Who is Helen Rittelmeyer?
Yesterday started out well. It’s always a good day when I discover a talented young conservative writer.
Yesterday, I chanced upon Helen Rittelmeyer’s recent article about sex at Yale. It was cogent, incisive, sensible and well written. One cannot expect very much more from any writer, no less a member of the Millennial generation.
Rittelmeyer has written for the National Review and the Weekly Standard. Her blog appears on the conservative Catholic blog, First Things.
Thinking that I would want to present her ideas on the blog, I did a quick Google search. I very quickly wished I hadn’t.
Among the first links that popped up was a blog post by someone called Todd Seavey. There, to my chagrin, I found Seavey’s appalling assault on Rittelmeyer.
It all happened two years ago, but still, appallingly bad behavior is appallingly bad behavior.
Assault is perhaps too mild a term. His post reads like character assassination. It was and remains disgraceful.
Apparently, Seavey and Rittelmeyer were once, in Seavey’s term, “dating.” After two years their liaison ended when Rittelmeyer apparently jilted poor Todd. By his account she also cuckolded him… assuming that the term is appropriate for a couple that had been “dating.”
Having been dumped by Rittelmeyer, Seavey discovered that she was really a femme fatale, a veritable Marquise de Sade. So, he took it upon himself to warn the rest of the world off of someone he considered to be a treacherous and an all-around bad person. Well, not quite a bad person, but actually one of the worst people in the history of the world. He entitled his post: "Helen Rittelmeyer: The Worst Ever."
It sounded like Seavey was channeling Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz: “Helen Rittelmeyer is the most disturbing human being I have ever encountered, and I once spent a day in a maximum-security women's prison (for journalistic purposes).”
Actually, if Seavey wants to encounter a truly disturbing human being, he ought to get better acquainted with himself.
In screaming about how badly he was duped by this Marquise de Sade he is telling the world that he has neither discernment nor judgment. In writing his article he has also told everyone that he has no character. Would it not have been better to keep it all to himself?
I will mention in passing that if Rittelmeyer is as sadistic as he says, Seavey has invited us all to imagine what position he was assuming when he was involved with her, but, enough is enough.
Seavey is well within his rights to take issue with her ideas. He accuses her of having an excessively agonistic view of the world, but, after all, she has a right to be wrong as well as a right to be right. Surely, Todd Seavey is not the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong in this world.
If her views are so completely beyond the conservative pale, how did it happen that she, along with Seavey, had an essay included in Jonah Goldberg’s book, Proud to Be Right:Voices of the Next Conservative Generation.
The book is relevant because Seavey first attacked Rittelmeyer at a panel discussion about the book. Seavey chose to take the opportunity to humiliate Rittelmeyer in public, thus blowing up a panel discussion over personal pique. As I say, his behavior was utterly contemptible.
Whatever Rittelmeyer’s sins, Seavey, as a former lover, had no business discussing them in public. The rules of courtesy, courtship, gentility and chivalry preclude such tantrums. Failing to exercise self-control over your emotions is a sign of weak character.
If Seavey does not know how to debate ideas without engaging in character assassination he is a pathetic excuse for a man.
More substantively, Seavey takes Rittelmeyer to task for being insufficiently appreciative of the kinder, gentler more conciliatory side of conservatism. He may be right; he may be wrong.
But he is definitely wrong to demonstrate in his own screed all of the vices he is trying so desperately to attach to Rittelmeyer.
However much he felt that she humiliated him by jilting him and even cheating on him, it pales in comparison to the shame he garnered for himself by announcing it all to the world.
To raise our eyes from the slime and the muck, let’s take a closer look at Rittelmeyer’s article on sex at Yale.
She begins with a good observation. In days of old a school like Yale granted a preference to the prep school graduates who belonged to the New England upper class.
At the time, these students set the moral tone on campus. They manifested the character traits that everyone else aspired to acquire. It was a time when male students usually went to class wearing sports jackets and ties. I remember it well.
Today, however, admissions at a place like Yale are for the most part merit based. This creates an intensely competitive environment where student behavior is determined by excessive ambition.
To get into Yale it no longer suffices to have excellent grades and excellent SATs. You need to excel at everything you have ever done, from music to sports to community service. For the record, I have my doubts about this version of well-roundedness. If you are great at everything they you are foreclosing the possibility that you will be excellent at one thing.
Yale has become a campus filled with overachievers who do not have any group to emulate.
This overachiever’s mentality has also determined campus attitudes toward sex. Few notice the connection, because the end result—sexual permissiveness—is the same as it was in the sixties and seventies, when the theme of campus culture was not overachievement but liberation, and the eighties and early nineties, when it was postmodernism and the overthrow of all value judgments. The notorious Yale institution known as Sex Week—a biennial series of sex toy demonstrations, student lingerie shows, and lectures by pornographers—wouldn’t have been out of place in either of these eras. Consequently, Yale’s sexual culture is often mistaken for mere depravity by outside observers who assume that it is just another byproduct of moral relativism.
She is arguing, reasonably, that student interest in Sex Week derives more from a desire to excel that a desire for depravity.
I find the point well taken. It does not, however, obviate the fact that many of these students are taking a crash course in decadence, and that, after a time, it will not matter what the original motivation was.
Hooking up is not a harmless exercise in self-improvement.
Since pornography has come to set the standard for the most skillful sexual behavior, students go to Sex Week workshops to learn how to improve on the sexual techniques they have been watching on Porn Hub. (One needs to ask how it happened that students got the impression that porn stars were the gold standard for sexual performance, but it's an accurate observation.)
In her words:
It would be more accurate to say that Yale students treat sex as one more arena in which to excel, an opportunity not just to connect but to impress. Every amateur sonneteer secretly believes his verse to be as good as the United States poet laureate’s, and every undergraduate programmer suspects his code rivals the best in Silicon Valley. It’s not very different for Yale students to say that, if pornography is the gold standard of sexual prowess, then that is the standard to which they must aspire.
Much of Rittelmeyer’s article addresses a book by one Nathaniel Harden, called, Sex and God at Yale. I haven’t read the book, so I cannot really comment, but her critique feels cogent and well-argued.
When it comes to offering solutions to the problems posed by the hookup culture, she understands that adding new prohibitions will certainly not do the trick, so she calls, perhaps unrealistically, for more active measures led by campus clergy and faith leaders.
College students, she is saying, need more adult supervision. Clearly, the task is daunting, but that does not mean that it is not worth raising the issue.
Her solutions are two: first, she wants some campus organizations to sponsor single-sex dormitories. Obviously, if you have men and women living on the same floor of a dormitory you are going to be encouraging more casual sexual encounters.
Second, Rittelmeyer brings up a point that I and many others have often mentioned: students should learn the advantages of marrying young.
In her words:
There is still the problem that most college-educated Americans don’t marry until their late twenties or early thirties. It is much more difficult to ask an average eighteen-year-old to remain celibate for the entirety of his twenties than just the first half of them. But to convince Yale students to start marrying earlier, it is necessary to know their objections to early marriage. One is the fear that a romantic commitment will limit their post-graduation plans by forcing them to factor another person’s needs into their career choices. This is immaturity, and they should be told to get over it. Accommodating another person’s desires is an important part of being an adult, and if people don’t learn that skill before they marry, they are going to get an unpleasant crash course in it when they have kids. It is foolish to think that, with careful planning, one can construct a marriage—or, for that matter, a happy life—that does not involve sacrifices, and the sooner this is learned, the better.
I would add that should also be told that postponing marriage will have made them undergo numerous relationship traumas during their twenties and that these traumas will, at the very least, cloud their judgment.
Finally, Rittelmeyer raises an issue that I have discussed on this blog: how can a young person make a good choice of a spouse. Rittelmeyer suggests that they will need parental involvement.
Young people who want to get married when they are young will need to rely, to some extent, on the good judgment of their parents. Unfortunately, this is easier said that done. Today’s parents have bought into the idea that women should pursue career options before settling down.
Sometimes it’s the adults who need adult supervision.