Indigestion City


April 1, 1997

The time was about 9 p.m. I had just finished a batch of cartoon mail for National Review, and decided it was time to get some dinner. I had worked a long day because I would be out of the office the next morning. My fiancée was busy this evening, so I thought I would enjoy a leisurely meal at one of my favorite haunts near the office. I would call Stacy before 11 p.m. Or so I thought.

The hostess showed me to a small table along the window. There was enough room on it for the delicious plate of barbecued chicken and mashed potatoes I had been looking forward to all night—and to read about electricity deregulation for my fledgling syndicated column. Ah, the good life.

I sipped my diet soda and read about PURPA, QFs, and stranded costs until dinner arrived. The chicken looked so good the two women sitting next to me could not help but comment. One thing lead to another (“What do you do?” “Oh, how interesting,” etc.), and we were talking politics.

The woman sitting adjacent to me on the left was quite tall, thin, about forty, with a dark business suit and a smart-looking short blond hair cut. Very WASPish. Occupation unknown. Her friend, to my immediate left, was shorter and frumpier, about the same age, with rounded glasses and dark curly hair. A medical textbook editor.

The WASP who was from an old liberal Democrat family dominated the conversation, talking about campaign finance reform, negative political ads, etc. She seemed reasonable. We agreed on many political goals: “I could be in either party, to be honest,” she noted, “except for the choice issue.”

“Uh oh,” I thought.

During the conversation that followed her face changed remarkably. As she discoursed on the “right to choose,” the “un-American fanatics” in the pro-life movement, the history of male-female relations, and the totally secular nature of the United States, her eyes grew wide, her skin drew taut on her face. I smiled weakly at her friend. She smiled back. The chicken lost all taste. I glanced nervously around the room as her gesturing intensified. After about five minutes, she yielded the floor for a question.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Having had many similar conversations over the years, especially in New York City, I knew the incendiary nature of discussing abortion. I could have quit there, but I pressed on.

“In the interest of full disclosure,” I said, “I am one of those pro-life people. Now, this view of history you have,” I began, “certainly there are many women today who are pro-life, even a good number of them who call themselves feminists?”

“Well, you know, I know a lot of those women . . . some of them are friends of mine . . . and, I think they’re not in touch with what it means to be a woman. I think they’re just nuts.”

“You’re not saying they’re all like that, are you?”

“Well, I’m just telling you my experience.”

“Yes, but you don’t think every woman across the country who opposes abortion is like that, do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

I objected to her generalization, but she just shrugged it off, with confident illogic. I tried, then, to explore her Hobbesian view of male-female relationships, but was constantly interrupted.

She was indignant at my ignorance of history. It was a war between the sexes, that was all. Women always had this burden put on them by men.

The WASP’s friend started to grow uneasy at her rudeness. I tried the secularism angle again: “Do you think that sometimes there is an overlap between secular and religious goals? I mean, after all, the law has part of the Ten Commandments in it. Sometimes religious truths are the same as legal ones.” A minor filibuster followed on the primacy of choice, that abortion was a matter of personal choice, not law or religion. Morality should not be forced down people’s throats.

I tried hunting for internal inconsistencies. “Would you agree, though, that there are some standards that govern every person’s choice? After all, even you seem to think others, the pro-lifers, are doing wrong by blocking your choice.” I thought I might get an admission here that there was some kind of universal moral law. No such luck.

As I have often seen in my barroom inquisitions, people who are pushed more on the logic of morality than they have ever experienced before prefer to accelerate into subjectivism rather than entertain doubts. She said she never said anyone else was wrong, they were simply “not American.”

“But you said it’s not right.”

“Yes, it’s not right.”

“So it violates some order that is true for all of us?”

Before I could ask any more questions, she dragged in the red herring of the rape issue: “Would I ‘make’ the woman carry the baby if she was raped?”

Yes, she should carry the child.

She let out an indignant “Jeez!” and “Gawd, he’d make her carry the baby!”

I looked around to see if anyone noticed my barbarity. A couple of people looked over, probably more from her body language than from her words, which mercifully were drowned out by the piped-in jazz.

About then I started getting angry. Her aspersions and interruptions now numbered in the dozens. “I understand you are very . . . uh, passionate about this issue. But I would appreciate it if I could finish making a point every now and then.” I let my voice trail off a little at the end, to make my rebuke not so strident. Her face grew taut in response. I was actually daring to persist, like I was doing an exorcism. I looked at her friend, who had been quite polite and much more open to me the entire time. “Yes, let him finish, I’d like to hear what he’s saying . . . this is interesting.”

She relaxed again, for a moment.

I tried to make an argument again for an objective moral law. She interrupted again. “You know,” she was digging in her purse, “you should take this course that we take.”

“Yes, it’s very good,” her friend said, perking up.

The card she gave me was for some spiritual center, and it had some man’s exotic sounding name on it. Very eastern, ethically-challenged spirituality, I thought—and said.

“No, actually it’s none of those things,” she replied smugly.

Of course, in the description that followed, it was exactly as I had said. There was no universal truth to it, except that there is a higher truth about oneself, that one is divine, and however one chooses one must choose from within. I thought I would test this new-found authenticity.

“Well, would you say that in the course of your life, you have ever done something wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean did you ever take something that didn’t belong to you, hurt somebody, that kind of thing?”

“Well, you know, in every life there are learning experiences. Sometimes things happen, and you learn from them, you know.” She went on for several minutes, talking about how every mistake (on mostly trivial matters) leads to a higher understanding of oneself. She glanced back at me nervously from time to time, to see if I was still pursuing.

“You mean you never violated someone’s rights?”

“I’ve made mistakes in my life.”

“No, I mean did you ever do something to someone that you should not have done, looking back on it now, you’d say, that was wrong? You know, steal a family member’s clothes, hurt someone physically, etc.”

“No. No. I can’t say that I have. We were Democrats, we never discriminated or anything like that.”

I glanced over at the friend to see her reaction to a friend who could not admit wrongdoing. Even this rather submissive woman looked uneasy.

I continued. “I know I’ve done things that were wrong, things that I should not have done, which affected another person, not just me. Have you?” (Come out, evil spirit.)

She paused. “Well, I don’t know. Maybe. I think this class is helping me come to realize that. I’m becoming more spiritually aware about these kind of things. Yes, I think I might have done somebody wrong, although . . . it wasn’t a person.”

I waited.

“I think that once in my life . . . I might have violated the rights of a hamster.”

“A hamster?”

“Yes. When I was young.”

I did not ask what was done to the hamster. I could imagine from what I saw other kids doing to animals when I was a kid. But at that moment the irony of her spirituality hit me. What kind of self-knowledge denies sin, except every forty years or so to the occasional hamster? This very intelligent, cosmopolitan, New York woman, “seeking authenticity,” was taking the scenic route.

I tried to argue for a different kind of spirituality. One that had immovable pillars of moral truth one worked around, not through. A life which by its strictness and virtues of soul would actually free one from the self-deception that “required” evil, like abortion, is a means of escape from other equally “authentic” choices. Feeling the urgent need not to complicate things with Veritatis Splendor, I stuck to Plato’s Apology and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

“Some things are always wrong,” I noted. “Better to die than to do evil.” From here on the conversation degenerated.

“What do you mean,” she asked, “by killing an innocent person? What is innocent?”

I tried her own discrimination, to which she replied unbelievably, “What do you mean by discrimination?”

Much to the relief of the waitress, we decided to leave. The mouse had to catch a train to Brooklyn. The WASP lived close by. Yikes!

As we walked out to the street, the full mysticism of morality was explained to me. “You see, it’s just too profound,” she lectured. “You just don’t understand.” Each of these words, “innocent,” “discrimination,” evaporate into indeterminacy. I was now the student. “You really ought to take this course, then you’ll understand.” “Oh, yes, it’s very good,” said the friend, as they hurried along.

As they walked away I felt a sense of hopelessness about our conversation. These two souls were walking off, to persist in a remarkably disingenuous way of life, to practice a divinity that allowed them to deny they did evil.

My experience as a philosophy teacher told me to let New them go. If nothing else, perhaps I had left some doubt in the mind of the friend toward the resolute WASP. But as they left I remembered the many nights I had spent in college as a bartender, arguing with other intransigent souls. So many conversations ended the same way.

I thought of Stacy. Was she condemned to love a man who all his life would engage in futile philosophical arguments, so late into the evening that he would call long after she had gone to bed?

“This is the last time,” I thought.

This is the burden of morality: of watching the evening news and judging it, night after night. Of arguing about truth, for the sake of truth. Believing in God’s law, and recognizing one’s own sins. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Two souls walked away from me not wanting that burden. I walked up 35th, to the train.

The emptiness struck me. “The devil owns New York,” I thought. “He runs his own churches, his own spirituality classes.” Later, on the train, I stared out the window, watching the rain roll down the glass. As the shock wore off and my wounded pride healed, I did the only thing that made sense. I said a prayer for two strangers.

Matthew Carolan is executive editor of National Review.


  • Matthew Carolan

    At the time this article was published, Matthew Carolan was the executive editor of National Review.

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