The Public Square
The Nation is ecstatic. Its cover story “The Gay Moment” evinces high confidence that the media is right in declaring that we are now in “the gay nineties.” “Ten years ago there might have been one gay issue in the news every month or so,” says The Nation . “Now there are dozens at the same time. The tortured topic of gays in the military is far from the ‘nonstarter’ the late Bush re-election campaign, incredibly, assumed it to be. It strikes at the authority of the defense establishment in political life and, on a deeper level, subverts traditional gender and sexual roles as no movement has done since the dawn of modern feminism.”
The story, as might be expected, devotes much attention to “Christian fundamentalists” who resist the revolution. “Gay cavaliers,” we are told, are locked in long-term battle with “Christian roundheads.” The fundamentalists are accused of promoting hate and fear, putting them in league with the Nazis and their anti-Semitic propaganda. On the one hand, we are informed that gays want nothing more than their civil rights, decent treatment, and safety from the violence of “homophobia.” On the other, The Nation describes the movement in terms of radical and sweeping revolution quite beyond anything usually depicted in the anti-homosexualist literature of the right:
“But the gay nineties is not only about civil rights, tolerance, and legitimacy. What started tumbling out of the closets at the time of Stonewall [the late sixties protest by which the movement marks its beginning] is profoundly altering the way we all live, form families, think about and act toward one another, manage our health and well-being, and understand the very meaning of identity. All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people”at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis”have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever.”
Filling the Vacuum
It will change everything, forever, and with a new cosmology yet. Jesse Helms claims that they just want to have sex with our children. Little does he know. According to The Nation , the movement is virtually unstoppable. The editors are sure that the New York Times is solidly enlisted. “Gay coupling celebrations haven’t cracked the New York Times society pages yet, but the breakthrough surely is only a few months or a year away. The Times , which allowed the word ‘gay’ as a descriptive and synonym for ‘homosexual’ to be used only a few years ago, had a startling change of heart and is now consistently pro-gay. New York City, with the biggest out gay population in the world, is singularly bereft of credible gay newspapers, so the Times and the Village Voice have more or less filled the vacuum.” There are homosexual rags such as The Advocate , but they still smell of a subcultural mentality when the time has come to take over the culture. (Rick Brookhiser recently remarked that the Times has become The Advocate with stock reports and foreign news.)
What The Nation says about the Times is, regrettably, very much on the mark. “Pinch” Sulzburger, who has succeeded to the publisher’s chair, has let it be known repeatedly that the Times will no longer reflect the views of straight white males. The change has been dramatic, with gay and lesbian reporters identifying themselves as such in news columns and making no apology for the slant of their stories. The traditional line between editorial and reporting is now but a vague memory at the Times , at least when it comes to coverage of the culture and, above all, homosexuality. It is sometimes hard to know what the writer-editors want to convince us of. The daily half-dozen stories on matters homosexual would tell us, in one way or another, that at least half of our neighbors are gay and lesbian, and that they are just like us. Except that they are much more creative and lead much more interesting lives, and they are terribly in need of our sympathy and admiration. In addition, thousands upon thousands of them are afflicted with an awful disease that somehow just happened to them.
That is pretty much the sum of the message of what is undoubtedly the nation’s foremost gay newspaper. But there is still pushing at the envelope, so to speak. For instance, it is true that, at least at this writing, the Times does not include homosexual “marriages” in its social announcements. But already there is “Out and Organized,” a huge two-page spread in the Sunday “Styles of the Times.” This item presents, if we may put it very carefully, the case for recruiting young people to the homosexual “lifestyle.” (The term “lifestyle” is considered homopolitically incorrect but it is used in the article. Even the Times slips from time to time.)
The subhead declares, “As the national gay movement shies away from the subject of homosexuality among the young, some gay teenagers are determined to open the subject up.” No more shying away from anything. Come out, come out, wherever you are. As the story makes clear, it is not actually the teenagers who are opening up the subject as it is organizations run by adults who want to “help” teenagers identify themselves as homosexual. The writer-editor (writitor might be the appropriate term) asserts, “In fact, it’s not the agencies recruiting the youth, but the youth recruiting the agencies.” That is not what one gathers from the story, but there is no doubt that the phenomenon is rightly termed recruitment.
A Kind of Magic
In the lead is the Hetrick-Martin Institute, described as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to the special needs of young homosexuals.” Hetrick-Martin runs the Harvey Milk High School for gay and lesbian teenagers, an institution that is part of the New York City public school system. Thanks to a grant from Vogue magazine, the institute has recently moved into a very fashionable new headquarters on Astor Place. H-M played a key role in promoting the aborted Rainbow Curriculum in the city’s elementary schools, and sends consciousness-raisers into public school classrooms to teach, as our writitor puts it, “tolerance of nontraditional life styles, including homosexuality.” Some of the friends and supporters of the gay movement are made nervous by the emphasis on reaching out to young people. The American Friends Service Committee, sometimes called Quakers, has withdrawn financial support. “The youth issue was divisive,” said a spokesman. The distinctions between helping, recruiting, and seducing are not easy to maintain.
The distinctions are more directly challenged by gay activist Frank Browning in his new book The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today (Crown). Browning writes, “If homophobes and fundamentalist preachers rant on about homosexuals recruiting the young because it’s the only way to replenish their unholy ranks, then steal that language back. Yes, queer people want to recruit the young, not by kidnapping young men . . . but by being mentors and role models who would show gay and lesbian adolescents that they are not alone, that they are not freaks, that they need not continue committing suicide at three times the rate of straight teenagers.”
In their role as mentor and role model, according to Browning, homosexuals should not hesitate to introduce youngsters into the joys of promiscuity, the constant cruising for new sexual partners that marks the gay life. “The chanciness is part of the lasting magic of gay life,” writes Browning, “a sort of radical plot twist that characterizes queer life and sets aside so many conventions of social judgment, class, race, and attitude, supplanting them with a direct and naive faith that bonds of great value can be forged on nothing more than instinct . . . . There is a genuine spiritual affirmation in discovering how often magic can arise between strangers”magic that in most of our waking moments we train ourselves not to see.”
Critics say that homosexuality is perverse. Its apologists, such as Browning, respond that it is precisely the perversity—even flirting with disease and death in pursuit of erotic “magic”—that is the charm of the thing. Young men recruited to the pursuit are enabled to come to a new understanding of manhood. No longer obsessed with control and self-restraint the recruit can surrender, paradigmatically in the act of being penetrated, to the “equally strong appeal of powerlessness . . . the loss of control.” “By celebrating his own penetration, the male offers himself as both an actual and a symbolic sacrifice and places his social identity at risk.” Only homophobes and fundamentalist preachers, we are given to understand, would want to discourage young men from such experience.
Interestingly, the Times story does not mention the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), an organization that has the merit of being utterly straightforward on a subject about which the Times, at least at this point in its political evolution, feels compelled to be somewhat coy. NAMBLA takes the position that the Greek erotic ideal is the adolescent or young adult, that sex between the young male and his mentor is a thing of beauty and spiritual exaltation that ought not to be prohibited by law. Because the indulgence of its aestheticism is in fact against the law, NAMBLA leads a shadowy existence and its membership tends to be secretive, although every once in a while it breaks into public view, causing consternation in the “mainline” gay movement that is bent upon assuring Americans that it wants nothing but tolerance while it is conducting a revolution that will change everything and everyone.
As for the Times story, it does include—perhaps as a gesture to journalistic ethics past—one critical voice. John P. Hale is identified as “a sometime legal adviser to the Archdiocese of New York,” and he thinks programs such as Hetrick-Martin’s are a very bad idea. Says Hale: “This is extremely destructive. In order to give comfort to that one out of one hundred who may ultimately choose a homosexual lifestyle, they are willing to put at risk the other ninety-nine by encouraging them to experiment in their formative stages of adolescence. If a man in his early thirties invited the neighborhood children over to tell them about their sexual options, parents would call the cops; the school system is just substituting young emissaries for the man next door. I call it proselytizing.”
The executive director of H-M, a Frances Kunreuther, reacts angrily to Mr. Hale’s statement. “We are trying to help young people have happy, productive lives. To be accused, still, of something so heinous”it’s disgusting.” But what on earth is so heinous? H-M and its allied organizations could hardly be more explicit in saying that they want adolescents to be favorably disposed toward homosexuality and to feel good about experimenting with their sexual desires. H-M declares that its purpose is to do precisely what Mr. Hale’s private individual would be arrested for doing. Mr. Hale and 98 percent of the American people may think that what H-M does is wrong, but why should its executive director condemn the organization’s stated mission as heinous? Certainly Frank Browning and a host of other gay apologists see nothing heinous in that mission.
“All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle.” There is no doubt some truth in that. One notes that the article in The Nation says that additional information on the struggle is available from the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Those looking back upon this curious period will likely be puzzled that the oldest of our national struggles, that for racial justice, should have been subsumed in the homosexualist cause. What The Nation and its kin view as the liberation struggles of our time may indeed be subsumed and submerged in the gay struggle.
What the gay movement demands—in both its “mainstream” and more aggressively “queer” manifestations—no society can grant except at the price of suicide. As some of its leaders acknowledge—Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic comes to mind—the “gay community” is not like other communities. It cannot produce another generation; it is parasitically dependent upon the generativity of others. The chatter about the gay nineties has been incessant this year. It seems there is hardly a national publication or television program that has not joined in the chorus, with the supportive accompaniment of the Clinton administration. But for all that, the proposals of the gay movement cannot, as the social science jargon puts it, be instantiated.
The best evidence suggests that 1 to 3 percent of males are exclusively homosexual in their orientation (the number of females is probably less than half that), and by no means are all of those out of the closet “gays.” The gay movement is terribly fashionable, of course, and has many more friends than the number of homosexuals might suggest. Beyond the New York-Hollywood glitterati, the overwhelming majority of Americans want to be tolerant, or at least to be viewed as tolerant. From time to time, issues are thrown up by which the niceness of the American people is to be tested. The gay movement is the Be Nice to Negroes issue of 1993. It requires little. Americans will offer homosexuals, especially those dying of AIDS, sympathy galore, and will unreservedly condemn vulgar or violent displays of hostility toward them. But very few will willingly offer their children to the cause.
Ultimate Marginality, Immediate Damage
Because of its size, its behavior patterns, its pathologies, and, increasingly, because of its ideology, overt homosexuality will likely remain a subculture, a world within a world. It is a world that has been contained in many cultures and, until recently, was contained in this one. In the last several years, it has indeed “come out” in every respect. But what it has come out with has not met with general approval beyond the incorrigible disposition of most Americans to try to be tolerant toward the distasteful. It is quite possible that today’s excitements about “the gay nineties” will, in ten years or so, seem as puzzling as the enthusiasm for “open marriage” two decades ago. Meanwhile, the homosexual movement will have done a good deal of damage, especially to young people who were persuaded to embrace publicly a “sexual identity” that may not be theirs, and a way of life that could be morally and physically lethal.
Meanwhile also, a subsiding homosexual subculture will not subside back to where it was. It has socially instantiated itself in other subcultures, notably in the academy, the liberal churches, and the general media. And in sectors of entertainment: Broadway has this year been declared The Great Gay Way, and hardly a show has won an award that is not promoting the gay cause. But this, too, may pass. The media preoccupation of this year is not forever. It is the business of the media to move on to something else.
The academy and the churches are different. There, quotas and tenure tracks entrench the practice and ideology of homosexuality, and show every sign of greater influence in the future. Note, however, that some of the mainline/oldline churches are, so far successfully, resisting the final step of ordaining professed and active homosexuals. How long, or if, they will be able to hold out against their relevant academy—the seminaries and divinity schools—is an open question. The academy, at least the prestige sector of the academy, looks like a lost cause. At Harvard, Yale, or Columbia one publicly dissents from what The Nation approvingly calls “the gayocracy” at peril of one’s career and safety.
In the general culture attention to the movement will subside in time. There are only so many people who can sustain a relentless interest in a phenomenon so inescapably marginal. As the media can and must move on to other things, so it is conceivable that in time institutions such as universities and churches too will put this behind them. It is conceivable, but not without great difficulty. An ancient subculture, the homosexual world, has come out and conquered important social territory. The question is whether this means the transformation of the culture or simply the expansion of a subculture. Our hunch is that the Times and its myriad allies in the culture wars have misread the signs of the times. Placing themselves under the banner of cultural revolution, they have turned themselves into creatures of a subculture.
At the same time, the line between culture and subculture becomes ever more indistinct. Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic says that we all live in subcultures now, the homosexual world being simply one among many. That, we expect, is wishful thinking on his part. Nonetheless, the undoubted expansion of the homosexual subculture has an important corrosive effect on the entire society. People are intimidated and confused; it becomes ever more difficult to articulate confidently the reasons why men and women are made for each other, and for children in marital fidelity. As Jerry Muller has explained (“Coming Out Ahead,” August/September), reasons, if they are not articulated, cannot persuade. Many people will find it increasingly difficult to explain”and some courts will undoubtedly share the difficulty”why homosexual adults should not seek out adolescents and teenagers to help them “feel comfortable” with their homosexual desires. Innumerable mentors and role models, to use Mr. Browning’s terms, are eager to be helpful.
“Out and Organized,” the Times story on homosexual recruitment, depicts favorably a young Hispanic man of twenty who says he has been HIV-positive for seven years. That means he contracted the disease at age thirteen. “I’m glad,” Luna Ortiz is quoted as saying, “that the older people put us where we are now, that they had their faces broken to open the doors for us.” Some door. Some opening. The story features Mary Hansen, a seventeen-year-old lesbian who is active in the recruitment program. “I refuse to be afraid,” she says. “And I do this out of an obligation not to the community but to myself . . . . Nobody should have a say in who I am.”
“Nobody should have a say in who I am.” Each girl, each boy, is an island, left to find out his/her “sexual identity” for him/herself, and sexual identity is the heart of who he/she is. And who is to criticize those adults, in the schools and in organizations such as Hetrick-Martin, who encourage them to discover, affirm, and act upon their sexual urges? To criticize is to suggest that there may be something wrong with homosexuality. To criticize is homophobic, discriminatory, and”in areas such as employment, housing, and other associations”increasingly illegal. In the therapeutic society, sexual recruitment is therapy. If, that is, you are certified as an expert and not just the randy thirty-year-old next door eager to entice the kids in for some kinky fun.
Refusing to Adjust
The media and entertainment blitz of 1993 notwithstanding, these are not the gay nineties. To paraphrase The Nation , the liberation struggles of the past are cross-dressing. Done up as the struggle for gay-lesbian-bisexual liberation, they have turned to astonishing advantage a general sympathy for those with a deadly disease that, we are instructed to believe, is unrelated to the behavior that they flaunt. It is a fashionable sham that will not last. It has not and it will not revolutionize the culture. As noted, it has apparently captured important cultural institutions, such as the university. But even there, developments such as gay studies may be as safely isolated ten years from now as the destructive silliness of black studies is mostly isolated on campuses today. And in the general culture, as the ramifications of the gay assault sink in, there may be a salutary reaction that reinforces the heterosexual norm essential to society’s survival and flourishing. Admittedly, this is a hopeful reading, and it may turn out to be wrong. Even if it is right, however, the current movement will have taken a terrible toll”most particularly among young people enlisted into a world of celebrated hedonism that is chiefly marked by loneliness, promiscuity, self-pity, suicide, and deadly disease. Hetrick-Martin, the New York Times , and a host of others want to help young people adjust to that prospect. Those who have so far survived the culture wars with their sanity and compassion intact want to save them from that adjustment. Some children will be lost to the homosexual subculture, as many have been lost before. No matter how frazzled the ties, parents and families of such children have no moral choice but to try to reach out and hold on to their own. In the sorrow of their continuing love for their children, however, most of them will not give credence to, but will treat with deserved contempt, the claim that such loss is liberation.
Pushing Old Ladies Around
The fallacy of moral equivalence was a big item during the Cold War. It was committed by many intellectuals in the West who noted that the Soviet Union and the democracies often behaved similarly and therefore their actions were morally equivalent. The fallacy is in ignoring the fact that, for all the moral ambiguities in international relations, one side was promoting tyranny and the other freedom. It’s the old ends and means thing again. A person observes somebody pushing an old lady out of the path of an oncoming bus, and somebody else pushing another old lady in front of the bus. “They’re morally equivalent,” he declares. “They both push old ladies around.”
Columnist Garry Wills was and is a notable practitioner of the fallacy. Taking note of Iraq’s attempt to assassinate George Bush, he observes that the CIA in the 1960s tried to assassinate Fidel Castro. “Of course,” he writes, “we did not call our CIA teams ‘terrorists.’ But it is difficult to see any moral difference between hit teams set out to dispatch Castro on the one side and to dispatch Bush on the other. We claimed the provocation in the case of Cuba, but Saddam believes he was more than provoked by Bush.”
Surely one has to be an intellectual to have difficulty in seeing the moral difference. We hold no brief for CIA actions respecting Castro, but Castro, like Saddam, was and is a tyrant with the blood of thousands of victims on his hands. Castro also sponsored revolutionary aggression against neighboring nations. George Bush, on the other hand, was the democratically elected leader of a free nation conducting what was, most would argue, a just war against Saddam’s undoubted aggression. What policies are justified by the moral difference between the behavior of the U.S. and that of Iraq is debatable, but there is a moral difference. Wills says that Saddam believes that his assassination attempt was justified because he was “more than provoked by Bush.” Perhaps Saddam does believe that. The remarkable thing is that Garry Wills seems to believe it.
The Holocaust Museum: Macabre Entertainment?
Philip Gourevitch is cultural editor of the Forward, a Jewish weekly, and he is not at all pleased by the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It trivializes its subject, he claims in an article in Harper’s , by turning the Holocaust into “another American theme park.” He understands the reason for the museum, but he thinks it utterly wrongheaded. “The museum is meant to serve as an ideological vaccine for the American body politic. A proper dose of Holocaust, the thinking goes, will build up the needed antibodies against totalitarianism, racism, and state-sponsored mass murder.” The Holocaust was a European event, says Gourevitch, and to make a comparison between America and Nazi Germany is profoundly misleading. In addition, he wonders how Jews are to establish a sense of real security in America if their primary public presentation of themselves is as victims.
When Gourevitch asked museum officials why America should set aside one of the last remaining pieces of land on the Mall to commemorate the Holocaust, they responded that a Native-American and an African-American museum are also planned. “The comparison explains nothing,” he writes. “Those museums will present American history, not European history, and they will cover hundreds of years of each people’s history, their accomplishments as well as their tragedies. Nobody talks about a Trail of Tears museum or a museum of slavery.” We expect he is partially right. Given the current ideological climate, the Indian and black museums, if they are erected, will likely focus on the real or alleged crimes of America. In fact, one of Gourevitch’s complaints is that the Holocaust museum lets Americans off too easily, inviting them to identify with both the victims and the saviors of the victims. In the one role they’re innocent, in the other heroic. We will be surprised if the Indian and black museums will not be a sustained rant against American culpability for crimes against humanity.
Gourevitch concludes: “One way history is doomed to repetition at the Holocaust museum is that day in and day out, year after year, the videos of the Einsatzgruppen murders will play over and over. There, just off the National Mall in Washington, the victims of Nazism will be on view for the American public, stripped, herded into ditches, shot, buried, and then the tape will repeat and they will be herded into the ditches again, shot again, buried again. I cannot comprehend how anyone can enthusiastically present this constant recycling of slaughter, either as a memorial to those whose deaths are exposed or as an edifying spectacle for the millions of visitors a year who will be exposed to them. Didn’t these people suffer enough the first time their lives were taken from them?”
The Holocaust museum is there. Its presentations can be changed over time, but the museum is an established fact. Whether it is a good thing for America or for Jews in America, we are not sure. And Gourevitch may be right in contending that, good intentions notwithstanding, it turns the horror of the Holocaust into a macabre entertainment. But his reference to an “edifying spectacle” is to the point. The other monuments and museums that attract millions of visitors each year to Washington do, all in all, present an edifying spectacle. They are intended to evoke a sense of national pride, and they invite us to reflect on both the greatness and failures of the American experiment. In this context, the Holocaust museum is, as many claim, “out of place.” Maybe that is good. Maybe the dissonance will help Americans to understand that they are part of a larger and often shadowed world history.
But the Holocaust museum”reinforced by what can be expected in the museums of American Indians and blacks”may also symbolize a troubling turn in the national spirit. It might be a turn toward a morbid preoccupation with victimology and a turn away from a healthy sense of national achievement and purpose. Of course the celebration of the American experience can be excessive, even idolatrous. But so also indifference and denial with respect to the Providential gift that, all things considered, America has been to world history can be blasphemous.
Mr. Gourevitch is right in believing that the Holocaust museum raises important questions. Since it is not going to go away, we can only hope that the questioning will be turned to constructive purposes. Mr. Gourevitch is also right in believing that marching troops of schoolchildren through a horror show of what was done by awful people of what will seem to children a long way away and a long time ago is not necessarily a constructive purpose. Unless, of course, one thinks it constructive to lead them to think that America is, in some respects, ominously like Nazi Germany after all. In that event, visitors may be prompted to think about abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, and the sterilization of the poor. And that would be constructive.
When Doves Become Hawks
The Mennonite center up the street sponsored a Sunday evening meeting on “Bosnia: The Pacifist Crisis.” The crisis was that those who want to bomb the Serbs and send arms to the Muslims have a hard time squaring their politics with their pacifism. An odd thing about the Bosnian crisis is that the most notable opponents of U.S. military intervention were urging U.S. military intervention. Officials of the National Council of Churches and some Jewish organizations were beating the war drums. That distinguished dove, William Sloane Coffin, returned from wherever he’s been to announce that God wants us to fight. In the general media, Anthony Lewis wrote column after column explaining why American honor required us to take up arms. Anna Quindlen, the universal monitor of social sensitivity, urged that a little bombing and strafing was the least that we could do.
And so it went in the debate over Bosnian policy; hawks were doves and doves were hawks. Why was it that those who made their mark as critics of the Vietnam war and who have been instructing us for years that America cannot be the policeman of the world were so eager for strong military action in the Balkans? A number of reasons suggest themselves, some more plausible than others. The fact that the national interest of the United States was not involved may have been viewed as a plus. Altruistic wars that are not “tainted” by American national interest are thereby made morally attractive. Or maybe those beating the drums wanted their President, burdened by his draft evasion, to show that he could be as tough as Presidents past. Or maybe it was the Muslim factor. How better for Christians to show their purity of intent than by backing Muslims against Christians? It was also a positive factor for those who don’t like Christians very much.
A more sinister explanation that has been floated is that the proponents of war knew that the Balkans would be, like Vietnam, a quagmire. U.S. military involvement would quickly resurrect “the peace movement” and we would all be back in the glory years of the 1960s, the years that Bill Coffin, Tony Lewis, and others have never left. One should put little credit in this last explanation. It requires that the war proponents had two thoughts in their mind at the same time: getting the U.S. to intervene and then leading the protest against U.S. intervention. These are one-thought-at-a-time people. The one thought, we expect, is that it would make us feel very good to engage in an eleemosynary war driven by no interest other than being on the side of Muslim underdogs oppressed by hegemonic Christians. It is a thought no more persuasive than their earlier and simplistic one thought that the U.S. should not be policeman of the world. The next time the U.S. intervenes where its national interest is engaged, do not be surprised by the vigorous protest against U.S. warmongering from those who did not get their war in the Balkans.
The Novak Achievement
Paul Johnson, the British journalist-historian, recently wrote that Michael Novak has probably done more than anybody since Adam Smith to advance the moral case for market economies. Rivals to that claim do not come readily to mind. Novak’s 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism has long been the object of spirited debate, both admiring and disdainful. But nobody doubted that he had broken new ground and made an argument that could not be ignored. His contention was that capitalism is not just an economic system but an order within which culture, politics, and economics form a triad of “political economy” that is one of the great achievements of humankind and is best exemplified in the American republican experiment. That basic “triune” understanding of our public order is today more and more embraced by other writers-writers who frequently cannot bring themselves to acknowledge their debt to Michael Novak.
Even some of Novak’s friends were uneasy about aspects of the 1982 book. To try to rehabilitate morally the term “capitalism,” they thought, was both futile and unnecessary. Calling it “democratic capitalism” helped, but not enough. To praise capitalism in any form was an in-your-face affront to almost the entirety of intellectual establishments in the West, religious and otherwise. After the collapse of communism, however, capitalism was the only thing left standing and it offered a powerful appeal to those trying to rebuild post-Communist societies. People like Novak, Peter Berger, and a few others had laid the intellectual and moral groundwork for the embrace of capitalism with moral integrity.
Novak understood from the start that part of his task was the rehabilitation of Adam Smith. Contrary to the stereotype promulgated by socialists, Smith was first and foremost a moral philosopher. Throughout Smith’s The Wealth of Nations , the assumptions were one with his massive The Theory of Moral Sentiments . The “invisible hand,” a minor image in Smith, was not autonomous. Economics was and is, above all, about behavior, moral and immoral. This reading of Smith is also evident in James Q. Wilson’s new book, The Moral Sense (Free Press), and is in no way idiosyncratic with Novak, as anyone who has ever read The Theory of Moral Sentiments well knows.
Friendly critics of Novak have also fretted that he seems often to reach too quickly from the cultural-economic-political to the explicitly theological. The treatment of analogies between the triune order of democratic capitalism and the life of the Holy Trinity proposed in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism seems to many to be, well, reaching. Yet, this too testified to the boldness of Novak’s project. In the last ten years he has persisted in advancing and refining the argument of democratic capitalism, and now we have an important new work, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Free Press).
Those with only a slight familiarity with the interminable debates over Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (meaning the Calvinist ethic) will readily see what Novak is up to in this new work. Again, we have an audacious but well-documented and vigorously argued work. Novak does not hesitate to admit that there is a great deal of historical evidence suggesting a peculiar connection between the Protestant ethic and capitalism. Writing in sympathetic conversation with Weber, Novak points out that there is also a good deal of counterevidence that Weber did not take into account. In addition, and more important, there have been important developments in Catholic teaching and social behavior over the past century.
Critics will say—they have already said—that Novak is trying to hijack Catholic social teaching to advance his version of democratic capitalism. Any fair reading of The Catholic Ethic decisively puts that criticism to rest. Anyone trying to hijack Catholic teaching for such purposes will find that popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II got there first. These developments came to a head in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus in which the Pope proposed for Eastern Europe and the Third World “a business economy, a market economy, or simply free economy” as a model to be followed. As John Paul makes unmistakably clear, this is not first of all an economic argument in any narrow sense of the term. It is an anthropological and theological argument about the “creative subjectivity” of workers and of society, and about the freedom that is necessary for such creative subjectivity to flourish.
It is no secret that John Paul has read Novak’s work. Those who worked closely with the Pope on the encyclical can testify to the influence of Novak’s thought on critical passages. This does not mean that The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , or any other Novak writings, bears a papal imprimatur. It does mean beyond cavil that Michael Novak has contributed significantly to the development of Catholic social doctrine at the highest level of its teaching authority. Those who take on the task of writing about Catholic social teaching have compelling reasons to address Novak’s project with greater seriousness.
When a thinker comes along with arguments that undermine so many conventional assumptions with which people have become comfortable over a long time, dismissiveness and virulent opposition are to be expected. Novak is a disruptive factor in the comfortable cognitive worlds of Catholic, and much Protestant, thought about politics, culture, and economics. Many Christian writers on economics have not yet been weaned from their Marxist beginnings. Of course most of them today are inclined, for understandable reasons, to insist adamantly that they are not Marxists. Yet the same thinkers commonly add, at least in a footnote, that they employ “Marxist analysis” and look forward to some kind of “socialism with a human face.”
The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and a host of others no longer being credible models, there is today a marked fascination with the German model of the “social market.” But what is still under attack is American “exceptionalism””an exceptionalism traced by Novak and others through the Founders’ understanding of the necessary interaction of religion, politics, and economics. That understanding was most famously celebrated by Tocqueville. It may be tedious to do so, but the obvious must be plainly set forth: Politically, culturally, and economically the German experience is dramatically different from the American experiment on a dozen scores, most of which will suggest themselves to the reader’s mind upon only a little reflection.
Novak is derided by his critics as an uncritical celebrant of the American experiment. There is no denying that he is enthusiastic about what the Founders called a novus ordo seclorum , a new order for the ages. And even his closest friends wince on occasion when he lets himself get carried away rhetorically. Anyone who reads The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , however, must recognize that, far from being uncritical, Novak evinces an intense and well-informed sense about where the American experiment has gone wrong and is going wrong”from race relations, to the urban underclass, to crime, and the debasement of popular culture. Novak’s is an intellectual project that, persistently prosecuted, has already left a strong historical mark. It is belittled by those who subscribe to the juvenile maxim, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The Marxoid assumption that the economy is the variable in the ordering of public life”together with the language of class warfare and redistribution of wealth”is still firmly established among leftists now in high political position. Against this, Novak stubbornly and convincingly contends that the Founders got it right, that Smith got it right, that Tocqueville got it right, and we”who live in a moment in which their arguments have been so stunningly vindicated by history”can still get it right. Finally, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism must be viewed in the light of the earlier project of the late John Courtney Murray. Sometimes Father Murray seemed to be whimsical about it, but at other times he was dead earnest in suggesting that a day might come when the proponents of the founding and defining Protestant tradition of the American experiment may, for complex reasons, tire of the experiment or turn against it. Then, said Murray, it might be up to Catholics to provide a moral and theological rationale for the constitutional order of a free society. That time may have come. And of course it is not up to Catholics alone. But Michael Novak’s most recent book demonstrates that he, for one, is not shying away from the charge given all of us by Father Murray.
Ronald Dworkin’s book this year received generally respectful attention in the general media. It is called Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (Knopf). It came in for very sharp, and insightful, criticism, however, in, of all places, the Washington Post . Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University is not taken in by Dworkin’s argument that abortion finally is a religious question, and therefore the constitutional protection of religious freedom means that everybody should be able to do what they want. Fox-Genovese writes, “For although the Constitution prohibits the establishment of specific churches and prescribes a tolerance for different faiths, it presupposes a fundamental Christian ethic and does not leave matters of life and death to the private judgment of individuals.” She is right about the Constitution, of course, but not about the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. In decisions from Roe through Casey , the Court has precisely left matters of life and death to the private judgment of individuals.
Fox-Genovese continues: “By linking abortion and euthanasia, Dworkin effectively, if inadvertently, labels expendable all forms of life that are not, in his judgment, truly life. He thereby limits true life to those of us who have some claim to realize the dream of autonomous individualism . . . . In our time, the social costs of supporting human life in various stages and forms have become formidable and continue to rise. For all Dworkin’s intellectual elegance and flashes of humanity, he ultimately offers the ‘autonomous’ members of the middle class a comforting rationale for serving our own interests while continuing to feel that we are good people.
“The problem of costs will not go away and may yet force some hard choices, although the choices are unlikely to be acceptable if they do not apply equally to all citizens, whatever their personal and economic inequalities. But those choices must be discussed forthrightly on their own painful terms, not disguised as higher truths. For beyond the problem of costs lies the larger problem of morality”of how we imagine the best of ourselves as a people. Which of us, without an extraordinary exercise of pride, can claim to know what is best for ourselves, much less for others? How can we be sure that caring for a handicapped child or a terminally ill relative will not force us to cultivate strengths we did not know we possessed? How can we be sure that the power to decide who should die will not corrode our very conception of morality? The power to make unacceptable choices exposes the dark side of individualism”the presumption that we can safely predict the consequences of our acts. Not for nothing do the folk cultures of the world abound with stories like that of the fisherman’s wife who was accorded three wishes”and had to use the third to undo the other two.”
Intimidation By (Nonexistent) Law
Jerome Kurtz is not just one among many who were upset when the Archdiocese and the Christian Coalition distributed guidelines in the New York school elections this spring. Mr. Kurtz is Professor of Law at New York University and the former Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In a most threatening letter to the New York Times he writes, “The law could not be more explicit nor more absolute. If a religious organization wishes to have a tax exemption, it must stay out of election campaigns. If it wishes to electioneer, it may not have a tax exemption.”
The law, in fact, applies not only to religious organizations but to charitable organizations of a maddeningly wide variety. Further, the law in no way prevents any of these organizations from engaging in voter education efforts, so long as they do not endorse candidates. (Endorsing candidates is presumably what Mr. Kurtz means by “electioneering.” The Archdiocese and Christian Coalition were very careful not to do that.) Mr. Kurtz, as is usual in these discussions, makes no complaint about black churches that are much more overtly political, nor about other religious organizations on the left that frequently come much closer to “electioneering.” No, the alarm goes off when Catholics and those awful “fundamentalists” get involved.
Kurtz concludes with this: “The Internal Revenue Service is charged with the responsibility to see that the tax laws are complied with. It alone can grant or deny tax exemptions (subject to judicial review). It alone can assure all taxpayers that the others are complying with the law. It should do so.” It is a comfort to know that Mr. Kurtz is no longer commissioner of IRS. It is troubling to recall that he was (under Jimmy Carter), and that he is now peddling his gross misconstrual of the law to tomorrow’s lawyers. More troubling is the fact that churches, Protestant and Catholic, are easily and often intimidated by rumblings such as those emitted by Mr. Kurtz.
And churches are intimidated, to the point of gagging themselves, by their own lawyers who fret about the loss of tax exemption. To lose tax exemption is a serious thing; to stifle the public voice of religion is much more serious. Happily, tax-exempt organizations under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code”whether they be churches or humane societies”are free to be as public as they want to be about whatever concerns them, no matter how controversial or “political” the subject. What they cannot do as institutions is to endorse or campaign for specific candidates. (Although individuals, including individual clergy, can do that as well.) It is a perfectly tolerable restriction. But if Mr. Kurtz and those who think like him had their way, the restrictions would be intolerable”at least for religious groups advancing views that meet with their disapproval.
The Fires of Religious Persecution
We haven’t said much about the Waco disaster. By the time this appears, there may be an official report or two. We’d like to be wrong, but we expect they will whitewash the unspeakable malfeasance of government officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to the White House. Attorney General Janet Reno declared that there “will be no recriminations.” There should be recriminations aplenty.
Now we have tapes of the conversations between David Koresh and the ATF. He makes clear that they could have arrested him any day while he was jogging outside the compound. Among other concerns of this alleged child-abuser was a demand that a trust fund be set up for the Branch Davidian children: “That’s one thing I’m going to be hard-nosed about.” Maybe he was buying a lot of guns (perfectly legal in Texas) and making them more automatic (perfectly common in Texas), but the government gave him and his people every reason to believe that they were under attack. After the inferno that burned up more than sixty men, women, and children, a Waco resident carried a sign: “Is Your Church Approved by the ATF?”
Even if (we will probably never know for sure) the Davidians actually set the final fire, the government bears responsibility for those killings. Dealing with a man whom they knew was consumed with the Apocalypse, they deliberately created a situation that the Davidians could not have seen as anything but apocalyptic. The FBI and media made much of the expertise of the FBI “hostage team,” ignoring the manifest truth that these people were not being held hostage. However wrongheaded we may think them, they were willing, indeed passionate, followers of David Koresh. But how about the children, were they willing? Creating the circumstance in which they were burned to death is a strange way of saving the children about whom Ms. Reno expressed such touching concern.
We will await the reports from the official investigations, and maybe they will compel a different judgment. But as matters now stand, the government attack on the Branch Davidians is among the most blatant and costly instances of state persecution of religion in American history.
While We’re At It
• Now here’s an ambitious program. It’s a conference in Washington titled “Future of the American Church: From Impasse to Opportunity; Listening to the Voice of the Whole Church.” It is sponsored by the National Center for Pastoral Leadership with assistance from some of the major Catholic academic centers in the country”Fordham, Georgetown, Villanova, Notre Dame, &c. If you’re a Catholic and wanted to “listen to the voice of the whole Church,” the organizers should explain to you, “Honey, we shrunk the Church.” Major speakers include Episcopal Bishop Jane Dixon on gender issues; Rosemary R. Ruether on “towards a more democratic church,” one in which, presumably, her doctrine that Christ is but one of many Christ figures (and not necessarily the most impressive) will be cheerfully embraced; Fr. Charles Curran, who has been censured by Rome for his deviations in moral theology; and Letty Russell, a Protestant and self-declared radical feminist. It is a big conference with dozens of other featured speakers, most of whom are outspoken critics of the Church’s teaching office. There is not one speaker noted for his or her support for the Magisterium or the pontificate of John Paul II. Not one. Yet here, we are told, is the “Voice of the Whole Church.” You can count on it: a charge that will frequently be made at the conference is that Rome arrogantly presumes to speak for the whole Church. If we are to judge by the organization of this conference, Rome and bishops and theologians loyal to Rome are not even part of “the whole Church.”
• The Great Melody (University of Chicago Press) by Conor Cruise O’Brien is a “thematic biography” of Edmund Burke and is a fine read despite the fact that at least half the text should have been consigned to footnotes, being, for the most part, insider disputes with other biographers of Burke. What makes it a fine read is that O’Brien wisely lets Burke speak often and at length. What public figure, then or since, has been so eloquent, so prescient, so persistent in devotion to truth? Few candidates come to mind. From the beginning, long before the Great Terror, Burke understood the bloody madness of the French Revolution. When the Directory was established there was an effort to soften what today would be called the revolution’s “image.” Burke was not buying: “But, after all, for what purpose are we told of this reformation in their principles, and what is the policy of all this softening in ours, which is to be produced by their example? It is not to soften us to suffering innocence and virtue, but to mollify us to the crimes and to the society of robbers and ruffians. But I trust that our countrymen will not be softened to that kind of crimes and criminals; for if we should, our hearts will be hardened to everything which has a claim on our benevolence. A kind Providence has placed in our breasts a hatred of the unjust and cruel, in order that we may preserve ourselves from cruelty and injustice. They who bear cruelty are accomplices in it. The pretended gentleness which excludes that charitable rancor produces an indifference which is half an approbation. They never will love where they ought to love who do not hate where they ought to hate.”
• The European “invasion” of the Americas did awful things to native religion, according to Rosemary Radford Ruether. The Mexicans had a very nice god called Quetzalcoatl, “the mysterious Christlike figure of indigenous tradition.” But his image was distorted by the Aztec god of human sacrifice, Huitzilopochtli. “The Spanish, on the other hand, brought with them a god they claimed to be Christian but who was much more a warlord god of violence and human sacrifice.” If we are to believe this new history, the Spanish ritually slaughtered tens of thousands of innocents on their altars, just like the devotees of bad old Huitzilopochtli. Ruether concludes: “The true struggle of religion in the sixteenth century and still today is not between the true god of the Bible and ‘paganism’ but between the warlord gods of human sacrifice in both religions and the god of life who calls for compassion and mutual respect between peoples, a god revealed in Christ but also known in Quetzalcoatl.” As Jesus did not say, you can tell the good gods from the bad ones by whether or not they are, well, nice.
• The poor Copts. At one time more than a tenth of the Egyptian population, Coptic Christians have been getting out as fast as they can. But millions remain under conditions of severe persecution. They have no lobby anywhere. Certainly Christians here remain blithely ignorant of what is happening in Egypt, and in the Sudan. But there is a Coptic Association and they put out an informative newsletter called, sensibly enough, The Copts . To get a copy, write P.O. Box 9119, Jersey City, NJ 07304.
• At least to some people, President Clinton’s appointments do not make his administration, as he puts it, “look like America.” The following is from Insight , the newsletter of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). “During his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton promised that his Cabinet ‘would look like America.’ Is there a blind spot here? Pollsters regularly report that evangelicals represent 20 percent of the nation’s population. Yet, to our knowledge, not one self-identified evangelical, or even someone sympathetic to our traditional values, has been apppointed to his nineteen-member Cabinet. Nor have we yet seen any self-professed evangelical Christian within the entire White House staff willing, shall we say, to ‘come out of the closet.’”
The NAE newsletter continues: “The liberal Washington Monthly magazine proffered an explanation in its cover story ‘Is the Religious Right All Wrong?’ Subtitled ‘Extremists grab the headlines, but America’s evangelicals have a message we all need to hear,’ author John Meacham’s article notes hostility to evangelical values. He says: ‘Even Clinton worries about protecting his liberal credentials. He did hold one meeting with ministers in Little Rock during the transition, and Billy Graham gave the benediction at the inauguration. But when the five-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, as moderate a part of the Religious Right as there is, invited Clinton to speak to its national convention in March, the President didn’t acknowledge the invitation.’ Transition team member the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, a former vice-president of the National Council of Churches [and now head of the NAACP], explained why with one word. ‘Irrelevancy . . . . It’s not because anyone is shutting the door in their face, but because their ideology increasingly does not apply to the American condition.’ America beyond sin, righteousness, and judgment? God’s Word irrelevant? We beg to differ.”
• Stanley Hoffmann, a Harvard professor in the front ranks of the world unitarians of our time, reviews Tzvetan Todorov’s On Human Diversity: Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought (Harvard University Press).The review ends on a melancholy note: “Todorov’s voice is the reasonable voice of the cosmopolitan exile. It is a voice that, so far, the screams of nationalist, xenophobic, and racialist prejudice often succeed in drowning out. Still, at the end of the day, when the atrocities in Bosnia and elsewhere make one despair of human perfectibility, of moderation, of a universal moral law based on reason, reading so fine, learned, and humane a book is, if not a consolation, at least a relief. Why are there so few Todorovs among the intellectuals of today?” Might the reason be that belief in human perfectibility has taken so many hard knocks over the last several thousand years? Just a thought, at the end of the day.
“The Gay Movement,” cover story in The Nation , May 3, 1993; article “Out and Organized” in the Sunday “Styles of the Times” section, New York Times , June 13, 1993. Garry Wills on America and Iraq, New York Post , June 25, 1993. Philip Gourevitch on the Holocaust Museum, Harper’s , July 1993. Review of Life’s Dominion, Washington Post , June 6, 1993. Jerome Kurtz on “electioneering” by religious groups, New York Times , May 17, 1993. On Davidian tapes, The New Republic , June 21, 1993.
While We’re At It: Rosemary Radford Ruether on the European “invasion” of the Americas, National Catholic Reporter , June 18, 1993. On Clinton administration and Evangelicals, Insight , June 1993. Stanley Hoffmann on Tzvetan Todorov in The New Republic , July 12, 1993.