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.