Barbarians At The Gate, Barbarians In Your Heart

A couple of weeks ago, Rod Dreher wrote an article about what he calls our “astonishing, and astonishingly rapid, cultural collapse” in the face of “a barbaric mainstream culture that has grown hostile to our fundamental values”:

“Conservatives have worked so hard over the past few decades to fight for civilized standards against a short checklist of modern barbarisms — abortion, gay marriage, political correctness, and so forth. What we failed to consider was that we had become barbarians ourselves.”

What Dreher means is that conservatives have “accepted rootlessness”, worshipped capitalism uncritically, and so forth. I agree on those points, more or less (and with exceptions), but of course I think that many of the conservatives Dreher is talking about are becoming barbaric in other ways as well. I thought about this as I read this article in the NYT, about one manifestation of what Dreher calls barbarism: two women who were fixed up while one was out of town, and who fell in love over email:

“Ms. Diaz said she was at first “a little sheepish about telling people” of their love before first sight. But a little more than a year later, on May 8, the couple were legally married by Jeanne Laughlin, a Connecticut justice of the peace, in a conference room at the Stamford Government Center.

They exchanged yellow pipe-cleaner rings, saving their engraved gold bands for their public ceremony the next day, when Mr. Rogers — who had introduced them — led them through their vows in the three-story atrium of 632 on Hudson, an event space in a 19th-century New York town house.

“All my life I searched for you, but never thought I’d find you,” Ms. Adamick said. “All my life I dreamed of you, but never dreamed you were real.”

Mr. Rogers said, “You may both kiss the bride,” and their 96 friends and family cheered as the couple smiled exuberantly.

“My cheeks physically hurt since I’ve known her,” Ms. Diaz said, her radiance undiminished.

But she was troubled. “Part of my identity is being a cynical New Yorker and hard-bitten lawyer,” she said. “By being so happy, am I going to lose my edge?””

Read the whole thing: it’s so sweet that I began to wonder whether it might cause tooth decay. Then ask yourself: what sort of person would not only forswear gay marriage for him- or herself, but actively work to deny this kind of happiness to those who do not share his or her religious views? Why would anyone think that this story is a threat to Western civilization? If two women in their forties want to get married, what sort of person would think that allowing them to do so brings the barbarians one step closer to the walls?

Dreher wonders: “How do you argue persuasively for a politics based on traditional virtue in a therapeutic postmodern capitalist culture where individual autonomy — especially in matters sexual and economic — is widely considered the highest good?” I don’t think this is all that hard. You just try to make the best case you can for honor and decency, and to work out the difference between valuing individual autonomy — the kind that allows Dreher to choose a set of religious beliefs that he thinks are deeply out of fashion — and thinking that anything goes.

It helps, though, to take seriously the possibility that one has become a barbarian oneself, and that, as Dreher notes, one way to do this is to define others as barbarians in order to remove oneself from scrutiny. This is a standing danger for anyone who cares about morality, and the only defense against it that I’m aware of is to question your own motives, and never to forget that the place where you can most effectively combat barbarism is in your own heart and your own life.

If I were Dreher, I would ask myself: of all the things in the world to be concerned about, why on earth would this couple’s happiness be anywhere near the top of the list? Even if you were concerned above all with sexual morality, why not argue against people who don’t treat sex or human relationships with the respect they deserve, rather than inveighing against two women who want to cleave to one another, forsaking all others, until death do them part?

Christ commanded his followers to love one another. There are plenty of things that Christians disapprove of in which love plays no part: anger, pride, envy, cruelty, vanity. The worst a Christian should say about these two women is that while, by loving one another and taking their love fully seriously, they get one very important thing very, very right, by falling in love with the wrong person, they have gotten another thing somewhat wrong. Of course, if these women are not Christian, or take a different view of the handful of passages in the Bible that concern homosexuality, they might not agree, which makes Dreher’s desire to impose his religious views on them all the more peculiar. (He would surely not accept my right to impose secularism on him, supposing I had any desire to do so.)

But even in Christian terms, why not concentrate on any one of the innumerable things in which there is much less good to be found, if any, rather than trying to force his views on people who are genuinely in love, want only to be able to marry, and do not accept any of the religious views on which Rod bases his view that gay marriage is wrong?