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Wednesday, March 09, 2011  

The Dialectic of Liberation

If you haven't read my article on Dan Savage for the Washington Monthly, you should probably do that. And if you have and figure that was enough time from this vain life to spend considering the implications of Dan Savage's work, you should probably skip this post.

I do, however, want to address some of the more interesting criticisms. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon was not pleased:

I knew Dueholm was definitely going to fly off the rails when, after he describes these sound ethical principles, drops this bullshit:

Underlying all of Savage’s principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone.

This is a blatantly false characterization of the old constraints. Time to get feminist, y’all, but I would say that the old constraints were not meant to create livability or happiness so much as to reinstate patriarchal power structures.

I probably did not phrase this as precisely as I'd have liked to, since it's certainly not the case that I think everyone was happier back when women were treated like chattel and so on. But I think culture is a pretty multifarious thing and that customs and rituals ('constraints') do useful work even when they are in some sense oppressive. Marcotte's reaction relies on a cartoonish view of our collective past, in which every structure of courtship and marriage was aimed solely at the oppression of women and gay people (and, I'd add, women and gay people were mute and passive in the face of their own imposed limitations). I don't agree, but there you go--I'm a geek for culture. The only thing Marcotte's feminism and the pop Darwinism Savage likes to cite, which are entirely contradictory ideologies, happen to have in common is a rejection of the whole of culture as a crime against human authenticity. Not that this is the only way to be feminist; some of the most badass feminists I know put on the ancient vestments of patriarchy and expound upon a 2,000-year-old book on Sundays because they've found in these things something very empowering and ennobling.


You can criticize Savage for being wrong or being sexist at times, but generally speaking, he’s trying to create an ethical system that’s anti-patriarchal not to fill a void, but because he believes that the old patriarchy was evil and unethical.

Point taken. But on the ground level, filling a void is what Savage is perpetually doing. A man who is living with a woman he doesn't love because he likes the free rent is living in an ethical void. A woman so obtuse as to be surprised that a married man on a business trip might lie about the openness of his marriage is living in an ethical void (not to mention a grasping-the-freaking-obvious void). A hundred years ago, both of these people would be risking major social stigma or even breaking laws before they'd get to the point of asking Dan Savage how to do the right thing. So would the compulsive porn consumers, the polyamorists, and probably about everyone I know at some point or other in their lives. I'm certainly not dismayed that cohabitation and pornography aren't illegal any more, but each rolled-back law or canceled stigma left behind desires and behaviors that still need some kind of social organization. Hence the role of people like Dan Savage in crafting norms.

And here my main analogy seems not to have been as well understood as I'd hoped. Here's me:

As it happens, this vision fits rather well in a society built around consumption. If Savage’s ethical guidelines—disclosure, autonomy, mutual exchange, and minimum standards of performance—seem familiar or intuitive, it’s probably because they also govern expectations in the markets for goods and services. No false advertising, no lemons, nothing omitted from the fine print: in the deregulated marketplace of modern intimacy, Dan Savage has become a kind of Better Business Bureau, laying out the rules by which individuals, as rationally optimizing firms, negotiate their wildly diverse transactions.

Marcotte calls foul:

And then blah blah blah the market is crass blah blah blah. We’re liberals, right? We don’t like “the market”, right? Treating sex like “the market” is bad, right?

The problem with this is that he’s conflating the rules of ethics that govern a truly fair and free market with objections to capitalist ethos like “greed is good”. In fact, free market ethics are in direct contrast to capitalism, and are used to restrain it. Laws against false advertising, selling lemons, and full disclosure are not, as Dueholm suggests, the “deregulated marketplace”, but the opposite: a regulated marketplace.

Well, I wasn't trying to bait liberal readers with market-talk, because I like markets. I like buying things from firms competing with each other on price and quality. Markets are a tremendous force for human welfare and at the same time a seriously limiting influence on human moral imagination. It's a fine thing that what I'm analogizing as regulations--strict laws against divorce, criminalization of porn, etc.--are over and done with. But in the absence of laws, you need norms, which is what I see Savage as trying in his fascinating and ad-hoc way to provide. That's why he's the Better Business Bureau: his judgments, which are many, obviously have no legal force but in some cases have already become a sort of shorthand for good sexual practice. Analogies are limiting, so you could say that his norms are really regulations of a sort--lemon laws are laws, after all--but they're the minimal kinds of regulations required only for the proper functioning of a market, that is, corrections of distortions to an ideal market model. The point, whether you want to think of this as "deregulated" or "minimally regulated" or whatever is that there is nothing more than refereeing going on here. There is neither the will nor the language with which one might try to re-imagine the outcomes of all these random transactions, no substantive idea of a good life that animates (and thus limits) the market.

My point in making this analogy is not to rile up liberals into betraying the Sexual Revolution or anything like that. It's rather to suggest that liberation can be a complicated matter. What looks and feels like freedom can also be the encroachment of metaphors that prove to be oppressive in new and exciting ways. The very, very modest endorsement of monogamy at the end of the article has drawn a lot of irritation, but the point is that now that the market is totally free, perhaps commitments of that sort can be radical, subversive, can contradict the logic of transactions that is colonizing every other aspect of American life. Moreover, monogamy can do this even when people fall short of their commitments. In response to Lindsay Beyerstein's criticism of my article on this score, Dan calls his own marriage 'monogamish.' And, you know, great. He's obviously a family man and that's splendid and I agree with him that compromises to monogamy that keep a family intact are to be, if not necessarily welcomed, at least tolerated. But in his advice-giving, he has rather less to say about why you'd want the 'mono' than the 'ish.' "Children and other sexually transmitted diseases" is the only argument I remember him making for why people might make monogamous commitments, and that came in a parenthesis. So why bother? If a little bit of action on the side can allow a marriage to thrive, why not a lot? If it's unnatural and unrealistic to be totally monogamous (whatever that means), then why expend the slightly less effort involved in being mostly monogamous? I was a little surprised and dismayed that Beyerstein called monogamy an "arbitrary social ideal," as if it were something other than radically altruistic in contrast to some of the environments where it has taken root. Surely if this almost-monogamy is so successful, the ideal has to be doing something?

Lastly, a commenter to Marcotte's post mentioned in passing, "the topic is some pastor’s issues with non-biblical mating." This was in the context of the Dan Savage Oppression Derby that breaks out any time he does anything, or anyone talks about him, and it's a fascinating thing to experience.* Dan is called trans-phobic, bi-phobic, fat-phobic, and he hates Christians and AIDS educators. Man, if there's a trans, bi, overweight, Christian AIDS educator out there, I bet they have a real beef with Dan Savage. Dan, to his credit, doesn't seem to care, since he encounters the same reaction no matter what adult he's telling to grow up and take responsibility for themselves (the only people he is sentimental about are children, which is good). Anyway, I doubt this commenter clicked through to my article, but it left me asking, do I indeed have issues with 'non-biblical mating'?

Now if non-biblical mating means any sex ever between anyone but a man and a woman married for life and they love Jesus, then no--I don't have issues with it. But if non-biblical mating means having relationships that don't aspire to the ideals of justice, fidelity, loving-kindness, self-giving, and the forgiveness of sins to which the Bible calls all human communities, then yes, I certainly do have issues with non-biblical mating.

*In my first posting I called it 'a delight,' which has a ring of cruelty. I retract it.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:59 PM
Fitting response. I don't typically read Pandagon, and saw Amanda's post after Lawyers, Guns & Money linked to it. Seems to be a pretty clear case of a reader reading the article she wanted to read instead of the one actually written.
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