What Ideal?

I was just forwarded this by someone and boy am I annoyed. I’m sure other people have covered this territory but here goes my line-by-line annoyance anyway:

1. “The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy.” False. False, false, and false. Of course polygamy is not the default, in any culture. In many cultures it is acceptable under certain circumstances – like if you are the sultan, or like if you are already married but then your older brother dies, leaving a childless widow who would otherwise have no place to be, or there are places where a woman will (sometimes) marry two brothers so that their father’s land doesn’t have to be split, but it’s never the default, and it’s never the default for good reasons. One is that you have to be rich to be polygamous; you have to have plenty of extra income to support the extra wives and especially the extra children. And I know people say that in older, agrarian societies, children were economic helps, not economic burdens, but that’s sort of bullshit. In agrarian societies, your
child could be an economic help AT THE VERY EARLIEST by age five and probably more realistically by age seven, and even then, their economic help probably doesn’t even break even with their economic burden until (for boys) 15 or 16 and (for girls) when they get married and bring in a bride price. Which is only any good if you don’t have sons who will have to pay for brides. And of course, reverse it for societies that have dowries. Which are already societies where children are economic burdens, not economic helps. Because if children are economic burdens, you demand money from a woman’s family to support her and her children (dowry); if children are economic helps, you have to pay to get the woman and her reproductive labor (bride price). And pregnant women are of limited economic help and significant economic burden. So only the rich in a society that supports polygamy can actually afford to do it, and there is no such
thing as a society where everyone is rich. The concept of “rich” doesn’t exist without “poor.” Second, where polygamy – and specifically polygyny, which is much more widely practiced than
polyandry – is the “default,” as in the fundamentalist Mormon circles depicted on “Big Love,” you have to either exile a large number of young boys, import a large number of young girls, or both. And that’s really problematic and unsustainable, especially the first part. So it’s never the “default,” in any society.

2. “The default mode of child-rearing is often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological children.” That’s true, but problematic. The nuclear family as we know it is very much a modern invention, but what one means by “communal” needs to be teased out. First of all, it’s rather unusual for two adult persons to live with no other adult persons – in many societies, you live with either the husband’s, or, less frequently, the wife’s, family of origin – along with siblings and cousins and whatnot. This arrangement has its pros and cons, and when the cons get to be too much, frequently, one or another brother moves out and establishes his own household. But it needs to be complicated further because it’s not like all of human history before 1945 was a monolith. It’s not like heterosexual marriages or child-rearing practices are a monolith now. And it’s not like we don’t rear our children communally now; we just consider such things unnatural or abnormal or not what we’re “really” doing. What are we doing, after all, when sure, we are the idealized heterosexual family with the mom at home and the dad at work, but the kid goes to preschool, and his/her “rearing” is assisted by the teachers there, and on Mondays and Wednesdays, Grandma comes over for a few hours, also assisting in the rearing, and there’s a babysitter across the street who comes over Saturday nights, and then, when the kid is five, the kid is in school for 30 hours a week, being partially “reared” by teachers, principals, classroom aides, lunch ladies, and even the state, which mandates what the child will learn and when. I mean, we have communal rearing now, is my point, but we don’t call it that. And we treat many forms of it – like day care and nannies – like they are the marks of bad parents who are refusing to enact this bizarre ideal. And going back, child-rearing has been handled in many different ways by many different cultures across time, just as now, but across those times parents have not been subject to this impossible-to-achieve ideal of being “reared” exclusively by the biological parents of said child. Which is not to say they didn’t have their problems. But talking about a single default mode and the nubby concept of “communal” child-rearing is misleading or at least
not particularly thoughtful. Also, “communal” child-rearing sounds better to me – and t0 many people – than the nuclear ideal.

3. “If “natural” is defined to mean “congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable. In crudely Darwinian terms, it cuts against both the male impulse toward promiscuity and the female interest in mating with the highest-status male available.” There is some evidence that this is not true. I mean, some scientists support the notion that men need to “spread their seed” and women need to gold-dig, but others disagree, finding this explanation rather self-serving and culturally, rather than scientifically, mandated. Jared Diamond, one of my favorite guys in the whole wide world, has written really interesting stuff about that, but his major point is that human reproduction (EVEN FOR MEN) is not a numbers game; it’s a raise-them-to-adulthood game, and that doesn’t necessarily fit with this notion of men spreading their seed, because they still need to be sure that their children make it to adulthood. He does say that for some relatively small percentage of males in any given society (say 5-10%), that is best served by sleeping with married women whose husbands (if adequately tricked) are better suited to supporting those children, but it’s not a good strategy for most men. For the most part, since it’s impossible to tell when a woman is ovulating without major equipment and attention to detail (and even then . . .), it’s evolutionarily best to stick with one woman for a while, to make sure you get her pregnant and nobody else does, and then hang around to make sure your kids make it into adulthood. Furthermore, precisely because humans don’t know when ovulation is happening, and can and do want sex even when it’s not (which is NOT THE NORM for mammals), sex isn’t mostly about reproduction for humans; it’s mostly a bonding experience to keep adults attached to each other so they’ll be willing to raise those kids together. He says that what we actually do IS the most “natural” for the way we are built – we are mostly monogamous, with some instances of cheating, some instances of polygamy, and some instances of serial monogamy.

4. “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.” This is so much nonsense. Why is the ideal so much more ideal because the two adults are sexually different? If a heterosexual marriage does, in fact, involve the mutual surrender of reproductive self-interest
(which, as I’ve argued above, I think is not true), how much MORE SO does the same commitment by two people of the same sex? Yes, committing to one another for a lifetime is admirable, I suppose, although, let’s be serious, there are things that are more admirable,
like for instance being a doctor for cancer-ridden children or something. I also feel – and this is a sidenote – that there are certain people who think when they get married, “Oh no! I’ll never have sex with anyone else ever again!” and then there are people who feel, “Thank God I never have to go through the effort of enticing anyone else to have sex with me.” Both of those people might, in the end, turn out to be wrong. But I think these are just very different perspectives on marriage and not everyone things they are surrendering anything when they make a lifelong commitment to one other person. Anyway, total nonsense.

5. “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.” Leaving aside that this is a rather rose-colored view of families, and does not translate to most people’s realities, even if they have, on the face of it, an “ideal” nuclear family, why is it “uniquely admirable”? Why is it better than when children do have an entire community they can rely on, rather than the two people out of whose loins they’ve sprung? Why is it better than living in a larger family household where, in addition to whatever “intimate contact” you have with your parents, you also have grandparents and aunts and uncles deeply invested in your life? Conversely, why is it so much better to have both of your parents – who, after all, have their own relationship with each other, which, good or bad, may take precedence
over their relationship with you – than to have one parent, soley and exclusively invested in a relationship with you? I’m not saying all these other arrangements don’t have their problems; I’m saying, so does this “ideal” nuclear family, and that none of them are more admirable than the others. It’s admirable when a child is well-loved, well-respected, and becomes a benefit to society as an adult. It’s unadmirable when a child is neglected, disrespected, and turns into a
burden on society. Most children fall in the middle, and that’s fine. Also, I think he thinks that because something is “unique,” it is therefore “admirable.” That’s not really true.

6. “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.” Really? Really? Heterosexual marriage is a “microcosm of civilization,” but he’s not saying no other relationships or families are valuable? That’s bullshit. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to say something, say it and mean it; don’t say it and then pretend to back out of it. This is the NYT equivalent of “No offense, but . . .” Also, what does it even
mean to be a microcosm of civilization? More nonsense.

7. “Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the
sexes.” Again, he’s eliding many things without being thoughtful about it. Let’s start with, for many centuries, Judaism wasn’t considered a full participant in Western civilization. Second, Jews and Christians had VERY different ideas about marriage, so you can’t lump them together. Third, these older forms of marriage were not “supplemented” by ideas about romantic love and children’s and women’s rights; those ideas RADICALLY changed what was considered “traditional” marriages at the times that these ideas were introduced. Romantic love was the same-sex marriage of its day, the thing that was going to destroy traditional marriage forever (and, if one looks at what one meant by marriage before romantic love in marriage became
so idealized, it did, in fact, destroy it). So were ideas about equality of the sexes, which, for heaven’s sake, Ross Douthat should be aware of, since those days were, oh, yesterday.

8. “Or at least, it was the Western understanding. Lately, it has come to co-exist with a less idealistic, more accommodating approach, defined by no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.” Look, he obviously hasn’t read a single word by Stephanie Coontz, the leading authority on marriage history. I have read many words by her, and enjoyed all of them. But what it all boils down to is, there is no time and place when the “traditional” marriage/family of our imagination actually existed. Okay, maybe there was a decade, the 1950s, sort of, but even then it was not for everyone and it was always already going to be
short-lived, as it contained the seeds of its own destruction. It has always co-existed with less idealistic forms, albeit more or less accommodatingly.

9. “If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary.” It has already done so. Gay marriage is morally necessary as long as straight marriage exists.

10. “But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their
potential fruit.” Why, why, why is heterosexual marriage “one of the great ideas of Western civilization”? Why is it worth honoring, why is it worth striving to preserve? And preserve what, the marriages or the ideal? The marriages aren’t going anywhere, or, at least, their departure is not being particularly hastened by same-sex couples. In fact, one could argue that the gay population’s desire to imitate heterosexual lifelong romantically oriented marriage IS preserving it far better than heterosexual couples are doing it. And why be so concerned about preserving an ideal that’s not being lived up to anyway? What is so ideal about it? I mean, I support preserving the ideal that a person ought not commit murder, because I see why that is beneficial, even if people are still murdered. But I don’t see what’s beneficial about the ideal of a heteronormative nuclear family – or at least what’s more beneficial than myriad other arrangements. Nor do I see how allowing same-sex couples to marry will take anything away
from opposite-sex couples, in support or honor or anything. Also, ALL relationships are distinct. Yes, same-sex couples as a whole deal with a different set of issues than opposite-sex couples, although a lot of them come from living in an environment where one type of couple is thought more worthy and a better example of the awesomeness of Western civilization than the other. Ugly couples have a different set of issues than attractive couples, and both of these couples
differ from couples in which one partner is attractive and the other ugly. Wealthy couples have different issues than poor issues, and I bet that it’s along those lines that one will find the most fractious differences. Okay? Acknowledged? Can we shut up now?

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