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The marriage crisis game


A funny thing happened on the way to the marriage crisis.

In the Reagan years, as Susan Faludi explains in her book, Backlash, a study that seemed to show that college educated women faced a “marriage crunch” in the “marriage market” got saturation coverage in the press, which was well satisfied with the idea that  feminism ruined everything.

The numbers were bogus – it turned out that the study that showed the marriage crunch used doubtful assumptions and was disputed by numerous other studies – but it turned out that this didn’t matter. The rightwing phobic reaction to feminism attached itself to the study symptomatically, the way a panicked child might clutch a teddy bear, and it was not about to have its symbol taken from it.

Periodically, since, the right has stirred up marriage crises, on the principle that you can never gull the folks too much, enunciated by the immortal words of the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn, whose signs advertising “The Royal Nonsuch” contained the sentence: LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED. “If that don’t draw em,” the Duke said, “I don’t know Arkansaw.”

Arkansaw has become national since Mark Twain’s time, and it is populated mainly by men who, between bemoaning the fact that the guv’mint only favors blacks and that elections are frauds, also throw in a bit about ugly feminist women. Arkansaw is like that.

However, the message about the “marriage market” – a phrase that wreaks of the University of Chicago economics department – has, funnily enough, begun to fall on deaf ears. The distaff side – all those women out there – have had enough.

One feels the desperation creeping into the Royal Nonesuch. The American Enterprise Institute, that beacon of University of Chicago thinking, has been sponsoring something called the National Marriage Project. One of its members, a UVA prof named Brad Wilcox, has written a book whose very title is a Fox News anxiety dream: GET MARRIED: Why Americans must defy the elites and tax the wealthy at a ninety percent rate… oops, got that title wrong. Here it is: “why Americans must defy the elites, forge strong families, and save civilization.” The AEI, as is well known, loves them some civilization, the saving of which cannot, however, involve peace, saving the earth from climate change catastrophe, or taxing the wealthiest.

But how bout that marriage, ladies?

I was pleased to see that this book, which comes out, heh heh on Valentine’s Day, received a pre-emptive first strike by Anna Louie Sussman on the NYT opinion page: She points out some simple things. For instance, the absolutely rotten state of Arkansaw, i.e. American malehood.

“But harping on people to get married from high up in the ivory tower fails to engage with the reality on the ground that heterosexual women from many walks of life confront: that is, the state of men today. Having written about gender, dating, and reproduction for years, I’m struck by how blithely these admonitions to get married skate over people’s lived experience. A more granular look at what the reality of dating looks and feels like for straight women can go a long way toward explaining why marriage rates are lower than policy scholars would prefer.”


She does not go into the reasons for this, but I would venture a few – all of which are tied to the Neoliberal culture.

Let’s pick one: the decline and the abasement, from the poohbahs on high, of culture and the humanities.

The very terms that the Chicago school employs – the marketization of everything – is a part of this culture. The market model seems more engineering like, more scientific. It isn’t. It is a pretty lousy model for marriage in the age of the love marriage – a model that grew up in the developed countries and became dominant for most people in the 19th century. Without dowries, without the patriarchal household, marriage becomes something very different. It becomes, I would say, a different story.

The story – romance, soap opera, tragedy, comedy – is at the heart of the love marriage. And stories and songs are just the kind of thing that the new Dukes and Dauphins find laughable. Educate your kids with stories and songs? Where is the hard science that’s gonna make them docile button pushers?

The narrative deficit in the U.S. is very gender-defined. Men don’t read. Men have an amazing paucity of critical capacity to analyze language or larger narrative patterns. Men tend to think that there is some fatal, ontological divide between the intellect and feeling. Etc., etc.

Of course, this is not true of all men.  But it is true that the right has long defined itself in terms of its attack on the humanities and all that has developed under its aegis. In a sense, the right does have a good sense of its enemies. Although teaching the college kids to deconstruct Twelfth Night does not seem like it would threaten the larger structures of capitalism or patriarchy, historically, one of the important feeders into the civil rights movement for women in the seventies was, precisely, English departments at universities. In France, at the moment, post-colonial studies and gender studies are under attack by the usual suspects, because these threaten the premises of France’s neo-colonialist attitude to the South and, as well, promise to shake up the massive gender imbalances within French organizations.

Neoliberal culture is not just about University of Chicago economics. What makes it “neo” is that the culture tries to integrate the gains of the civil rights movement and the deregulated economy of global capitalism. This is an understudied part of the culture. At a certain point, the contradictions between these movements and the thrust of capitalism surface. They surface on the left and the right. On the right, we can see this surfacing in the use of “elites”. These elites are not defined by Capital – they are defined by the attempt, however weak, to continue the gains of the civil rights movement.

Sussman’s piece doesn’t go here, but it could. Sussman quotes the AEI’s Brian Cox in part of the article:

Navigating interpersonal relationships in a time of evolving gender norms and expectations “requires a level of emotional sensitivity that I think some men probably just lack, or they don’t have the experience,” he added. He had recently read about a high school creative writing assignment in which boys and girls were asked to imagine a day from the perspective of the opposite sex. While girls wrote detailed essays showing they had already spent significant time thinking about the subject, many boys simply refused to do the exercise, or did so resentfully. Mr. Cox likened that to heterosexual relationships today: “The girls do extra and the boys do little or nothing.”

What is this “doing”? It is imagining. It is narrating. It is the old, old business of singing songs and telling stories. Which, after finding food, drink and shelter is one of our oldest needs. Maslow’s ladder needs a redo. What happens when you strip the dignity from singing songs and telling stories?

Well, we are living in an experiment to find out.