Medved Can’t Stand Up to Rauch On Gay Marriage

I’ve made no secret that I’m a big fan of libertarian Jonathan Rauch. His book “The Kindly Inquisitors” is one of the best defenses of free speech and free inquiry in the modern era. And he made what is probably the best conservative case for gay marriage in his 2004 book, “Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.” Most recently, he had an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, recounting that latter argument in brief: “Gay Marriage is Good for America

Well, talk-show roustabout Michael Medved isn’t impressed by Rauch’s argument. But, as you’d expect from a fellow of the Discovery Institute, bad ideas ensue.

Take this part at the beginning, where Medved concedes to Rauch that marriage has positive social effects:

No fair-minded observer can argue against any of these observations, but at this point Mr. Rauch makes a logical leap that involves some neat rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Concerning the institution of marriage, he suggests that “its absence can be calamitous, whether in inner cities or gay ghettos. In 2008, denying gay Americans the opportunity to marry is not only inhumane, it is unsustainable.”

The weak point in this argument is the attempt to use the term “marriage” when he really means “long-term relationships.” Not all committed, long-term relationships are marriages. And not all marriages result in committed, long-term relationships (unfortunately).

But Rauch hasn’t made any logical leaps here at all. He really means what he says, and he’s done a lot of good work documenting his claims about marriage, and marriage specifically, being a civilizing force. His whole point is that marriage, the idea, the cultural institution itself, has benefits above and beyond mere long-term relationships. No, marriage isn’t logically necessary in order to have a long-term relationship, but all the evidence is that it can enhance and preserve them. Medved has completely missed the point here, speaking of marriage solely as “official sanction” rather than the powerful cultural idea that sanction represents, which is what Rauch really cares about.

Rauch isn’t arguing that marriage is a panacea: he’s fully agrees that marriage is an embattled institution. It’s just that he’s made a persuasive case that the best way to preserve and defend it is to promote it as a universal aspiration again. One that every little boy and girl, gay or straight, can see themselves and their relationships as heading towards. The inevitable alternative is to turn marriage into a quaint predilection: just one option amongst many. Different strokes for different folks.

In contrast, Medved’s argument is a bizarre “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” trap. Gay men won’t be helped by marriage he argues, because what they ultimately lack is the civilizing, monogamizing influence of women that supposedly leads to lasting long-term relationships. Lesbians on the other hand, form long-term relationships pretty easily, and so don’t need marriage (and hence we shouldn’t feel bad denying them this right). In other words, no matter what capacity for lasting relationships gay people demonstrate, it still somehow proves that marriage wouldn’t help any of them to do any better.

How does Medved justify this bizarre contradiction? By insisting that the power of marriage only comes into force when opposite sexes join up.

Men and women are different –profoundly, irreducibly, eternally. It is ridiculous and dishonest to suggest they are interchangeable in relationships. This undeniable truth obliterates the notion that a guy who takes another guy as life partner instead of a woman is just expressing his personal preference – like choosing a blonde over a brunette, or a Latino over an Asian.

Now, I’m not someone who believes that men and women are wholly interchangeable when it comes to relationships: that gender is all cultural and has no real, underlying biological basis in the brain. But Medved and his allies haven’t even come close to providing evidence that the differences between men and women are what make marriages work, let alone that they’re the only things that work. Men and women may well be dramatically different in how they approach sex and relationships. But as anyone whose come into contact with actual married people knows, the difference between a given man and a given woman can often swamp out these factors. There’s no one marital dynamic that works, no one personality type for each gender.

And Rauch, again, has made an extended case for exactly what does make marriage so powerful: a case that relies far more on the social power of public commitments and legal obligations than on the stereotype of ball-busting wives reigning in their randy husbands. Medved doesn’t even acknowledge those arguments, let alone make a shadow of a case against them. Instead he just keeps harping on non-sequiturs:

[Rauch] wants his readers to believe that the missing factor in this dysfunctional subculture is governmental sanction for marriage when in truth that absent element is women.

Of course, Rauch has already made and substantiated his argument that marriage would improve the “dysfunctional subculture” of gay relationships, period, irregardless of any other “missing factor.” Claiming that the addition of women could also help is neither here nor there: maybe it could, maybe it couldn’t, but that doesn’t contradict the assertion that marriage could help.

And, of course, there’s also the tiny little problem that when closeted gay men do what Medved advocates and actually marry straight women, we know the likely result: not a complimenting harmony, but frustration for both partners, resentment, and ultimately martial disaster. It’s sort of sad to have to point this out, but even if Medved were right, and there was something magical and complimentary about two different sexes that gay couples can’t recreate, it’s still just not a realistic or workable option for gay people.

Like most anti-gay marriage crusaders, Medved basically has no solution to offer gay couples aside from simply ceasing to exist. He refuses to grapple with the idea that they do exist, will exist, and will have children. That’s the reality Rauch is dealing with, after which the question becomes: so, given that, what can we do? Medved, on the other hand, is simply in denial: offering gay men straight wives as a solution without even thinking how silly that is, and how destructive in practice it’s proven.

But that’s just what you get for trying to have a demagogue do the job of a real writer and thinker.

4 Responses to Medved Can’t Stand Up to Rauch On Gay Marriage

  1. Pat says:

    Honestly, I don’t think that for most people the debate about gay marriage comes down to a pragmatic decision about what the greatest good for society as a whole is. While that is the certainly the language that is used to discuss it most frequently in the press (aside from religious arguments which I see just as frequently), mainly because that language is less obviously hateful, I think the real debate in most people’s minds comes down to whether or not they are personally comfortable with gay couples on a gut level, or whether they see the union as sinful. Hence the attempts by conservatives to link homosexuality to child abuse. Hence as well the constant reminders from religious conservatives about bible verses condemning homosexuality, which patently have nothing to do with the social good of marriage and everything to do with making people feel that homosexual relationships are immoral.

    This issue of being comfortable with gay marriage on a gut level, rather than strength of logic, is I think where the advantages of Rauch’s arguments over Medved’s are really most significant. Rauch begins with an emotional appeal – imagine a world where you can never get married – which is a very direct attempt to get heterosexual readers to identify with homosexual ones. Then he presents gay couples and gay marriage in parallel with heterosexual couples and marriage, and attempts to paint a picture of married gay couples as traditional monogamous relationships. This picture – homosexual couples as traditional, loving partners – is what will eventually lead to (mostly) nationwide acceptance of gay marriage as more marriage licenses are granted in a few states and the country gets used to the idea. Medved spends a small part of his article trying to paint a totally different picture of gay couples – consider the line “The promiscuity, instability and irresponsibility he rightly associates with gay male enclaves” – but most of his argument focusses on saying that gay men won’t be able to stay together since you need women for that. But by endorsing long-term gay relationships, he is granting Rauch his main gut-level victory: stable gay relationships are a good and moral thing. When it comes to lesbian relationships, Medved rolls over even more easily. If conservatives continue to adopt this line of argument – “gay relationships are good but they aren’t AS good as heterosexual ones, and please don’t redefine marriage” – then they will just accelerate the rate at which Americans become comfortable with the image of gay relationships and at which gay marriage becomes legalized.

  2. Bad says:

    You’re right though that Rauch makes a very persuasive case when it comes to how marriage as an ideal is deeply and personally important to people, gay and straight alike. And it is this that Medved basically just ignores the existence of.

    Still, trying to determine on a gut level whether you like gay couples is basically a denial of reality. Whether people like Medved like it or not, gay people exist, and will continue to exist, and many will continue to raise children, and nothing short of extremely implausible and draconian new laws will prevent that.

  3. Pat says:

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. There are a lot of things that will always be a part of society whether I like it or not but I can still favor or oppose laws that endorse and support those things. Unless you think that legalizing gay marriage will have zero effect on the number of gay relationships in the country, then it’s still a practical matter as well as a symbolic one.

  4. Grendel The Martyr says:

    Obligatory Joke Alert I:

    I think gay marriage ought to be legalized if for no other reason than they have the right to be just as miserable as married heterosexuals.

    Obligatory Joke Alert II:

    For reasons that ought to be obvious, I think the gay community ought to win gay divorce rights *before* they seek out marriage rights.

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