"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Left on Down"

Thanks to the Drudge Report, we have this inevitable news from Switzerland. I say “inevitable” because it represents but one more step in the long march from traditional values toward a future devoted to—well, to what? Let’s see where we end up if we plot the course laid out by certain promoters of social and legal “progress” in recent years.

By “progress” I don’t mean legitimate improvements in the justice system or wiser practical balancing of the sometimes opposed values of liberty and equality. I am referring, rather, to the Oregon and Netherlands laws permitting assisted suicide and euthanasia, respectively; to the push for gay marriage; to the argument that any woman has a “right” to choose to have an abortion; to the promotion of sex-change surgeries; to the attempt to assert the “rights” of animals (as opposed to the responsibilities of human beings); to the defense of lucrative traffic in addictive drugs, pornography, and in sex slaves; to the justification of homosexual pedophilia among certain fringe groups; to the state-wide proposal in California to legalize marijuana; to the refusal of Homeland Security, against all practical reason, to countenance so-called “profiling” while justifying what in any non-government operation would be considered sexual harassment. You may wish to add examples of your own.

All these movements, backed by passionate groups of devotees, are predicated upon the valid principles of individual liberty and equality under the law. They reason thus: If all men are created with equal rights, as they interpret the words, “who is to say” that women can’t choose to abort, that two men can’t choose to marry, that any man or woman can’t be the gender he or she would like to be, that an underage child can’t sexually love an older person, that a white great-grandmother or Asian infant should be immune to the kind of body search more properly directed at swarthy middle-eastern Muslim men between the ages of 18 and 40? Why not die when you feel like it or marry your sister if you wish? The problem is that the backers admit no limits imposed by the same authority by which we claim our rights to liberty and equality, namely “nature and nature’s God.”

The only traditional reason not to do any of these things is civilized tradition itself, rooted in ancient wisdom, religious faith, the practice of neighbors and nations for millennia. The legalization of incest, whether Switzerland passes the bill this time around or not, is but one more in the long list of rebellions against all tradition in the name of the freedom to make the world correspond to any desire we may conceive instead of having to correspond ourselves to once universally acknowledged rules of human behavior.

But my assertion of the validity of those traditional values need not be repeated. Anyone interested in the fundamental arguments for them may read C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, so often referred to on this weblog. Today I want to ask instead toward what world the supporters of these various progressive advances imagine they are moving us. How do they picture us living if they should have their way?

I realize that not all those who embrace one item in the list above will necessarily embrace all, or even any, of the others. I also realize that the devil is in the details. But promoters of all of the above changes have in common the similar intellectual stance that nothing may justly hinder anyone from living out his or her heart’s desire. Well, let’s say government did get completely out of the way. Where would we be? What would be the practical effects of the success of these movements?

At a certain point in the decline of ancient Rome, if things didn’t quite go your way—say you had a rebellious child or lost an election or couldn’t pay a debt—you’d get into a warm bath and slit your wrists. Any child of either gender not under fairly careful protection might be subject to sexual abuse by any passing epicure. All the trees of Italy were burned to make hot running water in Rome. Caligula could marry his horse. Is ancient Rome in collapse to provide the picture of our own ideal future?

Suppose all incest taboos were renounced as antediluvian superstition. We might not suffer a flood of mental and physical impairments or supernatural punishments. Wouldn’t something nonetheless be lost? To the ancients, Oedipus was that man to whom the worst thing that could possibly happen to a man happened—killing one’s father and marrying one’s mother. If our enlightened northwest were to go the way of Switzerland, how many thousands would blaze a new Oregon Trail in order to clear a senile old man out of the path to a trophy mother? If only Oedipus, like us, hadn’t had the gods in his way, bugging him for doing what came naturally! Who are non-Oregonians to say that Oedipus didn’t deserve a happy life too?

Imagine a child growing up in a world in which he knows that one day his parents will ask him to kill them as he will be expected to ask his own future children to kill him to get him off their impatient hands; a world in which married couples may be any mix of genders or transgenders and of any blood relation; a world in which a boy is taught no sexual responsibility because women can have free abortions any time and children are available for his future sexual needs as he is available at present to those of his elders; a world in which animals may not, but people may, perhaps must, be eaten; a world in which there are no Jewish ethicists, no Catholic confessionals, no Protestant Bible-thumpers curtailing our freedoms and ruining our fun; a world in which no vestigial notions of higher divine authority or higher human calling will be permitted to stand in the way of the satisfaction of any material desire, practical or sensual.

Do the promoters of these perverse ideas of progress really believe that man is naturally good? That without the constraint of law and custom mankind will not fall to barbarism? That the abandonment of all traditional virtues will involve no loss of happiness, contentment, or meaning for the individual in society? Do they actually think that the goods of civilization won from nature in years past are so permanent and secure that all restrictions of individual desire can be safely dismantled? If they do, they must be utterly ignorant of human history, or utterly mad—or both.

We cannot have it both ways. Either we are moral beings, created in a context of neutral nature to aspire to meaning and happiness consistent with goodness by constraining our illicit impulses for the sake of ourselves and our posterity, or we are mere bundles of desire whose mission is to indulge in every pleasure that strikes our fancy until such time as nature itself prevents us, at which point we are free to end our desperate and ultimately meaningless lives before others end them for us. As Charles Embree puts it, “It’s either right back up or left on down.”

If you agree with me that we are moral beings, answerable for our choices to the power that made us, we had better start drawing some non-negotiable lines—at incest if no closer.