Against repressive antisentimentalism

Dear Mark,

When you and I read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or this spring, in a group that met every morning for a week in the second-floor cafeteria of the Houston Street Whole Foods, we had many arguments about the nature of marriage. Now I seem to be joining you in another, though our private conversation has become, in something like the ambiguous transformation wrought by marriage itself, public. Either/Or, as you know, is divided into two parts, the first written by a Seducer, who approaches the problem of human relations aesthetically, and the second by a Judge, who approaches it ethically. Neither approach proves satisfactory; a better title for the book would be “Neither/Nor.” To the surprise of those of us who know you personally, your essay “On Repressive Sentimentalism” has caused some in the blogosphere to mistake you for a figure like Kierkegaard’s Seducer. In disagreeing with you, I suppose I run the parallel risk of sounding like the Judge, who is, I believe, in somewhat greater danger of losing his soul, because in order to preserve decorum, he seems willing to smother the spark that makes human relations possible at all. Keeping the danger in mind, I will risk answering you.

I dissent from many of the claims in your essay, but I feel my resistance most strongly to the following sentence:

Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage.

If you believe that gays who marry resemble people offering to take out the trash, then you believe that gays who marry are offering a service. I presume you mean that they are surrendering their sexual wildness for the sake of social approbation and in the process are making a gift of sexual orderliness to the common weal. If that is all marriage is—a bargain wherein autonomy is traded for status—then it is indeed a ridiculous bargain for any sexually potent adult to make. (Lurking behind the cartoon figure of the promiscuous gay man, whom your essay eulogizes, is his inevitable twin, the gay eunuch.) But surely it’s possible to imagine marriage as something else, something that our Kierkegaard reading group tried to investigate, as did the reading group that followed it, which tackled Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness. Would it be mere rhetoric to suggest that marriage is in fact itself a form of wildness?

Your claim in the sentence quoted above, which is a sort of a joke, has two lemmas. First, you imply that marriage is a surrender of sexual liberty. I don’t think that’s accurate. Marriage is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell standing side by side in the closing scene of His Girl Friday, nattering on with the same jollity when handcuffed to each other as when not handcuffed. Marriage is indifference to handcuffs. There are always opportunities to escape. The strange discovery that makes marriage possible is that one has the liberty not to—the liberty to make the same choice, day after day—and that one happens to want to make a consistent choice. It is a paradox, at least. Will one happen to want to make the same choice forever? Maybe not. Separation and divorce are always possible, in our world, and maybe they give marriage its poignancy. The possibility of separation proves that no two people stay chained to each other unless they want to. It even seems to be the case that people who want to stay chained to each other sometimes can’t manage to. It is at any rate an error to think that marriage is a surrender of liberty. It is an exercise of it.

The second lemma of your joke is less seemly. It is mockery of anyone—in this case, gays—who wants the general social approbation implied by marriage. I suspect that you yourself will find this indigestible if you stop and think about it. Do you really intend to mock homosexuals, who have long been considered and in some circles still are considered pariahs, for wishing to have proof that they are no longer so thought of, at least as a matter of law? Your joke will only seem funny to readers who have taken social approbation for granted for so long that they now see only its conformist aspect and no longer its psychological and social benefits. Yes, yes, society bestows its approval conservatively; do you really think that people who have gone without it for most of their adult lives are unaware of that? You are somewhat in the position, here, of a millionaire who styles himself a radical and makes fun of the lengths that other people will go to in order to become rich. The radical thing would be to share the wealth, or to campaign for a more equitable economic system.

I’m not denying, by the way, that people in a marriage customarily agree to forgo sexual opportunities outside it. I’m saying merely that they agree to because they realize that they want to forgo them. Such a realization cannot happen to a Foucauldian motley of bodies and pleasures. Bodies have no free will; left to their own devices, they say yes to every pleasure they can obtain. Such a realization can only happen to a self, or to something you might even denominate a soul. Selves and souls, you might reply, are fictions, and I agree that they are not a given but are something people make in the course of living. I believe, nonetheless, that they are worth making. Keats called the world a “vale of soul-making,” and on that understanding, a refusal to make a soul is a denial of incarnation—a refusal of one of the world’s highest pleasures and deepest experiences. I am not of course saying that only married people have souls. I am saying that it’s worthwhile to have a soul, in part so as to have the capacity to make a choice like marriage, but mostly because it would be a shame to go through life without ever thinking about what Hopkins would call the sakes of it. This is diving rather deep in order to answer a relatively shallow question, I admit, but this way of arguing about marriage seems to require it.

I dissent from any deprecation of the self, and a fortiori of the soul, in the name of liberating the body. A liberated body is merely an animal, and there are stark limits to the liberty that an animal is capable of. Human liberty goes further—it involves something else—and to exclude that something else from a human life is sort of to miss the whole point, frankly.

What exactly that something else is, in a marriage or in a life, is hard to say without misrepresenting it. Emerson recommends modesty on the subject, and I wonder if your error has been to show such an excessive modesty that in your essay you pretend, as a conceit, that this something else does not even exist. But it does, I believe, even if it is invented.



Fact-check the Leibovitz-bankruptcy meme now

There's a new meme going around, begun by a blogger named Julia Miranda and propagated here, to the effect that the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz's money troubles, which have forced her to pawn the copyright to her photos, were caused by inheritance tax she had to pay on property left to her by her late lover Susan Sontag. If lesbians were allowed to marry, the claim goes, Leibovitz wouldn't be in such trouble.

Scott McLemee points out that Sontag developed such an aversion to marrying after her first experience that it's far from clear that she would have taken advantage of an opportunity to marry Leibovitz. But there's also a factual problem: it doesn't in fact seem to be true that Leibovitz took out the loans to pay inheritance taxes. According to the Telegraph story that Julia Miranda cites, Leibovitz "declined to comment on the specific reasons for the loans." According to the New York Times article that first broke the news of Leibovitz pawning her copyright, friends said she planned to use "the money to pay off mortgages and deal with other financial stresses." A Daily Mail story claims that Sontag-estate taxes were to blame, but the story's anonymous author doesn't seem to have interviewed anyone who would know, and according to a squib in Trusts & Estates, Sontag actually left most of her estate to her son, David Rieff. Meanwhile, a blogger named Jason Cochran claims that Leibovitz's money troubles are more likely caused by her renovation of a Greenwich Village townhouse, which damaged the townhouse next door and brought on a costly lawsuit.

Putting all that to one side, of course, it remains true and widely unappreciated that the denial of marriage rights to gays and lesbians costs them money and trouble. It muddies the waters, however, to make claims that are probably untrue, and at best unverifiable.

My reply to the Templeton Foundation

[For the background and progress of this controversy, please see my earlier posts “A Big Question about the Templeton Foundation,” “Boycott the Templeton Foundation,” and “The Templeton Foundation Responds.”]

Dear Mr. Rosen,

Thanks again for your considered response. I think I understand your position, and it isn’t ultimately with you that I’m quarreling but with John M. Templeton, Jr. However, to help myself think through matters, I’m going to try to respond to your letter carefully and in some detail. I’m posting this reply on my blog, as well as emailing it to you.

The best place for me to start might be with your description of Mr. Templeton’s gift of $1.1 million to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, a campaign that succeeded in depriving gays and lesbians in California of the right to civil marriage. You describe it as a “private, strictly personal contribution.” It may have been a personal contribution, but I disagree that it was a private one. It has been reported by the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and its effect was certainly public. It changed California state law. I don’t think the difficulty in distinguishing public from private is incidental. On exactly this question, as it happens, the institution of marriage is famously ambiguous. The lived experience of a marriage is private, so much so that it’s probably inaccessible to any third party. (William Dean Howells: “Married life is as much a mystery to us outsiders as the life to come, almost.”) But a marriage ceremony isn’t valid without witnesses, and the fact of a marriage is public and is subject to the law. It is subject to law in a rather strange way. There are a number of civil and legal benefits associated with marriage today, but for most of its history, marriage has come before the law mostly in the process of its dissolution, either by death or divorce. Legally speaking, marriage isn’t “for” husbands and wives; it’s for children, widows, widowers, and the divorced. Indeed I think that’s one reason it’s taken so long for marriage to seem worth fighting for. When you’re living with your partner in good health, the ratification of marriage hardly seems necessary, except as a way to overcome such inconveniences and petty injustices as having to pay income tax on healthcare granted to you through your partner’s employer. Nonetheless, these inconveniences add up. The New York Times recently published an article listing all the contracts and legal documents that a gay couple need—even if they have a Massachusetts or a California marriage—in order to approximate a straight union. I imagine the eyes of most straight readers crossed, if they even made the attempt to read it. I know mine did. Injustice is often petty; it’s natural to want to look away.

I’ve strayed slightly off topic. My point is that marriage is a public matter that affects, and to some extent structures, an experience that most people think of as extremely private. It does so in large part by defining limits and end-states, but it does so nonetheless. And so when Mr. Templeton gave money to deprive gays and lesbians of marriage, I would argue that he was not only engaging in a public act, involving a change to the laws of California, but also intruding into the privacy of gays and lesbians in California who live in committed relationships. In effect, he walked into their bedrooms, he sat down at their breakfast tables, and he took something from them. It is worth keeping in mind the size of Mr. Templeton’s donation; he is reported to have been the third-largest donor to the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign. It is also worth keeping in mind that Mr. Templeton lives in Pennsylvania not California. The size of the donation, the willingness to reach across state lines, the publicity inseparable from law and any advocacy of change to it, the violation of others’ privacy implicit in the denial of marriage to them—all these elements suggest to me that even though Mr. Templeton contributed from his personal funds, and gave the money as an individual, it is fair game for me and others to respond to his contribution as a public matter.

In the comment I submitted to your website, I asked (half in bitter jest, I’m afraid) whether the Templeton Foundation might be willing to pose the question “Is marriage a civil right?” to the next group of thinkers it recruits. You responded: “The answer is no, we wouldn’t, because such questions are not part of our mission, as set out by the late Sir John Templeton.” I’m not persuaded, though, that my suggestion is as outlandish as all that. According to your website,

The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity.

Perhaps what you mean is that my proposed question is trivial. If so, then I agree. Is marriage a civil right? Of course it is. But the question in the context of California’s ballot initiative is a rather big one. A better way to phrase it: Should civil marriage be denied to gays and lesbians? Seen in that light, I think the question does fall under your purview. If any marriage can succeed without love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity, I’ll eat the hat I bought yesterday, which is made entirely of synthetic fibers and has very long ear flaps. To judge by the nationwide protests that broke out after Proposition 8 succeeded, whether civilized people may continue to deny to gays and lesbians the benefits of marriage is one of the biggest questions of the hour. Though it isn’t how you describe yourselves, others have characterized the Templeton Foundation as encouraging the intersection of religion and science. Here, too, gay marriage would seem to be pertinent, because science offers no grounds for continuing to deny marriage. Only religion does—and fewer religions every year.

You write that Mr. Templeton “is very careful to separate his own political activities from the work of the Foundation. Like you, he has strong views on Proposition 8, but he does not use the Foundation to promote those views.” I think this is your strongest argument against me. Mr. Templeton is the chair of the foundation; he and it share a name; he and it got their money from the same source. But they are separate entities, and it may be slightly unfair of me to urge a boycott of the foundation because I disapprove of the actions of the man. I am calling for a boycott nonetheless, because if your argument here is valid, and the two are indeed separable, then let the foundation continue without its current chairman. For me to suggest such a separation is meddling, of course, but I feel that Mr. Templeton has meddled, and turnabout is fair play. I also believe the importance of the issue justifies meddling. In 1948 the California Supreme Court struck down that state’s anti-miscegenation laws. If the chairman of a philanthropy were to have contributed that year to an initiative to amend the California constitution so as to restore its anti-miscegenation laws, some might have criticized a boycott of the philanthropy as meddling then, but I think few would so criticize it now, in retrospect. In calling for a boycott, I am arguing that spending more than a million dollars to deny civil marriage to gays and lesbians in another state has become, in the last couple of decades, the sort of act to which public opprobrium naturally attaches. I am arguing, in particular, that opprobrium attaches to it in the community of writers and scholars whose approval the Templeton Foundation pursues.

Finally, I’d like to address the first point in your letter, namely, that you declined to publish my comment out of “ordinary editorial discretion,” because it was off topic. But I don’t see that it is. I’m arguing that public opprobrium attaches today to a donation like Mr. Templeton’s. If I’m right, then any scholar who accepts the largesse of Mr. Templeton’s foundation in the future has some explaining to do. He will have to defend himself from the charge that he’s allowed money to sway his judgment—that he’s agreed to overlook Mr. Templeton’s antagonism to gay rights in exchange for receiving funds from Mr. Templeton’s foundation. I foresee that a certain kind of libertarian will argue that he can both support gay marriage and accept the Templeton Foundation’s money. But I think most liberal and progressive thinkers will appreciate the moral hazard, and my aim in calling for a boycott is to point it out to them.

There is another way of defending my contribution from the accusation that it is off topic, and that is to point out that an intellectual conversation, especially in matters of ethics, should probably be somewhat flexible about its topic. A kind of tact is required. On the one hand, a conversation degenerates into chaos if it has no limits, but on the other hand, it’s dangerous to rule a topic out before there has been a chance to explore it, because you might be missing a chance to discover an unexpected truth. I wouldn’t even raise this point if Mr. Templeton were chairman of a frankly partisan organization. But the Templeton Foundation asserts a belief in open-minded inquiry, and your Big Questions campaign makes much of the candid disagreement among the opinions solicited. You write, regarding Mr. Templeton and Proposition 8, that it should be understandable if “we do not wish to use the Foundation or its website to promote those who disagree with him on this issue.” It is understandable, and even to be expected, but if the Templeton Foundation is committed to open-minded inquiry, it’s wrongheaded. I am an individual. The Templeton Foundation is an institution. When an institution is committed to open-minded inquiry, it does allow individuals to use it to express their dissent, even with—perhaps especially with—the opinions of its leader. It’s not as if I asked the Templeton Foundation to post my dissent on its homepage. I asked to contribute 258 words to an online debate that currently runs to more than 27,000. So I’m calling foul.

All best,
Caleb Crain