Cautions About Utopia
I was much intrigued by the Patrick Glynn-Glenn Tinder exchange (“Time for Utopia?” March). As I read Mr. Glynn’s rather buoyant piece, I wondered whether the citizens of Sarajevo or Grozny (what is left of it-and them) would want to join the party. To be sure, there have been remarkable advances in the treatment of previously excluded groups. We are more “handicap accessible” and less racially exclusive than we used to be: the “we” in question being the United States. But the gulf between the earthly and heavenly cities, between Bonhoeffer’s penultimate and ultimate realms, is by no means closing. For every advance one can point to a developing tragedy. For example: the teenage suicide rate in the United States has soared 154 percent from 1985 to 1991. There are plenty of dire statistics of this sort, all of them challenging a rush toward utopian congratulation. My worry about the utopian tendency, or Mr. Glynn’s utopian prospects, is not so much that he will pitch himself into the arms of one of those deadly ideologies whose primary monument is mounds of bodies, but that the tendency he underscores may invite an unwarranted insouciance concerning where we are and where we are going. Peaceful 1989 may have been. But the drama is far more complex than he allows. Communist parties are making a resurgence in Hungary and Poland. Yeltsin is on the ropes, and behaving horribly, in Russia. We Americans are busy hunkering down into monocultural shouting matches in the name of multiculturalism. I appreciate the fact that I, as a “post-polio person,” can find elevators where there were none and that my daughter, a young adult with mental retardation, is less likely now than when she was a child to be called a “retard” to her face. That is significant. But this is an occasion for hope and gratitude, not for flight into utopian optimism. Albert Camus, evoked by Mr. Tinder, faced down charges from Jean-Paul Sartre that he was a gloomy pessimist because he didn’t share Sartre’s love of dictatorships as a way station to perfect justice and freedom by arguing that to label sober reflection “pessimistic” was puerile. He would remain, he said, pessimistic as to history but optimistic as to man or, better put, the human person. That sort of commitment is open to hope but resolutely critical of utopianism, whether of the left or the right.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
University of Chicago
Patrick Glynn’s Christian utopianism strikes me, perhaps unfairly, as a pipe dream. It is not that no moral progress can be made in history. Societies can get better and sometimes do, but only if people get better on a sufficiently large scale. There is no law of history that guarantees or even suggests that they will get better and remain so.
I remember reading somewhere that every generation is faced with a new invasion of the barbarians-its own children. The battle to civilize them and to lead them to salvation is unending, and not always successful. The present generation is as good an illustration of this truth as any in history.
Society and its institutions can corrupt individuals; they can also help them to grow morally and spiritually. But ultimately moral growth or decay depends on the choices of free persons. So, in the final analysis, does the moral improvement or decline of social institutions; they can become better, but not unless people make them so. Progress in history is the result of individual conversions to the good.
One may believe, as I most certainly do, that people will make good choices only with the help of God and the aid of His grace. But, as St. Angela Merici said some 450 years ago, “God has given everyone liberty, and therefore He compels no one, but only points the way, calls, and persuades.” Without our consent, societies do not become good-and I know of no law by which we can predict human choices.
Francis Canavan, S.J.
Patrick Glynn revisits utopia during a particularly eupeptic mood and who can blame him? He fought the good fight when it was hard. Lots of the central evils he-and we-faced not long ago have disappeared with the Cold War and there would be something wrong with us if we did not feel some relief.
But, politics aside for the moment, he seems on the verge of identifying good political regimes with the beatific vision. Earth is not heaven, and even as we are marvelling at what seems to be the absence of political, moral, or emotional conflict, the tide is always either on the way out or the way in. When Pascal said that the whole tragedy of man stems from his inability to sit alone, quiet in a room, he wasn’t lamenting our general inaptitude as a race for the Trappists. History cannot end unless we liquidate the human heart.
I find Glenn Tinder’s Augustinianism-cum-limited-progress more congenial, but perhaps we should not forget another dimension of this subject.
Alongside the progressive/utopian and anti-utopian traditions lies another, both biblical and civic humanist, about human nature. Psalm 49:19-20 warns us (in the trenchant version of the Jerusalem Bible): “Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence: he is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter.” Similarly, figures as different as Polybius, Machiavelli, and Gibbon (along with many other not wholly foolish historians) have thought we were condemned to an endless, three-fold cycle: virtue in action leading to order and prosperity, corruption as virtue grows soft amid luxuries, and, finally, a new development of virtue in confrontation with hardship. The civic humanists, more than the authors of the Psalms, seem to think the cycle of rise and fall is a virtual historical law. Nothing about human nature is absolutely determined, and the humanists need not be taken as inspired oracles. But it is at least unwise to ignore converging wisdom from such sacred and profane sources.
The psalmists and the civic humanists never studied social science at a modern university, so they probably would agree with Glenn Tinder that there is no material reason today why high culture and popular culture cannot be the same. What has happened to “culture”-that much-vexed term-in advanced societies is still too close to us to be accurately analyzed. But one thing is clear: popular culture was “higher” fifty years ago, for all its material impoverishment. Frank Sinatra was hip and elegant; Pearl Jam is slick and slithery. This is more than a matter of style or aesthetics. Some civilizational shock wave has spread through all modern societies . . . .
Thanks to social innovations, we now have universal education, counseling, job placement, therapy, extension courses, and even Public Television. But will the humane achievements Glynn notes survive the decay of the humanities? If some evils like slavery and limits on the size of manageable democracies have been overcome by modern technology and political discoveries, others have been introduced. It remains to be seen whether technology and wealth, for example, can survive the breakdown of family, the covert violence of abortion, the growing illegitimacy that seem to have invaded every developed country.
Progress in any field is a Good Thing, especially if we can tell whether we’ve really made progress or not. Robert Royal
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Patrick Glynn states that “the egotistical values of the earthly city are yielding to the agape-based values of the heavenly city.” He wonders whether any “would deny that our institutions and political assumptions are kinder and more humane today than they were a century ago, let alone three centuries ago.”
How does he explain the reappearance of old brutalities in this kinder and gentler world he sees emerging? Hippocrates recognized the wrong of abortion and physician-assisted suicide when he formulated the physician’s oath a few hundred years before the birth of Christ. Abortion and suicide were abolished by law in Christian countries by the end of the Middle Ages. It was only in 1973 that the current American holocaust-
1.5 million of our most vulnerable citizens destroyed each year by abortion, 98 percent because they are inconvenient or unwanted-became legal. It was in 1993 that the ban on federal funding for the harvesting of fetal tissue for transplantation and research was removed. It was only last year that one of our states voted to allow physician-assisted suicide. Also just this past year, the National Institutes of Health recommended federal funding for the creation of and experimentation upon human embryos.
Did Mr. Glynn simply overlook this new disrespect for human life or have these developments been too easily subsumed under his statement that we are “a long way from realizing the kingdom of heaven on earth”? This tendency not to see what is most barbaric and uncivilized about ourselves seems to me a prime reason we must be cautious about clinging to notions of generalized spiritual progress.
Carrie M. Griffith
The Good Life?
In his “A Dutch Master and the Good Life” (March), Philip Bess weaves a splendid tapestry of cities, communities, morality, natural law, nature, and architecture. Every tapestry has an edge, every tapestry a tone. The article’s tone is “genuinely modest,” as Mr. Bess avers, suggesting that architects and religious leaders hunker down together to see whether religious communities could once against be instrumental in the creation of towns and cities. While lauding this idea and applauding the tapestry, I think the tone may be too modest by half. It is too modest precisely because the tapestry is cut short, if you will, or perhaps left with a gaping hole, giving Mr. Bess’s essay a “holiness” that abets the status quo. Relying on intuitions he probably shares with most of his readers, Mr. Bess states that the “juxtaposition” of Eden and Jerusalem is a proper, rational, and moral objective of human communities, while their “conflation” in the American suburban ideal “is not irrational in desire or immoral in intent, but rather a false and unrealizable promise because its very ‘success’ makes impossible, both physically and socially, the good life that it promises.” I find myself in agreement with Mr. Bess’s perspectives but disappointed that he does not elaborate on why the American suburban ideal is evil. What does “conflation” amount to and, more importantly, why has the American city taken the sprawling shape that it has? Why is the American suburb a beast devouring the good life? I would suggest that Mr. Bess needs to give more thought to the American political economy of public roadways. The extensive subsidies provided American roadway users fuel the development of an urban landscape that is, indeed, socially and physically dysfunctional but that makes producers and users of automobiles very happy, indeed. The existence of a system of motoring subsidies is largely ignored by American society and hotly denied when infrequently discussed. (A few years ago a World Resources Institute report suggested the subsidy to American motoring amounted to $30
0 billion per year, a suggestion that has not entered American political discourse.) . . .
Timothy R. Jorgenson
STRONG> Philip Bess replies:
Mr. Jorgenson’s questions touch upon important issues pertaining to cars, suburbs, and the prospects for a revived traditional urbanism in a free and democratic society. Post-World War II prosperity-nothing to sneer at-and the automobile have made suburbia the definition of an achievable good life for tens of millions of Americans. In that achievement, however, the automobile, which made the postwar suburb possible, has become its sine qua non-even as it has ironically caused both the consumption of the landscape that was an original object of desire and the creation of traffic congestion equal to any city’s but without the city’s redeeming pedestrian qualities. The result has been an ongoing transformation of the physical environment: away from crowded cities containing a mix of pedestrian-proximate uses and relieved by open space (both in the city as parks and public gardens; and beyond the city as open landscape), toward today’s unhappy conflation of city and landscape that has resulted in the condition commonly known as “sprawl.” I therefore do indeed regard the current suburban condition-and the fact that the making of it has become a cultural habit, of which highway subsidies are a symptom-as both environmentally and culturally unfortunate. Nevertheless, I am reluctant to call suburbia (or suburbanites) unambiguously evil, because I see suburbia’s (and our larger community’s) problems as an unintended consequence of a legitimate desire and a genuine good: the freedom of mobility originally promised by the automobile. The good news is that if I am correct, a renewal of the physical patterns of traditional urban neighborhood and small town living would not only restore an effective pedestrian mobility now denied to suburbanites too young, too old, too poor, or too infirm to drive, but well might better fulfill the automobile’s original promise for those who do drive. Ugly Americans
Many thanks for George Weigel’s article about the Cairo population conference (“What Really Happened at Cairo,” February). All that happened while I was in transit between Uganda, where I had been living for two years, and the U.S. Everyone should live abroad for a while; it forces one to realize just how aberrant American culture has become, and how ugly our determination to export it to the rest of the world is. This recognition crept up on me in odd places, like a school fair. Every year in what we call “spring” in North America (southern Uganda is 75 degrees and sunny year round) the International School in Kampala has a fair. My first year there I took my housekeeper’s five children to the fair, and after I parked my car two women from the “official” American community, that is, diplomats, pounced on me. “Whose children are those?” asked one. “My housekeeper’s.” “Good heavens! I hope you’ve had a talk with her about birth control!” declared the other. Typical American response. In fact, I had not had a talk with Madiina about birth control, because she is a grown woman with considerable intelligence and self-respect, and I didn’t think it was any of my business. Many of the expatriate women thought it was their job to westernize their female domestics-getting them to use birth control and write wills and so on-good things, certainly, if done right. But I was determined not to impose my ideas on African friends and colleagues. For this I was often scolded-by Americans. I refused to use my connections to the Church of Uganda (Anglican) to pester them about participating in condom distribution to deal with AIDS. I lectured my students at Makerere University on abstinence and monogamy (Uganda has a tradition of polygamy). The government-sponsored newspaper published letters from my husband and me explaining Christian sexual morality. And my housekeeper, when we did talk about sex, didn’t need to know about birth control; she wanted to know how to say “no.” I came to realize in my two years in Uganda what African women really want: to be empowered with a sense of moral agency, to be able to refuse sex and have their cultures honor them for it. What the population gang offers them is a continuation of their subservience, with condoms. And maybe abortion. What a choice.
(The Rev.) Bonnie Shullenberger
A Prescription Without Promise
In “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” (March), the commentators largely join author Mark Noll in ratifying a presciption that has no promise. Their argument is that evangelicals have “abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of high culture,” and prescribes that they “confront the whole spectrum of modern learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philosophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts.” With the exception of economics, which remains curiously modernist, all of these fields are entrenched bastions of postmodernism. One fails to see what advantage, or incentive, there is for the premodern orthodox, including evangelicals, to join in the intellectual “playfulness” engaged in in these scholarly “sandboxes.” To what purpose? To develop “counter-deconstruction”? To formulate “re-privileging”? . . .
I am neither a Muslim, Buddhist, Confucianist, “Californicating New Ager,” or ACLUist, all of whom you listed as imagined opponents of a presidential proclamation bearing the phrase “In the year of Our Lord” (While We’re At It [February]). I am, however, a Jew, and I’m glad the phrase is gone. It’s one thing to oppose the “secularization of the public square” (I, for one, welcome the hiring of a lone Senate chaplain, assuming he or she will point Senators and staffers in need of spiritual guidance to the appropriate clergy or counselor, as the case may be). But I am offended by, yes, the “particularity” of “In the year of Our Lord.” Let’s face it: you and I know which lord we’re talking about, and it’s not some all-encompassing Creator whose covenant we can all sign on to. The phrase has a clear meaning: “in a year as reckoned from the birth of Jesus,” according to the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary . My people spent the last 1,995 years resisting those who would have us accept Jesus as “Our Lord,” and we paid a price. That we, like much of the rest of the world, eventually accepted the Gregorian calendar (at least in our secular transactions) was a bow toward expediency. I don’t need my government rubbing my nose in it.
In connection with your recent item about Brigham Young University’s non-showing of Schindler’s List (While We’re At It [February]), once in awhile a stray news item comes along filled with such stupidity that I find it almost impossible to comprehend. That happened when I read of the decision by BYU officials to scuttle an on-campus screening of the film unless the filmmaker snip out “the starkness, the nudity, the violence.” Apparently, they had a Saturday morning version of the Holocaust in mind. Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg said no. Not to worry. Schindler’s List has had a successful run in Provo and throughout Utah, and any BYU student who wanted to see the film intact could have done so at a local cineplex. So censorship is not the issue here. The supremely bad judgment of the caretakers of twenty-five thousand adult college students is the issue, and though understandably BYU would like to put this matter to rest, I cannot allow that without a parting shot . . . . That any university, which, as the term implies, should open up the universe to its students, would react so close-mindedly, is wrong. That a religious university, ostensibly founded on abiding moral principles, would do so is unconscionable. Even the 700 Club, Pat Robertson’s ultraconservative national religious program, which as a matter of policy refuses to endorse R-rated films, pronounced the release of Schindler’s List a seminal moment in film history and urged its adherents to see it, so strong is its commentary on good and evil (remember, the film venerates a Christian savior of Jews) . . . . No matter what anyone says, no matter how much ranting and raving from outsiders, the Mormon Church will evolve at its own pace. Even so, I would encourage Church leaders to take a long hard look at their actions regarding Schindlergate, and perhaps indulge in a little quiet reflection. Out of the chaos of life, we all crave guidance, direction, and purpose. Religions are in the business of teaching people how to live. Culture too can provide a vital adjunct, a film like Schindler’s List being a prime example. It is nothing short of sacrilege to order tomorrow’s leaders to turn away from it. So, to the leadership of BYU, I offer this simple recommendation: waive your abstention from caffeine just this once, and consider an intravenous coffee drip. It’s time to wake up.
Los Angeles, CA
With Friends Like This . . .
Concerning Richard John Neuhaus’ feisty, if occasionally good-natured, attack on my book The Human Body Shop (“Capitalism and the Kindness that Kills,” The Public Square, January), I feel some corrections are in order. At the outset Father Neuhaus refers to a purported “howler” in my book. When commenting on the symbolic role of blood in many religious traditions, I refer to Christ’s blood being transformed into sacramental drink as a central aspect of the Christian tradition. A strange claim of “reverse transubstantiation,” suggests Neuhaus. Is Christ guilty of the same “howler” when He proclaims (John 6:55), “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed”? If that be reverse transubstantiation, so be it. Next, Father Neuhaus takes me to task for urging “a moratorium on the use of induced abortion fetuses for transplantation and research until the profound ethical and legal problems are fully discussed and resolved.” Neuhaus would prefer an outright ban. So would I. However, in the book I recommended a moratorium because, at the time of my writing the book, accomplishing this biopolicy would have required merely an addition to, and extension of, the Reagan-Bush moratorium on federally funded fetal tissue research. As such, it was and remains the legislation with the most realistic chance of keeping the fetal tissue industry at bay . . . . Neuhaus continues by implicitly accusing me of not opposing the creation of genetically engineered “humanoids.” This is also mistaken. In the book I recommend a ban on the germline alteration of human beings and a complete ban on the cloning of human beings. As for genetically engineered animals-animals engineered to contain a gene from another species, including the putting of human genes into animals-these transgenic animals are in no sense “humanoids.” Regardless, I also strongly oppose the creation of transgenic animals and recommend a complete ban on patenting such animals. I also recommend a moratorium on this animal research (much of it federally funded) pending a full public debate of its ethical and environmental consequences. Finally I am equated with “vulgar Marxists” and “Eco-freaks” because I attack a market system gone out of control, one that has allowed the sale of blood, organs, fetuses, sperm, and human ova, the renting of the wombs of surrogate mothers, the patenting of human cells, genes, and genetically engineered animals, and a new industry in eugenic abortions. Even a superficial reading of my book, however, makes it clear that I criticize the market system’s invasion of the human body not as a Marxist but as a defender of the Judeo-Christian, sacred view of the body. The concluding line of my book reads, “We must finally understand that the human body shop injures not only individual victims, but the very image of the sacred.” Vulgar Marxism? Hardly. One wonders why instead of attacking allies such as myself who are fighting and litigating against the human body shop and the new eugenics, Neuhaus does not save his venom for his fellow neoconservatives in Congress and in state legislatures-vulgar pro-market advocates who vote for surrogate motherhood, fetal research, and animal patenting and who approve funding for the many terrible experiments described in my book. Where, for example, is Neuhaus’ editorial attacking neoconservative judges such as Richard Posner who openly advocate the sale of babies? . . .
Richard John Neuhaus replies:
After two editions of his book and after having it publicly called to his attention, it seems Mr. Kimbrell has still not checked out the howler in question. What he wrote in the book is not what he writes in his letter. At the risk of embarrassing him further, this is what he wrote in The Human Body Shop : “Blood also plays a central role in the Christian sacramental traditions, where it is transformed into wine and consumed as the essence of life, the very presence of ‘the living God.’“ That does sound very much like “reverse transubstantiation.” As for fetal transplantation and related experimentation, I believe a ban is politically feasible and morally imperative. I do not implicitly accuse Mr. Kimbrell of not opposing the creation of genetically engineered “humanoids.” Why he infers such an accusation is beyond me. Readers may consult either the book or the quotations in my commentary to judge whether Mr. Kimbrell attacks the market economy in a manner that is aptly described as “vulgar Marxism.” Finally, I don’t know who the “neoconservatives” are that Mr. Kimbrell has in mind, but, to judge by his description, they must be an awful bunch and quite unlike the neoconservatives I know. Since Judge Richard Posner’s ideas could hardly be further removed from my own, it never occurred to me that there might be any reason to publicly dissociate myself from him or them. Anyway, life is short and space is limited and there are so many people needing to be attacked. Judge Posner will just have to wait his turn. Finally finally, I do recognize that Andrew Kimbrell is an ally in opposing the human body shop and the new eugenics. That is what I said in my commentary. Correction:
“Babies and Body Parts” by Paul C. Fox (December 1994) incorrectly attributed to the American Civil Liberties Union a statement from the family’s legal brief asking that an anencephalic child be declared legally dead. We regret the error.
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