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Perplexed by polygamy

I find it fascinating how the issue of polygamy seems to have flummoxed mainstream pro-SSM and anti-SSM campaigners to equal degrees. To the anti-SSM side, polygamy is so obviously wrong that it constitutes a clear slippery slope danger if we allow SSM. To the pro-SSM side, polygamy is so obviously wrong that we would never slide down the slope to it -- and thus bringing it up is disingenuous fear-mongering. And because both sides see polygamy as so obviously wrong, neither can muster a coherent argument against it.

The latest example of this comes in response to a poll claiming that 22% of people in the US think there is no legal grounds for banning polygamy, and 18% who see no moral grounds. The poll was reported first by the anti-gay World Net Daily. WND's headline asked "Why are so many cool with polygamy," but the article never even attempted to answer that question. The closest WND comes to explaining an anti-polygamy rationale is to simply label it a form of "barbarism," and quote California Justice Marvin Baxter's claim that monogamy is "ancient and deeprooted."

Note that these two claims are contradictory. One is an appeal to modernity, arguing that polygamy is a thing of the past and that we should be happy to have moved beyond a practice characteristic of an older form of society. The other is an appeal to tradition, saying that we should try to conform our laws to those of older forms of society. Whatever its normative merits, the "barbarism" claim is at least a bit closer to historical facts (though history is of course far more complicated), as the WND editors could confirm by consulting their own Bibles.

Gay news site EDGE then reported on WND's report of the poll. The EDGE story gave even less information about why anyone might support or oppose polygamy, preferring instead to simply imply that there was something nefarious about WND and the pollster making slippery slope claims.

On the other hand, as of this writing the two comments on the EDGE story both express a lack of concern about polygamy. (This is in contrast to the apocalyptic tone of many WND commenters.) For now, as reflected in the EDGE article, it remains the unofficial talking point of mainstream SSM advocacy to denounce polygamy and deny the possibility of any marriage-redefining slippery slope. But I would not be surprised if, in coming years, the common response to warnings about polygamy morphs into "so what?" After all, modern egalitarian polyamory -- of the sort practiced by not a few members of the LGBT community -- has a lot more in common with modern egalitarian two-partner marriage (between people of whatever genders) than either of them does with the hierarchical gender role differences characteristic of both traditional monogamy and FLDS-style polygamy.

NOM disrespects my straight marriage

It's kind of amazing to me that groups like the National Organization for Marriage can get away with saying that they are "pro-marriage" and that they "defend marriage." This is obvious enough from looking at their explicit agenda. They're defending and protecting marriage by restricting the number of marriages that will be recognized, whereas the marriage equality side wants to expand the number of marriages.

But when you look into their rationale for why they want to limit marriage, it becomes apparent that they're casting aspersions on many straight marriages as well. While NOM wouldn't try to stop me and my wife from getting hitched, their ideology disrespects the marriage we've formed.

NOM makes procreation central to their marriage discrimination rationale. M-F couples* are able to produce children through sex, and according to NOM a M-F couple provides the best environment in which to raise a child. The latter idea has been thoroughly debunked by every reliable study of same-sex parenting and is not supported by any major medical association.

That leaves us with the idea of procreative potential as the distinguishing feature. This part of NOM's rationale inevitably raises the question of why infertile M-F couples are allowed to get married. NOM attempts to address this in a recent post. I could actually accept it if their response was simply (as raised by some commenters) that it's a legal convenience, because verifying couples' fertility would be too expensive for too little payoff. But NOM wants to go further, making infertile M-F couples intrinsically suitable for marriage.

My wife and I are infertile. We're infertile by our own choice, and the assistance of an IUD (though we've never had any sort of testing done, so it's possible we may be infertile on other grounds as well). We're both in complete agreement that we do not want any children, ever. We are in agreement that we would make poor parents, and that raising children is not compatible with our desired vision for our lives. But since our sex still can involve a penis going into a vagina, and thus there's some tiny possibility that a pregnancy could result (or at least we're enacting a close simulation of the acts that can lead to pregnancy), we get to formalize our relationship with a legal marriage.

There are lots of things that I like about being married. I like the social recognition that it gives us. I like knowing that we have legal protections in the event that one of us becomes seriously hurt or killed. I like being able to put her on my health insurance. All of those things are important because we live together, we love each other, and we have intertwined our lives in significant ways. Our ability to do so would be threatened if society as a whole and the legal system in particular treated us as strangers.

And yet none of that is good enough for NOM. All of the ways that being married contributes to a stable family structure for us are not sufficient in their eyes. But yet the fact that our sex life looks like the kind of thing that could produce a baby somehow is. That feature of our relationship, a feature we are working our hardest to keep out of the picture, is what qualifies us for a NOM-approved marriage.

Therefore, I submit that NOM's view of marriage cheapens and disrespects my M-F marriage. NOM is attacking my marriage even while claiming to defend it from some alleged threat from same-sex couples.

*I don't like the term "opposite sex" because the idea that men and women are opposites is part of the same ideology that leads to marriage discrimination.


Evidence and ideology

I agree with Alex Berezow that our political system would benefit from a greater focus on scientific values of evidence and reason. Where I disagree is his claim that libertarianism is particularly well suited to accomplish this. While there are libertarians committed to reason, and there are certain issues (such as the War on Drugs) where libterarians are uniquely attentive to the evidence, this is also a movement that has more than its share of climate change denialists. And I have some pretty serious doubts that Ron Paul, who Berezow praises, had any real evidence to back up his newsletter's claim that "95 percent of the black males in [Washington DC] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal."

But Berezow is not just off-base about the science-compatibility of libertarianism. He is also confused about the relationship between science and ideology. He writes:

... the seductive allure of libertarianism relies on its simple assumptions: People should be as free as possible. Our laws should reflect reality. Government policies should be analyzed using logic, not ideology. There are no grand appeals to shaping the world in America's image, no quixotic promotion of economic equality and no obsession over the moral character of the nation.

There is no necessary conflict between promotion of equality and the use of logic. Ideologies are grand narratives that weave together some basic factual claims with fundamental values. Equality is one of the values that makes up liberal ideology. A logical liberal would then employ reason and evidence to determine how best to pursue the goal of equality -- What are the actual inequality levels between certain groups? What is the relative effectiveness of in-kind welfare (eg food stamps) versus cash grants versus structural changes (eg pro-union regulations) versus laissez-faire? Similarly, a logical conservative would investigate which policies would work best at encouraging church attendance, strengthening heterosexual nuclear families, and reducing abortion. Libertarianism strikes me as less in need of logic and evidence than liberalism or conservatism, because libertarian values -- such as "maximize negative freedom with respect to the state" -- can be translated into policy with a minimum of empirical questions.

Indeed, of the three most popular US political philosophies, libertarianism frequently strikes me as the most ideological. Libertarians promote their philosophy as a unified narrative, founded on a central value of freedom and more intellectually tight than conservatives or liberals who are allegedly inconsistent in their views of economic versus social freedom. Libertarians ask us to look at the big picture and see how the status quo is fundamentally flawed regardless of which of the two main parties is in power.

Libertarianism even has the tendency to turn reason itself into an ideology (after all, they named their most prominent political magazine after it!). Natalie Reed gave an excellent analysis of this phenomenon in the context of the skeptic community. People can easily become convinced that particular conclusions are endorsed by Reason, and therefore that opposition to them is anti-Reason. One particular way of thinking is treated as the pure expression of an eternal logic, closing the mind off to its possible flaws*.

I'm all for incorporating science into politics and policymaking. Just don't assume it will necessarily follow along with libertarianism.

*Note that I use the realist word "flaws" here. This is not a relativist argument urging us to respect "other ways of knowing" as all equally valid. This is a skeptical argument warning us not to be too quick to assume that we've hit upon the one right procedure for thinking about the world.


The false religion of climate change denial

I find it ironic that Rick Santorum has tried to accuse Barack Obama of following a false religion on the basis of Obama's environmentalist efforts. While I have my criticisms of Obama's environmental policies, Santorum's own views on environmental issues reflect some of the worst traits of religion.

In explaining his disbelief in climate change, Santorum recently said "The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is." This is a revealing statement on several levels. First off, it's transparently wrong. Nobody who has even a passing acquaintance with the climate change issue, regardless of their view of the science, could confuse plants' use of CO2 in photosynthesis with CO2's effects on the heat retention properties of the atmosphere. It's possible that Santorum just really is that ignorant -- after all, another one of his big campaign trail claims has been to trash higher education as mere liberal indoctrination. But I wonder if this might not also be a sort of test of faith. Religions and religion-like ideologies frequently ask their adherents to profess sincere belief in obviously ludicrous propositions -- Satanic conspiracies, transubstantiation, Lysenkoism, Kim Jong-Il's golf prowess. Doing so is a way of demonstrating your loyalty, showing that you will back the cause even when it is flatly at odds with reality. Not all skepticism about the reality of anthropogenic climate change is of this nature, but it seems like a reasonable explanation for patently ridiculous arguments like "tell that to a plant."

The specific content of Santorum's ludicrous claim is interesting as well. It's based on a black-and-white model of the world. Either CO2 is a dangerous thing or it's a benign thing. If plants need CO2, then more CO2 is always a good thing -- "the dose makes the poison" is not a factor. This too represents a common issue in religion, specifically the dichotomy of purity and profanity. Foods, places, and activities are deemed clean or unclean. People are saved or sinners. And so likewise atmospheric gases are good or bad.

"My soldier defends the freedom of your honor student"

Yesterday I spent some time in traffic behind a truck with a bumper sticker that had the US Army logo and the slogan "My soldier defends the freedom of your honor student." I couldn't find a picture of the specific sticker online, but you can find a similar sentiment on other bumper stickers, image memes, and Facebook groups.

There's nothing wrong with taking pride in your child's honorable military service. What I find interesting, though, is the implied opposition between military service and academic success. To begin with, the hypothetical other driver's honor student may also be a soldier! I was an honor student in high school, and for exactly that reason several branches of the military actively recruited me. As a teacher, I've found that some of my best students are either ROTC or returning to get their degree after serving a tour of duty in the military. And this should be no surprise. Many of the same values are conducive to success in the military and in formal education -- self-discipline, attention to detail, obedience to authority.

Placing "soldier" and "honor student" in opposition turns an expression of parental pride into a direct shot in the culture wars. The implication is that military service is a more honorable path than other careers. This echoes the common sentiment that no other career would be possible if we were overrun by our enemies, and thus the military is of more fundamental importance -- a prerequisite to doing anything else. But of course this can be said of many other careers. Without farmers, for example, soldier and civilian alike would starve. More to the point here, without academic-style learning, our military wouldn't have the laser-guided missiles and GPS systems that they need in order to defend us from our enemies.

It's unfortunate that a certain strain of conservative thinking has set up military personnel and academic personnel as icons of two opposing factions in US culture. On the one hand, it leads to an obsession with symbolic shows of genuflection to "support our troops" that stifle attempts to criticize those troops and commanders who are not serving honorably. And it leads on the other hand to a climate of anti-intellectualism that sees learning new things about the world as a threat to our way of life and an elite imposition rather than as a joy.


The religious value of Doctor Who

I'm still working my way through Doctor Who, so I'm not quite as hardcore a fan of the show as Natalie Reed, but I do like her take on its appeal. And I particularly like her way of describing how fandom can fill all of the useful functions of religion without the demand for factual belief:

There's one thing where I never feel like that, though. One bit of geek culture that I do feel utterly, truly, stupidly passionate about. One thing that allows me to wholly and completely understand what it is to geek out over a relatively silly little bit of pop culture, to be a fan, to be part of a fandom, to understand a canon in and out and actually care about those details, to have this mutual language and set of metaphors and stories and myths and reference points and means of understandings things through this narrative that you all, the fandom, know and understand together... to be part of a community that way, and connect with a story so strongly. I mean, hell... it's pretty much exactly like religion, and meets the exact same social, cultural and psychological needs (myth, metaphor, community, morality, ritual, art), just without all the danger and harm that comes along with literal belief, absolute authority and insistence upon faith. The bit of sci-fi that does this for me, and allows me to feel all this genuinely? It's the answer I provide whenever anyone asks me whether I prefer Star Wars or Star Trek:

Doctor Who.

This is very similar, I think, to the take on Harry Potter fandom that I wrote about earlier.