Friday, October 06, 2006

The Head, It Hurts

By which opening you can tell that I've been reading David Brooks again. He is an addiction...

Brooks opines on the relative morality of conservatives and liberals by juxtaposing Mark Foley's predatorgate to..... a play! Yup. In Brooks's world imaginary depictions of sex with minors are every bit as bad as actual events, and writing about such depictions means that one condones them:

This is a tale of two predators. The first is a congressman who befriended teenage pages. He sent them cajoling instant messages asking them to describe their sexual habits, so he could get his jollies.

The second is a secretary, who invited a 13-year-old girl from her neighborhood into her car and kissed her. Then she invited the girl up to her apartment, gave her some vodka, took off her underwear and gave her a satin teddy to wear.

Then she had sex with the girl, which was interrupted when the girl's mother called. Then she made the girl masturbate in front of her and taught her some new techniques.

The first predator, of course, is Mark Foley, the Florida congressman. The second predator is a character in Eve Ensler's play, "The Vagina Monologues."

Foley is now universally reviled. But the Ensler play, which depicts the secretary's affair with the 13-year-old as a glorious awakening, is revered. In the original version of the play, the under-age girl declares, "I say, if it was a rape, it was a good rape, then, a rape that turned my [vagina] into a kind of heaven." When I saw Ensler perform the play several years ago in New York, everyone roared in approval. Ensler has since changed the girl's age to 16 — the age of Foley's pages — and audiences still embrace the play and that scene at colleges and in theaters around the world.

But why is one sexual predator despised and the other celebrated?

I guess the basket of smears is pretty empty if all one has left to toss at the horrible enemies are tales about fictional characters.

Brooks then goes on to explain that liberals and progressives embrace selfishness and that conservatives are worried about the social fabric being torn apart:

Ensler's audiences are reacting to the exuberant voice of the young girl, who narrates the scene. They're embracing — at least in the fantasy world of the theater — a moral code that's been called expressive individualism. Under this code, the core mission of life is to throw off the shackles of social convention and to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Behavior is not wrong if it feels good and doesn't hurt anybody else. Sex is not wrong so long as it is done by mutual consent.


But there's another and older code, and people seem to be returning to this older code to judge Mark Foley. Under this older code, we are defined not by our individual choices but by our social roles.

Under this code, when an adult seduces a child, it tears the social fabric that joins all adults and all children. When a congressman flirts with a page, it tears the social trust that undergirds the entire page program. When an adult seduces a teenager, it ruptures the teenagers' bond with his family, and harms the bonds joining all families.

But what if all these things could be done in secret, so that the social fabric isn't affected at all? And what about abolishing slavery? It tore up the social fabric pretty bad. No, the real reason for being upset about the sexual harassment of children is not that it tears up the social fabric, because this tearing-up might be done for both good and bad reasons. The real reason is that it's wrong and that children don't have the power to defend themselves.

I'm pretty sure that Brooks has changed his basic philosophy about life quite recently. Only a few weeks ago he wrote this:

Consider all the theories put forward to explain personality. Freud argued that early family experiences relating to defecation and genital stimulation created unconscious states that influenced behavior through life. In the 1950's, the common view was that humans begin as nearly blank slates and that behavior is learned through stimulus and response. Over the ages, thinkers have argued that humans are divided between passion and reason, or between the angelic and the demonic.

But now the prevailing view is that brain patterns were established during the millenniums when humans were hunters and gatherers, and we live with the consequences.

Now, it is generally believed, our behavior is powerfully influenced by genes and hormones. Our temperaments are shaped by whether we happened to be born with the right mix of chemicals.

Consciousness has come to be seen as this relatively weak driver, riding atop an organ, the brain, it scarcely understands. When we read that male voles with longer vasopressin genes are more likely to remain monogamous, it seems plausible that so fundamental a quality could be tied to some discrete bit of biology.

This shift in how we see human behavior is bound to have huge effects. Freudianism encouraged people to think about destroying inhibitions. This new understanding both validates ancient stereotypes about the sexes, and fuzzes up moral judgments about human responsibility (biology inclines individuals toward certain virtues and vices).

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

But now he thinks differently:

This older code emphasizes not so much individual exploration as social ecology. It's based on the idea that people are primarily shaped by the moral order around them, which is engraved upon their minds via a million events and habits. Individuals are not defined by their lifestyle preferences but by their social functions as parents, job-holders and citizens, and the way they contribute to the shared moral order.

In this view, the social fabric is a precious thing, always in danger. And what Foley, and the character in the Ensler play, did was wrong, consent or no consent, because of the effects on the wider ecology.

As I said: The head, it hurts.