Although my wife and I gave up our cable television subscription when we returned from Rome in mid-April, there was no way even we could avoid the news of the cosmetic transformations of Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner. Now insisting on being called “Caitlyn,” Jenner is already well on his way to fulfilling his decades-long dream of living life as a woman, as the recent pictorial and story in Vanity Fair clearly shows.
It is difficult to believe that it has been nearly forty years, when, as a 15-year old aspiring athlete growing up in Las Vegas, I sat riveted to the television screen watching the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. It was there, at the height of the Cold War and with the stings of Watergate and the Vietnam War still fresh in the American consciousness, that Jenner won the gold medal for Team USA in the decathlon. Given the circumstances of those days, Jenner’s victory was an incredible boost for an American public that had lost so much of its national confidence over the previous decade (with the Apollo moon missions providing a welcomed respite).
In the year following the Montreal Olympics, NASA launched its two interstellar Voyager probes. Their purpose was “to extend the NASA exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence, and possibly beyond.” Just in case one of the probes were discovered by an alien race, each carries a time capsule that includes “a phonograph record – a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.” It was “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials.” In the section of the record labeled “Scenes from Earth” is a drawing by Jon Lomberg, “Diagram of male and female.”
Although both the scientists at NASA as well as the general public knew of individuals like Jenner – the story of Christine Jorgenson, for example, was widely publicized – they harbored no doubt that human beings by nature were male or female. This is not to say that there were not (as there are today) individuals who are intersex, which refers to a variety of conditions “where there is a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals (the testes and ovaries).” (Jenner, by the way, is biologically male and not intersex; he refers to himself as “transgender.”)
Because these conditions are the result of a flaw in one’s development – hence, they are called “disorders of sexual development” – the existence of intersex individuals, however tragic, no more counts against the claim that humans are sexually binary than the existence of Thalidomide babies born without legs counts against the claim that human beings are by nature two-legged.
What then has changed since the year NASA offered to extraterrestrial space-faring explorers an account of the human story that at the time seemed mundanely uncontroversial? Nothing really, for the empirical question was never in dispute. As I have already noted, it was common knowledge that some people underwent sex-change operations, and that there were phenomena that we now categorize as intersex. It was also no secret at the time that there were men and women who desired to wear, and some of whom did indeed wear, the conventional clothing of the opposite sex while displaying the mannerisms often associated with each.
What has changed is a fundamental reorientation of how we are required by an array of cultural mandarins to look at nature, and human nature in particular. Although the societies of modern Western democracies, such as the United States, were shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, including its denial of teleology in nature, their civil and subsidiary institutions, up until very recently, still retained that understanding in their traditions and practices, largely informed by the inherited religious beliefs of their citizenries. As long as governments allowed these institutions to flourish with little interference, the tensions inherent in the West’s philosophical bipolarity were held in check.
With the rise of the administrative and regulatory state and the diminishing of strong traditional religious beliefs and practices among the general populace, however, what seemed like a stable and liberal truce has come to be seen as an intolerable injustice by the descendants of the Robespierrian wing of the Enlightenment.
This is because the teleological understanding of human nature – that there are basic goods to which a human being is ordered and that there are real virtues to which we ought to aspire – is fundamentally at odds with the view that had been restrained but is now in ascendancy, that there is no summum bonum against which an individual’s preference satisfactions can be legitimately measured or judged.
As for Bruce Jenner, I will always remember him as that great Olympic hero of my youth, who, for that small sliver of time in the summer of 1976, helped renew in his countrymen a confidence that had been absent from our polity for far too long. It was that same confidence, ironically, that inspired those idealistic space pioneers who launched the Voyager probes that contained within them the truths of human nature, which Mr. Jenner now suggests, by his engineered metamorphosis, we should doubt.
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