Tuesday, November 3, 2009

the secular battle over heterosexual marriage

From Mary Eberstadt in First Things, reflections on "two unexpectedly compelling essays" last summer: Sandra Tsing Loh's “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in The Atlantic, and Caitlin Flanagan’s nearly simultaneous and ferociously opposed “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” in Time.

The Flanagan and Loh pieces, much more than the usual pro and con over marriage, are also windows into a rapidly evolving moral and cultural landscape. Both Flanagan and Loh are middle-aged women, both are among The Atlantic’s best writers of the past ten years, and both rely for their literary firepower on a brew of pop sociology and personal confession that is nearly always a potent read. But there do the common denominators end.

In “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?” Flanagan proves herself an unapologetic apologist for traditional marriage as best for children, best for adults, and critical to society. Loh—despite having relied on her own marriage and family life for literary inspiration throughout years of popular essay writing—now declares herself as ferocious a foe of marriage as Flanagan is a defender of it. Using her own impending divorce as emblematic, as well as a blunt battery of anecdotes about the marriages of acquaintances and friends, Loh argues that rising lifespans and impossibly inflated expectations have ruined a once viable institution.

An obvious question—the one at the center of Flanagan and Loh’s dispute—is What is modern marriage doing to kids? Shocking though that question proved to detractors of Flanagan’s Time essay, not everyone is so naive; readers passably acquainted with the decades of family sociology following the Moynihan Report will already suspect the answer. More interesting is another question: What is modern marriage doing to adults? More precisely, what today is the state, in our apparently postmodern, postfeminist, post-judgmental social order, of what antiquarians once thought of as “the war between the sexes”?

The answer seems to be one long, strange trip to an enigma in which many unhappy people apparently feel themselves trapped....

Flanagan undertakes a pithy channeling of what generations of social scientists have been painstakingly documenting since the 1960s: “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.”...

As an interesting footnote, during the same summer months that middle-aged and upper-middle-class readers were saturating the blogosphere with their opinions on heterosexual marriage, enthralled movie audiences escaped the heat with the runaway animated hit of the summer, Up. A critical and commercial smash, the film is a touching tale of two lonely misfits who end up finding one another. One is an old widower without children. The other is a young boy left fatherless by either divorce or illegitimacy who longs desperately, and unsuccessfully, to keep his father in his life.

Both these characters, in other words, are victims of the ongoing demise of the natural family. The world described during this summer’s marriage wars will surely produce many more unhappy people like them. The good news is that Up has a happy ending. The bad news is that it’s fiction.


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