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.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have almost unanimously held that civilization as we know it depends on a widespread belief in free will—and that losing this belief could be calamitous. Our codes of ethics, for example, assume that we can freely choose between right and wrong. In the Christian tradition, this is known as “moral liberty”—the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by appetites and desires. The great Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant reaffirmed this link between freedom and goodness. If we are not free to choose, he argued, then it would make no sense to say we ought to choose the path of righteousness.
Today, the assumption of free will runs through every aspect of American politics, from welfare provision to criminal law. It permeates the popular culture and underpins the American dream—the belief that anyone can make something of themselves no matter what their start in life. As Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, American “values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”
George Will is denouncing a GOP that has been ailing for years, but quitting won’t help—an American political party can only be reformed from within.
This past weekend, George Will revealed that he had formally disaffiliated himself from the Republican Party, switching his Maryland voter registration to independent. On Fox News Sunday, the conservative pundit explained his decision: "After Trump went after the 'Mexican' judge from northern Indiana then [House Speaker] Paul Ryan endorsed him, I decided that in fact this was not my party anymore.” For 40 years, George Will defined and personified what it meant to be a thoughtful conservative. His intellect and authority inspired a generation of readers and viewers, myself very much among them.
His departure represents a powerful image of divorce between intellectual conservatism and the new Trump-led GOP. Above all, it raises a haunting question for the many other Republicans and conservatives repelled by the looming nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president of the United States: What will you do?
Hillary Clinton wrote something for The Toast today. Are you sobbing yet?
Either you’ll immediately get why this is crazy, or you won’t: Hillary Clinton wrote a thing for The Toast today.
Are you weeping? Did your heart skip a beat? Maybe your reaction was, “What. Whaaaat. WHAT,” or “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!” or “OH MY GOD,” or simply “this is too much goodbye I'm dead now.”
Perhaps your feelings can only be captured in GIF form, as was the case for someone commenting on Clinton’s post under the name Old_Girl:
Reader comments like the ones above are arguably the best part of Clinton’s post, because they highlight just how meaningful hearing directly from Clinton is to The Toast’s community of readers. The Toast is a small but beloved feminist website known for its quirky literary humor. It announced last month it couldn’t afford to continue operating. Friday is its last day of publication.
What percentage graduated from high school and enrolled within a year at a four year institution where they live on campus?
Who are today’s college students?
The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”
Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”
“This western-front business couldn’t be done again.”
On this first day of July, exactly 100 years ago, the peoples of the British Empire suffered the greatest military disaster in their history. A century later, “the Somme” remains the most harrowing place-name in the annals not only of Great Britain, but of the many former dependencies that shed their blood on that scenic river. The single regiment contributed to the First World War by the island of Newfoundland, not yet joined to Canada, suffered nearly 100 percent casualties that day: Of 801 engaged, only 68 came out alive and unwounded. Altogether, the British forces suffered more than 19,000 killed and more than 38,000 wounded: almost as many casualties in one day as Britain suffered in the entire disastrous battle for France in May and June 1940, including prisoners. The French army on the British right flank absorbed some 1,600 casualties more.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
There needs to be more nuanced language to describe the expanding demographic of unmarried Americans.
In 1957, a team of psychology professors at the University of Michigan released the results of a survey they had conducted—an attempt to reflect Americans’ attitudes about unmarried people. When it came to the group of adults who remained single by choice, 80 percent of the survey’s respondents—reflecting the language used by the survey’s authors—said they believed that the singletons remained so because they must be “immoral,” “sick,” or “neurotic.”
It’s amazing, and reassuring, how much has changed in such a relatively narrow slice of time. Today, certainly, marriage remains a default economic and social arrangement, particularly after having been won as a right for same-sex couples; today, certainly, those who do not marry still face some latent social stigmas (or, at the very least, requests to explain themselves). But the regressive language of failed morality and psychological pathology when it comes to singledom? That has, fortunately, been replaced by more permissive attitudes.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Sharing platforms are meant to scale seamlessly throughout the world, but they’ve faced a different knotty set of rules in nearly every city they’ve colonized.
For years now, Airbnb, the popular home-sharing platform, has featured this line of copy at the end of a company mission statement that mostly pledges to promote a sense of adventure and discovery: “And with world-class customer service and a growing community of users, Airbnb is the easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions."
It’s a business model condensed into a coda, casually set off with an “And.” The subtext is that the revenue-making potential of the platform is an afterthought, which implies that its appeal lies in its ease of use. Sign up and rent out your apartment or guest room. It’s easy.
Easy, that is, unless you live in Chicago, where regulations passed last week will require hosts to register with the city, impose a tax on each transaction to pay for the city’s homeless services, and limit the number of apartments that can be rented out in a particular building, depending on its size. Or in San Francisco, Airbnb’s hometown, where a law that went into effect in 2015 limits the total number of days an apartment can be rented out per year and similarly requires hosts to register with the city. (This week, the company, which coincidentally helped draft the 2014 law, decided to sue the city over it.) Months after San Francisco imposed those limits, Santa Monica passed regulations requiring hosts to get business licenses and restricted them from renting out entire properties.