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Reflections on Little Rock

Andrew Sullivan has lost his mind.  Take a look at his Quote of the Day for today.

“The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’ are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs.” - Hannah Arendt, Dissent, Winter 1959.

Let’s not forget that Sullivan has a PhD from Harvard, so he’s not a stupid man by any means.  But he’s so blinded by the marriage issue that he posts quotes like this, which are taken completely out of context, and doesn’t see just how detrimental it is to his own positions.  As anyone who has read my two recent posts on the subject can tell you (see here and here) I am fundamentally in agreement with Sullivan’s positions, and it is largely due to arguments he has put forth.  But I simply don’t agree with the “fundamental right” argument being put forth by proponents of gay marriage, just like I don’t agree with the “sanctity of marriage” argument being used by its opponents. 

I was intrigued by this quote of Arendts and wanted to read the context in which it was written, and found that information here.  I think it is enlightening, especially in light of the point Sullivan is trying to make.

A final example comes from a pioneer of interracial studies, J. A. Rogers, in whose 1917 novel, From ‘‘Superman’’ to Man, the Negro Pullman porter Dixon combines the kinds of arguments advanced by Beaumont and Garrison and memorably pronounces that the ‘‘right to select one’s mate is one of the most ancient, most sacred of individual rights, and when the state interferes in this, except in the case of the mentally unfit, it but adds humor to the witticism—‘This is a free country’ ’’ (Rogers 1988:80). This character in Rogers’s little-known 1917 novel anticipates Hannah Arendt’s 1959 argument as well as Justice Warren’s 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, both of which are included in this book.  It is telling that the German-Jewish refugee Arendt prefaced her ‘‘Reflections on Little Rock’’ with the comment, ‘‘Like most people of European origin I have difficulty in understanding, let alone sharing, the common prejudices of Americans in this area.’’ In her essay she firmly insisted:

The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’’ are minor indeed. (p. 496, this volume.)

That essay was so controversial in 1959 that Commentary, which had commissioned it, refused to publish it, and when it finally did appear in Dissent, it was accompanied by an editorial disclaimer and two sharp rebuttals, one of which called Arendt an ‘‘ardent champion’’ of intermarriage; in the subsequent issue of Dissent, Sidney Hook wrote that Arendt gave ‘‘priority to agitation for equality in the bedroom rather than to equality in education.’’ Yet eight years later Chief Justice Warren virtually adopted Arendt’s (or shall we say, Rogers’s porter Dixon’s?) arguments when, in ending the era of ‘‘miscegenation’’ laws, he stated: ‘‘Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival. . . . Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed upon by the State.’’ Just as laws shaped and gave themes to literature, literature may also have affected the realm of the law.

The context in which she was writing were laws banning interracial marriage.  This was the case before the Supreme Court in Loving vs. Virginia which described the right to marry the person of one’s choosing as a fundamental right.  There is one main area, however, that I think applying this argument and this case to the gay marriage debate is flawed.

Throughout history there have been interracial marriages, but they have been between a man and a woman who happened to be of a different race.  There have been attempts throughout the years to ban certain types of marriage, such as these types of laws here in the United States.  Sullivan himself links to a latter to the WaPo reminding readers of a proposed amendment from 1912:  “Intermarriage between negros or persons of color and Caucasians . . . within the United States . . . is forever prohibited.” The distinction here, though, is that this did not seek to redefine what a marriage was, it simply tried to legislate away certain types of marriage.  The only reason that the Loving decision is not more specific in its definition of marriage is, I feel, because the idea of two men or two women wanting to be legally wed was so utterly preposterous at the time that even a dedicated liberal activist like Earl Warren couldn’t have conceived of it.  So while he discussed marriaqge as a fundamental right, it was still well within the traditional context of marriage being between a man and woman who are not cosanguinous. 

If the right to marry whoever you want, without condition, is granted as a “fundamental human right,” then I do believe that the worst fears of gay marriage’s conservative critics will come true, and incestuous and polyamorous marriages will have to be permitted under than definition.  After all, being able to choose your marriage partner is a fundamental right, isn’t it?  By allowing one redefinition of marriage under the rubric of human rights you must therefore, in the name of human rights, allow all redefinitions.  That’s the way the system works.

What Sullivan should be doing more of is trying to convence others why the redefinition of marriage to include gay couples is a good idea.  By trying to play these types of semantic word games he is, I feel, weaking his argument, and I’m someone who has had his beliefs on this issue changed largely by Sullivans arguments in the past.  Just like the “sanctity of marriage” argument, I think that this is very, very weak.  I expect better.

Posted by Lee on 02/29/04 at 12:39 AM in Decline of Western Civilization • Permalink


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