Welcome to Worthy Reads, where I share some articles (and other things) that I think are worth your time. It’s always one of De Civ’s most popular features. It’s also the only one with any kind of paywall: everyone gets half the items, but only paid subscribers get them all. Retweets are not endorsements. This month’s title h/t James Taranto.
Hello! After a quiet February, I’m back!
“Unwanted Pregnancy is Not Involuntary Servitude,” by James Heaney.
Here’s one reason De Civitate’s February was quiet: The American Conservative was interested in my recent 25,000-word article, “There’s No 13th Amendment Right To Abortion,” but only wanted to publish 1,500 words. So I wrote a new version that is 94% shorter! Here’s a pretty decent chunk of it:
The Thirteenth Amendment argument could succeed. The amendment outlaws involuntary servitude unconditionally. If the argument's supporters are correct about the meaning of "involuntary servitude," then it seems possible that not even the life of a child could outweigh his mother's right to be free of an unchosen obligation to him.
But how can these supporters possibly be correct about the meaning of "involuntary servitude"? Their definition is absurdly broad. Perhaps a person's "service" is indeed "coerced for another's benefit" in pregnancy, but the law often coerces services for the benefit of others. Citizens can be conscripted into the military, coerced to serve on a jury, and even forced to build roads. A caregiver is required by law to provide care. Good Samaritan laws press passers-by into service of accident victims. A landlord may be obligated to perform labor for his tenants. The list goes on.
Even children are sometimes coerced to perform services for the benefit of others. You might call it "doing chores," but supporters of the Thirteenth Amendment argument, with their broad definition of "involuntary servitude," must call it "unconstitutional."
Parents, too, are bound by law to perform compulsory service on behalf of their children. If you do not take care of your children, you will go to prison. This duty is binding even if we hate it, even if we're poor, even if we're forced to sacrifice every comfort we have to fulfill it. Parents do not have a constitutional right to terminate or transfer this duty. It binds us even when it puts our mental and physical health at risk. If the Thirteenth Amendment argument for abortion is correct, child neglect laws must also violate the Thirteenth Amendment—and parents not only have a right to abort their children, but to expose their infants.
…The reality is that human beings are not characters in an Ayn Rand novel. We all have unchosen obligations, and we always will. We must come to the aid of our nation, our neighbor, and our children (born or unborn)— sometimes at great cost. The State has always enforced many of these unchosen obligations. I hope it always will, because the Rothbardian alternative would be a hellscape.
If you struggled to get through all the many, many words of my original article the new, shorter piece might be just the ticket. And if you have a friend who misguidedly thinks that “forced pregnancy” is “involuntary servitude,” this bite-sized takedown makes a perfect gift!
“When Reason Fails,” by Sam Kriss:
The shortcomings of [mass shooting] essays aren’t the fault of the essayists. Srinivasan and Yang have perfectly reasonable ideas about why [mass shootings] happen—the problem is that these things are not reasonable. They are outside the remit of the essay, a form in which things are supposed to be broken down into comprehensible pieces and coherently analyzed. This might be why the tone of these essays is shifting. Hopelessness is seeping in. The political system is inadequate to respond to these murders, but so, it seems, is our ordinary sensemaking apparatus, the power of reason, language itself. The best recent mass-shooting essays have been Elizabeth Bruenig’s in the Atlantic, but they’re less essay than threnody: a wail of helpless grief, crying the last whole truth left: “It’s going to go on indefinitely. It’s not an end, exactly, but life inside a permanent postscript to one’s own history. Here is America after there was no more hope.”
…[In his manifesto, mass shooter Elliot] Rodger sets out a basic schema for why his “Day of Retribution” had to take place: he desired the hot blonde girls he saw everywhere around him in California, but they didn’t desire him back—so he had to murder them instead. Most commentators, like Srinivasan, are perfectly happy to take him on his word here. But should we? Is this actually what’s going on? Earlier in the manifesto, Rodger describes another abortive attempt to lose his virginity, this time before he turns twenty. What’s his strategy? “For those crucial twelve days I had left as a teenager, I walked over to the center of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me.” None of them did. “On every one of those nights, I walked home alone, with my head down in defeat.” Rodger repeatedly complains that he’s been rejected by women, but in fact he wasn’t, because he never gave them a chance. Not once does he actually introduce himself to one of the people he supposedly desires so badly. This young, rich, good-looking man spent his entire adult life convincing himself of his grievance, that he wanted women and they didn’t want him back—because it gave him a cover for what he really wanted, which was to have a grievance.
This essay, in a magazine I’d never heard of, has haunted me for weeks. If you only read one of this weeks Worthy Reads, I’d pick this one.
Kriss offers no more hope than anybody else in his version of the mass shooting essay. Yet I cannot help but be reminded of Walker Percy’s greatest, weirdest work, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book:
[B]y virtue of its peculiar relationship to the world, to others, and to its own organism, the autonomous self in a modern technological society is possessed [by] the spirit of the erotic and the secret love of violence.
The peculiar predicament of the present-day self surely came to pass as a consequence of the disappointment of the high expectations of the self as it entered the age of science and technology. Dazzled by the overwhelming credentials of science, the beauty and elegance of the scientific method, the triumph of modern medicine over physical ailments, and the technological transformation of the very world itself, the self finds itself in the end disappointed by the failure of science and technique in those very sectors of life which had been its main source of ordinary satisfaction in past ages.
As John Cheever said, The main emotion of the adult Northeastern American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment. Work is disappointing… Marriage and family life are disappointing… School is disappointing… Politics is disappointing… The churches are disappointing, even for most believers… Social life is disappointing…
Scene in one thousand movies: a party, formal stuffed-shirt party, NYC cocktail party, country club party, New Year’s Eve party, hippie party—any kind of party—but with the one common denominator of a failed festival, a collapsed and fragmented community. There is always the painfully perceived gap between what is and what might be… Hence the booze. Unlike the use of spirits in the past, the purpose of alcohol is not to celebrate the festival but to anesthetize the failure of the festival.
…[Imagine,] the year 2000+: the demoniac spirit of the erotic no longer posited by Christianity but triumphant in its own right, perfected as genital technique but deprived of the charm of the forbidden, the secret, the “dirty,” “sinful,” “extramarital,” “fornication,” “adultery”—even the word fuck has by now lost its homonymous semantic charge and is as neutered as fish, fowl, fix; the perfection of contraceptive technique; the conquest of Herpes II virus [and AIDS];1 the perfection of visual and tactile aids to sexual stimuli (no longer called pornography, from porne, harlot); erotica elevated to a major literary art form. War without passion: one billion dead.
Percy, writing in 1983, had never heard of the Internet or social media. The disappointment and loneliness he described were practically embryonic compared to the tumors growing in our society today. Yet Percy appears to have predicted2 not only the Satisfyer Pro 2 and critical darling Gaspar Noé’s film Love (to say nothing of the 50 Shades series), but, more surprisingly, the resounding “meh” with which we would greet them. The Moral Majority didn’t picket Noé’s movie—which, thanks to the power of 3D glasses, featured the first unsimulated male ejaculation to fly out at a theatre audience. Nobody picketed. The erotic’s power to scandalize and tantalize is now as neutered as the word fuck.
…The Great Problematic: will the ultimate liberation of the erotic from its dialectical relationship with Christianity result in:
(a) The freeing of the erotic spirit so that man- and woman-kind will make love and not war?
or (b) The trivialization of the erotic by its demotion to yet another technique and need-satisfaction of the organism, toward the end that the demoniac spirit of the autonomous self, disappointed in all other sectors of life and in ordinary intercourse with others, is now disappointed even in the erotic, its last and best hope, and so erupts in violence…?
A key point of Kriss’s essay is that the mass shooter lives in all of us. “I am also capable of these things, and so are you.” It is tempting for those of us who are religious to think ourselves immune, because we understand ourselves to be something more than disappointed autonomous selves. And yet…
Kriss observes that mass shooters often float between several different extreme ideologies before finally settling on the one that allows them to carry out mass murder. I’ve recently been accosted by certain radical “traditionalist Catholics” on Twitter.3 Their doctrines are obviously false, yet they have built Byzantine justifications for them. Talk to them long enough, and you realize that not even concrete proof would change their minds. It’s not about the truth. They “evangelize” the message of Christ with enthusiastic hatred, reminding me of Kriss’s words:
Whatever meaning these events hold is not in the accompanying texts—it’s in the gap, the void, between the killer’s favorite food and the bodies he left behind.
Of course, Twitter radtrads haven’t killed anyone. I doubt any of them who remain radtrads ever will; mass shooters are overwhelmingly non-religious. But I doubt they’ll all remain radtrads. If at least some of them, deep down, don’t really care about “restoring” the “True” Catholic Church, but actually just inhabit radical traditionalism because it helps them fulfill their desire to have a grievance, there are other ideologies that will do the trick even better. Therein lies danger.
Ah, but see how I started that by saying that the mass shooter lives in all of us, then talked about a group of people that doesn’t include me?
Percy, for his part, ends by asking:
…Will World War III happen absurdly, by an accident… e.g. by a computer malfunction? Or will World War III erupt because of the suppressed fury of the autonomous self, disappointed now even in the erotic, that very demoniac spirit which is overtly committed to peace and love but secretly desires war and apocalypse and nourishes hatred of all other selves and perhaps of its own self most of all?
Does Percy’s critique cast any light on the mass-shooting phenomenon? On ourselves?
Or have I simply walked myself backward into the very same failed form that Kriss so rightly lambastes: the mass-shooting essay?
War Games: The Battle for Taiwan by Meet the Press Reports:
Speaking of World War III…
I would have watched three more hours of this without hesitation. I hate the constraints of TV news.
This group, CNAS, just published a report (whose executive summary I have only skimmed) on avoiding nuclear escalation in a Taiwan war. CSIS has also done extensive Taiwan wargames. Note that wargames are typically somewhat biased against the foreign power.
This is where the paywall hits. Sorry, free subscribers, you are all beautiful people, but De Civitate’s paying subscribers deserve some reward, at least occasionally. If you’d like to sign up to support my work and, incidentally, read the rest of this edition of Worthy Reads, subscribe below.
In the remainder of this edition of Worthy Reads: Blackstone’s famous proverb about “ten guilty men” goes under the microscope; Ireland’s penchant for spinning on a dime; Cardinal McElroy and Sir Humphrey; and the Galileo trial examined by someone even wordier than me.
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