In ‘The New York Times’ Charles Morris reviews a just-published book by the just-deceased Richard John Neuhaus; the book is entitled “American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile”. I have not yet read the book (it’s on my buy-now list), but Morris – himself an accomplished author on things religious and spiritual – has raised enough worthwhile points in his review that I’ll offer a few thoughts.
Neuhaus traces a mutation in American religio-political thought stretching back at least to Walt Whitman and John Dewey: whereas the pre-Civil War American self-conception was that the nation (and its political principles and structure) were the expression of a genuine gift from God to humanity and the world’s peoples, Whitman “secularized” that – America was indeed “special” and even “exceptional”, and gloriously so, but not because God had raised it up but rather just because American and Americans were so marvelously ‘special’ on their own. (And the world’s peoples, and History, it was presumed, would just have to accept that, unless they were all as dumb as dirt and as stubborn as mules.)
Dewey, a moralizing thinker rather than a poet like Whitman, limned the whole approach in the shape of ‘serious thinking’: America is an entity with goals of its own. Those goals weren’t given from on high but were rather evolved from the marvelous American thing itself. But since “all goals come with an ‘ought’”, then those goals had to be realized. (Again, the world’s peoples apparently were well-advised to get used to that; Americans were here, they were special, and everybody else better get used to it – and, by the by, give thanks for their good luck in having Americans around.)
You can see the Flattening effect here. Instead of being anchored in some Gift from Beyond, America was anchored not only in material ‘nature’, but in its own self-definitions. Yet – oy! – that self-definition carried some force of ‘ought’, of ‘law’ even, in History. Imagine America as claiming to be the solid base of all the world’s moral striving, yet itself not anchored to anything but instead sort of free-floating in its own self-definition and self-conception, however those might change as Time and History went on. Such an ‘unanchored anchor’ – if I may – might seem a kind of too-free-floating and unreliable ‘rock’ on which to base the Modern age around the world.
But the Progressive take on Dewey was that his vision was fluid, dynamic, and capable of countenancing the massive ‘creative destruction’ that would sweep away an old world like whatever-it-was that did away with the dinosaurs and usher in a bright new Age of Man (generically understood, of course). One might be justified in ejaculating a long and loud Wheeeeeeeeee!
Morris observes – rightly – that “Neuhaus’s brand of natural law comes from the Greeks, and especially Aristotle”. True enough, from the narrow approach of tracing its intellectual roots. I think it’s essential to go a bit deeper here: The Greeks and Aristotle, and they weren’t the first, applied a particularly conceptual approach to a reality that marked all humans and their societies and cultures as they evolved in the last few millennia of ‘recorded History’: all of them were trying to give expression to a universally felt awareness, i.e. that humans were in the presence of some Life that existed Beyond the particular shape of this dimension.
So when certain current philosophies or political dogmas – such as ‘deconstruction’ and ‘ideological feminism’* - dismiss such natural law thinking as merely the intellectual sleaze of ‘dead white european males’, they are failing to deal with the far more fundamental human reality: human beings have evinced over Time and History a stubborn sense that there is a Beyond and that there are even Presences within that Beyond. The ‘stubborn’ persistence of this sense suggests strongly – and hardly implausibly - that humans do indeed live out their lives in the presence of such a Beyond and its Presences. (Although I grant you that the same type of thinking that Newton used to ‘prove’ gravity cannot be applied to non-material realities such as the Beyond and the Presences themselves.)
That said, Morris is spot-on when he asserts that “most people still think … that morality is not something you just make up”. And as I implied above, it’s a mighty queasy experience to try to ‘anchor’ your entire life and the existence of the entire species on something that’s simply ‘made up’ and that can change without warning.
Along came the philosopher Richard Rorty who died at a ripe age just a couple of years ago. Rorty, a ‘liberal’ as the word is defined nowadays, tried to take the bull by the horns: Yup, folks do indeed just “make up morality” and therefore “there is no way to privilege one citizen’s first principles over any others”.
Well … it’s certainly food for thought. Though I can’t imagine how an orchestra is going to play a symphony if every member in every instrument group can simply adopt a different score to play. Of course, a Conductor can be raised up who will impose a common Score – but in a democracy that opens up a whole other, and verrrry nasty, can of worms.
But that’s pretty much where Rorty and his contemporary, John Rawls, wound up (much to the delight of the revolutionary cadres of ‘revolutionary’ thought among the ideological feminists and the deconstructors and others). You can go the Fascist route and raise up a particular Leader, or you can go the Communist route and raise up an ‘elite’ who ‘gets it’ and who uses the governmental authority to impose its will on everybody in the name of all the people (‘the masses’, as the Commies were fond of calling their donkey-saddled citizenries).
And as We may have noticed in the past forty years, the Communist approach can be draped in the appearances of Democracy, where ‘zealous and revolutionary advocates’ can demand power ‘in the name of the oppressed’; the modern ‘sensitive’ elites are doing it to eradicate ‘pain’ whereas the Commies were doing it to eradicate economic injustice by eradicating the ‘kulaks’ and the ‘bourgeois’ and the ‘intelligentsia’ as a class. If there is any ‘class’ in America nowadays that has been assigned to fill in for the ‘bourgeois’ and the ‘intelligentsia’, it would have to be ‘men’, and perhaps ‘religiously inclined thinkers and believers’.
“Political dialogue is shot through with shared notions of right and wrong.” Yes. The great gamble of a revolution is in trying to shortcut the ‘sharing’ and simply substitute a ‘new’ Grand Notion for the old ‘shared’ notion. The faster that can be done, the better a chance the revolution has; conversely, the longer it takes, the greater the risk that folks might take it upon themselves to kick the tires of the revolution. Lenin and Stalin saw that, so did Hitler – and so did Mussolini, but Italians are just too anchored in actuality to go gaga over ‘new ideas’, let alone a new ‘Grand Idea’.
But just how do the notions come to be ‘shared’? It’s one thing to insist that they’re ‘shared’ because humans simply assembled them and can change them. It's another thing to assert that they’re shared because the Beyond covers everybody and the ‘notions’ reflect, however imperfectly, the hidden centripetal reality of the Beyond’s influence in this dimension.
Again, the same science that discovered gravity can’t be made to work in this type of ‘physics’ (which is why they’ve called it ‘metaphysics’ for quite some time). But then, the fact that cargo cult islanders couldn’t pick up radio-waves with coconut shells doesn’t mean that radio waves didn’t or don’t exist. We’re all cargo cult islanders when it comes to the ‘radio waves’ of the Beyond – although standing on the shoulders of Aristotle and the medieval theologians actually gives Us a better shot than a lot of folks might nowadays care to think.
Rorty, as Morris notes, asserted that since – as he assumed – there is no ‘There there’ out in the Beyond, then the only position a smart, progressive, ‘hip’ liberal could take is that of the “liberal ironist”. The irony of the ironist position is this: everybody (at least everybody who ‘gets it’) knows that a) human beings need to feel like their lives are anchored in principles but at the same time b) there ARE NO PRINCIPLES – or at least none that anybody can be sure of, that anybody can ‘prove’ are reely reely anchored in the nature of a reality set up and presided over by the Beyond.**
So the liberal, progressive, ‘elite’ trick will be to pretend that your principles are solidly enough anchored to give your life and your morality some meaning while ‘really’ knowing deep deep down that there are no such solid principles (and that consequently your life is like a blob of gelatin floating on a stormy, trackless ocean of meaninglessness). And for the donkey-minded masses, they can go on actually believing in a Beyond – after all, religion is the “opiate of the masses” as a great revolutionary thinker once assured the world.
And of course, by getting rid of your opposition – popes, priests, anybody who stands up for the Beyond or at least tries to – then you are free to make sure that it is your Notion that is ‘shared’ by the masses. Not a terribly original scheme, but it’s worked before in this world – at least for a while.
In a by-the-by that stuns with its revelation of just how witless a bonafide, card-carrying cutting-edge ‘intellectual’ can be, Morris relates Neuhaus’s retelling of the Princeton University bioethicist, Peter Singer. Singer has been barred from speaking at German universities since the Wall came down, because he proposed that “defective” children be destroyed “during a trial period after their births”. It was pointed out to him that that was precisely the Nazi plan for clearing the “defective” undergrowth out of the healthy forest of the German Volk (which they actually carried out until Bishop Galen of Munster raised such a hullaballoo that they had to stop it). Somehow, Singer managed to become “especially upset” that anyone would even bring all that up, since he had lost relatives in the Holocaust.
Apparently Singer the storied intellectual assumed a) that he didn’t need to really think his ideas through, b) that actual human historical experience had nothing to do with his ideas, and c) that since he was a second-tier victim of the Holocaust then nobody had the right to increase his ‘pain’ by disagreeing with his ideas. Such are the complications of too-little thinking by elite types who think that their every intellectual burp is a deep thought ready to be imposed on the waiting donkeys.
Morris, alas, still has to keep his own union card, so he finds fault with Neuhaus in the matter of Roe v. Wade (about – you know – abortion as a doable do). Morris accuses Neuhaus of charging that the country never got a chance to really debate the abortion issue after (let alone before) Roe; Morris points to a 2008 South Dakota referendum which was passed, calling for “rule-based access to abortion”.
But “rule-based access to abortion” – the idea that there can be rules that narrowly limit abortions to actual life-threatening danger to the mother, that abortions cannot be performed after fetal viability - are accepted by a sizable percentage of citizens. What a very large percentage does not agree with is ‘abortion’ as a ‘private’ health-and-lifestyle matter to be decided between the woman and her doctor and nobody else, the father and the State included.
I’d say that there’s no decisive support for the current position of the feminist ‘elites’ that abortion is a) nobody’s business but the individual woman’s and b) it ‘ain’t but a thang’ anyway.
But if prior maneuvering is any indicator, the revolutionary devil will have been hidden in the details, and through the skullduggerous collaboration of willing intellectuals, jurists, and legislators, the voters of the Great State of South Dakota will shortly find that they have been snookered as the advocate-cadres go to work on ‘implementation’ in the State capitol (which I should remember from 5th grade geography but don’t).
While some religious traditions have managed to make room for some amount of abortion – under certain circumstances – there isn’t a great deal of religious support for ‘abortion at will’ or abortion as merely a lifestyle choice just a little more significant than getting Botoxed.
To those who ‘get it’, of course, such complexity is merely ‘thinking too much’, and in the service of ‘patriarchy’ – defined as a violent programme of world-historical proportions. (Sort of like – by amazing coincidence – what Marx said Capitalism was.)
One wonders, from time to time: if ‘men’ are as violent and evil as they have been made out to be by certain groups, and if the said ‘men’ have been that way since that pre-Pharaonic age of the Great Goddes(es), then how is it that by the Year of Grace One Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventy or thereabouts, there were still alive and taking nourishment in this country sufficient numbers of ‘women’ as to constitute that tempting 51% of the population that so seduced the desperate Democrats into imagining that they could weld to their Party a huge and reliable majority of the American citizenry, all for the price of ‘merely’ allowing the demonization and denigration of ‘men’ as a class, using as weapons the full legislative, justicial, police, and media resources of the nation? ***
Or is that thinking too much?
Well, at this point of course, such questions might be seen as Politburo debates about ‘how we got to this point’ and ‘what we can do now’ in 1990.
Maybe something might still be done to work for the common weal – or, to put it ‘quaintly’, for all the citizens.
And – who can say? – maybe there is a Beyond, and maybe ‘It’ loves all humans, and maybe We can hoist up what little canvas the ship can still bear and bring her back before the Wind.
*As always, when I speak of ‘ideological feminism’ I am not referring to all female human beings in their thoughts and preferences, but rather to a particular cadre – the ‘base’ of ‘feminism’ – that has been pursuing, under all manner of guises, a purely political agenda in this country and elsewhere in the West for the past forty years or so. Nor, if I take issue with that ‘ideology’, am I taking a swipe at the interests or ‘pain’ of all female human beings.
**This is exactly the point about which Pope Benedict XVI spoke clearly in his recent address to the faculties of the University of Regensburg: that the Church has always taught that human reason, helped along by the Holy Spirit, can reach into and grasp (however incompletely) the reality of a cosmos presided over by an all-powerful, loving Grace (or: God).
***All this despite the fact, among others, that while 44% of gays report violence in their domestic relationship, 57% of lesbians do or that while 22% of men admit to resorting to violence against their partners, 38% of women do. And while the PC explanation of this is that many women are conditioned by patriarchy, that explanation neither limns a very impressive prospect for female agency and initiative, nor does it seem to explain how ‘men’ are the sole (and evil) core of the problem of violence in relationships. And perhaps it has something to do with testosterone; thus perhaps the lesbians proving more violence-prone than the gays. But if so, then both sexes and both the straight and gay orientations have testosterone in their systems (albeit in different amounts and with different effects).
So the national policy – if there is to be one – should be concerned with testosterone’s consequences on people, not with a ‘war’ of one gender upon another, AND with the government – on top of everything else – taking sides. The reports are discussed on p. 244 of Nathanson and Young’s “Legalizing Misandry” (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press; 2006); the entire book is worth the read, and I’ll be doing a Post when I’ve finished reflecting upon it.
Moreover, sex-assaultive adolescent males who as children were themselves abused by females, uniformly chose female victims. Which indicates a monstrous amount of female-abuse-of-male-children behind the seemingly ‘ultimate’ reality of males assaulting females sexually. (See p.257 of “Legalizing”.) So there is a universe of suppressed information buried behind the headlines. And the absence of that crucial information fuels the lethally misguided uproar against males; an uproar that the self-proclaimed “Party of Women” needs to think rather seriously about, I would say – and sooner rather than later.