Thursday, August 29, 2013

What I Was Thinking When I Should Have Been Finding You All Music

Let the record state that I appreciate that Bottom is not, himself, in favor of the Church being A-OK with same sex marriage.  To characterize what Bottom as offering as an argument in favor of same sex marriage is to oversimplify what he has written.  But what Bottom's article does do, pretty undeniably, is present a sort of case for drawing back from direct engagement in the debate.  Not because Bottom thinks the Catholic position is wrong, but because he thinks—given the current cultural situation, and the way the debate has gone so far—that it is more advisable, strategically, to draw back, regroup.

It is actually a very Thomas Moresian position, in a way—silence on the matter of the King's marriage, and all that.  Moreover, there is no reason to think that Bottom, were he faced with More's situation in the end, would not make the choice More made.  (I know there are a lot of negatives in that sentence, but it really is a compliment.  Promise.)  It just so happens that I think More was quite right and Bottom quite wrong—different stakes, different issue, different situation.  If for no other reason, the purely structural, constitutional facts that (1) we have no king and (2) it is not treason to disagree with him make our modern situation both less hair-raising and far messier.  More had a pretty clear duty to protect his family as far as he possibly could.  We also have that duty—but what protecting our families means—is not so easy for us to tell as it was for More.

Thus much for my exculpation or defense of Bottom.  I still think, like the gentle Douthat and the raucous Feser, that Bottom should not have published the piece.

Regarding the Feser response in particular, I think that what Feser does do well (albeit in his usual controversiarian way) is to point out that the places where Bottom leans towards saying "we should all be OK with this in the civil arena" are places where his musings really don't make much sense.  And that is a thing worth pointing out, even if Bottom didn't mean them to.  Which ... goes to my basic countercomplaint with Bottom (counter to his defense of his piece in the interview):

There's nothing wrong with writing this kind of essay.  I like this kind of writing myself—that is, I like writing it.  Frequently I even like reading it.  It is an inherently self-indulgent form of expression, and all writers, being egoists at some level who like to hear ourselves talk, tend to "do like this" if we are not restrained by the red pen of some interior or exterior editor.  I, who write like a Victorian for fun, and never saw a compound sentence with three subordinate clauses that I didn't like, am a sucker for this style of musing reminiscence.  And I, who love detective stories and pull-the-wool-over novels like Emma, enjoy attempting to trick the reader and to be tricked in my turn, by learning to believe the author is leaning towards one thing when he actually is leaning towards another.

BUT, regardless of all that, the prudence of publishing this kind of piece, and in Commonweal, is—well, it was just awfully imprudent of Bottom.  Irresponsibly imprudent of Bottom.  If he didn't realize that people would react the way they did, then he is far more innocent than a man with his experience should be, or a man with his brains has a right to be.  Bottom may not have failed on logic; indeed, he can't have failed, if he wasn't (and he says he wasn't) really trying to be logical in the first place.  But he failed on rhetoric.  Or—let me be more precise—he did not fail if he wanted to create the sense of perplexity, the confusion, and the suspension of understanding that is a good part of a good mystery novel, and perhaps a small part of any good novel regardless of its genre.  But he failed, I fear, in his responsibility as a Catholic public intellectual.  We do not all have the luxury of speaking as unclearly as we would like.

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