Sunday, April 02, 2006


Well, that seems to be where this Richard Brookhiser column would have headed if The New York Observer had given him a couple more column inches.

Brookhiser is writing about Big Love, the new polygamy series on HBO, and he starts by saying what every other right-wing hand-wringer has already said about the show , except that, because he's Richard Brookhiser, he does it in a Buckleyesque prose style and with a couple of literary references thrown in, to show he's better read than Ann Coulter:

This column is not about the HBO series Big Love. Only flatterers or irritables ascribe culture-changing force to cultural artifacts like TV shows. Fiction, as Stendhal said, is a mirror carried along a road; it shows us what we are, it doesn't make us what we are. If a new age of poly-relationships is upon us, it will have its Trollopes, and they might as well be on HBO.

Why are we here? The call for gay marriage led the way, as its opponents insisted it would. If gay marriage were an ancient institution in temporary abeyance, then its restoration wouldn't necessarily have anything to do with polygamy. But it isn't, and so one innovation naturally prepares the way for the other. If the State of Massachusetts marries men and men, and women and women, then why not men and many women?

So "we" are "here," "here" apparently being at the top of an extremely slippery slope with legalized polygamy directly below us.

That would be a fascinating new cultural development if it weren't utterly contradicted by the facts. Fact: In a 2003 Gallup poll, 92 % of Americans opposed polygamy. Fact: In a 2005 Gallup poll -- again -- 92 % of Americans opposed polygamy. Even the citizens of Utah oppose polygamy: In 2000, when some county officials began cracking down on polygamists, a Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed that 58% of state residents supported the crackdown and only 26% opposed it.

Brookhiser goes through various arguments against polygamy. Then he makes this bizarre leap:

The only people who are concerned about polygamy and polyamory are advocates, and agitated opponents. The great mass of the public gives them a mildly curious "Huh?" and hence is willing to believe the subtlest argument in favor of legalization: how many people will be affected by a change at the margin? Won't most of us go on as we always have? But marriage arrangements are not tax rates or work-force regulations; they speak to our essential selves. So I propose a thought experiment: Why not legalize slavery? How many slaves, actually, would there be? The old agricultural basis of the institution is gone; no one picks cotton by hand. So if the occasional wretch -- a Third World immigrant, perhaps -- wishes to better his station by selling himself to a prosperous patron, what skin is that off our noses?


Let's walk back, past this bit of lunacy, to the second sentence of this paragraph: "The great mass of the public ... is willing to believe the subtlest argument in favor of legalization...." No, Richard, the public is not "willing to believe" much of anything positive about polygamy. The public is willing to watching a freakin' TV show about polygamy. Similarly, the public is willing to watch The Silence of the Lambs when it's on TV, but this does not reflect a softening of attitudes toward the consumption of human flesh.

Brookhiser has stupidly fallen for hype. He's read the "news" articles that began popping up when Big Love was about to air (e.g., Newsweek's "Polygamists, Unite!") and he thinks they reflect a cultural shift. In reality, they don't reflect anything except the skill of HBO's publicist, who almost certainly spoon-fed this story to Newsweek.

Brookhiser, of course, wouldn't change his mind if polls showed 99% opposition to polygamy, because he undoubtedly thinks that someday a judge will force a state against its will to accept legalized plural marriage. So here's my proposal, a way to deal with everything the right thinks is on the slippery slope. Let's introduce a constitutional amendment banning every form of marriage right-wingers fear: polygamous marriages, incestuous marriages, pedophilic marriages, marriages between humans and animals, marriages between humans and inanimate objects -- everything except gay marriage. I'd support an amendment like that. I think most Americans would. It would legally mandate that there's nothing below gay marriage on the slope, so the debate about gay marriage would be only about gay marriage.

The thing is, the people who wouldn't support the amendment would be right-wingers. In order to ban what they say they fear, they'd have to give up one of the sticks they most enjoy beating liberals with. Given that choice, there's no question what they'd choose.

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