Polyamory and American Marriage

Olga Khazan:

When I met Jonica Hunter, Sarah Taub, and Michael Rios on a typical weekday afternoon in their tidy duplex in Northern Virginia, a very small part of me worried they might try to convert me.

All three live there together, but they aren’t roommates—they’re lovers.

Or rather, Jonica and Michael are. And Sarah and Michael are. And so are Sarah and whomever she happens to bring home some weekends. And Michael and whomever he might be courting. They’re polyamorous.

Michael is 65, and he has a chinstrap beard that makes him look like he just walked off an Amish homestead. Jonica is 27, with close-cropped hair, a pointed chin, and a quiet air. Sarah is 46 and has an Earth Motherly demeanor that put me at relative ease.

Together, they form a polyamorous “triad”— one of the many formations that’s possible in this jellyfish of a sexual preference. “There’s no one way to do polyamory” is a common refrain in “the community.” Polyamory—which literally means “many loves”—can involve any number of people, either cohabiting or not, sometimes all having sex with each other, and sometimes just in couples within the larger group.

Sarah and Michael met 15 years ago when they were both folk singers and active in the polyamorous community. Both of them say they knew from a young age that there was something different about their sexuality. “Growing up, I never understood why loving someone meant putting restrictions on relationships,” Michael said.

“What I love about polyamory is that everything is up for modification,” Sarah says. “There are no ‘shoulds.’ You don’t have to draw a line between who is a lover and who is a friend. It’s about what is the path of my heart in this moment.”

Legal Realism Roundup

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig:

So in total, what Augustine is saying to the Donatists is: you have two shots at ownership. You can say you are entitled to something via divine law, or that you’re entitled to it by human law. Since you are not being righteous (i.e. you are heretics) you can’t claim divine entitlement, and since the state is telling you that the law now says you’re no longer entitled to what you have, you don’t have a human right to it either. Thus, Augustine says, quit trying to act like what is happening to you is not legit.

Now, I’m not advocating his tack here; it’s pretty well and rightly agreed this was a bad thing to do. Other pieces of his writing contradict his argument that only the righteous can access the divine plan for the common use of the earth by all, and I do think the pieces that contradict it are stronger than the pieces they oppose. They track a lot better with Ambrose as well. But the notion that only the righteous have access to the divine plan for creation is secondary to the notion thatcreation itself registers a claim on God’s part that prevent absolute ownership by humanity, which is the real meat of the setup at any rate.

But, it does prove that the Augustinian theory on property is emphatically not a liberal labor-desert theory. At its most full development, it’s more like a “Christian legal realism”, or a legitimate-use theory that provides strong directives for civil translation.  Thus I don’t agree that Augustine’s proprietary theory is too antiquated to make much modern use of.


I do not mean here that Bruenig is anxious to strip heretics and other minorities of their properties and their other rights. I have no problem believing her when she says that she honestly views it as “a bad thing to do.” But the problem with intellectual ammunition is that it is rarely used by those who inhabit the halls of power in quite the same way as their authors intended. Many French Revolutionaries were duly horrified by the massacres of the Vendée (although a great many were not). This is why we have this notion of human dignity and human rights to begin with; in a world where sovereigns did not use their prerogatives to take the wrong “tack”, we would have no need of it. And minorities, religious and otherwise, do get their property confiscated and do endure state or state-abetted violence, on a regular basis, making it only slightly alarmist to point out that these things do happen.

ESB replies:

Legal realism is a descriptive theory. It describes how property actually exists in the world. This is why the author and I actually agree: states really are horrible stewards of property from time to time! For instance, look at the poor. Because of how property laws are set up, wealthy people can keep amassing their wealth for generations while the poor suffer, and the poor have no recourse but to hope the wealthy choose to slide a little their way.

Why is this schema terrible? It observes state conventions of ownership that are out of joint with the rights of persons to legitimate use of God’s creation. Therefore the state is acting unjustly. Augustine acknowledges that there are gradations of iniquity, as it were, when it comes to states; some create and maintain laws that respect the moral gravity of the human person, and some do not. The author is correct to say that states which fail to respect the dignity of persons through manipulative and abusive proprietary law are unjust. We’re living in one right now; see: all the children suffering in poverty who in some other state would have a little relief.


The problem for me, to get down to it, is that there is nothing in what Bruenig writes here, or in the rest of her post, or in anything else I have read by her on the subject, that gives me the impression that Bruenig believes anyone could have a principledobjection to–let’s say–a total redistribution of property. I am not accusing Bruenig of agitating for communism; quite possibly she would deplore such an idea. I am asking about the principles at play. Put differently, what I am asking is whether, under what she takes to be correct Christian ethics, there is any scheme of redistribution to which one would be well-founded to object, not on grounds of expediency or consequences, but simply on the grounds of principle. Or is it the case that, according to her, under correct Christian ethics, all property is contingent and rights of property–being mere fictitious creations of the state, and all properly belonging properly to God–have only instrumental and not intrinsic value.

Or, to put it even more clearly, is it correct to say that people have a right to private property in the same way that we say they have a right to speak freely, or assemble peaceably, or any of those rights the recognition of which we typically take to be a mark of civilization? That is to say, rights, that (conceptually rather than historically) “preexist” the state in the sense that the state is duty-bound to respect them not on grounds of expediency but on grounds of higher law (which does not, of course, imply that any such right is absolute since rights conflict with other rights)?

ESB added an addendum to the second post of hers linked above after PEG’s last reply:

The author did not seem to realize why I mount a Christian legal realist argument so often. Here is why:

Me: We should make sure the poor are supported.

They: Why though?

Me: Christ commands it. [Normative theory of property]

They: Yes but not through the state.

Me: States can’t be just when they’re allowing their most vulnerable to be harmed.

They: But the state must rob me to get taxes.

Me: No, taxes are not robbery. [Legal realism.]

That is where the legal realist argument fits in: in a sequence of other arguments that are striving to evade the use of the state to provide some form of protection for the poor. It is not its own normative theory of property, but if you are not used to hearing objections such as the “state-as-thief” objection then I can see how you’d be confused by it. I can imagine one does not hear that objection often if they are in the habit of agreeing with libertarians because it’s one they tend to trot out when they’re backed into a corner morally. It is also possibly the case that the place of legal realism in a Christian understanding of property did not occur because there might be agreement on the normative point; the author now assures me he does not believe in absolute property rights, meaning the argument would be what the proper use of property is, rather than an immediate default to the idea that, regardless of outcomes, people have absolute rights to ownership the state simply can’t ‘interfere’ with.

Littlejohn then joined the discussion with a shorter post at Political Theology and a longer one at his personal blog in which he basically agrees with Stoker Bruenig but then offers a bit of pushback:

 In fact, the quest to identify an “intrinsic value” to private property ownership, more directly rooted in human nature, is not necessarily a fool’s errand.  For instance, we might well argue that the fundamental value of human freedom requires a certain self-sufficiency which requires, or at least is best secured by, property rights.  Or with a bit more sophistication, we might say that freedom in fact requires responsibility to be truly realized, or in more Scriptural terms, that taking dominion and exercising stewardship is part of what it means to bear God’s image, and thus something like private property ownership is naturally necessary for human beings, and must be protected by law as a pre-political right.  Hegel and Hilaire Belloc are two have offered something like this sort of reasoning.  The problem, as Jeremy Waldron has masterfully shown in The Right to Private Property, is that these arguments as well argue for a re-distribution of property, indeed, more dramatically so than the Thomist—they compel the conclusion that property is something that everyone should have, not merely enough for sustenance, but for freedom and self-realization.

The Children of Silicon Valley

From the NYR:

In the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, almost every new start-up representative at a high-tech conference ends his presentation with the programmatic words, “and this will make the world a better place.” When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you.

How Tom Emanski Changed Baseball… and then Disappeared

From Fox Sports:

In the summer of 1990, nearly two-dozen youth baseball teams from around the nation gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, for the fourth annual Amateur Athletic Union National Championship tournament. The six-day affair pitted the best 12-and-under ballplayers in the country against each other, and the heavy favorites, the Vipers from Oklahoma City, had won 92 games while losing only eight. According to the local scuttlebutt, they arrived in town wearing 1990 AAU National Champions T-shirts.

The Vipers’€™ first scheduled opponent — a disparate collection of 10 boys from three different Little League programs in central Florida —€” was not intimidated by such bluster. These kids were so composed that they pulled off one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of sports.

Sporting donated blue pinstriped uniforms with their town name splashed in red across the chest, these newbies from the south defeated the Vipers, 8-4, on that opening day. They would knock down more opponents one by one — Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and still others — but then had to play the Oklahoma City Vipers again just to reach the championship game.

They beat them down one more time, 4-3, and with an 11-1 win over another team from Oklahoma the following day, the AAU national title belonged to the team representing little Maitland, Florida.

As the players stood along the first-base line and waited to collect their medals, their coach —€” an intense 42-year-old who’€™d worked as a Major League Baseball scout and preferred V-neck sweaters, khakis, and brown loafers to a manager’€™s usual garb —€” clamped a scorebook under his left arm and clapped. For him, this championship validated a coaching career spent searching for validation, for the video-based analysis and research that he’€™d pioneered, for the techniques he was told were too radical.

Little did Tom Emanski know that AAU teams produced by his instructional academy would win two more championships in the next two years. And that his series of TV commercials, designed to sell a line of baseball instructional videos, would go national and ride the wave of these back-to-back-to-backAAU titles, making him both comfortably rich and somewhat famous. Tens of thousands of times over a decade, people watching any number of sports on TV could usually expect to see one name pop up during a given commercial break: Emanski. A sweetheart deal kept the commercials on the air and the orders rolling in, thereby ensuring that an entire generation of ballplayers grew up with Tom Emanski as the coach they never met.

But at the height of Emanski’€™s commercial success, nearly everything came to a full stop. Today, his academy is long shuttered, the ads relegated to memories and YouTube. Emanski himself has disappeared from public view. Some of his old coaches and employees haven’t spoken to him in 10 or even 15 years, but they still tell the story of a competitive, brilliant, and intensely private person who spent his career bent on proving his theories on baseball fundamentals and then, just when he’d garnered the very validation he’€™d been chasing, essentially declared he’d had enough.

The only tangible remnant of Emanski’s legacy is the collection of his instructional videos, nine films immune to aging. They remain the clearest window into the life of America’s most underrated and underappreciated baseball nerd, a stathead who saw the flaws in baseball that few others did … and set about convincing millions that there was a better way to play the game.

The videos remain a fine (if superficial) basis for appreciating Emanski’€™s insights. But there is so much more.

How Turbans Helped African-Americans During Jim Crow

From NPR:

Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne was getting a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the ’20s. Originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he traveled around America lecturing on the need to abolish the caste system and on India’s push for independence from the British, among other topics.

In a recent article about Gooneratne, Desai notes that visiting scholars from Asia and Africa, like Gooneratne, were startled to encounter anti-black discrimination. But some of these people, who were lugging around colonial baggage from their own countries, found a way around racism.

Gooneratne, for one, used his turban while traveling in the Jim Crow South to avoid harassment, and advised others to do the same, Desai writes.

“Any Asiatic can evade the whole issue of color in America by winding a few yards of linen around his head,” Desai quotes Gooneratne as saying. “A turban makes anyone an Indian.”

If you’re interested in this topic, a professor at my alma mater has written a fantastic book on how American racism influenced our foreign policy throughout the 20th century.

Downwardly Mobile for Jesus

Somehow I missed this story, featuring occasional Mere O writer Matt Loftus, when I did the urbanism roundup:

BALTIMORE, Md. — At the corner of Laurens Street and Fulton Avenue, a man watches Matthew Loftus walk by with his 21-month-old daughter, Naomi, strapped to his back. “She got big!” the man says.

Loftus, 27, says something friendly back, but he’s not sure who the man is. “My eyesight is actually really bad,” he says.

As he runs an errand in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, people notice Loftus before he notices them. On Presstman Street, where Loftus rented before buying a home several blocks away, a young girl in a school uniform smiles and says, “I see you’re visiting the old neighborhood.” A group of men playing cards on the corner asks about the rabbits that he and his wife, Maggie Loftus, 25, were raising the last time they saw him. In front of a Monroe Street car wash, a man spies Naomi. “She still gorgeous!” he says. “Tell your wife I said hi.”

For his neighbors, Matthew Loftus is hard to miss, no matter their eyesight. He is white in a nearly all-black neighborhood. Like much of West Baltimore, Sandtown faces relentless poverty, addiction and violence. Six hours after Loftus’ afternoon stroll in late May, three men were shot just down the street from the car wash.

For a brief while, though, as Loftus walks through the neighborhood, it feels like a small town.

Littlejohn on Piketty


To say that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has become a sensation would be a bit of a cliché at this point. The French economist’s 700-page analysis of wealth and inequality over the past three centuries has dominated not merely the financial press, but the popular press as well since its March appearance in English translation. By late April, the book had rocketed to #1 on Amazon (of all genres) and was sold out (my own copy took three weeks to arrive); a month later, it seized the coveted #1 spot on the relevant NYT best-seller list, a position it held for a month. The blogosphere has been buzzing all this while with reviews, critiques, rebuttals, praise, slanders, and occasionally bewilderment. All of this for an academic work of economics, an unheard-of feat, and one that warrants even the attention of theologians, a group not particularly known for their attentiveness to economics.

Of course, that is in part because Piketty’s book is not really an academic book–and I say that in the sense of a compliment, rather than an insult. While it is full of charts and graphs and numbers, it is readily comprehensible to the general educated public, and few, if any, sections require formal economics training to comprehend.  It is also an engrossing read–at some points, even a page-turner. Piketty’s writing (and the translation provided by Arthur Goldhammer) may rarely rise to the threshold of eloquence, but it is remarkably lucid, smooth, and engaging, with an understated wit that occasionally flashes forth in biting sarcasm. It is also considerably more culturally literate than one would expect; Piketty frequently illustrates his observations about wealth and society by reference to film and literature, most notably the nineteenth-century novels of Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, to which he has recourse throughout.

The Culture Warrior in Winter

From the National Journal:

Today, Land is a long way from Washington—416 miles to be exact. He says he had 10 job offers after he went public with his retirement plans, but none were in Southern Baptist life. Eventually, he started a new job as president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary, located in a suburban enclave outside Charlotte, North Carolina. Only 22 years old, SES is a tiny institution, with an undergraduate and graduate population of just 350 students—a majority of them online only—and a recent graduating class of 43.

In early May, I spent a day with Land at the seminary. He was vague on the details of his typical schedule at SES, preferring to wax poetic about the busy years he spent in his former position. But he was also quick to note that he doesn’t miss the travel, the hectic agenda, or “having to give instantaneous answers—to very complex questions, without any warning—to the media.” Plus, he added, “I don’t miss having 44,500 bosses”—a reference to the approximate number of Southern Baptist churches operating during his tenure.

JKAS on the Modern Wedding

Jamie Smith, channeling David Brooks a bit, I think:

Tis the season to make weekend forays to events that will light up Facebook and swamp Instagram with a deluge of sepia photographs. Years of hopes pinned on Pinterest will become a reality as we dance long into the night.

Nope, it’s not Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo.

It’s your cousin’s wedding.

The excitement has been building ever since that first Facebook post—the one with the video of him proposing to her against the industrial-chic backdrop of the Brooklyn Navy Yard while a band with beards and lots of banjos “surprised” them with a serenade. The video went viral, of course, so the bar was raised for the wedding itself. The invitations arrived encased in 1950s cigar tins, featured overlapping images of their tattoos on handmade paper, complete with vintage postage stamps for your RSVP. The wedding will be catered by Korean taco food trucks and that band is going to play an encore, but with more mandolins, under candle-lit canopies draped with hops as everyone enjoys the groom’s craft beer. The wedding has its own tumblr and its own hashtag. And everyone goes home with their own mouth organ inscribed with the bride and groom’s names.

No one will forget this day, mostly because it will be scrupulously photographed, posted, shared, tweeted, and uploaded. And as we all know: the Internet never forgets.

The Decline of Sports Writing

From Pacific Standard:

The hot take is ruining sports writing. If the hot take is a foreign phrase to you, don’t worry, you’ve read one before. They are published en masse after any seemingly scandalous sports story. They are usually written on tight deadlines with little research or reporting, and even less thought.

Writing a hot take is simple. Start with an easy target—any athlete accused of doing anything “bad” will do—channel the aggrieved, paternalistic wails of your least favorite news anchor drunk on paranoia and privilege, dismiss nuance and insight at every opportunity, and close with some nonsensical pap about tradition, or responsibility, or America.

A recent apex example of the form came via Jeff Passan, the lead baseball columnist for Yahoo! SportsThe easy target was Ryan Braun, an all-star and MVP outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers who was suspended 65 games by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. The extent and specifics of Braun’s presumed cheating remain, at best, vague, but Passan still wrote about him with the same level of humanity Hunter S. Thompson afforded his obituary of Richard Nixon.