James is right that the important and interesting thing about marriage
is that it binds two people together by some kind of sacred authority,
but he doesn't give a very clear picture of where this sacred authority
comes from. I can't make something sacred just by saying it is — two
roommates, for example, couldn't invest their living arrangement with
the same kind of holiness that marriage has just by calling it a
Maybe it's possible that, while one person
doesn't have the authority to make something "sacred," a whole
community acting together does, and so if your community or church
decides that gay marriage is sacred then it is. As Eve pointed out in a question, though, it ain't necessarily so:
you all think there is a difference between a "contract with the
community" and "entrance into a tradition?" Those two seem to have
different resonances with me, to the point that when I hear "contract
with the community" I think, "Oh God, Hillary Clinton wants to raise me
like a baby," whereas when I hear "entrance into a tradition" I think,
"Oh, that sounds cool and beautiful and somehow aesthetically pleasing."
it's not what your community says but the tradition of marriage that
makes it a sacred relationship, then we have considerably less freedom
to decide which relationships count as marriage and which ones don't.
If it turns out that the Western Canon from the Song of Songs on down
talks about marriage in deeply gendered terms, then we can't crowbar
gay marriage into "the sacred" and expect it to work.
Well, certainly Helen's on to something, and it's her distinction between the authority of collective compact and authority as such that has driven me in the not-so-distant past to try to coin a distinction between intersubjective and interobjective knowledge. But this is unfortunately just the start of the hunt. "Mine" or "Ours" are two answers to the question "By what authority?" that a strong concept of the sacred renders inadequate -- not necessarily unnecessary; merely, or certainly, insufficient. Indeed the authority of the sacred is at its strongest when the authority of the self and the authority of a sacred union and the authority of a community of the sacred are asserted -- as incarnations of divine authority.
But the history of Christianity has revealed how this, too, settles little: when it comes to Christian sacredness, for example, either the authority of the Magisterium 'has to count' or it doesn't. It should also be clear that Protestant Christianity (as I tried to suggest at the CPAC panel, incidentally) has historically both strengthened sacred authority and broadened it such that claims to the sacred filed in antagonism to intermediary/doctrinal authority, including unabashedly heretical claims, may be made under auspices declared (at least sometimes) persuasively to be in affinity with divine authority!
So I myself am short of strong arguments as to why gay unions should be understood as sacred, but I am full of strong arguments as to why I or anyone else is disentitled to make that argument on anything other than the internal terms of one or another sacred authority. And the thrust of Christianity, particularly outside of Eastern Orthodoxy, seems to me strongly predisposed toward not one but three separate but interlinked thrusts in favor of understanding gay unions as sacred: one is the rise of direct, unmediated experience with God as the organizing principle of evangelical Christianity; two is the rise of gay and theologically gay-friendly clergy within 'mainline' Protestant churches; and three is the rise of advocates of the gay sacred who use precisely the intellectual tradition of Catholicism to craft and present theologico-philosophical arguments as to a nature of the sacred which does not exclude homosexuality or homosexual love or gay union. In his recent Intercollegiate Review review of Roger Scruton's Arguments for Conservatism, Robert Kraynak has noticed that Scruton seems to think likewise [pdf]:
I wonder then why Scruton concludes pessimistically that 'it will not be possible to resist' the current trends toward accepting gay or civil unions. Has he not made a strong case showing that the nature and dignity of man includes an eros for the eternal and that present trends are merely temporary distortions of natural, and therefore permanent, longings?
Well I haven't read the book and I don't know, but my answer would be that the 'right answer' -- either from an intersubjective or an interobjective point of view -- is often widely considered wrong or unacceptable or too awkward to be defended or put up with in a confrontation. And the gay marriage situation is a confrontation: "who are you to deny love?" A tough question for therapeutically informed liberal optimists in a late-modern democracy. Love -- indiscriminate, totalizing, all-purpose, universal-adapter love -- is the ultimate in 'cool' and 'beautiful', the ultimate in 'aesthetic pleasure', the ultimate declaration of the reduction of all articles of faith to the optimism principle: 'somehow...!'.Somehow, we can make such-and-such feel sacred! Even if -- !
But in church, that question has at least a few potential answers, and so it's there that the confrontation should, and, indeed, must, be made. Benedict seems to understand this. But the bottom line is that Christianity as we have it today supplies people with an incredible resource for setting up fresh sects, schisms, heresies, and evolutions -- call it the individualization of revelation. One still has to make persuasive arguments about why one's particular form or practice of Christianity exists in authority, but persuasiveness within various Christian traditions becomes harder or easier (usually, it seems, the latter) as mores and faiths continue themselves to shift. And the capacity of Christians to tolerate schism -- cf. Mormonism -- remains very strong. So, we'll see.
January was a blockbuster month at this site, best ever. Page views, to pick one stat, hit five figures. Add to the Honor Roll this time around all the new readers, and double and triple thanks to the fine network of young smartypantses that actually does seem to constitute a true Internet Community (fortunately one not dedicated to, like, naked Goth pictures or multi-user domains). I bet you all know their names and read their own excellent blogs too. And, yes, for the record it does help matters that I do see a significant number of these people in person every couple of weeks or so. May we never finally download ourselves into the matrix. (Sorry, Reihan.)
With comps next month and early March I have no expectation of continuing to put up these kinds of awesome figures, but I thought that about this month too so who knows. After all...it's in your hands. Yabba dabba doo.
I'm not sure why James thinks that we libertarians, so unsuccessful in
politics, have this kind of outsized influence on the culture, the
advent of Reason.tv notwithstanding. I think he means "cultural
libertarians," but these are not necessarily the same people who
self-identify as "libertarians" simpliciter. If anything, doesn't being
a committed member of a political movement mean, more or less by
definition, that you're not simply seeking meaning and satisfaction through "trivial novelties"?
Consider this Point One. Julian's right, here -- at least, the Ron Paul candidacy strikes me as the perfect example of how he's right. But notice who gets bent out of shape when Paul advocates politically libertarian positions but rejects culturally libertarian ones. Yes, there is some overlap -- see, e.g., abortion -- but in order for this conversation to make any sense (Julian also seems to acknowledge this), it must be possible to be a political libertarian in good standing without having to be a full-fledged cultural libertarian. But this reveals a certain tension. Yes, if you're a committed political libertarian active in journalism or even politics, you are eschewing the central cultural libertarian tenet that trivial novelties are in fact way more important and satisfying goods than those you get out of political activity. But let's guess at some percentages. I suspect the number of political libertarians working in politics-related fields is micronically smaller than the number of cultural libertarians leisuring along outside of politics. And this points to me toward the heart of the problem. Political libertarians have an outsized influence on the culture -- outsized, that is, relative to their actual political impact -- because they say 'the law has no right to prohibit you from doing x, y, or z', and oftentimes they are quite right, and what people hear is 'I have the right to do x, y, or z, and if I feel like it, therefore I should', suffering, from my perspective, at least, from not only faulty logic but bad choice making. (You might be surprised how lenient I end up being, here, but that's grist for another post and doesn't affect the argument.) The bottom line here is that, in the culture as it is today, political libertarianism translates, whether it wants to or not, into a line of argumentation that undermines what I think has to be the basic tenet of political libertarianism -- that there are things the government can't stop you from doing which you ought to be stopping yourself from doing. Today that maxim seems stupid to way more people than it seems smart to. That's a big problem for political libertarianism. It's the reason why there aren't any Barry Goldwaters walking around anymore, and it's at the root of the many fissures and weird contradictions within the Ron Paul movement. Moving along:
As for the substance of the claim, it strikes me as rather clearly false. Yes, an open and pluralistic culture means you can live as a frivolous novelty junkie, but I'm not seeing the case for why it means one must.
One might expect, on the contrary, that a wider range of lifestyles and
communities of interest would allow each of us to be more fully
committed to his own. Similarly, the idea that cultural libertarianism
"destroys" political libertarianism is far from obvious to me. Rather,
it seems that being able to really feel the pull of diverse conceptions
of the good—and perhaps having held a few different ones at different
times—might dispose people to be more circumspect about throwing state
support behind any one. Perhaps James means that the "habits of the
heart" inculcated by cultural libertarianism leave us all so dissolute
that we'll end up needing the state to look after us. That's a larger
claim than I want to take up here, but I don't think it checks out: As
I argue here,
for instance, the narrative that blames the collapse of inner-city
family structures on the perverse values of latte-sipping elites
doesn't really capture what's going on.
Consider this Point Two. Here Julian's not so right, although his argument is a strong one and in order to disagree with me on these issues it has to be made. A 'wider range of lifestyles and communities of interest' do in fact 'allow' fuller levels of 'commitment'. But they do not necessarily encourage, and (following Nozickian logic) they rarely enforce, fuller levels of commitment. In fact, 'commitment' has already emerged as the term by which we designate particularly profound levels of sustainedly consistent choicemaking -- but not necessarily anything more. 'Commitment' designates strong attachment, but still contingent attachment. Libertarianism pleasantly entrusts the duty and the responsibility for maintaining duties and responsibilities to free individuals. But on the cultural back end, it contributes to the erosion of reasons why free individuals conceive of their duties and responsibilities as undroppable. I'd rather have this than despotism, if forced to choose, but my point is we need to avoid forcing ourselves to make that choice, and that the easiest way to fall into that trap is to imagine that that choice is an either/or, binary problem.
But there's another twist too. Commitment itself isn't an on/off switch. So you can be both more fully committed to a lifestyle choice or community of interest while simultaneously amping up your recreational forays into the enjoyment of trivial novelties. Indeed that's the whole idea behind the civilizing effects of commerce. If the public goods we value are deliberately made trivial -- like, say, the Cadillac CTS -- then we may safely proliferate incommensurable and incompatible private goods satisfied by personal commitments without worrying that those desires will spill over into the public sphere and create oppressive, biased rules and regulations that cramp individual freedom. We need the public space to become filled with, or dominated by, trivial novelties in order to both restrain and protect private commitments. At least that's the logic of the argument. Julian is right that having had different conceptions of the good (or jobs, or sex partners, or sexualities, or whatever) at different times inspires a certain circumspection about institutionalizing any particular 'lifestyle preference' in the law. This is naturally because the ability to lifestyle-hop is cramped whenever the law tries to hold any one constant, or even privilege a mere handful. But more importantly, Julian overlooks the way that cultural-libertarian circumspection about importing comprehensive doctrines into politics and law is only one facet of a larger circumspection about the practice of politics generally. The same impulse that leads toward the good idea of not officializing ideologies and doctrines in political regimes leads toward the bad idea of turning over the practice of politics to centralized and efficient neutral political scientists, who will master the systems analysis that can manage the flows of resources that free individuals have permitted the government to worry about for them.
So this is where 'needing the state to look after us' comes in -- not because cultural libertarians are 'dissolute' necessarily -- although some certainly are -- but because cultural libertarianism inspires citizens as a matter of logic to seek goods that require freedom from politics, and, sometimes, the active destruction of politics. Julian's resistance to this pressure -- laudable as it is -- shows up again in his unwillingness to grant what Kerry Howley speaks of flatly as mobility rights. Whereas Kerry is unafraid of affirmatively disintegrating citizenship, Julian wants to keep it more or less intact while also accruing to individuals the material benefits of their moral right to consociate. This fissure among libertarians seems to me to be central to the dilemmas bandied about here. Yet cultural mobility rights language is inescapable, I think, as well, internal to a polity going down the cultural-libertarian road, and so a particular ideology does wind up being imported into the public sphere and institutionalized. The Rawlsian-libertarian argument here (shudder) is yeah, 'neutralism' or whatever may be an ideology, but it's better than all others, and here's an allegedly persuasive argument why. The problem though is that the terms of the plain Rawlsian argument center precisely on justifying cultural neutralism's 'betterness' on political grounds. Cultural neutralism is better because it's better suited to political liberalism. But, again, cultural neutralism pulls us away from the practice of politics. So on the left you get only one right, the right to do as you please, and on the right you get only one right, the right not to be at risk of terrorism. It's startling that conservatives endorse torture only when it's done by the government and liberals endorse it only when it's done by consenting adults. The same minimization of rights, and minimization of politics, is at work, and it's egged on by cultural libertarianism, which is compatible with both government torture and bedroom bloodletting.
None of which is to say that Julian's guilty of helping America turn into an S&M society. I instinctively agree that the values of the latte class are not to blame for the decay of the urban environment. But simply because the values and interests of the urban lower class and the values and interests of the urban upper class are different does not mean that they both don't translate into an active vested interest in minimizing political liberty and turning it over to administrative despotism, which, I would argue, they do.
And on one final note, just as I alleged that cultural libertarianism tends to undermine political liberalism, there is a strong case to be made that cultural liberalism likewise erodes political liberalism (as I've just suggested) and moreover that cultural conservatism damages the integrity of the premises of political conservatism. But that's another story.
One day people will just be people, whoever they love. And then the
need for "lesbian history" will be able to pass into history. What a
good thing that will be. -- Margaret Reynolds' review of Rebecca Jennings' Lesbian History of Britain
Hopefully we can get over our culture (and market) niche fetish without degenerating into the big sloppy popcult of the love puddle, which, yes, may be easily co-opted into uber-banal ecumenical Christianity, the religion of Just People. But for now...white eyebrows? So not hot.
Yglesias seems to think Heigl's relieving his lingering discomfort with Knocked Up:
Like a lot of people, I found Knocked Up to be both funny, and
somewhat disquieting in its apparent message. These issues got
discussed a bit and then the whole thing was forgotten in our
fast-paced internet-age culture. But Jessica Valenti points out a really good new Meghan O'Rourke essay on the film inspired by Katherine Heigl's recent remark that the movie was "a little sexist."
And of course, in have-cake-eat-too land, the rank contradiction between being paid for a big break that makes you uncomfortable and revealing your intimate discomfort from the interview chair is to be celebrated on precisely those terms:
It's her unfiltered voice that makes her dynamic and edgy, so what if
she occasionally comes off as a raging she-beast? Embrace it! And just
because Heigl scored her big-screen breakthrough in Knocked Up doesn't mean she has to worship her character, or agree wholeheartedly
with the film's portrayal of women. What's more, who would really want
to read an interview where she did? -- Gretchen Hansen, Entertainment Weekly's Popwatch
Aha! Watching celebs squirm over the emotional costs of splitting their selves up for sexy perks and cash prizes creates frisson for entertainment consumers! It's all so obvious now. Surely part of being an artist calls for a certain kind of courage to strain yourself artistically. But Heigl's no tortured artiste. She's a professional player of parts that make her feel, like Yglesias himself, lingeringly guilty and kinda dirty. But at least Yglesias, like myself, is only a critic, who has to contend, like it or not, with things that register on the Attention Meter of popular public opinion. Heigl is a serial psychomasochist -- in addition to this, on the Grey's adultery...
"That was kind of a big change for Izzie, wasn't
it, after she was so up on her moral high ground," muses the actress.
"They really hurt [Callie], and they didn't seem to be taking a lot of
responsibility for it. I have a really hard time with that kind of
...there's this, on The Fall of the House of Usher (!):
"Ann is a young woman who had been encircled by this history (of her lineage) her entire life, so it's already kind of there, the mystery of that big old house she's living in. The odd relationship between her and her brother, that Poe vibe is already around her, I think she is used to and almost likes that creepy feeling that prevails throughout the film." [...] "Ann isn't twisted, but she has a complex sexuality," says Heigl. "She likes the macabre." And here Heigl draws a clear distinction between herself and Ann. "There are things that I was very uncomfortable with. The whole incestuous theme was very uncomfortable for me. Reading it I was trying to shake it off. But that is what Poe is so brilliant at doing. Those things happen, those are the darker sides of humanity that people won't talk about so much, but those are the real horror stories."
Yeah, okay, I get it, but that's one weird yet characteristic-of-the-age pattern to get yourself into and ritually confess. Fame and its side benefits would appear to be inadequate therapy, which of course makes us love our stars even more. They're anxiety-ridden about their 'complex' sexuality and about hurting people and not taking responsibility -- just like us! Now that's incestuous. And guess what: we're used to it and almost like that creepy feeling that prevails throughout our lives.
The tactics were just as transparent and
occasionally nasty as they are now, if not more so – sleep with me and
I’ll write you a poem, sleep with me or you’ll get old before your
time, etc. And the sex was just as premarital -- that was the whole
point of it; married sex was slightly less fun when the idea of
choosing your spouse was a fantasy played out on the stage, but rarely
in real life.
To recap: the old days were simply worse than the new ones (and if
Gelernter disagrees with that, I’ve got a 16th-century dentist I’d like
to introduce him to). And literature makes a very poor expert witness,
especially when you're twisting it to shore up already absurd arguments.
The main problem with the way sex is had nowadays has much less to do with volume and frequency than the psychological reasons that account for them. When it comes to an active life of getting it on, it's not always necessary to feel like you're throwing yourself away sexually to compensate for feeling thrown away in other respects. But that attitude helps things along. Our sexual patterns, especially among the young, are very ignoble -- not because kids shouldn't mess around, but because the psychocultural premises are debased and perverted. Yet nobody seems to want to have that conversation. One side says loosely regulated sex is unhealthy. The other says it's the picture of health. This is a false dichotomy. Please someone help me destroy it.