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In Which Noah Millman and I See Things Very Differently (For a Change)

Noah Millman usually delights and instructs me, but this time he confuses me. (Please read his post, and then Rod’s post to which he responds, before continuing.)

What I don’t know, from reading [Rod’s] commentary on the piece, is how the experience of reading it changed him.

Well, maybe it didn’t change Rod. Should it have changed Rod? If so, why? I read it, and I don’t think it changed me. It made me feel really sorry for Emily Witt, who seemed to know that the acts she observed — and indeed the acts of her own life — call for a moral response but equally knew that she didn’t have one to give. She didn’t even know what to say or think when she was told quite directly that her own behavior was grossly damaging other people’s lives — though she did seem to discern that this failure is in some way connected to the blankness with which she responds to the sexual performances she observes in San Francisco. (Otherwise why put both sets of experiences in the same essay?)

And yet, he had a visceral reaction to a bunch of freaky Friscans flying their freak flag. Why? What’s his stake?

Is “flying their freak flag” an adequate description of what Princess Donna does to other women, and what people pay for the privilege of watching? I wonder if Noah isn’t benefiting here — and also when he refers to Princess Donna and her audience “behaving in pretty civilized ways” — from his polite declining to specify any of the acts that Witt describes. It’s at least worth noting that when the Marquis de Sade narrated similar acts he did so with the express intention of repudiating civilization. It seems to me that when you call such behavior — I include the acts and the observation of them in this — “civilized” you have reduced the content of civilization to a single element: consent.

But this would mean, among other things, either than self-degradation isn’t uncivilized or that there is no such thing as self-degradation. I strongly disagree with both of those points. I think the people who act as Princess Donna does and as Penny and Ramon and the others do are pursuing, consciously or not, absolute degradation, and are publicly debasing sexuality in the process. They are immensely destructive to themselves and to others; they becloud the image of God in which they were made. I do not believe that it is possible to be more uncivilized than they are, though one might be equally uncivilized in different ways.

As a sociological report on all this, Witt’s essay is well done, though her own lack of moral formation and moral imagination means that the only contrasts she can perceive are among different kinds of lifestyle choices, “the exfoliated, burnished sheen of the extremely healthy” Googlers versus the intimates of Princess Donna. Twice — “A Greek chorus of the homeless and mentally ill”; “a side street haunted by drug addicts and the mentally ill just south of the Tenderloin” — she verges on noticing that there might be more meaningful contrasts, that there might be people who aren’t making lifestyle choices of any kind, whether the day-spa variety or the anal-fisting variety, but she quickly veers away. Witt is an acute observer with no moral compass at all, and I find both her inability to orient herself ethically and her rather placid acceptance of that non-orientation disturbing. I read her essay with care but wish I had never seen it.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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