Carl R. Trueman | Its technologically enabled logic has more in common with a strand of feminism
Dave Rubin (left) and David Janet’s announcement on social media last weekTwitter/@RubinReport
One of the hallmarks of this present age is our growing inability in Western society to define anything with any degree of cogency. As J.K. Rowling has pointed out repeatedly, the concept of “woman” is now a matter of bitter debate and not, as it was until the day before yesterday, something that was essentially tied to biology, even if some cultural variation regarding what constituted femininity has always existed. But it is not simply those words targeted by the mainstreaming of the least plausible aspects of modern academic theory that have plunged into the abyss of incoherence. Others have become victims too, not least the whole notion of conservatism.
What is modern conservatism? Is it the “Christian nationalism” that haunts the nightmares of so many evangelical elites? Is it working-class populism that pits itself against the claims of the privileged panjandrums of the progressive political class? Is it just code for a rejection of any notion of progress? Is it a radical libertarianism? Or is it the vision, now an increasingly forlorn hope, that was set forth in book after book by the late great Roger Scruton and inspired so many of us over the years? The answer, I suspect, is that all of the above are considered by somebody somewhere to be “conservatism.”
Nowhere is this problem seen more dramatically, yet seductively, than in the rise of “gay conservatism.” The recent Twitter announcement by right-wing pundit Dave Rubin that he and his same-sex partner are expecting two children later this year is a case in point. The post plays powerfully to the spirit of our age: two attractive and charming young men smiling with delight as they display the sonograms of the children they will be welcoming into the world. The moral narrative is what we might term an aesthetic one: The visible happiness of the couple is the key thing, and that plays to the spirit of our age. There is no larger moral vision by which the picture is to be judged.The moral vision here is that whatever makes the modern man or woman happy and which technology makes possible must be good. That may be the spirit of the age, but it is not the spirit of conservatism.
There must, of course, be a larger moral vision, no matter how overwhelmed it is by the photogenic nature of the subjects. The creation of new life, and the circumstances surrounding such, is something of pressing importance not simply to the couple involved but to society at large. The moral vision here is that whatever makes the modern man or woman happy and which technology makes possible must be good. That may be the spirit of the age, but it is not the spirit of conservatism.
Conservatism and same-sex marriage are incompatible because, whatever else conservatism is, it respects the basic boundaries and limitations of what it means to be human and thus the limits that places on human relationships. The latter denies this, even if it can on occasion couch itself in the trappings of domestic traditions originally built upon such limitations, as here in the winsome picture of two people anticipating parenthood. But this is not parenthood that respects human limitations, such as sex difference of parents or of the child as a created gift rather than a manufactured commodity, whatever the personal sentiments or intentions of the adults involved. It is a form of human relationship made possible by the marriage of technological capabilities, late modern moral tastes, and a basic rejection of the natural structure of reproductive relationships.
In fact, gay conservatism has more in common with an increasingly influential strand of revolutionary thought than with conservatism more broadly considered: cyborg feminism. This was a strain of feminist thinking developed in the 1970s and ’80s by thinkers such as Shulamith Firestone and Donna Haraway. This was a feminism that looked to technology, specifically reproductive technology, to shatter all distinctions between the sexes. And at the center of this was the matter of reproduction: By using technology to conceive children, the burden (as they saw it) of motherhood would finally be lifted off the shoulders of women and the last great oppressive division of labor—that which naturally existed between men and women—would be abolished. This note has recently been picked up and developed by contemporary feminist Sophie Lewis in her campaign for what she dubs “gestational justice.” It is no coincidence that cyborg feminism is trans-affirming, for biological sex is merely a condition that technology must be used to overcome.
Gay conservatism is much the same, only more so with the attempt to be more tasteful and less threatening in its aesthetics. It repudiates traditional marriage while parasitically feeding off its traditional trappings to give its revolutionary character a veneer of traditionalism and an emotionally attractive appeal. Yet gay surrogacy is the move that gives the game away: It operates with precisely the kind of technologically enabled logic outlined by Firestone, Haraway, and Lewis, all of whom were far more honest—or perhaps merely more astute and self-conscious—about the implications of their thought. Those implications are as socially and politically revolutionary as anything advocated by Firestone and Haraway, and the tragedy is that its conservative advocates do not seem to understand that. Cyborg conservatism, like gay conservatism, is no conservatism at all. Not even close.
Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.