Do we want to bring back traditional marriage? What is traditional marriage?

One of my co-authors pointed out that the previous post was incomplete:  Should we thank the Court as it rescues us from our bad laws? Or just bow?. It included a quote that was absurdly incorrect. Although peripheral to the point of the post, a correction is required.

It’s this from “Gay marriage and the Supreme Court’s empire“, Paul Mirengoff, Powerline, 4 March 2013:

By “traditional definition of marriage” in this context, I really mean the universal definition — one that, as far as I know, prevailed until very recently in all societies since the beginning of recorded time.

Here we have the confident ignorance that characterizes modern conservatism. Marriage customs vary widely throughout the history of Earth’s many cultures. From nothing — free pairings — through polygamy (usually polygyny — like the patriarchs in the Bible; rarely polyandry). With the most constant feature being that, one way or another, men in the elites get several hot women.

Also, “traditional marriage” often required no consent from the woman (or women) involved. Nor did divorce (eg, Deuteronomy 24 and the Islamic ṭalāq).  Both might even take place simultaneously, as in wife selling (see Wikipedia).

The quote is daft in another way.

Which one of these men radically revised the nature of marriage in America?
Which one of these men radically revised the nature of marriage in America?

What makes Mirengoff’s defense of traditional marriage so daft is that he in effect defends today’s version of marriage — a form with few historical precedents: serial monogamy, a series of monogamous pairings with the pretense of being for life. It’s operationally complex (especially in the legal and financial dimensions), and often psychologically rough for the participants and involved off-spring. But very popular.

Our form of serial monogamy is quite untraditional, but apparently conservatives are cool with that.  After all, it stems from one of the most radical social experiments in western history, begun when Ronald Reagan signed the Family Law Act of 1969. This abolished — retroactively — the core of the marriage contract, as no-fault divorce allowed one party to unilaterally void the contract by stating the existence of “irreconcilable differences”. By 1984 only two States had not yet adopted some form of no-fault divorce.

As with most experimenting to restructure society, the results were unexpected — but there is no going backwards. So it probably will prove for same-sex marriages.

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This was in the previous post, but is worth repeating

See other work by Tom Tomorrow at his website.


7 thoughts on “Do we want to bring back traditional marriage? What is traditional marriage?”

  1. Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon repeats a tired trope. I rarely agree with what Mark Steyn says, but he is <a href=""correct on this point:

    “If the Right’s case has been disfigured by delusion, the Left’s has been marked by a pitiful parochialism. At the Supreme Court this week, Ted Olson, the former solicitor general, was one of many to invoke comparisons with Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage. But such laws were never more than a localized American perversion of marriage. In almost all other common-law jurisdictions, from the British West Indies to Australia, there was no such prohibition. Indeed, under the Raj, it’s estimated that one in three British men in the Indian subcontinent took a local wife. “Miscegenation” is a 19th-century American neologism. When the Supreme Court struck down laws on interracial marriage, it was not embarking on a wild unprecedented experiment but merely restoring the United States to the community of civilized nations within its own legal tradition.”

    This does not change your broader point – that no fault divorce has changed marriage as practiced in American society more than same sex marriage ever will. But this trope is due for retirement.

    P.S. Steven Mintz’s Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life is the best book to read on this subject. So much gets said about the way “things used to be” without much knowledge of how things actually were…

    1. It’s history. Hence it’s important, relevant, and valuable.

      Calling any aspect of our shameful racial laws a “tired trope” is in my opinion disgusting. These were us for 350 years — until the 1960s — their legacy poisons us still today, and should not be forgotten.

      The National Review’s long history of whitewashing racial injustice is something they should regard with shame, and hardly qualifies them as a reliable source of insight in this area.

      I have no idea what point you are attempting to make wrt to other nation’s laws about inter-racial marriages, nor it’s relevance here.

      More broadly, the evolution of thinking Tom T points out is IMO both accurate and useful.

    2. I think T. Greer’s point is simply that inter-racial marriage has been practiced throughout recorded history, so it is a poor analogy for same-sex marriage, which had never, ever been practiced anywhere before about 20 years ago.

      A completely separate observation is made about the relative importance of no-fault-divorce laws versus same-sex marriage. This observation is probably correct, but also irrelevant. The British burned Washington, the very capital of the nation, but that did not stop the American army from defending Baltimore.

    3. “Calling any aspect of our shameful racial laws a “tired trope” is in my opinion disgusting.”

      The trope is not our shameful racial laws. The trope is the equation of modern thinking about SS marriage with said shameful racial laws and then wrapping it all into Whiggish history of marriage or tolerance.

      Conservatives want to talk about “the traditional definition of marriage.” You rightly point out that marriage norms have varied widely with time and place. On the scale of agricultural civilization as a whole, polygyny, especially among the elites, is the norm. But for the last 600 years Western civilization has had a different norm. One man, one woman, usually marrying later than the rest of the world and never marrying cousins. Interracial/inter-cultural marriage might have been frowned upon, but it was not legally prohibited.

      For most of Western civilization this “definition of marriage” remained relatively constant. As the Western world conquered the rest of the world opportunities for interracial marriage grew. These interracial marriages were legal. The Western norms for what constituted the definition marriage did not exclude them.

      Except in America.

      America upturned the bans on interracial marriage she was simply joining a club every other liberal, civilized nation had been apart of since the 1700s. She was not doing anything radically new or unproven. She was ending a social experiment, not pioneering a new one.

      The case of SS marriage is different. Here America is not an outlier. She is not changing her “traditional definition of marriage” to come into accord with the rest of the civilized world; the civilized world as a whole is changing its definition. Recognizing same sex marriage with the legal sanction given to other marriages is a fundamentally novel innovation. It is new and unproven.

      That does not mean it shouldn’t be done. That it is new does not mean it is bad. But the analogy between the what is happening with same sex marriage now across the globe and what happened with interracial marriage in the American South in 1967 is shaky.

  2. How much of the argument for same sex marriage could be silenced by simply removing the “rewards” of marriage. It seems to me that if there were some changes to policies surrounding insurance benefits, inheritance, loans etc. we might prevent many marriages (situational arrangements) from ever occurring, SS or “traditional”.

    In the end they will more then likely have the same experiences that traditional marriages have and those who oppose will be left saying “we tried to stop you”.

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