This morning's David Brooks column on same-sex marriage was one of the weirdest, most mean-spirited things I've ever seen in The New York Times.
Entitled "Freedom Loses One," the article is a sarcastic broadside against . . . well, against something, though it's not clear exactly which of the many post-Sixties permissive-society hobgoblins Brooks hates is the real target here.
Ostensibly, the column purports to make a single ironic point, which is that by petitioning the Supreme Court for the right to marry, gays and lesbians were not expanding their freedoms – and thus continuing, as Brooks implies, a long and perhaps-regrettable winning streak for people's right to "follow their desires" that dates back to those hated Sixties – but rather constraining them. Brooks puts it this way:
But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.
Brooks here apparently expects his gay and lesbian readers to scratch their heads here and think, "Gosh, what does he mean by that? I thought we were seeking new freedoms with this campaign?"
What does he mean? Well, the self-appointed hetero-in-chief is here to enlighten us as to what marriage is – and he's here to tell you, it's no bowl of freedom-cherries!
Marriage is one of those institutions – along with religion and military service – that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.
Gee – really? Boy, those gays and lesbians are sure going to be in for a shock when they find out that being in a committed relationship involves constraints on behavior. That'll be some unpleasant new ground they'll be breaking there.
What an asshole!
The condescension is bad, but the argument is even worse. Brooks is trying to make a "point" here – he takes something like 800 words to make it, but it boils down to a single snarky observation: "Isn't it ironic that these same people who've been fighting for the right to personal indulgence for all these decades since the Sixties are now fighting for the right to be legally restrained?"
This is absurd on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. First of all, gays and lesbians are not asking to be forced into marriage – they're actually campaigning for a new legal choice they didn't have before. So technically speaking, they are campaigning for more freedoms, and Brooks's argument is already fatally screwed.
But that's so beside the point, it's barely worth mentioning. This whole same-sex marriage issue is much less about freedom than it is about justice. This is about a group of people wanting to be fully recognized as citizens, with absolutely equal rights, who among other things no longer want to subsidize the tax-advantaged marriages of straight people like Brooks. To even try to view this issue through the perils-of-permissive-society lens that Brooks has been obsessed with for years is incredibly insulting, but that's exactly where he goes:
Americans may no longer have a vocabulary to explain why freedom should sometimes be constricted, but they like it when they see people trying to do it. Once Americans acknowledged gay people exist, then, of course, they wanted them enmeshed in webs of obligation.
Translated into human English, this passage would read something like this: "The reason same-sex marriage enjoys such inexplicably broad support now is because middle America wants to throw a net over gay culture, now that it's been let out of its cage."
Actually, David, the reason same-sex marriage enjoys such broad support now is a lot simpler. It's more like this: Once America accepted that gay people exist, giving them full and equal rights became a foregone conclusion for all decent people.
Of course, the reason Brooks lunges for that other explanation is because he's been so convinced for so long that many of America's problems stem from a post-Sixties inability (of poor and non-white people, usually) to manage all of our newly-won personal freedoms. He's spent his entire career longing for a return to the formal and informal constraints of some of our old social conventions – you know, the days when having a child out of wedlock brought shame from a community, and people didn't just live together, but got married, and folks listened to their priests and rabbis, instead of just shagging and getting high all day long and living on welfare and credit cards. He puts it this way:
People are much more at liberty these days to follow their desires, unhampered by social convention, religious and ethnic traditions and legal restraints.
The big thinkers down through the ages warned us this was going to have downsides . . . .
He then goes on to cite de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim to bolster his argument – Brooks's columns have seen a surge in these academic Dennis Miller-isms ever since he got his new gig at Yale – which is that pursuing too much freedom can be hazardous, that left unchecked, the human animal may find out his desires are unquenchable.
Remember, he is writing this in the context of a column about same-sex marriage, which makes this whole discussion of the perils of unleashing animal desires obnoxious to begin with.
Anyway, he goes on to quote 71 words of Edmund Burke, then reflexively inserts a miniaturized version of his boilerplate rhetorical jihad against the decline of morals in America's poor communities:
People no longer even have a language to explain why freedom should sometimes be limited. The results are as predicted. A decaying social fabric, especially among the less fortunate. Decline in marriage. More children raised in unsteady homes. Higher debt levels as people spend to satisfy their cravings . . . .
So Brooks sits down to write about same-sex marriage, and within a few paragraphs he's in the middle of this darkly sarcastic rant full of grim ruminations on black fathers abandoning their kids and the irresponsible poor splurging on credit-card shopping sprees. All you convention-breakers, he seems to be griping, you wanted all this freedom, and it turned out you couldn't handle it, just like people like me predicted, and now you come to us begging to be reined in.
So you see, in the end, I was right about your permissive society! I drink your milkshake!
This is some seriously crazy shit. None of what he's talking about is within a hundred miles of anything relevant to the gay marriage question. It's just weird, confused, old-person bitterness, mixed in with the usual obnoxious conservative delusions – like the way fiscal irresponsibility is always poor people buying wide-screen TVs on credit, and never teams of Ivy Leaguers at places like Lehman Brothers running up trillion-dollar balance sheets at 40-1 leverage.
The whole world seems rapidly to be coming to an understanding that this discrimination against gays and lesbians has to end, and the fact that this change is coming is a beautiful thing. You have to be a very unhappy person indeed to feel anything but joy about it – much less this sarcastic depression.