Mmmmhhfff, yuck—that decidedly past-prime odor enveloping life in hyper-woke, hyper-amped 21st-century America! What in the world could it be?
What in the world could it not be, I meekly inquire about the cow pasture we have come, curiously, to call our culture: a name once invested with dignity and honor, more recently known for its bumper crop of class, ethnic, political, and personal anxieties, not to mention just plain hatreds.
The culture, meaning life in these United States, is a mess, more and more offensive to the useful purposes of human endeavor, as attentive readers of Mary Eberstadt—I cannot imagine another kind—are acutely positioned to understand.
The lady talks to us with force, animation, and a moral clarity hardly known in our time. She focuses sharply on how we managed to get our ideas about sex all wrong, to the impoverishment of our moral resources and the near—near, I said, not complete—ruination of our common life.
Sex, sex, sex—didn’t we have it out years ago over repression, feelthy (as cartoonists always rendered the word) pictures of unclad women, and so forth, and didn’t we decide somewhere along the line that sex was too lovely and intimate a thing to leave to the oversight of jowly clergymen and, still worse, parents, with all those rules about parking and sparking? You could say we sort of did have it out, and that our steadily decreased interest in the meaning of it all gave us unprecedented rates of family breakup, non-family formation, and the deaths, by abortion, of 63 million unborn children.
Which wasn’t the end of it, to be sure. Adam and Eve after the Pill Revisited (Ignatius, $19.95)—Mrs. Eberstadt’s slightly updated recounting of events and considerations since her original Adam and Eve after the Pill (also Ignatius)—sweeps us into the current battle for social mastery not just of action regarding human sex but of human thought, of human expression, of human belief and understanding.
She very correctly, as I see it, sees Americans living in a revolutionary situation. The word “revolutionary” in our time of revolution—a time of turning and churning—has acquired a connotation of destiny: The revolution, a thing of virtuous aspiration, always wins; the ancient regime falls to pieces, and nooses adorn every lamppost by way of overdue reckoning. I don’t think, for reasons I shall shortly unfold, that we—the holdouts, the sticks-in-thecultural mud—are in so perilous a case as all that. But the revolutionaries, we have to recognize, have dark designs on our beliefs, our understandings. They lust to make us live their way. They would stuff their notions and doctrines down our throats, not caring whether we gag. That is why we need to know, in as much detail as possible, what they mean to do to us.
Enter Mary Eberstadt, industrial-quality flashlight in hand.
As a guide to the infelicities—putting it mildly—that the revolutionaries would visit upon a society they already have confused and inflicted needlessly with guilt, Mrs. Eberstadt is nonpareil. Few other authors seize our lapels so hard, warning of what’s afoot. Adam and Eve after the Pill Revisited revisits her abiding concern that the eradication of consequences from sexual misadventure—she dates it from the institutionalization of contraception—is submerging us in moral muck. Have-it-your-way sex? What are we waiting for?! Maybe we wait for some astute author—Mrs. Eberstadt qualifies beautifully—“to assess the [sexual] revolution’s macroscopic fallout: its extensive and compounding effects on society, politics, and Christianity itself.” How theory works out in practice, in other words. How the worst ideas, once put into play, disclose their own unworthiness.
Take the moral mess called modern politics, whose chief attributes—rancor and aggressiveness, and the unashamed love of power—reduce democratic government to sheer incoherence: a target of ridicule. Can you remember when politics was supposed to take a high view of government’s responsibility for peace and justice, each considered as unitive, not divisive? If you do, you likely remember telephone party lines.
With relatively few murmurs from government—more often with whoops of approval—the sexual revolution has gone forward scarcely abated. The new breed of politician asks, just why shouldn’t a woman control her own body? And why—given the centrality of sex in our understandings— shouldn’t a man transition to womanhood if he wants? Or a woman into manhood? Mrs. Eberstadt is not content to remark the falsity of such assumptions. She wants us to recognize the baneful effects of allowing men to disengage themselves from responsibility for their offspring.
“What is happening to America,” she writes, “is an excruciatingly painful truth that life without father, Father [she means God, as if you had to guess] and filial piety toward country are not the socially neutral options that contemporary liberalism holds them to be. The sinkhole into which all three have collapsed is now a public hazard.”
Not least because the revolutionaries—while the tearful and fearful look on helplessly—have ruled out dissent from their mighty revelations. We’re not going to have none of that white supremacy stuff around here, no, sir! No free speech, no liberty of discussion for the morally backward and depraved, as fingered by the forces of the new righteousness. The new intolerance itself is “a full-blown, quasi-religious substitute faith for Christianity.” As for Christians and such, more and more of their leaders, projecting the present onto the screen of the future, make their peace, such as it can be, with the new order.
Mary Eberstadt is an acute critic of the new order, to whom members of the old, apparently dying, order may look with confidence for the leadership their enfeebled institutions seem unable to give. We owe her much on this account.
I want at the same time to suggest a supplementary way of looking at human prospects, unencouraging as they seem to be. I think Mrs. Eberstadt’s invocation of Adam and Eve as witnesses to our disorders is right and valuable. We should be grateful to her for unearthing a narrative—that an outdoor, au naturel dinner party leads to perdurable human problems—that fewer and fewer humans see as anything but a fairy tale. We cannot doubt that the sexual revolution which engulfed us in the 1960s—the birth control pill as symbol of the New Freedom—has done, and continues to do, immense damage to civilization (a word lately turned into mockery).
I would like all the same not to leave things there. I begin by suggesting that malign tendencies had long been afoot when the ’60s began, and were eroding the foundations of belief, pill or no pill. Sexual standards had been seriously weakening at least since the 1920s—standards of relationship between husband and wife, between parents and children, between families and society; standards of duty and responsibility; of behavior; of love. That was it, surely—love, “in the Biblical sense,” as the saying used to go; the putting-aside of self; the commitment to another; “to have and to hold from this day forward,” as the Book of Common Prayer put it, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer . . .”
It would be pleasant to say, yep, that’s what we did all right and ought to get back to doing today: the fly in the ointment—the snake in the underbrush, rather—having been revealed to us in the third chapter of Genesis. The creature showed the Creator he liked his own ways better than any imposed alternatives, so there! And so it has been since then, down to Mary Eberstadt’s latest publishing deadline, alas: men, women, liking what they like, and perforce doing it. Just not always with the exuberance we see today.
The sexual revolution is properly understood, it seems to me, as the latest instance of uprooting ways and modes displeasing to people who want something more, as they see it, pleasurable and fulfilling. Call it the Golden Calf Thing. We humans—we spiritual descendants of Adam and Eve—have been in the rule-smashing business a long time, and are pretty good at it. We find things that large numbers of folk increasingly dislike—the power of the papacy, say, or the French monarchy, or the perceived powerlessness of women, or the male monopoly in male sports—and we say, stop, enough! We’re not doing it that way anymore. A revolution is in train: swallowing up everything identified, falsely or not, with the old oppressors.
We like to think of the people we’re rebelling against as oppressors. It makes hanging them easier, or in these supposedly kinder days denying them the right to make their cases in public, or ridiculing those who manage somehow to be heard.
There is nothing in the world new about revolutionists setting out to crush their opponents. Of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans, famous for smashing church windows and outlawing the celebration of Christmas, Yeats wrote: “He that’s mounting up must on his neighbor mount, / And we and all the Muses are things of no account.”
A relevant question about the sexual revolution is why it took longer than other upheavals. The answer, I suggest, is that the ancient religious structures and teachings about male-female relationships made intuitive as well as religious sense. God had made the human body. He had made it surely for purposes pleasing to Himself, and for the good of all made according to that standard. It was in the nature of fallible humans, ordained or otherwise, to go too far, or not far enough, in teaching and showing duties attendant on membership in the human race. Error was correctable at least. To teach nothing would have been implicitly to declare the Lord a distant figure of small account, hardly the figure portrayed in Scripture as “the Lord, terrible and mighty.” Americans of earlier generations were buying no hogwash about their position vis-à-vis a God who came to them with such a billing. They knew better in their minds and hearts, and in understandings implanted further back than anyone could tell. I am saying as forthrightly as I know how that religion kept the lid on. The third chapter of Genesis had shown how tricky but also fulfilling is the relationship that Adam and Eve initiated. That which had been accomplished for man’s benefit (as pre-feminist women unashamedly put it) was the right way. Leave it alone! Don’t muck around! That was of course when “right” and “wrong” had more or less objective meanings for those who used the words.
The keepers, the protectors of that objective status, mostly took Adam and Eve with profound seriousness. That seriousness wore off as the centuries went by and the beauty of personal choice in all matters, not just commercial or economic ones, à la Adam Smith, rose to the top of human understanding. And it followed that bodies were designed for personal enjoyment. The coming of the Pill Regime to which Mary Eberstadt correctly points was the follow-on to that au naturel buffet at which human nature succumbed to human desire.
I am tempted myself to add we could never have counted on the U.S. Supreme Court or indeed any body or institution consisting of humans to protect fellow humans from the consequences of their own bad choices. Jurists and senators and presidents are demonstrably as nutty in their own way as the rest of us. They—we—seem to function best within a reasonable and well-informed system of belief, its roots sunk deeply in human attachment to the ideal of divine Authority.
Over just that kind of system, effective to an extent in bridling some of our less attractive instincts, the churches once held a generally responsible sway. That was until, a few hundred years ago, under the influence of restless types like Voltaire and Paine, we began to rub our eyes, wondering how much deference to a familiar but unseen God was, well, more deference than was called for.
In a country—ours—nominally dedicated to personal liberty, no pullback from authority of one kind or another was likely to be seen as inspired by Martians. Still, a pullback from the authority of God . . . wasn’t that taking things a little far? It was. And properly still should be. How, then, to account for the overwhelmingly friendly view of so many American churches today to the idea of enjoyment as a human right, never mind its unenjoyable price tag? And weren’t we, by the way, becoming attuned to the idea of “rights” as a gift that came in the same package as life? Our life, our rights? There was, shall we say, sex appeal to such an idea. It opened new human vistas. How could God find fault with that? Shiny new trumpets were blowing brassy new variations on themes from a distant, barely remembered Garden. We can do this, we can do this, went the lyrics. Sure enough, we could. All we had to do was ignore that dangling price tag. An easy enough feat when you’re having fun.
Mary Eberstadt does a considerable service in laying before us the daunting numbers on that tag—the deaths, the tears, the heartaches attendant on adoption of the modern creed: It’s my life, my body! Except, friends, that’s only about half right; maybe less. A Creator, a gift-giver has been at work. Merely to gaze on the Creation is to know most of what needs knowing; e.g., the goodness of life lived in accordance with the Creator’s purpose.
Oh, boy, oh, boy—that old Sunday School stuff we left behind contemporaneously with I Love Lucy. It turns out that that old Sunday School stuff might do us a world of good were it to resume the place it formerly occupied in our moral deliberations and reflections. Maybe it will. As a historian I have to say, you never know. The plight that Mary Eberstadt outlines so chillingly could in due course turn hearts and minds to the task of creating new/old understandings, loyalties, allegiances of the sort lying abandoned by the roadside—where they remain very much recoverable. I should not be surprised if God had more, much more to pour into newly opened human ears. I think, in other words, that we humans should not give up, amid the doomsaying that comes with human crises: here, there, everywhere. Things have been better. They can be better again.
“If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God),” T. S. Eliot wrote in the early years of the Second World War, “you should pay your respects to Hitler and Stalin.” Such, it seems to me, is the choice facing the time, the era we have made for ourselves, by negligence, by deliberation. Mary Eberstadt’s writings splendidly clarify—provided we look in her direction—the dimensions of today’s choice; its consequences, its likely outcomes, one way or the other.
William Murchison, a former syndicated columnist, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. He will soon finish his book on moral restoration in our time.