Jewish World Review Aug. 16, 1999 /4 Elul, 5759
Actually, the traditional Jewish wedding of two close friends hadn't been planned as a public response to the follies of policy makers in Washington, D.C. But even if the bureaucratic bumblers took little note of our festive gathering, its unmistakable meaning conflicted with the very essence of a new and singularly foolish government policy.
In the year 2000, the census short form received by more than 80% of all American households will, for the first time, pose no questions at all about marital status. The official justification for the new policy is to save time for respondents and to simplify the census process.
But the same "quick and easy" short form that no longer wants to know whether you're married, single, widowed or divorced, still manages to include two different inquiries about ethnicity. It asks, first, if the person is "Spanish/Hispanic/Latino" and then separately demands that the subject identify his/her "race" by checking one of 15 boxes, including such alternatives as "Guamanian or Chamorro," "Asian Indian" and "Samoan."
The long form going out to some 16 million households (which takes 38 minutes, rather than 10 minutes to complete) still includes the basic questions about marital status. But the changes in the ubiquitous short form-the only contact with the census process for the vast majority of citizens -- remain highly significant. According to family therapist Diane Sollee, coordinator of a Washington conference on "Smart Marriages, Happy Families," this decision sends "a message about what the government sees as important. That message is that nobody cares anymore."
If that is the case, then why do all of today's politicians prattle so passionately about marriage and family? If personal life amounts to nothing more than a purely private concern, how is it that leaders of both parties seem so determined to make it a public issue? Every one of the Republican presidential candidates promotes new governmental initiatives to support the institution of marriage, while Vice President Gore unabashedly offered "faith and family" as the centerpiece of his announcement of candidacy. In fact, when endorsing Gore at a carefully choreographed event on June 1st, Hillary Rodham Clinton specifically cited his exemplary record as a family man. Using exactly the same words, she twice described the Vice President as a "remarkable husband and father." If marital status hardly matters anymore, then why mention his happy domestic history as one of the Vice President's qualifications for the White House?
Most Americans-including, apparently, the First Lady of the Land-refuse to accept the idea that we live in a post-marriage age. A recent study by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University revealed that the vast majority of American teenagers (72 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls) thought "a good marriage and family life" was important-and those majorities have increased for both males and females since the mid-1970's. Ironically, at the very moment that our officially empowered pulse-takers disregard marital status as a subject worth noting on census forms, the public seems more stubbornly convinced than ever before that knowing someone's domestic arrangements tells us something important about him.
Certainly, it tells us something more significant than questions about race or about "Hispanic origin," which the short form still contains.
Nearly all Americans accept the idea that it makes sense for the government and legal system to treat people differently after they marry. This personal commitment involves public consequences, concerning your taxes, your property division, the fate of your offspring, your personal estate and many other areas. That's why so many leaders of the gay community plead for society to sanction same-sex marriage: they acknowledge that official recognition of this institution is appropriate and important, and want that recognition extended to homosexual unions.
Gay activists care profoundly about this issue not because they dismiss the importance of marriage, but because they understand - and endorse - the overwhelming impact of such social formalities.
Racial classification, on the other hand, strikes many people as unnecessary and unfair, and most of us remain distinctly uncomfortable with government treating citizens differently according to the color of their skin. For one thing, so many Americans boast mixed ancestry today that census respondents frequently can provide only uncertain or arbitrary answers to questions about their origins. It's not hard to know whether you're married or single, but what about those people with one black grandfather and who are, therefore, one-fourth black? Should they check the box for "African American," "White" or "Some other race?"
And what if you boast one grandfather born in Mexico, who has left you the name "Gonzalez," but one grandmother was born in Korea, and the two other grandparents emigrated from Germany? Do you qualify for "Spanish/Hispanic/Latino" status-or for Korean "race"-- or neither? The government has no right and no need to force its citizens to make such idiotic distinctions.
If the short form can't be bothered with asking whether you're married or not, then why should it demand two different responses involving racial identity? There has always been an official, bureaucratic component to marriage-going to city hall to get your wedding license-but it's a characteristic of wretched, racist regimes (Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, apartheid South Africa) to require a designation of ethnicity on government forms and identity cards.
The joyous celebrants at the wedding I just attended understood fundamental truths that the census bureau chooses to ignore. The fact that the glowing groom and gorgeous bride decide to formalize their relationship is not a private matter: it is profoundly public. The giddy guests toast one another and exchange hearty congratulations ("Mazel tov!") because they're happy not just for the new couple: they are also happy for themselves. The marriage impacts more than the principals. It influences the community, social continuity, the future-all in profoundly positive ways.
Despite recent suggestions that your personal life is "nobody's business," we seem increasingly eager to affirm that the covenant of marriage is everybody's business. Just check the latest styles and trends: quiet elopements and Las Vegas wedding chapels are out, and big, blowout banquets and receptions are back in. That's especially appropriate at a moment when leaders of every political persuasion agree that the institution of matrimony deserves special encouragement and support, not new expressions of public contempt. Maybe, someday, even the bone-headed bean counters at the census bureau may get the message.
And when they do, let me be the first to wish them Mazel
JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.