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Mistah Kurtz, He Brain Dead

November 27th, 2002 · No Comments

Once in a great while, there comes an article so breathtakingly stupid, so heroic in its inanity, that as one reads it, even inanimate objects in the surrounding area seem to radiate intelligence by comparison. This farcical piece on gay marriage by Stanley Kurtz of National Review is just such an article.

“Right now,” Kurtz tells us, “proponents treat the gay-marriage debate as a question of civil rights.” Those wacky gay marriage proponents! “But the real issue,” he solemnly informs us, “is what effect gay marriage will have on the institution of marriage itself.” Now, I suppose that’s a fair question, or a question worth asking, but the implication of calling it the “real” question is, of course, that the civil rights claims are just frivolous. Compare: “Proponents of school desegregation treat the debate as a question of civil rights and equal protection under the law. But the real issue is what effect this would have on the institution of the public school.” We’d laugh that one out of the room, though we all presumably care very much how our schools fare. Even if we thought that in the short term, integration might cause problems, would we think that the principle that states are, you know, obligated to treat their citizens equally was just one more policy consideration to be thrown in the mix? One more thing to be “balanced,” as Kurtz likes to say?

I imagine some of us might instead argue, with the late prof. Rawls, that certain rights of individuals cannot be overridden even by the interests of “society as a whole.” At the article’s close, he returns to this point when he, again in passing, refers to the “false analogy to civil rights.” It is hard to know what to do with this — the analogy seems quite obviously appropriate, and Kurtz can’t bring himself to offer anything resembling an actual argument that it isn’t. We do generally recognize that when government takes charge of something — and certifying romantic partnerships is one of countless things it decidedly ought not to be in charge of — it must be neutral between its citizens. So how else but in the language of deprivation of civil rights do you describe a policy which grants government recongition and benefits to one segment of the population, and denies the same benefits to a minority? Perhaps he believes persons are treated equally after all, since gay men still have the right to marry women? Oh, the law, in its majestic equality…

Kurtz’s willingness to brush aside the right of citizens to equal treatment with a half sentence of glib handwaving would be at least somewhat offensive in any circumstances. It is full-out repellent, however, when one realizes how crashingly awful are his arguments for the baleful institutional effects of letting gay couples move up from the back of the bus.

First, we get an utterly irrelevant tangent on the views of a feminist scholar quoted by Al and Tipper Gore. Well, irrelevant to the gay marriage debate, anyway. Another declared purpose of the piece is to get an early start on bashing Gore again. Her argument, as he presents it, is that courts should treat “emotional ties” as decisive in (for example) custody battles, regardless of legal marital status. Now, that probably is a bad idea in most cases… but what could it possibly have to do with a proposal that gay couples be allowed to marry? Kurtz doesn’t like it that some suggest courts shouldn’t pay much attention to “formal marital status.” How can extending that status to people currently denied it then be a bad thing, from that perspective? If anything, it would avoid a situation in which a de facto “married” couple with a child break up, and are forced to either make a legal arugment based on those “emotional ties,” or to revoke the parental rights of one of the parties. And if Kurtz is concerned with the instiution of parenting, shouldn’t it trouble him that real families are broken up, and persons the child would certainly recognize as a “parent” denied access, for want of legal recognition?

Now, I want to believe that this next bit is a joke added to the piece by gay activist hackers to make Kurtz look like a lunatic, but in context, I’m forced to conclude that Kurtz himself has mastered that art too completely for any impostor to be effective. He observes that gay couples seeking children must resort to artificial insemination, surrogacy, or adoption, and then frets that… well, let me just quote him, lest you think I’m making this up:

While the Bush administration is sponsoring programs that try to get poor women, like the Logan’s nanny, to wait until marriage to have children, the Gores are not attracted to traditionalist solutions. Instead, the Gores seem to be saying, ‘Have the child on your own. If it’s tough to raise him, you can always give him to a wealthy gay couple for adoption.

That’s right. If we legitimize gay marriage, people will breed out of control, secure in the knowledge that they can always hand that extra child over to rich gay people. I find myself at something of a loss, unable to summon a better refuation than to simply repeat this risible suggestion, which amounts to an argument for discouraging any adoption. You’d think, since Kurtz insists on viewing equal recognition of romantic partnerships as a matter of policy balancing rather than basic rights, that he’d at least notice the implication that gay couples might provide loving homes for unwanted children with otherwise dim prospects. Or, for that matter, that the story he cites to illustrate this terrifying prospect took place without any state sanction of the couple involved.

Ah, but there’s so much more… Kurtz bemoans the fact that widespread adoption by gay couples might “change the idea of adoption or insemination from the status of ‘second best’ to the status of first principle.” The concern is as bizarre as the locution: so what? My God, you mean, people might come to see the activity of loving and raising a child as the primary thing, rather than creating little genetic copies of yourself? The horror, the horror.

Finally, we get the requisite slippery slope argument, wherein it’s said that once gay marriage is recognized, it’ll be anything goes, with polyamory and group marriages licensed soon after. Slippery slope arguments can be effective, but you’ve got to come up with some reason to think the slope is actually slippery, and that the bottom of the slope is a bad place to be. Is there anything particularly bad about allowing group marriage? Kurtz suggests that these “tend to be unstable.” Cause for concern, surely, though I don’t know why Kurtz is wasting his time fretting about polyamory rather than demanding that government inquire more closely into the 50% of marriages that end in divorce, and seeking to refuse marriage licenses to couples who seem statistically unlikely to last for the long haul. But put that aside and imagine that there were actually a sound, non-creepily-paternalistic reason to be worried about the expansion of marriage to polyamorous groups. Well, in that case, we wouldn’t be on a slippery slope after all, since that would serve as the basis for making a distinction and stopping with recognizing gay marriages.

The worry at the core of all Kurtz’s vague bluster is that “Once marriage can mean anything, it will mean nothing.” That might, one supposes, be true, but in this context it’s just prelude to a monstrous non sequitur. Marriage will not, even if we do extend it to polyamorous groups, “mean anything.” It will still mean a loving (such is the ideal, anyway) union of people who’ve made a public commitment to each other. This is, admittedly, a less narrow defintion than “the heterosexual coupling of one man and one woman.” But… so what? Like the prosecuting attorney who rails against the horrific nature of some crime without doing much to demonstrate that the defendant committed it, Kurtz bellows about the great importance of marriage as a social institution at length. Well, fine, no disagreement. But if the claim here is that allowing homosexuals to marry will “undermine” the institution, it won’t do simply to bestow upon us the profound insight that this constitutes a change in the boundaries of marriage. The repeal of laws against miscegenation changed those boundaries too — did it weaken marriage?

Hey, Stan, you want to know why Conservatives arguing against gay marriage find that opponents “label them as hard-hearted ‘homophobes'”? Because when your arguments are this transparently unsound, that sort of ugly motivation starts to seem like last remaining explanation for a dogged insistence on denying people equality.

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