HBO's 'Big Love': What Taboo?

Actor Bill Paxton has told the press that one of the sources of inspiration for his character on HBO’s drama about polygamy, “Big Love,” is Bill Clinton. That’s a telling comment. It suggests the reason why the show generates a ho-hum reaction: a Clintonian culture of promiscuity, adultery, and open marriage is already polygamous in its logic, even if it hasn’t gotten around to enshrining polygamy in law.

A culture of routine divorce also makes polygamy thinkable. After all, like Paxton’s character, 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.

The show can’t topple any taboos in this area because there are none left. In a culture of habitual divorce and promiscuity, Americans, whether they realize it or not, accept the core claim of polygamy: that sexual love needn’t be exclusive, permanent, and undivided.

Here again, Hollywood isn’t so much driving the culture as cementing it, taking attitudes widely in circulation and implicit in approved practices and improvising them. It ups the ante a little bit by portraying them in rare and superficially stigmatized (but not morally condemned in any real way) settings. Hollywood’s challenge is not so much to overcome the yuck factor as the yawn factor.

Press accounts about “Big Love” have noted that its creators are gay, which underscores that the opposition to polygamy from gay activists over the last few years is nothing more than political posturing. They know that polygamy is perfectly consistent with the logic underlying same-sex marriage but can’t say that lest it stall that drive.

Once marriage is accepted as “man-made,” humans can make it, unmake it, and remake it at will. And after that point any prohibitions are simple arbitrariness. Gay activists, for largely PR reasons, will sometimes insist upon the sacredness of “two,” which is oddly arbitrary, since they justify their position on the grounds that marriage has no natural, pre-existing character to it. At least the creators of “Big Love” are ignoring this fakery and following the premises of same-sex marriage to its logical conclusion.

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?

Polygamy is a guaranteed beneficiary of avant garde moral philosophy, because for all of its claims of progress it is basically a return to the practices of antiquity and pre-Christian paganism. It is ironic that at least on this front the modern West and world of Islam overlap. They are both in their own ways old ideologies of intemperance catered to fallen human nature, and they are both polygamous in their ethos.

The West promises multiple partners in this life; Islam promises many in the next. Where the West offers a menu of promiscuity, certain branches of Islam offer “temporary wives.” Men in the West can discard their wives through easy no-fault divorce; some sects of Islam permit men to divorce their wives by simply saying, “I divorce you.”

Western secularism and Islam share an antipathy for the hard sayings of Christianity, one of which revolves around the indissolubility of marriage. There is no reason why a de-Christianized culture in the West won’t gradually become as polygamous as those in the East. The wall protecting marriage as exclusive and permanent was long ago breached.