I’ll spare you my election hot takery. Frankly I don’t really think anyone has a good grasp on the particulars of how this happened, where it happened and why. We probably need to wait a few weeks to see how it shook out once we have the full story. From there we can distill and discuss.
Nonetheless it doesn’t take an oracle to realize this is a massive upset. For many across the political spectrum; mainstream Democrats, hardline progressives and conservatives of many stripes, it was a confusing result. Alarming even. In particular for young conservatives who will bear the brunt of the legacy of this moment, we are stuck wondering, “Where do we go from here?”
I don’t rightly know, but I do know there’s some reading that can help elucidate how we got here and how we can help rebuild the cause of prudence, virtue and tradition. So in true millennial style, here’s my listicle:
The Top 7 Conservative Books to Read through the Trumpenreich
You must read this book if you want to understand some of the root causes of our modern political dysfunction. Putnam records the increased decline in institutional trust, civic decline and social capital in America. Trump v. Clinton does not happen in a country with a healthy civic culture. A Trump victory does not happen in a country with strong, trusting communities. Social scientists quibble over Putnam’s proposed causes and solutions, but it is a critical diagnosis if we are to move forward.
Murray writes on a similar theme: There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. While Putnam speaks to Denmark as a whole, Murray hones in on specific provinces. It’s not necessarily that America writ large that is dysfunctional, it’s downscale whites. In particular he convincingly lays how out how the biggest cultural chasm in America is between white Americans. Since 1960 outcomes for white working class Americans has stagnated or declined. The reverse holds true for middle and upper class white Americans. More poignantly, white Americans of different classes live in totally different worlds. One tribe is educated, the other is not. One goes to church, one shows up for holidays, if that. One stays married, the other doesn’t bother or divorces. One succeeds, the other fails. Meanwhile the successful ones disdain or totally ignore their hapless kin. These are harsh generalizations and other conservatives have contested his casual prognosis, but facts remain facts even if they are uncomfortable. America’s core cultural/ethnic grouping is coming apart at the seams.
Stop what you are doing and read this author’s interview by Rod Dreher. The social science of Murray and Putnam, backed up by footnotes and copious numbers, can only penetrate the mind so far. Vance brings it home with a haunting, complicated and uplifting personal narrative about rural white poverty in the Greater Appalachia. If you want an up close look at the hardcore Trump voter, look no further. What’s novel is Vance accomplishes this without the saccharine, tokenizing nonsense that much of the right’s commentariat indulges themselves in. The same people that crow as loud as the day is long about the broken culture behind Hispanic and black poverty work themselves into a triggered fit of self pitying rage when the same is pointed out about poor, rural white communities. Are you a liberal trying to find some way to connect with Trump voters but can’t find the heart? Read this book. Are you a conservative with some nostalgic, rose-tinted view of “real America?” Read this book.
MacIntyre’s book is totally different from the first three I just suggested. But this Scottish Thomist speaks to the cultural and moral moment we find ourselves in. To sum it up: liberal modernity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and the current way we talk about moral and political ethics leaves the “modern man” woefully unfulfilled. To wit, “In the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of human good yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life.“The moment we find ourselves in is largely due to the absence of virtue in our civic life.
Whither goest thou, Conservatism? Part of the reason why Conservatism, Inc. is in such a crisis is because of how intellectually shallow it really is. It’s a comically tragic attempt to keep Reaganism (itself an occasional, unique adaption to the late Cold War) alive, like an ideological Weekend At Bernie’s. Trump tore through conservative pieties mainly because modern establishment conservatism had all the roots of a day old leaf shoot. If you’re a conservative and you’re looking for something more (that also isn’t the hodgepodge of national greatness populist horse manure that Trumpism aspires to), this is a great introduction to the depth and breadth of the wider Anglo-American intellectual tradition. Also, on a side note, it’s bizarre to me how many liberal friends of mine pontificate on conservatism and yet have never even heard of this book.
Want to truly make America great again? Want to make sure another Trump doesn’t come across the political horizon? Read this book and follow its advice. Radically reject the atomization of society that breeds demagoguery, statism and civic corruption. Join one of Burke’s little platoons of society. Talk to your neighbors. Do the hard, necessary work of building your local community. Alarmed communities produce elections like this one. Peter Hitchens put it like this, “This is a frightened society. Many people live in a constant level of fear. There is a general decay of social obligation. There is a sense you don’t intervene. I think the answer is the reestablishment of the free and ordered society we so recently had.” Voting isn’t the answer, nor is your signaling on social media. The best activism you can actually engage in is helping build a robust local community.
This is more geared toward orthodox Christians (small or large “O” depending on your preference). We need to face facts. The Religious Right is dead. If it wasn’t dead before, it has finally given up the ghost by hitching its wagon to a venal, vice peddling, hedonistic, groping serial adulterer who brags about how he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness. But even if Trump had never happened, the writing was on the wall. Christians are going to have to fess up to the reality that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. Named about St. Benedict, who helped build strong Christian communities which weathered the fall of Rome, Rod Dreher lays out a strategy for how Christianity can survive in the modern West and enrich our communities in the process.
Regrettably we live in interesting times. America escaped a very bad candidate and in return got one that is arguably worse. In the meantime Americans are divided, scared and angry at each other. These books aren’t magic recipes but they are good starts (also we will all need something to do while sitting around in between our morning and evening Public Displays of Praise for our Dear Leader). No one is going to rebuild public trust for us. We will have to do it ourselves.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quotation from President Abraham Lincoln (who is criminally under-appreciated among conservatives today):
We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
A writer for the alchemic Buzzfeed (a philosopher’s stone which turns all it touches into virulent internet content) explains “why we actually hate all things pumpkin spice.” Turns out, we don’t hate syrupy venti Starbucks lattes, glottal fry, or Ugg boots for their own sake, but for what they represent, which is a certain class identity characterized by
a banal existence, obsessed with Instagramming photos of things that themselves betray their basicness (other basic friends, pumpkin patches, falling leaves), tagging them #blessed and #thankful, and then reposting them to the basic breeding grounds of Facebook and Pinterest.
In other words, the conspicuous consumption of products which show the consumer to have uncultivated taste and lack of individuality. The writer suggests that our position of judging said consumer to be “basic” is rooted in class insecurity—the need to separate one’s own more discriminating tastes from those of the petit bourgeois mob.
Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.
The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.
No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress
This Valentine’s Day, Oliver Morrison wrote a self-congratulatory love note to his fellow liberals in the Atlantic, arguing that the Left presently dominates the world of political satire because liberals are more tolerant of irony and ambiguous humor than conservatives.
Despite Morrison’s overtures to neutrality, his argument amounts to little more than the latest in a long line of attempts to demonstrate that liberals are smarter, cleverer, funnier, and subtler than conservatives. Morrison cited a study which found conservatives often failed to recognize that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, as evidence that conservatives don’t understand ambiguity. But the study’s authors drew a more [cough] ambiguous conclusion—they wrote, “we have outlined a cognitive process in which individuals who consume ambiguous political messages from ambiguous sources in late-night comedy interpret the messages in ways that support or reinforce personally held political beliefs,” suggesting that their results don’t reflect some difference in liberal or conservative DNA, but rather the fact that people tend to see what they want to see in ambiguous situations. So, confirmation bias.
But Morrison and I could trade stories about clowns on both ends of the left-right spectrum all day without either of us convincing the other. It would be more useful to point out the irony of his argument about irony: in the age of the post-liberal Left, old-fashioned political snark, the kind he says is so dear to liberals, is in grave peril.
Morrison’s article reminded me of the well-publicized case of Justine Sacco, a corporate executive who tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS, sparked a global wave of Twitter outrage, lost her job, faced death threats, and is now, as a recent New York Times Magazine article revealed, effectively in hiding. Sacco still insists, as she has all along, that the offending tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) was intended as satire, a joke about Westerners who are oblivious to the problems that plague the continent in the vein of the beloved hashtag #firstworldproblems. And while Sacco’s satire comes off as more juvenile than Juvenalian, there’s no reason to doubt her intentions in retrospect, since by all accounts she’s a very committed liberal. Sacco’s infinitely more likely to mock Western privilege than to make the insensitive joke that this tweet would have been were it sincere. But she turned the snark up too high, and paid dearly for it.
Steven Colbert himself learned something about the perils of snark in the well-publicized #CancelColbert affair last March. The official Colbert Report Twitter account tweeted an offensive line about Asians, which Colbert had deployed to mock the racism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, out of context. The Twitter activist Suey Park read the tweet, still out of context, and leveraged her considerable following to start what is commonly known as a “Twitter Firestorm” and demand retribution from Colbert and Comedy Central. Fortunately for Colbert, he’s a darling of the mainstream media, which quickly came to his rescue by pointing out that no, one of the most beloved liberals in America is not actually a flaming racist. But Colbert had stepped over the line. His snark was too snarky, too close to the sort of verbal violence and rhetorical repression progressives imagine they might hear from a gun-toting Harley-Davidson rider at a gas station in rural Alabama.
Liberals have learned from the cases of Sacco, Colbert, and others, which is why the satirical Twitter account Women Against Feminism, with 92,000 followers, clarifies its status as snark by making its tweets grammatically incoherent and rife with spelling errors. “I don’t need feimsis I like my men to be MASCULINE!! I will only date a man if he washes himself with shark blood and exfoliates with gravel.” Unfortunately, even these precautions are not enough, since most of its tweets still attract angry, deadly-serious replies accusing them of furthering the misogynist cause. At least so far there haven’t been any outraged hashtag campaigns against the account. Still, by qualifying itself so painfully, WAF’s snark loses its deadpan quality and ends up so obvious as to be mostly charmless and uninteresting.
No piece about the downfall of satire would be complete without the obligatory reference to “A Modest Proposal,” so here you go: if Jonathan Swift had published his legendary piece of snark today, the Twitter firestorm would probably have consumed several cloud computing storage centers.
The post-liberal Left, eternally vigilant for the least sign of ideological impurity, is now devouring its own parents, the jesters who made light of conservatism’s worst excesses back when liberals were in the minority.
Among the survivors of the purge is Jon Stewart, whose singularly straightforward brand of humor seems to be ideally suited to the post-snark age. Stewart excels at pointing out silly things that Fox News and Republican members of Congress do or say in clever ways, but his signature moments, which generally involve passionate shouting about the idiocy of X person or Y organization with the occasional self-deprecating joke thrown in, are not exactly ambiguous. And understandably so, because a little snark is a dangerous thing, and being misunderstood can cost you dearly in a world of angry young people with large Twitter followings, and a 24-hour news cycle that loves covering hashtag campaigns.
By the post-liberal Left’s standards, in fact, most snark, whatever its intentions, probably qualifies as the sort of verbal violence that must be eliminated at all costs. When statements are judged not by their meaning but by the internal state they produce in their hearers, and when we speak of being offended as suffering a kind of bodily violation, there is no room left for ambiguity in our discourse. Actually, by these standards isn’t snark—isn’t humor itself—a particularly insidious kind of privilege, afforded only to members of empowered groups who can afford to make jokes out of the cruel words that are even now ravaging the souls of the oppressed? (This particular problem surfaced in That Jonathan Chait Article’s anecdote about the feminist Facebook group.)
As a simple, unsubtle, and humorless conservative, I naturally cheer the decline of snark, but I offer a friendly warning to the liberals who are abandoning it. When, after a heroic struggle, the nameless baker of the original “Hunting of the Snark” finally killed the dread beast, he ran into unexpected consequences.
A major principle of being a hipster is that you want to be the trend-setter. You want to be ahead of whatever will be popular in the future. Once the bandwagon starts rolling, it’s too late to jump on.
After all “hipster” is mostly used as a term of derision for poseurs who are late to the cultural party. This is the hipster double bind: if you are a real hipster, you don’t want to be called a hipster. Your image must be new or ironically out of place. This eventually becomes impossible, which is why all hipsters tend to look alike.
Every election season, I am newly confounded by those garish bi-colored maps that saturate every media outlet’s coverage of events. You know them well —those “red state, blue state” maps that so neatly divide our country’s political differences into digestible, candy-like nuggets. My confusion lies in the fact that these colors, red for Republican and blue for Democrat, are so obviously wrong. They defy the long-standing tradition, found among numerous modern countries, of red’s association with political leftism and blue’s with conservatism.
Red is, of course, the official color of Communist states—Soviet Russia, Red China, and the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, to name a few examples—and it is the color for labor and social democracy. It is also the impassioned, incendiary color of revolutionary violence, seen in the likes of the Bolsheviks, or Garibaldi’s redshirts. Is it surprising that it was also Marx’s favorite color? Continue reading What’s red and blue and all screwed up?
Clueless politicians on the right and left are trying to relate to our generation by unironically appropriating internet memes.
Exhibit A: BIG GOVERNMENT TROLLING.
This appropriation of doge by the Department of Health and Human Services is the latest in a series of terrible attempts to use internet memes to make apathetic Millennials want to get health insurance. Previously featuring Pajama Boy, Brosurance, mom jeans, and so on.
Why does HHS think that doge will make people sign up for health insurance? And why do they seem so darn clueless about how stupid it looks?
Now lest you think this is a problem with rich, old, out of touch liberals, I present:
Exhibit B: REPUBLICAN HIPNESS.
Get a selfie with Sarah Palin. A shout-out from Newt (eww). Snag some swag (Pictured: Obama bobbleheads). And if you still want to go to their conference after these horrors, you can enter to win an all-expenses-paid trip. Just click “I’m In.”
This isn’t what Millennials want (although we do take selfies, laugh at doge, and use memes—ironically—to make fun of people.
Republicans and the Obama administration are saving us the trouble.
By the way: the only young people who still think selfies are cool can’t vote yet. Stop trying, politicians. You’re making yourselves look bad.
You know what would be nice? If politicians started treating Millennials as adults, and behaving like adults themselves.
But maybe that’s too much to hope for from Baby Boomer politicians.
All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…
G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.
This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture
Most people reading this are already aware of former First Things editor Joseph “Jody” Bottum’s recent rambling essay, “The Things We Share,” in which he apparently defects to the supporters of same-sex marriage. The essay has gathered a lot of scorn from both opponents and supporters of same-sex “marriage” and does seem to be meandering, contradictory, and ultimately unsatisfying in its arguments.
Other bloggers have done well in pointing out the essay’s explicit nonsense, and I do not intend to retread the same ground. Rather, I want to take a more careful look at the essay from the standpoint of “Straussian” criticism.
Persecution and Democracy
In “Persecution and the Art of Writing” Leo Strauss suggests that modern critical scholarship has overlooked a fundamental factor that affected the writing of many of the great philosophers: the threat of “persecution.” A Jewish or atheistic philosopher writing in an Islamic context, for example, would have been in danger of denouncement if his true beliefs were too openly shared. For this reason, Strauss posits that philosophers living and writing in an intolerant age developed ways of expressing the free thoughts of their minds while apparently endorsing the current official “orthodoxy.”
“Nobody would prevent him [the philosopher] from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal [i.e., heterodox] view. He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it . . . Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse or lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of the young men who love to think.”
The philosopher would even present the “liberal” view more lucidly than its own proponents, before eventually mounting a relatively flat, conventional attack upon it in the customary style of the time.
It is important to note that, in Strauss’s opinion, the most significant instances of esoteric writing appear in societies that exist somewhere between the two extremes of utter persecution of free thought and complete license. ‘Persecution’ does not necessarily mean the Spanish Inquisition. Strauss lists a panoply of philosophers he considers to have written esoterically to some degree — all of whom lived in relatively tolerant societies: Plato, Maimonides, and Locke, to name a few. A common feature of these societies is a strong state, with some degree of official religious tolerance. Free inquiry may have been more circumscribed than religious belief and practice. Without pretensions to divinity, the secular power was considered to be “right,” a correct embodiment of the political truth. In democracies, this ‘truth’ is of course the “will of the people.” Political “orthodoxy” then, in the democratic context, is first to assume that the opinions of the majority are natural and correct, and then to seek to determine what those opinions are and declare one’s opinions to be in accord with them.
According to Strauss, it was in a context of quasi-persecution that Plato developed the concept of the “noble lie.” In the Republic this is expressed when Socrates says that political society ought to be organized around a fictitious hierarchy of social classification; the “myth of the metals.” The divisions don’t actually exist but it is better to say that they do for the better ordering of society. Strauss believes that this public-spirited “lie” is a subtle hint to guide the careful reader toward Socrates’ more “liberal” true beliefs. Elsewhere, in the Laws, the philosopher suggests that vice, in this case the consumption of alcohol, can help to teach the virtue of moderation. However, in Crete, where the Laws is set, drinking is forbidden. Strauss draws the analogy between the “vice” of drinking, which loosens the inhibitions, and the “vice” of talking about the illegal act of drinking, which liberates the philosophically inhibited mind to consider a truth that exists beyond the law of the state.
Strauss observes that during the rise of modern liberalism, liberal philosophers abandoned the caginess which characterized ‘liberal’ philosophy in earlier ages (as Strauss interprets it), most notably eventually abandoning the concept of the “noble lie” in favor of strict sincerity. This tendency did not take shape immediately though, and even the plain-speaking John Locke exhibits strong esoteric tendencies and a capacity for concealing his true thoughts, especially in his hidden critiques of religion. It is not until the complete triumph of the Enlightenment, when even Immanuel Kant wondered if the French Revolution had gone too far, that liberals completely scorned the “noble lie” in favor of a kind of radical truth-telling.
The other assumption that changed with the rise of liberalism was the question of whether “the masses” could, or should, be able to understand a philosophical argument. Esoteric writing tended to shield unorthodox thought by writing inoffensively on a level that the literate populace could understand, but by means of certain techniques pointing toward a subtler meaning that only the truly thoughtful, considered to be “men of good will,” would recognize. Democratic ideology takes for granted that the majority of the public are in fact people of good will and understanding, since they hold, by franchise, the public trust. To conceal one’s meaning from them became a “vice.” Thus the practice of esoteric writing apparently withered away after the Enlightenment, at least among sincerely liberal philosophers.
In today’s intellectual world, liberalism has assumed the “orthodox” position. Thus, one intending to advance an un-liberal argument might do so under the guise of attacking it from the viewpoint of the liberal “orthodoxy.” He might exercise certain techniques to conceal this intention from the mass of readers.
One characteristic of Bottum’s essay which marks it as not being for the masses is the fact that it is prohibitively long: 90 full paragraphs or about ten thousand words; much longer than the average length of an Internet essay. What is also immediately clear is that he did not need this much space to make the argument he claims to make. He does most of that in a few paragraphs at the conclusion.
Everyone acknowledges that for an intellectual as wise and respected as Joseph Bottum, as good a writer as he is, this is some remarkably strange and sloppy work. Might it be that his essay should not be taken at face value? Perhaps he is, as Strauss puts it, “writing between the lines.”
The Funding Acknowledgement
As others have observed, the essay’s most significant feature does not at first glance appear to be part of the text. The acknowledgment at the end of the piece appears on the surface to be merely conventional: “Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.” However, given on one hand the argument the author claims to have made, and on the other hand the moral and religious views the author attributes to himself which are in conflict with this argument, the reader is led to the rather unsatisfying conclusion that the writer is corrupt — i.e., that he is accepting payment to write in support of views not fully his own. To claim to be a person of good will and yet to draw the reader’s attention to the possibility of corruption is unmistakably to raise the suspicion that there may be intentions buried beneath the surface reading of the text. It raises the possibility of unfree or even coerced action on the writer’s part — in Strauss’s terms, of “persecution.”
For this reason, as good Straussians, we must return to the text, paying more careful attention to aspects of its arrangement and style which the ordinary reader might have overlooked or dismissed as accidental lapses in style or unintentional errors in fact.
One of the first indications that a writer intends to communicate on both an “exoteric” and “esoteric” level is when he, not being the sort of writer to make casual mistakes, errors of fact, or self-contradictory statements, seems to do so. This may be a signal that the surface interpretation of the work is not to be trusted.
A pleasing feature of Bottum’s text is the folksong, “Shady Grove,” with which he begins and ends the essay. He describes it in the last paragraph as “A bit of old-timey Americana, the stuff we all still share.” The verse he quotes in the first paragraph goes:
When I was just a little boy, / all I wanted was a Barlow knife.
But now I am a great big boy, / I’m lookin’ for a wife.
In the last paragraph he quotes the verse:
Some come here to fiddle and dance, / Some come here to tarry.
Some come here to prattle and prance. / I come here to marry.
Given the subject of the essay, is not at all clear whether we all do in fact share this “bit of old-timey Americana.” The song is about romance and married love of the decidedly traditional kind. Maturity, it implies, is about valuing and seeking the joys and responsibilities of marriage. In the course of a ten thousand word essay Bottum has done a lot of fiddling and dancing, a lot of prattling and prancing, a lot of shucking and jiving, but not much talking about marriage itself — that is to say, he has devoted hardly any time to actually arguing in favor of a view of marriage that would include same-sex couples.
Another contradictory element is Bottum’s purported Americanism. Catholics, he suggests, should support same-sex marriage because it is now (possibly) an accepted part of American culture. This reminds me of Strauss’s observation that in states where speech is restricted, the law of the land is regarded, especially by the young, to be right by virtue of being the law. The authority speaks truly, according to the “logica equina,” and since nobody is contradicting him, the young person assumes what he says must be true.
Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage
The clearest indication that Bottum intends an esoteric reading of his essay is the way he addresses the arguments against his stated position. Toward the beginning of the essay he off-handedly dismisses Ryan T. Anderson with the remark that the view of natural law Anderson wants to promote has “no purchase,” i.e., no widespread acceptance in American culture. Nevertheless, a few paragraphs later Anderson pops up again, with the writer calling his 2011 essay and 2012 book, What is Marriage?, “the clearest, most cogent defense of traditional marriage.” This seems, at least, like a book recommendation or a whispered word to the wise: If you want to understand the best argument in favor of traditional marriage, read this book. Those who take this implicit advice will find that its authors do not in fact rely on any obscure, hackneyed ideal of “natural law,” but present a prudent, comprehensive political defense of traditional marriage as a common good.
In no way does Bottum mount a critique of Anderson’s secular arguments. Instead, he spends most of his time in the realm of religion, lamenting how darned inconvenient the consistent Catholic teaching on sexuality continues to be. His citations, from G.K. Chesterton to Pope Francis, present an unchanging — one might almost say, a God’s-eye view — of marriage and sexual morality. Reading Chesterton, one is reminded that the Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality was countercultural long before the vaunted “sexual revolution.”
This also Bottum acknowledges. His narrative of the “disenchantment” of modernity would, in a less defeatist context, form an excellent program for a young Catholic culture warrior, more clearly stated than most of the popular Christian literature on the subject of sex and marriage. This reminds me again of what Strauss wrote. For ‘liberal’ read, in this case, “Catholic”:
“He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants.
One may recall here Bottum’s petulant excursus on his quarrels with Maggie Gallagher and Chuck Colson over the “Manhattan Declaration.” Strauss continues:
“Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and was therefore approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.”
The “central passage,” the fruit of knowledge which Bottum explicitly commands the reader not to grasp, is found in the following paragraphs, just after the writer has reminded us of Pope Francis’s latest recapitulation of the unaltered Catholic teaching on the family:
The stony ground on which the church must sow is the landscape created by the sexual revolution. Made possible by the pill, accelerated by legalized abortion, aided by easy pornography, that revolution actually needs none of these any longer to survive, because they never defined it. They merely allowed it, and the completed change is now omnipresent. The revolution is not just in the way we use our bodies. It’s in the way we use our minds.
One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.
This is nothing less than a comprehensive critique, an unmasking of the liberationist creed, stripped of its sentimental trappings, in a few words. Bottum even underlines it with some sly satire:
The resulting claim of amorality for almost any sexual behavior except rape reflects perhaps the most fascinating social change of our time: the transfer of the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and onto…well, onto food, I suppose. The only moral feeling still much attached to sex is the one that has to hunt far and wide for some prude, any prude, who will still condemn an aspect of sexual behavior—and thereby confirm our self-satisfied feeling of revolutionary morality.
The turn against any deep, metaphysical meaning for sex in the West, however: that is strange and fascinatingly new, unique to late modernity.
What kind of moral or social victory do you obtain if the marriage you’re granted is defined as nothing more than a way in which individuals define the concept of their own existence?
Bottum goes on to argue, I think satirically, that since secular protestantism has, through embracing divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography and the like, already destroyed any real meaning that sex and marriage have in the modern world, why should we not allow same-sex couples to participate in this meaningless farce of “marriage?”
He references G.K. Chesterton’s tract The Superstition of Divorce:
G. K. Chesterton once suggested that if there truly exists such a thing as divorce, then there exists no such thing as marriage. The root of the paradox is his observation of the metaphysics implicit in marriage ceremonies: “There are those who say they want divorce in the second place without ever asking themselves if they want marriage in the first place. So let us begin by asking what marriage is. It is a promise. More than that, it is a vow.” If we allow divorce, then we have already weakened the thick, mystical notion of marriage vows. Adultery is an everyday sin. Divorce is something more: a denial of a solemn oath made to God.
Then, as if nodding before the hearth, he rouses and seems to abandon this line of argument with a sort of disclaimer: “I’m not trying to argue here directly for an end to the culture’s embrace of legalized divorce, much as the sociological evidence about the harm to children now appears beyond dispute.” The important word here is “directly.” Indirectly, as I have shown, he does much to strengthen the Catholic case against perversions of marriage; little to actually promote the views he claims to hold.
Since the essay is addressed to Catholics, and yet the argument is based on secular Protestantism, the implied rhetorical critique, the “esoteric” teaching if you will, is clear: Why should Catholics (or other orthodox Christians) play by these rules? Why should we pawn our Christian identity and beliefs for a mess of stale American pottage?
If any devotees of Ockham’s razor, having read thus far, are inclined to think I have built up an elaborate structure of bogus argument in order to extract something other than the plain sense of Bottum’s words from his essay, consider one final point before you give my arguments a close shave. I do not want to be uncharitable to the man, and in order to be charitable I am even willing to consider that he may not have intended to be correctly understood by every reader. After all, there are only two other possibilities:
That Bottum is a candid, well-meaning, but stupid man who cannot reason or coherently express his sincerely-held views without accidentally contradicting them; or
That Bottum has sold himself out to a cause he does not believe in, for money, while attempting to play both sides with his incompatible and vague sympathies, in a way that provides little support or comfort to either.
Yet Bottum is both a good and honorable man, and a capable and even excellent writer, as his friends and associates all testify, even as they disapprove of his essay. My interpretation allows this essay to be the work of a virtuous and sincere man, as well as an excellent, even subtle writer, as long as you accept that he does not intend to be correctly understood by everyone. I think Bottum hinted at this in an interview he gave, in which he said,
“I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been.”
I think I can make a reasonable guess as to what Bottum believes the young Christian truth-seeker should be doing:
He goes so far as to say openly that theological and philosophical reasoning has “no purchase” among the American public. This does not mean that it is wrong, just that your average Joe will not find it convincing by itself.
Again, he explicitly argues that the real problem is “disenchantment,” the loss of a sense of wonder at things that points to the spiritual realities of creation.
If disenchantment is the problem, it should follow that re-enchantment, rather than renunciation, is the answer.
Since for most of us, this cannot be done through reasoning alone, those who understand the truth on a philosophical level need to communicate it in other ways.
The reason we say “the naked truth” is that in order to conceal her own ugliness, Falsehood steals Truth’s garments. The naked Truth is still beautiful, if severe. Clothed in her own raiment — poetry, art, music, kindness, and peace — she is glorious. Here are some ways that young Christians can present her more effectively:
Telling the truth about sex and marriage in clear and sympathetic ways;
Being living examples of married and unmarried people who honor their vocations;
Making art and music that adorns truth with beauty;
Being gracious and sympathetic to our friends who suffer from various kinds of sexual pathology, whether it be lust, pornography, or disenchanted self-image;
Standing up against all forms of domination and sexual violence;
Recognizing the gift of children as precious souls, neither to be destroyed in the pursuit of ‘freedom’ nor selfishly commodified in any way.
In doing these things, we will be counteracting by deed, word, and example the “disenchantment” of secular modernity, attracting our friends, neighbors, and even adversaries to the holistic, truly affirmative way of life to which God calls the world through Jesus Christ.