First comes love . . . oh, to hell with it

Chris Rock jokes in his latest HBO special, Never Scared, that he favors gay marriage because "gay people have a right to be as miserable as anybody else." That pretty well sums up the consensus in a forum by The Nation called "Can Marriage Be Saved?" Convening such a discussion is one thing The Nation does very well. Its July 21, 2003, issue on American Rebels was especially inspired, featuring tributes to I.F. Stone, Dorothy Day, Woody Guthrie and Paul Wellstone, among others.

But The Nation's discussion of marriage is mostly lacking in joy or even romance. These secular blasts by Edmund White are typical of its few references to religion:

Companionate marriage -- in which just one other person was supposed to be helpmate, sexual partner, best friend, domestic manager and soul-sister for life -- obviously was not something that came naturally to the vagrant human spirit. Only strong religious convictions and an inflexible self-discipline could make it work, as well as a sense that one was living not for pleasure but out of duty to the next generation.

. . . Until a year ago I would have sniffed at the gay pro-marriage movement as just one more effort on the part of gay neocons to assimilate with their white, middle-class, straight friends and relatives. But the uproar of the Christian right against gay marriage has won me over to the cause. Anything that Republicans and Christians hate so much can't be all bad.

Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love: A Polemic, continues her campaign against monogamy:

Though what if luring a populace into conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desire were actually functional for society? Consider the norms of modern marriage. Take monogamy, its fundamental organizing premise. The presumption here is that desire can and will persist throughout a lifetime of coupled togetherness, but what if it doesn't? Apparently you just give up sex: Desire may wane, but those vows must remain intact. (Though let's not forget what a lot of investment opportunities sagging marital desire provides -- Viagra, couples porn, the therapy industry -- dead marriages are actually rather good for the economy.)

Michael Bronski worries about the Wedding Industry (his capitalization), which he sees wielding powers of mass brainwashing:

From my vantage, the fight for same-sex marriage is as much, if not more, about the brainwashing of Americans by the $70-billion-a-year Wedding Industry as it is about equal rights. Over the past sixty years it has been impossible for women and men -- although most of the Wedding Industry's advertising is aimed at women -- not to be affected by the over-the-top consumerism that has warped people's minds to make them believe that marriage is the only valid relationship.

Only the comic novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron has any evident fun. She deflates a few myths of modern life, beginning with the claim that one in two marriages ends in divorce:

I have a whole collection of statistics of this sort, statistics that persist in spite of the fact that they're untrue. One of them is that one in eight Americans will have worked for McDonald's. Another, which was stated categorically the other day on NBC, is that one in three New York men is gay. Another one, and I'm sorry to say this in the pages of The Nation, is the number of people who are killed by landmines (one every twenty-two minutes), and I don't even want to get into incest, which for a while was alleged by some feminists to have happened to one in two women.

The most eloquent essay is the briefest. Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, describes his relationship with his best friend, who died in 1990:

He'd slip out of his loafers and put his big white feet on my desk as he read the paper and smoked (you could smoke in offices then). He had just broken up with his first boyfriend. One afternoon, as we walked to the subway, I told him how much I loved him, and forever. I suppose it was a marriage proposal of sorts. We never discussed it, but the promise of that afternoon never left us.

I have never been interested in public vows of affection. I have never, to my knowledge, ever left my friend, in spirit or mind, even after his death. I can't imagine that if we had stood up in a room full of people and exchanged words of fidelity in front of a priest that it would have been much different than what we knew we were to one another: partners for life.

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