Neither party, however, is interested in this simple arithmetic of equity. The Republicans, seizing the chance to meld their pro-family and tax-cutting agendas, propose to lower taxes for all married couples, including those who benefit from the present system. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, wants to save money by eliminating the penalty only for couples with modest incomes, as if discrimination in favor of traditional marriage is okay so long as its victims are well off.
Of course, in arguing that the purpose of joint tax returns is to reflect the sharing of resources, rather than to favor one familial arrangement over another, I've implicitly raised another question: why should the people sharing resources have to be married, anyway? Why shouldn't relatives, friends, communal households of whatever number and composition be able to merge their finances, draw up a legal contract declaring themselves an economic unit with mutual obligations and get the benefit of a joint tax rate based on their average income?
In fact, why should marriage, as a particular kind of personal, sexual and domestic relationship, have any special legal status? The state, as surrogate for the larger society, arguably has a legitimate interest in the economic affairs of households?ensuring that people do not get cheated or exploited (especially when relationships dissolve), that they are taxed equitably and so on. It certainly has an interest in fixing legal and financial responsibility for children. But in my view, the social benefits employers typically reserve for families should be publicly funded entitlements to individuals. And the nature of a couple's sexual and emotional commitment should not be the state's business at all. Marriage has religious meaning as a sacrament. It has deep personal meaning for millions of people. But we have (in principle, anyway) separation of church and state in this country, and we ought to have separation of sex and state as well. Marriage should be deinstitutionalized and become a private matter.
So far, the people who have come closest to raising this question in the public arena are gay and lesbian activists. But in pursuing domestic partnership laws, the gay movement has never thought beyond the model of the couple; and these days it seems far less interested in challenging the institution of marriage than in winning the right to participate in it. Gay activists in Vermont, armed with a court decision that the government must treat couples equally regardless of gender, insist that legal same-sex marriage, rather than any sort of domestic partnership arrangement, is the only acceptable solution. They demand not only equal material benefits, but the social legitimacy marriage confers?the state's imprimatur on their de facto marital relationships.
I agree that so long as the state is charged with certifying relationships, it has no business discriminating against homosexuals. And I agree with the Vermont activists that a domestic partnership status limited to gays would be a separate-but-equal dodge. But they are missing an historic opportunity to broaden the terms of the debate. For a third possibility, one that has gone entirely unmentioned, is to abolish the marriage code altogether in favor of domestic partnership and parental responsibility laws that cover not only couples of whatever gender, but groups. People could still wed in religious or secular ceremonies, as many gay couples do now, but marrying would not affect their legal status.
My perspective on this issue is personal as well as political. A while ago I married my longtime Spouse Equivalent (as the union contract at the Village Voice, where I was working when I met him, called the beneficiaries of its then-pioneering domestic partnership clause). We had been together for 18 years, had a 14-year-old daughter and had never felt any need for the state's blessing. On the contrary, we were offended by the idea; and so to establish our daughter's "legitimacy," which guarantees some substantive legal rights, we had opted for the far more tedious procedure, required in New York state, of going through a pro-forma paternity suit. But finally we arrived at a time in our lives (I was 56, he was nine years older) and a degree of middle-class accumulation that made us vulnerable as an unmarried couple: without the marital exemption, if one of us died, estate taxes could take a chunk out of the money we had saved for retirement and our daughter's education. Besides, my current employer, NYU, offered certain family benefits otherwise unavailable to my SE; but NYU's domestic partnership policy excludes heterosexual couples. Unlike the Voice, which implicitly defined partnership as an alternative to marriage, NYU embraces the far more prevalent understanding of partnership as a sop for people unable to choose the real thing.
For me, deciding to get married for practical reasons was an uneasy choice: it meant giving in to a ritual of subordination, like signing a loyalty oath or taking a drug test to get a job, or passing for Christian. Still I did make that choice, and so I can hardly fault gays for wanting the opportunity to do the same. I can only argue that our ultimate aim should be to make such a choice unnecessary.
As usual, the right understands better than the left what's at stake in these battles. When conservatives argue that marriage is subverted by homosexual unions, they are right: gays are demanding that a patriarchal Judeo-Christian institution give way to a more inclusive version based on a nonsexist civic religion?a change that is surely a way station to marital secularism. Nor is the right's marital domino theory?if homosexuals, why not bigamists??as ridiculous as its opponents proclaim. Once the state has rejected tradition-cum-biblical authority as the basis for validating relationships, how does it arrive at a new standard? If three people claim that their love and commitment deserve validation, on what grounds can they be denied?
The right's cri de coeur is that under such anarchic circumstances the entire certification process becomes absurd. My point exactly!
Ellen Willis is the author of Don't Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial and director of the cultural journalism program at New York University.
Europe.com by Dave Kansas Paris ? It is tougher to find dot-com mania in this town. Unlike the madness of advertising in the U.S. and the familiar frenzy of excitement in London, Paris kind of dodders ahead, nursing its baguettes and red wine.
Before last week I'd never been to Paris. I should have gathered that a different mind set rules even as the train approached. I was on the London-to-Paris train run, a remarkably fast journey that should feel like the Amtrak Metroliner from New York to Washington. It was a one-day run, an early morning start, a late return. This train should've been stuffed with the same dark suits that work the Northeast corridor. But it wasn't that full. And as the impressive TGV screamed through the green, rolling countryside, I figured out why. My cell (or mobile) phone kept crapping out. The most frequent utterance in the train was, "Damn it." Or often worse. It was like a song with its own chorus. "Yes, Bob, and be sure to get those boxes into the... Bob? Bob? Damn it!"
In London the cabs are covered with dot-com ads. Or dot-co-dot-uk ads. Soon they'll add dot-eu ads. Germany sports much the same kind of public Net hype. In Paris, the cabs aren't covered with much of anything save some Parisian dust. Metro stations have a smattering of dot-com ads, but it's not the kind of overwhelming presence that is so evident in places like San Francisco or London. But perhaps it's merely a different local take on commercialism, since France, along with the rest of Europe, is clearly warming to the Internet.
The U.S. Internet revolution began in the middle 1990s with all kinds of ideas. Buy books, read news, book plane tickets, search for basic information, get stock quotes. These companies came up in the Internet world dominated by the computer at home or on the lap. That is still the primary access point to the Net in the U.S. and, to be fair, in Europe, too. But the Internet boom in the U.S., if you count in the typical dog-years fashion of Internet speed, is quickly approaching its middle age. In Europe, the feeling is sprightly, new and exciting.
I recall recruiting someone to work at TheStreet.com in California way back in 1998. He'd already been through one "we can conquer the world" startup, and he had become harder because of it. Despite all the bright-eyed news stories, the swift Internet world leaves a lot of wreckage. But the lure of riches keeps people coming back for more.
The grittiness of second, third and fourth startups hasn't hit Europe yet. It's still a dreamer's paradise. In London, the gaggle of lone wolf startups looks like the gang of little movers who shocked the staid old companies with quick, early strikes as the Internet emerged?companies like www.lastminute.com, a provider of last-second commerce. They are joined by American exports like Amazon.co.uk, Schwab.co.uk and even our own UK model, TheStreet.co.uk. And they are joined by more prepared big players, such as the national telecommunications companies and large media companies. The environment is likely to get fierce faster in Europe, primarily because larger companies there have been able to learn from the initial sluggish response that stung large U.S. companies.
The other wrinkle in Europe is the importance of mobility. Mobile phones are common appliances here, not unlike owning a wallet or handbag. Everybody has one. And the technology and use of mobile phones is far more advanced here compared to the U.S. Messaging and commerce via mobile phones are now looming as the key battlegrounds for Internet companies. Stock quotes, book purchases, plane tickets and e-mail are moving to the handset at a rapid pace. This is one reason Nokia and Ericsson are important, and it's a reason why everyone is paying such close attention to the Vodafone-Mannesman merger. Already in Finland, the unlikely home of powerful Nokia, there is chatter about a WAP Valley of companies rising up to provide services and enabling software to make mobile phones access and utilize cellular networks for Internet-style news, commerce and information.
The U.S. is clearly on top of the Internet-driven new world. It has the big success stories and it is embracing concepts like business-to-business commerce much more rapidly than its European counterparts. This leads many commentators to boast airily about the Internet as America's greatest colonizing tool, and it leads other pundits to say that other parts of the world should merely act as the recipients of our brilliance. It is a remarkable arrogance easily attained by money managers and techno-whizzes. By most accounts, wireless Net application innovation is well ahead in Europe. For starters, phones can be used in a wide swath of countries, unlike in the U.S., where your AT&T phone won't work in a place like Cincinnati. And it appears that wireless applications, from buying shares to books, are gaining ground as the next leg in the Internet revolution. It's a major reason to pay attention to Europe and to companies like Vodafone and Nokia. If U.S. companies become too content with their dominance of the global Net space, they could find themselves chasing new European players that are using wireless to leapfrog U.S. firms around the world.
All of this seems hard to believe in the tired streets around the government ministry buildings in Paris. The cafes and small shops seem stuck in the 1920s and the mobile phones don't work on the fast train from London. But those are anecdotes that don't reflect the teeming movement in this space throughout Europe. Those seeking to find the next wave of the Internet revolution would be wise to watch the fertile wireless economy in Europe.
Dave Kansas is the editor-in-chief of TheStreet.com.