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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Monday
May062013

Shabbat Shalom, Pope Francis

I am not exactly sure why my latest New York Times Beliefs column, about Pope Francis’s take on the day of rest, has gotten me more mail than just about anything else I have written, but the emails keep coming in. People love reading about, then writing to me about, the Sabbath. Here’s the column.

Monday
Apr012013

Yes, pre-nups are pernicious. So are separate bank accounts.

Over at the Dish, they are discussing whether prenuptial agreements are pernicious. The answer is that of course they are, and if you don't have 100% certainty that you and your spouse would never try to screw each other over money, then don't get married. I can imagine things going wrong in my marriage — not many things, but hey, for the sake of argument — but I cannot imagine my wife and I ever getting hung up, in a divorce settlement, over money. Because she doesn't care that much about money, and neither do I. If one of us cared a lot more than the other, we'd probably be a much worse fit.

(I realize that two people who both care a LOT about money may be a good fit, but by the same token especially need a prenup, since if they ever split, money is precisely what they would fight over. To them, I can only say that I wish them only the worst, and I am not here to solve the kinds of problems they are likely to have.)

But what I am really here to talk about is the connection this bears to the great separate-bank-accounts issue, debated hotly over at Slate a couple years back. See here for an entrée to that discussion, which — lo! — is now available as an ebook for your Kindle or other hand-held word-absorption device (HHWAD, pronounced hwad). Really, they are about the same question: Can a couple make similar views of money one of those issues, like sexual compatibility or religious compatibility, that preceds their union, that is resolved from the start — perhaps with some hard work — so that they can proceed to work on the other issues that will confront them as they travel life’s unpaved, thwomply road? If you see your money as belonging to both of you, and you have similar values about how to spend it, you'll be able to save your fights for the important stuff. Like whose sofa to keep and whose to throw out.

Sunday
Mar312013

You can’t talk traditional marriage without shaming divorcé Reagan.

Ross Douthat’s opinion column in the Times this morning gets certain things right, things that the marriage-equality forces (I am in those forces) would do well to admit. But he gets certain much bigger things wrong, and I hope he’ll admit that, too. Let me explain what I mean.

Douthat wants to make the point that “[a]s the cause of gay marriage has pressed forward, the social link between marriage and childbearing has indeed weakened faster than before”—and while correlation does not imply causation, it is naïve, Douthat says, to deny that allowing marriage between non-procreative couples hasn’t had something to do with these trends:

[T]he 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.

This is a tough argument for conservatives, that allowing gay people to marry affects straight norms in any way. Liberals usually rush to point out that all sorts of non-procreative straights have always been allowed to marry: infertile couples, elderly couples, people who just don’t want to have children, etc. What’s more, the divorcing, bastard-child-having straights’ revolt against marriage norms predates by at least 30 years any serious discussion of letting gay men and lesbians marry. It’s not hard to see why marriage-equality people find the Douthat position laughable.

But I don’t. Consider this: everything has some effect. Nothing is neutral. Allowing the LGBTQ community full marriage rights, which I support, definitely has some affect on how straight people view marriage. There’s no reason not to admit that this latest move is part of a shift toward seeing marriage as a lifestyle option for grown-ups, rather than as an expected norm for straight people who are expected to stay in that marriage and raise children in that marriage — let's call that the 1950 norm, just as shorthand. That norm is dead, the casualty of the Pill, or more lax divorce laws, and of different kinds of families becoming socially acceptable — including families headed by same-sex couples.

It could be the case—I hope it is—that we can rebuild the old, low-divorce, pro-child norms, but this time include same-sex couples in those norms. But meanwhile, it’s not unreasonable for people who cherish 1950 Marriage to see every liberalization of marriage laws as some attack on the legal and social regime they cherish: one in which it was harder to get an abortion, in which accidental pregnancies more often led to weddings, in which divorce was harder to get, and in which more marriages led to children, and to more children. If what you want is 1950 Society, then allowsing same-sex marriage does get you farther from your ideal, perhaps in all sorts of ways. It is a legal change you’ll want to undo, and it reduces in yet another way the potency of shame as a social weapon: once upon a time, we could shame people for having out-of-wedlock children, for divorcing, and for being gay. One by one, we’re losing the ability to shame them for any of those things. They aren’t all equivalent things: I think there should be some shame having children you can’t really raise, which is the case with some single parents, especially very young ones; I don’t think it’s at all shameful to be gay. But if what you want is a more potent weapon in shaming, to help get you back to 1950 Marriage, then same-sex marriage will hurt your cause. 

OK, fair enough. Maybe same-sex marriage is, as they like to say, “the last straw” in this sexual revolution. But rights for the most marginalized people will always be the last straw in social revolutions. The marginal people will always get everything last. If you’re honest and ethical, you have to go after the elites who started the revolution, not the marginalized who later said, “Me too! Please, me too!” And you can’t just pay it lip service, like, “Oh, straight people are culpable, too, since they began divorcing at higher rates in the 1970s...”—you have to actually try to shame straight divorcés more than you are trying to shame gay people for wanting to marry, because the straights started it. If you aren’t horrified by Rush Limbaugh being married four times—if you didn’t see Ronald Reagan as a less fit leader because of his divorce—then you simply have to shut the hell up about gay people marrying. You can’t ethically go after the marginalized people who try to eat the fruits of a revolution. You have to go after the revolutionaries.

So here’s my question to Douthat, Maggie Gallagher, Ross Douthat Brian Brown, the world of conservative evaneglical preachers, and others who are so concerned about same-sex marriage: What does it do your perception of Ronald Reagan that he was a divorcé—and in being the first divorced president certainly helped remove any last shreds of stigma? Would you have voted against him for that reason—as many would have in 1952? Would you discourage people from listening to radio hosts who have divorces in their past (Limbaugh, Dennis Prager), or voting for divorcés like John McCain? If our goal is to work our way back to 1950 Marriage, how are we going to re-stigmatize divorce for wealthy white people? How are we going to make their divorces seem unseemly? In 1950, when a divorced woman moved into the neighborhood, people whispered about her. Are we prepared to whisper again? Are we prepared to tell our own children, someday, to stay in unhappy marriages to avoid the stigma of divorce? If your daughter gets knocked up by some really unsavory guy with no job, are you prepared to tell her to marry the slug?

If you come up with that program for me, and seem serious about it, then we can talk about the gays’ role in reestablishing 1950 Marriage.

My general sense is that conservatives aren’t fighting this fight today because it’s too far lost. They believe there’s no re-stigmatizing divorce. But I think—truly—they are giving up too easily. If it were the goal of the traditionalists at First Things and National Review and The American Conservative to help us re-think the Reagan presidency on the grounds that he helped normalize divorce, and thus helped usher in all that is terrible about libertine USA ca. 2013, they could. The Bradley Foundation could help, so could Templeton. So could Fox News. It would have to be a talking point, they’d have to push it consistently, Regnery would have to publish books about it divorced Republicans and the harm they have caused the country. But they’re good at those things.

Who’s in?

Tuesday
Mar262013

How public schools drive us away...

I am on hold right now, as I type, with the office of the New Haven schools superintendent. The receptionist sounds annoyed with me, because I have asked her to track down Debbie Sumpter-Breland, the head of magnet schools for the city (my daughter attends one; another daughter of mine is accepted to one for the fall). The NHPS website gives a number that rings through to the main voice mail switchboard, not to any particular mailbox; when I enter the mailbox I wish to access, I get a message saying “there is no such number in the system”—even though I entered a number listed on NHPS.net! When I sent an email using the usual rubric for our municipal employees, it bounced back. The super’s receptionist had asked me, when I called the first time, “Why don’t you just come down here to speak with her?” I told her that I wasn’t averse to that, but would love to have an appointment first, so I didn’t waste my time.

Here is where I add that my daughter loves her school and her first-grade teacher. It’s her dad who is so often made to get the shaft—like last week, when news of the magnet lottery wasn’t e-mailed on the day it was promised, leaving thousands of families wondering whether their kids had been accepted to the schools of their choice.

OK—the super’s receptionist just came back on the line, and gave me an e-mail for Debbie Sumpter-Breland (one she apparently had to run through the building to get; she couldn’t type it into Outlook and find out, even though they work together in the same building and for the same office). She was nice enough about it — but when I asked if there was also a working phone number, she said, “I don’t think they’re getting calls through as well as in the past. It’s a busy time.”

Which makes no sense at all, but whatever. I am going to go try the email address, which is brelandd@new-haven.k12.ct.us ...

...OK, two minutes later, that email has not bounced back...

 

Thursday
Mar072013

How to get paid more – ask for Sam Lipsyte’s rate.

Seeing Dan Kois’s (of Slate) wonderfully frank discussion of how he decides what to pay freelancers, in which he says that one factor in how much he pays is “whether the writer has friends [Kois has] also assigned pieces to who might tell how much [Kois has] paid them” makes me want to share with you my favorite story of negotiating my own freelance rate:

A little while back, I was contributing a piece to a publication that I was thrilled to be writing for: high prestige, high visibility, great roster of fellow contributors. I was honored to be asked. And when the editor mentioned my fee, I was initially eager to say yes. But something told me to hold back (for once—I am usually a very poor negotiator). I thought about who else was contributing, what demands they or their agents might have made, the fact that there’s probably always wiggle room ... and I typed this into an e-mail: “I'll do it for whatever you pay Sam Lipsyte.”

And the editor wrote back promptly to say that sure, yes, that was fine—and he doubled his offer.

The Lipsyte choice, you should know, was not entirely arbitrary on my part. He’s not a superstar in the Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell sense; it would be arrogant for me to think I can demand what such best-selling authors, true celebrities, can demand. But he is high-prestige, a writer’s writer, the kind of person who adds luster to a table of contents (he also happens to be very good; I’m really enjoying his new book of short stories). He’s not the kind of writer a New York editor would want to lowball. What’s more, he has a full-time job teaching at Columbia, and probably is plenty busy, so he wouldn’t say yes to a trivial fee. I figured he commanded more than editors were offering me—but not stratospherically more. As it turned out, I was right.

By the way, although I don’t advertise to the whole world what I make, I always tell friends and close colleagues, if they ask, what a given editor has paid me. I see it as a basic courtesy and act of solidarity among fellow free lances. (I have withheld figures in the anecdote above so as not to out Sam Lipsyte’s rate. Let’s say he or I could take a couple friends to Per Se on what we made, and order wine with dinner.)

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