Conservatives were right about sex, admits New York Times columnist
Social conservatives are always losers, but never quite defeated. In politics and in cultural wars, one has the impression of having carried out a long rearguard action, the counter-attacks covering only a general retreat. But we must not despair, for human nature guarantees that our ideas will remain relevant and our principles will be unexpectedly rekindled.
Just ask Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, who reports that “positive sexual feminism” is on the decline. Goldberg’s column is an exercise in admitting that social conservatives were right without saying that social conservatives were right. Thus, she presents this as a debate between positive sexual feminism (“the idea that feminism should prioritize sexual pleasure and fight against sexual repression”) and anti-porn feminists, whose warnings find new resonance among women. young women who “feel brutalized by the expectation that they will be open to anything.
It is now undeniable that for many women, the sexual revolution brought exploitation and misery, and not freedom and fulfillment. Sexual liberation has unleashed a multitude of evils, so Goldberg confesses that “somehow as sexual positivity has become mainstream and merged with a culture shaped by pornography …
“Sort of” indeed. If only there had been warnings of some sort of extensive cultural and political movement with deep religious and philosophical roots. But Goldberg arguably finds it more acceptable to focus on a few dissenting feminists than to credit the foresight of Focus on the Family.
“All is well” is impractical
Nor is she, despite her obvious failure, entirely willing to give up the positive feminist sexual dream. So her concluding imperative is kind of a whine, for she insists that “now that the old taboos have fallen, we need new ones.” Not on sex, but on callousness and cruelty. Good luck in eliminating these permanent evils of human nature from a sex culture dedicated to self-indulgence.
Goldberg and those like her are rediscovering the truth that “anything goes” is impractical, and therefore society will always have manners, norms and taboos. These are, of course, imperfect, as are their supporters. But in considering manners and mores, social conservatives have the advantage of drawing on the experience and wisdom of the ages, while today’s taboo builders are starting from scratch.
No wonder they are often in a moral panic. After destroying the traditional constraints on obscurity in human nature, they scramble to build new standards from the thought-provoking articles of corporate media and the Twitter crowd.
Struggle to find new solutions
Faced with the failure of the sexual culture she championed, Goldberg therefore has nothing better to propose than to suggest that cruelty should be taboo, as if moral philosophers and teachers had previously neglected the subject. But although moral reminders and education are perennial necessities, there is little new moral discovery to be made except by those who assume that there was nothing valid before them.
This highlights the real problem of Goldberg’s reluctance to acknowledge the insight of social conservatives. The contemptuous refusal to give credit where it is due is harmless in itself, but significant insofar as it cuts her off from those who might come up with solutions to the problems she belatedly noticed. This ideological bubbling can be heartwarming – and keep it from being challenged on other issues as well – but that’s why we often see progressives rediscovering truths that social conservatives have never stopped declaring.
For example, it took decades of bitter experience and a multitude of studies for many self-proclaimed social progressives to admit that divorce is bad for children and that fatherlessness is really bad for children. Likewise, after decades of demolishing mores and norms, they are now frantically trying to restore some sense of public decency – left-wing activists are now troubled by many of the same vulgar words that once disturbed the moral majority.
The Social Conservatives saw it coming
Societies need norms and manners that govern everything from sex to speech. Conservatives understand this, which allows social conservatism to be more than just a defense of the status quo. We know that the permanent things of human nature are fundamental to human society and flourish. One of the most important of these permanence is that men and women are different but complementary, and that their meeting ensures the continuity of humanity.
These simple truths are often ignored, or dismissed, in our materialistic culture dedicated to individual autonomy. They have been vehemently rejected by the positive sexual feminism that Goldberg still cannot stop. But the Conservatives have never forgotten them, and we will continue to proclaim them and other essential truths about human nature and the good life.
It doesn’t mean we have a blueprint for how to rebuild society. We recognize that culture is largely organic and that humans are fallible and finite. This is why the conservatives prefer reform to revolution. We know the fragility of even a good enough order, and that it is much easier to demolish a culture than to rebuild one.
This is evident in the mess of Goldberg and his comrades trying to develop new taboos. They are inconsistent about what should be prohibited, and the punishments they inflict are disproportionate and capricious. Plus, with their previous vision of human flourishing having ended in disaster, they have no idea what they are even trying to build.
Instead of seeking advice from those who are desperately trying to undo the damage their ideas have done, we should listen to the social conservatives who saw it coming and who have preserved ways of family and community life that promote true well-being.
Nathanael Blake is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy.