The GOP is having its difficulties with sassy youngsters, who won't stop asking about equal marital rights. First it was Michelle Bachmann explaining tendentiously to some Iowa high schoolers that everyone already has equal rights - just so long as they marry outside of their gender and within their species. The other day Rick Santorum walked into the same revolving door in New Hampshire with some college kids and emerged swinging, if one can use that word in the same sentence with "Santorum."
"Are we saying everyone should have the right to marry? So anyone can marry anyone else?" Santorum asked the insurgent crowd by way of countering the question. "So anybody can marry several people?" (Yes, yes, and why not?) There is always something disingenuous when an adult perpetrates an evident fallacy, particularly one hoary with age and overemployment. In this instance, Santorum offered his justifiably unruly audience a "straw man," the fallacy of exchanging whatever argument is currently on the table (equal marriage rights for everyone) for one speciously similar (three men! Oh gawd!). He then mistakenly presumed that the surrogate argument is so preposterous as not to require demolition. Like most common fallacies of informal logic, it introduces irrelevant matter into the conversation. It is of a piece with that other straw man offering, his famous "man on dog" comment (2003).
Santorum, the press assumed, was likening gay marriages to polygamous ones, even though he did specifically ask one young interlocutor, "Well, what about three men?" He was understandably booed for this baldfaced evasion. Faced with a roomful of hostile youth, one wonders whether in an unchristian moment the candidate may have reconsidered, however briefly, his stand on abortion.
Even so he raises an interesting point. Why shouldn't anyone be permitted to marry several people, indeed? Or just foregatherings of any sexes in any numbers within a single matrimonial bond? The problem isn't an ethical one: marriage, whatever its current religious and cultural baggage, is at bottom (if I may use that phrase on the same page with "Santorum") an economic institution. The rules and the mythical status we attach to it are as purely conventional as the good manners we observe while eating. There are in nature as many ways to marry as there are to eat your lunch.
No, it seems to me that as a culture, the Judaeo-Christian West just made a sheep-like dash for the simplest solution to getting the laundry and the cooking done. But it didn't have to work out this way - polygynous and polyandrous societies have been all the rage for milennia and they seem to work pretty well. Not to mention that such intricate arrangements may present a pretty serious obstacle to divorce, which would in the circumstance amount to expulsion from your accustomed part of town.
The advantages of such an arrangement are clear - everyone gets regular meals, everyone wears clean clothes, at least one adult knows what the kids are up to, and with a little bit of judicious scheduling, everyone gets regularly serviced. At the same time, the emotional baggage is lightened by being spread thin, sentiment never degenerates into the rank sentimentality of "hearts beating as one." It sounds like a no-nonsense, workable agreement. It sounds like a "win-win" . . . or "win-win-win."