I, Spiritual Pornographer
When last you read about Prof. Alan Levinovitz, it was my commenting on an essay he had published in Slate, defending intolerance. A quote from that Levinovitz essay:
Just as it is foolish to condemn all intolerance, it is also misguided to make strict rules about permissible forms of intolerance. No shouting. No breaking the law. The correct form of intolerance always depends on its object and its context. If Charles Murray were to hand out copies of The Bell Curve in a supermarket, it would be entirely acceptable to shout at him. Sometimes laws need to be broken—sometimes you need to sit at the front of the bus. And for all but the staunchest pacifists, violence can be a perfectly justifiable way to express intolerance when someone attacks you.
Earlier I claimed that it’s no longer controversial to think that civil liberties don’t depend on race, gender, or religion. Unfortunately, a clear-eyed assessment of the evidence shows that many people would likely embrace a return to the (not so) good old days. In this country, a congressman can publically [sic] express ethno-nationalism—“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”—and be praised by colleagues for it. The longtime best-selling book of Christian apologetics—C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity—calls for religious nationalism (“all economists and statesmen should be Christians”) and argues that God wants men to be the head of the household. These are popular ideals, but they are poisonous and deserve fierce resistance, not complacent tolerance.
As I wrote in response, note well that Levinovitz believes that C.S. Lewis — C.S. Lewis! — advocated “poisonous” ideas, ones that deserve “fierce resistance.” And he believes that Charles Murray deserves to be shouted down — and Levinovitz is highly ambiguous on whether or not people should beat Murray up.
In another piece, an “open letter” to Sen. Marco Rubio, who is a Christian, Levinovitz goes on to say that academia is a universalist religion that instantiates a “sacred order.” And:
In fact, humanities professors like me work against many of your core values. Explaining the origin and persistence of creationist pseudoscience? Religion and philosophy. Shutting down racists and sexists who explain discrimination with “natural differences”? Anthropology and history. We can’t take all the credit, of course, but the fact that the arc of history seems to bend toward justice is due, at least in part, to the efforts of humanities scholars.
As I said at the time:
This man is not a disinterested scholar. He’s a zealot, and an extremely self-righteous one at that. Prof. Levinovitz is as ardent for his own god as any hidebound fundamentalist is for his.
Note well that Levinovitz believes that ideas he finds offensive are “poisonous,” and that those who advocate for them ought to be shouted down, and perhaps subject to violence. And note also that he forthrightly boasts about people like him working to undermine “many of your core values.”
With that in mind, let’s have a look at his recent Los Angeles Review of Books piece, in which he describes my book The Benedict Option as “spiritual pornography.” Here’s how he recalls that Slate article of his:
The post was about a polemical article of mine in which I argued that not all ideas deserve “tolerance,” giving as examples creationism, vaccine denial, and ethnic nationalism. In certain contexts — in a supermarket, say, or on a bus — one may be justified in shouting down an idea, and even resisting it by breaking the law (civil disobedience). I also argued, not for the first time, that universities are spaces where ideas should never be shouted down. “An overlooked evil of censorship,” I said, “is that it denies weak arguments the opportunity to publicly humiliate themselves in a fair fight.” I cited the revered Christian apologist C. S. Lewis’s position that women should be subordinate in the household as a prime example of a weak argument.
Actually, he didn’t. Read his entire essay here. He did not call Lewis’s belief “a prime example of a weak argument.” He called it “poisonous”. And he did not blame the students for the attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury, but rather the university for having invited him in the first place. And he fudged on whether or not violence is an acceptable form of resistance. He is unambiguously clear that it’s fine to shout people down in public if you don’t like their ideas.
This is not normal. And I objected strongly to it. This is exactly the kind of liberal intolerance that would silence and intimidate people like me — and that is doing so on campuses around the country, and elsewhere.
But as I kept reading the regret never lasted, because the soul of these books is not love of God; it is bitter loathing of those who do not share it. They are a kind of spiritual pornography that works against spiritual regret, designed to arouse climactic cries of Yes! Yes! in its readers, pleasing the soul’s darker parts by swapping a hollow fantasy of physical union for an equally hollow fantasy of moral warfare: a Manichean vision of a virtuous few battling mightily against everyone else.
Um, okay. What Levinovitz describes as “spiritual pornography” are plain-spoken (if strongly phrased) observations on how far our contemporary culture has departed from traditional Christian teachings and practices. Both books are written for conservative Christian audiences. It offends Levinovitz, the secular fundamentalist, that we take our religion seriously — the same religion whose beliefs he no doubt finds “poisonous” and deserving of being shouted down in the public square.
He cites this passage from The Benedict Option as an example of my “hyperbolic exaggeration”:
Anecdotally confirming what seems to be a trend, a woman in suburban Baltimore said to me, “All those people who say you are alarmist about the Benedict Option must not be raising children.” She went on to say that at her daughter’s high school, a shocking number of teenagers were going to their parents telling them that they think they are transgender and asking to be put on hormones.
What do the parents do?
“You’d be surprised how many of them do it,” the woman said. “They are so afraid of losing their kids. And this is how our culture tells them to react. Parents like this become the fiercest advocates for transgenderism.”
Three months after our conversation, that woman’s daughter came home from high school with the news that she is really a boy, and demanding that her family treat her as such.
This really happened! The woman is a reader of this blog. She told me this in person when I spoke to her after an event. I have heard the same thing from others around the country, and even in my own city. In what sense is this “hyperbolic exaggeration”? Levinovitz prefers that the rest of us not notice these things, it seems.
The 21st-century equivalent is not anti-Catholic but anti-secular, a category capacious enough for atheists, reform Jews, New Age mystics, nihilist Nietzscheans, even liberal Christians — the last of these described by Dreher, derisively, as “moralistic therapeutic deists,” and Esolen, appallingly, as Persecutors and Quislings — anti-anyone, really, whose religiosity is deemed less austere than that of the pornographer.
Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.
Ah, so I get it: conservative Christians, we spiritual pornographers, are making it all up for perverse ends, because we live in a simplistic, black-and-white world. This, from a man who would see Charles Murray refused a platform on a college campus for a book he co-wrote in the early 1990s, even when he was invited to speak on a much more recent book he wrote about the white working class. In what sense is this not trading “nuance for simplicity”? His entire Slate column is in many ways an example of what he denounces in Esolen and me — but he doesn’t see that because he believes these things are normal and good.
Except here’s what you will never see, read, or hear Anthony Esolen or Rod Dreher doing: recommending shouting down a speaker in public for speech we disagree with, or seeming in any way to legitimize violence as a response to offensive speech. Unlike Alan Levinovitz.
And in this passage, Levinovitz is just trolling:
It also helps to imagine a golden past, while conveniently ignoring developments such as the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. Dreher includes a section entitled “Democracy, Romanticism, Capitalism: The Calamitous Nineteenth Century,” which finds room for not even one sentence acknowledging slavery.
This “section” is three and a half pages long. Slavery was not relevant to the book’s overall thesis, or to the point of this chapter, which is an attempt at a genealogy of Christianity’s decline in the West. But you wouldn’t know this if you took Levinovitz’s column as an accurate description of The Benedict Option. He writes like someone who picked up a D.H. Lawrence novel and skimmed it until he got to the dirty parts.
More Levinovitzian mendacity:
These distortions are necessary not only to fulfill narrative requirements, but also because the hero of spiritual pornography, like the hero of most fairy tales, is an underdog. The satisfaction of moral superiority is sadomasochistic, requiring a villain holding a whip. “We are a powerless, despised minority,” complains Dreher, repeatedly, flagellating his audience with shared victimhood at the hands of liberal elites — in a book that was twice reviewed in The New York Times and earned him a New Yorker profile.
Here is the actual passage from which he draws that quote:
In thinking about politics in this vein, American Christians have much to learn from the experience of Czech dissidents under Communism. The essays that Czech playwright and political prisoner Václav Havel and his circle produced under oppression and persecution far surpassing any that American Christians are likely to experience in the near future offer a powerful vision for authentic Christian politics in a world in which we are a powerless, despised minority.
See what he did there? The words are accurate, but he quoted it out of context to distort my meaning. I actually wrote that in the future, should we become a powerless, despised minority (as I think likely), we should turn to the example of the Czech dissidents for a model of how to avoid political despair, and stay involved. It would be crazy to call Christians today a “powerless, despised minority” — which is why I did not do it!
Read the whole thing, if you have about seven minutes to waste. It is certainly true that both Esolen and I write in a prophetic mode — in my case (and I suspect Esolen’s as well), because I am trying to get my fellow conservative Christians to grasp the seriousness of the current crisis, and act. If you don’t believe the things Anthony Esolen and I believe, I can see why it wouldn’t make sense to you. But notice that Levinovitz even says flat-out that people like him undermine (“work against”) many of the things people like Esolen and me believe in. That can be just fine, in the sense that a real education requires teaching students to critically examine their beliefs. But it is also the case that professors can mock and deride these beliefs, even if the beliefs are well within mainstream thought and practice.
Esolen just left a teaching position at Providence College, a Catholic school, in part because he ceased to believe that the school upheld Catholic teachings. It is very common for orthodox Catholics on Catholic campuses to experience teachers who condemn what the Catholic Church professes. I’ve mentioned before one untenured theologian who told me that he is afraid to discuss in a neutral fashion what the Catholic Church teaches about human sexuality — even to quote the words of Pope Francis — because he is afraid that students would report him to the administration for creating an “unsafe space” in his classroom. And he is afraid that the university administration would support the students. This, in a Catholic university!
But Levinovitz would have you believe that Christians like Tony Esolen and me are slightly more sophisticated versions of Jack Chick (really, he says this).
Weirdly enough, Levinovitz wrote last year in The Atlantica good piece defending free speech and the free exchange of ideas on campus, in defiance of the whole “safe space” ideology. Excerpt:
The unpleasant truth is that historically marginalized groups, including racial minorities and members of the LGBT community, are not the only people whose beliefs and identities are marginalized on many college campuses. Those who believe in the exclusive truth of a single revealed religion or those who believe that all religions are nonsensical are silenced by the culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces. I know this is true because I know these students are in my classroom, but I rarely hear their opinions expressed in class.
It’s hard to reconcile the Alan Levinovitz of that article with the one who described some old-fashioned but hardly radical beliefs of C.S. Lewis as “poisonous,” and deserving of “fierce resistance”.
Whoever the true Alan Levinovitz is, I know that he’s given my book and Tony Esolen’s mendacious readings. To be clear: a man with Levinovitz’s convictions certainly cannot be expected to approve of those books, and it would be unfair to expect him to. That’s not why I object to his short essay, which insults the intelligence of those who read it.
Still, it’s kind of thrilling to know that Prof. Alan Levinovitz thinks The Benedict Option is a dirty book!