Monday, December 3, 2007

New Zealand? or Australia?

I first made Lebanon's acquaintance about a year ago, and can't recall the number of times I've resorted to Alice in response to curious questions about the experience:

I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward! The Antipathies, I think--' (she was rather glad there was no one listening, this time, as it didn't sound at all the right word) `--but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma'am, is this New Zealand or Australia?' (and she tried to curtsey as she spoke--fancy curtseying as you're falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?) `And what an ignorant little girl she'll think me for asking! No, it'll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere'.

No, alas, I've yet to receive the instructive handbill, but I do begin to distinguish heads from tails at least sufficiently to be struck by how profoundly my views are shaped by my birth and citizenship in a nation that (with however many caveats and challenges) nevertheless maintains a government organized into three separate branches: legislative, executive and judicial; that each of these branches is vested with sufficient powers to check the others; and that religion has no part in the exercise of any state power. And though I conflate founding documents, I think there is general agreement in my part of the woods that these divisions exist and are maintained at the pleasure and consent of 'we the people'. Who somehow exist avant la lettre.

Or something like that.

In this context, an argument such as Stephanie Coontz advances in her recent NYT opinion piece,'Taking Marriage Private' makes a great deal of sense. Why should society cede the state the right to sanction relationships that are understood to be affective and personal: ie, that of the choice of one's affective or domestic partner?

[There's another issue here that I will refrain from pursuing beyond the digressive notation: why is it that other types of affective personal bonds--bonds of friendship, and its many variants for example, which are at least in English not recognized with special language; bonds of elective proximity and....? -- are exempt from state and religious scrutiny, and equally from the protections and sanctions both regimes traditionally have extended?].

But then there is the other side of the earth, or as Alice put it, 'the Antipathies'.

What difference would it make to achieve civil status for the institution of marriage, now pro- or pre-scribed according to religious law as mandated by the state?

Not much, I think; so long as the state itself is a constitutionally sectarian entity, it can make little difference whether it arrogates to itself the administrative functions of marriage or assigns them to its religious proxies. [Incidentally, I link a link to a reprint as the full text is no longer available at the Daily Star]

And what difference would it make if a (nominally)non-sectarian state were to get out of the marriage business? Coontz's hopelessly liberal recommendation confuses privilege with preference ('Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship') which misses the entire point that 'couples--gay or straight' (and why is she limiting the rights question to couples? Because she--and the state-- already derive their relational framework from religion) can't just 'decide' they want protections. Their standing from which to petition is granted or withheld by the state, directly or through religious proxies. As it is in Lebanon.

I started thinking about this paradox the other day, and was happy to find this article about mutaah or urfi in today's IHT. I don't know anything independently about the practice or accuracy of the report, but it makes perfect sense-- in the same way and for similar reasons that the Netherlands should have contained illicit activities such as drug use and prostitution by making them licit through licensing and taxation.

Christian fundamentalists in the US who deplore extramarital, juvenile, or other forms of sex could learn a lot from their Muslim counterparts. Mutaah or urfi could offer American religious leaders (whether they hold government posts or not) a very practical shortcut to the double grail of moral victory and a new revenue stream.

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