David Brooks is the columnist every Liberal and Conservative alike has found ideological reasons to hate. There are times he is completely wrong and partisan, like the time he accused the president of not having a plan to replace the sequester. He apparently forgot to use that famous tool called Google or to visit the Whitehouse website where he would have found it here. He graciously added a postscript to the column correcting his faux pas.
There are times however when David Brooks is not only correct but consistently correct. He wrote an excellent article that was well analyzed in today’s New York time titled “Freedom Loses One”. The title is a play on words. When I realized the article was about marriage equality, I was getting my juices ready to pounce. I thought that in typical Right Wing Republican manner of making down up and “Clear Skies” a deceiving synonym for more pollution, this would be another article to appease the Right Wing.
Brooks makes the case that unadulterated freedom may have a tendency for one to succumb to that which only satisfies self. He expresses this eloquently as follows.
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. Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim thought that if people are left perfectly free to pursue their individual desires, they will discover their desires are unlimited and unquenchable. They’ll turn inward and become self-absorbed. Society will become atomized. You’ll end up with more loneliness and less community.
Other big thinkers believed that if people are left perfectly free to follow their desires, their baser ones will end up dominating their nobler ones. For these writers, the goal in life is not primarily to be free but to be good. Being virtuous often means thwarting your inclinations, obeying a power outside yourself. It means maintaining a balance between liberty and restraint, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence. As Edmund Burke put it:
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
Those four paragraphs are the core of his article and when examined not only makes sense but describes much of today’s reality. Brooks ties this into marriage equality by paralleling marriage to a choice to limit ones freedom. Marriage is a commitment to one that within its constructs has restrictions and obligations. If one were a pure Conservative how could one object?
Brooks has been a proponent of marriage equality for some time. Way back on November 22nd, 2003 he wrote the piece “The Power of Marriage” where he made the Conservative case for marriage equality as follows:
You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity. But instead, many argue that gays must be banished from matrimony because gay marriage would weaken all marriage. A marriage is between a man and a woman, they say. It is women who domesticate men and make marriage work.
Well, if women really domesticated men, heterosexual marriage wouldn’t be in crisis. In truth, it’s moral commitment, renewed every day through faithfulness, that ”domesticates” all people.
Some conservatives may have latched onto biological determinism (men are savages who need women to tame them) as a convenient way to oppose gay marriage. But in fact we are not animals whose lives are bounded by our flesh and by our gender. We’re moral creatures with souls, endowed with the ability to make covenants, such as the one Ruth made with Naomi: ”Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”
The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.
When liberals argue for gay marriage, they make it sound like a really good employee benefits plan. Or they frame it as a civil rights issue, like extending the right to vote.
Marriage is not voting. It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage. Not making it means drifting further into the culture of contingency, which, when it comes to intimate and sacred relations, is an abomination.
David Brooks should use his above prose on the limits of freedom or the individual choice to limit freedom to enlighten his party not only on marriage equality issues, but on gun control issues, regulations to protect us against corporations or other entities that harm for profit maximization, and for using government, “we the people”, where necessary to move us forward where private enterprise cannot or won’t.
Very few Republicans are willing to embrace marriage equality though some have and others have been waffling. Republicans should take heed to Brooks’ wise thought process on this issue. Most Americans have already.