I have received a fair amount of response to last week’s post on the rise of the anti-culture and the role of the Unholy Trinity of the entertainment industry, big business, and the law courts in the destruction of life as we have known it. Thus, I offer here a few further thoughts by way of clarification. I cannot respond to all my correspondents individually so have resolved the sane criticisms into two basic claims.
First, some claim that we still have a culture, though a very bad one. Yes, of course we do—if one defines culture as all that people do beyond those things merely necessary for physical existence. But a definition so broad as to include everything in general is of little help in explaining anything in particular, and such a trivial riposte scarcely dents my thesis. My point, building very particularly on the work of Philip Rieff, is that cultures are defined by what they forbid, especially what they forbid sexually. On this definition, ours is pretty much over, forbidding almost nothing in the sexual realm as long as there is “consent,” which is far too slight and tricky a concept upon which to maintain a culture.
Second, some claim I am a reactionary, merely being nostalgic and longing for a golden age. What about slavery? Or Jim Crow? Or the exploitation of child labour in the Industrial Revolution? Or the practice of suttee? Is my claim about the death of culture predicated upon a naïve belief that the past was a pastoral idyll?
Hardly. My own family experienced no such Golden Age. My grandparents grew up in serious poverty in England's industrial heartland. You can see the effects of long-term childhood malnutrition in my paternal grandfather’s face in his wedding photos. My maternal grandfather spent many nights in the early 1940s in a bomb shelter as the Luftwaffe tried to kill him, his wife, and his two young daughters—and that as the most culturally and technologically sophisticated nation in the world systematically murdered six million Jews. And I myself have no desire to go back to a world where there were no antibiotics, no flush toilets, and no live coverage of the Tour de France available via satellite in the US. Indeed, when it comes to the many gains, great and small, of the last one hundred years, I could hardly agree more with Tim Kane's recent review of Thomas Piketty. Further, as I have noted on this blog before, historical is not enough to make something good and true. That is the problem with certain Burkean conservatives: They often tend to assume the opposite and ignore or minimize the difficulties involved in deciding which bits of the past are worth keeping and which are better abandoned.
But having said all that, the point I want to make about our anti-culture is this: Even the possibility of having a discussion about what of the past is worth retaining and what is to be abandoned no longer exists. The cultural ethos of principled and civil disagreement upon which such dialogue depends is all but gone. The institutions which provide the structure for such have either vanished, been marginalized, been overwhelmed, or been transformed beyond recognition into mere agencies of the amoral tastes and preferences of the present as decided and then enforced by the Unholy Trinity. Sexual taboos are disappearing, with no real possibility that the confused category of consent will be able to hold back the tide against total sexual anarchy. These are new, unprecedented, and devastating developments which more than justify my use of the term “anti-culture,” given the large number of antitheses with the past which they represent. For what the culture (sic) of anti-culture involves is the conscious and comprehensive severing of the present from the past. Nostalgia is blind to the faults of the past. The anti-culture is blind to its strengths. Do some of my critics really think these are the only alternatives we should have available to us?
As one piece of evidence for the cultural (sic) dominance of this anti-culture, I would cite the rapid acceptance of transgenderism. Its move from the margins of society to the status of an unquestionable mainstream identity has been amazingly swift. Indeed, it is indicative of the depth and power of the anti-culture that so much of what (to use Tony Esolen’s phrase) “everybody believed the day before yesterday” has vanished so quickly. It is not, as in the past, that society is gradually modifying or abandoning some long-standing positions while retaining a basic cultural continuity with much of what has gone before. It is that we are witnessing (to repeat myself) a conscious, concerted, and comprehensive severing of ties with the past in order to overturn and then eradicate all traces of that past.
This is a widespread phenomenon, not confined to sexual ethics but to all aspects of the understanding of human personhood. Reading Wesley J. Smith’s book, Culture of Death, this weekend, I was struck by how he was describing in the realm of medical ethics precisely the same anti-culture that I have observed in the realm of sexual ethics. And the two are intimately connected: Both are part of a thoroughgoing redefinition of what it means to be human via, among other things, an annihilative repudiation of the past.
We can argue about who or what is to blame: Univocity, voluntarism, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Reformation Protestantism, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Communists, the Fascists, the Surrealists, the Sixties, information technology, pornography, consumerism, psychology—the list is endless. I have my own pet theory about the sinister role of disco music, mirror balls, and the Bee Gees. But seriously, whomever we blame, the situation is undeniable: The anti-culture reigns supreme and, lacking any real leverage with the Unholy Trinity, we are impotent to stop it at this point.
For the Christians out there who think I am wrong, that ‘the culture' does still exist and is there to be engaged and transformed, I actually do hope that you are right and I am wrong. I have no vested interest in the world going to the dogs. Quite the opposite. In fact, here is a suggestion: Do not waste time telling me I am wrong. Prove me wrong. Go out and “transform the culture” and then report back. But let me set some criteria for judging your success: Brewing Christian craft brews is not transforming the culture, nor is baking Christian pastries; And starting Christian schools does not count either—in fact, that could be interpreted as confirmation that the wider culture is dead. But so as not to set the bar too high in these admittedly difficult times, I will settle for something less than distinctively Christian as proof that I am wrong: A few successfully implemented state RFRAs; a Supreme Court which consistently upholds the value of life, marriage, and family; and an Attorney General who protects young girls from male flashers when using the bathrooms in their local schools. I look forward to eating my words. But in the interim I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t hold my breath.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.