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60The New Intolerancehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/03/the-new-intolerance
Sun, 01 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0500In November, Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a speech at the Catholic University of America in which he said, “Mercy has become the theme of [Pope Francis’s] pontificate. . . . With this theme, Pope Francis has addressed countless individuals, both within and without the Church. . . . He has moved them intensely, and pierced their hearts.” The cardinal added, “Who among us does not depend on mercy? On the mercy of God, and of merciful fellow man?”
Thu, 01 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0400The mariners of the sixteenth century could not have imagined that people would ever cross the ocean in anything but a ship. Not only technological facts but also moral facts can seem impervious to change. In many sophisticated precincts into the nineteenth century, few objected to child labor, now almost universally scorned.
Mon, 01 Nov 2010 00:00:00 -0400 Cynics will say it was ever thus, and this time the cynics will be wrong. There are indeed some new things under the sun or—perhaps more accurately, given the nocturnal nature of the beast—under the moon in higher education these days. Welcome to the halls of Toxic U, a school of experiential learning to which parents are never invited. Toxic U is not always visible; many students aren’t even aware of it day to day. It exists in a kind of shadow world, entered itinerantly from one’s dorm room through something like a looking glass—or, more likely, through that first accepted Facebook invitation to what turns out to be the wildest party on a given Saturday night. Often, that’s how the newbies matriculate.
Every autumn, as regularly as bells chime in campus clock towers, some unknown number of the fresh and the young and the promising slip through that modern looking glass onto a different quad. It features things that many have never known before and from which no one in authority can protect them now. At Toxic U there are no authorities; instead, there are predators and prey. By day, its students look like everyone else on their campuses—talented, hopeful, and privileged beneficiaries of the finest universities and colleges in the world. By night, on that other quad, some would be as unrecognizable as werewolves to the people with whom they have hitherto spent their lives.
With the exception of a glimpse via Tom Wolfe’s brilliant, underrated 2004 novel,
I Am Charlotte Simmons—
which paints, in extraordinary detail, the step-by-step descent into just such a world of a naive young girl on scholarship and in search of social status at a prestigious school”this is barely charted terrain. Once in a while, one or another relevant new study pops up, such as the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) study reporting that an eye-opening 19 percent of college women said they had experienced “completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college,” or any number of other studies showing that binge drinking and heavy alcohol use are higher among college students, male and female, than in the noncollege population. More often, other such studies don’t make the headlines they should. One 2004 study in the
American Journal of Preventive Medicine
, for example, shows that either having sex or taking drugs or both significantly raises the risk for suicide and depression in young people and that adolescents who do not have sex or do drugs are at low risk for suicide and depression. Such glimpses behind the facade of Toxic U quickly pass, however. Soon enough, no one’s looking, and the traffic back and forth from the day campus to the nocturnal one goes on as usual.
It’s not as if parents don’t have reasons—sometimes hundreds of thousands of reasons—to look the other way.
Everybody’s a little wild in college
, we all tell ourselves;
it’s part of growing up
Besides, who am I to talk? And, anyway, my Jennifer or Jason is no one to worry about
. Clinging to one such consoling monologue or another, many parents will know little or nothing of their children’s extracurricular life after that tearful goodbye in late August at the hugging tree.
Of course many mothers and fathers—fortunate souls—will not have to worry about Toxic U at all. Similarly, many students will thrive in their four years on campus—and how could they not? American colleges and universities, at their best, remain among the most glorious and thrilling places on earth. Plenty will graduate exactly as was promised—as the beneficiaries of expanded intellectual, social, and other horizons, replete with fond memories and enriched understanding—and with dignity and sense of self intact.
This essay is not about those students. It is, instead, about those who, like Charlotte Simmons, arrive naive to Toxic U, have experiences antithetical to those of the students who thrive, and exit four years later exploited and changed for the worse.
I Am Charlotte Simmons
is fiction at its best—meaning that the existence of real people like Charlotte has become an increasingly well-documented and depressing fact.
Begin with one of Toxic U’s defining pastimes: binge drinking. College students today drink far more heavily than most of their parents will remember—or believe. A 2007 report from the U.S. Surgeon General notes that around 80 percent of students drinks alcohol; no surprise there. But 40 percent of students reports binge drinking, defined by the Centers for Disease Control as at least five or more drinks in under two hours for men and four or more for women. And remember: Those numbers are just the minimum definitions of binge drinking. Furthermore, one in five students engages in “frequent episodic heavy consumption,” which is defined as having binged three or more times over the preceding two weeks. As drinking increases on campus, so do fatalities. According to a 2009 article in the
Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs
, “Alcohol-related deaths among college students ages 18-24 rose from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005,” the last year for which the researchers had data. The problem appears particularly likely to penalize young women, who usually are smaller than men and who metabolize alcohol differently from men. Hence, as most adults know but many students apparently do not, women get drunker than men from the same amount of alcohol—a point to which we will return.
To anyone still doubting that the binge drinking scene at Toxic U really is different, at least in quantity, than most of what came before, consider a quick tour of the campus linguistic scene. Like arrow loops in medieval castles, the slang called into being by binge drinking offers slivers of windows on a world otherwise unseen.
, for instance, refers to drinking fairly large amounts (usually belts of hard liquor) on the early side of an evening, before going out.
a highly efficient innovation likely untried by Boomer parents—are vodka-infused ice cubes, both potent and easy to hide. The terms
are likely self-explanatory; they also reflect the continuing reality that girls are not exactly treated with kid gloves at Toxic U, especially by boys with, say, a six-pack and half a fifth of vodka inside. To be wearing
means to have had so much to drink that one finds available members of the opposite sex more attractive than one would if one weren’t so drunk. (Example: “When I saw that dog the next day, I knew I must have had my beer goggles on when I picked her up.”) And a
an innovative term of almost metaphysical charm—refers to the state of having swallowed just enough of some mind-altering substance to be able to claim deniability or reduced culpability for what happened afterward.
Something else new under the moon at Toxic U—and well documented of late—is the change in what might laughably be called romantic mores. What most parents knew as “dating” has been replaced at Toxic U by what some of their sons and daughters know as the hookup culture. This culture is defined, primarily, as involving one or another kind of sex act at any given time between people who may or may not know each other, with the understood proviso that the act leaves no strings attached. No, the hookup culture does not describe what all the college students of the land are up to every night of the week. But for certain students—those in the habit of slipping, here or there, into Toxic U—it is one more part of a world that their parents almost certainly would not recognize.
In 2006, a particularly informative (if also exquisitely depressing) contribution to understanding hookups was made by
, a book first published anonymously. The author was subsequently revealed to be Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist who treated more than 2000 students at UCLA and grew alarmed by what she saw. In her book she cites numbers suggesting that psychiatric-consultation hours doubled in a few years and notes that 90 percent of campus counseling centers nationwide reported an upsurge in students with serious psychiatric problems. She also describes some of her own mental-health cases and their common denominators: drinking to oblivion, drugging, one-night sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and all the rest of the hookup-culture trappings. In 2007,
journalist Laura Sessions Stepp published the widely discussed
Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both
. Stepp’s book was based on interviews with many high-school and college girls. In it, the author argued that hooking up actually had become the “primary” sexual interaction of the young.
One particularly insightful look at the intersection of the bingeing and hookup cultures is Koren Zaickas’ book
Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood
(2006), in which she details her activities at Syracuse University and elsewhere. As that and several other confessional accounts show, skeptics who say it was ever thus miss the boat. It isn’t only that dating has turned, for some, into no-strings hookups. It isn’t only that drinking, or even heavy drinking, has turned, for certain others, into drinking to oblivion. It is at the intersection of those two trends that one finds the core curriculum of Toxic U.
The link between binge drinking and the likelihood of sexual aggression for both men and women is clear. For example, the authors of a 1993 book,
Sexual Assault on Campus: The Problem and the Solution
, used figures from the studies then available to estimate that in cases that fell under the rubric of “acquaintance rape,” some three-quarters of the men and half of the women were drinking at the time of the assault. Such figures track with more recent ones. The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study (CSA) mentioned earlier was prepared for the Department of Justice and based on surveys of more than 6800 students. It likewise noted several substance-related traits that significantly raised the risk for assault. Among these were how often the women reported getting drunk, how often they had sex when drunk, and how often they attended fraternity parties. The CSA report also specifies that freshman and sophomore girls are at far greater risk than are older students—a fact not widely known and likely to be of keen interest to those with daughters in their first or second year of college.
Fraternity membership also pops up in a meaningful way in these studies. More than a quarter of the women who reported cases of “incapacitated sexual assault,” for example—that is, women who admitted to having been too drunk or stoned or date-drugged to give “meaningful consent”—also reported that a fraternity member was the assailant. (According to various other sources, by the way, many college men are unaware that sex acts without “meaningful consent” are, by definition, illegal.) Similarly, just being a sorority member also significantly raises the risk of sexual assault, both because sorority members, as a group, drink more than other young women on campus and because they associate more frequently with men from fraternities.
One more confirmation of the connection between binge drinking and sexual aggression comes from the intriguing work of Thomas Johnson, a psychologist at Indiana State University. Johnson has studied drinking games by polling hundreds of students about their reasons for engaging in them. He found that 44 percent of the men—surely an astonishingly high percentage—reported “sexual manipulation” as their motivation for playing. Another astonishing fraction of the men—20 percent—said they had done things after playing drinking games that would qualify as sexual assault. These games, too, experts and nonexperts agree, are disproportionately to be found in the Greek system—a fact that does not mean all fraternity brothers are also pledges at Toxic U but does mean that Greek life obviously is sending a reliable supply of recruits there.
One final feature that separates students attending Toxic U from those who have gone before is the unprecedented public attention that pornography and related sexual displays garner on some quads. Much of this public display is orchestrated by students themselves, to little apparent controversy. Consider the development of pornographic or otherwise explicit student magazines, among them
at Harvard (“a literary arts magazine about sex and sexual issues”),
(life enriched) at the University of Chicago,
at Boston University, and more.
Student entrepreneurship aside, making the campus safe for smut appears to have become something of a cottage industry among those in charge too. Certain academic departments, for example, include courses in which pornography is “studied” as an art form or for its purported social meaning. There is extracurricular stuff too, including movies shown at parties attended by girls as well as boys—another illustration of how times have changed. Sometimes, in the name of the First Amendment, more ambitious projects flower. In 2009, for example, several campuses across the country screened
, which was billed as the most expensive pornographic film ever made. When the University of Maryland refused to do so because of political pressure from a congressman, student outrage was one visible result.
Then there’s the apparently booming business of Sex Week. Founded by a Yale student in 2002, the event—which has since spread to many other campuses—is an extended experiment in ideological doublespeak. Sex Week purports piously to “push students to think about sex, love, intimacy, and relationships in ways they never have before.” To translate, the event brings professional sadists and masochists, pornographic movie stars, and other specialists in sexual esoterica to campus to instruct students in every imaginable form of sex. (For a detailed report, see former Yalie Nathan Harden’s “Bawd and Man at Yale” in
, April 5, 2010.) It’s enough to know that at one movie screening last year, even the presumably jaded participating students halted a featured film because the sound of a woman screaming in pain—part of their instruction in how to enjoy sadomasochism—grew unbearable.
Those who defend Sex Week and its like with earnest appeals to free speech seem never to have considered just who benefits most from pushing more “sexual awareness” onto the most sexualized generation yet to walk the earth. One of Sex Week’s sponsors is Pure Romance, a company that describes itself, primly, as “the nation’s fastest growing in-home direct sales company specializing in romance and relationship enhancement products.” In addition to spreading its wares all over campus during Sex Week, the company also stands to benefit financially in yet one more way, and from its access to young women in particular. Apparently patterning its sales method on the Avon and Tupperware models of in-home sales, it invites women over eighteen to join the ranks of its purported 40,000 consultants and hawk sex products to their neighbors and friends. American Apparel is also a sponsor of Sex Week, a fact the company mentions as it pitches its underwear to college girls.
The good news—and, yes, there is good news for anyone who has managed to read this far—is that the bad news about Toxic U has at least gotten serious, well-meaning people to consider how to improve matters.
The binge-drinking epidemic has led many colleges to tighten their rules. At Cornell University, to take one of numerous examples, administrators have been working to reform the system. The university no longer allows freshman to attend Greek parties where alcohol is served, for example. (Such parties currently are part of the recruiting process, as they are at fraternities and sororities everywhere). Similarly, since the headline murder of a young woman by her estranged boyfriend, both lacrosse players, at the University of Virginia in May 2010, UVA has been looking for new ways to flag potentially dangerous students. One thing the school has done, for example, is to establish a rule that any student involved in an encounter with the police has to report that fact to campus authorities or stand in violation of the honor code.
One interesting—albeit, perhaps, counterintuitive—effort to detoxify the American college campus began in 2008 under the auspices of the Amethyst Initiative. Started by a group of current and former university and college presidents and chancellors frustrated by present levels of alcohol-driven deaths and related tragedies, the Amethyst Initiative argues that the federal law maintaining the drinking age at twenty-one—a law in place since 1984—is not only an enforcement failure but also indirectly responsible for the “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge drinking” itself. Allow students to drink more openly and legally, the argument runs, and “pre-gaming” and the rest of the furtive and fast imbibing of hard spirits will become less attractive. It is an argument that resonates with many, including this author, who went to college when the drinking age was eighteen and whose experience of drinking alcohol consisted of going out for pizza and beer on Saturday night rather than blacking out and getting one’s stomach pumped. For what it is worth, in the course of writing this essay, I also asked a number of current college students of my acquaintance, scattered on campuses across the country, what they think the solution to binge drinking might be. One said spiritual renewal. The rest said the same thing as the Amethyst Initiative: Lower the drinking age.
The problem with this otherwise congenial argument can be summarized in two words, however:
. Data on traffic fatalities since 1984 confirm that death rates went down when the drinking age went up. And although the causal connection may not be quite as ironclad as most people assume—some researchers question whether enforcing seat-belt laws might have done the trick instead—almost everyone finds it intuitively obvious that keeping at least some alcohol out of the bloodstreams of at least some young men has made it harder for at least some of those young men to kill someone with a car. Faced with the imposing monolith of safety groups led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which was and remains a relentless scourge of the Amethyst Initiative, the 135 presidents and chancellors who believe otherwise seem stuck at a stalemate.
What else, then, to do about Toxic U? One possible answer: Opt out. Cynics, of course, will say once more that Toxic U can be accessed at any school, regardless of that school’s creed—that bingeing and date rape are distributed evenly all over. But, here again, the cynics are wrong, and obviously so. To take just one uncontroversial example, binge drinking is significantly lower in California schools than in schools in the Northeast. Many other differences can be measured via crime statistics and related information about given campuses. As for the benefits of attending some religious schools, especially, the most compelling testimony often comes not from administrators or statistics monkeys but rather from students themselves.
After last spring’s murder at the University of Virginia, a senior at Patrick Henry College, a conservative, Christian school, penned a brief reflection on the differences between certain campuses. The past four years, he observed, had seen no murders or violent crimes at Patrick Henry. He concluded:
]]>The Weight of Smuthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/06/the-weight-of-smut
Tue, 01 Jun 2010 00:00:00 -0400 As the impressively depressing cover story “
America the Obese
” in the May issue of
serves to remind us all, the weight-gain epidemic in the United States and the rest of the West is indeed widespread, deleterious, and unhealthy—which is why it is so frequently remarked on, and an object of such universal public concern. But while we’re on the subject of bad habits that can turn unwitting kids into unhappy adults, how about that other epidemic out there that is far more likely to make their future lives miserable than carrying those extra pounds ever will? That would be the emerging social phenomenon of what can appropriately be called “sexual obesity”: the widespread gorging on pornographic imagery that is also deleterious and unhealthy, though far less remarked on than that other epidemic—and nowhere near an object of universal public concern. That complacency may now be changing. The term
comes from Mary Ann Layden, a psychiatrist who runs the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program at the University of Pennsylvania. She sees the victims of Internet-pornography consumption in her practice, day in and day out. She also knows what most do not: Quietly, patiently, and irrefutably, an empirical record of the harms of sexual obesity is being assembled piecemeal via the combined efforts of psychologists, sociologists, addiction specialists, psychiatrists, and other authorities.
]]>The Loser Lettershttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/03/the-loser-letters
Mon, 22 Mar 2010 01:48:00 -0400 [Editors Note: The following is adapted from a book event at First Things on March 19, 2010.]
I hope you guys all know that its a bit daunting having this much expert firepower trained on my little book“kind of like having the National Symphony Orchestra sit in on a first graders piano recital. I can only hope that if in the course of the book, or this talk, I commit any literary sins of the theological variety, all the eminent religious leader here will just do the obvious Christian thing”and keep quiet about them. Remember, its Lent.
The Loser Letters
is a pro-religious satire of atheism, told from the point of view of a worldly and troubled twenty-something girl. Its an unusual book by most standards, I guess. Its also my first published fiction. Some of you might know some of my nonfiction work over the years from here at
or other tools of the great right-wing conspiracy. Of course certain people who disagree with that work will say that actually, Ive just been writing fiction all these years anyway”so
The Loser Letters
in that sense isnt anything new. So I guess to clarify matters, given the theologians among us, we should call this my first book of intentionally committed fiction.
So why write a book of intentionally committed fiction these days? In literary circles lately, its become common to compare the United States today with ancient Rome. So it seems apt tonight to go with that flow, and take as our starting point the ancient writer Juvenal. In times like these, he wrote just before the fall of Roman civilization, it is difficult not to write satire.
And that wisecrack actually explains how this effort got started”because faced with certain facts about the new atheism, it felt difficult not to make at least some fun of it. That movement itself, and its leading lights, needs no introduction, having introduced and promoted itself with enviable efficiency during the last few years. In the course of its long-running media extravaganza, this new atheism has also attracted much criticism, including by many learned and sophisticated people. Yet the one thing it did not attract was the one thing that provoked me to write
The Loser Letters
”and that is the fact that the new atheism is also so very easy to make fun of.
After all, just look at the big fat target it presents. This genre has made celebrities of a number of writers breathlessly proclaiming a series of thoughts about which nothing truly new has been said since, say, Friedrich Nietzsche. As A.F. Christian herself points out in the books Foreword, the new atheists have actually performed something of a miracle. Theyve made a lot of something, including money, out of whats ostensibly a big fat nothing, i.e. God. (God, by the way, is known in the book as Loser, as youll hear shortly during the reading.) Their movement has repeatedly assailed religious people as self-righteous, ignorant of history, and humorless”all the while remaining self-righteous, ignorant of history, and humorless itself to quite a remarkable degree, as a pile of quotes dug up by A.F. Christian go to show.
Now, Ignatius Press has kindly played up the fact that the book draws from certain details of Dantes
and CS Lewiss
, and so it does. But it has some darker and weirder influences, too, ranging from Mad TVs Stuart Larkin and the characters on the TV show
to Manolo Blahnik shoes, cheetah leather mini-skirts, and other pop-cultural preoccupations of A.F.s, among other ingredients. Like the rock-star atmospherics of the new atheism, the media culture that surrounds her makes this character a recognizable creature of her times.
So that is one way in which
The Loser Letters
can and should be read”as a volume poking some overdue holes in one more tremendously successful celebrity enterprise thats gotten very big, and very full of itself.
On a second level which is also obvious,
The Loser Letters
operates like any other piece of fiction. It tells the story of a set of characters which begins somewhat mysteriously, and ends with that original mystery explained. We have a protagonist, this twenty-something girl A.F. Christian. Little by little, we learn the sometimes bizarre details of her life. Shes writing excited, star-struck fan letters to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris and all the rest of the new atheists, promising and ultimately delivering her own life story to them. As that story unfolds, we begin to wonder about this character. Why is she doing this? Where is she, anyway, in this place that she keeps calling rehab, where the only thing she has access to is her e-mail? Why are certain people giving her Rosetta Stone German to study? Who is this person she calls the Director, also known as the midget in the red cape? And what really happened with A.F.s ex-boyfriend Lobo back in Portland?
Certain surreal details of the plot aside, A.F. Christian as a character is very much an Everygirl for our time”a stand-in for so many young women today who share the common experience of growing up with one set of moral teachings, abandoning those teachings when they arrive at college, and then spending years, often the rest of their lives, in what some experience as an existential wilderness. Tom Wolfes Charlotte Simmons is the most memorable such character in recent literature. A.F. is a little like Charlotte, a few years after college and certain unfortunate personal choices later. Both characters apprehend clearly enough, to invoke one of Nietzsches most arresting images, that someone has indeed taken out a sponge and wiped away the horizon; but they dont know what to do about it. Its in A.F.s burning need to do
that the drama of the book begins.
Like any other fictitious character, there is much that readers
know about A.F. As C.S. Lewis observes in the Narnian chronicles, we arent all given every detail of everyone elses whole story, whether in real life or in fiction. On the other hand, by the end of
The Loser Letters
, readers will know everything that is most important about her, or so I hope.
So just as any reader, religious or secular, can read the book as a satire of the new atheism, so too can anybody grasp it as fiction is meant to be grasped”as the personal story of a set of characters, some of them mysterious at first, whose purposes become clear in the course of the story.
Theres also a third dimension to this text that I would like to emphasize here tonight to the Christian apologetics, and in addition the personal story of our heroine. That is what might be called the extra-religious leitmotif of the story. In A.F.s testing of the new atheists, there emerges a thumbnail defense of Western Civ itself”and more particularly, of the absolutely indispensible role of Judeo-Christian religion in that same civilization.
Its not our protagonists fault that she doesnt know that history as well as she should”though she does manage to catch up. The Great Disruption of the 1960s, the abdication of so many standards and responsibilities by those in intellectual and moral authority, has made autodidacts of everyone who has gone to school since then”and A.F. is no exception. That is why her interior life is such an unholy mix of things that really dont belong together”the history of totalitarianism, Facebook, texting, Biblical references, recreational drugs, popular music, Renaissance sculpture, and the Bravo channel all wrapped up in one. No one ever taught her”as most of us who went to universities post-1960 have also not been taught”to distinguish the high from the low, the passing from the permanent, even the ugly from the beautiful.
And so, in her obsessive pursuit of the books and articles and appearances of the new atheists, which she undertakes in an effort to make sense of herself, A.F. inadvertently embarks on something else”a sad, quick, but important journey through the shards of a once-coherent civilization, what T.S. Eliot called these fragments I have shored against my ruins.
This brings us to one final reason why some pushback against the new atheist view of the world seemed in order”because that movement aids and abets our cultural dumbing-down. On the new atheists telling, for example, religious history begins with some animal sacrifices among the Hebrews, fast forwards through the so-called dark ages up to say, Savanorola, takes a detour around Piux XII just long enough to slap a swastika on him, and ends somewhere with Monty Python and a Solstice party. Its a portrait of Christianity that is beyond caricature”because actual caricature, from the Italian
meaning to load or charge, has to have some of the original substance in it; whereas some of what the new atheism reports about the history of religion is simply wrong. (Do other people here remember one of the most famous cartoons ever published by the New Yorker? It was by Saul Steinberg. It showed the map of the world as imagined by a Manhattanite”one in which the island filled most of the picture, with a few outposts”California, etc.”far, far out from the center of the frame. Thats the kind of historical tunnel vision well have about Western civilization if we let the new atheists spoon feed their version to us.)
And so one final purpose behind writing
The Loser Letters
was just this”to give readers, even readers who are religiously tone-deaf or indifferent, the experience of a kind of Idiots guide to religion. Its in part an attempt to say, look, here are just a few of the things you ought to know before you get to pat yourself on the back as the new atheists do for quote rejecting religion. These things range from the sublime to the ridiculous and everywhere historically between. People ought to know just what was going on in Mexico, for example, when Catholicism spread like wildfire through a civilization absolutely and unmistakably intoxicated with slavery, death, doom, and human sacrifice. They ought to ask themselves as A.F. Christian does in one especially detailed Letter why so much of the manifestly greatest art ever created”painting, sculpture, music, poetry”has been committed in the name of God or the gods. And they ought to have some rough understanding of whats known in theology as natural law, and why some perfectly intelligent people think that certain aspects of the human condition themselves argue for theism. As A.F. Christian would be the first to say, nothing about any of this record proves anything about Losers existence. But it does mean that people really ought to know a lot more than many do when they sit down to decide these things.
The books ideal reader is someone like the image on the cover”someone with a laptop open, so that they can search Spanish Baroque or Gregorian chant or Whittaker Chambers or Renaissance sculptor Desiderio da Settignano or other details, as necessary.
In the end, then, the book is a small stab at all that, an effort to say that cultural literacy, in the phrase of E.D. Hirsch, doesnt end at high school. It doesnt end in college”in fact, unfortunately, it often doesnt even begin there these days.
All of which brings us back to Juvenal, and why satire felt so appropriate”because the new atheism further feeds and encourages its own kind of intellectual and aesthetic dumbing-down. The new atheist version of history would have all of us believe that it all boils down to a few inexplicably stupid rules”as if all of Catholicism could be collapsed into the case against stem cell research, say, or all of Judaism into the mandated separation of milk and meat.
The reductionism of the new atheists is beyond belief, but it is not beyond some good clean fun”well, mostly clean fun; Im not responsible for
A.F. Christian decides to say and do. But fun, in the end, is the medium for the message. You dont have to be religious to get it. Just being anti-anti-religious these days is good enough.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing writer to First Things
Mon, 01 Feb 2010 00:00:00 -0500 Once in a while comes an historical event so momentous, so packed with unexpected force, that it acts like a large wave under still water, propelling us momentarily up from the surface of our times onto a crest, where the wider movements of history may be glimpsed better than before.
]]>How Pedophilia Lost Its Coolhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/12/how-pedophilia-lost-its-cool
Tue, 01 Dec 2009 00:00:00 -0500 The reason that the monstrous crime of pedophilia matters is simple: In an increasingly secular age, it is one of the few taboos about which people on both sides of the religious divide can agree. It remains a marker of right and wrong in a world where other markers have been erased.
]]>Karen Novak, 1938–2009https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/11/karen-novak
Sun, 01 Nov 2009 00:00:00 -0400 I almost emailed Karen today. Its just part of how we live now, that electronic tic. There was a story I wanted to tell her, a small knot of thought that had been nagging for weeks and finally had gotten untied in a way that I thought would amuse her. So I tapped the key that would bring up her address, only to realize that this particular story”unlike others we had tossed back and forth during the past year before her death”would have to wait indefinitely. Such is the hypnosis of the Internet, that it can lull us for a split second into forgetting even the otherwise rather singularly unforgettable fact of death.
To many people, including readers of
, the name Karen Laub Novak is recognizable first as that of the wife and longtime love of one of the great theologians and public intellectuals of our time, Michael Novak. Theirs was a marriage, in the words of their longtime friend Hadley Arkes, sustained by two wings, by faith and reason, nature and art”by the relentless wit and energy of Michael and the genius and deepening sainthood of Karen. And just as it is impossible for anyone who has known them to imagine Karen apart from Michael, so is it equally impossible to imagine Karen apart from her children. Just how remarkable it would have been to find oneself a child of Karens was powerfully in evidence at her funeral, especially. As Jana put it with devastating simplicity, I have spent”and will spend”my life trying to follow her example.
And there was of course a third essential woman there”this one known as well to the outside world: Karen Laub Novak, the artist. A former student of the expressionist Oskar Kokoshka in Vienna, she went on to create a dazzlingly wide collection of lithographs, paintings, and sculpture, much of it graced with what admirers have identified as Catholic mysticism. Her work has been exhibited all over the country (an especially evocative selection is currently on view through October at the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.). Other works included illustrations for childrens books and numerous magazines”the
among them. Karens commissioned art cut a wide swath, from John Paul II on down. Her statue of the Green Revolution titan and Nobel Prize’winner Norman Borlaug”who died only a few weeks after Karen”has been called by one critic one of the two most beautiful statues in North America.
Even this summary does not exhaust the formidable parade of Karens: grandmother, sister, sister-in-law, aunt; domestic mastermind of a couple of homes; volunteer for worthy causes, among them Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where she counseled the families of wounded soldiers. She and Michael also presided for years over one of the liveliest dinner tables in conservative Washington”and certainly the warmest. What made those dinners the memorable events they were was not only Karen the hostess but another persona”Karen the intellectual, one who knew the ideas of the day as well as the minds behind them. Her own influences, as she once noted in an essay called Creativity and Children, included Kafka, Dostoevsky, Flannery OConnor, Bergman, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Asian and South American writers, and such sixteenth-century mystics as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. It was, she admitted, a strange group for a cocktail party, especially when combined with her rural, Catholic, Iowan background. But it certainly made for great stuff both in the Novak dining room and beyond.
And she was also, to many people including me, a dear friend. We visited with each other regularly over the past year of her cancer, after a particular round of tests confirmed that time would be short. Most Wednesday afternoons would find us deep in chat at the Novaks home, following any number of storylines simultaneously”families and friends, birth and death, recipes and furniture-store discounts, and much more in the unholy mix of high and low through which women, especially, transition seamlessly. As Susan DeMuth noted: Friendship with Karen was full of questions . . . . She asked questions about matters divine, about art and creativity, about the best routes around Washington, about medical options, about politics and culture.
Sometimes wed be alone and trading confidences about those kinds of things, and other times alone and debating different issues of enormous weight: What exact shade of leafy green would look best on the living-room walls? Was Hugh Laurie more brilliant as his character Gregory House in the television series or as Bertie Wooster in the PBS rendering of P.G. Wodehouse? Even more challenging: Where exactly in the Novak kitchen”an object in a constant state of renovation and replacing”might one find the can opener, the crackers, the latest pile of magazines, the phone? And of course the most eternal question of all: Why do husbands, particularly the bookish, high-minded husbands of the sort we knew, so closely resemble the famous Collyer Brothers”so determined not to throw anything out that their wives are reduced to standing athwart the toppling rivers of paper, yelling stop?
Many other friends and family traipsed in and out of the Novaks house during those same months, with Michaels sister Mary Ann presiding over the comings and goings and adding so much to the entertainment and amusement of Karen. The trinity of those Novaks”Michael, Karen, and Mary Ann”handled the influx of visitors with impeccable grace. On any given day one might catch one family member or another in the house, or Joan Weigel strolling in with a casserole, or Janas friend Brenna with some extra time to help organize things, or JoAnne Kemp or Robyn Krauthammer or Kristie Hassett or who knows how many others popping by for one reason or another only to linger in the happy mayhem of the house.
A couple of times I brought our youngest daughter, age seven, for whom chez Novak and especially Karens studio and artistic implements amounted to a magic kingdom of its own; Karen that first day gave this daughter an art set that she has proudly used and reused ever since.
Also on any given day, a carpenter or plumber or electrician or other workman would likely pass through tinkering with something, because Karen treated the house as one would expect an artist to”as a perpetually unfinished work in progress. Few workers managed to get out without having at least some significant fraction of their life stories ferreted out, for Karen was an empath of the first order. Nothing seemed to fascinate her more than every human being put in her path.
On it went in their home in the year before she died, the whole place less like a house with a death threat hanging over it than an ongoing party in desperate need of phone-finders and a revolving door. Sometimes Michael would come home early and join in, giving guests an excuse for a late-afternoon drink (in the last months Karen had to forgo such treats because of her medicine). I remember one raw winter afternoon when Michael came in from a trip to a roaring fire that Karen had set in the living-room fireplace”Karen did everything herself, cancer or no, though how much of that was Norwegian self-sufficiency and how much a clear understanding of the incompetence of others was hard to tell. That afternoon Michael introduced me to that fabulous elixir, the Manhattan, as we sat and heard from him the details of the event hed been traveling back from”and this happened to be Richard John Neuhaus funeral.
In sum, being Karen Novak meant being at the center of a whirlwind that would have exhausted many a healthy woman in her prime, let alone one being battered from within by at least two different kinds of cancer and all the stress and side effects that the medical regimen entailed. Yet her work never ceased, whether in her house or in the wider world. Right up till the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of her illness, she was still taking in concerts, plays, dinners, and lectures at a stage when any ordinary mortal would have taken to the sofa and stayed there.
Some eighteen years earlier, diagnosed with cancer as a mother of teenagers, Karen had been given six months to live”a guess that proved wonderfully wrong. That experience was no doubt the crucible in which the extraordinary grace and courage of her last year”remarked upon by all commentators public and private”were forged. It is also an odd and true fact that, for all her suffering, Karen remained a beauty. A gamine blonde with dazzling blue eyes and great flair for color, as a lovely photo from
magazine once captured particularly well, she was the only truly sick person I ever saw whose beauty was honed by illness. It was as if she had become one of her own human portraits, taut as a bow”only, in her, that tautness had none of the visible tensions of, say, her artistic meditations on Rilke and Eliot and so many other dark and recalcitrant artistic forces. It seemed more to reveal what she herself once described as that inner landscape within us that is often veiled, even from our-selves . . . full of life, struggle, endurance, and stubbornness. And that landscape was one beautiful place.
I was walking with our seven-year-old down a quaint street on a brilliant August day”as it happened, in the same seaside town where Karen and Michael had spent many happy times, and with the same child to whom Karen had given the art set”when Mary Ann Novak called with the news. I shut the phone and kept walking. Mommy? came the inevitable question, alongside the inevitable tug on the sleeve. Mommy, whats wrong?
Why are you sad?
Its our friend Mrs. Novak. Shes gone.
What do you mean gone, Mommy? Did she die?
Yes, she died
. But Mommy! came the imperious voice. Dont cry! Dont you do that! Because Mrs. Novak was such a nice lady!
Because Mrs. Novak was such a nice lady
. It took weeks to figure out why those childish words stuck so, why they seemed to demand more inspection than they got at the time, but I finally did. Just look at the radical causality they imply:
she was such a nice lady
, is what the adult would have said; in other words,
she was nice, therefore I cry
. But the purer mind of seven turns up something deeper.
She was nice;
you shouldnt cry,
came her challenging response.
Is it possible? Do children actually know things we dont, see things we no longer can, perhaps even intuit heaven? That was the story I almost sent to Karens email account. After all, shes the one who pointed out, in the essay on creativity mentioned earlier, that the very young, healthy child has a heightened perception and that Ive seen qualities in them and in their friends I would like to recover myself. How I wish I could know what she would have made of the story”that and a thousand or so other things that wont be the same without getting to share them with her.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things , and author most recently of
The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism
, forthcoming from Ignatius Press in 2010.
]]>What Does Woman Want?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/10/what-does-woman-want
Thu, 01 Oct 2009 00:00:00 -0400 For a few interesting weeks this summer”catapulted by romantic melodramas with a wide cast of characters, including Republican politicians and popular reality-show parents Jon and Kate”the question of opposite-sex marriage and its own meaning momentarily took center stage.
Just about everyone, it seemed, took the opportunity of these latest marital calamities to weigh in.
contributed a July story about the rise in polyamory, that is, multiple-partner families. Ruminating from Crete alongside her ex-husband and their children, pop-cultural weathervane Arianna Huffington offered another postmodern contribution: She urged other divorced parents to reach the point where there really is nothing to work out so that they too could vacation together as a big happy post-divorce non-family. Meanwhile, among other efforts to say something new about the subject, two unexpectedly compelling essays ended up serving as lightning rods: Sandra Tsing Lohs Lets Call the Whole Thing Off in
and Caitlin Flanagans nearly simultaneous and ferociously opposed Is There Hope for the American Marriage? in
The Flanagan and Loh pieces, much more than the usual pro and con over marriage, are also windows into a rapidly evolving moral and cultural landscape. Both Flanagan and Loh are middle-aged women, both are among
s best writers of the past ten years, and both rely for their literary firepower on a brew of pop sociology and personal confession that is nearly always a potent read. But there do the common denominators end.
In Is There Hope for the American Marriage? Flanagan proves herself an unapologetic apologist for traditional marriage as best for children, best for adults, and critical to society. Loh”despite having relied on her own marriage and family life for literary inspiration throughout years of popular essay writing”now declares herself as ferocious a foe of marriage as Flanagan is a defender of it. Using her own impending divorce as emblematic, as well as a blunt battery of anecdotes about the marriages of acquaintances and friends, Loh argues that rising lifespans and impossibly inflated expectations have ruined a once viable institution.
An obvious question”the one at the center of Flanagan and Lohs dispute”is
What is modern marriage doing to kids?
Shocking though that question proved to detractors of Flanagans
essay, not everyone is so naive; readers passably acquainted with the decades of family sociology following the Moynihan Report will already suspect the answer. More interesting is another question:
What is modern marriage doing to adults
? More precisely, what today is the state, in our apparently postmodern, postfeminist, post-judgmental social order, of what antiquarians once thought of as the war between the sexes?
The answer seems to be one long, strange trip to an enigma in which many unhappy people apparently feel themselves trapped. Lets Call the Whole Thing Off is a searing, sometimes brutal, attack on traditional marriage. It could also fairly be called postfeminist, in that its chief complaint is not so much that men are intolerable as that marriage per se is impossible. Lohs essay marches relentlessly through the details of her own marital collapse (initiated by the author herself, as she acknowledges from the outset), her itinerant misgivings about what the split might do to her children, and her conversations with friends and others that further fuel her thesis. Now that we have white-collar work and washing machines and a life expectancy that has shot from forty-seven to seventy-seven, she argues, the idea of marriage has become obsolete. The essay closes with a final piece of advice that delivers its gist with bitter élan: Avoid marriage”or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.
Meanwhile, Flanagan undertakes a pithy channeling of what generations of social scientists have been painstakingly documenting since the 1960s: There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nations underclass.
Citing just a handful of some of the authors who have been putting out the bad news about broken homes for years”Robert Rector, David Blankenhorn, Sara McLanahan”Flanagan excoriates her happy-talking divorcing or unmarried peers with children for their willful blindness. Reaching even beyond the defense of marriage to a warning about the wider social ramifications of the collapse of the family, she concludes on a note plainly designed to chill her fellow baby boomers above all: The current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply cant be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their childrens lives”thats the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old.
These authors dont exactly pussyfoot around their theses, and neither have the commentators rushing to pummel them. Flanagan, predictably enough, has been roundly flogged by the usual suspects for what her critics correctly interpret as a shockingly retrograde defense of the family”one all the more unusual because, unlike most other champions of heterosexual marriage in the public square these days, Flanagan is a self-declared Democrat and supporter of abortion who relies largely on anecdote and occasional secular sociology to make her case.
This narrative novelty, far from sparing her the wrath of her critics, seems to have inflamed it exponentially. Blasting even in advance of the appearance of the
essay, alphafeminist Linda Hirschman derided its author as a working-mother scourge, complained of her reliance on outmoded studies and interviews with experts from right-wing foundations, and ultimately excoriated
itself for running another unsubstantiated, apocalyptic cover on the awful consequences of most American womens fates.
, Katha Pollitt sharpened similar claws. Dubbing Flanagan a professional antifeminist and author of a whole book of essays attacking working mothers, herself excepted, she concluded that the attack on divorce isnt really about poor people and their families, but about reinforcing the idea that the family is not just a haven in a heartless world but the only safety net you have, or should have, from the blows of fortune”apparently, to those of Pollitts way of thinking, about as ludicrous an idea as can be imagined. The
blog called the essay overwrought, claimed the author was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and concluded (in sneer quotes) that such efforts to save marriage for the kids sake were patently disingenuous.
Sandra Tsing Loh, not surprisingly, got off more leniently in the left-liberal mainstream for her confession of an affair and her subsequent decision to divorce. Though some readers wrote the piece off in disgust, others sympathized and openly applauded her move, albeit with occasional qualifications. No doubt, as a writer at
put it, some will blame Loh for not trying hard enough. But shes never been one to show us the ideal; just whats real. Left-wing blogger Amanda Marcotte, another indicator, echoed Loh in a piece titled (with admirable clarity): For Many, Marriage Is Sexless, Boring, and Oppressive: Time to Rethink the Institution?
One intriguing fact unmentioned in the general fray was that Lohs portrayal
drawn consistent demurral from at least one subset of readers: men. Delving at some length into the essay and its author for the
Los Angeles Times
, James Rainey criticized the implication that todays married men are disdained by their wives as being less than men. These twenty-first-century pantywaists follow all the new rules”providing incomes, helping with parenting, sharing chores, and cooking elaborate meals”and in the process become domesticated, sexless drones. Robert Franklin, at
, dismissed the essay as the same self-absorbed mewling we see periodically from the privileged, as the authors desperate attempt to explain herself to herself (and unfortunately, to us). Judging by many of the blogs, other male critics, though few females, have similarly faulted Loh for her generalization of todays married man as a sexless, sex-withholding competitor wife.
What to make of this unexpected tempest in a summer teapot? On the intellectual playing field, of course, Flanagan gets everything right, beginning with the not insignificant libraries of social science now testifying to the effects of broken homes on children. So many economists, sociologists, psychologists, and other experts have by now contributed to that record that no single set of books, let alone a
essay of a few thousand words, can hope to capture it; but Flanagan does about as well with the challenge as anyone has.
Even so”and here is where things begin to get curiouser”the summer marriage wars go deeper than a mere empirical slam dunk about kids and broken homes. In the depth and rawness of Lohs essay, as well as in much of the commentary praising it, there lurks a different kind of truth-telling that has gone largely undiscussed. It amounts to two charges made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of todays marriages”that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated people”are a sexual desert.
In one particularly forthright passage summarizing both complaints, Loh writes:
Mon, 01 Jun 2009 00:00:00 -0400 Why aren’t vegetarians and pro-lifers more closely aligned? After all, the best writing about ethical vegetarianism—the moral case for refusing meat, as opposed to the more self-interested arguments from health or financeis good enough to provoke serious reflection, even among nonvegetarians. Yet while this increasingly thoughtful literature flourishes, reflecting the movement of many Americans (especially younger ones) into the varieties of a meat-free diet, it has also proved a one-way street. Vegans and vegetarians do talk to one another, but usually without anyone in the rest of the world talking back—especially those committed to defending human life.