Progressives applaud themselves for many things, but none more enthusiastically than the fact that we no longer burn heretics at the stake—or even entertain such false dichotomies as orthodoxy and heresy. We are beyond them (as we are beyond right and wrong); and what we are beyond we are entitled to despise. That is why as a society we are so instinctively repelled by fundamentalist religion, whether in its Christian or Muslim guise. Leave aside for the moment that Christians of any denomination no longer persecute or even notice heretics, while militant Islam seems obsessed with them. These are quibbles. It is the idea of heresy and orthodoxy that we repudiate.

But here as so often the complacent modern deludes himself, unaware that the atavism he thinks he has put away has merely recrudesced in a novel form. This is veritably a psychological law. Today, the most zealous anti-racists are also enthusiastic proponents of affirmative action, which, being state-sponsored and coerced, is the most “systemic” form of racism imaginable. In the late nineteenth century, Marxist theorists announced that mankind had transcended religion, and in the twentieth, the socialist utopias founded on such brave new principles revived the heresy tribunals of the Inquisition. In show trials all across the communist world, millions of citizens suspected of harboring the slightest doubts about Marxist orthodoxy were forced to issue public confessions and recantations, before being sent off to the Gulag for their moral and ideological rehabilitation. Concomitantly, the leaders of these officially atheist workers’ paradises demanded such unquestioning and reverential obedience from their subjects as had not seen since the days of the Pharaohs. (Come to think of it, the Pharaohs merely claimed to be the sons of Amon-Re, whereas the dictators of North Korea continue to insist on being venerated as the Supreme Father.) It is a fantasy to think that the human race is “beyond” anything. As Jung has observed, everything that is primitive and embarrassing to us merely gets consigned to the shadow side, where it ceases to offend our sight, but thereby wreaks unlimited moral and psychological havoc for being unconscious.

This is true above all of what Jung has called the “religious function of the psyche”, an innate and indelible endowment of the human person that is wholly autonomous of officially codified creeds or rituals. As a political movement, nation, or civilization, we may well “transcend” religion, but the religious function of the psyche is hardly repealed thereby. It merely finds other channels through which to assert itself.

Today, with the exhaustion of faith in traditional religious postulates, all the urgency and fervour that had formerly attached to them has duly spilled over, like so much surplus energy, into the “non-religious” realm. And while organized religion is officially debarred from the public square, religious passions and certitudes strictly regulate every nuance of public discourse.

The indispensable term “political correctness” describes the situation nicely; but what it describes is an attitude that is not political in the least, but primordially religious: the reflexive disposition toward virtually every opinion on every question of the day as either orthodox or heterodox, motivated by pious devotion to the “correct” cause, or stiff-necked infidelity.

Secular modernity is awash in orthodoxies and heresies, and it is a wonder that they don’t stink in our post-religious nostrils. Point out that there is a correlation between the spread of AIDS and the peculiar modality of homosexual “sex”; observe that abortion in the majority of cases is a form of birth control for those who wish to enjoy the convenience of extra-marital congress without the inconvenient byproducts; suggest that the “wage-gap” is the effect, not of discrimination, but of biological and psychological differences between the genders; argue that immigrants ought to accommodate their cultures to that of the native population rather than the other way around; question the wisdom of rewarding people with cash for choosing not to work; ask whether global warming is in fact man-made, and you might as well have poked fun at the Law before the Sanhedrin.

Such opinions are affronts to today’s regnant dogmas (environmentalism, multiculturalism, “gender equity”, and so on). And as dogmas, of course, there is no more need to demonstrate their veracity or reasonableness than there is for believers to demonstrate the rationality of the Resurrection or Virgin Birth.

For the sake of illustration, I’ll have to confine myself to a single current example. (It would take a book to document the phenomenon adequately. Indeed, dozens of such books have been published, but apparently without effect.)

In the past year, on campuses across the country, a number of pro-life organizations have been denied club status and funding by their student governments. The justification offered by one Gilary Massa, vice-president of the York University Federation of Students, is instructive. Student clubs will be free to discuss abortion in student space, so long as they do so “within a pro-choice realm”. Ultimately, “you have to recognize that a woman has a choice over her own body”. This is not, as Ms. Massa stipulates, “an issue of freedom of speech”. “No, this is an issue of women’s rights.”

There it is. Freedom to discuss the issue so long as it’s within the bounds of pro-choice orthodoxy (“within a pro-choice realm”). But why discuss it? What is there to discuss, within the “realm” that Ms. Massa defines as permissible?

It obviously doesn’t trouble Ms. Massa that many Canadians do want to have a discussion, inasmuch as 70% of us have consistently called for at least some restrictions on abortion. But I prefer not to get into the argument here (on this Ms. Massa and I agree). I’m more interested in the peculiar psychology of pro-choice orthodoxy that can apparently confer upon its evangelists the repose of certainty in the midst of a raging controversy.

For them, a “woman’s right to choose” is a revealed truth, beyond the “realm” of rational human investigation. There is no point in inquiring into it, anymore than there is in inquiring into the nature of the Divine, which, as Plato remarks in the Timaeus, is “beyond knowing or expressing”. The absolute right to abortion is an inscrutable mystery. For feminists, it is the magnum mysterium (with apologies to Christianity); and those who raise questions about its truth or moral rectitude are trespassing on sacred ground.

Ms. Massa’s views are reflective of a generalized exaltation of human “rights” to metaphysical status. Calling something a “right” (the “right” to an education, to medical care, to a “living” wage, to same-sex “marriage”, and, of course, the ubiquitous right not to be offended) confers upon it a kind of magical potency, which is one reason why utterly novel “rights” like a woman’s over her own body have been breeding like flies lately.

But let us grant, for the sake of argument—not that Ms. Massa would be open to argument–that there is a “right to choose”, even if no Canadian Parliament has enacted it, and not even Canada’s activist Supreme Court has recognized it.

In non-totalitarian states, citizens possess many “rights”, but none of them comes with the included right to immunity from criticism. Rights don’t have rights and never have had—not even the traditional ones that have been on the books since Magna Carta. We have long had the right to private property, but that does not prohibit socialists from inveighing against it, and advocating its abolition. Even in the nineteenth century, when Americans enjoyed the right to own slaves, emancipationists were at perfect liberty to call the legal practice pernicious. Presumably, even Ms. Massa would have been happy about the evanescence of that right. No right is insulated from rational judgment. Only eternal laws handed down from on high lay claim to the privilege of sacrosanctity.

It’s not merely, therefore, that Ms. Massa and her co-religionists have decreed that, at York and other universities, opposition must be crushed and non-conforming points of view silenced. On campus, this is nothing new. By now we all know that universities, once sanctuaries of free thought and untrammeled debate, have of late become Zimbabwe’s without the violence. Universities proudly merchandise themselves as perfect little jewels of diversity–by which their administrators mean diversity of race, country of origin, religion, and “sexual orientation”, but absolute uniformity of thought.

In the academy, this is more or less an open secret. Students know that if they submit essays propounding views that go beyond the “realm” of acceptable opinion, they can expect a poor grade. For the sake of self-preservation, they learn, like all political and religious dissidents, to suppress their own doubts, and observe the proprieties. Professors know that if they fail to do the same in the classroom, their students might denounce them as racists, sexists, fascists, homophobes, Islamophobes, Euro-centrists, or anti-choice bigots, in their end-of-year course evaluations, which can spell the end of their careers. So professors, too, sensibly reduce the risks by staying within the “realm” of acceptable opinion. It’s a tacit, mutual undertaking to dissemble, such as one often finds in totalitarian societies. And it works. Which is not to say that in the academy there aren’t the usual disciplinary committees and tribunals charged with enforcing adherence to “speech codes” and the like, and censuring those who violate them. But there is little need for them, when the system of self-repression functions so efficiently.

Of course, the university is not the only theocratic institution in our officially secular world; only the most suffocating one. The same “smelly little orthodoxies” (to recall Orwell’s pungent phrase) delineate the bounds of speech, thought, and action in most departments of modern life: in the workplace, the news media, the legislature, the literary and arts community. Go beyond the “realm” of orthodox opinion in any of these contexts, and you might well end up before one of Canada’s busy human rights tribunals.

One is grateful, certainly, that such tribunals do not have the authority to burn heretics at the stake; merely to get them dismissed from their jobs, fine them, imprison them, or deport them, while sullying their reputations, forcing them to issue spurious but nonetheless humiliating apologies, to surrender their presses to their ideological opponents, or open their private reception halls for the sport of those who offend their most deeply held moral convictions.

But then I thought we were “beyond” all that.

 

 

While driving up the DVP the other day, the words “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR” loomed ahead, spray-painted in capital letters on the side of an overpass. Normally, it’s hard to read these revelations from on high while approaching at highway speeds; but that’s rarely a problem on the Parkway.

Let it be known that I too consider it better to make love than war. Had I been president of the U.S. at the time, I would have put aside my old-fashioned prejudice in favour of the opposite sex and proposed the idea to Brezhnev, had I thought it would end the Cold War. But Brezhnev, I fear, would have rebuffed my advances.

It’s nice, in any case, to see that the Iraq War has re-energized the Peace Movement. The collapse of communism left the Movement wholly dispirited, it seems. The fact that the proximate cause of the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Empire was Reagan’s relentless military build-up rather than the West’s unilateral disarmament must have been particularly irksome to the world’s amorous pacifists. Shortly thereafter, not even NATO’s unprovoked invasion of Yugoslavia succeeded in mobilizing them.

Why are the Movement faithful finally dusting off their placards and agitating their spray cans once again? A hypothesis: The overthrow of little Serbia by NATO’s armed might was intended to save a Bosnian Muslim plurality from genocide at the hands of a Christian minority. The invasion of Iraq was intended to save a Muslim majority from genocide by a Muslim minority. If one Islamic sect sets about to ethnically cleanse another, it’s one thing, but if Christians try it, that’s too much for the multicultural community to bear. Clinton’s war against Serbia was a “humanitarian intervention”, as it was called; Bush’s war against the Sunni tyranny is “an occupation”.

I regard the war in Iraq as a calamitous mistake, by the way. (No less calamitous than America’s uncritical advocacy of Israel, for what it’s worth.) But the rhetoric of the Peace Movement is so puerile that no thinking adult would have anything to do with it. Unlike the fellow travelers of the Movement, thinking people don’t wish to be judged stupid by association.

As I see it, any organization that invites its members to congregate en masse to shout slogans or sing folk songs probably can’t manage the intellectual depths of a problem as intractable as man’s inhumanity to man. Hard critical thinking is not encouraged in mobs. The very purpose of convening one is to induce individuals to surrender their independence of mind to its collective tyranny. Nor does it make much difference whether the mob is chanting “Kill the Negro” or “Make the Rich Pay”, “Zieg Heil ” or “Give Peace a Chance”: its median intelligence quotient still languishes in the bottom quartile.

 

Listening to the arguments in support of same-sex “marriage” is a bit like reading some of my undergraduates’ essays. When undergraduates write, they use words with no apparent connection to their established meanings. No doubt their high school teachers assured them that obedience to convention in this regard would only inhibit their creativity, and so for them, a word signifies whatever happens at the time to suit their convenience. Here are a couple of examples that I can remember, from a sample (trust me) of several hundred: “Achilles defected Hector and drudged his anatomy behind his car nine times throughout the walls of Troy”; “During the French Revolution, a large amount of acrobats were incapacitated by the guillotine.” George Bush, call you office.

At least when undergraduates mutilate the language, they do so unintentionally, out of ignorance, laziness, or genuine heartfelt indifference. When the same-sex crowd expediently re-defines marriage, it’s out of pure cynicism. They intend not only to change the definition of the institution, but to mock the old one at the same time.

In this regard, they stand in a long and hallowed tradition. The example that leaps to mind is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. These days, the Wife is a prophetess and role model of modern feminism, a sort of feminist avant le mot. But for Chaucer, who was unfortunately born too early to have enlisted in the women’s liberation movement, Dame Alisoun was simply a moral exemplum of the sins of mendacity and hypocrisy. (Besides, feminism would have been too easy for Chaucer to make fun of.)

The Wife is so steadfast and enthusiastic a supporter of marriage that she has entered into its sacred estate five times, having driven most of her husbands to an early grave. To one of the five she became engaged during a liaison at her previous husband’s funeral; she met the last on a pilgrimage to Santiago, while her penultimate was out of town on business. Her pious reason for joining the holy road to Canterbury is to find a sixth.

The good Wife confesses unashamedly—proudly proclaims, rather–that for her the purpose of marriage is 1. to satisfy her voracious sexual appetite; 2. to satisfy her equally voracious lust for power, which she lords sadistically over her subservient husbands, mainly by threatening to withhold her “belle chose” if they fail to comply with her demands; and 3. to fleece them of their wealth. Naturally, this means picking and choosing amongst the more conventional interpretations of marriage.

The text from Scripture of which she is most fond is the injunction to “be fruitful and multiply”, although, as she notes, it’s the “pleasure of engendering” that appeals to her rather more than the fruit. She knows that St. Paul urges widows to remain celibate, but Paul is speaking to the “perfect”–and she is not perfect. Besides, the Lord calls His flock in many different ways; virginity happens not to be her particular calling. She knows too that Christ’s attendance at the Marriage at Cana and His admonition to the Samaritan Woman at the Well have been universally interpreted to mean that a husband should have one wife and a wife one husband. But Dame Alisoun has never really understood the Lord’s preaching in these instances; His words are ambiguous, at best.

The Wife is a skillful biblical exegete–like many another in Chaucer’s time who manipulated, distorted, and selectively adduced scriptural texts to suit their own moral convenience. The Wife pursued what was in the Christian Middle Ages an “alternative lifestyle”, and would have preferred that the traditional definition of marriage recognize and accommodate it. No less desirous of societal approbation, today’s partisans of same-sex “marriage” seek it likewise through “exegesis”. Had he been alive today, Chaucer would surely have written Husband of the Bathhouse instead of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. But at least when the Wife deliberately misinterprets tradition, she does so with a twinkle in her eye. The same-sex “marriage” crowd, on the other hand, do so with high solemnity, and grave talk about discrimination and human rights, wanting us to believe that they believe that marriage does not mean what it has always meant, namely, the union of a man and a woman.

The problem with self-serving definitions is that their logical momentum is unstoppable. If a thing can become something other than it is defined to be by convention, it can become anything other than it is defined to be by convention. If two men (or women) can be “married”, because they love, care for, and are committed to each other, then there can be no rational impediment to extending marital status to those whose alternative lifestyles follow slightly different but similar trajectories. Why not two spinster sisters, or bachelor brothers? Why not a devoted unmarried daughter and her widowed mother? Why not two lifelong friends? Take the potential for biological offspring out of the equation–as you must with homosexual “couples”—and there’s no arguable reason why these other, equally loving, equally committed, and equally abiding relationships shouldn’t qualify for the legal benefits and social prestige of the married estate. Oh wait, you say there is sex involved in same-sex relations. Yes, there is sexual titillation, I suppose, but the “sex” is fatally unproductive. Do we really want to make fruitless arousal a sufficient condition of marriage? You go there if you wish, but first imagine the scenarios.

Let me make it clear, then: I don’t oppose same sex “marriage” because of the dire consequences it portends for a foundational human institution; I oppose it because it is a semantic shell-game. I’m well aware that the institution of marriage itself has been road-kill for almost forty years, having been run over repeatedly by the steamroller of progress and bent as far out of shape as Wile E. Coyote after an encounter with a freight train.

In the seventies, the liberalization of our divorce laws made terminating a marriage contract easier than getting out of an auto lease; and so the essence of the thing—the idea of a covenant unto death–was utterly abrogated. The free-love revolution of the sixties had already removed the stigma from extra-marital sex, which in due course became the norm—there to be enjoyed without the need for the community’s official imprimatur, not to mention the inconvenience of paying a mortgage, taking out the garbage, and coming home at a reasonable hour from a night out with the boys. Besides, when universal access to contraception severed the nexus between coital pleasure and offspring, the only potential drawback to a career in extra-marital relations was eliminated. And even the official blessing could be had for nothing, once the state decided to confer equal rights and privileges upon “common law” couples.

These progressive measures had the inevitable effect of dismembering marriage piece by piece, but no one had yet hit upon the ingenious strategy of changing its fundamental meaning. In re-defining marriage to suit their political convenience, homosexual activists, like Chaucer’s Wife and my undergraduate essay writers, have declared themselves liberated from the despotism of words.

I’m not entirely certain what the current definition is, but let us say that according to it marriage is now a loving relationship between two adult members of the species homo sapiens. Never mind that since time immemorial, in almost all civilized cultures throughout the world, it has been regarded as self-evident that, whatever form it takes, marriage at least requires the collaboration of a man and a woman. Now, apparently, the self-evident must be stated, and even publicly demonstrated. When this happens, an institution has become irredeemably moribund, and when it happens to so central an institution as marriage, one’s civilization is in the terminal stages of its protracted illness.

I am, of course, aware that all human institutions “evolve”, as the advocates of same-sex “marriage” have so impatiently reminded the anthropologically illiterate (i.e., all the rest of us). But change in core institutions is normally a slow and incremental process, occurring over centuries and sometimes millennia, fecundated by widespread discontentment, and only finally reified when consensus reaches critical mass. In the history of the West, the evolution from monarchy to oligarchy to democracy took well nigh five millennia. The reduction by half in the sum of genders legally required to constitute a marriage has taken under two years. Nor was this halving of the connubial equation the long foreseen result of seething popular indignation. Even after a relentless campaign of government propaganda to the effect that same-sex “marriage” is a fait accompli, the majority of Canadians still oppose it. Little wonder, since it was pushed through by a tiny cadre of homosexual activists, who represent a small minority of homosexuals, who themselves constitute less than one per cent of the population. Never before in the history of representative democracy has so overwhelming a majority been overruled by so underwhelming a minority.

But “evolution” is in any case no argument. The historical fact that human institutions change does not mean that change is always ameliorative, let alone that it ought to be celebrated for its own sake.

Since the sixties, “change” has been a word of mana (as the Cambridge anthropologists used to describe the magical potency with which certain fetishes or formulas were charged in primitive societies). But for the greater part of the history of human thought, change (“mutability”, as the philosophers call it) has been a symptom of defectiveness and fallibility. In observing variations in the legal codes of different states, the Stoics regarded all local laws as imperfect approximations of the one universal and unchanging Law of Nature. In observing the baffling diversity of political constitutions and their alteration from age to age, they regarded them as imperfect approximations of the eternal Government of the Cosmopolis. The Cosmopolis, ruled by the divine Reason in perfect conformity with Nature, was for them the fixed ideal against which the transient legal codes, moral fashions, social customs, religious ceremonies, and socio-political institutions of all earthly polities were to be judged, and inevitably found wanting. For the Stoics, Reason and Nature were bulwarks against the irrational tyranny of the actual. Today, contingent actuality has been restored to its pre-philosophical eminence. It is a mark of the modern that the ontological hierarchy has now been turned, as Chaucer liked to say, “upsodoun”.

And yet, while we no longer credit Reason or Nature as transcendent entities, we can’t help but appeal to them whenever there is a disagreement over right or wrong. We argue about the “reason” for government (to redistribute wealth, or to guarantee equal justice and opportunity for all?); we proclaim the “nature” of man himself (innately endowed with inalienable rights and liberties–wherefore the institution of slavery was wrong). And so too do we have every justification and duty to ask, What is the “Reason” and “Nature” of marriage?

To this question, the proponents of same-sex “marriage” have as yet offered no response—other than, that is, that the reason for the institution of marriage is to extend Charter “rights” to political minorities, or to accommodate itself to the most current of our changing moral fashions. But the first “reason” is purely extrinsic to marriage itself, and the second would have made our old sages laugh. If an institution has a “nature” (i.e., an intrinsic meaning), it is up to us, and our inconstant moral codes, to accommodate it, and not the other way around.

It is easy to see why the question has had to be evaded: the traditional answer to it is too compelling. As everyone knows, the natural raison d’etre of marriage is the engendering of offspring–on which the perpetuation of the species depends–, and their upbringing in the most stable and salubrious environment possible. Alas, in the matter of the perpetuation of the species, Nature has not been kind to homosexuals. They are uniquely unqualified for it. Certainly, they can resort to heroic (unnatural) methods to repair this deficiency—borrowing some sperm here, renting a womb there, as the case may be. But why on earth would the state want to consecrate and encourage such an arrangement?

For well over a century, we have been painfully aware of the psychological and social injuries suffered by young children growing up without fathers or mothers. Nor can the doubling of one conceivably compensate for the absence of the other. Every new-born child is the recipient of male and female psychic inheritances, whose successful integration into the human personality depends upon the nurturing of parents of both genders.

The adolescent anxieties and psycho-pathologies incubated in motherless or fatherless circumstances are already familiar enough from our experience with the children of divorce, and those who, having been conceived out-of-wedlock, are raised by single parents, or consigned to foster homes or state orphanages. As social progressives invariably remind us (when it advances their political agenda), growing up in a broken home is the single most reliable predictor of failure and misery in every aspect and phase of life. It is a consistent factor in higher than average incidences of school drop-outs, of juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, marital breakdown, mental illness, poverty, and incarceration.

These are unfortunate eventualities, which any society without a death wish has an obligation to forestall. Save, apparently, in the case of same-sex “marriage”, where the state finds it desirable to create new opportunities in which they might—or rather, must—breed. It’s no coincidence that same-sex “marriage” is probably the only piece of legislation that politicians did not have the nerve to introduce with the oleaginous phrase, “for the children”.

 

The Death of English…Grading Relatively…The Beauty of Spring…

We applaud the efforts of Pope Benedict to revive the Latin Mass. But he does not go far enough. At Priceton.org, we encourage the revival of Latin, period. As for the revival of English, in either written or spoken form, we are much less hopeful.

Let’s face it. Grammatical English is dead. It was run over by the pedagogical juggernaut of the 1960’s, and it’s been rotting on the shoulder of society ever since. It’s time to pick up the stinking carcass and bury it.

*****

Grade inflation is like the weather: everybody complains about it but no one is willing to do anything. Actually, the word “inflation” hardly does justice to the problem. Inflation means that the price of a commodity is increasing whereas its intrinsic value remains the same. But in skule, “prices” have been going up even as value has been plummeting. For the past half-century, every new class of undergraduates has come to university with a slightly more perfunctory acquaintance with the intellectual and cultural patrimony of the West, a diminished aptitude for independent thinking, and ever deteriorating literary skills; and each new class has transited with more exalted grades. Quite a trick. The only political regimes that have managed to achieve that kind of inflation have been those that manufactured Ladas and Yugos, every year’s model worse than the last, and at a cost of five years’ wages.

Today, even if, say, the best essay in the bunch is less articulate than the monster in Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein, you are more or less expected to give it an A. It’s called grading relatively. Some years ago, having received a particularly fetid batch of papers, I submitted grades ranging from C+ to D-. (I thought I was being generous; there ought to have been several F’s, but not even I can resist the invincible Zeitgheist of self-esteem.) An avuncular colleague in the English Department reminded me that this was the twenty-first century, after all. Following a little sermon fecund with phrases such as “disadvantaged minorities”, “broken families”, “urban poverty”, the “Harris government’s underfunding” (of everything), he suggested that I ought to re-evaluate students relative to the class as a whole. “Relative to the class as a whole, the essays ranged from bad to execrable”, I replied. For some reason, this response did not satisfy him.

*****

All the signs are there that spring has finally arrived in Toronto. The tulips are on display; so are the disjecta of the returning Canada Geese; Nature has removed the snow from the side streets, redeeming Mayor Miller’s perennial promise; the punks in their tarted-up Honda Civics have their stereos cranked up and their windows down, deafening entire neighbourhoods rather than just themselves; the Leafs have just fired their coach; and, with the advent of the warmer weather, the national strip-athon is well underway.

While heading to class the other day in the Subaru Deforester, I happened to tune into the Commodities Report on the radio. Something about pork backs and bellies—either a shortage or a glut, I think. As I stepped out of the car, I was visually inundated by the annual tsunami of female corpulence as it heaved and crested between low-slung jeans and shrunken tee-shirts. The half-understood words of the Commodities Report came back to me. And I wondered in kind, Is there a worldwide shortage of mirrors?