Tuesday, March 04, 2008

How to Lose a Culture

Last year there was a ghastly fire in New York killed nine immigrants from Mali, eight of them children. It later emerged that the father of some of the children was living polygynously in the U.S., where such is of course illegal. If a man’s church tells him that he can and even should have multiple wives, it is really no business of mine. (Of course, every extra wife he takes leaves a man with no wife at all, which is not healthy for social stability, but that is another matter.) But what was really revolting about the aftermath of the episode, as I learned from reading David J. Rusin’s piece in Pajamas Media, was some of the reaction that followed.

A gynecologist from Mali named Ousseiny Coulibaly who evidently often treats such women says multiple marriage either does not exist or is none of his concern. This attitude of non-concern extends, according to the New York Times article linked above, to the city’s social- services agencies:

Don’t-ask-don’t-know policies prevail in many agencies that deal with immigrant families in New York, perhaps because there is no framework for addressing polygamy in a city that prides itself on tolerance of religious, cultural and sexual differences — and on support for human rights and equality.

Last summer, when a nonprofit agency in the Bronx surveyed the needs of the sub-Saharan immigrants in its child care and literacy programs, questionnaires asked about interest in marriage counseling, but not about polygamy.

“This is a very private community,” said Rose Rivera, director of Head Start at the agency, the Women’s Housing and Employment Development Corporation, which largely relies on the fathers to translate for the mothers. “They’re not really ready to trust us.:

Ms Rivera thus takes the position that her primary if not sole mission is to make sure that her clients get the services she is paid to provide. The idea that immigrants might need to conform to the prevailing culture if they are to make it here evidently, and might benefit from her unambiguously telling them so, does not much concern her. Just make sure the “programs” that constitute her little empire have full enrollment, so that they may expand and conquer more of the private space of free men and women.

The academy does no better, if Miriam Cooke’s remarks in City Journal are any example:
It would be difficult to exaggerate the through-the-looking-glass quality of postcolonialist theory when it comes to the subject of women. Female suicide bombers are a good thing, because they are strong women demonstrating “agency” against colonial powers. Polygamy too must be shown due consideration. “Polygamy can be liberating and empowering,” Cooke answered sunnily when I asked her about it. “Our norm is the Western, heterosexual, single couple. If we can imagine different forms that would allow us to be something other than a heterosexual couple, we might imagine polygamy working,” she explained murkily. Some women, she continued, are relieved when their husbands take a new wife: they won’t have to service him so often. Or they might find they now have the freedom to take a lover. But, I ask, wouldn’t that be dangerous in places where adulteresses can be stoned to death? At any rate, how common is that? “I don’t know,” Cooke answers, “I’m interested in discourse.”

Color me cynical, but I would be inclined to disbelieve Prof. Cooke’s relaxed attitude toward women being freed from having to “service” (a suggestive word in itself for someone specializing in women’s studies) their husbands unless she were equally laissez-faire about polygyny among heretical Mormons in Utah in Arizona. And I very much doubt that, since the attitude of the right sorts of people to those polygynists is usually quite different. Prof. Cooke's enthusiasm is about waging war on her own culture, and not defending another.

As I say, religious affirmation of polygyny (affirmation of polyandry is noticeably rare; make of that what you will) is none of my concern. But the gleefully supine way in which the people on the front lines of government and academia will surrender the cultural ramparts in the name of “tolerance” and “discourse” is a sign of a culture well along the highway of decadence.



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