Thinking About Fred and Ginger

The glamour was all faked. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers didn’t really fly down to Rio, and it wasn’t a lovely day to get caught in the rain in London. All that happened on the soundstages at the old RKO Pictures studios down on Melrose, at Gower, now part of the giant Paramount Pictures complex – although the giant RKO concrete globe is still there, without the radio tower on top. That whole business was just that, a business – a bunch of theater chains and Joseph P. Kennedy’s film booking offices were slapped together in 1928 under the control of RCA, to create a market for RCA’s new sound-on-film technology. The father of the future president made a fortune from that merger and the new studio started to crank out those stylish musicals starring Fred and Ginger. Those movies made the Great Depression easier to take. They were fun, but times change and in 1948 Howard Hughes bought RKO – he needed a hobby or something – but he finally sold RKO to the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955, and two years later it was all over. Paramount picked up the building and soundstages on the cheap. There wasn’t much glamour in any of it. It was just business.

No one thinks of it that way. Americans are suckers for glamour – and love lost and heartbreak and love regained, with Cole Porter tunes and elegant dancing, with everyone living happily ever after. There’s a reason they call Hollywood the Dream Factory. People just forget the factory part, although the dream part is a bit ambiguous too. One of those RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals was The Gay Divorcee (1934) – not exactly a ringing endorsement of love and marriage and fidelity. Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) arrives in England to seek a divorce from her husband and consults a goofy lawyer who arranges for her to spend a night at a seaside hotel and to be caught in what looks like an adulterous relationship with a slick Italian dude hired for the purpose. It’s pretty nasty, but then she mistakes Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) for the guy she’s supposed to be caught with – but that’s okay. An unwitting waiter reveals that her husband himself is an adulterer, clearing the way for Mimi to get a divorce and marry Guy, which is fine because the two were really hot for each other all along. It’s a comedy. The Hays Office told RKO to the change the name from “Gay Divorce” – the name of the stage musical this was based on – to “The Gay Divorcee” – as a divorcee could be gay, which used to mean lighthearted, but divorce is a terrible thing. Maybe that helped, but the film’s title wasn’t the problem. The film suggested one shouldn’t take marriage all that seriously. It’s just a transaction that can be adjusted, or abandoned, as things do come up. Life’s like that, and the movie was a big hit. A few Cole Porter songs can fix anything.

Americans are realists about such things. For all the talk of the sanctity of marriage at least half of all marriages end in divorce. Things come up, even without music and dancing, and Katharine Hepburn, who got her start at RKO, put it this way – “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” She might have been onto something there. It’s rare to find two people who really suit each other, willing to be supportive and faithful no matter what, sharing a long life together. That’s actually rather impressive.

That actually should be supported, unless they’re two gay people, or so the social conservatives tell us. They made their arguments to the Supreme Court – arguing that California’s Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, shouldn’t have been declared unconstitutional, and that the Defense of Marriage Act, denying federal benefits to legally married gay couples, in the states where gay marriage is allowed, should be allowed to stand. In June we’ll all find out what the nine justices think about that, but until then there will be endless talk about gay marriage, even if the polling shows that the majority of Americans are fine with it. They see marriage as a transaction that can be adjusted, in this case to accommodate two people who really are suited to each other, who will form a stable family, even if not a traditional one. Such things should be encouraged.

Republicans, with their critical base of social conservatives, are struggling with this:

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) said Sunday it was “inevitable” a GOP presidential candidate will one day support same-sex marriage, and that he would have no problem backing that candidate.

“I think that’s inevitable,” Flake said on NBC’s Meet the Press, when asked if the Republican Party would ever see such a candidate. “There will be one and I think he’ll receive Republican support, or she will. So I think yes, the answer is yes.”

Still, Flake said his personal views on the issue would not change during his time in the Senate.

He knows which way the wind is blowing, but he’ll wait until it blows him over, which he doesn’t think will be soon. Inevitable isn’t now.

He knows his constituents, but on the other hand there’s this:

Republican strategist Ed Gillespie said Sunday he “wouldn’t have any problem” with a Republican Party platform in 2016 that calls for traditional marriage.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” the former senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign said, “I don’t ever think you’d ever see the Republican Party platform say ‘we’re in favor’ of same-sex marriage.”

Gillespie says it’s a state issue, and if this state or that wants to make what’s so very wrong legal, that’s not the national party’s problem – the national party can stand firm against gay marriage forever.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has a different take:

Well, the first thing I’d say to them is, “I love you, too. And God loves you. And you are made in God’s image and likeness. And – and we – we want your happiness. But – and you’re entitled to friendship.” But we also know that God has told us that the way to happiness, that – especially when it comes to sexual love – that is intended only for a man and woman in marriage, where children can come about naturally. We gotta be – we gotta do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people. And I admit, we haven’t been too good at that.

The Catholic Church knows just who’s entitled to just what of course – but after their problems with altar boys this is laughable. A good number of priests should have stuck to friendship, like in the old Hollywood movies where every Catholic priest was Irish and kindly and a fine fellow, and often a bit tipsy. Katharine Hepburn’s married lover, Spencer Tracey, specialized in such fellows – without the tipsy part.

That model won’t work for Republicans now:

The Republican official in Michigan embroiled in controversy over an anti-gay Facebook post said Friday that he won’t be heeding the calls to step down and he stands by the content of the inflammatory article.

Dave Agema, a Republican National Committeeman and former Michigan state representative, told Newschannel 3 that he has no intention of resigning, despite calls from members of his own party to do so. On Wednesday, Agema posted an article on his Facebook page in which homosexuals were described as “filthy.” The article contained “some statistics about the homosexual lifestyle,” such as: “50% of suicides can be attributed to homosexuals (10)” and “Homosexuals account for 3-4% of all gonorrhea cases, 60% of all syphilis cases, and 17% of all hospital admissions (other than for STDs) in the United States (5).”

While Agema distanced himself from the “filthy” characterization, he was quick to highlight the statistics on the gay “lifestyle and what it causes.”

There’s much more at the link. He doesn’t agree with Cardinal Dolan, but there must be a way out of this, and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat is looking for one:

In 1997, two prominent conservative writers, David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, debated same-sex marriage for the online magazine Slate.

Frum defended what was then the consensus conservative (and consensus national) position. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, he argued, would explicitly sever the institution’s connection to the two interrelated realities, gender difference and procreation, that it had evolved to address. In so doing, it would replace a traditional view of matrimony with a broader, thinner, more adult-centric view, which would ultimately be less likely to bind parents to children, husbands to wives.

“Proponents of gay marriage can only get what they want,” Frum wrote, “by weakening Americans’ attachment to the traditional family even more than it has already been weakened,” and speeding the “process of social dissolution” that the 1960s and 1970s began.

Sullivan countered that the “process” Frum feared was simply an established fact. Heterosexuals had already severed marriage from procreation and permanence, and so there was no more reason to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses than to deny them to the infertile and elderly. Indeed, far from being radical, gay marriage was more likely to be stabilizing, “sending a message about matrimonial responsibility and mutual caring” to gays and straights alike.

Yes, heterosexuals had already severed marriage from procreation and permanence, making it adult-centric, and giving us movies like The Gay Divorcee back in 1934, even if Frum and now Douthat thinks this is a recent thing:

Half a generation later, Sullivan’s view has carried the day almost completely. The conservative argument still has serious exponents, but it’s now chuckled at in courtrooms, dismissed by intellectuals, mocked in the media and (in a sudden, recent rush) abandoned by politicians. Indeed, it has been abandoned by Frum himself, who is now energetically urging Republicans to embrace the redefinition of marriage he once warned against.

His argument is that Frum was right in the first place. There must be evidence in social science literature that gay marriage actually does harm straight people, an idea that the lawyer charged with defending California’s Proposition 8 at the Supreme Court didn’t even try to defend. That only means Douthat will give it a try:

Yet for an argument that has persuaded so few, the conservative view has actually had decent predictive power. As the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward, the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before. As the public’s shift on the issue has accelerated, so has marriage’s overall decline.

Since Frum warned that gay marriage could advance only at traditional wedlock’s expense, the marriage rate has been falling faster, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has been rising faster, and the substitution of cohabitation for marriage has markedly increased. Underlying these trends is a steady shift in values: Americans are less likely to see children as important to marriage and less likely to see marriage as important to childbearing (the generation gap on gay marriage shows up on unwed parenting as well) than even in the very recent past.

Douthat suggests the major cause of this was that we let the gays marry, but he suggests it timidly:

Correlations do not, of course, establish causation. The economy is obviously playing a leading role in the retreat from marriage – the shocks of recession, the stagnation of wages, the bleak prospects of blue-collar men.

Yes the economy is playing a part, and this is pretty simple stuff – correlation does not establish causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt. There’s no need to run statistical tests that calculate correlation between variables like the Granger causality test – or do convergent cross mapping and all that. It just feels good to embrace the logical fallacy. Cause-and-effect is always a mystery, and yes, that corner liquor store that sold that big winning lottery ticket will soon sell a whole lot more lottery tickets, even if none of those subsequent tickets are winners. It just doesn’t work that way – each unique lottery ticket, wherever it’s sold, has an absolutely equal and infinitesimally small chance of being a winner. It doesn’t matter. It’s cum hoc ergo propter hoc – “with this, therefore because of this” (the flannel shirt) – or post hoc ergo propter hoc – “after this, therefore because of this” (buying a lottery ticket at that special liquor store) – and you really can convince yourself that an event that follows another is necessarily a consequence of the first event. It’s all nonsense, but Douthat buys into the nonsense, because it makes him comfortable.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog rips into him for that:

Oh. So a massive deterioration in the value of pursuing marriage/3.2 kids/white picket fence caused by the complete betrayal of the middle class by the capitalist order could possibly have a wee bit to do with this skepticism about straight marriage among heartlanders as well?

Oh, no. Young Ross is having none of that argument. Sure, you clever sophisticates, with all your gay-married friends, can talk all you want about the complete hollowing-out of the middle class in America, but, dammit, you’re letting the gays off the hook!

That is what Douthat is saying here:

But there is also a certain willed naiveté to the idea that the advance of gay marriage is unrelated to any other marital trend. For 10 years, America’s only major public debate about marriage and family has featured one side – judges and journalists, celebrities and now finally politicians – pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.

Now that this argument seems on its way to victory, is it really plausible that it has changed how Americans view gay relationships while leaving all other ideas about matrimony untouched?

Steve M is having none of it:

Yes, Ross, it’s completely plausible. We straight people didn’t all watch a gay pride march one day and suddenly smack our foreheads and say, “Dammit, I’m going to buy some condoms and have some sex with my spouse that won’t lead to procreation! Or with a person I’m not even married to!” Many of us had actually already imagined doing those very things! Some of us actually did them!

We’ve been watching Hollywood movies about such things since the thirties, and Steve M nods to that:

The modern gay rights movement didn’t pre-date Updikean suburban adultery or Sex and the Single Girl. The movement for gay marriage didn’t pre-date the normalization of out-of-wedlock births or 1970s key parties or Plato’s Retreat as a place you might go with your wife, not to mention the commitment in many communities to the long-term incarceration of any young African-American male caught with a joint, which has helped deplete at least one segment of the pool of marriageable males in this society.

And gay marriage has nothing to do with the complete breakdown of the social contract that once made “normal” economically worth pursuing for a lot of straight people (even if it was a sexually restless sort of normal, with lots of lies “for the sake of the children”).

Steve M ends with this:

It’s a free country, so Douthat ought to be at liberty to keep trying to pin all this on the gays. But it’s a disgrace that he’s doing it the Times. What’s next – a new hire who thinks the moon landings were faked?

That’s possible. The paper does need readers, but Matthew Yglesias suggests looking at a real hypothetical:

Suppose everyone had read that [1997 gay-marriage debate] and Frum had simply triumphed. Sullivan, humiliated, abandoned his advocacy for marriage equality and gay rights groups never embraced the cause. Everyone just conceded that whatever you think of gay and lesbian people, the whole point of marriage is to – in Douthat’s words – deal with “gender difference and procreation” so same-sex couples should just worry about something else.

To understand that world, I think about what would happen if one of the restaurants in my neighborhood announced a new “no gays allowed” policy. That’d be a horrible business decision. Not just because a lot of gay people live in Logan Circle and would vanish as customers, but because approximately none of the straight people living in Logan Circle would patronage such a business either.

Now of course here in 2013 there are still lots of communities in America where a “no gays allowed” business might be viable. But there are fewer than there were in 2003 and many fewer than there were in 1983 when norms of the closet still ruled the day in the vast majority of the country. And if there was a stable and clearly unchanging consensus that marriage was a straights-only institution solely about procreation and gender difference, the steady march of public opinion on gay and lesbian equality would still have moved forward. Straight people would be uncomfortable patronizing discriminatory marriage norms, and feminist skepticism that marriage can be made compatible with a modern concept of gender equality would be greatly enhanced. Moves to provide the concrete material benefits of official coupledom in terms of health insurance, inheritance, joint property ownership, and even adoption would still continue apace and secularly minded heterosexual couples would increasingly avail themselves of these para-marriage institutions.

The point is – when the level of discriminatory attitudes in society changes, institutions either need to change to accommodate that or else suffer the consequences.

As with restaurants, so with marriage:

There are lots of married couples in Logan Circle – both gay and straight – and the available alternative world isn’t one where the gays are civilly unioned and the straight women are barefoot and pregnant; it’s one in which the kind of people who live here just don’t get married. Maybe social conservatives would prefer that. Maybe they don’t really want people like my wife and I in their married people’s club any more than they want gay or lesbian couples. But I think it’s nice for us to all be allowed in.

Brian Beutler is a bit more direct:

Even if Douthat were right on the merits, and gay marriage supporters conceded his point, I don’t think the tenor and focus of the fight would change much at all. This should go without saying, but gay marriage opponents aren’t a homogenous group of elite conservatives whose views about gay marriage stem from quasi-academic beliefs about how the government should promote procreation. There are also outright bigots and bigots who use procreation and similar arguments as stalking horses for uglier views. I’m sure it’d be nice for conservatives in Washington DC if gay marriage supporters would just pretend there are no bigots in America. But absent a Supreme Court fiat, the path to establishing gay marriage as a right everywhere in the country means contending with all of its opponents, not just the polite ones.

And Richard Einhorn gives us the Shorter Ross Douthat:

I don’t have any good reasons – and neither does anyone else – but I’m against gay marriage.

That about sums it up, and that sounds a lot like a line you might hear in that 1934 musical farce, The Gay Divorcee – something you’d hear from Mimi’s domineering and much-married aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) or that less-than-competent lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton) – the comic-relief characters who just don’t get it, or get anything. Fred and Ginger get it, and dance off into the sunset. They see marriage as a transaction that can be adjusted, to accommodate two people who really are suited to each other. It’s sophistication and style, and common sense, with the Republicans providing comic relief, even if it is too bad it’s not that funny in real life.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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