Ross Douthat's Aesthetic Case Against Gay Marriage

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat opposes gay marriage because he cares more about his aesthetic ideals than he does about equality.


In his latest New York Times op/ed Douthat rejects all the usual rationalizations for giving more rights to straight couples. Some conservatives argue only opposite-sex marriage deserves recognition because only opposite-sex marriage is natural. Douthat stresses that lifelong monogamy doesn't come naturally to anyone. I.e., sticking with one person for life isn't as easy as breathing, it's something most people have to work at. Hence the need for an institution of marriage to formalize the commitment and enlist the community to support the aspiring lifelong monogamists.

Douthat also rejects the conservative claim that the nuclear family is a timeless universal institution that we tinker with "at our peril." He notes that polygamy is just as "traditional" as monogamy, if not more so.

So, why does Douthat oppose gay marriage?

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support. [NYT]

If we give points for symbolically sacrificing our reproductive self-interest at the altar, gay couples clearly win. A lifelong monogamous relationship with a same-sex partner is even more of a mutual surrender of reproductive interests than a hetero marriage.

I have no idea what Douthat means when he says that the very best straight marriages offer "a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between generations." Why would we want our families to be microcosms of civilization? Civilization has a lot of problems. I like my family because it's more egalitarian that civilization at large. What's this about an "organic connection between generations"? Gay parents are just as organically connected to their biological offspring as straight parents.

Douthat goes on to argue that his ideal of marriage is a distinctive attribute of Western Civilization. The implication being that we shouldn't discard an institution that makes us special compared to all those other civilizations. Did you catch a whiff of xenophobia there? I did.

Douthat would be the first to agree that most straight marriages fall short of his ideal through adultery, divorce, adoption, and so on.

So, he's upholding a blatantly discriminatory double standard. Most families fall short of his rigid ideal. Yet, he wants to applaud some approximations and reject others. A sterile heterosexual couple will never live up to Douthat's ideal of marriage, but he's all for letting them join the club. Douthat's ideal of marriage has room for step-parents, i.e., straight people who marry partners with kids and help to raise the brood. I haven't heard him clamoring to ban adoptions.

So, why won't Douthat give opposite-sex pairs the same leeway? A lesbian couple having a baby with a sperm donor approximates Douthat's ideal as well as, or better than, many straight marriages.

Douthat can see through the crude claim that gay marriage is anathema because marriage is for making babies and only straight couples can make babies. But he's looking to reach the same conclusion in a more intellectually defensible way. So, he's falling back on abstract language about ideals and Western Civilization and projecting his own preferences onto Western Civilization as a whole--even as he acknowledges that in practice, Western Civilization, hasn't been as strict about monogamy as Ross Douthat.

More importantly, Douthat doesn't explain why society should shape public policy according to his sexual and aesthetic hangups. He doesn't try to convince us that his ideal marriage is better than any alternative model. Nor does he explain why there should be exactly one ideal for marriage. He just asserts that his ideal is something that West Civilization has long cherished. This form of argument illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of conservatism. Just because the West has valued something for a long time doesn't necessarily mean that it's good. A lot of very bad ideas are very old, and vice versa.

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