Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Something Borrowed–The Old Version

with 2 comments

For reasons mostly boring and mundane, Wednesdays are now the sanest days of my weeks.

I think I got that grammatically correct.

At any rate, Wednesdays are the days when I don’t have to run out and be somewhere and I don’t have to hurry up and do something, and today I took advantage of that to listen to Mendelsohn and read in the early morning instead of Getting Something Done.

The reading is, in a way, how I ended up in this particular discussion, but I don’t really want to report on the book just yet.  I’m not all that far into it, and it’s a complicated thing, an intellectual history that is trying to explain how we got here from our Medieval past–what made Western societies not only secular but secular in the particular way they are secular.

Yeah, I know.  A little light reading.

But that brings me to my next thing on the small list, and to a comment on the state of the important list so far.

Here’s the big problem with Federalism as a solution to a population that does not have any kind of a moral consensus:

It can only last so long.

As I pointed out when I started this, when the country was founded, we had exactly one moral fault line, one moral issue on which there was not a society-wide consensus.

And that was slavery.

We solved that problem with Federalism, and the compromise lasted less than a century before it kicked off a five-year-long Civil War that left over 600,000 soldiers dead. 

There’s a reason for this.

No matter how many times various people say we shouldn’t be judgmental and that moral codes are all subjective and relative, nobody actually believes this.

On both sides of every moral issue, what we have is people who are deeply committed to the objective, irrefutable truth of their own moral convictions. 

People who champion gay rights are no less absolutist in their moral beliefs than are people who claim gay sex is an abomination eternally proscribed by God.

And because both sides are absolutist in their beliefs, neither side can logically (or emotionally) agree to disagree with the people who reject their claims.

Modern relativists do not believe that all morality is relative to cultural or intellectual or subjective emotional circumstances.

If they did, they would have no problem with Mississippi refusing to officially recognize gay marriage while Massachussetts accepted it. 

The same is true on a million different issues–abortion, birth control, racial discrimination, creationism and ID, you name it.

When moral relativism is brought into the public discussion of these issues, it is always a rhetorical dodge–if you can get your opponent to accept this, or the audience to accept this, then your opponent is disarmed, and you can go on advocating your own point of view from the same old absolutist perspective.

And, if you’re lucky, either nobody will notice (not likely, these days), or they’ll be so undercut by your assumptions that they won’t be able to proceed with the same vigor they had before.

Eventually, one way or the other, we will either reach consensus again, or we will cease to exist as a nation.

And both sides wants to ensure its own victory in the same way–by enlisting the Federal, state and local governments in its cause, to pass laws supporting its moral assumptions and to enforce them in any way possible.

This is why there is both abstinence education and days of silence, why there are antidiscrimination laws and dry counties in Kentucky.

And this is why the argument about the teaching of evolution in public schools has nothing to do with science, no matter what either of the sides say.

But the bottom line is simply this:  we cannot do this for long.  We can do it LONGER if there is true Federalism, but that will still be a stopgap measure. 

Both sides are naive, however, for thinking that getting the government to enact their agenda will settle the issue.

It didn’t do that in 1860, when there was no radio, no television, no Internet, no text messages–when it was infinitely harder for like-minded believers to find each other and organize.

These days, short of establishing a police state as extensive as North Korea’s or a religious tyranny as extensive as Afghanistan’s under the Taliban, there’s no way to stop your opponents from simply setting up their own channels of information and organization and going from there.

Universities try “speech codes” and find themselves socked with lawsuits about free speech.  They install gag orders on dozens of issues–say, the relative academic qualifications of affirmative action and non-affirmative action admits–and some kid takes their raw data and dumps it onto the Internet for all to see.

Churches try to handle “issues” “internally” and find themselves subject to investigative reports on cable news–sexual predation and misconduct, embezzlement, whatever.

None of us can hide from this any more.

I’m not going to predict what’s coming, because I don’t know–and I do know that too many people predict that the other side must be winning, because that’s what it feels.

I will suggest one thing–if you want to see how things are going, watch sex.

Because what’s been happening with sex has been very interesting.

We’re used to being told that this is a sexually permissive society, that people have a much wider field of sexual expression that they ever have had before.

And, on some aspects of sex, this is true.

Homosexuality is not illegal anywhere, as far as I know. You can get all kinds of pornography these days, and plenty of people are involved in groups that enable sexual practices nobody would have admitted to 40 years ago.

But in other aspects, this is definitely not true. 

Forty years ago, an eighteen year old boy could have sex with his fourteen year old girlfriend and what would most likely happen to him was nothing, unless he got her pregnant, at which point he’d be required to marry her.  If her parents tried to get him charged with statutory rape, the worst he’d have gotten even if he could be convicted (unlikely) would have been about a year in jail.

These days, he’d not only be convicted of statutory rape, he’d be a registered Sex Offender for the next 40 years of his life, pretty much destroying any chance he ever had for a decent life.


We’ve managed this return to censoriousness and Draconian punishment by redefining “consent” to mean not “the proposed victim didn’t consent’ to “even if the proposed victim consented, he/she didn’t really, because he/she is too young, old mentally disabled to really be able to.”

This is a sensible rule when we’re talking about a six year old, but not when we’re talking about a fourteen year old.  Young and immature though such a person may be, naive and unsophisticated, the idea that he/she is incapable of wanting sex, seeking it out, or desiring it with a person older than him/herself is demonstrably untrue. 

It’s demonstrably untrue even if we don’t go into the fact that Mary Kay Latourneau is now married to the kid she went to jail for having sex with.

Having adopted a public stance that sexual practice is private and should not be interfered with by the state, that everybody’s sexual practice and orientation is sacredly a central part of his identity and must be allowed free play for expression, and that moral proscriptions of sexuality are mostly the province of traditionalist and probably stupid people–

We find ourselves in a position where we have to go more than overboard in order to proscribe some sexual practices, which we still consider wrong. 

But this is a compromise that won’t hold for long, either. 

The moral hysteria of this latest sexual panic is ramping up just as groups in various states are trying to get the official age of consent for sex lowered–and those two trends are eventually going to crash into each other.

If the present state of things is any indication, the proscribers are going to win, and more and more sexual activity is going to go back to being culturally shunned and even legally banned.

There is really no other way for this to turn out unless we’re willing to allow NAMBLA’s contention that sex between grown men and six year olds is at least potentially beneficial, and I’ll guarantee we’re not going there.

We are on are way to a much more prudish age.

Whatever else we’re on our way to, I couldn’t say.

Written by janeh

April 18th, 2012 at 9:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Something Borrowed–The Old Version'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Something Borrowed–The Old Version'.

  1. Well, speaking of trends crashing into each other, that’s already what’s happening with abortion.

    On the one hand the rights of women have been steadily increasing over the last several centuries from near slavery for most, to independent and legally equal citizens.

    But that is part and parcel of the expanding sphere of who a given society recognizes as deserving to be treated as “human”.

    And now, beginning in the 20th century with ever younger “premies” being able to survive, with our increased understanding of biology, is the extension of the recognition of humanness to the fetus. The legal rule from time immemorial was that a baby wasn’t a baby and thus a person until after a live birth. The classic legal cases being either an arrow or a bullet which strikes the infant in utero. If the infant dies in utereo, then there was no murder. If the infant survived birth and then died from its injuries, then it was murder.

    Now, in many states, if the mother (parents) wanted the child and something like that happens you CAN be found guilty of “fetal murder” and sent to prison, even for a very early (non-viable) fetus.

    So we have in the abortion controversy two memes in collision, or perhaps the same meme in collision with itself.

    I don’t think it can possibly be settled short of technology advancing to the point where an embryo/fetus can be extracted from the uterus as easily (or nearly so) as an abortion can now be performed — and then frown in vitro if necessary with the mother surrendering all parental rights as a condition of the procedure. Then and only then can the women maintain control of her own body AND the fetus survive.

    Until that day, the controversy will rage.


    18 Apr 12 at 2:56 pm

  2. As with those things that “only” postpone Alzheimer’s symptoms by five or ten years, I’d be quite happy for a fifty year hiatus in the culture war. All solutions are, in the end, temporary–but so are many problems.

    One thing which would give a Tenth Amendment solution greater longevity would be being really firm and explicit about it. “Hope is the enemy of adaptation.” So long a everyone thinks they’re one Supreme Court decision or federal law from total victory, why should they settle for less? If people were satisfied that Georgia would NEVER legalize late-term abortions and Massachusetts would ALWAYS have highly restrictive gun laws, the real hard cases would start to look at moving, or at turning down transfers. The people with ten-item agendas would move on to the ones they might win. I believe that Saudis and Libyans should have freedom of religion and that Chinese and Russian farmers should be able to own their farms–but I also know that those struggles will have to be won primarily by Russians, Chinese, Saudis and Libyans. I can’t even end Canadian censorship.

    As for the more prudish age–yes, that’s about right. Just try not to be a Regency buck in the Victorian Era. That story rarely has a happy ending.


    18 Apr 12 at 5:08 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.