The current March 22 issue of The New Yorker is unusually rich. It includes an article by Jane Mayer on Cyrus Vance Jr.'s legal pursuit of Donald Trump and and article that I haven't read yet by Louis Menand about the influence of student radicals on the 1960s. (I suspect that one may be the basis for my next post.) The longest article, "The Shape of Love," by Andrew Solomon (not to be confused with Andrew Sullivan), is subtitled, "From opposite sides of the culture, polyamorists and polygamists are challenging family norms," strikes me as a major cultural milestone, not least because it illustrates how broad the influence of postmodernism has become.
The subject of the article is quite explicit. The author himself is married to another man, and the article includes some accounts of the establishment of the legal right to gay marriage (which, for the record, I most definitely support.) Yet it treats that legal change simply as the first big step in a broader process that might recognize and legitimize both polygamy and polyamory. (For those of you unfamiliar with polyamory, it refers to any kind of open consensual relationship among three or more people, regardless of their biological sex, claimed gender, or sexual orientation.) The discussion of polygamy begins, logically enough, with Utah.
I am currently working on a concise political history of the United States, based almost entirely on presidential addresses. I have discovered that polygamy in Utah (and later in Arizona and Idaho) was attacked by a series of presidents from U.S. Grant through the second term of Grover Cleveland. All of them regarded it as a barbaric practice incompatible with modern civilization, and tried to find ways to bring an end to it despite the theocratic nature of Utah territory, completely dominated by the polygamous Mormon Church. Eventually the Mormon leadership apparently realized that they would have to renounce the practice before Utah could become a state, and in 1890 they did so. In response, President Benjamin Harrison issued a general pardon to all Utahans who had ceased to practice polygamy since that time, a step Cleveland reaffirmed a few years later. Some Mormons certainly continued the practice, and some, including Mitt Romney's grandfather, fled to Mexico with their plural wives and many children--the reason that Mitt's father George, at one time a presidential candidate, was born in Mexico. Polygamists have formed an alternative Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, and one polygamous settlement led by Warren Jeffs got into serious legal trouble because of arranged, forced marriages between older men and young girls. In the 2000s the HBO series Big Love, which I became addicted to, portrayed both an upper-middle class businessman with three wives, and the Jeffs-style compound from which he had emerged. What I did not know was that Utah has recently decriminalized polygamy. The article describes one or two polygamous Mormon families in some detail, but also discusses some other polygamous arrangements in other parts of the country that have nothing to do with Mormonism or any other religion.
Solomon seems more interested, however, in the looser concept of polyamory, which means quite explicitly that love and sex will not be confined to a couple. Polyamory is quite simply the opposite of monogamy. Now our civil law has treated monogamy as the only fully legal kind of relationship for centuries, although we have always known that the principle has frequently been honored in the breech. What distinguished the 1970s from earlier periods was the movement to legitimize and openly practice things that until then had traditionally been secret, led by adultery, as in "open marriages." Solomon's article shows that that movement is on the rise again.
I was most struck reading the article by Solomon's tone, which is almost entirely supportive of the practices he describes, with the sole exception of the kind of forced polygamy practiced in the Jeff compound. He is intolerant on the other hand of more traditional views which he evidently regards as oppressive. Here is a key passage, in which Solomon takes off from a remark by a polygamous wife named Alina.
"Alina said, 'Why is it that we’re always ‘brainwashed’ unless we’re choosing the way they think?' It’s true that how we grow up influences what we eat, where we live, whom we socialize with or marry. It determines our taste in clothing, our sense of humor, the value we place on formal education. Freud wrote about the “repetition compulsion,” which drives us continually to re-create our own past, whether we were happy in it or not. Do people in the mainstream argue that polygamists have been brainwashed because mainstream values are alien to polygamous ones? If so, were most people brainwashed to idealize monogamous marriage? Animal models suggest that monogamy is less natural than nonmonogamy. Yet violations of it serve as the basis for terminating otherwise healthy relationships. We are brainwashed into keeping pets, taking daily showers, thinking that it makes sense for nations to have inviolable borders; brainwashed about the morality of abortion, the necessity of medical marijuana. People are brainwashed into Jewish culture or Black culture or French culture."
Solomon is right, of course: we all learn our values originally from the culture in which we grow up. He is not necessarily right to assume that biology or our inherent emotional makeup plays as great a role in our behavior as cultural onditioning, however. The postmodernists have argued for half a century that culture represents domination by powerful groups, imposed through language, and they have championed linguistic and behavioral resistance to it. In so doing, I am convinced, they took advantage of an important element in human nature: the tendency of young adults to rebel against whatever their parents and society tells them. Society's demands did become stricter and more universal from the seventeenth century through the twentieth, leading, I know think, to the beginnings of a gigantic rebellion in the second half of the twentieth century. That rebellion has now created a new orthodoxy that celebrates all marginalized communities, defined by gender, race, sexual orientation, and--in this case--behavior. The values of stable bourgeois society have become so suspect that a professor at an Ivy League law school can be shunned simply for co-authoring an op-ed standing up for them.
On the one hand, I accept that it's very hard to prevent consenting adults from living in whatever way they choose, and I do not want to persecute them for doing so. But on the other, I have to ask the question that Solomon completely ignores. Was there a connection between, on the one hand, the relatively strict social mores of western bourgeois society, and on the other hand, its political, economic and cultural achievements? To that question the citizens of the early American Republic would have answered with a resounding yes. Like Tocqueville, they believed that the relatively restrained sexual behavior and strong families of the Americans (especially outside the aristocratic South) helped make democracy work. Social consensus on these issues, I think, also made it easier to find social consensus on questions like economic equality or inequality, and even the need to resist foreign military threats. Social consensus was part of the common identity that bound us together as citizens. During the last fifty years, however, increasing numbers of Americans have decided that their particular identity, based upon their gender, race, sexual orientation, or, for want of a better word, their lifestyle, is more important than their identity as citizens, and is indeed what they want to be known for.
Solomon's evident belief that we are all masters both our identity and our experience becomes clearer when he starts talking about the origins of Mormon polygamy. "The practice began around 1835," he writes, "when Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, took a second wife after receiving a revelation about polygamy; he eventually had more than thirty." Not "after claiming to receive" a revelation; after "receiving" one. "In 1890," he continues with the same straight face, "the Church’s president, Wilford Woodruff, also prompted by a revelation, issued a manifesto renouncing polygamy—a decision that fundamentalist Mormons dismiss as political expediency." It's not only fundamentalist Mormons who might reach that conclusion--Enlightenment skeptics like myself could easily reach it too. Yet just as we are no longer allowed to question other peoples' definitions of "man" and "woman," we apparently aren't supposed to question their claim of communication with a supreme being. Our founding fathers realized that we could not allow such revelations to interfere with political decisions.
Obviously people on the other side of the political fence will quickly accuse me, a straight white male, of simply idealizing a culture that favored me and disfavored others. As it happens, I don't think that western bourgeois culture was inherently racist, sexist, or homophobic, as the legal victories of nonwhites, women and gays in the last few decades prove. The key question for me is one of alternatives. Is the new wide-open cultural view simply leading to a more tolerant society in which we can all thrive? In my opinion, it is not. In universities, where it is strongest, it has created a less tolerant and diverse intellectual atmosphere, and the same thing has happened in the elite press. The broader question is: what degree of consensus is necessary for a complex modern society to function effectively? To judge from the American response to the pandemic, I would have to reply: more than we have now. It is Solomon's failure even to ask that question that troubles me. Apparently we shall continue to find the answer experimentally.