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We Hold What Truths?



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There I was, watching yet another Law and Order re-run on TNT. In this episode a scientist claimed to have discovered a gene for homosexuality. During the second half of the show, the district attorneys had their usual strategy pow-wow. Executive Assistant District Attorney Michael Cutter suggested the murderer might be an angry homosexual, because if there is indeed a homosexual gene it could lead to abortions by “homophobic” parents.

“That could lead to the elimination of an entire community,” D. A. Cutter said, obviously troubled.

I waited for one of the other characters to say something like: “But, Mike, that’s what abortion-on-demand does, eliminates communities. Hell, it eliminates whole populations. Gay, straight, male, female, black, white, whatever.”

Or, perhaps the resident Hot Babe Assistant D.A., a staple character on the show, could have said: “Mike, it’s a woman’s right to choose to kill her unborn child, even if she is a homophobic monster. We cannot make the choice for a gay-bashing, community-destroying, pre-life killing Nazi woman under those circumstances.”

But not a word was spoken by any character about Cutter’s concern. The highly educated, sophisticated, articulate, well-informed politically liberal characters — created by writers who share the same backgrounds and beliefs — went on trying to build a legal case, as if nothing odd had occurred.

I realized that what I had just seen was a dramatization of an ideological act of faith, touching in its radical innocence. Undeviating solidarity with the gay-activist agenda and abortion-on-demand is a liberal dogma, impervious to rational argument. It has become, in W. H. Auden’s words about Freud, “a whole climate of opinion.” When the dogmas contradict each other — killing gay fetuses is wrong, but abortion-on-demand is right — an intellectual paralysis sets in and the only guide for the perplexed is to just go on being as liberal as one can and believe in hope and change.

About a week after I saw the re-run, I was thumbing through my copy of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths, published fifty years ago, looking for a certain passage, when — talk about serendipity — I came upon Father Murray’s discussion of the essential nature of barbarism:

The barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ballpoint pen with which to write his advertising copy. In fact even under the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility, who goes busily and happily about his work, a domesticated and law-abiding man, engaged in the construction of a philosophy to put an end to all philosophy, and thus put an end to the possibility of a vital consensus and to civility itself. This is perennially the work of the barbarian, to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived and to do this not by spreading new beliefs but by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed so that finally what you have is an impotent nihilism. [italics added]

Substitute “Savile Row” for “Brooks Brothers” and “computer” for “ball-point pen” and we have a portrait of the left-liberal secularist agenda as it exists today in politics, the media, and academia. According to Father Murray:

[The Founders] thought that the life of man in society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truth, universal in its import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, defensible. If this assertion is denied, the American Proposition is, I think, eviscerated at one stroke . . . today the barbarian is . . . the man who reduces all spiritual and moral questions to the test of practical results or to an analysis of language or to decision on terms of individual subjective feeling.

Stem-cell research involving human embryos? That’s okay, because someday, some way, there just might be practical results, ya gotta believe. Abortion-on-demand? Redefine a child in the womb as a collection of cells or “pre-life,” or claim that the argument is about “when does life begin?” Gay marriage? Simple. Create a climate of doubt, pour on the subjective feeling, redefine marriage so that the word means what you want it to mean, and ignore the question of why plural marriages aren’t given the same treatment. In all cases, ignore what Father Murray called “the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived.”

By “civility,” Father Murray didn’t mean just being polite to one’s opponents, but entering into what he called “conversation” in public discourse, arguing, presenting reasons, listening, trying to understand the other person’s views. In his speech at the University of Notre Dame in May 2009, President Obama asked for civility in the debate over abortion. He called for “open minds” and “open hearts,” and said we must not reduce “those with differing views to caricature.” Fine words, but they would be even more impressive if the man speaking them were not an absolutist about Roe v. Wade. His words might even have been inspiring if they were made to his strongest supporters, the ferocious, absolutist abortion advocacy groups who support Roe v. Wade as much as he does. What he was saying at Notre Dame was, in effect:

Concerning abortion I fully expect you to be civil to me, as I will be to you. I am more than willing to listen to you politely and respond calmly. After all, who knows, there might be room for you to compromise your principles. Civility, in my terms, is to be rational, even friendly, in discussions about abortion, but only if it is understood that the essential question has long since been decided upon, permanently.

This is not a plea for civility. It is a demand for servility. This is not conversation. It is solipsistic monologue. (And by the way, how has that dialogue between Notre Dame officials and the president been going? Heard from the White House recently about ending abortion, Father Jenkins?)

What we have in the United States today is not an ideological battle, or even a cultural war, but something larger and deeper: a true clash of irreconcilable philosophic views, not just about abortion, but about truth. One of those views encompasses all that is best in the Western tradition from antiquity until now, including the findings of science, and the other holds that everything that is essential to human betterment in the modern world began during the Enlightenment, and everything preceding that was obscurantist, credulous, and bloody. From the mad-dog attacks of the New Atheists to the absurd mental gymnastics of Justice Harry Blackman in Roe v. Wade, from New York Times editorials to movies and TV dramas, the strategy is always the same: create a climate of doubt about the possibility of objective truth, discoverable by reason; corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived; construct and then promulgate through mass-media entertainment a philosophy that puts an end to all philosophy, destroying civility in its broadest and deepest sense. Define, deride, delegitimize, deconstruct, then destroy.

Perhaps in the series of televised presidential debates of 2012, an entire debate should be about one question:

Do you hold, with the founders, that there are truths about the human condition that are self-evident, accessible to reason, definable and defensible? If so, give us your philosophical reasons why this is so. If not, on what basis are your views on human rights formed, and why do you believe that the founders were erroneous in their assertions about self-evident truths?

I know one self-evident truth: If such a debate is ever televised, I’m not going to be watching another re-run of Law and Order.

 — William F. Gavin is the author of Speechwright, to be published in the fall by Michigan State University Press.



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