Imagine There’s No Marriage

Team Obama is on to something. Worried that fear of a greater evil may not be enough to assure the President’s reelection, they concluded, not without reason, that it was time to throw the base a crumb.  And so it is that Obama voiced a few kind words, only words, about gay marriage.  As predicted, disheartened liberal voters are fired up again.

Obama has yet to give leaders of organized labor even this much.  After remaining aloof from last year’s monumental efforts to resist Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s war on public service unions, he has not yet deigned to campaign for Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic challenger to Walker in next month’s recall election.

Worse still, the Democratic National Committee is loathe even to throw spare change Barrett’s way.  As everyone should know by now, siding with people in struggle is out of bounds for these champions of change and hope.  But one would think that supporting a middle-of-the-road Democrat running against an especially noxious Republican intent on doing the labor movement in would not be asking too much.  Evidently it is, however,  when the corporate paymasters demur.

The old lib-lab coalition used at least to make modest demands on the Democrats they voted into office.  Nowadays, no one asks for anything, and that’s exactly what they get.  That and, at opportune moments, a few spineless words.

Obama’s interview with Robin Roberts –the ABC flack, not the immortal Phillies pitcher – sure did the trick with liberals.  It’s not just the usual cheerleaders and fear mongers, like Rachel Maddow, who think so; even thoughtful critics like Glenn Greenwald agree that the interview was “historic.”

Writing in, Greenwald was careful to point out that, by saying that marriage is a state, not a federal, issue, Obama all but conceded that he’d do no more than talk the talk.  And he was clear too that this gesture of Obama’s hardly redeems his wretched presidency.  But, he insists, the Roberts interview was a big deal nevertheless.

Perhaps it was; and, if so, it hardly matters, as Greenwald also pointed out, whether Obama spoke from the heart or whether a Joe Biden gaffe (or calculated “indiscretion”) forced his hand.   Neither would it matter that coming out, as it were, for gay marriage now helps with fund raising – at a time when it seems likely that the majority of bankster and vulture capitalist money will go not to Obama, as it did in 2008, but to Mitt Romney, one of their own.

A big deal, maybe; and a historic step, perhaps.  But does it show that Obama is anything like the social radical Fox News makes him out to be or that gullible liberals now think he might be?  Hardly.  If anything, it shows that Obama is a true conservative.

In this respect, the nitwits who have turned the GOP into a loony bin, and who befoul our political culture, don’t even come close.  They call themselves “conservatives,” but in reality they are reactionaries, intent not on conserving what is estimable in the status quo, but in reversing the gains of the past century.

* * *

Like repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) — which Obama endorsed verbally from before Day One, but didn’t get around to promoting until the 2010 election came into view – endorsing same sex marriage affords a way to regain credibility with liberals that in no way threatens the interests of the plutocrats Obama lives to serve.   Even if it was forced upon him, the Roberts interview was therefore a godsend; it enabled Obama to fire up his base without jeopardizing his place on the corporate gravy train.

To be sure, supporting gay marriage, even just verbally, is riskier than coming out for repealing DADT.  For one thing, Obama has less wind in his sails than he did on DADT.  By 2010, public opinion was solidly behind repeal; at present, it is only barely in favor of gay marriage (though the momentum is building).

More important, in 2010 hardly anyone was vehemently opposed to repeal.  In contrast, opposition to gay marriage today is intense, while support is, for the most part, only lukewarm.  It matters too that the Pentagon brass was on board for repealing DADT; there is no parallel now, unless the clergy of a few liberal Protestant denominations count.

Supporting repeal of DADT was therefore almost cost-free for Obama; supporting gay marriage is not.  Nevertheless, in a world where public opinion  “evolves” more rapidly than the positions of pusillanimous politicians – and where, in this instance, it seems to be moving in a more enlightened direction, notwithstanding the passionate intensity of the many retrogrades among us – Obama’s stance hardly counts as courageous.

However the Roberts interview does exemplify a certain diminution of the caution that seems to paralyze Obama in those rare instances when he is up to some good.  Or perhaps all it shows is that, at this point in the campaign, the Democrats, formerly certain that their opponents’ manifest unworthiness would sweep them into office, are beginning to feel desperate.

The fact that no one would call repealing DADT “historic” is consistent with either hypothesis.  Indeed, with DADT, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about.  There have always been gays in the military.  In the larger scheme of things, repealing that dreadful law changed very little.  Its introduction on Bill Clinton’s watch was similarly inconsequential.

Once DADT took effect, gays were not supposed to be rooted out of the military; to stay in, all they needed to do was keep their sexual orientation secret.  In practice, however, it seems that very little changed.  Now that DADT is repealed, gays can serve openly.  That is obviously better for them.  But, from the standpoint of the military itself, it matters hardly at all; it scarcely even affects the amount of cannon fodder our Masters of War have at the disposal.

By any measure, therefore, Obama’s public validation of same sex conjugal relationships is more consequential than his validation of homosexuals’ military service, though the difference is arguably offset by the fact that the less portentous change was real while the other, so far, is only talk.

But in the politics that surrounds these sops to liberal voters and gay donors, there is a revealing similarity.  Both evince a conservative cast of mind – not just on Obama’s part, but also on the part of the LGBT component of Obama’s base.  From them at least, one would expect better.

* * *

The movement that emerged from the Stonewall rebellion, like other insurgent movements of the late 60s and early 70s, was, according to its own self-understanding, counter-systemic.  Gay activists did not see themselves as stewards of the status quo, but as its sworn enemies.  To be sure, they grossly exaggerated the emancipatory potential of the departures from conventional sexual norms that they glorified.  But, by their lights, their movement was part of a larger struggle for a radically different and better world.

That understanding survives to this day, though it is more likely to be emphasized by right-wing opponents of sexual equality than by marriage equality advocates.  The idea is still around, but it has become difficult to justify.

Who among those who agitated for the repeal of DADT and who then celebrated Obama’s “courage” in bringing their efforts to fruition had an unkind word to say about the uses to which the military is put?  There was hardly a hint of anti-militarism, much less anti-imperialism, emanating from their ranks.  Instead, their argument was just that DADT discriminates against homosexuals, and that this is indefensible because it serves no legitimate purpose.

This is essentially what proponents of gay marriage say as well.  In both cases, the point is or rather ought to be beyond dispute: if an institution exists, there should be equality within it unless a compelling case can be made for inequalities, and there is no such case to be made when the issue is gays in the military or gay marriage.

With DADT, homophobes could at least raise plausible concerns about military morale.  There is nothing of comparable plausibility that might be adduced against gay marriage.  Except for theological reasons that have no place in the public arena, and that ought to hold no sway over the thinking of reasonable people in any event, differential treatment for homosexuals is arbitrary and therefore wrong.

But what about the institution itself?  Should that exist?   Theocrats and other self-described “social conservatives” think so.  True conservatives would be inclined to think so too; they are, by definition, ill disposed to tamper with the status quo.  But compelling reasons do move true conservatives, especially if their point is to enhance social order.

This is the case with gay marriage.  Although it has taken the idea forever to register within the collective psyche of a population still in the thrall of archaic theological doctrines and practices, it is becoming plain to ever-larger numbers of people that incorporating same sex couples into the marriage fold in no way challenges the ancien régime; quite the contrary, it strengthens it.

Versions of this argument have been proffered a lot recently, but we should remember that the point was still novel as recently as the mid-90s when the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan advanced it in his screed, Virtually Normal.  Sullivan’s contention was unassailable: so far from threatening “traditional marriage,” gay marriage reinforces it by resuming its defining features without its discriminatory aspects.  Could anything be more obvious – anything, that is, still mired in controversy?

But why should anyone cut from the cloth that brought gay activism into the political arena, anyone straight or gay who yearns for a radically better world, support traditional marriage?  No doubt, there are reasons.  But one would expect the heirs of the gay liberation movement to be skeptical about them or, at least to show some awareness of the pertinence of the question.   Few, if any, of them do.

* * *

It is fitting that, in a political culture in which words alone suffice to fire up liberal enthusiasms, discussions of same sex unions nowadays turn in part on a word — “marriage.”  “Civil union,” the ostensible alternative, is evidently a less inspiring appellation.  Correspondingly, it also raises fewer hackles on the reactionary right.

This is odd because, from a legal point of view, the two are or could easily be made to come to the same thing.   To the extent that both terms denote the same rights and privileges, why should anyone care which is used?

One reason is that same sex couples believe that the nomenclature associated with heterosexual marriage is itself a good that everyone, gay and straight, should be able to benefit from.  Similarly, homophobes want to deny gay couples those benefits.   I confess that I fail to understand the vehemence with which both sides pursue their respective cases; after all, “a word is a word is a word.”

But in a world where identity issues and related concerns about social recognition loom large, words take on a political charge that outsiders must respect, even when they don’t quite grasp why.  Therefore if same sex partners want “marriages,” not “civil unions,” so be it.  I would point out, though, that those of us who are tone deaf to the feelings that underlie their insistence have a case to make for the opposite position.

This is because “marriage,” from time immemorial, has had a religious connotation that ought to have no place in our political life.  To be sure, in the modern world, marriage, whatever else it may involve, is a civil estate.  But one cannot escape the fact that the idea developed over millennia under the aegis of theistic institutions and doctrines.  “Civil union” is less tied, verbally at least, to this hoary past.

In line with the genealogy of the idea and the institution it denotes, clerics nowadays, as in the past, serve as de facto agents of secular authorities; they are empowered to confer the secular rights and privileges that marriage entails.  One would think that progressives of all stripes and sexual orientations would find this abhorrent.

Let a thousand types of ceremonies occur and let clerics perform their offices as they and their co-religionists see fit.  But if the state has an interest in regulating the legal space, as it were, in which individuals who chose to commit to one another operate, then state officials, not clerics, should be the ones doing the regulating.

My inclination therefore is to say it would be better – more “progressive” — to advocate civil unions, not marriage for hetero- and homosexual coupes alike.  But, again, what’s in a word?  If it really matters to people that the word “marriage” is used, then it should be used, notwithstanding its theocratic lineage.

And although it would be a good thing to implement church-state separation within that institution, no matter what it is called, this concern too seems trivial in a world where, in large part thanks to the “bipartisan” consensus that afflicts us, so many more immediate problems abound.

* * *

Since fundamental reforms of family structures are not on the agenda in any case, the point I want to make is just that the still largely unrealized project of incorporating same sex couples into what is, at its core, a profoundly conservative institution has very little to do with the original promise of gay liberation.  This point too hardly warrants attention in light of the more pressing problems we face.  But in view of the brouhaha emanating from liberal quarters over Obama’s “historic” interview, it is worth noting.

I do not mean to suggest that a theory or practice that extols monogamous, permanent unions between same sex partners (or heterosexuals) is necessarily inconsistent with the aspirations of the movement that emerged out of Stonewall; only that it is foreign to its spirit.  Throughout the modern era, sexual radicals of all sexual orientations have been inclined to favor alternative forms, partly for non- or anti-conservative reasons.  But, who knows what is best?  This may be one sphere of human life where conservatives are more right than not.

In any case, what is really at issue as the debate on same sex marriage heats up this election season is the idea that enduring conjugal relationships require public validation. The idea that they do is plainly at odds not just with the spirit of Stonewall but with the idea behind liberation movements generally.

Increasingly nowadays, people from many walks of life who are not sexual radicals themselves are arriving at similar conclusions.  Marriage (or civil union) is coming to seem irrelevant, not to everybody but to many more people than in the past.  Individuals join together, buy property together, and even have children together – all without the benefit of public validation.  In enlightened quarters, no one is much bothered by this; it is understood that, like traditional marriage, this is one way among others to negotiate a path through life’s vicissitudes.

Until very recently, this is what gay couples have always had to do.  How ironic therefore that in their quest for “recognition,” the successors of the gay liberation movement are fighting a rearguard action.  Yesterday’s hyper-radicals have become today’s die-hard conservatives.

Needless to say, there are issues having to do with child rearing and inheritance that, along with other rights, privileges and duties, require some form of coordination; and it would be utopian to suppose that voluntary agreements alone will suffice in all cases.  In all likelihood, therefore, the state has an indispensable role to play.  State certified marriages (or civil unions) address these issues.  There are other ways imaginable, however; and they are not all so tradition-bound or tied to the conviction that one size fits all.

The marriage equality movement helps to undo heterosexual privilege, and that is all to the good.  Otherwise, however, it falls back into the old marriage (or civil union) regime, and that has a very different bearing.  Marriage (or civil union) egalitarians may not expressly oppose experiments in living, but neither do they encourage them.  This is fine for conservatives; for progressives, not so much.

There used to be many people, straight and gay, identified with the left, who actively engaged these issues in both theory and practice.  Lately, that radical sensibility seems to have gone missing. Not surprisingly, this suits the Change President well.

But, in this area at least, the arc of history seems to be on course.  If it stays that way as manners and mores evolve, the law can and will come to accommodate norms of a kind more congenial to the liberation movements of the recent past than to the conservative forces that dominate politics today.  In this respect, at the present time, the marriage equality movement, despite its welcome rejection of heterosexual privilege, is moving in the opposite direction.

So far from being a force working to bring about a better world, they have become defenders of the status quo.  They have become like Obama.   Shame on them.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).