A.D. Sertillanges’ advice to anyone who wishes to accomplish intellectual work includes the following admonition:
As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings! . . .
A serious worker should be content . . . with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.
Sertillanges’ wonderful book, The Intellectual Life, was first published in 1920. Since then, the popular press has grown ever more vulgar and stupid, radio has matured to become an almost inescapable scourge, and television has more than equaled radio in obnoxiousness and nearly matched it in ubiquity. And now there is the internet and the personal computer, which stand in relationship to one another somewhat as the international drug cartels do to the hypodermic needle and syringe. Interminable lazy sittings, indeed! Abandoned to such diversions, the mind soon becomes as gluteus as the maximus at the opposite end.
You may learn from the newspapers that such-and-such a percentage of the American public reads their print or electronic editions, or watches the network news programs on TV, or spends x number of hours surfing the internet or playing video games online. Nobody I know plays video games, and I lack the faintest notion how much attention friends, colleagues, and acquaintances devote to the daily papers. From the large number of daily news-related e-mail messages forwarded to me, I have a considerably better estimate of the time they spend reading the internet news and ferreting out piquant morsels from abstruse websites. It’s none of my business, of course, and I’m quite certain nobody cares what I think about it, one way or another. Nevertheless, the amount of invested time and attention suggested by this blizzard of fact, information, and commentary strikes me as excessive—and overly excessive. Aaron D. Wolf has recently described in these pages the broad and pervasive evil he terms “eSlavery.” I have in mind something much narrower—at least, it seems restricted to a much narrower category of people—that is probably not an “evil” at all in the moral or theological sense but a dangerous temptation nevertheless, pernicious to the individual intellect and to civilization, alike.
So far as it is evil, that is mostly because of the addictive aspect that any overindulgence entails. Otherwise, it is no more evil than the philistinism it represents. Yet philistinism itself is a reflected evil of the modern positivist project, the lust for power realized in control—control exercised to determine the future by redirecting history toward a desired end. The obsession modern intellectuals have with the news reflects their obsession with shaping (or, rather, reshaping) the world to the form they wish it to assume. In this sense, the left has prevailed over the right, by forcing it to concede the primacy of the material in relation to the spiritual, the public to the private, action to reflection, politics to intellect and to the arts, culture (as John Lukacs understands the word) to civilization. The ultimate aim of leftists historically has been to vaporize civilization, after reconstructing the state in the form of an impervious super-bunker. Today, American “conservatives” seem prepared to cede civilization (what everyone nowadays calls “culture”) by default to the left, in exchange for realizing an agenda that includes corporatism (state capitalism), “free” trade, a globalized economy, political and military hegemony overseas, and progressive caesarism and governmental restraint at home. Once these incalculable benefits have been secured, who needs civilization?
Thus, conservatives, who are wont to deplore bitterly the takeover of American civilization by the left, are themselves substantially to blame for the disaster. As Paul Gottfried has noted, until a generation or so ago, it was traditionalist conservatives who sought to conserve “culture” in America, by explicating it and making fresh contributions to it themselves. But traditional conservatives have been relatively few in number for more generations than that, while moderate, “pragmatic” conservatives of the kind that carry the GOP brand on their fatted hips were (as they continue to be) notorious philistines sailing under Calvin Coolidge’s defiant motto, “The Business of America Is Business.” The American rich have never understood that generous bequests to institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Whitney Museum are sufficient neither to preserve nor to advance the civilization of their country. What is necessary is that civilized conservatives should not only subsidize American arts and letters but contribute directly to these things by undertaking serious literature and art themselves. Instead, such people have largely assumed the part, in respect of the arts and of learning, of the rich young man in the parable of Christ who declined to give his fortune away to the poor and devote his life to the pursuit of Truth. The result is that the great cultural institutions funded by wealthy conservatives have been commandeered by leftist pirates, and contemporary culture is almost exclusively the creation of cultural subversives. Now that it has become so—thanks, in no small part, to the self-dedication of philistine conservatives to money making and the pursuit of the good life—the current generation of activist conservatives, perceiving a cultural crisis, has responded by treating highbrow culture as an expendable luxury for which serious people have no time. The left is upon us! America stands besieged! We’re in an international culture war! First things first! It’s the economy, stupid! Make way for Democratic Capitalism! Look to national security! God save our President! Power to the executive branch! Take back the Supreme Court! Organization! Political-action committees! Fundraising dinners! Think tanks! More lobbyists to Capitol Hill! Support The Movement! Remember the Maine—Nuke Iran! It is no wonder that the American novel—which, as late as the 1950’s, when Hemingway and Faulkner were still alive and at work, was our culture’s signature art form—is today a tendentious, ideological, feminized, tedious, trivial, pornographic mess. As every publishing-house editor will tell you, American males do not read fiction anymore. Still less, in all likelihood, do American conservative males buy and read novels—much less write them. Anyone curious to know how we came to lose literature will find much of the answer here.
It is not movement conservatives only who have abandoned the library, the museum, the concert hall, the now overhauled and fully computerized study, and life itself for a half-life spent hunched over the keyboard, blogging and cutting-and-pasting-and-forwarding away. Racialist conservatives, anti-immigration conservatives, antiwar conservatives, and free-trade conservatives all seem committed to the same paltry, impoverished existence. For what purpose? Well (they would say), saving the white race (whatever that may be), preserving our national identity, halting imperialism and reinstating the Old Republic, establishing the economic structure of an endless and uninterrupted prosperity, etc. But what is the point of accomplishing these things if the vital civilization that subsumes them all is to be placed in cold suspension—meaning, in practical terms, destroyed—for so long as it takes to fulfill the conservative agenda?
Fortunately, the news in which both the shilling, optimistic (movement) conservatives and the dissenting, pessimistic ones have chosen to immerse themselves fails to present the world as it really and truly is. What we get from it instead is rather like a road atlas where networks of red and black lines are laid upon a blank, white background. I am no longer able to count the number of times I’ve traveled to some part of this country, or of the world, having formed a picture of it from some dismal journalistic account, only to find that the reality bore no resemblance to the presented—and received—impression. The experience was exactly similar to forming an idea of the topography and vegetation of one of those blank regions on the road map and having to come to terms with the reality later encountered by driving across it.
Wise and mature people know that the world can never begin to approximate their personal and preferred vision for it. They will understand, too, that, while free will is not an illusion, it is a reality that becomes increasingly attenuated the further one rises from the individual level to that of the collective, and finally the historical, one. The force of destiny is real and not to be slowed, arrested, and deflected by the human will to the degree that the life of a single man or woman may be self-controlled. In this sense, much of what happens in history is inevitable. What goes for separate nations, therefore, goes the more for the world as a whole. It is easy and natural for those Americans who perceive a disastrous future for their country to perceive the United States as being uniquely threatened by contemporary dangers. Immigrant invasion, overpopulation, cultural destruction, secularization and moral rot, terrorism from abroad, plagues, epidemics, environmental destruction, exhaustion of natural resources, extinction of species, global warming—these things menace every other portion of the globe, often much more severely than they do our own. The appropriate response to this collective threat to the life of the world is surely not to withdraw from that real life into a sour, crabbed, bitter, obsessive shadow world of abstraction—which is precisely what this phantasm we call the news is—but to embrace it more fully, more fervently, more directly.
As Père Sertillanges insists, we do not encounter the world in books, far less the internet. “You therefore who intend to devote your life to the vocation of study, beware of turning your back for its sake on the rest of life. Give up nothing of what belongs to man.” Again: “Intemperance is a sin because it destroys us; and we have the obligation to use life wisely because we have the obligation to live.” Reading these sentences, I was reminded of a college classmate who devoted all his free time, when not doing course work, to reading the newspapers and watching news programs on television. The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post (all editions), the Village Voice, the Columbia Spectator, Time and Newsweek, the Economist—if he ever read a book that was not required for some class, I never caught him at it. No sports, no trips into the country, no music (excepting the Rolling Stones, The Monkees, and The Supremes in the background as a counterpoint to printed accounts of the nefarious diplomacy of Henry Kissinger and the Jacobin journalism of Jimmy Breslin), no girlfriend, but the fellow sat up every night until the wee hours of the morning to digest all this pulp matter with the aid of a quart or two of Schlitz beer. He didn’t contemplate a career in the Fourth Estate, either. God alone knows what happened to the poor man. Most likely, he became a conservative and moved from Morningside Heights to Washington, D.C., so as to immerse himself in abstraction nearer to its source.
Politics presupposes civilization, not vice versa. What America, in particular, and the West (and the world) require today are the courage and resolution to maintain the old civilization to the end—no matter what the end. In this endeavor, political action has, indeed, a part to play, but hardly the central part. Politics is a temptation owing to the direct nature of the activity, yet it is a temptation, more often than not, to be resisted. The Church has always taught that the vast majority of sincere Christians are called to remain where and as God found them when they first received the Faith and, in doing so, to fulfill the purpose for which they were created. Somewhat of the same is true of civilized man in his secular aspect. Long views, distant goals, patience, and indirection are finally the salvation of the world, not shortsightedness, busyness, impatience, and direct action. Conservatism is a philosophy of being, not of action, because being is paramount in conserving anything, whereas acting is only secondary. (Often, indeed, action for the purpose of conservation ends in renovation, produced by the uncontrollable energy expended in the effort.) Whoever wishes to defend and preserve our disintegrating civilization ought to minimize his time spent with the news and devote the hours saved to reading poetry and literature; listening to the great composers and studying works of great art; filling his house with the finest furniture, china, silverware, and crystal he can afford; giving elegant dinners for his friends and other like-minded acquaintances—in short, refining himself as a work of high civilization and establishing his household as civilization in miniature.
Better yet, he should set aside the propaganda, half-truths, and outright lies of which most of the news consists and turn his hand to painting a picture, composing a string quartet, writing a novel, and doing it without thought of fame, fortune, or influence. Good and honest work, like civilization itself, is its own reward, with effects that radiate, like an act of charity, infinitely throughout the universe.