So last night North Carolina voters passed a dreadful amendment to their state constitution, declaring that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” In the wake of this I’m seeing a new upsurge of people finding it hilarious that many states ban same-sex marriage but allow cousins to marry.
It amazes me that so few liberal-minded Americans know this, but in fact anxiety over cousin marriage is a peculiarly American thing, the product of the same nineteenth-century anxieties about supposed backwoods degenerates and “corruption of our racial stock” that led to the early-twentieth-century boom in “eugenics.” First-cousin marriage is illegal in thirty states, and an outright criminal offense in five. By contrast, first-cousin marriage is legal in all of Europe save for Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, and legal as well in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, and most of Latin America. Although concerns over cousin marriage have occasionally surfaced in modern European political rhetoric—usually as a coded or not-so-coded way of stigmatizing immigrants from Muslim countries where cousin marriage is common—in law, among Western countries, the US is a complete outlier on this issue.
(Yes, citations needed. In fact I’m writing this from memory; I don’t have time to find all the links I’d like to embed, though maybe I’ll add some in the comments later.)
There are genetic risks in first-cousin marriage, but they’re fairly marginal, and can mostly be addressed by getting genetic counseling before having children. For marriages of second cousins and the like, the risks are nearly imperceptible. In fact, if the consequences of first-cousin marriage were as calamitous as many Americans seem to think, the human race would have died out tens of thousands of years ago. For most of history, most humans have lived in small communities and not traveled very far from home; cousin marriage has been extraordinarily common, and yet has somehow failed to yield a planet full of shambling six-fingered freaks.
The problem with finding it hilarious that some states ban same-sex marriage but allow cousin marriage is that you’re basically trashing those states for having laws which are progressive. And when you slam a state like North Carolina with this stuff, you’re participating in a long American history of using cousin marriage as a way of imputing that poor rural people, particularly poor rural people in Appalachia and the South, are depraved, terrifying, and other. Their physical infirmities aren’t products of poverty, malnutrition, and abuse; they’re because something’s fundamentally wrong with them as organisms. It’s not a rhetorical tradition to be proud of.
Disclaimer: Teresa and I are not cousins, nor were any of our immediate forebears, although both of us can certainly find first- and second-cousin marriages among our ancestors some generations back. This is overwhelmingly likely to be true of you, too. You freak.