Home/Rod Dreher/Abortion, Porn, And Liberal Order

Abortion, Porn, And Liberal Order

Sophie Lewis, author who says that abortion is 'defensible killing' (Verso Books YouTube grab)

Look at this. Pay attention to the subtitle:

That’s a still from a short promotional video from Verso Books with author Sophie Lewis, whose new book advocates (this is the subtitle) “feminism against family.” She says in the clip that that abortion is killing, but it should be defended as the right to “stop doing gestational work.” In another clip — you can see them all here — she also argues, from a Marxist point of view, that the family should be abolished. Her words, not mine. Here’s a webpage describing her background and work. Her Verso bio says that she is a “feminist committed to cyborg ecology and queer communism.” The new book, Full Surrogacy Now, revives, in a late liberal age, the old Marxist call for abolishing the family, giving it a new spin thanks to reproductive technology. She believes that reproduction should be done through surrogacy alone. Read more about it in this uncritical review in The New Republic. 

This is evil, this idea. I’m struck too by the review (by Nora Caplan-Bricker, a Millennial feminist journalist), which describes at length Lewis’s thesis, but, offers not one word of criticism, except for a word of skepticism that anybody ought to be having children at all in this rapidly-warming world.

Not a single syllable of criticism for the core thesis of this book. It’s as if the 20th century never existed.

Do I think that most people on the American Left are prepared to embrace “gestational communism” (Lewis’s word), and abortion as killing that can be defended? No. But what I do believe is that the vanguard of the Left — that is, the elites who populate newsrooms, publishing houses, university faculties, law schools, and ultimately, the Democratic Party — favor a vision of sex, family, and human dignity that cannot and will not defend the family from the Sophie Lewises of the world. If a right-wing publisher brought forth a book by a smart far-right philosopher arguing in a contemporary key for reviving German eugenics ideas and policies, it would (rightly!) face universal condemnation, and there’s no way conservative opinion magazines would review the thing, much less give it a respectful review.

I don’t mean that in a whatabout way. I mean that for now, we have the capacity in this culture to recognize radical evil when it arises from the right, and resist it. But if eugenicists can find a way to state their argument in left-wing terms, and have approved left-wing pedigrees (Lewis studied at Oxford, the New School, etc.), they would find it much easier to advance the idea that there is some life unworthy of life, and that defending the common good requires exterminating it.

Let me put the point more sharply: I believe that left-liberalism has reached a point at which its view of liberty, and of the human person, permits this — and, on the abortion question, requires accepting abortion, even if it is exterminating a human being.

If you haven’t seen Caitlin Flanagan’s powerful Atlantic piece about a high school journalist and a classmate who makes money doing porn movies, read it now. Bailey Kirkeby is the journalist; Caitlin Fink is the high school porn star. They live in Stockton, Calif., a depressed town. Flanagan writes:

Recently, Caitlin has been in a predicament that sparked Bailey’s attention and also her sympathy. In need of money, Caitlin began working in pornography, which has solved her short-term financial problems, but which has also led to people “saying things” about her at school. It occurred to the staff of the Bruin Voice that a story that treated Caitlin like any other inspirational student—one who had faced and overcome obstacles—a piece that allowed her to tell her side of the story, would be helpful to Caitlin and good for the paper.

Because Bailey had a class with Caitlin, she seemed the obvious choice to write it. She pitched the idea to the school newspaper’s faculty adviser, Katherine Duffel, who approved it, and soon the girl was working on a 1,000-word article about Caitlin. However, things quickly went sideways.

The district superintendent heard about the story, and demanded the right to review it before publication. The school paper refused. Flanagan takes up the story here:

At this point, an array of powerful adults sprang into action to ensure that the students at Caitlin’s school could know all about her work in porn, and how to find it. The Student Press Law Center referred the school to an attorney named Matthew Cate, who took on the case pro bono. Major news outlets, including the Times, covered the story in lavish detail, conveying a tone of moral neutrality toward the matter of a high-school girl making porn, and of quiet but obvious disapproval toward the infringement of the student journalists’ First Amendment rights. Cate read the article, assured the district that despite its concerns (among them, that students under 18 had viewed pornography in the preparation of the piece) it did not violate the state’s education code, and the article was published on May 3.

“Throughout their high school years, students are often told to follow their dreams and pursue what they love,” the piece begins, and it presents Caitlin as someone who is doing just that. The tone is that of a Seventeen feature circa 1964, the kind that told girls what it’s like to be a stewardess or a fashion model—here is something fun, and even glamorous, that any pretty girl, from any small town, can do if she puts her mind to it. “I travel to San Francisco a lot, and I don’t have to pay anything, because someone pays for the expenses,” Caitlin says. “I’ve been trying new things, going out of my comfort zone, and meeting new people.”

You really need to read the whole thing for the details, and for Flanagan’s analysis of this story’s cultural meaning. Flanagan’s judgment of the facts depends on this observation:

Culture is progressive and cumulative, and so is porn, restlessly seeking and crossing the next boundary, and thereby making whatever came before it seem tame and ordinary. … What has happened is that within a few years of porn’s arrival, the country quickly learned what it was dealing with—something it had no power to control, something it couldn’t even keep small children from encountering—and so modern life simply adjusted itself around the new, imperial leader.

What scandalizes Flanagan is that the left is so given over to personal autonomy and sexual freedom that it cannot stand up and protect a high school girl who is selling her body in porn films to make money. This is not the radical, Sophie Lewis Left; this is the mainstream Left. Flanagan also faults the Right for seeing pornography as nothing more than a business. She also says that the only force capable of stopping the exploitation of Caitlin Fink, social conservatism, surrendered all credibility by embracing Donald Trump.

I don’t really agree with Flanagan on that last point; I think it’s more complicated than she does. But I do agree with her overall argument: that neither the mainstream Left (left-liberals) nor the mainstream Right (right-liberals) have the willingness or the capacity to put a stop to this evil. Pornography has captured the culture, and I would wager that any Republican who tried any serious measures to put a stop to it would walk into a buzzsaw.

I understand these two items — the Sophie Lewis book, and the high school porn star story — in the context of Ross Douthat’s column today, which itself takes the 30,000-foot view of the French-Ahmari conflict. Lots of people on the right think the French-Ahmari thing was nothing but a tempest in a teapot, but they’re wrong. The conflict between David French and Sohrab Ahmari reflects a serious and substantive division of opinion on the Right — the gravity of which is somewhat obscured by the absurdity of Donald Trump.

Douthat says that the revived interest in illiberalism on both the Right and the Left reflects a genuine crisis within liberalism (by which he means the legal, political, and economic order of the West). He writes:

On right and left, it has become easier to imagine ways the liberal order might deserve to fall, because of evils generated from within itself.

On the right, that imagining extrapolates from examples like the Low Countries’ euthanizers toward a future society that remains formally liberal but resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” — dominated by virtual reality and eugenics and mood-stabilizing drugs, post-familial and post-religious and functionally post-human. Would such a society deserve the political loyalty of (let us say) a traditional Christian or Muslim, just because it still affords them some First Amendment protections? It is reasonable to say that it might not.

On the left that imagining takes the form of a dire ecological extrapolation — a fear that climate catastrophe isn’t inevitable despite liberalism but because of it, that the combination of governments with limited powers, publics with limited knowledge and corporations with capitalist incentives might be responsible for civilizational disaster. Does this scenario (or other equivalents involving A.I.) call liberal proceduralism into question? For some Carl Schmitts (or Ted Kaczynskis) of the left, it might.

More:

All of which hints that a genuinely post-liberal politics might, indeed, someday be required — to save liberal civilization from dystopia or disaster. The post-liberalisms presently on offer are not as serious as either their advocates hope or their critics fear. But if you cannot imagine ever being a post-liberal, left or right, you are not being serious either.

Seriously, read it all. 

The high school porn star story is more emblematic of our time than Sophie Lewis’s utopian crusade (which I only mention because the 20th century ought to have rendered them beyond the pale of discussion; that they are not tells us something important). The high school porn star and the high school journalist who celebrated her, are they the ultimate expression of contemporary liberalism (in both the leftist and libertarian sense), or some aberration? What exists within liberalism to stop them? As Flanagan avers, neither the contemporary Left nor the contemporary Right have within them the resources to prevent this kind of thing, or even to recognize it as a thing that needs preventing.

Flanagan blames social conservatism (by which she means religious conservatives, I guess) for forfeiting its influence over Trump. I think she misses more than she understands. It is . undoubtedly true religious conservatives have done exactly this, but it’s absurd to believe that if only the Religious Right hadn’t jumped on the Trump Train, they would be in a position to take a meaningful stand against Caitlin Fink’s (self) exploitation.

Social and religious conservatism is waning. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. I wrote The Benedict Option in 2016, before Trump’s election; I had to go back into the finished manuscript after his shock victory and revise some things. I said in the book that at best Trump offers traditional Christians some breathing space before the inevitable happens. I still believe that, though events since publication have made me more sympathetic to the case for voting Trump purely as self-defense against hostile, militant progressivism. No need to get into that again here.

The core problem is that American social and religious conservatism to this point has mostly been about opposing abortion and gay marriage, but otherwise accepting the liberal order, especially the economic order. We have not seriously considered ways that the workings of that order undermine the institutions that serious social and religious conservatives ought to be conserving above all others: the natural family and the church. We should not be surprised that the fertility rate has collapsed. Political leaders and researchers consider loneliness to be a critical social problem — and as Kay Hymowitz says, the core of it is the breakdown of the family:

Foundering social trust, collapsing heartland communities, an opioid epidemic, and rising numbers of “deaths of despair” suggest a profound, collective discontent. It’s worth mapping out one major cause that is simultaneously so obvious and so uncomfortable that loneliness observers tend to mention it only in passing. I’m talking, of course, about family breakdown. At this point, the consequences of family volatility are an evergreen topic when it comes to children; this remains the subject of countless papers and conferences. Now, we should take account of how deeply the changes in family life of the past 50-odd years are intertwined with the flagging well-being of so many adults and communities.

Hymowitz discusses massive social changes over the past 60 years or so, and how they have taught us to disregard family formation in favor of individual happiness. Even on the Right, relatively few question it, but there is a grave social cost. More:

The challenge is to find ways to communicate that need to coming generations before they make decisions that will further fragment their lives and communities. So far, that’s not happening. Millennials and their younger brothers and sisters say that they would like to marry and have children, but only 30 percent see a successful marriage as one of the more important things in life. About half shrug off single parenthood as a nonissue; in their view, cohabitation is fundamentally the same as marriage. Though the overall share of American babies born to unmarried mothers has declined a bit in the past few years, the majority of births to millennials are to unmarried women. So far, younger kids—Gen Z, as they are sometimes called—don’t look as though they’re ready to rebel from the nonchalance of their older siblings. In a 2018 survey of attitudes of 10- to 19-year-olds by PerryUndem Research and Communication, three-quarters rated having a successful career as “very important.” Fewer than a third said that marrying or having children mattered that much. Notably, boys and girls had almost identical answers.

Read it all. This is not just a left-wing or a right-wing problem. It is a crisis for all of us — and a crisis for liberalism, whose norms have driven us to this point. Whatever the causes, ours is not a pro-family culture. If we lose the family, we lose the church, and we lose civilization.

The Benedict Option does not foresee a political solution to this crisis, or any programmatic solution at all. Politics can be part of the solution, and ultimately will be, but first, we are going to have to go through a new Dark Age. The inability of the community to protect Caitlin Fink from herself and those who exploit her sexually is a sign of this new Dark Age. Just wait until the money runs out, and see how we do.

The Ben Op advises a strong, affirmatively countercultural return to traditional religious practices, including placing more emphasis on building up families and resilient local communities than on trying to save a dying liberal order. I strongly urge you to read historian Edward J. Watts’s book The Final Pagan Generationwhich tells the story of Roman elites born in the early fourth century. They were the last to be raised with the old Roman beliefs as the foundation of civilizational order. Their lifetime encompassed the radical transformation of the Roman order from pagan to Christian. The strongest takeaway from the book is that these men did not see it coming. Even until the end of their lives, it was possible to live in denial about reality.

So are we Christians today. So are all of us. I don’t believe for a second that we can sustain a civilization on the kind of liberal-libertarian worldview embraced by most Americans — certainly the elites.

The French-Ahmari dispute hinges on what the Right’s reaction to this crisis should be. Broadly speaking, French believes that the liberal order is defensible and worth defending; Ahmari believes that more radical action is necessary. As I’ve said here all week, I’m mostly with Ahmari on this, but I am trying to put a brake on my own pessimism. I don’t think all is lost within the short term, at least, and it may well be the case that being too quick follow pessimism to its natural conclusions would leave us unable to take advantage of real opportunities to defend within the system our communities, and the liberties that make those communities possible.

Here are the related questions that I cannot resolve within myself: Can traditional Christians afford to maintain deep loyalty to the liberal order? Can traditional Christians afford not to?

What I would like to hear from the French side of this dispute is a case for why the liberal order as it exists today — including the weak church and feeble familist culture — is capable of turning back the rising tide of disorder. Seriously, I want to read that argument. Conversely, what I would like to hear from the Ahmari side — and what I need to work on doing myself — is an argument for how traditional Christians would fare in a postliberal order in a society in which we are a minority. Lose liberalism, we lose the First Amendment — and then where would we be?

A future crisis may bring to power a Rightist authoritarian, but my sense is that in terms of restoring Christianity, he would be a Julian the Apostate figure. Julian, who ruled from 361-63, ardently believed that only the restoration of the traditional Roman polytheism and values would save the Empire from dissolution. He failed. Polytheism was exhausted in Roman popular culture; Christianity was waxing, and no government edicts could turn it back.

My view is that the dis-integration of Western civilization is not something that can be stopped cold. It can only be ridden out. That does not mean giving up on politics entirely, but it does mean that the core of what we need to survive does not take place in the courts of politicians or judges. The political, social, and cultural disorder upon us derives most fundamentally from disorder in our own hearts and minds. If liberalism has come to mean things ranging from the inability to defend Caitlin Fink from Caitlin Fink, an inability to pass on the beliefs and practices necessary to family formation, and an inability to pass on the faith in any orthodox form, then what is the case for retaining political loyalty to such an order?

 

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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