Bristol Palin (and Many “Save Marriage” Advocates) Need a Lesson in Cultural History

Not long after President Obama made a somewhat tepid acknowledgement that gay citizens should be able to get married, Bristol Palin decided to throw her own two cents into the arena.

She did so with a patronizing lecture on parenting,

“While it’s great to listen to your kids’ ideas, there’s also a time when dads simply need to be dads. In this case, it would’ve been helpful for him to explain to Malia and Sasha that while her friends parents are no doubt lovely people, that’s not a reason to change thousands of years of thinking about marriage. Or that – as great as her friends may be – we know that in general kids do better growing up in a mother/father home. Ideally, fathers help shape their kids’ worldview.”

Perhaps it’s just me, a student of contemporary and ancient cultural anthropology, but the ritual and social recognition of human marriage are a complex trend and not at all as static or simple as “thousands of years of thinking about marriage” might implicate.

In fact, across those thousands of years of thinking about marriage monogamy is only one solvent for tribal and clan affiliation; it sits side-by-side with polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and numerous other rites and contracts for matrimonial relationships. Perhaps Palin should be aware that arranged marriages still persist today in some cultures where children can be assigned to a potential mate even before the day they’re born. Maybe she’s thinking of the ancient Israelites and other cultures where a male could be married to multiple female slaves—or that marriages in other cultures also included not just a male and a female, but sometimes both partners also maintained harems of concubines, none of this was considered extramarital.

That’s only the scrim of the history of the subject.

Perhaps in those thousands of years of thinking about marriage we can look to the way that North Carolina used to think about marriage in racist terms, in 1875 they altered their state charter to include a law that prohibited blacks from marrying whites. North Carolina is in the news because of an ideologically driven amendment to their constitution that leaves strange wreckage of domestic partnership laws in order to deprive gays of any chance of being married in the state—an amendment that rings very similar to the miscegenation amendment of 1875.

After all, Palin, you know that you’re speaking to a dad—a dad of color—he might as well let his daughters know that states like North Carolina have a long, ghastly history of bigotry and prejudice against people of color. Just like they’ve voted to make certain gays are constitutionally deprived of their 14th amendment rights, NC previously deprived blacks of those same rights—that to marry whom they wished.

To the “thousands of years of thinking about marriage” there’s a lot of history for this sort of behavior, after all bringing an outsider into the intimate bounds of the tribe or clan is unacceptable. If we looked at this obviously racist view of marriage in North Carolina in the same way that Palin does the world of today we would still have to live with that black mark.

Advice from Palin on this matter has been ignorant, patronizing, and overprivileged—and it resounds with the enduring reek of insensitive chauvinism.

Those thousands of years of thinking about marriage are still ongoing and hopefully with a greater modicum of wisdom than the 61% of North Carolina who voted on Amendment One and people like Bristol Palin. People who cannot bring themselves to be compassionate about why people marry and why depriving them of that right makes them second class citizens.