A new storybook explains where babies come from, in a way that’s guaranteed to delight any diversity trainer. Excerpt from Noah Berlatsky’s report:
And yet, the fact remains that What Makes a Baby presents a very specific vision. Much of this is conveyed by the illustrations of Fiona Smyth, who presents individuals, with or without uteruses, with or without sperm, as colorful, smiling, slick, amoeba-like outlines—a world of cheerfully, only-mildly differentiated, maybe nude frolicking bodies. The vision is also conveyed by the text itself, which describes the meeting of sperm and egg in deliberately non-gendered language. For Silverberg, the sperm does not seek out or find or enter the egg (which is the way these descriptions usually go), but instead, “When an egg and a sperm meet, they swirl together in a special kind of dance. As they dance, they talk to each other.”
Smyth’s figures look a lot like Keith Haring’s, which isn’t coincidental. With its rainbow of people and its ecstatic refusal to force any family into any norm,What Makes a Baby presents—both iconographically and philosophically—a version of gay, or queer, utopia.
In doing so, it helps to demonstrate why gay utopia—including, but not limited to, gay marriage—is important, and appealing for folks who don’t identify as gay, as well as for those who do. It’s hard to imagine a book like this without the shift in increased visibility, and increased normalization, of gays and lesbians and their families. But that increased visibility, and the opening out of ideas about marriage and children, also—in this book, and in general—creates space for all sorts of other formerly marginal families to be seen as no longer marginal. Adoptive families, families made up of grandparents and grandchildren, single-mother-headed families or single-dad-headed families—they all become simply families. The important question becomes not how close your family is to normal, but rather, “Who was happy that it was YOU who grew?”
The reader who passed this link along remarks:
I had trouble finishing the article when I got to the paragraph in which Berlatsky expresses dismay at the description of Ceaserean surgery. He has no problem with the “trans dad” giving birth, but Ceaserean as normal?! That’s beyond the pale, I guess.
This brings to mind a provocative essay by the prominent theologian (and man of the political Left) John Milbank, in which he characterizes the gay-marriage revolution as laying the groundwork for state regulation and control of human reproduction. Milbank writes:
This may, indeed, be the direction that the churches now need to take. However, the graver fear surrounding the new legislation is that secular thought will not so readily let go of the demand for absolutely equal rights based on identical definitions. In that case, we face an altogether more drastic prospect. Not only would “marriage” have been redefined so as to include gay marriage, it would inevitably be redefined even for heterosexual people in homosexual terms. Thus “consummation” and “adultery” would cease to be seen as having any relevance to the binding and loosing of straight unions.
Many may welcome such a development as yet a further removal of state intrusion into our private lives, but that would be to fail to consider all the implications. In the first place, it would end public recognition of the importance of marriage as a union of sexual difference. But the joining together and harmonisation of the asymmetrical perspectives of the two sexes are crucial both to kinship relations over time and to social peace. Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.
Secondly, it would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.
And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.
Patrick Deneen writes that this talk of “biopolitical tyranny” is “strong stuff” — but plausible. Deneen:
Milbank’s argument leads one to at least ponder grounds for the extraordinarily rapid and widespread political and social acceptance of gay marriage. It has been thought by many – myself included – that its breathtaking success has been due to its strong linkage to the language of rights and the claim to be a further extension of the civil rights movement. This is doubtless the case. But it seems to me that there are many claimants to “rights” that are unlikely to find a hearing in the current configuration of an ascendant Progressive class. Among of those, interestingly, are children growing up in fatherless households, the condition of a third of children in the United States today. The media is almost entirely silent about this scandal in plain sight, one that negatively effects the life-chances of fifteen-million children. Why is it that nearly every elite institution – news station, newspaper, sit-com, talk-show, school, university, and so on – has made gay-marriage the object of its most fervent devotions, not children growing up without fathers?
What of other issues that might be on the agenda? Too big to fail? Imperial overreach? Drone strikes? Massive and growing inequality between the well-off and the working class? Yes, those are problems. But is every elite institution devoting anything comparable to similar energies to any of these issues as they are to the drumbeat of “marriage equality”?
Which leads me to think that Milbank is onto something. All these other issues are just policy matters on which reasonable people can disagree. Gay marriage, on the other hand, is an extension of a 500-year agenda of remaking every social institution in the image and likeness of liberalism – the autonomous rights-bearing individual freely consenting to, and identifying primarily with, the liberal State. The family was an intractable challenge and its undefining was liberalism’s ultimate goal. Gay marriage is the political vehicle on which reproductive technologies will now be enabled to finally remake that most recalcitrant institution. The fact that every other institution has already been effectively reordered by liberalism’s logic – regions, States, neighborhoods, schools, universities, and churches – has made even the family fairly easy prey. If it weren’t happening before our eyes, it would make for a pretty good science-fiction novel.
As I wrote in a much-read essay from last month:
How this came to be is a complicated story involving the rise of humanism, the advent of the Enlightenment, and the coming of modernity. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his magisterial religious and cultural history A Secular Age, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).” To be modern is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self-definition.
Gradually the West lost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order, Taylor writes. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.
To Rieff, ours is a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot by its nature be institutionalized. Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’.”
Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.” We are compelled by the logic of modernity and the myth of individual freedom to continue tearing away the last vestiges of the old order, convinced that true happiness and harmony will be ours once all limits have been nullified.
OK, from the view from 30,000 feet, back to a little storybook. The stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell our children, define our moral imagination. Story matters. The cultural left has always known this. The revolution has not been argued so much as it has been imagined and narrated into being.