Re: The “History” of Marriage

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he supports same-sex marriages, quite a few reactions have flooded the opinion pages, cable networks and blog sites. Of course, people are entitled to their differing views on the subject; and President Obama’s announcement certainly can be seen as a divisive one. It angers not only many conservatives, but also groups that are considered at the base of the Democratic Party, specifically African-Americans and Latinos. However, at a time when Gallup polls report that 50% of all Americans support same-sex marriage, this public affirmation from the President of the United States marks an important moment in history.


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And yet, I almost refrain from using the word “history”, a term that opponents of same-sex marriage have so regularly abused and exploited. The word itself faces the threat of being rendered meaningless.

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared in 2003, “I agree with 3,000 years of recorded history. I disagree with the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman.” Recently Romney spoke at Liberty University, where he reaffirmed his position of nine years ago. He spoke of the “enduring institution of marriage,” one that defines itself as “a relationship between one man and one woman.”

He has other conservative supporters, of course. In January, Newt Gingrich boldly associated gay marriage with Paganism. Gingrich said, “It’s pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman. This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament…the effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization.”

Conservative blogger, Erick Erickson writes, “In the past few decades, many people have decided that several thousand years of human history can be ignored in favor of unproven claims of happiness, fairness, progress, and an expanded notion of equality.”

It is imperative to do some fact checking of these ‘historical’ claims.

When Newt Gingrich invokes marriages from the Old and New Testament, is he counting the one where Jacob had two wives? Or where King David had eight wives? Or where King Solomon had 700 wives?

When Mitt Romney speaks about the “enduring institution” of marriage, does he mean the marriages of ancient Egypt where royal siblings would legally marry one another in order to keep their royal bloodlines pure? Or the marriages of the ancient Romans where daughters were human forms of currency, used to help form strategic alliances and strengthen the military position of the family?

Marriage is an evolving institution. It is both deceptive and manipulative to speak of the history of marriage as a stable, un-changing tradition. To be against gay-marriage is one thing; to depict marriage as a fixed institution is another.

Wedding vows, as we know them today certainly have not been around for “thousands” of years. The vows with the well known “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer” come from a man named Thomas Cranmer in 1549.

Society did not really even make the switch to marrying for love, a period known in sociology as “affective individualism”, until the Victorian Era. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria became the revered icons for a loving marriage. People began to grow distasteful of arranged marriages for economic purposes, and began to seek new meaning, namely love, in the institution of marriage.

When Erick Erickson argues that we’re ignoring “thousands of years of human history” I think the real question is which history is he referring to? Which marriage structure is he claiming we should fight to preserve? Arranged-marriages between a man and a woman? Polygamic marriages?

And if Erickson does mean marriages for love between a man and a woman—well, that is one of the most recent historical phenomena of them all.


A 90th Birthday Party

Today I attended my grandfather’s 90th birthday party. It was an interesting experience, seeing a room filled with so many people spanning different generations. We had my 90-year-old grandfather holding my six-week-old cousin’s hand. And it made me wonder, how does 2011 look to someone born in 1921?

When I hear “1920” I think of abstract AP US history identifications. Flappers and stock market crashes. Nativism and Immigration bills. Wilson and World War 1. Not my real, breathing, brownie-baking grandfather.

I started to think about what it must have been like to witness all that he has. From the depression, to the New Deal, to fighting in the World War 2, to the Cold War, to the computer, to 9/11, to cell phone apps.

Now, I could be off the mark with this thought, but I think as my generation and I get older, the changing world will be a lot less scary and foreign for us in 70 years than it was for my grandfather. And I think it’s because we’re always expecting it to be. I understand that the world I’ve grown up in is changing at a much faster rate than in any other period in human history. Every time I find a new device or company that I love, I use it happily while also keeping the thought in the back of my mind that in 2 years it just might not exist.

I can recall so clearly 5 years ago when all my friends bought blackberries. Everyone wanted to BBM. If you had an upgrade, you were getting a blackberry. (Unless your parents didn’t want to pay for a data plan, which is understandable. But you were jealous.) Now no one is buying blackberries anymore and iPhones are dominating the cellular market. I use my iPhone4 knowing well that the iPhone 5 is coming out soon, and in a few years, developers will have created apps and features that won’t function on my future obsolete phone, even though for the moment, it’s state of the art.

Every program I use I know developers are working on an upgrade that will be released in a matter of time. Every technology I find convenient, I know brilliant computer scientists, businessmen, and engineers are out thinking of innovative new ways to beat that product. “Disruptive technology” was a term my friend Max said to me today as we were talking about this.

For the majority of the 20th century, disruptive technology just wasn’t something people had to deal with that much. When the television came out in the 50’s that was a big deal. People were outraged, scared and delighted. People were convinced the television had forever changed life as they knew it. And though hyperbolic, I can understand their hysterics. They had hardly any practice in adapting to disruptive technologies. But we are. We anticipate it in a way I don’t think ever has really been before.

So what does that mean for us? Well, I don’t really know. I by no means claim that we’ll be able to be compete in our old age with savvy twenty-year olds. They’ll most likely be sharper and cleverer than us. But…. I still have this feeling that we’ll look at our rapidly changing world not with an outsider’s eye. We’ll have grown up with the pace of the world, and it’s our pace. I’ll argue that it will be much harder to feel like foreigners to a pace we’ve always been conditioned to expect.

We shall see