In graduate school at Cambridge, a group of us once played a bizarre card game one of our philosophers made up.
There were a few procedural rules for taking turns, but basically everyone had their own rule for winning, that is, their own distinct purpose and objective in the game. If you decided that your purpose was to hold all the jokers, or to hold both black kings but never the red kings, or to hold only the two of spades, then upon achieving this objective, you won. In fact, you could go on for quite a while without anyone ever guessing your rule, and so you could keep winning. And your neighbor, similarly could keep winning. But if anyone guessed your objective during play, then you lost your hand, and were out of the game. The longer you played, the more you figured out the objectives of other players. So it was really a game of bluffing about your ultimate ends. But the game necessarily excluded the objectives of the many, and rewarded those who could veil their objectives long enough to dominate and have victory over all.
I have often thought of this bizarre — and I must add, very discomfiting and disorienting — game as the perfect metaphor for a certain kind of liberalism. The kind of liberalism which claims neutrality with respect to the ends of life, liberty and happiness — goods which can only find their end and purpose in God — is very much like this philosopher's card game. It may seem like a game which allows people to share in a common thing, but as the game goes on it becomes clear that there is no common thing at all, and despite the pretense of neutrality about ends, it guaranteed only one end. The game can go on for quite some time, but in the end it is a game for Thrasymachus — the advantage always goes to the strongest who seek to unite us to their ends, to whatever vision of the highest good can rule.
At the end of yet another post-Obergefell Pride Month, I can't help but sense that this game is happening in America — courtesy of the liberalism of ends. It wasn't too long ago that a tiny percentage of the population went from asking for the right to see their beloved friends in the hospital, to asking for a redefinition of marriage so they could live quiet bourgeois lives together which wouldn't bother anyone else at all, to forcing bakers to make cakes, to redefining sex education in public schools for the many, to men having periods and dominating women's sports, to so-called trans kids twerking on floats in pride parades draped in flags which now are as much about the winning hand of elite sexual desire as corporate virtue signaling. Things have escalated quickly.
When President Obama lit up the White House after Obergefell with the colors of the pride flag, it felt like that card game all over again — a game in which the common thing was defeated, and the hand of identity politics won yet another round in the game of liberal ends. On a well-traveled road near my neighborhood, I frequently see a million-dollar home proudly flying an American flag that has substituted the red and white stripes for the colors of the pride flag. It is a consistent development after the Supreme Court, the White House, and Corporate America all indicated their obeisance to the new standard. But what kind of standard is it?
And no one can argue that it hasn’t dominated. In truth, pride is a standard which cannot tolerate a common good. It must take away from the good which is common, and become the part which rules over the whole.
It is not a truly American standard. It does not represent a common thing, or a common object of love, in which we can all participate. It is an exceptional standard. A standard built around sexual desire, identity and power is something which we can rightly call "pride". St Augustine called it libido dominandi — the lust for domination. And no one can argue that it hasn't dominated. In truth, pride is a standard which cannot tolerate a common good. It must take away from the good which is common, and become the part which rules over the whole.
But there are signs that pride goeth before a fall. Even a tireless proponent of the cause such as Andrew Sullivan has expressed concern that the percentage of young men who consider themselves "allies" has nearly been cut in half since 2016, from 62% to only 35%. Sullivan writes:
"The turn began in the year that the Obama administration — with no public discussion or congressional support — imposed critical gender theory on America's high schools, determining sex to be whatever a student says it is. The imposition of trans ideology by fiat on the entire country's young — along with severe public stigma for those with even the slightest questions — was almost textbook left authoritarianism. Well meant, perhaps. But dictatorial."
The standard of sin always depletes people precisely by dominating them, enslaving not only souls, but whole nations. Pride is the standard for the desires of the few dominating the many. As Augustine writes, "I cannot refrain from speaking about…a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination." It's the city of that card game.
Pride Month is over. And now America can turn to a better flag. In the meantime, Catholics should help their fellow Americans look to a better city.
Chad Pecknold. "The Pride flag flies everywhere. But what does it stand for?" Catholic Herald (July 2, 2019).
Reprinted with permission of the Catholic Herald. The Catholic Herald is a London-based magazine, established as a newspaper in 1888 and published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash
Chad Pecknold received his PhD from the University of Cambridge (UK) and since 2008 he has been a Professor of Historical & Systematic Theology in the School of Theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He teaches in the areas of fundamental theology, Christian anthropology, and political theology. Pecknold is the author of a number scholarly articles and books including most recently, Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History and The T&T Clark Companion to Augustine and Modern Theology. Dr. Pecknold is also a frequent contributor to debates in the public square, writing regular columns for First Things and National Review on a range of topics related to the importance and impact of Church teaching on social and political questions.Copyright © 2019 Catholic Herald
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