What do progressives really think about the human condition? The most important social statement promulgated by an American government in my lifetime, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision in Obergefell, begins: “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” There is something Orwellian in this pop-Existentialist bromide. I will argue that freedom is impossible within the parameters set forth in the Obergefell decision, and that the achievement of human freedom requires precisely the opposite of what the majority prescribed.
If the Supreme Court had argued that homosexuality was a physical phenomenon on a par with skin pigmentation, for example, the Obergefell ruling would have had at least the virtue of consistency. If the Supreme Court can strike down laws that prohibit interracial marriages because they prejudice individuals with one sort of gene, perhaps it can strike down laws that prohibit homosexual marriages because they prejudice individuals with a different sort of gene. But that is not what Justice Kennedy did. He argued on behalf of the right to define and express an identity.
Whether the American Founders imagined such a right is a matter of contention. A more interesting question is this: How is it possible for people to define an identity, let alone to express it? Even if we have the “liberty” to do so, what gives us the power?
The question is pertinent, for the progressives have spent centuries constructing an intellectual apparatus that excludes the possibility of human freedom in the first place. By and large they have succeeded. Most educated people believe that scientists will make machines think the way that humans do, which means that human thought is a physical process. They believe that brain science one day will give an adequate accounting for human consciousness. They believe that our consciousness is the result of random genetic mutations over millions of years. They believe that endocrinologists and surgeons can take a person of one gender and make a person of the other gender. They believe that human behavior is socially determined, and can be altered by changing social circumstances. In short, they believe in man-as-machine (or in machine-as-man, which amounts to the same thing).
There is nothing particularly scientific about such beliefs, to be sure; on the contrary, they are untenable in the face of everything science has accomplished in the past century. The idea that we can equate brainwave patterns with human consciousness seems whimsical after quantum mechanics showed us that we do not quite know what waves and particles are in the first place. The notion that scientists can elicit sentience from silicon seems odd after Kurt Gödel proved that the truth of a mathematical system cannot be found without human intuition. Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy and Gödel’s Incompleteness put the old determinism in its grave, but it still rises up and walks abroad at night and sucks out our brain fluid. The theory of natural selection through random mutation cannot explain why evolution often occurs many times faster than randomness would predict—and often not at all.
Nonetheless such beliefs are held among our educated caste and honored in the popular culture. Such is the narcissism of the determinists, who laugh at the idea that there is a God in heaven, but believe with the fervor of fanatics that they themselves are little gods on earth. The old “scientific socialism” with its drab uniformity and brutal conformism was horrible, but it at least had the virtue of consistency: the suppression of individuality in favor of the collective made “man-as-machine” into a social principle. Not so our modern progressives, who believe that man-as-machine has the freedom to define and express an identity. Man may be alone in an absurd universe, as the French existentialists kindly informed us, and life ultimately may have no meaning, but in the meantime we can play at any sort of game we like.
As scientific determinism gained credence late in the 19th century, rebels like Friedrich Nietzsche warned that if there is no God, and man is the mere object of nature, then life is no inherent value, and can be made tolerable only by absurd, arbitrary “life-affirming” acts of will. Nietzsche had the good sense to ridicule the pretensions of the determinists. His idiot great-grand-children are simply indifferent to the crashing contradiction between the two great premises of their thinking.
Are the determinists correct to believe that free will is an illusion brought on by random brain-wave fluctuations, or are the voluntarists correct to believe that we really do have free will? To paraphrase a number of Soviet-era jokes about Radio Armenia, the dialectical solution is: Some people have free will and others don’t.
The arbitrary assertion of random impulses is not quite the same as freedom. I can assert my ability to fly and leap out of window on the 20th floor, but my supposed freedom will last only for a few seconds. I can assert my independence from respiration and stop breathing, or assert my ability to photosynthesize sugars and stop eating. Or a society can assert its freedom to eschew sexual activity that leads to reproduction of the human race, in which case said society will collapse in a couple of generations. There are fewer than 1.5 children born to European and Japanese women (and presently only 1.6 children in Iran). Below we see the Elder Dependent Ratio (the number of people aged 65+ divided by the number of people aged 15-64). Around mid-century it will stand around 50% for Europe, Japan, and also Iran, meaning that every two people of working age will have a pensioner to support.
This is not a hypothetical matter. The first great power in which homosexuality was the norm was Sparta, and Sparta is also the first power to fail because it ran out of people. Today, most of the wealthy nations are making a “free” choice to cease to exist. Belgium now euthanizes perfectly healthy young people simply because they do not like living, so one might call this a freedom of sorts. It is hardly the freedom to which most people aspire.
Traditional society, to be sure, produced lots of children, unless war, famine and disease prevented them from doing so. That was not freedom, either: agricultural societies require children as laborers and to care for the elderly. People in traditional society simply do without reflection what generations before have done. Most people who leave traditional society choose to live in such a way that leads to the demise of their society, such that their freedom is ephemeral, to say the least. Oswald Spengler anticipated this in his Decline of the West (1918): ‘The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of ‘mutual understanding.’’’
By a simple objective criterion—the fact that hitting the ground restricts your freedom to jump out of windows—the notion that we have the freedom to define and express our identity is a dicey one. But there is an even more fundamental objection. If we cannot create anything truly new or different, than our “freedom” comes down to an arbitrary choice among a limited number of existing models—rather like the choice of body offered to adolescents in the “Twilight Zone” episode, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” There is an extensive literature to explain why all hipsters look, dress and act the same, just as all beatniks looked the same in the 1950s. As much as we might wish to choose our identity, the number of available identities is quite limited, despite the 41 genders one might select on Facebook. As Mephistopheles told Faust, you remain what you are, for all the elevator shoes and wigs you might wear.
Is there anything else apart from the coercive socialization of traditional society, and the arbitrary but futile assertion of identity in postmodern culture? One might put the question in a somewhat different way: Can we do anything new and original, or are we condemned to conformity on one hand, and on the other, random and pointless attempts at nonconformity? If we can act only deterministically or arbitrarily, we are not free. Freedom is creativity. Yet very few people appear do anything truly original. Of all the men and women who ever have lived, how many did something that no-one else could have done? A couple of dozen mathematicians, about the same number of physicists, fifteen or so musicians, and twenty philosophers come to mind. If the tally of true originals broke 1,000, I would be surprised.
That is not the only mode of original behavior, though. There is a kind of creativity that is accessible to almost everyone, and that is to bear and raise children. I add the term “bear,” for nothing quite substitutes for the natural bond between parent and child. In traditional society, to be sure, child-rearing required little reflection. Everyone lived the same way, and everyone was socialized in the same way. In the modern world, where individuals have choice, raising children is a different kind of challenge. After two thousand years of exile, Jews have a poignant appreciation of that: We have had to raise our children to live by choice as a minority in societies that often were hostile to us.
Raising children is a creative act, because no two children are alike, and no parent can possibly know what to expect from a new child. Children do not come with an owner’s manual; because they are all different, every parent must learn to parent differently with every child. No-one faces a greater challenge than a parent, or invests more emotional energy in any other field of life. No parent is happier than his or her least happy child, and no parent will feel successful in life in the presence of suffering children. A Beethoven, da Vinci, or Gödel might have better things to do than raise children, but such ethereal minds comprise so small a portion of the world’s people as to make the exceptions practically irrelevant.
Obergefell was a shovel-full of dirt on the coffin of traditional society in America. It is no longer possible to argue that things should be done in a certain way simply because that is the way they are done. We no longer can speak of a traditional family, except when we use the term “traditional” to refer to a faith community established by choice. Two approaches to the pursuit of happiness now contend: the “define-and-express identity” doctrine of arbitrary choice, and the exercise of human creativity in the lives of nuclear families.
It is far from clear which will succeed. Few of us are qualified to “define and express” our own identities, and when we attempt to do so, we simply make ourselves miserable. The victory of progressive thinking after Obergefell will be Pyrrhic, although its ultimate failure might take the form of depopulation and ruin. People of faith no longer can count on public institutions to designate their view of the world as normal, and that poses a challenge to parents who must explain to their children why things everywhere are not as they are in families of faith. Those who deplore the Obergefell decision and gay marriage in general now have the opportunity to exercise freedom: to pursue a different and presumably better sort of life that exemplifies creative freedom, and sets an example in to a culture intent on making itself miserable.
Most individuals have the opportunity to be creative in their capacity as parents. But families live in communities, and the relationship between family members is mirrored in broader society–whether in the form of a covenant of love and mutual obligation as in Judaism and Christianity, or in hierarchical obligations as in East Asia. That is true in Islam as well, where the paterfamilias has the legal status of the governor of a province and thus has the right to inflict violence on his wife. The character of the family and the character of society are inseparable. Destroy the family and society is atomized; destroy society and the family is reduced to a tidepool struggling to survive in a hostile environment. In a society that fosters creative freedom, the humblest, childless individual can contribute to the freedom of the community. Americans who reject the oxymoronic blend of compulsion and caprice that now has been enshrined in law by the Supreme Court face a long and exhausting swim against the current.