November 22, 2003

Column 2003-11-22, commentary

David Brooks begins his column by asserting himself as a spiritual authority. He makes an entirely arbitrary claim that assumes that everybody is "spiritually alive" in some sense -- an assumption we find to be meaningless or incorrect. His claim that to have multiple sexual partners in a year is "spiritual suicide" is based on a particular conception of spirituality and ignores religions where monogamy is not a requirement. Furthermore, Brooks's implication that sexual behavior trumps all other issues affecting "spiritual health" is obviously absurd. Brooks next claims that "all that is private and delicate in oneself" is exposed and pulverized "in an assembly line of selfish sensations" by casual sex (again, obviously absurd). The metaphor comparing casual sex to an "assembly line of selfish sensations" -- and a very unusual assembly line, in that it destroys things, rather than building them -- is especially ridiculous.

Second paragraph: "Marriage is the opposite". The opposite of what? We note for later reference that Brooks refers here to religious (as opposed to civil) marriage, or so we infer from the use of "sacred bond" to describe it.

The next paragraph consists of a sequence of platitudes on the benefits of marriage, finishing with by saying that, after a long marriage, two people may come to the point where they would say "'Love you? I am you.'" Or, they may not.

Brooks claims that in "some circles", marriage is not even expected. Brooks gives no indication of which "circles" these are, and no source to verify this claim either.

From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, we have the following three definitions of "contingency":
1a. An event that may occur but that is not likely or intended; a possibility.
1b. A possibility that must be prepared for; a future emergency.
2. The condition of being dependent on chance; uncertainty.
3. Something incidental to something else.
Which of these definitions is Brooks referring to in the phrase "culture of contingency"? We do not see how contingency opposes fidelity. Later in the fifth paragraph, Brooks refers to marriage as a "sacred vow"-- we point out that he clearly means religious marriage.

Brooks make no effort to support his claim that "men are more likely to want to trade up, when a younger trophy wife comes along"; this practice dates back at least to Henry VIII, who, since he did not have access to divorce, killed his wives when they became surplus to his requirements. How is it more prevalent now?

Paragraph seven: In what sense does the word "partner" "reek of contingency"?

In paragraph eleven, we find this: "We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity." Unless Brooks is advocating reforming the major religions of the country, he is clearly talking about civil marriage in his first sentence. In the second sentence, his use of the word "sanctify" implies that he is talking about religious marriage, as earlier in the column. Brooks does not resolve (or address) this inconsistency, presumably because his pseudo-religious rhetoric on marriage appeals only to the strongest opponenets of gay marriage-- religious fundamentalists.

We regard it as scandalous that Brooks has a job as a columnist.

Column 2003-11-22, "The Power of Marriage"

David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:

Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.

But marriage is the opposite. Marriage joins two people in a sacred bond. It demands that they make an exclusive commitment to each other and thereby takes two discrete individuals and turns them into kin.

Few of us work as hard at the vocation of marriage as we should. But marriage makes us better than we deserve to be. Even in the chores of daily life, married couples find themselves, over the years, coming closer together, fusing into one flesh. Married people who remain committed to each other find that they reorganize and deepen each other's lives. They may eventually come to the point when they can say to each other: "Love you? I am you."

Today marriage is in crisis. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Worse, in some circles, marriage is not even expected. Men and women shack up for a while, produce children and then float off to shack up with someone else.

Marriage is in crisis because marriage, which relies on a culture of fidelity, is now asked to survive in a culture of contingency. Today, individual choice is held up as the highest value: choice of lifestyles, choice of identities, choice of cellphone rate plans. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but the culture of contingency means that the marriage bond, which is supposed to be a sacred vow till death do us part, is now more likely to be seen as an easily canceled contract.

Men are more likely to want to trade up, when a younger trophy wife comes along. Men and women are quicker to opt out of marriages, even marriages that are not fatally flawed, when their "needs" don't seem to be met at that moment.

Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity -- except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a "partner," a word that reeks of contingency.

You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity. But instead, many argue that gays must be banished from matrimony because gay marriage would weaken all marriage. A marriage is between a man and a woman, they say. It is women who domesticate men and make marriage work.

Well, if women really domesticated men, heterosexual marriage wouldn't be in crisis. In truth, it's moral commitment, renewed every day through faithfulness, that "domesticates" all people.

Some conservatives may have latched onto biological determinism (men are savages who need women to tame them) as a convenient way to oppose gay marriage. But in fact we are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and by our gender. We're moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as the one Ruth made with Naomi: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried."

The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.

When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote.

Marriage is not voting. It's going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination.