Shifting Away from the Liberalism of the Zipper

By now, I suppose everyone who pays attention to the matter has seen the Pelvic Left in the sweats, with a decision from the Supreme Court about to come down that will reverse several decades of bad jurisprudence on abortion. For the “right” to cut to ribbons the unborn child in the womb is soon to be excised from constitutional law, where it has set down roots like a cancer and compromised our entire system of government. 

Imagine what words James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would have had for a court of nine lawyers adjudicating any cultural matters at all, rather than settled law and its application! They could easily have predicted the confusion that has resulted, with senatorial elections now nationalized and therefore made subject to mob passions, bringing into play hitherto unheard of sums of political money, all because control of the Senate can nudge the Supreme Court one way or another when the next justice retires or dies, and the Court, not the Congress, and not even the people in their local governments or in their immemorial customs, has, in many important ways, the last word on how we are to live together. All of this is quite aside from the matter of killing the child, whom we, his brothers, owe a duty to protect and to foster.

I will not say that the Pelvic Left is entirely irrational in its terror. The idea that American women will be turned into the “handmaids” of Margaret Atwood’s absurd and bigoted imagination is ridiculous. Even the fight for and against the life of that child must continue, though on the battlegrounds of 50 individual states. Other bad decisions remain in force, and we are still going to have to deal with the Court’s arrogation of authority that belongs properly to legislatures and to the people. And yet, the disenthronement of the abortion “right” does bring us closer to reconsidering the major premise of the sexual revolution, an antisocial principle far-reaching in its misery-making effects, which is that what people do sexually is a strictly private thing, of no concern to anyone else.

When I put it that way, I sense that my friends among the libertarians must blanch. But let us consider. I have often put it this way. Aside from religion, the single most determinative feature of any human culture—what most makes a people this sort of society rather than that—will be its customs, and the laws that corroborate and promote them, regarding the sexes, marriage, and the raising of children. To say, then, that a people should have no authority, as a people rather than as an aggregate of individual persons, to direct these things, is to say that the people in their public and legislative capacity should abandon the tending of culture itself. The result is not liberty, as we have seen, but confusion, as authority is handed over to the engines and the engineers of mass phenomena: mass entertainment, mass schooling, and so forth.

The principle is in error. Suppose we set aside those things that belong to the human being as such—the right to worship God, the right to think, the right to speak what you think, the right to assemble peaceably to pursue the common good. Suppose instead that we are talking about something that may be admissible in principle, but that in its practical application must or may likely do grave harm to the society that admits it. Then there can be no political right to it. That is only to say that a society is not to be maneuvered into a corner, where its only choices are to put a bullet in its head by admitting the harmful thing, or to fall apart into irreconcilable parties. The thing must be evaluated on its merits, whether to accept it or to reject it, while we cast a cold and far-seeing eye on what might happen in either case.

I was recently looking over the naturalization papers for my paternal grandparents, who arrived in the United States shortly after World War I. The papers required them to swear that they were neither anarchists, nor polygamists. That second qualification would surprise us now, but the American people were dead serious about it. For Utah had been admitted as a state in 1896 only after firm promises were extracted from the Mormon Church to abjure polygamy, and for the next 20 years the Senate oversaw the matter to make sure that that promise was kept. 

We would do well to consider their reasoning. They believed marriage was the bedrock of all political community and culture, and that polygamy, with its fervid stew of crisscrossed passion, with the porousness and uncertainty that it admitted into the relation of husband and wife, and with the bad example it gave to mere fornicating couples who at least might be said to love one another and nobody else, would corrupt public morals and riddle that bedrock with holes. If Utah had been admitted to the union without that condition, the corrosive effects of polygamy could never have been contained within its borders. So the American people were more than within their rights to exact that oath from my grandparents. They would have been irresponsible not to exact it.

The reader may see where I am going with this line of reasoning, and this is what really does disturb the Pelvic Left. Consider the matter of pharmaceutical contraception: the Pill. When in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) the Court, wandering in the penumbras of its own vain imagination, found a “right” to use it, the author of the decision, Justice William O. Douglas, waxed eloquent about the sanctity of the marriage bed, and the relations between husband and wife. But all that language was soon quite forgotten when (in Baird v. Eisenstadt, 1972) the “right” to the pill was extended to everyone, regardless of marriage. So we have been prevented from asking the obvious political questions regarding the matter. What kind of society does it produce? What are its general effects? What has it done to marriage? To the relations between men and women? To public morals? Would we be better off without it?

It is not enough, when we are talking about a bad thing, to say that it is bad, and that therefore it ought to be made illegal. That all depends upon the thing in question, and what its proscription by law is likely to do. By the same reasoning, even if we were talking about a morally permissible thing—conceding for the sake of argument that the Pill is so, it is not enough to say that because it is morally permissible it ought to be legally permissible as well. There is nothing immoral about painting your house a psychedelic orange, but your neighbors may find it objectionable, not only to their eyes but to their wallets. There is nothing immoral about roving about the streets with pistols and shooting blanks into the air, but I doubt that most people would find it comfortable, and if you let the precedent in, you will have more pistols than you bargained for, and not always loaded with blanks, either.

Then, we see, the argument shifts away from the liberalism of the zipper to more human considerations. And we conservatives should return to asking ourselves what we wish to conserve, and why, and how we can do it.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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