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Maggie Gallagher on the Meaning of Marriage

Maggie Gallagher has a series of posts over at the Corner discussing the potential impact of changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions. The one I link to above raises the question of the formal stigmatizing effects that would necessarily befall those who did not jump on-board to embrace homosexual "marriage" as a positive good. In other words, making an argument that there is something fundamentally different about the marriage of a man and a woman and the union of two men or two women, would become tantamount to a public admission of bigotry. There would be legal and quasi-legal effects enforced by both law and public opinion as a result. And marriage as it has always been understood, Gallagher argues, would remain something nameless in the public square and unmentionable in polite society.

It seems to me that something also to be noted--if one has serious compassion for one's homosexual friends and relations--is that if Gallagher is right and the nature and purpose of marriage could be so fundamentally altered, the civilizing effects of both marriage and these unions would be cheapened, coarsened and diminished by this change. When marriages are fully categorized by law and in "polite society" as being nothing better or different or more trans-formative than are the sexual unions of homosexual couples, there will be no civilizing idea or example to which either kind of couple can look for an example. That is to say, one reason homosexual couples today may find the idea of marriage so appealing is likely the good marriage does for society and the changes it induces in its participants. If homosexual couples find that their own "non-marriage" unions do not quite measure up by way of comparison, is it any wonder that they look to something outside of the nature of the thing itself for a cause? What happens when they find that a rose by another name does not smell as sweet? What happens when there is no longer any rose-tinted glasses through which to view their situation? Sweet little lies on a personal level may serve some good purpose and I've really no problem with encouraging them in those whose personal situation demands them if they encourage a better public comportment. But when we try to pass off these little lies onto the rest of the world on a grand scale, this goes well beyond what Mark Twain might call a stretcher.

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Discussions - 13 Comments

What jumps out at me is the way even the defenders of marriage frame their arguments in terms of their impact on individuals. All successful societies have implemented one man/one woman marriage, for the simple reason that it leads to a stable social order. The alternative is not "free love" but polygamy. See the Muslim world for an example of how well that works out.

Polygamy can be de facto as well as de jure. There was a story in the news recentl about a wealthy Chinese man who had several mistresses, literally a harem. This in a country with a shortage of women.

That last gives a whole new meaning to the Marxist line "to each according to his ability" . . .

"FROM" each Julie, to each according to "NEED". In any case...To answer John M you can't stamp out the "de facto"...polygamy wins even in China, not because it respects the "need" of less sucessful men, but because the woman feels herself better off even spliting a man(probably with a party leader)...than with a lesser man(one less powerfull, regardless of if the country is capitalist or communist). To each according to his ability is the maxim restraining polygamy in Islam. In Islam the man should be able to provide comfort and dignity to his wife or wives. Still I find it hard to believe that many women in the United States would go for polygamy...perhaps with Kobe or Donald Trump...

While I like your post, still it seems to me that Marx might be a defender of marriage, certainly quasi-marxists(more Hegelian) like Daniel Bell would say that polygammy is the rational conclusion of capitalism....In other words to each according to his ability/amount of Capital....If a man like Trump or Kobe is able to support multiple wives, and both parties are willing then Trump or Kobe can have as many wives as they want(which might be O given as how allimony and divorce is more expensive than buying a supply of always young nubile hookers)...In many ways I really don't see(with womens rights and divorce law being what it is) rich men going for building a legally binding harem...unless they are really wealthy yet serious Muslim or Mormon men.

In many ways when Islam realized that some men where naturally more powerfull and wealthy and competent it created "polygamy" so as to civilize and bring under submission and Sharia what would otherwise occur defacto and undermine Islamic society...also the man is responsible for all his children(something NBA and MBA culture is immune from given modern contraceptives)..and wealth in Islamic society is more generally seen as something one aquires so as to have many wives and much progeny, money is less an end in itself which among other reasons is why usery is prohibited(seen as stealing food from the mouths of fellow muslim children...albeit usery with infidels is fine and encouraged.)

I do agree with a lot of this thinking in general, but really we are back to talking about a sort of cultural split..."There would be legal and quasi-legal effects enforced by both law and public opinion as a result." This would hold true...but I think we are reaching the point in history and the general culture where this is no longer true...In other words I think we have almost reached a sort of end of history point...a point where there is no longer the ability to extend further the dominance of law and sophisticated enlightened opinion...If I may go so far I declare that transformative Kantian Liberalism has had its "Katrina moment" when and if someone like Maggie Gallagher can say: "Don’t ask me, ask the guys at Harvard Law school. Because as far as I can tell they work these things out for themselves and let us know afterwards."

In other words when even Maggie Gallager can feel "topiarized" by the Harvard Law School...then there is no reason to believe that folks from West Virginia are going to give two shits about the legal or quasi-legal effects of such a rulling...(it isn't simply clinging to Guns and God, but a clinging to a Manliness where both are involved.)It will certainly apply with vengence to Presidents and other politicians...and will work itself down into business...but the ability to maintain that such ill advised statements are really "gaffes" will be either be commited to the flames or will act as a holocaust upon Stubborn Manliness and the universal Irish of every man on St. Patricks Day.

In other words no matter how much you pay a man...well not quite,(unless they are Irish or Black) it is nevertheless difficult and expensive(or violent) to engrain political correctness...black folks with grills and rims are open to the suggestion that Harvard Obama sells them out...except for the fact that they know that he has to do it to play the "system"...In fact being PC is either actually being liberal or just playing the system...

One reason marriage is important for civilization is that married men are more willing to play the system and accept the topiarization and civilizing structures...it isn't true as Ren's version of Marxism might believe that america has a Capitalist ethics, metaphysics and epistemology whatever this might mean...(Ayn Rand?)rather in practice this looks something like Republicans advocating a blend of Capitalism and Religion or Democrats advocating a blend of Capitalism and Kantian Liberalism/Political Correctness. Democrats and Libertarians join forces to hammer Religion...and Republicans and Libertarians join forces to hammer Political Correctness...and Democrats and Republicans argue that Libertarianism alone is insufficient grounds for the maintenance of Society...

In many ways then Libertarianism is Manliness before it is convinced of the good and civilizing things and everything still resembles outside force and power, Republicans/conservatives or Democrats/liberals or women offer...in many ways then it is as difficult for men to simply give in to what Jennifer suggested men should do in regards manliness(ask women).

But women are just as civilizing if not more so than conservatism/religion or liberalism/kantian ethics...albeit jobs(with PC enforcement and a standard of productivity and goal) are relatively equal or even potentially superior in power...ambition topiarizes and the natural limit is the point one grants: "heavy is the crown".

In other words what conservatives and some libertarians say in regards to the importance of marriage/religion is that as an institution and arrangement it alleviates the weight of the crown...One is not self-consciously topiarized if one accepts the underlying ethics/morality/goal, one makes it ones own...one can wear a tie without thinking as Woddy Hayes put it that one is kissing ones sister.(albeit conservatives might scare folks into believing that wearing a tie might at some point be less wrong than kissing ones sister.)

Sometimes when I want to mortify conservatives I argue that when they obliterated the Woddy Hayes mentality by accepting tie-wearing they paved the way for the acceptance of kissing ones sister...Of course the rejoinder is that this is what folks from West Virgina are known for...not wearing ties, and incest.

Of course the homosexual is steriotypically known for wearing ties(or being well dressed)...I am not exactly sure what homosexual marriage would do to america...I am not sure it would hurt it...To a large extent it will clarify the divide between the affluent and topiarized polite society, to include the refined/floppish homosexuals and the more manly/stubborn/traditionaly topiarized/rural/poor

What I don't think it will lead to is polygamy, if simply because polygamy is already a religious accomodation to natural inequality...as such it really makes no sense in a world where marital infidelity and prostitution is a cheaper alternative...polygamy would have to be accompanied with a religion...or something that made it manly not simply to sleep with many women but to have children and raise them.

In some sense then I maintain that both Mormonism and Islam are deeply conservative, that polygammy is what would occur if one wants to preserve marriage in a society where one grants promiscuity and not celibacy outside of marriage as natural.

In this sense polygamy is manly if and only if having a large family with many wives and children is manly...but having one wife and having more than two kids has a hard time selling itself as manly/desireable.

John M, one of my faves Chantal Delsol spelled out how de facto polygamy, that is, a society dominated by single mothers who raise the children of multiple "boyfriends," is working/will work. Legally, officially, it is "matriarchical" in that it leaves the reproductive choices to women, issues court orders for child-support, and will never, despite all the jurisprdential logic heading towards it in our gay-marriage decisions, give polygamy formal recognition. Those men Islamic enough or Old Country enough, will enforce defacto polygamy with the help of their communities, protected by liberal cowardice in the face of ethnic lobbies. I suppose a few men jealous and violent enough will find ways to enforce it de facto without such communal/religious support. But most men will calculate that the new society gives them a license to sexually rove without attendant responsibilities. Largely abandoning their sons and daughters, they will become "oi"-pub-men, "gangstas," macho swingers, cowboys without honor, what-have-you. (Incidentally, such men will typically treat gays savagely whenever they can get away with it--hate crimes against gays will go up.) Obviously, (assuming such a society does not simply descend into outright anarchy), the state will have to step in to a) provide omni-present police forces to keep the masses of semi-barbarized and unattached males in check, and b) to provide a massive social support system, including day-care (and increasingly, 24/7-care "orphanages"), for the beleagured single mothers.

Again, such a regime will still officially preach the empowerment of women, and for those who have no or few children, who moderate their sexual freedom, and who live in the most effectively policed zones, this will have some truth to it. There is certianly no way such a society can remain effectively democratic, although as Tocqueville indicated, it might be able to retain certain forms and practices.

As for how it would treat the remaining "married" weirdos, there isn't much room for optimism. If as many liberals expect, religion fades away, then the remaining sentimentalists about commitment can be dealt with. But if it rather remains, as all sober social science and anthropology would predict, the solution intially will be to strictly limit it to the private zone, but to strictly protect its freedom within this. The problem is, the offense that religious behavior gives a largely secularized society, especially on sexual matters, will remain. Worse, Christian/Jewish/Islamic monogamy, and primarily Islamic polygamy, will in such a society offer a very attractive alternative--many might begin to adopt these ways of life so as to escape the sexual barbarity otherwise reigning; and, these religion-backed "marrying-kind" would reproduce more. Thus, within the new society little sub-socieites might well grow and grow in numbers, so that marriage could increasingly come to be regarded as a threat to the state itself.

Some of this is more my own thinking than Delsol, but she's the source--the book is The Unlearned Lessons of the 20th Century . And again, I do not predict that all this follows from gay marriage. No, it all follows from a much broader trend that gay marriage would be a small, if perhaps key, part of. Ah, the rub in that "perhaps," as we simply don't know! But see into the very possible future, large instances of which already exist, and have compassion for the hundreds of millions of children raised in the "families" of the future. Admit that their plight far outweighs that of homosexuals circa 2009, who have it better than gays ever have had in all history. (And again, have a care for the grim plight of homosexuals in that future society.) Be wary of closely calculating how much tampering with the old ways we can get away with before we are inexorably led into that soceity.

polygamy, that is, a society dominated by single mothers who raise the children of multiple "boyfriends," is working/will work.

I think the anthropologists' term for a multiplicity of husbands is 'polyandry'. If I am not mistaken, the number of primitive societies discovered who sport this is greater than zero, but the phenomenon is rare

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What is it called when there is both de-facto polygamy and poly-andry? I think you still give the naming rights to the group that is more deliberately choosing the arrangement--thus, de-facto polygamy seems apt.

Also, some very smart comments from Carl Scott. Of course, now I have to read Chantal Delsol . . . or maybe I'll just keep reading Carl Scott.

Art Deco is right, of course. But what I meant to say is that in the chaotic and state-reliant "matriarchal"(Delsol's term) society in which most folks are "poly-partnerists," but only one gender winds up raising children, women will be treated pretty badly...so badly, that formal polygamy (i.e., polygamous marriage) could look like a good option to many of them.

Indeed, Carl Scott, this was precisely the argument made by the "wives" I interviewed several years ago in order to write this article. They made the case that it was the only logical choice for a true feminist. I found it difficult to disagree with that.

Art Deco is right, of course. But what I meant to say is that in the chaotic and state-reliant "matriarchal"(Delsol's term) society in which most folks are "poly-partnerists," but only one gender winds up raising children, women will be treated pretty badly...so badly, that formal polygamy (i.e., polygamous marriage) could look like a good option to many of them.

Winds up? Mr. Scott, women are not lacking in agency. Most divorces are initiated by wives, particularly so when the marriage has issue. There are a great many men who shirk their responsibilities to their bastard children. There are others who are shoo-ed away by mothers and still others reluctant to assume the role of sometime-baby-sitter-cum-ATM machine in lieu of the role of husband and father.

Pace Julie Ponzi, the domestic formation of mother, children, and a succession of men of varying degrees of transiency is a common phenomenon in our time; its converse is not. Serial exercises in concubinage &c. on the part of young men surely render them less suitable husbands. However, demographic ratios being what they are, the frequency of this sort of behavior between men and women would tend to be similar. A polygamous society should feature a privileged male stratum with a multiplicity of outlets at one time, a corresponding frustrated bachelor herd, and no analogue to either in the female population. Perhaps there is sociological literature on contemporary North America that would substantiate that this is occurring today. I am just not seeing it.


Women (and men) are making all manner of choices because (given particular time horizons) they conceive of same as incorporating an improvement in their utility. They, and the men, are being 'treated badly' in comparison to what was the case sixty years ago. However, to order their lives differently would require transcending the assumptions of their particular milieux and accepting sacrifices that were not so severe in the former period. Think, for a moment, of what sort of penalties were visited on a chaste young man of 17 in 1948 and what sort of penalties are visited on him today. The sacrifices are arguably worth it, but in so far as they are sacrifices, they will occur less frequently than they otherwise would.

Left to their own devices, people will trash the commons, and, given a generation to warm up, the common life as well.

Late notice, Julie, but that's a most interesting article you wrote back in the day. I wonder how that woman who felt empowered by polygamy is doing these days...

And Art Deco, I am not saying this (the present situation and trend) is primarily the fault of men...more another time...

Carl, in regard to your Comment 10: Is "polygamy" really the correct classification for the multiple-baby-mama/baby-daddy situation emerging in America? I mean, the "poly" is there, but where's the "gamy," where's the law? Marriage is essentially legal, a legal privilege and obligation to make a household and raise children with a particular him or her.

In your description of de facto polygamy, it seems as though particular males demand whatever from whichever and however many women, and demand it exclusively, while also demanding that none of those women admit any other males. And in such a society, the males make these demands without using or suffering the law (except, as you say, through child support, though I doubt its effectiveness).

This sounds like a variation on the law of the jungle, and I think it could/does exist, but only under the conditions that: law in general is weak; an alpha male doesn't get dispatched by another alpha male. But even if/as this cruel-brutish-nasty-and-short scenario exists, I think that it wouldn't be polygamy, since there'd be no law (at least no law about sex).

Polygamy, of the Islamic or "Big Love" sort, is still "marriage" -- i.e., it gives one man the exclusive rights to several particular women while also tying him to each of them regarding fidelity (no sex with women other than one's wives) and provision/child-rearing. And, in these situations, the men not only don't fight this mutual-obligation arrangement, they support it, and it has the character of law. Now, the law may be and usually is patriarchal or male-biased (and so not simply just), but it still acts as law on the men.

In sum, isn't "de facto polygamy" an oxymoron? If were talking about a society where monogamy doesn't exist or is in decline, isn't there only "de jure" polygamy or else a brutal, turbulent sexual free-for-all? And as such, as Julie quoted above, polygamy -- though not preferable -- would be preferable to anarchy.

And Art Deco, I am not saying this (the present situation and trend) is primarily the fault of men...more another time...

Mr. Scott, I have been in just enough discussions of this sort to have noticed what many and perhaps most participants take for granted: that the distaff side is a pure recipient of injuries inflicted by others. Another common feature of such discussions is that the social phenomenon in question is spoken of most injurious to the distaff side, no matter what it is. To truly adhere to the first, one must not have reflected on one's experience in any intelligent way; as for the second, terms like 'all' and 'always' seldom apply in the study of human beings.

My regrets for misconstruing you. I do not think I misconstrued the individual who uttered the following remark:

"I think you still give the naming rights to the group that is more deliberately choosing the arrangement--thus, de-facto polygamy seems apt."


The thing is, young women are not being coerced or manipulated in the course of mundane life any more than is anyone else. In addition, the formal institutions of matrimonial and family law in our time are, if anything, something of a stacked deck. And not against them. The work of social reconstruction and cultural renewal is going to have to include as a component a reminder to young women of something on which I suspect my mother's contemporaries had a better handle: they are agents, and are properly held accountable.

I also have to marvel at how few men I have encountered in the last thirty years who give any evidence of being of a polygamous disposition (as opposed to being in a state of drift or anomie). I guess the playahs do not like my company.

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