Custom and Gay Marriage

I have genuine respect for Patrick Deneen, the author of this provocative piece from The American Conservative. While, I think his broader thesis is essentially on-target, nearly every time I read one of his pieces I find myself counting the paragraphs until he inevitably rails against what he sees as the ultimate symbol of our cultural decline: gay marriage.

Read his essay. Deneen is right to defend custom, our culture is far too quick to discard tradition in favor of "innovation" and what is new. However, I believe that customs themselves are not merely bunkers to be defended, but are organic entities that can and do grow and change as they extend the boundaries of civility and order.

Allowing gay and lesbian couples access to the custom of marriage, is, in part, a way of liberating them from reckless "innovations" spawned by violent disapproval. What many would consider to be the aberrant behaviors of homosexuals are often the reactions of a people having to live out their lives in the twisted shadows of shame and self-loathing. Shame is not always a bad thing - there are many behaviors that are indeed shameful, however, should we expect people to accept being branded as unworthy from birth? To live out their lives adopting the bent and fearful posture of shame? This may have been "customary" in the past, but it seems simply barbaric now.

Today, we know that gay and lesbians have not made an immoral "choice" regarding their orientation. We know too, that many long for lives bound by the familiar and beloved customs that informed their upbringing. Custom, for them, and for us all - just might demand an extension of that most revered Christian innovation / tradition: boundless love. It certainly does not spell its demise.

Deneen sees gay marriage as a Trojan Horse that will allow "further Innovations" and cites a New York Times article about "open" relationships in the gay community. Does he really believe this practice, which is by no means universally embraced by gays and lesbians, was invented by them? That this is somehow a late-breaking behavior spawned in West Hollywood? Here, Deneen is simply lazy and smug about the nature of heterosexual "customs."

Here are a few paragraphs from Deneen's piece:

Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that “everything is allowed.” It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong, as Mill recognized. By contrast, a Burkean society is organized for the benefit of the ordinary—most people who benefit from societal norms that the Great and the Ordinary alike are expected to follow. A society can be shaped for the benefit of most people by emphasizing mainly informal norms and customs that secures the path to flourishing for most human beings; or it can be shaped for the benefit of the extraordinary and powerful by liberating all from the constraint of Custom, mainly through the obliteration of Custom. Our society was once shaped on the basis of the benefit for the many Ordinary; today it is shaped largely for the benefit of the few Strong.

The results of this civilizational transformation are accumulating everywhere we look. The Strong are flourishing: congregating in the wealthy counties around Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and the like, they participate merrily in a society that disassembles all the old Customs, while their growing wealth insulates them against the ravages of our new economy shorn of the old ways. Beyond their vision, in the “fly-over” country, their countrymen are sinking in the quicksand of their new liberties. Pre-marital sex, abortion, out of wedlock birth, an epidemic of fatherless children, the incapacity to hold down secure employment in a globalized and increasingly automated economy—these and a host of other social ills are the fruits of their liberty. Experiments in living will lead to a few successes and many failures; the latter are part of the price of success for the Strong.

The deepest irony of our absurd age is a political narrative that claims our Millian liberals are the party who succors the Ordinary. But compare the amplitude of the calls for gay marriage (which, it turns out, will not preclude ongoing “experiments in living”) to the utter silence regarding the epidemic of fatherless children in America, and ask yourself who benefits from “experiments in living.”