Fighting the Good War on Film — Check out Michael Valdez Moses's fascinating Reason essay on the way the recent spate of films about WWII express unfulfilled boomer fantasies.
I Don't Really Want to be Having This Debate — But Christopher Johnson of Midwest Conservative Journal also misses the distinction between total harm and net benefit. And in any case, my original point was only that questions of better require answers to questions of better for what. I have no clear idea whether the benefits minus the harms of Christianity is positive or not. My contention is only that Christianity has killed more people, wrecked more lives, and squelched more liberty than Hustler and “American Booty.” And if porn objectifies women (and men too, Christopher), one would like to hear exactly what is the harm in that, and how it is worse than burning Bruno, say, at the stake. Christopher seems also to overlook that porn provides an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction for millions. Is that not a cultural achievement?
I really don't care to be defending porn, because it's beside the point at issue with Goldberg. The point is that cultural libertarianism is not relativistic or nihilistic, and that everyone, conservatives included, have a “Chinese Menu” attitude toward culture, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
Jesus & Porn, etc. — Kevin Holtsberry cites scripture in order to vindicate the value of Christianity. Well, I'm not impressed. The principles expressed by Kevin's select passages have nothing especially to do with Christianity as such — in believing in a superpowered being from another dimension, that he was once born of virgin, died… but didn't really, saved us from our intrinsic awfulness, and so forth. All of that is just false, and it's bad to believe false things.
But I was thinking about the murder of heretics, providing a rationale for stripping millions of people of their natural freedoms for thousands of years, the subjugation of women, and so forth. The evils of porn are, well, just trivial in comparison. I'm not saying that there haven't been good consequences of Christianity, such as pretty cathedrals, the abolition movement and helping to aim the light of moral judgment on the individual person. But the history is just too complex for me to make an assessment about the net benefit. However, I do think that anyone who thinks the harm of porn has been worse than the harm of Christianity either never had a Western Civ course or is delusional.
Kevin argues further that there are conservatives who do in fact argue for their values on the basis of an understanding of human nature and history. He mentions Kirk, C.S. Lewis, Novak and Neuhaus. But those are producers of exactly the kind of historical quasi-fictions I had in mind. The selective histories these thinker's works contain are, like Marxist histories, constructs in service of ideology. And the essentialist, non-Darwinian view of human nature shared by all above is false.
Porn Versus Christianity — I was delighted to be quoted by Virginia Postrel in her reply to Goldberg during the late cultural libertarianism bruhaha. And I was flabbergasted to be quoted by Goldberg on NRO in his riposte. It is perhaps a dubious distinction to become known for defending the merits of pornography against Christianity, but the noble do not blanch in the face of uncomfortable truth. [Clears throat.]
In response to my points that a comparison between porn and Christian books requires a dimension of comparison (you probably don't want to use the Bible for self satisfaction, Batsheba notwithstanding), and that the immorality of porn must be argued, not assumed, Goldberg replies:
Touché, I suppose. But doesn't this make my point? Cultural libertarians are uncomfortable with, and quite defensive about, drawing distinctions between such bedrock components of Western civilization in this case a little thing called “Christianity” and the latest installment of On Golden Blonde. According to these guys, the burden is on me to explain why and how porn is worse than Christianity. I'd be glad to do it sometime (though I'm hardly an anti-porn zealot); it doesn't sound too tough.
Golberg's point, I take it, is that cultural libertarians are relativists or nihilists, unable or unwilling to make firm judgments about value. If that's his point, then I certainly haven't made it. I'm keen to make value-judgments. That my judgments conflict with Goldberg's may appear to Goldberg to reduce them to absurdity, but we aren't (thank God) all Goldberg. Goldberg keeps missing our (or at least my) point: judgments of value require an answer to “Valuable to whom and for what purpose?” Although I certainly believe Christianity is false, and has been far more harmful than porn could ever be, that's not to the point. The point is that conservatives need to stop pounding tables and explain to us why their cultural preferences really are valuable and what justifies us in believing that they are. That Christianity, say, is a “bedrock component of Western Civilization” says absolutely nothing in its defense. Here's why.
Although I certainly count myself a defender of certain Enlightenment ideals, I don't think it even begins to make sense to fight for something so ill-defined and contradiction-laden as “Western Civilization.” My background is in western philosophical thought, and although there is, to an extent, a unified conversation that stretches over the ages, that conversation contains both truths and their contraries, and the cultural expression of that conversation contains both genuine values and genuine evils. The Inquisition, the Divine Right of Kings, American slavery, German National Socialism, and Soviet Communism are just as much an expression of “The Western Tradition” as the scientific method and the Bill of Rights. It's absurd on its face to bundle all this together, call it one thing, and come to it's defense.
Goldberg accuses cultural libertarians of failing to draw important distinctions of value, yet this is precisely the crime of conservatives who make axiomatic the value of an incoherent Western tradition, and then ridicule those who are careful to distinguish between what is genuinely good and bad within the tradition. Indeed, conservatives try to have it both ways — to glorify something called Western Civilization, and at the same time to criticize key strands of the tradition, such as scientific secularism (good) or totalitarian collectivism (bad), as being somehow outside of it.
Goldberg pretends to loathe grab-bag culture, but he and his ilk do it just the same when they pick Christianity over Celtic paganism and individual rights over collectivist subjugation. However, conservatives attempt to camouflage that their preferences are just preferences by constructing a highly selective narrative about “Western Civilization” that gives their preferences the illusion of intrinsic worth as necessary keystones of their fictitious cultural edifice. I'm not being postmodern here. I'm being descriptive.
Of the essentials of Western Civilization, Goldberg writes:
… some of the ingredients for Western civilization I have in mind are such categories as Christianity and religion in general, sexual norms, individualism, patriotism, the Canon, community standards of conduct, democracy, the rule of law, fairness, modesty, self-denial, and the patriarchy.
Why not Stoic mysticism, collectivism, military nationalism, absolute monarchy, slavery and the Napoleonic Code? Why don't these go in Jonah's grab bag?
Conservatives need to stop making up self-justifying historical quasi-fictions about “Western Civilization” and just tell us straight why we all should all value what they value. They always demur because they cannot do it. They cannot do it because they have derived their package of values from contingent emotive attachments, not from an objective standard grounded on the real, various nature of human beings. It's not relativism or nihilism to argue that there are more legitimate human values on heaven and earth than in the dreams of conservatives. It's just true.
European Vacation — My foray to “The Continent” was great fun and provided me, by contrast, with a heightened sense of American culture. There are a few things I prefer about German norms over American. You can smoke just about anywhere and you can bring your dog just about anywhere (and you can probably let your dog smoke just about anywhere). People insist on eating breakfast. There are tits and foul language on network television. Beer as a food group. In Prague, I admired the anarchic attitude toward fireworks.
And some things about Germans are unexpectedly cute. A Christmas Eve performance piece at a very prole club in Cottbus, which featured folks dressed up as reindeer, Santa, snowmen, striking awkward poses and chanting “Kung-Fu fighting!”, confirmed the reality of endearing German loopiness of the Sprockets variety. I also like it when my lovely German friend requests intimacy in the imperative mode, e.g. “Now you will pet my hair.”
I came to better understand the complaint of American cultural imperialism. A great deal of German TV is dubbed American. Almost all the incidental music I heard in Germany and the Czech Republic was either American or British. Almost all the movies in theaters are American. I knew that American pop culture gets around, but I really wasn't expecting this kind of dominance. Of course, it's really not imperialism at all. It's just that Germans don't seem to make music, TV and film that they themselves prefer over American products. I have a theory why this should be so, but as I'm suffering jet lag, and feeling rather like I swallowed too much cough medicine, I think I'll advance my theory tomorrow, for cogency's sake.
Goldberg Redux — Sadly, I learned of my mention by Goldberg, and of his further ramblings, only just as I was embarking on my holiday trip and I was unable to reply. Although the topic is rather stale, by blog standards, I do want to say a few things. And I will say them tomorrow.
I have returned! — from strange lands afar. Developing…