Politics & Policy

Springfield Vs. Shelbyville

Gay marriage, incest, and The Simpsons.

You may not know how the town of Springfield, home to the Simpsons, was founded. In the late 1790s Jebediah Springfield and his partner Shelbyville Manhattan led a group of pioneers across the country to start a new community. They finally stopped at a beautiful spot atop a hill looking down on a lush valley:

Jebediah: People, our search is over! On this site we shall build a new town where we can worship freely, govern justly, and grow vast fields of hemp for making rope and blankets.

Shelbyville: Yes, and marry our cousins.

Jebediah: I was — what are you talking about, Shelbyville!? Why would we want to marry our cousins?

Shelb.: Because they’re so attractive. I, I thought that was the whole point of this journey.

Jebediah: Absolutely not!

Shelb.: I tell you, I won’t live in a town that robs men of the right to marry their cousins.

Jebediah: Well, then, we’ll form our own town. Who will come and live a life devoted to chastity, abstinence, and a flavorless mush I call rootmarm?

And this is how the towns of Springfield and its hated rival Shelbyville were formed. That rivalry continues to this day.

It’s a wonderful story because it contains all of the themes for today’s column. But I’ll get back to those in a minute.

I’ve been making a lot of people angry lately — and only of a few of them are the strangers who get annoyed when I eat off their plates at restaurants. For example, a number of social conservatives are peeved at me, most notably some very concerned men at Concerned Women for America who’ve written, hmm, let’s say “intemperate” columns about my view that conservatives are losing the culture war when it comes to gays and that maybe we should agree to a painful compromise rather than risk an even more painful and total defeat (see here and here).

Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing from more than my share of homosexual activists who keep asking why I don’t simply stop trying to have it both ways (snicker) and accept — and announce! — that all opposition to homosexual and lesbian marriage is rooted in ignorance or hatred or both.

As best I can tell, the positions of Bill Bennett, David Frum, John Derbyshire, and Stanley Kurtz — to list a small sampling of a fairly large pool of conservatives — is that that same-sex marriage will destroy traditional marriage by fundamentally dismantling the norms upon which it is based. Indeed, it will cause us to slouch ever closer to Gomorrah by eroding the very concept of “normalcy.” Homosexual men — who are more promiscuous than even straight men — will turn marriage into an institution of caring roommates where children are adopted as pets or esteem-building projects rather than the natural product of a special union between one man and one woman. Worse, because political correctness is hardening into hate-crime laws, it will be illegal to express any opposition or prejudice against homosexuality in any way. From this perspective the prohibition of gay marriage is as eminently reasonable as bans on incest or polygamy. Indeed, in a sane world there would be no need for a “ban” on gay marriage because marriage means the union the between a man and a woman. Banning gay marriage makes as much sense as banning flying pigs.

And, of course, some religious conservatives believe that legalizing gay marriage will vex God to the point where he shall turn His back on mankind and start over with the bees or maybe golden retrievers.

On the other side of the argument are those like Andrew Sullivan, the Human Rights Campaign, and prominent liberals who believe that marriage is a fundamental right denied to decent, law-abiding citizens who happen to be homosexual. Yes, they say, marriage is a central institution of Western Civilization, and hence it is unfair to deny gays access to it since we use it as the lynchpin for so many economic and social benefits. They also note — correctly — that marriage is an evolving institution and that not long ago, historically speaking, societies countenanced all sorts of marriages we today would reject morally or legally. On the flipside, they argue, many of the bad habits or pathologies afflicting the homosexual community — promiscuity most particularly — are the direct result of being denied access to the institution of marriage which encourages monogamy, stability, etc.

Moreover, they deny that gay marriage will do any lasting harm to the institution of traditional marriage. And while same-sex marriage bears no similarities to incest, polygamy, or anything else bad, the ban on gay marriage is perfectly and obviously analogous to bans on interracial marriage and other forms of blatant, irredeemable bigotry.

Now I know there’s more nuance and diversity among these camps than I’m offering here. But I think I’m being fair to the thrust of both sides’ arguments. And I think both side’s arguments are reasonable, perhaps even too reasonable.


As someone will surely say when Woody Allen appears at the Pearly Gates, let’s start with incest. Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan, two friends of mine who are fairly passionate about gay rights, make the point that incest is different from homosexuality because, in Beinart’s words, “there’s a very good reason for the state to get in and get involved with incest because it produces deformed children.”

That’s true. But as William Saletan, Eugene Volokh, and others have pointed out, this is an inherently illogical position given the principles being held up by the pro-gay-marriage crowd. First of all, heterosexual couples who are likely to produce deformed children because of genetic deficiencies are not barred by law from having children. Second, what about lesbian incest (unlike homosexual incest, I know for a fact this happens because I’ve seen twins in Playboy plenty of times)? No chance of kids there.

Will Saletan tried to get a coherent answer out of the Human Rights Campaign on why incest can be outlawed but gay marriage can’t and he got nowhere. And, if memory serves, Andrew Sullivan’s response to all of this is twofold (I can’t find it in his archives but I’m positive I’ve read it). First, nobody is clamoring for incest rights so it’s a red-herring. And, second, Sullivan says with considerable rage that incest is usually abusive to minor children and it’s outrageous to compare consensual relations between two adults to an abusive relationship between an adult and his child.

That’s all fine as far is it goes. But it says nothing about the principle involved.


Let’s put it another way. Avoiding genetic abnormalities is a perfectly good reason to condemn incest, and avoiding child abuse is always worthwhile, but neither are the chief problem with incest.

Start with a gross hypothetical. What if you caught your kids having sexual relations: Would you be relieved to discover they were just having oral sex? Or, if your daughter said, “But Dad, he wore a condom!”? And, wouldn’t a decent and open-minded liberal who has no problem with homosexuality, still have good reason to be bummed out if his sons were getting it on?

More importantly, the possibility of deformed kids, while terrible, is essentially a “retail” problem. If two blood relatives want to have children with severe handicaps that’s certainly not cool with me, but it is only in the remotest sense my problem (even if as a taxpayer I’d have to pick up their costs to society). In fact, it’s no more my business than when two gay guys adopt a little boy, even if — for argument’s sake — I think that kid might develop severe psychological problems down the road thanks to his home environment.

No, the “wholesale” problem with lifting the legal and social censure against incest is that it would sexualize family relationships and hasten the transformation of our children into sexual beings, robbing them what few years of innocent childhood kids get today. Imagine if you knew two siblings — heterosexuals, homosexuals, lesbians, whatever — who formed a lasting and committed romantic relationship? What if they seemed perfectly healthy and stable. Well, personally speaking, I would still refuse to invite them into my home. I cannot imagine letting them sit on my couch and hold hands and make small talk, at least not with my kids in the room. Indeed, I wouldn’t let my children meet them or socialize with them or, heaven forbid, their offspring. I would probably even pull my kids out of any school which treated the (completely innocent) kids of a brother-and-sister/husband-and-wife-couple as just another kid. In short: You would never hear me say, “You know, that Phil may have married his sister but, man, the guy sure can bowl!”

There are two reasons I would take this position. The first is entirely rational. In today’s society, where sex pours in from the popular culture like rain through a poorly thatched hut, the last thing kids need is to see their siblings as sexual creatures. Young teens are desperate to see how all their parts work. Homosexuals and heterosexuals alike are desperate to find emotionally safe partners to act on their urges. If the taboos against incest were lifted, if romance between siblings was seen as just another “lifestyle choice,” then it would be that much more difficult to prevent my own kids from getting jiggy with each other. And if such taboos were gone, it would certainly make it almost impossible to keep kids from thinking about such relationships at an earlier age, more seriously and with less revulsion. And, once your kids start entertaining horrendous things as if they were reasonable, you’ve already lost a valuable chunk of their innocence.

Now, I said there were two reasons why I would take this position. The first is rational. The second is not: I would shun all forms of social approval of incest because incest is just plain icky.

And, 30 years ago, arguments #1 and #2 applied perfectly to homosexuality for millions of Americans. In fact, today, in many parts of the country these arguments are still perfectly applicable to gays. As a matter of reason they conclude that the mainstreaming of homosexuality poses a moral hazard. They also think it’s icky.

What’s changed today is that both arguments are breaking down. Some still believe homosexuality is icky, but as a matter of justice to homosexuals they believe that one cannot base social policy solely on personal prejudice. Others have lost their “hang-ups” entirely and don’t see anything icky about homosexuality at all. Add to this the widespread conclusion that the vast majority of homosexuals are “born gay” and the argument for denying the personal liberties of gays for the benefit of the larger society breaks down even more because the threat of the moral hazard is no longer there.


What conservatives don’t understand is that Rousseau was right: Censorship is useful for sustaining morality but useless for restoring it. Once the taboos against homosexuality were broken — and in elite culture those taboos are in shards — sodomy laws were doomed. And, in my opinion, so is the prohibition against same-sex marriage unless conservatives update their arguments to the point of accepting that homosexuals are here to stay.

While I am still opposed to gay marriage (I favor a compromise of civil unions of one kind or another), I don’t really buy the argument that same-sex marriage would destroy the institution of marriage or notions of normalcy altogether. And even if you do buy that argument, you have to concede that those making the best arguments for gay marriage certainly do not have that intent. In fact, they want marriage to do for gay men what they think marriage does for straight ones. The reason some lefty “queer theorists” don’t like the idea gay marriage is instructive: They don’t like the idea of being “trapped” by a heterosexual institution. For example, it might just be that much easier to condemn homosexual promiscuity if it is actually adultery too.

But I also don’t buy the constant invocation of principle by gay-marriage advocates either. They talk about clear standards of privacy and personal autonomy as if all the clear-headed and logical positions are on their side of the argument. And yet, Santorum and Scalia and the rest are absolutely correct that there is no principle which would deny two brothers from marrying that can allow two unrelated gay men from marrying. There is only taboo and prejudice. (In fact, the Bible offers far, far less instruction against incest than it does against homosexuality). All of the arguments about deformed children and abusive parents are red-herrings since the law could certainly protect against those problems while still allowing for gay same-sex siblings to do whatever they want. In fact, I find the gay community’s reflexive rage at the homosexuality-incest comparison both heartening and ironic because it demonstrates that conventional morality and taboo still have some sway over even them. “Sex with my brother!? Ick!”

And that brings us back to Springfield versus Shelbyville — a pretty nice stand-in for red states versus blue. The worst thing that could happen for gays is for the Supreme Court to do for gay rights what they did for abortion rights. A top-down imposition of same-sex marriage across the country would guarantee endless fights. Anti-gay (and anti-Christian) rhetoric, would go through the roof just as anti- and pro- abortion rhetoric did, in part because both sides of the argument would be funded nationally and speak to their national bases. Gay marriage would become a permanent issue of presidential politics which, whatever the legal victories of gays, would culturally be a disaster for gays.

So what’s wrong with federalism? Would it really be so terrible if gay marriage were legal in Massachusetts but illegal in Kentucky? I remain unconvinced that marriage is a “fundamental right” and therefore immune to government regulation. I also remain unconvinced that fundamental rights cannot be regulated. After all, when my dad was a kid, some books were “banned in Boston” (a huge selling point) but legal in New York. And free speech is certainly more of a fundamental right under our Constitution than marriage (I’m just going by what the thing says). If folks in Hawaii want gay marriage, ask yourself how much it would really matter to people in Wyoming. What if you live in Hawaii and you lose the democratic battle? You can always move to Wyoming. And, if you’re gay in Wyoming and you lose a similar battle? Well, you can move to Hawaii. Would this create all sorts of annoying paperwork because marriages would be less “portable” from state to state? Yes, yes it would. Would this be unfair to some folks? Sure. But everyone is going to have to realize that nobody is going to get everything they want on this issue. So I say, eat your rootmarm and get over it.


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