Uncle Sam’s Harem

Uncle Sam’s Harem by • September 9, 2008 • Printer-friendly

The nomination of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate (a phrase suddenly suggestive) has reopened the question not only of women in politics but a woman’s role in society. I am finishing a book, tentatively titled Thicker than Water, sketching out a political order based more on blood-ties and marriage than on theoretical individualism. I am going to post up a few bits from one chapter as background to why I believe it is wrong for women to be in politics at all.

From the Introduction:

The institutions of marriage and family, though they exhibit some variations throughout human experience, are universal. Despite constant efforts to find evidence of societies without one or the other, an honest person, even one who hates the whole idea of marriage and family, has to conclude that they have been, up till now, a part of the human condition. They are not merely useful inventions, devised to accommodate self-interest or survival: They are rooted in our most basic passions and affections that are wired into our nervous system and triggered by hormones. Under most normal circumstances, a human mother (like her primate cousins) will love her baby and hate any creature that attacks it.

In the modern world, we think of marital households as places where men, women, and their offspring sleep and spend some of their free time and the family itself as an institution created by law and subject to complex regulation that circumscribes what can be done, but in pre-modern societies families were virtually sovereign states within the tribe, kingdom, or empire in which they existed. A family’s external relations with other families was somewhat constrained by law and tradition, though even in homicide cases, blood revenge is, perhaps, as common as trial by jury. But domestically, the family was a often law unto itself, with the exception that many societies have prohibited incestuous sexual relations and homicide within the household.

Most modern political and social theories–Freudianism and Marxism–call for the elimination of the traditional family. Not all attacks upon the family are as bold as the frontal assaults launched by the master theorists of political and social revolution. The founders of liberalism also took a dim view of the family’s broader responsibilities. Liberals, in emphasizing the liberated individual and his right to pursue his own destiny, have generally opposed the peculiar legal status of marriage and family and favored liberalized divorce and inheritance laws as well as the economic and political liberation of married women. They were not explicitly opposed to the family per se any more than they would have admitted that they were opposed to Christianity per se. Their object, so they claimed, was merely to liberate individuals from the shackles imposed by religious fanaticism and patriarchal authority.

I am using “liberal” in the traditional (or “classical”) sense to refer to writers, parties, and movements that emphasized individual liberty and the free market at the expense of tradition, inherited privilege, and established religion. In Britain, the godfather of liberalism is John Locke, and his spiritual heirs (among whom there are, admittedly, many important differences) include Adam Smith, Tom Paine, William Godwin, and John Stuart Mill. In America today, the purest classical liberals are the advocates of free markets and free trade who describe themselves as libertarians, when they tend toward anarchism, and conservatives, when they speak on behalf of those who hold great wealth and influence.

John Locke’s entire political theory was grounded in his opposition to the patriarchal view of government advocated by Bossuet, King James VI & I, Sir Robert Filmer, and other advocates of monarchical rights. While Filmer traced the origin of sovereign authority back to the power held by biblical patriarchs over their extended families and ultimately to Adam, Locke set aside all such traditions and adopted the theory of the Social Contract. Although there are many variations on contract theory, they usually say, generally, that men originally lived in a state of nature, without either law or order. Political authority, private property, and even social institutions such as marriage came into existence as the result of an agreement or contract, made by early men who were tired of the inconveniences of uncivil society. Though Locke did not directly attack the family itself, he did advocate the right of divorce, once children were grown, and the implications of his thought, logically working their way out across the centuries, have been to regard the family as a useful, though not essential social institution.
Marriage 1: Pagans

No revolution–political, social, or economic–has been so sweeping and destructive as the legal revolution that has turned marriage from an indissoluble merging of identities into an unenforceable contract between competing individuals.

Marriage may begin in a contract (traditionally the agreement is more often between the families than between the boy and girl), but it is, as Hegel put it, “a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract.” There are societies in which marriage decisions, at least in principle, are left exclusively either to the potential spouses or to both sets of parents.

More often, the situation is more ambiguous. In the United States, for example, parents have the power to delay the marriage of minor children, but they may neither arrange nor permanently prevent a union. In 2008 there was a great controversy over a sect of “Fundamentalist Mormons” that arranged marriages between older men and women in their teens. An unspoken assumption of much of the commentary was that it must be illegal for minor women to marry even with parental consent. Although some of the allegations against the sect were certainly shocking, the age of many of the girls would not have shocked early Americans. In colonial Virginia, parental consent was necessary for a minor to get married, but with consent a girl of twelve could become a bride. Even today, although marriage laws vary from state to state, it is not unusual for a girl of 16 to be able to marry with parental consent. In Pennsylvania, girls and boys under 18 need parental consent and have to pay a fee, while minors under the age of 16 need the consent both of the parents and of a Judge of the Orphans Court. In Utah, parental consent and permission from the Juvenile Court is required. In Texas, where the marriages took place, parental consent on an official form or an order from the district court is sufficient.

Laws and customs vary, but the obvious differences may disguise a general tendency: Even in 21st century America, most young people expect to obtain the consent of their parents, even if that consent is only grudging and formal, while, at the other end of the spectrum, in those traditional societies where the children are supposed to have no say whatsoever, literature and folktales abound in stories of elopements and cautionary tales designed to warn parents against too stringent enforcement of their rights.

While marriage, whether monogamous or polygynous is virtually universal, the power to regulate marriage has been vested in various institutions: family, the civil community, and (in Medieval Christendom) in the Church. In the simplest and undoubtedly oldest system, whatever power is not held by bride and groom is entrusted to their families. Athenian and Roman fathers could betroth daughters but not sons against their will, though eventually Roman law required the consent of both parties. However, no son who wished to receive a generous inheritance would willingly offend his father.

At Athens consent of the bride was not needed and, if she were an epikleros (roughly, an heiress) she was required to marry a close relative of her late father, to prevent the property from passing out of his lineage. Maintaining the bloodline and its property were of primary concern to ancient Greeks, but Greek literature paints a less coercive picture than the law courts. In the Odyssey, young Nausicaa seems pretty confident of her ability to twist daddy around her finger, and Greek myths and literature are filled with affectionate husbands and wives . Aristophanes’ Lysistrata assumes Athenian and Spartan men will quit killing each other, if their wives will once withhold marital favors. Sophocles’ Antigone is an epikleros engaged to her maternal cousin, and, though the marriage is clearly arranged, the couple are fond of each other. We know too little of Greek domestic relations to make sweeping statements except to say that Plato, in doubting the possibility of marital love, was as usual not expressing the common sense of his people.

By the late republic at least, Roman parents consulted their daughters on the choice of husbands….In his Lex Julia, the Emperor Augustus, eager to encourage the growth of the Roman population, forbade parents to prevent or discourage their children from marrying. Later enactments gave girls the right to marry without their guardian’s consent. An 8th century Byzantine law reaffirms, however, the necessity of obtaining the consent of both families.

Among the barbarians who invaded the empire, the Visigoths–like most Germanic peoples–expected to arrange the marriages of their children, but according to the Visigothic Code (III. I.3), a girl who had been betrothed by her parents but eloped with another would, along with her husband, be put into the hands of the betrothed. If her family relented, then they had to pay a penalty to the disappointed fiancé.

In the later Middle Ages cynical young men found it convenient to elope with a young woman, only to have the marriage annulled on the grounds of parental non-consent. The Church, in attempting to curb this practice, took the dangerous step of upholding marriage without parental consent, but the alternative tended to reduce marriage to a legal formula whose terms could be evaded by an unscrupulous young Romeo..

Unlike most other contracts, the marriage bond is entered into in the expectation that it will be permanent and irrevocable. This was true even in the later Roman republic, where divorces were common and easy to procure. The permanency of marriage was and is sealed with the arrival of children whose needs are provided for by husband and wife. Since each child is, in genetics as well as in folklore, half of each parent, it is in the interest of both spouses to maintain the union and to care for the earthly bits of their own immortality. Ancient pagans understood this well. Plutarch expresses this unity rather poetically. “For nature mixes us through our bodies, that take a part of each partner and blending them in common, she produces an offspring that is common to both, so that it is not possible to distinguish one’s own part from the spouse’s contribution.”

The sexual bond, while it is nourished in the pleasures of the bed and in intimate companionship, is essentially procreative, and while the procreative aspect of both sexuality and marriage can be overemphasized, as it has been by some celibate theologians, those who attempt to divorce children from erotic pleasure are missing the point. It is only in the creation of children that man and woman succeed in the mystical goal of sexual experience: the merging of identities that is at the origin of all human civility:

Et mulier coniuncta viro concessit in unum…. ….prolemque ex se videre creatam
tum genus humanum primum mollescere coepit

And woman joined together with man went into union, and they saw their offspring created from themselves then the human race first began to soften.

Aristotle, Lucretius, and Plutarch, pagans all, appear to echo, or rather anticipate, the Christian ideal, by which man and wife became one flesh.

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