State of the Culture Feed

The First Resort of the Scoundrel

I've been going through scattered notes that exist as loose scraps of paper, disconnected sentences and paragraphs and whole pages in at least half a dozen notebooks, and text files on my computer, trying to get rid of the junk and put anything worth keeping in some place where I can find it again. The blog seems as good a place as any, better than most in fact, since I can search it.

I have occasionally thought about writing an essay on the whole topic of race and racism, and I think these two paragraphs were notes toward that. 

*

From the point of view of the character assassin the charge of racism is a wonderful thing. No evidence is required, much less proof. All that's needed is that the charge be repeated by enough of the right people.

It is a crime without degree--as if the law were to hold that to express dislike of a person's manners is the same as murdering him. The charge can be brought on some trivial basis, but the accused is guilty of everything. If the label sticks, you are morally indistinguishable from slave owners and segregationists.

*

Everybody knows the famous remark, which I think originated with Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." That was more true decades ago than it is now, as patriotism is a highly "problematic" thing among the enlightened of our time. More to the point now, demonstrated every day, is that the charge of racism has become the first resort of many scoundrels, many of them in high places--and their last resort as well. 

I abandoned the idea of that essay, by the way. It would be a lot of unpleasant work and in the end useless. There's no point in addressing madness with reason--or at any rate I no longer have the heart for it.

 


An Odd Little Incident in the Culture War

As I've surely mentioned before, the little town where I live has grown fashionable and affluent. And of course where there is fashion and affluence there progressives will be also. Which is ok, but as Justice Ginsburg said, there are certain populations that you don't want to have too many of. (I can't bring myself to use a smiley-face in a piece of writing meant to be at least somewhat serious, but yes, I do mean that in a mildly humorous way, and no, I do not wish to exterminate progressives. I just don't want them to rule the town in which I live.)

There is a Facebook group devoted to local news and general conversation. Happily, it mostly stays clear of controversy, though there are sometimes a few people who will insist on riding their particular hobby horse into any possible opening. The phenomenon of "Pride" Month, which weirdly groups advocacy for certain sins which don't appeal to most people beneath the umbrella of one to which we are all more or less deeply attached, produced a bit of that. There were one or two posts saying, more or less, "Yay Pride Month!" As far as I saw the only reactions they got was along the lines of "Yes! Yay Pride Month!" And I noticed with interest, but not surprise, that nearly all of these were from women, mostly young women. (I'm going by the profile photo thumbnails, and the names.) This is a feature of current aggressive progressivism that as far as I know has not been sufficiently remarked upon--sufficiently in relation to its significance, I mean, because it strikes me as quite significant, though I'm not sure exactly what it signifies.

Then a couple of weeks ago a "Yay Pride" post with a different slant appeared. This one, also from a young woman, was something like "Name the local businesses that you would like to see supporting Pride Month!", and was decorated, inevitably, with smiley-faces, rainbows, and such.

There were not many comments at that point: half a dozen or so comments in agreement, but this time there were some objectors, including the accurate but probably unhelpful "You need Jesus!" Apparently there were some people who agreed with me that this was a step too far: it's one thing to cheer for your team, another to demand that everyone cheer for it. I thought something along the lines of "More proof that woke progressivism is a religion." I considered saying something like that, and even clicked on the reply button and sat there for a minute or two trying to decide whether I wanted to wade in. Then I reloaded the page to see what new comments might have been added, and got a message saying "This content is no longer available." In other words, the post had been deleted. I have no way of knowing whether the author of the post deleted it, or the administrator of the group did. Either way, I was glad, because I thought it was a good sign that one or the other of them decided that it was inappropriate, and likely to start trouble. 

It's a small incident, but a couple of things about it struck me as significant. First, the moral confidence, or perhaps aggressiveness, exhibited by the original poster: she either saw her view as being so obviously right that it didn't occur to her that there was anything objectionable about urging people to join her campaign, or she knew many people would disagree and was deliberately challenging them. Either way, this was an example of the evangelizing zeal of the LG* movement. It was reminiscent of the story Rod Dreher got from Vaclav Havel and often refers to: the greengrocer in a Communist country who puts a "Workers of the world, unite!" sign in the window of his store, not because he believes it but to avoid hostile scrutiny.

Second, the reaction suggests a way for the evangelists and those who decline to join them to coexist. Consider the reception a Christian would get for posting "Christ is risen!" in a public group on Easter Sunday. Most likely only curmudgeons would object. (Actually I think this did happen, without controversy.) But it would be a different story if the Christian posted "Name the local businesses that you would like to see praising Jesus!" There's a hint of threat in that, even if unintended. It would make a non-Christian business owner feel uneasy, at minimum: are people going to avoid my business if I don't go along? 

In the current social climate, to perceive a threat from progressive activists requires no imagination, as the news is full of their attempts to punish people who disagree with them. This incident suggests to me that places like my town might be able to preserve the live-and-let-live attitude which is in fact the attitude of most Americans, left-wing rhetoric to the contrary. 


"Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity..."

...and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

—T.S. Eliot

It dawned on me sometime fairly late in life that although the opening statement is obviously true, the rest of it is jive. It's Eliot justifying his own poetics as a universal principle. It's by no means necessarily false, but not necessarily true, either. One could just as well argue that the essential task of the poet in such a time is to penetrate the complexity and get at the unchanging truths which the complexity often muddles. "A time of complexity and confusion requires a poetry of directness and clarity...."

But I thought about Eliot's statement when I took a tour boat around Mobile's seaport a few weeks ago. Container shipping is apparently the way things are done now, and I think has been for some time. (Here's a recent piece in National Review with some more information about that.)

Each of those shoe-boxy containers is somewhere close to the size of the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler. What's in them? How do they (the vague "they" which we all--or at least I--see as somehow making the world work) keep track of it all, from source to destination? Those cranes are...I don't know, a couple of hundred feet tall maybe? There's a little cab that hangs underneath the horizontal part and has a driver, who runs it out over the ship and with some sort of dangling gripping apparatus picks up a container and puts it down somewhere behind the crane, where there are acres and acres of them. 

ShipWithContainers

Whatever bad things one may have to say about the modern world, and I have plenty, it is an amazing accomplishment.

A year ago I probably wouldn't have specified that the Eliot in question is Thomas Stearns. But as of this past February it could in my mind as likely be George.


Dylan is 80 Today

And in the course of reading various tributes to him I've been reminded that I may be the only person in the world, or at least the only Dylan fan in the world, who doesn't think Blood on the Tracks is a masterpiece, possibly the best of his many albums. Not that I don't think it's good, just not that good. 

Also, I seem to be one of the few who are skeptical about that Nobel prize. Perhaps a bit more skeptical because I've been reading Kristin Lavransdatter, a truly great work of literature. 


Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 


St. Ogg's in Our Time

(This is not especially appropriate for Easter Monday--well, it's not appropriate at all, but it's not exactly inappropriate either. But I wrote it a day or two before Palm Sunday, then decided it should wait till after Holy Week. So....)

And the present time was like the level plain where men lose their belief in volcanoes and earthquakes, thinking to-morrow will be as yesterday, and the giant forces that used to shake the earth are forever laid to sleep. 

That's part of a long description of St. Ogg's, the fictional town (named for a fictional saint) in which George Eliot sets The Mill on the Floss. It's an old town where things change slowly. That may seem the opposite of the constantly and wildly changing environment we live in. Our cultural atmosphere is full of rage, much of it associated with rapid changes that are pushed vigorously by some and resisted just as vigorously by others. Doomsayers of many persuasions are constantly telling us that the end is near. And so on.

Yet it strikes me that we are in some sense like the inhabitants of St. Ogg's. Most of our frenzy takes place against an assumed background of something like our current level of wealth and technology. I won't bother theorizing the many ways in which that could come to an end, but while many people are busy doing that, too few seem to appreciate that in the light of human history it is a very, very unusual--no, a unique--situation. Perhaps it will turn out to be a fluke, and a hundred years from now things will be back to normal, meaning that for most people most of the time the effort to get enough food to preserve life is their most important concern.

Now and then, listening to certain political views, it strikes me how thoroughly out of touch with fundamental reality they are. Self-styled revolutionaries assume that material plenty and personal freedom are the natural state of things, and all the questions are about how to rearrange them. All the material wealth and comfort are just there, as if they had just happened naturally. And the whole technological, financial, and political infrastructure of our lives has no connection to the civilization which produced it, but rather is like the land, a naturally-occurring phenomenon which will always be there and is ours to do with as suits us.

That all this could be quite fragile in physical terms is recognized by at least some environmentalists. That it is equally, if not more, fragile in cultural and political terms seems to be noticed only by certain conservatives. "Activists" openly preach racial division and resentment. Right and left increasingly speak of subjugating or eliminating the other as the only possible resolution of their conflict. The notion of "elimination" is at this point only political, not physical, but what happens if the political effort fails? 

Does it cross anyone's mind that the fact that we can turn on a tap and instantly get clean water, preheated to bath temperature if we wish, is connected with the culture in which such luxury became normal and available to almost everyone? That it is the product of centuries of thought and labor? That it continues to exist because millions of people do complex work in complex coordination with others?

The assumption that these things are just there is so strong that people freely sow the wind, because they don't really believe in the whirlwind. Worse, they're so far removed from reality that they no longer even see, much less understand, the connection between sowing and reaping. Or even have any real grasp of the words themselves. What do they even mean to people who have no conception of any way of life outside the modern city? Food comes from the grocery store. Obviously.


Now Is the Acceptable Time

I've forgotten how I wound up reading something at onepeterfive.com earlier today. It's not a site I normally visit. What I've seen and heard of it indicates that it focuses very much on the crisis of the Church, and I decided a few years ago that I just wasn't going to pay much attention to that anymore. I can say that it was a rational decision based on the fact that there's nothing I can do about this or that bad thing coming out of the Vatican or the USCCB. But the strongest reason was more elemental: I was sick of it.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I read this piece by Hilary White, which discusses our response not so much to the crisis of the Church as to that of the world. You don't have to go quite as far as she does in believing that the pandemic is being manipulated. I mean, you don't have to agree that the manipulation is as extensive and focused as it is, but I don't think there's any question that the situation has been successfully manipulated for purposes which were not in the general interest. I am not suggesting that the disease is not real and really dangerous, only that it has been exploited. 

No, you don't have to go very far at all in doom-and-gloom and paranoia to see that there is something really bad going on in the world, and that Christians in particular may in the not-too-distant future have a really bad time of it. At the very least, we're going to be marginalized and despised by the people who hold most of the power and influence, and by those who support them.

I've never been one to engage in end-of-the-world speculation. Every period in history has been more or less disastrous. And I don't like the kind of paranoia that sees the active hand of Satan in every bad idea or trend. I don't look for signs of the end, or of the Antichrist. Nevertheless, whether or not the prophesied individual by that name is among us or soon to be among us, there is such a thing, a vaguer thing, as the spirit of Antichrist. And it's here, right now. It is the spirit that teaches that there is no God, that any "salvation" available to us is of this world only, and that we can achieve it by our own efforts. I think it's fair to say that that spirit is more widespread and powerful than it ever has been, for the very straightforward reason that over the past century and a half or so we have in fact done astonishing things to improve the material lot of mankind, things never before seen in human history. To many, the attainment of some sort of earthly paradise seems possible, maybe even imminent: if only those who refuse to join in the effort would cooperate.

What to do? Well, these words from Hilary White's piece seem to be where we should start. They're especially appropriate for Lent.

The last year – with much of our time spent restricted in space and greatly reduced in powers – has taught us, perhaps, to look to the interior for the things we really can affect to the good [emphasis in the original]. We still have the power to create a change in ourselves. I want the world to be different, but I’m lazy and selfish and I want other people to make it better so I can have an easier time. I don’t want to change myself to want material security less. I don’t want to increase my courage or my trust in God. That’s all difficult work that requires efforts that won’t produce immediate material results – or any material results at all. But these are the concerns of children, and of people who are determined to stay children forever.

What if, letting go of that hope that someone else will fix things to make it so I don’t have to change myself, I did the much, much harder thing and made the effort to change myself?

 


The Last Christian Generation?

Rod Dreher had a post a month or two back in which he discussed the possibility that we are in a situation comparable to that of the Romans we call "pagans," those who continued to Rome's ancient objects and forms of worhip, when Christianity became the Empire's dominant religion. You can read the post here. It draws on a book which goes into that Roman transition in great detail.

That historical parallel is interesting and surely must have some validity. But what's been preoccupying me lately is just these words: "the last Christian generation." I'm so literal-minded that talk of generations always bothers me: we can speak of the generations of a family, because by definition children are preceded by parents and grandparents in strict order, however long the intervals between them may be. But the idea is only loosely applicable to societies. We don't see a million births in a single year, followed by twenty barren years, followed by a year in which all the twenty-year-olds bear children, and so on. There can't really be a last generation of anything in a society taken as a whole. There is only a waning and waxing of numbers, as more and more children grow up and leave one way and take up another. I know, there is some utility in speaking of, say, the young people of a certain age at a certain time as a generation. But I always want to carp at it a little.

It's precisely the specific and definite use of the word that I keep thinking about--the drying up of Christianity in individual families. I've seen it happen; we all have, I assume. There are a husband and wife who are practicing Christians. Maybe they're very devout. maybe they're fairly casual, but they do consciously think of themselves as Christians, go to church at least frequently, and make at least some effort to pass the faith along to their children.

Then the children leave, either in anger and bitterness or by casual drift, dropping any practice and any explicitly Christian thinking. Maybe they become "spiritual but not religious," maybe they don't even give any thought to that sort of thing. Still, some degree of Christian consciousness remains, some awareness of Christian things, some notion of what Christianity teaches. To that extent they're still part of a Christian culture.

But when they have children of their own, this consciousness, this awareness, does not pass to them. They know no more of Christianity than an American child in 1960 was likely to know of Hinduism. Moreover, they may have been educated, formally and informally, to associate the term "Christian" with sanctimony, eccentricity or outright madness, bigotry, perversion, and so forth. And to regard the history of Christian civilization as chiefly occupied in the burning of witches and heretics, and the enslavement and slaughter of other, superior peoples.

Within their own families, the grandparents in that progression are literally the last Christian generation. And this is not a thing that might happen: it is happening now. Probably we all know of instances. Christian thinkers have seen this coming for a century and a half or so, but it's one thing to hear about a drought, another to see the crops withering before your eyes.

We may already have arrived at a point where our culture is dominated by people who are at the stage of that third generation, or further. (It's arguable that the word "may" there is not accurate, but I'll let that go for now.) At that point the broader conventional use of "generation" becomes applicable. It's a discouraging thought, but appropriate for consideration as we move into Lent. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of a practical nature that we can do about this, which should give our prayers more urgency.

1024px-Cracked_earth_after_prolonged_drought._2020(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc.

Front Porch Republic's magazine, Local Culture, devoted its last issue to Christopher Lasch. One of the highlights is this lengthy and excellent essay by Jeremy Beer: "Limits, Risk Aversion, and Technocracy." It explores the curious juxtaposition of license and coercion that is now such a visible feature of the leftward side of our politics, observing that the squaring of this circle is accomplished by the appeals to safety promised by technocracy, which is considered the only source of truly reasonable approaches to any problem.

Continue reading "Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc." »