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Submitting To Reality

(Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Several things from social media for you to consider. First:

And this clip, taken from a new HBO documentary about transgendered children:

It’s important to note that this male child Phoenix went on to reject the female identity, and now his mother regrets very much having gone down the transgender path of affirmation. (She said: “It was a mistake. Children are not transgender. And maybe there are people who actually are, but it’s probably a mental disorder.”) Still, it is astonishing to watch that short clip of this creepy progressive cult, sacralizing the boy’s rejection of masculinity. This is not simply an eye-roller about liberal religion; it is something far deeper and more sinister.

So, what unites these examples of the contemporary spirit? A rejection of the familistic ideal, which entails traditional sex roles.

Before we get started here, can we please put aside the idea that I believe that women should be confined to maternal roles, and not allowed to pursue careers? I don’t believe that. But we can’t pretend that there isn’t a severe social cost to be paid for abandoning natural sex roles.

The fundamental task of each generation is to produce the next generation, so that our people will continue. That’s not a religious belief; that’s a proposition that is, or ought to be, obvious to anyone who lifts his or her head up out of the trough long enough to see past their own appetites. If we, both individually and collectively, lose our ability to recognize that, and fail to create social structures and disciplines that make producing the next generation possible, then we will have committed suicide.

A consistent theme in the fiction of Michel Houellebecq is that we in the West have done exactly that. Bourgeois individualism and materialism are and will be the death of us, he says.

The Thomistic philosopher Edward Feser has a really good post talking about all this, in light of Carl Trueman’s blockbuster new book. (Note well: Feser criticizes Trueman’s book slightly, but makes clear that his criticism is provisional, having not yet read the book; Trueman tells me that he and Feser have been in touch since the Feser blog post ran, and that the book itself, as opposed to the interview with Trueman that I did on this blog, to which Feser responds, answers Feser’s objections.)

From Feser’s post:

Here’s what everyone used to know about human nature.  It will sound like standard natural law boilerplate, but that’s because natural law systematizes and explains what once was common sense (and still is until people are indoctrinated out of it).

Man is by nature a social animal, and sex is the fundamental way in which we are social animals.  For a human being is never just “a person.”  A human being is always either a man or a woman.  And men and women, like everything else in nature, each have a teleology – a purpose to which their nature directs them, the realization of which is necessary for their flourishing.  The purpose of a man is to be a father and husband, and the purpose of a woman is to be a mother and wife, with all that these roles entail.  Among other things, they entail having lots of children, and committing yourself for life to the family unit that results.  This unit is the cell from which larger social units are built, and the health of those larger units depends on the health of the cell, and thus on the commitment of men and women to fulfilling their roles as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives.

A man’s life’s work – his vocation or calling – reflects this social nature, and has a twofold purpose.  First and foremost, its point is to provide for his family; and secondly, it is to contribute to the needs of the larger community of which his family is a part (for example, as a butcher, a baker, a plumber, or whatever other role he is especially suited to).  In these ways, a man exists for the sake of others, and he does so no less than (as feminists complain) a wife and mother does on the traditional understanding of sex roles, even if the precise nature of his other-directed calling is different.

Sexual desire pushes us out of ourselves, then, to bond with another human being, and with that human being to create new human beings and stick together for life for their sake and for each other’s sake.  And as families ally together to form larger social units, an entire political and economic order arises, which reflects the nature and needs of these families.

Not everybody can fulfill these roles, but they are normative in a healthy society. A society in which people think of marriage and family as one equal option among many is a society whose future is in danger. Why? Because maintaining marriage and family are hard. As I have written before in this space, a couple of weeks before my first child was born, my sister, who married and began having children before I did, phoned me to say that almost all the things that gave my wife and me pleasure as young marrieds were about to disappear. This, she said, might be hard to get used to, and that’s understandable, as having children takes away your freedom. But, she said, what you can’t imagine now, on this side of parenthood, is how much joy it provides.

She was right, as it turned out. Having a child (the first of three, as it turned out) required a major sacrifice of our liberties, and the kind of things that made us happy. What drove us to embrace parenthood is the instinct that we should. I suppose part of it is that society expected this of us, but the truth is, we both had a strong instinct to want to be parents. Middle-class society, at least back in the 1990s, when we had our first, still honored that, however weakly.

My wife and I were both serious Christians when we met, and that meant that we could not establish a sexual relationship until after we married. From a sociological point of view, this meant that bearing children took place within a committed relationship, such that she did not have to worry that her husband would abandon her and the children. And our faith commitment caused us to restrain our sexual activity, period; sexual desire that I could not fulfill outside of marriage pushed me to face down and overcome a lot of my insecurities. It might sound simplistic and crude to put it this way, but submitting the erotic desire that is normal in young adults to the bounds of serious Christian discipleship, with the expectation that marriage and children was normative, helped me to grow up.

We are living through an experiment to discover what happens in an anti-familistic society — that is, a society in which marriage and family ceases to be a normal ideal, and is just one choice among many equally valid ones. Marriage is hard. Raising children is hard. If people feel no wider social pressure towards doing it, fewer will. If you have to talk people into doing so, the battle is all but lost. Feser says in late modernity, we are all Hobbesians:

Now, the deep reason why the modern liberal individualist conception of human beings rejects the traditional understanding of our natural teleology is that it rejects all natural teleology.  Its purest form is, perhaps, Hobbes’s account of the state of nature.  Hobbes held that in our natural condition, there is no fact of the matter about what we ought to desire, no ends toward which our nature directs us.  There are simply whatever desires we happen contingently to have, and none is better or worse than any other.  That is why the state of nature as he understands it is a condition of pure license that inevitably descends into a war of all against all (and thus why he takes his Leviathan state to be necessary to remedy this unhappy condition).

Of course, neither Hobbes nor the liberal tradition in general for most of the three centuries after his time pushed anything like the radical sexual liberationist agenda that has become so familiar in recent decades.  That agenda is simply too contrary to human nature for people to have taken it seriously for most of that time, or to try to implement even if it had occurred to them.  In order for it to become a realistic project – psychologically, politically, and practically speaking – the basic liberal individualist assumptions and their implications needed a long time thoroughly to permeate Western institutions, and the technological preconditions of making those implications practicable (such as the birth control pill, labor-saving devices that made it possible for women to work outside the home in large numbers, etc.) also needed to be realized.

But the implications were indeed there from the beginning.  If there is nothing in our nature that directs us to any particular ends – if there are only whatever desires we happen contingently to have, and no fact of the matter about what desires we ought to have – then there is no particular identity that nature has given any of us.  Nature has not called us to be fathers rather than womanizers, mothers rather than career women, heterosexual rather than homosexual, etc. because nature doesn’t call us to be anything in particular.  What we are is whatever we happen to want to be.  We are sovereign over ourselves, subject to no demands other than those we choose to be subject to.

The implications are radically anti-social, at least as traditional morality and the natural law theory that systematizes it understand what it is to be “social.”  For the sovereign individual who is subject to no obligations he doesn’t consent to, that sex tends to produce children is morally incidental to it.  There is no natural obligation toward the children that result from one’s sexual activity, so that they might even be aborted if one wishes.  Nor is there any natural obligation to provide for the woman with whom one has sexual relations, so that she might be divorced, or never married in the first place, if one wishes.  In general, sexual and romantic relationships need not conform to any particular model, but may be fashioned and refashioned in whatever way sovereign individuals agree to.  Sex is no longer about getting out of one’s self and seeking union with others.  It is about using others as one means among many of gratifying the self.

Read Feser’s whole post. 

Producing and nurturing the next generation is the fundamental “ought” built into nature. A society and culture that cannot do that, that does not hold doing that as the highest normative goal (“normative” in the sense that most people, though not all, are called to do this), will disintegrate. As we are doing.

Via Gavin Ashenden, look at what’s happening at Eton, the toniest of British public (private) schools:

Look at that, would you! You cannot even question this stuff without risking your job. Suzanne Moore, a left-wing Guardian columnist, left the newspaper because she was mobbed for being a “gender critical” feminist (meaning, she dissented from the complete pro-transgender argument). She did this from a feminist perspective. From the long piece she wrote about it for Unherd:

Looking back, I see that by the late Eighties and early Nineties, I had already picked up on something that perturbed me. A denial of female biology, of our ability to name and define our experience. Some of this came from certain strands of postmodern theory where objective reality gives way only to multiple subjectivities. A kind of gender tourism became possible. Everyone could be everything. A new kind of feminism came into being, one in which flesh and blood women and our desires became somehow a bit dull. Feminism without women. Grow a child inside you and push it out of your body and tell me this is a construct. (NB: no one has to have children.)

I believe quite simply bodies exist. I have been there when babies are born. And been there when people die. I know what happens when bodies no longer work…what shall we call my view? Materialism?

As trans ideology came into being, to question this was to question trans people’s “right to exist” — how is that even possible? They obviously exist! — when really we were questioning the ways in which we think about gender and oppression and how complex this all is.

It remains so. Yet somehow morality had entered the debate. To be good — ie, modern — one didn’t interrogate the new trans orthodoxy. Sex was no longer binary, but a spectrum, and people didn’t need to change their bodies to claim a new identity. All this was none of your business, and had no effect on your life.

I disagreed. By 2018, the atmosphere was poisonous. A fellow columnist at The Guardian replied to a message I sent about being civil at the Christmas do with: “You’ve prompted the most sickening transphobia, for which you have never apologised, you called islamophobia a myth and you publicly abuse leftwingers.” …

Around this time I was in Armenia covering a story on foetal sex selection. Women were aborting female fetuses as they wanted boys. The UN population fund was doing fantastic work there, knowing that as fertility rates drop, sex selection becomes ever more prevalent. This world was a long, long way from those people who think sex is just a matter of personal choice. Foetal scans at 12 weeks mean generations of girls go “missing”. In rural Armenia I visited class rooms of 27 little boys and 5 girls, while at home I was told sex is simply “assigned at birth”.

These people who are destroying the idea of male and female, and destroying the normativity of marriage and family, are destroying our civilization. They are doing this by destroying the conditions that make it possible for the next generation, and the generation after that, to exist. I’ve mentioned before in this space something a professor at an Evangelical college told me some years back: that he doubted that most of his students would be able to form a stable family, because they had never seen one. Now we are being told that the things that make for a stable family are oppressive, even bigoted.

The culture of death owns all the means of propaganda production. It takes incredible strength simply to see through the fog to reality, much less choose to take the radically countercultural path to marriage and family. But what else is there? Again, read Houllebecq. His Submission was not so much about Islam as it was about the spiritual and morally exhaustion of post-Christian France, and how no society can survive without a religion, or religious-like commitment binding it to the future.

We have to submit to Reality. Money and technology and ideological terrorism can only keep Reality at bay for so long.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

[Quoting me:] “We are living through an experiment to discover what happens in an anti-familistic society — that is, a society in which marriage and family ceases to be a normal ideal, and is just one choice among many equally valid ones. Marriage is hard. Raising children is hard. If people feel no wider social pressure towards doing it, fewer will. If you have to talk people into doing so, the battle is all but lost.”

As someone who has chosen to marry and have a child, surrounded by an entire family (all others in my generation) who has decided they’d rather not… the experiment is real. Let me give you a report from the trenches.

Ever since having my son in 2017, I’ve been continually surprised at how parenting is now a choice to be questioned, manipulated and punished, instead of lauded and supported. From the way I had to spend more than 20 hours with an advocate going over fine print to avoid getting screwed by the insurance company on childbirth costs, to the way I was underhandedly fired for taking maximum maternity leave, to how the parent who waxed most poetic for YEARS about how much she wanted grandbabies decided at the last minute to back out of our childcare arrangement so that she could afford to get acupuncture (yes, really!), to how we couldn’t find a single free parenting group in our area, so had to pay cash to join one–only to realize we were the “charity” case because we were supposed to rotate meetings of the whole group between houses, and we could only afford a one-bedroom apartment, so had to beg off our turn each time. Eventually the group stopped inviting us to meetings at all.

My father directly asked me, while I was pregnant, what value I saw in bringing a child into the world at this time? My mother-in-law–who to her great credit stepped up and helped us more than any other Boomer relative–also told me drunkenly at a party that if she had to do it over again, she would never have had children. I guess my wonderful husband couldn’t make up for society’s oppression by something so banal as existing, and dearly loving his mother! Whoops!

Ironically, all these relatives who have so casually dismissed my choice are pretty much rabid about my son in the flesh. I’ve had to ask them to stop buying toys, because we have no more room for them. My mother-in-law cried when we told her we were getting priced out of Seattle, and had to leave – outright begging me “not to take him away from me!!” Despite coronavirus raging, they ALL invited themselves across state lines for Thanksgiving this year, despite me being sick with a cold, and unable to get a test at any price to confirm that it wasn’t COVID–they said they’d take their chances, just to see him!! (I cancelled Thanksgiving myself. Unilaterally.)

I want to have a second child – my mother, who failed me at the last minute last time around, urges me not to wait, and PROMISES that she’ll be a better help this time! I trust that as far as I can throw it. I’ve had to move a whole state away from the only helpful relative in order to have even the slightest hope of buying a house. During the recent COVID crisis, my father refused to watch my son for 5 hours so that I could stand in line–the only nearby option–to get a test, despite it being his day off, and despite me trying to get this test to protect HIM above all else. (And we already live in the same house – it would not have increased his exposure! I even offered to pay for him to stay in a hotel the moment I got a sore throat, but no – he stomped about the same house as us, while REFUSING to babysit!) I had to wait for my husband to get off work and drive across state lines to get one.

You know. it has to be said – these people I’m descended from want the “grandparent experience”, but run away like they were cursed from even the slightest inconvenience of the reality of it. I guess me, my brother, and my husband and his brother were just that expensive and useless? None of our siblings have considered even for a moment having children of their own, of course. Can you blame them?

To pivot away from personal experience, it’s an interesting experiment we’re doing here, but I think it’s more limited than Rod calls out in this post. This philosophy is overwhelmingly represented by white people who call themselves liberal and middle- to upper-middle class. I don’t see any of this anti-family nonsense coming from Hispanics or Black Americans (at least from my limited perspective), or from Trump voters, to be brutally honest. Just from (deeeep sigh) my people.

I think the outcome of this experiment down the road is clear enough, and getting clearer day by day. The group of people who value what I was raised to value, and who live in the lifestyle in which I was raised, are going to dwindle in number until they pretty much vanish from the Earth. And they don’t–can’t–provide my son much of a future.

But there ARE plenty of people who are choosing to have children – even against some pretty stiff odds, in some cases. And for better or worse, THEY are the future of America. If the demographics of those births discomfit anyone reading… too bad! Demographics are destiny. Bear a litter of children yourself, or forever hold your peace.

I see so clearly now (it’s hard to miss) that I was born at the tail end of a culture, and that I will be the one watching it all pass away, while struggling – alone – to try and still hold some responsibility towards the future. Not the most enjoyable destiny… but one with some meaning in it, at least. I’m not sure the paths the rest of my family have chosen will deliver even that much.

I’ll have to make some hard choices in the years to come, about where the best place to grow up will be for my son. I think a lot of the last remnants of this particular culture will.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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