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?