Saturday, May 16, 2015

Family and State

"We that are Christians believe that the family has a divine sanction.  But any reasonable pagan, if he will work it out, will discover that the family existed before the State and has prior rights; that the State only exists as a collection of families, and that its sole function is to safeguard the rights of each and all of them." - G. K. Chesterton, G. K.'s Weekly, Jan 3, 1935 (quoted in Joseph Pearce, Race with the Devil, p. 160)

It is said that we Christians must work to evangelize modern pagans, much like the early Christians evangelized the pagans of the Roman Empire.  In a sense this is true, but it is an error to conflate the modern secularist with the ancient pagan.  As Chesterton's quote demonstrates, there are things so obvious that only a thorough modern education could remove knowledge of them.

The family existed before the State.  It will exist after the State (in its present form) has withered away.  The family, like the State, is one of those permanent things that civilization must possess to some degree if it is to retain that distinction.  Even as we evolve beyond the nuclear family, its absence has already devastated aspects of our society, from the ghettos of Baltimore to the hills of Appalachia. 

But Chesterton's quote is insightful for another reason.  In a healthy society, the State works with the family; in an unhealthy one, it turns against it.  Once the State has ceased to be the safeguard of the family, the State begins to claim the family's rights and responsibilities for itself.

The State does not safeguard the rights of parents to educate their children.  It begrudgingly permits it in some cases, but in the vast majority, the State reserves this right to itself.  And this vital process must be started ever earlier, until, perhaps, on some great day, the new born baby will be whisked from the delivery room into the loving arms of a schoolmaster as in Plato's dystopia.

The State does not seek to ensure that at least one parent can stay at home with the children.  It prefers that both parents serve corporate masters while the children are taken care of by someone else.  One could as easily provide tax credits for stay at home mothers as for day care, but while the latter is politically practicable, the former is not.

Even when it comes to providing food and shelter, the State steps in when one parent is lacking.  It does not seek to provide compensation for a working parent; instead, it offers handouts.  Through this simple gesture, the State has ensured spectacular rates of illegitimacy among the underclass. 

The State has not attempted to do something about our high divorce rate.  In fact, its family courts have contributed to it.  The State would never dream of using its authority to compel a husband and wife to take their vows seriously.  Instead, it deprives the children of one parent, and generously insists that the deprived parent pays dearly.

These examples could be multiplied, for the logic is always the same.  When the family is struggling, the State does not try to build up that fledgling building block of civilization.  The State does not let a crisis go to waste and uses the opportunity to increase its power.

At first, the State provides education to orphans; a short time later, it provides education to everyone.  Perversely, those who insist on educating their own children are the weird ones.  The exception becomes the rule. 

In many ways, the State is now the enemy of the family. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Different worlds

I stumbled upon an older piece from Alan Jacobs, titled Lena Dunham’s Inviolable Self.  Jacobs contrasts the value system of the novelist Jane Austen with that of Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO's show Girls.  

In an essay called “Leading a Life,” the philosopher Charles Taylor points out that there are two distinct senses in which we may say that an idea or a belief or a moral account is incommensurable with some other idea or belief or moral system. “The first is where we have to make a choice with two different goods at stake” goods that are different enough that we have difficulty knowing how to weigh them together in the same deliberation.”  It could be argued that the difference between Austen’s world and the world of many fans of
Girls is of this kind: For instance, one might say that the good of protecting naive young people from catastrophic moral harm (Austen’s prime concern) conflicts with the good of freely pursuing erotic pleasure.

But the difference goes deeper than that. For Austen, “pursuing erotic pleasure” is simply not a good; and for many fans of
Girls, “catastrophic moral harm” is not a meaningful category.

This is the primary reason why the cultural war will not end.  If Austenians and Dunhamites (for lack of better descriptors) held similar values, but disagreed about how best to handle value conflicts, it would be possible to arrive at a resolution.  But no such compromise can be achieved when we are dealing with what Jacobs calls "radically alien models of the sacred."

Austenians like to point out the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution: higher rates of illegitimacy and divorce, lower rates of marriage among people who would prefer to be married, ubiquitous pornography, and on and on.  We are surprised that, when made aware of these unfortunate facts, our opponents remain steadfast in their support of what Jacobs dubs the "inviolable self." 

This might be infuriating, but it shouldn't be surprising.  If one believes that pursuing erotic pleasure is a good and catastrophic moral harm is not a meaningful category, the effects of the sexual revolution are unrelated ephemera. To us, it sounds insane to say the Dunhamite philosophy of sex has nothing to do with the divorce rate.  To them, it sounds equally insane to connect the two.

It's tempting to try to attack this belief straight on.  After all, the self is not inviolable, and very few of our actions have no impact on others.  But Jacobs cautions against this route.  He quotes Kierkegaard, who enjoins: “an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.”

In other words, to tell a Dunhamite that his promiscuous sexual pursuits cause harm will be seen as an attack.  Who are we to tell him what he can do in the privacy of his own home? 

So what can we do?  Like Austen, we can tell stories that reveal moral goodness and truth.  We can create, as Jacobs says, "better fictional worlds, by which I mean fictional worlds that rhyme with what is the case, with what is true yesterday, today, and forever." 

He closes his piece wonderfully:

At the end of After Virtue , Alasdair MacIntyre writes, "We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another "doubtless very different" St. Benedict." I wait, with all the patience I can muster, for another Jane Austen.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Silence dissenters

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol I, Chapter XV

I can think of no better example of Tocqueville's brilliant observation than what has taken place in this country regarding gay marriage.  Once a fringe issue, championed only by radicals, it has now all but become a plank in the platform of the Democratic party.  Moreover, all resistance to the tyrannical majority is... well, let Tocqueville explain:

In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

Does that not describe the defenders of traditional marriage?  And will this not become truer still when the Supreme Court commands that gay marriage shall be the law of the land?

This is a real problem for conservatives.  The self-righteous majority does not recognize our opposition as legitimate, and our system of government grants power to that majority.  This is not to say that we should cease making our case, only that we should be realistic in not expecting a fair hearing.

I'll have more to say on the matter later.  But one last point: the best case for traditional marriage will be made by our families.  We do this not by putting on an act so as to convince the world that marriage is always easy and that children are unmitigated delights.  It is not and they are certainly not.  Instead, we ought to provide a quiet example by living virtuously.

Marriage, between a man and a woman, is the foundation of civilization.  Our marriages must produce good children, who will help us to shore up our fledging society.  In this manner, just as the early Church attracted converts, we can win back our post-Christian world.