Postmodern Conservative

The New Prohibitionism

I’m not dissing the great comments on my previous post. Let me address them one at a time. We don’t want to test the patience of our readers too much.

Carl is big on John Lennon’s “Imagine” being an expression of a kind of vague humanitarian, near-pantheistic communitarianism that’s part of the spirit of our time. He does an expert job analyzing the appeal of the tune. He makes the more general point that that kind of longing for social justice is part of our post-Christian world. It’s, as Nietzsche said, Christianity without Christ. Or, as Flannery O’Connor says, sentimental tenderness wrapped in theory. Its slogan, as Jean Elshtain wrote, actually came from Elvis: ”Don’t be cruel.” Or as we say now: “Don’t be a hater.” The philosopher of the imagination, I still think, is Richard Rorty and his soft and evasive hopes for the power of words. This kind of imagination, as O’Connor saw, lacks the toughness of acceptance found in real Christianity. Sentimentality, she also wrote, can lead to the gas chamber.

Now Lennon didn’t sing imagine there’s no death. Rorty suggested more than once we could somehow take death out by not talking about it or ironizing it. Death becomes “death.” The experience of existentialism is a problem solved by pragmatism. For Lennon, as Carl has suggested, death might be imagined to dissolve as individuals disappear through the reverie captured inadequately by “we are the world.”

Today, it seems to me, all that seems soft and stupid. It’s been replaced by obsession over one’s own autonomy, which depends, first of all, on one’s own health and safety. We have become paranoid, prohibitionist, and puritanical when it comes to being safe or avoiding risk factors. If there is a road to serfdom or unprecedented “statism,” it would be the one that points in the direction of transhumanism, the Singularity, utopian eugenics, detaching all sex from birth and death (consider that there might soon be a real mandate to use contraception), climate control, and so forth. Libertarians, such as my good friend Ronald Bailey, are fairly blind to the statist implications of their techno-obsessions. For them, no reasonable person could oppose an indefinite expansion of the menu of choice, and so no one could oppose the coming of a world where we can all be pro-choice on both love and death. I will say more later. If you Google me, you can see I’ve said a lot in the past.

For now, let me make one point: This deep aversion to everything risky has little to do with a longing for social justice (although John Rawls, Ronad Dworkin, et al. endorse it). It’s foundation is personal, but not all that relational. It’s about keeping me around forever, even at the cost of the impoverishment of all our relational lives. John Lennon, to his credit, was no transhumanist imaginatively anticipating the Singularity or a world where Yoko could be replaced by a more compliant and safer Operating System (see the movie Her).

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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