March 20, 2006

Big Loving Responsibility

Marc Comtois

I recently saw HBO's preview of their new series "Big Love," which is about the trials and tribulations of a polygamist and his three wives (and, oh yea, his kids, more on that in a bit). George Neumayr writes that American audiences probably are more willing and able to accept the premise than one would think at first blush:

A culture of routine divorce. . . makes polygamy thinkable. . . many Americans have had three spouses. Just not simultaneously. Isn’t the show’s concept of a harried man juggling multiple wives just a small extension of the divorce comedy genre? The creators of the show have talked about overcoming the “yuck factor.” But that shouldn’t be too hard, given that characters carrying on with many women at once is a staple of most shows.

The simultaneous sexual carrying on of polygamy is somewhat more obvious and centralized than other forms of promiscuity, but it is essentially indistinguishable from the alternative lifestyles based upon promiscuity the culture has already absorbed. If Paxton sees Bill Clinton as a model for polygamists, that’s because promiscuity/open marriage and polygamy aren’t very far apart, differing not in their essence but in their outward appearance.

Neumayr touches on the role of polygamy in the context of the wider gay marriage debate, though Stanley Kurtz deals with that topic in more detail. I'm still not totally convinced of the "slippery slope" of gay marriage -> polygamy argument (so long as children aren't involved, though I recognize that's a bit idealistic), but that's another topic for another day (again, read Kurtz). For me, Neumayr's most important observation is about role that the kids play in "Big Love":
It is revealing that press stories about the show barely even mention the impact of the polygamous arrangement on the children in it. The impression left is that if polygamy is morally problematic at all that’s only because it is unfair to the wives. But that problem disappears through modern life’s favorite absolutions -- “choice” and “consent.”

To the extent that children are even factored into the moral equation, polygamists are now borrowing another handy fallacy from the gay-marriage movement: the principle that children need one father and one mother permanently interested in them is mere prejudice and not a reflection of the natural law. Say polygamists: If Heather has three mothers instead of two, so what? Doesn’t society now say that families are self-defined and that love, in whatever package it comes, is more important than adhering to natural form?

In HBO's preview, they do highlight the anxiety of the oldest daughter about being "different." They also highlight the desire of the oldest son to follow in his father's footsteps. So, it would seem that at least the feelings of the older children will be examined.

In general, I fear that our desire to make everything "OK" for everyone clouds our vision and we forget that the impact of such "freedom" is often felt hardest by those not consulted during the decision making process. I've got a bit of a social libertarian streak, but I also recognize that not all--if any--decisions made by adults are really made in a vacuum. I am especially concerned when the long-term cultural and societal impact of those decisions are unknown. But my concern encompasses more than just gay marriage or drug legalization. I'm also troubled by the idea that divorce is a viable escape clause or that having an affair is OK if no one gets caught or hurt in the process. Hopefully, "Big Love" will focus on the consequences of the decisions made by adults and how the kids--and others, for that matter--are affected. We need to be reminded that the decisions we make affect others, too.