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In Praise of a Polarized Politics Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 27 March 2012

I thought I was a rather close observer of these things, but I learned only from Jeffrey Bell’s new book, The Case for Polarized Politics, that George W. Bush’s first initiative for “faith-based” institutions died because of the issue of the “ministerial exception” and gay rights.

The ministerial exception ran back to the Civil Rights Act of 1964: churches and other religious institutions were given a certain assurance that they would not be compelled to hire ministers or other officers whose moral views were at odds with the teachings of the churches. But as Bell reports, Bush’s initiative ran into resistance from Democrats in the Senate because of a concern, even then, that these rules would be used to bar gay activists who were seeking positions of leadership in these organizations.

In this, and other instances, as Bell shows, Mr. Bush backed away rather than risking a public argument over those vexing “social issues” – those issues of abortion and gay rights – that are so readily taken as poisoning the public discourse. The vitriol has come mainly from the people who are offended by the notion that these subjects may even be discussed in our political life. 

In fact, the very term “social issues” already marks a crippling concession: Since when has the protection of human life not been one of the central concerns of the law? To mark questions of “life” and marriage as “social issues’ is to suggest that they are not really “political” issues, that they are somehow peripheral to the main, legitimate issues of political life. 

But here are the oddities that Bell brings out so sharply: Those “social issues” work powerfully for the conservative side in our politics, and the conservative side is the most reluctant to raise them. As Bell argues, they are the issues that finally tipped the election of 1988 for George H.W. Bush. They accounted for the rapid, deep defection of conservative Protestants from the Democratic party of Jimmy Carter – from a 25-point victory margin in 1976 to a 60-point deficit by 1984. 

The Republican convention that nominated Ronald Reagan endorsed, for the first time in our politics, a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. More and more, the Republicans have become the pro-life party in our politics, gaining immense lift from that issue. Why then have the leading Republicans been most anxious to avoid talking about these matters?  

As Bell shows, Mr. Bush backed away because he didn’t wish to be accused of “polarizing” our politics. Others have backed away because they sense that these issues make people deeply uncomfortable.

Between 1994 and 2000 the Republican campaigns for the Senate were directed by two senators with pro-life voting records, Al D’Amato of New York and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and as Bell claims, they followed an “unwritten rule” to deny funding to candidates who wished to highlight their support for the bill banning partial-birth abortions.


       How would he approach the abortion issue? 

The result, of course, is that we have not escaped a polarization of our politics. As Bell shows, the issue of same-sex marriage became critical in tilting the election of 2004 to George W. Bush in key states such as Ohio. But instead of building on that issue, Bush backed away from it, and that backing away, says Bell, was “an engraved invitation to social liberals to keep the pressure on at the state and local level.”  

The final inversion has been seen now in the last few weeks: The Obama White House has sought to inject the issue of contraception, as it will inject later the issue of gay rights, precisely because the Republicans are so evidently averse to talking about them. And in their backing away, the Republicans have failed to cultivate any art or confidence in arguing these issues. 

Jeffrey Bell was one of the pioneers in the movement for “supply-side” economics, holding up that banner in a run for the Senate in the 1970s, and becoming later an adviser to Ronald Reagan. He has also become one of the most astute observers in our politics, and a serious voice now in Catholic circles.  

The malady he sees at work is the falling away, in America and Europe, from the moral teaching of the Declaration of Independence. As he reminds us, the Declaration did not derive “rights” from the political community. Those rights that governments were meant to secure were drawn rather from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

What he charts in Europe and the United States is a receding of religion and a politics that is ever more detached from that moral ground of political life. That tradition has virtually died in Europe, and it survives in America mainly in the party that has become the home to pro-lifers.  

But that party is in turn undercut by a political leadership that hasn’t cultivated the knack of speaking in public to these issues that people care about most deeply because they run to the core. This was the issue faced by Lincoln: that issue of slavery, touching the very meaning of “the human person,” was the issue that people did not want talked about, either in politics or the churches. 

The real test of a political man is whether he can find, as Lincoln did, a way of showing ordinary people how they can talk in public about the questions that truly lay at the heart of things. 

 
Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law.


 
 
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Comments (20)Add Comment
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 27, 2012
"In fact, the very term “social issues” already marks a crippling concession: Since when has the protection of human life not been one of the central concerns of the law? To mark questions of “life” and marriage as “social issues’ is to suggest that they are not really “political” issues, that they are somehow peripheral to the main, legitimate issues of political life."

I agree that the attempt to depoliticize what is clearly political is an act of deception, but I think what is meant (and what is very poorly expressed by the phrase "social issues") is that there is social disagreement about the nature of these acts. This means that, for some, the issue is not about protecting human life at all, since they do not believe that a human person is killed by abortion. Christians cannot assume that simply maintaining and elaborating the stance, "abortion is murder" will suffice on its own to convince the wider society that this is true; a degree of realpolitik and more persuasive, more broadly applicable arguments are necessary. This is the only way to overcome a polarization born of teamsmanship and the intrinsically uncharitable view that each side of the divide has of the other side.
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written by Jacob, March 27, 2012
Jesus Christ! And Hallelujah! A non RINO non leftist got to say something about abortion on the Internet! (I really was starting to believe it was illegal for social conservatives even to commentate on TCT or National Review!)

President Arkes, save us from the pagans in business suits!!!!
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written by Ken Colston, March 27, 2012
I agree that politics is ultimately most deeply about the moral life (the ethics, as we know, is the first half of politics as understood by Aristotle and his followers), with what is good for humans as they are constituted and constitute themselves in freedom, but aren't the American bishops themselves shrinking from the duty to polarize by not promulgating forcefully, even to the faithful, the theology of the body rather than emphasizing almost exclusively the religious liberty argument in the recent protest against the HHS ruling to bind insurers to provide contraceptives with no copay?
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 27, 2012
Mr. Ellis - if you would talk precisely about what you believe, rather than substituting vague summations of what "some believe," and if you would offer arguments in favor of what you believe, rather than indulging in broadsides about the "uncharitable-ness" of others, it might better serve the purpose of TCT (right above the Rules for Commentary).
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written by Chris in Maryland, March 27, 2012
It is not persuasive to assert that others don't believe a human person is killed by abortion. Everyone knows the horrible truth...that's why those who want "the savings" from abortion get so sanctimonious when people try to deal honestly with the horror story that is going on.

People who want to de-legitimize other people simply because those people are vulnerable (i.e., the unborn, and the desparate mothers of these unborn, and now [as voiced by the "medical ethics" nomenclatura at Oxford] the new-born, and on-and-on it will go) simply torture the word "person" by confecting preposterous "legal" definitions that defy human decency.
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written by jsmitty, March 27, 2012
Your analysis neglects several things Dr. Arkes. The example of Lincoln is not a convincing case for the benefits of party polarization. Old Abe only was able to win election at all because of a major North/South democratic schism. If the center had held on the slavery question between the strong and the moderately pro-slavery factions, emancipation might have waited many decades more. Moreover, the slavery analogy is bad because Lincoln was fortunate to have the general wind of history at his back...Western society in general had long been haviing doubts about the wisdom of the peculiar institution.

Things are very different today with homosexuality and birth control. It is clear that forces in favor of traditional morality on these questions are a shrinking minority and will become even more so in the years ahead. (Have you seen polls on the issue of gay marriage for people under age 30?) It does no good at all to celebrate political victories of 20-30 years ago by pointing out how much cultural liberalism hurt the democrats in the 70's; we should be fearing how much cultural conservatism will be hurting the GOP in the next decade!!!

Absent some form of schism among supporters of "gay marriage", polarization on these issues is likely to reduce the GOP to a rump party for quite sometime--which might (for a time) be a bad thing for the causes you are espousing.
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written by J. W., March 27, 2012
Scotty Ellis wrote: "I agree that the attempt to depoliticize what is clearly political is an act of deception, but I think what is meant (and what is very poorly expressed by the phrase "social issues") is that there is social disagreement about the nature of these acts."

Scotty, this only pushes the matter back a step. If we explain the inclusion of the word "social" in the term "social issue" by reference to "social disagreement," then we must explain the inclusion of the word "social" in "social disagreement." In other words, what makes a disagreement a social disagreement? There is widespread disagreement about environmental regulations, hate crime legislation, racial discrimination policies, etc.; but is there "social" disagreement? If so, are these "social issues"? If not, why not?

To approach the matter from another angle, let's say that we're 16th-century Spaniards arguing about policies pertaining to the treatment of natives in the Americas. Is it a "social issue" because some thinkers claim that the natives are natural slaves? Or let's say that we're early 20th-century Germans arguing about policies regarding the killing of the disabled. Is it a "social issue" because some thinkers claim that such human beings are "unworthy of life"? If so, then it seems that the label "social issue" tells us less about the issues themselves and more about the presence of wrongheaded philosophers.
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written by Dave, March 27, 2012
Prof Arkes writes, "What he charts in Europe and the United States is a receding of religion and a politics that is ever more detached from that moral ground of political life. That tradition has virtually died in Europe, and it survives in America mainly in the party that has become the home to pro-lifers." But it is dying in the GOP as well, and has been, for some time. The country club Republicans barely tolerate the social conservatives; W's long-time adviser and Public Ambassador Karen Hughes acknowledged that many would consider "our view of liberty to be libertinage," and was ok with that, as are many of her supporters and fans. Vast portions of the GOP are pro-choice, and on the other social issues they are as liberal -- permissive -- as the Other Party. Bush pulled back because in his heart of hearts --and maybe not so deep down, either -- he was a country club conservative more than anything else.

In addition, where are the theorists who have enunciated a coherent vision of moral life and ethical action around which Republicans can coalesce and offer a viable alternative to what's on offer now (I get it, you pay for it), instead of a slowed-down version of what the Other Party has on offer? CPAC certainly offers very little for the thoughtful. And where are the young people flocking to a galvanizing political leader, as they did with Reagan, as they did, even, for W, at least the first time around, and as they did for Obama? It's not so much that the politics has polarized as it is that the consensus around which the two parties revolved has crumbled and the Left has triumphed, at least for the moment.

As an educator Prof. Arkes is only too aware of the gutting of the curriculum that provided generations of students with the content and the analytic wherewithal to understand the history of politics, the uniqueness and defensibility of the American experiment, and the demands of the moral life. The Left has steadily and incessantly eroded at the ethical and historical understandings that made the West, the West; and young people have quickly figured out which side of that argument they need to espouse if they are to be credentialed and certified for the prestigious jobs with big salaries and social cache. They have largely bought into the hedonism and entitlement they have been taught all their lives are their birthrights as Americans, because it was taught to them by their parents and their educators. We are only one generation behind Europe; and, in some ways, we are already in worse shape, since we do not have the cultural depth or memory to withstand the technocratic onslaughts that await us here. Frankly right now I think our only hope lies in the Supreme Court, and while I have criticized W above, I thank him now for Chief Justice Roberts and for Justice Alito.

There is much work to be done, and little time to do it. I know this post sounds deeply pessimistic, but I think it is realistic: what would convince you that our civilization is not currently on the precipice of moral bankruptcy, if it isn't there already? And what would be a convincing strategy for pulling us back, fast, from the edge? I haven't seen it yet.
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written by Patrick K, March 27, 2012
jsmitty, does it matter what is popular, or what is true? The left pulls this all the time, always trying to portray themselves as fashionable and up-to-date. It's really just so much trendiness and shallow posturing.

These things can change very quickly. Who in 1949 would have predicted the huge changes to society over the next 40 years? In addition, I, personally, pretty much toed the Democratic party line (except for abortion) in my college years. To do otherwise would have felt incredibly outmoded and provincial.

As I've taken on more responsibilities and a more realistic view of things, I've come to see the wisdom of many positions that I once thought properly belonged to the paleolithic era or to an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" were actually the best way yet determined to come to grips with a fallen world. Rules which seemed draconian, now seem to be necessary, if in some ways regrettable, safeguards.

As Churchill said: "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains."
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written by Patrick K, March 27, 2012
Dave, you're just buying into the left's notion of historical inevitability. Yes, if you want to be a sociology professor or social worker it probably helps to lean left. That's because such people depend almost completely on the state for their livelihood. But most businesses don't have time for trendiness, which is the basic currency of the left, they want stable adults, not idealistic college students.

Europe is starting to swing back right. People are starting to come to their senses about the dictatorship of relativism. The more the left imposes their agenda, the more conservationism will come to be seen as something sorely lacking and therefore valuable. These things are cyclical.
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written by jsmitty, March 27, 2012
@Patrick

Yeah Patrick--if youre advocating a political strategy based on polarization---which is what this piece plainly argues--then yeah..um..it does make a pretty big difference whether your positions are popular. Arkes is not advocating "truth" here but what he considers smart politics.

His argument...and Bell's..basically polarization along cultural lines worked for conservatives in the 70's and 80's and supposedly in 2004 ergo it will work again today. But the argument is weak....the GOP was in the majority on many important issues before. Trouble is she isn't now. Polarization is a crazy electioneering strategy if your side is heavily outnumbered. It's suicide!! This is just reality.

The bigger question is how did traditional morality on homosexuality become a minority view?
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written by Dave, March 27, 2012
Patrick, that's good news, actually, if you're right -- and I hope you are. But most businesses don't have time for trendiness? They make their money creating it and catering to it. And major businesses are every bit in agreement with the social agendas to which we are objecting. Where do you think the kids go for the swanky, high-paying jobs? Where do you think we get the jargon that passes for thought?

I am taking my clues from our Holy Father's remarks on the dictatorship of relativism. This is what the Left has been sowing in this country, and in Europe, for a long, long time; and I would want to be sure that a renascent right in Europe is something more than a recrudescent xenophobia before I would be convinced that Europe is starting to swing back. The churches there are still empty, and the birthrates in most Western European democracies are below population replacement levels. That's not sociology or social work: those are the facts of the situation.

The facts here are that when certain groups of young people are presented the opportunity to live the Catholic Faith in all its fulness, they do embrace it, and they form healthy families with more than 2.1 children. They comprise a nucleus of hope. But the nucleus is small and larger numbers of young people -- under 30 -- are wholesale supporters of the Left's social philosophy: they buy the whole nine yards. And the number of adults who worship weekly is on the decline. Those, too, are the facts of the situation.

Was that historically inevitable? No, it wasn't: it was the result of indifference and irresponsibility on the part of many engaged in the education and formation of young people. It was the result of people accepting that "the spirit of the Council" allowed them to relax the demands of the Faith, especially in the moral sphere. It was the result of people believing that they did "deserve a break today." And so while the cultural Huns were on the attack, there were too few defending the walls.

If the GOP wins the November elections I'll be happy to say I've been entirely too pessimistic, on the proviso there is data that shows young people too opted for a Republican/conservative vision. The Republican Party hardly seems capable of raising up a candidate who is equal to the task.

On a larger and more important scale, however, "we wrestle not against flesh and blood," St. Paul tells us in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and our Faith tells us how the story ends. But there is a lot of ground to be covered between here and there. Can things change quickly? "With God, nothing is impossible." But I think it more prudent to take a sober assessment of our situation. God could raise up the right candidate, and God could act in history such that people turn freely to Him once again. We should ask for these things. But they don't happen often, and Prof. Arkes has noted in his column the weakness of the putatively pro-life party. And again, we have the springtime of the New Evangelization before us, as Pope Bl. John Paul II told us all the time. But before we get to the springtime, we have to get through the winter: I'm not so sanguine that it's over or that we have already seen the worst of it. I don't think that's a caving to leftist historical inevitability. I think that's reading the signs of the times.
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written by Patrick K, March 27, 2012
jsmitty, I'm not so sure that social conservatism (not "conservationism" as I said in a comment above, thanks, spell-checker!) is quite as unpopular as you think. I haven't read Bell's book. But, I'd bet there are many people who oppose gay "marriage," but are afraid of saying so because they fear being labelled "intolerant," "out-of-date," etc. The left controls the media right now.

As Arkes says, what is needed is "a way of showing ordinary people how they can talk in public." Despite its popularity, the Democrats' social agenda rests largely on emotion. Permitting gay "marriage" feels good -- you don't hate gays, do you? Psychologists have shown that generosity, whether merited or not, feels good, and rule enforcement, whether just or not, doesn't.

If this manipulative tyranny of manners can be exposed precisely, if the Republicans can force the Democrats into a real debate on "social" issues, a debate based on logic and evidence and not on feeling or fear of giving offense, then I think it could work in their benefit. Again, the left's social agenda is not as popular as they think. New York and Los Angeles exert a disproportionate influence on the public consciousness.

As long as the Republicans can formulate a very clear and precise defense of social conservatism, and do so with a light touch, many swing voters will be attracted to them over the party that relies on emotion and trendiness.
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written by Tony Esolen, March 27, 2012
The majority view is now a tolerance of licentiousness, and within that pale, homosexual actions are allowed their leeway as part of the price it costs to purchase the licentiousness. But I doubt I will ever meet a single heterosexual father of a son who would not, most vigorously, attempt to protect that son from temptations toward homosexuality. No heterosexual father of a son is anything near neutral on this issue.

Some heterosexual mothers, however -- women who have no "man" about them but their boy -- may secretly prefer to give her son to an effeminate man than to another woman, thinking that she won't lose the boy but at worst gain another boy; better to be the only woman in the boy's life than to have to see him transfer his masculine attention to another female. It isn't a nice thing, but I do believe it happens once in a while.
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written by Hadley Arkes, March 28, 2012
I'm afraid that, in a moment rare for this website, I'm appalled by some of the readings I've seen here. No, Mr. Smitty, at no time in my writings over 30 years have I sought to urge a course of "smart politics" that is disconnected from a rightful end--meaning of course a true and rightful end. That he would impart such a reading that isn't there is a reflection perhaps of something at work within him--it is not contained in that piece or in anything I write.

And for the writer who said that Lincoln's situation was strikingly different because forces were at work: Lincoln faced precisely the same problem of leading people to a willingness to address the central moral question, which ran to the very heart of the character of the American regime and the ground of our freedom. The resistance to having that conversation was massive--as it is whenever you find issues of justice running deep and making some people deeply uncomfortable. As I said, it is the enduring task of statecraft--for the true statesman--to induce the public to focus on the questions that really run to the core, to those terms of principle on which we would live.

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written by Dan Kennedy, March 28, 2012
"...the Republicans have failed to cultivate any art or confidence in arguing these issues." Perfect diagnosis, Hadley!
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 28, 2012
Tony:

"The majority view is now a tolerance of licentiousness, and within that pale, homosexual actions are allowed their leeway as part of the price it costs to purchase the licentiousness. But I doubt I will ever meet a single heterosexual father of a son who would not, most vigorously, attempt to protect that son from temptations toward homosexuality. No heterosexual father of a son is anything near neutral on this issue."

This may or may not be the case. I am tempted to agree with you that it may be the case for a majority of dogmatically heterosexual men (that is, heterosexual men who view heterosexuality as the only morally licit sexuality); however, it complete ignores the quite obvious category of fathers who are heterosexual but do not believe homosexuality to be morally illicit and/or fathers who believe that the harm done by attempting to coerce the boy towards the desired sexuality might outweigh any good done by such coercion.

"Some heterosexual mothers, however -- women who have no "man" about them but their boy -- may secretly prefer to give her son to an effeminate man than to another woman, thinking that she won't lose the boy but at worst gain another boy; better to be the only woman in the boy's life than to have to see him transfer his masculine attention to another female. It isn't a nice thing, but I do believe it happens once in a while."

I must say, this renders me almost wordless; the grotesquely caricatured portrait of the needy, dependent woman - a perfect counterpart for your previous image of the virile, heterosexual, domineering male who we might imagine eschews those qualities which might be tainted by hints of femininity - is paired with your assertion that she manipulates her son's sexuality for the sake of her selfish, womanly neediness. We go from the image of the pure guardian male to the conniving and deceiving woman - can anything be less sympathetic to reality?
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written by jsmitty, March 28, 2012
I think you've misunderstood my meaning Dr. Arkes. I'm not arguing that you've disconnected your politics from the rightful end. I know your writing well enough to know that precisely the opposite is true.

But behind your piece and the book that you cite lies the assumption that if only we could find someone with the courage to articulate the hard truths of social conservatism in the face of the inevitable media and academic pop culture onslaught that the right people would once again win elections and do the right thing once in office. Unlike Bush I and II who compromised for the sake of smart politics. And this I think is an illusion.

The precedents that you and your source cite are mostly from the Reagan era, which came about solely because of the gross mismanagement of liberalism from 1965-80.

Moreover what lasting good came from earlier the social conservative triumphs anyway? Not nothing‼ But very little I would say given the amount of energy expended on their behalf.

Mostly it did not stop the social equilibrium from shifting. Things like gay marriage that would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago now have established themselves as the majority position. The GOP dominance of the last 40 years in which social conservatism played a big role, might have delayed this and might have exacted a heavy electoral toll on the democrats in the meantime... But it didn't prevent it from happening.

Which is why I think it would be more honest to face the choices before us. Nominate RIck Santorum who will fearlessly articulate truths on abortion, birth control gay marriage etc pushing the politics of polarization to the max...who will lose 40 states but do so in the hope that his defeat rather than being the last whimper of the old guard will lay the groundwork for a victory later. Or nominate a moderate who will hopefully cobble together 50% plus 1 while the position of social conservatives gradually deteriorates.

I don't think in other words that there will be another Reagan..or Lincoln this time to save us.
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written by Dave, March 29, 2012
Jsmitty, I think you've been hitting the nail on the head: I too doubt there will be another Reagan or Lincoln this time around. Consider that the GOP Establishment is rallying now behind Romney, the quintessential manager whose own Romneycare is all but ruining healthcare in MA and leaving people to flee the state in droves, while he still insists it was right for MA. Too, do we have an electorate that would vote for a Reagan or Lincoln were one to arise? Again I return to my comments on the evisceration of education: I doubt there is a sufficient number of voters who would respond to the message of a Reagan or a Lincoln. Bob Royals wrote some time ago in a column of his, much is lost, and much is being lost every day. Those words are still true.

Patrick K, see my second post: none of this was inevitable. But we face the situation we have, not the one we may have wanted.
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written by Gail Finke, March 31, 2012
An interesting post with a lot of great points. Where is ANYONE in politics who can articulate these things? My fear is that we won't get such a person. Instead, things will get worse socially, politically, and perhaps in some sort of disaster (war, economic collapse, etc.) until people are forced from necessity to go back to what really works and what really matters. But the damage will be horrific, far worse than the invisible damage to families and human persons now.

The bizarre refusal on the part of many people today to accept reality frightens me. They refuse to believe that there is a reality, that things have their own fundamental natures, that things even have their own definitions -- they believe they can redefine anything they want to any way they want to, and it will just work out. Because people have been wrong in the past about issues such as slavery and race, and because (as Tony says) they want their own licentiousness and the price is allowing every else theirs, they refuse to deny anyone anything.

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