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9.2.04

Bush Endorses Civil Unions (A Quasi-Popperian Interpretation)

Congressman Says Bush Is Open to States' Bolstering Gay Rights

Paraphrasing the president's remarks, [Representative Jim] DeMint said: "He said he was not going to condemn anyone, that the need to have various types of agreement does not mean we need to redefine marriage. `If people want to have contracts on hospital visitation and benefits, that's O.K.' "

Responding to questions on Sunday about the Time article, Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said:

"States, through their contract law, have the ability to address some of the issues that advocates of gay marriage are raising, such as hospital visitation rights and insurance benefits and the ability to pass on one's estates to another. What the president has said is that he strongly believes in the sanctity of marriage, so that's what he is saying."

-- via Sadly, No!


So Bush thinks it's fine if same sex couples get any and all of the benefits of marriage, but he wants to preserve the "sanctity of marriage" for heterosexuals. What would be left to make marriage sacred? The word "marriage"? Is the president engaging in a bit of name magic?

Yes. The word "marriage" confers a legitimacy on a relationship that a mere legal contract doesn't. Contracts allow the government (and citizens) to dodge the criticism of official discrimination against same-sex couples without having to admit that those unions are legitimate.

The other thing that contracts don't offer is standardization. Marriage is a strong institution because it comes as a standard package deal of legal rights, which links into a cultural role. Married couples have an understood and supported place within our social framework. Couples who create individual contracts don't -- they're carving out special spots for themselves around the edges. At least this tells us that Bush doesn't strongly share the cultural conservative worry that marriage is too individualized, since he endorses the epitome of individualism -- the contract -- and even suggests that this option is open to opposite-sex couples.

This is where Bush's frequent assertion that he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman comes into play. That statement is not just a dogmatic expression of how he thinks things ought to be. It's a reflection of a definitional issue within his worldview. What he's saying is that he's confused by the idea of two men or two women being married. Imagine you move to a new town, and your neighbors show you a baby and say "this is the mayor." You'd be confused -- how can a baby be a mayor? How should I act toward someone who supposedly is a mayor, yet can't do the things a mayor would do? Similarly, working from a gendered definition of marriage, Bush doesn't know what it means for two people of the same sex to be married. And if he can't deal with that anomalous data point by excluding it -- by concluding that a same-sex couple is not, after all, married -- it seems like the whole idea of marriage becomes incoherent. That's why the slippery slope to man-on-dog argument comes so easily. Same-sex marriage breaks the traditional definition of marriage, so once one is forced to allow for that exception, it seems like marriage might as well mean anything or nothing. This particular order, or chaos.

So perhaps it's the most traditional places that would suffer the most from the introduction of same-sex marriage. For people with liberal definitions of marriage like myself, it changes nothing to add same-sex couples to my set of observations -- indeed, the data fit my definition of marriage better if there isn't this gaping hole where same-sex couples should be. But for people like Bush, there may be a transition phase from when the old definition of marriage is falsified and when a new idea of marriage forms that can take account of the new observations.

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