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Are they going to defend marriage from anthropology now?
June 22, 2006 6:59 AM   Subscribe

The End of Marriage An anthropologist's view of the "sanctity of marriage" debate doesn't see much function in the modern world for "an empty ritual that provides little or nothing of value."
posted by jefgodesky (69 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
My lawyer says NO. we must keep marriage going b ecause divorce attorneys need money. Besides, look at how many people divorce and then remarry. Or, As Sam Johnson said: a second marriage is the triumph of optimism over experience.
posted by Postroad at 7:02 AM on June 22, 2006


Everyone knows anthropologists are godless heathens bent on destroying the family. They're scientists, aren't they? And we know how Jesus feels about science.
posted by Zozo at 7:22 AM on June 22, 2006


I know it makes me a prude victorian red-stater, but I like being married. I like saying "this is my wife." I liked having my wedding, and I liked having my honeymoon. And I kind of liked planning the wedding, and I liked the idea of the honeymoon as a trip at the end of a big event that was about my wife and me.

So, I don't care about the certificate on file on with the state, and I don't care about "the eyes of the lord" because he can't see me anymore than Santa, Spiderman or Jack Aubrey can. And here in Massachusetts, my gay married friends like the idea, too.

I have a few theories about the author of the piece:

1. He's like Jabba the Hutt but with half the charisma and this piece is a justification for his inevitable death alone and his computer full of porn cookies

2. He is autistic

3. He is so cool and cynical that he can't imagine a life where he doesn't get to try to bang every woman he meets at galleries/ Marxist Deconstructionist Society coffee hours/Narcotics Anonymous meetings

4. He hates his parents (this is more likely a cause of scenario one or three rather than a standalone motive)
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:27 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


Now, when people move to Vegas or anywhere else in search of work, they don’t bring their ants and uncles and their cousins and their in-laws and their grandparents and their uncles’ spouses’ in-laws and…

I usually leave my ants at home too...

I think this anthropologist needs a big hug and some time outta Vegas for a while. The general cynicism about relationships and apparent hostility toward commitment and family make for heavy going but there is a point. If life is all about us as individuals then absolutely yes, marriage is about nothing, an empty fiction.
posted by scheptech at 7:29 AM on June 22, 2006



I find that men and women have very different opinions before getting married about why marriage is important. After the fact, assuming it's a happy marriage, both parties come to the same conclusions about why it's important (stable realtionship condition, public notice, raises stakes for cheating, etc.)

I also find that a lot of guys who talk about how marriage is a meaningless institution etc are looking to cheat, or would like to keep their options open.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:37 AM on June 22, 2006


It is telling that few mainstream defenses of marriage appeal to any necessary function they see marriage performing; rather, the appeal is almost always a symbolic appeal to "tradition".

I think this is exactly right. You can't decide the utility of something until you know what it's for. What does marriage do? Apparently, lately, not much.

scheptech, I don't think he's being cynical. Defenders of traditional marriage explicitly base their claims on its value to society. It looks like that's a shaky argument.
posted by futility closet at 7:39 AM on June 22, 2006


Humans are very good at finding something emotionally fulfilling about whatever situation we find ourselves in. That's why anthropologists tend to think that our patterns of culture are shaped by more material concerns, and that we then adapt our thinking and feeling to that pattern, rather than vice versa. I'm getting married next month myself, and I can certainly relate to the sentimentality expressed by Mayor Curley and scheptech, but at the same time, I can also see the author's point that from a cultural materialist point of view, marriage has become vestigial to modern society. (Of course, I'm none too pleased with the way modern society treats human nature, so flying in the face of it just makes me look forward to my forthcoming matrimony all the more!)
posted by jefgodesky at 7:40 AM on June 22, 2006


Just as there are people who like the idea of a permanent sexual relationship, there are people who enjoy transient sexual relationships. Personally, I don't expect any of my sexual relationships to last longer than three years.
posted by Human Flesh at 7:41 AM on June 22, 2006


I agree that marriage is on its way out.

Granted, not for everyone, as many people prefer, for whatever reason, a monogamous life-partnership. Many, however, would prefer something like what we read in Brave New World. With the numbers of divorce, extra-marital affairs, the significant occurance of polyamory and swinging there seems to be something about the "traditional" marriage that doesn't work for many people.

By all means, get married if that's what you want. But it seems that many people are headed towards something different in their approach to relationships.
posted by ShaunPhilly at 7:46 AM on June 22, 2006


I think marriage has become the new death penalty in the sense that its been taken up as an issue by people who use it not to extoll its inherent values, though they must of course pay it some lip service in the process, but as a cudgel for rhetorically beating those with whom they disagree.

It isn't enough to extoll the virtues of marriage and let it go at that, one must also, and possibly more importantly, bash those whose views on marriage or other domestic arrangements don't precisely align with our own.

In the same way politicians and movement activists got way more political mileage way out of proportion to any social good conferred by the death penalty by mining various veins of public outrage and tarring opponents with the sin of being "soft on crime".
posted by hwestiii at 7:47 AM on June 22, 2006


On a further reading, this article is crap:

The huge number of single mothers (and much smaller number of single fathers) show that child-rearing can be performed quite effectively outside of marriage,

Yes, it CAN be performed quite effectively, but does the data suggest that a huge number of single mothers ARE performing it effectively? And the large number of single mothers alone is not proof of anything.

much of our child-rearing is handled by schools and other institutions anyway

Yeah, and that's working out fantastically. We can all agree that public schools produce only emotionally capable, tolerant, and mature young adults with a lifelong love of learning.

nearly every American having sexual relations outside of marriage at some point in their lives.

What? Does this mean that most Americans have sex when they aren't married, or that most Americans cheat in their marriages? I agree if the former, disagree if the latter. In the case of the former, this proves that sexual access is not a reaons people get married, because people who can get sex before they are married still get married.

I'm thinking the author's girlfriend is bugging him about "moving to the next step" and he's trying to reconcile that intellectually with the sight of a fresh crop of young coeds every fall.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:50 AM on June 22, 2006


I dismiss the work of any anthropologist who doesn't know that "Step 1: [insert here] Step 2:???? Step 3: Profit!" isn't an internet meme, but is from South Park. Long live the underpants gnomes!

(And yeah, Mayor Curley, I'm with you on scenario #1. I totally read this thinking that this is a guy who lives alone with his Magic Cards who hasn't had a date in the last five years.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 7:52 AM on June 22, 2006


IF you want to know what marriage is for, ask people who have good ones that have lasted a long time.

For example, ShaunPhilly mentioned the significant occurance of polyamory and swinging - but why are swingers married?

And, here's the kicker Why do gay couples who have been denied to right to be married want to fight to get married?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:57 AM on June 22, 2006


To some, marriage is a form of security. It provides some level of assurance that the other partner is committed to the relationship. Of course 1) divorce rates are high 2) this does not stop your partner from cheating, but it is an extra step in a relation, it is ritual that often binds people together. This does not have to be religious in nature. Many many people want and need some amount of ritual in their lives to mark important occasions.
When I got married I was less interested in the ceremony than my wife. But, I could see that it was important to her, and could understand the reasons, and her needs and wants where stronger than mine in this issue. We had a non religious ceremony, and have been together 12 years now.
Marriage might be/may have changed in it's function, but I hardly think this is the end of marriage. (I would count civil unions as a marriage by a different name, or indeed any "binding" ceremony between individuals)


(Speaking generally about rituals: personally I think the fact we don't have specific culture wide rituals to mark coming of age creates a level of ambiguity)
posted by edgeways at 7:58 AM on June 22, 2006


marriage has become the new death penalty

Too funny.
posted by breath at 8:01 AM on June 22, 2006


I gotta go with Mayor Curley, for once. I like being married too. My wife is my best friend. I love every day the idea of building this thing with her, and going through the low spots and high spots. I like making this commitment to her, and I'd hope everyone would get to experience something like it. Props to being married.
posted by xmutex at 8:02 AM on June 22, 2006


I'm just glad it's finally over.
posted by xod at 8:07 AM on June 22, 2006


Some people use to get married because they wanted to do married things without getting beat up about it.

Now, you can do married things but not get married, so there's less incentive for those people.

Read Dan Savage's book, The Commitment. Then, realize that marriage is never going away. Neither is parenthood, you Dispossessed freaks.
posted by ewkpates at 8:07 AM on June 22, 2006


As someone who is getting married in the fall (to another mefi member), I think the anthropologist just doesn't understand marriage. It's so much more than an agreement that allows you to have sex with a person for the rest of your life, or to help with child rearing.

In a way it's a commitment to sacrifice part of your identity to join with another person, committing to going through everything life throws at the two of you regardless of what happens.

Modern US society's focus on the individual is in conflict with this idea, but it doesn't stop many from getting married.
posted by drezdn at 8:14 AM on June 22, 2006


As someone who is getting married in the fall (to another mefi member)

well congrats! - er, my invitation must have been lost in the mail...

it's a commitment to sacrifice part of your identity to join with another person, committing to going through everything life throws at the two of you regardless of what happens.


And this doesn't compute with cultural materialists, fundamentalist cynics that they are.

Modern US society's focus on the individual is in conflict with this idea,


Exactly, and if one buys into this focus unmediated by sufficient consideration for others, indeed marriage must seem an empty vestigialism...
posted by scheptech at 8:28 AM on June 22, 2006


An empty ritual?



Many Klingons would disagree.
posted by QuestionableSwami at 8:34 AM on June 22, 2006


Why does the author ignore the more than 1000 rights and benefits specifically designated in our laws as applying only to husbands, wives, and spouses only?
posted by amberglow at 8:34 AM on June 22, 2006


And if none of those matter, take them away from all straight couples and watch the fireworks. Watch the revolution, actually.
posted by amberglow at 8:36 AM on June 22, 2006


As it is with Mayor Curley and xmutex, it shall be with me. I'm getting married next year, and I'm looking forward to the event. However, both of us have already made a deeper commitment to each, that seems beyond any religious or governmental "institution". See, we've been together for 14 years.

We're going through the motions, mainly to benefit from the additional rights that come with a marriage certificate. We both understand the "institution" to be mostly a sham, since all it takes is a divorce lawyer to wipe it off it's foundation.

But that doesn't mean we aren't lookig for an excuse to party.

(On a side note: We both feel uncomfortable about entering in to a formal marriage in a time when another social group is seeking to do the same, yet is being actively denied this priviledge. Until homosexuals are granted the same rights as myself and my future wife, we both sorta' feel like we're drinking out of a "Straights Only" fountain, and as such, will do our level best to support the gay marriage movement.)
posted by mr.curmudgeon at 8:37 AM on June 22, 2006


This article perfectly articulates how I've thought about the subject of marriage for a long time. For all you naysayers decrying how cynical the author is, I would say you are mistaken. A hard look at reality is often mistaken for cynicism, and I think that's the case here.

So many of the above comments are from the heart, not from the head. And in general, I think the attitude of "marriage is important" is tapering off with generations younger than the Baby Boomers. Certainly, my parents' generation cares about marriage as an institution far more than myself or any of my friends (we're all just a hair under 30.)

Marriage, at this point, is more of a legal benefits system than a society-mandated norm. I dated/lived with my wife for more than ten years before getting married. She and I both agree that getting married was more for the benefit of our respective families than for ourselves. My father, especially, had difficulty with the fact that I was living with someone out of wedlock, despite the fact that she had been a part of our family gatherings since our early high school days.

Unfortunately, too many people need a farcical piece of paper to validate a relationship. Neither I nor my wife do.

The right's contention that "marriage is under attack" is an insane plea to traditionalists and homophobes who are easily hoodwinked. Want to "protect" marriage? Let everyone marry, and make getting divorced a lot harder.

Of course, the right's not really worried about marriage. They're worried about scaring up more votes. And the fewer people living a "traditional" and "upright" American life means less power in the long run.
posted by Floach at 8:38 AM on June 22, 2006


And this doesn't compute with cultural materialists, fundamentalist cynics that they are.

Jeez. No, I think it has more to do with the fact that such sentimentality doesn't explain anything. Other cultures do radically different things, but they express a lot of the same feelings without the same systems. Marriage, as a cultural system, doesn't have a thing to do with romance, commitment, or feelings of union with another person, as evidenced by all the occasions in which these are attained without marriage.

So, why does marriage exists? We attach these sentiments to it, but they do not necessarily follow from marriage. Why do we have this specific cultural system? I think the anthropologists are right, that these kinds of things come from material needs, and we find a space in those systems for our feelings after the fact.

Why does the author ignore the more than 1000 rights and benefits specifically designated in our laws as applying only to husbands, wives, and spouses only?

Because our laws are another cultural system, built on the cultural system of marriage. They change and adapt. The author's an anthropologist, and that means his understanding of laws is that they are essentially ephemeral, and if culture changes, so will the laws.
posted by jefgodesky at 8:42 AM on June 22, 2006


The author's right so far as he goes, but he only goes so far. As a single woman, I also don't see all that much practical value in marriage. My current thinking is that if I don't meet anyone in time to reproduce, I just won't bother. However, that's analysing marriage in cold hard unemotional terms — my factors are, like this man's, things like economic gain and the sharing of parenting responsibilities. But I know from past experience that if I should fall in love with someone, I will want to be with him and economic considerations will really only be trappings. The human need for emotional connection and companionship is not going to go away. However, whether I will actually need to legally marry him will be subject to external mores and forces.
posted by orange swan at 8:45 AM on June 22, 2006


The huge number of single mothers (and much smaller number of single fathers) show that child-rearing can be performed quite effectively outside of marriage, and much of our child-rearing is handled by schools and other institutions anyway.

I'm astonished by the way the author deals with child-rearing/parenting in this article. There doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement of the awesome responsibility of bringing up kids, and the fact that it's pretty damn hard to do/a lot of work.

This is not to say that All Kids Must Have A Mother and A Father, Or They Will Be Fucked Up And Drop Out Of School. It's just to say that such a cavalier approach to the issue of children and how they are raised is lazy writing at best.

I don't by any means agree with, say, a FMA supporter's policies or stated beliefs regarding marriage, but at least when they argue the opposite of this article, they appear to give a shit about kids, however wrongheaded they in reality are.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 8:48 AM on June 22, 2006


Floach: Want to "protect" marriage? Let everyone marry, and make getting divorced a lot harder.

That's an interesting idea. But if you're going to make divorce harder to get, isn't there a need to make it harder to get married as well? If divorce is going to be hard to get, having marriage be something you can enter while on a bender in Vegas seems problematic... Although maybe people would naturally take entering marriage more seriously if it were harder to get out of.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 8:51 AM on June 22, 2006


There are two levels here. Of course marriage is important to the couple themselves. But it's not a bulwark of society.
posted by futility closet at 8:57 AM on June 22, 2006


currently a PhD candidate at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and an adjunct professor at the Community College of Southern Nevada (anthropology) and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (women’s studies). His research interests include the history of anthropology (particularly Cold War-era anthropology), art and communication, postmodern theory, museum studies, sex and sexuality, and the Internet as a social space. Because of this wide range of interests, he has been declared “Least Potentially Employable Anthropologist of All Time” by a jury of his peers. His dissertation (which currently exists primarily in what has been called the “anthropological imaginary”) examines the University of Chicago’s “Fox Project”, an experiment in what would come to be called action anthropology, carried out under the directorship of Sol Tax between 1948 and 1961.

Wow, you couldn't be more stereotypically setting yourself up to be demonized by the GOP/Christian right if you tried. Postmodern theory? The Internet as a social space? Action anthropology? New School for Social Research in New York City (the place where McCain gave a commencement address recently and was booed and heckled)?

On a more serious note, I don't know about other societies, but study the history of the United States and you will have to acknowledge that marriage is not going away anytime soon here without a fight, and a huge one at that.

The PhD candidate writes, "I’m not arguing that marriage will disappear this year, or even in my lifetime, but I don’t see much future for the institution in the long-term."

Define "long-term." You're an anthropologist. Be specific. What is the timeline? Marriage disappears in 50 years? 75? 100? What is it? I doubt that he's right, but then society and mores are changing so rapidly these days that we could all be married to sentient robots in 50 years and not know the difference.

I for one welcome in advance our robot overlords.
posted by blucevalo at 8:59 AM on June 22, 2006


we could all be married to sentient robots in 50 years

Will they be sexy robots?
posted by everichon at 9:05 AM on June 22, 2006


Will they be sexy robots?

Personally I could never make love to anyone or anything with more lubricant than I have.
posted by orange swan at 9:17 AM on June 22, 2006


Mayor Curly: Nice use of totally speculative ad hominems against the author of the piece!
posted by Herr Fahrstuhl at 9:29 AM on June 22, 2006


Do my Realdolls make me a polygamist?
posted by bardic at 9:38 AM on June 22, 2006


This reminded me of an onion article:
Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends
posted by Dillenger69 at 9:54 AM on June 22, 2006


nearly every American having sexual relations outside of marriage at some point in their lives.

Perhaps a true stratement. Not so in my personal experience. Mrs. Doohickie is the only sexual partner I've ever had, and I'm rather glad of that. Sure, variety is the spice of life, but we experience plenty of variety with each other.

The thought of engaging another partner conjurs up being put on the spot to perform, to do things "just right" for someone I hardly know (in that way). No thanks. I got a good thing and don't plan on changing.

And agreement with Mayor Curley and all the rest of the married sods on this thread and all that....
posted by Doohickie at 9:57 AM on June 22, 2006


This is not to say that All Kids Must Have A Mother and A Father, Or They Will Be Fucked Up And Drop Out Of School.


There is no hard cause-and-effect that children of single-parent families are screwed up; however, I think there is a pretty strong correlation between stable family situation and how well adjusted kids are.

Having two responsible adults in the house that get along with each other provide a large measure of stability. On those occasions when the routine is disrupted due to the temporary absense or illness of one of the partners, the other steps in as an authority figure with whom the child is familiar.

Also, sometimes the good cop/bad cop (or alpha dog/beta dog) dichotomy helps simultaneously to push and pull kids through developmental states and rites of passage.

Trying to have one person fill both rolls, uninterrupted, is daunting at best.

There is less evidence with same-sex couples in this regard, but I can't think of any reason why two moms or two dads can't do this any differently than a mom and a dad (assuming complementary personalities).
posted by Doohickie at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2006


Will they be sexy robots?

They will lobotomize you in advance so that you find them sexy regardless.
posted by blucevalo at 10:22 AM on June 22, 2006


ALL ARE AROUSED BY HYPNO-TOAD
posted by sonofsamiam at 10:24 AM on June 22, 2006


Mayor Curley: I have a few theories about the author of the piece: 1. He's like Jabba the Hutt but with half the charisma and this piece is a justification for his inevitable death alone and his computer full of porn cookies

scheptech: I think this anthropologist needs a big hug and some time outta Vegas for a while. The general cynicism about relationships and apparent hostility toward commitment and family make for heavy going...

I don't see the sort of hostility in the essay that might reasonably trigger comments like these. The author shows that what we think of as "traditional" and/or "normal" marriage is neither ancient nor immutable. He suspects that as it has changed in the past, it will change in the future, and maybe even go away.

I don't see anything that I would consider either a condemnation nor a celebration of marriage. What about this is upsetting people?
posted by Western Infidels at 10:33 AM on June 22, 2006


I think the argument is pretty compelling and points to some of the major reasons the idea of defending marriage has become such a mainstay in today's political climate. In pointing to the economic and social configurations that made the nuclear family possible, it is clear that the author is looking more long term at this issue and his cynicism has more to do with the overarching values that have been promoted in our society -- such as doing away with all of the New Deal institutions and organizations, starting with unions and notions of social wages--in order to bolster the argument that all of our needs coudl be better filled by the free market. The flip side of this is, of course, that, if you have economic or social problems, it's probably because you don't have a good family.

I suppose, however, that the flipside of all of this is that the decimation of these institutions has actually made marriage and extended family relations the only possible way to be successful. In this way, we could posit the question of whether the observations he makes about the difficulties of finding work in the same city (or even country) as your spouse are more indicative of problems faced by certain middle class workers. One could argue that, if a person is less concerned with social mobility or career success and more concerned with just surviving, marriage relationships are still important. Then again, if one is living in an area of the country with a depressed job market and few prospects, the only way to create dynamic change in one's possibilities (or even the possibilities for one's children)--since there will be no Government support or job creation--will be to move away from extended family, if not to leave one's spouse altogether.

In other words, I think the main point, which many people seem to be missing above, is that, if marriage is being decimated, it is not by homosexuals or liberals, but by the rabid neo-conservative hatred for liberal institutions and the linking up, in the early 1980s, of this neo-conservative agenda with a neo-liberal philosophical dogma about how economies would best be arranged. In this way, in fact, the author is making an observation that many sociologists were making in the late 19th century, when free market capitalist industrialization was having it's last heyday.

Most of these observers realized that the capitalist arrangements had the potential to destroy the social institutions that had guided and directed people's actions for the previous centuries and as well as most of the cultural and social order was based. There was significant anxiety about how to retain order in the face of these changes. This discussion above reminds me of Emile Durkhiem's discussion of the Division of Labor. In this, he distinguishes between what he calls (watch for Orwellian language use here) the "mechanical community" of older, traditional society and the "organic community" of the division of labor. Basically, his argument was that traditional society--like the extended family and kin networks the author discusses here--were something you married into: it was a mechanical relationship which, though it might be useful to you, wasn't something you chose or that necessarily functioned in the best way for the progress of society.

The decimation of this kind of bond by capitalism and industrialization was something Durkhiem understood as a possible source of social anxiety, but he also saw it as providing a new kind of social solidarity through the interdependence of the division of labor, which, in his view, developed organically according to the laws of the market. This organic community was something that we didn't have to feel deeply, but it was a more funcitonal relationship. I'm not sure what he said about marriage, but I think he'd pretty much concur with the arugment that it changed significantly under industrial capitalism (something Freud was also onto). And the heyday of that mode of production in the US was definitely during the mid 20th century. It could, of course, work fairly well today, but it wasn't nearly profitable enough for corporate america and, besides, we'd exported the model everywhere else as the pinnacle of civilization so now we had some competition.

In short, if the author is onto something it is that whatever anxiety there is over marriage is almost certainly a misplaced anxiety which has, as its true referent the same sense that the institutions we had depended on for stability and order are becoming less relevant and providing less of the feeling of security and fulfillment that they once did. If nothing else, children are becoming more of a liability than ever and, if one wants to guarantee that they have any chance of being successful, the level of financial success you'll need to achieve in order to make that happen seems quite unattainable: making this happen with the emotionally sustaining and mutually beneficial arrangement marriage promises to be is also becoming an undue burden.

This is, of course, the other thing that is changing: if marriage is becoming more onerous, having kids is also a much bigger deal with far less of a payoff than there might have been in earlier times. This, again, has less to do with the gay agenda than with the promotion of neo-liberal economics as the saving grace of our civilization. It may produce growth and wealth, but if you are going to be successful in that environment, it's usually far better to be ready to move anywhere, do anything, and screw anyone (literally and figuratively) to get to the next level. The realization of this, and the anxiety we feel about it while trying to sustain these somewhat antiquated social institutions, is evident anytime one turns on the TV or heads to the movies. It's especially evident on shows that deal the most with upper middle class characters--the OC and just about any program dealing with lawyers or doctors has to deal with it as well, where most of the topics and struggles are basically interchangeable between shows. The challenge is to make the most unappealing, self-serving, unmarried-and/or-cheating social climber seem human and even dignified and understandable--or to give us the rare opportunity to laugh at them as they ascend the ladder above us. That's always fun as well.
posted by sandrew3 at 10:40 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


it might be instructive to look at the kinds of societies where marriage is most relevant and enduring. For the most part, marriage is meaningful in societies where food-production is labor-intensive and dependent on carefully-monitored social rules, which means mainly agricultural and pastoral (herding) societies...Marriage is so important in these kinds of society because the need for social networks through which labor and trading can be arranged is so important. A large extended family might be allied by marriage with a dozen or more other extended families. This pool of contacts gives one: resources to call on in case of natural or human-created disaster; a trading network; a body of closely-bonded men to provide defense; a labor reserve for building, planting, or harvesting; and the emotional well-being that comes of social solidarity. With stakes so high, divorce...is greatly discouraged...What is difficult is to understand what function it retains in a society such as ours (“we” here being post-Industrial Westerners, especially urban Westerners) where labor and trade are organized through market, not kin, relations....Close bonds between families are precisely what you do not want in an industrial society dependent on the mobility of labor to survive.

Holy. Hell. I don't know if I've ever seen a more destructive conclusion drawn from the basic idea that the market should be the basic arbiter of human interactions and social direction. Yet another reason markets should be thought of as good tools and not panaceas.

[the] appeal is not to how “the commitment of a husband and a wife” might “promote child welfare and the stability of society” but rather to the idea that it should, because in days of yore, it did.

I can't figure out why the author doesn't understand it still does. Many of the challenges that human beings face are fairly different -- we certainly don't often have to circle the wagons and call up the extended fam in order to fight off the latest attack by the Injuns / Mongols / Cowboys / Generic "Others." We often don't use the labor reserve for building, planting, or harvesting.

But our family and social networks are still key in a wide variety of situations -- even many of the situations the author seems to believe were unique to agrarian/herding societies. Trading networks? Resources to call on in case of disaster or emergency? Still essential.

I'm reminded of a statement by Kurt Vonnegut:

My basic politics are built around the idea that human beings need extended families, as much as they need vitamin C or any essential mineral in their diet. So many Americans feel really lousy because they're so alone -- they don't have extended families, and that's an unnatural environment for human beings. We need the support system.

When I was in Nigeria years ago, the Biafran civil war was going on. The Ebos were trying to start a country of their own in southern Nigeria. And I was there and I met a man, an Ebo, who had 600 relatives. And his wife had a new baby with the war going on -- and losing the war, too. But they were going to go visiting all the other relatives with the baby, to introduce all the relatives to the newest member of the family.

The Biafran army -- the Ebos -- when they needed replacements, the family met and decided who should go. The government didn't decide who should go -- the government said we need three guys. The Ebos -- they may still be, I don't know -- they used to be the most highly educated of all black Africans. They had far more Ph.D.'s -- from Cal Tech and from Cambridge and the Sorbonne and from everywhere else -- than all the rest of black African societies combined, but the family would meet and decide what kids would go to college. They would pick the kid and they'd all chip in to pay transportation, get the right clothes for wherever the kid was going. Extended families are wonderful survival units.

Think of some poor sonuvagun who has lost his job in Detroit; General Motors has closed down his plant, so he goes to Houston because he hears there's work there -- the guy, his wife, a couple of kids, the dog, and the family car. If anything goes wrong, there's nothing for them whatsoever. That's a perfectly standard situation for Americans. It makes people terribly vulnerable. Before the terrible diasporas, before the Industrial Revolution, people lived perfectly naturally with these excellent support systems: Somebody gets sick, somebody else takes care of the kids. But this poor sonuvagun looking for work in Houston, camped out in the park here, well, if anything goes wrong, he can go to the police, or the fire department, or the emergency room in the local hospital.

Any politics -- communism, socialism, whatever -- I want people to have extended families. I want the government to make that possible. When you get people with extended families, like the Kennedys, it's a great source of power. And, of course, once a guy becomes a Senator, he doesn't want to leave the inside of the belt-way. Dan Quayle, from my native state, which is Indiana, he and Marilyn are this brave little family believing in "family values" and all that. Well, every banker and lawyer and politician in the state of Indiana, never mind the whole middle West, is there to help them if anything goes the least bit wrong.

The English Navy felt lousy for a long time and they didn't know why until they started sucking on limes, and then they all cheered up -- they'd had a terrible vitamin deficiency. Today, Americans feel lousy because they don't have enough people. 50 percent or 60 percent of marriages fail now. But when a couple fights, it's not about money, it's not about sex, and it's not about power. Each person is saying to the other one, "You're not enough people. I need more people."


Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Sept 1997
posted by weston at 11:31 AM on June 22, 2006 [1 favorite]


These last two comments are great.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 11:34 AM on June 22, 2006


So, if stable marriage is so important the government will require that all weddings be polyamorous?

If there are multiple brides and grooms, then the odds that they will all want a divorce, at the same time, are far lower than if there are only 1 of each.
posted by Megafly at 11:36 AM on June 22, 2006


Oh. And in addition to the social commentary I posted above, I think this thread wouldn't be complete without linking to some of the most fabulous personal defense of marriage Metafilter's seen in the past:

A wedding is a genuinely peculiar thing ... on the one hand, it is two people in engaging in perhaps the single most intimate act possible: Looking one another in the eye and promising to stay together forever (think sex is intimate? ... it is nowhere close to saying "I do"...)...
Even further, my wife and I both found that we internally relaxed fully around one another after we were married ... but that it was not until we had done so that we even realized we hadn't been relaxed before marriage.

There really is something profound that happens at a wedding. It is hard to explain, but as someone that was in a couple of long term relationships prior to marriage, and was committed to my wife before we married ... it is different after you take the vows. It just is.


Marriage is not a product one buys, it is a gift one gives ... but if it is given with no reservations, to an equal that returns it with similar intensity and commitment, nothing else on earth delivers the deep, silent ecstasy that is added to the days of both people.
posted by weston at 11:37 AM on June 22, 2006


Whatever happened to good old Marilyn Quayle, anyhow?

/pointless derail, sorry
posted by blucevalo at 11:38 AM on June 22, 2006


Personally I could never make love to anyone or anything with more lubricant than I have.

Straight from the horse's mouth, people:

orange swan likes her robo-sex squeaky 'n' creaky.

Personally I find brain slugs sexier than hypno toad. Of course the best is getting it on with THE HYPNO TOAD while under the control of a brain slug.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:48 AM on June 22, 2006


Holy. Hell. I don't know if I've ever seen a more destructive conclusion drawn from the basic idea that the market should be the basic arbiter of human interactions and social direction.

There's a big difference between "should be" and "is for all intents and purposes," and the latter is what the author's basically saying. What exactly in the US economy encourages the individuals making up particular couples to stay in the same place? And is the nuclear family the same as an extended family? No. The extended family, where not only one's immediate family, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., are around isn't halfway as common as it was just 30 or 40 years ago. The reason is clearly geographic mobility of a sort that's encouraged by economic reality.

The "defenses" of marriage posted from past metafilter threads also say nothing in regard to the author's thesis in regard to marriage's value to our society as it's currently organized.
posted by raysmj at 12:23 PM on June 22, 2006


Marriage is not a product one buys, it is a gift one gives

Actually, the author doesn't discount the power of tradition and ceremony. So what's your point? But I will add that if you check out the bridal magazines at your next visit to a newsstand, it certainly does appear that weddings--which are not to be confused with marriage itself, but nevertheless . . . --provide the economy with billions of dollars. Whether all that money could be redirected to other economic sectors or societal institutions, and whether excessive amounts of dough spent on weddings can devalue tradition and ceremony, is another question entirely.
posted by raysmj at 12:35 PM on June 22, 2006


How about marriage as an institution fits well with many human's inherent need to pair-bond. Whether those pair-bonds should be contractual and life-long is another matter. But marriage provides a social definition to an inherent psychological tendancy. I'm not sure how any "scientist" could ignore basic pscyhological tendancies. Whether or not extended families are suited for post-industrial societies is an orthogonal question. However, I think peoples need for some sense of "extended-family", whether blood or friends, is still strongly alive.
posted by nads at 12:46 PM on June 22, 2006


nads: But at weddings, people take vows for life. Isn't that what marriage is supposed to be? You're talking about civil unions, or a redefinition of marriage as we know it that's more radical in intent than proposals for gay marriage.

To others: It's not that I have no qualms with anything the author says here, by the way, but his arguments are being discounted out of blind anger at any critical thought, or just for incredibly sentimental reasons. Someone from metafilter, say, went online to say, "Oh, man I'm sorry if your parents divorced" or something to that effect, which is insulting and rude even if true. Then he said he's happy as a newlywed. Well, he is now, and may or not be in the future. But so what?
posted by raysmj at 12:51 PM on June 22, 2006


Well, nads, I think it's ignored because it isn't true. Several counter-examples are mentioned to highlight that marriage (at least, marriage as we know it) is certainly not a universal phenomenon.

I think this rests on defining "marriage" too narrowly. In fact, most societies (86%, according to the Ethnographic Atlas) are polygamous. The article discusses the group fission of foragers, but (and I may be mistaken on this) I believe that monogamous pair bonds usually stay together, though they may part from one band to join another.
posted by jefgodesky at 12:55 PM on June 22, 2006


I'm waiting for terminology to develop.
Once there is an acceptable term for straight-couples-in-committed-relationships-that-are-as-serious-as-marriage, but for whatever reason choose to not get a lisence, it will show how society feels about marriage.
I don't want to get married, but the thought of referring to ed, my 'boyfriend' when I am in my 40s bothers me. It just sounds so juvenile.
If 'civil unions' were avaliable, I'd take that over marriage. All the rights, none of the fuss.
posted by ackeber at 4:00 PM on June 22, 2006


I don't see the sort of hostility in the essay that might reasonably trigger comments like these.

I think it's pretty simple. It's a personal reaction to statements like "[marriage is] an empty ritual that provides little or nothing of value" by people who've found it to be substantially false. Anecdotal, naturally, and so hardly possessing the scope of social study the author claims, but nevertheless, relevant.

There's a big difference between "should be" and "is for all intents and purposes," and the latter is what the author's basically saying.

If it's a descriptive rather than a normative statement, then I'll happily cut the author a bit of slack there. But I'd still insist that the author is flat out wrong about the idea that extended family and social networks don't provide advantages in current society, and by extention, wrong about the idea that marriage has no social value.

The "defenses" of marriage posted from past metafilter threads also say nothing in regard to the author's thesis in regard to marriage's value to our society as it's currently organized.

And additionally, while I agree with the idea that not everything that has personal value has social value, if something has wide personal value, it's certainly worth considering as something to be valued by society. Hence the relevance of personal defenses of marriage.
posted by weston at 5:47 PM on June 22, 2006


ackeber I don't want to get married, but the thought of referring to ed, my 'boyfriend' when I am in my 40s bothers me. It just sounds so juvenile.

The term de facto [spouse] used as a noun is fairly common in Australia. "This is Fred, my de facto." It's actually a legal term, as contrasted with a de jure spouse: marriage in fact, rather than marriage in law.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:33 PM on June 22, 2006


weston: Based on four comments from metafilter? I could round up some extremely bitter comments re marriage from elsewhere if I felt like it. (But I don't!) In any case, romantic love-based marriages weren't common for most of human history.

Meanwhile, you're putting words into the author's mouth regarding the value of extended family. He writes that, based on the evidence at hand, it appears to have no utilitarian social value. Offspring are instead urged to strike out on their own, to not really stick around. I think that's been a little less true in some parts of the country--particularly rural areas and the Deep South--but it's nothing like it used to be even there. How could you possibly deny that?
posted by raysmj at 6:45 PM on June 22, 2006


Marriage performed a biological function.

Males and females have different reproductive priorities.

For males it is to impregnate multiple females, quantity. For females, it is both to get the best sperm for her offspring, quality, and to get someone to help her raise her offspring.

Marriage, as an enforced social covenant, justified these two priorities: offering the male exclusivity in reproduction with a given female; in exchange, the female gets a promise of support in raising her offspring. But it only works if it is enforced.

In a society with few people, enforcement is easier through social sanction. But with more males available, the male is tempted to violate his exclusivity agreement; and the female is faced with the fact that the male with the best sperm is most likely not the best male to help her raise her offspring.

For this and other reasons, there is a breakdown in the biological basis for marriage. However, this does not mean that the biological problem has been resolved.

So science and the law step in to re-create this social contract.

To start with, the paternity test establishes the biological father. With paternity, responsibility is usually determined. However, the law provides (for now, at least) that if the female can fool the male into accepting responsibility for her offspring, then it automatically becomes his responsibility, paternity or not.

"The best interest of the child" does not trump unfair assignment of responsibility for paternity. Therefore, in the future, most likely this process will evolve.

1) Already, many States require that when a woman gives birth, she identify the biological father. However, both her and her offspring's DNA will be taken non-invasively (from the umbilical cord). The male she names as the father will then be notified of the birth with his assignment. If he is unknown, then the DNA will be kept on file.

2) Within a period of time, he may take a DNA test to confirm paternity, or he may refuse the test. In either case he may assert paternity and assume responsibility; or he may reject paternity if the child is not his; or he may reject paternity, which the State may be compelled to determine in the future, in a paternity lawsuit.

3) If he rejects paternity because the DNA test shows he is not the father, he must also sever his relationship with the mother. The law recognizes mother and child as the same person as far as responsibility goes, so if he gives her any further support, he may indirectly, but permanently, assume responsibility for her child.

So science and the law can re-create enforced marriage, at least so far as its biological purpose. Not to fruitlessly keep two people together who do not wish it, but to protect the reproductive nature of marriage.
posted by kablam at 6:57 PM on June 22, 2006


An odd piece which ignores a couple of key facts, and thus goes completely awry as a piece of prediction.

The key facts? That the center of gravity of the economic world is rapidly shifting the brain, brawn and natural resources of Asia and the Middle East. Not only are those regions themselves gaining in power and significance, but immigrants from those countries are fast increasing their power and consequence in North America and Europe.

And they are all of them fierce believers in marriage, agrarian status notwithstanding. Their increasing occupancy of economic and social power will drag the rest of society along in their wake. Everyone else will play by their rules because that's what rules do. In other words, all those white "de factos" may think they're the future, but in fact they're the fading past...
posted by MattD at 7:08 PM on June 22, 2006


Not only are those regions themselves gaining in power and significance, but immigrants from those countries are fast increasing their power and consequence in North America and Europe. And they are all of them fierce believers in marriage, agrarian status notwithstanding. Their increasing occupancy of economic and social power will drag the rest of society along in their wake.

yes and no. The thing is that it really doesn't work that way. For one thing, immigrants (if we're making broad, unqualified generalizations) often separate in transit and will live for years in different countries or even on different continents. Despite the value that some groups might place on family, the current regulations (in the US anyway) don't necessarily favor getting more than a nuclear family into the country and if the conservative maniacs have their way, even this will be less likely.

You may be onto something in, for instance, the case of China, where there is some evidence that many of the biggest enterprises are still managed and run through kinship ties. However, in both this, and the case of immigrant communities which might or might not find extended family arrangements useful or valuable, these are arrangements which are based, like the brief period when the nuclear family worked for some in the US, on a certain set of social institutions that are mutually constituted around these relationships and, therefore, direct and affirm certain beliefs and actions about these relationships. In other words, the author's point is that the institutions and values of the US in the past 30 or so years have rubbished these relationships.

Unless immigrants, Asians and Arabs can fundamentally transform US policy (as well as the culture and practices of US-based multinational corporations) to make these relationships more valuable than, say, moving to a new city across the country or across the world in order to get a better job or working exorbitant amounts of unpaid overtime just to keep the one you have, personal, family relationships will continue to take a backseat to the increasingly insecure corporate fasttrack that, in one way or another, dominates most aspects of American culture and society. None of this means that people don't get something emotional or fulfilling out of staying married or living near extended family networks. It just means that the economic and social opportunities available to you rarely coincide with those networks and will often conflict with them.

This is the author's point and it will take far more than the economic dominance of East Asia or the Middle East to change this. For one thing, unless they restrict all their interactions with the US to those of a homologous extended family network, they will basically be competing and interacting not with US citizens as members of extended families but as ever more precarious workers within US corporate, government, or military establishments. More likely, however, is that, as they adopt a more free market anything goes form of capitalism, they'll end up casting off this "mechanical" form and adopting the ever more economically rational "organic" community which values you less as a member of an extended family (except if you went to Yale and your dad was president, or something like that) and more as an interchangeable individual that is most useful when "flexible" about things like when, where and how long you work, if at all. In this case, having a family or even a spouse becomes a gamble: it could be helpful if they are also able to find work and support the family when you don't have a job. Or it could be another person you have to provide for on the offchance you're able to keep yours.

I'm not trying to be cynical here. I'm married and am quite emotionally involved with my spouse. But I am aware that it is always a precarious situation for both of us to find jobs near each other and at the same hours and that the best thing I could tell a potential employer would be that I am free to work whenever and whereever they need me. That's what they expect and if I'm not willing to do that they can always find someone who is--maybe even in East Asia.
posted by sandrew3 at 7:58 PM on June 22, 2006


"Close bonds between families are precisely what you do not want in an industrial society dependent on the mobility of labor to survive."

Because that's an excellent state of affairs and there's no possible way to alter that equation with, like, labor unions.

Seems like the kind of guy who argues "violence doesn't prove anything" to bullies just before he's going to get an ass-kicking somehow expecting this line of reasoning to deflect the ass-kicking.

Also, yeah, he's real plugged in.
(internet bubble for South Park?)
posted by Smedleyman at 9:47 PM on June 22, 2006


his arguments are being discounted out of blind anger at any critical thought, or just for incredibly sentimental reasons.

Blind anger? Heh.

I think his overstated title, general tendency to hyperbole, and often sneering tone weaken his arguments and make it difficult to see the thinking somewhere there at the core. The work appears far more agenda-driven than an embodiment of the scientific ideal.

In rapid succession we're treated to: culture wars, mommy wars, conservative politics (having what to do with it, scientifically speaking?), wholly imaginary good old days, and twin-bedded marriage (nice snark actually, gotta give credit where due).

To anthropologists the way marriage is discussed is 'laughable', not imprecise or even naive but outright laughable.

Christians deceive themselves about what's in the Bible by arguing against bigamy when it's right in there, Jacob did it.

In a typical overstatement: marriage of today is drastically different from 50 years ago.

And on and on, hardly a well modulated scientific effort from an anthropologist.

And they are all of them fierce believers in marriage


Yes, North Americans especially but also Europeans largely fail to understand just how conservative the rest of humanity is on these social issues. The American Democratics would be a, dare I say 'laughable', fringe party in much of the world.
posted by scheptech at 10:01 PM on June 22, 2006


Based on four comments from metafilter?

What are you inferring I'm basing on four comments from metafilter?

I could round up some extremely bitter comments re marriage from elsewhere if I felt like it.

Oh, I'm sure you could. Marriage, like a lot of other commitments, tends to be a test and a magnifier and even the best of social institutions -- be they market, legislature, classroom, caucus, or marriage -- don't always produce good results. But I suspect that you'd find more of the complaints focus on the participants than the institution, and even the bitter complaints would actually refute the implication of insipid irrelevance.

In any case, romantic love-based marriages weren't common for most of human history.

It's my understanding that while that's true in the sense romance wasn't the overarching consideration, and especially true in the sense that modern conception of romance is a different beast than its predecessors, to say a conception of loving and caring was absent from older ideas of marriage is incorrect.

Not only that, even conceding a complete change -- 0 to 180 from non-romantic to romantic -- I'm not sure that would fit an anti-marriage argument. If marriage had in the past (and arguable still has) value in creating a household and social networks that were helpful in raising children and conducting economically beneficial activities, and has recently developed extra value as an institution in which certain conceptions of romance can flourish, that certainly doesn't make it irrelevant. The best it can do is give something to chew on to those who say "Marriage should be just like it's always been."

Meanwhile, you're putting words into the author's mouth regarding the value of extended family

How so? He seems to have clearly asserted in the passage I quoted that the value of extended family no longer exists for a number of things which it apparently still does. If I'm misreading his statement somehow -- or if you have convincing arguments that a good extended family actually does not have value when it comes to trade, access to loan money/capital, resources in the face of personal, social, or natural disaster, etc -- then by all means, explain.

Offspring are instead urged to strike out on their own, to not really stick around.

I see plenty of evidence to back up the assertion that offspring are urged to move out of their parent's house and develop a basic level of personal independence. This is a different assertion, however, than saying that offspring are encouraged to abandon networks of extended family, and I don't see much to back up the assertion that there are social pressures from the family to settle far away from home. I suspect most parents are content to have at least some of their children close by.
posted by weston at 10:28 PM on June 22, 2006


This is all very confusing. Should this be a conversation about whether marriage is good for the individuals ... OR ... should it be about whether marriages benefit society?

I really have to ask: Why should government have anything to do with marriage? Does someone else's marriage benefit me? Is my life changed if any (or all) people marry? Does it even matter???

I don't give a rip for all the reasons ppl have for and against getting married -- that is just a personal, private decision for all people. Sure, go consecrate it with your church, temple, community, cult. No problem. Just take the government out of it all.

And ... mostly, we must stop giving any special benefits to married people --- unless we also give them to other support/caring relationships: aunties, friends, housemates, teammates, etc. The only reason I can see for government support of a relationship is if involves children (give grandparents more support!); children belong to all of us.

But, I fail to see how the romantic happiness of two ppl affects the future of the world. I will grant the world is possibly more stable when people are more happy, but there is no evidence that state authorized marriage is the ONLY relationship that can make ppl happy. Maybe society would be more stable if we gave tax breaks/benefits for friendships!

BTW, no I am not sitting in a basement with my magic cards; yes, I have been married; everyone should try it once.
posted by Surfurrus at 10:46 PM on June 22, 2006


weston: You posted comments from metafilter as a defense of marriage. They didn't tell me much of anything.

Children, meanwhile, are considered immediate and not extended family, nor are your parents. Would you get into a real estate deal or accept help with a loan from your brother-in-law or second cousin? Or would you maybe get better assistance from someone else you met through networking in your chosen field of work?

Are you aware, meanwhile, of research into weak ties? And that weak ties can make for more social progress than strong ones?
posted by raysmj at 10:53 PM on June 22, 2006


to say a conception of loving and caring was absent from older ideas of marriage is incorrect.

Whatever you say, and maybe you have caring and love to varying degrees in arranged marriages in other parts of the world now, but I was aiming for precision by using the term romantic love.
posted by raysmj at 11:22 PM on June 22, 2006


You posted comments from metafilter as a defense of marriage. They didn't tell me much of anything.

Well, that would seem to imply you don't have much a basis to argue about what I was infering from them. :)

Are you aware, meanwhile, of research into weak ties? And that weak ties can make for more social progress than strong ones?

If I read the linked materially correctly, it's not arguing that weak ties have more overall value than strong ones, it's that they seem to be in particular more useful to exposing people to new ideas and different potential connections. This in no way refutes the usefulness of strong connections -- it's easy to accept that and simultaneously believe that strong connections have their own value.

I'm skeptical of the idea that new ideas only move on weak connections, though. It makes sense to say that they frequently travel between the more tightly nit social networks by the random cross-network (and likely weaker) links, but that's almost a tautology, given that those links are simply the ones that cross the networks. And it also makes sense that most ideas and opportunities that move across weak connections will move more readily across strong connections, or at least as well. Without some version of that assumption, the idea that anything at all moves beyond the cross-network links breaks down.

Children, meanwhile, are considered immediate and not extended family, nor are your parents.

I'm not sure this distinction is crucial to the discussion about geographic dispersement and incentives to undergo activity that would sepearate one from the extended. If there is a social rule driving children to disperse, then it will reflect on the extended family over a generation. If there's not, then it won't. The pattern of the extended family will reflect the general behavior between parents and offspring, modified somewhat by sibling interaction.

Would you get into a real estate deal or accept help with a loan from your brother-in-law or second cousin?

I'm more likely to do something involved like that in a strong relationship of trust.

I was aiming for precision by using the term romantic love.

:)
posted by weston at 1:00 AM on June 23, 2006


Society needs a new model:

1) Train kids to find mates well. Thus making love more easily replaceable. -- Yes, its more to learn, but we'll deal; plus it's unavoidable as (real) psychologists learn more about human relationships.

2) Let women have kids younger (early 20s), but have either the government or grandparents ought to raise them, while the women lives her life. -- Government/corporate parenting seems unavoidable as the natural progress towards specialization of careers continues, and as the amount of information reuired to parent well increases. But I throw out grandparents as an option since they may want the hoby once they're happy with their achievments in their first carear.

No reason to tie people to the cities where their old loves, parents, or children live.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:18 AM on June 23, 2006


I don't see anything that I would consider either a condemnation nor a celebration of marriage.

Me neither, in fact he doesn't seem to be saying that the difficulties for both spouses in finding a job in the same place are a Good Thing, and he does point out a lot of the benefits of the extended-family tradition over the nuclear-family tradition. It all sounds rather neutral to me, an analysis/prediction more than a judgement.

He does clarify in the comments:

Again, my bottom line argument is not that marriage is a Bad Thing, but that given the trends that seem to shape modern capitalism, it will be increasingly stripped of function and, ultimately, meaning. I wouldn’t advise someone not to get married because it doesn’t feed the capitalist machine as well as single-hood, and I would pr’y marry if the opportunity arose (although that I and many others like me have lived to my mid-30s without marrying, enjoying a string of long-term committed relationships in which marriage was not a necessity, does not say much about the necessity of marriage). The point is, marriage is becoming increasingly optional, and it’s hard to say something optional is all that important to the ongoing survival of a society.
posted by funambulist at 8:18 AM on June 23, 2006


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