Culture War: March 2006 Archives

Giving up on the culture?


In Tuesday's column, Maggie Gallagher told us "Why I am not a Crunchy Con". I think she's missing something in her response to Rod Dreher's book.

If you want the key to Rod and his fellow crunchy cons, I think it is in statements like, "Beauty is more important than efficiency." Well, gee sure, but only if you live in a society where the great public health threat to the poor is obesity. This level of affluence is what allows educated women to stay home, throw organic dinner parties, and home school their children instead of spending time at the hard labor of spinning wool, churning butter and chicken-farming. Rod knows this, of course.

Is Ms. Gallagher suggesting that concern about beauty in everyday life is mainly a luxury of rich moderns? I don't believe that our immigrant forebears in America and Europe cared nothing about the quality of what they ate and where they lived. They didn't always live in great places, but they cared about these things.

Gallagher also seems to argue that caring about beauty and dignity and living with a sense of cultural tradition are not really the American way:

But in his restless, dissatisfied search for Something More, Rod appears to me as less a traditionalist than a fellow postmodern, rootless, cosmopolitan American desperately seeking an identity group where he can believe and belong.

This is not his fault. Whether we like it or not, this is the American condition. We live in a society where ultimately our sense of who we are is self-created, not something that can be given at birth....

The real American tradition, for better or worse, was captured in the 1985 novella, "The Man Who Loved Levittown." Tommy DiMaria, World War II vet, retired Grumman aircraft worker, describes his first glimpse of his own personal paradise, carved out of Long Island potato fields: "Down the street is a Quonset hut with a long line of men waiting out front, half of them still in uniform. Waiting for jobs, I figure, like in the Depression ... here we go again." Finally it dawns on him: "What these men are lined up for isn't work, it's homes!" But 32 years later, the wife is dead and the kids are gone to find their own Levittown: maybe a McMansion in Arlington, Va., or maybe a Dallas Arts and Crafts bungalow.

As far as I can tell, that's the only available American way.

In a sense, she's right: the standard "American dream" is one of material prosperity, not of maintaining traditions and developing virtues. But she doesn't question whether this is really a good thing, so I dropped her a note about it, along the following lines:

Maggie's response to Rod's Crunchy Cons acknowledges that the American way of life has made us rootless, but doesn't offer any comment about how the culture got to be this way.

I recently re-read Professor John Rao's old essay about "Americanism", and was reminded that the US, even though secularized, is still based on atomistic Puritanism at heart.

It's no wonder Americans lack an experience of cultural and religious tradition: if the individual is the only important thing before God, then all the intermediate communities that carry tradition (Church, school, polis) are usurpers of individual rights, rather than mediators of divine truth and goodness.

No wonder Americans make material prosperity the high good around which all are to unite (the "American dream"): the country's national identity and mythos is based on the English heritage, with its distrust of ideas and with its Anglican compromise downplaying the importance of truth and error in a bid to preserve social peace.

If I get Maggie's drift, American rootlessness and "self-created" identity are just an unchangeable part of the culture. But (and I hope she'll agree) from a Catholic point of view, man is meant to live in communities, and a "self-created" identity is impoverished.

Follow-up: Since a friend has pointed out some intemperate talk about Pope John Paul II on Dr. Rao's web site, I want to express some reserve. By citing his essay above, I'm not endorsing his views in general; I haven't kept up with them in the years since I heard him speak at one of William Marra's conferences in NY.

What the heck was I thinking? I was being accosted by the most rabid form of Bible fundamentalist the other day, you know, a former Catholic who is also divorced-and-remarried outside of the Church. I kept thinking of Mark Shea's maxim "Heresy begins in the groin" as the fundy yabbered away about Sola Scriptura.

When I blurted out without thinking: "You can justify anything using the Bible alone, including same-sex marriage. This is why we need Tradition."

He laughed. "The Bible has plenty to say on that topic," he said.

To my disbelieving ears, I replied: "Show me."

He couldn't. He showed me many passages where Scripture condemns homosexual acts of sexual nature, as well as many passages where the Bible speaks of marriage between a man and a woman.

Nevertheless, his smug expression soon turned to frantic fluster as he was unable to find a single passage where the Bible condemns same-sex marriage.

"But you gotta be reasonable," he said in a moment of frustration, "you just can't take the Bible at its letter alone." It then dawned on him what he had said.

But yes, this is why we need Tradition. This is also why the Church needs a teaching magisterium. I was stunned to discover that the Bible Alone does not condemn ssm, but rather we know ssm is wrong because of both Scripture and Tradition.

What? Who?

On life and living in communion with the Catholic Church.

Richard Chonak

John Schultz

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This page is an archive of entries in the Culture War category from March 2006.

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