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September 11 as a “wakeup call”

Conservatives are always expecting a wakeup call that will rouse the American people so they will rise up, recapture the citadel, and restore sanity and good government. None ever comes. The most recent failed wakeup call was September 11. For a while it seemed significant that people were putting up “God Bless America” stickers, and it was even reported that someone on TV had referred to “firemen” instead of “firefighters.” Today “God Bless America” has become “United We Stand,” and we hear more about female soldiers than about “firemen.”

It appears, in fact, that the effect of 9/11 has been to reinforce rather than reverse existing tendencies. That’s not surprising. The normal response to attack is to reaffirm basic principle. The basic principle of the public understandings that now dominate America is the supremacy of bureaucracy and market as the only social institutions neutral and rational enough to respect human dignity, as understood by liberals, and reliably promote social well-being. Other institutions—legislative assemblies, businesses, private associations, religion, particular culture, various household forms—can organize and perform their functions to some extent, but they must accept the supremacy of bureaucracy and market and enthusiastically accept whatever degree of supervision is needed to ensure rationality and neutrality.

Maintaining principles of a public order, especially principles as odd as those that now rule America, is always difficult. A particular challenge for the current order, one important enough to determine its whole orientation, is that the people are often inclined to prefer inherited practices and substantive moral standards and loyalties to liberal neutrality, rationality, and institutional arrangements. What that means, from the standpoint of the guardians of public order, is that they are “bigots” who can’t be trusted with anything serious and stand in permanent need of supervision and re-education.

September 11 plainly violated neutrality, liberal rationality, and bureaucratic and market ordering. The response to the event has therefore been to reaffirm those standards and pursue all the more vigorously the campaign to make them supreme universally. In particular it has meant a more vigorous and comprehensive war on “bigotry”—on all attachment to institutions other than bureaucracy and markets and standards other than neutrality and efficiency.

So we have seen:

  • An emphasis, in response to presumed Christian and majority bigotry, on criminalizing “hate,” reaching out to Muslims, and promoting Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance, superior to Christianity and certainly no less welcome and at home in Western society. To say Christianity is better than Islam is thought likely to precipitate a war of civilizations. In contrast, to say both Christians and Muslims should become liberals (and thus that liberalism is better than either) is thought the best way to work for peace on earth.
  • Redefinition of the problem posed by radical Islam as a problem posed by “fundamentalism,” which includes any view that makes religion anything but a poetic rephrasing of liberalism, and by “theocracy,” which includes any tendency to be guided by specifically religious principle or authority in public life. “Religious tolerance” thus means that all religion has to redefine itself as poetry and strictly private sentiment—that is, as something other than religion. If you don’t like what Mohammed Atta did, then you should go after the Taliban wing of the Republican Party, Christian fundies, people who like school prayer, people with doubts about feminism, opponents of “gay marriage,” and so on.
  • A stepped-up attack on any public allusion to Christianity, and often on religion as such. After all, permissible religion must understand itself as poetic myth, otherwise the Muslims the West is welcoming in such numbers won’t be able to live happily with Christians, and how could availability of a few additional poetic myths compensate for the danger that an authority at odds with liberalism might assert itself? The suppression of Christianity is especially noticable around Christmastime, the general attack on religion in England, our main ally in the “War on Terror.”
  • An accelerated attempt to do away with America as a specific people living in a specific place, and redefine it as the universal dominance of liberal principles and institutions through the instrumentality of the United States government. Aspects of that attempt include ever-more-open borders, imperialism, and blurring of the specificity of American law through treaties and judicial merger with international human rights law.
  • Radicalization of the attack on the family as a specific social institution not reducible to contract or individual sentiment. “Gay marriage” is the latest battlefront in a battle that the guardians of public order view as already settled.

All in all, from the standpoint of almost two and a half years’ experience, it appears that to the extent 9/11 was a wakeup call it was a wakeup call for liberals and a prelude to ever-more-comprehensive liberal Gleichschaltung. In an ideological war there are opposing temptations: to become like your enemy, and to become what your enemy thinks of you. In America our rulers are managing both: they want to impose their own comprehensive Shari’ah on all social relations everywhere in the world, by force if necessary, and the specific provisions of that Shari’ah are as inhuman as any reasonable enemy could desire.



Excellent piece.

What icause, do you think, is it that makes otherwise good, Orthodox Catholics with manly common sense and piety towards God and tradition become useful, idiotic cheerleader for the American imperialism, which is truly only the evil flip side of fundamentalist, totalitarian Islam?

One cause is certainly just a mindless, anachronistic, emotional reaction against “60s liberalism,” i.e., “If the liberals peace-niks are against the war, it must be a good war.” But this does not explain all of the “conservatives.”

My guess is that it is simply the desire to be “in the right gang,” the gang with the most power, as this would be somehow a sign of God’s favor and a sign that one is “with it,” as it were. Marginalization is, then, as sign that one is unmanly and akin to an “effeminate inttlectual” afraid to “get the job done.” It’s the John Wayne syndrome.

“September 11 as a ‘wakeup call’ ”

A very good, very thought-provoking post over at Turnabout.

I think it’s natural for good, Orthodox Catholics with manly common sense and piety towards God and tradition to be attached to their country and its inherited outlook and way of life. Also, it’s very natural for them to treat America’s recent enemies—Naziism, Communism, Islamicism—as their own enemies.

Unfortunately, the inherited American outlook includes a universalistic, moralizing and messianic streak that I suppose comes mostly from the Puritans, the experience of constructing a government on universalizable principles, and the enormously successful history of national expansion. That quality makes it difficult for Americans to see their country as one among others with no special claim to set the tone for everyone everywhere. I suppose it doesn’t help that recent enemies have had their own messianic ambitions.

The bottom line: natural attachments are good, but they have their pitfalls. It’s hard for us to think critically about the things we’re naturally attached to, and they’re not perfect.

What’s an example of an “attack on the family” since 9/11 and how it it more radical than before? In what way is the wish of homosexuals to enter legal contracts deemed appropriate for heterosexuals a “battlefield”?

As stated, the attack is on the family as a specific social institution not reducible to contract or individual sentiment. “Gay marriage” makes sense if marriage is reduced to those two things, but not I think otherwise. It’s more radical than say no-fault divorce because it separates marriage as a legal institution much more decisively from the concept of a functional union between two persons that because of what it is—a sexual union of a man and a woman—is naturally oriented toward begetting and raising children and therefore has always and everywhere been a basic social institution.

As to legal contracts, I can’t think offhand of any closed to people sexually attracted to members of the same sex and open to others.

Yes, “gay marriage” would alter the traditional notion of marriage and reduce the concept to a legal contract. But how in practical terms does that adversely affect those for whom marriage is both sacramental and legal?

It tends very strongly to change marriage from an objective social institution to a constellation of private opinions and practices. Since man is social that sort of change makes a difference in how people understand their lives and live them. And that in turn affects how livable the social world is for all of us.

If John and Mary get into an argument it matters whether the background is “we have a relationship that has no rules other than the rules we agree on” or “our relationship is a reality that everyone recognizes and it’s subject to standards everyone also recognizes.” That’s one reason why living-together relationships are so unstable, and why couples who have lived together and get married tend to break up. There’s a different idea of what the relation is, and that matters.

The point seems a bit perverse, actually. People wouldn’t be demanding that same-sex relationships be treated as marriages unless they agreed that the social and institutional aspects are important.

I’m trying to peer through your rhetoric to get at the point. Government legally codifies the traditional pairing of man and woman. Why? To delineate the rights and obligations of the partners and of the resulting children. Persons of the same sex say they want the same legal structure for their relationship. How, specifically, does granting them that legal structure interfere with the marriages of heterosexuals? Doesn’t it in fact introduce an addtiional element of stability into society? Aren’t the legal rights to inherit, to share in health benefits, to visit a dying partner in the hospital distinct from the sacramental and social definitions of marriage?

Replying to Donbosco, homosexuality is not normal but a sexual perversion. Since the beginning of the world it’s been known that a man cannot marry a man or a woman a woman, any more than a man or a woman can marry an animal, a plant, or inanimate object. Government has no business pretending to legitimate what is impossible, insane, and unclean.

If expressions like “objective social institution” sound like rhetoric to donbosco it seems he’s missing the point. He’s not alone, of course. Social scientists are often startled and uncomprehending when someone happens to break out the statistics and discovers that children do much better when they lose their father through death than divorce, or that a girl is incomparably more at risk from a mother’s live-in boyfriend than her own father, or that “trial marriage” makes marriages less likely to succeed. The way of thinking that counts as realistic and scientific today simply has no place for the idea of a moral institution or for the role such things play in human life. Too bad for that way of thinking.

donbosco appears to view marriage law as basically a service to the particular persons involved to help them order their particular goals and interests. If that’s so, then why the notion that it has something to do with living or sleeping together, or sharing anything other than the particular things the parties choose to share? Why restrict it to two people? Why not get rid of it as a separate thing and just have general partnership law?

Man is physical, social and cultural. All those things touch him. Marriage is what it is not simply because of the feelings and goals of the particular people who happen to be married but because of what their relationships are objectively—even physically—and what they are understood to be. If because of what it is (a man and a woman coming together sexually) marriage is something that by nature has consequences that point far beyond the parties and have absolutely fundamental social importance then it’s likely to affect people a great deal. The universal social recognition that it’s something very important not only becomes comprehensible but gains in power.

If marriage is simply a legal relationship any two (or more?) people can enter into if they look at the legal incidents of the relationship and decide they like them then it’s likely to have rather little effect on what they do, and it’s not clear why it should have special recognition. Treatment of homosexual relationships as marriages would make marriage less like the former sort of thing and more like the latter. To the extent culture and social attitudes have an effect on people—and they have a great effect—that means actual marriages will be more troubled and fragile.

donbosco also asks about some particular issues. On inheritance: you can do anything you want by will. On health benefits: I can understand why someone would want to support a particular form of life (the traditional family) that carries with it objective publicly recognized obligations that are considered fundamental to social well-being by helping employees meet those obligations. If that notion is given up though, so that who you live with and what the relation amounts to is up to you and no one else, I’m not sure why health benefits for people you like makes more sense as a tax-advantaged employee benefit than anything else you might want to spend money in accordance with the scheme of life you’ve decided on. As to hospitals: my experience is that anyone who wants to can walk in and see people. If there are problems in some situations, and the consensus is that the problems ought to go away, I don’t see why redefining a fundamental social institution is a sensible response.