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Sunday, March 12, 2006

What is wrong with John Tierney?

John Tierney and friends at dinner

Who's Afraid of Polygamy?

Published: March 11, 2006

If gay marriage becomes legal, its opponents have been warning, the next step in America's moral deterioration will be legalized polygamy. These conservatives won't be happy with "Big Love," the HBO series starting tomorrow night.

This story of a husband with three wives in Utah will not terrify Americans. Polygamy doesn't come off as a barbaric threat to the country's moral fabric. It looks more like what it really is: an arrangement that can make sense for some people in some circumstances, but not one that could ever be a dangerous trend in America.

After watching the husband on the show struggle to pay for three households and watching his three wives struggle for his attention, the question that comes to mind is not how to keep polygamy illegal. The question is why we bother to ban something that takes so much work these days.

When polygamy was outlawed in the 19th century, the Supreme Court upheld the ban by citing the "evil consequences" of a practice that "has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe." It dismissed polygamy as "a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people," as if that were reason enough to damn it.

Yet an institution that has been around for so long must have had something going for it. Humans aren't as inclined to polygamy as some apes are — we probably evolved as hunter-gatherers who mostly had one mate at a time — but some form of polygamy has existed in the vast majority of cultures.

Some opponents of polygamy call it the exploitation of women by rich men, and that's true if the wives are coerced into the marriages. But many wives have willingly chosen it, like the three women on "Big Love," who have married a successful businessman.

These three wives, who live in adjacent houses, sound much like the women in polygamous marriages I've talked to in rural Africa. The African wives told me they had mixed feelings about the arrangement — and their fellow wives — but over all, they figured it was better to share one prosperous husband than to marry someone else without land, cows or a job.

That's the way social scientists figure it, too. Polygamy isn't the cause of women's low status in traditional societies, but rather a consequence of their trying to move up. The biggest losers from polygamy are the poorer men who end up with no wives. Women benefit because polygamy increases their number of marriage prospects — and in traditional societies, marriage is often the only way for a woman to improve her status.

Even in those societies, polygamy is practiced by just a small minority because few men have enough resources to entice more than one wife. As a society modernizes and women become educated, they gain other economic options and become less and less willing to share a husband. Eventually polygamy is out of question for practically everyone, men and women. At that point, the monogamous majority can safely proclaim its moral superiority and outlaw the practice for everyone else.

Critics say children would be better off growing up in a home with a full-time father, but a part-time one is better than what's in many homes today. The father in "Big Love" is more like Ward Cleaver than today's alpha males who've dumped a series of wives and families.

What is wrong with him?

Has he ever seen the documentaries on what polygamy is really like? Mostly young girls raped by older men, young boys cast out on their own as teenagers.

What the fuck is he going on about?

God, between him and Brooks, you would think the Handmaid's Tale was their personal bible.

posted by Steve @ 12:01:00 AM

12:01:00 AM

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