Monday 29 October 2007


The first post was too long.
This post is too short.
The next post will be just right.

Saturday 27 October 2007

I suppose you've got to start somewhere

Inevitably, if you watch people do something for long enough, you start to think. "I bet I could do that." In the past, this has led me to believe I could: chop vegetables at high speed, just like those TV chefs (no); ice-skate (really no); dance (don't ask); live in a sewer and use ninja skills to fight crime (too young to lift the manhole cover). However, just because I've been wrong before doesn't mean I'm doomed to a life of error, public humiliation and self-inflicted injury. At least, not doomed necessarily. So having being introduced to blogging via Let's Be Sensible, I'm now feeling foolhardy enough to give it a go myself. At the very least, the opportunities for self-inflicted injury are considerably reduced.

Truth be told, I've been feeling like this for a while. But two very basic concerns held me back: one is that internal voice sneering "who the hell cares what you think, no-mark?"; the other was a basic lack of material. Now, sneering internal voices should be listened to a bit - they often have a point and it's all too easy too overestimate your capabilities. (See not only above, but this pdf regarding the unwisdom of using lemon juice to render oneself invisible to CCTV). But if we listened to them all the time, how dull life would be. The second consideration took care of itself with the publication of this Guardian article on the institution of marriage; an article that in its very first paragraph demonstrates that careless regard for the possibility of error which seems increasingly to be the topic of this post:
"I suspected that, like all conservative institutions, marriage helped preserve the status quo, and thus the dominance of men - specifically middle-class white men. And as I started researching the subject for a book, I was taken aback by how accurate this notion is."
Well, aren't you the clever one? It seems a shame to have wasted time on research if it only confirmed what you already knew - sorry, "suspected". How satisfying it must be to have one's half-baked prejudices conform so neatly to reality. If I can share one of my own half-baked prejudices: any piece of work where the conclusions were clearly written in advance of the research is as worthless to the reader as it is nauseatingly gratifying to the writer.

But hey, I could be wrong, so let's have a look at this mountain of evidence. First an admission: I recently got married myself, and may therefore be somewhat biased - as, of course, I would be, given that it's preserving my dominance (stop laughing at the back). But remember, the problem isn't men:
"It is about marriage itself - a bloated, aged, outdated institution, which consistently screws women over while selling them a snake oil vision of romance."
What an active institution it is. How exactly a legal and social concept screws women over isn't made clear: either we're in a Platonic world where Marriage has an existence quite separate from that of any and all particular marriages and can interact with the physical world, or marriage is being seen as a meme - a sort of virus designed to run on human mental hardware, propagating itself via a larval stage as Cosmo Bride, and transmitted by tossed bouquets. I very much hope it's the latter case, if only because Ideals with physical reality scare the bejeezus out of me - how do you fend off an attack by White, or steel yourself against the guile of The Imminent Boiling Of A Kettle? Remember, men are not the problem. Presumably, then, it is women who are the principal agents of bloated, senescent Marriage and are thus screwing themselves over and selling each other a snake oil vision of romance. Honestly!

So, what do we know of this foul whore-mistress, Wedlock? First, a history lesson, of dubious relevance: a long time ago, women were seen as the property of men, and that was reflected in the laws regarding marriage. Go back as far as those bastions of liberal-minded equality, the Romans, and you will find rings used to claim ownership of the woman. Can the meaning of the wedding ring have changed at all in a mere 2000 years? The answer, my friends, is obvious.

The sad truth is, pretty much any institution you care to name has a disreputable history: the Monarchy, the Church, the judiciary, industrial relations, English cricket - a long time ago they were flawed, misconceived and corrupt, but that's all changed. (Insert your own punchline here, according to your own half-baked prejudices.) As things stand now, I don't own my wife, much to our joint relief, so let's talk about modern marriage:
"[...]the fact is marriage is statistically still much, much better for men than for women. [...]In fact, women are better off financially without marriage. Research by Jan Pahl at the University of Kent found that in over half of British marriages the men have more money to spend on themselves than their wives do. A recent US study also found that, while 20% of unmarried women outearned their partners by at least $5,000 (£2,450), only 15% of married women did the same. And that's not taking into account single women. It's not relationships that are the problem; it's marriage."
Ah, relevance. Hard facts and figures, which need no interpretation. We don't need to ask whether, in over half of British marriages, the couple have agreed to keep their finances separate and are happy with the arrangement. Nor do we need to ask what the effect on each partner's disposable income would be if the yoke of marriage were torn asunder. Still less should we trouble ourselves with the notion that modern women might not want to be kept by their husbands. The bare fact that married men have a higher disposable income than their wives is all we need know to understand the iniquities of modern marriage. And in the US, the difference between married and co-habiting women is a whole 5%! How else can we account for this telling discrepancy, if not some obliquely hinted at spousal embezzlement? Just where do those extra earnings go? Why, after marriage, would high-earning women reduce their salary? No, I can't think of a reason either. Or could it be that getting married in some way boosts men's earnings - making them seem more reliable, mature and rooted than their single counterparts? That's an interesting theory, which happily we don't need to explore because the evidence supports our initial suspicion.

It's not just financial issues though: marriage is bad for women's mental health. At least, failing marriages are bad for women's mental health. More so than for men. Now that genuinely is interesting. Maybe women do have more invested in marriage, either due to cultural expectations or, conceivably, genetics. (Just as studies of internet dating sites have shown that women rate men who can provide for a household, are men attracted to women who can provide a stable household? Somewhere that their scattered seed will stand a good chance of growing to a productive maturity? If so, then it's at least plausible that genes drive women to invest their emotions in building a stable family have propagated themselves widely.) But we haven't explored the converse of these statistics on failing marriage: does women's mental health benefit (more than men's, or more than their single sisters') from being in a loving, stable marriage? If so, the case for marriage is a lot more balanced than is being presented to us. But then, presenting a balanced case was never the goal, was it?