Why Fake News Matters

Fake news, as I discussed last month (“Faking It,” The Rockford Files), is a very real problem, though less for the reasons commonly given (the potentially destructive effects it may have on our “democracy”) and more for the fact that it both flows from a lack of concern for truth (and thus says something about the character of those who consume and disseminate it) and reinforces that lack of concern through the “rush” that sharing fake news (on social media especially) provides.  (As Aaron Wolf explains in his Heresies column this month, social media encourages this disregard for truth through the short-term dopamine “hit” that one gets from striking out at one’s enemies, real or imagined.)  The explosion of fake news, or rather the credulity with which it is accepted and promulgated, is in the end just another symptom of our subjugation of culture (of which the transmission of truth must always be not merely a central concern but the central concern) to politics, in which the only “truth”—or, at least, the only one that “matters”—is winning.

A sober, rational discussion of the danger of fake news has been hampered by the problem of definition: What, exactly, qualifies as fake news?  In the roughly eight weeks (at the time of this writing) since the rise of fake news became a real news story, the definition has morphed repeatedly, depending on the circumstances and the political leanings of the person or institution offering the definition.

The first definition, which most people, left and right, seemed initially prepared to accept, was fairly clear—a fake news story is an Onion-style satire or parody presented by its publisher, and accepted by significant numbers of readers, as if it were true.  Mainstream news outlets, most notably the Washington Post and the New York Times, ran extensive profiles of fake-news publishers, often in Eastern Europe (a very high number are based in Macedonia, for some reason), who crank out poorly crafted (and almost always poorly written) satire by the gigabyte, hoping that one story or another will go viral and lead to millions of page views, thus driving up revenue from ad networks (including, despite its supposed concern for truth and reliability in search results, the one owned by Google).  These fakesters assured the Times and the Post that they are essentially equal-opportunity, throwing stories left and right and not caring which ones will stick, so long as something does.  (Indeed, many of their fake-news stories have nothing to do with U.S. politics and everything to do with trending topics; Pope Francis is another frequent subject of such pieces.)

The second definition of fake news followed only a week or so later, and quickly eclipsed the first.  As I discussed last month, the fake news stories that were most frequently shared on social media in 2016 were those targeting Hillary Clinton and her campaign, rather than Donald Trump and his.  That imbalance was worth exploring, though few reporters from mainstream publications were able to do so well, because the reason for the imbalance has to do not simply with “right-wing echo chambers” on Facebook and other social media, but with an overreaction to the left-wing echo chambers found in mainstream newsrooms.  This manifests itself among self-identified “conservatives” in an odd mix of cynicism and credulity, in which any news story, no matter how pedestrian, reported by the mainstream media is immediately suspect, while the fact that an outlandish claim, such as the “Pizzagate” rumor, did not appear in mainstream publications is seen not as evidence of some remaining level of journalistic standards at those publications but as evidence that the story must be true.

Unable to cop to their own role in engendering a backlash that fostered the acceptance of fake news, mainstream reporters had to come up with another reason for the imbalance.  Despite the fact that fake-news purveyors had gone on the record to say that all they wanted to do was to make money, and that in creating fake-news stories they targeted Donald Trump as often as they did Hillary Clinton, and that they were themselves surprised by the fact that negative fake stories about Clinton were shared more often than negative fake stories about Trump, mainstream reporters sensed a grand conspiracy: The imbalance must be proof of a massive fake-news propaganda campaign designed to aid Donald Trump.  That the imbalance existed in the subject of the articles most shared, and not in the subject of the articles created, should have made it clear from the beginning that this theory had problems, but coming as it did at the same time that CIA leaks were alleging that the Russian government had tried to swing the election in Trump’s favor by obtaining and releasing emails and other documents from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the theory quickly became accepted as fact.  After all, many of these fake-news sites were based in Eastern Europe, and Russia’s somewhere over there, right?

Where the first definition of fake news made it seem a crass commercial enterprise that may have had some unintended consequences because of the gullibility of American voters, the second took on a much darker cast.  And that led to another backlash, this time among Trump voters and other political conservatives who decided that, if “fake news” were now to be defined as “Russian propaganda,” then those who expressed a concern about fake news could only be doing so in order to call into question the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election—which, to be fair, does seem quite often to have been the case (particularly among writers for the Washington Post).  But it does not follow—as many then concluded—that there is no such thing as fake news, and that the very concept was simply ginned up by the mainstream media for political purposes.  The first, straightforward, definition of fake news can still be correct, while the second may be ideologically driven and wrong.

Yet when truth is subjugated to political necessity, such rational distinctions fall by the wayside.  And so a third definition of fake news arose among Trump voters and fellow travelers: Fake news is all a matter of perspective.  If Pizzagate can be called “fake news,” then so can “Gropegate.”  In this definition, what makes something “fake” is not whether it actually happened—that is, whether there is some element of truth to it (Donald Trump did, after all, actually say what he was recorded saying)—but whether disseminating the story advances or hinders one’s own political agenda.  And so a not insignificant number of people who have for years decried the rise of “relativism” have become relativists themselves.

A concrete example can be found in the abandonment of Pizzagate by its chief promoters (Alex Jones of InfoWars and his ilk) when, in the wake of the shooting at Comet Pizza (the supposed site of Hillary Clinton’s and John Podesta’s “underage sex-slave ring”), the story became a political liability.  Jones and others who had promoted Pizzagate did not recant the story, much less apologize for having promoted it; they simply expunged it from their websites and social-media outlets, trying to send it down an Orwellian memory hole (after, it should be noted, a brief attempt to claim that the shooter was simply an actor hired to try to discredit the promoters of Pizzagate—a particularly odious claim considering the role that they had played in destroying this man’s life, yet one that was not surprising, coming as it did from people who had also claimed that the massacre of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 was a “false flag” operation designed to further the Obama administration’s gun-control agenda).  Either the allegations that formed the core of Pizzagate were true, or they weren’t; that they were politically useful before the election and no longer so after some poor patsy landed himself in jail because he believed them shows that a concern for the truth played no part whatsoever in the decision of Jones and others to promote Pizzagate.

A concern for the truth—no matter how politically inconvenient it may be, or how politically useful a lie may prove—lies at the heart of any true conservatism (and, it goes without saying, at the heart of Christianity).  Those who cannot see that—or, rather, refuse to see that—are as much the enemies of civilization as those who deliberately attempt to undermine it.  Like everything else in life, sharing something on Facebook or Twitter is a moral act; failing to determine whether something is true because you hope to harm your “enemies” by spreading the story around does not mitigate the sin of calumny—it deepens your culpability.        

First published in the February 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Faking It

If one were to believe the mainstream media—and who doesn’t believe the mainstream media?—Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of these United States this month because over 60 million Americans are unable, and possibly unwilling, to tell the difference between true, objective reporting, filled with facts and designed only to help the citizens of this great nation make enlightened decisions, and “fake news,” chock-full of Russian propaganda designed to put a latter-day Manchurian candidate in the White House.

It’s easy, of course, to tell the difference between real news and “fake news”: Real news is found in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, in the Washington Post and on CNN, while “fake news” is found—well, almost anywhere else.  The proof that “fake news” is responsible for the election of Donald Trump is equally obvious: Donald Trump was elected, and anyone who relied solely on the purveyors of real news would clearly have voted for Hillary Clinton.  The frustration that reporters and editors for the Times and the Post and the Journal have expressed over the role that “fake news” supposedly played in this election cycle belies their own claim to objectivity, which just might lead the cynic to question whether the real news offered up by the mainstream media is so very different from “fake news” after all.

None of which is to say that “fake news” isn’t a problem, though it’s hardly the new one that the postelection hysteria would seem to indicate.  To take just one example: Back in 1999, a columnist for Chronicles sent his text well past his deadline.  This wouldn’t normally be a problem—we editors are writers ourselves, and therefore understand the bad habit of procrastination—but this column included a lengthy quotation from Attorney General Janet Reno, supposedly delivered in an interview with Reader’s Digest some time before, which seemed to herald an imminent federal crackdown on homeschooling families.  Eighteen years ago, very little could be fact-checked on the internet; we actually had to go to the library and examine books and magazines and newspapers, and if we couldn’t confirm a quotation, we would have to contact the publication directly.  Under deadline, unable to confirm the Reno lines and still waiting on a response from Reader’s Digest, a former editor of Chronicles made the call: So long as the columnist was certain of the quotation, we would run it.  And so we did.

One needs no imagination whatsoever to see where this story is going.  A week after the issue went to press, Reader’s Digest answered our inquiry—they had been forced to examine hard copy as well; they had no electronic index of all their text—and the lines in question had never appeared in the magazine.  I then spent several weeks trying to determine if the quotation might be real but incorrectly sourced, a process akin to hunting for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster: Even today, two decades further along in the internet age, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.  But finally, when a friend with access to LexisNexis (the premier search database of its day for news sources, and incredibly expensive, which was why Chronicles did not have a subscription) turned up nothing, we reached the reasonable conclusion: The quotation was fake.

Today, fake quotations, fake statistics, and entire fake narratives (“news stories”) are even more prevalent than in 1999—a paradox of sorts, since it would seem that ubiquitous internet access and the magic of Google indexing would make it easier to determine what is real and what is not.  Yet the ease of finding things on the internet is matched by the ease of placing things on the internet, and once something is retweeted, shared, and blogged a handful of times, it takes on a life of its own.  Even those publications that pride themselves on setting the standard for real news look to Twitter and Facebook for trends, and routinely include tweets (and not just those of the President-Elect) in their news articles.

Once the genie is out of the bottle—once a fake quotation or even just a mistaken “fact” has gained enough traction online—there’s no way to prevent it from spreading, or to stop people from believing it.  And the next thing you know, a man is traveling from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and walking into a pizza parlor with a rifle to search its kitchen for tunnels where children are supposedly being held for use as sex slaves in a child-abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta.

And no, this is not fake news.  (The man with the rifle, not the sex-slave ring, lest there be any doubt to which part I am referring.)  A North Carolina man really did walk into a D.C. pizza parlor on December 4, and even fired two shots to encourage customers and staff to leave, the better to conduct his “investigation” in peace.  And the fake news story that led to the man’s pilgrimage had been retweeted during the general election by Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump’s choice for national-security advisor, and retweeted many times by Flynn’s Twitter followers, some of whom also shared it to Facebook.  You can see the reasoning (or at least part of the reasoning): If a respected retired lieutenant general retweeted this “story,” there must be something to it, right?

But respected retired lieutenant generals are people (and politicians), too, and like the rest of us—including the gatekeepers of real news in the mainstream media (like those at the Washington Post who seriously reported the rumor that Hillary Clinton’s fainting spell at the 9/11 memorial service may have been the result of poisoning by Russian operatives)—they can let the wish become the father of the thought.  The flip side of our widespread cynicism concerning political elites is all too often an expansive credulity when it comes to stories about any elites whom we particularly despise.  (In the wake of the December 4 shooting, Michael Flynn’s son, who had previously worked as Flynn’s chief of staff and for whom the Trump transition team had attempted to get security clearance, continued to promote the false “Pizzagate” story on Twitter.  After the younger Flynn suggested on Twitter that the shooting was a hoax designed to discredit those who had promoted Pizzagate, he was fired from the Trump transition team on December 6.)

That combination of cynicism and credulity may explain, at least in part, the anecdotal evidence that suggests that there was more “fake news” targeting Hillary Clinton and her campaign in 2016 than there was targeting Trump and his.  It’s certainly true that more stories involving Clinton gained traction.  Much of this has been blamed on the “echo chamber” effect of social media.  While people may start their social circles on Twitter and especially Facebook by friending or following their real-life friends and acquaintances, which allows for some initial diversity of social and political views, they tend to expand those circles by finding others (or being found by others) who share similar opinions and views.  From there, especially on Facebook, the algorithm takes over, and people routinely discover stories in their feed that are similar to the ones they and their friends have previously liked.  And if they like or repost the new stories, the funnel continues to narrow.  Those who arrive at a fake news story because someone they respect and admire (such as a retired lieutenant general) tweeted or posted it are more likely to believe, like, and repost it, and thus unintentionally to signal to Facebook that they want more of the same.

In other words, the artificiality of social networks creates and reinforces the echo chamber.  But is that really all that different from certain “real life” social networks—such as the newsrooms at mainstream newspapers and TV networks?  No one in the business argues anymore that the mainstream media doesn’t exhibit a liberal bias.  And those few outside of the media who still try to explain away entire newsrooms with an 80- to 90-percent record of voting Democratic by claiming that the mainstream media has a “bias toward reality” simply confirm the suspicions of those who wonder why “reality” would, after several millennia, suddenly lurch to the left.

And so cynicism about liberal elites spills over into cynicism about the media elites who vote for them, and the echo chamber of the mainstream newsroom helps create a very different kind of echo chamber among those who distrust the mainstream media, one in which cynicism about political and media elites turns into credulity concerning all those who seem also to mistrust the political and media elites.  Inside the latter echo chamber, the fact that a fake news story doesn’t appear in the New York Times or the Washington Post or on CNN is not evidence of its falsity but a reason to suspect that it may be true.

There is no easy solution to the problem of fake news.  Structural solutions—Facebook algorithm changes, Google flagging sites for having “knowingly” promulgated fake news—open up potential avenues for abuse, and that very possibility, even in the absence of any evidence of such abuse, will just reinforce the echo chamber.  The only way out is individually—a healthy skepticism about any “news” one may read—but even there, the signs are not promising.

After Chronicles published the fake quotation from Janet Reno, I spent five or six years handling requests from readers for confirmation of the quotation, even though we had published a correction in a later issue.  A few of those readers desperately wanted the quotation to be true, but they felt compelled to confirm it before distributing it to others.  Most, however, had attempted to confirm it for themselves, found that they could not, and decided that they should let us know.

The behavior of both groups seems almost quaint today.  Much of the truly fake news that is distributed on Twitter and Facebook is simply retweeted or reposted by people who haven’t bothered to read much (if at all) beyond the headline, much less attempted to verify its veracity.  And those of us who routinely but gently point out false information posted by those in our networks are less likely to receive thanks for having done so than to get a cold shoulder—or, all too often, attempts at justification that quickly descend into belligerence.

In the end, the real problem that lies at the root of fake news is a disregard for the truth—an ideological frame of mind that sees “news” as nothing but a tool in political battles.  The mainstream media have taken a side, while denying that they fix the facts to their preferred narrative; why shouldn’t those who stand up for everything that’s under attack not do the same?

Those who cannot answer that question will be stuck in the echo chamber forever. 

First published in the January 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Our Corner of the Vineyard

Nolite confidere in principibus.

The voice of the Psalmist speaks to us down through the ages: “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.”  We can be forgiven if we find those words more relevant than usual in this particular election year.  But it would be a mistake to think that the challenge we face today is merely one of personalities, the result of voters in the primaries picking two intensely dislikable candidates for the highest office in the land.

Our problems run much deeper, and they will not be solved by selecting different presidential candidates, or even simply by refocusing our political efforts from the national level to the state and local ones.  While those are both worthwhile strategies, they are essentially palliative.  They may relieve our symptoms, but they cannot cure the underlying disease, the roots of which run much deeper and much further back in history than we tend to think.

While modern politics, especially at the national level here in the United States, has proved to be a very efficient vehicle for the destruction of society and community, of culture and morality, even the best and most well-meaning of modern politicians have shown little ability to use the political process to shore up the most important institutions, to foster community, to uphold the moral order whose truth is testified to us by natural law and revelation.  Is there something in the very structure of modern democratic politics that makes it an efficient engine for destruction, but hardly useful for preserving what is good and true and beautiful, much less for building an humane society and economy, and a Christian culture?

The father of all modern democratic political theorists, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the father of something else, which is often overlooked in discussions of his legacy: nationalism, and the modern unitary nation-state.  The architects and leaders of the French Revolution were deeply inspired by Rousseau, and it is no contradiction that they adopted as their motto the democratic invocation of liberté, egalité, fraternité, while restricting the freedom of the Church, reducing Christian clergy to noncitizen status, and watering the soil of the Vendeé with the blood of martyrs.  For the liberty that they longed for was the freedom of an abstract national or general will to be expressed without the restraints of custom and tradition, including the most important of all traditions, Christianity; the equality they desired was not the natural equality of organic (and thus naturally small) communities, but the artificial equality of all Frenchmen as participants in the general or national will; and the fraternity they hoped to foster was not the natural brotherhood of families and neighbors and parishes, but the abstract brotherhood of all those who see the nation, and not their own families and the Church and the land on which they live, as their father and mother.

To foster democracy on the national level—that is, to extend democracy to a breadth unseen before in all of human history—the revolutionary leaders had to wipe out everything that stood between the nation and each man or woman, including the Church, the family, organic communities, and cultural diversity between different regions of the country.  In other words, they had to strip everyone of everything that makes each of us a person, so that they could create individuals who would have no choice but to relate to one another only through the political life of the nation-state.

The history of the past 225 years has been the playing out of the French Revolution, again and again, in country after country, around the globe.  Sometimes the attempts to give birth to the General Will have been similarly bloody—in Soviet Russia, in Nazi Germany, in communist China and Cambodia—but throughout much of Western Europe and here in the United States, they have often been more subtle, like cooking the proverbial frog in a pot.  What no one ever stops to think about that proverb, though, is that there must come an inflection point: If that poor frog is not already cooked by the time the bubbles start to rise from the bottom of the pot, he’s bound to take notice.  Because once those bubbles start to rise, they increase in size and number and frequency and intensity.  Even from inside the pot, you cannot mistake a rolling boil for still water.

For decades, the heat has been climbing in this melting pot that we call the United States.  We have now reached a rolling boil.  The attacks on the traditional social order have escalated to the point where they can no longer be ignored.  They have been launched not just against the family and the Church and the natural differences between the sexes but more recently even against the very concepts of man and woman.  And the frustration that so many Americans today feel—both those who support one of the two major presidential candidates and those who are repelled by both of them—stems from the awareness that the waters around us are roiling and boiling.  We have to do something! is the common refrain; and for many, perhaps even most, Americans, that means the President (or at least the political elite in Washington, D.C.) should do something.  After all, problems that are nationwide must call for national solutions, right?  And yet . . . 

Nolite confidere in principibus.  “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.”

The headlong rush toward mass democracy, toward Rousseauian nationalism, has obscured for many a truth that can still be seen clearly by those who have studied history, and especially modern history: There are no political solutions to cultural problems.  A wrecking ball is an extremely efficient tool to use in destroying a magnificent Gothic cathedral.  But just as it would seem absurd to suggest that the same wrecking ball might have a role to play in rebuilding a new church out of the rubble of that cathedral, contemporary politics—especially at the national level—presents far greater potential for harm than for good.  The modern inversion of social life, the placing of politics before culture and morality, could work for a little while—a few hundred years in the broad sweep of human history—so long as a healthy culture continued to pass down what was worthwhile in a way that kept tradition alive for the rising generation.  The new order could draw upon a rich cultural and moral patrimony even as it attacked that same patrimony—at first subtly, and now openly.  But now that modern politics has undermined its own foundations, the entire structure is in danger of collapse.  Remodeling a house whose foundations have been eaten away by termites is a fool’s errand; renewing the foundation itself must be the first step in rebuilding an humane society and economy.

Renewing the foundation requires a return to the principle of subsidiarity, and specifically to the original understanding of the term.  Subsidiarity is often reduced to a sort of Catholic version of political federalism—dividing up responsibilities at different levels of government.  But strictly speaking, subsidiarity is something much greater.  Subsidiarity is concerned with the proper limits of authority—all authority, not simply political authority.  In fact, while political authority is in many ways the most encompassing of all human authority in the modern age, it has traditionally been regarded as the most limited, because it is derivative.  The source of all authority, of course, is God, Who is Himself the highest authority; but on the human level, authority flows outward from the family, not downward from government.  And the authority of what we often refer to as “higher levels” of government is circumscribed by the authority of those governmental institutions that are closer to those whom they govern, institutions that have arisen organically from the community, which is the natural extension of the family.

When we speak about the structure of government in the United States, we usually represent it as a hierarchy that starts with the federal government—or, to name it more accurately, the national government—on top, with state government in the middle, and local government at the very bottom.  But politically speaking, the principle of subsidiarity sees authority from the opposite direction—local government has the strongest claim, and the authority of state government is circumscribed by that; state government should not usurp the legitimate authority of local government.  The authority of national government is restricted even further; it has no legitimate claim over the areas of authority that belong to either state or local government.  The national government does not delegate authority to the state, which in turn delegates it to the local government; rather, every level of government beyond the local is necessary only insofar as it fulfills functions that are desirable for the common good but which can only be provided by organic communities coming together voluntarily into a larger political association.  All of this is summed up precisely in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The “People of the United States” referenced in the Preamble is not an undifferentiated mass like the French revolutionaries’ understanding of the people of France, but the people of each state coming together as states—as preexisting entities—to create a new level of government to do things that all of the states found desirable but that none of the states could do for itself (and that the first federal government established under the Articles of Confederation had failed to do).  The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, so neglected today, makes this perfectly clear: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

So: Authority flows outward, from the most organic levels of government to the more artificial.  But now we need to take one further step back, and recall that even the most organic levels of government—all the things, for instance, that we lump under the label of “local government”—receive their authority not by some sort of divine right but from a social institution that preexists all political institutions: the family.

It is no mere coincidence that, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the discussion of society at large, and of the political community, is placed in the section on the Fourth Commandment.  And the structure of the discussion moves from family to society to the political community, establishing a clear priority of institutions.  All human institutions flow from the simple injunction to “Honor your father and your mother.”  As the Catechism notes,

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

It is a sign of the destruction wrought by modern politics that it seems necessary to note that the Catechism is very specific about what constitutes a family (and, by omission, what does not): “A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family.”  Because the family is the foundation on which everything else rests, the widespread confusion that has been deliberately created over the terms marriage and family is an attack not only on those institutions but on all of human society and political life.

By now it should have become clear why subsidiarity is not a mere political principle but an all-encompassing social and cultural principle that, far from empowering government, always points back to the source of government’s authority, and therefore acts as a limit on its authority, especially as that authority becomes further removed from the actual people affected by government.

To take a concrete example: The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, without reservation, that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children.”  That responsibility rests on their God-given authority within the family.  Parents can exercise that authority by delegating it to others, coming together to create communal educational institutions; but those institutions, even if they are run by local governments, cannot legitimately override the authority of the parents.  In other words, the principle of subsidiarity means that government cannot step in simply because of a perceived inability or unwillingness of the parents to exercise their authority as government sees fit.  To put it in the words of the Catechism, “Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.”  That principle applies by analogy to the state usurping the authority of local governments, or the national government usurping the authority of states and localities.

Once we start to see authority as something that extends beyond politics and that in fact circumscribes political life, we can begin to see how subsidiarity is not simply another political system but an alternative vision to the entire modern understanding of political life.  Subsidiarity builds upon our understanding of human nature and authority that we derive from natural law and revelation.  It points to a culture that will lead to a proper understanding of political life, but which is also prior to politics—prior both in the sense of existing before politics and in the sense of being more important thanpolitics.

And this culture is more important than politics precisely because it is animated not by the human will but by divine truth.  To put it another way, drawing upon the work of Joseph Pieper, that culture is at the heart of what we mean by tradition.  Like marriage and the family, tradition has suffered sustained assaults, to the point where the very word has become synonymous for most people with some set of dry-as-dust, abstract principles that are blindly handed on from one generation to the next, for no particular reason other than that they have always been believed and must therefore always be followed.

But that is not what tradition means, as Pieper shows.  Rather, it is the handing down of all that is essential, the unchanging truth to which we need to conform ourselves in order to live as man was meant to live.  Pieper contrasts this living tradition with what he calls “dogmatic conservatism,” which corresponds more with the current caricature of tradition.  Rather than being a collection of things that are revered simply for being old, tradition is the living reality of universal truth revealed through the circumstances of the day, changing as necessary in the accidents, in the “historical forms,” in order to preserve what is essential.  In other words, tradition is a living reality that animates society from within, as opposed to ideology, the normal mode of modern politics, which is a static blueprint imposed on society from above—and which does great damage to the extent that it diverges from reality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws into stark relief this distinction between a culture built on sacred tradition that preexists political life and the ideological mode of politics that dominates the modern world:

Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer.

The Catechism then turns to John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus annus:

Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows.

When Centesimus annus was released in 1991, in the final days of the Cold War, it was easy to read such lines as an epitaph for communism, or more broadly for all of the destructive totalitarianisms of the 20th century.  Twenty-five years later, John Paul appears as a prophet, his words speaking to us of the increasingly explicit totalitarianism that was implicitly there in our own national political life at the very moment when we were celebrating the triumph of freedom and democracy over tyranny and communism.

Nolite confidere in principibus.  “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.”  As another presidential election draws to a close, we need to remind ourselves that, whichever candidate wins, there are concrete ways in which we can refocus our efforts from the national level, where we can make little or no difference, to the local level, where we can restore the foundations and begin to rebuild—to use another phrase from John Paul II—the “culture of life.”  In doing so, we should act not out of mere frustration with national politics but out of a recognition of the limitations of all human endeavors that, in the words of John Paul, “seek their criteria and goal in themselves or . . . borrow them from some ideology.”  There is no future in the merely human; as the Psalmist reminds us, “His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return into his earth: in that day all their thoughts shall perish.”  In returning to subsidiarity, in elevating the family and the local community, in recognizing that the ultimate source of authority is not government but God Himself, we can begin to undo the social and cultural damage that modern politics has wrought, and start restoring our corner of the vineyard.        

First published in the November 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Meet Me at Mary’s Place

I got a picture of you in my locket
I keep it close to my heart
A light shining in my breast
Leading me through the dark . . .

The fog outside the window glows in the moments before dawn.  The sun will soon rise, but I won’t be able to see it.  The fog is so thick that the river, 80 yards or so from me, is lost in the mist.  I laid my sleeping bag here last night so I could watch the sunrise through the floor-to-ceiling windows, but now I might as well get up.

Mary Elizabeth Richert (photo by Scott P. Richert)

Mary Elizabeth Richert (photo by Scott P. Richert)

The cold air draws me out of my slumber as I head for the basement.  I know the sound every stair will make before my foot touches it, though each groans with greater intensity these days, a function of their age and mine.  Grandpa descended these stairs every day to shave and to shower in the downstairs bathroom, even when the years and his hereditary bowleggedness had made it hard to do so.  The two bathrooms upstairs had their uses, but in the morning this one was his.

He designed this house and built it 51 years ago, on 25 acres of the best farmland in the entire Midwest.  Nestled in curves of the Grand River, the soil enriched by centuries of silt, his small farm brought forth a cornucopia of food that fed children and grandchildren nearly every Sunday, and visitors throughout the year, and during harvest time everyone went away not only full but carrying tomatoes and peppers and corn and okra and potatoes and cucumbers and cabbage and green beans—the staples of my grandmother’s table, lovingly canned or frozen and made into pickles and kraut, so that the harvest lasted through the long winters here along the Lake Michigan shore.

Twenty years ago, Grandpa passed away in this house, while taking a nap after one of those meals.  Grandma knew that something was wrong when the snoring that had been the background music of her life for over 60 years finally ceased.  For the next 20 years, she hoped that she too would breathe her last breath in the home they had built together.  In the end, God had different plans.

Last night was the first Jacob had spent at his great-grandparents’ house, and it will likely be our last.  We gather our sleeping bags, stop in the kitchen to make coffee and to sit for a few minutes with my aunt and uncles, then load everything in the car to head back to my parents’ house to prepare for the funeral.  As we wind our way back to Leonard Road, steam still rises from the river, but the sun is burning off the fog.  The sky is as blue as it ever has been; it will be a perfect day for a party.

Familiar faces around me
Laughter fills the air
Your loving grace surrounds me
Everybody’s here . . .

My cousins and I had planned this celebration of Grandma’s life fully expecting her to be here with us.  She always had been; yet eight days before her 100th birthday, and four days before the party, she no longer was.  And now she lies next to Grandpa, in silence this time, awaiting the day when our Lord will tell them both to arise and to join Him in a world made anew.

Back at the farm, cars pull into the pasture, and her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren and even one great-great-great-grandchild walk the ground that Grandma had trod for 51 years.  Last night, these 25 acres and this house had suddenly seemed small to me.  When I was a child, they were a world unto itself.  I baled hay in these fields and fished in the river, harvested potatoes and sledded down the big hill with my cousins, celebrated birthdays and weddings and anniversaries and funerals, met aunts and uncles and cousins and more distant relatives for the first time.  Some I only ever knew here.

Today, however, this house and these fields no longer seem small, but too big ever to grasp and to hold in memory the way they deserve to be held.  I walk slowly from place to place, from room to room, trying to drink in every detail, so that I can remember it as it is, as it was, and as—I know—it will no longer be.  There’s not enough time.  There never will be, until, God willing, we’re all together again.

We talk for hours, eat the best roast pig my uncle and his sons and grandsons have ever made, and raise glasses of beer until most of the crowd drifts off, the sun disappears from the sky, and the chill creeps back into the air.  Those of us who are left head inside, to sit around the kitchen and dining-room tables as we have so many times before.  It’s an election year, but there are no heated discussions of politics, as there were when I was young.  Only memories.

Time slips away from me, and I have one glass too many.  In the walk-out basement where my grandparents used to retreat from the winter cold and the summer heat, there’s an empty couch facing the windows that look down to the river.  One more night here, and perhaps, tomorrow, one last sunrise.

First published in the November 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.