Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Legalizing polyamory & polygamy; includes Heinlein

Amanda posted at Pandagon about efforts to prosecute polygamist Mormons as rapists and accessories. The comments kind of veered into an issue that keeps coming up in discussions of marriage equality for same-sex couples: "is legalizing polygamy the next step?" I'm going to summarize my comments there, and other thoughts have been percolating on this issue for a while now. There are also discussions going on at Feministe and Abstract Nonsense, doubtless elsewhere as well.

In the first place, moving from traditional man-woman marriage to marriage equality is very straightforward. Indeed, equal marriages are *easier* to fit into our system of laws than traditional marriage, because all you need is two consenting adults who aren't too closely related -- you don't have to legally define "man" and "woman". Once women have all the legal rights of men, equal marriage for same-sex couples was IMHO inevitable, because things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

But polygamy does not map so simply onto the pattern of conventional marriage.

There are two basic categories of polygamy that people bring up when they're talking about how legalizing same-sex marriage may lead down a "slippery slope" to all kinds of kinky multiple relationships (not to mention the box turtles).

Traditional polygamy -- as found in the book of Genesis, among "fundamentalist" Mormons, in Islam, pre-modern China, etc. -- is what biologists call "polygyny", one male mated to more than one female. In most (all?) traditional societies, polygynous marriages are legally a set of overlapping monogamous marriages: the man is married to each woman separately. The co-wives do not inherit from each other, they do not get custody of each other's children, they cannot sell each other's property.

In recent decades there's been some development of the concept of polyamorous marriages: multiple-partner marriages in which all parties are considered married to each other, regardless of gender. Property is held in common, but I don't know what the usual arrangements are for child custody, powers of attorney, inheritance, and so forth, or if there *are* any consistent patterns being developed.

I know of no culture in which this kind of egalitarian polyamory is traditional. The examples that spring to mind are all in science fiction. In fact, as I sort through examples in my mind I'm coming up with more egalitarian-poly sf cultures than traditional-polygyny cultures -- can anyone think of an example of an sf or fantasy novel with traditional polygyny where it is *not* presented as something to be fled? I'm drawing a blank. Does Orson Scott Card ever show polygamy? As a Mormon, his view is liable to be more textured than most, because it's a volatile religious issue either way and because he probably saw polygamy in action while he was growing up.

I was a big fan of books about polyamory while I was young -- Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite are two examples that spring to mind -- but as I get older and more realistic (you might think "jaded" or "cynical") I see the crucial aspects of poly marriage that they don't explore.

Take "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress", for example. The protagonist, Manuel, is part of a "line marriage": the married group adds younger spouses over the decades, alternating sexes, so that the marriage does not end.

Heinlein emphasizes the sexual & emotional benefits of this kind of marriage, but he doesn't really go into what I now see as the core issues of marriage: property and status. The great benefit of line marriage would be that the property never has to be broken up: there is no generational transfer. The marriage becomes a kind of corporation, a way to concentrate and perpetuate wealth.

In TMIAHM one of the daughters of the family is married back into the line, which Heinlein presents as both reasonable and romantic. What he doesn't present is how this makes her the only true heir to the family wealth & influence, how it cuts the other children of the family out. Normal human behavior predicts that there would be a bitter struggle among the spouses to have one's favorite child be the heir, and it could easily lead to hellish levels of incestuous pimping.

Even without that, I don't know that the poly community -- or even the religious polygynist communities -- have got a handle on the issues that are the core of marriage as a legal institution. The legal issues aren't about how people live and sleep and work together, but more about transitions: medical decision-making, inheritance, insurance payments, child support.

Our current marriage law is *barely* able to deal with the complexities that arise when a marriage has only two partners, and that despite hundreds of years of experience dealing with traditional (inegalitarian) two-partner marriages. I know of no long-running legal tradition with egalitarian poly marriages, or even inegalitarian marriages but where the wives are legally married to each other. Without this kind of experience, we don't know how these relationships would "play out" legally. I don't think we can or should have legalized polyamory until polyamorists have built up legal structures & experience with them.

I don't know how well-organized this is, and there are other thinky thots I wanted to work in, but I shall stop now because it's probably the last warm Sunday afternoon of the year and I'm going to clean up my garden OR ELSE.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

My Pollworker Story: Part 3

Previously: Parts 1&2: What it's like being a pollworker; mood of the electorate as I (over)heard it

Part 3. What I did as a pollworker, in mind-numbing detail.
(yeah, I said there would be stories about people next. I lied.)

I've been voting in Hopewell Township, Mercer County, NJ since 1985, so due to the extreme inconsistency of US voting practices I have no idea what goes on elsewhere. Thus, this report will be mind-numbingly detailed.

a. Who we were.

Our badges said "Official District Board Member", but I'm just going to call us "pollworkers". Pollworkers (at least in this part of NJ) are supposed to come in groups of at least four: 2 Democrats and 2 Republicans. We all showed up: two white Republican Catholics (I'll call them E and L), one black retired union Democrat (F), and me -- the white hyper-liberal granola technocrat Democrat. All women, and at age 50 I was by far the youngest. We talked about our kids and grandkids a lot -- political discussions are officially forbidden, which is just as well because I'm sure we would all agree on very little except not understanding people who don't bother to vote.

E and F had been pollworkers before, L and I were newbies -- L had been called in by the Republican Party only a few days ahead of time, to be the second Republican pollworker for this district. As it happened, none of us actually vote in the district where we were working, but we all live no more than one district away. Many, many of the voters were known to one or more of us personally, which is one of the reasons for having local pollworkers -- to have enough local knowledge to spot inconsistencies and to vouch for people. It also makes pollworking a very political experience in a classic sense: it gives you a real feeling for the polis, the community, as both a social and political unit.

b. The pre-dawn's early non-light.

The polls open at 6 AM, so we all got to the school which was the polling place at around 5:15, walking across the parking lot in the moonlight. We said hello to the night watchman, put the flag outside in the hallway, and started setting up the machines.

The machines we (and all of NJ?) uses are Sequoia AVC Advantage. In use the machines differ from the picture in having a curtain across the front that the voter pushes through to go into the "booth". When we got to the polling place the two machines were there, sealed and folded up. We had to unfold them, turn them on, initialize them, and get the "zero point" printout which verifies that the machine has zero votes recorded.

One of the machines gave an error message as it was booting up and one of the other pollworkers called the county voting machine office. They were able to send a signal of some sort -- I don't know what, I was setting up the other machine -- to the machine to get it properly initialized. That was the only glitch, and we were all set up and ready to go at 6AM when the first voters arrived.

c. How we vote around here.

We have two books of voter records, "A-K" and "L-Z" by last name. This particular district has about 830 registered voters. Each page of the registry book lists 5 voters, with name, address, date of birth, a copy of their signature on one side and a place for them to sign on the other. I can probably scan in part of a training example if people want to see what they look like.

The voter walks up to our table and if we're lucky has noticed the "A-K" and "L-Z" signs, so is in front of the pollworker with the correct book. We ask "Last name?", then flip through the book to the correct page, then verify their first name and/or address:


"Susie Q.?"

"No, Susan B."

"15 Heartbreak Lane?"


"Sign here." The voter then signs next to their old signature so we can compare the two -- and it's amazing to me how consistent a person's signature is. This is also when we ask for ID, which we only check for people who haven't voted in this district before.

While the voter is signing the book, the pollworker gets the Voting Authority ready. The VA is in two parts with matching numbers. One part stays bound in its book, and the voter prints and signs their name on that part. Meanwhile, the pollworker writes the VA number in the voter registry next to the voter's name. The voter then gets the second half of the VA and brings it up to the voting machine.

At the voting machine, a pollworker takes the VA and pushes a control button on the side to activate the machine to record a vote. We then use a needle to put the VA on a string tied to the side of the voting machine.

The voter goes through the curtains to the machine, where they see a piece of paper similar to the sample ballot:

stretched over a touchpad. They press the buttons marked on the paper, and lights appear on the touchpad underneath. There's also a keypad for write-in votes. When they're done, they push a red button at the bottom, the vote is recorded and the machine beeps to show that the vote has been recorded. The vote counter on the side of the machine increments the number of votes.

As you can see, voters could cast up to 11 votes, for 7 officials and 4 public questions. I would say this is about average for an even-numbered year. New Jersey's gubernatorial elections are held every four years, but in "off-years": 2001, 2005, 2009, etc. There are almost always public questions on the ballot, normally of a strictly fiscal nature.

d. Provisional ballots.

We only had two provisional ballots all day, while about 400 regular ballots were cast. The two cases were: a person who claimed to be registered but not to have voted in years, whose last name & address matched a person who was on the rolls and who he said was his wife; and a woman who had changed her name but was on the rolls under her old name.

Only one person was listed as "ID required" on the voter roll but had no ID. This was an 18 or 19-year old guy, first-time voter, there with his father because he doesn't drive. We offered him the choice of voting Provisional or going home and getting his wallet with his school photo ID, and he went home and came back. We hardly had any lines in the course of the day and the district is pretty small, so it delayed him less than half an hour.

New Jersey's Provisional Ballot has a brand-new design and doubles as a registration form, so no-one had used it before and we don't know yet how or if the system worked.

e. Wrapping up.

We had no challengers at our polling place until the last 15 or 20 minutes, when Democratic and Republican representatives showed up to wait for the results. As soon as the last voter got done we started packing up the machines. None of us had ever done this particular task before, which meant that we took the instruction sheet and went through it step by step, very carefully.

The basic steps are:

  1. Turn the switch to stop the voting. We were warned most strictly during training that once the switch was turned we wouldn't be able to re-start the machines and on no account to do it before 8 PM.
  2. When the switch is turned, the machine automatically starts printing out four copies of the the vote totals, which we all sign. We also sign the voter registry, and maybe something else, too -- there was a lot of signing.
  3. The provisional ballots get put in a special bag, and sealed. The recording cassettes from the voting machines get put into a very special bag and sealed.
  4. The machines are shut down and folded up, the vote totals are posted, we clean up and leave. The machines get picked up later.

f. Adding it up.

Then I drove the special bags, etc., over to the Township Offices and waited in line with people from the other polling places. We were all punchy with exhaustion, trading stories about what it had been like at our stations, who had done their share of the work and who hadn't, which places were well-organized and which weren't, where turnout was light or heavy. We gave the printed-out vote tallies and the sealed bags to the Township Clerk. The tallies were used as the basis for the numbers reported to the press by the Clerk, before she sent the sealed cassettes off to Trenton to the County Clerk for the official tally.

It was about 9:15PM when I finally staggered out, turned on the car, and heard election returns for the first time that day.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

My Pollworker story: Parts 1 & 2

I signed up to be a pollworker because Robert Menendez (NJ-Sen) voted for Bush's detention bill. Just as I was in the pit of despair, feeling as though all politicians are morals-free authoritarian suckups, I got an email from Pollworkers for Democracy (they probably got my name from Working Assets) asking me to join their non-partisan voter protection movement. "Now *that* I can do with a clear conscience," I said, and so I signed up.

The US election system is an incredible mish-mash of state and county-level procedures -- the Carter Center doesn't consider it up to international standards for consistency & transparency. I'm going to write about my experiences as a pollworker in Hopewell Township, Mercer County, NJ.

I'll get into the details of what it's like being a pollworker in later installments (yes, this looks like a series). First I'll talk about the experience in general.

1. What it's like being a pollworker

Being a pollworker is physically exhausting -- we showed up at 5:15 AM, opened the polls at 6 AM, closed them at 8 PM, and I left for the Township Building with the bag of results at about 8:35. I got there at about 8:45 and had to wait until about 9:15 to deliver my bag to the Township Clerk. So it's a 16-hour workday, with an hour off (if you can arrange it) for lunch sometime in the early afternoon. You spend a lot of your time on your feet: working the voting booths, showing people maps of where they *should* be voting, carrying papers about.

Even more than the physical drain is the emotional exhaustion. You talk to hundreds of different people in the course of the day, many of whom you know (because you're likely to be working in the area you live or work). Many of the people are emotional, not just about political issues (although that's always there in the background, of course), but because they may do things like ask for a deceased parent or spouse's name to be stricken from the voting roll. Or they may be voting despite dealing with an illness or disability.

When voters are happy -- often talking about their children or grandchildren -- it still takes a lot of emotional energy to talk to so many people, one after the other, while paying close attention to administrative minutiae -- sign here, take this, what street did you say you live on.

I have to emphasize that being a pollworker is unfailingly interesting if you're interested in people at all.

Voters come in waves: people headed to work vote early, then during the morning it's mostly the elderly. There's another wave at lunchtime, then as the afternoon wears on there are more people who bring children (who almost always go into the voting booth with their parents). At 3:30 construction workers show up, then between 5 and 7 is the big push as people stop to vote on their way home from work. We had only a few people between 7 and 8, with a few racing in breathless in the final 10 minutes.

By the time I got out of the Township offices I was both wired and exhausted. Fortunately, a local liquor store carries Young's Double Chocolate Stout, two great tastes that taste absolutely smashing together. That, and schadenfreude over Republican losses.

2. The mood of the electorate as I (over)heard it:

People don't actually talk much about politics in the polling place -- we pollworkers have to be strictly nonpartisan, and no direct campaigning is allowed from voters. But a *lot* of people were expressing disgust or rage at (a) robo-calls and (b) voluminous, negative TV ads. As one man said, "Anyone who ran on a 'no more recorded phone calls' platform would win in a walk."

I know political junkies talk about whether certain political ads (or phone calls) "work" or "don't work", but the truth is: voters hate them *ALL*, they really do. Using ads & calls makes politicians not just into marketers (which is bad enough), but into spammers, which is the lowest of the low.

Not to mention that in a democracy politics is about *people*, and ads and robo-calls are attempts to reach voters by machine, which is cheating. If you get enough people on your side to go door-to-door or to make live calls you are not cheating, because democratic politics should be, must be, about people persuading people one-to-one. Everything else falls between demagoguery and spam.

Yes, people can be part of political machines. But they are not themselves machines -- they have human interests, they are voters not just cogs, they are working for themselves as well as their party or candidate. In his book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, Michael Schudson of UC San Diego notes that under the infamous "spoils system" of New York City's Tammany Hall, up to one-third of Democratic Party voters could expect to see some patronage reward for their votes. It was corrupt, but it was *democratically* corrupt.

Tammany Hall shows that people-powered politics is no panacea -- large numbers of democratically-involved voters can still be selfish bastards. But until we cut out the machinery and force politicians to go back to the human basics, we can't see where the power of the people might be and what it can achieve.

So, fellow pollworkers! What was your general experience like? What did you gather about the mood of the electorate?

Later in this series (probably):

3. Why I liked being a pollworker: visions of people.
4. What I did as a pollworker, in mind-numbing detail.
5. Things that worked, things that didn't.
6. Voting: public and private.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Fighting Robo-Calls

Potential Democratic voters in a number of districts across the country have been receiving repeated robo-calls -- in some cases in the middle of the night or early morning -- which start out apparently coming from the Democratic candidate, but which are actually paid for by the National Republican Campaign Committee. This is a violation of FCC regulations, and a dirty campaign trick to boot.

Here is an article collecting information about the calls.

What you can do to fight back.

It is too late to get information about this dirty trick out via the newspapers, so the word has to be spread by email. If you're in a district that is under this kind of attack, please pass this information along.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Feminism in unexpected places

Also: Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and the importance of punctuation.

I don't actually know how I ended up here, but I recently came across an article by an Evangelical that I would say has a strongly feminist conclusion, though this guy doesn't seem to be particularly liberal in any other way. He's just a careful scholar who pays close attention to the text.

The text in question is from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 11. Paul is writing about the question of what kind of head-coverings are appropriate in Christian services.

In the King James Version, the verses read:
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.
5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
8 For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.
9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.

(You can compare various translations of this passage at Bible Gateway).

In my youthful Catholic education, I was taught that verse 10 meant that women should wear head-coverings in church lest the angels be tempted by their beauty -- which made no sense to my youthful mind, because one of the high points of dressing for Mass in those pre-Vatican II days was choosing which pretty veil I would wear.

Everyone who grew up in the 60s heard verse 14 quoted a *lot*, by people who truly believed it was unnatural for men to have long hair. It doesn't take much thinking, though, to see that the argument is patently bogus. If "nature" teaches anything, it's that human beings (especially men) have varying amounts of hair, which naturally grows to varying lengths.

Nonetheless, the traditional Christian interpretation is that long hair in a man is bad, while for a woman it is a "glory" -- though a glory that should be covered in Church. I myself have thought that this passage reflects Paul's messed-up-ness about sex: long hair is intrinsically (one might even say "naturally") sexy, and for a man to deliberately try to look sexy is bad, while for a woman it is good.

Then I came across a discussion of 1 Cor 11 which cited a novel interpretation. Evangelical scholar William Welty, following the turn-of-the-previous-century work of Katharine Bushnell, has done a word-by-word analysis of the "hair" passages and argues that Paul's intended meaning is almost the opposite of the traditional interpretation. So in Welty's translation v. 10 becomes:
The woman ought to have authority over her own head because of her [guardian] angels
-- that is, the woman's own conscience should be her guide. This is a pretty feminist conclusion, especially given that Welty doesn't seem to call himself a feminist, and he's certainly no leftist. But he is part of the non-fundamentalist Evangelical tradition, and I am not surprised to see that he got his M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, also the alma mater of Mark Noll, perhaps the leading intellectual among American Evangelicals right now.

As an aside, it's a sign of how much fundamentalists miss out that Noll, who taught for years at staunchly Evangelical Wheaton College, has now moved to Notre Dame to take up George Marsden's chair in History. Even 50 years ago it would have been unthinkable for America's greatest Evangelical scholar to teach at her greatest Catholic university, but the net result of this kind of religiously tolerant cross-pollination is great intellectual growth for all participants. Fundamentalists won't let themselves play in that pool, so they can't get the benefits.

Back to the Bible. Welty reads verses 13-15 as statements, not rhetorical questions:
13 It is proper for a woman to pray to God without head coverings.
14 Nature in no way teaches on the one hand that if a man has hair it puts him to shame
15 nor does it teach on the other that a woman's hair is her glory. All of this is true because hair is given as a substitute for man-made coverings.

You'd think it would be hard to get this translation and the KJV from the same Greek original, but you have to realize that all the earliest copies of the New Testament had no punctuation, and indeed no spaces between words -- here's a sample page from the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest and most important surviving examples, to give you an idea what it looks like.

The people at asked linguist Alexander Lehrman for his opinion of Welty's translation, and he says:
As far as I can tell, Welty is quite correct in treating verse 13 as an assertion, not a question (although that is not at all necessary: it may well be a rhetorical question). He is absolutely correct in interpreting verse 14 to mean "Nature itself does not teach you...," etc. The Greek verb komao does not mean "to have LONG hair," it means merely "to have hair (on one's head)." So the King James version represents a great distortion of the original, as does Waltke's interpretation. Most importantly, Welty's (i.e., Bushnell's) interpretation of verse 10 as something like "woman must have authority over her (own) head" is perfectly correct.

What we have here, then, is at least a few scholars who are translating the Bible verses to mean pretty much the opposite of their traditional interpretation. How could they be correct? I mean, this text has been read carefully for over 1800 years, how could the traditional reading be that far wrong?

I won't talk about the obvious "that's why we call it the Patriarchy" factors, but will just point out the crucial aspect of punctuation.

Punctuation is a replacement for breath, for the voice. At this point we're all familiar with online communication, and how useful emoticons can be to convey tone and facial expressions in a cold stream of text. Punctuation is Emoticons 1.0, the first step in adding back the human feeling plain text lacks.

So how could people read clearly and accurately before punctuation? My guess is: aloud. Punctuation came in (900 CE, many hundreds of years after the New Testament was written) when enough people were used to reading texts by themselves, silently; before then most texts were intended to be read aloud, and read by someone who knew how it was supposed to sound.

I assume that when Paul wrote his Letter to the Corinthians he read it aloud -- he is very likely to have dictated it to a secretary or scribe. The trusted messenger he sent with the Letter to Corinth would have heard the letter aloud when Paul was working on it. In Corinth that messenger would have read the Letter aloud to the congregation there, probably more than once, and he would have known what kind of tone or emotion Paul intended in each line. When the Letter was copied and redistributed, those copies would have been read carried to various congregations and read aloud there by people who had heard the Letter read in Corinth, and so on through the world and years.

When you see a page like the Codex Sinaiticus (above) with the words all run together in a mass, it's not intended to be read silently, by a single person sitting alone. It's meant to be read aloud by someone who has already heard it read, who needs to be reminded of the exact wording but not of every detail of the presentation. It's like the difference between the text of Shakespeare's plays and Shaw's. Shakespeare included very few descriptions of actors, set, action, or props, not because he didn't think about such things but because he didn't have to. He knew what the play looked like, and so did the people working with him, they just needed to be reminded of the words. Shaw, though, wrote very detailed introductory descriptive paragraphs for his scenes, because he knew his plays would be put on by people he would never speak to, and he'd have to give them detailed descriptions when Shakespeare could get away with waving his hands "like this".

But though it's possible to transmit para-textual meaning -- emotion, sarcasm, asides -- without textual evidence like punctuation or emoticons, it's fragile: it depends on the ease with which all the messengers in the chain of readers can "get into" the emotion you're trying to convey. If Welty et al. are right about Paul's original meaning, then I guess that interpretation was lost fairly early on, because it was just too hard for generation after generation of (male) readers to say, "the woman should make up her own mind". A leader like Paul or Jesus can only push an idea so far, after that it depends on the ability of his followers to accurately hear what he's saying and pass it along.

I seem to have undergone a bit of topic drift here. To summarize:

1. St. Paul: possibly not as sexist as he's drawn.
2. Evangelicals: can read the Bible in critical and novel ways.
3. Reading the Bible: not as simple as all that.
4. Punctuation: your friend.
5. Feminism: all over the place.

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