That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
May 21, 2015

Nero, noble savages, and going with the flow

Same-sex “marriage” throughout the ages


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Comes now Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute to tell us that conservatives are wrong when they say that marriage has always been between a man and a woman. ("Conservatives say marriage has always been between a man and a woman. They're wrong," Washington Post, May 13, 2015.)

I consider this article just another of the Left's dishonest attempts to redefine what marriage is. To test my contention, let us see whether Mr. Burrus's arguments support the contention in his title.

He begins by telling us that marriage for love is a thoroughly modern invention — only 200 years old. Perhaps he has not read either Romeo and Juliet (or any other plays by its author) or Antigone. Leaving that aside, let us suppose that he is right — it is certainly a contention that he is not alone in making.

What is the connection between that "fact" and whether marriage has always been a relationship between a man and a woman? Does it in any way falsify it? I fail to see how it does.

But perhaps all that Mr. Burrus wants us to see is that society's view of marriage has changed over the years. But has it ever changed in the particular respect of being a relationship between a man and a woman? If so, it would behoove him to tell us when it was otherwise. (He concedes — in something of an understatement — that attempts at same-sex marriage have been "historically rare.")

He cites the economic status of women as a factor that has contributed to the changing of marriage, and says that when the only financial security a woman can have "for herself and her children" is to be found in marriage, marrying for love is "nearly suicidal." But why did women in such circumstances not seek out rich single women to marry? Does Mr. Burrus want us to believe that there were no rich single women? ever? anywhere? (To be sure, "marrying" another woman would take care of the problem of security for children: there would be none for her to lose sleep over.)

It would seem that even before marriage for love became the norm, the people getting married for financial security were couples made up of a man and a woman.

He explains that the historical rarity of same-sex marriage is partly explained by the roles of married couples and gives us the example of Rome in which same-sex "marriages" were permitted but were found "repugnant."

I guess we must concede that Mr. Burrus has made his case: same-sex "marriages" are to be found in the past — in declining and degraded societies. I'm pretty sure that Mr. Burrus would not like to see a revival of the Roman society in which same-sex "marriages," though thought repugnant, were nevertheless permitted. Is it an accident that he can find the counterexamples he needs only in such a society?

Moreover, consider this oddity in Mr. Burrus's article. He disparages "our modern view of marriage" by calling it an "outlier." But were not the same-sex marriages (so-called) of Rome outliers? If being an outlier counts as a disparagement for "the modern view," does it not count as a disparagement for what we may call "the Roman view"?

Mr. Burrus refers to Nero's second same-sex "marriage," the one in A.D. 67 to the boy Sporus. Mr. Burrus seems fairly at ease with the fact that Sporus was still a boy. And he does not mention that he was castrated. Is this NAMBLA-style rape really the sort of counterexample Mr. Burrus wants to employ to argue that the Supreme Court should rule in favor of same-sex "marriage"? Does he really think of homosexual rape as a form of marriage? In an earlier same-sex "marriage," the same emperor took the role of the bride. Perhaps we should look to Nero to see that transgenderism has a venerable past? Come on: does anyone really imagine that citing the perversions of Nero improves Mr. Burrus's case for anything? What sort of intellectual dishonesty is this? Let us be grateful that Mr. Burrus did not have the opportunity to argue for the wisdom of no-fault divorce by citing the career and fate of Poppaea Sabina the Younger.

Mr. Burrus also gives us the example of West African societies in which may sometimes be found women with "female husbands." He cites the work of one-time (?) Trotskyist Stephanie Coontz for this claim and for the claim that "some" American Indians allowed same-sex marriages in which work was divided between "men's work" and "women's work."

Again, I note that the counterexamples Mr. Burrus relies on do not come from advanced societies or societies known for their advanced notions of women's equality or liberty. I doubt whether the kind of societies where those relationships are to be found are the kind of societies he would like to see the United States become. I must ask whether, indeed, it is even accurate to characterize the relationships he (and Coontz) describe as marriages — exactly what do the members of such societies mean by marriage? Mr. Burrus tells us that marriage has taken so many forms that "it is almost difficult to give a universal definition of the term."

Well, maybe that is the result of calling relationships that are not marriages "marriages."

Mr. Burrus cites the lawyer arguing for traditional marriage (Mr. Burrus puts that term in scare quotes, but I shall not) as saying that marriage "developed to serve purposes that, by their nature, arise from biology." He (Mr. Burrus) cites as a counterexample the fact that in Japan there were often no distinctions between the children of wives and the children of concubines, and that one emperor was actually the child of a concubine. I do not know whether that is true or not, but let us suppose that it is. What does it tell us about marriage?

Does Mr. Burrus want us to think more open-mindedly about the practice of concubinage?

I wonder what inferences about slavery he would draw from the fact that at least one Roman emperor was a slave? or that there was a pope who was a slave?

Mr. Burrus is happy that the institution of marriage has undergone certain changes recently, and gives us the usual disparagement of Ozzie and Harriet, without telling us what was wrong with Ozzie and Harriet. Are there television families Mr. Burrus finds more admirable?

The fact that some things have changed should not make us welcome other changes without examining those others. After all, things can change for the worse. Marriage to secure a political alliance (never the experience of the ordinary man) was certainly a change from some state of affairs, but not, I gather Mr. Burrus thinks, a welcome one. Using marriage to end inter-tribal warfare was a change from some previously existing state of affairs, but was it a welcome one (or successful one)? And were those political marriages not predicated on the expectation that there would be children?

Mr. Burrus is happy that growing wealth has expanded women's economic possibilities. But I think he has lost sight of just how it happened in this country that "Harriet Nelson" left the home to become "Mary Richards." It was a change necessitated in part by the increased tax burdens of the late 1960s and the 1970s and by the state-created double-digit inflation of that period. Those "economic possibilities" were not an unmixed blessing.

I do not disparage the "expanded economic possibilities" of women; I mention the taxation and inflation of the period merely to illustrate that change carries with it a cause and a cost. It is dishonest to pretend that any given social change is the result merely of high-minded devotion to ending the "oppression" of women, especially in a period not noted for its devotion to ending oppression for anyone. And it is dishonest to pretend that any given social change will have only beatific consequences.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Mr. Burrus's article is that it is written by a "research fellow at the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies." He ends his article with these remarks: "When social institutions evolve, those who are stuck in the past often prefer to use the coercive power of government to keep things 'the way they should be' than to go with the flow. That 'flow' has already changed the institution of marriage, and the Supreme Court should go with it." Would you not expect that such a writer would somewhere in his article mention the constitutional basis for the Supreme Court's "going with the flow"?

Is that really what constitutionalists want their judiciary to do? I wonder whether there is anything in the Federalist Papers about "going with the flow"?

I wonder where in Blackstone one finds an encouragement for judges to "go with the flow"? or what constitutional precedent there is for it? Perhaps there is case law with which I am unfamiliar.

I suppose — and it is just a supposition — that somewhere in the back of his head, Mr. Burrus has in mind the Fourteenth Amendment with its purported guarantee of "equal rights." Certainly it is not too much to suppose that when he discusses the "oppression and marginalization" of women and homosexuals, he wants us to imagine that ruling that homosexuals should be allowed to marry each other will put an end to part of that oppression and marginalization.

But as I have remarked before, homosexuals are allowed to marry now. Indeed, there has never been a society in which they were forbidden to marry. All any homosexual man ever had to do was to find a nice girl who wanted to marry him. All any homosexual woman ever had to do was to find a nice fella who wanted to marry her.

And that brings us to the fundamental dishonesty of the cry for a Supreme Court to "go with the flow" and to rule in favor of same-sex unions. What is desired is not the right to marry — which already exists — but a re-definition of the concept of marriage. But cannot a constitutionalist see that it is not the job of the Supreme Court to rewrite dictionaries? or to redefine societies? or to compel people to accept the rewriting that others may desire? Surely that is not covered by the General Welfare Clause.

In the end, I find that the arguments put forth in Mr. Burrus's article are so meretricious that one almost hopes that their source may be found in the decency of special pleading.  Ω

May 21, 2015

Published in 2015 by WTM Enterprises.

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