Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Home Front, Catholic Herald 1 July 2005

As the teenagers in my life get older, it occurs to me that society is extraordinarily prejudiced against provisional licence holders. Why on earth should they have to drive with a full licence holder sitting next to them, for example? How uncool is that?
And what pernickety old fuddy-duddy laid down the arbitrary rule which insists that the qualified driver accompanying the provisional licence holder must be 21 or over? Isn’t this condemning a person, against their will, to actually-like-y’know talk to some sad crumbly, innit?
As for car insurance! The unfair animus against drivers who happen, through absolutely no fault of their own, to have only turned 17 last week, continues to be a major human rights atrocity on the otherwise well-adjusted landscape of loss adjustment.
This glaring prejudice can continue through a person‘s whole life. I mean, just because a person hasn’t got round to passing their driving test by the time they are 45 doesn’t mean they are necessarily a bad driver, does it? They might just be too busy to book a test. Those crypto-fascist dictators in Swansea, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, are just ripe for a swift dose of statue-toppling if you ask me.
And why not? The Government is now planning to change the law substantially to wipe out any “disadvantages” which remain for couples who live together without being married. The disadvantages include not being able to inherit a share of the partner’s pension, not having full parental rights, no claim to financial support; these are all considered to be out of line with “society’s attitudes”. Society says: why discriminate against a couple just because they never like, y’know, found a free Saturday afternoon to get married?
It is usual to blame the feminist movement for the attacks on marriage; I now read of one of the movement’s leading lights in America having a massive change of heart. Stephanie Coontz, as the founder of the Council on Contemporary families, has spent years trying to push the traditional family out to the side of the picture. But in her latest book, the scholarly Marriage: A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Ms Coontz looks at the past 3,000 years and concludes that marriage is the most powerful way of “building a village” - in other words, of creating a society where people work for each other as much as for themselves.
There may be other ways, she argues, to organise child-rearing, care for the elderly and passing on property: but marriage “is the only way to get in-laws”. The creating of new ties of kinship, she points out, is something marriage does which other social rule systems do not do.
I do not know of a dedicated, longitudinal study of modern Western cohabiting couples which looks at whether they entail strong bonds with networks of in-laws; but the fact that Ms Coontz, who has spent years enthusiastically promoting non-traditional families, now, in 2005, declares that the creation of such bonds is a special virtue of marriage, seems fairly strong evidence to start from.
And, surprisingly for an American feminist, Ms Coontz gives the Catholic Church a little pat on the back for transforming marriage from a materialistic joining-together of property into something more personal. The Church’s doctrine of consent supported the idea of a voluntary bond between two people, not just between two families. And though the consent of young folk was often seen as an expendable luxury at the top of the social scale, by the 15th century the idea of marriage as monogamous and voluntary on both sides was firmly established.
Thanks to the evolution of the ideal of marriage, however, the marriage debate now tends to be so focussed on the couple, that we forget that network of in-laws stretching out into the distance. As Coontz avers, marriage is not a personal pastime: it builds the fabric of our survival.
We do not allow provisional driving licence holders the same privileges as fully qualified drivers, because we can see that lives are at stake. I wonder how long it is going to take for us to re-discover the fact that marriage, too, is an important safeguard for other road users?
ends

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