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The Cultural Ark

Reading the signs of the times

Facebook, which forces people to use their real names to post on the site, has changed its ID policy in another area:

Facebook already has a range of gender options for those who don’t fit neatly into male/female categories, but it just took that accommodation one step further. Much like Google, Facebook now lets you specify any gender you want — you’re not limited to the social network’s definitions. As before, you can choose who sees that sexuality in case some of your visitors are less tolerant than others.

Reality is increasingly impossible to satire. Do I care whether or not someone chooses to pretend he’s a woman on social media? Not in the least. Do I care whether the idea that maleness and femaleness is entirely a fiction created by the choosing individual goes mainstream? Yes, very much. And you can’t get more mainstream than Facebook.

Future historians, I think, will look back on this decadent period as a time when our civilization lost its mind. But there’s a long way to go yet, and more disorder to introduce. Charlotte Allen, writing on “the transgender triumph,” explores how transgender activists have so co-opted the political and media class that any discussion, even among scientists and academics, of transgenderism that contradicts their preferred narrative is stigmatized, and even turned into a career-ender. As Allen documents, to contradict the activists, even if one is a transgender oneself, is to invite vicious, relentless attack. So everybody falls in line:

Any sort of biological or genetic evidence to the contrary is dismissed as “transphobic” propaganda, and the phrase “Transwomen are women, period” has become a mantra for those who would like to stay on the good side of transgender activists. In a September 29, 2014, article for the online magazine Autostraddle titled “Please Stop Saying That Trans Women Were Born Boys,” male-to-female activist Mari Brighe argued that the mere description of someone as “genetically” or “biologically” male or female is bigoted. “I wasn’t born a boy, and I’ve never been a boy, and it’s like a knife to my heart every single time I hear that phrase,” Brighe wrote.

Legislators, regulators, and school districts have duly followed the activists’ lead. During the 2000s many states passed laws allowing people to change retroactively the “M” or “F” designations on their birth certificates if they had undergone transformative surgery​—​and a few states did not require even the surgery as long as the applicant had undergone, say, hormone therapy or some other secondary sex-altering procedure. In December 2014 the New York City Council passed a bill, subsequently signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, eliminating even those requirements: As long as a licensed health care provider states under oath that someone’s “assigned” sex as listed on the birth certificate doesn’t match his or her self-description, the birth certificate can be changed. “It won’t be about your body. It’s about how you identify,” the law’s sponsor, Democratic council member Corey Johnson, explained.

In 2013, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that allows K-12 students to use whichever restrooms and locker rooms they want. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia now have legislation in place forbidding discrimination against transgenders, including in access to public bathrooms (some of the laws exempt school facilities). The question of whether transgender students have a right to play on the gender-specific athletic teams of their choice has remained more troublesome. That’s partly because transgender girls tend to be taller, stronger, and potentially more successfully on the field than genetic girls, and partly because of the locker-room problem: Genital-transforming surgery is almost never performed on minors, so naked transgender adolescents tend to look, despite their best efforts to the contrary, like members of the sex to which they say they don’t belong.

To accommodate the preferences of an estimated 700,000 Americans (of a population of 320 million) — that’s 0.2 percent of the population — we are being instructed, indeed commanded, to abandon the idea that there is something essential and unchosen about maleness and femaleness. And to say, “Hey, wait, there’s something wrong with this” is to invite accusations of “waging culture war.”

The most radical, revolutionary thing any prominent American has ever said was articulated by Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of the Court majority in the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey opinion:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

The idea that nature exists as a blank canvas onto which we are entitled to project our own wills, restrained by nothing except our imaginations, is at the heart of nihilism. Kennedy’s idea vacates the concept of the common good. Yet I believe that most Americans, even those who recoil at the idea of transgenderism, would agree with Kennedy’s statement, at least in principle. It is how we have been acculturated. We don’t believe that the point of life is to seek harmony with an unseen order; we, as Americans, believe that we have the right to impose our own idea of order onto the natural world, damn the consequences.

This is a principle that the American Left can see is terribly damaging when put into practice by those who clear-cut forests. But they are blind when it applies to human beings clear-cutting, so to speak, their own bodies. This is a principle that the American Right can see is pretty close to berserk when applied by men who insist that they are women, and can afford the surgeries to fulfill their fantasies. But they are blind when it applies to limitless exploitation of the natural world for material gain.

In both cases, they call it progress. This is the American way.

The history of the human race has given us much wisdom, in the form of mythology, to warn us against this kind of recklessness, this hubris, this idea that we can defy the gods without bringing disaster. In the Divine Comedy, Dante mythologizes Ulysses (Odysseus) in Hell, for having pushed his crew to explore beyond the limits set by the gods, and thus to their death. Ulysses is damned by Dante as a “False Counselor,” meaning his punishment is due to the fact that he misled the men who trusted him. Here is the speech Ulysses gave to them, to convince them to violate the limits that had been set for them all by the gods:

‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who, in the course

of a hundred thousand perils, at last

have reached the west, to such brief wakefulness


‘of our senses as remains to us,

do not deny yourselves the chance to know –

following the sun – the world where no one lives.


‘Consider how your souls were sown:

you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,

but to pursue virtue and knowledge.’”

[Inferno XXVI: 112-120]

It’s a stirring oration, but what makes it false counsel is that Ulysses appealed to the men’s higher nature to convince them to help him, Ulysses, extend his will past the boundaries set for all men. They all went to their deaths. Dante (the poet) included this in the Inferno because he saw in himself the same aspect of character: the corrupt desire to defy the gods in pursuit of his own will, and to veil it in the rhetoric of heroism.

This is us. This is the West. This is America, 2015.

Stories like this are meant to be a warning, but of course we pay no attention. The heroic individual in our civilization is the one who dares to defy the gods to achieve fulfillment of his own desire. And so, to the next frontier:

Researchers at Cambridge University and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science claim to have found a way to create human egg and sperm cells from the stem cells in the skin of two adults.

Any two adults.

Two males. Two females. It doesn’t matter.

Using stem cell lines from embryos and cells from the skin of five adults, researchers engineered sperm cells, then compared the cells with those from aborted fetuses to see if the two had matching characteristics.

Lo and behold, they did!

“We have succeeded in the first and most important step of this process,”Azim Surani, professor of physiology and reproduction at Cambridge, told the Sunday Times, “which is to show we can make these very early human stem cells in a dish.”

“It has already caused interest from gay groups because of the possibility of making egg and sperm cells from parents of the same sex,” added the head of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, Jacob Hanna.

Researchers claim that in as little as two years, the science may be advanced enough for same-sex couples to produce children that are biologically theirs.

This didn’t come from nowhere. This is only the logical next step of a principle that has been operating in our civilization for a long time. This is not really about transgenderism, or same-sex marriage, or transhumanism, but about the rapid unfolding of an old idea, one that has taken on an irresistible momentum. Making same-sex marriage and the normalization of transgenderism possible necessitated a cosmological revolution that has been underway for centuries. As Ross Douthat wrote in TAC nearly a decade ago:

Liberals are Baconists: they believe in Francis Bacon’s dictum that the ends of politics are “the conquest of nature for the relief of man’s estate.” A conservative, meanwhile, is anyone who either says no to Baconism, or who says yes, but only up to a point—and so conservatism embraces anyone who has jumped off liberalism’s fast-moving train at any point over the last five centuries. If you’re a monarchist who thinks that liberalism went wrong with John Locke and the Glorious Revolution, step on up. If you’re a West Coast Straussian who thinks it went wrong with Woodrow Wilson, then welcome aboard. And if you’re a neocon who loved the New Deal but found the Great Society and George McGovern to be a bridge too far, there’s a place for you as well.

But here’s the rub, and the reason for a great deal of recent conservative confusion: the Right actually won a victory in the latter half of the 20th century, after centuries of defeat, and turned modernity away from a particularly pernicious path. This unexpected triumph has meant that many people who became accustomed to calling themselves “conservatives” when the conquest of nature seemed to require socialism or Communism are back on board the Baconian train, racing happily down a different track into the brave new future. These are the people who insist that conservatism ought to mean “freedom from government interference” and nothing more—the Grover Norquists of the world, for instance, or the Arnold Schwarzeneggers. In fact, they are ex-conservatives, because they are no longer sufficiently uncomfortable with the trajectory of modernity to be counted among its critics. They were unwilling to give up freedom for the sake of progress, but they’re happy to give up virtue.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that because conservatism only really exists to say “no” to whatever liberalism asks for next, it fights nearly all its battles on its enemy’s terrain and rarely comes close to articulating a coherent set of values of its own. Liberalism has science and progress to pursue—and ultimately immortality, the real goal but also the one that rarely dares to speak its name—whereas conservatives have … well, a host of goals, most of them in tension with one another. Neoconservatives want to return us to the New Deal era; Claremont Instituters want to revive the spirit of the Founding; Jacksonians want to rescue American nationalism from the one-worlders and post-patriots; agrarians and Crunchy Cons pine for a lost Jeffersonian or Chestertonian arcadia. Some conservatives think that liberalism-the-political-philosophy can be saved from liberalism-the-Baconian-project and that modernity can be rescued from its utopian temptation; others join Alasdair MacIntyre in thinking that the hour is far too late for that, and we should withdraw into our homes and monasteries and prepare to guard the permanent things through a long Dark Age.

Liberals, on the other hand, dream the same dream and envision the same destination, even if they disagree on exactly how to get there. It’s the dream of Thomas Friedman as well as Karl Marx, as old as Babel and as young as the South Korean cloners. It whispered to us in Eden, and it whispers to us now: ye shall be as gods. And no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.

This is not going to be stopped by us. But one day, it is going to stop. We know where this is going. The task of the traditionalist today is to live in such a way that truth and sanity survive the darkening of our collective intellect. That we not forget who we are, and what is. This is hard work, but as the Noah myth should instruct us, it is past time to start building that cultural ark. It may well be that this civilization continues in relative peace and prosperity for some time. I certainly hope it does, because I live in it. But that prosperity (broadly understood) is destroying our capacity to know and live truth. We have eaten our seed corn. Nemesis will come, and we will despise her, but we can’t say we are surprised.