Monday, January 21, 2008

Recent history

A few days ago, I pointed out that "Judaism-as-religion-only is a relatively new invention." In an article about the history of marriage (via), Stephanie Coontz writes, "Many people managed to develop loving families over the ages despite these laws and customs, but until very recently, this was not the main point of entering or staying in a union." My "relatively new" and her "very recently" refer to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, respectively. I mention this because clearly 1800 does not count as "recent." The use of this rhetorical device, of adding the word "recent," is to show that ideas many hold as timeless and universal are in fact products of well-documented historical changes. Thus left-wing insistence that Judaism is and always was nothing but a religion, and right-wing attempts to save marriage as it has always existed, are both fundamentally flawed.

Coontz's article, by the way, is pretty great. Rather than advocating ways to change how families organize themselves, either towards a regressive or progressive ideal, she points to how things have changed and suggests ways to make the best of the current situation. She views the contemporary institution of marriage as both weaker and better than the older versions, which strikes me as correct. Obviously when marriage partners are chosen by families and not up for discussion, divorce rates will be far lower than when marriage is a contract based on mutual consent of the partners. It is inconsistent to rule out premarital sex but allow that partners make their own love matches at 20. Without familial and societal force, those early marriages are bound for failure. And if it is impossible not to mention ill advised to encourage early marriage, one must accept that the 35-year-old brides and grooms are not likely to be virgins.

Coontz's refusal to suggest people live their lives according to a government-instituted plan is refreshing, since it acknowledges that family values come not from Mike Huckabee but from your own family. If you family values atheism and acceptance of all sexual orientations, those are your family values. She notes, "The right research and policy question today is not 'what kind of family do we wish people lived in?' Instead, we must ask 'what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?'" This is far too sensible, I am left with nothing contrarian to add.

OK, almost nothing. In referring to "a world where the social weight of marriage has been fundamentally and irreversibly reduced" and arguing that "we will not meet the challenges of this transformation by trying to turn back the clock," Coontz implies a linear march forward of history. Whereas with every step towards progress, there is a reaction from those who see the same step as dangerous. Just as for many 19th century French Jews, Judaism remained more than a religion, many 2008 Americans do not accept the inevitability of premarital sex, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage. Some people--gay and straight--are more comfortable with rigid social structures than they are with freedom to fall in love and pair off accordingly. It is anachronistic in its own way to imply that a French Jew who believed in a Jewish "nation" was somehow less 19th-century than one who believed himself to be a Frenchman of the Mosaic faith, or to suggest that an American is less 21st-century if she wishes to remain pure for her future husband, and thinks others should do the same. Accepting things as they are (or were) means acknowledging the whole range of opinion of an age.

Eventually, what's progress and what's reaction becomes blurred. The idea of a Jewish nation, once a relic, must have had its supporters, because now you can book a flight to it. Predictions of a final triumph of the Enlightenment tend not to prove accurate.


Withywindle said...

1800 is recent--not just for those of us who specialize professionally before 1800, but also for those of who take the proper unit of analysis to be the nation or the civilization, not the individual, and for which a century or a millennium is needed to see how well changes work out. Furthermore, the argument from tradition presupposes the historical groundedness of marriage customs rather than the argument from timelessness. I think MSI has rehearsed for you earlier the various negative effects of the loosening of marriage laws. The article referred to, in addition to minimizing these, points to Europe as a good example on the grounds that they have fewer illegitimate children, etc. But, see Mark Steyn, they have fewer children period--and if Steyn overestimates the rapidity of the onset of disastrous demographic decline, I don't think it's by more than a generation. Bravo the happy Italians!--what a pity the Italian nation will disappear. Finally, "Instead, we must ask 'what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?'," is a statement that every social conservative would agree with. They have a different estimation of strengths and weaknesses, and take tradition and, yes, revelation and transcendental morality, to inform the judgment of strength and weakness--but the statement itself is anodyne and universally accepted.

Miss Self-Important said...

This is better than her recent NYT op-ed effort, though I'm not sure if the argument falls in on itself at the end. What if the best way for a family to "build on its strengths" is for it to be headed by a married couple? Coontz simply assumes that's not necessary, but that's not actually clear. However, my favorite line: "Massive social changes combine to ensure that a substantial percentage of people will continue to explore alternatives to marriage. These include...the expansion of consumer products that make single life easier for both men and women..." Whether this refers to labor-saving technologies or advanced sex toys is a little unclear, but in either case, I am evidently hanging out with the wrong crowd because I don't know anyone who'd prefer the company of a consumer product to that of a human being.

Phoebe said...

"What if the best way for a family to 'build on its strengths' is for it to be headed by a married couple?"

It might well be in most cases, but to enough people (gays, those with no suitable marriage partners nearby, the very picky) marrying for the sake of it is not an option, so encouraging it across the board is a problem.

As for the "consumer products," I pictured a dishwasher (probably because I had one in my old apt, don't now, and miss it terribly). I'd imagine serial monogamy, cohabitation, and stable same-sex relationships not currently called marriage do more to keep people "single" than even a really amazing washer-dryer. Which fits better with her point, that so many legally "single" people are in fact in relationships, and not just with the 200 cats that live in their apartments.