Anglo-Catholicism, Reason, and the Artificiality of Natural Law; or, Andrew Sullivan Comes to Princeton

When I decided to shirk my duty as a Professional Gay(TM) and to back out of attending IvyQ, a pan-Ivy League undergraduate queer issues/politics conference, I was mostly just worried about getting my schoolwork done this weekend—but I then was met with the unexpected pleasure of being able to go see Andrew Sullivan speak instead. Sullivan, who was Princeton’s guest as part of its public lecture series, was without question the perfect person to speak to the political climate which characterizes and divides Princeton’s discourse around LGBT issues. Much as the current national political discourse coalesces around a radical fringe right and everyone else—liberal or conservative—who disagrees with them (and must therefore do so in a moderately conservative sense), Princeton’s LGBT-politics climate consists of a radical fringe right, as represented in the Anscombe Society and its allies in the faculty; and of Everyone Else. All these people, whatever disparate political and policy-oriented outcomes they may desire for the status of LGBT people at Princeton and for the status of LGBT people in America, find themselves united in the fight to dismiss Anscombe on principle. And it took Sullivan to stand on the stage in McCosh 50 and start on the new natural lawyers’ own turf before unravelling their arguments, to come from an intensely Catholic perspective before repudiating rhetorical opponents who come from an equally intensely Catholic perspective, to cite Gerard Manley Hopkins and Cardinal Newman, Aquinas and Aristotle and Foucault, and infuse a coldly pro forma debate with intellectualism and emotion.

Now: don’t get me wrong. I disagree with wide swathes of what Andrew Sullivan believes, about queer politics in particular (though also no less importantly about certain generalizations and assertions which could read as racist and sexist, though those, while no less reprehensible, are perhaps less interesting to pick apart). He spent a good portion of his talk critiquing the “queer liberationist” position, one with which I to a certain extent identify (emotionally, if not pragmatically in 2010). I disagree very sharply first with Sullivan’s reading of Foucault to support the idea that queer liberationists do not believe there is something immutable about sexual orientation—why can there not be immutability at some biological level, but also the constructed and created structures of society which imbue that immutability with very different significances over time, and why can we not distinguish biological sexual orientation from the social constructs of gay or queer culture? Sullivan’s argument overall, as no doubt many of you, dear readers, know, is essentially an assimilationist one (I put no negative connotation on “assimilationist”) and mine is, while not entirely separatist, certainly an argument which critiques assimilationism from the left. That said, however, thank any god or none for someone standing on a Princeton stage and presenting a viewpoint with which I can disagree rationally, which is not motivated at its core by homophobia! What a breath of fresh air!

Someday, I am going to puzzle out the complex sociality of Princeton LGBT culture enough to understand truly what the significance was of Sullivan’s talk to Princeton; someday, too, I will have read enough 19th-century intellectual history to be able to do more than just vaguely nod at allusions to the homoeroticism of Anglo-Catholicism, a sort of cultural-history principle that could be said to have underlain much of what Sullivan had to say. Both these things are certainly on my agenda for the months and years ahead.

But far from my expectation that I would be irritated by a position with which I, as a liberal and a queer liberal at that, fundamentally disagree, I was both intrigued and thankful. Princeton, no matter what policies its administration may or may not espouse, is at its heart a conservative institution, much like any other old Anglo or Anglo-inspired university very much rooted in a notion of tradition or nostalgia. An English conservative who nevertheless prizes intellect and reason is just who it needs to access the still-closed minds who hamper a more productive dialogue on this campus. And now, as I go back to reading history, to writing history, and to having the conversations and writing the essays, articles, and blog posts I need to in order to change hearts and minds on this campus, I only hope that the rest of tonight’s audience was as intrigued by what Andrew Sullivan had to say as I was.

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