Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Under Heavy Fire for Years, Blankenhorn Abandons Ship

Paul Adams
One of the positive aspects of David Blankenhorn’s reversal on same-sex marriage is the commentary it has elicited from defenders of marriage like Michael Cook of the dignitarian website MercatorNet and Maggie Gallagher, former chair of the National Organization for Marriage and co-author of an outstanding summary of the research on marriage, The Case for Marriage (2000).  
Who is Blankenhorn?  Gallagher offers a succinct summary of his achievements on behalf of children and marriage:
In the early 1990s, Blankenhorn wrote a book called Fatherless America and launched a think tank (the Institute for American Values) drawing attention to the problem of family fragmentation. He did extraordinary work, bringing together family scholars, policymakers, thinkers, and writers across ideological lines to help form a new consensus that marriage matters.
In 2007, Blankenhorn wrote The Future of Marriage, in which he lays out the evidence that marriage is the union of male and female, oriented toward giving children a father as well as a mother. He agreed to testify on behalf of Prop 8 during Judge Walker’s show trial, and he was one of the few experts who did not run when he learned his testimony might be televised.
The difficulty of responding intellectually to Blankenhorn’s abandonment of the fight for marriage as he understands it is, as Gallagher says, is that “he says he has not changed his mind about the fact that gay marriage represents a step in the de-institutionalization of marriage. He stands by his Proposition 8 testimony. He’s not recanting. He has just lost hope that fighting gay marriage can be part of a strategy for strengthening marriage. He’s left with the hope that somehow if he concedes gay marriage he will be in a strong position to address his core concerns about fatherless America.”
The “wall of hatred” (in Gallagher’s term) confronting anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is extraordinarily vehement and violent.  A tactic of intimidation, it is surely the most extreme outpouring of hatred and abuse in our times from people who consider themselves on the side of tolerance and reason.  It is understandable why someone who has been vilified as publicly and viciously as Blankenhorn - from the scurrilous attacks of the New York Times’s Frank Rich to the hateful, often obscene expressions of intolerance that come from pro-SSM comments in comboxes, on Facebook, and the like - would want to retire from the field of battle, rest and lick his wounds.
Blankenhorn himself is a mild and well-meaning liberal who became deeply concerned about the disintegration and deinstitutionalization of marriage and its devastating effects in poor and minority communities, in particular on their women and children.  He wanted to build a movement and write about marriage as a key social good, our most pro-child institution, while bracketing the issue of same-sex “marriage” as an essentially unrelated question.  He came to see that this was impossible, that the hijacking of marriage for purposes unrelated to its historic and universal understanding and to the needs of children - the desire of some adults to have homosexual relations honored and normalized on the same level as heterosexual relations - was already too far advanced to be ignored.
In his op-ed piece in the New York Times - the paper that launched an extraordinarily nasty, biased and absurdly unfair attack on him just a couple of years ago (one of Rich’s columns was called “Smoke the Bigots Out of the Closet”) - Blankenhorn makes it clear that he stands by the arguments he made brilliantly in his 2007 book, The Future of Marriage:
I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.
Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.
At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.
In the book he had advanced the best definition of marriage I have seen: 
In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived both as a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents (p.91).
So why did Blankenhorn side with the bitter enemies of marriage as it has been understood across time and place for millennia, at least since the earliest surviving legal codes?  He has given three reasons. Two are social and almost embarrassingly feeble: the need for “comity” and “respect for an emerging consensus,” especially among “most of our national elites, as well as most younger Americans.”  By comity, he means he does not like conflict, despite years of finding himself unwillingly at the center of one of the most bitter divides in the culture wars.  He is willing to sacrifice principle for getting along.  By consensus, he seems to mean something similar - if you can’t beat them, join them.  (But Michael Cook puts a more sympathetic gloss on this rationale by comparing it to Justice Devlin’s change of heart about the legalization of homosexual behavior in Britain in light of changing public opinion.)  
The third is personal: “the equal dignity of homosexual love”.  It is a position, rejecting the traditional Judeo-Christian position that homosexual desire is disordered.  (This is a complicated question.  Catholic teaching differentiates between same-sex attraction, which is not sinful but is nevertheless disordered, on one hand, and homosexual (i.e., homogenital) activity, which like all other kinds of sex outside marriage or intrinsically, by its very nature, incapable of generating new life, is sinful.  Before the development, originally as the term for a psychopathology, of the term homosexuality (which generated complementary notions of heterosexuality and bisexuality) in the late nineteenth century, strong and lasting love between friends of the same sex was honored and not taken to be “homosexual” in the modern sense, or sexual at all.
Blankenhorn, a liberal Christian, has consistently rejected biblical and Christian teaching on homosexuality and argued that “homosexual love” (by which he means to include sex) should be accorded equal dignity and honor with the love of man and woman.  But until recently he did not take this to be an argument for changing the fundamental nature of marriage.  
Marriage as an institution is mute and formally indifferent on the question of sexual orientation or disposition or desire.  (Classically, a man was judged or defined not by his desires, but by his mastery of them, his virtue.)  Sexual desire or orientation is not a criterion for admission to or exclusion from marriage. And for good reason.  As Blankenhorn (2007) says,  “But if we as a society cross that Rubicon—if sexual desire becomes a valid legal principle for structuring a marriage—it is hard to imagine the moral metric by which bisexual spousal groups would be excluded from this newly orientation-sensitive institution” (p.259).  And indeed, that cat, rejected by SSM advocates just a few years ago as a bogus slippery slope argument, is already out of the bag.
Michael Cook argues that this question of the moral status of homosexual behavior cannot be avoided and that Blankenhorn’s surrender to same-sex marriage was inevitable given his view of the matter.
The Blankenhorn incident is a painful reminder of one of the main failings of our culture – its inability to set boundaries to sexual expression. Fundamentally this has happened because people have come to believe that they can define the purpose of sex for themselves. On Tuesday, it could be love; on Wednesday lust; on Saturday pleasure; or on Sunday simply curiosity. Sex’s link with children and the complementarity of male and female is something incidental, almost irrelevant, to the way we should live our sexuality. 
There are two lessons here. First, unless opponents of gay marriage have firm views on the immorality of homosexual acts, it is almost inevitable that they will follow David Blankenhorn into a grudging acceptance of a new social paradigm. They must hold firm to the truth that homosexual love is not equal in dignity to married love. Second, those views need to be articulated in a way which does not humiliate or vilify homosexuals but gives a clear account of why homosexual acts are an inherently disordered use of sexuality. There is a lot of work to be done here.
I am not sure this is a logically necessary link.  It seems to me perfectly consistent to argue both that:
  1. the state should not intervene in most private consensual sexual behavior among adults, not because it judges such activity to be morally proper or equivalent to the conjugal relations of husband and wife, but because it is a hopeless task that contravenes prevailing opinion, would discredit the law (because unenforceable or arbitrarily enforced, like the old sodomy laws or laws against adultery or the English offense of alienating the affections of another’s spouse); and 
  2. the state should differentially honor and support marriage as traditionally understood for the reasons Blankenhorn gives:  It is “the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.”
It seems perfectly reasonable to say that the state should not criminalize certain kinds of (immoral) sexual behavior that have become widely accepted and practiced, but that it should discriminate in favor of the one kind of sexual behavior that is capable of generating new life and the institution built on it (without which a marriage is not consummated).
It is also reasonable and right to honor deep and lasting friendships and to respect and accommodate financial interdependence among adults.  The elderly single Burden sisters in England sought in vain to be “treated like lesbians” under the UK’s civil unions law because of their close and lasting interdependence and the impending ruin for the survivor when one died and the other had to sell their family home to pay estate (death) taxes.  Under Hawaii’s former “reciprocal beneficiaries” law, such a situation could have been accommodated because there was no requirement or expectation that those involved in such a relationship be having sex.  Marriage implies, is partly defined by sex; friendship and financial independence are not.
But after years of being vilified and denounced nationally in the harshest terms as a hate-filled bigot (which Blankenhorn never remotely was notwithstanding Rich’s calumnies), these kinds of distinction, though reasonable, may not be emotionally sustainable for a man of Blankenhorn’s mild and peaceable temperament.
Still, Blankenhorn’s notion of seeking new alliances with gays who support the institution of marriage is a feeble hope.  As he himself pointed out in his book, while some supporters of SSM honor marriage as an institution based on exclusive, monogamous commitment between two people, many others support it just because it is part of the de-institutionalization of marriage itself.  Academics who built their whole careers on attacking the institution of marriage and the family suddenly support SSM, not because they want to extend the benefits of a great institution to gays, but because they see it as a key step in the destruction of marriage as understood virtually everywhere and always until yesterday.  For example, as Blankenhorn himself documents in The Future of the Family (2007), Stephanie Coontz and Judith Stacey, who both have attacked traditional marriage for decades and defended its alternatives - divorce, cohabitation, unwed childbearing - welcome SSM precisely for its deinstitutionalizing potential.
And as Cook aptly concludes,
And lest anyone else think that sharing marriage with gays will save it as a social institution, here are some bitter observations about Blankenhorn from Richard Kim, executive editor of the leading progressive magazine The Nation. He thinks that the new player on the gay marriage bench is just as “regressive, archaic and punitive” as he was when he opposed it. All that stuff about what kind of marriage produces the best results for children is irrelevant. “Blankenhorn sees an inner circle of honor and benefits that should be attached to marriage, and he’s now extended that circle to include gays and lesbians," Kim writes. "I want to scramble that circle.” 
I wish David Blankenhorn the best of luck in building a coalition with the likes of Richard Kim. 

No comments:

Post a Comment