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I was a polygamist's bride in another life (Jamaica Observer)

Sharon Leach
Sunday, September 10, 2006

GEORGE Orwell once said that in a time of deceit, telling the truth was a revolutionary act. Which makes the statement made by Flora Jessop, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, on the arrest of the Utah church's leader, Warren Jeffs, something to think about. She said: "Anybody who expects polygamy to go away is a fool. It's been here 100 years and is not going to go away because one guy gets arrested."
Well, amen sister. It's high time someone said it.

Every few years, a news story pops up about some Mormon leader who is being investigated, or who has been prosecuted, for the practice of polygamy. And every few years, there is the requisite hue and cry, shock and awe even, as civilised American society nervously titters for a few days about the presence of that kind of parochialism in its midst. Then the next news scandal blows in and it gets caught up in healthy debate on, for instance, the reasons why Tom Cruise took so long to release his kid's baby pictures to her adoring public.

The thing with the polygamy story, though, is that it never really goes away. Jessop is right. Polygamy in Utah or any of those marginalised, remote Deliverance-types of locales is never going to go away. In the same way, terrorism will never magically disappear; there is no winning the 'war on terror' simply because war cannot be waged on abstract concepts. But that's another matter.

American reaction to the Jeffs story, and consequently the unmistakable fact of the occurrence of polygamy, is vaguely entertaining. I don't get it, though, this almost tangible collective sense of embarrassment of theirs. If I sound like a polygamy sympathiser, maybe it's because I've always felt that in another life, I was one of the wives of an African king; I think I could have been a 15-year-old girl when I was taken to the palace to be with the king's other wives.

The truth is these rogue Utah fundamentalist groups spit on all the blood, sweat and tears sacrificed by their missionary forebears who laboured to make proselytes of the 'uncivilised' world. Jeffs and his polygamy-practicing kind remind them too much of the darkness.

Polygamy in a refined civilisation whose men don't dress in primitive loincloths and brandish spears (well, camouflage, army fatigues and RPGs don't count), and whose women don't walk around profligate and bare-breasted (unless, of course, it's Cameron Diaz or Paris Hylton photographed by some itchy-fingered paparazzo with evaporated Pulitzer dreams, on a nude beach in St Barts) is too much for the delicate American sensibilities. Plural marriages are uncivilized; better gay marriage.

Better yet, adultery, which everybody accepts, and in some cases, expects. In France, for example, I am told that a married man without a mistress is the exception rather than the rule. So much so that it was common knowledge that former president Francois Mitterand divided his time between his wife Danielle and one of his many mistresses, Anne Pingeot, with whom he sired a daughter, Mazarine.

Still, the brouhaha about the Jeffs arrest is hypocritical, isn't it? For me, the related issue of morality, with regards to the practice of polygamy becomes a moral issue only in the context of arrogant Western culture, with its built-in sense of superiority that automatically deems other cultures and practices inferior. Let's face it: monogamy is an unnatural state of being. Biologically speaking, polygamy seems to be the less contrived option.

The rest of the animal kingdom knows this. Early civilization understood this. Polygamy existed in ancient China; rich Chinese men had many wives and concubines. Polygamy existed in early Hindu society. Biblical Jewish law allowed polygamy, too, until Rabbinic Judaism outlawed it. Islam recognised it too.

It was the West, with its obsession with sex, and in its quest to 'Christianize' the rest of the world, that stomped all over the practice. A practice which was traditionally economic and social in context, and primarily observed for the purposes of enhancing productivity in agrarian societies and also to ensure the continued status and survival of widows and orphans within an established family structure. (Isn't it ironic that it was Westerners who actually ended up giving polygamy a bad name, exploiting it for the sexual advantages it offers, under the guise of redefining it as a religious practice?).

It was Saint Augustine who saw a conflict with Old Testament polygamy and took it upon himself to write about it in The Good of Marriage, where he stated that though it 'was lawful among the ancient fathers: whether it be lawful now also, I would not hastily pronounce. For there is not now necessity of begetting children, as there then was, when, even when wives bear children, it was allowed, in order to a more numerous posterity, to marry other wives in addition, which now is certainly not lawful.'

Still, there are some who think the polygamy issue will become the next civil rights battle of the West. Under the headline 'Polygamists Unite!' Newsweek has enlightened us about polygamy activists surfacing in the wake of the current gay marriage issue in America. There's even the entertaining new HBO series Big Love about, what else, polygamy in suburban America. In the meantime, I have a feeling the debate is just getting started.