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 foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
The president’s defenders say reported surveillance of Paul Manafort justifies an accusation against Barack Obama, but they overstate the facts.
Viewed from the most obvious angle, the latest scoops about special counsel Robert Mueller investigating Paul Manafort are at best neutral news for the president and more likely bad news.
The new reports say that U.S. officials got warrants to surveil Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, before and after the 2016 election under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and that Mueller told Manafort he would soon be indicted. At the least, this means Trump made the dubious decision to hire a man with shadowy ties as a top aide. At worst, it could mean Mueller wants to flip Manafort into a witness against Trump or his campaign.
But viewed from a more oblique angle, could the fresh revelations actually be good news for Trump? So far several of the president’s allies argue that this represents vindication for Trump’s thus-far-unproven allegation that President Barack Obama improperly surveilled him.
Old French Canadian genealogy records reveal how a harmful mutation can hide from natural selection in a mother's DNA.
The first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. Given their numbers, they were not literally the king’s daughters of course.
They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America.
And so they did. The filles du roi became the founding mothers of French Canadians, for whom these women are a source of historical pride. A grand old restaurant in Montreal was named after the filles du roi. So is a roller-derby team. French Canadians can usually trace their ancestry back to one or more of these women. “French Canadian genealogy is so well documented, it’s just a piece of cake to trace any line you have,” says Susan Colby, a retired archaeologist who comes from a French Canadian family and has done some of that tracing herself.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
As Trump considers military options, he’s drawing unenforceable red lines.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly today, President Donald Trump announced that, unless North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, “the United States will have no choice but to totally destroy” the country. He sounded almost excited as he threatened, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
North Korea is a serious problem, and not one of Trump’s making—the last four American presidents failed to impede North Korea’s progress towards a nuclear weapon. President George H.W. Bush took unilateral action, removing U.S. nuclear weapons and reducing America’s troop levels in the region, hoping to incentivize good behavior; Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried to negotiate restrictions; President Barack Obama mostly averted his eyes. North Korea defied them all.
The Republican Party laid the groundwork for dysfunction long before Donald Trump was elected president.
President Trump’s approach to governance is unlike that of his recent predecessors, but it is also not without antecedents. The groundwork for some of this dysfunction was laid in the decades before Trump’s emergence as a political figure. Nowhere is that more true than in the disappearance of the norms of American politics.
Norms are defined as “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” They are how a person is supposed to behave in a given social setting. We don’t fully appreciate the power of norms until they are violated on a regular basis. And the breaching of norms often produces a cascading effect: As one person breaks with tradition and expectation, behavior previously considered inappropriate is normalized and taken up by others. Donald Trump is the Normless President, and his ascendancy threatens to inspire a new wave of norm-breaking.
What was it like inside the brain of an ancient prophet?
James Kugel has been spent his entire scholarly career studying the Bible, but some very basic questions about it still obsess him. What was it about the minds of ancient Israelites that allowed them to hear and see God directly—or at least, to believe that they did? Were the biblical prophets literally hearing voices and seeing visions, understanding themselves to be transmitting God’s own exact words? If so, why did such direct encounters with God become rarer over time?
In his new and final book, The Great Shift, Kugel investigates these questions through the lens of neuroscientific findings. (The approach is reminiscent of other recent books, like Kabbalah: A Neurocognitive Approach to Mystical Experiences, co-written by a neurologist and a mysticism scholar.) First, Kugel uses biblical research to show that ancient people had a “sense of self” that was fundamentally different from the one modern Westerners have—and that this enabled them to experience and interpret prophecy differently than we do. Then he uses scientific research to show that we shouldn’t assume their view was wrong. If anything, our modern Western notion of the bounded, individual self is the anomaly; most human beings throughout history conceived of the self as a porous entity open to intrusions. In fact, much of the rest of the world today still does.
Donald Trump used his first address at the United Nations to redefine the idea of sovereignty.
Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations can best be understood as a response to his predecessor’s final one. On September 20, 2016, Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly that “at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
Three hundred and sixty-four days later, Trump delivered America’s answer: Option number two. His speech on Tuesday turned Obama’s on its head. Obama focused on overcoming the various challenges—poverty, economic dislocation, bigotry, extremism—that impede global “integration,” a term he used nine times. Trump didn’t use the term once. Obama used the word “international” 14 times, always positively (“international norms,” “international cooperation,” “international rules,” “international community”). Trump used it three times, in each case negatively (“unaccountable international tribunals,” “international criminal networks,” “the assassination of the dictator's brother using banned nerve agents in an international airport”) Obama warned of a world “sharply divided… along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.” Trump replied by praising “sovereignty” or invoking “sovereign” no fewer than 19 times. And while he didn’t explicitly defend divisions of “tribe and race and religion,” he talked about the importance of nations “preserving the cultures,” which is a more polite way of saying the same thing.
The right’s old guard faces an existential threat in populism. But it isn’t yet clear that they understand the stakes or possess the confidence to fight back.
Donald Trump’s rise to power put National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the sorts of journalists who work there in a distressing bind. Neither the president nor the #MAGA loyalists who staff his White House adhere to conservative principles. Yet many donors, subscribers, and readers who sustain their publications prefer Trump’s blustering, bombastic project, massively shifting the center of gravity on the right.
Tribalist populism is ascendant––and conservative publications no longer thereby benefit, in part because newer magazines and web sites are more closely aligned with it.
During the 1950s, when the postwar governing establishment presumed a liberal consensus and the right was as internally divided as it is now, William F. Buckley built a competing coalition in part by winning converts on the right to conservatism, famously declaring himself to be standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!”