Why the Obama Administration is wrong about DOMA

As many
of you know, last week, President Obama’s administration struck down the 1996
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred any federal recognition of
same-sex marriage.  While President Obama
has always insisted (and continues to insist) that he favors only civil unions for homosexual couples, with the support of
Attorney General Eric Holder, the president’s administration has deemed DOMA unconstitutional.

the popularly touted reason that DOMA unfairly discriminates against homosexuals,
Holder described the administration’s decision as ‘appropriate, and unique, but
not unprecedented’

the language of Holder’s opinion on DOMA I think reveals a misunderstanding
concerning the reasons it was originally passed; reasons that show it is a
legitimate and ultimately constitutional legislation. The traditionalist’s
stance against gay marriage has been once concerned with an understanding and a
protection of the nature of marriage, as outlined and explicated in a great deal of articles and papers. A summary of the defense of
traditional marriage isn’t necessary here; what is crucial is that this defense does not choose to discriminate against a
certain group of people. Unlike discriminatory laws and attitudes such as the
ones that prevented African-Americans and women from being able to vote and
participate in the public forum, laws that defend traditional marriage seek to
arrive at the essence of What Marriage Is.

Just as
any just law rules against certain actions (people who steal are sent to jail)
and not against certain people (we don’t punish people who are born with a
natural inclination towards theft), so does DOMA rule against actions and not
people. As such, it does not discriminate against homosexuals at all. I feel that this is what
Holder and the Obama administration miss when they describe DOMA as
discriminatory. Rather, DOMA takes a rigorously defined understanding of
marriage and restricts the federal government from challenging this definition.

Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Before Michael Novak turned political and began to plump in
earnest for democratic capitalism, his work focused upon more properly
philosophical themes.  Hence, early
on in his career, he wrote a book called The
Experience of Nothingness
, which I was glancing through the other day.  The book is rather breezy and
conversational and not especially dense, but sprinkled throughout it are some
excellent passages.  One in
particular struck me: 

“The enormous weight, meanwhile,
put upon sexual fulfillment [in modern society] is insupportable; intercourse
is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in.  Among young people, the weakening of
cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual
intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit.  It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is
mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced to the huddling warmth of kittens in
the darkness – not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of
nothingness.  Close your eyes and
plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be.”

Modern culture, for Novak, is marked deeply by the “experience
of nothingness,” the absence of any ground of meaning, be it divine or
not.  The infelicitous alliance (though
this not for Novak) of individualism,
liberalism, and capitalism has conspired to wrench the human person from his
naturally “thick” social milieu, like a limb from its body – and with all the
attendant pain and anguish and self-mutilation.  Through the rampant mechanization and atomization of modern
life, the individual is now cut off from the vital source from which his
identity once flowed and must navigate a desiccated, commodified, disenchanted
world.  It is no surprise, then,
that ours is a culture of wounded psyches.  Modern life, especially in its more extreme modes, is an
abattoir from which few escape unscathed. 

In the midst of all this, the question arises: How is one to
find meaning?  In a world whose
metaphysical horizons have been swept clear and in which “all that is solid
melts into air” (to use Marx’s phrase), one cannot but search for something
that can provide meaning and stability in one’s life.  As Novak suggests above, one such putative source of meaning
is, for many people, sex.  It
claims to offer euphoria, release, ecstasy, liberation, and an escape from the
dull and harsh conditions of modern society.  By means of the body, it claims to supply a flight from the
body, proposing as its glorious goal a spiritual unity with one’s partner.  In order to cope with the realities of
life, then, sex has become mechanical in its means and spiritual in its ends, a
split of subject and object.  To
put a twist on Walter Benjamin, we are now living in the age of mechanical

We are trying to find ghosts of meaning in the machines of
our bodies.  But this meaning
cannot be found.  Divorced from the
(mechanized) body, such meaning becomes only formal, lacking in substance or
content that could give it real depth. 
And so, to that extent, this kind of sought-after unity cannot be
realized.  With the body viewed as
just a simplistic mechanism – not as the lived
body – no true inter-subjective integration is possible; a person is just a
monad, an atom isolated from all other atoms.  Fulfilled only for a fleeting moment by one’s sexual
partner, desire cannot rest, but moves on searching for fulfillment elsewhere,
in other sexual encounters and in other expressions of sexuality – if only to
satisfy the heart’s longing for unity. 
But the dialectic repeats itself: at once mechanized and spiritualized,
sex of this sort cannot adequately attain its end.  Neither ghosts nor machines can provide us with
meaning.  But if not in casual
sexual encounters, then how else is one to find meaning in a meaningless
world?  In marriage. 

It is in marriage, in the actual, organic, psychosomatic
unity of man and woman committing and sacrificing their lives and their very
selves to each other, naturally ordered towards the incomprehensibly wonderful
ends of procreation and spousal companionship that connect the couple to all of
society and to generations past and future – it is in all of this that true
meaning lies.  The antidote to the
rationalization and technologization of society is to be found not in so-called
“liberated” sex, but, paradoxically, in marriage.  For marriage, though one of the most ancient and venerable
institutions, is at the same time the most subversive and radical, standing
obliquely to the currents of the age and to all the passing orthodoxies.

This is why, today, it is necessary more than ever to hold up
marriage as an ideal.  But this is,
of course, not easy to do: the ideology, the false consciousness forced upon
us by the debacle that was the “sexual revolution” still holds powerful
sway.  The rapid explosion of “freedom”
in the sexual sphere has drowned out the firm but soft voice of marriage in our
culture.  But the whole revolution
was based upon an illusion, a massive one, holding out a promise of ghostly
meaning in our mechanical bodies. 
Yet these are promises that have gone – and must go – wholly
unfulfilled.  It is time we stopped
believing in ghosts.

Continue reading Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

I Know You Less Than I Did Before

A recent article in the Journal of Consumer Psychology presents evidence for a counterintuitive aspect of human relationships:
couples who had been together longer – on average 40 years longer – knew less about each other’s preferences (favorite foods, movies, etc.) than younger couples.
The article is entitled “Older but not wiser–Predicting a partner’s preferences gets worse with age.” You can read the original here and a writeup at Wired.com here.

On reflection, this phenomenon is not completely unexpected.
When you first get to know a person, be it in friendship or dating, there are countless undiscovered things you have to learn about each other.
Each new experience is an exciting revelation, and each new fact adds to your understanding of the other person.
But after a time, you start to feel as though you know each other pretty well, and you stop digging for surprises.
Or you might think that the other person’s preferences and beliefs are fairly constant, and don’t bother investigating whether they have changed in the time that you have been together.
An interesting idea would be for a couple to try to maintain a simple, healthy tension in their relationship – the tension of being aware that there are still countless things they don’t know about the other person, and to treat those unknowns as a treasure of surprises to be discovered.
To give a somewhat silly example, do you know whether your significant other prefers flip-flops or sports sandals?
If it’s the former, are they a Rainbows fan or a Rainbows skeptic?
If it’s the latter, do they favor the tricked-out ones with massage footbeds and gel cushions?
The conclusion of this exercise:
if you don’t know, try finding out!
You might be surprised at what else you learn about the other person.

This idea of re-discovering the person by engaging with him/her on different ideas and in different situations relates to another phenomenon – couples who have been married longer often find themselves doing the same things for “date nights” that they have been doing throughout their relationship.
However, the spouses report feeling much closer to each other when they do something new or adventurous instead, such as going rollerblading at night and getting ice cream instead of going through the hum-drum “dinner and a movie” routine for the nth time.

This paper raises several other fascinating issues (for example, the role of “white lies” in long-term relationships), and I will be discussing it more in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!

A Good Old-fashioned Prenup

I had the greatest idea the other day: get a prenuptial agreement!  (As it doesn’t look like I’ll wed soon, this plan may take a while to go into effect.)  “Why,” you might ask, “would somebody so virtuous and chaste want to get a prenup?”  Well, let me tell you!  Since I don’t accept the possibility of divorce, my prenup will be designed specifically to make divorce as painful and awful as possible.  All assets will be seized by the state.  I will own my husband’s right arm, left leg, and right ear, and he will own mine.  Because of this, divorce would necessarily entail a sundering of limbs.  And let’s face it, if we really took marriage seriously, we would understand divorce to be a similarly violent affair.

As it currently stands, the law takes a rather libertarian stance on marriage, and I would love to see private individuals gracefully respond to this with their own creative measures.  Ideally my plan would become a popular fad, because really, who doesn’t want to vow true permanence when they marry?  Somehow, it just seems more sincere to say “’till death do us part” when you know that breaking that vow would result in amputation.

The Perfect Affair (Part II)

In my last post, I proposed a philosophy of extreme prudishness in response to my fondness for affairs. In this post, I would like to explain why this is a reasonable response.

As I said, I enjoy (reading about) affairs when their forbidden nature proves their passion. Given the value I place on that passion, I would like to construct my life in such a way that I have a chance at finding a similar degree of it. Modern American society does little to help in this regard: given how easy and socially inexpensive it is to pursue any sort of romantic involvement, it is difficult to know that doing so is more than just a whim. Even if you think that you would risk life and limb for someone, you can’t really be sure unless being with them actually constitutes some risk.
A friend of mine recently suggested that bachelor parties should inflict pain upon the groom, to ensure that he only marries if he really loves the woman in question. I agree with this, and believe we should extend the same attitude to dating and falling in love. Although these things are all good, they would be much better if they were more socially expensive, because we would not then pursue them so frivolously.
The affairs in Madame Bovary are not exciting, precisely because the characters are sticking to the script rather than stepping outside of it for their love. In the same way, our permissive and risk-averse hookup culture strips all romantic significance from our actions.
In writing this post I invite everyone to mock me mercilessly if I ever demonstrate mushy sentiments, appear to be in love, or marry. This is not a declaration that I will never do these things, or that if I do, I will do them in a more sincere or passionate way than anyone else; however, I do hope that this minor social cost will discourage me from cultivating mediocre romances merely out of loneliness or boredom. I’m sure I will regret this invitation, but hopefully, it will at least prove an interesting social experiment.

Continue reading The Perfect Affair (Part II)

The Perfect Affair: Lessons from Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary (Part I)

Despite being a total prude, I will readily admit to seeing the appeal of a steamy (literary) extramarital affair. Don’t get me wrong – this is not to say that I think cheating is permissible or that I plan to have an affair; rather, I simply acknowledge that something about an illicit affair is conducive to a good love story. (And based on all of trash literature, it seems that a sizable niche agrees with me.) What’s more, I believe that by examining the appeal of an affair, it’s possible to discover how to better conduct our own lives.

In the typical story, a rule-abiding protagonist is trapped in a loveless marriage or relationship, and finds an escape from it in some forbidden love. This situation clearly attests to the passion which drives the affair, for the conscientious protagonist would not engage in such an ill-advised venture without an overwhelming emotion motivating it. Alternatively, if the affair itself isn’t particularly noteworthy, it can be a testament to the horror of the relationship the protagonist is trying to escape. Although we never envy the protagonist’s hopeless situation, (Anna Karenina, anyone?) the affair’s appeal accentuates our desire for sincere passion, and our aversion to settling for boring, passionless relationships.

Although counterintuitive, I believe that extreme prudishness provides the best chance at finding a passionate and lasting relationship whilst avoiding the horrors either of passionless entrapment or of an illicit affair. Here, by extreme prudishness, I do not mean fear of sex, unwillingness to discuss sex, or any other form of “ladylike” behavior. Instead, I propose a form of restraint which, instead of aimed at sexiness, is designed to oppose the physical and emotional cultivation of romance.

This does not entail any specific rules such as “no premarital kissing” or “thou shalt not declare thy love before the 7th date.” It would, however, oppose these things when done for the sake of cultivating romance. So if I suspect that a particular action, for instance kissing, would dramatically increase my fondness for someone, I should try to avoid such behavior.

(To be continued…)
Continue reading The Perfect Affair: Lessons from Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary (Part I)

“Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts”

Princeton Professor Robert P. George writes in the Wall Street Journal on the definition of marriage and the influence of the Court:

Following California’s Proposition 8, which restored the historic definition of marriage in that state as the union of husband and wife, a federal lawsuit has been filed to invalidate traditional marriage laws.

It would be disastrous for the justices to do so. They would repeat the error in Roe v. Wade: namely, trying to remove a morally charged policy issue from the forums of democratic deliberation and resolve it according to their personal lights.

George writes that if marriage is redefined, then

…there is no reason that primarily emotional unions like friendships should be permanent, exclusive, limited to two, or legally regulated at all. Thus, there will remain no principled basis for upholding marital norms like monogamy.

But even beyond the societal impact of a redefinition of marriage, the very nature of our democratic system is at stake. By allowing the courts to decide the issue rather than the legislatures, the issue would be removed from the democratic process and would be decided instead by the personal policy preferences of a few.

Writes George,

Because marriage has already been deeply wounded, some say that redefining it will do no additional harm. I disagree. We should strengthen, not redefine, marriage. But whatever one’s view, surely it is the people, not the courts, who should debate and decide. For reasons of both principle and prudence, the issue should be settled by democratic means, not by what Justice Byron White, in his dissent in Roe, called an “act of raw judicial power.”

Read at the Wall Street Journal’s website here, or find it after the jump.

Continue reading “Gay Marriage, Democracy, and the Courts”