of marriage in any context are what will allow enough food, shelter and stability to raise successful children. If we go back to the neanderthals we now admit are cousins, the basic economic unit was the tribe and “marriage” probably meant that two people were spontaneously “bonded,” that is, stayed together as much as they could out of emotional connection. It’s a mammal thing: even among herd animals two individuals will develop an affinity for each other. When you get to the level of Judi Dench wanting always to be near her husband, the primal core is the same.

When the paleoeconomy shifted, probably due to more clever hunting/gathering, the economy shifted slightly so some partners were “better” than others, leaders whose perks included sex. Then with the invention of agriculture, only ten thousand years ago, everything changed. Animals could be owned, managed, and made to breed in profitable ways. And the “better” men, having grasped the concept, applied it to women, children, and weaker or stigmatized men as well. “Chattel” is the word. “Domesticity.” Legal power to control another life. Those who were abusive invited destruction from within their domicile.

The devising of walled cities, responding to the need to store grain, changed things again. Now those who owned the grain owned the economy. Accounting had to be invented. Specialization of roles began. The knowledge of mathematics and the ability to record transactions made certain people valuable. The hunter’s shaman became the temple priest. Women and children formed their roles again around the men, but some saw how to use the patterns to stay safe and acquire power. Again, the threat could be within the walls as much as without. The Old Testament addresses all this.

Because there was stored wealth that could exist beyond the life of a man, “inheritance” arrived and now it was important to know which child was “blood,” though a powerful man could occasionally choose another inheritor who seemed more promising, more likely to continue the Big Man’s wealth and ways, maybe by marrying him to a daughter or simply by adopting him. The only way to know blood for sure was to control the female. Now the value of a woman depended largely on her fertility and, in most systems, whether she could produce male children. (No one knew then that gender is determined by the sperm, not the ovum.) This pattern has extended into modern life.

The difference now is the nature of cities, their population density and complexity so far beyond anything imagined, supporting technical, scientific, business and artistic systems that displace rural life and its values. A woman can support herself in more than the commercialized domesticity of cooking, cleaning, teaching. She can identify the father of each child or choose not to have any. Her strength and judgment can count for as much as that of men: she can pilot a bomber, control a missile silo, run a biological lab, and govern a state in the same way men can. She can paint, dance, conduct an orchestra, film, write -- just like a man.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, profits are so devalued, so dependent on borrowed capital and government regulation, that women must work in town to keep the operation going. Now a woman is a key financial asset. The children, necessarily fewer, no longer wish to inherit the father’s wealth, which is used as a springboard to finance education that will keep them secure -- if there is such a thing. Marriage is about getting those children out into the world successfully.

Alliances between families are still important. Confidence in one’s partner is still important and a consensus between them about behavior and development is more crucial than ever. But the values of abstinence, sobriety, reliability, tradition (cue the song), and frugality get overwhelmed by a media culture that celebrates the opposite, because that is a source of wealth. Drugs once meant mild alcohol poisoning -- now it means insanity. War once meant a time-limited clash of industrialized strategy -- now it means sky-borne devastation against soldiers and families alike, a destruction of human wealth that can’t be replaced for generations.

Today marriage is an industry. White no longer means virginity. Weddings cost as much or more than funerals, demonstrating status and level of sophistication. Everyone knows how a house should be equipped. No longer the found cave overlooking a river, no longer the stone croft in the highlands emptied by old age, no longer the sod house on the prairie, the stick-built saltbox on the coast. A bed, a stove, a table, chair, pot and spoon -- all acquired from the Pottery Barn catalogue along with bedding from Cuddledown and coats from L.L. Bean catalogues -- and a new household costs thousands.

Divorce is a financial disaster for the couple. A financial bonanza for the catalogues.

And then the emotional cost of a relationship not really formed. Violence. Counseling. Confused, lost, broken kids, now prey. Soon gangs, underground crime webbing, predators, and social catastrophe requiring the incarceration of a high proportion of men and many women in the forced marriages of cell occupancy.

Things can go several ways. One is to stop defining marriage law as one-size-fits-all, so that the definition simply creates the “rules of order.” This will be economic because a structure of compensation (insurance, inheritance, taxation) has been built on the concept with the idea of supporting marriage by giving married people special advantages. Another is to rethink the relationship between domicile and marriage: unmarried people live together, married people live apart. The two are no longer congruent. This rethinking may mean the socialization of marriage (already underway) becomes more explicit with guaranteed food, shelter and education for all.

Religion must give up its franchising of marriage and move to some new understanding of human relationship truly based on attachment, bonding, shared protection of children and each other. Supported by community, whether gathered or local, this new way must re-emphasize values far beyond imposed obedience and step towards participation in a world that makes sure all are fed and sheltered. It will feel very strange -- but it already does. And the Ayatollahs will not welcome the idea. Same sex marriage is the LEAST of it!

No comments: