I’m starting to think that Ross Douthat may have a split personality disorder. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Douthat has “a wonderful way of casually saying things that you don’t hear many conservatives say.” Today’s column is no different: he begins by explaining that the usual conservative arguments against gay marriage have “lost because they’re wrong.” He continues:
What we think of as “traditional marriage” is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy. The default mode of child-rearing is often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological children.
Nor is lifelong heterosexual monogamy obviously natural in the way that most Americans understand the term. If “natural” is defined to mean “congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable. In crudely Darwinian terms, it cuts against both the male impulse toward promiscuity and the female interest in mating with the highest-status male available.
Quite frankly, I was astonished to see Douthat say these things. I had him pinned as one of those neo-Aristotelian Harvey Mansfield acolytes, who number in the high single digits at Harvard but are well represented in the magazine that Douthat edited back in the day, the Harvard Salient.
If the writer of the above is Good Ross, unfortunately the writer of the second half of today’s column can only be Bad Ross. Bad Ross writes that, even though there’s nothing universal or natural about “lifelong heterosexual monogamy,” there is a certain “Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation,” that is “worthy of distinctive recognition and support.”
Douthat admits, of course, that our culture today hardly does justice to the “lifelong” or the “monogamous” parts of that equation. Why, Matt Yglesias wonders, should we insist upon heterosexuality if we’re going to be so permissive about divorce?
Good Ross makes a brief return to respond that, if the liberal sexual morality “completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. [Italics added.] The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.”
Are any other conservative traditionalists willing to say that gay marriage is morally necessary under any conditions? Will they ever have such generous words for the “love of homosexuals”? I don’t think so, and partly I think that’s a generational thing; Douthat is just 30 years old. I’m sure he has met and befriended a considerable number of gay people, and I’m glad he has the decency to allow those interactions to affect his political beliefs.
But Bad Ross still has the final word, as in many of Douthat’s columns.
But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
This is the most important paragraph of Douthat’s whole column, because here we see whether he has come up with a reason to oppose gay marriage besides those he rejected at the outset. And we see that he has failed. He has come up with “distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.” Now, I don’t know what Douthat means by “distinct in their challenges.” I tend to think that every relationship is distinct in its challenges from every other. But the real key is “their potential fruit.” Douthat is saying that gay relationships deserve to be treated unequally because they can’t, in themselves, produce a child.
But what makes that a morally significant difference? As liberals are endlessly pointing out, nobody suggests that infertile or elderly couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. There has to be an appeal to one of two things: nature or tradition. Douthat either has to say that nature didn’t make it possible for two men or two women to make children, therefore they shouldn’t be allowed to marry; or he has to say, we’ve been doing it the heterosexual way for so long, and it’s had such great results, so we shouldn’t mess with it.
Those arguments have their merits and demerits, but my point here is only this: Douthat himself (or at least Good Ross) has already rejected those arguments. In the first paragraph of his column he writes: “Lifelong heterosexual monogamy is natural; gay relationships are not. [That’s the appeal to nature.] The nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children. [That’s the appeal to tradition.]” But then he rejected those arguments! Go back and read the first two paragraphs I quoted, and see for yourself.
Obviously Good Ross and Bad Ross can’t both be right. But, if we try to meld the two and see what Ross Douthat, the individual human being with a single coherent voice, was trying to get at, I think we have to turn to the very last sentence of the column: “I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea [the idea that gay and straight relationships are distinct in a morally or legally relevant way].”
All Ross is trying to do is make sure we think about where we’re going. If we want a liberal sexual morality, he’s not (I hope, based on the Good Ross portions) going to tell us we’re wrong. He just wants us to have our eyes open. As we should, and do.
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