“A lot of sawdust written on this subject—a lot of sawdust. Don’t read any of it.”
—Isaiah Berlin, on ‘natural law’
Last week, The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) released a controversial television advertisement in six states, including New Jersey. In the ad, twelve or so concerned-looking people of various ages and races are staggered in an eerie choir-like formation on what looks like an extremely clean hardwood floor. Behind them, foreboding clouds roll in on a green screen. What is most disorienting, however, is the horizon, which appears to be about four inches behind the backmost chorister’s heel. The space is curiously pyramidal, but in an irritatingly low-budget kind of way. The camera floats around between the characters, who each deliver a line:
“There’s a storm gathering,” warns a blonde.
“The clouds are dark, and the winds are strong,” adds a young redheaded guy in a suit.
“And I am afraid,” intones a slim black woman.
“That I’m actually watching the Weather Channel,” I thought, the first time I saw this.
The reality, however, was even more horrific. As it turned out, the dark clouds represent the legalization of gay marriage. The prospect of the impending storm leads the characters to try to top each other in melodrama:
Some who advocate for same sex marriage have taken the issue far beyond same sex couples [black or Latino guy, hard to tell]…They want to bring the issue into my life [old white guy]…My freedom will be taken away [very concerned and confused looking brunette, this may actually be her off-camera persona as well]…[a few more…] But some who advocate for same sex marriage have not been content with same sex couples living as they wish…[businesswoman and possible cylon]…Those advocates want to change the way I live [another female, who looks as confused as I am at this point]…I will have no choice [woman with the skin tone of one literally trapped in a closet]… The storm is coming [Latino dude].
I found this ad as perplexing as I found it offensive, so I decided to check out NOM’s Talking Points webpage to try to figure out which rights and freedoms the group is specifically afraid of losing. At the top of the page, the group advises supporters of this type of propaganda that “Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is: ‘Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose—they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.’ This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage. [In bold] Language to avoid at all costs: ‘Ban same sex marriage.’” I don’t know that tolerant is the word I would use in this case. Unless the alternative is arresting gays for sodomy or premarital cohabitation or just bashing them on the street, it’s not clear what is meant by “right to live as they chose.” In so far as we don’t break the law, we all have a right to live as we chose. A willingness to refrain from violently harassing or physically detaining people simply because we don’t like them is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for “tolerance” in the sense in which it is usually meant.
Does anyone actually believe, after this ad, that anyone affiliated with NOM is not at heart a bigot? If one’s honest, though misguided, concern really lay with the question of how the state defines marriage and was not at all influenced by prejudice, would one not pause before releasing an ad that compares homosexuality to an apocalyptic storm? Granted, defenders of the cause will shake their heads at this point, muttering that another smart-aleck liberal has missed the subtle distinction between gays themselves and gay marriage. This is the crowd that claims that it is possible to object to gay marriage without being a bigot. In this article, I am calling their bluff. It is a mutually exclusive pair of positions. Let’s examine why.
Before addressing the question of marriage itself, it’s worth thinking broadly about the question of “changing the definition of marriage” or as it is more honestly termed: the evolution of marriage. Martin Luther, in criticizing the idea of matrimony as a sacrament, famously pointed out that marriage predates religion. This is certainly so. Marriage as a private affair has been around for a very long time, and it’s easy to see the evolutionary benefits of caring relationships, including the benefits accrued by any offspring. Eventually, these family relations were co-opted and institutionalized by religion and later by the state. Both organizations have an interest in creating stable societies and accordingly incentivize marriage. Sometimes the desire to create stability through marriage is so strong that even the feelings of the partners are ignored, as can be the case in arranged marriages, promised daughters, etc. Western laws have drawn the lines to curb excess in different ways—in the case of the United States, fifty different ways. Clearly there is no single definition of marriage for anyone to change.
So what can we say about marriage? Well, to keep things simple, let’s say that the state has an interest in seeing people couple. It’s not actually about children; it’s about recognizing a special relationship, and the state has a good reason to do this. In a period of population growth, the state has no interest in people having unwanted children and in period of population decline, through childbearing might be incentivized, it is never in a free state required. The state’s interest is in making its citizens dependent upon and functional within the given society, in making citizens become invested in the society’s project. This is much easier to do, when relationships are institutionalized and recognized; it provides a reward for what people will do anyway and makes people indebted to the system and dependent on it. Though certainly the state also has an interest in providing good homes for its youth, this is just one of many aspects of marriage.
Marriage is technically a human right as defined by the UN declaration thereon, but it’s only valuable because it has privileges attached. The incentives to marry in the US include tax advantages, intestate rights, protections for child guardianship, assistance with citizenship procedures, the possibility for joint ownership of property, and a great deal else. Just being married without any privileges doesn’t get you anywhere; so, while it is in one sense a right, it’s a kind of useless one. Therefore to speak of how one’s rights are infringed by the evolution of marriage law is utter nonsense. The only way to deprive someone of their rights in regard to marriage is to let person A marry and receive benefits, but not let person B do the same.
I fully grant that the Declaration currently grants the right only to men and women seeking to wed each other, but the real question before any organ of power is whether the state has anything to lose by extending benefits to same sex couples such that leaving them out of the bargain is to the general good. Again, how we define marriage and those who can participate in it is in some sense arbitrary. The fact of the matter is that that the state has nothing to lose and possibly a lot to gain by recognizing gay relationships. For one thing, it makes the state a lot fairer, which is generally a good thing.
The NOM crowd would no doubt respond to this by objecting that though the specifics of marriage have evolved, the one man-one woman principle has been consistent. I agree with this. Where I disagree is with the assumption that because this has been the case in past, it is necessarily somehow intrinsic to what marriage is. The idea that marriage can only be defined by monogamous heterosexual couples making babies, the natural law thesis NOM rests it case upon, is totally arbitrary, if like most Americans, one thinks natural law is ridiculous. We have a hard enough time explaining natural rights, but these at least protect us from demagogues.
How is it that NOM’s only case rests on this the Catholic jargon that very few people believe in (if you’ve ever masturbated and not felt guilty, you’re already out of line)? Well, it can largely be explained by the fact that the group is fronted by Princeton’s own Professor Robert George, NOM’s cofounder and Chairmen of the Board. George is Princeton’s leading natural law expert (for whatever this is worth) and chief embarrassment. The NOM ad represents a new low for George who has spend much of his professional career fighting to curtail the rights of women, to delay the progress of science, to deny the rights of homosexuals, and mostly trivially and amusingly to shame masturbators all in the name of natural law. I call this ad a low point because, in all of the former cases, George has made his arguments without straying from what one might call the realm of reason and more-or-less good taste. The NOM ad, however, which compares homosexuality to catastrophic weather and which intentionally invokes apocalyptic themes for the benefit of a certain segment of the conservative community, is not what we generally expect of Princeton faculty. Historians are also aware of the fact that “Gathering Storm” was the title of the first volume of Churchill’s memoirs. It referred to the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Let’s let that linger for a moment. Were this the first time George has set down hate speech on Princeton letterhead, an apology to the rest of us would be in order. As it is, for the perpetual embarrassment he causes us, a resignation would be more in line.
What can one say about the ethics of NOM, a New Jersey based nonprofit, channeling more than $1.8 million into Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative? What can one say about their other ads? A recent radio spot went:
[Sound of opening door] Mother: Hi Anne, what happened in school today?
Young girl: I learned about a prince who married a prince and I can marry a princess!
Narrator: Legalizing gay marriage has consequences for kids. Massachusetts schools teach second graders that boys can marry other boys…
This is so blatantly phony, so dishonest, so offensive, that I’ll wager that in thirty years time when gay marriage is legal nationwide my future children will ask me what it was like to be at Princeton during the last ride of homophobia. I’m embarrassed for Princeton, I repeat: This is not what we expect of Princeton faculty.
It is precisely what we have come to expect, however, from George’s partner and NOM cofounder Maggie Gallagher. Gallagher gained national prominence in 2005 when she was exposed as one of the Bush Administration’s paid journalists. While a syndicated columnist with the Universal Press Syndicate and while publishing extensively on the marriage question, she was also a paid consultant for the Department of Health and Human Services and for the Department of Justice. In total, she took more than $40,000 from the government to produce in-house propaganda, but failed to see any conflict of interest. Thank god this dynamic duo has zero chance of lasting the next decade. George has his tenure—at least for now—but what will Gallager be doing in ten years? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to see. I hope she keeps making ads, because if you can detach yourself from the filth—they’re actually kind of funny.