As CT-regulars know, I am a compulsive reader of Rod Dreher’s blog. The occasion for today’s post is this Dreher post. He quotes a reader:
Obergefell was clearly a crisis point for social conservatives. We lost the public debate on gay marriage; but more important was how we lost. Gay marriage showed that there was a great gap between what social conservatives want to say, and what the rest of the public is willing or able to hear. In short, what the process revealed was the inability of social conservatives to articulate, in a publicly convincing way, the basis of their own beliefs. The most striking fact about the whole process was this inarticulacy. When the crucial time came, SCs could not find the words to explain what they believed. For me, that was the crucial “revelation.”
I think you’ve decided that the problem is a retreat from Christian foundations of moral understanding. But whatever the cause is, we have a continuing responsibility to try to articulate these values in a way that is comprehensible in a secular debate — to correct our own inarticulacy. We have a responsibility to articulate our values, whatever their religious grounding may be, in a way that makes sense to people who do not necessarily share that grounding.
Dreher sort of agrees and then goes on for a while. And, I have to say: I still honestly don’t know what Dreher’s argument is. I’m not even totally sure he thinks Obergefell was wrongly decided. (I know he thinks it will lead to excesses but that’s a separate question. You could be opposed to affirmative action, and think Brown v. Board of Education led to affirmative action, without thinking Brown was wrongly decided. You could also think Brown was wrongly decided, in a technical sense, yet admirable in its effects.) I was going to write a long post dismantling all the problems I think I see in this post. But, you know what? – been there, done that.
Let me try a fresh approach.
The reader’s note, and Dreher’s response, reminds me a bit of the opening to Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which is a key Dreher text. So let me attempt a light rewrite. (You can consult the original ‘disquieting suggestion’ via Amazon look-inside, if you want to see where I’m coming from.)
Imagine that modernity were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of social breakdowns is blamed by the general public on the believers in radical personal autonomy. Widespread riots occur, whole shelves of books on Derrida burnt, adjunct professors of cultural studies lynched, Twitter accounts deleted and Brooklyn and San Francisco-based coffee shops have their front windows shattered. Finally, a Know-Everything political movement takes power and successfully abolishes ‘political correctness’ in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining SJW’s. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive modern radical autonomy, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all they possess are fragments: Weezer’s Pinkerton album, from 1996; a worn VHS tape in which Charo and Tim Conway guest star on an episode of The Carol Burnet Show; a Supreme Court opinion written by Anthony Kennedy; no fault divorce and same-sex marriage; a (half-incinerated) copy of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; a (bullet-riddled) copy of Our Bodies Ourselves; a complete, unread 12-volume set of Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time novels; a well-thumbed paperback of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land; a pair of very baggy pants; an iPhone, with various games and online dating apps installed; a selfie stick; Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne; a painting by Courbet; several Mark Levin podcasts; a “Make America Great Again” t-shirt; a painting by John Currin; a pornographic DVD; a copy of Cards Against Humanity; 36 hours of cute cat videos and one episode of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency (all that remains from the purge of YouTube, as part of the Benedict Omnium Option, as it was known); season 2 of Hannah Montana on DVD. Nonetheless, all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of ‘modernity’, ‘individualism’, ‘political correctness’, ‘social justice’, ‘secular humanism’ and ‘godless liberalism’. Adults argue with each other about whether Charo is funnier than the pants are baggy, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving lyrics to all the songs on Outkast’s 2000 album, Stankonia, although much of the lexical meaning has been lost. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not actually all that transgressive at all. For everything they do and say conforms to certain canons of radical individualism but those contexts which would be needed to explain in what sense this is so have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
In such a culture men would use expressions such as ‘cuchi-cuchi’ and ‘heteronormative’ and ‘cisgendered’ and ‘huuuuuge wall’ in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before cultural knowledge of the underpinnings of modernity had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their applications which would appear very surprising to us.
OK, let me explain the joke. The reason Dreher doesn’t have an argument against SSM, in particular, is that, if he’s got any argument, it’s the MacIntyre argument against the whole banana (modern moral discourse and thinking). But that’s totally useless, by itself, as an argument against any particular expression or effect of modernism, such as SSM. In MacIntyre terms, Dreher is pulling a reverse-King Kamehameha. He’s reinstating apparently arbitrary taboos – against homosexuality, for example – in the hopes that doing so will conjure some lost, original, coherent, sensible whole. But why would that work?
Let me say that again. Modernist individualism has had any number of results over the centuries, from Charo to same-sex marriage. (You grant we would have had no Charo, at least not as we have known her, without the sorts of things MacIntyre thinks were philosophical missteps, such as Nietzsche’s works.) But, just as it would be strange to attempt to reconstruct Nietzsche’s philosophy by watching old Carol Burnet reruns, so it would be strange to take a small step towards halting the glacially inexorable civilizational encroachments of Nietzscheanism by banning an old sitcom. It would be arbitrary, rather than rationally incremental. Even if one grants, for the sake of argument, that MacIntyre is right that modernism has been a huge, self-undermining moral mistake, it doesn’t follow that you can disaggregate that universal harm, as it were, socking away a little bit into each and every knock-on social effect of modernism, from Bernini to selfie sticks; much less reverse-engineer the harm back out of existence, by degrees, by banning these effects.
Even if Charo causes the collapse of Western Civilization, a bit, is it obvious that this is also true of her guitar playing? Would banning her music help at all, in halting Nietzsche? The fact that she is more or less caused by modernism is not a proof that everything she causes, in turn, is a further cause of yet further harm along the same lines. Perhaps flamenco guitar is ethically innocent of any tendency to induce decay.
Dreher invokes wholesale collapse: divorce, decay, the fraying of social fabric, the coming anarchy. But he provides no suggestions as to why allowing gay people to marry, in particular, would increase that, rather than decreasing it, at the retail level. There are obvious arguments to the conclusion that SSM will strengthen marriage as an institution. Dreher does not consider those.
“People are not persuadable by reason, mostly because they do not share the premises on which the arguments are based. We have to accept that.”
Well, we can’t know that until we hear the argument – which I think we still haven’t; so the ball is in Dreher’s court. But it seems like the premises will have to concern the sociology of SSM; not pure MacIntyre-style reflections about philosophical mistakes leading to global tendencies towards social collapse.
Dreher thinks, I think, that folks on the other side don’t get the MacIntyre bits. But if you’ve got a bug in your ear about something – Bart Simpson, twerking, SSM – it isn’t enough to hand people a copy of After Virtue and say ‘read it!’, as if that explained why being so bothered by this, to a seemingly disproportionate degree, is really sensible and proportionate.
“I had the arguments down pat in my head, but my heart refused to accept the consequences, until I had driven my life into a ditch.”
I think most people – myself, for example – will find it intelligible and intuitive that Dreher feels the need for the sort of semi-utopian intentional community-building he is currently engaged in. His Benedict Option stuff. (I’m not saying everyone will share the specific desire for that option, but – being good individualists! – we readily get it about options like this being attractive. We’ve read about the hippies, even if we haven’t studied the Bible.) What people find bizarre, and rightly so, is the inference from the fact that, to some degree, modernism drove Dreher into that ditch, to the conclusion that, to some degree, SSM must be driving people into ditches. Why should it be?
Suppose Dreher kept the Benedict Option but dropped opposition to SSM – for other people, who don’t want the Benedict Option. Would anything be lost?