Happy Fourth of July! (But while I have your attention…)
To all my American readers and friends — and that would be the majority in both categories — Happy Fourth of July from here in Limbo! This is a less than stellar moment for your nation, to put it mildly, but there is no reason not to take a day to appreciate all that is and has been great about modernity’s most important and remarkable thought experiment come to life.
One of the ways America has been unique, however, is that, contrary to the clichés about the supposed anti-intellectualism of Americans, there has always been there a powerful will to self-critique, to reassessment, and to honest consideration of founding principles and their practical fate, from generation to generation. In other words, the thought experiment come to life — philosophy alit upon solid earth in most spectacular fashion — is ongoing, and while the current condition of things is far from healthy, arguably even fatal, it is a testament to the seriousness of the nation that so many Americans continue to crave principled and unblinkered philosophical discussion of what America was, is, and might be.
On that last premise then, I propose, even and especially here on July 4th, 2018, to repost one of my bleaker examinations of the progressive cloud darkening the American landscape. When the following article first appeared at American Thinker, in 2014, it caused a bit of a stir, both negatively and positively. Many people, unwilling to read carefully past the first paragraph, jumped to conclusions about what I was trying to say, and either praised me as a crusader for uniformity of moral norms, as though the great mysteries of human existence were open to easy textbook answers, or attacked me as a fanatical Christian defender of moral conformity. In fact I am neither, and this essay on the deliberate corruption of American society in the name of “tolerance” was intended to be just that: a critique of the machinations and goals of progressive subversion in one of its most disturbing and brazen manifestations.
For the Americans I love — the ones who love living the real American dream, the dream of a moderate, self-reliant life in a limited republic with intellectual foundations set deep in Aristotle and Locke, and for whom Washington’s Farewell Address is the standard of true statesmanship — I hope the following satisfies your desire to think deeply about your nation today, one of the few nations in the modern world that actually warrants deep thought.
The Denaturalization of America
In 2008, America elected a president from a broken home whose mother was sympathetic to communists; who as a youngster had formative relationships with a transgender nanny chosen by his mother and a bisexual communist pornographer “mentor” chosen by his grandfather; whose teenage friends were so devoted to drug use that they gave themselves a nickname derived from this habit, and developed their own vernacular related to methods of pot smoking; and whose chums as a young man were Marxist professors and activists, a liberation theology preacher, and domestic terrorists. This could have worked out alright—we all have a few weird associations.
Five years later, aside from irredeemable debt, the tyrannical micromanagement of individual lives, and the bureaucratic obliteration of the last vestiges of private property, perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of America’s fundamental transformation is the speed with which a latent emasculation, achieved over generations, has spiralled into an open assault on the very idea of “traditional gender roles.” The sheer unreflective suddenness of this plummet into chaos would be alarming were it not so predictable.
A generation ago, fans were surprised to learn that Rock Hudson, a Hollywood heartthrob for thirty years, had been living a homosexual life all along. For the sake of a career based on his romantic leading man persona, Hudson had kept his proclivities private, presumably judging that his preferences would have been upsetting to his audience, and therefore to the businessmen who signed his contracts. His choice was not uncommon. Traditionally, artists and performers—whose vocation is to tease the psychological boundaries between reality and unfettered fantasy—have been understood to be living on the fringes of ordinary mores. For the most part this has been tolerated by even the most ordered communities as a fair price to pay for the benefits these artists provide to society, on the unspoken condition that they keep the “bohemianism” to themselves.
Today, by contrast, there is a veritable log-jam of American celebrities rushing to the cameras to announce their “alternative lifestyles.” Meanwhile, a TV network knee-jerkingly suspends its most profitable star for merely expressing the standard moral view of Western history regarding the sexual behavior Rock Hudson tried to conceal, behavior that was still against the law in many American states ten years ago. One wonders whether A&E would fire a homosexual celebrity for saying heterosexuality was distasteful to him. Consider all the feminist academics who pursue acclaim and professional advancement defending the view that heterosexual relations are inherently, “systemically,” oppressive.
Homosexual marriage, a passing joke at parties until a few years ago, is now legal in much of the U.S., as in many other Western progressive countries. Meanwhile, in decisions soon to be upheld by the Supreme Court, no doubt, various U.S. jurisdictions have declared that schoolboys who decide they feel more like schoolgirls will be permitted by law to use the girls’ change room, while the actual girls, unprotected by any new laws of their own, will apparently just have to get used to undressing in the company of boys.
The denaturing of the normal, and the naturalization of the abnormal—twin processes that have slowly eaten up most of the Western heritage—are now, under the supervision of the Obama administration, making a quick dessert of the erstwhile land of courageous frontiersmen and rugged individualists.
“Wait right there!” progressive transgression-hunters will object. “Are you saying that homosexuality, transgenderism, and other alternative lifestyles are unnatural?”
In a word, maybe. And what does it mean to say they are unnatural? For that matter, what would it mean to say that inversion and cross-dressing are natural?
Here, as with other elements of our moral lexicon, we have too long allowed political subversives to define the terms of discussion. As a result, rational adult conversation is no longer possible in most company, since even to raise certain questions is inadvertently to frame the topic in a manner sure to arouse politically correct indignation.
But philosopher Allan Bloom, one of America’s greatest and most admirable homosexuals (not least because he was not asking to be admired for his sexual preferences) taught that indignation is the very opposite of a rational argument, and that recognizing indignation for what it is—the soul’s emotional defense against a disturbingly challenging idea—is the first step toward a more honest moral inquiry.
Following Aristotle and common sense, we may say that the “nature” of any object is, broadly speaking, the proper configuration and functioning of that object when it is in its developed state. Thus it is the “nature” of a knife to cut things, of a cup to hold liquid, and so on. The “nature” of artificial things, then, is determined by the purpose for which they were designed.
The nature of living things, however, is not determined by any human intention. (Men may make a jacket of cowhide, but this does not make “clothing” the proper nature of a cow.) Rather, their nature is that set of properties or propensities which outline how they preserve and perpetuate themselves as living things. The nature of a human animal, then, stated most generally, is the set of properties and propensities typical of our species which contribute to our successful functioning as the kind of animal we are, i.e., to our self-preservation and perpetuation. As for which properties and propensities these are, experience and observation—the raw data collected over millennia of universal history—suffice to give us a general picture.
And one of the most obvious parts of that picture is heterosexual behavior, the only means of propagating the species, a means available to every healthy adult, and one utilized without compulsion by humans of every race, language group, or geographical location, throughout the history of the species. Indeed, to emphasize the obvious, we may say that heterosexual behavior, and secondarily the inclination towards it, is sanctified by the fact that we have a “history of the species” to talk about in the first place.
If, then, we begin our pursuit of human nature with the evidence of experience and common sense, and on the understanding that the “nature” of a species comprises its innate and most fruitful means of preserving and perpetuating itself, we must conclude that heterosexuality is natural to humans. Homosexuality would, on this reasoning, seem to be unnatural at the species level. Note that this is not in itself a moral judgment—it does not necessarily follow that homosexuality is “evil.” It does, however, follow that just as individuals are normally inclined to perpetuate themselves by means of the reproductive act—the most common instantiation of what Socrates, in Plato’s Symposium, calls the desire for immortality—so societies which hope to survive and thrive will naturally develop social norms on the ground of heterosexual inclinations.
In other words, communities naturally (i.e., if not thwarted by coercive artifice) develop moral precepts and practices consistent with the human behavior most likely to foster the growth, continuity, and long-term health of the community. Hence marriage as both a social sanction for, and a means of moderating, the most natural (i.e., normal) sexual inclination. Hence the consistent appearance, in our species’ many and varied ethical systems, of some core principle of the complementarity of male and female, masculine and feminine, yin and yang, with their different but equally indispensable roles and tendencies. Throughout history, heterosexuality has invariably asserted itself in the birth and evolution of political communities, by means of the ethical principles influenced by its undeniable centrality to normal human experience.
That last sentence holds the key to what has changed. The pervasiveness and necessity of the heterosexual inclination for the survival of the species—the inescapable naturalness of that inclination—is undeniably central to normal human life. To deny this centrality would be to deny the evidence of history—to deny humanity itself, as it has hitherto existed.
And this leads us directly to the heart of “progressivism,” the first comprehensive philosophy of oppression. That is to say, while there have been plenty of philosophical arguments for state authority, these had previously been offered as genuine efforts to improve the human condition, however misguidedly. Modern progressivism is history’s first deliberate and knowing attempt to mask bloodthirsty power lust and hateful envy as a theory of the common good; that is, as I have explained previously, it is history’s first comprehensive fake philosophy.
As a mask for power lust, progressivism begins with a quandary unknown to genuine political philosophies, namely an inability to ground itself in human nature as observed through the ages. It must therefore refute history and inherited experience in order to remain tenable.
This is why the first step in progressive theory is always an attempt to disprove or debunk the premises of all prior civilization. Communism, fascism and socialism all justify themselves with the proclamation that humanity has hitherto lived under a net of delusion and systemic injustice, whereas now, through collective submission to unlimited state authority, we may finally create an authentically human way of life.
And this is why the first step in progressive practice is the re-education camp. Human nature is stubborn and recalcitrant to brute force. It must be subdued through a carefully administered program of indoctrination aimed at countering the inevitable lessons of normal experience, within the mind-stunting machinery of an artificially restrictive and pre-packaged pseudo-world. In the more subtle, developmental instantiations of the totalitarian state, these re-education camps have a prettified name: public schools.
In theory and in practice, then, progressivism is at base an effort to trick men into distrusting their own experience and resisting the persuasive force of our common inheritance, by denying the authenticity of the former and the reality of the latter. In the former case, this means denying the primacy of individual minds. In the latter, it means bracketing off the entire human heritage as an oppressive psychological “superstructure,” or as “false consciousness.” These are the Big Lies at the heart of a pseudo-philosophy that is comprised of nothing but big lies.
The inversion to end all inversions begins here. For while all communities develop out of presuppositions imposed by human nature, one key difference among communities is how they respond to the unnatural or abnormal in their midst. In the modern world, the distinction is clear: while societies rooted in notions of liberty and reason have tended towards tolerance of the abnormal or “different,” totalitarian societies have typically sought to crush it. The totalitarian society is intolerant almost by definition. Meanwhile, a semi-free nation’s collapse into despotism is indicated by its increasing intolerance. (See Roger Kimball’s excellent discussion of this issue in relation to current events.)
But a contradiction in modern totalitarianism creates a unique problem. On the one hand, the would-be oppressors can brook no minority opinion or alternative perspectives; this is why they tend to foster dreams of racial and ideological purity, mythologies of “the fatherland,” and the persecution of “transgressors” of all kinds. On the other hand, as we have seen, human nature itself is their feared enemy, as it presents millennia of counterarguments to the progressive state.
Today’s advanced progressives are as intolerant as their more violent precursors, but they have come to realize that the proper target of their intolerance is not the “unnatural,” but rather nature itself, which must be eliminated if progressivism is to find a secure foothold in men’s souls. Thus the pogroms and purges of earlier totalitarianism become the political correctness thought police of today.
The chief obstacle to “progress” is normal sexuality’s normal result: the family, nature’s buffer between the child and the state, which weakens the state’s moral authority and therefore dilutes the devotion to the collective that progressive authoritarianism requires. Some conservatives wonder why leftists should care about gaining for homosexuals the “right” to participate in marriage, an institution they have hitherto belittled. The reason is that homosexual marriage is a compromise solution for progressives who know they cannot banish marriage outright. Institutions of civilization which create a natural counterweight to the collectivist state, but which cannot immediately be destroyed, must be infiltrated and undermined from within.
The general solution for America, promoted with varying degrees of openness from the heights of the Frankfurt School to the depths of the Obama administration, is to “denature” society with regard to sex, i.e., to overwhelm the normal inclination and its historically sanctioned relationships by normalizing the abnormal. This means blowing out the educational firewall between the nature-rooted norms (i.e., species-promoting behavior) and the abnormal and atypical, making the latter a part of the popular mainstream, and an omnipresent temptation for children. This relentless relativistic moral overload is intended to make the natural inclinations which lead to family and the continuity of the human tradition seem trivial and boring, and the people who “cling” to these norms laughable, old-fashioned, and “regressive.” Conversely, behavior traditionally tolerated as “what people do in the privacy of their own homes” is now to be trumpeted in the public square as “enlightened,” “superior,” and universally desirable. Plain old homosexuality, as is now obvious, is merely a transitional step. Soon, even monogamous homosexuality will be as passé as Rock Hudson.
The knowledge that nature is the source of social norms and the traditions they support is the reason progressive intellectuals are dedicated to persuading the young that “alternative lifestyle” preferences are natural, widespread, and even latent in everyone, if only we would overcome our moral hang-ups and self-denial. The purpose, to reiterate, is this: progressivism must snip the cord connecting nature to history, because nature asserts itself everywhere as collectivist totalitarianism’s counterargument. The progressive faith therefore demands that men believe the absurd, namely that the entire history of mankind, including the basic motivation that makes the perpetuation of the species possible, is part of a great and universal fraud. The effort to denature civilization begins with burning the evidence.
Then comes the substitution of the abnormal as a “new nature” to replace the old in the artificially emptied souls of the new, unnatural man. This explains the rush to force children into “alternative lifestyle” education in the schools, and into questioning and doubting their own “gender,” as though the peculiarities of sexual non-conformity just cannot wait until adulthood. It explains the desperate need to convince us that not only homosexuality, but every possible deviant inclination, from pedophilia to cross-dressing, is “natural,” in the sense of being biologically determined.
But nature redefined as “biological determinism” is a perfect iteration of materialistic nihilism. By chance, I was born with fairly serious birth defects. I was also lucky enough to be born in one of the first generations in which these defects were largely reparable, and in a place in which children with physical abnormalities were not left to die in a tree, or tossed in the river. These defects were of course “natural” in the sense (also used by Aristotle) that they were not produced by human artifice or habit; but no one would claim they were natural in the sense related to species desirability or normalcy. Am I saying abnormal sexuality is like a birth defect? No, I am merely pointing out the folly of chasing progressive activists down this pseudo-scientific “nature vs. nurture” rabbit hole. Equivocation is not an argument.
In fact, apart from the deliberate attempt to destroy the family, refute history, and unravel civilization, what is really most aggravating about the progressive politics of moral inversion is the petty, degraded materialism of it all. Transgender nannies, communist pornographers, and trashy political exhibitionism of the “LGBT” sort tick me off, as they should tick you off, for their deliberate trivialization of life’s most powerful mystery, the golden key to a lock mankind has been searching for since the beginning, and will likely continue seeking until the end.
The best antidote to this modern trivialization of life’s essence—and therefore my favorite book to teach to undergraduates—remains Plato’s Symposium. Here, Plato’s dream team of important men from the society most commonly associated with something akin to our modern “homosexuality” discuss the meaning of Eros in their lives. And one of the lessons of this extraordinary discussion is this: much of this topic necessarily and properly falls outside the mainstream of civil discourse. In fact, Pausanias, the one speaker at Plato’s fictionalized banquet who tries to make the case for the social and legal “normalization” of his pursuit of boys, is treated with amused forbearance by the other speakers, and appears as a rationalizing, somewhat high-minded version of what people used to call a “dirty old man.” The aforementioned Allan Bloom, in his deeply personal interpretation of the Symposium, draws a similar conclusion; Pausanias is, in effect, advocating the weakening of the Athenian family structure for the sake of his own pleasure, and is therefore a soft, immoderate man.
Today, Pausanias’ crass, halfwit descendants have taken his self-interested rationalizations to their logical extreme, proposing to overturn humanity itself in the name of childish power lust.
Americans, a question if you will: when your entire nation is living an Aristophanean satire, or perhaps merely a Monty Python skit, should you be laughing or crying? As for the rest of us, for whom you had long been our glimmer of hope that rationality and civilization just might survive late modern nihilism after all, the alternating laughter and tears evoked by America’s precipitous collapse into moral absurdity is enough to cause severe spiritual nausea, of the sort one feels when one senses the bottom falling out of life.
A great society deserves a nobler end than the dreams of Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, and their protégé.
(Originally published in January 2014)