‘Nobody Knows The Future’
I was pretty much convinced that gay marriage was inevitable ten years ago (maybe because I read this remarkably prescient Ramesh Ponnuru piece), and most everything I’ve written on the subject in the last few years has been informed by that assumption. If a serious look at culture vindicates social conservatives in certain ways, it also helps explains why they’ve lost, and lost, and lost.
But to the cultural inevitabilists I’d just say this: As much as liberalism and modernity and the sexual revolution have reshaped human relations, they have not — or not yet, pending the Singularity — alchemized human nature into something entirely different. A glance at post-1960s trends will demonstrate that the birth control pill did not actually sever sex from pregnancy and childbearing. An hour in a nursery will remind you that the decline of the two-parent family hasn’t eliminated the basic desire of children to know their parents. A fair-minded look at the fabric of American life will reveal significant advantages to being connected to the kind of communities that are still shaped by the older marital ideal. And both politics and writing, in different ways, exist in part to assert human agency in the face of trends that seem inexorable and impersonal — to hold up ideals even when fewer people are living up to them, to try to shape and redirect trends rather than taking them as a given, to mitigate the excesses of revolutions and try to preserve the best of the old even when the new comes rushing in.
I understand the unfolding historical logic of the retreat from marriage as well as anyone, and I’m under no illusions that the present move to formally redefine the institution represents any kind of uniquely transformative moment in that process. But it’s the moment we’re in now, and so it affords an opportunity to talk about the process as a whole, to raise questions about whether our current historical momentum is identical with progress, to note the merits of alternative models that we’re not only drifting away from but, as of now, deliberately leaving behind.
That doesn’t mean pretending that there’s some political strategy the Republican Party should embrace to turn public opinion on a dime: There isn’t, and that’s been obvious for a while. But even when you’re in the process of surrendering on a particular point, it makes a difference how surrender happens, and what — if anything — you can persuade your victorious opponents to concede. Because even when change seems inevitable, the pace of that change is not; because history is littered with trends that seem unstoppable and then stopped; because ideas can hibernate as well as die. And because nobody knows the future.
Nobody knows the future.
Like Ross, I’ve believed that same-sex marriage is inevitable for a long time. In the current issue of TAC, I have a piece up about the relationship between sexual liberty and Christianity (Philip Rieff alert!); I think it’ll be available online next week. It’s interesting, and alarming, to see so many smart people thinking that there is absolutely no reason at all to believe that there was ever any reason to privilege heterosexual marriage other than hatred of gays, e.g.:
Bizarro thing about @douthatnyt‘s column is that this “marriage is all about procreation” meme had zero cultural footprint before SSM debate
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) March 31, 2013
A cultural practice that has been around in more or less this form, and across many cultures, for thousands of years is a cultural practice that speaks to something very deep within individuals and societies. Nobody knows the future, it is true, and one reason people today especially do not know the future is because nobody today knows the past.
You know what I would like to see? Ross Douthat’s next book be about faith, marriage, and family in our post-Christian culture. Seems to me like this was the book he was born to write.