Which is Less Healthy: Caucasian or Black American Culture?

A favorite conservative passtime is arguing about which communities/cultures/civilizations are disintegrating fastest, with everyone competing for the honor of belonging to the most-slowly-dying society.  Usually, it’s America vs. Europe, but I don’t find that one very interesting.  A more interesting comparison, I think, would be between the very different subcultures in America:  the majority-white subculture versus the minority-black subculture.

From what we’re always hearing, the urban black communities seem to really have things stacked against them:  massive family breakdown, widespread crime and poverty, glorification of antisocial behavior, and a general weakness of forces promoting responsible behavior.  On the other hand, black communities definitely do have one quality that conservatives would recognize as a virtue:  loyalty.  Most blacks seem to feel a passionate commitment to their race and a hatred for those who they perceive as their racial enemies.  Whites are the opposite.  They trail in things like illigitimacy and illiteracy, but they despise their own Anglo-Saxon culture.  They would never dream of defending it or even showing it personal preference; that would be “racist”.  Whites actually regard loyalty as a vice; they think it the height of virtue to prefer strangers to their own kin.

As this comparison illustrates, the health of communities is multidimensional.  In her book Natural Symbols (which I review here), anthropologist Mary Douglas classifies societies according to two measures of community strength, which she calls “group” and “grid”.  “Group” means one’s attachment to and identification with the community, i.e. group loyalty.  “Grid” means the tendency to accept and live up to distinct social roles within a community.  So, for example, racial distinctions are usually a group effect, while gender distinctions are usually a grid effect.  The American black subculture is a strong group, weak grid society.  The Anglo majority culture is weak group, strong grid.

According to Douglas, there are distinct religious and political beliefs that are naturally engendered by the different types of societies.  Strong group/weak grid societies tend towards Manicheaism.  This certainly fits with the “black studies” in academia and with black liberation theology, which more-or-less divide the world into the holy African race oppressed by demonic whites.  Evil is externalized; all that must be done is to humble Whitey and get more of his money, and all will be well.  For weak group/strong grid societies, Douglas tells us to expect religion to degenerate into magic.  The world is seen as full of morally neutral forces that the clever person can manipulate to his own ends.  This again seems to fit the facts in America, where educated whites have deformed the theory of evolution into a pseudo-religion.  This isn’t even counting the multitude of whites who more forthrightly worship at the altar of Capitalism, that magical force which supposedly always rewards “fitness”.  Without a sense of group loyalty, life is just a matter of self-advancement, of moving up the grid.

Douglas had an obvious preference for strong-group, strong-grid societies like medieval Europe.  These develop a sacramental worldview:  social hierarchies exist to embody spiritual realities.  They are legitimate and important, but they exist for the good of the community as a whole and its relationship to God.  Thus, if America is ever to be culturally healthy again, it will need to combine the partial virtues of both its subcultures.

The Abominable Sin of Onanism I

I’m afraid I’m going to have to break the rule I just made, the one about how one shouldn’t talk about, you know, certain things.  Unfortunately, it is necessary.  A prominent politician, a Miss Christine O’Donnell, is being widely and viciously attacked for having once stated that masturbation is immoral.  Journalists are openly calling such a belief “odd” or even “insane”.  How did we get to the point that acceptance of the solitary vice has become a prerequisite for public acceptability?  When did the imperious “we” of public concensus decide that onanism may not be criticized?  It was when journalist and Hollywood degenerates started pushing for this, and nobody pushed back.  Chaste people don’t like to talk about such things, but a gauntlet has been thrown.  A challenge must be answered.

Until quite recently, the consensus of the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist worlds was that the carnal pleasures of sex should never be separated from the donation of self and openness to new life implied by this act.  Modern people, indoctrinated in utilitarianism from birth, may find this prohibition mysterious.  Why not?  Who does it hurt?  Wouldn’t unrestricted, consequence-free orgasms for everyone increase the world’s happiness?  To people of saner times, however, satisfying peoples’ carnal desires was not the primary consideration.  The main consideration was to make sure that sacred things don’t lose their meaning.

Let’s consider an example from another part of life.  In common speech, when a man says, “I want to feel that I’m taking good care of my children”, he means the same thing as if he’d said, “I want take good care of my children”.  A philosopher might point out that the two are technically different, that the first is a selfish desire for a certain feeling, while the second is an other-directed desire for a certain objective state of affairs.  This philosopher would be entirely misunderstanding what the man is saying.  If he’s a normal person, the feeling of satisfaction in knowing that his children are well cared-for is inseparable in his mind from the fact of them being well cared-for.  An example a bit closer to the case at hand would be that, for a normal person, to say “I want to feel loved” means the same thing as “I want to be loved”.

Now suppose someone invents a drug that, when ingested, gives a man the feeling of satisfaction that he would get from being a good father to his chidren, even if objectively-speaking, he is completely neglecting them.  Suppose another drug gives a woman the feeling of being loved, even though objectively no one in the world gives her any concern at all.  Should one take such a pill?  The very idea is repulsive.  Even if everyone was made happier by such pills, even if men continued to care for their children out of duty and with no connection to the natural joys of fatherhood, we would still find such a thing repellant.  Why is that?

We feel that for a man to take pills to feel accomplished or to feel loved would be degrading.  It separates things that should not be separated:  an objective good (healthy children, being loved) from the accompanying subjective pleasure.  The pleasure is dignified by its inseparability from an objective good:  no one would call a man who pursues the satisfaction of a job well done a hedonist, because he never pursues the pleasure alone, but rather the good and the pleasure considered as a single thing.  To pursue the pleasure alone would be degrading.  If a person would be content with feelings and impressions of objective goods (being loved, being useful, etc), he would be choosing to live in an illusion, and that is contemptible. 

Now for our specific case:  the pleasure of sex and the good of conjugal union.  God says to Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband,”  and this is as it should be.  If Eve becomes sexually aroused, her understanding of it should be “I want Adam.”  The object of the desire is thought to be a particular person.  In this way, her sexual cravings are experienced as the bodily part of an integrated drive towards communion with her husband.  Bodily union, spiritual love, and the happiness of common life are seen as three aspects of one good, and the desire for any one is seen as organically connected to desire for the other two.

If Eve falls into impurity, she may separate the distinct pleasures and lose sight of their single object.  When she becomes aroused, she may think, “I desire sex”.  Now Adam is reduced to a means; he is one instantiation of a class of beings who can give her the satisfaction she desires.  She may degrade herself yet further.  She may interpret her cravings as follows: “I desire the pleasure that comes when my genitals are stimulated through certain pressures.”  Now it is not even a person she wants, but rather one of his organs, or anything else that serves the same function.

Splitting the pleasure of sex from its interpersonal meaning, as onanism does, corrupts an entire sphere of existence.  You can no longer say to your spouse “I want you” as you once could.  Before, this communion with “you” was a unitary object, including sex, company, affection, and children all together.  Now, this unity is lost.  These are seen as separate objects.  Once a man has given himself to impurity, he must ask himself which of these multiple objects he’s seeking through intercourse with his wife.   Is it a pleasure and release qualitatively no different from that he could just as well have provided for himself?  Is he seeking a more spiritual union?  Sex no longer has anything to do with that in his mind.  He has mentally split that atom.  Even if he desires both bodily and spiritual union, the two are now independent in his mind, neither having anything to do with the other, and both poorer for their isolation.

Why we should not talk about sex

Dress is an important part of modesty, but it is by far not the most important part.  Far more important to our virtue is modesty of speech, a chaste reticence towards the conjugal act.  An analogous case holds in religious matters:  it is bad to dress sloppily for church, but it is far worse to discuss holy matters in a flippant or blasphemous way.

For the chaste couple, matters of the marriage bed are discussed–or rather alluded to–with the greatest delicacy, even in private.  Even for the husband or wife to ask for his or her marital right is a delicate matter.  One would not go to his or her partner in private and say, “I want sex”.  The very thought is dreadful.  The couple develops a sort of code, something to respect their delicacy.  Some of these expressions have gone public, such as when we say that a couple are “going to bed together”, “sleeping together”, “making love”, etc.  These expressions have become so widespread that couples must come up with allusions even more indirect.  Modesty certainly restricts a couple from discussing their sexual acts in too much detail.  Clinically precise descriptions of bodily positions and physiological responses seem a sort of desecration.  Ironically, there are acts that a man may morally do with his wife but that it would be morally perilous to speak to her about.

One of the great campaigns of the sexual revolution has been to destroy this holy reticence.  Things should be “out in the open”, it is said.  Couples shouldn’t be ashamed to express their desires plainly.  They should stop “being ashamed”, etc.  The word “shame” is the revolutionary’s biggest weapon.  After all, if you don’t want to talk about something, that means you must be ashamed of it, right?  Wrong.

Modesty of speech reflects a sound and healthy instinct.  It recognizes the physical union of husband and wife as a sacred thing, a thing to be set apart from the profane world.  It is a holy mystery, a thing that cannot be captured by words, and which words falsify by their inadequacy.  It is a profoundly personal act; as von Hildebrand says, in sex we share our “secret” with another person.  Imagine a sports announcer delivering a play-by-play description of every physical action and physical response in one of your marital acts.  Would not the very words be a desecration?  If you heard them, wound you not think, “That’s not how it was at all.  It doesn’t capture the intimacy, the interpersonal communion.  It reduces us to flesh in mechanical performance.  The uniqueness of my spouse, I, and our love is stripped away.”  We realize that it’s just as much a violation if you yourself deliver the play-by-play.

Sex is private.  Language, as Wittgenstein argued, is inherently public.  If I say “it sure was grand, my dear, when we copulated in position X last night”, I reduce a personal act to a page in a sex manual.  I create an impersonal simulacrum of the act, a shadow of what really happened with the unique I and Thou removed.  “We performed position X” is a public statement.  The fact that the rest of the world doesn’t have access to it is a mere accident; I could advertise the fact to the whole world and nothing more would be lost in translation.  The depersonalization, the objectification, was already complete when I opened my mouth and spoke of things of which I should not speak.

Such is the case for the holy union of husband and wife.  The chaste man’s reaction to fornication or adultery is entirely different.  Here he knows that delicacy of this sort is a sentimentalism that only encourages sin.  For vile things we should use crude words.  I refuse to say that a married man “makes love” to his mistress, not when I can come up with a coarser word to describe it.  The crude words and slang do have their proper uses.  They are also legitimately used to describe (or at least think about) one’s own lustful tendencies, a useful precaution lest adolescent boys come to identify every stirring in their loins with “love”.

Such, then, is modesty of speech.  In my whole life, I’ve never heard anyone defend it, but it must be defended.

My wandering eye

Is it immodest for a woman to wear pants?  There’s been a big debate about this lately in the Catholic blogosphere.  I hadn’t meant to contribute.  My opinion was that standards of modesty are entirely culture-generated, although no less important for that.  (An exception would be that all cultures cover their men’s genitals, for practical reasons given by St. Augustine.  We wouldn’t want women to always know what men are thinking about.)  Therefore, if our culture doesn’t find pants immodest, they aren’t.

I’ve recently read something on the blog In Haught Pursuit that has forced me to reconsider the matter.  (I congratulate Mrs. Haught for making the most interesting contribution to this debate.)  She points out

Conversely, we see how a woman can bring a man down by the way she dresses. Though I read numerous statements in the pants debate to the effect that men should not look if they are tempted by what they see, I believe that a woman wearing pants naturally draws the man’s eyes where they should not go. Here’s a supporting quote from Dressing With Dignity by Colleen Hammond:

Advertising agencies quickly prepared marketing research to find out the reaction of men to a woman wearing pants. Do you know what they found? Using newly developed technology, they tracked the path that a man’s eyes take when looking at a woman in pants. They found that when a man looked at a woman in pants from the back, he looked directly at her bottom. When he looked at a woman wearing pants from the front, advertisers found that his eyes dropped directly to a woman’s most private and intimate area. Not her face! Not her chest!

Is this true?  After all, skirts have their own allures.  I decided to pay attention to my own behavior when I see pretty girls walking by.  Walking around on a college campus, one can get a good sample of very attractive young women very quickly.  (God, how I love academia.)  I paid attention to where my eyes naturally “wanted to go”.

I have a feeling my female readers are going to think the worse of me for this.  Please understand that ordinarily I would try to exert some control over my girl-watching.  Also, this “study” reflects a very restricted subset of my interactions with women, namely strangers who I see for a few seconds but never talk to.  If I ever meet any of you, I will not spend my time ogling you.  Anyway, here are my findings.

1) Woman in pants from the back.
    Hammond’s prediction:   “looked directly at her bottom”
    My observations: Big check. Eyes locked.
    I’m not particularly surprised by this–there
    aren’t too many competing highlights for a
    woman’s back side.

2) Woman in pants from the front.
    Hammond’s prediction: “eyes dropped directly to a
    woman’s most private…area”
    My observations: True, to a degree that actually
    surprised me. My only qualification is that I tended
    to want to look at the whole pelvic area–curve of
    hips and inner thighs. Also, I did naturally look at
    their faces some.

3) Woman in skirt from the back 
    My observations: First glance is to the curve of
    the hips. (No real temptation to stare at the
    middle of her butt.) Then spent some time
    admiring hair (especially if long) and shoulders.
    Then went to legs. Note that checking out a girl’s
    legs is a different thing for pants vs. skirts. For a
    girl in a skirt, it usually means admiring her legs below
    the knee; for a girl in pants, it usually means
    admiring her upper legs/thighs.

4) Woman in skirt from the front
    My observations: very wholistic appreciation of the
    woman’s beauty. Face, breasts, shoulders, curve of hips,
    lower legs, in about that order.

Conclusions:  to my surprise, pants do make a big difference in how pelvo-centric my instinctive appreciation of a woman’s beauty is.  There are two ways one might interpret this data.

  1. Modesty in clothes has a greater objective component than realized, for reasons probably having to do with evolutionary psychology and the male sex drive.
  2. My instincts in this matter reflect a subtle social conditioning.  Perhaps I’ve been shown a lot of attractive girls in pants on television, and the camera tended to focus on their pelvic regions, thus conditioning me to find such cues especially alluring.  If this is so, it would mean that pants are not really modest dress in our culture at all–the fact that we think otherwise just shows that we are not consciously aware of some of the signals that make up our socialization.

Either way, it seems the case against pants is stronger than I’d realized.

P.S. I once again beg the pardon of my female readers, if I still have any.  Maybe I should go to Confession now that this experiment is over.

The ends of marriage

I’ve just finished reading Christian Marriage:  A Historical Study, a collection of essays edited by Glenn Olsen.  There’s lots of good material in this collection; I may write a book review of it if I can set aside the time and work up the energy.  I would like to draw attention to the last contribution, “The Contemporary World” by John Haas.  This paper is primarily about the debates over sexual morality in the twentieth century Catholic Church, written from an orthodox perspective.

One of the main points of contention during these years (and into the present) concerns talk about the “ends” of marriage.  Traditionally, this had been central to the Catholic approach to sexual and family morality.  Marriage was said to have three ends/goods/purposes:  procreation (including raising children), faithfulness between spouses, and the grace of the marital sacrament.  Acting against any of these was considered sinful.  Among the three, children were said to be the primary end.

Throughout the twentieth century, many theologians attacked the formulation of marital ends as being “legalistic”.  They claimed that the Chuch should take a more “personalist” approach, whatever that was supposed to mean.  A few theologians meant well, including Dietrich von Hildebrand who defended the doctrine that children are the end of marriage but claimed that love is the meaning of marriage.  For Paul VI, procreation and spousal unity are marriage’s two meanings, the talk of “ends” being entirely replaced.  Most of the theologians, though, did not mean well.  Their goal, which since Vatican II they have ceased even to hide, was to promote sexual depravity:  contraception, divorce, fornication, the solitary vice, and sodomy.  The Council Fathers at Vatican II handed the heretic-perverts a great victory by removing explicit mention of marriage’s ends from the council documents, allowing the heretics to claim that the Church has rejected its entire past tradition.

After relating this sad story in detail, Dr. Haas makes an important point.  Talk about the ends of marriage is not legalistic.  The end (telos) is not a legal category at all; it’s an ontological category.  The scholastics who finalized the Church’s marriage doctrine were Aristotelians, and for them a thing’s end reveals the thing’s essence.  It’s by knowing what marriage does that we know what marriage is.  Procreation is the primary end because it alone gets at what is unique about marriage.  There are other loves, and there are other sacraments.  Haas thus rejects the Hildebrandian distinction between end and meaning–the primary end of marriage is its meaning.

Haas ends on a hopeful note.  Pope John Paul II, he believes, has produced a powerful restatement of the Church’s teaching on marriage which integrates the best features of the scholastic and personalistic/phenomenological views.  Haas hopes (rather unrealistically in my view) that the theology of the body will help reinvigorate appreciation for marriage and chastity in the Catholic world.

Cardinal Newman’s great battle

One sometimes hears the claim that John Henry Newman was a “liberal” or “progressive” Catholic.  It astounds me that anyone could say this about a man whose whole public life was devoted to defending the principles of tradition, dogma, and ecclesiastic authority.  As he himself said

For thirty, forty, fifty years I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of liberalism in religion. Never did Holy Church need champions against it more sorely than now, when, alas! it is an error overspreading, as a snare, the whole earth; and on this great occasion, when it is natural for one who is in my place to look out upon the world, and upon Holy Church as it is, and upon her future, it will not, I hope, be considered out of place, if I renew the protest against it which I have made so often.

Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy…

Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man’s religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.Hitherto the civil Power has been Christian. Even in countries separated from the Church, as in my own, the dictum was in force, when I was young, that: “Christianity was the law of the land”.  Now, everywhere that goodly framework of society, which is the creation of Christianity, is throwing off Christianity. The dictum to which I have referred, with a hundred others which followed upon it, is gone, or is going everywhere; and, by the end of the century, unless the Almighty interferes, it will be forgotten….

Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth.

(See First Things for other Newman quotes.  Also, I strongly recommend reading his wonderful sermon-essay “Faith and Doubt” which I reread last Sunday.)

Against journalism: remembering the Zenger Trial

America started going off the rails at a very early date.  First, there was the prevalence of newspapers in His Majesty’s colonies.  It is, I think, an open question whether any people can maintain its virtue for long in a land where journalists and their product are plentiful.  I have elsewhere presented reasons to doubt it, and the history of Western nations gives us no reason for hope.

If, however, newspapers and their enormous influence must be endured, at least this vast social force should be made accountable to the common good.  In 1735, America rejected even this mild defense against the ravages of journalism.  I imagine that most of you, like me, first heard of the trial of John Peter Zenger in grade school, where it was held up as a great victory for what we now call freedom of the press.  The details of the case can be read here; they don’t really concern us.  What does concern us is the principle established:  that newspapers should be immune to charges of seditious libel if it can be shown that they believe those accusations to be true.

The self-evident wonderfulness of a free press is drilled into our heads so relentlessly from such a young age, that it can be very difficult for us to realize what a stupid, reckless, destructive idea it is.  What it has done is emancipated an incredibly powerful social force from any responsibility towards the social order.  After all, it is a set of generally held beliefs and sentiments that maintain and even constitute a political community:  the sacred aura of authority, the belief in the general trustwothiness of one’s neighbors, the impression of a general consensus on acceptable behavior.  Malignant newspapermen can destroy these things without ever actually lying.

Let me state my position plainly.  Of course the misdeeds of authority figures should be concealed from the public.  This includes senior government officials, senior clergy, and revered ancestors.  Such knowledge is a menace to piety, patriotism, and obedience.  Journalists did right when they refrained from reporting President Kennedy’s adulteries; they did wrong when they reported President Clinton’s.  The damage the President himself did by his private transgressions is insignificant compared to the damage the press does to the majesty of authority by reporting such things.

Conversely, the concealment of crimes, when their revelation would damage the polis, can be a statesmanlike act.  Bishops are right to conceal the crimes of their priests.  In doing so, they protect the souls of the laity.  The military is right to conceal war crimes committed by our troops.  Such revelations would only embolden our enemies.  A husband and father who publicly reveals his adultery adds a second wrong to the first; he makes all of society a victim, as well as his family.

Do the liberals, communists, and anarcho-syndicalists think otherwise?  Fine.  Let them show me the race of angels they have on hand to rule mankind.  In the meantime, so long as men are ruled by men, hypocricy shall be a public necessity.