Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Conformism, Reputation, and Reality

Paul Adams

Publication of two very different articles, one in the Guardian (UK), the other in the liberal American Catholic magazine Commonweal, bring to mind the gap that often exists between the merit of a public intellectual’s work and the “dynamics of reputation and public debate,” as the first author, Stefan Collini, calls it.  

Collini’s article commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of a celebrated (or notorious) lecture by literary critic F.R. Leavis in response to the earlier lecture by C.P. Snow on the “Two Cultures.”  The specifics of the exchange of lectures will be of little interest to most today, I expect, though they were a major event in my English student days. 

Snow was, Leavis argued, a classic case of a figure entirely without literary or scientific significance - he aimed to bridge the gap he discerned between the "two cultures," scientific and literary.  His reputation was based on his own self-confidence and endorsement by a literary-cultural-journalistic elite which had no serious critical standards but for whom all was vogue and being in tune with the times - the lemmings argument for inevitability.  Leavis was denounced on both sides of the Atlantic (e.g., by Lionel Trilling) for being too rude, dismissive, and personal, but his point was not about Snow himself. 

Bottum's essay - famous for being famous, as they say - is also interesting as a cultural phenomenon, an assimilation to the hive mind and just too much “because there's nothing there," as the Catholic Thomist philosopher Edward Feser puts it. The essay is rambling, personal, and needy, an incoherent argument - except there is no argument - that the Catholic Church should acquiesce in same-sex “marriage.”   It calls for the Church to reject the position laid out ten years ago by the CDF, signed by Joseph Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II, that “In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection” (emphasis added).

Bottum's piece must be engaged both at the level of what it attempts to do, the musings or arguments it sets forth, and its symptomatic significance as a moment in the life of the Church and of American elites.  Michael Pakaluk captures both aspects in his brilliant satirical piece.  He shows both the incoherence of Bottum’s non-arguments and his feeble desire to go along to get along rather than stand firm in the face of the soft persecution Catholics face in the West.  We are not presently called to be martyrs for marriage like John the Baptist and Thomas More, but face denial of jobs and promotions, rejection of applications to college and dismissal from professional programs.  Good Catholics and other Christians are being driven out of business, Catholic Charities pushed out of fields it excels in like adoption and foster care or helping women caught in sex trafficking.

Snow and Bottum are very different public figures, but there is similarity in the way both were embraced by the kind of political and cultural elite represented fifty years ago by the Sunday papers and smart weeklies and today by the New York Times.  Leavis’s concern with Snow was not personal, despite the attacks on his lecture as rude, dismissive, vicious, and in general, over the top. The gap between Snow’s evident lack of any real talent or achievement and his self-confidence and acceptance as a public authority on literature and science called for a kind of diagnosis of the state of a culture in which no serious critical standards were in play.

Why does Bottum's piece deserve any attention at all?  Surely not on the basis of any merit.  Not because he is or was a good fellow.  The NYT rushed to boost him with a special trip to Bottum’s home in South Dakota and a puff piece in the paper because it so well fits the narrative of "Conservative Catholic caves on SSM."   The self-styled “paper of record” gave similar prominence to David Blankenhorn's jumping ship as a prominent defender of marriage and opponent of what he himself described as the hijacking of our most child-friendly institution by those whose real interest was not marriage, parenthood, or children but respect for their sexual relationships.  The story in Blankenhorn’s case was "Marriage expert, critic of SSM, folds.”  For Bottum, who was no expert on marriage and had written nothing of substance about it, the story was “Catholic conservative, former editor of First Things magazine - a vehicle of conservatism and orthodoxy in religion and culture - abandons opposition to same-sex marriage.”  Or more succinctly, as the title of the NYT article put it, “A Conservative Catholic Now Backs Same-Sex Marriage.”   Bottum has stepped back from what he appeared to mean when he approved the subtitle of his own article in Commonweal, “A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” saying now he accepts the Church’s teaching on same-sex unions, just holding that she should stop opposing them in the public square.  

Neither Bottum nor Blankenhorn has a single coherent argument for abandoning the defense of marriage, doing no better than saying it’s the way elite opinion has gone and it’s over.  There is this longing to come in from the cold and be liked again that Pakaluk nails in his satire on Bottum’s essay. (I commented on Blankenhorn's jumping ship on marriage here.)  Both statements, given prominence by the country’s most prominent champion of same-sex “marriage” and elite values, the NYT, show this weariness and desire for acceptance.  If Bottum had been a liberal Catholic or secular liberal, and never editor of FT, no-one would have cared.  The instant fame of the piece has nothing to do with its merits and it's not fallacious (ad hominem) to say so.  It's an expression of a cultural collapse bigger than Bottum but of which he and his sudden liberal admirers are symptomatic.

At one level, this cultural collapse is an expression of the collapse of marriage and all the other consequences of the sexual revolution, defined as  the ongoing destigmatization of all varieties of nonmarital sexual activity accompanied by a sharp rise in such sexual activity, and has its technological base in the contraceptive pill that became widely available in the 1960s.

At another the phenomenon of intolerant conformism to elite opinion reminds us of Tocqueville’s critique of the democracy he saw at work in the United States of the 1830s. In a section entitled, “The power exercised by the majority in America over thought,” he asserts, shockingly to American democratic sensibilities, “I know of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.” Indeed, he says, “There is no freedom of mind in America.”

An aspect of this irresistible power of public opinion, which he sees as inherent in democracy (American Lockean style at least), pointed to by the Snow and Bottum cases, is the particular force of conformism in elite opinion.  The incapacity for independent critical thought and judgment among the cultural elite of the day in England that Leavis diagnosed, and that enabled a man lacking in any talent but self-confident self-promotion, is also evident in the rapid transformation of homosexual “marriage” from joke to dogma in ten years.  Indeed, Brendan O’Neill, who coined the phrase, sees it as a class marker, a sign of cultural superiority, based not on a mass movement but on the pressure, so evident in Bottum and Blankenhorn, to be accepted in the right circles.

Such a phenomenon depends, precisely insofar as it flies in the face of reality, of the truth about the human person and about marriage, on a high degree of coercion.  The coercion is in part that imposed by the cultural elite on its own through determining who is admitted or excluded or denied advancement in its charmed circles.  In part it is the narcissistic bullying, intimidation, and entrapment by homosexualists of those, like wedding photographers and bakers who will not celebrate, against their conscience, travesties of marriage between same-sex couples who are inherently incapable of consummating their union.  But increasingly, the coercion involves the direct use of state power to push people into believing that 2+2=5, or - since belief cannot be commanded or forbidden in this way - at least into not saying or acting as if it were not so.  (On this, see Douglas Farrow’s Nation of Bastards, which showed us from Canada’s experience the implications of SSM for the hypertrophy of state power and the erosion of civil society and religious freedom.)

As King Canute (Cnut the Great) demonstrated so beautifully, the power of any ruler or ruling elite is limited in the face of a reality that is prior to politics and human power and will.  Every English schoolboy learns some, usually the wrong, version of the story, but this is the earliest and most powerful, as told by Wikipedia

Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th-century chronicler, tells how Cnut set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes. Yet "continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.' He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again "to the honour of God the almighty King".  This incident is usually misrepresented by popular commentators and politicians as an example of Cnut's arrogance [as though the king thought he actually could command the waves].

Whether either version is accurate or fair to the great king is not the point.  What matters for us is the limits the story illustrates on man’s capacity to make himself a god.  Marriage is a natural institution based on the reality of how humans reproduce and what is necessary for them, and especially their young, to flourish.  It is not, or cannot for long be whatever the state says it is.  As Horace put it, natura expelles furca, tamen usque recurret: “You may throw nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.”

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