The End of the Affair


The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.

As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed Catholic writers. Greene is my favorite modern novelist, and I’m the rare bird who finds the second half of Brideshead as enjoyable as the first. I like the fact that they seem to come to god so grudgingly; it lends credence to their conviction, as they, or their characters, are dragged kicking and screaming—or, well, mooning and whining—toward an inevitable appointment with the “appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” So when I encounter an exuberant display of Catholicism, as I often do in the work of Ross Douthat, the springiest peacock in the Alcázarian gardens of the New York Times, I have my doubts as to whether what I’m reading is real or just a trick of light on the feathers.

“The retreat from child rearing is, at some level . . .” Rarely do you find a phrase working as mightily to support the rickety edifice balanced above it as that at some level. Rarely do you find a single gesture that stands out so glaringly from the movement all around it, a single bow going the wrong direction among the violins. If you’re going to accuse the West of exhaustion and decadence, you really need to drop the silk glove and draw the sword. It’s worth noting, at some level, that the company one keeps when one starts shot-putting decadence and exhaustion consists of Islamic fundamentalists, former Soviets, and mid-century fascists. Well, actually, those guys (they are all guys) have a point; the capitalistic West is decadent. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and all that. But, while Bishop Douthat trims his tree with moral directives to the generations now living and those yet to come, the base is drinking from a shallow think tank full of MBA-styled phrases like “America’s demographic edge.”

So you see, the divine imperative to reproduce logarithmically is really about guarding a competitive advantage, and the commandment to go forth and multiply is to be read as a metaphor for GDP growth and a sustainable path for entitlement program funding. Each child is a unit of production; each retirement a cost; and Christ cries Why Has Thou Forsaken Me? from his perch where the  marginal cost and marginal benefit curves cross. If you want decadence, this is decadence, a society in which the act of sexual reproduction is as holy as the latest All Users email from HR.

Douthat isn’t alone in worrying about the slowing domestic production of Human Beings ®. Even The New Republic devoted a whole cover story to the Very Serious Problem of old ladies giving birth to retards. They go to lengths to phrase it very delicately in the language of pathology and neuroscience, but that is the fundamental concern. The freedom to delay childbirth may render our children eugenically unfit to rule the world that we have conquered for them. The partial liberation of women from their biological clocks may doom us to idiocracy. Or worse, a white minority, since only rich white ladies have the economic freedom and the health insurance to control their wombs.

All this makes for a pretty tawdry prelude to the vast outpouring of public grief over last week’s Connecticut rampage. Our most precious commodity struck down by our most fundamental constitutional right. I’m surprised the simultaneous occurrence of these two things didn’t tear a hole in the fabric of the universe itself.

What you will not hear in the crushingly predictable debate about guns, “freedom,” and security that we’re about to endure for the thousandth time is that our society is so terrifically violent because we don’t really value human life except as instrumental to other ends—economic production, the global war on terror, winning the future against China, whatever. Life has little value in and of itself; in the American worldview, we are all either future middle managers or future terrorists, depending mostly on the chance of the geography of our birth; the death of the former is to be lamented, the latter, if not cheered, ignored. But what makes them similar, those extinguished lives, is that for all our protestations to the contrary, we cannot value life as life; the very idea is antithetical to the manner in which our culture assigns value.

One of our more popular current entertainments features the specter of a desiccated future North America in which children are pitted against each other in gladiatorial combat; the rich are rewarded with exaltation, the poor with grief, but for everyone, the result is entertainment, diversion from their gray and daily lives. As the news continues and you find yourself diverted and horrified by the dreadful, inevitable drip-drip of grotesque forensic and psychological detail, well, are you not entertained?