The Nation's Pulse

Cultures Monogamous and Polyamorous

The great divide in America.

By 1.8.10

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In all of human history, the culture of monogamy has never encountered the type of competition it faces now. We must engage. 
--Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D.

What is known as the "culture war" in America can be characterized in terms of the polarities it represents: red versus blue states, the mommy party versus the daddy party, the culture of death versus the culture of life, the culture of dependency versus enterprise, Palinistas versus Pelosians.

Now we have a new, intellectually audacious conceptualization of the struggle as proposed by Dr. Patrick F. Fagan, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Family and Community Policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush, who is also a psychologist with a doctorate in social policy from University College Dublin:

The culture of the traditional family is now in intense competition with a very different culture. The defining difference between the two is the sexual ideal each embraces. The traditional family of Western civilization is based on lifelong monogamy. The competing culture is "polyamorous," normally a serial polygamy, but also increasingly polymorphous in its different sexual expressions.

Monogamy versus polyamory. Fagan describes this great divide in an article in the latest issue of Touchstone which is based on a talk (PDF) he gave this past August to the World Congress of Families in Amsterdam. His description of these contending worldviews is clinical, yet bracing in its implications for the fate of the family, the culture and American society as a whole.

Fagan embraces a broad definition of polyamory, which a popular dictionary defines as the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time. It is derived from the Greek, poly or many, and the Latin, amor or love. Clearly, Fagan's definition includes a whole range of liberated sexual practices such as homosexuality, although some gay advocates reject the association.

The World Polyamory Association's ("More Loves Make More Love") Vision Statement proclaims an ecumenical standard of the widest latitude:

You have relationship options-monogamy, celibacy, open marriage, pair-bonded inclusive relating, triads (man-woman-woman, woman-man-woman, man-man-man, woman-woman-woman) polyfidelity [sic], loving networks, group marriage, multi-generational line marriage, and more. You have heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual alternatives within each. You have many spiritual practices and value systems to chose [sic]-to mix and match with your relationship options, styles and sexual orientation. What is most important is that you are the chooser and that you come from choice.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." But even the wily Moynihan learned that criticizing the unintended consequences of welfare-state politics, which undermine families and communities, can bring down the wrath of its "operational bureaucracy" (to use one of Fagan's terms) on anyone so bold as to challenge its actual effects as opposed to its intended results.

Fortunately, Fagan is not a timid soul. He fearlessly describes, in excruciating detail, the profound differences and assumptions that differentiate the cultures of monogamy and polyamory. In addition to the obvious case of religion in the public square, they part ways on the very concept of freedom. The former emphasizes "the freedom to be good," that is monogamous and faithful. The latter promotes "freedom from any constraints upon sexual behavior."

Monogamy seeks objective truth and norms. Polyamory is relativist in its moral orientation. The one promotes a limited constitutional state because it assumes self-imposed restraint and self-discipline. The other relies on social welfare programs "to rescue its adherents from the effects of its form of sexuality."

On children, abortion, the role of the traditional family and the responsibility of fathers as well as mothers, these cultures reflect antithetical views.

"In the culture of monogamy, men are anchored in their families and tied to their children and wives, through the free and deliberate focus of their sexuality," says Fagan. "In the culture of polyamory, which treasures sexual freedom or license, such sexual constraint by men (or women) is not expected, nor, in fact, is any attempt to foster such constraint acceptable, for that would be the antithesis of the main project of the culture of polyamory, women are anchors, while men can drift (or be cast adrift) as desired, and they do so in very large numbers."

Ironically, the culture of polyamory aggressively fosters the kind of male feminists justly decry: the sexually and physically harassing, the abusing and abandoning male. "Being the natural cost of its defining project, these and related dysfunctions justify and necessitate more safety nets," says Fagan.

Despite the costs and social pathologies fostered by the culture of polyamory, it thrives by controlling the commanding heights of the culture and public policy: childhood education, sex education, and adolescent health programs. This, argues Fagan, allows it to reach into traditional culture, gradually dismantling it and gaining "converts":

In a polemical vein, one could say the polyamorists "snatch" children away from their parents and from the culture of monogamy just as the Ottoman Turks of the fourteenth century raided boys from Christian nations to train them as their own elite warriors, the Janissaries.

The culture of polyamory jealously guards these positions of strength. Fagan notes how the rise of abstinence education in the United States, essentially education in monogamy, galvanized a ferocious counter-attack resulting in cutbacks in federal funding. The resistance to home schooling in Europe displays some of the same animosity.

State-controlled and funded programs are uniformly monogamy-hostile. In effect, says Fagan, universal safety-net insurance programs, read "taxes," effectively require the monogamous to pay disproportionately more to support those who choose the polyamory culture. The proper response to this state of affairs is political action to divert the flow of tax money back to parents in the form of vouchers "so they can then choose the individual doctors, teachers, and schools they want for their children. The professionals will still receive the same amount of money, but instead of serving a bureaucracy, they will be cooperating with the parents."

Fagan believes that men have a duty to lead in what is basically an effort to protect their children since they "have the special role of being the primary protectors" of the monogamous family.

"Every monogamous man will be expected to fight to obtain his and his family's just due, to have a say in what his taxes fund, and to exercise control over the three big programs of childhood education, sex education, and adolescent health programs, so that they can be carried out in a way that supports the norms of his family's culture of monogamy," says Fagan.

As it happens, I know Patrick Fagan and his family which is not short of strong women. One can assume he focuses on the role of male heads of families for reasons not only philosophical, but rhetorical and tactical. He does not want to treat "family issues" as an exclusively female domain. The stakes are too high, and men need to be challenged to weigh in with the same resolve they might muster on defense or economics.

Fagan's Touchstone article varies from the text of his original Amsterdam speech in some very subtle but telling ways. In the original version, he posits a question in its title: "Family Diversity and Political Freedom: How Can People With Different Approaches To Family Life Live Together In Free Societies?"

In the speech itself he asks, "Is it possible for these two cultures to live together in the same political order? This is the political question which defines our day." He also discusses vouchers in terms of making the behavioral bureaucracy "serve both cultures" and keeping the social welfare safety net in place while "the parents (be they monogamous or polyamorous) will choose who holds the net in place for their children."

Finally, he leaves open the possibility of "drawing to our side not only monogamous men but the fathers of good will in the culture of polyamory…"

In other words, Fagan's article does not seem to hold out the peace pipe which, however unlikely to be accepted by the supporters of the culture of polyamory, was offered in his Amsterdam speech. Indeed, the very idea of a voucher approach assumes a pluralism that would allow for widely differing lifestyles and ways of rearing children. This is what William Kristol once called using neo-libertarian means to achieve traditional ends.

While Fagan's Touchstone article is a stronger statement of his position, the language in his original Amsterdam speech should not be forgotten. Even as we regret the rise of the culture of polyamory, and doubt the good will or willingness of its proponents to make room for the supporters of monogamy, it is a uniquely American trait to hope for some kind of accommodation in or amelioration of the culture wars that divide our nation. Fagan was, is entirely correct to hold out that hope.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.