21 May 2008

Civilization and the Texas Cult

The Wall Street Journal - May 21, 2008

Opinion | Lionel Tiger

The desperate tragedy involving polygamous cultists in Texas has attracted a growing phalanx of lawyers, judges, law enforcers and assorted psychologists.

Those responsible for coping with this astonishing disaster would be well-advised to add a primatologist to the team. The fact is that, despite all the blather about faith and freedom of religion, the men operating the various compounds in question are behaving in virtually the same manner as countless dominant males in countless primate troops observed over the years.

The essence of the case is that the men who control the politics of the group (as well as the hapless women and children who live there) have used junk theology about heaven, hell, paradise and salvation to maintain their unquestioned access to all females of reproductive age (or younger).

That's the reproductive fantasy of any adult male primate.

In this blow to simple decency, the Texas polygamists are not pathfinders. Multiple wives are of course permitted in the Islamic religion, and co-wives are a feature of dozens of human groups in which powerful men control sufficient resources to be able to support more than one woman.

This is usually because the societies in which they live are sharply unequal. Sex and offspring flow to those with resources.

One of the triumphs of Western arrangements is the institution of monogamy, which has in principle made it possible for each male and female to enjoy a plausible shot at the reproductive outcome which all the apparatus of nature demands. Even Karl Marx did not fully appreciate the immense radicalism of this form of equity.

The Texans' faith-flaunting is morally disgraceful and crudely cynical. It also raises bewildering questions about human gullibility on one hand and the efficacy of the Big Lie on the other.

Can anyone really believe that the notorious communal bed to which senior men command 16-year-old girls is part of some holy temple apparatus? Apparently some people do, and the few escapees from the fetid zoo have testified to the power the ridiculous theory wields.

The victims are not only young women but young men too. They are reproductively and productively disenfranchised, and are in effect forced to leave the communities to become hopeless, ill-schooled misfits in the towns of normal life. No dignified lives as celibate monks with colorful costumes for them.

Again, the issue is cross-cultural. Osama bin Laden has at least five wives, which means that four young men of his tribe have no date on Saturday night and forever. They may become willing jihadists, or desperate suicides eager to soothe their god by killing infidels and Americans.

Elsewhere, preference for sons has meant a sharp shortage of women in China. It is known that raiding parties from there cross into bordering countries with more regular sex ratios to steal women.

The deranged cults have been operating in plain sight for years in Texan communities whose police forces have been earnestly writing parking tickets while ignoring what is obvious major criminality. Some 400 young children have been drastically separated from their mothers – who among other derogations of civil life are allegedly part of longstanding welfare fraud engineered by their sexual tyrants.

And now what? It will be intensely depressing but probably useful to acknowledge this is at bottom a natural matter, a product of our inner behavioral nature. Understanding the shadowy sources of this nightmare may help our community cope with its victims.

Mr. Tiger teaches anthropology at Rutgers and is the author of "The Decline of Males" (St. Martin's, 2000).

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