I’ve got to say, it’s great having Ross Douthat at The New York Times . I know some people prefer Times columnists when they’re not writing Times columns, but I’m the sort who thinks that glorified blog posts really can be glorious. What elevates a string of 600-800 words out of bloggy transience is the ability of the writer to keep hammering on a set of relevant, timely, important, and interrelated issues without getting dull or redundant. It’s inevitable, I think, that these issues be thoroughgoingly ‘pop’ — by which I mean concerned with the moral life as we live it today. Thus Ross has turned from Dan Brown to the working woman , arguing that conservatives and liberals alike should agree that
the steady advance of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women. Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason
why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces — in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s — behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.
No reason, of course, save the fact that contemporary America doesn’t seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period. We simply don’t have the stomach for permanently ostracizing the sexually irresponsible — be they a pregnant starlet, a thrice-divorced tycoon, or even a prostitute-hiring politician .
In this sense, ours is a kinder, gentler, more forgiving country than it was 40 years ago. But for half the public, it’s an unhappier country as well.
The wow factor here, I think, is that happiness really isn’t our summum bonum today. The nerd factor, further, is that in this respect we’re really, really Hobbesian. For Hobbes, felicity — the fugitive enjoyment of a desire, including our deepest, most human, and noblest desires — isn’t the ultimate concern or purpose of human life. Beneath all the materialism is a pretty metaphysical skepticism or pessimism about the meaning of human flourishing. Some might say this is what materialism gets you, duh; but Hobbes was as little a nihilist as we restless Americans who long for full experiences of happiness but also long for full experiences of individuality. And though we can conceive of experiences in out life that would be unprecedented in their fullness of both happiness and individuality — having a firstborn son, winning American Idol, curing cancer — we’ve developed a very mature (sometimes premature ) resignation to the ultimate transience of these experiences. If Tocqueville called us practical Cartesians, there’s a manner in which we’re practical Hobbesians about the folly of felicity — and this despite our recognition that, in the land of equal freedom, the pursuit of happiness is the only game in town. It’s not quite right to think of we Americans as questing after fugitive moments of happiness; really, we’re questing after fleeting respites from happiness, too, just as we’re oscillating constantly in our strivings for individuality on the one hand and a relief from individuality on the other.
With full individuality and full happiness as the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary lodestars of our moral life (points of orientation, not telic achievements), there’s often little room for the effective use of sexual stigma. Either sexual stigma gets it from one end — as an unfair impediment to happiness — or the other — as an arbitrary curb on individuality. Ross may be right that the heights of our moral ceiling are lowering when it comes to sexual ethics, but I have to say I’m more troubled by the continued lowering of our moral floor. There is an eyelash-curling article in Rolling Stone about Sasha Grey, “the dirtiest girl in porn,” which should be used as some kind of litmus test and pedagogical bludgeon for retraining us in the virtue of protecting an uncompromised stigmatic remainder in our moral life. But the task of preserving even our moral floor is complicated by the determination of many that ‘we’ should have free and full access to the remissive power of Christian forgiveness without any of the interdictory authority of biblical faith — even if this means that this power can only be ‘pried from God’s clutches’ by corrupting it, on at least some important occasions, into nihlistic nonjudgmentalism.
Here, our rather noble willingness to endure unhappiness (as an integral part even of a moral life dedicated to freeing us up most to the pursuit of happiness!) is put at risk of slipping into despair. Beyond and beneath the soul-destroying prospect that nothing is sacred lies the final whisper that nothing is profane. Obviously it is difficult to the point of outlandishness to imagine that our moral life in America might lapse into utter transgression anytime soon. But the issue is how low we have the nerve to let the outliers in our moral life go uncondemned. There is a big difference between the all-too-typically sexually irresponsible and those who have taken on the grave responsibility of de Sade — to push the floor as low as they can. In our nonjudgmentalism, we seriously underrate our own willingness to let the monstrous go mainstream. The rise of young, attractive, articulate porn starlets who are obscenely corrupt and also perfectly ‘good citizens’ — role models, inspirations, heroes, everyday people — can no longer be dismissed as absurd:
Sasha Grey is the adult industry’s reigning princess of porn, a rock & roll 21-year-old with an actual mission statement — “Most of the XXX I see is boring, and does not arouse me physically or visually. I am determined and ready to be a commodity that fulfills everyone’s
fantasies” — and few taboos.
[ . . . ] Though the pornography biz has been reshaped by the recession and the digital age, Grey has managed to make the jump from bondage flicks on the ‘Net to a Steven Soderbergh film at the Tribeca Film Festival. But [ . . . ] Grey is far from a typical porn star. She’s co-managed by Dave Navarro, pals with Billy Corgan and cites French director Jean-Luc Godard in everyday conversation. While most porn actresses would jump at the chance to get naked on the Howard Stern Show , Sasha wants to appear on the shock jock’s program with a Palestinian flag wrapped around her breasts to confront the man she believes is a closet racist.
Soon, Grey will be seen on the big screen as a call girl in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience [ . . . ]. “She definitely has higher aspirations, far larger than porn,” says Grigoriadis. “She wants to get into indie mainstream film; I can’t see her being interested in any Michael Bay projects,” she adds, referring to the director of blockbusters like Transformers . “She took acting lessons for 10 years in Sacramento, so she wants to be an actress.”
An indie-porn crony of Billy Corgan’s who quotes Godard? That right there is a hipster’s worst nightmare, I assure you. But how many bourgeois Americans would you sacrifice to the clumsy exigencies of sexual irresponsbility if it meant a culture — Christian, pagan, atheist, or Martian — in which the Sasha Greys of the world were unreservedly recognized as the enemy ? And the enemy they are: scourging, scourged premonitions of an unrecognizably hellacious hell on earth as democratized as ‘celebrity’ is today. Marginal, nasty little outcasts one minute and destroyers of worlds the next, you could almost violate our last respectable taboo and call them our Hitlers. But instead of the Fuhrer’s twelve years, these fearless leaders get fifteen minutes.
The question raised by any moral life without a summum bonum is whether its summum malum can long endure. Liberals following Shklar and Rorty would put cruelty there, where Hobbes put random death. But who nowadays will raise a compelling objection to our ‘creeping and creepy’ nonjudgmentalism toward consensual cruelties? If our American culture is more Hobbesian than Hobbes in its incapacity to supply a summum bonum , unable even to choose between happiness and individuality, de Sade’s challenge becomes a more serious question than normal opinion dares take seriously. And if our official silence on the highest good is itself good — at least for us, as it may well be — well, the question at hand becomes one of the highest seriousness.