Marriage Isn’t For Everyone…

…And apparently, David Brooks isn’t a suitable candidate since he seems to think it is somehow an ironic thing for gays and lesbians to request:

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.

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.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi calls Brooks “an asshole” for this, but I say Brooks is guilty of something more damning for a pundit: incoherence. I seriously don’t know what the hell Brooks is writing about. He’s in favor of same-sex marriage because it legally restricts same-sex couples to a particular standard of conduct?

Dude must not get out much.

Now, it’s true that we have a lot of default assumptions about marriage that prevail in our culture. We assume that when people wish to marry, they love one another. Not necessarily so.

We assume that they are friends and enjoy each others’ company and respect one another. Not necessarily so.

We assume that when people marry, they have sex with one another. Not necessarily so. We assume that they will not engage in sexual relations with any person other than their spouse nor tolerate their spouse having sexual relations with such a third party. Not necessarily so.

We assume that they want to live together in the same house. Not necessarily so. We assume that they wish to create a family and raise children. Not necessarily so.

We assume that they are pooling their financial and economic resources. Not necessarily so.

We assume that they wish to grow old together and care for one another as their bodies become frail. Not necessarily so.

We assume they share moral values and objectives to pursue while making major life decisions. Not necessarily so.

While these assumptions are roughly true about most married couples I know, I also know married couples for whom each one of these statements is untrue. You probably do too. And so does Brooks, although he may not realize it. Many such couples divorce, because these are the kinds of things that tend to make marriages work. But it’s not necessarily the case for all people in all situations.

And nearly all of these assumptions, to the extent that they interact with the law, can be or are sculptable to individual preferences.

You want an open marriage, with each spouse able to date and interact romantically and sexually with others? You can have that. It turns out adultery is not a crime.

You want to keep your property and not share it? That’s what prenups are for. Not uncommon these days.

Do you want to have kids? Have them. Do you not? No one’s forcing you to.

Do you want to stay married forever? You can, but you don’t have to; you can get out of the marriage when you like, for whatever reason you like and don’t even have to articulate, because the phrase “irreconcilable differences” can be as simple as “I don’t want to be married to you anymore” and then a couple hundred dollars of filing fees later, you’re divorced.

If what you want is the sort of libertine, sybaritic “freedom” Brooks mocks, marriage needs not impede its pursuit. Your spouse may join you in it.

“Freedom” is one thing; “liberty” may well be something just a bit different as it reflects one’s relationship to the government. What Brooks criticizes is better called “license,” as the intellectual giants he quotes within his article would all surely have taken care to remind him. Such “license,” of course, is not what same-sex couples seek in the legal and cultural and political efforts to advance marriage equality, and Brooks’ definition of “freedom” is as coherent as calling “equality” a ban on excellence.

“Equality,” of course, is a different kettle of fish entirely than “freedom,” and same-sex couples certainly want, and deserve, to have it. What they want is what we all should want: to hold the government accountable to articulate a damn good reason before it treats similarly-situated people differently from one another.

Marriage isn’t easy for everyone. Apparently, neither is churning out approximately eight hundred words to sputter protest to the realization that the American people seem to have thought this through and the center of gravity on this issue is shifting out from underneath Brooks’ feet. Some conservatives have come to recognize this, if only as a tactical matter. Maybe this column is Brooks’ way of coming to terms with that himself.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. My view of marriage is in some ways not that different from Brooks. And I can sort of, in my mind, spin what he’s saying into something I can agree with.

    But… what a weird piece. I came away from it wishing I disagreed with some of his precepts more than I think I did. If that makes sense.

    • I guess, the issue for me, is that even though I suppose my view of the marital ideal – and what I hope gay folks hold up as the same – is freedom-limiting in a way. But I mostly see it as a voluntary imposition of order. A commitment to be there today, tomorrow, and beyond. Intended permanence, monogamy, etc. To have and to hold, etc.

      I entered a marriage very much with the intent of it being permanent. With the intent to take care of one another in sickness and in health. With the intent to be devoted to one another (monogamous). This was an agreement that I was excited to enter, anti-“freedom” or no. And it’s an agreement I have long wanted gays to be allowed to enter.

      If they enter with different motives and purposes, well, I may not approve… but my approval doesn’t really matter. It’s a free country. And I wouldn’t stop Russell and his husband, or Jason and Boegiboe, because others will go about it in a way that I disapprove of any more than I would dissolve marriage because many, many heteros do the same. (This second part is less to Brooks, and more to the chairperson of the Georgia GOP.)

      • But is marriage much different from any other choice we made? I choose to work which limits my freedom to sit on the couch all day. I choose to work in a place with a dress code which limits my freedom to wear sweatpants or basketball shorts all day. I choose to live in the north east which limits my freedom to go mountain climbing or scuba diving. Etc.

        All choice have pros and cons, gains and sacrifices. Focusing on the sacrifices as losses of freedom misses that freedom to choose is one of the most important freedoms.

        • Arguably commitments, especially long term commitments constrain your freedom in certain ways. Promise making can plausibly be understood as an undertaking to limit one’s will in certain ways.

  2. I don’t disagree with many of the points Brooks made about the meaning of marriage and the value of restraint, but his assumption that he needs to point it out irritating as hell.

    Whether they understood it or not, the gays and lesbians represented at the court committed themselves to a certain agenda.

    No ,David, none of them have any idea what marriage is, and they need an overpaid, over-privileged, intellectually over-the hill hack like you to explain it to them. In fact, you patronizing jerk, many of them are already married. They just want the legal system to acknowledge it.

    • That was my takeaway- Brooks’ main point seems to be shock that gay people aren’t the sex-crazed libertines he thought they were; He is stunned that they actually seem to want order and stability and comittment and all the other things that come with marriage.

      • Well, he’s an older white guy. It probably IS what he thinks.

        For your random, sheltered boomer — gays are the folks at Pride, except in some dark club somewhere. Gets worse if HIV really scared the crap out of them in the 80s — that conditioned a lot of people to view gays in a very specific way that was simply hard to change.

        It’s basically taken 30 years of, well, social programming via TV and movies to convince enough Americans of the simple truth that gay people are just like everyone else, only they get turned on by the same sex not the opposite.

        Some are dumb, some are smart. Some are monogamous, some are not. Some are unfaithful, some are not…..

        Closeted gays are like atheists — you know them, you just assume they’re straight (or Christian).

        • TV teaches that gays are just like everyone else, only much hipper and with far better taste in clothing. And Jews are all whip-smart and sarcastically witty, so that’s fine.

          • It’s only fair. TV previously taught that gays didn’t exist. And when they did, they were flaming.

            Or dying of AIDS. Or possibly having an orgy. There was a spectrum from closeted flaming to degenerate to dead there. They’re kinda owed something positive.

            I think that’s sorta running out, though. Gay characters seem to be settling down.

        • Proust made an anology between closeted gays and assmilated Jews.

    • +1

      Brooks seems to suffer from a telling lack of empathy here. Either that, or he’s just a pompous jerk who feels compelled to lecture to others.

      • I’m going for option number 2, Brooks is a pompous jerk who feels compelled to lecture others. He has demonstrated at least some capacity for empathy in past columns. And like a lot of other people, I kind of symapthize with Brooks point about what marriage should be and why restraint is a good thing even if I’m single. A large part of me questions the value of open marriages or open relationships, I think the fashionable term is polyamory but thats because my personal tendencies are strongly monogomous. However, you can’t force personal tendencies on other people in this regard.

  3. this is a serious question for ya burt. were you really surprised david fishing brooks was incoherent in a an opinion piece? Is that not his Standard Centrist Dodge? hell most of the last four years his best (worst) work is when he states the President’s and the democrats in congress plan is the one he prefers, and then either word salads himself around to the republican position or just pretends the President has not done something he has clearly done.

    but maybe i am confused. Brooks is the one teaching a yale course on humility right? a subject he no doubt knows well having none himself.

    • forgot to add I read one of his columns within the last week that was largely cribbed from a students paper. and I have to say that the students work impressed me far more then brooks does.

    • You can’t get a word salad at Applebee’s.

      • True. You have to go to elite places like the Aspen Institute to find that on the menu.

  4. To choose to live a particular lifestyle — one of commitment and stability — isn’t a denial of sexual liberation. It’s an instance of sexual liberation.

  5. I agree with Brooks that there is some psychological and moral value in limiting one’s options. I don’t think the point is incoherent. It is also psychologically valuable to accommodate someone else’s needs and desires ahead of your own. I don’t think it needs to be necessarily through marriage, but it’s a useful way.

    And Mike is right that that sentence is just awful.

    • I agree with the moral value of restraint, a large part of me is anti-hedonist and the idea of life as a pleasure crawl of self-indulgence is kind of off putting. Even in a strictly materiliast universe, there should be more to life that constant self-gratification through doing what you want to do. Temporarily delayed gratification can make something sweeter and working for the common good is also a pleaseant thing.

    • If marriage really is a limitation of those options (a point with which I disagree as a formal matter even if the norm is that it does so) and marriage is an available option for you (which is the point of the SSM litigation) then having access to marriage is still a freedom rather than its opposite. No one forces you into this option-limiting social arrangement in the first place. You choose to limit your options.

      That’s what I think Jason means by calling it an instance of sexual liberation above. I don’t think it’s even particularly sexual, myself; sure, sex is a part of it for the typical marriage. But ask anyone, gay or straight, who is married and they’ll in almost every instance be quick to tell you that marriage is about more than sex.

    • Also, I wonder if Brooks realizes that his argument is exactly congruent to the Marxist argument that holds that wage labor is slavery.

    • “I agree with Brooks that there is some psychological and moral value in limiting one’s options.”

      Do you mean in limiting one’s own options or in limiting other people’s options? Marriage can fall under the former, but it still qualifies as freedom. Brooks’s unwillingness to admit that is the incoherence.

      • One’s own options. I think the norms of marriage are probably generally good for most people, but not everyone. Being a Buddhist monk might be another effective way to limit your options. Most people find ways to limit their options. Marriage is better than, say, adhering to some very radical diet or whatever. But bad marriages also can be the worst drain on one’s life.

        Burt, I formally disagree of course. I’m talking about the norm. Obviously, the concept “marriage” can encompass all that you mention (well, I think it’s obvious, anyhow). I assumed Brooks was making a moral point rather than a legal point. That is, rather than saying that we should enforce the norms of marriage, he was saying that legalization of SSM encourages it.

        • OK, I completely agree with your first paragraph, but that still doesn’t mean that marriage limits individual freedom. We’re not forcing people into marriage, we’re letting them choose to enter into this option-limiting activity.

          Not letting people choose the option-limiting activity of marriage would be reducing individual freedom.

  6. Whenever I find myself thinking “how in the hell could someone come to that conclusion about another person’s motivations???”, I try to remind myself of the option that they see it as self-evident because that is what *THEY* would do if they were in the other’s shoes.

    In a nutshell: Dude’s projecting.

  7. And I’ll call Brooks a deliberately deceitful hack, or “propagandist” for short. So that’s three options. Asshole, incoherent, or a propagandist.

    Let’s decide this democratically. Everyone should vote early and often. They can even vote for all three choices!

    • As a rant that was very cogent. Thanks for sharing it. I wasn’t aware that marriage licenses were essentially created by the State to prevent or control miscegenation; does that claim hold water, Burt? If it does, then it has some resemblance to the genesis of our drug laws. I wonder how many of the laws that restrict liberty were passed by white people in a climate in which they knew they could just ignore them, and then everything changed so the laws applied to everyone, if not equally, at least more equally.

      • I can’t say, but the “back position” the guy comes from is basically where I ended up. I really see no societal justification to obtain “permission” from the state to get married.

  8. I mostly agree with you, Burt, except for when you claim that people who challenge the assumptions of marriage in our culture fail: “Many such couples divorce, because these are the kinds of things that tend to make marriages work. But it’s not necessarily the case for all people in all situations.” I seriously doubt that “nontraditional” marriages fail because they are different. They probably fail because, like the more traditional marriages, an issue with trust, communication, or another such building block to a successful relationship crumbled.

  9. There’s this tendency to think that every time conservatives are opposed to some cultural shift that shift is libertinism. In this case, it’s a weird thing to think.

  10. This kind of argument, essentially saying “fine, you can have your silly rights but you’ll be sorry once you get them” is simply the last gasp made by obstructionists as they finally give up and slink away. It was there when the slaves were emancipated (“now you’ve got to earn your keep without the master protecting you“), it was there when women entered the work-force (“now you’ve got to earn your keep without your husband supporting you“), it was there when sexual liberation started (“once you start sleeping around no one will want you“) and now we’re witnessing it yet again. Of course, it’s an awful thing that Brooks volunteered for this role, but I see it as a positive sign that the argument has gotten this tortured.

    • Brooks isn’t saying fine you can have your silly rights but you’ll be sorry once you get them. He is saying fine you can have your rights, see how conservative you are. Yay conservatism!

  11. I read the Brooks column completely differently than all of you. It’s not incoherent, it’s not condescending, it’s not stupid. The title is unfortunate — but columnists don’t title their work, editors do. He’s not lecturing gays — his audience is not gays, but conservatives. The title should have been “Why conservatives should support gay marriage.” Recent gay rights battles have indeed been about the right to take on obligations; for service in the defense of country, for the privileges and responsibilities that the state confers on officially recognized stable families. Conservatives claim to support personal responsibility, and so they ought to support these gay rights.

    • Ken, I agree.

      Thank you for saying so eloquently, I tried, couldn’t figure out how to, so kept quiet. To my shame.

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