Quod Scripsi, Scripsi

Reader: I wasn’t quoting you.  I was characterizing your analysis as such.

Me: You were mischaracterizing my analysis.  What I have written, I have written.  What you have written, I did not.

Reader: Says you.

Words have meaning.  We live our lives, for the most part, in a world in which, on a clear spring day, one can say, “The sky is blue,” and everyone else will cheerfully agree (or wonder why you’re bothering to state the obvious).  When we make plans to meet at five o’clock at the Rusty Dog for a drink, no one thinks that means a slice of pumpkin pie at Nick’s Kitchen at 7:30.  We routinely travel at our own pace on the highway, but we all understand how fast we’re supposed to be going when we see the words SPEED LIMIT 70.

Community depends on our ability to communicate.  Language barriers don’t make community impossible, but they do make it much harder to achieve.  If you don’t know a word of French, you’re not likely to feel at home in the streets of Paris, much less in a village in Bretagne.  And if you don’t know that the cheese toastie listed on the menu is localspeak for a grilled-cheese sandwich or understand why the waitress is asking you if you’d like a sack for your leftovers, you might feel a bit out of sorts when you first move to Northeast Indiana.

As daunting as it is for most of us to learn a foreign language, we can do so if necessary, and coming to understand and eventually adopt regionalisms is a sign that you’re taking root in a community.  Stubbornly insisting on speaking only English in a café in Brest or asking a waitress in Fort Wayne to put the remains of your child’s grilled-cheese sandwich in a bag is a sign that, at best, you’re an outsider who wishes to remain that way, and more likely that you’re an ass.  We expect people to try to make themselves understood, and when they do, most of us, most of the time, will make an effort to try to understand them.

Or at least, once upon a time, we did.  Today, when discussing any subject that is in the least bit controversial, more and more Americans not only are unwilling to make any effort to understand others but seem to consider such willingness a weakness.  It is not necessary to understand what another person is saying; it is only necessary to decide where he stands in relation to you.  Once you have made that determination—rightly or wrongly—you can judge everything he says without actually hearing or reading, much less understanding, a word.

As late as 30 years ago, self-identified conservatives still prided themselves on their embrace of logic and reason and evidence.  By then, fewer and fewer of them were studying philosophy or reading history, but they continued to acknowledge the value of both.  Against the rise of an illiberal left that was increasingly embracing the irrationalism of deconstructionism and postmodernism, they continued to defend clarity of thought and expression.

Those days are long gone.  Today, when it comes to his attitudes toward the importance of language and logic and clarity of thought and expression, the average political conservative is just as much in thrall to deconstructionism and postmodernism as the average political liberal.  He would vociferously deny it, of course.  Conservatives don’t believe in such things, just as they didn’t use to believe in divorce or abortion or gay marriage—until, of course they did.  We are all good liberals now.

It may be tempting to blame this change in attitudes among conservatives on the rise of Donald Trump, but his inability to separate what is true from what he wishes to be true is more a symptom of this malady than a cause.

The true cause was what Russell Kirk called “the conservative rout” (the original title of what became The Conservative Mind).  The essence of the revolt of modernity against the classical and Christian world consisted in the subjugation of more and more of human life to politics.  The conservative counterrevolution, from Burke to Kirk, fought to contain politics within its proper—and limited—sphere, and to reassert the primacy of religion and culture.

The left’s Long March Through the Institutions didn’t begin with Antonio Gramsci and his disciples; they simply put a name, and brought a clear sense of purpose, to a movement that began in the Renaissance, achieved full force in the French Revolution, and reached its nadir when conservatives decided that President Reagan had it wrong in his First Inaugural Address: Government was the solution to the problem after all.  The triumph of politics over religion and culture was complete; everything since then has been nothing more than the logic of the revolution playing itself out.

And that includes the rise of scorn for clarity of thought and expression, both in one’s own utterances and in the words of others.  The lines that I quoted at the beginning of this column are repeated incessantly (though usually not quite so succinctly) by self-proclaimed conservatives on conservative (in this case, conservative Catholic) websites, and of course on social media.  We no longer take others’ words seriously, because we are no longer serious in the choice of our own words.  Language was once a tool for expressing truth; now, it is merely a weapon for winning arguments.  The ends justify the means, and the truth be damned.

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

The Telegraph and the Clothesline

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Communication, in the abstract, is easier today than it has ever been before, largely because of the advance of technology.  From the telegraph to the telephone to the radio to the television to the Internet, the ability to communicate something—anything—to others, and to an ever-greater number of others, has become increasingly trivial, both in labor and in economic cost.  In this sense, the Information Revolution has been a revolution indeed; but whether it has truly been informative, in the sense of providing people with more and more of the information that is actually meaningful, is still an open question.

Indeed, there is reason to believe that much of what each of us could truly benefit from knowing has been lost in the flood of the asynchronous transfer of data—“communication without conversation,” as I called it last month.  Here and there, that realization may creep into our consciousness in unexpected ways.  The average person takes far more photographs today than ever before, yet he has far fewer of those photos preserved in a physical form, with fewer if any pictures of his family hanging on his walls.  He writes more emails to friends and relatives than any previous generation wrote letters; but the historian of the future will have a harder time reconstructing the everyday life of an average American in the first decades of the 21st century than historians today have in fleshing out the picture of the lives of those who fought in Vietnam or even in the Civil War, and not just because few of those emails are likely to be preserved; the content itself is banal at best and usually utterly ephemeral.  National and international news—or rather, those tiny slivers of it that vast media companies decide to present to us—is available to everyone with access to the airwaves or the Internet, but in most of the country, local news has never been harder to come by.  Even the clothesline telegraph—neighbors swapping gossip over the back fence—has fallen victim to the same technological trends that have lulled us into the false sense that we know more about the world around us than ever before.

Thoreau is far from my favorite American writer, and Walden is a book I have little desire to revisit.  But Thoreau, despite all of his second-rate Rousseauism, was on to something with his line about the telegraph.  The further removed any two people are from each other, by distance or affinity, the less likely it is that anything one may have to say to the other will be of any real importance.  As Thoreau continues,

We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.

Asynchronous communication is often a perfectly adequate vehicle for transmitting technical information.  But the kind of information that binds the generations, that perpetuates community, that builds up cultures and civilizations—those stories, sagas, and songs require conversation.  To some extent, that conversation can take place over the phone (audio or video), but the most faithful transmission takes place at sunrise in the local diner, or around the family dinner table on a Sunday afternoon, or on your front porch on a cicada-serenaded summer night.  Intonation, body language, the twinkle in the eye and the furrow in the brow—these may pass along more than the words that they accompany.

Such conversation is always local, even if the ostensible subject is ISIS and the Middle East or the umpteenth rehearsal of how Richard Nixon didn’t deserve his fate.  The message is the medium—the interaction, harsh yet gentle, frustrated yet patient, unyielding yet forgiving, between generations and friends and acquaintances and even the odd drifter passing through.

There is a group of men who sit at the same table at Nick’s Kitchen in downtown Huntington, Indiana, every morning from Monday through Saturday.  They would sit there on Sunday mornings, too, but the owner, JeanAnne Bailey, is a Methodist, and she observes the Lord’s Day.  Some of them have been there every morning for 30 years; others have come and gone, and younger ones have come and stayed.  They talk about everything, and about nothing; the table will fall silent for minutes at a time.  But just as on those still summer afternoons 40 years ago when I sat on the couch and read while Grandma tidied up the kitchen after lunch and Grandpa slept after a morning of working together in the garden and the yard, that silence speaks volumes about the ties that bind.

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

The Quest for Community

A sense of the past is far more basic to the maintenance of freedom than hope for the future.  The former is concrete and real; the latter is necessarily amorphous and more easily guided by those who can manipulate human actions and beliefs.
— Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community

The trouble with labels—whether adopted voluntarily or applied by others—is that they are inherently limiting.  Robert Nisbet is often described as a sociologist or a libertarian, and sometimes as a libertarian sociologist, depending on what the person labeling Nisbet desires to emphasize.  It is true that Nisbet was a sociologist by training and profession, but the term sociologist today usually calls to mind a professor in an ivory tower who regards free will as a delusion, at least in a practical sense, because the constraints of political, social, and economic institutions keep men and women (and men who want to become women) trapped in the particular circumstances into which they were born.  Historically, Auguste Comte is regarded as the father of sociology; in practical terms, sociology as practiced in the academy today finds its roots in the opening sentence of Rousseau’s Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

The average libertarian may not care much for the practice of sociology, but he, too (no need for diversity of pronouns here, because libertarians are predominantly male), is a Rousseauian at heart.  A glorious future would await us if only we could throw off the social and political chains of the past, and allow man to embrace fully his nature as Homo economicus.

Nisbet certainly believed that political and economic power have become far too centralized in the modern world, to the detriment of culture and society and personal freedom.  He also believed that such centralization—embraced by nearly all as a sign of progress—has led to social restrictions on acceptable thought: “The greatest intellectual and moral offense the modern intellectual can be found guilty of is that of seeming to think or act outside what is commonly held to be the linear progress of civilization.”

But like Comte, and even more like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, Nisbet did not believe (as both sociologists and libertarians do) that man is too bound by all social and cultural structures.  Rather, he held that increasing alienation from those structures closest to him—his family, his parish, his neighborhood, his community—is both a result and a cause of political and economic centralization.  That centralization has restricted personal freedom in the name of an amorphous hope for a better future.  The best guarantee of personal freedom lies in a return to the social and cultural structures of the past, which kept power diffused, set limits on destructive human desires, and forced men and women to work together for the sake of the good of their families and communities.

Nisbet was no premodern reactionary; he saw value in the modern emphasis on personal freedom, but he understood that such freedom required the preservation of social structures and cultural institutions that recognize the needs and limitations of human nature rather than ignoring or attempting to rise above them:

The liberal values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society, but we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive—diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.

Ah, but there’s the rub: To what extent are “diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority” even possible in a world in which politics has subverted culture, most of our “friends” may be people we’ve never met in real life, the word community is almost always preceded by either the word virtual or another label (e.g., “gay”; “black”), and the 24/7 cable news cycle keeps our eyes—and even more importantly, our imaginations—focused on Washington, D.C., and Hollywood?

The answer may seem surprising to the sociologist or the libertarian, but the possibilities remain because the social and cultural structures of the past, however attenuated, continue to exist.  No one is keeping us from eating dinner with our families, and getting to know our neighbors, and taking an active role in our parishes, and treating Facebook or Twitter and FOX News or MSNBC as sources of information rather than necessary parts of our identities.  No one forces us to obsess about Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi, Harvey Weinstein or Jennifer Lawrence; we freely choose to do so.

And in doing so, we freely choose to give up our freedoms, to cut our ties to the past that still exists in the people and places nearest to us, to place ourselves in the role of the voter and consumer who stands in relation to centralized political and economic power as a slave stands to his master.  We choose the illusions that feed our desires rather than the concrete realities that can be maintained only through effort but which provide the restraints on our impulses that allow us to rise above our fallen human nature.

The quest for community is, at heart, an attempt to return to the Garden, to recover what we lost when our first parents fell.  But so, in its own way, is the desire for political and economic utopia.  The difference is that the former embraces the past and the limitations of our fallen nature, and recognizes that true freedom requires restraint; while the only thing the latter finds desirable in the past is the Tempter’s lie, echoing down through the ages: Ye shall be as gods . . .

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

Welcome Back, Potter

Several years ago, aided by the wonders of modern technology and the principle of fair use, a number of people independently produced remixes of It’s a Wonderful Life as a horror movie.  That this worked brilliantly is really no surprise, since the dystopian world of Pottersville in Frank Capra’s masterpiece foreshadowed such later classics of horror and suspense as Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Jack Finney, the author of Siegel’s source material, was as fascinated as Capra was with the breakdown of community in the United States in the 1940’s and 1950’s—decades that many of us now regard as a Golden Age from which we have since been engaged in a long, but accelerating, descent.

It has become commonplace to blame the destruction of community on the rise of technology, and even fast-food giant KFC jumped on the bandwagon during the most recent holiday shopping season with a clever viral marketing campaign for a KFC-branded “Internet Escape Pod”—a dome-shaped Faraday cage with a larger-than-life-sized Colonel Sanders draped over its apex and an Original Recipe drumstick serving as its door handle.  Gather the whole family (assuming it’s no larger than four people) inside to sit Indian-style on the floor around a bucket of Extra Crispy and a couple of sides, and the Colonel will take care of the rest, blocking all wireless signals and rendering our ubiquitous iPhones useless.  To point out that an eight piece of the Colonel’s Finest is as emblematic of the underlying problem as are those pictures we’ve all seen of groups of teenagers sitting in the stands at high-school football games with their heads bent toward their Samsung Galaxies seems as pretentious as the conservative essays on how the destruction of community didn’t start with Steve Jobs, since the iPhone was preceded by the personal computer, which followed the television, which was a natural evolution from moving pictures and the radio and Thomas Edison’s phonograph.

And yet, pretentious or not, it’s true.  By the time when family psychologists and cultural critics began to preach about the importance of sitting down for dinner as a family at least once a week—even if the exigencies of modern life mean that the menu must consist of unidentifiable cuts of fast-food fried chicken and muddy gravy on top of boxed mashed potatoes—something had gone horribly wrong.  And both our use of technology (intentionally or unintentionally) to isolate rather than to unite and our treatment of the Colonel’s greasy offerings as a treat rather than a necessary but unfortunate convenience reflect far deeper and more disturbing trends that Capra and Finney saw clearly some 70 years ago.

George Bailey, as I noted last month, was, in an important respect, very similar to Mr. Potter.  Before Uncle Billy absentmindedly placed control over the savings-and-loan’s future in the hands of Mr. Potter, setting up the sequence of events that would lead George to contemplate suicide, George had endured another temptation at the hands of Mr. Potter.  And it was a temptation most of us would find hard to resist: Come work for me, and you will be set for life.  Earn as much in one year as you currently do in ten.  Give your wife and family everything they could ever want, and travel the world.  All you have to do is cut all meaningful ties to Bedford Falls—even though you’ll still be living here.

We can see the struggle in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes as George undergoes his temptation, and we can feel his desire to say yes.  Every time I see the movie, I half-expect George to stand up, shake Potter’s hand, and yell (in Stewart’s inimitable way), “It’s a deal, Mr. Potter, sir!”  One could even make a putatively conservative case for accepting Potter’s offer.  Materially, Mary and the children would be better off if George joined forces with Potter than they would likely ever be if he turned Potter down.  In the morality of everyday life, my first obligation (beyond that to my Creator) is to my family.  Mr. Potter may not be the best of employers, but many men have, like modern-day Bob Cratchits, put up with far worse in order to provide far less for their wives and children.  The Baileys could at least have had a comfortable life, if not a wonderful one.

And yet, outside of the odd libertarian, everyone who has ever watched It’s a Wonderful Life knows instinctively that George makes the right decision in putting Potter behind him.  The quest for community is part of human nature, even when we, in our sinfulness, do everything we can, actively and passively, to undermine the conditions that make community possible.  The family is the first community from which all others grow; but pulling back from our obligations to the broader community for the sake of one’s family in a way that puts one’s family in opposition to that community is the devil’s bargain.  That is the true trial that George faces in Potter’s offer.  Overcoming that trial not only reveals George’s character with regard to his obligations toward the community of Bedford Falls but prepares him for the later trial, when he is tempted, out of self-pity, to deprive his wife of her husband and his children of their father.

There are limits, of course, to how far community can extend beyond one’s family—geographical and cultural limits chief among them.  But the danger for us today lies less in extending the concept of community too far than it does in accepting Potter’s bargain, and trading a wonderful life for a comfortable one.

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