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.

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Being a bit older than Rod, I have seen this quest for the American Nirvana of the Simple Life emerge every decade or so. Rod's quest isn't new and neither are his ideas. They just come in a new faddish package that we, who now have such horrid memories, forget were published before, not so long ago.

We have become a country of shoppers who are restless, bored, and likely to get into one sort of trouble or another, if only with our consciences or what remains of them. If we are rootless, it isn't because we wear Target gym shoes versus Birkenstocks, or grow Burpee tomatoes with MiracleGrow rather than organic heirloom seeds, or eat Perdue chicken rather than Whole Foods free range, or have our kids get rather dubious educations in the local public schools, or Catholic ones for that matter, rather than home school.

It is because we are living in an unparalleled revolutionary time of constant change and cannot find rest for our souls. And we cannot create community simply as yet another avocation to assuage our ennui and angst.

Community is, to paraphrase Martin Buber, where community happens. It doesn't happen because our parishes all call themselves "faith communities," or that Kraft, Inc. calls itself the Kraft Family of Products, or that one huge ethnic/racial group inhabits a large part of a metropolitan area and calls itself the Black community or Asian, Latino or whatever.

It happens because we are attuned to the voice that speaks to Elijah in a whisper, or that sparks a Mayflower to cross a deadly ocean, or that occurs from human needs that have more to do with simple civility and honesty, and that value our long-established, beloved, and profoundly religious traditions.

I was blessed when a child to live in a "community", i.e., my city neighborhood, where for fifteen years or so, we knew every small merchant and they knew us by name, where neighbors watched out for each other and their children, where a youngster worried about causing neighborhood mischief because he would get into trouble quickly with his Catholic school principal--a nun in habit, his parents, the local businesses and his neighbors, and lastly, if ever, the police.

That went away with the advent of several things, not the least being: television, massive purchases of sutomobiles, cheap prefab construction, available empty spaces near cities, shopping malls, and the 1960s socio-sexual upheavel. And for Catholics, there was great damage done as a result of deliberate sabotage of Vatican II's attempt at renewal--sabotage committed by our own fifth column. So that the universal Catholic Church was thrown into a vortex of internal strife and utter devastation of its traditions--traditions that bound people together, no matter who, into a much more real community of faith than Father Smiley and Haugen and Haas.

To forge a community now out of so much wreckage will require heroic acts of faith and patience, and the ability to accept community, as the Hasidic put it, as the place where one stands.

I live now in an older suburb (40-50 years old), but I have actual neighbors, and know them and, at least, many of their kids. I sometimes attend my parish church, and sometimes travel to Chicago for the reverent masses at St. John Cantius. I must try to make community out of what I have to work with, that is, the tools at hand that the Lord has given to me. I have learned to walk rather than to drive for the most part, to give up television, to settle for less in material goods to get a bit more in the love that is in my family and among my neighbors of a score of ethnicities.

But it isn't new. It's simply an old story--from the inspiration of Holy Scripture that tells the story of the rise and fall, and rise and fall of community, at least since God forced Abraham to leave his father's house.

But, please, I don't need to read another dippy book that will soon be moved up to the attic.

Great comments Richard.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard Chonak published on March 18, 2006 8:56 AM.

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