David Gelernter on the Dismantling of Culture

Sunday Night Journal — July 29, 2012

At Least It's Out In the Open Now

There are several immediately obvious things to say about the declarations this week by the mayors of Boston and Chicago that they would attempt to block the Chick-fil-a (what a silly name) fast food chain from opening restaurants in their cities. First and most obvious is their violation of their own self-professed love of tolerance. It’s not as if the head of Chick-fil-a had advocated some sort of active oppression of homosexuals, at least not according to any reasonable definition of that idea. Unfortunately it is now a well-established debating tactic on the part of homosexual activists and their sympathizers to insist that to fail to agree with them about the nature of marriage is to encourage their active oppression, if not in fact to oppress them, at least psychologically, by “hating” them.

Second was the pretty blatant illegality of the mayors’ professed intentions. Even if you believe that Chick-fil-a’s views are objectionable, you can’t deny a business the right to operate on those grounds, and you don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize that. Local governments have a lot of discretion in granting licenses for a business to operate in this or that location—zoning laws, noise ordinances, and the like. Here in my little town there has just been a flap over whether a tattoo artist should be allowed to open a shop downtown amongst the snooty boutiques etc. The city at first denied a license for the shop, but happily the tattoo artist won; I say “happily” not out of any liking for tattoo parlors but out of dislike for snooty people.

But I digress: governments do have room for reasonable judgment calls about where businesses may locate, but the political opinions of the business owner are certainly not among the factors that may be legally considered in the decision. Both mayors seemed to have recognized this, or been advised of it by their legal staff, and quickly issued “clarifications.” (There is a good bit of fun to be had with Rahm Emmanuel’s invocation of “Chicago values”: “basically a by-word for political corruption and insane levels of gun violence”.)

But there’s something deeper at work, and it’s the appeal by the mayors to the notion of “values” that points toward it. Throughout the decades of the culture wars the conservative side has been on the defensive, because in resisting any progressive idea they could always be painted as intolerant. The progressives could always say “We just want to be free to do what we like. Why should you care?” America is in many ways fundamentally libertarian and utilitarian, and the argument that anyone should be able to do as he pleases as long as he harms no one else is probably about as close to a commonly-held absolute as one can find here. Tolerance of what ever the progressives wanted could always be portrayed as tolerance, period, not tolerance of anything in particular.

Thus an appeal to any sort of “shared values” was deemed entirely inadmissible, and “harm” came to mean “demonstrable material harm.” People with traditional ideas about cultural matters such as pornography were required to show that some direct connection between, e.g., the easy availability of pornography and crimes such as rape. And if that connection couldn’t be proven, the objectors were ruled out of court.

This superficial approach allowed and still allows most people to avoid dealing with the more difficult and deeper questions about the nature of man as a social animal, about the way societies work and what makes them cohere. The truth is that societies are organic things, and an organic thing must possess unity at some deep inner level. Fingers are not toes, and nerves are not veins, but they are part of one thing. The thoughtless assumption that tolerance is without limits ignores this. The superficial mechanistic formulations of John Stuart Mill assume some level of fundamental agreement about right and wrong, and collapse where that is lacking. A society can only function, or at any rate only be stable, if there is some broad consensus about what man is and what is best for him. This is a fundamentally religious question. And what’s happening now is a struggle over what religion, in the sense of fundamental assumptions about the world and man’s place in it, our society will have.

As the progressives have pushed for more and more tolerance of what they want, they have inevitably, driven by an instinct they don’t recognize or acknowledge, begun to push for the withdrawal of tolerance for views in opposition to theirs, even though this is also in the name of tolerance: opposing views are deemed “hate speech” etc., and declared to be at least a potential source of harm, and therefore not to be tolerated. In the United States this does not yet often take the form of legal penalties, but some other countries are not so diffident, and the Chick-fil-a incident certainly indicates the desire to weild the power of the government against dissenters.  In advocating the punishment or restriction of views that do not reflect the “shared values” of their communities, progressives are unconsciously affirming the views of their long-time opponents that the deep inner unity of a society does, after all, matter a great deal, and that the virtue of tolerance has its limits. Ideas in opposition to that inner unity can be tolerated to a point, but only so far; they cannot be accorded equality with the governing ideas of the society.

A man cannot serve two masters; a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most societies have recognized this, explicitly or implicitly. Among modern industrialised societies, most no longer do. Communist societies, or at least governments, are an exception, making it perfectly clear that the state is the ultimate authority. They tolerate Christianity to some greater or lesser degree, but leave no doubt as to who is the master.

As things are going, that is the sort of future Christians can look forward to in the formerly Christian nations we generally refer to as “the West.” Having gained the upper hand culturally, the progressives are getting an idea of what they need to do to assert and maintain their mastery, and of how they need to organize their society. The contraception mandate in “Obamacare,” and these gestures by the mayors of two of our biggest cities, should be seen as early skirmishes in what promises to be a long and determined campaign to put Christians in a box where they can do whatever they want inside their churches, but are not allowed to act publicly in opposition to progressive doctrine.


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What's frightening to me is that this is absolutely ludicrous. If you read it in a book or saw it in a movie, you would think it was completely implausible, and yet it's happening in more than one place. At least the ACLU seems to be coming out on the side of Chik-Fil-A.


For now. Actually a pretty good number of leftists have criticized the mayors over this. That's good, though I don't think such tolerance would survive a transition period.

I slapped that title on this piece at the last minute because I needed to go ahead and post it and I couldn't think of anything better. Interesting, though, that Ross Douthat says something similar toward the end of his column: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/douthat-defining-religious-liberty-down.html

I don't think you could have thought of anything better.


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