The artificial womb and the Sexual Revolution

Writing at the Gospel Coalition website, Alastair Roberts analyzed recent news about the development of an artificial womb. While this technology may undermine arguments for abortion, he writes, it also has the potential to reinforce the logic of the Sexual Revolution. An excerpt:

The intense physical bond between mother and infant is one of the most stubborn obstacles to an egalitarian and individualistic society:

  • It represents what is perhaps the most defining difference between the sexes.
  • It is largely responsible for the failure of women to achieve similar economic outcomes to men.
  • It is in profound tension with the logic of autonomous choice and cannot easily be squared with individualism.
  • It privileges the male and female union over same-sex relationships. It supports sexist biological understandings of parenthood—“mother” and “father”—over fluid and gender-neutral models of “parenting.”
  • It grounds womanly identity in the female body in ways that support oppressive myths that bind women to their children and that also marginalize transwomen.

In these and many other ways, pregnancy and the womb represent problems for our society. Technologies enabling us to circumvent or outmode natural pregnancy would, no doubt, be lauded by many as a movement in the direction of equality.

A classic exposition of American revolutionary ideas

The Ideological Origins of the American RevolutionThe Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s easy to see why this is a classic. Bailyn thoroughly defends his thesis that the American revolutionary leaders shared a common set of assumptions drawn from the Whig tradition adapted to the American context and reshaped by the tensions with the British government. It was through this tradition that they interpreted the other ideas that they used, such as classical republicanism. In the postscript, Bailyn also shows how both the Federalists and anti-Federalists drew on the same ideas while reaching different conclusions about the best form of government for the United States. Perhaps Bailyn’s most impressive achievement is that he explains it all so clearly in a way that I think would be quite accessible to an interested reader without academic training in history.

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Communication breakdown

Analyzing Mark Zuckerberg’s optimistic hopes for Facebook, Nicholas Carr notes that the idea that more and more communication will bring people together stretches back more than a century. But the dream has not been realized in history or social science studies.

Carr concludes:

Still, the yearning to see communications technology as a remedy for social ills remains strong, as Zuckerberg’s February missive underscores. Despite Facebook’s well-publicized recent struggle to control hate speech, propaganda, and fake news, Zuckerberg seems more confident than ever that a “global community” can be constructed out of software. The centerpiece of his new project is a computerized “social infrastructure” that will use artificial-intelligence routines to manage information flows in a way that makes everyone happy. The system will promote universal self-expression while at the same time shielding individuals from “objectionable content.”

The problem with such geeky grandiosity goes beyond its denial of human nature. It reinforces the idea, long prevalent in American culture, that technological progress is sufficient to ensure social progress. If we get the engineering right, our better angels will triumph. It’s a pleasant thought, but it’s a fantasy. Progress toward a more amicable world will require not technological magic but concrete, painstaking, and altogether human measures: negotiation and compromise, a renewed emphasis on civics and reasoned debate, a citizenry able to appreciate contrary perspectives. At a personal level, we may need less self-expression and more self-examination.

Technology is an amplifier. It magnifies our best traits, and it magnifies our worst.

What it doesn’t do is make us better people. That’s a job we can’t offload on machines.

Reviving discussion and community in a fractured society

Susannah Black recently wrote a long essay on the civic dimensions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. She writes that “Dreher advocates for engaging in practices of sociability and debate, to remind ourselves of our natures as political animals with rational souls. He discusses the work of Vaclav Benda, who during the years of Soviet domination of central Europe saw groups that deliberately engaged in such activity as a ‘counter-polis,’ a much-needed forum for exercising the rudiments of political thinking and action, in the midst of a totalitarian state that did not allow for this part of human nature to be exercised: a sort of secret public sphere.” Black expounds on a the role that these kinds of groups can play within American society:

Given the profound breakdown in civil communication and discussion that so many have noted, especially in this most recent election, and given the incoherence, lack of memory, and rejection of solidarity at the heart of both the left and the right branches of the American political community, what these groups can do is precisely what Benda himself called for them to do: to remember how to think and debate, to remember the deep origins of the best of even the liberal political idea, to fight for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word.” As Dreher puts it, “dissident Christians should see their Benedict Option projects as building a better future not only for themselves but for everyone around them” (93-94).

When we say that these groups can help us exercise our political natures, this must be understood as politics in the broadest sense: They can teach us once again to be social in a rational way; they can certainly sometimes be fora for considering properly-political questions, but also for organizing beneficial projects of all kinds.

Such groups, which can (at least in theory) include both left and right, both Christians and non-Christians, can be means of blessing to both the local and the national communities. They can be training grounds for civility and reasoned debate. And these groups, too, can be a kind of salt-and-yeast in the body politic– even a kind of apologetic. Because the very process of debate, of discussion, of life in the public sphere in the liberal tradition, is one which rests on assumptions that are not those of materialism.

Those are things like the fact of a common human nature, of might that should be in service to right rather than defining it, of the value of protecting the weak, of politics that goes beyond the definition of a tribal enemy, of the possibility of rational discussion and the need to convince each other rather than to force each other to believe or do things.

All these bits of the liberal tradition were undermined by the Rousseauian/progressivist idea of the general will, which allows people now to shut down debate with those who are “on the wrong side of history.”

They were undermined too by the rejection of the idea of human nature: If we do not have rational souls as those made in God’s image, and if we are not political animals who are prone to friendship, whose telos is to live in peace with each other, then the best of liberalism has no foundation. To those who value freedom of speech, for example, we must say: Think about what that means. Why is it important that we be able to speak freely? What is it about human beings that makes discussion rather than coercion a just way to go about political life?

To those who fear a resurgence of white supremacism under Trump, we must be able to say: That kind of tribalism is only possible if one denies the vision of the world and of human nature which many secular liberals (though not all) also deny. A thoroughgoing white supremacist or neo-fascist (though the two are not identical) worldview rests precisely on a denial of the good, of true human nature and the dignity of each person, and of the possibility of real human political friendship. It’s only with a robust sense of what we share with and owe to every other person made in God’s image that we are able to also love our particular tribe, our nation, or our family, in the right context– otherwise we become pagans, who worship only the gods of the tribe.

There’s more: more ways in which such groups, and the political discussion they entail, can become a kind of evangelism. Political discussion is inevitably the discussion of the common good; we direct each others’ attention to the good that we share, and that directing is a kind of contemplative delight–and the ultimate common good is God.

And these groups can be the source of not just discussion, but of action as well: If it’s true that we do still have responsibility for and to the polity in which we live, we’ve got to see the utter necessity of doing projects for the common good, whether properly speaking the political common good or not– i.e. of making things, from parks to policies, that are not just for you and your family, but which aim at a common benefit, and which cannot properly be enjoyed alone.

These projects call out of us the kind of exercise of practical wisdom that helps form us in virtue, and requires us to act with tact and graciousness; public life together can become a kind of dance, the exchange of gifts and reasons and honor and deference and command according to the good of the one commanded; obedience in recognition of just authority, and criticism where authority is exercised unjustly. If every level of being can, in some way, reflect the divine order of the cosmos, then our job is to reflect that order as best we can—we won’t do it well, really, but we can maybe improve—in the order of each nonprofit we start, each CSA, each theater company, each neighborhood association.

That sounds grandiose, but there’s really no other way to think about how to organize such things: one wants to be gracious and fair and kind and not exploit one’s employees or volunteers, one wants to make things that are worthwhile, to cultivate the eggplants in the CSA according to the nature of eggplants rather than according to the nature of kale, and basically to show up and do well and be decent. And if one is the head of such an organization, then taking a kind of architectonic care to make sure as best one can that all these things are carried out well– delegating as appropriate– well, that’s just being a good manager. This is how we live together and do projects together; it is purely normal, as normal as planning a dinner party.

It is also in sharp contrast to the liberal vision of social life, which is inherently combative: men are not by nature political animals, in liberalism, but are naturally solitary and must be brought into relationship only by the loss of their freedom and by an artificial social contract. This loss might be worth it, but it constrains people; it’s another kind of fall. But that’s not the case: the constraint on us that enables us to live together is the constraint of the natural law, played out in particular and in many cases varied circumstances.

Political life is not possible if men do not share a common rational human nature. If we are non-rational animals, we may be subject to conditioning; if we are machines, we may be programmed; either way, with such things no political discussion and no communal life is possible.The fact that it manifestly is possible– that it happens every day– that we see it in the city around us and in our workplaces and in our friend groups and, yes, in the thick Christian communities that Dreher profiles in the book– is a strong apologetic argument in favor of a traditional Christian (and classical) anthropology. It is not only Christians, after all, who are by nature political animals, and the road to the truth of the Gospel can run through a reflection on and participation in political life of one kind or another, in seeking the good of a polity that in its own way points towards the true complete community that is the New Jerusalem.

There’s a lot to think about in the essay, and I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. But it was worth reading.

Globalization and politics in the modern West

Writing in City Journal, Christopher Caldwell describes the work of “real estate expert” Christophe Guilluy:

At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval, and cultural disruption. Now we face the question of what—if anything—we should do about it.

A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals—the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them—who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.

Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.

Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalization. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever shortcut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wireless, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too. Guilluy disagrees. For him, there’s no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class or to assume that broad-based prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system.

The whole thing seems to be a pretty insightful look at the political economy of Western countries in the 21st century.

Hat tip: Ross Douthat

The managerial approach to education

Freddie deBoer attempts to explicitly spell out the prevailing philosophy of education in our culture. He calls it “the educational philosophy of managerialism, which is the truly dominant ideology of our times.” He begins:

1. All students regardless of context have essentially the same prerequisite ability to meet arbitrary performance benchmarks in all educational tasks. The persistence of variation in academic outcomes is the result of pathology, whether systemic (bad schools, bad teachers) or individual (bad work ethic, lack of grit, refusal to delay gratification).

2. Academic outcomes are permanently and universally plastic; that is, no matter where they are currently, any given student or group of students can be moved to any rank or performance benchmark in any given academic ranking or task.

3. As there is limited or no ability to affect parents and parenting through policy, parents and parenting are not to be discussed in consideration of academic outcomes.

I think it’s a very perceptive description.

How liberalism can destroy itself

Jake Meador recently responded to critics of Rod Dreher and similar cultural critics by arguing that they are continuing in the line of twentieth-century critics that were remarkably prescient. Here is one of the selections that he provides from T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society:

That liberalism may be a tendency towards something very different from itself, is a possibility in its nature. For it is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination; and the destination is likely to present a very different picture when arrived at, from the vaguer image formed in imagination.

By destroying traditional social habits of the people, by dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents, by licensing the opinions of the most foolish, by substituting instruction for education, by encouraging cleverness rather than wisdom, the upstart rather than the qualified, by fostering a notion of getting on to which the alternative is a hopeless apathy, Liberalism can prepare the way for that which is its own negation: the artificial, mechanized or brutalized control which is a desperate remedy for its chaos.