Getting nudged into the chapel

There's something in all of us that craves the trappings of a classic wedding -- even intellectuals who rail against the institution's traditions.

Published August 6, 2008 7:35PM (EDT)

(Note: Linda Hirshman is the author of "Get to Work." We're delighted to have this guest blog piece from her.)

A destination wedding for the chattering classes: A sometime Obama advisor, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, and ex-Obama advisor, Harvard policy professor Samantha Power, married last month in the little stone church of an obscure Irish coastal town. The celebration included a rose- and hydrangea-bedecked champagne-colored Lexus, a floor-length lace dress and matching veil, autobiographical blessings and an Irish parish priest.

Coincidentally, contemporary conservatives Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam just published a book, "The Grand New Party," in which they also suggest that Americans return to the real traditional marriage. Douthat and Salam propose that women not only put on the veil but also stop taking the Pill and stay home with the babies. The conservatives even suggest that society pay families (read: women) with children to stay home from work, using a benefit for which the rest of us would pay. They advocate for marriage confined to a man and a woman, strong social pressure and rewards to confine childbearing to such marriages, and a facially neutral but actually heavily gendered proposal to motivate women to quit their jobs and tend the home fires.

On liberal and libertarian sites all over the Web, their proposal is being greeted with the predictable howls of protest from the advocates of female emancipation and nontraditional families, people who don't want public benefits tied to the end of a floor-length veil and the advocates of gay marriage, all of whom Douthat and Selim mysteriously exclude from their picture of connubial bliss.

So what's Sunstein, a mostly bald, 54-year-old, thrice-partnered liberal Jewish guy doing in a place like that? Looks like someone was nudging the coauthor of "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness." The man who wants to see tradition, church and state booted out of the traditional wedding business just chose to get hitched in the most traditional way imaginable. Confusingly, we may want the trappings, but we don't want the substance of a traditional marriage. I cannot imagine that the two liberal intellectuals' conventional ceremony means they embrace the traditionally unequal and exclusionary version of marital partnership either. Still, where the state no longer regulates and the church is reduced to begging for the children, the options for nudging toward stability seem sort of scarce.

According to "Nudge," 50 percent of marriages may end in divorce. Once upon a time, the state, and before that the Christian Church, made sure people stayed married, with laws making divorce impossible, difficult or just darned expensive. But as "Nudge" points out, those days are long past. With the state no longer interested in whether people stay married, people are divorcing right and left. What is to be done?

In his book, Sunstein suggests the state should care even less. Marriages, he proposes, are not so different from the partnership arrangement he has with his coauthor. As such, the state should get out of the marriage business altogether; all official benefits and burdens should be separated from marriage, and people should just enter into private contracts, like the coauthors' contract about their book, which the couple can then call "marriage" if they want. Parish priest? Fine, if the couple meet the church's requirements; according to Sunstein's formula they can even marry in the eyes of their scuba club. But it seems there's something in all of us that craves the tradition of a wedding -- lace, roses and all.

Authorities have tried a variety of substitute pre-commitment strategies like "covenant" marriage, where the couple agree to a marriage harder to dissolve, but human nature being what it is, covenant marriage options, like prenuptial agreements, have been a flop.

What the Sunstein-Power vows reflect is that instead of accepting the substance of law and religion, couples today are making a wedding story. They dress up in clothing they will never wear again, spend a lot of money on scenery and go places.

Anyway, there is a a wonderful Jewish parable that illustrates how traditional marriages turned into destination weddings. "The great rabbi Baal Shem-Tov loved his people. Whenever he sensed they were in danger, he would go to a secret place in the woods, light a special fire, and say a special prayer. Then, without fail, his people would be saved from danger. Baal Shem-Tov passed on and a disciple came to lead the people. Whenever he sensed his people were in danger, he would go to the secret place in the woods. 'Dear God,' he would say, 'I don't know how to light the special fire, but I know the special prayer. Please let that be good enough.' The people would once again be saved from danger. In time, he was succeeded by another rabbi and whenever the third rabbi heard that his people were in danger, he would go to the secret place in the woods. 'Dear God,' he would say, 'I don't know how to make the special fire, I don't know how to say the special prayer, but I know this secret place in the woods. Please let that be good enough.' It was. When he passed, he was succeeded by a rabbi who would not even get out of his armchair. He could only bow his head and shrug his shoulders. 'Dear God,' he would pray, 'I don't know how to make the special fire. I don't know how to say the special prayer. I don't even know the secret place in the woods. All I know is the story, and I'm hoping that's good enough.'"

In a consumer age, the potlatch wedding takes on the role of church and state and tradition in a prior age. Having done away with the sacrament, the covenant or the consequences, all we know anymore is the story, and we're hoping it's good enough.

By Linda Hirshman

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