Shortly after the birth of her daughter, talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford joked with David Letterman about her decision to stop breast-feeding then-six-week-old Cassidy. Her joke went something like this. The dresses Kathie Lee would be wearing to co-host the upcoming Miss America pageant had arrived at her home. But, alas, they didn’t fit because her breasts were enlarged. What a choice she faced. There was Cassidy looking up at her crying, “Mama,” and there were the dresses with the too-tight bustlines. The dresses won. Laughter.
Then there’s this item from the “Editor’s Note” in an issue of Redbook featuring an interview with Hillary Clinton. “It’s not easy to get a date with the First Lady. And when you finally get the call . . . you drop everything and run. For our writer . . . dropping everything included her newborn son-and she was still nursing.”
And a recent Ladies’ Home Journal included the “Ten Commandments for Working Moms.” This is number nine: “Remind yourself over and over again that you would not feel any less guilty if you did not work. Maternal guilt is cosmic. It comes with the territory, striking no matter what you do or where you do it “ (emphasis added).
Do your own thing. Realize your potential. I’m OK, you’re OK, and whatever we do is OK. Those are words many of my generation seem to live by. Which would be OK except for the generation we’re raising. Or not raising.
I realize I’m going out on a limb here, but I believe that parents are uniquely qualified to raise their own children, and, whenever possible, should. That’s right: I used the “s” word.
And here’s another one. Selfishness. Pick up any parenting magazine and you’ll find out how to pump your breasts at work without feeling guilty that you’re not the one at home doing the actual feeding. Or how to find someone to raise your children while you’re busy hosting beauty pageants. In our culture, women in particular are preached a message of me-firstism. We’re only supposed to do what we feel like doing, when we feel like doing it.
How could I be so politically incorrect as to suggest that Mommy or Daddy stay home with the kids? It has to do with a unique qualification parents have. In fact, it’s something my generation practically claims to have invented. It’s called love. Who do we think is loving our children while we’re sitting in our offices or on airplanes? Babysitters may be affectionate, gentle, and kind. But I’m talking about love. The kind parents feel for their children. The kind that reassures with every smile. The kind that runs deep. The kind, as the song says, that you can’t buy. (Think of it this way: If you fired your sitter tomorrow, she’d cope with the prospect of never seeing your children again. Would you?)
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about families in which both parents have to work to put food on the table and pay the mortgage. I’m not talking about parents whose hearts break every morning as they leave their children and head off to work.
I’m talking about situations in which it’s not a matter of survival but of fulfillment. I may be talking about a minority here, but in my personal experience, they’re the vast majority. And it appears to me that what many do out of necessity, more and more are freely choosing.
A lot of people claim to be sick of the “mommy wars,” as the media have dubbed discussions like this one. They argue that women should be allowed to get on with their lives whichever route they choose. But that’s just it. Women are allowed to get on with their lives and choose to work or stay home. Nobody is suggesting that the choice be restricted. What I am suggesting is that it be questioned. This debate should go on, because it involves an issue that goes to the heart of society. Society has a stake in its children. And maybe it’s time society started making some value judgments.
We’re told that the answer to inner city crime, drug use, gangs, high school dropouts, and a host of other ills lies in strong, involved parents. But heaven forbid suggesting to any self-respecting, educated, upwardly mobile young professional, particularly of the female variety, that she take a career break for the sake of the children.
Part of the problem is that we’ve come to define ourselves by our job titles and our paychecks. We can’t imagine life without a pat on the back from our boss or the adulation of our fans. We have no identity outside the workplace, or at least no identity that counts.
Television personality Linda Ellerbee had some thoughts about all this in an article she wrote for McCall’s magazine. “My son and daughter are now twenty-two and twenty-three years old,” she said, “but I wish I could go back to when they were children and work less. I know this may make me sound antifeminist, and I’m not, but I think I could have struck a better balance in my life. . . . My daughter ran away from home when she was a teenager, and that was a pretty big sign that something was wrong in our house. I tried to scale back my work hours then, but she was almost fully grown. It was too late. I should have learned this lesson much earlier.”
Don’t expect to hear such words of wisdom from “experts.” Those gurus of guiltlessness will tell you anything you want to hear. Leon Hoffman, M.D., Director of the Parent Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that (some) “moms are ‘better’ moms because they do work full-time.” Dr. Hoffman says that normative behavior in cultures is constantly being redefined. He writes, “Should a child be nursed by the mother or by a wet nurse? We find that question preposterous, but it was debated during the Renaissance.”
In this century, it’s been debated whether breast milk or formula is best for babies. For the moment, the debate has been settled. Breast milk wins. So now new mothers go out of their way to be sure their babies get breast milk. They bring their pumps to work. They take over closets at lunchtime to express the precious liquid. Can they really believe that the milk is more important than they are? Mother love has never been found in a bottle. It needs to be expressed in person.
I believe people will look back on the last couple of decades of the twentieth century and find it astonishing that “experts” could possibly have argued that it makes no difference who does the primary “caregiving” for a child-a parent or a paid employee.
One last item. A recent contestant on “Jeopardy!” was introduced as “a member of the counterculture of the nineties: a stay-at-home mom.” Maybe that’s what’s needed: a new counterculture. But unlike the last one, let’s base this one on loving others, not just ourselves. Let’s start with our children.
Marcia Segelstein covered family issues as a producer for “CBS This Morning” until the birth of her daughter.
Paul C. Fox
Not so many years ago death was a simple enough concept. If a person’s heart ceased to beat for any great length of time he was dead, and that was that. Then along came medical technology, and suddenly what had been simple became complicated. Now a person’s heart can be stopped completely for hours, and yet, thanks to the heart-lung machine, that person’s brain will survive undamaged. The person is dead by the old definition, yet obviously not really dead. On the other hand-again thanks to medical technology-a person’s brain can be irreparably destroyed, even though the heart may be kept beating for many hours. The person is still alive by the old definition, yet most of us instinctively feel that he is somehow not really living.
The altered perception of what constitutes life and death underlies the ethical dilemmas surrounding organ transplantation today. Of course, there is no controversy if, for example, a living person voluntarily donates a kidney to a relative who needs one. No one has to die in order for the transplant to be performed. This is not the case, however, with transplantations of such vital organs as the heart, the lungs, and the liver, where the donor must necessarily be dead before the transplantation can take place. Yet since, even with the best available medical technology, the organs deteriorate fairly rapidly, they must be “harvested” (in the macabre terminology of transplantation) when the donor is-you’ll pardon the expression-“freshly dead.” In other words, there is a considerable urgency about removing the donor’s organs as soon as possible after his death. At the same time, there is also an overwhelming need to prevent “premature removal,” i.e., removing the vital organs of a person who is not yet dead.
To deal with these problems, the medical community has developed strict criteria for defining what is called “brain death.” These criteria are extremely detailed and, until now, very much biased toward presuming that life continues: there is virtually no possibility that a person who is actually still living will be proclaimed dead. For example, someone who has been comatose for years, and whose responsiveness is limited to a few primitive reflexes, will still not qualify as “brain dead” by these criteria. Neither will an anencephalic baby, that is, a baby born with no cerebral cortex but with enough brain matter to permit primitive reflexes. And that brings us to the latest development in the ethics of transplantation.
Consider the following. Of all the children whose lives could be saved by an organ transplant, half die because of a shortage of donated organs. On the other hand, anencephalic babies, who are born with almost no brain but are otherwise physically normal, can only survive a few days after birth. On the surface, it seems like an almost perfect match: the organs of a baby who cannot live can be used to rescue another child who must otherwise die. That, at least, is how it looked to physicians at Loma Linda University in 1987, when they set up a special program designed to salvage the organs of anencephalic babies for transplantation. However, in eight months of operation the program failed to salvage even one viable organ. Why? Simply because these babies were not “brain dead” at birth: impaired as they were, they retained enough brain function to fail the criteria for death. By the time these babies finally did die, their organs had suffered severe damage and were no longer usable.
The physicians and nurses at Loma Linda accepted their defeat, some of them with considerable relief. An anencephalic baby is still a baby after all, and the act of inflicting intensive care on a dying infant simply in order to be able to harvest its organs after death began to take an emotional toll on the staff.
There are some, however, who are not so willing to relinquish this potential source of donor organs. In 1992 the Florida State Supreme Court heard the “Baby Theresa” case. In this case the parents, backed by the ACLU, requested that their anencephalic baby be declared dead at birth, even though she did not meet the accepted criteria for brain death, so that her heart could be transplanted into another child. One can only guess what the parents’ motives and feelings were. Perhaps they were trying to assuage guilt feelings or offer themselves comfort by trying to bring some good out of a tragic situation. Perhaps they were able, by some exercise of self-hypnosis, to avoid realizing what would actually be done to their baby: that she would be taken to an operating room, and there-even though she was able to breathe, kick, and cry-her heart would be removed for use as a “donor organ.”
The reasoning of the ACLU in this case was chilling. They noted “the inconsistency of permitting the termination of pregnancies up to the moment of birth” while at the same time “prohibiting the donation of organs just after birth.” As they put it, “There is absolutely no morally significant change in the fetus between the moments immediately preceding and following birth.” Note that exactly the same argument used by the pro-life movement for years in defending the unborn is now being used by the ACLU to justify infanticide.
It is not hard to see where this reasoning leads. Though the ACLU denies that its position “serves as a springboard to institutional murder,” it clearly does just that. The reasoning used to justify declaring anencephalic babies “dead” at birth can be applied with equal logic to any other baby whose deformities might have moved its parents to abort it, had they but known of them. In fact, this reasoning really strips all newborns of any protection. If abortion on demand “up to the very moment of birth” is morally acceptable, as the ACLU asserts, why not infanticide on demand? And why stop at infants? There are millions of retarded children and adults whose lives are below the high standards of the social engineers. Why not declare them dead as well? At a stroke, the organ shortage could be solved.
Fortunately, the Florida Supreme Court had the uncommon (these days) good sense to reject the ACLU’s arguments. Baby Theresa was allowed to live out her short life without being terminated for some “higher good.” But it was too much to hope that the notion of harvesting organs from handicapped infants would die with her.
Last summer, no less an authority than the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs declared that it is “ethically permissible” for anencephalic infants to be used as donors while still alive. In its opinion, the Council admitted that it is normally preferable for an organ donor to be dead before removing vital organs, but made an exception in the case of anencephalics for two main reasons: first, “because of the great need for children’s organs,” and second, because anencephalics “have never experienced, and will never experience, consciousness.” Or, as one supporter of the decision bluntly put it, “The quality of life for this child is so low it would be ethically justifiable to sacrifice its life by a few days to save the life of another person.”
Such reasoning cannot be confined to the narrow case of anencephalics. Due to improvements in prenatal care the incidence of anencephaly has declined steadily, so that fewer than one hundred babies with anencephaly are likely to be born in the United States each year, and many of them are born with such serious organ defects that they would be excluded as organ donors. Clearly, anencephalics alone would not begin to address the “great need for children’s organs” that the Council cited in justifying its decision.
The Council’s decision must be seen for what it is-the thin edge of the wedge. Using the dual arguments of “no possibility of consciousness” and “poor quality of life,” it will not be difficult to extend the Council’s reasoning widely. What about children and adults in a “persistent vegetative state”? If in the judgment of the medical experts such people no longer have the possibility of consciousness, what ethical obstacle remains to removing their vital organs? What about the profoundly retarded who, as all compassionate social planners will agree, have a “low quality of life”? What about a child with third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body? He has no chance of survival, and an obviously low quality of life, yet his heart is beating strongly-a heart that another child could use. Why not end the needless suffering of one child, and give the gift of life to another through one painless and humane operation?
Unthinkable? Think again. Think first of everything that was unthinkable thirty years ago and is now commonplace: abortion on demand, the growing acceptance of euthanasia, genetic engineering, cloning, and so on. Think of the unthinkable Holocaust. The ideas behind that horror originated not with the Nazis but with the “humane” social scientists of Germany’s finest universities. Then think of the combined resources of the AMA and the ACLU turned against the Baby Theresas of our society. We must anticipate the unthinkable, or the unthinkable will become routine.
Paul C. Fox, a member of the Hutterian Brethren, is a medical doctor in Farmington, Pennsylvania.
David W. Murray
Not content with the shuttle
And the woman’s loom, I have come to greater things,
To slay a beast by hand. . . .
-Agave,The Bacchae of Euripides
The above lines, horribly ironic, reveal an ancient mischief of Satyrs, the goat-footed attendants of Dionysus. We can read of their doings in several plays of the early Greeks, much concerned with the nature of male and female.
In particular, it is in Euripides that we confront two cases of women un-natured, though the pathways for each are different. By “un-natured” I mean the need for a figure to either transcend or violate his biological fate. We can see this need in the figure of Medea.
Diana Rigg has recently played the role on Broadway, leading the New York Times’ critic, Bernard Holland, to a contemporary political message. He suggests that Medea as feminist should discomfit men. This reading might surprise past scholars who have seen in Euripides a misogynist. Holland nevertheless spies gentlemen in the audience, confronted with a murderous female, who have difficulty swallowing, and in the hearts of the ladies a gloating, and a warning.
The play does, it is true, speak to the politics of gender, but there is something rather different in the horror of the killing she commits. Nor should we take the case of Medea alone: two Euripidean women lead to the same conclusions-about nature, motherhood, and the politics of aborting.
The problem of the play Medea, though awful, is straightforward: a barbarian woman’s honor is lost through her husband’s disloyalty, and he must be punished. Terribly, as it turns out, for Medea chooses as her instrument of revenge disloyalty to her own nature as a woman, and strikes where the pain will be greatest. In this tragic play, she who has already caused the death of her brother for love now kills directly: the seared new bride and her own stabbed children, whom she will not leave to a life of dishonor. Medea knows full well what it is that she does.
Indeed, she is most fully in possession of herself when she undertakes the act. Thus it is that the chorus intones, “Honor is coming to the race of women.” She masters her womanliness to prove her honor, and upon the pyre of her children and her rival dance the flames of her revenge. Mastering her nature in the service of what was, by her calculus, a higher virtue, Medea acts for all women faced with horrible exigencies.
Something different-less the calculus of a barbarian but in a way more frightful-happens between mother and child in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Blinded by religious ecstasy, Agave and the Maenads brutally attack Agave’s young son, Pentheus. They think him a beast, and by that error carry out the revenge of slighted Dionysus, whose rites have been offended.
Agave in her madness enacts the will of the angered god when she tears her own child into scattered flesh. Like Medea, Agave violates the most fundamental commandment of her nature. But unlike Medea, Agave does so without true knowledge of her act.
”Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad” is an elemental adage of the Greek world. So the first step in the revenge of Dionysus upon those who have offended is to cloud the minds of the Bacchant women. This he does in order that they will accomplish the monstrous as though it were the triumphant.
Why the gods do such things is hard to answer, but how Dionysus accomplishes his end contains a terrible moral. When Agave, as priestess of the kill, falls upon him, young Pentheus touches her cheek as he cries, “Pity me, mother, don’t murder me, your son.” Nevertheless, possessed, her gaze deranged, Agave seizes his forearm, braces her foot against his ribs, and rips out the shoulder with the furious strength of the god. Then the other Bacchants attack doomed Pentheus, as the saddened chorus sings:
While he groaned his final breath,
They screamed triumphant. This one an arm,
Another a booted foot tore free.
His ribs were raked bare by the white
Blades of their fingers; each bloodied her hands
At play with the flesh of Pentheus.
Foam-flecked Agave does not understand her own act, and believes that she has slain a young lion. To the chorus she demands, “Do you praise me?” Approaching her father, Agave cries out for honor: “Above all others, greatest daughter, by far am I.” She extends to him the head of Pentheus.
Foam-flecked Agave does not understand her own act, and believes that she has slain a young lion. To the chorus she demands, “Do you praise me?” Approaching her father, Agave cries out for honor: “Above all others, greatest daughter, by far am I.” She extends to him the head of Pentheus.
Gazing at the sky, as her madness clears, recalled to herself, Agave finally sees the truth. She looks to the burden in her grasp, and in horror comes her realization: “Poor me! I see the greatest sorrow in the world. . . . No! No! But pitiful! I hold the head of Pentheus my child, who is no more.”
For the Greeks, Dionysus, who will not be mocked, represents our wild natures, undomesticated-sauvage, as the French say. Often in the plays our natures and our fates are revealed to us as mightier than the feeble power of our efforts to reform them. They are more than recalcitrant to our re-conditioning efforts; they devastate them. In The Bacchae, the god’s wildness is unleashed as revenge upon our overweening pride, which had sought, by penetrating rites, not only to learn the secrets of our natures, but to thwart them by our manipulation.
By our own hands do we slay ourselves, Euripides seems to tell us, when our minds are foiled and we fail to see, in a true light, the world, our fates, and our natures. Pentheus transgressed the female mysteries, while Agave, who claimed the public honor of female hunter, reaped only the destruction of her womb’s fruit. Confronting the wild nature of Dionysus, our cultural constructs of gender, artifactual and arid, clank mechanically towards their disastrous end. They are no match.
Thus we come to the politics of nature, particularly with respect to gender, the focus of many proclamations. On campuses today, the dominant orthodoxy is ranged, as it were, against Dionysus. It proclaims that we have no essential nature, neither as mothers and sons, nor as male and female. Women in particular are constructed in a manner disadvantaged, it is said, and should be re-conditioned, made to suit for a life of public questing and the honor of the hunt.
Even Lady Macbeth need not have called to the gods to “unsex” her, say many feminists. There was no need to undo her biology in order to commit murder, for such an illusion as that of an inner nature could not in the first place have shaped her fate. As biology is an invention, she need only, to escape its confines, get a better grip on feminist theory and submit to doctrinaire courses. Bush is bear, they insist in the classrooms of today, and bear, bush. A sea change indeed; culture is all-powerful, and biology is reduced to its ideological mask.
Thus “nature” recedes from view in the activist classroom as a fact of human experience, and reemerges as no more than a fraudulent veil spread over the iron fist of patriarchal power. Seeking hegemonic dominance, we are told, the complicit sciences have suffused the world with calculating ideology, and pretended to discover as its laws of motion what are only their own base graspings. “Sex” and “mother” are but words that are no more than deceitful air. Since culture pipes the human tune, the revolutionary task is to seize it withall, and bend it to our bidding.
But who, we must ask, shall culture these culturalists, they who imagine that Dionysus no longer lurks? What is this new power, which makes worlds out of policed speech? Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, remember, drowned his books of magic; who is this that scuttles Enlightenment texts?
A dominant conceit in critical theory courses is the image of contingency, of culture and experience as constructed out of whole cloth, the cloth itself but gossamer talk. Ludic language, the absence of final grounding, and inverting the conventional proscenium constitute the philosophical framework of what becomes no less than a theater of experience. Ontology, the conceit holds, is no more than drama or game, the lines but learnt speeches, the scenery cardboard cobbled of the oppressor’s dreams. The revolutionary may devise a new mask and hawk it; if stridently asserted, this illusion might well replace the others.
These conclusions, however, in the thought of others, suggest exactly the dangerous “little learning” of which folklore warns us. For cautious skeptics, perhaps the “rack” of nature and being dissolves, as it were, less readily.
But for the fashionable, the academic community has entered a world not only postmodern, but under the sway of the deconstructive Inquisitor. Under this aspect, all of our experience is regarded as game-like, subject to rules that are arbitrary and constructed only by power. “Power” alone remains the one privileged transcendent spared corrosive doubt.
Moreover, the rules themselves, no longer “essentialist,” are seen as capable of reversal, so that the marginal can be transposed with the central, the normal with the deviant, the just inverted into the unjust, the real into the imagined, and the “natural” into whatever we can get away with. Not only “can be”: the rules must be transformed.
And what if not all “agree” on the game we are playing? Here many observers blanch, for in the campus “culture wars” the increasingly prevalent answer to this question derives from Nietzschean will, whose parody is, “We have ways of dealing with people like you.” Once this world is entered, its advocates very literally try to display their power over other visions, principally by insisting that foul is fair, and fair is foul. If this inversion can conquer others, then the case for arbitrariness is made.
For the political activist, others must be brought to accept the contingent, constructed nature of our experience, and the power of this vision must be tested against our deepest convictions and firmest groundings. Are we asked to accept propositions that seem counterintuitive, even manifestly absurd? This should not be seen as a failing. The line attributed to Tertullian may be heard: “I believe because it is absurd.”
Thus the more outrageous the inversion, the more implausible and against common experience the unmasked revelation, the more diaphanous and null the Emperor’s gown, the greater is the triumph of those activists who can win its acceptance. And the more grows their power, sometimes imposed from without, more often internalized as self-censure. Recall the judgment, in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, that fell on those who would not celebrate the Emperor’s magnificent train: that they were unworthy of the post that they held. Few academics, so susceptible to flinching anxiety in the face of raw power, can face that devastating charge.
That is why the “correctness” of phrases or judgments must constantly be changed by the most aggressive of the campus Jacobins, so as to instill a constant insecurity, and a fugitive quality to that which we think we know. “Security” can then come only by checking first with those in power. One must learn what is the code for the day; who is in, and who out, and whom to trample sacrificially as an enemy of the people.
Political correctness, it now appears, is predictable. It will surface in its most adamant form wherever the contradictions of our natural experience are most insistent. There we must be made to bow; the more ludicrous the object or proposition to which we bend our knee, the greater is the power of the ringmaster, this Prospero who does not love us.
And the greatest ringmaster must subdue the wildest beast. That beast is any whose “naturalness” and claim upon our given humanity would make of it, of all reversals, the most binding. This helps to explain the position of what may be seen as the most “correct” and unchallenged population on campus, namely, the forces of abortion. So thoroughly is their gaze fixated on this single target that pressure groups will demand the acceptance or rejection of judges and politicians based solely upon their abortion posture.
So overarching is the principle in the mind of ideologues that some feminists lament the fate of East Germans since the Wall’s collapse. They reason that women of the former police state have lost their “reproductive freedom” under the West’s rule. These feminists call, as it were, for totalitarian prisoners to return to their concrete cell, trading liberty of the spirit for a state-funded procedure.
Abortion is disfiguring the American political and cultural landscape. Congress now federalizes and prohibits clinic protest. One court injunction, for instance, forbade protesters from holding enlarged photographs of a human fetus in utero. These are restricted from the view of clinic patrons, one must think, lest they touch the cheek.
There can be no acceptance of protest violence; it violates law. But regardless of whether one opposes or supports abortion on substance, all should see that the extremity of the process is now exacting a prohibitive cost on civil liberties and legal soundness.
Abortion politics is a religious fight, but it is also deeply more than a religious fight. It is a question concerning the core of Western culture and its relationship to human life. Even were ecclesiastical issues absent, this argument must be joined by any who claim our cultural inheritance.
At best, the abstract debate shows the triumph of philosophical pragmatism over essentialism. The definition of the fetus as child or as tissue no longer rests on inherent traits, but alters with the mother’s desires or interest. The shifty reach of “wanting”-now making, now unmaking personhood-does work that rivals, in dark parody, the doctrine of transubstantiation.
At worst, the debate is no debate at all, but opposition strangled silent. On campuses, the strongest grip on speech, the most thorough denial of opposition, occurs with respect to this issue. One voice only is given legitimate status, the pro-abortion stance of feminist doctrine. The feminists either assume or produce total unanimity, and command campus departments, funding, and facilities for their political agenda, brooking no opposition.
The intensity of this fight, and the taboo against its honest debate or examination, both arise, I believe, because it is here that the most “magic” of cultural construction must be worked.
How complete is the victory? A widespread accompaniment to the politicized scene is the presence of remarkable “double standards” for offense and assault. Asymmetries of gender, race, or theme are familiar to any campus figure who stands outside the orthodoxy. Some figures and ideas are prejudged and found perpetually wanting, while others enjoy invisibility before the policing eye, apparently enlightened by foreordained grace.
The stories are by now well known. To call a religious believer a “patriarchal bigot” or a conservative skeptic a “Nazi homophobe” is not a campus crime, but instead a positive mark of political breeding. To say that females have an “essential nature” established by biology is a hateful oppression, unless and until the exact motion is required in a positive way to advance the women’s agenda. Well-meaning commentators point out these confusing contradictions as though they were inadequacies of the crusade, rather than its most forceful conquest.
To the “corrected” mind, rats have rights, and babies do not. This was the actual content of political signs placed together recently on campus. Such thoughts are literally adjacent not only on bumper stickers, but in classroom doctrine. What should be grasped is that this adjacency is not done in spite of the eerie fact that it reveals a double standard of judgment, but, I fear, precisely because of the double standard. It becomes necessary for both of two contradictory propositions to be accepted simultaneously, in order to demonstrate the voltage of the cultural power. All revolutionary adherents are called to prove their zeal by the deepest sacrifice. The Maoist child must denounce its parents. The gang initiate must kill a sister. The witch must eat her fetus; the more of them consumed, the more pure the devotion.
It has always been possible for any movement to convert someone by the exercise of coercion, but to convert them back at will requires strong reins. If, through a double standard, they can be turned now on, then off, like a faucet, the control is then complete.
Medea stands for a woman trapped, and taking steps which, though horrible, are driven by her necessity. Agave’s crime follows from divine delusion. She imagines herself to be doing one thing, but offended Dionysus cruelly turns her hand. The taking of fetal life in America today sometimes fits either of these patterns; desperate women with only Hobson’s choice. I can see no ground to judge those acts.
But there is another creature on the political landscape, I now suspect, caught only by denial, and that self-inflicted. Deliberately, with either the goal of liberation or the desire to escape the consequences of a freedom carelessly taken, this person offers up life itself to a harsh master, and insists that the act is correct.
American culture has succumbed to a strange vision. Even the skin-flaying Aztecs with their hundred-thousand gnawed skulls served no more savage god than the one who calls that command. What else could explain the increasing fury with which abortion advocates deny all debate, forbid all doubt, and muster their Bacchic troops?
Is it not their fear that if the frenzy fails and their gaze clears, they will see themselves truly? Were it true that things have a reality beyond what we insistently name them to be, who could face the awful questions that arise next? What dark obsidian knife is this, and whose these pitiful limbs? Is not the ferocious commitment of the hardest activists really born of fear of their own god, that he has deceived them? What more striking prize, what more ghastly, powerful, and binding act of worship could there be, than to convince women that ripping unnecessarily the fruit of natural life from their own wombs brings them honor?
”Now the House of Justice has collapsed,” says another Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, writing of Orestes’ crime. Orestes committed the terrible act of matricide. But it is the self-same knife he wielded as did Agave, that kills motherhood.
Aeschylus writes, perhaps, of our own future, after we have entered fully this world where political will sets nature and truth on its rough judgment stand, and our own generation begins to reap a savage reciprocity:
Should this be, every man will find a way
to act his own caprice;
over and over again in time
to come, parents shall await
the deathstroke at their children’s hands.
How the fairest has become the most foul, and somewhere goat-feet dance.
David W. Murray is Director of Research for the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) in Washington, D.C.
Reflections on the President’s Underwear
Peter L. Berger
The Continuum Publishing Company has just brought out an English translation of a book by Karl-Josef Kuschel, Laughter: A Theological Essay (more or less simultaneously it seems, with the German original, a Herder publication). Kuschel teaches ecumenical theology and theological ethics at Tuebingen, and he is coauthor with Hans Kung of the declaration on so-called “global ethics” issued by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago last year. That event could not possibly be discussed other than laughingly, and the Kung-Kuschel ethical manifesto, which tried to articulate some sort of lowest common denominator of religiously based moralities, would also present a formidable challenge to even the most accomplished satirist.
Despite these unpromising credentials, Kuschel has written a moderately useful book. He spends too much time on the ethical question (which had already bothered Plato) as to when laughter is or is not permissible, and he is overly fascinated by Umberto Eco’s much overrated novel, The Name of the Rose, which revolves around Aristotle’s lost book on comedy. Still, Kuschel makes two important points: that Christian theology has paid far too little attention to the comic as a dimension of reality; and that there ought to be something like a theology of laughter.
Kuschel does not pretend to supply this missing subdiscipline, and far be it from me to make such an attempt here. I have argued elsewhere that the comic is a signal of transcendence, because it suggests, even if only in fugitive moments, that tragedy is not the final word about the human condition. If religious faith is valid, then this suggestion is indeed true, in which case the comic discloses much more fundamental aspects of reality than the tragic. Put differently, in the perspective of faith it is comedy rather than tragedy that is finally profound. Put differently again, the phrase “redeeming laughter” says much more than it seems to do. Nietzsche once remarked that he would find Christianity more credible if Christians looked more redeemed. The scarcity of redeeming laughter, I daresay, has much to do with this unconvincing appearance.
Although Kuschel briefly discusses Freud’s ideas about humor, there is very little reference in the book to sex. Yet any reflection about the comic, theological or otherwise, must come to terms with the fact that a very large amount of humor has always revolved around sexual situations. From Homer to Aristophanes, from the most primitive pranksters to the most sophisticated comedians, there has been a perduring insight: Sex is funny. This insight is correct, indeed profoundly correct.
Why is sex funny? On the level of everyday human life, it is funny because it debunks the pretensions of those who deem themselves, or are deemed by others, to be important people. At the same time, this debunking exercise humanizes those who are thus shown up. During the Congress of Vienna, Metternich, the great statesman and architect of the post-Napoleonic order of Europe, fell desperately in love with the wife of one of the ambassadors at the conference. He would dash out of the most important negotiations to send the lady passionate billets-doux, to arrange meetings via dubious go-betweens, and to dash off to rendezvous in improbable places. Not surprisingly, with all this amorous activity, he frequently fell asleep during crucial diplomatic sessions.
But sex is also funny for a deeper (if you will, a metaphysical) reason: More than anything else, sex shows up the fundamental human dilemma of being caught between spirit and matter, between the aspiration toward the infinite and the captivity in finitude. Sex is the most pervasive link between the most sublime and the grossest human experiences. It is not only, in the words of Augustine, that we are born inter faeces et urinam, but that the same crass location has also given birth to every kind of lyrical emotion. This fact is heavy with anthropological significance; needless to say, it can be, and often enough has been, reflected upon without a trace of humor. I would argue that an understanding of the comic aspect of the matter is essential to a philosophical and indeed a theological anthropology.
During the last few years, virtually every major religious body in America has appointed commissions, study groups, and task forces to issue ponderous statements on sexuality. As was to be expected, these have become battlegrounds between the contending forces in the ongoing culture war. I have no intention of going here into the substance of these debates (if only because, I regret to say, my views on some of the points at contention do not easily fit into either of the two prevailing moral rhetorics). I only want to make one observation: I’m struck with the utter humorlessness with which this battle is conducted by the contending parties-all the contending parties. Given the subject matter at issue, this must inevitably distort the entire debate. I would further suggest that a realization (if you will, a raising-into-consciousness) of the inherent comicality of human sexual behavior might reveal hitherto unsuspected common ground.
If only they could break into laughter now and then. A commission of Roman Catholic bishops discussing marital chastity; a study group of Presbyterian theologians delving into the morality of masturbation; a gay-and-lesbian task force designing wedding ceremonies, with all the bourgeois frills, for graduates of bathhouses and leather bars. The aforementioned Parliament of the World’s Religions missed a great opportunity there. Instead of endorsing the Kung-Kuschel manifesto of global motherhood-and-apple-pie niceness, it could have appointed a number of task forces on sexual ethics: a Christian-Confucian task force on foot fetishism, a Jewish-Buddhist task force on polygamy. When these task forces would eventually have published their reports, there might have been outbreaks of helpless laughter even in the Roman Curia and at Princeton Theological Seminary-perhaps even redeeming laughter.
And surely, if one reflects about sex these days, one should not omit mention of President Clinton. When it is said that he has a problem with the “character issue,” several matters come up, but invariably a major question concerns his alleged sexual escapades. I have no way of knowing how much credence to give to the reports about the goings-on in swinging Little Rock during Clinton’s governorship. But assume for a moment that all these salacious stories are true. At the risk of offending the morally upstanding readership of First Things (not to mention its morally upstanding editors), I must confess that these stories, if true, would be the best news I’ve heard about Bill Clinton’s character: All the other stories about him suggest an individual with an implacable will to power, in the service of which both people and principles are discarded whenever opportune. This man, it seems, will do almost anything to get or to retain power-but not, if these sexy stories are true, at the price of foregoing erotic adventures. Questions about sexual morality aside, this would be a humanizing trait. I would imagine that even in Arkansas such philandering would carry some political risks. A politican who risks power because of sex is more humanly attractive than one for whom power is the only aphrodisiac.
Which takes me back to the comicality of sex: Here we have these stories of the Governor, wearing his jogging suit over his by-now famous jockey shorts, being driven by state troopers from one provincial seductress to another. This is the stuff of high farce. Rabelais brought back to life to depict homo americanus erectus. And one would further wonder then (Rabelais certainly would) whether Mr. Clinton is still engaged in it. There are two possibilities, and it is not clear which would be the funnier one. Possibility one: he is still doing it, at much higher risks, with poker-faced Secret Service agents having replaced the jolly Arkansas troopers. Possibility two: he is not doing it any more, forced into excruciating celibacy by the harsh requirements of raison d’etat.
The biblical creation accounts make it very clear that God created human sexuality, “male and female created he them.” It is also clear that, in doing so, God intended human beings to procreate and to populate the earth with their offspring. But I would speculate that there was another purpose to this gift of sexuality: to remind human beings that, though created in the image of God, they are still linked to all those other creatures-to the beasts, to the birds, to “everything that creeps on the earth.” In other words, as sexual beings, men and women should cultivate humility.
The creation account in Genesis 2 ends with the statement that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” But I will further speculate that, in that primeval moment when they first saw each other, they laughed.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.