Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Maggie Gallagher, a conservative columnist who is now president of the National Organization for Marriage, wrote a highly influential opinion piece that is still kicking around on the Internet. Its title is “The Demographic Bomb,” and it was one of the first in a long succession of right-wing efforts to persuade the public that legalized abortion and homosexuality are not just violations of natural law but that they are contributing to a “birth dearth,” a “demographic winter” in which Western civilization will become dangerously diluted by immigration from more populous societies that don’t share “our” values.
But the “demographic winter” concept is about more than just abortion and homosexuality. It has much, much more to offer—namely, a semi-plausible real-world rationale for nativism, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-feminism, anti-secularism, anti-modernism, and Islamophobia. It was made to order for the radical right because of its visceral appeal to the oldest and most primitive part of our brain—where fear of extinction resides—and it provides fresh cover for racism, homophobia, and sexism.
I found Gallagher’s piece interesting because it shows signs of having been written hastily, thus offering a somewhat “unprocessed” version of her views—or those she is channeling. Since its publication, she has sharpened her message and learned to deflect questions that might expose the shoddy crafting of the birth-dearth ideology and its implied repudiation of the European Enlightenment and the American civil rights tradition. After all, efforts to roll back the progress of the last several centuries must be handled with finesse.
It was perhaps because I had lived in Saudi Arabia for 11 years that her opening paragraph immediately caught my attention. In it, she expresses puzzlement: How can certain fundamentalist Muslims live for so long in Western democracies without being seduced by our way of life? Instead, they denounce Western civilization as decadent and doomed. “How could they know us so well and still hate us so?” she asks. This very question had occurred to me after 9/11, but I didn’t find it quite so puzzling.
But Gallagher is packing an answer. These Muslims—i.e., those who have lived among us and yet despise us—have seen the truth about our sexual culture: It has become “debased, destructive, and ugly, full of fatherless children and fragmented families.” “Sex,” she declares, “has been demoted into a product.” And yet these dysfunctions, in her view, are only the “surface symptoms of an even deeper problem: a hollowing out of sexual meaning and purpose.”
Sexual meaning and purpose in America before its "hollowing-out" by modern feminists
Is Gallagher serving us the conservative version of liberal guilt—i.e., they hate us because we are bad and deserve their contempt? Even allowing that there has been a “hollowing out” of sexual meaning and purpose since an earlier era (which she will later place in some unspecified period prior to 1970), is Western civilization on the verge of collapse, as these Muslims predict? Gallagher is affirmative on both counts: Fundamentalist Muslims have correctly identified the problem: Our sexual culture is dysfunctional and we’re doomed if we don’t straighten up (see illustration).
I should say right up front that I share Gallagher’s concerns about the social ills she describes. No one who has eyes to see and ears to hear can be indifferent to the pain of broken families and scarred lives, the loneliness and insecurity of single motherhood, or the emotional trauma experienced by children caught in the crux of marital miseries. And sexuality is indeed a powerful force that can wreak havoc in people’s lives if it is not managed with wisdom and care.
Sexual meaning and purpose in the South before the feminists hollowed it out. (A Streetcar Named Desire)
However, Gallagher and the Islamic fundamentalists with whom she sees eye-to-eye about Western decadence have traced a straight line of causation from our sexual mores to a host of societal dysfunctions, as if no other explanations for the latter were possible. What about the role of alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, racism, unemployment, mental illness, and environmental stresses, for starters? Gallagher sees fatherless children and fragmented families as symptoms of a loss of sexual purpose, but maybe this loss of sexual purpose is itself only a symptom of a larger disarray brought about by a multiplicity of problems. Maybe, in other words, it’s not all about sex, and maybe all our society’s ills cannot be blamed on abortion, homosexuality, and women’s liberation. We live in a complex world.
I’ve noticed what a fondness there is among fundamentalists and orthodox Catholics (Gallagher is the latter) for visions of imminent civilizational collapse. Such talk dovetails so nicely with apocalyptic scenarios from the Bible and the Koran, and it’s so useful for getting people’s attention and stoking their fears. However, prophets of doom are being rehabilitated even in scientific circles these days (e.g., climate scientists James Lovelock, James Hansen, Bill McKibben), so, though not even religious, I will shortly indulge in a bit of such talk myself. But first, where is Gallagher taking us, and why would her “hollowing out of sexual meaning and purpose” lead to civilizational collapse?
In Western countries, people have for two generations stopped caring enough about having children to reproduce our population. Historian Paul Johnson writes about his vision of a long-term clash between Islam and the casually mentioned demographic bomb: “Should present trends continue, both these traditionally Catholic countries (Spain and Italy) will become majority Muslim during the 21st century.” Not just because of migration, but because the native birth rates have entered a sudden, dramatic, sustained collapse.
In Gallagher’s view, sex in the West has become uncoupled from any deep-seated meaning or public purpose, and that purpose is babies. If Islamic civilization triumphs over the largely Christian West, it will be because Islam has been successful in growing its population while the West has allowed its own to decline.
Successful population growth
Gallagher’s analysis already begs several vexing questions. One of them, of course, has to do with the very real possibility of ecological—and therefore civilizational—collapse resulting from planetary overpopulation. The facts and projections are well-known: Earth’s population has doubled since 1965, from 3.5 to nearly 7 billion, and it is expected to reach 9 billion within the next 30 years. Scientists warn that the planet’s ecosystem cannot withstand the accompanying increased demands on resources. Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, global warming, and pollution are all tied to population growth. Humanity is even now in the process of a very slow-motion collision with the planet—so slow, in fact, that we are scarcely aware it is happening.
Gallagher does not mention this end-times scenario, possibly because it is so much more compelling and factual than the one she favors. Then too, once the environmental crisis is acknowledged—along with all its implications for humanity—one more objection against homosexuality and legalized abortion is eliminated. Simply put, the environmentalist’s end-times scenario cannot be used to promote natural law. Quite the contrary, in fact: Natural law may be bad for the planet.
So, having bracketed out the overpopulation question and diverted our attention to the perils of underpopulation, she proceeds right on to the next question in line—about the implications of these ideas for individual rights—i.e., what do we have to do and what sacrifices are required?—and offers a formulation that is breath-taking in its implied repudiation of the civil rights gains made by women over the past century or so, if not the entire European Enlightenment:
Islam remains a successful civilization because it fulfills the two minimum functions any culture must: It channels intense social energy of individuals into the two great sacrifices of self: war and babies. The children in Islamic societies suffer, and the women even more. But though individuals suffer, the family system itself works. The society perpetuates itself. It even finds new adherents in our country, primarily among those who have suffered most deeply from our current sexual disorder, African-Americans. [Emphasis mine.]
This is an astonishing prescription that deserves reading several times if we are to absorb its full impact.
So this is what we are reduced to—war and babies? Men derive meaning and purpose from war, and women from bearing and raising children? Women and children are in the soft center whose boundaries are protected by warrior men? Why does this sound more like an ant colony than the advanced human civilization that Maggie Gallagher was born into and that provided such abundant opportunities for her?
Perhaps anticipating objections, Gallagher concludes her essay as follows:
The way forward is never the way back. Still, up until about 1970, Western civilization combined democracy, freedom, capitalism, and neighborliness with a functioning family system. Who can now say the same?
Notice the hedging: “The way forward is never the way back,” immediately followed by “Still,…” My sense is that Gallagher would like to take us way, way back—to an era when Western civilization looked more like fundamentalist Islamic societies of today. Sacrifices might be called for, but the payoff is that, in her words, “the society perpetuates itself.” It’s all about survival, folks, in case you’d forgotten that. And we’re not going to survive if pro-choice women and gays have their way. We’re all going…to…die.
Note, also, Gallagher’s characterization of Islam as a “successful civilization,” with the implication that it might serve as a model for Western societies because it prioritizes babies and war over—presumably—careers and peace. But if Islamic societies are so worthy of emulation, then why should Gallagher fear Islamic influence in the West? She should welcome it.
And what is the significance of 1970 for Gallagher? That was a year of intense activism on the part of women supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, which, though passed by congress two years later, was never ratified by the states, thanks to lobbying efforts by anti-feminist Catholic leader Phyllis Schlafly and others. Nevertheless, the seventies saw the first in a long succession of anti-discrimination measures benefiting women. For a quick summary of civil rights gains for women since 1972, here’s a passage from Head and Heart, by Garry Wills:
Congressional action included these acts: In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments to the Civil Rights Act of 1972 opened up campus activities to women on an equal basis. In 1974, the Equal Opportunity Act prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex for getting consumer credit or public assistance. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act protected women from being fired or denied a job or promotion because of their pregnancy. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act provided special protection for victims of rape or domestic abuse.
Court action included these decisions: In 1973, Roe v. Wade gave women freedom to choose an abortion. In 1974, Corning Glass Works v. Brennan ruled that women could not be paid less because men would not accept the work in question. In 1976, Planned Parenthood v. Danforth denied that parents can forbid an abortion. In 1983, City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc. said that a waiting period before having an abortion could not be imposed. In 1986, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson decided that sexual harassment is a form of job discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1986, Thornburgh v. American College of Obstretricians denied that a woman can be given an abortion only after detailed instruction on fetus development. In 1989, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services ruled against Missouri’s restrictions on the right to an abortion. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruled against Pennsylvania’s attempt to restrict abortion rights.
So which of these victories for women’s rights have led to our current crisis, as Gallagher sees it? What about equal access to campus activities, consumer credit, public assistance, jobs, promotions, equal pay, and protection from rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment? Gallagher attended Yale, so we would assume she supports equal access to campus activities. She probably has consumer credit, which facilitates her travels from one speaking venue to the next. As a former unwed mother, she can identify with other women in such circumstances and would probably support some form of public assistance for them and their children (One would hope!). She has a robust career and probably earns pretty big bucks, so it’s a safe bet she favors equal opportunity for women in the workplace. I think we can assume she supports protections against rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment.
That leaves abortion, and we know where she stands on that. So we are left with two broad possibilities regarding all the remaining civil rights gains for women in the past 40 years: She supports them, or she sees them as a mistake. (We’ll assume for now that she’s not selective.)
Suffragettes in the early 20th century
If she supports them, then she’s happy with all the freedoms that she now enjoys, including, presumably, those that were won for her before 1970—the freedom to marry and divorce whom she pleases, her right to vote and to own property, her right to hold public office, to drive a car, to choose her own clothing, and to travel and associate in whatever way she likes. Taken altogether, what has allowed Gallagher to prosper in the life she has freely chosen is an enormous range of individual liberties wrested from patriarchal culture by women over the past several centuries.
But then, how can she characterize fundamentalist Islamic societies as “successful?” In many of them, women are not guaranteed any of these rights, not even protection against rape. They are considered to be the property of men, and many become virtually infantilized as a result of life-long dependency on male family members.
Saudi Arabia is ranked 130 out of 134 for gender parity in the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Global Gender Gap Report. It was the only country to score a zero for political empowerment of women. Women’s rights there, as in many or most predominantly Muslim countries, are defined by Sharia law, which is often interpreted according to tribal customs. Women may not drive, they may not appear in public without an abaya (covering their head and face), they may not freely associate with men other than family members, and they must have a male guardian, whose permission they must seek for marriage, travel, education, employment, opening a bank account, and elective surgery.
Preparation for stoning, Iran
And it gets worse. Much worse. Wherever the most Fundamentalist strains of Islam prevail, women may be stoned for committing adultery or murdered by male family members for “dishonoring” their families. In Egypt, 95% of pre-pubescent Muslim girls experience genital mutilations, a practice that has been internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. Forced marriages are commonplace in all traditional Muslim societies.
Gallagher began her essay by expressing puzzlement that fundamentalist Muslims could live among us and still hate us, and she concluded that their scorn was justified because of our deteriorating attitudes toward sex.
I will end this essay on a note of puzzlement as well. How can Gallagher have been raised in a beautiful and privileged place like Lake Oswego, Oregon, later earning a degree at Yale and enjoying all the incomparable freedoms that life in the U.S. offers women—freedoms for which her ancestors and mine fought and suffered—and still believe that Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s model for the treatment of women is more “successful” and more worthy of emulation than that of her own country?
At the very least, Gallagher’s prescription for our society’s dysfunctions would strip away centuries, even millennia, of progress toward freedom and equality in Western civilization. What, indeed, could be more destructive of the very civilization that Gallagher claims to protect?
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