Bryan Caplan  

The Power of Love

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[warning: spoiler]

Big Love
, HBOs transcendentally excellent polygamy drama, is back for its third season.  I've praised it often enough (here and here for starters), but the last show was too good not to blog.  In this episode, Don Embry, the right-hand man and fellow polygamist of lead character Bill Henrickson, starts acting erratically.  It finally comes out that two of his wives have left him and taken their children, and given the illegality of his lifestyle, there's no legal way Don can even get visitation.   "What kind of world are we living in?" he cries.

It's a great scene, but its power grows when you understand where the writers are coming from.  Big Love's writer-creators are a gay couple, Mark Olson and Will Scheffer.  A gay friend of mine once balked when I analogized gay marriage to polygamy - recognizing, perhaps, that the analogy was just the excuse the masses need to keep banning both.  But instead of looking at culturally conservative polygamists and seeing evil - or worse yet, a substitute scapegoat - Olson and Scheffer find a common humanity.  As a writer, I'm green with envy.  Watch it.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Sara writes:

Is this even true though? As far as I know any biological father can seek visitation rights, whether of not he was ever legally married to the mother.

Lee writes:

Maybe one person in a few thousand has the kind of contrary sentiments needed to reason in that direction. Very nice post.

I'm going to start watching the show.

Dan Weber writes:

Sara, I think you're right in general. But from what I understand, the protagonists on the show operate under the law and try to hide from the authorities as much as possible.

I would agree. I think legally Don could request visitation of the children. The issue is that Don and Bill work hard to keep their polygamy hidden for the fear of being socially ostracized and the economic fallout, ie. the effects upon Home Plus (and thus the need for Weber Gaming).

ws1835 writes:

Legally, Don could get visitation in almost any state in the country, as long as he proves parternity.

Realistically the only issue here is Don and Bill's reluctance to face social stigma. And since that stigma would also be applied to the wives in this case, I doubt any of the parties would ever mention it to the judge. Getting visitation would be no problem. The indignant cry of "what kind of world do we live in?" seems pretty weak. We simply don't live in the world the writers have portrayed.

In my personal opinion, the only commality I can see between polygamy and gay marriage is that both are socially stigmatized in the USA. Historically, polygamy would have a far greater claim to legitimancy since it has been practiced and recognized innumerous societies unlike gay marriage. In addition, gay couples can not procreate which makes the claim to marriage weak since child rearing is the primary purpose of marriage as a social construct. All of the other legal aspects of marriage are no different than a business contract/partnership. Obviously, as evidenced by this episode, polygamy doesn't face the same challenge......

ws1835 writes:

Forgot to add.......

In most states, a gay man would be entitled to the same visitation rights for any child they sired. In some of the more progressive states, there is growing legal precedent for granting parental rights to more than just mom and dad. A recent case in Oregon granted rights to a lesbian partner subsequent to the break-up of a civil union even though she was not biologically related to the child involved.

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