In discussions of how to redraw the lines of marriage to include same-sex unions, polygamy frequently is raised as the next stop on the slippery slope to anarchy. Some say polygamy has a better claim to inclusion, citing its traditional place among societies as far-flung in time and space as ancient Japan and the modern Middle East, as well as contemporary behavior. This claim always strikes me as over-focused on historical precedent as a basis for legitimacy. Of much greater importance is the compatibility of any new-to-U.S. practice with our legal ideals and trends. Same-sex marriage seems not only permitted but required by the move toward gender equality and non-discrimination against homosexuals. In contrast, polygamy appears likely to encourage inequality and abuse.
"Polygamy" has always seemed vaguely liberal, like some swinging Southern California hippie scene, but Krakauer's story is violent to the core. It is the story of forced marriages, rape, child sexual abuse, religious blackmail, and torture in the name of God. Its victims are famous -- Elizabeth Smart, for example, the Utah teen who was kidnapped and abused by a fundamentalist couple -- and not so famous, and they number in the thousands.
Ironically, these polygamous sects survive -- and indeed are tolerated -- out of inherent liberalism, a respect for free speech and religious freedom. Law enforcement is loathe to act quickly for fear of appearing to violate these basic American rights. And yet it is the challenge of law enforcement, as an extension of the will of the people, to protect young girls and women from losing all of their civil rights and suffering sexual humiliation and violence in the process.The men of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints avoid prosecution by registering only one of their marriages with the state. This strategy leaves without legal resources the other "wives" who, even more in this patriarchal society than in mainstream America, are dependant on their husbands. If they want to leave, they cannot demand alimony or a division of marital resources.
However, if there are any states that do not explicitly ban multiple marriages -- no state provides for them -- theoretically members of this sect could move there en masse and do what the people of Eldorado, Texas fear that they will: democratically change the system to suit themselves. Although initiatives such as Issue One in Ohio have thrown local recognition of same-sex partnerships into legal question, in the absence of similar hostile legislation, polygamists might be able to get their own city ordinances.
(Regarding the verity of the post title: Eldorado isn't quite next door; it's a few hundred miles from my hometown. But the main difference between small towns in West and East Texas is that they have oil and dirt; we have trees and... dirt.)