Longstanding social norms on matters like gay rights are no longer presumed to be correct. For better and worse, our current era requires actual reasoned debate.
As surely as the sun rises and sets and the waves crash and recede, gay-rights advocates insist that laws against sodomy and same-sex marriage unjustly transgress against liberty, and a subset of social conservatives invariably respond with hypotheticals about the practice of bestiality. Relations with animals comes up less frequently in mass media than they once did. But it's hardly unusual, even now, to hear some version of this argument: If the Constitution really forbade us from restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples, if justice really militated against outlawing sodomy, under what authority could we stop people from marrying or having sex with their dogs?
In Rod Dreher's writing on same-sex marriage, the arguments "against" are generally far more sophisticated and free of bigotry. I mention his name here because he's drawn the attention of his loyal readers, myself among them, to an unusual court case involving a man and his affection for a mini-donkey. It is, he quips, "on the vanguard of the fight for sexual liberation and autonomy."
Lawyers representing a
Marion County man accused of sexual activity with a miniature donkey
have filed a motion asking a judge to declare the Florida statute
banning sexual activities with animals unconstitutional. Carlos R. Romero, 32,
declared last week that he wanted to take his case to trial. He is
accused of sexual activities involving animals, a first-degree
misdemeanor, after he allegedly was found in a compromising position in
August with a female miniature donkey named Doodle .... The attorneys claim that the
statute deprives Romero of his "personal liberty and autonomy when it
comes to private intimate activities."
... The attorneys add that the
statute doesn't require that the state prove any harm or injury to the
animal "or any proof of the sexual activity being non-consensual. Therefore,
the only possible rational basis for the statute is a moral objection
to sexual acts considered deviant or downright 'disgusting,'" they
wrote. Using religion or
the overall consensus of the public that sexual activity with an animal
is wrong as the basis of a law is unjustified and bars Romero's personal
liberties, the attorneys argued.
personal morals of the majority, whether based on religion or
traditions, cannot be used as a reason to deprive a person of their
personal liberties," the attorneys wrote. "If the statute were to
require sexual conduct with animals to be nonconsensual or to cause
injury in order to be a crime, then perhaps the State would have a
rational basis and legitimate state interest in enforcement."
Now, why does the state have the right to tell young Romero that he
may not pleasure himself in the presence of his miniature donkey? It
appears that he never actually violated Doodle's, uh, person: "Romero admitted that he gets sexually aroused around
animals more so than humans and allegedly masturbated with Doodle in his
room. He claimed that he would have had sex with the miniature donkey
eventually, but that she wasn't ready and was 'blooming into maturity.'" The stable swain never laid a hand on that donkey, yet the state is prosecuting him for his amour impropre.
According to liberal and libertarian ideas of sexual autonomy and the
law, why should Romero and Doodle's outlaw love be illegal?
The defendant's own attorney all but provided the answer. "If the statute were to require sexual conduct with animals to be nonconsensual or to cause injury in order to be a crime," he noted, "then perhaps the State would have a rational basis and legitimate state interest in enforcement." I'd insist, along with a lot of libertarians, that any sex with animals is in fact nonconsensual, and that outlawing it should be entirely unobjectionable to right-thinking liberals and libertarians. (I'd add that if self-pleasure in the mere presence of animals is a crime, we'd better start building prisons to house all the dog and cat owners whose pets witness their otherwise private moments.)
It seems to me that Dreher isn't really troubled by an inability to come up with a rational argument for outlawing bestiality so much as he's troubled by the notion that doing so is now necessary. I may be presuming too much. But whatever his individual feelings, his reaction here reminds me of all the people who argued, during the gay-marriage debate, that marriage just is between a man and a woman. The mere notion of being asked to provide any more argument troubled them. And in a way, I understand why. I imagine they feel the same way that I do sometimes when the subject of torture or killing innocents with drones come up in public discourse.
A part of me is troubled by the sudden need to offer rational arguments for propositions that, by my lights, ought to be settled. Forced to articulate my half-formed interior monologue, it might go something like this: For generations our social and legal norms have held torture to be self-evidently abhorrent, and now John Yoo comes along with his Dick Cheney-directed sophistries on executive power and his unapologetic testicle-crushing apologia! I fear for my country if questions as basic as "Is testicle crushing permissible?" are suddenly matters of partisan debate, for long-established norms on subjects like these, solidified over decades, are far better safeguards in any discrete historical moment than our ability to reach rational conclusions via national debate.
Of course, I simultaneously accept the reality that there's no escaping these arguments. Social norms are a bulwark against change, not a guarantee that it won't happen, and for good reason. All manner of terrible evils were once regarded as self-evident propositions. If social conservatives are to wield any influence at all in American culture, they'd do well to accept the fact that they no longer possess the clout to enforce their notions of what is right via mere norms. As liberals begin to shape norms in more areas, they might even find themselves regularly frustrated by antagonists who don't feel the need to answer critiques with reasoned arguments.
It can be hard to make the transition from assumption to argument.
Long before gay marriage became a mainstream cause, Andrew Sullivan debated the subject with conservative Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield, an exchange he revisited Thursday at The Dish:
At one point, Harvey simply said (I'm paraphrasing), "If we cannot disapprove of homosexuality, then what can we disapprove of?" The huge student crowd -- over a thousand in Sanders Theater -- audibly gasped. The assumption that homosexuality was obviously a profoundly immoral and disgusting thing was what separated the generations. I asked Harvey to make an argument that wasn't based on a mere assumption, that could show why non-procreative sex for a gay couple was somehow obviously abhorrent, while non-procreative sex for a straight couple was completely accepted (i.e. through contraception). He couldn't. And since that moment, I think it's fair to say, his position has softened a little.
In the space of a generation, homosexual acts were indeed transformed (in the eyes of mainstream culture) from abhorrent, disgusting acts of perversion to acts treated just like non-procreative straight sex. I've long been persuaded that the mainstreaming of homosexuality is a happy development indeed. I worry not at all that human-animal trysts and marriages are at the end of a slippery slope onto which we've stepped. But I am nevertheless capable of making persuasive arguments against sex with animals and all manner of other practices I regard as properly prohibited.
With all due respect, I insist that my practiced arguments are going to prove a far more effective safeguard than fretting social conservatives who keep insisting, though I can't believe they really think so, that Americans have moved beyond any rational arguments that would prevent widespread sexual relationships with dogs, goats, mini-donkeys, siblings, and who knows what else, to cite just one of the slippery slopes about which many of them say they worry.
All manner of social norms are eroding, and no doubt some of them are valuable. If we're to preserve even them, it is more urgent than ever to refine rational arguments for doing so. The fear that no such persuasive arguments remainis as self-defeating a notion as there is in politics today.
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
A tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor believes young people are drawn to Jesus, tradition, and brokenness.
“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”
A federal judge in Kentucky held the Rowan County clerk in contempt of court on Thursday. Federal marshals escorted her to jail immediately after the hearing, the AP reported.
Davis had refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a federal district court order, citing her Christian faith. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry.
As my colleague Garrett explained yesterday, Davis’s appeal was doomed to fail from the start. The Supreme Court denied her request for an emergency stay of the lower court’s order on Monday. Davis continued to refuse to issue licenses to same-sex couples after the highest court weighed in, prompting today’s hearing.
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole collection assembled under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.