Culture War, Whether We Like It or Not

Conservatives have failed to see that arguments do not matter.

My whole career in the classroom has been guided by one principle. Namely, that it is my job is to introduce young people to the goodness, the beauty, and the wisdom of excellent works of literature, art, and human thought, without regard to any political use to which knowledge of these works might be put.

I detest when literature is wrenched away from its essence, which is to delight us in its teaching us about ourselves and the world, and is commandeered for one or another kind of gain. It is, I have always thought, to make the poets and the students into puppets, or, to change the metaphor, to make yourself a pimp and to hire out the poetry as a whore.

Besides, I knew most of my students would not share my political views, so why should I set an obstacle between them and their coming to love Homer or Shakespeare or Cervantes? “I teach Plato,” I used to say, “because Plato is brilliant, and I do not want my students to remain ignorant of his work.” My class was not teacher-centered or student-centered, as the educational jargon goes, but Plato-centered. In other words, when you enter the Sistine Chapel, the time you spend there is not about you or your tour guide, but about Michelangelo and beyond him, about the truths that enthralled him and that he poured out his life’s energy in order to convey.

I still believe this approach is the right one, in ordinary times, with sane people of goodwill. It might best be represented by my dear friends, the elder statesmen of the program I taught at Providence College every year for a quarter-century. They were calm and polite to those who complained that our teaching the development of Western Civilization was “narrow” and “provincial,” which are strange complaints to make about a two-year-long course that spanned 4,000 years, four or five academic disciplines and about 20 cultures, with works written in a dozen languages. My friends would say to their enemies, “Give us some suggestions as to what you would include.” They would say, “Come and sit in on some lectures and seminars.” They would offer their syllabi for perusal; indeed, all the syllabi were easily available for anyone who was curious. I offered to run an informal seminar on Lao-Tzu and the medieval work The Cloud of Unknowing. With one notable and honest exception, nobody ever took us up on our invitations, and I was ridiculed for my pains. But we still somehow managed to persuade ourselves that fundamentally, we and our hostile colleagues were pursuing, if not the same ends, at least the same kinds of ends. We assumed people were open to argument because we assumed truth, not power, was their aim.

This assumption was naïve. Our opponents were defined not by what they loved—they did not love Sanskrit or philosophy from the Zhou dynasty—but by what they hated.  We assumed that someone might object to our spending so much time with Plato because Confucius was at least as important. But the enemies did not care for either Plato or Confucius. Their point was not to build but to tear down so that nothing would remain of culture itself, since maintaining a culture at all, as we see in Confucius, is inherently conservative.

I might give a representative example. An academic who is the most virulent enemy of our Western Civilization program once taught a course on city life, along with a friend of mine in the English department. My friend is a scholar of 18th-century England, and he agrees with Johnson’s sentiment that to be weary of London is to be weary of life. So, his portion of the course was devoted to the London of Johnson, Boswell, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, and the other worthies of the time; a London bustling with commerce, crime, bookshops, coffee houses, military men with not enough to do, members of Parliament whose characters ranged from probity to knavery, royal entourages, filthy streets, noble churches, fish wrapped in newsprint, and overcooked vegetables. It is the London that Johnson himself subjected to withering criticism, as, in imitation of Juvenal’s third satire, he commends a friend who is leaving London behind for, of all places, Wales. Says the friend:

Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay,

And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey;

Here falling Houses thunder on your Head,

And here a female Atheist talks you dead.

What could yet make that London a place so beloved?  What kind of life did Johnson lead in his modest flat near Fleet Street? What is the strange appeal of the city?

My friend’s counterpart on the political left could have discussed the Harlem of the 1950s, and what made that place a real city within a city, with excellent schools, reasonably safe streets, and a rousing outdoor life, where Willie Mays played stickball with the neighborhood boys. He chose instead to spend all term vilifying George W. Bush for his administration’s supposedly racist treatment of the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What is a city? He wasn’t curious about that. How can cities remain human places when the threat of megaliths and unimaginable numbers presses upon the lone person? He wasn’t curious about that. He was interested only in political victory, while my friend, a political independent, wasn’t playing that game at all.

This sort of thing had become the rule and not the exception. It was especially so for new college professors, as was demonstrated to me whenever I had to comb through hundreds of applications for open professorships in our English department—an unpleasant bit of work that was a regular feature of my professional life. The usual cover letter was a long and patois-laden sales pitch for the author’s new and improved reading of some unsuspecting author, which dragooned the author’s work into the political arena.

Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, world without end—literally, without end; interminable because pointless. I might tell these applicants, again and again, that all I wanted was somebody in love with the literature he or she taught, for its own lovely merits, and then, secondarily, somebody who might be eager to teach that same program in Western Civilization. Finally, as a minimal necessity, somebody not allergic to our being, at that time, a still more than slenderly Catholic college.

I did manage, along with a few of my colleagues, to secure four or five excellent hires, not one of them a political conservative, but all of them educational conservatives of a sort that the academy no longer produces. But it was not enough…

We may wonder why what Robert Conquest said is true, that all institutions that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing and liberal—and by “liberal” I do not refer to liberality or to freedom of intellectual inquiry, but rather beholden to the current politics of the left, whatever that may be at the time. This situation occurs because only one side realizes they are in a battle. We conservatives wanted very much not to believe that there was a war on, or, if there was a war, we wanted to believe that the traditional weapons of evidence and of argument from common premises were in play. But there was a war, and the opponents did not fight fair; they aimed to win it at any cost and with any available weapons, including slander, as I later experienced personally.

Am I accusing the opponents—the academic left, generally—of being unscrupulous and deceitful? Not exactly. Certainly, everybody knew where our program’s most vociferous detractors were coming from. But we still could not imagine what it is like to substitute love of victory for love of truth. We knew that the detractors were ignorant of what we taught and that they wanted to tear it down, but we did not imagine that they were in the hold of an ever-cratering nihilism. That is partly because people are never so bad as the worst of their philosophical commitments; else we would be living among raving and frothing monsters.

It is also, I fear, partly because we simply did not want to fight. Were we too timid? Perhaps. Disgusted by the stupidity in which such a fight would necessarily bog us down? No doubt. Nobly hoping against hope that truth would prevail by its own beauty? No, I think not. I think we knew better than that. We were teachers, not fighters. We wanted to teach and to be left alone. But the aggressors will not leave you alone. They cannot.

Why can they not? I look at the left, and I see that it controls almost every media outlet, the entire entertainment industry, almost every school and college in the land, and such major professions as law, medicine, and even the military, and yet it’s not enough. Why not? The American left is now a political wing that advocates the gelding and spaying of psychologically disturbed children and that does so with an unconcealed hatred for anyone who might dare to object. It now not only defends but celebrates abortion as a sacrament. It has left the working class so far behind that it does not bother to consider what hardships an environmentalist overreach may visit upon them but instead is ready to chalk up constrictions of practical human freedom and shrinkage of population as positive goods. It will ruin your career if you merely hedge a little and say, “It is not yet proved that we are on the brink of an environmental Armageddon.”

In other words, the left is a political wing that has abandoned any care for the truth. I do not mean to say that any particular cause the left advances has no basis in fact, and I am acutely aware that the supposedly conservative party in America is full of time servers, grifters, and imbeciles. What I mean is that the facts simply do not matter to the left. What the philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand called “the dethronement of truth” now determines the day. Beneath the alarmism regarding climate change, I am persuaded, is an assumption that it does not matter whether or not we are verging upon calamity; we should assume that we are, do what our betters demand, and that is that. I am making no meteorological claims here, though my very tentativeness to agree makes me into a “denier,” someone whom all right-thinking people may freely revile.

Turn to another gully in the battlefield, and we see the same things going on. In my church, the Roman Catholic, we have “liberals”—I use the word because none other is available—who claim, in support of the normalization of homosexual action, that the sin of Sodom was really that of inhospitality, that Jesus said nothing about sodomy, that we can easily ignore what Paul says about it because the apostle was unaware of the existence of committed lifelong homosexual relationships, and so forth.

And we defenders of Scripture and what has always been the Catholic teaching regarding human sexuality in all its aspects and expressions—what do we do? We amass the arguments. We show that such a reading of the Sodom episode in the context of the rest of Genesis is complete nonsense. We show that Paul’s objection to unnatural sexual desires cuts to the heart of the matter: that such acts violate the natural, created order, and that to act upon them is a form of idolatry, setting man up in place of God. We show that tolerance of Sodom can in no way be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus, who does not even permit a man to put away his wife and marry another because “it was not so from the beginning,” that is, from the original intentions of the Creator, and who will not permit a man to look upon a woman with lust in his heart, because that is already adulterous. We can show that if you accept Sodom, you have no grounds upon which to forbid fornication after the ordinary way of nature; in fact, other than a vague and general recommendation that people be “kind” to one another, you have no systematic sexual morality at all. To the bathhouse then, and last one in has to clean up after!

Our arguments do not matter. What we have failed to see is that the opponents do not really believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten. They may mouth the words, and sometimes not with conscious hypocrisy. But they suppose that if Jesus did say those harsh things about people who divorce and remarry, he was wrong to say them; or maybe he was right to say those words then, but they held true only for a time; or he was right to say those words but we are more right to go beyond them. As for Genesis, we can prove all day long that the traditional reading is not only superior, but that no other reading is at all plausible. It will not matter, because then they will say ignorant bigots authored Genesis, and why should we take moral instruction from people who were so benighted as to believe that the world was created in six days?

I often argued with the opponents of our Western Civilization course that it was more fitting for Western students at a Catholic school to read Plato than to be ignorant of him because, as Alfred North Whitehead said, “All of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.” And, because even the terms of our theological discussions are derived from or are colored by Platonic understandings, for better and for worse. Why on earth did I think that argument would matter? The rejoinder was that there was no reason one should bother about the history of Western philosophy anyway, and that theological discussions ought to be tossed into the dumpster.

I responded that it is absurd to call oneself a liberally educated person if one is a native speaker of English but ignorant of the English literary heritage. Is Paradise Lost not the greatest poem in our language? Again, why did I think that would matter? The opponent does not believe in such hierarchical ranks, and arranging things in order does not serve their purpose, which is political and destructive. Milton was one of the great radicals of his time, yet in some ways deeply conservative. You cannot easily dragoon the man or his work. Therefore he must go, like his Satan, as far removed from all who think aright “as from the center thrice to the utmost pole.” Can Milton plead poetic greatness as meriting a stay of execution? Hardly. His greatness itself is an offense.

But you cannot, I see now, simply dethrone Truth and send it to sit in a corner somewhere to mind its own business. That is not just because the opposition is totalitarian in spirit and methods. It is because Truth, minding its business, is itself a reproach. You cannot have some people studying contemporary political doggerel over here, while others study Milton over there. Milton is a reproach. He must be enlisted or hanged. You cannot have some people in your Church still believing that Jesus is Lord and that His word is truth, rather than just being some historically conditioned fellow yearning for that better world that should be manifest in ourselves. Those people stand—or kneel—as a reproach. Some of these lovers of the tradition, doubtless, love it for its being traditional more than for its being true, or they are moved more by hatred of the liberal world than by love of Jesus. Such, paradoxically, will serve the liberal turn very nicely, as they provide occasions to slander everyone else. But even if all the traditionalists were kindly and reserved, and even after they have amassed all the historical evidence for their liturgical claims and argued cogently about both the beauty and the spiritual effectiveness of the Tridentine rite—and I speak here as someone who does not attend that rite—it would not matter. They are opposed not because the rite in question is ugly but because it is beautiful, and the opponents sense it. They are opposed not because they are all hypocrites when they kneel but because most of them are not hypocrites; they are opposed not because they pretend to believe but because they believe too ardently. They are the last people a priest whose faith has shriveled up wants to be near.

For Truth, once dethroned, must be sent to the block and beheaded, and its head stuck on a stake for the people to jeer at. It must become that object of loathing and contempt. It cannot be let alone.

Let me be clear here. I accuse no individual person. People are rarely as bad as their philosophies are. A man may still care for Truth in criminal cases so long as they do not touch upon some political nerve. A man may still be honest with his wallet, though loose with his zipper. But we are dealing with people who have accepted madness per se: and the madness drives them to an impossible attempt to justify themselves, mainly by rushing farther and farther into madness. It is a fury, a disease out of control. Who would have thought, even five cultural minutes ago, that we would actually have to argue that child-neutering is wicked and insane? Who would have thought, in the days when Jacques Maritain was having his head turned by Saul Alinsky, that to champion the reading of those Western philosophers that both men read was to be abominated, unless you were doing it to show them up, to lay their supposed rottenness bare to young people eager to take on any excuse not to have to learn from their betters and elders?

The fight is on, whether we like it or not. I do not like it. I have a hundred better and sweeter things to do, and I am growing old. But you cannot win a fight unless you show up. You cannot defeat, by appeals to truth, someone who does not acknowledge truth as the ultimate arbiter. You cannot defeat, by appeals to proper procedure, someone who ditches procedure whenever it is convenient. You cannot defeat, by the evidence of beauty, someone who cultivates the hideous. You can defeat him only by finding him out, checking his advance, exposing his lies or bad faith, revealing his ignorance, holding doggedly on to what scrap of high ground you have managed to attain, and doing all you can to keep him away from any vantage of power or influence. You will be called all kinds of foul and false things. What of it? You will be called those same things anyway, even if you tried, as I did for the better part of 25 years, to mind your own business and let other people alone. 

If you must be hanged, let it be not for cowering but for fighting in earnest.

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