Rich Yeselson has written the best critique of my recent columns on the impact on the culture wars of America’s disagreements about nature, women, and choice. But in one important way — the one that matters the most — my argument is different from what Rich takes it to be. Here are his key passages:
“what [women] are for”, as he argues in the second essay [...] is to civilize those who “fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.” That would be men.
[...] in Poulos’s inadvertent and confused telling, nature must trump history and the inequality between the sexes becomes a comprehensive and final one, the one that establishes “women’s choices about how to live” once and for all. How could it not? The inequality is linked to women’s connection to the natural world, and that connection–again, their wombs–is trans-historical. Poulos has ushered women to their final destination for all time and place. Is this the end of history? For women, it must be. Even as Poulos inflates women’s “purpose,” he degrades their humanity.
In fact, what I argue is that women are naturally endowed with a certain kind of power — fertility — that allows them, if they choose, to speak with an important degree of authority to the limits and dangers of objectifying and instrumentalizing practices that historically have been closely associated with male fantasies and desires. I don’t want to make that choice obligatory. I don’t want the laws to compel that choice. I want it merely to continue to exist as a choice. And I want the insight animating it not to be outlawed or suppressed.
It is one thing — not my thing — to argue that women are under some kind of biological, cultural, or political obligation to make that choice. It is quite another to argue, as I have done from the outset, that women can make this choice, and that it’s a choice that can be made without self-enlistment into (unjust, oppressive, etc.) inequality.
Far too many readers have assumed that because I think contempt for my argument augurs the destruction of social conservatism that I must be a social conservative myself. In fact, because my argument is far more modest and circumspect than the social conservative argument — which, as Rick Santorm shows, contains very robust claims about what women are for — my point is that if my argument meets such venemous, vehement hostility, then the social conservative arguments of Catholics and others face what strikes me as an almost incalculable amount of public fury and hate. If the culture wars continue with that ferocity, America will be damaged, and Mitch Daniels’ idea of a “truce,” naive or not, will take on a lot more credibility in hindsight than it has now.
I disagree with the social conservatives about the wisdom or necessity of enforcing their judgments on nature, women, and choice. The prima facie case against them is that America simply won’t tolerate it. The deeper case is that it’s impossible to enforce those judgments without striking an unacceptable blow against human liberty — the same human liberty that would be unacceptably damaged by enforcing the view that the powerful capabilities of the female body do not give women the opportunity to choose to speak with a particular degree of authority about objectivizing, instrumentalizing, and totalizing sociopolitical projects. Enforcing that view would “degrade women’s humanity,” as Rich puts it, as well as men’s.
Rich is wrong that I think nature must and should trump history. He is wrong that I want or describe a comprehensive, final inequality between the sexes. I certainly do not think that history should — or can — comprehensively or completely trump nature. Nature and history can’t live without each other.
I had (wrongly) guessed that these judgments would come through more clearly than they did in columns where I emphasized repeatedly that the abandonment of any enforced consensus about what women are for might well mark a great leap forward in civilization. And I say might in the same spirit as Nietzsche did when he warned how badly, from the standpoint of political stability and durability (“a first-rate value on Earth”), the truth can hurt. Huge steps forward in progress — and here I think again, as Strauss did, of how radically Christianity proposes to liberate all individuals from their natural bodies — may well be destructive to peace and harmony, may well create painfully divisive ordeals that last decades, or centuries, or thousands of years. Certainly the history of the West suggests that ‘Western civilization’ has been in the grip of ordeals like this for a very long time. That might be all well and good from the long-term vantage of human development, but from the shorter-term perspective of American politics, it looks more like a disaster in the making: the culture wars, as I said, pit two groups of people against one another who really think of one another as more than enemies — as enemies of civilization itself.
Hopefully, in reading this, Rich will stop being so depressed about my views. Wollstonecraft sounds great to me, especially on the point about allowing people to take on the enjoyment and punishment of being exceptions to general rules; my parting word would be that I take my argument to be in favor of several of a number of things for a reasonable creature to think and do.