Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Future Without Rules

The Supreme Court's gay marriage verdict has Ross Douthat ruminating on the relationship between the rise of gay marriage and the decline of the old-fashioned straight version:
But in one of the ironies in which the arc of history specializes, while the conservative case for same-sex marriage triumphed in politics, the liberationist case against marriage’s centrality to human flourishing was winning in the wider culture.

You would not know this from Kennedy’s opinion, which is relentlessly upbeat about how “new insights have strengthened, not weakened” marriage, bringing “new dimensions of freedom” to society.

But the central “new dimension of freedom” being claimed by straight America is a freedom from marriage — from the institution as traditionally understood, and from wedlock and family, period. . . .

Since the ’90s, approval of divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have climbed steadily, and the belief that children are “very important” to marriage has collapsed. Kennedy’s ruling argues that the right to marry is essential, in part, because the institution “safeguards children and families.” But the changing cultural attitudes that justify his jurisprudence increasingly treat this safeguard as inessential, a potentially nice but hardly necessary thing.

And the same is true of marriage itself. America is not quite so “advanced” as certain European societies, but our marriage rate is at historic lows, with the millennial generation, the vanguard of support for same-sex marriage, leading the retreat. Millennials may agree with Kennedy’s ruling, but they’re making his view of marriage as “a keystone of the nation’s social order” look antique. In their views and (lack of) vows, they’re taking a more relaxed perspective, in which wedlock is malleable and optional, one way among many to love, live, rear kids — or not.

In this sense, the gay rights movement has won twice over. Its conservative wing won the right to normalcy for gay couples, while rapid cultural change has made the definition of normalcy less binding than the gay left once feared.
Despite the scorn thrown in this direction by liberals, this argument is not silly. Not because the rise of gay marriage is causing the decline of straight marriage, but because both are expressions of a deeper change in society, from a world in which most people do what they parents did, and organize their lives as their neighbors do, to one in which we are much more free to make our own arrangements and pick our own paths. As Douthat says, and as I have said here many times, there is not much evidence that this rise in freedom is making people happier.

To me, though, conservative arguments about the loss of "family values" are whistling in the wind. Medieval society is gone, and it wasn't just the sexual revolution that killed it. These changes go back to the 18th century, to the rise of a new economy based on mastering rapidly changing technologies and the Enlightenment's rejection of religious authority. The invention of modern democracy and the rejection of aristocratic privilege were very much part of this movement; if you read what defenders of aristocracy said during the American and French Revolutions you will see that many of them had the same fears as Douthat, that change would undermine family life and lead to a chaotic world of children running wild and ending up as criminals.

Douthat ignores one of the main realities that kept marriage "strong" in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gender discrimination that kept women from being able to make a living. Look back to the 1970s and you see, again, that the people who opposed "women's lib" had the same fears: that these changes would undermine family life and social order.

The old order of Europe did work pretty well. It helped those societies flourish and helped many people find meaningful lives. But it was rooted in principles that I cannot accept, from the divine right of kings to the glorification of war to the insistence that women's minds were too weak for leadership. To me that was all of a piece. How could we bring it back even if we wanted to?

As much as I worry about a future in which people have to find their way without the guidance of firm traditions, I think we have to go forward. The admiration people like Justice Kennedy and myself feel toward marriage would not apply to the patriarchal, semi-mandatory kind; for us it is valuable precisely because it is freely chosen, precisely because it is equal, precisely because it can be dissolved when it fails.

That is, I believe, the paradigm we must work toward. We must strive to build a world in which freedom works; in which people's choices lead to a good world because we present them with good options. Maybe this is not even possible, but to me it is the only political cause worth fighting for.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I think, among other factors, one major influence is the that the world has simply "gotten smaller". The frontiers are gone, and the corners are filling up. We've expanded for so long that it only seems natural to keep expanding for ever - but our world is finite, and so must be our growth.

The human population MUST level off if we're to avoid global catastrophe on a scale greater than mankind has ever known. And the best experts do seem to think we're at long last reaching a plateau. But that leveling off comes with the natural and predictable consequences of falling birth rates - and even of certain regional birth rates dropping to levels of negative growth, which is counterbalanced by growth elsewhere in the world.

This is not a bad thing. This is not something to be feared, or to panic over. It may require some degree of reorganization on humanity's part, but it is ultimately the healthy option in a world whose resources we've come perilously close to exceeding.

There are many changes I predict are likely to occur during our "reorganization". Marriage and childbirth are already undergoing local transformations in developed parts of the world, but other portions of the globe will lag behind.

As birth rates drop here but take longer to slow elsewhere, we will quite naturally see increased migration. The conservatives among the wealthy, developed nations will of course object and try to resist the influx of "foreign" elements. But if local birth rates are falling, where else do we expect to get replacement population from, if not the regions of the world that are most overpopulated?

Again, this is not a bad thing, and not something to be feared or panic over. My saying so won't stop many people from doing exactly that, but thankfully the sorts of people who are going to make a fuss are rapidly growing old and dying off, and the much bemoaned "millenials" are going to take over as that happens, bringing with them a greater degree of globalism and flexibility.

So yes, expect to see more poor Asians and Africans moving to the Americas and Europe. Expect local social hegemony to erode, and cultures to shift and blend as outside influences are brought home to roost. Expect rigidly defined barriers between different peoples to be scaled and even broken down in favor of a globalistic attitude of pragmatic syncretism.

Expect to see irrational, elitist bigots freaking out as "The Other" threatens to join them in their exclusive Ivory Towers, which in scathing irony were built via their ancestors' Imperial Conquest of many of the lands these foreign peoples traditionally come from. Turnabout is fair play, as they say.