Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Wedding Bells (and Whistles)

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks (Sunday July 2, 2006 at 7:06 pm)

Marriage has always borne with pretentious addresses. Hardly a ceremony goes by without them. But it should give thanks for its extension to same-sex couples for two reasons. First, for its reengagement with romantics; and second for its divisiveness, no less sharply wielded on the communities where it is proposed than on understanding the institution itself.

However bedecked and glamorous, marriage has, at its heart, a simple quality and singular purpose. Some might point to the forging of alliances among kingdoms; but really, Greeks and Romans got married, too. Forging alliances between families? Yes and no. There’s a common element at work here; and the alliances are superficial phenomena which stem from what marriage really does: define inheritance.

The crucial characteristic that makes marriage enduring (not a marriage) is precisely this. By fixing a public announcement of union and erecting laws not only to ban extraneous sex but also inheritance by its fruits, the question of who gets to take over property, titles, and work from whom becomes far easier to answer. Whether oppressive to women or to men really isn’t the important thing to note here. Rather, it’s the stability of a social order where transitions between generations can be undertaken in an orderly way. Once society marries a couple, it expects to believe that only children born of that woman are lawful heirs of both her and her spouse. With enough midwives, attendants, friends, and what have you, the system works pretty well.

But of course, how well it works or not depends on how well you sell it, which is why it is laden so with mystical significance, costly rites, and pomp, pomp, pomp. It’s an old, established rule (see Plato’s Laws — by no means the oldest possible source) that nothing butresses social norms like impressive public rituals; and that’s the romantic hook. Don’t mistake a Frosty Wonk for a Chill Spectre — it’s no hoodwink. It’s just that everyone wants valuable things and nothing looks as valuable as something that everyone else values. So public ritual has a multiplying effect: the more you add, the more important marriage becomes, the more desirable it becomes to have all that attention lavished on a young couple, and so on until infinity.

But the pomp itself has nothing to do with the institution. Christians may call on God to bless their marriages, but can’t possibly suggest that the Church came up with the idea. It’s just one of the more recent forms of ritual to bolster this ancient custom.

And that’s what’s so surprising about the Court rulings on gay marriage in Canada. Not that they support it, but why: finding that marriage serves an important social purpose.

Through this institution, society publicly recognizes expressions of love and commitment between individuals, granting them respect and legitimacy as a couple. This public recognition and sanction of marital relationships reflect society’s approbation of the personal hopes, desires and aspirations that underlie loving, committed conjugal relationships. This can only enhance an individual’s sense of self-worth and dignity.

Surely so much money, attention to things like bigamy, polygamy, adultery, and bastardry could only stem from society’s desire to recognise expressions of love and commitment. Or maybe society just gets really angry if it bets on the wrong horse (or brace thereof). But this is no piece for cynics. Having seen Parliament’s attempt at romanticism, it’s nice to know that at least one Canadian institution is filled with daydream believers and homecoming queens — even if they’re always in mourning.

Which is what makes the push for same-sex marriage such a romantic gesture — it’s about the allure of the bells and whistles. But that brings serious problems. The Courts’ imposition of same-sex marriage did everything to attach the binding legal force of marriage without providing those entering it with the exempting savings of divorce — a right which in itself took long to establish (something about man being insufficient to put it asunder, but that couldn’t be right — wasn’t it man that put it together?) And these protections had still to be put into place. Which is why the Court’s judgement simply wasn’t enough to provide same-sex couples with equal rights. Legislation was needed; and the government obliged — when pressed by the opposition.

But let’s hope that those who fought for gay marriage with bells and whistles in their minds (and love in the hearts — don’t deny it) aren’t mislead by the same things when brandished by politicians. Those Liberals who will fight so bravely against Harper’s motion for a motion were too timid to proceed themselves without asking the Supreme Court for marching orders (that pesky fourth question), which the Court wisely took as an opportunity to tell them to get a pair:

12 Question 4 raises other concerns. While it possesses the requisite legal content to be justiciable, it raises considerations that render a response on this reference inappropriate, as discussed more fully below.

The government has clearly accepted the rulings of lower courts on this question and has adopted their position as its own. The common law definition of marriage in five provinces and one territory no longer imports an opposite-sex requirement.

68 There is no precedent for answering a reference question which mirrors issues already disposed of in lower courts where an appeal was available but not pursued.

Translation? “If you wanted to find out, you should have had the courage to appeal the lower-court decisions that got you into this situation, despite the fact that it would have meant arguing against same-sex marriage. Can’t try to look good that way then come before the Supreme Court and ask us to play the bad guys to keep your noses clean. Wusses. (or as close as you come in judicial parlance)”

Similarly, the Conservatives so brazenly suggesting that the work be undone offer up a vote to their supporters which they know they can’t win: a free vote where the NDP and BQ are against them, the bulk of the Liberals opposed, and a few of their own members unwilling to say yes.

Ignore the bells and whistles. What, for society, are precious reminders of the binding force of committment, are in these men’s hands cheap baubles with which they hope to lure unwary romantics of every stripe.

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