Shacking up

A recent blog from Nextavenue reminded me of a topic I’ve had in the back of my mind: cohabiting without legally being married, a/k/a “shacking up.” The blog dealt specifically with older Americans, and that is my focus as well. But my focus is narrower still: morally conservative people shacking up.

No, I’m not crazy. We’re in a Brave New World.

I’m aware that marriage and sexuality have become a kind of “third rail.” 30 years or so ago I scandalized some of my friends by not disapproving of “common-law marriage.” To their ears, “common-law marriage” meant “shacking up.” For me, as a lawyer, it meant a real marriage, albeit created without the formalities of ceremony or clergy by publicly declaring each other man and wife. Common-law marriage is not recognized in all states, but where it is recognized, I see nothing deeply immoral about it. Maybe it’s a little bit tacky to deny your friends the pleasure of attending a wedding, but your mileage – and budget – may vary.

Now the Supreme Court has given us another third rail: the Obergefell decision, which pretends that a right to same-sex marriage is embedded in the Constitution. That is the new legal status quo, with or without my approval.

In justification of Obergefell, much of America had begun treating marriage as little or nothing more than a package of financial benefits for sexual intimates. Why our governments should extend financial benefits to sexual intimates is one of the questions that led me circuitously to a conclusion adverse to same-sex marriage. But that horse has now fled the barn.

When I speak of people treating marriage as a package of financial benefits for sexual intimacy, I’m referring to such phenomena as aging widows and widowers getting together, perhaps with a religious blessing but without a marriage license, in order to preserve relatively high Social Security benefits, or to protect against the prospect of one spouse losing his or her life savings should the other spouse require Medicaid benefits (no such consequence attaches to assets of unmarried cohabitants). Other couples get married for Medicaid reasons; either alternative can make sense in different circumstances. For some, “married filing jointly” carried a “marriage penalty” tax as compared to filing separately. Some couples were tempted, and some of those presumably succumbed, by not marrying or by divorcing but continuing cohabitation. UPDATE: I just realized that this paragraph reeks of not marrying as the path to government benefits. The core point remains, though: When “to marry or not to marry?” is the question, financial benefits are on the table.

In the eyes of many people in my circles, the United States Supreme Court has not expanded marriage or created “marriage equality,” but, er, redefined marriage, a usurpation of well-nigh blasphemous proportions since government didn’t create it, but merely recognized God’s Institution. It requires no stretch of the imagination to say that government marriage and Christian marriage, by judicial fiat, are now clearly separate things. (Here, too.) And with that being the reality, it requires only a slightly greater stretch of the imagination to ask whether Christian people (my most familiar proxy for “morally conservative people”) are obliged to avail themselves of state-issued “marriage” licenses, particularly when they view the state’s new institution as a sham and a mockery.

In the wake of Obergefell, some people proposed that churches get entirely out of the business of solemnizing the state institution, and even developed a pledge. Others said “bad idea, and here’s why.”

I’ve long (maybe always) felt that I need professionally to take a holistic approach to issues like this. I need to tell clients, especially post-Obergefell, that maybe something unthinkable from 10 years ago (living together not legally married) is now worth a thought because the Supreme Court changed the meaning of civil government marriage.

If you want to think the formerly unthinkable:

  1. Do you have a faith tradition?
  2. Would it have an opinion on shacking up?
  3. Do you care about that opinion?
  4. Would your clergyman consider blessing your relationship without a marriage license if that’s advantageous for you?

Don’t think that avoiding the license will eliminate all conflict, though. The government may haunt you anyway, or hold your mind in fetters.

I know of a man, a very intense ideologue, who persuaded a woman that they didn’t need a marriage license. They went through some sort of religious hocus-pocus and then acted as man and wife in a state that doesn’t recognize common-law marriage. When the marriage whatever-it-was foundered, off they went off to divorce court, spending much time and money in adversarial proceedings, each asking the government to dissolve — each in their different preferred manner — a relationship over which, a few years earlier, both had said by decisive action that the state had no authority whatever. Their sham came to light, and then it really got ugly.

I’m sure God felt duly honored and glorified by the spectacle of Mr. & Mrs. Ideologue, the so-pure-in-doctrine-that-we-won’t-sully-our-marriage-with-a-statist-license, so spilling each other’s blood on the courtroom floor. Eeeeewww! Consider “what could possibly go wrong.”

One option I could never recommend, though, is divorce of the already-married morally conservative person, because even No Fault Divorce requires alleging under oath that the marriage is irretrievably broken. Unless you can come up with a helluva good argument that “being married will cost us non-trivial amounts of money” translates into “this marriage is irretrievably broken,” I could not recommend and would have nothing to do with a divorce on these financial grounds.

You may now give me hell. I probably deserve it for drawing out discomfiting consequences about “marriage” as demolished, and shabbily rebuilt, by SCOTUS.

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

I blame Trump

In a kinder, gentler age, C.S. Lewis pointed out that sex was unlike other appetites.

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

He continues:

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?

But that was then. This is now.

I got home from Vespers tonight to find, as if our wont, my better half tuned into the Food Channel as she cooked. But the show finishing up was  new to us, Ginormous Food, which concluded with a donut roughly 24″ in diameter and 6″ tall, followed by another new one, Incredible Edible America with the Dunhams, which started with a $777 Las Vegas burger, which was definitely large, but really “justified” the cost by tricks like including paté from the livers of vestal virgins (or something like that).

I didn’t know whether to laugh at the happenstance, or marvel at the cheek of the music editor, when the $777 burger was introduced with the unmistakeable strains of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem.


The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

How great will be the terror,
when the Judge comes
who will smash everything completely!

The trumpet, scattering a marvelous sound
through the tombs of every land,
will gather all before the throne.

Death and Nature shall stand amazed,
when all Creation rises again
to answer to the Judge.

Mezzo-soprano and Chorus: 
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.

Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed:
nothing shall remain unavenged.

The day of wrath, that day will
dissolve the world in ashes,
as David and the Sibyl prophesied.

Soprano, Mezzo-soprano and Tenor: 
What can a wretch like me say?
Whom shall I ask to intercede for me,
when even the just ones are unsafe?

Food porn: the latest wretched excess from a culture where wretched excess personified now sits in the oval office.

I think I need to go shower now. There’s sure not much to watch on TV anyway.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Hate update

Aided by a veneer of objectivity, the SPLC has for years served as the media’s expert witness for evaluating “extremism” and “hatred.” But while the SPLC rightly condemns groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Westboro Baptist Church and New Black Panther Party, it has managed to blur the lines, besmirching mainstream groups like the [Family Research Council], as well as people such as social scientist Charles Murray and Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islamic extremism.

How did the SPLC become the default journalistic resource on purported hate speech, racism and extremism? Morris Dees, still the SPLC’s chief trial attorney, founded the organization in 1971 along with Joseph Levin Jr. , now an emeritus board member. In its early years, the SPLC made a name for itself by winning some high-profile cases against the KKK and other white-supremacist groups. But over time its mission changed. In recent years it has focused on “tolerance education,” hate-group tracking (including an online “hate map”) and fundraising.

Although the SPLC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and therefore statutorily prohibited from engaging in partisan politics, even a cursory review of its website belies its nonpartisan status. During the 2016 election, the SPLC posted “Margins to the Mainstream: Extremists Have Influenced the GOP 2016 Policy Platform” and “Here Are the Extremist Groups Planning to Attend the RNC in Cleveland.” The Democratic platform and convention received no such scrutiny.

(Jeryl Bier, Wall Street Journal)

I’ve noted this for years. When my state bar association invited and lionized Morris Dees, I stayed away because of SPLC’s having morphed via mission creep into a leftist racket that itself foments hate:

Last August SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok tied Donald Trump to David Duke, whom Mr. Trump had denounced. “Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see the denunciations [of Mr. Duke] are not sincere,” Mr. Potok told the Huffington Post. “The sad reality is that David Duke and Donald Trump are appealing to precisely the same constituency.” Not quite. Mr. Trump took 58% of the vote in Louisiana. Mr. Duke, running for U.S. Senate on the same ballot, managed only 3%.

The SPLC’s work arguably contributes to the climate of hate it abhors—and Middlebury isn’t the worst example. In 2012 Floyd Lee Corkins shot and wounded a security guard at the Family Research Council’s headquarters. Mr. Corkins, who pleaded guilty to domestic terrorism, told investigators he had targeted the group after learning of it from the SPLC’s website. The SPLC responded to the shooting with a statement: “We condemn all acts of violence.”

Last week the SPLC found itself in the awkward position of disavowing the man who opened fire on Republican members of Congress during baseball practice. “We’re aware that the SPLC was among hundreds of groups that the man identified as the shooter ‘liked’ on Facebook,” SPLC president Richard Cohen said in a statement. “I want to be as clear as I can possibly be: The SPLC condemns all forms of violence.”

Legally, free speech remains on firm footing, but reckless deployment of the “Hate” bomb against innocent civilians threatens that:

It’s been a very good millennium for the First Amendment.

The modern [U.S. Supreme] Court has repeatedly and forcefully rejected attempts to narrow free speech based on new social norms or theories. [Examples omitted]

In short, the First Amendment is enjoying extremely strong support from the Supreme Court — arguably stronger and more consistent than any other constitutional right, and arguably as strong as the Court has ever been in favor of free speech. It’s a golden age.

So why are so many people so pessimistic?

On the cultural side, we’re mostly hearing stories of woe about free speech. Folks — and here I explicitly include myself — are emphasizing stories about intolerance, heckler’s vetoes, censorship, and academic hostility to different viewpoints …

But there’s substance, too. However clearly the Supreme Court recognizes free speech rights, they’re no good if the government refuses to acknowledge them, as universities have effectively done by refusing to protect unpopular views from violence or hecker’s vetoes. Justice Kennedy isn’t there to tell Dakota McScreamyface to stop hitting me with a bike lock if I engage in crimespeak. As Judge Learned Hand said in his “Spirit of Liberty” speech more than 70 years ago:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

The Supreme Court is upholding the black letter of liberty, but are Americans upholding its spirit? When college students, encouraged by professors and administrators, believe that they have a right to be free of offense, no. When Americans hunger to “open up” libel laws or jail flag burners, no. When our attitude towards the hecker’s veto becomes “let’s do it to them because they did it to us,” no. Not only is speech practically impaired, but in the long term the cultural norms necessary to sustain good Supreme Court precedent are eroded.

(Ken White at the Popehat blog) I’d love to see Morris Dees and Ken White in debate over the latter’s toxic Hate List. Meanwhile, the Media should stop relying on its tendentious list and try resuming the actual practive of journalism, an endeavor that I know isn’t easy or very profitable in our chaotic digital age.

* * * * *

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Escape from ennui

[A]s James Baldwin put it, Americans were “afflicted by the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life.”

(Pankaj Mishra, America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism) That quote was new to me, though the thought was not. My “standing advice” at the end of each blog episode includes these:

The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness. Lord Jonathon Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain.

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to. W.H. Auden, 1966.

Then I also read this today:

While the news waves groan with stories about “America’s Opioid Epidemic” you may discern that there is little effort to actually understand what’s behind it, namely, the fact that life in the United States has become unspeakably depressing, empty, and purposeless for a large class of citizens.

… None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

(James Howard Kunstler)

But one of the odd blogs I find irresistible is Granola Shotgun. “Johnny” populates his blog with loads of photos and sparse commentary. Most recent:

At the end of my first year at university I was approached by an engineering student who asked if he could be my room mate next year. We didn’t know each other particularly well and didn’t have much in common, but he seemed harmless enough. I shrugged. Sure. We went our separate ways over the summer and in September he appeared at my door. After a few months of successfully sharing accommodations I asked him why he came to me when most guys in his situation would have gone in a very different direction. He explained.

The average college freshman tends to have an adolescent understanding of what a good independent life might be like. Young men are motivated by peculiar impulses and the siren song of the frat house calls. Beer. Parties. Girls. Sports cars. The prestige of hanging out with rich kids, athletes, and really popular older guys. He said that was usually a big mistake. The furniture is made of plastic milk crates. The place smells like a locker room. People eat ramen and cold day old pizza out of the box. They wear flip flops in the shower because no one has ever cleaned the bathroom. Ever. And when you bring a girl home there are a dozen bigger richer guys with fancier cars than you hovering around. You sit there trying to get your romance on with posters of naked women taped to the walls next to a collection of empty bottles. And you pay extra for all this… It’s just not a great situation.

Then he made a sweeping motion with his hand indicating our apartment. A pleasing mixture of antiques and modern pieces. Smells like lemons. When he brings a girl home I’m in the kitchen cooking brisket and home made bread. Soft lighting. Ella Fitzgerald is playing in the background. No competition. And it’s cheaper. For him, doing the unorthodox and socially uncomfortable thing was just… rational. [Yup. That sounds like an engineer’s approach to the world. Tipsy]

Back to Springfield. Steve [and Liz Shultis] took a version of the same strategy. He and his family live in a gracious four story French Second Empire mansion. The place is huge and everywhere you look there’s a level of detail and quality you can’t find in any home built today. There’s a legal apartment on the lower level that they use as a guest suite.  I looked up the address on a real estate listing site and he paid less for this house than many people spend on their cars. His family has a quality of life and a degree of financial freedom that none of his suburban piers (sic) can comprehend.

Most people load themselves up with massive amounts of debt in order to live the way they believe they’re supposed to. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in a substandard urban school with the wrong element. You wouldn’t want to buy a house that never appreciated in value. You wouldn’t want to have to explain to your friends, family, and co-workers that you live in a slum with poor black people and Puerto Ricans. And where do you park?! It’s so much “better” to soak yourself in debt to buy your way in to the thing you believe you can’t live without.

Pretty dry without the pictures, I’ll admit. But go check the original, The Springfield Strategy. That four story French Second Empire mansion is pretty amazing. Sample:

From their own blog, it appears that Steve & Liz (perhaps Steve and his ex) actually did raise children, now adults, in that urban environment, though the children are not visible or mentioned in Johnny’s story.

I don’t want to romanticize, let alone make a panacea of, a good, walkable and sociable living environment, but it appears (scroll on down the long page) that the urban dwellers of Springfield, Massachusetts may have escaped some aspects of the “bewilderingly empty way of life.”

* * * * *

Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.