March 2007

The debate about lesbian/gay marriage has reached a stage of pure symbolism: many people are now comfortable with the idea of “civil union” laws, which grant all the privileges of marriage without calling it “marriage”. Some state governments have even passed such laws, and more will undoubtedly follow.

Understandably, not everyone is happy with this. It’s clearly a deliberate slap in the face for people who want to marry partners of the same sex — a slap that stings all the more because it is legitimized by democratically-elected legislatures. We’ll give you everything you want, except the right to call it marriage, because that’s sacred, you see. You will always be a second-class citizen, because we’ve passed a law that contains a clause whose only purpose is to make you feel second-class.

There’s a solution, though.

Let’s treat marriage as though it’s really sacred. Let’s get the government out of the marriage business entirely, and do only civil unions, leaving marriage for religious institutions. Effectively, that’s what we already do anyway. The secular, state-supported side of marriage is represented by the marriage license; the government doesn’t care about the religious details (if any) of the ceremony, even though that’s the part everyone thinks of as the “real” wedding.

So we’d all get civil unions, and those who want to also be married (and can find a priest willing to perform what is essentially a religious ceremony) are free to do so. If a lesbian couple wants to be married, that’s between them and their church. There’s no reason for the government to get involved in the matter, and no reason for a secular democracy to try to define the spiritual meaning of marriage, as opposed to its legal meaning.

The book Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think is
about to be released, says Greg Wilson, one of its editors (the other is Andy Oram, who was my editor for Producing Open Source Software). I wrote a chapter for this new book: Subversion’s Delta Editor: Interface as Ontology, about the svn_delta_editor_t interface in Subversion. When the book is released, I’ll put the chapter online under a free license (a lot of the other authors are planning to do that too, I believe). All profits from the book go to Amnesty International.

The letter below was sent by my friend Jim Blandy to the governor of Oregon, Jim’s state. In it, Jim asks what Oregon can do to avoid a disaster like the recent group deportation of immigrants in Massachusetts that resulted in children being abandoned, as described on National Public Radio and in the Boston Globe.

Before I say more, please read Jim’s letter:

From: Jim Blandy
Subject: Abandoned children
To: [a mailing list we're on]
Date: Fri, 9 Mar 2007 21:53:37 -0800

Folks, I'd never use [this mailing list] for campaigning, but I think
this goes far beyond politics, and well into the territory of national
disgrace.  I've sent the following letter to Oregon governor Ted
Kulongoski; please read the articles I've linked to, and think of
*something* you can do.  If abandoning 7-month old children doesn't
move us to more than a sophisticated sigh about how far things have
gone, we don't deserve a decent country.


Dear Governor Kulongoski,

NPR's March 8th Morning edition and the March 9th Boston Globe
reported on an egregious and shameful dereliction of our
responsibility to the most helpless in our country: a Massachusetts
factory was raided on March 6th, and scores of workers accused of
being in the United States illegally were flown to a Texas detention
center before state authorities could determine whether there was
anyone able to take care of their children.  According to the Globe:

 Two young children were hospitalized yesterday for dehydration after
 their nursing mothers were taken away, state officials said.
 Another 7-year-old girl called a state hot line seeking her detained
 mother.  It was unclear last night where their mothers were.

I can't express how angry and ashamed this news makes me.  Let us
assume all of the people transported to Texas were indeed in the
U.S. illegally; there is no imaginable justification for abandoning
their children in this way.  When we imprison a murderer who is a sole
caregiver, we take better care of their dependents than this.  There
is simply no legitimate law enforcement need that could justify such

I have three questions:

- Oregon has its share of illegal immigrants.  I am firmly in favor of
 enforcing the laws that our state and national legislative bodies
 have agreed on.  What assurance can you give me that a disgrace of
 the sort occurring now in Massachusetts will not happen in Oregon?

- Who is responsible for ensuring, when a sole caregiver is found to
 be residing in Oregon illegally, that the children they care for
 will be taken care of appropriately?

- What is that responsible party's position on the Massachusetts raid?
 Do they feel it was properly conducted?  If so, would they do the
 same here?  If not, what steps have they taken to ensure this will
 not happen again?

I understand that the Department of Homeland Security conducts
immigration raids, and that the DHS is a federal department, not
controlled by the state of Oregon.  But if a debacle like this were to
occur here, Oregonians would hardly be satisfied to hear that there
was nothing to be done, and from what I have read of you, I do not
believe you would offer such an explanation.

Jim Blandy

[URLs given here]

Bravo for Jim — we should all ask the questions he’s asking. What Governor Kulongoski probably won’t say in reply is that this is how our immigration system is supposed to work. The whole point is to have a large number of people around willing to labor at low wages, but unable to be involved in civic affairs. Solution: make them officially illegal, but unofficially tolerated, as long as they don’t raise too much of a fuss — and brutally deport a few now and then to make sure they stay in line.

I’ll bet African Americans recognize this pattern pretty well.

Am I too cynical? Ask yourself this question: why don’t we simply crack down on businesses that employ illegal workers? After all, if we wanted to end illegal immigration in this country, we could do it in two seconds. Illegal immigrants aren’t exactly hard to find. Just go to every restaurant, farm, landscaping company, etc, in your precinct, and start fining the employers. That would end the “problem” pretty quickly, wouldn’t it?

But no, instead we harass and hound the immigrants. We talk, incredibly, of building a seven-hundred mile fence along our border to keep them out, as though they’re not right here next to us the whole time, busing our tables, picking our fruit, cutting our lawns. This is just the American way, apparently: bully the weak, before doing anything that might annoy businesses or put upward pressure on wages.

I don’t think what happened in Massachusetts was some sort of one-time exception. Perhaps it was unusually cruel… but more likely it was just unusually publicized. Here’s another raid that made it into the press: Lockdown in Greeley, excellently reported on by Marc Cooper in The Nation.

How many times must this happen before we admit what we’re doing?