Deconstructing Western Civilization
Damon Linker has a characteristically sharp piece about New York magazine’s 6000+ interview with an anonymous zoophile — in this case, a man whose fetish involves sex with a horse. Linker connects to my initial blog post about this thing, and shares my revulsion at what the magazine has done, and what it means:
[T]his is a very big deal, in cultural and moral terms. No, not the fact of bestiality, which (like incest) has always been with us, but the fact of an acclaimed, mainstream publication treating it as a matter of complete moral indifference.
As I said in my post, it’s not that this interview is going to make people heretofore disinclined to copulate with animals change their minds. It’s that a piece like this is a canary-in-the-coalmine cultural moment. Linker:
Why, then, is the New York interview a big deal? Because it’s perhaps the most vivid sign yet that, in effect, the United States (and indeed the entire Western world) is running an experiment — one with very few, if any, antecedents in human history. The experiment will test what happens when a culture systematically purges all publicly affirmed notions of human flourishing, virtue and vice, elevation and degradation.
But Linker says there are two problems with my analysis (and with the trad reaction in general). First, he says that we trads are wrong to blame relativism for this, saying that it’s more accurate to put the fault down to “an absolute ethic of niceness,” by which he means an increasing refusal to condemn, because that would be mean. I see what he’s saying here: it’s not that people affirm bestiality, but that they refuse to condemn it because hey, if that’s someone’s choice, who am I to judge?
(Of course we know from extensive sociological research that the Millennial generation, at least, can be quite judgmental on a number of topics. But the ones they suspend judgment on are matters of religion, and matters of sexuality. In those cases, niceness reigns.)
I take Damon’s point, but I think this is a distinction without much of a difference. If “niceness” is the ethical rule here, then how is that not de facto relativism?
Linker’s claim that disgust is not a sound basis for setting moral rules is harder to dismiss. When I was growing up in the 1970s, there were still a number of people who had visceral disgust at the sight of interracial couples. That has abated, thankfully, but it’s still present in some people. Same deal with gay couples. This is a case in which relativism is an important factor to consider in moral reasoning. It doesn’t mean disgust is irrelevant to our moral decisions; disgust can be a good general guide to right and wrong. But it does mean that disgust cannot be dispositive, and that we must look past our reactions of disgust and analyze the moral facts of a situation dispassionately. Seeing an 89-year-old man kissing his 26-year-old wife may prompt feelings of disgust, but it tells us nothing about the morality of an elderly man marrying a much younger woman.
But if disgust is not dispositive, and we are taught to believe there is no objective basis outside of consent — a very, very thin barrier — for deciding right and wrong, particularly in sexual matters, then the attitude the New York interviewer, and the editor who approved this interview, take towards the horse-screwer is completely understandable.
Linker’s second criticism of trads — that we may say, as I did, that our civilization is “galloping toward Gomorrah,” but in fact we do not know where this is headed — is a truism. Yes, we may turn this around, but on current trends, I’m not sure on what basis we do that. As Damon rightly says, we don’t have any precedent for running a society in which there is no commonly shared basis for determining right and wrong. Is emotivism and procedural liberalism a solid basis for sustaining a society and a civilization over the long run? I think not. Damon professes not to know, but I read in these lines radical doubt:
Can we do without a publicly affirmed vision of human flourishing? Fulfilling personal preferences (whatever they happen to be), seeking consent in all interactions, and abiding by the imperative of universal niceness — is that sufficient to bring happiness? Or will a world that tells us in a million ways that we are radically undetermined in our ends leave us feeling empty, lost, alone, unmoored, at sea, spiritually adrift?
Read the whole thing. It’s worthwhile. Let me say this again: the danger to society is not that a significant number of people are going to start having sex with animals. The danger comes from a society in which a significant number of people see no real justification for condemning those who have sex with animals. It is to concede that we are no different from animals.
Earlier this year, writing in the Jesuit journal America, psychologist Thomas McGovern wrote about the “lost generation” of young American Catholics. It’s a review of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s new book Young Catholic America, which is about how “emerging adult” Catholics are abandoning the faith in droves. McGovern writes:
Having taught psychology, religion and ethics at three public universities, I can report that a majority of the multigenerational and multiethnic students who took my courses self-identified as former Catholics. Evangelicals brought fervor to discussions and composed essays using biblical quotations and popular pulpit wisdom. With gratitude for an eye-opening semester, the Latter-Day Saints students gave me inscribed copies of their Book of Mormon. Others spoke of a vague spirituality enabling them to be “comfortable” in and with their lives. The Catholic students, as this book’s sub-title about “emerging adults” (i.e., ages 18 to 23) signals, were mostly out of faith and gone.
Young Catholic America describes the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted by telephone surveys and personal interviews for three waves (2002-3, 2005, 2007-8) of a longitudinal study. The respondents were 13 to 17 years old at the beginning and 18 to 23 at the last data collection point. Parents, pastors and ministers of religious education and higher education and secondary school educators will find here thought-provoking sociology-of-religion explanations for how, when and why this sample of young people became who they are and what they don’t believe and don’t do any more.
Baby boomer readers may gasp at the historical analysis of their parenting summarized in Chapter 1. Centrifugal forces from 1970 to 2000 generated increasing pluralism in American thinking, labeled by these authors as a “vulgar version of post-modernism.” (One of my true-believer science editors labeled postmodernism the “anthrax of the intellect.”) With truth and standards fragmented in the larger culture—the center did not hold—its effects exacerbated values conflicts within the church in the United States. The authors declare at fault “the inability, and sometimes unwillingness of the parents of the Catholic and ex-Catholic emerging adults we studied—and those half a generation earlier—to model, teach and pass on the faith to their children. At precisely the same moment, older, more communal, taken-for-granted forms of religious practice and catechesis were eroding and sometimes collapsing in American Catholicism.”
McGovern goes on to say this is not just a Catholic thing. He speaks of research showing that undergraduates in the liberal arts are abysmal at articulating anything they’ve learned from their college educations — “a university community’s core faith.” About Catholics, McGovern says Smith et al.’s research shows:
According to this study, three factors foster increased religiosity. First, teens must have strong bonds to religiously committed and supportive family and friends. Second, beliefs must be internalized; faith ought to be a person’s most useful compass for daily decisions, despite myriad secular guides that saturate their life experiences. Third, as Aristotle noted about civic virtue, faith’s principles must be learned first and then behaviorally practiced often.
It makes sense that this must be true for virtue, period, not just religious virtue. This, of course, leads us to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which concerns, broadly, the fate of a society and civilization in which the concept of virtue as a binding and authoritative code barely exists.
I will link here to that infamous New York magazine interview with the zoophile, whom I’ll call Mr. Ed, but I want to reiterate the strongest warnings. There are no graphic, NSFW images attached to it. But it is incredibly disturbing. I think it’s important for those with strong stomachs to read, so you will get an idea of a) how utterly vile this man’s practices are, and more importantly, b) how he uses the all-too-familiar rhetoric of emotivism, tolerance, and understanding to justify his preferences.
Sooner or later, it’s going to be the Benedict Option, or chaos. If you will not have God, you had better pay your respects to Mr. Ed.