From Here to Insanity
By Selwyn Duke
While art imitates life, it’s also true that life imitates art. It’s with this in mind that my eyebrows were raised upon hearing about Big Love, a series with which HBO breaks new, albeit not hallowed, ground. It stars Bill Paxton as Salt Lake City businessman Bill Henrickson, a man with two lives and three wives, as he is a polygamist who keeps his families life secret.
Pondering such subject matter, my thoughts meander back almost three decades. It was at that time, in 1977, when the first memorable regular homosexual television character, “Jodie Dallas,” was brought into American homes in the hit sitcom Soap. (According to Museum of Television and Radio researcher Barry Monush, the very first regular homosexual character was “Peter Panama” in the short-lived 1972-73 series The Corner Bar.)
For the first time in our history, millions of Americans tuned in religiously and were amused by the antics surrounding a homosexual character. And from that point forward, we saw a steady increase in the number and prominence of homosexual characters on TV and in movies, a trend that accelerated markedly after the AIDS crisis hit in the early to mid-1980s. Everyday folks watched – be it the camp La Cage Aux Folles or the dramatic The Crying Game – and they laughed, empathized, sometimes squirmed and occasionally shed tears. But mostly they laughed.
It seems as if we’ve understood the power of imagery since the very inception of cinema. Many have lamented the effect of D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 silent movie The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as comprising gallant white-hooded knights who defended womanhood and southern culture from an animalistic black race. Many have decried it, and virtually no one denies its ability to perpetuate stereotypes. Two decades later, the Nazis capitalized on the propaganda possibilities of film with their camera wielding svengali Leni Riefenstahl, who crafted masterfully beguiling documentaries with an artistic flair of which Michael Moore could only dream most wistfully. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Even in the case of Moore’s clumsy efforts it’s valued in the neighborhood of at least a hundred.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The widespread acceptance of homosexuality or the favorable portrayal of it on screen? The truth is that it’s both, but far more the latter than the former. The fact is that we human beings find happy mediums to be most elusive. Condemn the sin but not the sinner? That’s the ideal, but most are infinitely more apt to either condemn both the sin and the sinner or neither the sinner nor the sin. And the latter error prevails in our time, especially where homosexuality is concerned. Moreover, this is no doubt partially because when you start to laugh at something, you start to cease to be outraged by it. And when you start to identify with a TV character, when you start to like him, there’s a natural tendency to accept that which is associated with him. It’s . . . disarming.
So, in 2006, after decades of Hollywood conditioning and a whole degenerating generation weaned on entertainment replete with homosexual characters and content, homosexuality is just another flavor of the day. Do you prefer chocolate, vanilla, or tutti-frutti? Thus, we find ourselves debating what was unthinkable when we slipped on Soap and started down that slippery slope toward Caligula’s court: should we legalize what the left has duped us into calling, quite oxymoronically, “homosexual marriages” (I won’t use the lexicon of the left, so henceforth I will refer to them as “faux marriages”)? Ah, should we indeed. The power of imagery.
Without a doubt, marriage is under attack, with the faux marriage lobby and its enablers in the media and popular culture seeking to co-opt the word and redefine the institution. Of course, marriage has its defenders too, and it is an argument and a refutation in the cultural battle between the two camps that makes the polygamous Big Love most relevant.
The argument is the centerpiece of faux marriage advocacy, namely, that to deny homosexuals the “right” to legal sanction of their unions is to deny equal protection under the law. The refutation is put forth by traditional culture warriors, social commentator Bill O’Reilly and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum among them, who have warned of the implications of this line of reasoning. After all, if denying homosexuals the right to legal marriage outside the traditional definition does violence to the principle of equality, how can you deny the “right” to those whose flavor of choice lies elsewhere outside that definition? For instance, those who practice polygamy.
But the faux marriage crowd has a retort at the ready. Paul Varnell, writing in his piece Gay Marriage, then Poligamy?, said,
“. . . nothing in the principles supporting gay marriage provides any support for the legalization of any other type of relationship, much less polygamy. And the legalization of polygamy seems very unlikely anyway in modern societies like the U.S.”
And, by and large, this is the stance of the proponents of faux marriage. This will not lead to the destruction of marriage, say they. Faux marriage is the end-game; it will go no further. Just sign on the dotted line.
Being a one issue activist, a provincial breed that often can’t see beyond its own selfish, narrow agenda, Varnell may very well have no desire to further degrade marriage. But he certainly is no prophet, an assertion I’ll buttress with exhibit A: a Newsweek article titled Polygamists, Unite! The author speaks of,
“. . . a new wave of polygamy activists emerging in the wake of the gay-marriage movement – just as a federal lawsuit challenging anti-polygamy laws makes its way through the courts and a new show about polygamy debuts on HBO.”
Then, we should ponder the argument propounded by Mark Henkel, founder of pro-polygamy TruthBearer.org. The article quotes him as saying,
“Polygamy rights is the next civil-rights battle . . . . if Heather can have two mommies, she should also be able to have two mommies and a daddy.”
Some may think that this could just be a phase, an isolated social accident that is to be expected in a country that still has some old school Mormons. On the contrary, however, this movement is part of a pattern, a fact evidenced by the recent history of a nation whose social developments can be considered harbingers of cultural change throughout the western world: Sweden.
Long a bastion of the radical left, in 1987 Sweden became the very first country to offer homosexual couples domestic partnership benefits, then took the leap into the legalization of de facto faux marriage in 1994. But here’s where it gets interesting. As reported by Stanley Kurtz in the February 26, 2006 issue of National Review Online, forces in Sweden are seriously proposing going where no perverse land has gone before. Writes Kurtz,
. . . in March of 2004 . . . one of the few conservative papers in Sweden, Nya Dagen, reported that a local youth wing of Sweden’s governing Social Democrat party had endorsed the idea of replacing marriage with a gender-neutral, multi-partner-friendly marriage system. Around the same time, the youth wing of Sweden’s Green party called for formal recognition of polyamorous (i.e. multi-partner) relationships.
So while faux marriage lobbyists may echo Paul Varnell’s prognostication, “. . . the legalization of polygamy seems very unlikely anyway in modern societies like the U.S.,” current events have already exposed it as something less than prescient.
But then, polygamy activists represent only a small minority. And here in America we have that ironclad assurance that all the social engineers want is faux marriage, then they’ll take their pink ball and go home. Interestingly, however, that tune has been played before – in folkmusik. As Stanley Kurtz pointed out,
“Nya Dagen reminded its readers that the public had been promised no further changes in the family after the initial same-sex partnership legislation in 1987, and again after Registered Partnerships in 1994. Don’t believe it! said Nya Dagen.”
No, don’t believe it. A lie is a lie in the modern society of the U.S. just as it is in the modern society of Sweden.
Thus, if Soap portended the second American sexual revolution, one could be left wondering if Big Love is the first reconnaissance mission of the third one. That said, it would be just as great a mistake to view legalized polygamy as the end result as it would be to view faux marriages as such. The truth is that they are both merely steps in an agenda-driven progression, one that ensures the ever widening of the boundaries of acceptable libertine behavior and the ever narrowing of the boundaries of acceptable traditional judgements about it. And once marriage is seen as no longer limited to a man and a woman joined together in Holy Matrimony, a Pandora’s Box will have been opened. Where will it end? The terminus appears murky to most, but as Bill O’Reilly has opined, the next thing we’ll know is that someone will want to marry a duck or a goat.
Big Love may be a big hit or a big flop, but culturally it is a big mistake. And there is a lesson here. As the existence of Anytown, U.S.A., teens who dress like gangsta rappers will attest, life does imitate art. From The Birth of a Nation to The Ten Commandments to Brokeback Mountain to Big Love, our entertainment can serve as a social barometer and a warning, telling us where we have been, where we are now and, perhaps, where we’re going. As to the last matter, it seems we’re heading south for the winter of our discontent. Let’s just hope that the next time they make a movie about a boy and his dog, it’s nothing more nor less than the innocent stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting.