August 19th, 2006

V for Vendetta

The President and the Polyamorists

George Bush is strongly outraged by a federal district court judge's finding that his bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Supervisory Court when wiretapping the international long-distance calls of suspected al Qaeda contacts in the US is unconstitutional and, unless he prevails at an appeal hearing on the 7th, it must end no later than that date. How strongly? In his Friday official statement from Camp David on the subject, almost every sentence had the phrase "strongly disagree" in it -- that is to say, almost every sentence he was able to finish. The rest of his sentences, despite his usually bland face, were being choked off by paroxysms of rage.

I understand his rage. Wiretapping enemy agents' calls to home, and even enemy diplomats' calls to home, is something that every President since Lincoln has done during wartime. When FDR was authorizing wiretaps on suspected Nazi saboteurs, can you imagine AT&T technicians going to the press about this? If they did, can you imagine the press publishing the story? And in the profoundly unlikely event that both of those things occurred, can you imagine the federal courts not making excuses not to hear the case, no matter how hard the ACLU tried? So of course he's feeling angry. He's feeling unfairly singled out. We know that Lincoln did it, and nobody gave him grief about it. We know that Wilson, FD Roosevelt, and Kennedy did it, and nobody gave them grief about it. We may not unreasonably assume that Ike and the Gipper did it during their more limited wars, and if so, nobody gave them grief about it. But when GW Bush does it, all of a sudden it's a huge national crisis. When you put it that way, it's not fair, is it?

So why did the telco techs snitch to the press this time? Why did the press run with it? And why, to my surprise as much as his, were the courts willing to actually hear lawsuits over it? George Bush says he thinks it's because they don't realize, deep down, that the US is at war. What he clearly also thinks, from his tone, is that it's because there are still a few judges left who were appointed by Democrats and they don't like him personally. But it dawned on me this evening why this is happening, and it has nothing to do with either of those things. But then, I'm in a unique position to understand this. You see, I have many friends who keep making the same argument that Bush is making, only about their personal lives. And it's just as hard to explain to them why they're being singled out for public outrage and Department of Family Services invasions when other people who do the same things are at most the subject of minor grumbling and, at most, brief social ostracism.

You see, I'm a polyamorist, and have known this about myself since at least the age of 14, back in 1974. For those (few) of you unfamiliar with the term, polyamory is the belief that at least some people are not only capable of genuinely and truly loving more than one person at the same time, but also incapable of feeling jealousy when they find out that those who love them also love other people too. (Before any self-identified polyamorist nitpicks, yes I'm aware that there are newcomers to the "movement" who insist that "incapable" is unfair, and would extend the label of polyamorous to people who are capable of feeling jealousy, even those who are inclined to do so, as long as they agree that jealousy is unfair and try to fight it. I blame these people for the wreck of countless thousands of lives.) There's more to polyamory than sex, but to put it bluntly, polyamorists don't have a problem with themselves or other polyamorists having multiple romantic sexual partners at the same time.

And whenever any significant number of polyamorists gather, one of the guaranteed, inevitable topics of conversation is to contrast public attitudes towards polyamory with those towards either adultery, that is to say having romantic or sexual relationships with more than one person at a time but lying about it, or swinging, that is to say having "sport sex" with other women and/or couples and denying that there's anything emotional about it. Swingers, when outed, are social pariahs ... but widely envied, as well, and they seldom face any major consequences for their hobby. (Yes, I know, not "never." But seldom.) Adulterers face the threat of divorce, and perhaps ostracism at church, but not even consistently either or both of those consequences, and certainly it's never taken as prima facie evidence that they're bad parents. But let a social worker or a family court judge find out that the parents are polyamorists, and it's a near certainty that they'll be ruled unfit parents, and the resulting publicity will almost always wreck their relationships with their families, guarantee them social pariah status not just at church but in their whole town, and not improbably cost them their jobs or even whole careers. This gives them the same angry, peevish sense of being singled out that's evident in George Bush's reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld or Judge Taylor's ruling in ACLU v. NSA. The most commonly heard version of this complaint when voiced by polyamorists is that they're not doing anything that tens of millions of adulterers don't do every year, except that unlike the adulterers, they don't lie about it. How does lying about it make it better?

Now, I have an answer for that question, but before I give it, let me say this. It occurred to me tonight that it's the same reason why George W. Bush is being singled out, among all Presidents, for his abuses of the Constitution. What I tell my fellow polyamorists is that they excite more anger among the naturally monogamous, and more importantly among those inclined to struggle to stay monogamous, because adulterers don't challenge society's values. Adulterers don't claim that what they're doing is right. And neither Lincoln, nor Wilson, nor Roosevelt, nor Kennedy, nor even Nixon and Reagan, claimed that they had the right to wiretap without warrants, in total secrecy, on their own opinion that someone was a possible enemy agent. They only claimed, quietly to those to whom it was necessary, that while it was clearly illegal it was in this particular case necessary. It wasn't until this President Bush that we heard the claim from his spokesmen that the President has an actual inherent legal right to violate the Bill of Rights from the US Constitution when he thinks the job makes it necessary. It wasn't until this President Bush that we heard the claim that a congressional declaration of war or a war powers authorization resolution gives him the automatic right to suspend the constitution at will. It's not his actions that are exciting such rage among the press and the courts. It's his refusal to admit that it's wrong or illegal that they recognize as a threat to our values.