I could hear the protesters down the street. They gathered in Union Square to demonstrate, then marched up Park Avenue, shouting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” The grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who shot Michael Brown in August, triggered marches and protests across the country. Here in New York, the grand jury decision not to indict the NYPD officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner added to the outcry and outrage.
One need not be outraged to be sympathetic to those who are. We all know that young black males are in the crosshairs of police. Nobody likes that fact. “Black lives matter!” President Obama agrees. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon agrees. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees. Nearly everyone agrees. When the general public agrees with protesters, it’s hard for their demonstrations to feel like significant challenges to “the system.”
Moreover, this is a call for change without a plan for change. “Stop the killing!” the protesters yell. Yes, but how? Some of the protest leaders demand that police wear lapel cameras to record their activities. Others want state or federal rather than local prosecutors to investigate when police use lethal force. Still others argue for more selective police recruiting, better training, and community-oriented policing that reduces confrontations and builds trust. Perhaps these are good ideas and we should implement them. But they’re certainly not revolutionary, and the basic dynamics that put young black men at risk won’t change.
Modern policing in major cities is driven by crime statistics, and violent crime rates are much higher in poor black neighborhoods than elsewhere. That means there are far more policemen in black neighborhoods. For this reason alone, young black men in urban areas have a significantly higher statistical likelihood of being killed by a policeman than do others. Whenever a policeman has his gun out of his holster, bad things can happen—very bad things.
There are many reasons for the high crime rates and dysfunctions of poor black communities. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman points out some root causes: “the shortage of stable families, steady incomes, good schools and safe streets.” These factors work against the development of middle-class virtues. I imagine most Americans agree.
Chapman also lays out the way forward: stable families, steady incomes, good schools, and safe streets. Here again I see profound sympathy. “Yes,” a super-majority of Americans say, “that’s exactly what’s needed.” But the need is more easily seen than met. Aside from safer streets, in recent decades the black community has gone backward, not forward. Good schools. Where is there hope when teachers’ unions block reforms? Steady incomes. How is this possible in black communities with catastrophically low labor participation rates? Steady families. How can we reverse growing rates of out-of-wedlock births and fatherless children?
I have profound admiration for people who are trying to answer these questions, some with a direct personal commitment to making a difference. But in some circumstances, our best efforts produce only small changes. When a protester insists, “Change! Now!” I often find myself thinking, “If only shouting could make it so.”
I don’t want to sound pessimistic. Police can do a better job. New York City police chief William Bratton significantly curtailed the confrontational “stop and frisk” policy when he took over in January 2014. He judged it an unnecessary method that eroded what little trust of police there is in the black community. He was right. Undoubtedly there are other changes in police tactics that can reduce the likelihood of police violence.
But there are powerful social trends that are almost certain to encourage aggressive policing, however well disciplined by good training and nuanced policies. Americans in general, especially well-educated and influential white Americans, have become increasingly intolerant of risk. The same impulse that puts a helmet on every child also puts pressure on police departments to adopt a paramilitary response to violent threats.
This creates today’s paradox. Even as crime rates have fallen, police departments have militarized, and the number of people killed by police has increased. Perhaps we feel more vulnerable because crime falls. Less frequent dangers are felt more acutely. Whatever the reason, middle-class America wants to eliminate as much risk as possible. This trend lends support to harsh police measures that (rightly or wrongly) promise to limit violent crime.
Our country knows about the terrible legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism. We know about the dysfunctions in the black community caused by illegitimacy, absent fathers, bad schools, unemployment, and violent crime. But we also know it’s not the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, segregated schools, denial of the vote, job discrimination, racial redlining, and other blatant forms of racial discrimination presented clear targets. Dramatic new possibilities were within our reach. This is no longer true. Requiring police to wear video cameras is very thin beer compared with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The smallness of what the protesters want reflects the social consensus today. When it comes to race, we feel boxed in by powerful social and cultural realities that we can’t easily fix. The protesters who staged a “die-in” at Grand Central Station don’t face a country hostile to their message. Instead, they face a widespread feeling of impotence and resignation. We can refine our approaches to policing. Improvements can be made on the margins—and we should make them. But it seems we cannot make much headway against the root causes that lead policemen to draw their guns so frequently in poor black neighborhoods.
Sex in the University
A similar sense of constrained circumstances and limited options hovers over the sex scandals rocking higher education. The Rolling Stone essay reporting a gang rape at a fraternity house at the University of Virginia has been called into question. The magazine’s editor allows, “In the face of new information, . . . there now appear to be discrepancies.” The Washington Post has pursued these “discrepancies” with diligence, lending more and more credence to the conclusion that a great deal of this sensational story is false.
But this has not diminished our awareness of the fact that the collegiate sex culture is often ugly, damaging, and abusive. In fact, it makes things worse. The now discredited Rolling Stone story was in almost every respect reassuring, too reassuring. It featured Bad Men at a Wicked, Patriarchal Institution (a fraternity!) who coerced, brutalized, and degraded a Vulnerable Young Woman. Now we know the truth is very likely quite different—and much more difficult to address.
Feminists and other activists want the Rolling Stone article to be true or, if not true, then a fitting emblem of the problem. They insist on speaking of a “rape epidemic” on college campuses. “Rape,” or the more qualified notion of “date rape,” appeals because it focuses attention on coercion. This allows us to describe the problem in a simple way: Young college women are being forced to have sex they don’t consent to.
It’s not just the activists who want the problem to be all about consent. The sexual revolution has insisted on the irrationality of old sexual taboos. It’s a dogma on nearly all college campuses—a dogma insisted upon by the adults who run them, not one emanating from hormone-infused students—that all sexual choices are legitimate. We’re to enjoy sexual freedom, and the only limit we should place on sexual relations is consent. Therefore, if there’s a problem, it must be a lack of consent.
By this way of thinking, it’s okay for a guy to go to a party, meet a girl for the first time, and an hour later have sexual intercourse with her—as long as they both consent. In fact, by this way of thinking it’s okay for a girl to round up a few guys and have sex with them all—as long as everybody’s good with the idea. Hey, who I am to judge?
The problem is that the principle of consent isn’t working. This should come as no surprise. Seduction is an age-old art, one developed to secure consent from someone initially disinclined. It draws on the fact that we are physical and social beings, not pure intellects or isolated monads capable of serenely considering what we truly and properly desire. The seducer knows how to inflame passions, create a false feeling of an emotional bond, and exploit social pressures, all to his advantage. Seducers also know the truth captured in Ogden Nash’s pithy formulation: “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”
There are seductresses as well as seducers, of course, but they’re not a matter of concern in today’s uproar about sexual assault by otherwise well-disciplined, high-achieving male college students. Nobody is complaining about very drunk college men being drawn into sexual relations that they don’t want and end up regretting. (In spite of crude clichés about men, this does happen.) This fact points to something else that’s not working: the dogma that men and women are the same.
Then there’s a final element of sexual orthodoxy that’s not working. It’s the one that teaches that sex is an innocent, natural act for the sake of the mutual exchange of pleasure. This dogma makes it impossible to talk about the actual harm women experience in today’s often dysfunctional sexual culture. Why, for example, do we think it’s a greater harm for a female Yale undergrad to be drawn into having oral sex with a male undergrad, even though she knows she does not want to, than it is for her to be seduced by an aggressive and unscrupulous salesman into buying a $1,000 dress she can’t afford? Why is nobody demonstrating in front of Bloomingdale’s? “Stop the abuse!” It’s because sex is an existentially potent human act, for good and ill. But we’re not allowed to say that because, if spoken, many of the old sexual taboos begin to find a basis in reason.
Anyone who doesn’t either deny that we have a problem or take refuge in simplistic feminist pieties has to feel that our options are severely limited. We can’t talk about the harms caused by sexual encounters that are making many young women miserable and some deeply damaged, because our official ideology of sex tells us that sexual acts have no intrinsic moral meaning. That ideology can’t and won’t change, at least not anytime soon. It’s a crucial commitment of the sexual revolution. We can’t talk about the unique vulnerability of women to these harms, for to do so would threaten another important commitment. We can’t speak of a moral limitation on sexual relations other than consent, for to do so would threaten the sexual ideology of our time at its most fundamental level.
The university is the magisterium of this sexual ideology and enforces its orthodoxies. There are small movements of dissent. The Anscombe Society is a student group at Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, and elsewhere that promotes the heresy that sex should be reserved for marriage. But these are student voices. The adults who run things can’t dissent from the dogmas of the sexual revolution. A university administrator who suggests that men and women are different in ways that should shape our understanding of sexual morality will be denounced immediately. The same goes for suggesting that sexual acts have intrinsic moral meaning. Gay activists know where that leads.
So we’re stuck with the concept of consent. As I discussed in the November 2014 “Public Square” (“From Morality to Policy”), political pressure is being brought to bear on higher education. It requires defining consent in the most rigorous possible way. There must be an explicit “Yes” to an explicit proposal for specific sexual acts. Nobody is proposing that signatures need to be notarized. But detailed guidelines are being written.
We know this regulatory approach runs counter to the realities of intimate human interactions. Sexual relations are not like commercial transactions. We also know it’s a policy undermined by the pervasive role of alcohol in all this. But it’s all we’ll get for the foreseeable future.
Again, I don’t want to sound a purely pessimistic note. Just as I support policies promoting better policing and greater trust in the black community, I’m in favor of stricter rules for consent in the sexual culture on today’s college campuses. It will improve things somewhat, one hopes.
These stricter rules will create a functional inequality between men and women. That’s because there’s no uproar about women failing to secure consent from their male partners. Thus, the proposed new regulations put all the pressure on the man to make sure the woman gives explicit consent. As Heather Mac Donald astutely observes in her Weekly Standard article “Neo-Victorianism on Campus,” upping standards of consent will make men uniquely responsible for ensuring that a “yes is a yes.”
It’s tempting for us to think that holding men more responsible is unfair. Aren’t men and women to be treated equally in all things? This is a mistake. When it comes to sexual relations, men and women are different in morally significant ways. So it’s not unfair to assign to them different roles and responsibilities.
The uproar over sexual assault on college campuses—an uproar exclusively over the sexual assault of women—exposes the impoverished moral vocabulary permitted by today’s sexual orthodoxy. In spite of that poverty, however, we’re backing our way into a traditional way of thinking, which is ironic given our official sexual ideology though perhaps a sign of the times. Young men must not take advantage of vulnerable young women but instead guard their virtue. Nobody is allowed to say that at the University of Virginia or elsewhere, but it’s the functional meaning of a rigorous “yes is a yes” policy. Of course, the motive is now fear of punishment (caveat emptor!), not honor. And the virtue being protected? It’s the minimal purity of saying there’s something wrong with sex engaged in by drunk girls who feel a great deal of social pressure to “put out.” Neither is traditional. But at least it’s a small move in the right direction.
I’m sure what I’ve written above will make some irate. As I’ve discovered over the last couple of years, a virtual mob stands at the ready in social media. It pounces on “racists,” “homophobes,” “voices of patriarchy,” and other “haters.” This has expanded the academic culture of policing speech into journalism. How dare I, a white man, write about the problems in the black community? Reno is “blaming the victim”! How dare I make presumptions about the differences between men and women?
I dare because we can’t solve problems we refuse to identify and are not permitted to talk about. Consider this example. When asked about the grand jury decision not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson after he shot and killed Michael Brown, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke of a breakdown of trust between minority communities and police.
Communities? There is no crisis of police violence in Chinatown, nor among Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Guyanese immigrants in Richmond Hill, Queens, or Mexican immigrants in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Today’s breakdown of trust concerns the African-American community and its uniquely bad relations with police. The lives of young black males matter, so surely we need to face the hard realities that are putting them at risk rather than deflecting attention with talk of “minority communities.”
More than race is being policed. University officials go to great lengths to avoid addressing the fact that sexual assault on their campuses stems in part from the unique vulnerability of women. The upshot is a similar unreality. And, again, if we care about their well-being rather than political correctness, don’t we need the courage to discuss what’s really going on?
American progressivism is technocratic and managerial. Keynesianism in economics has been attractive to this mindset. But the real economy turns out to be too complex to manage, and today’s progressives are for the most part chastened neo-liberals, which means they are reluctantly reconciled to the limitations of macro-economic efforts to guide economic relations.
But progressives are optimistic about culture. Political correctness is part of a cultural Keynesianism, a fantasy that we can engineer a more inclusive and just society by carefully regulating speech and behavior. It’s this conceit that makes the denouncers so sanctimonious. It’s also this conceit that encourages mainstream liberals to accommodate the denouncers, excusing their excesses as understandable impatience or admirable zeal—liberals in a hurry, to use the old phrase.
Economic Keynesianism led to stagnation. I fear the same is increasingly true of cultural Keynesianism. I’m quite sure that Eric Holder seeks what is best not just for black Americans but for all Americans. But he’s stuck in a “white America versus minority America” narrative. It made sense in the 1960s when minority largely meant black—and the dynamic of white versus black was all too real. But it makes little sense today. The same goes for the instant default of many to “male privilege” when talking about the sexual assault problem among undergraduates. When 60 percent of all college students are female, the whole question of “privilege” is “complexified,” as the postmodern professors like to say.
Our culture is changing. It is always changing. The widespread acceptance of homosexuality is an obvious instance of this change. But the permitted vocabulary to talk about this and other changes (or lack of change) has become rigid and fixed and heavily policed by denouncers. At some point, we’ll have to recognize that our heavily regulated cultural conversation is no longer about what we’re actually experiencing. May that time come soon.
Karl Rahner was the most influential theologian after Vatican II. The shorthand way of summarizing the great German Jesuit’s approach is to say that he expressed the theology of Thomas Aquinas with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. That’s not very helpful if you don’t know Aquinas’s theology or Kant’s philosophy. So it’s more useful to describe Rahner’s approach in historical terms. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White puts it in a recent article (“The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought that Shape Contemporary Dogmatic Theology”), Rahner sought “to recast Catholic thinking in a distinctively modern idiom, so that traditional teachings might seem relevant to an increasingly secularized European culture.”
What, then, is the modern idiom? Some say existentialism, others historical consciousness, and still others a sociological outlook. What unites them all is a critical understanding or knowingness that takes priority over believing or knowing. When asked why he believes something to be true, a modern person answers by pointing to a process, system, or mode of knowing rather than to a principle, premise, or precept.
For example, Kant thought we hold our specific beliefs to be true because doing so is the condition for the possibility of believing anything to be true. Metaphysics (truth as correspondence to reality) therefore emerges out of a more primary reflection on the phenomena of consciousness: willing, affirming, believing. Put somewhat differently, a Kantian—and all moderns are Kantians in this sense—ties truth closely to the critical understanding of a human activity.
Hegel makes this explicit: Human history is the process through which truth reveals itself. We believe what we believe because we live in this or that historical moment. As a consequence, a critical knowledge of the historical character of all truth claims is more fundamental than affirming any particular truths. For a Hegelian, it is more important to know oneself to be a product of the modern era than to know, for example, that human beings have basic human rights, for the latter emerges out of the former. Higher education almost always trains us to be Hegelians in this sense: Historical consciousness is the highest achievement. We see this especially in biblical studies: It’s thought to be far more important to inculcate into students an awareness of the historical character of the Bible than to convey any particular biblical teaching.
Socio-biologists and others who use evolutionary theory to explain culture are immanent Hegelians. We believe what we believe because what we call “truth” emerges from brains shaped to promote the propagation of our DNA. Again, a critical understanding of the evolutionary process reflects a deeper truth than knowing any particular truth.
So-called postmodernists are inverted Hegelians. They see truth as socially constructed. We believe what we believe because of the many conspiracies of the powerful that fabricate “metanarratives” to serve their interests. Here the knowingness is obvious. We demystify and deconstruct “truth” when we critically understand its “true” sources. Achieving this critical understanding is the great goal of the intellectual life.
Rahner did not adopt any of these approaches. He was an ad hoc thinker. But he was nevertheless thoroughly modern and wanted to reframe theology in terms of critical understanding or knowingness. It would be tedious to spell this out. It’s enough to observe that in Rahner’s most influential work, he shows how classical Christian doctrine expresses, even enhances, our experience of being human. The truth of Christianity is thus seen in the way its teaching, properly interpreted, reinforces our critical understanding of our experience.
As White points out, the Kantian philosophy Rahner drew from has fallen out of style. That has not prevented Rahnerianism from taking on new forms. American Rahnerians shift toward human activities like promoting justice, seeking to show how classical Christian doctrine expresses, even enhances, our efforts to promote justice. The same can be done with therapeutic ideals of self-affirmation or liberation. In fact, one can become a postmodern Rahnerian by showing how Christ’s weakness on the cross expresses, even enhances, our critical understanding of the oppressive role of “metanarratives.”
This approach remains dominant in academic theology. The overwhelming majority of university-based Catholic theologians put knowingness at the center of their projects. This means that no matter how pious they may be or how traditional their terminology, getting Christianity right requires seeing it in light of the critical understanding of a human activity: self-consciousness, doing justice, achieving full personhood by affirming our sexual identities, and so forth. They are not strict Rahnerians, but they are functional Rahnerians.
The theological culture of the seminaries is different. Although Rahnerianism was all the rage after Vatican II, it now exercises little influence. Wittingly or unwittingly, Rahnerians are committed to the modern approach to truth. They make critical understanding more important than the specific propositions we affirm as true. This invariably collides with Christianity. Faith turns on knowing Christ, and in him all other truths are more fully known. But he is not the critical understanding of self-consciousness, doing justice, or living authentically. Nor is he historical consciousness or knowledge of the evolutionary process. He is a particular person.