I despair, I really do, whenever I read someone like Maggie Gallagher over at the Volokh Conspiracy combine what appears to be a functioning intellect with sheer empirical bullheadness when it comes to characterizing the history of marriage and using that history as a way to characterize what is universally common (and therefore pragmatically dictated) about marriage as a social institution.
It’s worse because Gallagher is apparently aware in some sense of the true picture, but somehow doesn’t seem to allow that awareness to penetrate her idee fixe about marriage. The argument she makes is that marriage is cultural and social, rather than natural or innate (good so far) and that this is demonstrated in fact by the wide historical and spatial variation in actual forms and institutions of marriage. Also good so far.
But then we get flatly stupid, pulled-out-of-the-ass comments like, “anthropologists in the thirties went out into the vanishing world of human diversity, the reason they found marriage everywhere is that societies that do not hang onto the marriage idea do not survive very long”. I’m sorry, but what? Where the hell is that coming from? Could we have some specifics? Societies “not surviving” in the 1930s where that non-survival is singularly linked to the abandonment of the “marriage idea”? Or how about the equally strange idea in the same entry that the Roman Empire fell because of “sexual disorganization”. That ought to be the new example given in the dictionary under the term “reductionism”.
Gallagher is clearly aware that many societies in world history, some of them “surviving” over centuries, did not cleanly contain much procreative activity inside of clearly defined legalistic institutions of marriage. She also clearly knows that polygamy is a far more common form of marriage across human history than legally exclusive monogamy. Both facts have profound implications for the argument she’s making, but she largely ignores those implications, or shifts the goalposts so that she professes to be less concerned by polygamy than by gay marriage, because at least polygamy maintains a marriage-procreation connection, in her reading. Or she offers really misleading observations, such as the fact that most polygamous societies actually practice monogamy when you get down to the average marriage. Yes, perhaps, but that’s not a function of law or social institutions: it’s a function of money: you can have as many wives as you can afford in most cases.
This is not even touching all the other complications that haven’t come up in the Volokh threads: fosterage. Wet nursing. Sanctioned extramarital relations or institutionalizations of bastardry.
Which gets at the function of marriage in many historical cases, if it can be reduced to a function. It’s not managing procreation, or ensuring child-care. It’s about many other things as well, such as mobilizing labor through kinship (not the child-parent bond, but other lateral kinship bonds). And following that, not just labor, but mobilizing, containing and regularizing the distribution and circulation of wealth and resources between kinship groups. It’s not surprising that Gallagher ignores this entirely, or reduces it to parent-child issues, because if this is the function of marriage in many societies, then it’s perfectly consistent with many of the desires for the institutionalization of gay marriage, which is being asked for in many cases in order to manage inheritance and wealth sharing.
And, of course, to manage those issues not just between partners (and their respective families) but between gay couples and children. It somehow escapes Gallagher that it is now possible for lesbians to have children with the help of some male masturbation and a turkey-baster. Technologically-facilitated single-sex male production of children is longer off, but it is more than possible for two male partners to wish to raise a child together. This ought to make Gallagher’s desire to extend marriage stronger given her exclusive reading of it as a social institution designed to manage procreation, but it doesn’t. If she’s against the extension of marriage to all social units which might wish to manage the consequences of procreation, then she ought to be against adoption, fosterage, orphanages, child support payments or anything that tries to substitute for or manage procreation outside of exclusive heterosexual marriage. She doesn’t appear to be, though maybe she’s saving that for later in the crusade.
Update: Another factual howler in Gallagher’s final substantive post over at Volokh: that historical examples of marriage institutions demonstrate that successful societies understand that children need fathers, and provide social institutions that ensure the presence of fathers in the life of children. If there’s anything more variable in human child-rearing practices across space and time than the role of fathers, I’m hard pressed to think what it is. 20th Century nuclear-family ideas about fatherly involvement with the nurturing of children are definitely not the common standard, any more than the companionate vision of marriage as partnership in domestic and familial tasks is.