Pottersville, U.S.A. Print
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 18 January 2012

During a recent debate among candidates for the Republican nomination for president, one of the members of the media asked what has been decried as an absurd question. It was not about a massive health care bill, whose details were quite unknown to the very senators and congressmen who voted on it. It was not about American tax law, whose tendrils and curlicues are describable only by a judicious application of chaos theory. It was not about the American army attempting to make the world safe for – we aren’t sure. It was about whether in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court was right to remove from the states all authority to regulate contraceptive devices and drugs.

Apparently, it is a question to arouse contemptuous laughter, whether one is an extreme statist with the false name of liberal, or a moderate statist with the false name of conservative. It is as if the nation were now basking in the warm benevolent glow of the sexual revolution; Marriages are stronger than ever before, and divorce is almost unheard of; Children grow up knowing both mother and father, within the fostering shelter of committed love; Abortion is considered a scandal. 

Or as if popular culture has shed its harshness and sullenness, and delights in works of grace, sweetness, reverence, modesty, and nobility; Poets and philosophers  raise our eyes to eternal truths; We have among us the vibrant good cheer and pungent satire of many a Chaucer, the human breadth of many a Shakespeare, and the profound learning of many a Dante. Men have never sung sunnier songs about the beauty and the purity of good women, and never have women accepted in good humored gratitude the sometimes madcap excellence of men. 

Oh – none of that is true?

In this once-democratic nation, voters are considered as possessing worthy opinions on tax, trade, monetary, foreign, and other policies about which very few have any great expertise, but are not capable of determining the customs and laws by which they must order their marriages and families. Every man and woman of more than meager intellect knows a great deal about the sexes and about children, but what they might have to say about those cannot determine the law. 

Why not? Because nine men in Washington said so. In other words, the single thing most determinative of what sort of culture a people will possess, and the single thing about which most people can be relied upon to have an informed opinion, is snatched from democratic purview, and not even by theologians or philosophers, but by a handful of upper-class lawyers.


Allow me an analogy. Imagine a small self-contained society. Call it Bedford Falls where Mr. Potter dwells. He  wants to make money. He isn’t young, himself, in body or in soul, but he knows young people are often beset by powerful sexual temptations. Mr. Potter wishes to “capitalize” upon those temptations and open a strip club on Main Street.

Potter has two choices. He can try to persuade the aldermen. But he sees that he will run into problems. For one, if “good” signifies the common good, then he will lose. The strip club would not serve the common good, and Potter knows it. It would undermine public morals and vitiate marriage. It would coarsen the popular culture.  Most determined to fight the club would be the poor folks who live on or near Main Street.

So instead, Mr. Potter argues that democracy implies the freedom to open strip clubs. He does not, of course, argue for the freedom to marry three women at once, because that would be counterproductive. Instead he cloaks his proposal in libertarian garb, trusting that the illuminati, who don’t think much of ordinary people without law degrees and mortarboards, will take the bait. It is a work rich in irony. Under the name of liberty, he robs the people of one of their most precious liberties – perhaps the liberty without which all others degenerate into license: a people’s liberty to rule themselves by the folkways of culture and the guardrails of law. 

So Mr. Potter gets his strip club. Bedford Falls does not remain the same. The people grow used to it. They start to laugh at the old fogeys who once objected. Of course, they also laugh at the belief that a marriage vow is a vow, and not a quaint sort-of-promise made for the sake of form. And they laugh that there were once certain things that honorable men and women did not do. 

But there isn’t a lot of mirth in that laughter. There can’t be, because Bedford Falls is not a pleasant place anymore. For the same reasoning that gave the town a strip club also gave it a porno shop, five divorce attorneys, thirteen teachers living lives of flagrant immorality and dissipation, childless marriages and fatherless children, a wholesale confusion over what men and women are supposed to be, in themselves and for one another, and eventually a popular anticulture by default.

Bedford Falls has had to accept the sexual revolution tout court.  So Bedford Falls is now a place perched on the edge of a moral landfill, whose inhabitants are so accustomed to the bad air, they no longer much notice. They have lost the very idea of the wholesome. Still worse, there isn’t a Bedford Falls anymore. There cannot be. There is no sacred tradition left to unite the people with their forebears. There is no sacred oath to unite the sexes, fractious as they often are. There is no shared moral code, but instead an incoherent mess of proscriptions and duties whose anchoring in an identifiable human good no one any longer understands, mingled with the diktats of an ever more devouring stare.  Bedford Falls is just a geographical and political fiction. And this, dear readers, is what is known as progress.

Anthony Esolen
is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is
Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

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