Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Deconstruct Heterosexuality"? Say what?

This extremely poor post at First Things blog ought to require no response, just because it is so very, very wrongheaded. It ought to suffice to say that the author, one Michael Hannon, suggests (I hesitate to say "argues") that we should "deconstruct heterosexuality," that is to say, that we should cease to believe that being heterosexual, which most of us would call having normal attraction to the opposite sex, is a real part of individual human identity at all, much less that it is per se healthy and normative. His suggestions are festooned about with many silly statements about the history of mankind, apparently garnered from academic "queer theory." Shouldn't that brief synopsis (if you must read it, I think you will see that it is accurate) be enough to cause at least any Christian conservative to conclude that the article is completely confused and not worth his time? You would like to think. Unfortunately, one of my at least somewhat conservative Facebook friends linked to the piece with apparent approval while another on-line conservative friend sent the link to me by e-mail with explicit approval. Talk about "deceiving even the elect"! I would have ignored it after the first, but I was rather shocked by the second incident of approval. And hey, I wrote so much to the second person in e-mail that I figured it was a good opportunity to put up my criticisms here on my somewhat neglected personal blog. With additions. Because this article is so bad, so wrongheaded, that I keep thinking of more things to say.

Now, I've not really had a lot of respect for the First Things blog qua entity for a long time. They have a huge stable of writers who say all kinds of things and are all over the map--the good, the bad, and the ugly. They've become rather enamored lately of what is known as the "new homophile" movement, which would have been enough to lose my respect all by itself. Blogger Joshua Gonnerman is an example. The idea of that movement, speaking broadly, is that homosexual identity is somehow a good thing, a kind of gift, really, bestowing special insights and stuff on those who have it, as long as you are chaste and don't lust. And that people who so identify shouldn't be asked to give up their identity or think of it as "identifying themselves with their temptations to sin." Even though the "new homophiles" are mostly (all?) Roman Catholic, they get pretty uneasy when one uses the Catholic Church's designation of "intrinsically disordered" for their desires.

In that context, one might regard this piece by Hannon as a kind of counterweight. Hannon is explicit in rejecting homosexuality as an identity, and one of his reasons is that very reason--namely, that we shouldn't identify ourselves with our inclinations to sin. Hannon is also concerned about the fact that young people agonize (as they shouldn't have to) over what their sexual identity is, whether they might "be gay." He is bothered by the fact that homosexual identity is treated as innate and immutable and that young people are now nervous about developing close friendships with members of the same sex lest this mean that they "are gay." With all of these concerns I agree, and that's probably the last good thing you'll see me say here about Hannon's piece, because that's all that is good about it.

The concerns about exposing young people to the idea that they "might be gay" and the harm that this does to them, including to their friendships, have been explored far more eloquently by Anthony Esolen, here, for instance. Esolen has also trenchantly answered the "new homophiles" here without any trendy nonsense about deconstructing anything, and certainly not deconstructing heterosexuality, of all things!

Hannon, either because his head has been addled by reading queer theory or because he wants to be even-handed, or maybe both, is not willing to stop at saying that homosexuality should not be regarded as a part of personal identity. He must go on (as the title of his post attests) to say that neither should heterosexuality. In fact, he informs us quite seriously that the concept of heterosexuality was invented in the late 1800's. In the 1860's, to be exact. As an historical thesis, this has all the virtues that "things fall up" has as a scientific thesis. (Hannon apparently got the claim from Michel Foucault, that fount of accurate, unbiased historical information and model of intellectual rigor and clarity.) Let's not quibble about words. I make no etymological claims about when the word "heterosexuality" was invented, because I don't know. I'm pretty sure I'd never heard the word before my own adulthood, which was long after the 1860's. But the concept that it is normal and healthy for men to desire women and for women to desire men, that, indeed, these normal and healthy desires are part of the very cement of all human society, and that part of being a normal man or a normal woman is having an "orientation," a telic attraction, toward the opposite sex, making that orientation part of one's normal individual identity, is as old as mankind, as old as the day when the Lord God said, "It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him an helpmeet."

Or listen to St. Paul:
For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. (Romans 1:26-27)

See that part about "vile affections" and what is "against nature" as opposed to the "natural use of the woman"? That, my friends, is the "gay-straight divide" which Hannon tells us was an invention of the 1860's. The "natural use of the woman" is what a sexually healthy man desires. That which is "against nature" is what homosexuals desire. It's really very simple. And it wasn't invented in the 1860's.

St. Paul's identification of heterosexual intercourse as being natural looks like the sort of "heteronormativity" that Hannon wants us to reject. Perhaps Hannon should lecture St. Paul to the effect that such heteronormativity creates "pride" and "pathetically uncritical and unmerited self-assurance." But all such sophistical rhetoric does nothing to change the one paralyzing fact: Homosexual desires and acts are not only contrary to chastity, they are also contrary to nature. Normal heterosexual intercourse may well be (in specific instances) a sin against chastity but is not a sin against nature. No amount of talk-talk and worry about heterosexual "pride" can change the fact that there is a fundamental asymmetry between heterosexuality and homosexuality. The former is a gift, God's created engine for the perpetuation of the human race and for the generation of much love and beauty. The latter is a perverted and tragic disorder.

And what pernicious nonsense Hannon talks about pride and heterosexuality:
But heterosexuality, in its pretensions to act as the norm for assessing our sexual customs, is marked by something even worse: pride, which St. Thomas Aquinas classifies as the queen of all vices.
Please. So imagine a mother whose daughters have always, since childhood, noticed handsome and/or charming men. Imagine a father whose son has blushed over the beauty of women. Suppose that this mother and this father regard their children's inclinations as part of a beautiful, natural, God-given plan for the world. Suppose that they regard themselves as stewards whose job it is to guide these natural, powerful, God-given instincts in the right direction, their job to bestow, in fear and trembling and with God's help, wisdom and guidance upon these budding young women and young men. Is this pride? Is it pride for the children themselves to believe these things about the naturalness of their own feelings? Far from it.

Imagine that we were beset with a dirt-eating activist contingent in our society who tried to make out that eating dirt is normal. Would it be anything other than nonsense on stilts to chide those who say, "The desire to eat food is normal. The desire to eat dirt is deviant and disordered" for fostering pride by such declarations of obvious truth?

Now, someone might say, Hannon wants us to emphasize married sexuality rather than heterosexuality as the norm. What could be the problem with that? Since it is set expressly in opposition to the normalizing of heterosexual desire, lots and lots. First of all, if we ditch the very concept of heterosexuality as a natural, telic orientation in anyone who isn't married, how is anybody ever going to get married? Call me over-literalistic if you will, but it's important to remember as one reads heady talk like Hannon's about "deconstructing heterosexuality" and about how "heterosexuality blinds us to sin" that if unmarried people didn't have heterosexual desires they would never become married people! If churches and other organizations didn't regard heterosexuality as normal and natural, they would have no reason to provide, for example, opportunities for young people to get to know each other and hopefully meet mates and get married.

Girls need to be given a picture of themselves as girls and boys as boys during their whole lives, from long before they are actually married, and part of that picture is the understanding and expectation that, in due time, they will be attracted to members of the opposite sex and that this is perfectly natural. Nor is this sort of gradual heterosexual self-awareness appropriate solely in relation to the one and only one person they will actually marry. It need not be a case of lust for young women to notice men, including men they know they are never going to marry, and to recognize that they find those men attractive or unattractive, to evaluate and even analyze those instinctive attractions, to decide, for example, when they are wise or unwise. And the same mutatis mutandis for young men. To hold, as Hannon urges us to hold, that attraction to the opposite sex should not be considered an important part of one's normal and innate identity any more than same-sex attraction is is a psychologically dangerous thesis. Adopting it would be utterly disastrous for parenthood. For this reason alone it is to be hoped that Christian parents completely reject Hannon's misguided advice if they should happen to read it. The solution to the tragedy of children who agonize over their sexual identity is not the deconstruction of heterosexuality but rather a "heteronormativity" so absolute as to be beyond doubt or question, a "heteronormativity" that gives children a secure background against which to set themselves and in which to grow up.

Here is another point: In general the relations of the sexes are part of what makes the world beautiful and interesting. When a gentleman holds a door for a lady or even compliments her respectfully on her appearance or when a lady dresses nicely because there will be gentlemen present at some meeting, this is all entirely good and appropriate as far as it goes. The parties need not be married to one another at all. Certainly such recognition of the presence of members of the opposite sex and appreciation of them, even of their physical attractiveness, can descend into crudity and lust, but it need not do so. None of us should want to live in an androgynous world. Nor should we be reacting to our own pornified world by trying to turn all male-female interactions into androgynous interactions unless they are between people actually married to one another. So, no: Gender identity and even sexual identity cannot and should not be confined solely to "married identity," and heterosexual identity in these areas is normal whereas homosexual identity is not. That is one of the places where the "new homophiles" err. They want to create some space, for homosexuals, for a category such as I have just described for innocent heterosexual appreciation. There is no such space, however, precisely because homosexuality is intrinsically disordered.

A central fallacy of Hannon's post consists in the strenuous attempt to treat homosexual inclinations and heterosexual inclinations as on a par. In this Hannon actually agrees with the "new homophiles." They, like him, want to treat homosexual desires in a similar way (as much as possible) to the way one treats heterosexual desires. Their solution is to treat homosexual desires as, somehow, a positive thing, a gift, and part of one's identity. That puts them to some degree (except that they must not be acted upon) on a par with heterosexual desires. Hannon, too, wants to treat the two even-handedly, yet his solution is to say that neither is a normal part of identity and that any identification of oneself in connection with one's sexuality merely blinds one to sin. What neither group is willing to do is to recognize the absolutely fundamental asymmetry between heterosexual and homosexual desires. The reason that the former are a normal part of identity is because they are really part of nature, really part of God's design for the world. Masculinity and feminity are important aspects of reality, and our recognition and celebration of them is an important part of being human. The reason that homosexual desires are an unhealthy source of identity is because they are disordered. Identifying oneself as intrinsically "a homosexual" really is identifying oneself with one's inclinations to sin. This is not so for being heterosexual.

It may be replied to all of this that I am just out of touch with the world of 2014 and don't understand the extreme perversions of "heterosexuality" that many people are being exposed to and developing a horrible taste for--e.g., via pornography. This ain't the 1950's, so maybe we shouldn't celebrate heterosexual desire. No, dear reader, I assure you. Though I do indeed try to follow the injunction of Philippians 4:8 to think on whatsoever things are pure, lovely, and of good report, I am indeed aware that people can be inclined to genuine perversions which happen to be carried out with members of the opposite sex. Even without going into any lurid detail, one can see this merely by considering that a pedophile man may desire little girls.

What, then? Is the solution to this to reject or deny the beauty of natural attraction between the sexes and of the natural recognition of the attractiveness of the opposite sex? God forbid. If anything, we need more and more attempts to resurrect that old world and that old vision. Hence, my deliberately dated references above to relations between ladies and gentlemen in public situations.

Moreover, to go back to Hannon's post, how does the existence of sexual perversions involving males with females support Hannon's thesis that heterosexuality should be "deconstructed" and that its "deconstruction" is an "opportunity" for Christians? In short, it doesn't support it one smidgen. Since God did indeed make men and women and did indeed intend them for one another, since normal heterosexual desires are indeed natural, Hannon's denial of "heteronormativity" is just flat wrong. No amount of twisting or perversion of the sexual instinct on the part of (some of) those who are not homosexuals can possibly change the fact that he is wrong. It simply does not follow from the fact that there are unhealthy urges and acts involving members of the opposite sex that there are no healthy urges and acts. Indeed, the only healthy human sexual urges and acts are between two people who are members of opposite sexes. If Hannon thinks it is "prideful" to point that out and to recognize it in society, then he just has a war on with reality.

I would go so far as to say that for Christians, who have both general and special revelation at their disposal, to join in "deconstructing heterosexuality" as Hannon suggests is so badly confused and so wildly irresponsible as to be actually sinful. Such a "deconstruction" can only do harm, not good. Let us join in promoting "heteronormativity" in every venue where we can, and most of all in our homes.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"I need it" doesn't mean "is a basic human need"

Time for an economics post, as some slight attempted atonement for my neglect of my personal blog. (I have to some degree kept up posting during the same period at What's Wrong With the World, so be sure to check in there from time to time.)

Oh, digression before I even get started: If you love J.R.R. Tolkien and/or are skeptical of movie versions of great works of literature, or if you are interested in how to make a work of fantasy utterly stupid, do not miss John C. Wright's takedown of the most recent Peter Jackson hobbit movie. I had no intention of seeing the movie anyway, but reading Wright's review is worthwhile even if you never see the movie. In fact, it'll probably prevent you from ever wanting to, and reading it will be a better use of your time than going to the movie. Sometimes I have to admit that Wright is a little too wordy, but this time it was fine, just fine. He could go on at length with no complaint from me, because he was just so darned funny. Though "lol" has become an overused Internet pseudo-word, in this case I really did laugh out loud, repeatedly. Warning: Pictures of mostly unclad girl warriors included in the post. They are part of Wright's satiric comment on the movie's gratuitous inclusion of an inauthentic, not-in-the-book warrior elf chick. Not that John C. Wright needs much excuse, mind you, to include pictures of scantily clad girl warriors. He does it in other posts sometimes apparently just for its own sake. Anyway, tolle lege, and enjoy.

Now, moving on to my own post...

It makes sense to me to say that, if some society or country frequently faces famines in which large numbers of its citizens starve to death, there is probably something wrong with that country's economy. It doesn't absolutely have to be something morally wrong. It could be some vast failure of prudence caused by stupidity. It could be a well-intentioned ideology that actually creates shortages. We all know people whose economic sense appears to be nil but who aren't actually bad. Some country might be run by such people. On the other hand, there might be moral wrong behind the problem--graft, corruption, theft, anarchy. In general, if a country has the rule of law and a sensible economic system, especially in the 21st century, most people will be able to have the bare necessities of life in that country, either by means of working, by means of being supported by relatives, or by means of accepting charity or government aid.

But we must distinguish those extremely vague and harmless comments from the proposition that, if I need x, even if I genuinely do need x in order to survive, x should be fairly readily affordable for me. It depends entirely on what x is. If I have a rare disorder that means that I will die if I don't have weekly blood transfusions, then maybe my society isn't rich enough that I can get that without extraordinary economic help. Suppose that I need some expensive medication in order to survive. It doesn't follow from the fact that I need it that, if that medication is expensive and I may not be able to afford it, "something is wrong." I don't have a cause of grievance against society for not meeting my "basic needs" or making sure that I have what I "need to live" if there are difficulties with obtaining that medication. Someone in such a situation may have to accept charity. He may turn to government assistance. He may have to work at a job that he very much dislikes or take on extra hours.

All of this is just a concrete instance of the old TANSTAAFL--there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. But it's perhaps easy, especially for young people who don't seem to have been taught TANSTAAFL, to equate "Joe needs this" with "Joe is entitled to this" or "something must be terribly wrong if Joe might not be able to get this." In our highly technological and immensely rich Western society, we often expect a great deal of our healthcare system. Got psychological problems? There's an OCD medicine for that, and oh, by the way, insurance will pay for your therapist. Got digestive problems? "Somebody" should provide Prilosec or Nexium. At risk for blood clot? Your insurance will pay for Coumadin. And so on and so forth. Sometimes, as in the case of heart ailments or stroke risk, these really are life-saving medications. But nobody is entitled to the medicines just because they are life-saving. The fact that they are live-saving really has very little to do with the question of how much they "should" cost. Indeed, it is highly dubious that we have any good grip on the meaning of the question, "How much should this heart medication cost?" Does it even have a meaning? Is the meaning moral or economic? If economic, what reason do we have to believe that the current cost is skewed or distorted from some norm?

This last question actually does have an answer: Insurance and other third-party payments (e.g., Medicare) have a strong tendency to drive up costs and drive down competition. For decades our healthcare system has been moving to more and more third-party payers, and Obamacare is making matters even worse. Fee-for-service tends in general to keep costs down. (Ask yourself sometime why body work on your car is so expensive in contrast to mechanical work. I submit that part of the reason is that a lot of bodywork is paid for by auto insurance after accidents and that this has warped the market.) So we can guess that many medications would be cheaper if they had from the outset been paid for by people themselves (that means you and me, dear reader) out of their own pockets and if competition had been allowed to drive the price down.

But there are several problems with deriving from those facts any strong conclusions such as, "My Nexium ought to be less expensive. Someone is doing something wrong, or my society is badly messed up, if it's more expensive than I think it should be." First of all, there's the small matter of patenting. One of the few actually constitutional things our federal government does is to issue patents, a function given to it by the founding Fathers. If the first company that put in gazillions of dollars in research and development is going to recoup that huge investment, it needs to be able to have exclusive rights at least for a time to its intellectual property. After that time the generics come in like the Light Brigade, and prices generally come down. During the time that the initial company has exclusive distribution rights, there won't be any competition for the sale of that product, and the cost will be high so that the company can recoup its R & D costs. In other words, it has to be made worth the company's while to develop the medicine or the medicine just won't exist in the first place. People who look only to production costs when they make airy statements about how much medicine "should" cost neglect the research end. They neglect also the fact that the pharmaceutical companies may be helping to pay for their development of some other medication (which will save somebody else's life) by what they charge for your medication. Nor is there anything wrong with that.

Second, if we really did go to more of a fee-for-service model, there would be an extremely tough market correction, and it would take some time. Medical costs would not drop like a stone overnight, and in the meanwhile a lot more people, faced with paying out of pocket, would face a lot of difficult decisions and would have to forego a lot of things that they think they need. Many hospitals might just go out of business. Once the economy has become addicted to bad economic practices, the withdrawal can be unimaginably painful.

Third, to the extent that R & D and production costs have been covered by an inflationary economy and by third-party payments, some medications might simply go off the market altogether. It would be foolhardy to say that one knows that one's own medicine would continue to exist and would just fall to a more affordable price if "all were as it should be." The fact is that you simply don't know if the pharmaceutical company would continue to consider it worth its while to make the medicine, or what the natural, uninflated price would be if it did.

So even though we do have reason to believe that medical costs are artificially inflated, it doesn't follow that we know what the landscape would look like if those artificial price supports were removed. We should be especially cautious when it comes to predictions about specific products.

Notice in any event that none of this has anything whatsoever to do with the fact that some people need x medicine to survive. "Affordable" cost simply doesn't track necessity, especially not when the urgent demand comes from a relatively small percentage of the population. Everybody needs food to survive, so there's a booming and competitive market for food. A lot fewer people need Lovenox.

My more economically savvy readers may think that all of this is so obvious as not to need to be said, but listen around next time you hear some far less savvy young people talk about what people "should have" and what people "need" and what things "should cost." You might get a surprise. Nobody has, apparently, ever explained to these people that neither money nor pharmaceuticals nor fully-trained doctors grow on trees. It's just an astonishing thing, but the fairies don't distribute goods and services.

Be sure you discuss these things with your kids explicitly. Children are compassionate, and their compassionate natures can easily be manipulated by those who will tell them that things "should be different" without any clear idea of what that means. Moreover, children tend to be somewhat self-centered (so do human beings in general), and when a compassionate person is himself in need, if he has had no good economic training, he might well be tempted to say, "It shouldn't be so hard to get this. This is what I need. It shouldn't be so expensive. The whole world ought to be different!" Sound childish? Well, yes, I'm afraid it does sound childish, but then, economic liberalism is childish and all too easy to fall into.

Teach 'em TANSTAAFL young, and then teach them, in true bourgeois fashion, to apply it to themselves: "No, honey, we can't afford that." Even if they really do need something, it doesn't follow that it will be magically and painlessly provided, with no struggle, discomfort, or embarrassment to themselves. Indeed, it may not be provided at all. Sometimes, life's just tragic like that, and all men are mortal.

A conservative view of the world is a view that recognizes limitation. This applies, alas, even to some things that some people need.

Monday, February 03, 2014

A Ken Medema sampler

Over the years here at Extra Thoughts I have repeatedly mentioned blind pianist and singer Ken Medema. He was big in the Midwest in the 1970's. Ken has a talent for piano improvisation and for livening up or rewriting hymns. For a long time you couldn't find his older stuff anywhere on-line, and as I look over old posts that mention him, that complaint comes up frequently. That has gradually ceased to be the case on the music playing site Grooveshark, and I'd like to share several of his numbers here.

First, "Someday," which is the hymn "Saved By Grace." I wrote about its words here. The original author of the lyrics, Fanny Crosby, was also blind. Ken gives it a new tune.

Someday the Silver Cord Will Break by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

Here's a fun jazzy number called "Sonshiny Day" that should pick you up if you happen to be feeling blue during this long, dark winter.

Sonshiny Day (high quality) by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

This next one turns up on Christian radio at Christmas time for some reason. I think it must be because of the line about the newborn baby. I would say the newborn baby is the narrator's own baby.

Symphony of Praise by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

"Lead the Way" is, in my opinion, a particularly beautiful song in a 70's ballad style. Christian contemporary music has only gone downhill since this counted as "contemporary."

Lead the Way by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

"Fork in the Road" shows Ken's grittier style as well as his ability to tell a story in song. It's about Judas and always makes me tremble a bit for my soul.

Fork in the Road by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

"Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" gives us Medema with what sounds like a black back-up choir. Soulful.

Lord, Listen To Your Children Pray by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

Here is a more recent example of Ken with a "choir" backup, which actually sounds like a live audience. His energy has apparently not been sapped with age. Sure it's repetitious, but I love it when he yells, "Play the music." I know it's comparing small things with great, but the African drum rhythms make me think of something on Paul Simon's Graceland. Here is Medema's version of "Amen."

I'll finish up this sampler by returning to something more mellow from Medema in the 70's. "Jesus, Lover of My Soul."

Jesus, Lover of My Soul by Ken Medema on Grooveshark

Ken Medema is an original. There will not be anyone else quite like him in Christian popular music. I'd like to see this older music shared more widely.