There is no way to write comprehensively about a subject this big in one post, and I won’t try here. I want to just highlight a few points that have struck me forcefully this week, as the spectacle of media fawning over Jenner – whom I will call XY Jenner – unfolds before us.
The first and most basic point is that we have a body of empirical knowledge that tells us XY Jenner is a human male, and that he cannot be made female. If one day we will have the ability to manipulate DNA in such a way that that is possible, we don’t have it today.
The concepts of “gender,” and nature-vs.-nurture, are meaningful ones. But the evidence of our eyes, and the sum total of our shared knowledge, tell us that male (XY) and female (XX) correlate powerfully with “man” and “woman,” to such a pervasive extent that there is no value for our lives in tossing that assumption aside.
Our wisest course, if we want a foundation of confidence on which to know ourselves and engage with each other, is to accept the assumption as valid. We need not revisit it because an extremely small number of people find themselves questioning it, and think they can’t reach a satisfactory conclusion without exploring drastic measures that virtually everyone else either views with some horror, or declines to think about at all.
Yet the Western mind has reached a point at which that is exactly what it proposes. Moreover, it has reached a point at which it refuses to see the difference between (a) accepting that there’s a standard of normality, and (b) harboring “hatred,” or at least cruel indifference, toward those who feel that they don’t fit within it.
Logically, the two are not the same thing. And the point of compassion, in the traditional Western mind, has been to mediate the normality gap for the outliers – not to deny the obviousness of normality. Indeed, the West has had a long and distinctive civilizational project of trying to improve the outlook of the less-normal among us, not by pretending that all norms need to be deconstructed – we know with sensible certainty that they don’t, which is why we live as if they don’t – but by building compassion into our way of life.
It isn’t necessary to toss the idea of objective truth out the window, in order to have useful things to do about people who doubt and hurt. And note that I didn’t just make that up, out of thin air. It’s a canonical precept of Western civilization. Compassion and objective truth can be reconciled – in fact, should be reconciled – without either being diminished. It’s because I have the traditional Western mind that I believe that.
In making this observation, I’ll link to a great post by Ed Morrissey at Hot Air about the emerging “transability” concept, which proposes to help people maim themselves if they have a strong desire to, and don’t feel “authentic” until they have. (Howard Portnoy’s excellent post about the phenomenon is here.) Ed observes the link between XY Jenner and the new frontier of “transability,” and says:
We’re celebrating the end of natural and objective truth, and turning dysfunction into virtue on the basis of celebrity. Not only that, but many people suffer from disability without much choice in the matter — my wife, for one, who lost her sight at 24 from diabetic retinopathy. This turns their challenges into sport or status symbols in a very odd manner, and mainstreaming it the way Baldwin suggests legitimizes the fetishization of their pains and struggles. …
…don’t expect me to wave flags as the parade of self-mutilation keeps processing toward eventual oblivion, regardless of whether that makes me out of step and hopelessly old-fashioned. Western society has become unmoored from objective truth in favor of anything goes, and I don’t think the end game looks terribly promising — especially with the parallel tyranny of the Tolerance Police punishing any dissent along the way.
The craziness of it forms a remarkable contrast with another story we found out about this week.
On the one hand, to summarize, we have people advocating a form of literal insanity, as if it’s a means of “helping” sufferers with highly abnormal urges.
But on the other hand, we have an admirably coherent model of empiricism and logic being put in the service of horrible evil.
Howard Portnoy reported Thursday on the ghastly case of a teenage girl in Dallas, Texas, who became pregnant after she was raped, at 14, by a family member. In her eighth month of pregnancy, members of her family decided to beat her until she miscarried. The reason? One of the “responsible,” adult members of the household didn’t want social services to find out the girl had been raped, and take the children away.
Cecila McDonald told [the girl, whimpering in agony as they beat and kicked her], “You ain’t about to get my kids taken away from me,” while Lonnell McDonald laughed, according to the affidavit.
Think about that for a moment. These people are amoral, devious, the opposite of compassionate – but unlike the leaders of social thought in today’s West, they don’t fear to think logically and empirically. Within the largely government-brokered limits of their feral lives, they are more pragmatic logicians than the people who call XY Jenner a hero, who want to bestow awards for “courage” on him, and who insist that not actively endorsing everything he proclaims about himself is “hatred.”
Just ponder for a moment what that says about the state of Western civilization. The ideas of compassion and tolerance have gone completely off the rails, with no connection to reason or empirical reality. But practical logic – connecting empirical reality with likely outcomes – is alive and well in the precincts of evil.
The impression from these two colliding modes of thought brought to mind a book I read years ago, Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony Books/Crown Publishers, 1991). I remembered being struck by similar thoughts as I read through to the book’s conclusion.
The early part of it dealt impressively and thematically with the progressions of Western thought, through the ancient Greeks, Judaism, Christianity, the Renaissance and Christian Reformation, and the Enlightenment and modern era. Although there were glimpses at earlier stages of how the underpinnings of reason might collapse in the West, Tarnas had us arriving at the modern era with those underpinnings intact, and reason still tangible and graspable.
Then, as the post-modern era unfolded, everything ground to a halt. Tarnas himself didn’t intend it so, but what he presented was a vision of abject intellectual ruin. A few of his observations are worth quoting directly here, such as this one on page 388 of the cited edition:
A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life – the contemporary world, the historical past, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche – yet there was also less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty.
This brings to mind for me the irony of our detailed biological certainties about XY Jenner’s makeup, which are so much more complete than they were even a century ago, and yet our culture’s brittle, hypersensitive ambivalence about what to do with that information.
There’s also this (p. 399):
Nothing certain can be said about the nature of truth, except perhaps that it is, as Richard Rorty puts it, “what our peers will let us get away with saying.”
That one doesn’t need much expounding on, I think. See also p. 401 (italics in original):
The underlying intellectual ethos is one of disassembling established structures, deflating pretensions, exploding beliefs, unmasking appearances – a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in the spirit of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. …
Properly speaking, therefore, there is no “postmodern worldview,” nor the possibility of one. The postmodern paradigm is by its nature fundamentally subversive of all paradigms…as in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”
Yet it takes a metanarrative – a fundamental idea of both what is and what should be – to operationalize compassion. It also takes a metanarrative to value truth, even before finding it. I think this is part of what Ed Morrissey was getting at, in his post at Hot Air.
I emphasize here that these last two are my own points; Dr. Tarnas didn’t make them. He wrote for the most part in descriptive, analytical mode. I’m writing in hortatory mode.
Our visit with Tarnas ends with his preview of what all this unorganized knowledge, and post-modern suspicion and incredulity about metanarratives, have led to. In his Epilogue (Part VII), on pp. 425-30, he writes of the psychoanalytic work of Stanislav Grof, a Czech-born psychiatrist who has been affiliated variously with Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, the Esalen Institute (in Big Sur, California, which is where Tarnas knew him), and the California Institute of Integral Studies. He’s a respected professional, not a crank.
The passage Tarnas gives us suggests that Grof’s work is a fruitful field for knowing mankind, and finding meaning and purpose in our post-modern condition. It seems to posit a way ahead – perhaps part of a way ahead – in the onward development of the Western mind.
And what is Grof’s work? Tarnas summarizes it starting on p. 425:
The basis of Grof’s discoveries was his observation of several thousand psychoanalytic sessions, first in Prague and then in Maryland with the National Institute of Mental Health, in which subjects used extremely potent psychoactive substances, particularly LSD, and then later a variety of powerful nondrug therapeutic methods, which served as catalysts of unconscious processes. Grof found that subjects involved in these sessions tended to undergo progressively deeper explorations of the unconscious, in the course of which there consistently emerged a pivotal sequence of experiences of great complexity and intensity. In the initial sessions, subjects typically moved back through earlier and earlier biographical experiences and traumas…which were generally intelligible in terms of Freudian psychoanalytic principles and appeared to represent something like laboratory evidence for the correctness of Freud’s theories. But after reliving and integrating these various memory complexes, subjects regularly tended to move further back into an extremely intense engagement with the process of biological birth.
Re-experiencing birth – perhaps with the aid of psychoactive drugs – turns out to figure prominently in Tarnas’s proposition for the further development of the Western mind. One can’t help feeling a sense of severe deflation about this proposition, juxtaposed with the earlier civilizational march of Moses, Aristotle, Jesus, Paul, Aquinas, Descartes, Newton, and Locke.
Unlike Grof’s open-ended experimentation, meanwhile, the philosophy and mode of life that the West’s most influential spiritual leaders and thinkers have endowed us with have shown the power to civilize people like the pathetic family in Dallas. It’s because the Dallas family is formally excused by their society from living up to that ideal that it doesn’t do so. It’s because the postmodern mind has turned against the metanarrative of the traditional West.
A very large percentage of Americans would say that the Western mind began going off the rails when it began divorcing itself from the God of the Bible. But in my final observation here, I want to focus on a collateral point, which is that the most hysterical, paralyzing disorder of the post-modern Western mind isn’t shared, for the most part, by the ordinary, middle-class people. It’s an affliction of the elite: of the people who have an outsize impact on the culture through the media, the academy, and politics.
I think what’s remarkable today is the profound sense of divorcement between the ordinary people, many of whom still carry the stamp of the traditional West, and the cultural elite. It’s not just that the elite tends to exploit and despise the ordinary people. That happens in every age. It’s that the ordinary people and the elite aren’t even pulling in the same direction. The elite is so estranged from the people, and so paralyzed by its own hostility to coherent metanarratives, that it makes the West effectively leaderless.
Where today’s elite does have metanarratives – e.g., the metanarrative of “climate change” – they are chronically inconsistent and anti-empirical. They are useless for any constructive purpose. Like the feral logic of the family in Dallas, the elite’s metanarratives make narrow connections that are rational enough only to advance evil and destructive purposes.
For the first time in a very, very long time – perhaps since the Dark Ages; perhaps even since 2,500 years ago, or virtually all of the West’s arc of existence and prominence – the West is without a functioning, traditionally Western leadership. People who still bear the stamp of Western civilization are frustrated and worried, because there seems to be no way to organize to promote and defend it.
Yet evil is on the move around the globe, acting with purpose and logic within its inherent limitations. Evil can destroy, and it can export destruction, but it cannot build. A frivolous, complacent Western elite doesn’t build either, however, and makes no move to defend itself against destruction.
What will the West do? The history of the recent past – call it the last 600 years – isn’t a reliable guide. The geopolitical conditions of the recent past are disappearing by the day, flickering out like a chimera in the desert. Also disappearing is the unity of expectations between an inert Western elite and its peoples, as the one cheers on attempts at rebirth through self-maiming, drugs, and victim politics, and the other seeks to fight through the fog of a dysfunctional present toward hope and a future.
I’ll reiterate here the point I made at the “hegemony” post in April (last link, above). A time of unique upheaval is a time of unique opportunity. I will add as well that the good things about the West had to be consciously established. Things like liberty have to be defined and protected; they don’t just “develop” without intention or guidance. We’ve had them for so long now that we have forgotten that.
Remember it again. The recent, post-modern course of the Western mind is unsustainable – but it will be up to us how we shall then live.