Monday, August 22, 2011
Marriage, a sinking ship?
Image by liquidnight via Flickr
I think back in the Sixties, we arrived at the free love crossroads, took a wrong turn and got lost for fifty years. We reached that seminal destination due to technological, economic and cultural advances. Innovation freed the housewife from labor intensive chores. Machines transformed the workplace so that the majority of jobs were no longer dependent on muscles. A trend toward equal rights and opportunities for women gave women back control of their reproductive destiny, their personal freedom and their assets. Both young men and women began to identify and reject certain hypocritical and unethical features of the otherwise stable, productive and cohesive post WWII society their parents built, including racism, loveless marriages, abusive relationships, poor treatment for disabled and mentally challenged persons, homophobia and child abuse.
Technology delivered the birth control pill and in another decade, DNA science rendered the determination of paternity foolproof and the need for chastity moot. Class and geographic mobility eliminated or confused communal ties and rendered the need or desire to marry within a group or social stratum unnecessary or impossible.
All of these factors made the original reasons for marriage obsolete from both a personal and a societal point of view. The first generation to be heavily impacted by all this charge was the Boomers. Because we were so young, our response was naive and simplistic -- free love! Problem was, as we matured, we never went back and had a serious conversation about what marriage should become. The kneejerk response that you can infer from our behavior, was 'whatever you want it to be, baby!' And that is what marriage has become. Now, we have reached a point where the institution is so sullied, distorted and abused or debauched, it is unrecognizable. Liz Taylor and her seven marriages is more obscene than garden variety infidelity, although John Edwards and his ilk have taken that particular sin to new levels of shame.
Unfortunately, governments and corporations have continued to pretend that the institution of marriage supports the societal goals of community stability, protection of children and workplace productivity, and continue to heap privileges on the marital state, including extra benefits, special legal standing, tax incentives and the like. Anyone who spends two minutes with the statistics on foster care, spousal battery, divorce, out of wedlock births, and juvenile delinquency knows this is all smoke and mirrors.
My gay friends have spent a lot of time and energy lately making churches and states recognize their need/right to be married. I wish then happiness, but I have no interest in supporting this initiative, because I feel they are boarding a sinking ship.
Of course, I am single, so you may ask why I care. One reason is that the guy in the office next to me got five times the amount of employee benefits in dollar terms than I did because he was married with children, yet I worked just as hard as he did and had a better attendance record because I didn't have to take little Janie to the dentist. I paid taxes for schools, parks and youth services for his kids. Now his kids are the ones who are flash mobing Philadelphia. So he did a lousy job of child rearing despite all the extra bennies he got, and now my taxes fund the prisons for his delinquents. I feel cheated and not a little scared.
The 'love' of the Sixties may have been free but it hasn't ended up being cheap. We abandoned religious and other value systems because they were too constraining, and we didn't really achieve much but fecklessness. Although free love involved two people, it was really all about I. Boomers under-appreciated the safety of the world they lived in, a world where getting food was easy, getting work was easy and more and more leisure was enjoyed by all. A family huddled at the hearth praying the wolf was not going to beat down the door was an image they didn't recognize. The family unit as a means of survival never crossed their minds. Boomers didn't realize their freedom from want and fear unleashed a focus on the self unprecedented in history. The costs of the 'me' generation has come home to roost everywhere in nuisance lawsuits, expensive attempts to legislate political correctness, high crime and vandalism rates, educational systems that don't educate, crass consumerism, obesity and highly placed leaders who engage in low behavior.
For decades, we have allowed Hollywood and Madison Avenue to be the arbiters of taste and values. The result is the only things we worship are celebrity, conspicuous consumption and carbohydrates, or the eradication of same to achieve sculpted abs. Hollywood in particular, continues to flog the myth of romantic love at the expense of every other form of commitment or connection. Movie 'love' is a state of blissful euphoria shared by two beautiful people who have a backstage army of plastic surgeons, personal trainers, stylists, shrinks and couturiers.
The media and the AIDS epidemic pretty much took the mystery and magic out of sex. Sex used to be part of the forbidden world of adulthood -- a rite of passage. Today, eleven year olds do it. And congressmen text it.
Now we live in an age where sex is completely divorced from marriage in that you can reproduce by artificial insemination with or with surrogacy or, for that matter, cloning (coming to a clinic near you). You also can reproduce outside of marriage without stigma. Of course, we have arrived at a time in the evolution of Western Civilization where folks don't seem that anxious to reproduce anyway. Economists argue that a negative birthrate is a bad thing for any nation, but you don't see policy makers rushing to make child bearing more attractive.
Of course, after the bearing, there is the rearing. Many people argue that two heterosexual parents are ideal. The child grows up exposed to both gender role models, and two people can share the mountain of tasks and expenses involved in bringing up a kid. Yet many single parents do fine, gay and lesbian parents do just fine and it does not require a marriage license for two people to collaborate successfully in caring for a child. Moreover, there are some kids in this world who seem to require six or eight parents. You've sat next to them in restaurants. (What every kid really needs is one good parent with enough tiger in her to put the child's welfare above her own, make the youngster understand he is not the center of the known universe, show him that what Mom is raising is a productive individual not a texting coach potato or a shopping diva.)
So, I think it might be about time to reassess the value of marriage in modern culture, whether or not it should be incentivized and what should be the 'rules' for the married state. We need to sort out from the Gordian knot of the old idea, the separate threads of sex, love, commitment, parenting and sharing.
There are benefits to marriage that have nothing to do with reproduction. There is the mutual help and companionship angle. Since we all are living longer, this takes on more importance. It is a lot cheaper for society, if your partner looks after you when you become sick or demented. Also, coupling up is a far better use of resources than living alone. All these single people knocking around in their own apartments and houses is kind of wasteful. Think of New York City which is now majority solo. Shared assets such as automobiles, washers, and dryers are a sound economy. Sharing joys such as pets and collectibles makes fun things more affordable and accessible.
Society does benefit from asexual partnering, but probably not at a level that requires incentives or regulation, and as far as the church is concerned, sharing a microwave oven does not require a sacrament.
The commitment to live as a couple necessitates some sort of agreement, so that the parties can plan and make forward going decisions, and such contracts are easily devised. They could even expire and be renewable. If this sounds a little loveless, it is important to note that conventional marriage has inflicted much pain as well as bliss.
The only aspect of the two-person relationship the state, employers and the church clearly have an interest in directing is the parent piece. Bringing a child into the world who will not be loved, fed, protected, socialized and educated is both a crime and a sin. The prisons are full of the consequences of bad parenting. Yet this is the area where prior approval is not required, enforcement is light and sanctions are all but nonexistent.
We believe we have the right to procreate and that right is limited only in that you may not force another person to do it with you. Pro lifers believe a child once conceived has the right to be born. But nobody has the right to mold a child into a sociopath or neglect or abuse a child in such a way that she becomes a burden for the state.
If you witness the potential destruction of property, such as a burning house, you rush in an put out the fire. But all of us stand by and watch the destruction of children every day, and we do not take to task our leadership or our consciences.
I hope I never see the day when the US ala China licenses something as personal as child bearing. On the other hand, society should find ways to reward Tiger Mothers, married or single, and penalize bad parents.
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