DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage; Polikoff: Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage


Author:  Rauch, Jonathan

Title: Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America

Fiction? Anthology? N 

Publisher:  Times Books (Henry Holt)

Date: April 7, 2004

ISBN:  0-8050-7633-6

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 207 pages with index

Relevance to doaskdotell: gay marriage


Jonathan Rauch provided several essays in the 1996 book Beyond Queer: Challenging the Gay Left Orthodoxy, from the Free Press, edited by Bruce Bawer, one of these essays being “Who Need Marriage?”  Rauch has provided many columns in moderate-to-conservative publications, as well as books (Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, 1993). Recently, he provided a contribution to The Atlantic (April 2004), “A More Perfect Union: How the Founding Fathers Would Have Handled Gay Marriage”), much of which appears toward the end of this book, when he argues for an incremental approach to same-sex marriage (including the capability of states to experiment with various forms of unions without risking a constitutional backlash). I have met him myself, for example at events when visiting the Cato Institute.

I get ahead of myself here. For most of all, this book is a logical book about the institution of marriage, that is, a catalogue of all the assertions that one can make and prove about it as an institution. It reads almost like an informal mathematics text, as it tries to account for all possible lines of thought. As a former mathematics teacher and graduate student myself in that field, I can almost see “definition, postulate, lemma, theorem, proof.” Or even the notorious “Given: To Prove” charts in those notorious plane geometry texts in high school. It is a good example of the “do ask do tell” paradigm of thinking that I have promoted in my own books and websites.

This gets to a central issue right away, that Rauch calls (in a late chapter, “The Debt to Tradition”) The Hayek Problem, after philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek. This is an argument about the limits of rationalism, deduction, and intellectual modeling. Social change towards more freedom must come in increments, within the framework of traditions and mores that people readily understand. (Evangelist Robert Schuler from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove CA used to preach the same thing, at least when I visited it.) Of course, where do you stop with this? Before slavery? Segregation? To a point, people have to be comfortable to function constructively.  So you see a lot of pseudo-arguments out of the woodwork, that marriage is about babies, about mommies and daddies, and so on.

However, Rauch first builds his cast-iron case that gay marriage is a win-win for everyone. He poses almost all possible arguments and answers them. He seems mainly concerned institutionalism, but answers the arguments, related to the institutional framework, along the way. He maintains early on that, beyond raising kids, marriage is an important source of social support for people when they stumble. “An unattached person is an accident waiting to happen.” The prospect of marriage may be as important as a psychological motivator as marriage itself. He mentions one of my favorite arguments, gay responsibility:

“Gay marriage is not so much a civil rights issue as a civil responsibility issue. If the first ‘homosexual agenda’ focused on gay rights—the right to have sex, the right to walk the streets in safety, the right to keep a job—the second focuses on gay responsibilities: marriage, military service, the rearing and mentoring of the young. If the rights agenda asked for protection, the responsibility agenda asks for obligations.”

He could add eldercare as an obligation, although in previous generations the “non-marrying kind” stayed home to take care of parents. He also points out that if gays are denied participation in obligations, then they will simply party on and provide troublesome “me generation” competition for families with children. Of course, this leads us back into logical circularity. Rauch points out that there are many children being raised in same sex couple households, and these children should have the indirect benefits of marriage from their parents. But to extend his argument on children, one would want to make the case for gay adoptions and custody.

He also spends attention on the arguments concerning marriage and children, in a chapter “Married, without Children.” For example, one such argument, after sifting, is “Without sex of the type which (that) produces children, marriage isn’t worth having.” All of these arguments he disproves with contraposition, or reduction to contradiction, a common (if sometimes controversial in academia) technique in proving mathematical theorems.

At this point I come back to what concerns me the most: the morality of my own choices and actions and values, and of many others whom I suspect are in similar positions. Personal freedom and responsibility force one to come to gay marriage from an opposite direction, yet eventually to go through the same thinking.

As someone who was somewhat sheltered as a boy and a young man, particularly after some traumatic events (an expulsion from college for latent homosexuality), I am in a vulnerable position. Rauch concedes the point that some people just want to use marriage (and military service) as an excuse to attack people like me. But why?  This kind of comment bridges over to a discussion of the ethics of (as Clive Barker called it in his novel Sacrament) “self-promotion.”

This is tough and unpleasant. I sometimes get vibes that I owe other people (particularly “family”) motivational loyalty, to be there for them, to keep my mouth shut about issues that would embarrass their sense of blood cohesion. Yes—I think a lot of this is about the investment people have in blood and lineage. Homosexuality is presented to me as a failure of my own socialization, to grow out of adolescence into real “adulthood” with a “real life” of family, children, and continued lineage. These familial goals have, in my case, been replaced by an investment in juvenile fantasy and part-objects which, if unleashed, could be dangerous to people of ordinary talents. Therefore, I am supposed to derive any legitimate freedom from family socialization, although I perceive that tradition, however benign it sounds, as a compromise of my freedom. The other part of this is political, even “institutional.” Family is preferable to the state in caretaking because if kin can take care of those with needs, personal freedom—of those who accept a certain motivational conformity as ‘paying their dues’-- is not as likely to be compromised in the long run (all the more so when there are externally imposed calamities that would eliminate individual wealth or opportunity and force people to bond together to survive). When “different” individuals like me take advantage of technology and “neo individualism” to run from familial commitment and pursue our own chosen ends, we cheat the system.  Yet, Rauch consistently shows that gay marriage is capable of addressing all of these objections. One reason is, as Paul Rosenfels argued thirty years ago, psychological polarity and function go way beyond biological gender in human beings.

I also am quite struck by some anti-gay claims by Santorum and others, that my “freedom” to choose my own relationships (and seek equal recognition for one if I am willing to commit to it for lifetime) and express myself “hurts families” and is even intrinsically evil to the extent that it might further separate the competitively disadvantaged from familial or community sources of help and meaning. Yet, this is part of the personal responsibility that goes to each individual for his freedom. Gay marriage would address this idea of personal self-control, too.

Maybe the way to wrap this up is to cast gay marriage as a major opportunity to deal with the tension between individual expressive rights and the practical need for individuals to become socialized to meet the needs of others. You can see how this leads to rich debates about fundamental rights, responsibility, and equality before the law.

Nancy D. Polikoff. Beyond (Sraight and Gay)Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law. Boston, Beacon Press, 2008. 259 pages, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8070-4432-2.

The author’s thesis is that society values from treating all interdependent family group structures equally or reasonably under the law, rather than giving “special rights” to gender-based couples that others have to subsidize. She says this is not just a gay issue. She also believes that the gay community’s insistence of marriage equality, while understandable from the point of view of equal rights, is not as important as recognizing all interdependent structures in a reasonable way.

Here is an interesting quote from Chapter 1, p. 11:

“Marriage was a problem because it regulated the lives of men and women along gender lines – both within and outside of marriage – and because it policed the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable sexual expression.”

Blogger review.


See also: Paul Rosenfels  Jennifer Roback Morse George Gilder Andrew Sullivan William Eskridge Elinor Burkett Ann Crittenden Sylvia Hewlett Elizabeth Warren Barbara Ehrenreich Clive Barker’s Sacrament Phillip Longman (The Empty Cradle)


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