Goldberg the Idealist versus Gladwell the Reichian

[I]magine I was out of the loop and asked someone why Jeffrey Toobin lost his gig at The New Yorker and the answer was, “He pleasured himself on a Zoom call in front of his colleagues and boss.” I might have a lot of questions, but “Why was he fired?” really wouldn’t be one.

Apparently, that just shows I’m ensconced in a bourgeois, Judeo-Christian mindset.

From the New York Times:

Malcolm Gladwell, one of the magazine’s best known contributors, said in an interview: “I read the Condé Nast news release, and I was puzzled because I couldn’t find any intellectual justification for what they were doing. They just assumed he had done something terrible, but never told us what the terrible thing was. And my only feeling — the only way I could explain it — was that Condé Nast had taken an unexpected turn toward traditional Catholic teaching.”

[A]s doctors sometimes say about how to diagnose a patient, “If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

If you read a press release announcing that a 60-year-old man—with a checkered sexual history—was fired for going into manual override at a meeting and the “only way” you can explain it is that the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Glamour has made a shocking right turn toward Rome, you’re not even hearing zebras—you’ve spotted a herd of unicorns.

What is strange about Gladwell’s conclusion is that he’s the sort of guy who would normally argue that taboos about sexual behavior don’t spring up ex nihilo. The story in Genesis that Gladwell cites—which, for what it’s worth, was already on the scroll shelves long before the Catholic Church was founded—surely has analogs in other cultures. I don’t know this for sure, but I strongly suspect that Jeffrey Toobin would get fired from many of the leading magazines in most Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian societies for similar behavior. Has Conde Nast taken an unexpected turn toward Koranic social teaching?

More to the point, Gladwell seems incapable not only of finding fault with Toobin’s behavior, but incapable of assigning blame to his own side’s moral system. Conde Nast, which no doubt is decidedly on the MeToo side of all these debates, made a mistake in Gladwell’s eyes. Okay. But one doesn’t have to suddenly imagine that the owners of Teen Vogue have gone Opus Dei to explain why MeToo-ers might have a problem with men exposing themselves to colleagues. The scalps of Matt Lauer, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, et al, weren’t collected by Catholic Torquemadas; they were collected by Gladwell’s friends, colleagues, and peers.

Jonah Goldberg, Morality as a Foreign Language (emphasis added).

I was as puzzled by Gladwell’s moral tone-deafness as Gladwell is by Condé Nast’s decision, and I think I found the answer in one of today’s blogs from the still-if-only-occasionally-useful First Things (whose Editor-in-Chief, Rusty Reno, became far too Trumpy for me over the last quadrennium).

Carlo Lancelloiti, who translated works of philosopher Augusto Del Noce into English, explains that Del Noce was frustrated by his fellow Catholics’ failure to correctly assess the sexual revolution. It was not just a relaxation of modesty standards:

In reality, he explained, what they were facing was “a condemnation of modesty as abnormal …” These words encapsulate what he considered the worst possible misunderstanding of the sexual revolution: as a slackening of morals. Looser sexual morality may have been its practical result, and was probably how common people experienced it, but it was absolutely not how the sexual revolution was conceived by the many writers, filmmakers, therapists, journalists, and intellectuals who advocated for it. To them it was not a moral slackening but a moral quickening. It meant freeing people from irrational and oppressive taboos, harmonizing morality and nature, reconciling life and science. The revolution was “in its own way” intransigently moral—it just inhabited a different ethical universe. This is why, Del Noce wrote, “any ‘dialogue’ with the advocates of sexual liberalization is perfectly useless, simply because they start by denying a priori the metaphysics that is the source of what they regard as ‘repressive’ morality” …

In order to explain the “philosophy” of the sexual revolution, Del Noce refers to the works of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich … Del Noce summarizes Reich’s programmatic book The Sexual Revolution … as follows:

Reich’s thought is based on the premise . . . that there is no order of ends, no meta-empirical authority of values. Any trace not just of Christianity but of “idealism” in the broadest sense . . . is eliminated. What is man reduced to, then, if not to a bundle of physical needs? When these needs are satisfied—when, in short, every repression is removed—he will be happy . . . Having taken away every order of ends and eliminated every authority of values, all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality . . . Hence, the core element of life will be sexual happiness. And since full sexual satisfaction is possible, happiness is within reach.

Reich’s approach is crudely scientistic: Sexuality has no symbolic meaning and no intrinsic finality—such as the procreation of children—while “sexual happiness” (as psychological well-being) enjoys the status of supreme human goal and takes on great social and political significance

Carlo Lancellotti, The Origins of Sexual Totalitarianism (emphasis added)

Oddly enough, the “scientism” of Reich does not require moral neutrality, as most scientisms profess. He finds a new morality to be derived from science:

The following sentence from The Sexual Revolution sums it up nicely: “Religion should not be fought, but any interference with the right to carry the findings of natural science to the masses and with the attempts to secure their sexual happiness should not be tolerated.” Del Noce rephrases it as follows: “the Church is tolerated only to the extent that she does not take any stance on the moral assertions that supposedly derive from science, understood as the only valid form of knowledge.

(Italics added)

In this light, Gladwell showed admirable restraint by acting bewildered by, not outraged at, Toobin’s dismissal for public wanking which, after all, was a rejection of the evil of modesty in Toobin’s — ahem! — single-minded pursuit of sexual happiness, the summum bonum.


Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose

You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.

W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (PDF)

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff here or join me and others on micro.blog. You won’t find me on Facebook any more, and I don’t post on Twitter (though I do have an account for occasional gawking).

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