Perhaps the most irritating argument for “gay” is “changing public attitudes.” It is the chief argument used from liberal pulpits, in both church and media. It comes down to this: Once upon a time, people took slavery for granted, or cruelty to animals, or many other wicked things. We would justify them by the Bible, in the old days. But today we know better!
This is pure charlatanry, though to be fair, the people who make this argument sometimes believe it. And when they do, they may be extenuated insofar as they are invincibly ignorant — of history.
Opposition to, and voluntary rejection of, the ancient pagan institution of slavery, came in with Christianity itself. It was hardly new to the Age of the Enlightenment, seventeen centuries later. But to know this requires some familiarity with what is popularly dismissed as “The Dark Ages” — in fact arguably the most interesting period of history, for it was the time when by far the greatest of all historical civilizations was in bold and rapid formation.
A remarkable feature of the centuries of transition between what we now call “Ancient” and “Mediaeval” was the disappearance of slavery in the West, even in primitive material circumstances which outwardly should have favoured it. For Christianity itself presented a new understanding of the human being, as something radically separated from the rest of nature; of the human soul as having absolute value, and immortality. No human being could be looked upon as mere beast or personal chattel, no matter how low fallen in estate.
It was the completeness of the Roman collapse in the West that hastened this change in “public attitudes.” Christianity filled something more like a void; made converts among the hordes of invading Huns and Vandals who did not cling to the pagan Roman ways.
By contrast, in the more developed or sophisticated societies farther to the East, where old Rome had not entirely fallen, slavery took longer a-dying; and was then resuscitated within the realms the Arabs conquered. This is not meant only as a condemnation of Islam. It is almost a backhand compliment. Many of the attitudes we casually dismiss as “primitive” and “backward” in Islamic society are actually survivals from the ancient, highly urbane and metropolitan world of the pagan Greeks. This includes, for instance, the veiling of women, as well as taking the institution of slavery for granted.
Moreover, the revival of slavery in the West is a modern, very secular phenomenon — consistently opposed, in New World as in Old, by the priestly agents of Holy Church. Many do not realize this because they define modernity the way Philip Larkin did in “Annus Mirabilis”:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Slavery, like sexual intercourse, is in fact rather older. It already existed in the New World. But in its “modern” form it came instead post-Columbus to the broader New World in which we have since lived — in the West that has transformed, but also been transformed by, the rest of the planet. (We usually overlook these latter phenomena.)
United States Americans fall more easily for the glib idea of “social progress” because their historical sense is the more tightly constrained by their own rather unusual, and entirely modern, national history. This America, like Brazil, began in plantations: enterprises requiring mass unskilled labour. Yet even within the New World, there are complexities.
Ontario takes pride in claiming to be the first jurisdiction in the world to formally and legislatively “abolish slavery,” soon after our founding as Upper Canada. But the claim is ludicrous. We may have been the first Protestant jurisdiction to do so, but slavery was quite illegal in, for instance, the Papal States of Italy long before that, and was extinct by custom throughout mediaeval Europe. Too, the North of North America was not plantation country. (The “wheat mining” of Ontario came later.) It was easy enough for us to do without the slaves we did not then need.
Even so, Governor Simcoe’s Act Against Slavery, passed in 1793, was not quite pure moral exhibitionism, for it was intended to prevent Loyalist refugees from the U.S. South from importing the institution of slavery with them. (There were less than twenty nominal slaves in Upper Canada at the time.) It was also phrased as a piece of unambiguously Christian legislation.
Through Europe slavery remained rare even where made legal. It was looked upon with intense distaste, in jurisdictions both Protestant and Catholic.
In Elizabethan London, for instance, there were hundreds, possibly several thousand “blacke moores” — from West Africa and as far afield as the East Indies. Many were employed as servants, but so were many whites; all were free men in the eye of common law, inherited from the Middle Ages. Others, curiously enough, found remunerative employment as musicians and strolling players — the idea that blacks make superior musicians goes back very far. Still others were successful businessmen and traders, and some rose to considerable height in society. In fact, the presence of Africans in parish records goes back to the earliest Tudor times.
“Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare.”
This typically bigoted statement, from a white liberal (Janet Suzman), belies the universality of theatre in all human culture. But coming from a Shakespearean actress, it also overlooks the two major characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are unmistakably black (Othello in Othello, and also Aaron in Titus Andronicus). They are hardly interchangeable.
We should take this in. We should also begin to grasp that Doctor Johnson’s disgust with the American “drivers of negroes” is not some new-found liberal pose. (Johnson was allergic to such canting.) It is classically Christian.
In the American Civil War, within the old South, as well as the caricatures of the South in the propaganda of the North, we find confusion between two features of Southern society that have melded. One is slavery, which often pricked the conscience of e.g. the Virginians, who hesitated to take the Southern side until, in effect, Lincoln forced them into it — for the very reason raised in the Virginia legislature: that slavery is no worthy cause. The other was the strongly aristocratic nature of Southern society. Having melded, these two features were tarred with the same brush. We deal today with the fallout in American public attitudes: an excessive and often hypocritical egalitarianism, that only pretends to be Jacksonian.
Virginia’s gentry felt guilty about the slaves, as we see in the writings of America’s Founding Fathers. But they were also appalled by the yobbishly democratic, Northern notion that they should be treated as socially equal to the “poor whites.” As indeed New England gentry would have been appalled, had the same oppression been visited upon them.
I mention this much not to close the argument, but to open it in all of its splendid variety. For the idea that history can be reduced to a linear progression of “public attitudes” is as moronic, as its application is evil. To be sure, public attitudes can change, as I in my own generation have seen all around me, in the form of descent via irreligion into moral squalor. It does not follow that they change consistently for the better; nor that the changes are unrelated to publicly-articulated philosophical or theological beliefs, whether deep or, as in our case, mudpuddle shallow.
The modern opposition to slavery was unambiguously Christian. It had in fact been Christian all along. The modern liberal rides a Christian heritage, and claims what looks good to him as recent, and his own. But his claims depend on historical ignorance, and an accompanying incuriosity. In turn it requires, to be sustained among the larger public, the teaching of false and narrow history in the State’s schools, and the suppression through politically-correct hysteria of all intelligent debate.
It is the same with the social history of homosexuality. This is a vastly more complex, and also more interesting topic, than the moral and intellectual simpletons of liberalism can afford to allow.