Saturday, May 13, 2006

On the Enclave

An interesting article in the Los Angeles Times discusses the polygamous Mormon sect which has been accused of child abuse:

Among sect members, girls as young as 13 are forced into marriage, sexual abuse is rampant, rape is covered up and child molesters are shielded by religious authorities and law enforcement.

Boys are thrown out of town, abandoned like unwanted pets by the side of the road and forcibly ostracized from their families to reduce competition among the men for multiple wives.

Children routinely leave school at age 11 or 12 to work at hazardous construction jobs. Boys can be seen piloting dump trucks, backhoes, forklifts and other heavy equipment.

Girls work at home, trying to keep order in enormous families with multiple mothers and dozens of children who often eat in shifts around picnic tables.

Wives are threatened with mental institutions if they fail to "keep sweet," or obedient, for their husbands.

This is often the other side to religious freedom. Religions have aspects to them which are not objectively laudable, and most religions include rules about oppressing women and controlling them sexually. The "Lost Boys", abandoned like unwanted pets, are a direct consequence of polygamy. As long as the sex ratios are fairly constant at birth the sect must somehow remove the excess males.

The interesting aspect of this article is not the sad and horrible things it describes (because these were already known to me, anyway), but the way the local community managed such occurrences: many in the justice and law enforcement systems were members of the sect and child abuse went grossly underreported:

Officials also knew local laws in Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah, were enforced by polygamous police officers and administered by a polygamous judge — and that police routinely referred alleged sex crimes to church leaders.

In 1953, acting on similar reports, Arizona Gov. J. Howard Pyle launched a massive raid, with about 120 police officers, on the FLDS. It backfired badly, however, and was regarded as a political disaster for Pyle, who lost his bid for reelection.

The political debacle, coupled with a fear of violating the sect's religious freedom, ushered in 50 years of official passivity and government inaction, even in the face of continuing reports of illegal conduct in the FLDS enclave.

The abusive conduct went on for so long, said Buster Johnson, a Mohave County, Ariz., supervisor, "because those with the power to do something about it turned a blind eye. I don't know how they sleep at night."

Do you know what this sounds like to me? Multiculturalism from the right. The idea that what other cultures do should be left to them to manage, even if some of those things raise the bile into our mouths.

Then there is the related idea: That we shouldn't really try to save people from horrible fates because they might prefer those very fates:

In 2001, Dan Barlow Jr., son of the Colorado City mayor, was charged with 14 counts of sexual abuse, accused of repeatedly molesting his five daughters, ages 12 to 19, over several years. According to the police report, Barlow confessed to the crimes.

Letters begging for mercy poured into Ekstrom's office in Kingman, Ariz. The daughters expressed love for their father and asked that he not get any prison time. They also asked that they not be required to testify against him.

FLDS member LeRoy Fischer said Barlow shouldn't be jailed because he was the only locksmith in town and "a prison sentence would only add an additional burden to society."

Floyd Barlow, the defendant's son, said his abused sisters "look happy" and could get emotional help from their mother if necessary.

Barlow was allowed to plead guilty to a single, lesser charge of sexual abuse, and was sentenced to 120 days in jail — most of which was suspended. He served 13 days.

Prosecutors said they had few options, and blamed shoddy police work — a one-page report — reluctant witnesses and numerous pleas for leniency.

"You have to play the hand you are dealt. I could have put him on trial anyway and then lost everything," said Matt Smith, the current Mohave County attorney who prosecuted the case. "I got at least probation, and he is a sex offender."

Washington County, Utah, Atty. Brock Belnap, whose jurisdiction includes Hildale, said he had no investigators and relied on Sheriff Kirk Smith to bring him cases.

Smith said he had rarely received a sexual abuse case from Hildale, though he knew they occurred and were handled by the church.

"I have told them that they can't handle these problems ecclesiastically, but if someone doesn't report the crime there isn't much I can do," he said.

"I can't go snooping around out there; the public doesn't want us doing that," he continued. "People want to save all these girls, but the truth is a lot of these girls don't want to be saved."

Smack back at the multiculturalist arguments. Maybe the Mormon underage girls like to be molested. Who are we to say that they should be saved?

You may have already figured out that I'm not an extreme multiculturalist. But neither do I believe that one culture is always superior to all others. There is a lot to be said for understanding how a culture works before judging it, for really getting inside it, and there is a lot to be said for paying respect to those who have the experience of the culture and for listening to their arguments.

But none of this means that cultural values shouldn't be judged by outsiders, or that some values shouldn't be rated higher than other values in such judging. And the idea that those inside the culture, totally swamped in it, are somehow more objective than those outside it is incorrect.

One way to think about this is to use John Rawls's idea of the "veil of ignorance". He used this concept to ask people how they'd like the societal rules to be arranged if they could somehow be in the state of "beforehand", behind a "veil of ignorance", and if in this state they did not know if they were going to be born poor or rich, male or female, white or black and so on. If you didn't know "beforehand" whether you were going to be handicapped or gay or Norwegian or whatever, how would you like the society to be arranged?

I think we could judge cultures by using this "veil of ignorance". And this way of judging would give the Mormons low points, even if it were true that people judge beforehand how likely each of the possible outcomes are, because very few would be born as the dominant men in the Mormon polygamous sect.

Now it's your turn to argue multiculturalism or whatever in the comments. Me, I have to go and clean house for the visit that is forthcoming. More about that later on.