Pontius Pilate, Ora Pro Nobis

To the leaders of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s, self-censorship—once known as civility and decorum—was as dangerous as the social enforcement of civility by private organizations and by public educational institutions, and those social norms were, in turn, just as destructive as attempts by government to limit the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.  Yet the chief aim of the Free Speech Movement was not the same as the aim of the authors and ratifiers of the First Amendment.  The provision that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech” was intended to prevent a legal stifling of political debate that would allow a dominant faction in the federal government to concentrate power at the expense of the states and the people.  (We can see how well that worked.)  That freedom of speech would eventually be invoked to defend the word f--k, the depraved imagination of Larry Flynt, and even the promotion of murder would have boggled James Madison’s mind.

The ultimate aim of the Free Speech Movement, on the other hand, was to make a decisive break with the institutions and practices that had emerged from, and sustained, what we once called Christendom.  Those who rallied behind the banner of free speech recognized that words had power—both the power to build up and (more importantly for their purposes) the power to tear down.  Those who want to create and sustain civilization and those who wish to destroy it have the same tool at their disposal.

Back then, as free speech progressed from tittering over the seven dirty words to campus sit-ins to throwing firebombs both figurative and literal, some conservatives (more of the Kirkian variety than of the Nixonian one) recognized the Free Speech Movement for what it was: less of a political threat than a civilizational one.  The importance of civility and decorum is no more self-evident to those who have never exercised them than the need for a knife and a fork is to the barbarian who is used to eating with his hands.  Restraint in speech, like table manners, is a learned behavior, and a mark of civilization.

While table manners speak to man’s sense of his own dignity, a man can remain dignified if forced, by circumstance, to grab a turkey drumstick or to cup his hand in a running stream.  Civility and decorum in speech, however, reflect something even deeper: the recognition that speech is a moral act and, therefore, that the choice of one’s words matters.  Language can reveal the truth, or it can deceive; and the chief reason we choose words that reveal the truth is to communicate that truth to others.  And we attempt to communicate truth to others not to do damage to them, but because we know that the truth is something they need to know.

The constructive use of language, then, is tied very closely to tradition—not tradition as a collection of things that are passed down but, as Josef Pieper saw it, an action that conveys truth from person to person and from generation to generation.  Indeed, language is the chief vessel of tradition, properly understood.  And for Christians, all truth has both its root and its end in the Truth that created and sustains us, and that gave Himself to save mankind because we chose to believe, and then to imitate, the Father of Lies.  It is no mere coincidence that John calls that Truth the Word.

A funny thing happened, though, over the last 50 years, reaching its apotheosis in the past few.  An increasing number of those who declare themselves the defenders of civilization and of Christianity have come to regard civility and decorum not as aids in communicating the truth but as shackles preventing “us” from triumphing over “them.”  And so they have embraced the idol of free speech, for the same reason as those activists of the 1960’s whom they would never acknowledge as their forebears: They are more interested today in destruction than they are in preservation, much less in the construction of a truly Christian civilization.  They attack not only their putative enemies (whom they resemble more than they will ever admit), but also those they would once have embraced as their allies, when the latter dare to suggest that words have meaning, that language is properly used to convey truth, and that the ends can never justify the means because all lies have their source in the Father of Lies, just as all truth belongs to the Word Who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”

With Pontius Pilate, they dismiss truth as “fake news,” standing between them and political power, the modern equivalent of the friendship of Caesar.  But Pilate, seeing the Man he had condemned to death hanging upon the Cross, wrote words of truth and defended them: “What I have written, I have written.”  Early traditions claim that he was baptized and may even have suffered a martyr’s death.  If so, we could use his intercession today.

First published in the January 2019 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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.