Arguable: Ready or not, here comes polygamy

TELEVISION SHOWS 2006: BIG LOVE -- HBO series -- Pictured, from left: Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn. PHOTO CREDIT: Ron Batzdorff/HBO 01crit
Ron Batzdorff/HBO
Ginnifer Goodwin, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Paxton, and Jeanne Tripplehorn in “Big Love.”

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Is legal polygamy on the way?

Polygamy is now regarded as “morally acceptable” by 17% of Americans, according to Gallup’s 2017 Values and Beliefs poll. That’s up from 14% in 2016, and the highest level of acceptance measured by Gallup since it began asking about the subject in 2003. Over the past decade, the share of Americans with no moral objection to a married person having more than one spouse at a time has more than tripled — from one in 20 (5% in 2006) to just under one in five (17% in 2017).

To be sure, 17% is a small share of the American public. Polygamy remains illegal in all 50 states, and there is no public clamor to change that status. But when nearly one-fifth of Americans see nothing wrong with plural marriages, only the willfully blind can imagine that the clamor isn’t coming.

The taboo against bigamy and polygamy, once rock-solid, has been getting chipped away at for years.


In 2008, NPR reported that an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 American Muslims were living in polygamous families. Though the Mormon Church renounced polygamy generations ago, so-called “fundamentalist” Mormons continue to engage in the practice — some 40,000 in Utah alone, according to a 2014 report. Since the early 1990s, it has been the policy of the American Civil Liberties Union that laws against polygamy are unconstitutional. Several lawsuits making that claim have been filed in federal court; in 2013, US District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that while Utah did not have to allow polygamy “in the literal sense” of issuing two or more valid marriage licenses, it could not penalize polygamous relationships.

And then there is popular culture, more influential and corrosive than any abstruse legal theories or fringe religious practices.

HBO’s fictional “Big Love,” which starred Bill Paxton as the Viagra-popping fundamentalist Mormon husband of three wives, ran for five seasons and collected a slew of industry awards along the way. “Sister Wives,” launched on the TLC network in 2010, isn’t fiction, but fact: For seven seasons, the reality-TV show has documented the life of Kody Brown, his four wives, and their 18 children. When millions of TV viewers are encouraged to regard polygamy as just another lifestyle choice, it’s hardly surprising that more and more of them do so.

“Polygamy is bobbing forward in social liberalism’s wake,” Ross Douthat wrote in 2015. Two years later, that’s even truer. Republicans may have spent the last eight years winning hundreds of local and state elections, but on virtually every issue except (perhaps) abortion, it is social conservatives who have been losing ground. The new Gallup poll documents not only that the social and moral stigma against polygamy is crumbling, but also the stigmas against pornography (which 36% say is morally acceptable), doctor-assisted suicide (57%), and out-of-wedlock birth (62%). Were Gallup to measure public attitudes toward other behaviors once considered taboo or inappropriate, such as foul language in public or immodest dress, the trend would unquestionably be the same. In some cases, such as gay and lesbian relationships, what is now increasingly considered morally unacceptable — and even punished by law or social backlash — is adherence to the traditional view.

Ideas have consequences, especially ideas that take root in the culture and are nurtured by the courts. Just last month, Brandeis University Press published Legalizing Plural Marriage: The Next Frontier in Family Law. Its author is Mark Goldfeder, a senior lecturer at Emory University’s law school., Here is how it begins:

“This is the first book that explains not only why the legalization of plural marriage may be on the horizon in America but also why the idea is not really as radical as you might at first glance think; why the legal arguments against it are surprisingly weak; and how . . . it would not actually be that difficult to accommodate.”


In a foreword to the book, US Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, one of the country’s most distinguished jurists, writes that “polygamy is more accessible than it may seem.” He salutes Goldfeder for showing “that polygamy is neither far-fetched nor far off” and is “in keeping with American legislative values and freedom. . . . Put simply, the book asks whether we could make a valid legal case for polygamy, and the answer it demonstratively and quite convincingly comes to is yes.”

These are not views from the crackpot fringe, but from well within the mainstream of scholarship and law. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor underscored the point during oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, one of two same-sex marriage cases the high court decided in 2013. “If you say that marriage is a fundamental right,” Sotomayor asked, “what state restrictions could ever exist?” How can the Constitution allow “state restrictions with respect to the number of people . . . that could get married?”

There may not yet be much grassroots support for actually legalizing polygamy. It will come. For years, Americans have been instructed that the government must not interfere with the intimate union of consenting adults. Once that principle is established, how can it be relevant whether the consenting adults in question are two gay men — or a “fundamentalist” Mormon and his four wives? If Gallup is right, plural marriage is still a bridge too far for most Americans. But the history of same-sex marriage shows how quickly attitudes can change under the pressure of popular entertainment, legal activism, and shifting moral judgments.

You’re not ready for polygamy today? Perhaps not, but tomorrow will be here sooner than you think.

We don’t need no stinkin’ First Amendment

Speaking of disturbing polls, here’s another one. The latest Economist/YouGov opinion survey illustrates how easily Americans are willing to jettison basic constitutional norms if they think it’s in their party’s interest to do so.


Respondents were asked if they “favor or oppose permitting the courts to shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate.” There could hardly be a more flagrant violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of the press — and yet a shocking 45% of Republicans said they would support silencing media voices for such a reason. Among Democrats, 18% were in favor; among independents, 25%.

The results were even worse when respondents were asked whether judges should fine (as opposed to close) media outlets on the grounds of bias or inaccuracy. A solid majority of Republicans — 55% — said yes; so did 30% of independents and 23% of Democrats. In answer to another question, only 33% of Republicans and independents thought that fining a media outlet for being biased would “violate the Constitution.” The share of Democrats who thought so was higher, but less than a majority: 45%.

As Erick Erickson points out, abandonment of basic First Amendment principles is not limited to either party. In a YouGov poll two years ago, respondents were asked whether it should be a crime to “make public comments intended to stir up hatred against a group.” Making public comments is a core freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, yet only 26% of Democrats (and 47% of Republicans) said they would oppose such criminalizing of free speech.

“Party loyalty trumps the rule of law,” Erickson writes in dismay.

Democrats were far more willing to curtail the First Amendment when their party controlled the White House, while the Republicans were, naturally, more opposed. Now that party control is reversed, so too are the parties’ opinions of the First Amendment. Respecting the constitution based on whether your party controls the White House is a dangerous thing.

It is occasionally said if the Bill of Rights were presented to voters as a ballot initiative, they would vote it down. I used to think that was because of widespread civic ignorance. Increasingly, though, I worry that political tribalism, not lack of knowledge, is the more serious threat to civil liberties and constitutional rights.

Chiseled in granite at the entrance to the National Archives in Washington are the words “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.” Eternal vigilance against — what? Foreign enemies? Corrupt politicians? Violent mobs? Perhaps. But more insidious than any of those is the temptation to side with those who agree with us, and use the power of law to cripple those who don’t. Of all possible threats to freedom, it is that one more than any other that needs to be resisted with “eternal” vigilance.

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Down under, a Muslim Miss

The newly crowned Miss World Australia is Esma Voloder, who brought not only the expected beauty and brains to the competition, but a particularly stirring life story: She was born 25 years ago in a refugee camp to Bosnian parents fleeing war in the Balkans. Like most Bosnians, Voloder and her family are Muslim — and her victory in the pageant put a lot of bigots’ noses out of joint.

Miss World Australia organizers were reportedly deluged with calls from people demanding to know how a Muslim could have been permitted to win. Voloder’s response has been elegant and gentle: “I forgive them,” she told the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph. “Life is too short for negativity.” the 25-year-old added.

We live in an age of bloody terror perpetrated by radical Islamists. Concerns about Islam’s role in any society are understandable. But if any kind of Muslim should be welcomed and celebrated in Western nations like Australia, surely it’s the kind like Voloder, an immigrant who publicly expresses gratitude to her adopted country for offering her opportunities her parents never had, and who openly embraces Western norms and values.

That is definitely the view of my favorite Australian blogger, Arthur Chrenkoff. Though a stalwart foe of radical Islam, Chrenkoff writes “In praise of a Muslim Miss,” celebrating his nation’s newest cultural ambassador, and expressing scorn, in red-blooded Australian style, for the “bigots and naysayers” who resent her.

Putin’s spiteful math

On Sunday, Vladimir Putin responded to the new congressional sanctions against Russia by ordering that US diplomatic staff at the embassy in Moscow and consulates in three other cities be reduced by 755 people. But the US diplomatic missions in Russia don’t employ 755 American citizens — or anywhere close to that number. According to a personnel report compiled by the federal government in 2013, only 333 State Department employees at the diplomatic missions in Russia were Americans. More than 2½ as many were foreign nationals, mostly local Russia support staff. The numbers may be slightly different today, but the bottom line is clear: Even if Washington were to recall every single US citizen employed on its foreign-service staff in Russia — which won’t happen — the great majority of those who lose their jobs will nevertheless be Russians: drivers, guards, electricians, custodians.

Putin, of course, is perfectly capable of throwing hundreds of Russians out of work in a fit of spite. But it’s hard to see how taking jobs away from Russians will teach Washington a lesson.

Why not kill babies?

More evidence that you can be a highly educated intellectual and a moral cretin.

Freedom’s joyful apostle

Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman, arguably the most influential champion of free-market economics since Adam Smith. He was a recipient of the 1976 Nobel Prize in economics for his scholarly work on monetary theory and history. But he was also the author of best-selling books and hundreds of essays for the general public, the creator of the splendid 1980 television series “Free to Choose,” and the most gifted exponent of economic liberty in modern times. The internet is replete with videos of Friedman lecturing, being interviewed on TV, and fielding questions from college students and senior citizens. Some of these videos are more than 40 years old; all of them are a treat to watch.

Friedman had an amazing talent for articulating controversial ideas with clarity, humor, and passion. In a column 20 years ago, I described my first encounter with Milton Friedman’s ideas:

For sheer intellectual excitement, I have never known another moment quite like it. I was a freshman at George Washington University, just beginning my first semester on a college campus. The course was “Politics and Values,” and the assigned reading was heavy on political economy. There were books by John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, Louis Kelso, two or three other economists. We were reading them at the rate of about one a week; whatever impressions these books made on me at the time faded from memory long ago.

But one book was different. Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” electrified me. I was riveted by it. Like fireworks lighting up the July 4th sky, Friedman’s themes dazzled me — the genius of markets, the power of prices, the link between prosperity and liberty, the miracles made possible when individuals can choose freely. The sensation was almost physically thrilling. I can still see myself sitting at a study carrel in the GW library, devouring the book’s chapters, intoxicated by its ideas, awash with the pleasure of learning. I was experiencing something new — the elation of intellectual discovery. “Capitalism and Freedom” changed the world as I knew it.

If you’ve never read or viewed any of Friedman’s work, his 105th birthday is a great time to start. Lucky you; you’re in for a treat.


My Sunday column defended the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., which has been sharply critized for its decision to auction off 40 works of art in order to raise enough money to establish an endowment, stabilize its shaky finances, and renovate its building. I contrasted the Berkshire’s willingness to bite the bullet with the spinelessness of Congress and the White House, which every year spends hundreds of billions of dollars more than the Treasury takes in, driving the American public ever-deeper into debt.

In my column on Wednesday, I described a forthcoming study into whether moderate drinking confers health benefits. The study, to be conducted on four continents, will be run by the National Institutes of Health, considered the gold standard for research integrity. At the same time, most of the tab for the expensive study — more than $100 million — will be underwritten by five large alcoholic-beverage corporations. When industry picks up the tab, does that mean the research is tainted?

Wild Wild Web

5 million miles, 44 states, 644 Cracker Barrel restaurants visited. And counting.

Philosophy jokes, unnecessarily explained.

His snoring was keeping her up. She turned it into this.

An inquisitive puffin makes friends with a tourist.

Michael Jackson didn’t invent the moonwalk.

Anyone who takes piano lessons learns to play Mozart’s Rondo “Alla Turca.” But only Yuja Wang can play it like this.

The last line

“We close this book full of optimism for the future, in the belief that those ideas will prevail and that our children and grandchildren will live in a country that continues to advance rapidly in material and biological well-being, giving its citizens ever-wider freedom to follow their own values and tastes so long as they do not interfere with the ability of others to do the same.”

— Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People: Memoirs (1998)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.