A Generation in Need of Editing

Many years ago, as the luncheon speaker at a meeting of the John Randolph Club in Rockford, Illinois, Tom Sheeley gave a thought-provoking lecture interspersed with a splendid performance of classical guitar.  His main theme was the need for form in art; and all these years later, one line stands out in my memory: “What is creativity without editing?”

Later that afternoon, while introducing the founder, editor, and chief author of a certain Catholic magazine, I turned Tom’s question into a joke, with the title of the magazine as the punch line.  My use of his words was good for a quick laugh, but the question Tom raised is one I have returned to many times over the years in moments of serious reflection.

As I noted last month, conservatives in the United States have long ceded the realms of literature and art (here broadly construed to include all forms of imaginative media, including music, theater, and film) to the forces of the left.  First neoconservatives and, now, increasingly self-identified paleoconservatives have dismissed or even ridiculed Russell Kirk’s emphasis on the moral imagination.  The time is too late, they argue; the stakes are too high; if we spend our time on the long, hard work of creating a culture that can properly form the moral imagination of the rising generation, the left will dominate national politics, increase its hold on the U.S. Supreme Court, and everything we care about will be in danger of being outlawed or worse.  In such dire straits, politics—especially national politics—is all that matters.

The reality, of course, is that the left already dominates national politics, even in the age of Donald Trump.  And the left dominates national politics precisely because those who not only should have conserved what was best in what we call (for lack of better terms) Western and Christian culture but should have continued to add to that cultural patrimony in new and creative ways ceded the battleground at the very moment when the left began to embrace the power of the culture to form the imaginations of future generations.

In the left’s Long March Through the Institutions, the transformation of politics and law is the last step, not the first.  Every major “revolutionary” Supreme Court decision that has eroded traditional social order and morality was itself a product of cultural changes that preceded it.  Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, to name just two, were much more the judicial rewriting of laws to reflect cultural changes that had already occurred than they were the cause of those changes.  In both cases, the imagination of the American people had been formed (or rather deformed, in a literal sense), by film and television especially, to accept as normal the horrifying reality of infanticide by the people directly charged with the safety of those children—mothers and fathers and doctors who had sworn first to do no harm—and the elevation of deliberately nonproductive sexual acts to the level of a lifelong commitment to love, honor, and cherish one’s spouse and to protect and rear any children who may result from that union.

To put it another way, Harry Blackmun and Anthony Kennedy were less the authors of Roe and Obergefell, respectively, than Norman Lear and the creators of Modern Family.

Which brings us back to Tom Sheeley and his question.  We are in dire need of stories good, beautiful, and true to help form the imagination of a generation for whom things that would not only have been unthinkable to previous generations, but are untenable as the basis of a lasting culture and society, are the norm.  We have an opportunity, because there is among that rising generation an increasing appreciation for art of a higher level than the cultural equivalent of McDonald’s that previous generations of conservatives have been all too happy to consume.  And among some of that younger generation, there is both the desire and the creativity to produce such works of art—especially in the realm of narrative nonfiction writing, and film and shorter narrative video.

All of that is a very good thing, which could help to turn the cultural tide.  As the rubric of this column implies, if we wish to reverse the Long March Through the Institutions, political action isn’t enough: There must be a Countermarch.  And the sooner we start moving, the better.

But the danger that we face is obvious.  Even the best imaginations of this rising generation have been formed, at least in part, by the forces of cultural deformation.  They are looking to create works of art that are good and true and beautiful, but the lens through which they judge goodness and truth and beauty is cloudy and flawed.  Their imaginations may be wellsprings of creativity, but their works are in need of editing.

And that’s where the efforts of older generations must come in.  It’s all too easy to dismiss the tattooed millennial, drinking his craft beer and eating his kale and quinoa salad while agonizing over his struggle to remain independent in order to realize his own vision.  But my grandparents raised kale (though not quinoa), and there was a time when even the movement conservatives who regarded Coors Light as the height of taste claimed to value independence.

A recent study by University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen has found that the divorce rate in the United States dropped by 18 percent between 2008 and 2016, and—surprise—those tattooed millennials are the cause.  Their craft beer and their kale and their desire to stay married are all signs of an innate conservatism manifesting itself in new and creative ways.  But their creativity is in need of editing.  They can be a force for the right kind of cultural change, if we help them.

Or, if we continue to insist that the hour is too late and national politics is the only answer, we can let them fall into the cultural morass of the left for lack of leadership from our generation.  The choice is ours.  Will we be their editors?

First published in the November 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.


I have always liked the idea of Stephen King more than I have cared for any of his books.  At a meeting of the John Randolph Club here in Rockford many years ago, Tom Sheeley, in the midst of a lunchtime performance of classical guitar, asked, “What is creativity without editing?”  His question was meant to be rhetorical, yet had someone answered “Stephen King” even Tom, more of an admirer of King’s writing than I, would have been hard pressed to deny that to be true.

Since the release of Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie in 1976, filmmakers and TV producers have acted as King’s de facto editors, with mixed success.  While many film and TV adaptations of King’s work have flopped, either by adhering too slavishly to the source material or, conversely, excising the truly brilliant parts, the best directors and producers have used King’s genius as inspiration for their own works of art.  Among the successes I would count Stand by MeNeedful ThingsThe Shawshank Redemption, and The Mist.  (Don’t ask me about The Shining; I do not share the general belief in Stanley Kubrick’s genius.)

So when I greatly enjoyed the Hulu original miniseries 11.22.63, I naturally assumed this to be another case in which the visual adaptation rose above the written source.  Yet I was fascinated enough to pick up the 1,100-plus-page book—and was delighted to discover that I was wrong.

This story of a high-school teacher who spends five years in the past in an attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy never drags (though it could have benefited, as usual, from a good editor).  Unlike the miniseries, which largely portrays the first few years of the 1960’s in golden tones, King’s work realizes the world of nearly 60 years ago in its fullness, letting the reader sense what has been lost, both for ill and for good.  And while there are obvious anachronisms (including a ridiculously frequent use of profanity), the sense of entering another time is as palpable as in Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which King himself acknowledges as “The great time-travel story.”

That said, I recommend both watching the miniseries and reading the book, because there are ways in which the former rises above the latter, including the change in the character of Miz Mimi (more true to the state of race relations in small-town Texas at the time) and the very ending, when Jake Epping (the high-school teacher) and Sadie Dunhill (his love from 1963) are reunited.  This scene—more fully realized in the miniseries—was not King’s idea; he included it as an epilogue in the book at the suggestion of his son, Joe Hill, who, as a novelist, may more fully approach the Platonic ideal of Stephen King than King himself has ever been able to do.

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