Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Month: January 2018

A Different Kind of Life Is Possible


We take so much for granted. We assume the way things are is the best way things could be. This problem is so grave, we tend never to even question the structure of our lives and the societies that shape them. Indeed, most of us find it impossible to imagine a life not built around corporate work, the acquisition of consumer goods and the atomistic, self-centered pursuit of pleasure. In short, a life built around place, family, faith and tradition is literally unimaginable.

Seeing an example helps.  Here, take a look at this:

I discovered the film above a while back on YouTube.  It aired originally on Irish television in 1980. Produced by famed Irish filmmaker David Shaw-Smith, it is truly a joy. Everything about it, both in form and content, is counter-cultural.

The quietness it captures is striking. Unlike most contemporary films, even documentaries, there is no attempt here to gin up excitement through loud music, flashy transitions or weird camera movements.  Instead, we see half an hour of people speaking almost in whispers. Quiet people are now such a rarity that they still draw us into the film almost 40 years later.

The placid soundscape is mirrored in the simplicity of the shots: lots of simple, locked down, eye-level images, beautiful landscapes and cutaways. The world we see seems to offer silence and stability and rest. The feeling of the piece is captured about two and a half minutes in when, in her voiceover, Dolores Hogan says “There isn’t much more you’d want than a lake out in front of you and mountains all around you…freedom to walk up the mountain, freedom to walk down by the lake, nice people. There’s peace, peace.”

The content is, of course, even more important than the film’s form in making that peace tangible. The movie is a profile of former philosophy student Joe Hogan who, after graduating university, decided to move to a rural part of Ireland to farm a small holding. To supplement the family income, Joe decided to take up a trade and turned to basketmaking. He’s still working. Buy a basket from him here.

This is a life most people now can’t imagine: a life of independence where the family income depends on the work of one’s hands. For most of us, work has become a meaningless exercise. We are alienated from the activities to which we devote the majority of our time. Work is just something we endure in order to pay the bills.

The rootedness of the life the Hogan’s have chosen is equally hard for most of us to understand. Early in the film, Joe speaks derisively of the modern habit of uprooting oneself from time to time. That kind of commitment to place is profoundly anti-modern. By tying himself to one place, Joe traded off opportunities and excitement for the deeper rewards of stable connections and a fuller knowledge of land and neighbor. That’s a gamble almost nobody today has the guts to take.

One feature of the Hogan’s lifestyle is that families spend time together, especially parents and children. In the film, the Hogan’s son Daragh plays around his parents’ feet while they work. While such an older style of life may not yield the same level of riches as a life of corporate slavery, at least children know their fathers. And that, everyone knows, is itself a kind of wealth.

The Hogan family chose this life, the narrator says, because even in the late-1970’s, the rest of the world seemed to be accelerating toward conflict and chaos. How much further we are now down that road! The more the modern world collapses in upon itself, the more urgent and desirable is the kind of life we see in this film.

Joe repeatedly says that his farm is no utopia. No sensible person would imagine otherwise. But, the life Joe Hogan and his family model in this film offers possibilities modern people yearn for: the possibility of stability, of independence, of connection. For all the gadgets and baubles modern life affords us, millions crave these other, more profound satisfactions.

Unfortunately, the system of modern life traps us. Joe Hogan, at least in 1980, didn’t appear to have the pressure of student loan payments or cable bills. Perhaps he had a kind of freedom we now deny to the young. Who knows?

What is obvious, is that he made a decision for a certain kind of life when he had the chance. Most of us are not so wise. For us then, the film is valuable insofar as it makes us mindful of what opportunities for improvement we do have, makes us mindful that a different kind of life is even possible. If you doubt me, watch the film and see for yourself.

The Solution to Our Sexual Misconduct Problem is Chastity


Behind our ongoing rush of sexual misconduct allegations is a crisis of ideals. We cannot know what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior because we have separated sex from its ends. When sex is purposeless and the only ideals we value regarding it are those of maximum pleasure and an ever-shifting definition of “consent”, we should expect the kind of sexual chaos that now besets us. The current set of revelations are, above all, an indication that the ideals of the sexual revolution simply do not work.

This is news most refuse to hear. Instead, the tide of allegations and the concomitant pain and humiliation rolls on, sweeping away those who once seemed immovable. The latest to fall is Aziz Ansari, the comic and actor who first rose to prominence playing the shallow and self-centered Tom Haverford on Parks and Rec.

In an account published a few days ago, an unnamed woman claims she went on a date with Mr. Ansari that led to her going back to his New York apartment with him where he became sexually aggressive. At no point, however does she claim that Mr. Ansari forced her to do anything against her will.

Rather, she says, simply that she felt uncomfortable, and that he was not good at reading her non-verbal signs of discomfort.  She admits that when she later told him via text message how she felt, he said he was sad to hear that she had been uncomfortable and apologized for failing to understand how she was feeling.

This is not a case of a stranger jumping out of a bush and raping a woman. It is not a case of a powerful man demanding sex in return for professional opportunities. It is the case of a young woman who voluntarily went on a date with a very famous man who, it turned out, was less than entirely gentlemanly.

Ansari’s behavior as described in the incident should not to be excused. It was louche. It was loutish. I would never want any man to behave in that way toward either of my daughters were one of them foolish enough to return with him alone to his apartment.

But, such behavior is also normal given the default values and ideals about sex in our culture.

The only way to begin to curb these incidents is to change those default attitudes.  We must, collectively, admit that the only workable ideals for sexual behavior in our society are chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within it.

These ideals alone empower. The woman accusing Mr. Ansari did not have the power simply to leave his apartment because the ideal of chastity had not been ingrained in her. Had she been taught to value chastity, she would have had every reason to refuse to be in his apartment alone with him. The whole situation could have been avoided.

Without such an ideal, people like this young woman are left adrift, confused about how to traverse the wilderness of contemporary sexual relations to arrive at some safe and profitable destination. Without such an ideal, men like Mr. Ansari have no criterion by which to determine an acceptable level of sexual aggression.

Having such cultural ideals in place is, of course,  no guarantee that people will live up to them. In fact, human nature assures they will not. Still, having them is valuable. Ideals serve the same function in human life as “North” does on a compass, they give us a fixed point. They calibrate our measurements and orient us in the right direction.

The problem in this instance isn’t with ideals as such, but with THESE ideals. Human beings, especially young ones, simply don’t by nature want to be chaste.  Teaching them to practice this virtue and erecting social structures and limits to aid its practice is the role of culture. As our culture has collapsed and the social structures which once were intended as an aid to virtue have been removed, the ideals they were designed to reinforce have themselves receded.

In an essay on this matter Caitlin Flanagan gives an example of how culture once reinforced this ideal by publishing stories of young girls who fell short of it.  These stories, she says, pointed out that:

in one essential aspect…that we were strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak. They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it.

The sort of strength a girl needs to stand up for herself comes from having the support of a culture that encourages her to be chaste. The young woman in the story was not merely up against Mr. Ansari in the moment when she failed to refuse his advances, she was up against an entire culture that has failed to provide her any reason why she should.

Tragedy abounds in stories like this one. This young woman’s disappointment is palpable in the account of her evening with the star. It’s clear she was hoping for more. She probably imagined becoming the girlfriend of the famous man. Unfortunately for her, she lives in a culture that has renounced the old ideals, that has renounced the idea that there is something special about girlfriends, and something even more special about wives.

The young woman in this story, having learned the hard way, had to do something with her broken heart. And, like so many women scorned by a heartless culture devoid of the right ideals, she determined that since she could not be this man’s his special girl, she would at least become the woman who destroyed him. It is a sick and dying culture that demands such a transition.

On the Eating of Laundry Soap: The Tide Pod Challenge


Years ago, my wife and I attended an exhibit of the original drawings of cartoons published in the The New Yorker . One I still remember is below.


It’s funny because the cartoonist has captured something real about our society, especially about the sophisticated, career-driven set who read The New Yorker. Using the clown’s privilege of telling hard truths others would be punished for telling, the cartoonist is pointing out the neglect of children rampant in our materialistic, secular culture.

As society has become more secular, more focused on success, more obsessed with material acquisition, relationships of all kinds have become strained. This is particularly true for familial relationships. A simple look at the divorce rate confirms this, as does a simple observation of the millions of young people who, in one way or another, are trying to burn a message about their need for love wherever someone might see.

And it’s not just the children of the crowd who reads The New Yorker. Working class families are equally fragile, perhaps more so.  

The cartoon above draws our attention not just to the prevalence of child neglect, but also to something else equally disturbing. The cartoon also exposes the many parents who blind themselves to the damage neglect does to children. When the child acts out, that behavior is dismissed by parents. They don’t take it seriously. They refuse to see their children’s need for love even when it is emblazoned unmissably on the very walls of the home.

This denial is not merely individual, but societal. Our society’s children signal their messages about their need for guidance, stability and values in increasingly extreme ways and few take them seriously.

Consider the development, recently revealed in the news media, of young people eating laundry soap as a means entertainment in what is being called the Tide Pod Challenge. Essentially, young people have been inserting small containers of laundry detergent into their mouths and biting down, releasing the contents. Presumably, most don’t swallow.

Those taking the Tide Pod Challenge document this dangerous behavior in order to post the video online and enjoy the resulting wave of affirmation.

The revelation of the Tide pod challenge has produced a number of media stories warning people of the possible dangers of ingesting laundry soap and urging them not to participate in the fad.

As incredible as it is to need to say this, it is, apparently, necessary, so here goes : a society that must undertake a massive media campaign aimed at teaching its young people not to eat laundry soap is not a healthy society. The American anti-culture has created a generation so broken, anxious, ignorant and desperate, some are literally poisoning themselves.

On the other hand, what would we expect from the young in a society unwilling to nourish them spiritually and emotionally? It’s inevitable  that some of them would, in the search for the solid food of soul-sustaining faith and tradition, try almost anything.

Our materialistic, secular, atomized lifestyles have, in other words, produced young people starved for what really matters. Still, most don’t see. We are like the woman in the New Yorker cartoon, blandly denying the child’s legitimate need for attention because acknowledging it would disrupt her agenda.

Even now, most people will dismiss the Tide Pod Challenge as something the crazy kids are doing, as if eating laundry soap in an attempt to gain affirmation and attention from strangers on the Internet were akin to their parents’ passing fascinations with pet rocks or Rubik’s Cubes.

It’s not the same. The Tide Pod Challenge is more. It is a sign of collapse, sign of decadence, a sign of a society limping toward its own demise. A society that, rather than offer its young resources for cultivating meaning,  literally motivates them to poison themselves has arrived at its end.

The best we can do is to cultivate places of refuge where we can: in our homes, in our churches, in our hearts.  We can protect our children from the ravages of an anti-culture bent on their destruction. We can nourish ourselves and others with the faith handed down to us and the treasures of our now fading civilization.

The cultural rot surrounding us need not spread to the culture in our home. We can pay attention to our children. We can mentor others. We can resolve to snatch what few we can from the coming destruction. We can make available to them the satisfying riches and wisdom of the best of what has come before and, in so doing, prepare for those around us, in the middle of a sick and malnourished society, a feast.

We Have Created an Anxious Generation


Photo via Miranda Fowler

Given that many college students learn nothing during their years in higher education, one might not immediately think of them as a bunch of perfectionists. But, according to some new research, they are. Coverage of the study in USA Today says:


(The study’s) lead author Thomas Curran of the University of Bath and co-author Andrew Hill of York St. John University describe perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others.” In their study, published Dec. 28 in the journal Psychological Bulletincollege students from 1989 to 2016 took a test to measure self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Modern-day students, the study found, display more characteristics of three types of perfectionism

I believe this.

Our culture has created a generation of young people who are characterized primarily by their outsized sense of what is expected of them and, paradoxically, a desire to avoid taking the kind of chances that lead to real achievement.

Talking about this story in today’s episode of his daily podcast, The Briefing, Albert Mohler picks up on the section of the USA Today story where the author suggests that social media is behind this phenomenon. Mohler says “no one goes on social media to post ‘I’m not doing anything special at the moment’” everyone appears to be doing something very special . The idea Mohler seems to be getting at is that young people look at social media and see the highlight reels of others lives and respond by feeling they must be perfect in order to live up to the idealized images presented there.

There is undoubtedly some measure of truth to that, however deeper factors are also at play. Social media is a vehicle, a conduit through which cultural values are imparted and cultural contexts affirmed.  To really understand the predicament of contemporary young people, we have to examine both those values and the context in which young people are trying to live them out.

Young people today have come of age in an era of brutal meritocracy. As the spiritual center of our society has ceased to hold, people have turned to emphasizing external achievements as a source of meaning. The not-so-subtle message is that the best life is the one whose end product is the overstuffed trophy case, resume or bank account.

At the same time, young people are told they have a moral obligation to seek as many affirmations of their personal value as possible through competition and activity. Winning a sports tournament no longer means simply that you are good at sports, but that you are a good person deserving of love and attention. The burden then is placed on every individual to prove his worth through winning. To refuse to play is to be deemed an immoral loser before the game has even begun.

We see this mindset everywhere. This is the mindset of the metric obsessed technician. It is the mindset of those who would reduce education to the standardized test. It is the mindset of the corporate culture of continuous improvement that has infected every area of our working lives.

When you combine this sort of ruthless reductionism with the “nobody’s-feelings-get-hurt-and-everybody-gets-a-trophy” attitude equally pervasive today, young people can’t help but be confused. Many have become paralyzed, unable to strike out on their own, to pursue personal goals without the permission of authorities. Instead, they become people racked by worries over being good enough, who simultaneously believe they need not expend much effort to be considered extraordinary.

The loss of the family, especially of the role of the father, is another factor in the development of these attitudes. Because the world has always been an arena of competition for resources, the family should be a refuge. In the family, we are, ideally, loved and rewarded merely for existing. Membership in the family should be achievement enough to grant us attachment, support and love.

The role of the father, when fathers existed, was, partly, to orient children, particularly boys, toward the outside world. Dad’s job was to pass on the necessary knowledge for competent living within a framework of familial love. At the same time, Dad set reasonable standards for behavior and rewarded appropriately. A good father was a man who had expectations, but expectations that were clear and could, with some effort, be satisfied. At the same time, a good father communicated that his love was not conditioned upon the perfect meeting of those expectations.

As the role of both faith and fathers faded in young people’s lives, people other than Dad, education bureaucrats, corporate executives, and politicians,  began setting the bar, and doing so in a manner that primarily served their interests. The result is young people on whom the expectations of school, corporate life and peers hang heavily. These young people, then, find themselves prey to the twin vices of anxiety and sloth, a situation that far too often gives rise to a kind of hopelessness in them with which we are all growing familiar. The irony here is that in its pursuit of ever better results, our secular, atomized culture has produced a generation increasingly frightened to produce anything.

None of this can be changed without a return to the healthier patterns of the past: a return to faith, a return to family, a return to a sense of sanity in what constitutes good enough. As with so many things in the modern world, the path forward here is, simultaneously, the path back.

Legal Weed is Dumb Indeed


The other day Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a lot of people’s hopes for quickly increasing marijuana legalization up in smoke. He announced he would rescind an Obama era policy of loosey-goosey federal enforcement of marijuana law. This was, apparently a total downer for a lot of people.

Isn spite of Sessions decision, many still seem very high on legalizing pot. That’s a  terrible idea. But, terrible ideas are often popular ones. So, let me explain.

The claim of liberalism is that the state should serve as a referee and allow its citizens the freedom to experiment with personal and political structures. The role of the state under liberalism is, ostensibly, only to referee the legal processes involved and to safeguard the rights of individuals. First order questions like “What is liberty for?” and “What is the good?” are, under liberalism, mostly relegated to individuals or private groups.

However, contrary to what liberalism teaches, states which are not oriented toward The Good cannot last. For a state to flourish, it must constantly reference some notion of The Good that transcends and justifies it. Liberalism undermines the state’s ability to do this, and that is one of its flaws, likely a fatal one.

By encouraging its population to use recreational drugs, our state moves even further from being oriented toward The Good than it already is. Marijuana should not be legal for the same reason that there should be no state-run lotteries: because the state must be oriented toward The Good and must encourage good behavior among its citizenry. As distasteful as many people find this truth, the state must be in, indeed is always in, the business of making moral judgments.  Reversing the judgment on the legality of marijuana isn’t about merely allowing individuals to decide for themselves whether to consume it. Such a legal reversal also implies a reversal of the antecedent moral judgment.

In moving to legalize weed, the state also endorses a way of thinking. The underlying idea behind the use of recreational drugs is that sobriety and rationality are burdens man must bear. The truth is that far from being burdens, they number among our glories. Sobriety and rationality are qualities mature people cultivate in order, through them, to make wise decisions, to connect with others and to build strong families and communities.

By legalizing recreational marijuana use, the state gives its imprimatur to the idea that sobriety and rationality are, at best, irrelevant to the conduct of a good life and a just state. In so doing, it further weakens the bonds that hold people together as both individuals and communities, driving us even further into decadence.

Also, there’s cash on the line. Encouraging a dissolute and intoxicated populace, while detrimental to the long-term prospects of any society, is a short-term boon to those who run the current show. Billions of dollars wait to be made by creating a legal market for marijuana. Eventually, marijuana will be another corporate product for big business to commodify and distribute as one more means of pacifying the agonized masses.

Naturally, a chemically euphoric people, the edges of whose rationality have been dulled, are easier to govern than a population of rational, self-reliant and sober citizens. There is a reason some people in power are eager that everyone get a little buzzed. It makes their jobs easier. In the end, our mammonite ruling classes are eager to push marijuana legalization purely because doing so benefits them, not out of some commitment to principle about individual rights or whatever,

Of course, this country has, in recent years, overreacted to marijuana use and production. Lengthy mandatory sentences and so on have been an offense against justice, but we need not pretend that our only choices here regarding this issue are either all out war or total surrender. We have other options and should choose one that encourages stability, sobriety, rationality and the inherent dignity of human beings.

The use of the worst excesses of the war on drugs to justify legalization of pot is fallacious. Unfortunately, fallacies carry more weight in our time that valid arguments. You can chock that up to our failing education system and our preference for emotional slogans over sustained reflection. We are not a serious, reasonable people. Adding legal pot to the mix is unlikely to make us any smarter.

Sorry to harsh the national mellow, dude, but you know it’s true.

Rod Dreher, Liberalism and Edgardo Mortara

Pope Pius IX

Pope Pius IX

Rod Dreher is a man given to strong reactions and this article at First Things seems to have precipitated another one. The article is a defense of an 1858 decision by Pope Pius IX to remove then six-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family.

Mortara had, as an infant, been ill. His parents and doctors believed he could not recover. In response, the family’s Catholic nanny secretly baptized him. The child lived. When it was discovered that he had been baptized a Catholic, papal authorities removed him from the care of his parents to live with representatives of the church in order that the he might receive a Catholic upbringing as the law stated all baptized Catholics should receive.

What has upset Mr. Dreher is the notion that this move was anything other than wholly atrocious. That there is an element of atrocity here can not be denied. Even Romanus Cessario, the author of the article defending the decision acknowledges this, writing:

No one who considers the Mortara affair can fail to be moved by its natural dimensions. It is a grievous thing to sever familial bonds.

Still, Mr. Cessario believes Church authorities did the right thing.

I do not.

Surely, some compromise could have been reached in which the child could have received a Catholic upbringing without being removed from the custody of his parents. The reason this didn’t happen are probably complex and bound to the specific historical circumstances of the time, which, no doubt, were complex as history always is.

Nevertheless, the case raises some important questions to which Christians like Mr. Dreher should offer an answer. For example, the nanny who secretly baptized the child did so because she believed what her church teaches about baptism, specifically that it sets the indelible mark and seal of Christ on the baptized, a mark without which admission to eternal life is not possible.

Given this, when she saw the child on the threshold of death she moved to ensure this non-Christian child life eternal? Was this not an act of mercy? Should she, given her Catholic frame of reference, have refrained from this act?

When the child lived, should the Church have refused to intervene given that those involved were convinced a Catholic upbringing was better ultimately for the child? If we agree that removing him from his parents was not proper, what level of intervention would have been acceptable?

Most important here is the claim that baptism creates an ontological change in the baptized. According to church teaching, Mortara was a different kind of creature after his baptism than he was before. There was no going back. What then would have been the right way of dealing with this situation?

The problem with Mr. Dreher’s answer to these questions is his invocation of liberalism.  Mr. Dreher writes:

“For all liberalism’s serious faults — which I regularly catalog in this space — one of its great achievements was to separate Church from State, so that men like Pius IX and his clergy could no longer do things like what they did to the Mortara family.”

A sentimental attachment to liberalism is an undercurrent in Mr. Dreher’s writing. It crops up again and again, as if he still believes, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that through it men might learn to live together in way that make these difficult situations avoidable.

Liberalism’s official answer to this situation, of course, is that religion ought to be a wholly privatized and individual matter and, as such, the question of whether one is Catholic or Jewish is entirely irrelevant to the state and the apparatus of power. So long as those involved do not use their religious convictions as grounds for contesting the dominant liberal narrative, the promise is, they will be left alone.

Surely, this is what Mr. Dreher wants, for religious families to be left alone. His notion that that great achievement of liberalism the  “separation of church and state” will somehow ensure this is, unfortunately, naive. Liberalism’s official answers are never the real answers. Liberalism, despite what it claims,  is not some neutral means of governing that imposes no ideological content of its own. It is instead the ascendent form of religious faith in our time, as imposing, but certainly less charitable, than the Catholic church of Pius IX.

The idea that liberalism is somehow immune to the kind of insensitivity the church showed in the Mortara case is obviously false. A perusal of the news makes this clear. A few months ago, the liberal state permanently removed Charlie Gard from the care of his parents through murdering him. Going back several years, let us not forget that it did the same to the parents of Terri Schiavo. This couple in Norway had their children removed for opposing the tenets of Liberalism, the global religion.

Liberalism, contra Mr. Dreher, has not separated church and state, but rather melded them even more closely. Liberalism, in denying that it is a religion or even an ideology with formal content, uses the power of the state to destroy families with greater relish and fervor than was displayed in the Mortara case. And, it leaves in its wake this destruction, not because eternal life is on the line, but only because what is at risk is its own diabolical power.

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