The alarm that the four dissenting justices sounded in their minority opinions is chilling. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia were particularly scathing in pointing out the philosophical and historical groundlessness of the majority’s opinion. Justice Scalia even called the decision “a threat to democracy,” and denounced it, shockingly, in the language of revolution.
It is now clear that for this Court, extremism in the pursuit of the Sexual Revolution’s goals is no vice. True, the majority opinion nodded and smiled in the direction of the First Amendment, in an attempt to calm the fears of those worried about religious liberty. But when a Supreme Court majority is willing to invent rights out of nothing, it is impossible to have faith that the First Amendment will offer any but the barest protection to religious dissenters from gay rights orthodoxy.
Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito explicitly warned religious traditionalists that this decision leaves them vulnerable. Alito warns that Obergefell “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy,” and will be used to oppress the faithful “by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”
The warning to conservatives from the four dissenters could hardly be clearer or stronger. So where does that leave us?
I say that we are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country. Voting Republican is not going to save us, nor will falling back on exhausted, impotent culture war strategies. It is time for the Benedict Option: learning how to resist, in community, in a culture that sees us orthodox Christians as enemies. More:
Last fall, I spoke with the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Nursia, and told him about the Benedict Option. So many Christians, he told me, have no clue how far things have decayed in our aggressively secularizing world. The future for Christians will be within the Benedict Option, the monk said, or it won’t be at all.
Obergefell is a sign of the times, for those with eyes to see. This isn’t the view of wild-eyed prophets wearing animal skins and shouting in the desert. It is the view of four Supreme Court justices, in effect declaring from the bench the decline and fall of the traditional American social, political, and legal order.
We live in interesting times.
Another sign of the times: the Patriot-News, a newspaper not in San Francisco, not in Manhattan, but in central Pennsylvania, has declared that as a general matter, it will no longer print opinions expressing opposition to same-sex marriage:
On Friday, the United States crossed a similar threshold, continuing a long road to acceptance of same-sex unions.
And this news organization now crosses another threshold.
As a result of Friday’s ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage.
These unions are now the law of the land. And we would not entertain such criticisms that these unions are morally wrong or unnatural any more than we would entertain criticisms of interracial marriage or those claiming that women are less equal than men in the eyes of the law.
We will, however, for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds critical of the high court’s decision and its legal merits.
Welcome to the exciting new world of the slippery slope. With the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling this Friday legalizing same sex marriage in all 50 states, social liberalism has achieved one of its central goals. A right seemingly unthinkable two decades ago has now been broadly applied to a whole new class of citizens. Following on the rejection of interracial marriage bans in the 20th Century, the Supreme Court decision clearly shows that marriage should be a broadly applicable right—one that forces the government to recognize, as Friday’s decision said, a private couple’s “love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.”
The question presents itself: Where does the next advance come? The answer is going to make nearly everyone uncomfortable: Now that we’ve defined that love and devotion and family isn’t driven by gender alone, why should it be limited to just two individuals? The most natural advance next for marriage lies in legalized polygamy—yet many of the same people who pressed for marriage equality for gay couples oppose it.
This is not an abstract issue. In Chief Justice John Roberts’ dissenting opinion, he remarks, “It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.” As is often the case with critics of polygamy, he neglects to mention why this is a fate to be feared. Polygamy today stands as a taboo just as strong as same-sex marriage was several decades ago—it’s effectively only discussed as outdated jokes about Utah and Mormons, who banned the practice over 120 years ago.
Yet the moral reasoning behind society’s rejection of polygamy remains just as uncomfortable and legally weak as same-sex marriage opposition was until recently.
DeBoer points out that progressives don’t have their hearts in the push for polygamous marriage because they’re stuck in the mindset of having to deny that the case for SSM necessarily entails polygamy. It was politically necessary to deny it to achieve SSM, deBoer says … but it’s still true. Freddie deBoer, meet the Law of Merited Impossibility. More deBoer:
Polyamory is a fact. People are living in group relationships today. The question is not whether they will continue on in those relationships. The question is whether we will grant to them the same basic recognition we grant to other adults: that love makes marriage, and that the right to marry is exactly that, a right.
Why the opposition, from those who have no interest in preserving “traditional marriage” or forbidding polyamorous relationships? I think the answer has to do with political momentum, with a kind of ad hoc-rejection of polygamy as necessary political concession. And in time, I think it will change.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I’m sitting here at the public library in my small midwestern town. Prominently displayed in the lobby are two new huge rainbow flags. At first I thought that it was wrong for the library to weigh in on a public affairs issue. That’s when it really hit me that this is no longer a hotly debated issue. It is the law of the land now. FWIW there is no American flag here despite the upcoming holiday–just rainbow flags.
The Supreme Court’s opinions in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case — the majority opinion constitutionalizing same-sex marriage and the dissents — can be read here. You will not be surprised that the majority opinion in Obergefell, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is full of gaseous eructations from the judicial pyloric, e.g., “the right to marry is fundamental because it supports a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals.” And who says a two-person union is unlike any other in its importance? This is groundless assertion.
You really must read the four dissenting opinions in the case. Even I am shocked by the bracing quality of the rhetoric and the analysis. If these justices are correct, this is a dark day for American democracy, and for the practice of traditional religion in America.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the lead dissent. He says that he does not, in his dissent, take a position on whether or not we should have same-sex marriage. His contention is that the Constitution doesn’t say anything about it — yet the five-justice majority have invented a right to gay marriage out of whole cloth. Excerpts:
Although the policy arguments for extending marriage to same-sex couples may be compelling, the legal arguments for requiring such an extension are not. The fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. And a State’s decision to maintain the meaning of marriage that has persisted in every culture throughout human history can hardly be called irrational. In short, our Constitution does not enact any one theory of marriage. The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.
Today, however, the Court takes the extraordinary step of ordering every State to license and recognize same-sex marriage. Many people will rejoice at this decision, and I begrudge none their celebration. But for those who believe in a government of laws, not of men, the majority’s approach is deeply disheartening.
Supporters of same-sex marriage have achieved considerable success persuading their fellow citizens—through the democratic process—to adopt their view. That ends today. Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law. Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.
The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.”
As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?
We think we are autonomous, willing creatures, who owe nothing to nature, to God, the past, or the future. More Roberts:
The majority’s understanding of due process lays out a tantalizing vision of the future for Members of this Court: If an unvarying social institution enduring over all of recorded history cannot inhibit judicial policymaking, what can? But this approach is dangerous for the rule of law. The purpose of insisting that implied fundamental rights have roots in the history and tradition of our people is to ensure that when unelected judges strike down democratically enacted laws, they do so based on something more than their own beliefs. The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now.
Religious liberty and the future of orthodox Christianity is at stake — and the Chief Justice is not sanguine about it:
The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses. Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage.
There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today. [Emphasis mine — RD]
Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, sets the house on fire. As in his past opinions on issues related to homosexuality, Scalia affirms that he does not take a position on whether or not laws liberalizing homosexuality are right or wrong. Instead, he focuses on the right of the judiciary to subvert the political process and impose its own views on the country. Excerpts:
So it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage. It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact— and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves. [Emphasis mine. — RD]
Note this sentence:
A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.
Scalia points out that the justices who imposed this politically charged decision are drawn from an elite, unrepresentative class:
Judges are selected precisely for their skill as lawyers; whether they reflect the policy views of a particular constituency is not (or should not be) relevant. Not surprisingly then, the Federal Judiciary is hardly a cross-section of America. Take, for example, this Court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination.
The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges, answering the legal question whether the American people had ever ratified a constitutional provision that was understood to proscribe the traditional definition of marriage. But of course the Justices in today’s majority are not voting on that basis; they say they are not. And to allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.
This is the language of revolution, pure and simple. That’s how serious this is to Justice Scalia. Boy, is he outraged at the gasbag Anthony Kennedy, author of the majority opinion. Read on:
If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” I would hide my head in a bag. The Supreme Court of the United States has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.
Of course the opinion’s showy profundities are often profoundly incoherent. “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.” (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.) Rights, we are told, can “rise . . . from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.” (Huh? How can a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives [whatever that means] define [whatever that means] an urgent liberty [never mind], give birth to a right?)
And we are told that, “[i]n any particular case,” either the Equal Protection or Due Process Clause “may be thought to capture the essence of [a] right in a more accurate and comprehensive way,” than the other, “even as the two Clauses may converge in the identification and definition of the right.” (What say? What possible “essence” does substantive due process “capture” in an “accurate and comprehensive way”? It stands for nothing whatever, except those freedoms and entitlements that this Court really likes.
And the Equal Protection Clause, as employed today, identifies nothing except a difference in treatment that this Court really dislikes. Hardly a distillation of essence. If the opinion is correct that the two clauses “converge in the identification and definition of [a] right,” that is only because the majority’s likes and dislikes are predictably compatible.)
I could go on. The world does not expect logic and precision in poetry or inspirational pop philosophy; it demands them in the law. The stuff contained in today’s opinion has to diminish this Court’s reputation for clear thinking and sober analysis.
Scalia ends ominously:
With each decision of ours that takes from the People a question properly left to them—with each decision that is unabashedly based not on law, but on the “reasoned judgment” of a bare majority of this Court—we move one step closer to being reminded of our impotence.
This decision does not surprise me, or, I suspect, anybody. What I was looking for is some sense in the majority opinion that religious liberty was important to the decision, and would be safeguarded. I had hoped that the libertarian Justice Kennedy would appreciate the importance of this issue. He did not — and Justice Alito, in his dissent, highlights the dangers facing orthodox Christians:
Today’s decision usurps the constitutional right of the people to decide whether to keep or alter the traditional understanding of marriage. The decision will also have other important consequences. It will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. [Emphasis mine. — RD]
Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. The system of federalism established by our Constitution provides a way for people with different beliefs to live together in a single nation. If the issue of same-sex marriage had been left to the people of the States, it is likely that some States would recognize same-sex marriage and others would not. It is also possible that some States would tie recognition to protection for conscience rights.
The majority today makes that impossible. By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds. [Emphasis mine. — RD]
Another ominous ending by a dissenting justice:
Most Americans—understandably—will cheer or lament today’s decision because of their views on the issue of same-sex marriage. But all Americans, whatever their thinking on that issue, should worry about what the majority’s claim of power portends.
I will have a lot more to say about the decision later, but I’ll post this now so you readers can start commenting. I will say this: Though the result was expected, the sweeping character of the Obergefell decision, and its unwillingness to do more than nod and smile at the First Amendment, and tell religious believers to hope for the best, is even worse than many of us will have anticipated. The warnings of the dissenting justices about the radical challenge to our democracy, and the threats now faced by religious believers, are absolutely chilling — and indeed, prophetic.
This is not the end of something. For Christians, because of the text of the decision and the means by which the Supreme Court majority arrived at it, this is only the beginning of some very dark and difficult days. It is time to confront this soberly but realistically, and prepare for the resistance.
In his recent encylical Laudato Si, Pope Francis often quotes Romano Guardini (1885-1968), an Italian-born German theologian and philosopher, whose book The End of the Modern World was particularly influential on both this pope and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. Matthew Schmitz connects Father Guardini to Francis’s thinking. Excerpt:
Guardini’s book begins with the premise that “There is only one standard by which any epoch can be fairly judged . . . to what extent did it allow for the development of human dignity?”
In Guardini’s terms — not in terms of GDP, of life expectancy, or of any other statistic — Francis finds our own time wanting. Technology has “joined indissolubly” with an economy of “uncontrolled greed” that allows injustices to combine into an impersonal force — sometimes called “progress,” sometimes “the market” — for which no one claims responsibility or accepts blame.
Our glorification of technology, Guardini argues, leads us to view everything and everyone as means rather than ends. This entails consequences extending not only from economic exploitation to nuclear warfare but also “from control of conception to interrupted pregnancy, from artificial insemination to euthanasia, from race-breeding to the destruction of undesirable life.”
Guardini’s critique cuts across the usual categories of left and right. …
Schmitz goes on to say that unlike Guardini, Francis remains optimistic that the world can get it together and turn things around absent Christian conversion. Schmitz:
Whereas Francis believes that the church can express universal desires and lead all men of goodwill in healing the planet, Guardini predicts that Christianity “will be forced to distinguish itself more sharply from a dominantly non-Christian Ethos.” Francis expects cooperation; Guardini, conflict.
So do I. If Christianity doesn’t define itself more sharply against the modern world, it will be assimilated out of existence.
In these unhappy changes, Guardini noted the emergence of a distinctively modern sensibility. He meant that the attitudes first articulated by Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century and René Descartes in the seventeenth were coming to dominate the mentality of twentieth-century men and women. Consciously departing from Aristotle, who had said that knowledge is a modality of contemplation, Bacon opined that knowledge is power, more precisely power to control the natural environment. This is why he infamously insisted that the scientist’s task is to put nature “on the rack” so that she might give up her secrets. Just a few decades later, Descartes told the intellectuals of Europe to stop fussing over theological matters and philosophical abstractions and to get about the business of “mastering” nature. To be sure, this shift in consciousness gave rise to the modern sciences and their attendant technologies, but it also, Guardini worried, led to a deep alienation between humanity and nature. The typically modern subject became aggressive and self-absorbed, and the natural world simply something for him to manipulate for his own purposes.
If you want to see an English version of Guardini’s perspective, I would recommend a careful reading of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Inklings colleagues on the relation between capitalist, technocratic humanity and an increasingly aggressed nature. If you want vivid images for this, turn to the pages in The Lord of the Rings dealing with the battle between Saruman and the Ents or to the section of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe detailing the permanent winter into which Narnia had fallen.
It is only against this Guardinian background that we can properly read the Pope’s latest encyclical. Whatever his views on global warming, they are situated within the far greater context of a theology of nature that stands athwart the typically modern point of view. That the earth has become “piled with filth,” that pollution adversely affects the health of millions of the poor, that we live in a “throwaway” culture, that the unborn are treated with indifference, that huge populations have little access to clean drinking water, that thousands of animal species are permitted to fall into extinction, and yes even that we live in housing that bears no organic relation to the natural environment—all of it flows from the alienated Cartesian subject going about his work of mastering nature. In the spirit of the author of the book of Genesis, the Biblical prophets, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi—indeed of any great pre-modern figure—Pope Francis wants to recover a properly cosmological sensibility, whereby the human being and her projects are in vibrant, integrated relation with the world that surrounds her.
The challenge, at root, is to recover an older sense of cosmology — that is, the belief that the natural world has metaphysical meaning, versus the modern view that it is nothing but matter to be shaped according to the prerogatives of man’s will. The same-sex marriage issue must be understood in this light.
Romano Guardini insists that the music has stopped, even if some witless nostalgists keep humming the old tunes. What comes next, what has already arrived, is in radical discontinuity, something no earlier generation could have conceived, and something the wisest of us little understand.
More Father Neuhaus:
But his is a disposition toward a hope that is unblinking in the face of all the reasons for despair. His hero the kind of man he intended to be and invites his reader to be is not unlike Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith.” The question is not whether the glass is half full or half empty, but what do you do when you know it’s empty.
For a longer, in-depth essay about Guardini, read Wayne Allen’s piece here. I don’t know Guardini’s work, but I have a feeling that I’m going to have to get to know it, and soon. What do you do when you know the glass is empty? How do you maintain hope? That is the question facing orthodox Christians right now.
A Presbyterian reader passes along this visionary essay from the Rev. Layton E. Williams, a young, recently ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Having embraced her identity as a “bisexual/queer feminist” in seminary, the Rev. Williams is serving now at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago. Excerpts:
With such a positive upturn in LGBTQ inclusion in the PC(USA), the question I keep hearing people ask is, “Now that equality has been achieved, what’s next?”
Though I appreciate the spirit in which this question is often posed, I admit that I groan a little when it’s asked. As a bisexual female pastor, I know that inclusive stances on ordination and marriage have hardly sealed the deal for queer equality in the church (let alone gender and racial equality).
When people ask, “What’s next?” I’m overwhelmed by how much more there is still to be done. I believe the hardest work for the PC(USA) and the church universal still lies ahead. What God calls for isn’t inclusion of queer people. It’s justice. And for that, the church—the body of Christ in the world—must name and embrace its own queerness.
Wait … what? More:
The work of the church is not merely to accept those of us who are transgender, asexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, queer, and intersex. The work of the church is to accept and celebrate that the church—the body—is itself queer. The body of Christ is queer because it isn’t defined or bound by human constructs or binaries. It transcends and subverts norms and boundaries. It contains multitudes. But the body is also queer simply because its queer members are a vital component of its identity. When I was dating a cisgender (i.e., identifying with the gender assigned at birth), heterosexual man last fall, we were in a queer relationship. My queer identity made the relationship itself queer, even though he was straight. The body of Christ is queer in this same way because it contains queer identities.
It is time for the church to sit down nervously at its own Table and confront its internalized queerphobia. It is time for the body of Christ to come out. Some of us who have come out ourselves are happy to be the friend that talks the church through it.
Yeah, I bet y’all would. Talk fast, while you still have someone to talk to.
Crackpot as it is, better get used to this kind of thing. The Supreme Court is widely expected to issue its ruling in the same-sex marriage case today, and nearly everybody expects the Court to have discovered a constitutional right to gay marriage hiding under a penumbra somewhere. You might think this decisive victory will settle a major battle in the culture war. You’re wrong. The revolution is just getting started.
For a few years now, I have used a concept I’ve dubbed the Law of Merited Impossibility to characterize the doublespeak many LGBT activists and their allies have used to advance the cause. Here’s the Law: It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.
The Law is about bait-and-switch rhetoric among LGBT activists and their allies. It has to do with assurances they give to anxious skeptics of this or that gay-rights claim, telling the fraidy cats to relax, the worst-case scenario will never happen. And then when the very thing the supposed paranoids happens, the activists say that haters had it coming.
The Weekly Standard‘s Jonathan V. Last has written the definitive piece on the Law of Merited Impossibility. As we wait this morning to hear from SCOTUS, read the Last piece as a way to begin thinking about what’s coming next. Last begins by recounting a Twitter exchange in which a gay software developer who led the charge to have Brendan Eich thrown out of his own company for having given $1000 six years earlier to the Prop 8 campaign taunts Eich, who is still unemployed. Last:
It’s a small thing, to be sure. But telling. Because it shows that the same-sex marriage movement is interested in a great deal more than just the freedom to form marital unions. It is also interested, quite keenly, in punishing dissenters. But the ambitions of the movement go further than that, even. It’s about revisiting legal notions of freedom of speech and association, constitutional protections for religious freedom, and cultural norms concerning the family. And most Americans are only just realizing that these are the societal compacts that have been pried open for negotiation.
Same-sex marriage supporters see this cascade of changes as necessary for safeguarding progress against retrograde elements in society. People less deeply invested in same-sex marriage might see it as a bait-and-switch. And they would be correct. But this is hardly new. Bait-and-switch has been the modus operandi of the gay rights movement not, perhaps, from the start, but for a good long while.
Indeed. Last lists several examples. A good one is the claim that gays did not want to change the nature of marriage, only wanted to join it. Not anymore:
Slate’s Hanna Rosin agrees, suggesting that gay marriage won’t just change “normal” marriage, but will do so for the good:
The dirty little secret about gay marriage: Most gay couples are not monogamous. We have come to accept lately, partly thanks to Liza Mundy’s excellent recent cover story in the Atlantic and partly because we desperately need something to make the drooping institution of heterosexual marriage seem vibrant again, that gay marriage has something to teach us, that gay couples provide a model for marriages that are more egalitarian and less burdened by the old gender roles that are weighing marriage down these days.
Of course, not everyone in the same-sex marriage movement wants to help traditional marriage evolve into something better. Some want to burn it to the ground. Again in the New Republic, for instance, one member of a married lesbian couple wrote about her quest to use her own brother’s sperm to impregnate her wife. Why would she seek to do such a thing? Because “The queer parts of me relished the way it unsettled people. Uprooting convention, collapsing categories, reframing and reassigning blood relations was a subversive wet dream.” This is quite intentionally not, as Andrew Sullivan once promised, a “virtually normal” view of marriage.
Other changes are coming. Remember when people who predicted that gay marriage would lead to polygamy were mocked as dolts and yokels? Well now it turns out that polygamy is just the next frontier. “Legalize Polygamy!” declared one headline in Slate. “And now on to polygamy” urged . . . the Economist? Oh yes, all the way back in 2013.
Changing marriage beyond recognition has long been a stated goal of the organization Beyond Marriage, which is a collection of several hundred gay-rights lawyers, law professors, and activists. They argue that same-sex marriage is merely the first step on the path to redefining the family itself. Ultimately, they want legal protection for a host of other relationships, including, as they delicately put it, “Queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households” and “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.” This group is not a collection of cranks: It includes professors from Georgetown, Harvard, Emory, Columbia, and Yale. The Beyond Marriage project has at least as much elite support today as the entire same-sex marriage movement had in 1990.
The best part of the Last piece is his section on Jonathan Rauch, who has been the fairest of all gay marriage advocates. He quotes extensively from a Rauch piece conceding that the SSM movement is asking society to give up a view of marriage as gender-complementary that it has held for thousands of years. This, Rauch says, is why it’s not fair to compare same-sex marriage to interracial marriage, which has only been forbidden here and there. All of this is part of Rauch’s claim that people on his side ought to be tolerant of the liberties of religious objectors … but only for a while.
Soon, and very soon, many of us will be given the opportunity to embrace our own queerness, or be Eich’d. This revolution is insatiable; it will not stop until it has destroyed everything and everyone it conceives as a threat.
The Law of Merited Impossibility is about to go bigtime.
On the eve of the Supreme Court’s decision in the same-sex marriage case, a reader sends in this reflection from the gay novelist Alexander Chee, who imagines what the queer future in America will look like. Excerpts:
If I were to write a novel about a gay man like myself in the future—let’s say the year 2035—his ability to marry another man, whatever the Supreme Court ruling, wouldn’t be in question—it could even be the conventional choice, the one his friends laugh at even as they attend because they love him. He might even be descended from two generations of officially recognized gay marriages. “Gay,” “Queer,” “Straight,” “Same-Sex”: these would be deeply retrograde terms—orthodoxies to be resisted, or historical fictions, even. Given the press of overpopulation on us now, I could imagine my character as having chosen a childless, single queerness, and could depict this as the green choice, sexually and emotionally. The rearing of children could be something that is done only rarely, especially given its increasing cost. More and more, having children is something only the wealthy can afford in the United States, so in 2035 it wouldn’t be science fiction to imagine an entrenched oligarchy as the only class legally allowed to have them. In a political twist, China’s one-child policy could be seen retroactively as both visionary and not having gone far enough.
My protagonist could find the process of questioning his sexuality and gender as normal as we now find deciding what to watch on television. He might have no single sexual identification—omnisexuality—and that could be the overwhelmingly mainstream norm. Or he could be a part of an elite group of wealthy gay men, all of them seronegative and residing in an intentional community sexually sealed off from anyone who can’t pass a credit check and an HIV test.
Ha! A gay Benedict Option! More:
Marrying more than one person at the same time might also be possible for him within this system, especially if marriage is finally seen as the economic system it is—with fundamentalist Mormonism as something of a model for the legal future queer, but more like if the sister wives all ran away with each other and set up a home together. Or maybe my protagonist lives closeted inside a Christian radical white supremacist plantation state, complete with death camps for sexual deviants, married to a woman who is, perhaps, closeted herself.
Yet, when I think of the future for myself in real life and not fiction, I stick to what I know. Which is almost nothing. My hope is that marriage equality queers marriage, rather than straightening queers—that we reinvent it and keep reinventing it, and sexuality is finally acknowledged as having no inherent moral value except, perhaps, when it is ignored.
Emphasis mine. I remember a time, practically the day before yesterday, when conservatives who warned that gay marriage would inevitably deconstruct marriage and family entirely were called paranoid bigots. Well, I think Chee is pretty much going to live to see what he hopes for. How were we supposed to know it would come to this? some people will say.
Meanwhile, the NYT reports that orthodox Christian institutions are preparing for a fight to maintain their tax status in the face of the inevitable SCOTUS ruling. Excerpts:
The religious schools are concerned that if they continue to ban gay relationships, the Internal Revenue Service could take away their taxexempt status as a violation of a “fundamental national public policy” under the reasoning of a 1983 Supreme Court decision that allowed the agency to revoke the taxexempt status of schools that banned interracial relationships.
In a recent letter to congressional leaders, officials from more than 70 schools, including Catholic high schools and evangelical colleges, said that a Supreme Court ruling approving same sex marriage would put at risk all schools “adhering to traditional religious and moral values.”
“I am concerned, and I think I’d be remiss, if not naïve, to be otherwise,” said Everett Piper, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, in Bartlesville. “This is not alarmist thinking. This is rational listening.”
Some legal scholars interviewed by the Times say it probably isn’t going to be an issue right away, because it would be too politically hot.
That sort of analysis does not do much to calm religious schools’ concerns, said Richard Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame.
“Although many people insist that this will not happen,” he said, “they tend to rely on political predictions — which are probably accurate, in the short term — and not on in principle arguments or distinctions.”
The reasoning SCOTUS deploys in what is widely expected to be a decision constitutionalizing same-sex marriage will give crucial clues as to the likely future of tax-exempt status. The politics of the present moment will likely protect schools.
Even so, said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, religious schools have real reasons for concern.
“If I were a conservative Christian (which I most certainly am not),” he wrote on a law and religion email list, “I would be very reasonably fearful, not just as to tax exemptions but as to a wide range of other programs — fearful that within a generation or so, my religious beliefs would be treated the same way as racist religious beliefs are.”
It’s coming. Of more immediate concern is the perfectly legal actions that will be taken by private entities to marginalize orthodox religious schools. They will be pariahs, very soon. Of much more significant long-term concern is how the church survives, and ministers to, a culture in which marriage and family as we know them will be unwinding even more rapidly than it is today.
Ross Douthat wrote a post titled “For the South, Against the Confederacy” that speaks to and for me. He says that the South really is “backwards” by American standards of progress — and that is precisely why so many cultural conservatives (like Ross) esteem it. Excerpt:
Which leads to the temptation, to which many southerners and not a few cultural conservatives have succumbed, to regard the Confederate States of America as the political and historical champion of all these attractive Southern distinctives, the road not taken down which they might have flourished more fully, and to invent narratives in which Robert E. Lee’s soldiers fought and died for God, chivalry, states rights, Mardi Gras and Low Country cuisine and the philosophy and poetry of Allen Tate. Again, the progressive mind understandably finds this temptation bizarre and mysterious, but the conservative mind does not: Even a secession-hating Yankee like myself has felt, at certain moments, the pull of that idea, the lure of that fantasy …
… which is precisely why it’s so important for conservatives to keep their eyes fixed on the actual realities of the Southern cause, in which certain things worth loving were subsumed, leagues-deep, by the explicit, unstinting defense of ideas and practices and institutions that deserved to die a thousand deaths and be buried without honor. Fixing our eyes thus leads to uncomfortable conclusions about conservatism in American history: It requires acknowledging that the most culturally conservative region in our country, the place that most manifests certain of tradition’s virtues, does so against a historical backdrop of cruelty and corruption that modeled nothing except the machinery of hell. But only with that acknowledgment can you get to a place where the virtues of Southern exceptionalism can be appreciated honestly (rather than with constant elisions and omissions); where the case for some forms of “backwardness” can be made with a clean conscience; and where a future true to the fullness of the Southern past can be mapped out.
From the time I was old enough to realize what slavery and the ideology of white supremacy that sustained it, and that remained after slavery died, I have had a troubled conscience about the South. I found it so difficult to reconcile the place and the culture into which I was born, and which I loved, and do love, with the hideous facts of our history. I have never bought the moonlight-and-magnolias fantasy about the Old South; in fact, it sets my teeth on edge. This lie that so many white Southerners tell themselves to avoid facing the full moral horror of what our ancestors did, and what was perpetuated here well within living memory, is hard to tolerate.
At the same time, the moral preening and hypocrisy of many Northerners is extremely hard to take. Just about every white Southerner who has lived outside of the South for any time has had to deal with it. It’s as if there were nothing to know or to be said about the South except slavery and segregation. Many of us Southerners who agree that the violent, racist legacy of our region is an indelible stain on our history, and who agree that we whites have not fully dealt with that legacy, either in public or in our hearts, can easily get our backs up when some fat-mouthing Yankee scold presumes to lecture us on our wicked, wicked ways, without knowing the first thing about us.
Think of it this way. You’re a Catholic, and you think the Church behaved shamefully in the sex abuse scandal. You also believe that both clerics and lay Catholics have not fully dealt with the implications of that gross moral failure. But when you encounter non-Catholics, the only thing anybody seems to want to know or to say about Catholicism is the scandal. The entire culture of Catholicism, reduced to priests raping children and bishops and laypeople looking the other way. How does that make you feel?
What does it do to you to have the priests who were so kind to you, and the parish where you grew up loved by all, and the Lenten fish fries and feast days, and midnight mass at Christmas, and everything that was good and dear to you about being a Catholic, shat on by know-it-alls who wish to negate all of that by pointing to the horrors of the abuse scandal, and saying, “This is who you really are”?
How does that make you feel? What does that make you want to say?
Or think of it this way. Let’s say you are an African-American, and you know well how screwed up black America is in many ways (e.g., educational achievement, out-of-wedlock births, crime rates). You know the statistics, and maybe you’re even living those statistics in your community, and it grieves you. But then you go on conservative websites (ahem) and the only picture you see of black America is one of chronic dysfunction. You see the breadth of the black experience in America — the courage, the resilience, the music, the art, the spiritual grandeur — seemingly suppressed, pushed to the side. All the people you grew up knowing and loving, both the saints who never make the newspapers, and the sinners who were messed up in all the ways the critics say — all made invisible by these outsiders, who point to the miseries (often self-inflicted) of the ghettoes and say, “This is who you really are.”
How does that make you feel? What does that make you want to say?
In both cases, you would likely feel a strong instinct to defend your own against the ignorant people who put them down. Even though your people may have thought and behaved wrongly in a particular instance, you may try to explain the context in which the sin was committed, and to point out the complexity of the situation — not to excuse it, necessarily, but to shed light on the broken humanity of the phenomenon — the righteous mob will nevertheless insist that you are defending the indefensible. Like here, for instance. In which case you might just dig in, realizing that these outsiders are not going to be satisfied until and unless you hate yourself and your own.
And these critics will say, “See?”
This is where the bad actors in your tribe get you. You know, the ones who really ought to be thinking critically about themselves and your shared history and culture, but who refuse it because they believe that doing so is to collaborate with the enemy. That’s where they too say, “See? We told you so. They hate us. We can’t give in to them. We can’t give them the satisfaction of thinking that they’ve gotten to us.” And if you aren’t careful, that call for solidarity will blind you, and make you yield to groupthink. You believe the lie of your own group’s innocence, and maybe even your personal innocence, because it is necessary to maintain group solidarity and a sense of moral superiority.
This is how cultural conflict turns into trench warfare, and sin — yes, sin — does not get confronted, and repented of. It’s a dead end.
I’ll be honest with you. It chaps my a** to read the smug comments of some of you Northerners, so certain of your rectitude. But it also breaks my heart to read the smug comments of some of you Southerners, so certain that this is only a matter of fighting back the forces of political correctness, because no American could possibly take genuine offense at a symbol second only to a burning cross in standing for white supremacy and racial terror.
I am glad to see the Confederate flag go. Yes, there are about a billion more important things on the racial front than the fate of this flag. The disappearance of the Confederate flag from public places will not educate one more black child in a failing school, or help a single black child growing up without a father in the home, or do a damn thing for black families trapped in their homes after dark because of gun violence. That’s all true. You can re-name a city thoroughfare after Dr. King, but that won’t keep it from being, as it is in too many places, one of the worst streets in town. Same deal with the flag.
But taking it down is still the right thing to do. There is no getting around the fact that the armies that went to battle under that flag fought for a nation and a political and social order built on enslaving Africans. And there is no getting around the fact that the same flag was resurrected in the 1950s by Klansmen and other white supremacists, and wielded as a symbol of resistance to equality for black Americans.
The Confederate flag is largely invisible to me, in a way that it is not invisible to black Americans. I can, and do, ignore it as an example of badly dated nostalgia, but Dylann Roof made it very, very clear that for some white people, the flag remains a potent expression of racial hatred. He forced many of us whites who aren’t particularly fond of the Confederate flag, but who don’t think about it much, to pay attention to that symbol, and to see it through the eyes of black Americans.
And so did the amazing grace of the people of Mother Emanuel AME church.
Americans who are bound and determined to hate the South are going to do so no matter what. Let them. Who cares? They don’t have the opportunity to live here. More than one non-Southerner who came to this year’s Walker Percy Weekend told me how much they loved being in the South. A priest from out West, peeling crawfish under the live oaks, said to me, “Do you know what you have here?” He meant, count your blessings. It is a blessing to live here, but it is a mixed blessing, and not just because of our stained history. The same courthouse where Walker Percy Weekend attendees heard lectures was also the site of this shameful scene in 1963. (Read that, my fellow white Southerners, and tell me that you really want to die on the hill of defending the Confederate flag.)
As Douthat avers, it is impossible to separate what makes the South great from what makes it a hot mess. You’ve got to take the whole thing. You can’t have the gorgeous plantation homes without the slave labor that built them and supported them. You can’t have William Faulkner and Walker Percy without also having the White Citizens Councils. You can’t have the blues and gospel music without having the suffering that gave rise to them. Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest artists this nation every produced, was not born into bourgeois comfort in Manhattan, but was a juvenile delinquent and son of a New Orleans whore. Everybody wants to party in New Orleans, but the same culture that makes it carefree also makes it very hard to govern. Don’t like it? Move to Minneapolis. Nobody sings, “Do you know what it means to miss New Haven?”
I’m reminded of a passage Truman Capote penned in 1948, after his first trip to Europe:
In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”
Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people…
I know what Capote meant, and as a Southerner, I see it from the other side, sort of like the London artist. If you live in the South, if you are from the South, and still carry affection for it in your heart, you have to carry the pain as well as the beauty. One does not negate the other. I fear that the Confederate flag removal, which I support, will lead quickly to a push to wholly sanitize our history, to remove our scars wherever they are — statues of Confederate soldiers, street names honoring Confederate heroes — in an effort to remove that pain. This would be a mistake. The pain is part of the beauty. In my town, in front of the courthouse, there is a statue commemorating a Confederate soldier. I think it should stay, because it is part of our history, and because we should carry that with us. But I think there should also be a monument built to the Rev. Joseph Carter, a black pastor who had the courage to go into that courthouse on October 17, 1963, and demand his right to vote as an American citizen. That is part of our history too.
Our history. I never knew Rev. Carter, but he was surely one of the bravest men ever to live in West Feliciana Parish. What he did that day he did for his people, the African Americans, but he also did for all of us, even us whites yet to be born. We would come into a town and a parish far from perfect, but a lot more just than it had been before Rev. Carter braved the racist jeers and taunts from the white mob. If for white people of my generation there is “only the beauty,” it’s because so much of what was hideous and deformed was defeated through acts of courage and witness. It’s still happening; look at what they did the other day at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston.
We Southerners, black and white, are part of this exceptional landscape and these exceptional people. We belong to each other. We have something together that nobody else in America does. It’s ours. If we love it as a shared gift, how can we not love each other, or at least in humility, try? Our backwardness is, in some ways, our glory. But sometimes, we should move forward just a little bit because it’s the right thing to do.
UPDATE: From reader Brooklyn Blue Dog:
I grew up in the North in the 1970s, in an integrated suburb where many of the white people who lived there, like my parents, did so to make a personal statement in support of the civil rights movement, to live their principles. Later, as white flight really took root, the public schools became majority black. The hard progressive core of white families stayed behind.
So, you might imagine, I grew up steeped in stories of the valiant civil rights workers and the evil southerners — to the point that, when I made my first trip to the South, when in college, I was actually a little bit scared about what I was going to find.
And, what I found really surprised me. Namely, that blacks and whites interacted far more, and in a much easier way, in the South than I was used to in the North, where they more or less kept their distance from one another.
These days, my business is primarily conducted in the South, and I am constantly reminded of this fact. Blacks and whites seem to interact more on a daily basis, and in more friendly and familiar ways, in the South than in the North.
Not infrequently, when I am in the North talking about my business in the South, someone here will bring up racism in the South. Always, the implications is a holier-than-thou “they have that there, but we don’t have it here” smugness. For the particular kind of person who wants to whitewash Northern racism so that they can feel morally superior, it is always difficult when I remind them about entrenched Northern racism and the fact that race relations in the South seem to be more natural, at least on a day-to-day basis.
It may be true, as another reader said, that it is the rare Northern liberal who “approves” of Northern racism. Yet there are a lot of Northern liberals who live majority-minority cities like New York who nevertheless live in neighborhoods with barely any blacks, whose children attend practically all-white schools, who socialize in places where hardly any black people ever go, who have no black colleagues at work, and have not a single close black friend.
These same people are completely ignorant of the South, and yet the continue to denigrate its supposedly pervasive racism and hold themselves up as morally superior to Southern whites.
(Forgive me for light posting. I’m dealing with some family health issues — nothing urgent, but time-consuming all the same.)
In his new encyclical, Pope Francis says repeatedly that “everything is connected,” and argues that a big part of our problem is that we err in seeing phenomena in isolation. As a result, he says, our approaches to addressing these problems are partial and insufficient.
An acute, deeply depressing example of this can be found in the recent nonfiction book Dreamland, by Sam Quinones. A writer friend e-mailed me the other day and said it’s the most important book he’s read in years, and that he can’t get it out of his head. I literally have four different books going right now, books I need to read for the Benedict Option book I’m starting on. But the way my friend talked about Dreamland, I ordered it immediately on the Kindle and read it in a day or two. It really was hard to put down.
It’s the story of the contemporary heroin epidemic nationwide, especially in small cities and towns that had never known the presence of heroin until now. What it’s really about, though, is a culture that opened the door for this catastrophe, in complicated but all too familiar ways.
The suppliers are not, as you might have thought, ruthless members of Mexican drug gangs, but a sprawling network of farm boys from the tiny Mexican state of Nayarit — and specifically, from one town, Xalisco (pron. ha-LEES-co). They got tired of doing extremely hard work raising sugarcane, and being dirt poor and looked down on by Mexican society. Indians in the nearby mountains grew poppies. The townspeople learned how to process it into a thick, dark goo that looked like Tootsie Rolls. And through marketing and distribution genius, people in the town developed a system for getting this “black tar heroin” into parts of America that the conventional drug gangs had overlooked. They figured out how to tap family and friend networks from Xalisco, and mobile phone technology, to set up a hard-to-police system of reliable local dealers who distributed heroin like pizza.
No guns, no threat of violence. The dealer comes to you. Customer service is the No. 1 priority. It’s a diabolical scheme, but looked at from a pure business perspective, a brilliant one.
How did the “Xalisco Boys,” as Quinones calls them, pull it off? They only used people from back home that they could trust. They insisted that nobody involved in selling could use the drug — and in fact, there was a taboo back home against it. All the local dealers were salaried, so there was no incentive to cut the drug. They provided consistent quality, which earned customer loyalty. They would not use guns, and avoided violence to keep the cops from noticing. In fact, they had a rule against selling heroin to black customers, on the belief that blacks are likely to be violent in drug deals. They kept their client base restricted to whites. Maintaining these disciplines helped their business expand tremendously.
And the Xalisco Boys tracked where prescription opiate use — OxyContin, mostly — was big, and moved into those markets. Oxy is expensive, but once people are hooked, they’ll do anything for the pill. Black tar heroin — chiva, they call it — gives the same kind of high as Oxy, only more intense, and at a much lower price. Every OxyContin addict was a potential chiva customer. And there were a lot of Oxy addicts.
It turns out that in the 1990s, there was in US medical circles a revolution in pain management. The story is complicated, but boiled down, junk medical science came to be widely accepted as true. Doctors came to believe that opiates used in treating pain were not addictive. There were never any solid data to support that conclusion, but a single letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine was seized on and repeated in medical circles as a “study” that showed opiates were non-addictive in pain treatment.
According to the story Quinones tells, this was what doctors wanted to hear. They were eager to help suffering patients. Plus, Purdue Pharma, the drug company that invented OxyContin, pushed the stuff hard. It was supposed to be a painkiller limited to cancer patients, who were dealing with the most severe pain, but doctors, falsely thinking it was safe, began prescribing it for all kinds of pain, including much more minor issues. Health insurance companies preferred to reimburse for prescriptions, versus non-drug pain therapies, providing a greater incentive for doctors to rely on Oxy.
People quickly became hooked. OxyContin is a form of morphine, and therefore extremely addictive. Unscrupulous doctors set up so-called “pill mills,” which wrote Oxy prescriptions for anybody who wanted one. Soon, huge numbers of people were strung out on the stuff — poor and working-class people, but also middle-class and wealthy people. Anybody who had Oxy prescribed to them was at serious risk of addiction. Using Oxy was so pleasurable that when those pills became widely available, teenagers started taking them recreationally. When the pills ran out, or became too hard to get, or too expensive as one’s dependence built up, there were the Xalisco Boys with black tar heroin.
This is how heroin went from being the kind of scary big-city drug that only lowlifes used in the Seventies to being a drug of choice for Mayberry.
The most fascinating part of Dreamland is how Quinones examines the cultural roots of the opiate epidemic. He writes:
In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.
In fact, the United States achieved something like this state of affairs … in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. When I returned home from Mexico in those years, I noticed a scary obesity emerging. It wasn’t just the people. Everything seemed obese and excessive. Massive Hummers and SUVs were cars on steroids. In some of the Southern California suburbs near where I grew up, on plots laid out with three-bedroom houses in the 1950s, seven-thousand-square-foot mansions barely squeezed between the lot lines, leaving no place in which to enjoy the California sun.
Excess contaminated the best of America. Caltech churned out brilliant students, yet too many of them now went not to science but to Wall Street to create financial gimmicks that paid off handsomely and produced nothing. Exorbitant salaries, meanwhile, were paid to Wall Street and corporate executives, no matter how poorly they did. Banks packaged rolls of bad mortgages and we believed Standard & Poor’s when they called them AAA. Well-off parents no longer asked their children to work when they became teenagers.
In Mexico, I gained a new appreciation of what America means to a poor person limited by his own humble origins. I took great pride that America had turned more poor Mexicans into members of the middle class than had Mexico. Then I would return home and see too much of the country turning on this legacy in pursuit of comfort, living on credit, attempting to achieve happiness through more stuff. And I saw no coincidence that this was also when great numbers of these same kids — most of them well-off and white — began consuming huge quantities of the morphine molecule, doping up and tuning out.
Quinones tells a story about how the drug trade, on both ends, comes from a deep human desire to avoid pain — physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual. This is a normal thing, wanting to avoid pain, but when the desire to avoid pain becomes so disordered that you will do so no matter what the cost, you destroy lives, and destroy society. At one point in the 1980s, the World Health Organization, says Quinones, in its protocols, formally “claimed freedom from pain as a universal human right.” Theirs was a health policy decision, but it tracks with a deep moral belief of the rich, therapeutic, consumerist society.
Healthcare standards were changing to give patients more autonomy. If a patient said he was in pain, the doctor was directed to trust him. Besides, if opiates really weren’t addictive to those in pain, why not prescribe? Result: “Worldwide morphine consumption began to climb, rising thirtyfold between 1980 and 2011.”
Here’s the thing: the wealthiest countries, with only 20 percent of the world’s population, came to consume 90 percent of the global morphine supply. Partly this was due to irrational anti-opiate prejudices in poor countries. But there was something else going on.
In Xalisco, the poorest of the poor were sick and tired of material want and social humiliation that comes with living in cardboard shacks. When they discovered a way to lift themselves out of that pain — by selling locally-grown and processed heroin to Americans — they took it. When the money started pouring in, and the poor began living in nicer houses, and young men returned home with lots of money in their pockets, and the status that purchased them, the euphoria of all that became an addiction. Quinones:
Only the self-centeredness of addiction, she said, explained how farm boys from a traditional and conservative small town could sell a product, anathema to their parents, to sad-eyed, vulnerable junkies and not be tormented.
He quotes one former Mexican heroin dealer saying that when he arrived in the US, the older manager who introduced him to the business warned him not to think about what the drug was doing to other people’s children. If you do, he said, you will think about your own children, and you won’t be able to do this job. The drug dealers distanced themselves emotionally from the consequences of their labors, focusing instead on all the good things they could provide for their families back home in Xalisco, and the way that money elevated them from social outcasts to men of status. They refused to allow the human cost to American families and communities get to them. In time, even the people back home who knew better than to think that selling dope in America was respectable work came to ignore the moral implications, because it felt good to have money.
Meanwhile, in the US, patients came to accept that they were entitled to live without pain, and to do so without having to do anything more than take a pill. On top of that, OxyContin — and after it, heroin — really did take away more than physical pain. People in the Rust Belt who were losing jobs to outsourcing, and who had poor prospects for gainful employment, got hooked on the feeling the drug gave them. One homeless addict tells Quinones that his first heroin high “made him feel like the President of Everything.” The widespread use and abuse of OxyContin corrupted everything it touched. One doctor tells Quinones how the culture of medicine contributed to the corruption by throwing out “ten thousand years of reality” — that is, the knowledge that opiates are extremely addictive — by citing bogus science. Doctors wanted to believe that, not because they were bad people, but because they wanted to heal people’s pain. They convinced themselves that this time, it would be different.
And Purdue Pharma exploited this. It was good for business. And it was only business.
Reading Dreamland, you can see why unemployed former mill workers could fall into this kind of addiction, but it’s harder to see why the kids of the rich do. Quinones shows that the specific motivations may be different, but the basic motivation is the same: wanting relief from the perceived pain of living. For the middle class and the well-off, it’s a matter of boredom, of believing that life should be pleasurable all the time, and that instant gratification is their birthright as Americans.
The book is full of sad stories, but the saddest is the tale of Russian Pentecostals in Portland, Oregon. Massive number of these persecuted Christians emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, and settled mostly on the West Coast. They were religious, conservative, and strict churchgoers. But their kids went to school with other Americans, and came to see church life as boring and too restrictive. They tried OxyContin, and moved into heroin. Hundreds of these Russian Pentecostal kids became addicts. Their parents did not know what to do. In one family’s case:
Two decades after Anatoly and Nina left the Soviet Union for the freedoms of America, each of their three oldest children was quietly addicted to black tar heroin from Xalisco, Nayarit. … [T]heir American dreamland contained hazards they hadn’t imagined. Remaining Christian in America, where everything was permitted, was harder than maintaining the faith in the Soviet Union where nothing was allowed. Churches were everywhere. But so were distractions and sin: television, sexualized and permissive pop culture, and wealth.
Think of it: these Pentecostals were better off in the USSR than in America, because American freedom led to extreme decadence.
I had no idea how bad this opiate epidemic was. According to statistics from the State of Ohio, which was especially hard-hit, the number of Ohioans who died from drug overdoses from between 2003 and 2008 was fifty percent higher than all the American soldiers who died in the Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.
And almost all of those pills were legally prescribed, and legally obtained.
One pain specialist tells Quinones:
Cahana believe that what insurance companies reimbursed for distilled many unfortunate values of the country. “We overtest, perform surgery, stick needles; these people are worse off,” he said. “If we work on their nutrition, diet, sleep habits, smoke habits, helping [them] find work — then they improve. You have to be accountable. If you give a treatment that kills people or makes people worse, you gotta stop. You can’t continue making money on stuff that doesn’t work.” Cahana saw “stuff” as the problem. Our reverence for technology blinded us to more holistic solutions. “We got to the moon, invented the Internet. We can do anything. It’s inconceivable to think there are problems that don’t have a technological solution. To go from ‘I can to anything’ to ‘I deserve everything’ is very quick.
“All of a sudden, we can’t go to college without Adderall; you can’t do athletics without testosterone; you can’t have intimacy without Viagra. We’re all the time focused on the stuff and not on the people. …”
In the end, Quinones believes that the loss of community, purpose, social responsibility, and a sense of moral reality have all contributed to this problem. One doctor tells him that morphine is a great metaphor for the way we Americans approach life today:
“The bad effects of morphine act to minimize the use of the drug, which is a good thing. There are people born without pain receptors. [Living without pain] is a horrible thing. They die young because pain is the greatest signaling mechanism we have.”
Lord have mercy. Think of the truth in that. We have worked so hard as a culture to minimize pain, and to train ourselves to think of comfort and pleasure as our birthright, that we have left ourselves and our children vulnerable to this addiction. This false religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is part of the package.
When Russell Moore talks about how it’s as easy to go to hell out of Mayberry as out of Sodom, this is the kind of thing he’s talking about, in part. I talked to a local physician friend of mine, asking him if we had this problem around here. Heroin, not so much, he said, but he said I would be startled by the number of people — respectable people, even older people — who are dealing with a pill addiction — and from pills that no doctor in town prescribed. Addicts find a way, even here in Mayberry.
As far as I can remember, Pope Francis doesn’t once mention drug addiction in Laudato Si, but the forces he talks about in that encyclical all manifest in the story Quinones tells in Dreamland. Everybody should read this book. Everybody. The writer friend who turned me on to it said:
It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for the destructive power of an culture that has lost its spiritual moorings. When people talk about the BenOp some are terrified of repeating the mistake of the fundamentalist withdrawal. I understand why. I also understand that what Lenin, Stalin, et. al. could not do the Russian Pentecostals in 74 years, American libertine culture came close to pulling off in a few decades, if that long.
Who needs secret policemen when you have the unfiltered Internet? I don’t what the balance is or should be. I know that the Russian Pentecostals are not the only Christian families whose kids were swept up in the epidemic.
Quinones’ book barely if ever mentions religion, but my friend said that reading Dreamland and contemplating the deeper spiritual message in its pages has led him to this conclusion: the question is no longer ‘Do we need the Benedict Option?’ but rather, ‘What form will the Benedict Option take?’
UPDATE: From a reader:
I am living this nightmare right now. One of my children is a heroin addict who quite possibly is on his way to prison for a long time. My other children struggle with other drugs.
I know other families, nice middle class all-american families, who have had children overdose, be imprisoned and die from their drug use. Most of the time, these kids started on marihuana and moved on to pain pills they got from friends. Often, they have untreated emotional or mental issues and they use drugs to avoid the pain.
Nothing can prepare you for the nightmare of parenting a drug addict- particularly if they use heroin. The toll on the family is devastating. Nothing is left untouched. All relationships are poisoned, finances devastated, and marriages are often ruined.
Yet, resources available to addicts and their families are almost non-existent. All the while, in some states, more people are dying from opiate overdoses than car wrecks.
But what about rehab, you ask? A decent rehab typically costs around $25,000-$30,000 for one month of in-patient treatment. And your insurance will NOT pay for it. And only one month of in-patient treatment is usually a waste of time. Heroin addicts typically require 18 months of some level of active treatment, not necessarily at $30k per month, but at a cost most people cannot afford.
Who can do this?
I laughed at the recent national hysteria over the Ebola “crisis”. More kids are dying every day from opiate/heroin overdose than died in the entire Ebola outbreak in the US. Yet, where is the proportionate response?
Constantly grieving for your lost child and wondering if he may die on any given day is pure anguish. And like I said, for the most part, the family is ruined and alone. It’s indescribable.
How I wish we could somehow as a society attack this problem with all the relish we reserve for other, less lethal concerns.
As far as the culture is concerned, I discovered as a parent, that you’re on your own. There’s precious little support for parents trying to teach the values required for a child to navigate the cess pit they must wade through in order to reach maturity in the USA. Everything shouts you down, whether it’s TV, music, politicians, or the schools. And now, I guess the pharmaceutical companies.
UPDATE.2: Mike W. writes:
I was talking with a friend at work who is just bewildered at the kinds of issues his 14-year-old teens are dealing with. His daughter, in particular, has multiple friends in the hospital over failed suicide attempts, other friends who are cutting themselves, someone else who has decided to be gender neutral, and on and on. He lives, by the way, in the suburbs around the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Wa — so we’re talking about kids who are the products of the best that money, power and affluence can buy. He is at a loss of what to do and how to help his daughter. I suggested that he send his daughter to a convent. He thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. These kids have everything and yet they have nothing. No wonder they gravitate towards zombies and end of the world scenarios. There are no hard edges to their existence, no bottom lines, no safe places they can hold fast to, everything is negotiable and open to interpretation, and so they are flailing around, trying to find something solid, and their high functioning uber-educated parents are no help because they’re not doing any better.
So, “Dreamland” is now on my list. I’m still working through Crawford’s new book, and slowly reading “Christ the Eternal Tao,” and finding passage after passage where Crawford and the Ancient Sage and the Way echo one another.
Overnight, the Confederate flag has become poison. Major retailers are ceasing to sell it. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (!) called it “inescapably a symbol of bondage and slavery,” and said it should be relegated to museums. South Carolina’s Republican governor, and its two Republican US Senators, have called for the flag to come down from the statehouse grounds.
Liberal Yankees didn’t do this to the Confederate battle flag. Dylann Roof did. Look at that picture if you want to know who finally drove this flag from public life. That young man revered the Confederate flag and invested it with his devotion to white supremacy. He murdered nine black men and women in a Bible study, out of loyalty to what that flag represented to him. Maybe the flag represents something more noble to you. It is impossible for many of us to see the nobility through the blood stains on the floor of the Mother Emanuel AME, and through the curtain of strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Ross Douthat has a great meditation on the topic of persecution and the black church, placing Dylann Roof’s evil deed in context of the long history of white supremacy’s targeting of black churches. Excerpts:
Which means that for white Christians facing whatever the American future holds, a debate like the one that’s happening around the Charleston massacre and Confederate flag right now is actually potentially very significant. It hints, at least, at a kind of crossroads for people, white conservative Christians, who thought of themselves as the core of America but who feel like they’re becoming more peripheral to the society that we’re becoming or moving toward.
On the one hand, that peripheral feeling could lead, as it sometimes has in the Obama era, to a kind of emergent white identity politics, a doubling down on whiteness-as-Americanness that marinates in its own dispossessed self-pity, a nationwide version of the Dixie ressentiment that, more than explicit racism, explains the enduring appeal of the stars-and-bars [Note from Rod: It’s actually the Confederate battle flag; the “Stars and Bars” is a different Confederate flag.].
On the other, the newfound feeling of being peripheral could encourage healing and outreach across the lines that have divided white Christians from their brethren in the past. This is what the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has in mind, I think, in his much-cited piece urging Christians to take down the Confederate battle flag. The point of doing so is not to make some sort of concession to political correctness or liberal pressure; it’s to extend a hand to the people whose ancestors were actually victimized, enslaved, and yes, persecuted as Christians by the culture and the civilization that went to war under that flag.
Yes. If it troubles you, white Southern Christian, to give up the Confederate battle flag, think of it as an act of sacrifice in solidarity with your fellow Christians who suffered and died, and who saw their churches burned down, at the hands of whites who acted in service of that flag’s ideals.
I have contempt for cheap theatrical stunts like Burn The Confederate Flag Day, gratuitous acts of protest that cost those who stage them nothing, but inflates their own egos with noxious eructations of moralistic flatulence. These are people who don’t want reconciliation or peace, only to rub the noses of angry people in their own defeat. However deserved that defeat may be, we don’t need any more hatred from sore culture-war winners.
Be of good cheer: the flag is coming down all over, and it’s coming down because Rand Paul is right: it is inescapably a symbol of bondage and slavery, and it is inescapably a symbol of white contempt for the humanity of black people. Who would have imagined that a skinny white supremacist punk would be the one who at long last drove Old Dixie down, and made the Confederate battle flag anathema, even to many Southern Republicans.
UPDATE: This is amazing:
“Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” said [South Carolina] state Senator Paul Thurmond, a Republican, explaining that he would vote to remove the flag. “I am not proud of this heritage.”
His remarks were all the more notable since he is the son of Strom Thurmond, the former governor and United States senator who was a segregationist candidate for president in 1948.
At least one Republican said he wasn’t courageous enough to take a stand before, but the death of his friend Pinckney, who had served 19 years in the state House and Senate, changed that.
“I just didn’t have the balls for five years to do it,” said state Rep. Doug Brannon, who was elected in 2010.
“When my friend was assassinated for being nothing more than a black man, I decided it was time for that thing to be off the Statehouse grounds,” Brannon said. “It’s not just a symbol of hate, it’s actually a symbol of pride in one’s hatred.”
UPDATE.2: National Review editor Rich Lowry:
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., has taken an unspeakable crime and made it the occasion for an astonishing Christian witness.
In an unforgettable scene at the bond hearing last week for Dylann Roof, whose own uncle mused about flipping the switch for his execution after he gunned down nine people at an Emanuel Bible study, tearful family members of the victims told Roof that they forgive him and that he should repent. They were voices of love responding to hate, of unbelievable mercy and forbearance in the face of cruelty and murderous provocation, of an almost miraculous faith.
Next time you want to gripe about the place of Christians in the public square, my liberal and secularist friends, think of Mother Emanuel AME, and what its love has accomplished, and does accomplish every day.
Josh Jeter, a young
Lutheran Presbyterian, spends ten days on pilgrimage among the Orthodox monks of Mount Athos. You can’t read his entire long essay, most of which is paywalled, but you can read a lot of it. Here are a few excerpts I especially liked:
Something one notices almost immediately about Athos is the way the monks revere holiness. On Athos, the holy monk is an object of great respect. During my trip, I hear countless stories about Elder Joseph the Hesychast, the grandfather of Vatopaidi, and about Fathers Paisios and Porphyrios. For the monks, holiness is less a debate about sanctification than something one is meant to achieve. The story of the road to Emmaus—where Jesus appeared to two disciples after the Resurrection—is important for many Athonites, because it reminds them that contact with God through holiness is a warmed heart, a fire which can be lit and transmitted in living contact. Technically, the monks don’t seek this holiness, but they see it as the result of what they do seek—the obedience and humility of Christ. Holiness, in this sense, is the fragrance of a Christ-oriented heart; the outflow of a life in tune with God. Therefore, when the Athonites honor saints, they see it as honoring the reality of Christ, as his work has been made manifest in particular lives. The saints, in this respect, are like shards of glass before the sun: little fragments which—in the obedience and humility of Christ—became reflective of his greater light. Yet the monks don’t see this as something that happens on its own.
Protestants tend to emphasize the point of conversion, the Orthodox tend to see a more gradual, lifelong process (which only begins upon conversion). A friend once explained to me that, rather than a courtroom or a judicial metaphor (think penal substitution), the primary metaphor for the Orthodox is one of a hospital. Every patient is welcomed in, without condition. But then, through grace, the soul becomes more and more healthy with time. In other words, the monks agree with Protestants about the free nature of grace: the unmerited forgiveness which welcomes the prodigal before he does anything to deserve it. However, in the Orthodox view, after the prodigal is received, he comes to know and experience that grace more deeply as he learns to seek God’s kingdom first, and as he learns to love God with more and more of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. (And for many Orthodox Christians, this is where the ascetic practices enter in.) In this sense, the Orthodox see grace and human effort as more deeply—though mysteriously—intertwined. Grace and human effort don’t oppose each other, as some Protestants articulations imply, but rather love and obedience together produce a deepening experience of God. The saints provide the exemplars of this process, of what a heart can become through grace. And the truly holy lives are those who become radiant in the grace of God.
Jeter arrives as a Protestant and leaves still committed to Protestantism. But his time on Athos gave him some new things to think about:
After Vespers, in the courtyard, I meet a Protestant pastor from Brazil. He is the only Protestant I’ve met on Athos so far. The pastor says he’s having a hard time here, which doesn’t surprise me. He came to Athos with a friend who wanted to study New Testament manuscripts. But he struggles with the reverence for the saints and relics, and for Mary (both common hangups for Protestants). He said the icon-kissing is making him grateful for Luther, although he finds the monks themselves compelling. “You don’t have to talk to them long to see how much they love God,” he says.
I ask him how he feels about the state of Protestant practice back home. For example, what does he think of the rise of celebrity pastors?
He says, “Oh, I’m very concerned about that, and we have loads of it in Brazil. Very troubling. Pastors are turning into brands, and I wonder where it will end.”
He laments the fact that just a few days before he left, another pastoral empire in America had imploded. He said he knew all of us are human, but wondered if we were creating conditions for our pastors to fail. In contrast to that, the pastor said, the Athonites take a rather different approach. Humility is considered essential for growth in Christlikeness, and the monks live remarkably quiet lives. By custom you couldn’t even write about a saintly monk until after he was dead, because the praise was seen as so dangerous to a monk’s humility. (From the Philokalia, the de facto handbook of Athos: “To speak humbly is one thing, to act humbly is another, and to be inwardly humble is something else again.”) In essence, if you were prominent in Protestant circles, you probably had a big church and followers on social media. Whereas if you were well known in Orthodox circles, there’s a fair chance you were dead, after spending your life in a cave.
The pastor didn’t think we needed to become monks, and he wasn’t planning to convert—“the reverence for Mary is a problem for me”—yet there was something interesting about the contrast. “We could stand to be a bit more courageous about humility,” he said. I couldn’t help but agree with him. “True humility creates an opening in the heart for God,” one monk told me. “And this is why we need to follow Christ in his humility. Nothing nourishes humility like the perception of God, yet humility itself provides a deeper form of sight. Humility is both the foundation and the result of a closer sense of God.”
And at the end of his stay, this reflection on a conversation with Father Grigor, a monk:
The two of us agree on almost nothing: ecclesiology, baptism, the meaning of repentance. And yet it’s clear there’s something shared between us. Separated by differences in dogma and practice, we admire the luminous Christ.
Again, you can’t read the whole thing, but you can read some of it.
I admire Josh Jeter for making this pilgrimage, which was, by his account, physically and spiritually arduous — and, at times, marked by monastic criticism of Protestantism. I confess that I am a bit afraid to go to Athos — afraid of the spiritual intensity. Afraid of discovering, among their rigorous asceticism, how truly slothful and worldly that I am.
I do believe, though, that all of us American Christians would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the ancient, and once-universal, Christian discipline of fasting. On my Facebook feed today, someone shared a October 2014 piece by the Catholic writer Elizabeth Scalia, who, noting a trend of Hispanic Catholic women converting to Islam or Mormonism, says that these religions offers in part a sense of ascetic rigor that contemporary Catholicism has abandoned. Excerpt:
The “relaxations” of the [Second Vatican Council, which relaxed rules on fasting and other practicies], poorly implemented and largely untaught, replaced all of that with a nebulous sort of “do your own thing, make it meaningful for you, and we’ll see you on Sunday, then,” and that came up empty. Rather than making things “personally meaningful” for people, the church strangely gutted itself. Having lost a very stable structure, people were left feeling unsure of boundaries, bereft of their place. Untethered in the large universe of infinite spiritual sensibilities and choices, they either either chose poorly or passed out.
Parents know that children need and want boundaries; they need and want disciplines that make life sensible and orderly and safe. More and more I’m convinced that ending meatless Fridays took away something sensible and orderly — and culturally and communally unifying, which brings its own safety — and replaced it, essentially, with nothing, because when you leave people to find something “personally meaningful” to do, they often settle for what is new or capricious or vapid, or all three. Or they do the easiest thing of all, which is nothing.
Perhaps that has a great deal to do with why the strictures and obligations of Islam are Mormonism are now attractive to some who have been raised Catholic, but catechized poorly and left unsure as to what any of it means, from the kneeling, to the Crucifix, to the Trinity, and the Communion of Saints.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the worry was that Catholics were rote-bound, existing within the church but only shallowly nourished within the inauthentic constraints of duty and obligation. In light of these conversions, perhaps those lines were absolutely necessary, in order to help focus us and free us.
We are more inclined to cast ourselves out into the deep, after all, when we know our we are well-tethered to the barque.
We Americans don’t know how to deny ourselves anything.
UPDATE: A reader points out this Vanity Fair article from a few years ago exploring financial corruption and the Vatopaidi monastery. I had forgotten about it, but boy, is it tough.
Nothing in Jonathan Rosen’s positive review of the new Milan Kundera novel makes me think it is worth reading, but I had to clap for this observation about the Czech emigre’s most famous work, which was my favorite book during my undergraduate years:
Part of the perverse thrill of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984, was that you could feel politically enlightened while watching a beautiful woman in a bowler hat and little else open the door for her lover, a neurosurgeon who spends his spare time wandering around Prague telling random women to take off their clothes. This did not happen in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Reading Kundera in the ’80s was like watching Mad Men with the conviction that smoking, drinking, and grabbing the secretary’s ass were bold assertions of individual autonomy in the face of a cruelly repressive state.
Oh yes. Oh yes. To be fair, there’s some intelligent stuff in that novel — I still think often of the tension between Franz’s conception of the authentic life as the transparent one, and Sabina’s notion that only a veiled life is truly honest — but basically it’s a dirty book for philosophy geeks. I’m still quite fond of it, but I have to laugh at the recognition of my 1980s self in Rosen’s description.
Anybody here read the new Kundera? It’s set mostly in the Luxembourg Gardens, which makes it sound made for me, but Rosen’s review makes it sound like a novel of ideas that’s short on the novel, and long on the ideas … which aren’t very coherent or provocative to begin with. Am I wrong?