Life Is Not a Fantasy

The reality of place has weighed heavily on me from a very young age.  My knowledge of self has always been inseparable from the place in which I live.  My understanding of who I am has been closely tied to those with whom I most often interact—family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even those with whom I have a nodding acquaintance (a phrase that has become unfortunately abstract in a world that no longer values simple signs of courtesy and respect).  Remove me from familiar places, and I become a stranger in a strange land, longing for my home.

Even when, as a typical teenager, I longed to leave my hometown, my departure always ended, in my imagination, with my return.  A life elsewhere, among other people, is an abstraction: Home is reality.

Of course, I no longer live in my hometown—and yet, in fact, I do.  In Huntington, as in Rockford, as in Spring Lake, I have walked the streets until they have become a part of me, and found my place among a people who are not simply passing through but are deeply rooted in this portion of God’s green earth and the little bit of civilization that has been built upon it, for all intents and purposes autochthonous and autonomous, a true community made up not of individuals with entirely separate lives but of persons whose sense of themselves is tightly woven with their sense of their neighbor and of their place.

Chaucer was the first to claim that familiarity breeds contempt, and most (if not all) of us can point to concrete examples that seem to prove his adage true.  Yet these words are, at best, a half-truth, which makes them (as John Lukacs reminds us) more dangerous than a lie.  Because it is even more true to say that familiarity breeds community, and that civilization cannot arise among an agglomeration of rootless individuals, but only among men and women who are rooted in a particular place and in deep knowledge of one another.

These brief thoughts were occasioned by continued reflection on what role, if any, aphantasia—my complete inability to create mental images—may have had on the development of my theological, philosophical, and political understanding.  As I mentioned last month, I was initially dismissive of David Mills’s suggestion even to consider this.  But the centrality of incarnationalism in my theological understanding, my visceral rejection of abstraction in philosophy, and my preference for localism in politics, economics (broadly understood), and culture, taken together, do seem like the positions one might expect a person who can’t imagine an orange sheep with five legs perched on the dome of the Huntington County courthouse to have arrived at.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we expect a Catholic who has truly encountered Christ to place the Incarnation at the center of his theological thought and, therefore, to reject philosophical abstraction in favor of an epistemology resembling a traditional Aristotelian empiricism?  If even God must become man in order for us truly to know Him, why would we think that we can have true knowledge of anything else outside of experience?  Even book larnin’ must build on experience, moving from analogy to analogy, and the mental images created by people who are not aphantasic of things they have not directly experienced are still conditioned by their actual experiences.  Thus, the presentation of the Blessed Virgin in medieval art as more European than Middle Eastern is no more a form of cultural imperialism than images emerging from other Christian communities at roughly the same time of Mary with Asian or Ethiopian features.  We know what we know because we have experienced it.  Even those with the ability to create extraordinarily vivid mental images—hyperphantasia, we might call it—cannot conjure up a mental figment that does not correspond in some way to something they have experienced.

Yet there are Catholics today who intellectually accept the Incarnation as a reality but whose theology is otherwise maddeningly abstract, and philosophical abstraction ism, like centralism in politics, economics, and culture, has become more the norm among the intellectual classes than the exception.  Over the last century—and accelerating exponentially in recent years—those tendencies have spread beyond the intellectual classes into the broader populace.  Mass communications, and now social media, have turned abstractionism into a form of mania, a type of mental illness no longer confined to individuals but affecting society as a whole.

Walker Percy saw it coming nearly 50 years ago, and it’s no coincidence that this Catholic convert made the hero of Love in the Ruins (1971) and its sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), both a psychiatrist and a descendant of St. Thomas More.  The answer to the abstraction that’s making us all mad lies in the faith that is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Far from abstraction, that faith is an experience, a personal relationship with the God made Man; not a fantasy, but the ultimate ground of reality.

First published in the March 2019 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.

Chronicles of Culture

“Culture does not exist autonomously,” wrote Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community; “it is set always in the context of social relationships.”  The implications of Nisbet’s statement should be obvious, but in the age of “social” media, when we speak of “long-distance relationships” with “friends” we have never met, the obvious too often gets lost in a cloud of abstraction.

For there to be a “context of social relationships,” there must be at least two people.  And those people must be part of a society, because that is what social, as an adjective, not only implies but demands, the fantasy worlds constructed by Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams notwithstanding.  And a society is a community, and a particular type thereof: not simply a random collection of people thrown together in time and bound by geography, but one ordered to the common good, and sharing a common history and customs.  Those customs, deriving from and informed by that history, form the barest skeleton of what we call culture.

Culture, then, is built from the ground up, and from the basic human community—the family—outward.  A culture is resilient to the extent that the society which gave rise to it is healthy, and that health implies a certain stability.  Too much mobility, in the form of either immigration or emigration, disrupts the social relationships that make it possible to order a community to the common good.  Shared history is lost; shared customs break down.  The common culture collapses.

Culture develops organically; it cannot be imposed from the top down.  Anything that we call a culture that does not arise “in the context of social relationships” is at best an ideology.  It takes years, even generations, of social stability to develop the common history and customs that make a true culture possible.

Thus, a true culture has an upper limit as well as a lower one.  Just as an individual cannot a culture make, so too a mass of men among whom any social relationships are tenuous at best cannot truly share a common culture.  Most people would probably recognize that to speak of a “global culture” is abstraction at its worst; but to speak of, say, “Christian culture” is not much better.  There are cultures that are Christian, but each arises from a shared faith in Christ among a people who share a common history and customs within a true community bound by space and time.  Two Christians from different Christian cultures obviously share much; but a single common culture is not one of the things that they share.

I once wrote in these pages that,

The subtitle of this magazine notwithstanding, there can be no single, deep, and lasting “American culture,” but there have been and still are many American cultures, local and regional, and the stronger they are, the more likely it is that the country as a whole will manage to survive.

Furthermore, in a country that spans a continent, there can be no single nation, since a nation is bound together not only by common descent and geography but by a common culture.  That does not mean that there cannot be a governmental confederation (or, more strictly speaking, an empire) that extends over such a large span of territory, nor that the many American cultures do not have more in common with one another than they do with other cultures beyond the physical boundaries of the North American continent.  But unless the word culture is to become the kind of abstraction that Robert Nisbet abhorred, it must always be bound by the limits of a true society—limits imposed by geography, shared history and customs, and social relationships.

In our continental empire, anything that pretends to the title of a national culture is by its very nature a threat to the real cultures that continue to exist (and sometimes even to thrive) in such places as Spring Lake, Michigan; Rockford, Illinois; Huntington, Indiana; and thousands of other villages, towns, and small-to-medium-sized cities across the United States, as well as in neighborhoods within cities that are too large to sustain a true culture of their own. Such cultures are dismissed as backward and parochial not only by liberals, for whom culture must give way to abstract universalism, but by putative conservatives whose nationalist abhorrence of cultural patriotism is less universal but no less abstract.

America, such conservatives say, is not a “proposition nation”—except when the proposition in question is not that “All men are created equal” but that a culture does not need a specific soil and a particular people to give it birth.  But this, too, is a type of abstract equality that denies the importance of the actual social relationships that give rise to and sustain true cultures.  The person—a word that always implies a relationship to another—is replaced by the individual, whose only relationship (tenuous as it is) is to the mass known as the nation.

And thus does culture die, at the hands of those who should be its protectors.

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

Breeding Mosquitos

“Where there’s no solution,” James Burnham used to remark, “there’s no problem.”

That’s easy for him to say, the modern populist conservative replies.  Burnham died while Reagan was still in office!  What did he know about problems?

Ah, the Golden Age of the 1980’s, when life was good.  At least until we compare it with the Golden Age of the 1950’s, which is darn near perfect until we compare it with the Golden Age of the 1920’s, not to mention . . . Hey, you kids!  Get the hell off my lawn!

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”  The writer of Ecclesiastes, it is true, was divinely inspired, but Burnham’s saying channels the same spirit (and perhaps the same Spirit).  Time and tide rise and fall together, and dust returns to dust; and our vanity of vanities leads us to suppose that our problems are uniquely ours, not to mention that we are uniquely qualified to discover solutions that men for millennia have failed to find.

Empires rise, and empires fall, as they have since man left Eden.  Men grasp for the One Ring, confident that they will be able to resist its temptations, and use it only for good, because no one else in the history of mankind has understood quite so well this particular problem, nor conceived of this particular solution.  That the problem always lies out there, among other men, and not in here, in our own heart and soul, is obvious; so the obvious solution is to deprive other men of power, to consolidate it in ourselves, and to impose the One Right Answer from above.  When the One Right Answer fails—as it always does—the fault, we know, is always to be found in the peculiar evil of the Other Side, unmatched in the history of mankind, and not in the human condition, which can be healed (if at all) only in the personal conversion of hearts and minds to a love of truth (and ultimately the Truth).  That such healing will never be complete in this life should call us back to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and even that of James Burnham; that it never does is, in its own way, confirmation of that wisdom.

In the spring of 1986, I spent a week in Washington, D.C., in the Close Up program.  A year before James Burnham died, that really was a different time.  D.C. was still closer to the sleepy Southern town described by David Brinkley in Washington Goes to War than to the post-Clinton/Bush, Jr. imperial capital of today, but the signs were already there for those who had eyes to see.  Even though I could not fail to note the changes that had come in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis (after my family’s last visit to D.C.), I was not among those who had such eyes.  Though I was heading that fall to Russell Kirk’s Behemoth U. to study physics, I stood on the rooftop of a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, enthralled by the lights of the Capitol, the monuments, and the Mall, and vowed one day to return.

I did, earlier than I thought I would, in the summer of 1989.  As an intern at Accuracy in Media, I attended every public lecture at every conservative think tank in town, and a few that were meant to be private.  I had my picture taken with Jack Kemp and Duncan Hunter and Alan Keyes, hobnobbed with exiled leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras, met Pat Buchanan for the first time, engaged Robert Bork in an argument over the Establishment Clause, and got Newt Gingrich to sign a copy of a program from a Democratic Women’s Club luncheon that I had been assigned to cover for AIM’s weekly newspaper.  At the reception following a lecture by Russell Kirk to the monthly meeting of the Third Generation at the Heritage Foundation, I drank Coors—back then, the beer of every smart young conservative—while wondering why so few of the members had bothered to show up to listen to the wisdom of the man who not only wrote The Conservative Mind but embodied it.

And then, a month or two later, at a meeting of that same group, I discovered why.  While they hadn’t turned out for Kirk, the members descended in droves to hear a young man named Chris Manion, from a conservative think tank in North Carolina, because they thought that he understood The Problem, and would offer The Solution.

Chris did indeed understand The Problem, but those young men and women left disappointed, because they could not countenance The Solution—one with which Kirk would thoroughly agree.  If you want to make a difference, Manion told them, you must first Go Home.

There are no solutions to be found in Washington, D.C., and thus there are no problems.  But there are very real problems with very real solutions right in our own backyards (not to mention our own souls)—problems that we are morally bound to solve, no matter how much we wish to avoid them.  And yet: Drain the Swamp! we cry, though the rainwater in the bucket we can’t bring ourselves to empty is breeding mosquitos in our own backyard.

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