The New York Times Magazine devoted its issue yesterday to “Love City: 24 Hours of Romance, Lust and Heartache in New York”. John Podhoretz, an Ur-New Yorker, commented:
Interesting that the “24 Hours of Love” issue of the NYTMagazine begins in at a sex party followed by a strip club. I know it’s 12 am and all but if this is what we are to understand Love is in 2018 we may not have to wonder at the suicide spike that has us all freaked out.
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) June 9, 2018
The Times Magazine Love issue brings to us the sweet story of Hanna, a teenage daughter of a lady rabbi in Brooklyn, and her Beaux. No, I don’t mean the men competing for her heart. I mean Beaux (née Sophie), her lesbian lover. And there’s Harry, Hanna’s male lover. They are a throuple, our Hanna, Harry, and Beaux. The Times contributor Elizabeth Weil writes about them as if they were enchanted. We join them as Harry and Hanna leave synagogue services:
Two by two may have worked for Noah’s animals in the (heteronormative!) Bible, but these are people — specific, glorious, teenage people — and their hearts are much bigger than anyone could imagine. As congregants spilled into the temple foyer and wished one another “Shabbat shalom,” Beaux, Hanna’s girlfriend, appeared — her face tough, tender, searching, critical, defended and vulnerable all at once. She wore boots, baggy jeans, shark-tooth earrings and a silk camisole, and her head was shaved.
Take that, Biblical heteronormativity! It seems that Hanna is a dingbat who twirls through life like a Malick heroine:
Hanna floated between Beaux and Harry. She’s the quietest of the bunch, and her heart seems almost miraculously whole and unbroken, like a cake hot from the oven before the surface cools, contracts and cracks. This is perhaps a result of the fact that Hanna is a person who falls in love with one thing and then falls in love with another thing and then, instead of letting go of the first, just adds on. She loved all the Harry Potter books, and then she loved all the Percy Jackson books, and she still rereads them both. Same with watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Doctor Who.” And so it was with Harry and Beaux. A few months before she started dating Harry, Hanna spoke with Beaux in the front doorway of her house. “I have something to say,” Hanna told her. “I like you.”
“I like you, too,” Beaux said, “but let’s not date!”
Beaux soon changed her mind. To deal with the situation, she wrote a slam poem titled “The 21st Century Version of Asking for Their Parent’s Blessing” and performed it on video for Harry. “Dear Mr. Harry,” it started:
I am in love with your girlfriend.
Now, I know
how this sounds
but you’ve done it too and you know how she is and you’ve seen the way I look at her.
is important to me.
She is the caveat in every suicide note
The random smile in the middle of math class.
Harry handled Beaux’s request extremely well. He was a mensch already and had been friends with Hanna in ninth grade, when she talked about almost nothing but her love for Beaux. He did not want to be the kind of boyfriend who kept his girlfriend from chasing her bliss.
Harry is a gamma-male who is being cuckolded, but being woke, doesn’t mind.
At this point, you may ask yourself: what kind of parents want their teenagers involved in a polyamorous bisexual threesome? And, as these three are minors: what kind of parents give permission for The New York Times Magazine to profile their relationship? Welcome to 2018.
Beaux has a theory: San Francisco is the capital of white gay men. New York City is the center of queer youth. “When you are queer, that becomes like a huge part of who you are,” Hanna told me, “because you just start to be like, Damn, I’m so gay, constantly.” You’re sitting watching “Castle,” and Stana Katic comes on-screen, and you’re like, Damn, I’m really gay! Or you see something cute, like even that hetero couple in “The End of the F***ing World,” and you find yourself thinking, That’s so gay!, because the word “gay” is cross-wired in your brain with exuberant/life-affirming/hot/cute. You go to the ice cream truck, and you ask your friend what kind of sprinkles you should get, and she says, “You have to get rainbow ones because you’re queer.” You don’t need to push the boundaries or make up some whole new type of identity from scratch, but you do need to represent.
A few years ago, Beaux and Hanna started poking around Tumblr, trying to name, with precision, their feelings and experiences. At first, Hanna said, “I was like, I think I’m bi, and then I learned the word ‘pansexual’ and was like, I think that describes me better.” Beaux goes with “queer,” partly to avoid the implication in the word “bi” that you’re a double agent and need to make up your mind. At school she hangs out with her gang of lesbians. “There’s a lesbian and a straight girl living inside me!” she says. “I’m the straightest one and the gayest one there, and that’s been my experience my entire life. It’s not like I’m .5 gay and .5 straight. It’s like I have two full sexualities.”
But the city is not all one big sparkly unicorn of love. Hanna and Beaux are lucky, they know that. They know that if your parents are part of what they call “the Park Slope white-parent community” (not limited to Park Slope proper), your parents can’t be homophobic, or if they are they have to be hermits. White, liberal parents have to be O.K. if a kid comes out. When Hanna first told her mom she was bi, her mom said: “I think I might be bi, too, but it doesn’t matter because I’m married to your father! If I had the freedoms you have in high school, things might have been different.”
Her mom is a rabbi. Mom the Latent Bisexual Rabbi who allows her daughter’s gay lover to spend the night with the daughter upstairs (there’s a photo of them kissing in bed, and another photo of them washing up after they spent the night together).
I said they were a “throuple,” though they really aren’t. Turns out Beaux doesn’t want to kiss Harry. But that’s cool too:
People often say to Beaux, Hanna and Harry: Isn’t this three-way relationship difficult? Aren’t you consumed by jealousy? Their honest, heartfelt answer is no. “Wow, I like you, and I like you, and I don’t feel tense about that!” — that’s their basic feeling. Beaux is O.K. with Hanna’s dating Harry, and Hanna is O.K. with Beaux’s dating whomever she wants (at the moment, she has such a huge crush on a girl from school that she bought a pair of shoes like the ones this girl wears, just to impress her), because they get to have each other, too.
It’s at this point that some liberals realize that what looks like dreamy progress in Park Slope strikes many of those outside its borders as the kind of decadence from which they wish to protect their children. So they say, “Hey, you’re trying to make the mores of a very liberal place out to be exemplary of the rest of America! That’s wrong! You’re trying to panic people!”
By now, you readers should be onto this strategy. You should be savvy enough to recognize that what is observed sympathetically in a place like the most important newspaper in America — the one read by the people who make movies and television — will eventually be mainstreamed through the mass media. In 1995, a movie called Kids, about semi-feral New York teenagers who drifted through life smoking dope, skateboarding, and having sex, was so controversial it almost didn’t get distribution (who distributed it? Harvey Weinstein!). In 2018, The New York Times Magazine writes a romantic piece about a teenage threesome, which features a photograph of the lesbian couple in this ménage washing up after having spent the night together … and it’s no longer edgy, as it was in Kids, but now it’s bourgeois and mainstream. Hey, Hanna’s a rabbi’s daughter, and the rabbi tells her daughter that she too would be interested in bonking women, but she’s married to dad, so … but good luck, honey! You girls have fun up there!
I’d bet you a thousand dollars that producers are on the phone this morning with Hanna and Beaux and Harry, trying to buy rights to their story. And that it will be on Netflix, or Amazon, within a couple of years.
So, who is the “René” of the headline? It’s René Girard, the late French cultural critic and the father of mimetic theory. Here is a very simple, four-minute introduction to his theory:
In a nutshell, Girard said that we want the things we want after seeing other people want them. Desiring to eat is not a “want,” but a “need.” But what we desire to eat — that’s a “want,” and it’s socially conditioned. The idea is not so much that we want what others have, but rather than we want what we see others wanting.
Hanna is a flibbertigibbet who desires indiscriminately, and who is embedded in a culture that certifies those desires. Beaux’s desire, and Harry’s desire, is more restricted, but they all seem to agree that within their city’s youth culture, there are no boundaries on sexual desire and gender expression. The story also indicates that outside of liberal circles, parents may not accept what the kids desire, but that is simply something that has to be dealt with.
Reading that part of the story, I couldn’t help thinking about last week’s conversation with a liberal friend who teaches school in a small Southern town in the middle of nowhere, and who told me that the kids in their school are way, way more liberal on sex and sexuality than their clueless parents think. I keep hearing this in dribs and drabs from pastors and teachers who read this blog. Culture is all national now. One Evangelical pastor here in Louisiana stopped me to tell me about how this is totally mainstream in his small town on the bayou, and that many older people in the town are trying to pretend that it’s not real because they don’t have the slightest idea how to deal with it.
Point is, young people today experience mimetic desire in relation to the popular culture to which they are exposed. Celebrating stories like the Park Slope Teen Lovers moves the Overton window — that is, the range of ideas acceptable in public discourse — towards greater permissivism, and the mimesis function creates within young people the desire to give freer rein to their sexual impulses, however anarchic.
It is now acceptable in public discourse to celebrate a bisexual teenage ménage à trois as just one more way people love each other. If you are a conservative who thinks this is going to stay in Park Slope, or in Manhattan, I’m sorry, you’re an idiot.
Where is this going to go? What is it going to mean for us as a society, a culture, a civilization? We are rushing so fast to tear down enthusiastically boundaries that were erected time out of mind. We have created a culture — economic, moral, religious, etc. — in which individual desire is formless, directionless, and its own justification.
Ever heard of Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman’s 1947 book Family and Civilization? Zimmerman was not a religious man, but he saw as far back as the early postwar era that civilizations that do not have strong families and family systems cannot survive. In this book, which entails a historical analysis of Greek and Roman civilizations, as well as the evolving family systems in the medieval West, up to the present times, Zimmerman diagnoses the West as entering a period of family collapse. Mind you, this was in 1947, a time most of us think of as a Golden Age.
In this excerpt, Zimmerman speaks of the coming dissolution of marriage and family. Remember, he speaks not as a moralist, but as a sociologist of the family. He writes that family structure and meaning is almost entirely determined by “external causation — by the dominant fashion or cultural coloration of a given time.
Since that is sensate, to use Sorokin’s terminology, marriage must go on to sensate levels of experience. And since the limited, purely sensate conception of familism and love is antithetical to almost any family life at all, marriage must go.
Zimmerman’s point is that you cannot have a society in which people are driven primarily by their untrained, unrestrained desire. Families don’t just happen. They are constructed. What’s happening now reminds me of what happened in the Mississippi River trading port called Bayou Sara, in the early 20th century. The town, which is just down the hill from the bluff on which my hometown, St. Francisville, was built, existed because it could afford a strong levee to keep out the river in flood. The boll weevil plague hit the cotton planters hard economically, and their economic losses made it difficult to keep the levee strong. In 1912, the levee burst, wiping out the town. What had been a bustling trade center became a ghost town. Today, there’s nothing but willows there. When I was a child a half century ago, you could still see the faint outlines of the town’s streets, but today, even those scars have disappeared.
Anyway, Zimmerman writes, about the family’s disintegration in the face of the evaporation of religious and moral prohibitions:
If there is any possible power that can stop this movement, it must be found in the exterior environment of the society. It will consist chiefly of antagonistic forces arising from the decay of previous social conditions. This decay can be temporary, like the panic of the 1930s or the civil wars preceding Augustus, or more permanent, as in the Dark Ages after the decline of the Roman Empire. Conditions arise in which it is difficult for even the civilized domestic institution of the family to survive. The the family system changes and in time (at least in the past) recovers some of tis familism. But it was a rough and brutal road leading from Rome to the Renaissance.
Zimmerman wrote that history shows that once the familistic system (that is, a society based on the family) dissolves, there’s no easy way to get it back. The Church of the so-called Dark Ages undertook strong measures to reconstitute it. Interestingly, Zimmerman says the church fathers in the West decided that they’d be better off trying to Christianize barbarians, with their strong clan systems, than in trying to rehabilitate dissolute Romans. More:
The result demonstrates that when the family is completely atomized, familistic reform seemingly must come from extrafamilistic forces in the culture. Men do not seem to turn back willingly toward the familism necessary to preserve the social system. That is a point with which the “liberal” antifamilists do not seem to reckon. None are so blind as those who will not see.
Indeed. The idea is not that your daughter is going to carry on with a girl and a guy simultaneously (though she might). The idea — or at least the main idea I want to get across — is that a world in which that is normal is a world in which it will be far more difficult to form strong families.We are living through the dissolution of a civilization. The levee is not going to hold. If you are any kind of religious or social conservative, especially if you are a parent of children, you and your neighbors had better start building the arks.