The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex

13 Sep

Ross DouthatRoss Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, and Dan Savage, the liberal sex columnist, recently had a Bloggingheads conversation about sex, lies, and videotape. It’s a fascinating discussion, mostly because of what it reveals about the conservative mind and its attitude toward sex.

Toward the end of the conversation (48:16 in the video link above), Savage poses a hypothetical to Douthat: Imagine a couple in which one partner—for the sake of simplicity, let’s say it’s the husband—is a foot fetishist. His wife is physically repulsed by his fetish—feet gross her out—but she wants him to be happy. So she sends him to a professional, who can satisfy his fetish without involving her. Savage asks Douthat: What’s so wrong with this?

I’ll get to Douthat’s response in a second, but first, let’s note the fact that this conversation is happening at all. We often think of the conservative, particularly the social conservative, as someone who puts his head in the sand or fingers in his ears, refusing to listen to or participate in the conversation around him. Watching Douthat’s body language in response to Savage’s language language—how visibly uncomfortable he is with all the dirty talk being visited upon him—only confirms that stereotype. (Though after a while, Douthat gets into the Savage swing of things, even saying at one point that he thinks the husband who goes to the professional “is doing something less impressive than than the guy who locks his dick up.” With a mouth like that, perhaps Savage should consider hiring him as a guest columnist?)

But it’s important to remember that Douthat is having this conversation at all, as have conservatives since the Sexual Revolution. In my book, I offer an early example of this conversation from the mid-70s—Beverly and Tim LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, which Susan Faludi rightly called “the evangelical equivalent of The Joy of Sex”—when the Christian Right was forced into the fray of sexual liberation and sought to harness its tropes to the institution of traditional marriage. The result was some fairly bawdy Godly talk.

The LaHayes claimed that “women are much too passive in lovemaking.” God, the LaHayes told their female readers, “placed [your clitoris] there for your enjoyment.” They also complained that “some husbands are carryovers from the Dark Ages, like the one who told his frustrated wife, ‘Nice girls aren’t supposed to climax.’ Today’s wife knows better.”

Robbie GeorgeMore recently, Robbie George, Princeton’s arch-conservative philosopher of sex and the single gal, told the New York Times Magazine that he’s been forced by the challenge of gay marriage to engage in all sorts of naughty talk about what constitutes good sex in a marriage.  Much to the horror of his ever-so traditional Catholic mother.

His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, taught her children “some pretty firm ideas about sexual morality,” George told me, and then he begged me not to repeat some of his more recent arguments on the subject. “Mom, I have got to explain!” George said, raising his voice to imitate first himself and then his mother: “ ‘George’s opposition to sodomy! What are you doing talking about sodomy? You shouldn’t even know what that is! Why do people have to know your views about that?’

If my book accomplishes nothing else, I hope it disabuses us of our notion that conservatism is somehow the great Refusenik of modernity. It’s not. From its beginning, conservatism has participated in all the great conversations of modernity—often, to be sure, against its will. But even when it takes an antagonistic stance toward modern developments, conservatism is forced, by the very fact of its participation in the broader culture, to incorporate modern sensibilities and sensitivities (e.g., Beverly and Tim LaHaye instructing husbands in the ways and means of the clitoris).

There’s actually no better example of the right’s modernity than Douthat’s response to Savage’s challenge. After Savage pummels him repeatedly, asking why it’s better for the husband to repress his fetish than for the wife to grant him a reprieve outside the bedroom, Douthat says of the latter (at 51:40 in the above link):

Dan, I think it’s a sadder and more squalid and more depressing form of self-sacrifice than the guy who figures out how to live with not getting his rocks off over his foot fetish.  And there is a value judgment and I’m not going to be able to prove it to you, you’re right. [Pause and then cross talk.] And some of this comes down to a worldview…

One of the great rallying points of the modern American right has been that it stands for firm, objective, demonstrable principles of right and wrong, of good and evil, over the relativism and situational ethics, the general culture of permissive tolerance, that one finds on the left. This has been a cry not only among politicos and pundits but also among serious philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and historians like Gertrude Himmelfarb.

David BrooksJust this morning, we got a healthy dose of it from David Brooks. Summarizing a new study that shows that young people don’t have a clear sense of morality, Brooks concludes:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

As proof, Brooks cites some comments from a few youngsters:

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

But now listen to Douthat, the New York Times‘s resident court philosopher of the right, and tell me if you hear anything that different. Yes, he’s saying he believes it’s better to satisfy, or repress, one’s sexual needs within the confines of a marriage, but he also acknowledges that that is  “a value judgment,” that he can’t persuade someone of a different view of the value of that judgment, and that it reflects his broader worldview, which Savage doesn’t share.

That’s a far far cry from the medieval Thomist, or even today’s neo-Thomist, who believes that reason can provide a yardstick of right and wrong, good and evil, and that it can adjudicate moral disputes between rival traditions. It’s also a far cry from Brooks’ appeal to a shared tradition, authority, and like.

When the right’s back is pushed up against the wall, it’s often forced not only to acknowledge the pluralism of modern life and intractability of moral conflict, but also to ground its claims on its own feelings and preferences, its un-argued and self-confessedly arbitrary and idiosyncratic belief system. (Douthat even admits in a later exchange with Savage, which I discuss below, that he knows he sounds “absurd.”) The right might claim that its beliefs are better, but it has no grounds, as Douthat admits, for assuming that you would agree with that or persuading you of that. (You can find a similar version of that argument in Patrick Devlin‘s classic defense of traditional morality The Enforcement of Morals, which was probably the opening salvo of the modern culture wars.)

There’s a final point I want to extract from this exchange. Toward the end, Douthat gets his mojo back and starts pressing his argument for repression. After Savage makes the case that repression is destabilizing—an interesting claim in itself that challenges our standard left-right distinction; the left is supposed to stand for liberation, while the right is supposed to stand for order, no? Well, no, as it turns out—Douthat defends repression not on the grounds that it is stabilizing but because “the nature of human excellence depends on—this, I, sound absurd—overcoming impulses for the sake of your partner, your children, the people you love.”

And here we come to Ground Zero of conservative commitment. The conservative believes in excellence, as Douthat says, but it is a vision of excellence defined as and dependent on “overcoming.” It’s a vision that abhors the easy path of acceptance, of tolerating human frailty and need, not because that path is wrong but because it is easy.  Or, to put it differently, it’s wrong precisely because it is easy. And though that vision often claims Aristotle as its inspiration, its true sources are Nietzschean.

Michel FoucaultThe conservative believes the excellent person is a kind of mountain climber, a moral athlete who is constantly overcoming or trying to overcome his limits, pushing himself ever higher and higher.  When it comes to sex, he’s not unlike the Foucauldian transgressor, that sexual athlete of novelty and experiment: but where Foucault believes that taboos against sex are all too easily reached (that’s why, if we are to attain the peaks of experience, we have to move beyond those limits), the conservative’s remain out of reach. The value of a rule lies in its difficulty and potential unattainability, the ardor of the struggle it imposes upon us. We might call this ethic the ardor of adversity.*

Liberals and leftists often miss this ardor of adversity, and it’s a critical error because it overlooks just how romantic and impassioned, how fervid and fervent, conservative morality, not just about sex but about a great many matters, actually is.  And that is part of conservatism’s appeal. Savage in fact commits that very error when he says that Douthat’s vision of marriage eliminates the element of “adventure.” Not so. Douthat’s vision is profoundly adventurous—it’s the adventure of ascent, of trying to reach a summit of moral excellence that you probably cannot reach. It’s an adventure filled with risk—the risk of failure, of shame, of the self-loathing and castigation that comes with that failure and shame—and it’s one that the conservative, no matter how terrified he might be of that risk, is loathe to give up. No matter the cost: for if he were to give up on it, all that’d be left for him is the culture of mediocrity, of complacence and compliance, which defines for the conservative the liberal worldview.

That’s what connects the neoconservative, with his vision of warrior excellence, to the libertarian, with his vision of economic excellence, to the moral traditionalist. All three elements of what has been called the conservative three-legged stool—the warrior, the capitalist, the priest—subscribe to the dictum offered by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India:

The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same. The latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.

Or, as the Supremes put it more simply:

* * * * *

*I recognize that Douthat is saying here that it is for the sake of the partner and children that we have to overcome our impulses, but the trope of overcoming appears too often in the conservative canon to put too much emphasis on that qualifier. Furthermore, the point is that the husband will demonstrate his excellence by overcoming himself for the sake of something outside himself. That, it seems to me, is the point.

Update (9:30 pm)

After I posted this, I was reminded by a friend of this excellent article on Dan Savage by Mark Oppenheimer that kicked this whole conversation off. Oppenheimer gives us a masterful exposition of Savage’s extraordinarily adroit mind, which is on sharp display in that exchange with Douthat. Check it out.

32 Responses to “The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex”

  1. darknessatnoon September 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    It’s interesting, but not surprising, to see Douhat invoke Hannah Arendt, whose “arete” is fundamental to her Human Condition project. Arendt was basically trying to avoid proscriptions by recasting them as inspiration.

  2. andrew seal (@andrew_seal) September 13, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    Your footnote is very intriguing; I wonder how frequently you have come across totally unqualified instances of the trope of conservative overcoming. It would seem that the importance of “something outside himself” matters in a great many more instances than the present one–whether that “something outside himself” is a divinity, empire or nation, class, or family. How often, in other words, are conservatives climbing a mountain simply “because it’s there?” So many conservative invocations of “excellence” seem defensive, more like an effort to forestall backsliding than a transgressive testing of the limits of the self.

    • Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 12:09 am #

      I’m not sure I get the question or its implications. But if you’re asking how prevalent in conservative thought is the view of the self I’ve sketched out here — i.e., one that’s always at risk of implosion because of the absence or recession of external challenges, that needs those challenges as a kind of negative stimulus to greatness, that values those externalities not as goods unto themselves but as goads to personal greatness — I’d say it’s quite prevalent. In my book, I trace it back to Burke’s moral psychology in The Sublime and the Beautiful, and find instances and versions of it in everyone from Tocqueville to Francis Fukuyama. But I’m not sure I’ve truly grasped your question, so perhaps what I’ve just said doesn’t quite address your concerns.

      • andrew seal (@andrew_seal) September 14, 2011 at 1:36 am #

        Yes, sorry, I certainly could have phrased it better. My issue came from your assertion that we could de-emphasize the part of Douthat’s comment about overcoming his impulses “for the sake of the partner and children.” Are you saying that because you feel that the rhetoric of overcoming is generally or typically independent of that kind of “something outside of himself?” I guess I’d be skeptical that the rhetoric of overcoming is really so severed from those things outside of the self, that one seeks to overcome for one’s own sake solely. “Because it’s there” just doesn’t seem like a common response to “why are you trying to overcome your libido?”

        Your example of the LaHayes seems to speak to a different type of overcoming–one not so exclusively individualized, but rather collaborative. The lines that you quoted from their book make clear that it is just as much about excellence and adventure as the “ardor of adversity” you describe, while still quite consciously being about overcoming certain unruly forms of desire. It’s just that the overcoming works both for the sake of and through another person.

        One might also consider the way that many conservative Christians appeal to God effectively to be their partner in overcoming their impulses while they avow that they are undertaking that attempt at self-overcoming for his sake. Perhaps I’m overemphasizing the romantic individualism aspect of your argument, but I feel that this rhetoric of overcoming very commonly depends heavily on having that external entity for whose sake one overcomes oneself and through whom one finds help and grace.

  3. Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Andrew, I don’t think I disagree with you about the centrality of an external to overcoming. My point in de-emphasizing the partner/child/other element in Douthat was not to de-emphasize the external so much as to emphasize the effects of that external upon the self. So I think — though I hesitate to say definitely so — that I agree that there has to be an external. Where we probably do disagree is that I do think the emphasis in conservatism is less upon the worth and value of that external as a good unto itself and much more on the effect of that external (or seeking that external) upon the self. Now it’s probably impossible to separate the two — how can a self really seek to overcome something within itself for the sake of an external if it doesn’t see the value of that external as worthy unto itself? Though it should be said that that is a persistent conundrum of conservative thought, for example in the realm of religion, where with time, religion is increasingly valued on functionalist/secular lines (it promotes order and stability) and less on its own merits. Or to say it differently that secular/functionalist defense has the effect of diminishing the status of the inherent worth of religion — but for the sake of analytical clarity I think it’s worth separating. If for no other reason than to attend to this strong emphasis on romantic individualism in conservative thought, which often gets overlooked. So for example in my discussion of Douthat and Robbie George: a casual reading of their writing would suggest that they are straightforward/stereotypical moral traditionalists, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic vein. But I think if you read them carefully, you’ll find that the emphasis is much more on the self than we a naive reading would initially suggest. I may have gone too far in other direction in my work and in this post — I’m prepared to admit that on a case by case basis — but there’s a reason for that. Hope this clarifies things.

    • Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

      Andrew, just had another thought about this discussion we’ve had. If you read Douthat’s comments in context, there’s a critical irony we haven’t noted in our exchange: Savage’s hypothesis explicitly states as its premise that the wife is not only okay with this arrangement but actually wants to make it happen for the sake of her husband. In other words, she is overcoming herself for the sake of his happiness. But Douthat rejects that and deems it inferior to the idea of the husband overcoming himself for the sake of her. But it’s clear in that discussion that it’s not really for the sake of her, it’s for the sake of an idea of, well, not even her and not even of marriage. It’s for the sake of an idea, I would argue, of himself, as someone who can overcome himself for the sake of an ideal.

      • andrew seal (@andrew_seal) September 18, 2011 at 9:47 am #

        Sorry to have taken a bit to return to this thread, which I’m really enjoying. I interpret that context a little differently, because I still am having trouble removing Douthat’s argument from the context of marriage. Although I’m not trying to argue that the type of romantic individualist self-overcoming doesn’t exist, I guess the point I’m arguing for generally is that marriage (and fatherhood) is a special condition that (for many but not all) dramatically re-shapes the conservative sense of the self, and therefore is much less similar to the warrior ideal or the Randian hero model that you (quite rightly, I agree) are connecting to Nietzsche and Foucault.

        So I interpret Douthat’s preference for the husband overcoming himself first as just a plain-as-vanilla instance of asserting patriarchal authority (“I’m the one who makes the sacrifices around here”) and secondly–but relatedly–as preventing his wife from compromising herself as an ideal for him, from in a sense adulterating the purity of her own position as the external for the sake of which he should act or not act.

  4. STJ September 14, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    I have to say, I find the connection to Nietzsche/Foucault completely unconvincing, especially since it’s painted in such broad strokes. To my mind, Douthat sounds more like a slight reworking of the standard appeal to the ‘noble morality’, which goes all the way back to Plato, and basically sees the control of the passions as a prerequisite for the governance of others. To equate transgression with self-control is just plain wrong. There is a contradiction here, which can be partly, but I think badly, characterized as Nietzschean, since the de facto stripping of male privilege makes the relationship between ruling/ruled in sexual unions elective rather than socially enforced. The absence (or loosening) of social sanction creates the appearance of Nietzschean roots where there are none. In fact, it’s really more of a classic consumer capitalist mentality, and one that Savage himself has been accused of sharing (rather convincingly I think).

    • Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 10:28 am #

      Except for the fact that there’s very little in Douthat, or frankly in conservatism itself, to suggest the Platonic ideal you’re referencing. The fact that it sounds that it sounds that way to *you*, or to anyone for that matter, is not what we ordinarily think of as dispositive. I agree that transgression and self-control are not the same, which is why I declined to say that they were. What *are* “not unlike” — my words, which don’t mean identical or equivalent — are the Foucauldian idea of transgressing all too proximate limits as a means of overcoming the smallness of one’s existence and Douthat’s idea of reaching for unattainable limits as a means of overcoming the smallness of one’s existence.

      • Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 11:46 am #

        STJ: Just one more thought on the Foucauldian/conservative analogy/comparison (which, again, we should remember, does not posit an identity between two elements but a similarity between two otherwise quite distinct elements; that’s the whole point of an analogy!): what might explain the similarity I’ve pointed to here — and this might be your point in the second 1/2 of your comment, which I’ll admit I didn’t quite understand — is that both the Foucauldian and the conservative write against a regime of liberal tolerance that they believe, in their own distinctive ways, is hegemonic and rather repressive. (Tocqueville is a very good precursor here, setting out from a kind of conservative view, a fairly Foucauldian view of modernity). The Foucauldian believes that firm authoritarian rules have been eclipsed by a discourse of normalization; the conservative believes the same. Their answers are quite different: the Foucaldian would like to transgress the limits of the normal; the conservative would like to transform them into firm authoritative rules. But the resulting dynamic that emerges — transgressing the limits of the normal, tilting against higher and firmer barriers of constraint — posits a similar notion of overcoming, of questing and seeking, of ridding the self of its given condition and boundaries.

  5. JW Mason September 14, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    he also acknowledges that that is “a value judgment,” that he can’t persuade someone of a different view of the value of that judgment, and that it reflects his broader worldview, which Savage doesn’t share. That’s a far far cry from the medieval Thomist, or even today’s neo-Thomist

    I’m not sure that’s true. Or at least, I’m not sure Douthat would agree that it’s true. Remember Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind? I’m thinking of the bit where he says:

    “When President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union ‘the Evil Empire,’ right-thinking persons joined in an angry chorus of protest against such provocative rhetoric. At other times, Mr. Reagan has said that the United States and the Soviet Union ‘have different values,’ an assertion that those persons greet at worst with silence and frequently with approval. I believe he thought he was saying the same thing.”

    From where we’re sitting in the liberal-secular bleachers, the statement that something is definitely true, and that it is a value judgement, look quite different. But I’m not sure that’s how it looks to conservatives.

    • Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 9:46 pm #

      I’ve read and taught Bloom’s book more times than I can remember, but I have to confess I’ve never understood that statement. Is he criticizing Reagan? Praising him? What? And more important I don’t see how anyone can reconcile those two viewpoints. Unless you take a really ultra-Rortyan view of them.

      • JW Mason September 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

        I’ve read and taught Bloom’s book more times than I can remember

        Yikes! Maybe economics wasn’t such a bad choice after all…

        No, it’s a fun book. When I was a freshman at the University of Chicago, that and American Psycho were the two that circulated from dormroom to dormroom.

        So you’re the expert, but here’s how the passage looks to me. When we say, I can give a rational account of my belief that would be persuasive to a disinterested outsider, that implies the belief is well-founded. It’s more or less the definition of a well-founded belief, for us. But it’s not the only possible definition. You might say, Our people believe this so I believe it and you must too, if you want to be one of us. It doesn’t matter if we can explain it to an outsider or not. I mean, isn’t a central strand of the whole Burkean tradition a rejection of rational argument as a sound basis for deciding social and political questions? Or going back further, wasn’t religious observance once the most important public duty? All I’m saying is, not defensible by rational argument doesn’t always mean, doesn’t belong in the public sphere. (And not just for conservatives. There’s probably an interesting connection to be made with Marx’s On the Jewish Question.)

        Anyway, it’s a minor point in a very interesting post.

  6. Corey Robin September 14, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    But Josh the modern conservative that I’m talking about here claims the rightness of his principles on two grounds. One is the tradition argument you mention here: this is what we believe. But as I point out in my post, that argument often comes up against the fact that that is clearly not what “we” believe, or at least that the we in question is surrounded by a great many dissonant voices. Douthat admits that in the interview, as do many conservatives who claim for themselves the status of heretics and fugitives in their own culture. So the tradition argument often falls apart in the face of a pluralism that they would be the first to acknowledge. The second ground is some kind of Aristotelian/Thomistic argument about human nature, which they claim can be defended not only on religious grounds but also rational grounds. Not reason understood in a stereotypical Cartesian/Enlightenment sense but reason understood in more Aristotelian terms.of practical reason. Anyway, when forced to give an account of that human nature, however, they often fall back on the kind of relativism Douthat mentions. And I don’t know how you can reconcile a belief that way x is the objectively right way to live one’s life — not on the basis of one’s intuition or feelings, nor on the basis of tradition and this how we do things around here, but on the basis of some account of human nature that can be discovered by right reason — with a statement that this is my value and it’s different from yours and there is no way I can persuade you of it.

    • andrew seal (@andrew_seal) September 18, 2011 at 10:09 am #

      Jumping from thread to thread here, but this is a really fascinating discussion. It strikes me that one thing that is going missing here but that interestingly comes out in the First Things essay quoted below is the importance of a concept of sin and the fallenness of the world. Allowing that there might be insoluble differences in values but one right way to live is not so much a contradiction if one presumes a) an ultimate reckoning for all lives that is well and obviously beyond the scope of a single argument or even a lifelong debate and b) a strong sense that not everyone actively accepts (or perhaps receives) the grace needed to acknowledge the condition of original sin and the rightness of the one true path. The ostensible dichotomy between objective truth and relativistic value judgment dissolves when a person believes that there are really two levels constantly at play: the temporal, where value judgments are never going to harmonize because the world is fallen and people are resistant to grace; and the supernatural, where people who followed the true path are rewarded.

      In a similar vein to what I said above, I am less inclined to see Douthat (or many other religious conservatives) as quite so similar to the more secular romantic individualist Corey has outlined. I think there are very important distinctions to be made here about the premises that Douthat is working under that more secular conservatives acknowledge only partially or not at all.

  7. Jake W. September 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Do you see the same sort of thinking Douthat in this essay? Link: http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-Hail_the_Returning_Dragon.pdf

  8. Jake September 16, 2011 at 2:13 am #

    Specifically passages such as this:

    “If I’ve got this right, then the casual knights of my own bland gene ration might well come to regard AIDS as a blessing, a gift perhaps bestowed by nature to restore some critical balance, maybe summoned unconsciously out of the collective erotic despair of the post-’60s glut. Because the dragon is back, and clothed in a fire that can’t be ignored.”

    [...]

    “In fact, AIDS’s gift to us lies in its loud reminder that there ‘s nothing casual about sex at all. This is a gift because human sexuality’s power and meaning increase with our recognition of its seriousness . This has been what’s “bad” about casual sex from the beginning: sex is never bad, but it’s also never casual.”

  9. mike September 16, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    a good example of this “overcoming” dynamic can be found in ryan anderson’s essay “struggling alone,” an essay about anderson’s friend trying to overcome homosexual desire. its conclusion:

    “In the end, though, I found myself feeling grateful. Grateful for knowing Chris. Grateful for the chance to see him carry a cross he did not choose. Offering up his daily struggles, he strives for holiness, refuses surrender, and resists temptations. He labors to remedy the unwanted causes and side effects of attractions he never desired, aware all the while that a cure isn’t certain, that in this fallen world some disorders may always be with us.

    I am witnessing my friend’s unique path to holiness: a remarkable instance of grace working through a broken earthly vessel, making all things new, and leading to fullness of life. I think how blessed I am that I’ve been fortunate enough to witness it and find inspiration for my life in his struggles.

    How sad, though, that the rest of the world will never know.”

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/struggling-alone-13

    • Corey Robin September 16, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      wow! that’s something. thanks for pointing this out, mike. it’s full-bore romanticism.

      • Matthias Gralle March 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

        I think C. S. Lewis, who often wrote from imagination and did not even revise his first drafts, provides marvelously clear examples of this ethic of neverending struggle for ascension. In the last of the Narnia books, there is a whole chapter named “Further up and further in”, in which all protagonists keep running faster all the time on their way to Aslan’s country. Also, though not quite as explicit, Caspian’s speech facing his mutinous sailors on the way (again) to Aslans’s country. Now these are, of course, children’s books and don’t mention or allude to sex, though Caspian has to postpone the fulfilment of his attraction to a woman). “The Great Divorce” is an adult’s allegory (also set as a continuous expansion and ascension) and has a very romantic example of a struggle with the lizard of lust.

  10. adamcee September 19, 2011 at 4:12 am #

    Not sure about Douthat’s link to Nietzsche (not that I’m an expert)….what would be the difference between ‘overcoming’ and ‘repression?’

    I believe it’s important why the man in question decides to repress his fetish. The act of denying something is a functional act, it can be deployed towards many ends. A Nietzschean overcoming is only one of them. We could perhaps imagine Nietzsche saying “Overcome! Leave that small-minded woman and start a new life where your self may flourish!”

    Overcoming is in the service of man or what man-may-be. So we must determine where the foot fetish stands (pun intended) in this regard.

  11. pcurrah September 22, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Hey Corey–I had meant to read this when it first came out, but time flies. From the title that I’d seen earlier, I’d expected this to be about Republican sex (as in sex scandals). But this Douthat fellow seems to be literalizing what his betters meant to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. (Where on earth did the Times find him?) Poor guy, working so hard to overcome his desires so all he’s left with is the “ardor of adversity.” I think for Bloom—and my reading is entirely dependent on Eve Sedgwick’s—the problem with the sixties wasn’t sex but it coming into the open. Sedgwick quotes Bloom’s lament for the disappearance of the closet: “the various liberationists wasted that marvelous energy and tension, leaving the students’ souls exhausted and flaccid” (50-51). Not so much over-coming, but harnessing. Not so much not doing the bad thing but at least also investing those “reservoirs of cathectic energy” in cultural projects. (That’s Sedgwick.)

    Anyways, yes, Douthat’s take here does make your point—there’s no integrity to the logic or argument, it’s the romantic struggle of the individual against temptation. As the risk of radically lowering the tone of the discussion above…But there’s got to be a whole other crew of conservatives laughing their asses off at him taking on this impossible task. It’s like he’s Maria, but he’s onscreen, an object of (lovable) derision playing in the background at a Republican sex party.

  12. Vincent October 18, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    You are twisting words and missing critical nuance. First- there is a difference between not being able to prove something and not being able to persuade someone of something. I can’t prove that my mother loves me, but I can be persuaded of it. Second- to say that something comes down to values and/or worldview is not to embrace relativism. It is simply to recognize that our first principles will impact our conclusions, and that if we are operating from different first principles that we are likely to reach different conclusions even if both of us have sound logic. It does not follow from this affirmation that there is no rational basis to choose or evaluate first principles. I can’t give an empirical proof that there is a supernatural realm that lies beyond/behind the physical realm; neither can anyone disprove the existence of a supernatural realm. That is simply not a question that can be empirically answered because empirical science only can measure what is in the natural world. But there is a correct answer to the question. It is not as if supernatural realities exist for me but not for you. One of us is right and one of us is wrong, we just can’t prove with 100% accuracy which one of us it is. Still, that does not mean that there is no basis whatsoever one which to judge the question. Many of the most important questions in life require us to make judgments based on incomplete information on topics for which there is no empirical proof. That doesn’t mean that there are no correct answers. We simply have to accept other grounds for making decisions and worldview comments than empirical science. These grounds will necessarily be more tenuous, but it does not follow from that tenuousness that there are not right and wrong answers.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Balloon Juice » Coffee, tea, or Ross Douthat - October 18, 2011

    [...] A few weeks ago, reader C sent me a link to an interesting article by a historian named Corey Robin about the nature of modern conservatism. Before I give you the link, I most tell you: it contains the phrases “mile-high club” and “Ross Douthat” in close proximity. Consider yourself warned. [...]

  2. News of the Book « Corey Robin - October 26, 2011

    [...] other blogs are worth checking out. In one, a blogger at Balloon Juice responds to my post about Ross Douthat, which takes up a theme in my book, and a weird and wonderful discussion ensues. [...]

  3. Reality Bites: Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism « Corey Robin - December 3, 2011

    [...] utopianism, this is from Ross Douthat’s column today. We’ve talked about Douthat before, how his views on sex betray an agonistic desire for self-overcoming. Here he is today, in a piece [...]

  4. Fight Club, or That’s the Year That Was « Corey Robin - December 26, 2011

    [...] Traffic to the blog has been growing steadily every month, with the blog on some days getting nearly 6,000 hits. My two most popular posts, by far, were this roundtable on the Obama presidency from August and my recent take on Christopher Hitchens.  My personal favorite, which hasn’t generated nearly as much traffic, was this discussion of Ross Douthat’s views on sex. [...]

  5. Check out BC pol sci prof Corey Robin’s blog | Brooklyn College MA in Political Science and International Affairs - December 29, 2011

    [...] Traffic to the blog has been growing steadily every month, with the blog on some days getting nearly 6,000 hits. My two most popular posts, by far, were this roundtable on the Obama presidency from August and my recent take on Christopher Hitchens.  My personal favorite, which hasn’t generated nearly as much traffic, was this discussion of Ross Douthat’s views on sex. [...]

  6. What the Right Really Thinks About Sex « Eduard Grebe - January 7, 2012

    [...] What the Right Really Thinks About Sex Published: 7 January 2012 Filed Under: linkblog « Previous [...]

  7. What the Right Really Thinks About Sex - October 27, 2012

    [...] Source: Corey Robin [...]

  8. Conservatives: Who’s Your Daddy? « Corey Robin - November 20, 2012

    [...] argued before that Nietzsche is the master theoretician of the modern right, but Levin makes it especially [...]

  9. Conservatives: Who’s Your Daddy? - Unofficial Network - November 20, 2012

    [...] argued before that Nietzsche is the master theoretician of the modern right, but Levin makes it especially [...]

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