Monday, December 3, 2012

A Dearth of Birthers: Douthat's Birthing Paranoia Morphs into Homophobia

So, Ross Douthat treats us to another column today about the impact of population decline in the US. Actually, there's no sign of decline. In fact, the US population is increasing and will continue for a long time. What gets Douthat's tighty whities in a bundle is the recent report that the birth rate in the US has fallen to a record low. Before his Sunday column even came around, I knew he was bound to spill some ink on the topic. He's done so before.

Well, he did not disappoint in his lack of logic this time either. But he betrayed an additional amount of prejudice and intolerance as well. He argues, basically, that men and women in the US and other wealthy countries are living selfish, decadent lifestyles such that they are not willing to make the sacrifice to have children. He admits the downturn could be temporary. He admits that the absence of any robust family policy in the US makes the decision to have children difficult or at least delayed. And, culturally, we've been moving away from a "child-centric understanding of romance and marriage." And that's where he holds his hat, forgetting all of the conditions presented earlier. That despite all of these changing material circumstances, it's selfish adults that have led to a (temporary decline) in the US birthrate. To quote at length:

The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Take-downs of Douthat's arguments are already proliferating. And some of the best can be found here and here.

I would like to concentrate on just one sentence in his little rant about the dearth of birthers. The cultural trend of no longer believing child rearing is part of the institution of marriage, in his words, "goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people."

Many problems with this throwaway line (and, please, do throw it away) of social analysis:
  1. Gay marriage doesn't formally separate anything for anyone. If you choose to believe that marriage is for procreation, then you're free to believe that. To focus on the idea that marriage should be EXCLUSIVELY for that task excludes other conceptions (no pun intended) of marriage, which have long existed in world history. All gay marriage advocates hope for is equality, not to undermine the procreation-based theory of marriage. Gay getting married doesn't stop straight people from having intercourse.
  2. The more he argues that procreation is the purpose for (heterosexual) marriage, the more he's on the side of the bigots. 
  3. Ross, of course, ignores the possibility that procreation and gay marriage can go together. Ever here of surrogacy? It may not happen in the darkened bedroom between the sheets in the missionary position with a man and women that Douthat wishes for, but procreation in the 21st century doesn't have to happen in some idyllic views of 1950s America of marriage between one working white man and stay-at-home woman that he imagines. Alternative family arrangements are not only possible, but possibly preferred (especially if the biological father is abusive or absent).
  4. As long as we're discussing the 1950s, as other commentators notice, Douthat ignores the people who will actually be giving birth to these new babies. Maybe he should keep that mind next time. If he did, he would at least consider the long patriarchal history of marriage, its polygamous background, the unpaid labor women must do to raise children on their own (at least in America), and all of the other obvious elements of marriage's historical pedigree in the Western world. Women are not about to go back into the kitchen after spending 40 years trying to get out of it, because Douthat has persuaded them to. 
  5. He could have at least asked men to stay at home and help raise kids. Maybe if he had looked at gay male (and female) couples raising children successfully, he would have seen that.
  6. Finally, who ever said having children is an act of SACRIFICE?!? It's one of the most selfish things you can do! For both evolutionary reasons and the social conceit that a marriage is perceived as better if it produces offspring.
 In summary, he blames everyone else except rich white men for why many women are putting off having children and then saying gay marriage is the epitome (or apex) of the movement towards an overly decadent society. If so, I'll take decadence over his misogynous puritanism. Again, the sad thing here is that Douthat is usually credited with being an "intellectual's" conservative, along with our good friend David Brooks. But he continues to hide his ridiculous arguments in effete language.

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