A Culture Against the Grain

I am returning here to a theme I’ve sounded the last couple of times I’ve written for the SBC website, but let me state the premise that underlies what I’ll be saying. It is that the Culture War, first named by Pat Buchanan in a speech he delivered to the Republican National Convention twenty-one years ago, has been lost by mainstream conservatives and the social right he hoped to galvanize into action.

The reason is that the right’s troops, doubtless to Buchanan’s dismay, weren’t interested in fighting, not over culture. To the mainstream right (and libertarians) it didn’t matter the way money and the economy always do. After all, the traditional culture Buchanan wanted to defend, the one being swamped by the rising tide of secularism, was rooted in Christianity and what it holds to be the purpose of life. That purpose is not the accumulation of material wealth.

As for so-called social conservatives, including traditional Catholics, blinkered as they were by America’s Puritan past fortified (for Catholics) by Irish Jansenism, they proved unable to see beyond the issues of abortion, gay rights, or anything else touching on sexual morality. Those issues are important, but much else also matters in the formation of a healthy society.

Traditional Catholics have demonstrated their limited vision by their almost total neglect of the historical Christian culture’s crowning achievement: most of the worthwhile art of the past two thousand years, whether or not it was strictly religious and some of which is still being produced, here and there, by individuals who are among the loneliest on the planet.

The neglect is natural. Apart from the Mass they attend, far too many traditional Catholics are indistinguishable from ordinary ones or other average Americans in the way they live. Many of them never read books of any kind, let alone novels and poetry. Neither is listening to serious music, whether recorded or in live performance, part of the lives of many. Spending free time in an art museum contemplating paintings and sculpture would not occur to them. These things, literature, music, painting and sculpture don’t exist for these traditional Catholics and other social conservatives except in the abstract. Why would they do anything to ensure the continued survival of the worthwhile art that already exists, much less that it flourish tomorrow? As a consequence, the society gets — contemporary culture provides — Fifty Shades of Grey for reading, Lady Gaga for music, and a major exhibition of Andy Warhol’s commercially-successful junk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That said, it is not art as such that has me returning now to the theme of culture or, more exactly, the absence of much of it that is reflective of human beings living as they should. As important as it is, art is not all that is produced by culture. How we act — what we do, our behavior — arise from culture. This even as our behavior also produces it. Our actions can be noble, common or, as happens too often nowadays, atrocious.

I’m thinking here of atrocious — the shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. It is tangential to my thought and risks diverting us into the issue of gun-control, but it is indicative of how little real fighting spirit there is on the right that after the shooting, as leading politicians and commentators of the left endlessly intoned their litany of “Columbine, Aurora and Virginia Tech,” one waited in vain for somebody on the right, perhaps a leading Tea Partier, to interject “Ruby Ridge and Waco”. In those places, where children died as in Newtown, it was law-enforcement agents, the only ones who would have guns if the anti-gun nuts had their way, who did the shooting.

But I said I didn’t want to get bogged down in the gun issue — who should be allowed to possess firearms and what kind. I’m interested in the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza. What in Heaven’s name was this 20-year-old male doing sitting in his bedroom playing video games for hours at a time? Why wasn’t he out drinking with buddies and looking for a girlfriend?

Some readers may be scandalized by that last question. They might prefer my asking, why wasn’t he on his knees in church praying? Don’t construe me as seeking to promote immorality if I observe: 1) Even canonized saints are not always saintly in their living. Everybody knows about St. Augustine and also the frolicsome youth of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Ignatius of Loyola is believed to have fathered two illegitimate children. Then there is St. Thomas a Becket and…but why go on? 2) It is normal for 20-year-old males to cut loose with friends and to be, well, interested in young women. For them to spend time, instead, playing video games is not. At least not until our day.

Someone may wonder what I mean by “normal” since the word has different meanings. It can mean usual or common. It can also mean natural. If we heard of a man who always walks on his hands instead of his feet, we would say that is not normal, not natural — not in accord with nature or what is supposed to be. In this latter sense, I am saying our contemporary culture is against normal. This can be shown in ways without number. I began these lines by speaking, once again, of art. It is normal for human beings to be attracted to things that, one way or another, are beautiful. What Fifty Shades of Grey, Lady Gaga and Andy Warhol at the Met offer is porn, celebrity and the celebration of money, not beauty.

The culture also shows it is against normal when laws are enacted against “sexual harassment” and drinking before the age of 21 even as polls show a majority of society now approving same-sex marriage and teenagers are fed mind-altering prescription meds.

There’s so much more. Lanza is said to have been “traumatized” by his parents’ divorce. That fifty percent of marriages in the U.S. now end as did theirs doesn’t make it normal. Normal was when a couple stuck together even if they were no longer infatuated with each other. Why? Because they knew marriage wasn’t about infatuation. How will couples learn that in today’s culture?

Until the rise of today’s secular-liberal culture, when was it normal for children to be brought up by day-care workers and pre-school teachers instead of their parents? When was such child-rearing “necessary” because no parent was home to do it? What’s normal about both parents “needing” to hold down jobs that keep them from being home? Is there anything normal about those parents spending hours commuting to and from their jobs?

Forget families. A recent study showed that the average American over the age of 60 now spends seven-to-eight hours a day watching television. What’s normal about that? All of this may now be common, typical, average. That doesn’t make it normal. All of it and so much more that could be cited go against the grain of human living as such living was always understood before the rise of contemporary culture. It goes against the grain of normal.

Outside a monastery or convent, and sometimes not even in those precincts, there is no one alive who doesn’t risk being steamrollered by modern culture. To avoid being crushed — to avoid becoming other than normal — none of us can afford giving into it at any point that matters. Identifying the points — drawing the necessary lines — may be difficult, but simply trying to do so is a beginning. So would be turning off the TV, iphone or video game and instead reading a good novel and then another, listening to a symphony and then another, or trekking to a museum. We can also walk instead of ride more often than most do, dawdle sometimes instead of always rush, daydream instead of trying to plan everything, slowly prepare and then savor a meal instead of microwaving one we gulp down, cultivate memory instead of losing ourselves in the daily news of celebrities’ unimportant doings, on occasion meander (like the human mind) instead of proceeding in a straight, efficient line as from one anchor-store to the one at the other end of the shopping mall, ponder instead of brainstorm, linger instead of hurry, not try to fill every wakeful moment with activity, whether it be watching TV or drawing up a “to-do” list. Instead, we can simply sit on a café terrace, a back porch or in front of a tabernacle, and think of nothing but that moment, full of gratitude to the good God who has brought us to it. A grave awaits all of us. It will be there whenever we arrive.

If a few more aimed to fill their life with the rare and excellent and moved through each day at a normal pace — a few more than already do — it wouldn’t snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the Culture War, but will make for their living life instead of rushing through it to the point it becomes a struggle. It will also improve the chances that something of the past — civilization — will remain for rebuilding in the future.

  • Robert Swanson

    Great thoughts, Gary. While I realize that Lanza is not your main point, the simple answer to your question is that people with Asperger’s Syndrome rarely enjoy the pleasure of having buddies to drink with or girls that will give them the time of day. Regarding contemplative abstraction, these folks tend to live in a world of concrete mental processing which renders such luxuries of the soul far beyond reach: unlike the weapons in his mother’s closet.

  • defiant12314

    With all due respect Robert I suffer from Asperger Syndrome (albiet less serverely than most) and I love listening to good music, taking the different sounds and imagining them as a vast interconnecting web of silk threads, I love painting model soldiers, reading novels that combine the themes of chilvary and science fiction. In some ways I belive that my AS is a gift becuase it has given me a will of adamantium and a mental resilience that not many could boast of.

    Mr Potter, I believe that you do to much discredit to the youth of today; most of us insticively want what is Good and Holy. It’s just that in a catholic world where Extra Ecchlesium Salus Nulus has gone out the window, few catholics bothered to show us where the natural virtue of Batman, Captain America et al is supposed to lead.

    Show us the idiocy of Dawkins and the genius of the humble Domminican Angel and we will rally to the cause of Jesus Chris, the God Emperor of mankind, show us how to be true men and we will make fine sons of St Joseph and daughters of the Blessed Mother. Teach us the Faith and we will make you proud to be our spiritual parents.

    Stow your cynacism, give us a chance and we will be Faithful to the Emperor beyond the point of Death.

  • Robert Swanson

    Thanks for your thoughts Jack; my favorite Aspy is also a passionate musician, but with a very restricted ability to make the leap from the concrete to the abstract. No offense intended: each one seems to have a unique variation on the theme.

  • Mr. Brian Batty, O.P.

    Mr. Potter: how sad that I have to agree with your opening paragraph. I finally gave my personal acceptance and concession that the Culture War, though seemingly more like a hissy fit, was over and lost.

    Only 2 days prior I felt bludgeoned by the hammer of a defeat that I fear will always linger. As I announced the death of pianist Van Cliburn to a large community of co-workers, the puzzled looks on their faces, always followed by the monosyllabic question, “Who?” made the conquest feel complete. This was not a small amount of people. I sincerely believed that most of my age-varied colleagues would at least have an inkling of whom I spoke. I went home that evening carrying a loneliness that later turned to sadness, with a hint of anger, as I contemplated that at least half of my co-workers were born AFTER the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon but would still know who they are in their most non-lucid moments. A famed American classical pianist who “wowed” the Soviets, helped bring North American prestige to the classical Old Word, and inspired a prestigious international music competition bearing his name…who cares? How low it feels.

  • Padraig Costello

    A year or so ago I was meeting with a group of engineering graduate students. I brought up the name name John Wayne as part of an analogy. There were blank looks around the room. Only one young man vaguely was aware who was John Wayne. Although we deem this type of ignorance as pathetic, it also brings to mind that all temporal fame is fleeting. Who cares that Van Cliburn was taught by his mother who was mentored by a student of the great Franz Liszt? Cultural ignorance abounds……twenty years ago I was asked by a nice Southern lady if I I liked classical music because I was Catholic. In some sense she was right because all high culture has its roots in Catholic civilization.

  • ponerology

    @ Mr. Swanson: I think you may have too easily bought into the asperger’s syndrome diagnosis given out, ad nauseam, by Reuters and its downstream outlets. There is much, much more to the Lanza story than the powers-that-be will ever allow to be told.
    I’d venture to guess that young men of the past, whether mentally or emotionally challenged, did not spend most hours of the day staring at a flickering screen in the darkness of their rooms. Just a guess on my part. I remember boys being out all day playing, running, yelling, exploring, building, joking, swimming, bicycling, fighting, and just being boys. Now, there are no boys. There are pseudo-boys who are propagandized into metrosexual status by the time they’re 15 years of age. What is most depressing to me is the thought of what kind of world this will be in 2040.
    As for “civilization”; that term is tainted since it implies an economic system of which we are all prisoners.

  • Robert Swanson

    Sir, my statement was a specific response to a specific question posed in the article, based upon my ongoing experience with a family member’s AS. If you mistakenly read it as an explanation of Lanza’s actions, please know that I intended no such thing.