Douthat on the Sexual Revolution

by Michael Potemra

Hoover research fellow Mary Eberstadt has recently compared the Sexual Revolution of recent decades to the Communist revolution of the earlier part of the last century. It’s a troubling analogy, especially to someone like myself who is the son of a mother and father who fled the Communist revolutionary governments of Eastern Europe. In all my 48 years, I have been consistently, undyingly grateful for the fact that my parents rejected a life under Communism; and yet, having lived my whole life in the era of the Sexual Revolution, I have never once wished to escape to some (presumably more enlightened) land in which the Sexual Revolution never took hold, nor, for that matter, have I met many people who do wish to. The analogy is surely correct, though, in its diagnosis of the level of historical importance of the Sexual Revolution; and, whatever one thinks of the analogy in general, it is undeniably thought-provoking. As proof of this last, let me quote from the excellent recent comment by our friend (and NR film critic) Ross Douthat. The thought it provoked in Ross was that of another analogy, one equally striking, but perhaps more apt — the Industrial Revolution:

Read one way, [the Industrial Revolution] analogy offers a certain amount of vindication to social liberals, since it suggests an analogy between social conservatives and the 19th century’s Luddites or agrarian nostalgists, shaking their fists impotently against changes they were powerless to stop. (At the very least, thinking of the revolution in these terms should give liberals a little more confidence that a hypothetical President Rick Santorum couldn’t bring the 1950s back by fiat.)

But the analogy also suggests that the most strident sort of social liberal risks becoming the equivalent of the most doctrinaire 19th century economic liberals, who were so committed to an ideological interpretation of socioeconomic change that they regarded any reform or regulation as an unacceptable imposition on the glories of laissez-faire, and a dangerous and backward-looking threat to the prosperity and growth the new order had produced. (I suspect that contemporary defenses of unrestricted abortion as absolutely necessary to female advancement will eventually read like Victorian-era defenses of child labor as absolutely necessary to capitalism.)

The comment as a whole bespeaks a Burkean understanding of social change, and an ability to set intelligent priorities in how to cope with that change. I am especially grateful to Ross for his point about abortion: Many of us who celebrate (as I do) the change in the role and status of women in recent years strongly reject (as I do) the notion that this change can be preserved only at the cost of unborn human lives.

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