I am pleased as punch (spiked with Demon Rum, of course) at your recent success in instilling in young Missy Smith the conviction that she is “fat” and must starve herself into conformity with the popular image of an attractive young woman as looking exactly like an attractive young man with small breasts attached. The androgyny craze works in our favor. Need I say why? Distinction destruction, of course! This torture of the body in the name of a mandated vision of the flesh is just what the Diabolical Doctor ordered. And it has the additional salutary effect of driving yet another wedge between mother and father, child and parent, in the name of power or freedom or choice or beauty. The more we “disempower” people from working out their own problems the better. The more the outside intrudes in the form of culturally authoritative sanctions against legitimate authority the better. For, left to their own devices, ordinary folks might revert to a vocabulary damning, if I may take one of Our Father Below's words in vain, to our best interests. Hope, Faith, and Charity—these must not abide! Terms of everyday ethics, as certain wretched humans call it, are very difficult to kill. Yet kill them we must and a domestic war of all against all fueled by our propaganda is the most efficient method yet devised for undermining the ethical menace.
May I note a trend very much in our favor? I refer to a further debasement of language, this time in the direction of a salutary “abstractedness.” The more people are “deeply concerned” about things far away, outside their purview of concrete responsibility, the better for us. You know that Our Father Below wants us to appear, as often as possible, in the form of an angel of light. Abstract benevolence and sentiment serve us oh so nicely. There are so many splendid examples! I have picked but three for your delectation.
The first is a story I overheard during a visit some years ago to a place in northwestern Massachusetts called “Happy Valley.” Moviegoers were crowded into a small art film theater in a town called Northampton, sophisticated far beyond anything yet dreamed of in Fremont, Nebraska, and one trendy couple described their recently concluded trip to Nicaragua, then under the happy control of the Sandinistas, and told of their virtuous labor shoveling manure on a state farm. They were helping the “peasants” to plant crops and fighting American imperialism. Those around the couple trembled with politically correct delight. This was, for me, a perfect moment. A trip to earn political kudos for oneself and to promote an abstraction (“the revolution”). For that very season had brought news of struggling farm families all over America, including some whose farms were being foreclosed in western Massachusetts. But no assistance from the abstractly benevolent went to them, for they were defined politically as an updated version of Marx's phrase—and he was a genial phrase-maker, was he not?—“rural idiots.”
A second example ripped from past and present headlines. Think, dear Nephew, of all the prominent men who are what is called “progressive” with respect to women's issues who treat real, flesh-and-blood women before them with contempt. And think, as well, of the pact with Our Father Below some women's groups make when they say that working with a well-known sexual predator may make them “uncomfortable,” but if he is “correct” on their issues (abortion, sexual harassment—if somebody else is doing it) then they must mute their ire and stem their scorn. I noticed that the most recent instance featured a “progressive” whose sexual misconduct was well known to women's groups. But they held their fire until after he had been reelected because he was on “their side” on the “key issues.” Now they are clamoring for an investigation because the thing has become too embarrassing.
Our Father Below adores this sort of thing: projecting altruism outward toward the correct public policy, the globally benevolent, the politically correct, the theoretically grand, while suffocating virtue that might operate personally, in everyday life. I am particularly fond of grand theories of Justice that diminish by contrast the acts of everyday life called by The Enemy's camp “charity” or “decency” or some other such poisonous possibilities. One of The Enemy's allies (though himself an unbeliever) proclaimed that he should like to be able to “love my mother and also love justice.” Thankfully, this nuisance, Albert Camus, was killed at an early age. He was a bone in my throat. He kept insisting that one had to tend to concrete matters concretely, and that one could not leapfrog over particular ties in favor of abstract and by definition impossible ones, as our ally, Jean-Paul Sartre, argued so successfully for so many years.
Here is a third instance, of a similar sort. Another delicious item from my file, a love-letter in the New York Times under the title, “A Man's Child Care Crusade.” This is the story of one Richard B. Stolley, editorial director of Time, Inc. who heads something called Child Care Action Campaign. It seems that when Mr. Stolley was young he was an admirably inattentive father. His ex-wife stayed home with the children. “‘It was her problem,'“ he says. “But this 63-year-old grandfather, an athletic-looking man who jogs regularly and wears Italian suits, has had a dramatic change of mind,” so says the Times. I am so pleased their reporter did not catch on. For Mr. Stolley has not changed his mind at all. I confess that I was apprehensive when I began the piece. But I quickly got reassured, for Mr. Stolley, who is “angry” and “outraged” at the child care situation, still wants anybody but himself to care for children. You see, Mr. Stolley used to think child care was something that someone else should do so that it did not hamper him. Today, Mr. Stolley continues to think child care is something someone else should do. But this can be treated as a marvelous change of heart because the “someone else” is no longer a wife but the government or the employer! The New York Times is our solid ally on this front. Too bad the reporter really couldn't decipher Mr. Stolley's line. “Everywhere you look in our society, if child care breaks down, everything else starts grinding to a halt.” And what did he have in mind? Did he mean children grow up bereft of love and care and this is bad for children? No, he means “work in this magazine company involves strange hours and depends on child care arrangements.” What's good for Time Inc. is good for America! I could not stop smirking for several moments at this giddy portrayal of Mr. Stolley as a transformed sort of guy. A windfall for us and unplanned by anyone, just another delicious example of the “cultural context.”
I fear I may have tired you, but these exemplary stories should give you renewed energy for the struggle with the Smiths, precious devilkin.
Your affectionate uncle,
Jean Bethke Elshtain, discoverer and keeper of Newtape's epistles from the Underworld, has a day job teaching political philosophy at Vanderbilt University.