Monday, January 26, 2004

In Defense of Marriage

Say what you will about Bush’s State of the Union -- it was weak on big domestic programs, it was too conservative on social issues, it was boring -- one week after the speech, all must admit that it has changed the national agenda. In the State of the Union he mentioned the problems of sex slavery. Last Friday, Dateline NBC had a disturbing expose of child sex slaves in Cambodia, a New York Times magazine’s cover article discussed the forced prostitution of young girls in the US, and we talked about it over brunch at my parents' house. All hail the bully pulpit! His discussion of marriage has also birthed a series of articles in the mainstream press.

Sunday’s Times had a front page story on Bush $1.5 billion marriage education program. Marriage education programs have mushroomed in recent years, even without governmental subsidies. These programs advise couples on financial matters and communication skills, and are aimed at lowering the rates of divorce. With single women with children at the highest risk for poverty, a husband with a job might not be such a bad thing.

In the same paper, an op-ed article by Laura Kipnis goes to town on this program and on the institution of marraige itself. Why are these programs being aimed at the poor? If marriage is so great, then don’t the middle class need better communication skills as well? What the poor need are programs to lift them out of poverty, not this governmental intrusion into their personal lives.

She cites some interesting statistics. Only 56% of all adults are married today, compared with 75% 30 years ago. Married couples with children have dropped to 26% of all households, from 45% in the early 70s. People are less likely to be married and less likely to have kids than in the past.

Why this change? Partially, the new economy has made it increasingly difficult for one income to support a family, as Kipnis points out. However, she thinks that the major factor has been the economic self-suffciency of women. Women don’t need a man’s salary anymore.

She sees this as a cause for celebration. Conservatives are the only ones who like marriage. She compares colonial America to marriage, and the revolution to divorce. Married people are deeply unhappy and, thus, “primed to swallow indignities like trickle-up economics along with their daily antidepressants.”

Marriage is a plot by elitist conservatives to subjugate the masses.

I have so many problems with this op-ed that I hardly know where to begin. With no time to organize all my points, I am just going to spew.

First of all, to say that married people are all miserable is just crap. She cites some Rutgers study that said that 38% of people in the first marriage are unhappy. OK, some people have to go around a couple times to get it right. How many people in their second marriages are happy? How many single people are happy? I have a good number of single friends enduring all sorts of humiliations with internet dating, because they very much want to get married.

Secondly, why begrudge lower income people of their marriage classes. The expenditure is relatively small. Too small to be used for a more ambitious program. And Steve and I attended an obligatory class through our church before we got married. It was a good thing. Why not give others such an opportunity? Why must only middle class gain some helpful pointers?

Thirdly, I don’t think everybody should be married. One of the great advances in the modern age is that women have a choice about this matter. But this doesn’t mean that no one should be married. Why deride marriage for others because you don’t like it?

Fourthly, divorce should not be celebrated. I have three good friends who have been divorced. In one case, the woman initiated it because the guy was a bum. But in the other two cases, the guy left for a younger woman. And in one of those cases, the bum left her with two small kids who now have to go to daycare. I’m not sure if marriage classes could have prevented those divorces from happening, but to assume that divorce is always benefits women is a mistake. And rarely does it benefit the kids.

Lastly, how come it’s okay for gays to get married, but not us heteros? If we think (and I do) that homosexuals should get married if they want to, then why shouldn’t the breeders. It’s bizarre.

Throughout the article, Kipnis assumes that people don’t want to get married. Women are making a personal choice to avoid the enslavement of marriage. Does personal choice help explain the statistic? Are people not getting married because they can’t afford it, they can’t find good mates, they are too pressured from work to date, they are scarred from their own parents' divorce, they are in alternative committed relationships? I’m not sure. But the picture is far more complicated than Kipnis makes out. And marriage is certainly not a life sentence to misery.

Things to Read

Dan Drezner also had problems with the Kipnis's op-ed.

For more on sex trafficking and trafficers, read Tim Burke's post, Evil.

More from the Times on politics and the internet.
Online political discussion has become so fragmented so quickly that some public policy scolds warn that the Internet is in danger of narrowing the spectrum of debate even as it attracts more participants to it. The same medium that allows people to peruse a near- infinite number of news sources also lets them pinpoint the ones they want and filter out the rest.

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