The Sex Problem, Past and Present

September 27, 2008
Pompeiian wall painting

Pompeii wall painting

A review of Mary Beard’s Pompeii: A City Frozen In Time in The Spectator prompted me to think about the common accusation that Western, or Anglo-American, culture is “sexually repressed” and that the liberation of sexual desire, and of public discourse about sexual desire, represents social progress.

As many of my readers probably know, excavations of Pompeii revealed an extraordinary quantity of erotic art, particularly in the form of wall paintings. The society was apparently swimming in eros.

Libertarian John Wright’s take on the Pompeii art is to see ancient Roman society as superior to ours in the area of sexual liberation, while admitting that “politically…it was no paradise.” He celebrates the sexual liberation demonstrated in the marketing of adult toys by mainstream companies like Philips, and hopes that we will soon be able to enjoy the “best of all worlds,” presumably Roman sexual liberation and American political freedom.

(Updates: John responds to this article here, and to a comment I posted at his site here.)

Well, sexual morality is a subject as difficult as life itself, and I’m hardly qualified to talk about the many issues involved. But I can say with certainty that it is not as simple as the sexual liberationists think. 20th-century sexual liberation has unleashed dangerous and destructive forces in our society that threaten civilized life in serious ways. And while we will never go back to exactly the same attitudes and practices that were the norm a century or so ago, we need to seriously think about how to restore a workable sexual code based on traditional understandings of love, sex, and the family.

In the early 20th century something called “the sex problem” was extensively discussed. So far as I can gather, this term referred in the broad sense to the sex-related social problems associated with urbanization and population growth, including the timeless problems of prostitution, venereal disease, and illegitimacy; the “sex problem” was also linked with eugenics and the question of how the “race” could be improved by encouraging genetically superior individuals to reproduce. In the realm of private life, there was a widespread perception that many married men and women had very unhappy sex lives and that sexual taboos and the suppression of information were one of the big causes of this unhappiness. From this concern arose movements for sex education, birth control, and the like which ultimately contributed to a major transformation in sexual morality and practices.

It is hard to miss a pervading sense of anxiety over sexual matters in writings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consider the following epitaphs of two fictional women in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology:

Margaret Fuller Slack

I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life.

Mrs. Benjamin Pantier

I know that he told that I snared his soul
With a snare which bled him to death.
And all the men loved him,
And most of the women pitied him.
But suppose you are really a lady, and have delicate tastes,
And loathe the smell of whiskey and onions,
And the rhythm of Wordsworth’s “Ode” runs in your ears,
While he goes about from morning till night
Repeating bits of that common thing,
“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
And then, suppose:
You are a woman well endowed,
And the only man with whom the law and mortality
Permit you to have the marital relation
Is the very man that fills you with disgust
Every time you think of it—while you think of it
Every time you see him?
That’s why I drove him away from home
To live with his dog in a dingy room
Back of his office.

Here are some very unhappy women – and men. (I here right the wrong I committed recently when I introduced poor Benjamin Pantier in this blog without allowing his wife to reply!) If one believes Masters has succeeded in portraying an aspect of the lives of many actual people – and I do – it is not hard to see how the people of his time may have been amenable, say, to more liberal divorce laws or to making contraception freely available. There were simply too many miserable marriages. It also must have seemed reasonable to start calling for the greater availability of information about sex, since part of the problem seemed to have stemmed from severe ignorance about basic facts about sex.

We tend to stereotype the Victorian middle class as hopelessly prudish. While I don’t accept this notion in general, there certainly were some unhealthy ideas and practices regarding sex, for instance, a truly morbid fear and horror of masturbation, which was linked with almost every physical and mental illness in existence. Few people realize that the practice of infant circumcision, a completely needless trauma still inflicted on large numbers of boys born in America, began as a “medical” attempt to prevent masturbation. How much this has to do with “sexual repression” I don’t know; perhaps it would be more proper to blame the medical “technocracy.” In any event, there certainly existed “sex problems” in the English-speaking world that may have not been found elsewhere. (Any readers interested in the issue of circumcision can refer to the following website, liberal in orientation but accurate with its facts.)

A 1918 “sex manual”

For this article, I hoped to locate a 19th or early 20th century writer who could give a healthy conservative account of traditional sexual morality and thus show us the other side of the picture. However, most books on the subject seem in the first place to be by the liberals, the Margaret Sangers and Havelock Ellises, who lead up to the truly horrifying Alfred Kinsey, sexual pervert and child abuser and the father of modern sex research. It is harder to find people defending the old standards. (If any readers know of any examples, please let me know.) I was, however, able to find an interesting work by Scottish birth control advocate Marie Stopes, which was published, and also banned, in the United States. Her book Married Love (1918), although ultimately part of the movement to “reform” sexual morality, is still a whole universe away from modern books dealing with sex.

Stopes, who herself suffered from an unsuccessful first marriage to a man who turned out to be impotent, saw her mission as contributing to the greater happiness of married couples. She writes:

The only secure basis for a present-day State is the welding of its units in marriage: but there is rottenness and danger at the foundations of the State if many of the marriages are unhappy. Today, marriage is far less happy than appears on the surface. Too many who marry expecting joy are bitterly disappointed; and the demand for “freedom” grows: while those who cry aloud are generally unaware that it is more likely to have been their own ignorance than the “marriage-bond” which was the source of their unhappiness.

Stopes dedicates the book to “young husbands, and all those who are betrothed in love.” She seems to hold the not-quite-feminist assumption that it is men who need to take leadership in solving marital problems, and that as a woman trained in biological science, her role is to inform men about the ways that women differ from them, to enable them to help solve the sexual problems of the marriage.

Stopes’s book contains little reference to physical techniques, which would form the bulk of a similar book written today; she focuses mainly on the dynamics of intimacy between men and women. (Censorship considerations probably made this necessary in any case.) The major problem for middle-class married couples seems to have been a breakdown of intimate relations based on mutual misunderstanding, and the actual failure of one partner or the other to attain physical satisfaction. No doubt these problems still exist; but one can imagine them to have been more acute in the very different culture of 1918.

For instance, she discusses the problem of what was called women’s “contrariness” – their apparent inconsistency in responding to the advances of their husbands.

[The husband] observes that one week his tender love-making and romantic advances win her to smiles and joyous yielding, and then perhaps a few days later the same, or more impassioned, tenderness on his part is met by coldness or a forced appearance of warmth, which, while he may make no comment, upon it, hurts him acutely. And this deep, inexplicable hurt is often the beginning of the end of love…. (p. 39)

If the man responds by following the advice of books to practice “self-control” he may be bitterly disappointed:

And then, if he is at all observant, he may be aggrieved and astonished to find her again wistful or hurt. With the tender longing to understand, which is so profound a characteristic in all the best of our young men, he begs, implores, or pets her into telling him some part of the reason for her fresh grievance. He discovers to his amazement that this time she is hurt because he had not made those very advances which so recently had repelled her, and had been with such difficulty repressed by his intellectual efforts. (p. 41)

The classic problem! In other chapters, Stopes expounds on issues essentially related to the problem of mutual sexual fulfillment. For instance, she presents her own theory of a monthly cycle of desire in women along with practical advice on how a couple might adjust to each other’s differing sexual rhythms. She also discusses issues such as the effect of pregnancy and childbirth on marital relations.

The centrality of marriage in the West

It is no doubt the case that Stopes had an agenda going far beyond what she discusses in her book, and I am not here defending her as a political figure. Nevertheless, I find the book’s assumption that sex should properly take place within marriage, and that only within the context of marriage can sexual relations achieve their full potentiality, a refreshing expression of a view, once held as obviously true, that should be restored as a central understanding for our society. As a male, I also appreciate her recognition, absent in feminist denunciations of “patriarchal” marriage, that the husband is a human being who cares for his partner and is himself capable of being hurt.

I would say that people like Stopes were right in condemning certain “prudish” attitudes and the proliferation of silence and misinformation about sex during their time. There is a place for frank sexual advice and, I would dare say, certain forms of erotica and obscenity, in a healthy society, Judeo-Christian as well as any other. George Orwell, for instance, defended a type of mildly obscene picture postcard once popular in Britain as a kind of harmless outlet for a society basically centered on Christian marriage, an argument I have always found convincing, though I might be persuaded otherwise.

But we need to get back to the basic expectation that normal men and women will marry, have children, and find both romantic love and sexual fulfillment within the marriage relationship. This is a tall order, not easy to achieve – we might call it one of the central challenges of life – but without it, so many things that are precious to us (married or not) will crumble away, and indeed are vanishing from American life although not everyone has noticed they are gone.

In how many places, outside of the Christian “subculture,” could one find a statement like this made in the United States?

Every heart desires a mate. For some reason beyond our comprehension, nature has so created us that we are incomplete in ourselves; neither man nor woman singly can know the joy in the performance of all the human functions; neither man nor woman singly can create another human being. This fact, which is expressed in our outward divergencies of form, influences and colors the whole of our lives; and there is nothing for which the innermost spirit of one and all so yearns as for a sense of union with another soul, and the perfecting of oneself which such union brings. (p. 21-22)

The conception of marriage which combines physical with spiritual union is distinctive, though not unique, to the West. Universal availability of contraception, easy divorce, and a lack of barriers to unmarried sex are depriving us not only of the product, but the experience of getting there found in romantic love. When we see stories such as that of a college graduate auctioning off her virginity online (she is allegedly a Women’s Studies major planning to use the money for graduate work in Marriage and Family Therapy!) treated by the media as amusing, and when numerous people publicly express their approval for the act on the grounds that she is exercising “control of her own sexuality,” we know we are living in a seriously decadent society, whose young people are truly in perilous danger of making a wreck of their lives. Incidentally, if this “auction” represents a feminist fulfillment of a young woman’s autonomy, how exactly is she different from a teenage Thai girl who “voluntarily” sells herself as a prostitute to help her impoverished parents? For that matter, how happy and liberated were the many prostitutes of Pompeii?

I would comment in passing, though it is a topic for another essay, that the ideal of marriage should also not be elevated into a sort of individual self-fulfillment, such that those who fail to achieve it are seen as unhappy and deprived. David Burns says somewhere in his self-help book Feeling Good that “[Romantic] love is not an adult human need!” I think this is true. There is a difference between something being wonderful and desirable, and its being something we can’t live without.

Ironically, while dismantling the social constraints that make traditional marriage possible, we have raised expectations for romantic and sexual fulfillment so high that few have any hope of achieving it. I believe the idea of sexual “repression” is also fundamentally misdirected. Sexual behavior is not only a source of pleasure and joy, it is also a dark primeval force which is constrained in some way in every society. To someone like Alfred Kinsey, human happiness was related to the quantity of sexual activity enjoyed. It is true that there exists a sexual instinct which will find expression one way or the other, but human beings are also quite capable of being happy during periods of little or no sexual activity, and the level of desire, of course, varies according to the amount and type of stimulation present. To be surrounded by erotic art in one’s daily life, as were the people of Pompeii, is not necessarily a wholesome thing. Anglo-American culture’s relatively restrained sexual culture may be linked to some of its unique virtues.

Woman's "contrariness"

Woman's "contrariness"


Marie Stopes, Married Love or Love in Marriage, New York: Eugenics Publishing Co., 1927. (Edited edition of 1918 book.)


The Changing Texture of Western Society – Observations in London

September 20, 2008


St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral

From diverse America to diverse Britain 

I returned from a few days in London and here want to record a few reactions. London is a fantastic place to visit and I would recommend it to anyone. However, this blog is concerned with understanding the crisis we face in the West and so I necessarily report some negative things. 

At the Detroit airport I showed my passport and boarding pass to a Muslim woman whose round face popped out of her snug headcovering. At Heathrow, I missed being summoned by an identical-looking Muslim woman at passport control, and was admitted to the country instead by an “Asian” man who was probably her coreligionist.  It seems in both our countries we are putting the Muslims symbolically in charge. (The amazing British Museum also had heavily-covered Muslim women collecting tickets. The pillars of progress to be replaced by the pillars of Islam?) 

In London certain jobs are done almost entirely by non-whites. The people manning the convenience stores, the ticket takers on the trains, and the hotel clerks I met were almost all “Asian” (presumably mainly of Pakistani origin) or African. It is as if the native British presence has been entirely wiped out from these professions. (At pubs and restaurants, more than once, thinking I finally had a British person serving me, an accent revealed him or her to be an immigrant from elsewhere in Europe.) 

But this is nothing unfamiliar to someone coming from the Detroit area, where gas stations are run by Arabs, hotels by Indians, local call centers, cafeterias, and the like staffed by blacks, and most landscapers and many construction workers are Hispanic. It seems each ethnic group has a way of working itself into a particular profession, whether by giving preference to their own once established, or because employers develop a certain line through which they hire new immigrants of a particular ethnicity. It seems that in the mind of many white Westerners, this phenomenon represents the fulfillment of an ideal. A look at websites and pamphlets for universities, government offices, medical centers, insurance companies, you name it, from Canada to Germany to New Zealand, show each locale and industry firmly convinced that its meaning and justification comes from becoming… non-white. It is as if each Western country thinks itself unique and superior to other Western countries to the extent that it has “diversified.” 

In Britain the word “racism” seems to be used more frequently by white people than it is in America. Accusations of racism, and denials that one is racist, seem to take place more frequently. I think this is because the “race problem” is relatively new in Europe and that the word represents an easy way to get a handle on the problem. Years ago, I attended, on an exchange program, an English school which was still run along traditional British lines – all boys, uniforms, school assemblies including hymns and prayers from which no one was excepted, caning by the headmaster as punishment. There was not a single black boy in our school. I noticed at one point that when a certain boy’s name was called, someone or other would always cough in a loud voice, “nigger,” which was thought to be hilarious. It took me awhile to realize the reason for the joke, which was simply that this kid had black, curly hair and a slightly swarthy complexion (but did not look in the least bit black). There was literally no real black person present to be offended. Jokes about Jews – in extraordinarily bad taste – were also occasionally heard. All of this baffled me since I had grown up in a liberal, well-off, and reasonably integrated American community and I had never heard people make jokes of this sort. I didn’t even know how one was supposed to distinguish a Jew from a non-Jew. It made me feel a little superior – poor fools, they’re so backwards they’ve never gone to school with a real black person.

Since then Britain has moved in fast-forward to becoming a multiracial society. The diversity mania does not seem to have caught up with every part of society quite yet – for instance, commentators on TV are usually a white man and white women, something almost unthinkable in the U.S. these days. But, officially, everyone knows that Britain is now multiracial and multicultural. From children’s shows to emergency-room dramas, casts are conspicuously multiracial. And, truth be told, these are responding to a reality in many parts of Britain. 


Emile Heskey (left)

Emile Heskey (left)

“Racism” in British football

A telling example is the integration of black players into British football. The September 12 issue of The Times featured an article entitled “Pride not Prejudice: The real reason why British football is the best in Europe.” The article discusses the “great strides made by British football in its fight against prejudice” and concludes, hopefully, that Britain can proudly see itself as a model for integration. 

20 years or so ago there were only a handful of black football players and they were regularly taunted by fans. Now, according to the article, one-third of the league is made up of black players, racial incidents are rare, and recently the Blackburn Rovers have appointed their first black manager, Paul Ince. 

The problem is that when the England team plays in international matches, they sometimes encounter abuse from fans from the, uh, less enlightened European nations. For instance, Croatian fans apparently enjoy taunting black players by making monkey sounds, as they did to Emile Heskey on Sept. 10. Similar incidents happen in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. 

Now, making monkey noises is really too pathetic to warrant any further comment. But the interesting thing is to note that integration of football has resulted in the sport’s getting locked into the endless and impossible task of “eliminating racism.” The Football Association now has a Racial Equality Advisory Group which, we can be sure, will continue to highlight the racial failings of British football while demanding new appointments for minorities in every area of the sport. Meanwhile, the writer doesn’t notice the irony of his own admission that British football is not what it used to be as a sport, and therefore British fans need to console themselves with being relatively less “racist” than other countries. It is also not noted that the proportion of blacks in football is much higher than the share they make up of the population, only about three and a half percent. It seems British football will eventually go the way of American football, more than half of whose players are black. Will this be a good thing, or will something in the character of British football have been irretrievably lost? 

Where is it all headed? 

None of these demographic changes may seem of much concern to anyone who feels comfortable with the direction his society is taking – whether in Britain or anywhere else. But it is hard to see any evidence that things are getting better, and there is much evidence they are getting worse. In Britain, cities are getting far more dangerous than they have ever been, and much though not all of the crime increase is coming from the immigrant sectors. London, I observed, has prominent knife-collection bins at its major stations, obviously a campaign to try to alleviate the startling increase in knife attacks by minority youths in recent years. And all of Britain has been changed, of course, by the 7/7 bombings. A taxi driver joked to me, “Now you can get on the Tube… and take your life in your hands.” We see evidence of the growing power of Islam in Britain in ads selling Halal car insurance or promoting Ramadan.

By the way, in the past I have found that all I had to say to a white taxi driver in England was “I hear you have a lot of immigrants here…” to hear some very blunt and angry remarks about what immigration is doing to Britain. In fairness, I also have heard Indian cab drivers in Britain complaining about the violent, drunken behavior of (white) British youth. 

Apart from the danger and discomfort that comes with being more “diverse,” there is the texture of everyday life. Even as a foreigner, I feel a comfort speaking with native white Britons, a feeling of common ground and understanding, that is not there with the African clerks at my hotel. The same is true of turbaned Sikh police officers and railroad stations with signs in Punjabi. And if this takes place on a massive scale, what will the result be? Most likely, a stratified, Balkanized society… at best. And ultimately, the end of the British people as we have known them throughout history. 

What is great about Britain

This is all to report a few impressions. However, the other side of the story is that one cannot visit London without being amazed at the achievements of British civilization. From the dignity of the architecture in the most ordinary streets, to the amazing splendor of St Paul’s Cathedral (it is extremely unfortunate that the pamphlet of St Paul’s tries to “welcome” Muslims in its self-description), the city itself is a testament to scientific and cultural genius. You can actually sense how a world empire was run from this city.

And this still can inspire and help us all to renew our culture. For my part, as an American, I think we have for too long ignored our own deep connections with Europe and Britain, acting as if we sprung out of nowhere in 1776 or so. Nowadays America is starting to look more like a brilliant flame that may soon burn out, than an enduring world civilization. Ancient cities like London take us back to our roots, in Rome and in the pre-Christian peoples of Europe most of us are ultimately descended from. And British culture expresses a particular dignity, individualism, and relationship to nature and the transcendent that Americans have much to learn from. I remain fascinated by the very different ways that Britain and the U.S. have come to the same critical point, and I think we need to work together to get to a better place.

What Happened to Britain?

September 12, 2008

This weekend I will be in London, and I’m feeling some trepidation about visiting the great city. I’ve enjoyed other visits to regional British cities in recent years, but London is said to have changed so dramatically that I’m not sure I want to see it.

It is hard to express the pain the thought of England’s possible destruction through immigration gives me. I have friends in Britain and lived there for a period of time, and I think that for any American it remains the “mother country” in many ways.

The last time I was in England, I picked up a paperback at the airport entitled A World To Build, the first half of Austerity Britain 1945-51 by David Kynaston. It is a well-acclaimed social history relying in particular on first-hand reports of life in post-war Britain from the eclectic (and ominously named) Mass-Observation project. The early chapters paint a picture of a Britain that had reached a broad consensus that it was time to adopt wide ranging, centrally-planned, socialistic policies to address persistent poverty and social inequality. The changes were kicked of with the amazing phenomenon of the Tory loss in the general elections only two and a half months after V-E Day.

I was particularly struck by some almost poetic passages listing the many things that have utterly changed:

Britain in 1945. No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, no duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every high street, red telephone boxes…. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every day Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle, hung out to dry….Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere….Heavy coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed…. Make do and mend. (p. 18)

Britain in 1945. A land of orderly queues, hat-doffing men walking on the outside, seats given up to the elderly, no swearing in front of women and children, censored books, censored films, censored plays, infinite repression of desires. Divorce for most an unthinkable social disgrace, marriage too often a lifetime sentence…. Children in the street ticked off by strangers, children at home rarely consulted, children stopping being children when they left school at 14 and got a job…. A land of hierarchical social assumptions, of accent and dress as giveaways to class, of Irish jokes and casually derogatory references to Jews and niggers…. A pride in Britain, which had stood alone, a pride even in ‘Made in Britain’. A deep satisfaction with our own idiosyncratic, non-metric units of distance, weight, temperature, money…. A sense of history, however nugatory the knowledge of that history. A land in which authority was respected? Or rather, accepted? Yes, perhaps the latter, co-existing with the necessary safety valve of copious everyday grumbling. A land of domestic hobbies and domestic pets…. A deeply conservative land. (p. 58-9)

Reading the book one is imaginatively placed in the physical, everyday life of Great Britain over 60 years ago, and feels the warmth of that life and the many virtues of British civilization, along with the shabby environment and lack of social and economic opportunity that left so many people convinced that Britain needed, in the words of our Democratic presidential contender, “Change.” While many of the items in the above lists are negative (or so seen by the author, though a traditionalist will think several of them very positive), reading them gave me a poignant sense of how much has been lost. Compared to losing one’s nationhood, the discomforts of British life in 1945 seem of little consequence.

In many ways, Britain was much more conservative than the United States – nearly all white, an ancient history, a functioning class system. And yet there was a malaise, a dissatisfaction, rendering people ready to turn over their fate to powerful would-be social engineers. There was also, already, an influential left-wing intelligentsia. In the United States, there was more optimism and more opportunity, more religious belief and general contempt for Communism, but also a simmering racial problem and a sense, I think, of wanting to escape the heavy burden of being “leader of the free world” in the nuclear era.

Victorious in war, Britain immediately began to transform itself into a modern welfare state, complete with mass immigration. Why has this had to take place in every major Western country? While it is difficult to make comparisons, I believe Americans are finally catching up with Britain and Europe in giving up the idea of free enterprise and personal responsibility, and expecting government to create prosperity, security, health, and happiness for them. It is a tragic loss for our national character.

As dreary and frustrating as life in Britain may have seemed to many in 1945, it is hard to imagine that people there are happier today. How did everything hollow out? One can imagine that the morality of sexuality and the family, for instance, might have been much the same in 1845 and 1945, but somehow by 1945 it had become brittle, with people lacking the will to continue enforcing it. And why did the existence of slums or of a downtrodden working class or of a pampered elite necessarily persuade people to accept socialism? Why did even Churchill lack the will to prevent mass immigration into Britain? It seems that the temptation is often too great for a people to give up social restrictions once they are freed from the immediate negative consequences brought by more liberal policies. And it seems people are always susceptible to being taken in by utopian social engineering projects, even when it means giving up their freedom and identity.

It is easy to long for the past, but we also need to look at it critically, since it is likely the origins of our current crisis were hiding in plain sight. I hope to find signs of life in London this weekend.

September 11, 2008

September 11, 2008

I wanted to say a few words, in haste, on the 7th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. 

To be honest, I woke up this morning having forgotten the significance of the date until I turned on the radio. But I think it is hard for any patriotic American to remain focused on the event year after year, when our own government has turned it into a symbol of the need for a United States-enforced movement for global democracy rather than for the defense of the American nation. My own workplace is so liberal that if I wore a flag lapel I would not only be labeled as “right-wing” but would be assumed to support the Bush administration’s policies and propaganda, which I certainly do not. 

On NPR we could commemorate 9/11 by listening to BBC hand-wringing about “civilian deaths” in Afghanistan and Iraq and aggressive questioning of American military officials who essentially are saying “our campaign to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan isn’t working, but we are doing the right thing to try, and if we keep trying we will (maybe) (some day) succeed.” 

In New York we could be treated to the liberal ceremony of reading off the names of the 9/11 victims one by one in the public display of our hurt and pain that has become quite tiresome. Of course, NPR made a point of selecting a moment in the reading where Muslim-sounding names were read, so we could be assured that there were Muslim victims of 9/11. This method of commemorating war deaths (which the 9/11 deaths are) by listing the names one by one, embodied in the Vietnam War Memorial, has the effect of portraying those killed as victims of an unaccountable tragedy, like a hurricane or earthquake. It also suggests that what brings us all together is our pain and fear and weakness and victimhood – a sentiment the citizens of our historic nation should angrily reject.

However, I refuse to ignore the anniversary of that day of infamy. It should indeed be a date remembered by Americans for all time. For me, and I believe ultimately for all whose descendants will call themselves Americans, it was the beginning of a turning point in our history. On September 11, 2001, we began to learn that we have real, deadly enemies and that our society as presently constituted is incapable of defending itself against them. We began to learn that America is not a multicultural “salad” of cultures, races, and religions, nor a “proposition nation” founded on abstract democratic principles, but a real people with a history and a way of life. The 9/11 terrorists were certainly not targeting Muslims, and it would be laughable to suggest that they had anyone in mind as their victims other than white Americans. The very first response to 9/11 should have been a complete moratorium on Muslim immigration. But it didn’t happen, so as private citizens we have to continue to push for that and, in a broader sense, to develop our own response and plans for the future. 

September 11, 2001 was the beginning of my own awakening. The victims on that day were mostly befuddled liberal Americans who had no idea what was coming. Let us pay tribute to them by continuing to learn and speak the truth, so that a truly better America can rise from the ruins of that day.

Becoming a Free People Again

September 6, 2008

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)

Is there anyone, liberal or conservative, who thinks that things are actually getting better in America or in the West? Does anyone believe that we are becoming a freer people or a freer society? The ACLU agitates for the right of Muslim radicals to not be wiretapped, but the rest of us are oppressed by intrusive security checks at airports which would be unnecessary if it were not for the presence of those Muslims in our society. An intrusive political correctness suppresses speech by legal as well as extralegal means. Numerous other examples could be cited.

Something is not right here. Perhaps we need to take a look at exactly what we mean by “liberty” and some of our other beloved concepts. 

Russell Kirk’s The Portable Conservative Reader (1982) (1) includes a gem of an essay by James Fenimore Cooper that offers a valuable conservative perspective on these issues. Last week I discussed the early New York community described in Cooper’s novel The Pioneers (1823), and suggested that although American society as embodied in such towns indeed included people of varied background and beliefs, it was held together by an underlying racial, cultural, and religious homogeneity, along with a strong hierarchy of rank and authority represented by the founder and leader of the town, Marmaduke Temple. 

The essay is entitled “On Equality,” from Cooper’s book The American Democrat (1838). Kirk prefaces the piece by explaining that “[t]he modern passion for equality of condition alarmed conservatives on either side of the Atlantic, as both Britain and America moved toward universal suffrage during the 1830s and 1840s.” He continues: “Like Walter Scott, Cooper believed in order, class, and the idea of a gentleman – convictions that run through the historical novels of both writers” (p. 183). In other words, Cooper was a genuine conservative. 

In “On Equality,” Cooper discusses the concepts of “equality” and “liberty” in the context of American democracy and warns against expanding them into ruling principles of society. Rather, they are qualities found within a particular social body and must not be allowed to undermine the order needed for civilization or other essential needs of the community. 

On equality, Cooper writes: 

Equality of condition is incompatible with civilization, and is found only to exist in those communities that are but slightly removed from the savage state. In practice, it can only mean a common misery. (p. 183)

Regarding liberty, he says: 

Liberty, like equality, is a word more used than understood. Perfect and absolute liberty is as incompatible with the existence of society, as equality of condition. It is impracticable in a state of nature even, since, without the protection of the law, the strong would oppress and enslave the weak. We are then to understand by liberty, merely such a state of the social compact as permits the members of a community to lay no more restraints on themselves, than are required by their real necessities, and obvious interests. To this definition may be added, that it is a requisite of liberty, that the body of a nation should retain the power to modify its institutions, as circumstances shall require. (p. 189) 

Cooper’s essay, a beautiful example of balanced and non-ideological conservative reasoning, is an excellent antidote to the unthinking exaltation of “liberty” and “equality” we hear from left and right alike in our liberal society. His particular concern seems to be with excessive expansion of the suffrage, and he implicitly accepts the limits on it prevalent in his day, believing that the non-slave states have taken equality “perhaps, to as great a degree as is practicable.” Incidentally, he gives a very clear statement on why women in his day were denied the vote:

The interests of women being thought to be so identified with those of their male relatives as to become, in a great degree, inseparable, females are, almost generally, excluded from the possession of political rights. There can be no doubt that society is greatly the gainer, by thus excluding one half its members, and the half that is best adapted to give a tone to its domestic happiness, from the strife of parties, and the fierce struggles of political controversies. (p. 185)

(I quote this statement not because I am sure it is correct, but because it shows that our forebears had reasons for excluding women from the suffrage, related to a larger concept of the structure of society and the different roles of men and women within it. They were not just males protecting their own privilege.) 

Cooper denies that equality of civil rights is or should be the aim of American politics: 

Equality is no where laid down as a governing principle of the institutions of the United States, neither the word, nor any inference that can be fairly deduced from its meaning, occurring in the constitution. As respect the states, themselves, the professions of an equality of rights are more clear, and slavery excepted [Cooper appears to take a mildly anti-slavery position], the intention in all their governments is to maintain it as far is practicable, though equality of condition is no where mentioned, all political economists knowing that it is unattainable, if, indeed, it be desirable…. (p. 189)

What is most intriguing to me in Cooper’s discussion is his conception of American freedom and in what respect Americans, in his day, could be said to be freer than the citizens of other nations like France and England. Now, Americans to this day tend to hold the misconception that the freedom of speech and association and privacy we enjoy here is somehow unique in the world; and the same was true in Cooper’s day. He is eager to refute this assumption. To Cooper, the uniqueness of American liberty is not found in the extent of the freedoms enjoyed by individuals, but in the ability of the nation or people as a whole to create their own laws according to their needs. This concept of freedom is very far from the libertarian view argued for by John Wright a few weeks ago in his reply to an article in this blog. Cooper writes: 

The natural disposition of all men being to enjoy a perfect freedom of action, it is a common error to suppose that the nation which possesses the mildest laws, or laws that impose the least personal restraints, is the freest. This opinion is untenable, since the power that concedes this freedom of action, can recall it. Unless it is lodged in the body of the community itself, there is, therefore, no pledge for the continuance of such a liberty. (p. 190) 

What is unique to America, says Cooper, is that the American people (not all individuals, but a properly representative class of individuals) have the power to change unjust laws as a community. For example, in England as well as in America citizens have the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus, but in England this is a “franchise” granted from above, while in America it exists as a right, “a provision of [a citizen’s] own, against the abuses of ordinances that he had a voice in framing.” However, lest we suppose Cooper is advocating radical democracy, he takes pains to heavily qualify what is meant by majority rule: 

It ought to be impressed on every man’s mind, in letters of brass, “That, in a democracy, the publick has no power that is not expressly conceded by the institutions, and that this power, moreover, is only to be used under the forms prescribed by the constitution. All beyond this, is oppression, when it takes the character of acts, and not unfrequently when it is confined to opinion.” (p. 199) 

Cooper is perhaps more of a libertarian in his decrying of extra-legal social control in American society. 

Although the political liberty of this country is greater than that of nearly every other civilized nation, its personal liberty is said to be less. In other words, men are thought to be more under the control of extra-legal authority, and to defer more to those around them, in pursuing even their lawful and innocent occupations, than almost every other country. (p. 201)

The concept of the freedom of a people to be themselves and to exercise control over their own destiny, is urgently in need of revival. In the United States today, rights belong to individuals and to ethnic and other non-traditional classes of people. However, the founding people of the United States – the ones I call heritage Americans – are unfree to determine basic policies affecting their future and very existence. Consider the matter of our out-of-control population growth, discussed recently by Rick Darby here and by Brenda Walker here. Now, there cannot be anyone, speaking as an individual citizen, who will seriously claim that population growth (even putting aside ethnic matters) is anything but a liability for our country. Indeed the consequences may well be catastrophic. 

So why does the immigration, which fuels most of the growth, continue? Because individual businesses profit from growth; because government welfare organizations and liberal churches and ESL teachers exist to serve their needy wards; because Indian and Chinese and Hispanic immigrants, as individuals, want to bring more of their friends and relatives to this country and are granted the right to do so. (Think about that! They have a right that regular Americans don’t have, because those of us born and raised in America have no relatives abroad who can be brought here for “family reunification.”) And without a national right to self-determination, individual rights are diminished in value – as I said rather hyperbolically recently when I stated that “freedom of speech becomes worthless.” Not worthless, of course. But not nearly enough. The train continues to roll towards the tunnel from which it will never emerge. 

Individual liberty is vital. But it is not enough. We need to reclaim our freedom as a people. Which must start with recognizing our identity as a people. 


(1) Russell Kirk, The Portable Conservative Reader, New York: Penguin Books, 1982.