Love, Marriage, and Sex Feed

Louise Perry On The Sexual Revolution

Louise Perry, a British woman whom I'll describe for lack of a better word as a journalist, has recently published a book called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. I have not read it, and probably won't, not because I don't think it would be worthwhile but because I have other priorities for my reading. She has also published something which I have read: in First Things, a profound reflection on the significance of the sexual revolution (click here to read it) with the somewhat surprising title of "We Are Repaganizing."

I call it surprising because Perry is not a Christian (though First Things of course is a Christian publication), and the essay is a practical defense of Christian sexual ethics. That is, it does not appeal to certain moral principles because they are Christian, but because they produced, over the centuries, a moral revolution, or at least a shift, which Perry approves. She makes points which have been made repeatedly over the past century or two by Christians, but are generally not only not accepted but not even comprehensible to the modern secular mind. For instance, there is the point about abortion and infanticide:

It was the arrival of Christianity that disrupted the Romans’ favored methods of keeping reproduction in check, with laws against infanticide, and then abortion, imposed by Christian emperors from the late fourth century. Christians have always been unusually vehement in their disapproval of the killing of infants, whether born or unborn, and their legal regime prevailed until the mid-twentieth century when we experienced a religious shift that will probably be understood by future historians as a Second Reformation.

(The comparison to the Reformation is not very apt, but let that go.)

And the one about the status and treatment of women:

Paul’s prohibition of (to use the Greek term) porneia—that is, illicit sexual activity, including prostitution—upended an ethical system in which male access to the female body was unquestioned and unquestionable. Whereas the Romans regarded male chastity as profoundly unhealthy, Christians prized it and insisted on it. Early converts were disproportionately female because the Christian valorization of weakness offered obvious benefits to the weaker sex, who could—for the first time—demand sexual continence of men. Feminism is not opposed to Christianity: It is its descendant.

In general, as the title of the piece suggests, she sees modern Western culture as in the process of returning to something like the fundamental assumptions of those Romans who saw no reason why an unwanted infant should not be disposed of. (In passing: it's unusual and refreshing to hear a non-Christian use the word "pagan" in a negative sense.)

It's a somewhat lengthy (for online reading) and very rich statement, and I don't want to leave the impression that those snippets are sufficient. You really should read the whole thing, so here's the link again. One of its themes is the connection between sex and reproduction. The sexual revolution has pretty much destroyed the general sense of that connection. In that it's of a piece with many of our technological triumphs--and it is made possible and sustained by one of those triumphs--which have encouraged us to think that physical reality is not something by which we need be overly constrained. 

In this context I often remember a moment from the 1980s when I worked for a large technology company. Though I tried not to make a show of it, my co-workers knew that I was a Catholic and a "social conservative," as the unsatisfactory term has it. One co-worker who was somewhat younger than I questioned my opposition to abortion. "Why," he asked, "shouldn't I be able to have sex whenever I want to?"--and, implicitly, without caring about pregnancy. He wasn't attacking me. He was genuinely puzzled as to why there should be any limit on his sexual desires. He had completely absorbed the attitude of the sexual revolution--which, I must say, is the more or less natural attitude of the human male. The triumph of the sexual revolution is the extension of that attitude to the female. 

The most basic answer to his question, obviously, is not "Because it's wrong," much less "Because Christianity teaches that it's wrong," but "Because that's not the way sex works." In the normal course of things, there is some fairly strong probability that normal sex will result in conception. And if you aren't prepared to deal with that, you ought not to be engaging in the act. As Garrison Keillor has one of his Lake Woebegon characters say, "If you didn't want to go to Minneapolis, why did  you get on the bus?"

Most people--most women, anyway--in the industrialized world today do prepare to deal with it by means of contraception. But if they don't prepare, or if the plan fails, abortion is the absolutely necessary recourse, the "Plan B," which is the grimly appropriate term for abortifacient drugs. "Just get rid of it." One of the things Louise Perry does in the First Things piece, and presumably in her book, is to investigate that reality with an honesty and clarity rare for non-religious thinkers. Her treatment of abortion is especially strong, mainly by being especially honest.

If the sexual revolution is to be rolled back, if we are to stop thinking as my co-worker of 35  years ago thought, women will have to lead the way. Even setting aside the nature of the male, a man speaking out against that mentality is regarded by many men as a prude and a spoilsport, and by women as an agent of The Patriarchy who wants to return them to The Dark Ages. Or the 1950s, which is about as far back as many people can now stretch their imaginations. 

Here's a thought experiment; I call it that because there is no chance of it ever actual being anything more than a thought. Suppose there were a law requiring that every pornographic film be followed by a scene of a woman giving birth--a realistic scene. I am tempted to answer my own obvious questions about how such a thing could be implemented, but since it is only a thought experiment I'll leave it at that. 


Louise Perry was also a participant in a debate staged by The Free Press: "Has the Sexual Revolution Failed?" I've been meaning to mention The Free Press for a while. It was founded by a disgruntled New York Times writer, Bari Weiss. She is what was until fairly recently a more or less conventional liberal, but was appalled by the closed-minded and authoritarian progressives who were effectively controlling the Times. I'm not sure whether she left the Times entirely of her own volition or was pushed out, but at any rate she left, and The Free Press began as a Substack called "Honestly." That pretty much sums up her sense of her mission: to stand up for journalistic honesty in both reporting and opinion. In today's climate, that requires an unusual independence of mind, and The Free Press shows that. Its basic orientation is still what I would describe as formerly-conventional secular liberalism (Weiss is legally married to a woman). Obviously I have many disagreements with that mind-set, but the publication is genuinely open-minded and publishes all sorts of people and views. I subscribe to it in spite of those disagreements because I haven't entirely given up hope that our classical liberal order can be salvaged, and this is a worthwhile effort.

If it's not subscriber-only, you can watch the debate at the Free Press site: click here. The video seems to be hosted there, not on YouTube. I just watched the first couple of minutes which sort of disheartened me: it consists of news clips from the '70s and '80s featuring various unpleasant feminists. 

Written In Sand

This was taken from a room in a motel at Gulf Shores over the Thanksgiving weekend. It struck me as very poignant. Where will Mike, Angie, Logan, and Blake be ten years or more from now? Will they remember each other? Will they remember Thanksgiving 2019? And where will I be? Possibly not in this world.

This message was well above the waterline, but would have been blown away, or mostly blown away, by now, as we've had some windy days since then. WrittenInSand

Reflection On the Minimum Required Distribution From an Annuity

I know I'm not completely stupid. There are some fairly complicated things that I understand fairly well. I made my living for roughly 40 years doing things with software that required a certain amount of intelligence. So why does my brain freeze up and refuse to process any financial information more complicated than figuring out a tip? And if any such information does go in one ear and pause and be understood for an instant, it quickly regathers its strength and flies straight out the other ear, leaving very little trace of its passage. 

As my wife says about a number of things, it's weird

It often seems to be the case in marriages that one spouse can and will and does handle the finances, while the other is incompetent and mostly oblivious. Fortunately, that is the case for me. Before we married she discovered that I had not balanced my checkbook for six months and promptly took it over. I've been content with this arrangement ever since. I've often wondered whether there is some providential psychological dynamic which generally insures a balance of that sort. God help those in marriages where both are like me, or where the incompetent one is not also oblivious but wants to be involved, and does not understand his or her limits. 


Sunday Night Journal, May 27, 2018

Having been immersed in the world of medieval Scandinavia for a couple of weeks while reading The Master of Hestviken, I wanted to get more acquainted with its mythology. I knew the main figures and one or two stories, but had never read anything very systematic or complete. So I started reading the Prose Edda, which I've now almost finished, and...well, as a somewhat naive acquaintance said many years ago on hearing a performance by a Captain Beefheart-style band, them dudes is weird. What seemed strangest to me are the creation stories. The Edda (written down in the 13th century) begins with what seems to be a tacked-on Christian creation, then quickly moves into what I suppose were the pre-Christian stories:

The sons of Bor killed the giant Ymir.... When he fell so much blood gushed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost giants except for one who escaped with his household....

They took Ymir...and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones.... They also took his skull and from it made the sky. 

And so forth. Eventually the eyelashes are used to build a fortress around Midgard, which seems to be the world of men--I'm not really sure, to tell the truth. No doubt someone has taken these and set them into as much order as they'll bear, which I think is probably not all that much. Where did Bor and his sons and Ymir live before Ymir became construction materials?Does it matter? From the little I know most creation myths are comparable. There's Chronos eating his children, for instance, in the Greek/Roman myths. 

The creation account in Genesis is a model of simplicity in comparison. "In the beginning God created...." No giants were harmed in this creation. The basic idea--that God said "Let there be...", and they were, is not necessarily incompatible with what science tells us. 

One thing that can't be missed is that whatever is meant by the word "god" in these myths is not the same thing that either the Old or New Testament means by God. They're simply not commensurate. Whatever Odin, the father of the gods is, he's not in the same order of being as God. The latter is what David Bentley Hart refers to as the One God of classical theism. Odin himself has a father, and is born into a world that was long since created. You can find things in the Old Testament that might seem made of the same stuff as myths, but overall it's a pretty straightforward narrative of human activity, even if you don't think it's accurate.

Even more striking is the contrast between the remaining stories, all the doings of Odin and Thor and Loki and the rest, which are wild, and the New Testament. For instance: Thor in a test of his strength arranged by the magician Utgarda-Loki is challenged to lift a cat off the ground. With his utmost effort he manages to get one of its paws off the floor. Later Utgarda-Loki explains:

Truly all those who saw you raise one of the cat's paws off the ground grew fearful, because that cat was not what it seemed to be. It was the Midgard Serpent, which encircles all lands, and from head to tail its length is just enough to round the earth. But you pulled him up so high that he almost reached the sky.

In another incident Thor, out fishing with the giant Hymir, manages to hook the Midgard Serpent. In the struggle, Thor's feet go through the bottom of the boat, and he stands on the sea floor for the rest of the struggle, in which he is almost victorious, but when the head of the serpent appears Hymir is terrified and cuts the line.

Reading the Edda brought home to me just how silly it is to dismiss the Gospels as "myths handed down over the centuries." You'd have to be really quite thick to go from the Edda to the opening of Luke's Gospel and not see that you are dealing with an entirely different species of writing. It's obviously an account of events that happened in a specific time and place, and for a nearly-contemporary audience which is familiar with both. To borrow from Dorothy Sayers, it's as if it begins with something like "During the Carter administration..." It's plainly not a misty-dawn-of-time situation. The New Testament might be the product of delusions or lies or some combination of the two, but it is very obviously not mythology in the sense that the Eddas are.


Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Back on Memorial Day of 2004, the first year of this blog, I posted this quotation from John Ruskin, which has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago. 

Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.

And this is right.

For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be—fond of pleasure or of adventure—all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact—of which we are well assured—that, put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that this choice may be put to him at any moment—and has beforehand taken his part—virtually takes such part continually—does, in reality, die daily.


A brief follow-up on last week's remarks about "toxic femininity" (TF): I should have mentioned that the discussions of "toxic masculinity" which had caused me to start thinking about what its feminine counterpart might be were not about seriously bad things like sexual assault but about rudeness, egotism, "mansplaining," and the like: things which I regard as being more in the realm of bad manners than of serious pathology. I was thinking of everyday human interaction, not crime and abuse. Obviously the story I linked to of the woman trying to damage a man's professional standing because of a remark made in bad taste is not in a class with rape.  

Janet once said to me that she thinks it's displeasing to God when men and women criticize each other for faults attributed to their sex per se. Or something like that--that's what I took her to mean, and she can correct me if that's wrong. I think she's right, depending on the spirit in which it's done. It should never be done in a spirit of competition and domination, with the intention of elevating one sex over the other. But I also think sex and the whole male-female dance is one of the richest and most fascinating things in human life, and I often think about those differences, and sometimes write about them, not with the intention of disparaging either sex as such,  but in an almost scientific sort of spirit: look, isn't this interesting? 

And if you think about those things you inevitably find yourself comparing the different directions each sex tends to take when behaving badly. You can think about those without intending to find each member of the sex guilty of them. Or to deny the general mistreatment of women by men throughout history. Both sexes are equal in absolute worth and in importance to the scheme of things, and each is equally fallen. Some  years ago someone--I think it was Grumpy, but I'm not sure--commented here, apropos some similar discussion, that "Men tend to be selfish; women tend to be self-centered." I think that's one of the sharpest observations on the subject I've ever heard.


Freight train a-comin' on a rainy night.




Sunday Night Journal, July 2, 2017

My view of the current political-cultural situation in the U.S. is unquestionably somewhat dark. It always has been. I'm a pessimist by nature; I was born this way. But is it darker than it was ten years ago, as Quite Grumpy said last week? I'm not so sure that it is. But if it is, the reason is that certain tendencies are further along now than they were then, considerably further than I even expected.

I'm thinking in general of the intensity of division in the country. Stu said that it "Doesn't seem like the 'end times' to me, with the blue and red either battling it out, or living in separate states." I disagree--not that I think it's necessarily the end times for the U.S., but I do think that we are in new and dangerous territory, and I see a real possibility of some sort of schism. Not anytime soon, but within, say, the next fifty years. California, as you no doubt have heard, now forbids state-funded travel to several other states, including mine. This amounts to a declaration of political war, and is certainly a step in a very bad direction. And for what it's worth, I'm very, very far from alone in my worry on this score. I've read pundits on both right and left who see it as a possibility, though I think on the left it's viewed as being not necessarily a bad thing, maybe even a desirable one. The right is in general more attached to the whole historical concept and reality of the United States. (Rudy Guiliani got a lot of criticism for saying that he didn't think Obama loves America, but I thought he was at least partly right, in that Obama, presumably owing to his unusual circumstances, never seemed to have that visceral love of country that many or most Americans do, or at least used to.)

And I'm thinking in particular of the divisions created and continually intensified by disagreements about sex which involve fundamental disagreements about the nature of society, of government, and even of what it means to be human. Looking for evidence of what I was thinking about this ten or more years ago, I found a very relevant post from May 2004, less than six months into the life of the site (which was not, strictly speaking, a blog for its first couple of years). It's about the division that would be deepened and made permanent by the creation of same-sex marriage, and it is really prettyaccurate in its prediction of what the effects would be:

If this arrangement is given the force of law throughout the country, it may very well be seen by history as the point where the deep and bitter division in American society which we call the culture war became once and for all irreconcilable. Or perhaps I should say recognized as irreconcilable, for it may already be so. This will be a tragedy, and like all tragedies all the deeper for having been preventable.

Please read the whole thing if you want to discuss it. Things have of course moved far in the direction I predicted there. What I did not foresee, what I don't remember even occurring to me, was that as soon as victory in the marriage campaign seemed assured, the same forces (I'm not sure what to call them) would immediately take up the "transgender" cause with exactly the same fervor, self-righteousness, and intolerance toward disagreement. It certainly didn't cross my mind that the government would ever attempt to coerce schools into opening toilets and locker rooms to members of any and all "genders." 

It would be said by gender activists that my emphasis on this whole complex of issues is a product of "homophobia," "transphobia," etc. That's to be expected. But it might also be said by less extreme voices that I'm unduly concerned with the morality of certain sexual practices. Why should I care? Why pick on this one sin? Why not divorce, or adultery? (Or climate change denial!) The answer is that it is not the morality I'm concerned with.  It's the principle: the legal redefinition of a fundamental institution.

The reason for resisting these things, for me at least, is not to try to prevent people from sinning. Even if you agree with the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, anyone with a mind in reasonably good working order can see that not everything which is wrong is a matter for the law. Most people, regardless of religion, would agree that in general, it is wrong to lie. This does not mean that we want the state to monitor everything everyone says, rule on its truth or falsity, and prosecute everyone caught in a falsehood. 

But there is a point where lying becomes punishable by law: lying in a legal contract, for instance, or when under oath in a court of law. It is in those situations that lying becomes a matter for the whole commonwealth, and can't be tolerated, because it threatens the very fabric of society, its principles of order.

The objection to same-sex marriage, and all the many demands of the transgender movement, is not that they enable or encourage immoral or simply unwise acts, but that they seek not only to redefine the institution of marriage (which is more fundamental than the state), but to require that everyone participate in a denial of fundamental biological, psychological, and social realities regarding sex.  

This is a big deal. It turns the concept of marriage into something created, rather than recognized, by the state, and in essence, by making sex irrelevant to the concept, makes it meaningless except as a legal construct, seen, from that point of view, primarily as another avenue by which one receives "benefits" (tangible and intangible) from the state. This has enormous, far-reaching consequences, and I don't think they're good. I think the ones I predicted in 2004 are very much with us now, and I was speaking in 2004 only of the divisiveness. It's more than divisive, of course: the question now is to what extent dissent from the new order will be allowed. And that in turn has a great deal to do with the reasons why so many Christians supported the manifestly non-Christian Donald Trump for president. 

It's been pointed out that the times are less troubled than were the 1960s: there are no cities in flame, for instance. And that's true. What's different now is that the country is more evenly and more intensely divided on fundamental principles, and each side believes that the other wants to subjugate it. If more open conflict comes--violence, or a serious attempt to break up the country--part of the tragedy of it will be that most of these people can get along perfectly well with each other at the immediate, personal, and local level. It's the deep religious difference, the difference as to what society is forwhat life itself is for, and the attempt to shape it accordingly, that really fuels the conflict. And makes the situation seem so dark. Or partly, anyway--it's not as if we don't have other serious problems. But the division makes it difficult or impossible to work on them together.

Grim reflections for the Fourth of July, I know. The most hopeful note I can sound is one I've sounded before: that a willingness to allow for more diversity across the nation, to let California be California and Alabama be Alabama--federalism--might yet preserve the republic as something deserving of the name.

Anyway, perpetual crisis is pretty much the human condition.


I'm actually not much more concerned with trying to discourage homosexual activity than I am with trying to discourage any number of other sins, sexual and otherwise. Aside from the fact that discouraging anyone's sin is usually not my responsibility, and I'm more than fully occupied in trying to discourage my own, I tend to assume that by now, forty or fifty years on in the sexual revolution, most of us are knowingly acquainted with homosexuals, male and female, have been on friendly terms with them, and do not want to see them demonized or persecuted. In my case that has included at least one very close friend. And so I tend to assume that the accusation that Christians hate homosexuals--are "homophobic"--is grossly exaggerated at best. It also causes me to feel that there is no particular need for me to say that my objection to same-sex marriage etc. is not malicious and personal. But this post by David Mills at Aleteia reminds me that my view may not be typical, and maybe there is such a need. Though the effort is probably pretty hopeless now: if you aren't supportive of the whole program, you're an evil bigot, and that's that. 


By the way, my view of life, the universe, and everything is in general definitely not darker than it has been in the past. I'm in fact more serene now, or closer to being serene. I think this is mainly the result of age, and an increasing ability to resign the troubles of life to God's care, because there is so little I can do about them. The blog may give a misleading impression in that respect. I tend to comment more on the passing scene, on Vanity Fair rather than the permanent things, and most of that is not edifying. The deeper reflections are going into my book, or into other writings which I will try to place in magazines. 


True love is always bleeding in our mortal life. You simply cannot have love in this life without pain.

--Sr. Ruth Burrows, O.C.D. (quoted in Magnificat)



Sunday Night Journal, May 28, 2017

It's pretty obvious that there is some significant number of people on the left who simply don't believe in freedom of speech anymore. There have been a number of incidents lately that make the point. There were the attack on Charles Murray, the conflict at Duke Divinity School, the simultaneously hilarious and disturbing fight at the feminist journal Hypatia. In the latter case, fury was directed at a feminist author, and the magazine that published her, for considering the possibility that a person could be "transracial" in the same way that current academic orthodoxy believes one can be "transgender." That controversy is so demented that it's funny, but the attackers are deadly serious, and I have no doubt that if they could they would deprive the offender of her job, and will try to find ways to punish her.

The most recent one is the case of a biology professor who refused to go along with a racial-consciousness event that asked (ordered?) white people to stay off campus for a day.  Threats of violence prevented Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkley, and a parade in Portland was reportedly canceled when leftists promised to disrupt it because a Republican group was going to be part of it. 

There's a lot to be said about this that pertains to our politics and the rule of law, especially that last one. If its implications are not immediately obvious to you, consider what the reaction would be if the KKK attempted something similar against Democrats. But stepping back from the current situation a little, and trying to view it somewhat dispassionately, I think this may be one of several indications that the Enlightenment/liberal consensus about speech and ideas is falling apart. A week or two ago I got into a discussion of the Catholic Church and science on Facebook (Galileo!), which led into the general topic of forbidden ideas and speech, which led me to say this:

A further thought on censorship and the suppression of ideas in general: I suspect that our ideal of completely free speech and thought are somewhat anomalous historically, not only with respect to the past but maybe also with respect to the future. There are signs that it isn't going to last. A lot of progressives, especially young ones and especially in academia, apparently just don't believe in it anymore, and that could have a big impact over the next fifty years or so. It's a natural thing that a society would try to suppress ideas that pose a threat to its very existence, or offend its sense of what is sacred. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it's natural, and we may be going in that direction again. The classical liberal, John Stuart Mill style ideal of totally free and open debate may be on its way out. Like classical liberalism in general. 

One possible positive result of this might be a bit of understanding and sympathy for the medieval Church and society.

Possible. Not probable.


Last weekend I went to the wedding of a niece, daughter of one of my sisters. I'm not keen on attending weddings anymore, because I've seen far too many marriages end. But I went. The ceremony was supposed to take place at 5:30 Saturday afternoon on the big front porch of our old family home in north Alabama. A lot of rented white plastic folding chairs were set up on the front lawn for the guests. Planning an outside event is always a gamble in a climate and at a time of year when rain is fairly frequent. An hour or so before the appointed time I was putting gas in my car and noticed big dark clouds moving in from the southwest. They kept getting bigger and darker until they were a little scary, with a touch of that slight greenish hue that always suggests "possible tornado" to me. A few minutes before 5:30 the wind began to pick up until it was fierce, and soon I could see a mix of dust and rain coming across the fields. At almost exactly the minute the ceremony was supposed to begin, the cloudburst came. 

I think the rain plan was more or less "improvise." All the many guests crowded into the house, overflowing the front hall and all the nearby rooms and crowding the stairs. The minister and attendants took up their positions just inside the front doors, which were open. From where I was standing I could see a really potent storm going on: the rain was horizontal, and so heavy that I couldn't see the end of the driveway several hundred feet away. The worst of it was over fairly soon, and though the rain continued well into the night, it didn't seem to lower anyone's spirits. 

I'm sure there was some cynical "Well, this is a bad sign" joking about the rain, especially the way the beginning of the downpour was timed almost to the minute with the ceremony. But this is farm country, and the rain was badly needed. The forecast had been showing an increasing chance of rain for two or three days, and I had heard several people say "We sure need the rain, but I hope it holds off till tomorrow." My brother and I decided it was not a bad sign at all. Just the opposite: it may have been a sign of blessing. I hope so.


...and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.

--Ezekiel 34:36


I find lately that I feel more pity than envy when I contemplate young people. There's such a long road ahead for them. I even fear for them a little--there's such a strong chance for varieties of grief and pain that they can't foresee. Nevertheless, life is good.


From a piece about Hogarth in the April issue of The New Criterion:

Hogarth is a wonderful character—self-made and self-mocking, candidly ambitious and patriotic, easily slighted and angered. His life is a grand tour through the social and moral microcosm of Georgian London. His satires abound in easy English pleasures—lechery, drink, gambling, mockery, sanctimony, slapstick, cruelty to animals, and abuse of the French.

That's not relevant to anything. I just thought it was funny. 


We were talking about Roger Scruton last week. Here's an interesting review of one of his books at Craig Burrell's blog. The topic is education and its role in the transmission of culture. What happens when education is suborned to the repudiation and destruction of a traditional culture?

I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.

Why Argue About Same-Sex Marriage?

Why even bother? Why bother thinking about it at all, since it seems pretty clear that it isn't going to be stopped. A large segment of the country, including those all-powerful federal judges, have accepted the dogma that defining marriage as a union of two people of opposite sexes is morally and intellectually identical to racism. In a few months the matter will come before our nine popes without a God, and  it seems likely that they, in their recently-adopted role as law-givers to the tribe, will declare that every state must adopt the official view that there is no difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

So why not just let it go, quit talking about it, and try to keep one's distance from the new order? Because this is not just a change in the language on marriage licenses, and a means of allowing homosexual couples to adopt children, or to be counted as relatives for the purposes of hospital visits and the like, or to get the tax benefits of marriage. It is a redefinition of some fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, and although many of its effects will be slow to develop, they will be profound.

One of the most obvious effects, and one that probably won't take long to become visible, is a change in the relationship of Christianity to the state in post-Christian societies. There is an excellent piece at First Things on that subject, The Civic Project of American Christianity. Thanks to Rob G for pointing it out. Here's a sample:

...we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century.

One of the reasons the redefinition of marriage is succeeding is that the arguments for it are simple and emotionally appealing and deal with the immediate satisfaction of desires and the immediate resolution of difficult situations. Who wants to be the mean old person saying "no" to those nice lesbians who want to adopt a baby together, especially if he is going to be publicly despised and perhaps punished for it? The arguments against it, on the other hand, deal with bigger and less immediately personal matters, and are based on long-term implications and effects. But it's just because we are losing the political battle that it is important to understand what is happening, and what is likely to happen in the coming decades.

Same-sex marriage is an attempt to deny, by linguistic and legal fiat, the fundamental reality of sexuality and the social structures which stem from it. In the long run, reality will reassert itself. In the meantime, it may be difficult at times to resist acquiescence in official falsehoods. We're going to need clear heads.

Addendum: a long statement of the case, also at First Things, by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, with a notable list of signees.

Some Interesting Words from Eve Tushnet

Well, of course, the Catholic neighborhood of the Internet is still ablaze with commentary about the synod, and I'm certainly not going to attempt any summary, especially as I've only read a little of it. But this from Eve Tushnet, which someone posted on Facebook, caught my eye. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but it is interesting, because she's a gay Catholic who wants to follow the teachings of the Church, and yet without repudiating what she sees as an essential part of her nature.

I admit that I really don't see a good resolution for that problem. One thought the question provokes, though, is that her vision of some sort of place for "celibate partnership" (there's a link to further discussion of that idea in her piece) is something that I can see more easily workable for lesbians than for gay men. Despite the abundant evidence, most women don't really understand just how commanding and obsessive the male sex drive is. They may understand it as an observed datum, but since they don't experience it, they still tend to underestimate its power.

Eve Tushnet has a book out, by the way, which I'm sure would be interesting.


Shulamith Firestone, RIP

When my wife and I got married she owned a copy of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, not to mention several other feminist works of the time, which in retrospect should perhaps have worried me a little. But in the early '70s most college girls with any sort of intellectual inclination read things like that, and at any rate any case the worry would have proved unfounded. The book is gone now, dumped in one of our periodic purges of books that we're pretty sure we never want to read again, or perhaps have accepted we will, after all, never read.

I did leaf through it once, though, and found at the end a truly bizarre vision of the future. It included a list of the stages through which humanity must pass on the way to perfect freedom and equality. As I recall, the elimination of legal and social gender differences was only the beginning; it progressed (if that's the word) through elimination of the family and all consciousness of family relationships, ending with a sort of techno-feminist-communist society in which babies are produced in artificial wombs and childbearing itself, as the foundation of all the oppression to which women have been subject throughout the ages, no longer exists.

Here's a passage quoted on her Wikipedia page which seems to be the summation of the vision:

So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility - the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud's 'polymorphous perversity' - would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.

I remember thinking "This person is completely deranged." And I think any reasonable person would agree. But there are probably a considerable number who would say, as they often say of communism, that it's a good idea although it would be hard to put into practice. 

 "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is a perennial question, and a good one. Not asked as often, at least in my experience, is its counterpart: to what goal are progressives progressing? I wonder how many would see Firestone's vision as a desirable utopia. Not so very many, I would guess. But those who would are probably in academia or government or journalism, and wield an influence out of proportion to their numbers. A good many more would probably go at least halfway to Firestone's goal, and agree with her basic view of relations between the sexes. No doubt the book remains useful for stoking rage in young women.

I have been thinking about the book and the woman who wrote it because I recently ran across this retrospective in The New Yorker. She didn't do well after Dialectic. After participating in the frenzy of theorizing and agitating that was feminism in the early 1970s, she turned her back on the movement, withdrew and became isolated, suffering bouts of madness and often living in poverty. Although she came out of that for a time in the 1990s (with the assistance and friendship of a woman named Lourdes), she withdrew again, and when she died alone in her apartment last year, a week went by before anyone noticed. 

Of course one who has looked at the book is not surprised, or ought not to be, to hear that her mind broke down at times: her rage was against the very nature of reality, as she herself said:

Feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the very organization of nature.

The very organization of nature. To rage against that is to see, in a distorted way, the fundamental human problem; to believe you can fix it is, eventually, to despair. She was to feminism as Nietzsche was to atheism: someone who was willing to see the implications all the way to the end. There is something admirable in her demand for purity, although it was a kind of purity not only impossible to attain but not even desirable to a healthy spirit.  

It is obvious to anyone, if Faludi's account is correct, that a troubled family life had a lot to do with Firestone's anger and her problems (not to mention the sick atmosphere of politicized personal quarrels--or should that be personalized political quarrels?--so frequently present in the feminist movement). And to a Catholic eye it's also obvious that a very misguided religious impulse was at work. Another profile, this one at The Atlantic, ends with this observation: "in her fervor she at times resembled a martyr or a saint." She did a lot of damage, to herself and others, but God would have seen the resemblance, too. 


(from a book she published in 1998, Airless Spaces)

Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2012

Can This Marriage Be Saved?: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.

Once when I was, as best I can remember, in my early teens, and spending the night at, as best I can remember, my maternal grandmother's house, I was looking for something to read and couldn't find anything except a stack of Ladies' Home Journal magazines. I am unable to reconstruct how this situation came about, and maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, because it was at the home of that same grandmother that I had found a treasure-trove of Hardy Boys books. At any rate, I did leaf through these magazines, and of course there was not much there to interest a teen-aged boy. However, I did find one thing: a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It told the story of a troubled marriage from the point of view of each spouse, and then gave the views of a marriage counselor on how the spouses might go about working things out.

These little dramas were fascinating to me, which in retrospect seems a little surprising. And when I ask myself what made them interesting, I think it was, first, the fact that they were dramas, and second, the way they illustrated the adage that there are two sides to every story. I was intrigued by the fact that the two people saw things so very differently; frequently it wasn't even two sides so much as two entirely different stories, both spouses portraying themselves as unloved and the other as unloving, both blind to their own faults, or at least oblivious to the other's perception of them.

The phrase occurred to me as I was reading this book, not in reference to any specific marriage, but to marriage itself, and to the general state of relations between the sexes. The old half-humorous phrase "war between the sexes" often seems all too accurate. Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago? How about a hundred years ago? A thousand years? I don't know how that question could be answered, but it certainly looks to me as if there is. At any rate the institution of marriage is certainly under attack, and in serious trouble. And one of the causes of the trouble is a terrible misconception of the nature of sex, a misconception which Budziszweski attempts to counter in this brief book.

 In seven chapters, beginning with "Does Sex Have to Mean Something?" and ending with "Transcendence," Budziszweski takes on the idea that sex has no meaning, showing that those who say it has none generally cannot avoid being drawn back to the conclusion that it does, and leads the reader through a series of questions about the nature of sex to the threshold of that to which sex points and leads, which is the transcendent love of God.

In equal parts poetic and analytic, the book is beautifully written. It paints a lovely and persuasive picture of sexual attraction, love, and marriage. And at times that almost seemed a weakness to me, as I turned from contemplation of this picture of the mysterious riches of these things when they are rightly understood and practiced to a consideration of what is actually going on around us in our culture. In stark and ugly contrast to Budziszewski's vision (one which of course he shares with other Christian thinkers) stands one of the most repulsive things I've ever read on the subject, Hannah Rosin's piece in the September Atlantic, in which she praises the habit of easy and detached sex among college students. Be warned before you click that link: it contains crude and occasionally disgusting sexual terms, a couple of which, I'm thankful to say, were new to me. Rosin invites us to celebrate and admire the fact that young women have become cold-hearted climbers who put their own material and social success above everything else:

To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.

I couldn't help thinking, when I read this, of Christ's warning about the end times: "...and the love of many shall wax cold."

At the other end of the social, material, and intellectual scale was a very poor and dissolute man--a drunk, actually--whom I met a few days ago, and who spoke of his sexual life in the crudest and coldest imaginable terms. Ms. Rosin would have recoiled from the sight of him, yet he was, in philosophical principles, pretty much of the same mind as she on the subject of sex.

The Christian vision of love, as articulated by this book and many others, may seem impossibly and naively sweet. These are words from another mental and emotional world entirely:

To the lover, the beloved may seem luminous, iridescent, as though she were lit up from within, like a paper lantern. Some lovers say that she reflects light from a lamp which is not present; others that she seems to be encrusted with gems. She is almost too wonderful to look at steadily. The experience has the aroma of eternity. When Dante says "Now my beatitude has been revealed," his phrasing is therefore exact. He does not say that the beloved is his beatitude; she isn't.... It isn't she who is the infinite and perfect Good. Yet by some magic, by some effulgence of grace, she somehow, to some degree, diffracts or reflects it to him.

Who would not prefer to live in this latter world? No one with much health in his soul, I would think. But even many of those who might wish for it and be open to it do not believe that it is real. I don't know whether the temper of our times is better or worse in that respect, though I must say it certainly seems worse. There has never been such a thing as our mass culture of noisy cynicism and prurience and un-love. To the conflict between the sexes that is an inevitable feature of life in our fallen world, we have added a prevailing materialistic philosophy that directly attacks the very idea that anything in human life, especially sex, has any intrinsic meaning beyond the advantage and pleasure to be obtained by the individuals involved.

Can this marriage--of men and women, of love and sex, of physical and spiritual, of human and divine--be saved? The book supplies much-needed assistance. There's only one problem with it: it's  not likely to be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with it, and while those who do agree with it will find much of interest, it will not startle. The author leads the reader from earthly love to the love and knowledge of God but declines to acknowledge his destination until the last chapter. But no one who is likely to purchase a book from this publisher (ISI Books, the publishing arm of a conservative foundation) by this author on this topic will fail to see it coming. That leaves it up to those who do to get its message out into the wider world.

I should add that it seems to me that there are some distinctive intellectual contributions here, beyond the more or less expectable view of sex in the light of Christianity. At any rate there are some ideas here which I haven't encountered before, in particular the chapter on the meaning of sexual beauty. Budziszewski discusses the phenomenon by which a young man discerns beauty in a young woman that he didn't at first recognize after he gets to know her for what she really is, and how this recognition becomes a step toward marriage. By an interesting coincidence, a day or two after I read that passage I heard Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-ding-ding" (written by Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn):

How could that funny face
That seemed to be common place
Project you right in to space
Without any warning?...
She takes your hand,
This captivating creature,
And like it's planned, you're in the phone book
Looking for the nearest preacher

These are the most natural things in the world, but we live in a culture which denigrates and denies them.They are too elemental ever to be destroyed, but they can certainly be damaged, and they certainly have been in our time. Men and women have always struggled to understand and get along with each other, but the bonds of affection and common purpose that once assisted them in that struggle have been attacked and damaged. One must ask the question: who benefits?

(J. Budziszweski is a convert who teaches at the University of Texas; there's an interesting interview with him here.)

 (And Can This Marriage Be Saved? was a "trademark feature" of Ladies' Home Journal for many years.)

Sunday Night Journal — May 14, 2006

On Mother’s Day

Among the many little things that have, over the years, impressed upon me the fact that men and women really are different psychologically was a moment twenty or so years ago when one of our daughters was a baby. My wife was changing the baby’s diapers or giving her a bath, talking idly, partly to me and partly to our daughter, about what a beautiful baby she was, enumerating her delightful qualities, counting the toes and fingers, and so forth, adding at the end “And she has a tiny little mole here, here, here, here, and here,” putting her finger on the spot with each “here,” which involved turning her over for the last two or three.

I remember being more than a little surprised that she had memorized the precise location of every variance in the baby’s skin—there was no hesitation or searching involved as she jumped from one to the next—and I’m sure she had done so without any conscious effort. It was just a natural result of the amount of attention she gave the baby, the same mechanism which had once enabled me to sing effortlessly from memory every verse of Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute “Desolation Row.”

I don’t really think I loved our daughter any less, but I certainly didn’t have such details at my command, and I imagine this pattern holds for most mothers and fathers. There’s a humorous list of male-female differences floating around the Internet, one of those emails that circulate for years on end and thus presumably say something that hits home to a lot of people. On the topic of children, the anonymous writer notes a mother’s very thorough knowledge of her children in every physical and mental respect, then says that “A man is vaguely aware that there are some short people living in the house.” That’s pretty harsh, but most couples will recognize the truth it exaggerates.

Concomitant with that level of attention is something more subtle. Some part of a mother somehow goes out into the members of her family, especially her children. I can imagine that if one had the right parapsychological gift one would be able to see a psychic strand connecting them, through which some sort of unconscious communication takes place, an operation which requires that a part of the mother’s soul go out into these strands. She is never altogether compact in herself; some part of her is always with those she loves and for whom she feels responsible. No doubt this can be true of women in other relationships, and is probably true of some men, but by and large it’s a feminine thing, and most strongly a mother-child thing.

I think it explains part of the reason why most women are so enchanted by the prospect of spending a day at a spa or something of that sort: it’s a circumstance where in addition to physical rest she can get psychic rest. No one expects anything from her, no one needs anything from her. All those psychic connections can be rolled up into herself for a while and the part of her that operates them can be rested and restored.

Although our children are mostly grown now, I still see this attention and responsibility in operation, even at a distance, on the part of my wife. And along with her care for our children she devotes a lot of attention to her chronically ill brother. Her mother passed away four years ago, having spent a large part of her life worrying about and providing for her son. And my wife seems to have inherited that responsibility; I mean not just the fact of it but the consciousness of it.

She’s not much for spas and that sort of thing, but I’ve been trying to get her to let go of things for at least a little while. I wanted her to take a glass of wine and the Jane Austen novel she’s been reading and go to bed. She wouldn’t take the wine, saying it would only put her right to sleep. But she’s back there with the book, and the door is shut. That’s good.

Sunday Night Journal — February 26, 2006

Staying Put

The extremely interesting discussion of so-called “crunchy conservatism” continues at National Review Online. These folks obviously have a lot more time for such talk than I do, and I can’t keep up with it, but I was struck by an exchange lamenting the unfortunate tendency of people to move away, often very far away, from the place in which they grew up, which of course in practice means moving away from their own parents and other family. You can read the two initial posts here and here. I should use words like “pressure” or “incentive” rather than “tendency,” because much or most of the time there are strong economic reasons for this mobility.

Some twenty-plus years ago my wife and I were faced with this decision. We were newly-converted Catholics with young children, living in small-town north Alabama where Catholics number five or six percent of the population, and with a growing group of like-minded Catholic acquaintances in other parts of the country. Both of us are Alabama natives. I come from the extreme northern end of the state, where we were living at the time, near my family. She comes from the extreme southern end, three hundred miles away.

We still had a certain amount of the back-to-the-land, commune-founding spirit that was abroad in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We talked to some of our scattered Catholic friends and acquaintances about forming some kind of Catholic community which would involve, at a minimum, living near each other.

Nobody wanted to move to Alabama, of course. And, parenthetically: it has always slightly amused and slightly annoyed me that so many people, conservatives particularly, who admire rural life and social conservatism want absolutely nothing to do with the Deep South, where those characteristics are more dominant than in most of the rest of the country. No doubt part of the blame for that goes to George Wallace, Bull Connor, et. al., but part of it, too, is that hardly anyone with any interest in intellectual life, which included most of our long-distance friends, really wants to live in Hicksville, however much they may praise its virtues from a distance. I don’t entirely blame them, but the syndrome does cause me to maintain a certain skepticism when city-dwelling intellectuals get sentimental about rural life and the common man.

These talks never got all that far, but they did get far enough for us to consider very seriously whether we wanted to move away from our extended families. It was something that we talked about a great deal, the kind of soul-searching conversation that goes on between a husband and wife after the children have gone to bed. Since our families were not Catholic and there were so few Catholics around, we had to assume we would be somewhat isolated religiously if we stayed where we were. On the other side there was the possibility of living in a seriously Catholic environment, but that was certainly not guaranteed: who was to say that whatever community we joined would last more than a few years? Or for that matter that it would be a healthy place, not a pressure-cooker of eccentricity and fanaticism? And if it failed we might end up with the sort of rootless Flying Dutchman life that I’d long since decided I didn’t want, for myself or my children.

In the end it came down (for me, at least—my wife might remember differently) to the question of whether or not our children would grow up knowing their grandparents. I wasn’t willing to answer “no” to that question, family won, and we decided to stay put.

I don’t intend to discuss the following twenty years or so in detail, but suffice to say things didn’t work out all that well, certainly far less well than we had hoped. As far as raising our children in the Faith was concerned, we were constantly in the position of having to choose between isolation and influences we didn’t want them to have—just to take one dominating example, there was the problem of omnipresent television in the homes of almost everyone except us. And of course the dreariness of the typical Catholic parish didn’t help. I might also mention the sad irony that in 1990 we moved down to my wife’s country, where Catholics are somewhere in the range of a quarter of the population, where we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group which was something of a running disaster.

Still: if I had it do over again, knowing what I know now, but absent some direct guidance from God, I think I’d make the same choice. It just seems fundamentally more sound, more healthy, even more human. And the long run in which all human decisions are measured has a good deal longer yet to run.

Sunday Night Journal — February 19, 2006

Something Broken

I’ve been intrigued by the question of the psychological differences between men and women since the attempt to deny their existence which was mounted by the feminist eruption of the early ‘60s and ‘70s. I took that attempt seriously for a while, but it soon became clear that the movement had two impossible dogmas: one, that men and women are the same except where women are superior, and two, that men and women are to be treated identically except where it is to the advantage of women that they be treated differently. At that point the feminist movement began to be of more interest to me for what it got wrong and what it inadvertently revealed than for what it consciously asserted; it became a spur to my fascinated consideration of woman as a species, so much like my kind and yet so different.

In pursuing this research I often make my wife the sole spokesman for her entire sex. When I’m wondering aloud and at length about what some female characteristic really means, or why men think or do X but women think or do Y, she doesn’t usually say a great deal. This is constitutional: against stereotype, I’m the more verbal of us, and she isn’t much given to the kind of abstract rationalizing that I do all the time—or if she is, she keeps her conclusions mostly to herself. But she has deep insight and a way of somehow coming up with something brief and pithy when I push her for an answer.

So it was a year or so ago, when, as is now usual around Valentine’s Day, the topic of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was in the news. I had run across a statement that completely baffled me: an actress—I think it was Glenn Close—had said something like “Eve [Ensler] gave us back our souls.” What, I wondered, could she possibly mean? How or why could an extended discussion of one’s genitals seem soul-saving? The same news story in which Close was quoted included similar sentiments from other famous women, mostly or perhaps all actresses. After rattling on about it for a few minutes, I put the question directly to my wife: what makes them say things like this?

There was a little pause, and she answered, “There’s something broken in their woman-ness.”

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and another round of dealing with the Monologues. There have been the usual controversies about whether the play should be performed at Catholic colleges. I haven’t read it, but if descriptions of it both pro and con are accurate, the answer is obviously “no.” More interesting to me remains the question of why it was written in the first place, and why some women seem to respond to it with such fervor. In a discussion on Amy Welborn’s Open Book a few days ago, I made this statement:

The way it looks to me as a male observer is that a woman is her body in a way that a man is not. A man's body is more like something he operates. I conjecture that the increased exposure and objectification of the female body in our sexualized culture is helping to produce aberrations like these plays.

That was an off-the-cuff comment. To elaborate the thought a bit further, maybe the psychology of the thing is something like this: erotically charged images of beautiful women are impossible to avoid in our culture. It’s not just female beauty that’s forced into our awareness all the time, but female beauty with a definite and direct sexual charge—the woman is first of all, and to the exclusion of almost everything else, a sexual object (as the feminist movement used to say, and perhaps still does) in the narrowest sense. Nobody, male or female, really wants to be an object of use by other people. But if it’s true that a woman is more closely identified with her body than a man is, then the anxiety generated by this objectification would be greater for women. The same sort of anxiety is generated by a woman’s participation in sexual activity in which she is treated as an object—which is to say, the kind of activity which has become the sanctioned norm for both sexes since the 1960s.

Women are thus simultaneously more vulnerable than men to the effects of this objectification and the main targets of it. Moreover, the technologically exaggerated sex appeal of the women in advertising and entertainment is both more pure, in the literal sense of having less of anything else in it, and less human than that which any actual woman (including these very models and actresses, if one were to meet them in person) can wield. Even the models and actresses themselves must know that they can’t live up to the images of which they are the raw material. So the real woman is made to feel not only like an object but an inferior object.

Adding to the disorientation is that the whole point of woman’s allure, from the simple biological point of view, is to induce the act which produces a baby. And yet it’s precisely in the context of sexual pleasure that her fertility is despised. It’s no wonder that there might be something broken in a lot of women, and some pretty strange phenomena ensuing.

Perhaps Eve Ensler’s play says some of these things. Perhaps I ought to read it, although I really don’t want to. But here’s something else which I strongly suspect may be true and which I’m pretty sure Ensler does not say: a woman who signed herself simply as “Caroline” agreed with my comment at Open Book, adding that

For women there is no earthly solution to this identification of self and body which makes, in effect, the imperfect body into the imperfect self. What I am getting at is that women are best positioned to enjoy their glorified bodies and their total selves in the hereafter.

If it turns out to be true, this would be another instance of the last—that is, those who suffer most—being first.

Sunday Night Journal — January 22, 2006

This Culture is Ugly: Dark Thoughts on Roe Day

Many years ago I heard attributed to an Episcopal seminary professor the observation that Americans have a difficult time dealing with the Christian concept of sin, because we want to believe that “if it’s a sin you ought to stop doing it, and if you can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin.” I think of this often, and it’s come to mind several times over the past few days, during which three things have come together to leave me with a sense of gloom.

The first involves the visits to colleges which my wife and high-school-senior daughter have been making. I find that I can’t be enthusiastic about any of them, no matter what they offer in the way of academics, in part because they have all succumbed to the sexual revolution and have become, as one college administrator, more honest than discreet, put it, summer camps with no grownups. No grownups, and lots and lots of alcohol and other intoxicants.

Aside from a few conservative Christian schools (none of which offer the subject my daughter wants to study), colleges have long since dropped anything but a token effort to prevent or in many cases even to discourage sexual activity in their dormitories. One student guide, showing us around a dorm, replied to a parent’s question about male visitation to the girls’ floor (that’s floor, not building) with the rather too coy policy: “if there’s not a problem, there’s not a policy,” by which she meant that only if a girl’s roommate objects to her boyfriend’s presence is he required to leave. Of course it is possible for a student to remain chaste in this environment, but now that effort, which people have always found difficult, is effectively discouraged.

On the way to one of these visits I read a long piece by Caitlin Flanagan in the January Atlantic (thanks to Dawn Eden for the link, and please note that the article is full of very crude sexual references, including a fairly nauseating quotation from a rap song). Putatively a book review, the piece is in fact a discussion of the sickening phenomenon of teenage girls performing casually impersonal sexual services for boys—behaving, in short, as the pornographic popular culture in which they are immersed tells them they should behave. Flanagan, one of our most insightful writers on matters of love and marriage, offers this stark summary: “Society has let its girls down in every possible way.”

I agree entirely with this, but unless I’m misreading her Flanagan doesn’t see clearly how we got to our present condition. She seems to put forward as an image of how things ought to be the book Forever by Judy Blume, in which a young girl intent on making love with her boyfriend is outfitted (by her cooperative parents, I gather) with contraceptive gear and certificates of health covering both parties, has a perfectly fulfilling sexual experience, then apparently (I haven’t read the book) prepares to move on to the next “relationship.” This strikes me as pretty clearly a middle-aged woman’s fantasy of what she would have liked her first sexual experiences to be, and Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t seem to see that the effect of this super-controlled Planned Parenthood approach to sex is to make the woman more available to the male while asking less of him—almost nothing, in fact, beyond not raping her and attempting to see to her pleasure during the act itself.

That was the second thing, and the third thing is today, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

All three of these social developments involve or are driven by the attempt to sterilize sex, not only in the obvious physical sense but in its psychological dimension as well (to say nothing of its spiritual dimension, the existence of which is widely denied). It is thought that if new life is prevented, or destroyed if it occurs, the pleasure of the act can be grasped without any assumption of responsibility, not just for a new life but for the other person. There is to be no baby, but also no bond, no spiritual conception of the new thing which is the family, based upon the couple pledged to each other until death, the one flesh of which Our Lord speaks. I think that if we understand the truth about sex we must see the modern attempt at liberation to be in fact an attempt to destroy sex in the most fundamental sense, because reproduction is so much of its essence. What is wanted is, in a sense, sexless sex.

The motives involved here are nothing new; mankind has always struggled with them. The illicit use of sex has always come easily to us, especially so to all too many men, and too many women have always had to learn how to kill in themselves what appears to be an innate feminine propensity to form an emotional bond where there has been physical intimacy. What may be new is the attempt to end the struggle by denying the significance of sex. The traditional rules concerning sexual behavior are impossibly difficult, we think, and we can’t be expected to follow them. So the problem becomes one of convincing ourselves that we aren’t doing anything wrong—if we can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin. But the truth of human nature asserts itself, and not the least apparent sign of its insistence is the shrill fury with which the proponents of lifeless sex greet any challenge to their doctrine.

I don’t know how God would judge the two cases, but it seems to me that a boy and girl of forty or fifty years ago, crazed with the wine of love and desire, slipping away to car or woods or barn for furtive and risky lovemaking, are more admirable, or at least more likable, because more human, than what we are told is the contemporary ideal: the properly certified and equipped pair engaging more or less openly in what is described, in a phrase which has always obscurely repelled me, as “having sex,” expecting nothing more than a brief physical pleasure and a casual friendliness. Not surprisingly, most women are not happy with this situation and spend a great deal of energy in search of what is vaguely called “commitment,” which is a euphemism or substitute for marriage (and which, also not surprisingly, sounds to the footloose male like a whiny attempt to renege on an implicit agreement).

I don’t know why this little piece of trivia sticks in my mind, but one of the early albums by the Mothers of Invention had a chaotic-looking cover, in one corner of which was a crudely-drawn picture of a tree with the caption “This tree is ugly and it wants to die.” A variation on the phrase recurs to me sometimes when I consider the pathologies of our culture. Sex can be tamed; that’s what marriage is for. But to attempt to render it trivial is to attempt to flee from the burden of being human. This culture is ugly and it wants to die.

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2005

Ending Up

Twenty to thirty years ago the first wave of young orthodox Catholics formed not only by Vatican II but in reaction to the errors that followed upon it, formed perhaps above all by the exciting early days of the papacy of John Paul II, began marrying and raising families. Many of them were converts or reverts. They were filled with good intentions and high expectations, determined to live out their vocations as Catholic parents in a way that could hardly avoid being in opposition at least some of the time to the prevailing secular culture. My wife and I were among them, and we’ve met many others along the way.

Most of these have been reasonably successful, but I know of some fairly spectacular crashes: divorces, children going seriously astray, and in general all the ills that beset society at large, to which no family is completely immune and from which no family is completely isolated. Daniel Nichols relates, on the Caelum et Terra blog, a particularly sad story of a woman abandoning her husband and children. Daniel’s point is not so much the particulars of that situation as the scandal of easy annulments in the Church today, but I found myself brooding over the situation itself. How does a couple come to such a pass when, unless one of the spouses was deliberately deceitful, both had begun with the best of intentions to live a Catholic marriage?

And beyond such highly visible tragedies, I know—I expect everyone knows—of Catholic families which appear from the outside to be fine and faithful, but which have serious internal fractures. Or parents who have become perhaps too well-adjusted to the culture, and whose children are fallen-away or nominal Catholics.

I think one reason these things trouble me is that somewhere in some sub-rational part of my mind there is a stubborn belief that if parents try to do the right thing God will see to it that their marriages work out and that their children remain in the Church. I emphasize that this is not rational, and I don’t need to be reminded that the effects of original sin persist in spite of the sacraments, and that personal sin is a stubborn thing, never entirely or perhaps even mostly eradicated. I know, I know. And yet the question keeps presenting itself to my mind: how can things go so wrong? There is no definite answer to that, but, doctrine aside, every sensible person knows that things will go wrong in this world, no matter how hard we try. That’s why they call it a vale of tears.

It helps to alleviate the melancholy of contemplating these situations to remember that in none of them do we know the end of the story. Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, I made the decision, for purely pragmatic reasons, to give up my plans for an academic career in literature and to take up a practical trade, studying computer science. Some time after that I ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for five or six years. We were standing in line for something or other and briefly catching up on what each of us had been doing. I told him I was learning to be a computer programmer and added, perhaps a bit defensively, that this was an odd place for me to end up. He replied, “Well, maybe you ain’t finished ending up yet.”

That remark comes back to me often. Those disasters that I mentioned are stories still in progress. I sometimes hear people who read The Chronicles of Narnia complain of or lament what seems to be the loss of Susan, one of the four siblings who enter Narnia. In one of the late books in the series she is no longer present, and the other three are given to understand that her interest in worldly things has taken her away. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but I’ve never taken it to be the final word on Susan’s eternal destiny. She is on the wrong road, clearly, but as far as I remember it is not stated that she will never regain the right one and that she will not, by some other and harder route, eventually enter Aslan’s country. No one still on this earth has finished ending up yet. And it’s worth remembering that this is no less true of those who seem to be doing fine as of those who are in desperate straits.

Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2005

Heat. Humidity. Sex.

It is miserably hot and humid here, as it normally is in mid-July. Air conditioning has transformed the South, so that this sort of heat is only a nuisance, not a major factor in how one lives, except that it drives people to stay indoors, so that the southern summer now resembles the northern winter in that one doesn’t willingly spend much time outside except for certain seasonal recreational activities.

Now and then I hear someone wonder aloud how people endured this climate in the days before air conditioning. Well, I’m old enough to remember a time when air conditioning was relatively rare, when the doors of those businesses that were air-conditioned often displayed an advertisement for Kool cigarettes which read Come in—it’s KOOL inside, and I don’t even remember it as being all that bad: it was just the way things were, and you lived with it. But getting used to air conditioning makes being out in really hot weather for more than a few minutes seem miserable to most of us, and utterly intolerable to some, to hear them talk.

I would like to say that I scorn this effete comfort, but I don’t. My house and car are air-conditioned (and if I had to choose I might give up cooling the former before the latter). I do still regard it as a luxury, though, and one that might not always be there. I don’t take it for granted, and I find it salutary to be reminded of what life is like without it.

Yesterday I mowed the lawn at around three in the afternoon, when most of it was in shade. The lawn is not large, requiring only half an hour or so to mow, but the heat was so overpowering that I took a long break in the middle of the job. I would not have been much wetter if someone had poured a bucket of water over me. So rather than go inside, where it was twenty degrees cooler, I sat in the swing outside, aware of each little rivulet running down my face and neck, clothes sticking to me everywhere.

If you’re out in this heat you don’t ever actually get cool. You only go from miserable if you’re active to uncomfortable if you’re still. If you get this hot and then go into an air-conditioned house, you get an instantaneous chill of rapidly evaporating moisture; it can even become uncomfortably cool. But if you’re outside, you don’t get that. Rather, you realize after a lapse of minutes that you’re not sweating as much as you were. And you never dry out; you just go from thoroughly wet to merely damp.

In this condition any movement of air is a cool touch, the only thing you feel that is not describable as “heat.” And so you become aware of the least little breeze. There is nearly always some movement of air where I live, as it’s close to the water, but my house is sheltered beneath a bluff and surrounded by trees, so I can frequently see the treetops moving but feel no wind at all. Yesterday was comparatively still, the breeze reaching me only in intermittent light puffs, each one a delight. I sat quietly for ten or fifteen minutes, swinging a bit, waiting for and enjoying these, until I went back to work.

When every interior is air-conditioned it’s easy to lose touch with the wonderful reality signified by the phrase “cool breeze.” It’s good to be reminded of these elemental pleasures, too easily lost in a world of more powerful and pervasive ones. The former are in fact to me, and I suspect to most people if they will slow down to experience them, often more deeply satisfying than the latter, even though, as I say, I don’t really want to give up my air conditioning, if only because not having it would cause me to be even more indolent than I already am.

I read recently of some sociologist’s finding that the use of pornography among young men is causing them to grow jaded about sex. I can’t provide the reference, as I have no idea now where I read it, but the researcher made the claim that for those who absorb a steady stream of pornography—which the Internet has made it very easy to do—mere casual fornication is no longer sufficient, that the young men expect the young women to perform for them as the prostitutes of pornography do, and that it takes more and more exotic and no doubt perverse activity to excite them.

This is sad and disgusting but predictable. Of course saturating the environment with sexual imagery will in time decrease most people’s reaction to that imagery, and it is no new discovery that profligate sexual activity eventually leaves one jaded and unresponsive and in need of ever stronger stimuli. As C.S. Lewis has Screwtape say, “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” The complete eroticisation of culture leads naturally to the diminishment of the erotic. The flood of sexual imagery that now engulfs us was by comparison only a trickle when I was a teenager, and when I recall the electric jolt I could then experience as the result of a touch or a glimpse of a bit more leg than was ordinarily revealed, I have no doubt as to which kind of society I would rather be young in.

Unlike the pleasure of a cool breeze, the pleasure of eroticism is the object of obsessive anticipation. It also frequently suffers from a considerable falling-off between the anticipated pleasure and the reality. What happens when the fantasy crowds out the reality altogether? Even if no moral considerations were involved, pornography would be something to deplore as leading in the long run to a much reduced ability to experience and appreciate real pleasure.


Sunday Night Journal — January 23, 2005

Change, Liberal and Conservative

As if to continue and confirm the premise of my comments last week on the terrible consequences of the sexual revolution, I came across this article, The Frivolity of Evil, by Theodore Dalrymple, a name which will be recognized by anyone who reads the conservative press but is perhaps not much known outside it. Dalrymple has been for some years a physician working among the English underclass, which by his account is as hellish a culture as anything our big American cities can show. It appears that anyone whose notion of England remains conditioned by popular images of what it was between, say, 1920 and 1970 is sadly misinformed and should read the piece to correct that condition, if for no other reason.

If Dalrymple and other British Jeremiahs are correct, Anglophilia will soon refer to a species of nostalgia, not to affection for any existing thing. And much of the everyday misery encountered by Dalrymple is the direct product of the attitudes and premises of the sexual revolution, which was only the most visible element of an entire cultural movement exalting the individual’s pursuit of happiness above duty and above traditional and/or abstract principles of right and wrong . Here is a paragraph which serves as a quick summary of Dalrymple’s point:

This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. What better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her own 14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her in the house? And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, another thread in life's rich tapestry?

It may seem that the caustic language directed at intellectuals is unwarranted; after all, very few would openly advocate throwing children out in the street for the furtherance of sexual freedom. But that is partly where the frivolity lies: middle-class and upper-class intellectuals can advocate and practice an unanchored and self-indulgent way of life and be insulated by their wealth from some of its more dramatic practical consequences. Even for them, of course, serious social and psychological consequences remain: they are only more subtle and less immediately visible. The impulse which leads a poor drug-addled woman to turn her child out is pretty much the same as that which causes a middle-aged man to walk away from his wife and children. Mary Eberstadt, author of a book, Home Alone America (which I have not read), on the subject of America’s children, argues in this essay that the ferocious anger which is the most obvious characteristic of much pop music today is directly related to the insouciant divorce and abandonment practiced by the baby-boomer generation. I think she is right; I arrived independently at the same conclusion some time ago merely by listening and watching what was going on around me—and, I’m sorry to say, by having been one of the offenders. (I do not offer myself as an example of virtue, only as one who did eventually figure out the difference between right and wrong.)

To speak of overturning at least some of the premises and practices of the sexual revolution is to invite the platitude that “you can’t turn back the clock.” I wonder if it isn’t time to give up this metaphor as applied to any phenomenon other than nostalgia or regret for one’s own past actions. As a response to the question of whether something is in need of reform, it is perfectly useless. If I once was honest and am now a liar, no one would accept you can’t turn back the clock from me as justification for a refusal to change my ways. If I wreck my car and take it to the shop for repairs, the mechanic doesn’t shake his head regretfully and tell me you can’t turn back the clock. If I code an error into my employer’s software so that it no longer works properly, I don’t shrug and say well, you can’t turn back the clock, so you’ll just have to live with it.

Is this a liberal or a conservative point of view? Neither, I think; it’s simply a recognition of a problem and the desire to ameliorate it. If liberalism means a commitment to specific social developments such as unrestricted access to abortion, then it’s conservative. But if liberalism means a desire to change things for the better, it’s liberal.

Some liberals like to play a sort of “gotcha” game in which they define conservatism as a simple reluctance or refusal to embrace change, and then, when the conservative tries to overturn some liberal accomplishment, exclaim triumphantly Ha! You want to change something! You’re not a conservative at all. Well, aside from the fact that it’s puerile, this cuts both ways. I don’t know of a better example, in our current social controversies, of an absolute and adamantine refusal even to consider the possibility of considering change than that maintained by the abortion rights lobby in its insistence that any abortion, any time, anywhere, for anybody must always and forever be legal. Does that mean they are now conservative, and pro-lifers liberal? It’s a silly question; let’s set it aside and admit that in many ways (it was not all bad) the sexual liberation of the past forty years has been a change for the worse, and try to move society toward more restraint, a greater sense of duty, more respect for the sexual act and its natural consequences.

Conservatives already believe this. There is no reason in principle why liberals ought not agree, except for those who consider sexual license as simply a good in itself, and its practical consequences irrelevant, or at least an acceptable price to pay. With these it is difficult to argue, and it is this sort of conflict, where no common ground seems to exist, that gives rise to the notion of a culture war.

Sunday Night Journal — May 23, 2004

The Progressive Steamroller

Once the bandwagon for homosexual marriage got rolling at a really good clip, it occurred to me that if it became thoroughly established the result would be bad for heterosexual women. Why? (A): most women want to marry and have children, while most men are at least hesitant about, and at worst determinedly hostile to, domesticity; (B) homosexual marriage will undermine real at-least-potentially-procreative marriage.

Point A above is beyond rational dispute, and I think attempts to deny at are made less frequently than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

Point B is more debatable, but in my opinion it is very likely. The reasons for expecting this have been widely discussed and I won’t go into them now, except to point out that one of the first male homosexual couples to be “married” in Massachusetts made it plain that they do not take marriage very seriously at all.

I am embarrassed to admit that I’m an habitual reader of Dear Abby. An inordinate number of the letters she publishes are from unhappy women complaining about the men who won’t marry them. Many of these women already have children, either by a previous man to whom they may or may not have been married, or by the man they are currently trying to interest in “commitment,” which seems to be a euphemism for marriage. Almost all of them have made themselves sexually available to the man in question. Sometimes the couple has “been together,” which seems to mean living together, for a number of years. Frequently they are thoroughly entangled financially, perhaps having bought a house together. Sometimes (and these are the most depressing) the woman supports the man. The question usually addressed to Abby is “Should I give up on him?” and the implied question is “Are my odds of marriage better if I wait on him or if I look elsewhere?” In one recent Dear Abby, if my memory is correct, every one of the day'sletters were in this vein. The women who write this kind of letter are unhappy and seem to live with a deep fundamental anxiety.

It's safe to assume that there are more women in this situation than there were thirty years ago, and that the general decline in respect for marriage is a significant part of the reason for it. If it is indeed the case that homosexual marriage will undermine respect for the institution, there will be even more women who desperately want to marry but cannot find husbands. These women, like those who want to be stay-at-home mothers but have found themselves pushed, by an unholy alliance of feminism and business, into jobs they never wanted and don’t like, will join the ranks of those whose lives have been made worse by the steamroller of “progressive” social change. Whether or not this effect on women really occurs remains to be seen (and it would be a hard case to prove), but one thing can be said with near-certainty: those who brought the change about will not accept any responsibility for its negative consequences.

Every progressive success has its victims, to acknowledge whom is the height of bad taste. As far as I know very few opponents of the Vietnam war have ever expressed any misgivings about their role in allowing Communism and its accompanying death and hardship to sweep over Southeast Asia after the Communists took power. They may have deplored it, but they did not regret their small part in bringing it about—it was as if these calamities were natural forces that nobody could have foreseen or prevented. Women who regret having abortions are generally treated as enemies by the abortion rights movement (the existence of the aborted children is simply denied outright). The apostles of drugs, sexual liberation, quick divorce, and all the other terrible ideas of the 1960s now regard the wreckage which their propaganda helped to encourage as evidence that society is even more messed up than they had thought.

I wonder if this phenomenon, which seems stronger than is accounted for by the natural human reluctance to admit mistakes, is an effect of faith in an essentially benign forward movement of history from darkness and oppression to light and freedom. The very dark view of the future which one sometimes finds among progressives is not a loss of this faith but a fear that the forces of reaction may stop or turn back the forces of progress. But to acknowledge that a successful change thought to be progressive has been in fact for the worse would raise questions about the fundamentals. These are generally more difficult to face than the prospect of defeat.

It's a shame. There might be more of a market, so to speak, in electoral terms, for many elements of the progressive agenda if they did not come as part of a package that includes utopian redefinition of a crucial institution like marriage.