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.
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.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
As the world frets over Greece, a separate crisis looms in China.
This summer has not been calm for the global economy. In Europe, a Greek referendum this Sunday may determine whether the country will remain in the eurozone. In North America, meanwhile, the governor of Puerto Rico claimed last week that the island would be unable to pay off its debts, raising unsettling questions about the health of American municipal bonds.
But the season’s biggest economic crisis may be occurring in Asia, where shares in China’s two major stock exchanges have nosedived in the past three weeks. Since June 12, the Shanghai stock exchange has lost 24 percent of its value, while the damage in the southern city of Shenzhen has been even greater at 30 percent. The tumble has already wiped out more than $2.4 trillion in wealth—a figure roughly 10 times the size of Greece’s economy.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.