A Mencken for Catholics

A “rascal,” declared American satirist Ambrose Bierce, is “a fool considered under another aspect.” “Wit,” alternatively, is “the salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.” Prolific author and professor Anthony Esolen in his new book Sex and the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind expertly considers many of the former, and perhaps unintentionally, accomplishes this feat with plenty of the latter. Perhaps Esolen is worthy of the moniker “American Catholicism’s H.L. Mencken” (albeit a far more charitable one).

Sex and the Unreal City is a clever, pithy assault on the ironic absurdities and irrationality of our notions of education, politics, and sex, among other things. Academics, says Esolen, are “undereducated, and overschooled.” Describing a mandated “seminar on the new-and-improved methods of education,” Esolen declares: “I could not get into the specifics of it, because there were no specifics.” He recounts a story of one professor who said that students should study “something that will be of use to you in the Real World, like feminist sociology.” 

Esolen accuses contemporary academia of rent-seeking. “We might call it a monopoly, a cartel, or a turnpike. The principle is the same. You control the only means by which ordinary people can get something ordinary done. They must cross the river at this point, and you hold the bridge.” Because American colleges control the bridge into successful professional careers—even if bordering on the prohibitively expensive, given average student debt—its own ineptitude is often overlooked or excused. Courses with titles like “Shakespeare and…,” actually mean “Not Shakespeare but Gender,” or “Not Shakespeare but Race,” states Esolen.

If we’re going to talk about university culture, we should also talk about sex, since they are the normalizers of what was once considered obscene. In a demonstration of why Esolen is no longer allowed in “polite” liberal society, he observes that homosexuals “sow seed where seed don’t go.” He is just as blunt regarding transgenderism. “We want to believe that our words can alter reality…. If a man claims to be a woman, which he can never be, and demands to be addressed as such, he is not merely asking for right etiquette. He is demanding that we enter his delusion.” The Magdalen College writer-in-residence reminds readers that there are more than six thousand physical differences between males and females. But, you know, she feels like a man.

His condemnation of abortion is just as forthright, and just as welcome. “The unborn child, at whatever stage we wish to name, is not a part of the mother, like a thumb. It has its own genetic code.” He continues: “In Roe v. Wade (1973), they ripped from the husband any say in the matter of his wife’s decision to kill their unborn child.” I’d never thought of it that way, but is it not the truth? The man, to quote comedian Jim Gaffigan, may only contribute to procreation “for five seconds,” but without the male, there ain’t no baby. Why, then, do men have no legal right to dispute an abortion? Are not men legal guardians of their children when they are born? 

Speaking of politics in our fraught, woke age, Esolen has sobering indictments there, too. He declares political correctness to be misnamed: “It abolishes the arena of the polis.” Look around in 2020, a year defined by hatred and vilification of the other for refusing to bow to the idols of wokeness, if you need proof. Considering the “Hate has no place here” signs that have become ubiquitous in liberal-leaning neighborhoods, Esolen remarks that they stand “without a trace of self-awareness or irony.” Who, he asks, is the real fundamentalist here, “so obstreperous and obtuse that he cannot begin to entertain another opinion?” Perhaps the New York Times, whose idea of what opinions are “fit to print,” grows narrower by the year.

Channeling Neal Postman, author of the prophetic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Esolen notes, “we no longer have speeches, properly speaking. We have commercials. Everything is a commercial…. There are no arguments, then. There are no debates. There are only commercials.” We exist in a nauseating politics of vapid virtue-signalling—how many Americans whose profiles in June proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” now feature cartoonish images of RBG as a superhero? “Toys and toymakers can become president,” says Esolen.

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