One of the delightful aspects of my year in Washington, D.C., is that a large number of African males stand ready to accost me virtually the instant I leave my apartment building. While this might send a shiver through those ensconced in protected Caucasian enclaves, I am happy to hail their arrival, hop into their taxicabs, and tool off to the destination of my choosing.
And one more thing: I ask them about women and marriage. I've been fascinated by this topic since a few years ago, when a 42-year-old Ethiopian cabbie in Houston told me he had sent away for a 25-year-old bride. The cheerful fellow had enlisted some friends in his "dating" search, and had given them specific instructions as to exactly what he was looking for in a wife.
"Number one," he told me, "I told them to send me traditional woman--not like American." I roared with laughter, and immediately inquired as to his friends' telephone number. Now I frequently ask African men, and Ethiopians always, about this state of affairs.
The men I speak to love America (hey, they came a long way to get here), and respect American women enormously. They admire the U.S. woman's ambition, style, smarts, and panache.
But don't expect the Africans to tie the knot with a Yank. "When you speak to an Ethiopian woman," one fellow told me, "she will listen." That was his answer to my question as to why he wouldn't consider marrying an American. Another told me that Ethiopian girls go to classes to prepare for marriage. "To learn cooking and sewing?" I inquired. He replied: "No. Those are other classes. These are just to train for being a good wife." I still wasn't getting it, and he became rather exasperated: "It's like in a ship--there can be only one captain!" Gotcha.
I joke with these folks about the differences between American society and the cultures they grew up in. When they drop me off at my apartment building, I sometimes mention that Betty Friedan lives there. That rarely rings a bell, but when I say, "She's the one who started feminism," they reliably cringe. We share a chuckle. We may kid around about the superiority of the patrimonial way of life, but alas--the modern world is winning. Even if I should fall off my medication, I am not about to "send away" for the traditional woman. And the sons of our fine African immigrants will soon shock their fathers by selecting homegrown wives. In a decade, they'll be helping with the dishes; a generation from now they'll be figuring out how to pay for their spouse's MBA.
I think about the African vs. American culture clash when I hear the conservative buzz over same-sex marriages. The rap is that extending the matrimonial franchise to homosexuals will cheapen the sanctity of the heterosexual bond. Opening up the marriage contract to rival forms of social organization will dilute the honor and threaten the institution itself, say conservatives--especially in an era when the family unit is already struggling against an impressive array of forces.
This is the lamest sort of moralizing I have yet to encounter outside of a Robert Reich press conference on how the administration is going to ferret out and reward "good" corporations. In fact, if conservatives really wanted to discourage homosexuality, they should make marriage mandatory. Since many anti-gay types believe that homosexuals are latent heterosexuals who simply seek to avoid commitment, forcing them to deal with the "m" word would just call their bluff.
As for morality, why is it the state's business how two people conduct their affair? The state establishes a formula for legal commitment; presumably, consenting adults fill in the blanks.
The institution of marriage is a public good. As H.L. Mencken pointed out, monogamy kills passion--which is dangerously antisocial--and so preserves civil society. But boring, established, long-term relationships would serve the tranquilizing social function for homosexuals as much as for anyone else. Why can't the religious right see that some of the most harmful excesses of the "gay lifestyle"--you know, the "disgusting" practices that I read about in graphic detail whenever my name is rented to a Falwellian fund-raiser--may flow from the lack of such calming institutions?
It is no doubt correct that the family unit in Western society is experiencing trauma, and that the trouble emanates from the challenges of modernity: more cash, more choices, more years of life. In the West, wives talk, work, and generally operate like their husbands' equals. Looked at from one perspective, that devalues the traditional arrangement when men were men and women were obedient. From another, though, it's just the march of progress. The freedom that was born with enlightenment and empowered by capitalism has rendered the old-fashioned contract obsolete. Gay marriage is but one more stage of the evolving family structure, and not so very large a leap, at that. I mean, once women started talking back, the rest has been baby steps.