By Corey Robin
Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, and Dan Savage, the liberal sex columnist, recently had a Bloggingheads conversation about sex, lies, and videotape. It’s a fascinating discussion, mostly because of what it reveals about the conservative mind and its attitude toward sex.
Toward the end of the conversation (48:16 in the video link above), Savage poses a hypothetical to Douthat: Imagine a couple in which one partner—for the sake of simplicity, let’s say it’s the husband—is a foot fetishist. His wife is physically repulsed by his fetish—feet gross her out—but she wants him to be happy. So she sends him to a professional, who can satisfy his fetish without involving her. Savage asks Douthat: What’s so wrong with this?
I’ll get to Douthat’s response in a second, but first, let’s note the fact that this conversation is happening at all. We often think of the conservative, particularly the social conservative, as someone who puts his head in the sand or fingers in his ears, refusing to listen to or participate in the conversation around him. Watching Douthat’s body language in response to Savage’s language language—how visibly uncomfortable he is with all the dirty talk being visited upon him—only confirms that stereotype. (Though after a while, Douthat gets into the Savage swing of things, even saying at one point that he thinks the husband who goes to the professional “is doing something less impressive than than the guy who locks his dick up.” With a mouth like that, perhaps Savage should consider hiring him as a guest columnist?)
But it’s important to remember that Douthat is having this conversation at all, as have conservatives since the Sexual Revolution. In my book, I offer an early example of this conversation from the mid-70s—Beverly and Tim LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, which Susan Faludi rightly called “the evangelical equivalent of The Joy of Sex”—when the Christian Right was forced into the fray of sexual liberation and sought to harness its tropes to the institution of traditional marriage. The result was some fairly bawdy Godly talk.
The LaHayes claimed that “women are much too passive in lovemaking.” God, the LaHayes told their female readers, “placed [your clitoris] there for your enjoyment.” They also complained that “some husbands are carryovers from the Dark Ages, like the one who told his frustrated wife, ‘Nice girls aren’t supposed to climax.’ Today’s wife knows better.”
More recently, Robbie George, Princeton’s arch-conservative philosopher of sex and the single gal, told the New York Times Magazine that he’s been forced by the challenge of gay marriage to engage in all sorts of naughty talk about what constitutes good sex in a marriage. Much to the horror of his ever-so traditional Catholic mother.
His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, taught her children “some pretty firm ideas about sexual morality,” George told me, and then he begged me not to repeat some of his more recent arguments on the subject. “Mom, I have got to explain!” George said, raising his voice to imitate first himself and then his mother: “ ‘George’s opposition to sodomy! What are you doing talking about sodomy? You shouldn’t even know what that is! Why do people have to know your views about that?’
If my book accomplishes nothing else, I hope it disabuses us of our notion that conservatism is somehow the great Refusenik of modernity. It’s not. From its beginning, conservatism has participated in all the great conversations of modernity—often, to be sure, against its will. But even when it takes an antagonistic stance toward modern developments, conservatism is forced, by the very fact of its participation in the broader culture, to incorporate modern sensibilities and sensitivities (e.g., Beverly and Tim LaHaye instructing husbands in the ways and means of the clitoris).
There’s actually no better example of the right’s modernity than Douthat’s response to Savage’s challenge. After Savage pummels him repeatedly, asking why it’s better for the husband to repress his fetish than for the wife to grant him a reprieve outside the bedroom, Douthat says of the latter (at 51:40 in the above link):
Dan, I think it’s a sadder and more squalid and more depressing form of self-sacrifice than the guy who figures out how to live with not getting his rocks off over his foot fetish. And there is a value judgment and I’m not going to be able to prove it to you, you’re right. [Pause and then cross talk.] And some of this comes down to a worldview…
One of the great rallying points of the modern American right has been that it stands for firm, objective, demonstrable principles of right and wrong, of good and evil, over the relativism and situational ethics, the general culture of permissive tolerance, that one finds on the left. This has been a cry not only among politicos and pundits but also among serious philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and historians like Gertrude Himmelfarb.
In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.
As proof, Brooks cites some comments from a few youngsters:
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”
Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”
Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”
But now listen to Douthat, the New York Times‘s resident court philosopher of the right, and tell me if you hear anything that different. Yes, he’s saying he believes it’s better to satisfy, or repress, one’s sexual needs within the confines of a marriage, but he also acknowledges that that is “a value judgment,” that he can’t persuade someone of a different view of the value of that judgment, and that it reflects his broader worldview, which Savage doesn’t share.
That’s a far far cry from the medieval Thomist, or even today’s neo-Thomist, who believes that reason can provide a yardstick of right and wrong, good and evil, and that it can adjudicate moral disputes between rival traditions. It’s also a far cry from Brooks’ appeal to a shared tradition, authority, and like.
When the right’s back is pushed up against the wall, it’s often forced not only to acknowledge the pluralism of modern life and intractability of moral conflict, but also to ground its claims on its own feelings and preferences, its un-argued and self-confessedly arbitrary and idiosyncratic belief system. (Douthat even admits in a later exchange with Savage, which I discuss below, that he knows he sounds “absurd.”) The right might claim that its beliefs are better, but it has no grounds, as Douthat admits, for assuming that you would agree with that or persuading you of that. (You can find a similar version of that argument in Patrick Devlin‘s classic defense of traditional morality The Enforcement of Morals, which was probably the opening salvo of the modern culture wars.)
There’s a final point I want to extract from this exchange. Toward the end, Douthat gets his mojo back and starts pressing his argument for repression. After Savage makes the case that repression is destabilizing—an interesting claim in itself that challenges our standard left-right distinction; the left is supposed to stand for liberation, while the right is supposed to stand for order, no? Well, no, as it turns out—Douthat defends repression not on the grounds that it is stabilizing but because “the nature of human excellence depends on—this, I, sound absurd—overcoming impulses for the sake of your partner, your children, the people you love.”
And here we come to Ground Zero of conservative commitment. The conservative believes in excellence, as Douthat says, but it is a vision of excellence defined as and dependent on “overcoming.” It’s a vision that abhors the easy path of acceptance, of tolerating human frailty and need, not because that path is wrong but because it is easy. Or, to put it differently, it’s wrong precisely because it is easy. And though that vision often claims Aristotle as its inspiration, its true sources are Nietzschean.
The conservative believes the excellent person is a kind of mountain climber, a moral athlete who is constantly overcoming or trying to overcome his limits, pushing himself ever higher and higher. When it comes to sex, he’s not unlike the Foucauldian transgressor, that sexual athlete of novelty and experiment: but where Foucault believes that taboos against sex are all too easily reached (that’s why, if we are to attain the peaks of experience, we have to move beyond those limits), the conservative’s remain out of reach. The value of a rule lies in its difficulty and potential unattainability, the ardor of the struggle it imposes upon us. We might call this ethic the ardor of adversity.*
Liberals and leftists often miss this ardor of adversity, and it’s a critical error because it overlooks just how romantic and impassioned, how fervid and fervent, conservative morality, not just about sex but about a great many matters, actually is. And that is part of conservatism’s appeal. Savage in fact commits that very error when he says that Douthat’s vision of marriage eliminates the element of “adventure.” Not so. Douthat’s vision is profoundly adventurous—it’s the adventure of ascent, of trying to reach a summit of moral excellence that you probably cannot reach. It’s an adventure filled with risk—the risk of failure, of shame, of the self-loathing and castigation that comes with that failure and shame—and it’s one that the conservative, no matter how terrified he might be of that risk, is loathe to give up. No matter the cost: for if he were to give up on it, all that’d be left for him is the culture of mediocrity, of complacence and compliance, which defines for the conservative the liberal worldview.
That’s what connects the neoconservative, with his vision of warrior excellence, to the libertarian, with his vision of economic excellence, to the moral traditionalist. All three elements of what has been called the conservative three-legged stool—the warrior, the capitalist, the priest—subscribe to the dictum offered by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India:
The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same. The latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.
Or, as the Supremes put it more simply…
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*I recognize that Douthat is saying here that it is for the sake of the partner and children that we have to overcome our impulses, but the trope of overcoming appears too often in the conservative canon to put too much emphasis on that qualifier. Furthermore, the point is that the husband will demonstrate his excellence by overcoming himself for the sake of something outside himself. That, it seems to me, is the point.
Update: After I posted this, I was reminded by a friend of this excellent article on Dan Savage by Mark Oppenheimer that kicked this whole conversation off. Oppenheimer gives us a masterful exposition of Savage’s extraordinarily adroit mind, which is on sharp display in that exchange with Douthat. Check it out.
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. He blogs at coreyrobin.com, where this post originally appeared.