Turning the Tables: The Decadence of 2007 and 2015

Though I am a professor in the humanities, I don’t like throwing around the quote about having to study history so we don’t repeat it.  While that quote sounds good, I doubt it’s true.  Most colossally bad ideas, like trying to turn Afghanistan into Denmark, or turning male Olympians into full-time Sophia Loren impersonators, or selling poor women’s aborted fetuses piecemeal to organ brokers, or putting gay men in charge of teenage Boy Scouts on camping trips, are things that could have been avoided with common sense.

Yet who can resist the urge to summon history as we watch the tragedy/thriller of Planned Parenthood? The wickedness of wine-swigging, Lamborghini-pimping, and wheeling-and-dealing merchants of carnal wreckage is so exceptional in its Poe-like creepiness, we find ourselves needing some examples from the past to compare this to.  Otherwise, we might imagine that we’re just clinically insane and imagining the whole sublime affair.

A word comes to mind – not “barbarism,” but rather “decadence.”  No other word captures the essence of our current moment, in the wake of Justice Kennedy’s carte blanche for gay parenting in Obergefell v. Hodges, and in light of the demonic images of abortionists bartering away the organic remains of children killed inside the wombs of poor, frightened women at Planned Parenthood clinics.  (In Humanum Review, I published a piece laying out the problematic redefinition of children as objects for human use and abuse as part of gay marriage’s advancing; we seem now to see Obergefell and Roe meeting in a perfect storm of babies manufactured, discarded, and recycled by a society steeped in adult narcissism.)

History can help make sense of this.  Think of eight years ago, at the analogous stage in Bush’s lame-duck second term.  Saddled with the nauseating images of burnt corpses in Baghdad and pornographic torture chambers at Abu Ghraib, the American right wing was in a stage of high decadence.  There were many longstanding gripes the left had had with the religious, nationalist, and nominally free-market populace that had amassed under George W. Bush’s Rovian coterie, but it was the imagery of the Iraq War that overturned the moral mandate conservatives had assumed after September 11.  The scandals and embarrassing code-words came in cascades – Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Plamegate, Scooter Libby, Gonzales resigning, Rove’s departure, Rumsfeld shown the door, “antigay,” “largest deficit in history,” Cindy Sheehan, Hurricane Katrina, Walter Reed Hospital – but were it not for those images from the Middle East, I wager that Rove’s team could have talked conservatives out of most of their messes.

Certain things stick with people.  Usually, visual things.  And thus it came to pass that circa 2007, the Bush machine was running on fumes; their vast assembly of talking points, explanations, saccharine appeals, and shiny objects could no longer convince anyone. The left was emboldened with the most precious of all assets when a political camp is thirsty for revolution – the moral high ground.  They were helped by a sneaking suspicion among independents that perhaps there was a kernel of truth to Michael Moore’s documentaries.

The pictures of torture and dead children in Iraqi towns prevailed.  Few who were defending Bush’s record really believed what they were saying.  Those who did came across as so brainwashed, they looked pitiful.

The left’s current position is not exactly the same as the right’s was in 2007, yet the tables have turned in many ways.  Jon Stewart has left the building.  Ed Schultz’s show is canceled.  The Democrats are stuck trying to convince a tired and weary public that they ought to get excited by the thought of a septuagenarian liberal woman with an unsecured email account running our government, which has become the hyper-militarized, economically corrupt, and nasty police state that Barack Obama was elected to undo.  In times like this H.L. Mencken must feel particularly vindicated.  He said long ago: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Alas, Hurricane Katrina was a decade ago.  I wonder if some liberals are nostalgic for an era when, in the eyes of the public, liberals didn’t run anything, so they could carry on for months at a time about society’s problems, without ever having to fix things.  The Obama presidency stole the comfort of that powerlessness from them.  They must face, at the bottom of Deborah Nucatola’s wine glass, that they are just as mean, stupid, and murderous as the right-wingers they made careers out of criticizing.  The only difference is that the left, having prided itself on being irreligious, is denied the consolation of the come-to-Jesus moments that soothe conservatives facing decadent times.

The low profile of God on the left makes their side of table, once the tables have turned, look embarrassingly smaller and more vicious than the right looked eight years ago.  Liberals are doubling down on their own monstrousness where some modicum of decency led people like Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly to admit the wrongs of their own side.

The left-wing blogosphere is unworried.  They assume that their usual tactics of blowing off serious challenges to their sanctimony are going to work.  Unfortunately for them, Jon Stewart is bowing out of late-night comedy.  To pick up his slack, we have foul-mouthed hubris from denialists like Rebecca Watson, whose response to the whole controversy bears the classy title “Planned Parenthood is Not Selling Baby Body Parts, You F****** Idiots.”  No longer capable of mustering the humor that once distinguished liberals as the hip political class, they hang on to the caustic irreverence that’s funny only when there’s some dashing satire attached to it.  Mean-spirited invective can be dazzling when there’s an intelligent point to be made.  In the case of Watson, it’s just a shamefully clueless and spoiled girl swearing on the internet and calling people far smarter than herself idiots.

There is another option for liberals who do not want to leave traces of cringe-worthy denial to the archives of online history.  They can adapt Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” but with no punchline.  Slate reminds us that donated fetal tissue can help adults who suffer from diseases that scientists combat with stem cell research.  The next phase, for which we should all brace ourselves, will involve Salon’s Joan Walsh musing that baby organs have high protein content that can really help undernourished people too poor to buy vitamins.

Preface: I don’t even know why I bring up history anymore

I used to assume that everyone has read Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” so I was surprised that many of these “we need baby organs to save middle-aged adults with diseases” articles lacked the self-awareness to realize they were rewriting an old satire as grotesquerie.  But I realized, nobody reads anything of substance anymore.  And my profession – I am a professor – bears an enormous amount of the blame.

Soon all universities will be like the College of Humanities where I work.  To wit, I work for a college of humanities that has no humanities program, no history department at all (they were moved to the school of behavioral sciences years ago), and a classics program on the verge of disappearing (they are down to two classicists – me and a gentleman who is close to retirement age, but I am based primarily in English).  The general education tracks offered through my College of Humanities consist of:

  • “arts, media, and culture” (where students “formulate their own criteria for responsible aesthetic judgments attuned to the differences of class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, and national identity and to create and compose their own artistic works”)
  • “evolutionary thinking” (where students “identify a number of ways in which evolutionary theory informs a variety of academic disciplines from the humanities to the natural and social sciences”)
  • “sustainability” (where students “understand how concepts of sustainability are connected to issues of social justice, the environment, and the economy at local, regional, and global levels”)
  • “social justice” (where students “analyze the ways that socially determined beliefs and expectations associated with race, ethnicity, nation, religion, developmental challenges, gender, and/or sexuality become institutionalized and facilitate and/or limit people’s ability to exercise and enjoy equal social, political, and economic rights”)
  • “health and wellness” (where students “understand that wellness includes the ability of people and communities to reach their full potential by removing both personal and societal barriers”)
  • “global studies”(where students “explore political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of contemporary globalization, the historical antecedents of globalization, and the diverse consequences of globalization including how it influences traditional culture, identity, media, markets, the boundaries and power of nation-states, and the environment”)

These six “pathways” are more commonly known as feeling good about yourself (as long as you are not a straight white Christian male), climate change dogma, the official platform of the Democratic Party, how to mock religion, and making straight white Christian men feel guilty about their privilege.

Instead of history and the great books, the College of Humanities where I work has Gender & Women’s Studies, Queer Studies, Central American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicana/o Studies (be careful with that A & O), Jewish Studies, Religious Studies (don’t get any ideas – there’ll be no “Bible-thumping” there), Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, Philosophy, Liberal Studies, and my department, English.

Most English majors are actually specializing in creative writing, but they do take one course in American literature prior to 1900.  That’s my course, and I like to say they’ll have to pry it out of my dead, cold hands.  Every time I make such jokes, I get called in for another 90-day investigation.

There are plenty of students who come to Cal State Northridge to be professional writers, filmmakers, reporters, artists, and performers, but they do not have to come to the College of Humanities for any of their major coursework.  Other colleges house art, theater, media & visual arts, cinema & television, journalism, communications, and graphic design.  Nobody seems troubled by the fact that all the latter professions have been solemnly disassociated from the great classics, which predated and founded the arts these pupils hope to develop.

The pre-law program is housed in the Political Science department, which is kept away under the school of behavioral sciences along with history, anthropology, and urban studies.  Why should future lawyers worry about Plato, never mind Virgil?  Why should theater majors be in the same college as the Shakespeare scholars?  Why should journalists writing about marriage law or adoption have to read Medea or Tom Jones?

Day in and day out, on my campus of forty thousand Californians, people look happy in their quarrelsome coteries, nourished with all their backdoor deals and content with what seems, in the name of liberal arts education, to be quite illiberal and discombobulated.  We are in the San Fernando Valley, after all, wedged strategically between Burbank studios and a plethora of porn companies.

I have long thought of lobbying for my college to be renamed the College of Inhumanities, since the entire cacophony of political slogans and identity politics that constitutes our college is united in one sole article of faith: there is no such thing as a universal humanity.  There are only arbitrary feelings of pious indignation and begrudging entitlements, doled out to whichever Balkanized group manages to attract the most media sympathy and government earmarks.  In the academic world where I struggle to keep alive the virtues that drew me to literary study, the unofficial doctrine is that nothing bridges sociological difference, no values or dignities are capable of overcoming the self-interest of self-appointed victims, and therefore the notion of “humanity” as a transcendent qualifier worth elevating over animals, machines, natural resources, or waste is impossible.

There are no humans.  There are only bodies, which are really no different from objects.  Want one?  You can design one at a fertility clinic.  Disappointed?  Abort it.  The tissues can be recycled to help a different consumer who can make better use of them.  This is, in countless ways, more evil than the moral rut into which the Republicans fell by 2007 – far more sinister, darker, more terrifying.

Robert Oscar Lopez is the author of Colorful Conservative and Jephthah’s Daughters.  His work can be tracked at English Manif.