Who could have predicted that Jim Breuer and Dave Chappelle, co-stars in the 1998 stoner comedy Half Baked, would, more than twenty years later, be the new darlings of the Right for repudiating liberal shibboleths? Breuer, whose comedy routine ridicules transgenderism and pandemic mandates, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show in September to explain why he was cancelling shows that require proof of vaccination. Chappelle is basking in conservative praise because his special “The Closer” is being labeled “transphobic.” As Brian, Breuer’s doper character in Half Baked, might say: “I’m not gonna do what everyone thinks I’m gonna do and . . . FLIP OUT, man . . . all I wanna know is . . . who’s coming with me? Who’s coming, man?”
A common thread unites Breuer’s and Chappelle’s tension with the liberal world of comedy and Hollywood: an independent streak that bristles at attempts to constrain their autonomy. In this sense, they represent what we Americans have long perceived as the everyday hero: free unto himself and respecting others’ freedom, expressing what he thinks and feels in a liberated marketplace of ideas.
It is also, I would argue, the manifestation of a wholly inadequate conception of modern humanity, which, in its never-ending quest for self-realization, inevitably descends into the very same coercive behaviors it claims to eschew. In Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, the French philosopher provides a prescient blueprint for understanding how the emotivist elevation of the self, the division of one’s self from natural biology, and self-celebration can be traced to the reformers Martin Luther, René Descartes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, one can even say that LGBTQ+ activists in certain key respects are the intellectual heirs of these men who “dominate the modern world.”
The Current Controversy
Consider the Washington Post op-ed by former Netflix program manager B. Pagels-Minor, who bemoans the company’s handling of Chappelle’s special for failing to consult the company’s “Trans* Employee Resource Group (ERG).” Pagels-Minor argues that transgender persons’ goal was not to “cancel Dave,” but to “create parity in the content available at Netflix.” In other words, the trans community is committed to free speech, it just wants to ensure that a plurality of perspectives are given equal time and prominence.
Except that releasing the special in October was problematic, because that is “LGBTQ+ history month”—not to be confused with LGBTQ+ Pride Month, which is June (and presumably also problematic). Releasing the special on October 5th was also problematic, because that’s “the day before the anniversary of the brutal death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie.” Though Pagels-Minor doesn’t say it, perhaps releasing the special in 2021 was also problematic, since media are reporting that it is on pace to be the deadliest yet for trans and gender-nonconforming Americans. Alternatively, there are important pride events happening all the time, and a growing list of LGBTQ+ historical dates to honor, so perhaps any date is necessarily problematic.
What Pagels-Minor desires is a world where content deemed offensive to the LGBTQ+ community is carefully circumscribed according to the capricious sentiments of woke activists. And more: “this is not only a fight for the heart, soul, and long-term future of Netflix. It’s also about ensuring that hate won’t have a prominent space in the new world that’s coming.” In other words, what trans activists like Pagels-Minor really want is a public square bereft of any criticism of the LGBTQ+ community that they classify as “hate” (hint: all criticism of them is hateful).
There is a kind of inner logic to this. LGBTQ+ activists view their gender and sexual identity as the preeminent marker of their personhood, and thus any critique of that identity is a form of speech that by its very nature must be an attack on them as persons. By consequence, “homophobic jokes” and “traditional gender roles” are forms of “gendered violence,” while legislation seeking to curb the influence of transgenderism, even among youth, is responsible for trans suicides. If limiting people’s access to “transphobic” content—including de-listing books or suspending users—reduces these deadly negative outcomes, then so be it.
Though this hypersensitivity to any perceived offense against the autonomous, sexualized self is a fairly recent phenomenon, its roots, as Maritain understood, are not antithetical to the modern West, but deeply embedded in its self-identity, beginning with the Reformation.
Luther the Individualist
Consider first the Protestant patriarch Luther, who declared: “He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.” Reacting against Catholic doctrine regarding purgatory and meritorious works, Luther expounds a theology that seeks to assure the Christian of the certainty of his salvation, based on the former Augustinian monk’s interpretation of several key Pauline passages. For this, Luther necessarily must shift the locus of metaphysical certitude in one’s spiritual well-being away from external, objective criteria like the sacraments toward subjective ones, namely, the autonomous self reading the Bible. Explains Maritain: “Luther’s self becomes practically the center of gravity of everything, especially in the spiritual order.”
In shifting moral authority from an external ecclesial hierarchy to the autonomous self, Luther facilitated a subjective, emotivist turn for modern man. Maritain explains: “His energy becomes less and less a soul’s energy, and more and more the energy of a temperament. . . . He is a man wholly and systematically ruled by his affective and appetitive faculties.”
Moreover, in turning man into an autonomous, atomized individual, the Reformation also made him “isolated, naked, with no social framework to support and protect [him].” This in turn made him vulnerable to the secular political order, which, no longer competing with alternative power bases like religious institutions, exerts greater and greater pressure on his freedom. “The individual will be completely annexed to the social whole, will no longer exist except for the city, and we shall see individualism culminate quite naturally in [a] monarchic tyranny.”
Descartes the Divider
The second reformer, though a religious man like Luther, also repudiated a core tenet of premodern epistemology: the veracity of sense-knowledge. René Descartes’s Cogito ergo sum was intended not only to demonstrate the power of conceptual knowledge, but that sense-knowledge was both unnecessary and inaccurate, since the senses can deceive. Maritain describes Descartes as teaching: “My thought exists, God exists. All flows from that.”
Yet dividing the mind from the body—what is called Cartesian dualism or Cartesian rationalism—had intellectual and sociological effects Descartes could not have predicted. Within this intellectual paradigm, man is solely a spiritual substance, “joined in an absolutely unintelligible manner to an extended substance which is also complete and exists and lives without the soul.” In other words, the life of the mind and the soul is entirely disconnected from the givenness of the physical body, which often deceives rather than illuminates.
We can perceive this idea in the transgender phenomenon, which claims that an individual’s natural biology may be incommensurate with his or her self. Descartes, says Maritain, “has set all things against each other—faith and reason, metaphysics and science, knowledge and love.”
Rousseau the Narcissist
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in turn, asserted that it is in self-expression and self-celebration that man realizes his telos. “You must be yourself,” says Rousseau. “Supreme enjoyment is in satisfaction with oneself. It is to merit this satisfaction that we are set on earth and endowed with liberty.” Like Luther, Rousseau asserts the sufficiency of the autonomous conscience, though now increasingly detached from any reference to Christian religion. “With all that, I am convinced that of all the men I have known in my life none was better than I,” he asserts, with no irony or sarcasm intended.
This, says Maritain, is a “mimicry of sanctity, . . . thoroughly rotten with sensual self-love and self-complacency.” Man no longer meddles with what he finds within himself, for fear of perverting his very being. “Poor Jean-Jacques, detached from everything, truly, except from his exorbitant individuality.” Maritain calls Rousseau’s worldview a “pathological counterfeit.” That’s not a bad description of woke ideology, with its worship not of a transcendent God but rather the supposedly perfect self, with all of its idiosyncrasies and fetishes.
The intersection of the ideologies of three men abides in modern man, especially in his sexual identitarian manifestations. Luther’s emphasis on the individual conscience provided the justification for man to chart his own moral and intellectual course. Descartes’s dualism encouraged man to distrust his own body. And Rousseau’s celebration of the inviolable self gave permission for man to indulge in narcissistic self-celebration. The result is a man “purely and exclusively volitional,” a “sort of moralist and fetishist monster,” says Maritain.
Unfortunately, the mere existence of this dystopian creature is not the end of the matter. No: he also demands that all others recognize and honor his assertion of his own will. And that is where the coercion comes in. Says Rousseau: “He who dares to undertake to found a nation should feel that he is in a position to change human nature, so to say; to transform each individual, who by himself is a perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a greater whole.” In other words, the modern monster is an intolerant one, who compels others to play along with his anti-nature fantasies.
It is not enough that he vitiates his own humanity—modern man demands that all others do the same. For, as Maritain recognized, the man created by Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau is a god to be worshipped. That his divinity is built on false premises that violate natural law and common sense only intensifies his need for approbation or veneration. This is why trans activism—and all identitarianism, for that matter—cannot tolerate criticism or reprobation. As with all ideologies built on corrupted understandings of reality and humanity, dissent only intensifies the impulse for coercive, totalitarian measures.
Yet, also like all erroneous ideologies, the more that identitarianism compels, the more those who suffer under its yoke yearn for freedom. They long for a restoration of norms of behavior that have some correspondence both to their learned personal experiences and common sense, as well as their appreciation of a divine order. At least, one must hope.
Who’s coming with me, man?