Contrarian's Notebook

Disquieting Thoughts on Matters Cultural and Personal

Category: Community (Page 1 of 3)

A Different Kind of Life Is Possible

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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.

Legal Weed is Dumb Indeed

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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.

How Spring Break Destroyed America

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Sometime in the 1990’s when other college kids were off on Spring Break, I was at home watching it on television. I remember distinctly sitting in my apartment watching a report on some prime time news magazine about what students set free for a week of hedonistic pursuits were getting up to. I remember just as distinctly concluding by the end of that report that our society was doomed.

Any society that reared its young to see spending a week every year pursuing all sorts of outrageous behavior as normal, it seemed to me, could not stand. Few agreed then, but in the years since, many have come around. One reason for the change is that many have experienced the consequences of this way of living.

According to this story at the College Fix a significant portion of students surveyed regret their Spring Break behavior. The data come from a Project Know survey:

Which recently asked 889 high school and college students who have taken a spring break trip in the past five years about their activities and regrets.

When it comes to regrets, 38 percent reported that they felt bad about their alcohol consumption, while 32 percent are upset they had sex. Eleven percent also expressed remorse for drug use.

The survey also found that of those who had sex on Spring Break, 65 percent of men did it with someone they just met, and 42 percent of women did the same. The rest reported it was sex with a friend.

Certainly, it’s tragic that these young people are burdened with such serious regrets at a young age. But, they are not entirely to blame. A larger portion of the blame goes to the culture that raised them, taught them to think in the Spring Break style. Because, see, more than it is just a week of bad behavior, Spring Break is an entire way of thinking. Spring Break the event is only an outworking of Spring Break the mindset. And the Spring Break mindset is pervasive in our culture even among those who have never once visited Daytona in March.

Like all mindsets, the Spring Break mindset can be known by identifying some of its basic precepts. Let’s look at three.

First, the Spring Break mindset believes that the highest form of human life prioritizes the reckless pursuit of meaningless pleasure. Consider that for most Spring Breakers, a week of bacchanalia and tropical weather is considered a reprieve from the rest of their lives in which they must restrain their true selves. Only under the sway of alcohol and cheap airfares can their true, higher selves emerge.

Most of the time, they slog away at home living a lower form of life that consists of gainful employment, stress about exams and accountability. They struggle through this lower form of life with its concomitant responsibilities supported by no more than the weekly frat party or Thursday night bar crawl. In this life, the daily life of the real world, they are, they believe, forced to assume an artificiality which condemns them to living at a less than optimal level. It is on Spring Break, when all the restraints are removed, that real life, the life they have been trained to crave, is possible.

Most resent the fact that in the everyday world actions, at least most of the time, have consequences. That they should not is a second tenet of the Spring Break mindset. The Spring Break mindset is devoted to seeking circumstances in which pleasure can be pursued without reference to any short-term or long-term damages that pursuit might cause.

In the Spring Break mindset, the world and everything in it, from fossil fuels to the bodies of others, exist solely as products to be consumed. The notion that such consumption might entail logical and moral consequences must be repressed.

Spring Breakers find a massive corporate infrastructure eager to help in that effort. Let’s not forget that Spring Break is a multi-million dollar business. Everyone from booze companies to airlines to international media conglomerates has gotten in on the action.  In the Spring Break phenomenon we see that the universal application of free market principles ends not so much with enhanced prosperity and dignity as with your 20-year-old daughter topless on a beach making out with her roommates.

The result of all this corporate investment is a built environment and a media mythology that reinforces the notion that Spring Break, and indeed a life geared toward seeking a perpetual Spring Break, is the purpose of human existence. In an environment where such attitudes are reinforced by commercial and cultural authorities, thinking about the consequences of one’s behavior is rendered nearly impossible.

Regrets that crop up later, like the ones mentioned above, must come as a terrible shock. But, by the time people experience these, they have largely aged out of the college cohort, and their pain no longer matters because they are now too old for our cultural overlords to care.

This fact is not unrelated to the final plank of the Spring Break mindset. Underlying both the beliefs I’ve touched on here is a deeper one yet. At the bottom of the Spring Break mindset is the notion that becoming adult is a kind of death, that stepping into the world of grown up obligations and commitments is the end of joy, and that people must avoid it as long as possible.

The Spring Break mindset shares our general cultural sense that adulthood is optional. In part, this is because we have, as a culture, no definite traditional rites of passage. That doesn’t mean individual don’t desire them. We do. So, when we lack normative rites of initiation into adulthood, destructive consumerist rituals will rise up to take their place, a la a Spring Break trip to Florida. Either parents officially confer on children manhood and womanhood in some traditional ritualized fashion, or those children will come up with their own rituals which, rather than leading to dignified adulthood, lead to regretting one’s random casual sexual encounters enthusiastically undertaken at the Day’s Inn in the spring of sophomore year.

To call the Spring Break mindset “the Spring Break Mindset” is perhaps a little unfair to spring break. It is more accurate to call this mind set, “The Modern American Mindset.” Most Americans hold the beliefs I have mentioned above. If it were not so, Spring a Break as a college phenomenon would never have developed. The fruits of this mindset are more apparent than they were even twenty years ago.

But, if it was obvious to those with eyes to see where we would be today twenty years ago, the the dark future into which this mindset now leads us is equally foreseeable. Despite all promises to the contrary the world will never be an arena of endless summer, barely clad beauties and springs of intoxicating drink that never cease to flow. Instead, we will all grow up whether we want to or not. And if we have believed in the childish dreams put forward by the modern American mindset, we will inevitably wake to even more grave and terrible regrets.

About that Man Dragged Off the Plane

Passengers shoot videos after United Airlines drags Chinese passenger out of Overbooked Flight (4)

So, a man got kicked off an airplane and the incident sparked an uproar. Let’s review the facts. As we understand it now, a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville was entirely booked when some United crew members showed up and said they needed to be on the flight. The airline then asked for volunteers willing to give up their seats in return for a $500 voucher and a hotel stay.  No one responded. The airline then upped the offer to a $1000 voucher and a hotel stay. No one volunteered.

Airline employees then announced the four seats would be chosen at random and the passengers in them would be expected to leave the plane. Well, one of them, Dr. David Dao refused. When he refused long enough, airline security personnel and officers from the Chicago Police Department forcibly removed him, dragging him by the arms down the center aisle of the plane. The man and other passengers were screaming during the entire ugly incident. Somehow, the doctor’s face was bloodied in the tussle.

Not all the reaction to the incident has been sympathetic to the Dr. Dao. Consider this troubling tweet from conservative commentator Matt Walsh.

Walsh has managed to wrap a lot into these few words. He dismisses the significance of the incident, implying that outrage over the airline’s behavior is trivial at best, immature at worst.

That’s wrong. The outrage over this behavior stems from only one thing: the fact that this behavior is outrageous.

Just because something is outrageous, does not, unfortunately, mean it isn’t perfectly in step with the underlying structure of our times. This incident is an image of the heart of our moment. A man being dragged kicking and screaming somewhere he doesn’t want to go by agents of government and big business is a metaphor for much of our social and political life.

All of us, now, whether we know it or not are dragged around by these same forces. Every aspect of our lives is, in some way, under the sway of either government or corporate entities. No aspect of our lives including, apparently, whether we volunteer to take a later flight is outside the bounds of these institutions’ control.

The involvement of the Chicago Police Department proves this. These officers, ostensibly public servants who receive a salary provided by taxpayers, were called upon to enforce not just the law, but United’s corporate policy. Law and corporate policy are now indistinguishable.

Mostly, we are supposed to accept this situation without much protest. We are meant to shrug and say “Well, what do you expect?” when we see corporate misbehavior because we’ve been told relentlessly that the goal of profit trumps all other concerns. Our assent to the notion that corporations may do whatever they like because they are exempted from all moral limits in the pursuit of wealth is now foundational to our society. If we ceased to believe this, society would cease to function.

As part of our conditioning regarding corporations’ exemption from moral boundaries, we have been taught concerns for other goods: family, virtue, tradition, the environment, even basic human dignity, are unrealistic impediments to the real business of life. The real business of life, as everyone knows, is converting every other value, every other commitment, everything soft, warm and good to cold hard cash.

This is why Walsh’s tweet was so troubling. Walsh, who has made his fortune on his conservative opinions, seems not to understand that dismissing United’s mistreatment of Dr. Dao is not at all conservative. The idea implied in Walsh’s tweet is exactly what I have just described: that people complaining about the airline’s behavior are exaggerating the significance of this situation and ought to simply accept that people who interfere with the acquisition of corporate wealth will be viciously assaulted.  If even our conservative leaders fall prey to this indoctrination, what chance is there for the rank and file to resist?

And yet, resist we must. The only way out of this situation is to begin to carve out social and psychic space for other values to thrive. We must each find some small way to do things that are inefficient and less than cost-effective. In undertaking such tasks, perhaps we can open up space once again for more humane values to flourish outside the grip of large, inhumane institutions. If we refuse to push back, we can only expect to be, like Dr. Dao, further dragged where we do not want to go. And, unlike Dr. Dao, there will be no outrage for us when we disappear.

Traditionalists Must Oppose Military Action

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Photo via Moyan Brenn

Traditionalists and modernists differ in that traditionalists don’t believe the world can be perfected. We don’t even believe it can be substantially improved with regard to basic human nature. Sure, we can invent some new gadgets, but we will never eliminate greed, callousness and the blind love of power from the world.

Modernists, however, believe the world is on its way to an ever-improved state of affairs. They think things are going to get better and better. The belief that the world can be made more humane and just and pleasurable forms the core tenet of the modern secular faith which is predominant in the West. Believers in this faith are never reluctant to take action to push the world further down the road to utopia.

The actions they are willing to take include the use of military force. The modernist sees military action, when undertaken by a secular, modernist government ostensibly for the purpose of making the world safer and more democratic, as good. In their minds, military conflict, while tragic in the short term, is a means to establish long-term harmony by imposing the values of the rational, democratic secular West on societies that have failed to embrace them. The modernist tends to excuse this sort of intellectual and spiritual imperialism in light of the positive consequences he is certain it will bring.

Traditionalists don’t buy it. We doubt that human beings are wise enough to predict the consequences of large-scale disruptive actions. We are fully convinced that the world will always be home to evil, oppression, and cruelty. We know that the slaughter of innocents is a feature of unchanging human nature. The best we can do is build safeguards against such things when we can.

Since this is so, traditionalists are less inclined to exercise military might than are modernists. Obviously, the categories “traditionalist” and “modernist” do not entirely align with the categories “conservative” and “liberal” in the American context and certainly not with the categories “Democrat” and “Republican.” Many Republicans, in their enthusiasm for warfare, show themselves totally in thrall to the modernist vision of an ever improving world.

Traditionalists tend to resist the use of military force for other reasons too. Traditionalists see the family as morally sacrosanct and its preservation as the purpose of society and government. On this ground alone, traditionalists oppose the easy use of military force. If the purpose of government is to support and protect the family, then a government that destroys those families through the forced separation and death military action entails defeats its purpose and becomes superfluous or, even worse, illegitimate.

Because traditionalists see human being as profoundly flawed and unable to realistically assess our decisions because of our hubris and other moral failings, we are reluctant to embrace the destruction war inevitably entails. We are less confident than our modernist counterparts that the losses incurred can ever be recovered.

War always entails damage to the environment, the loss of tradition and the disruption of communities, all things traditionalists value more highly than an abstract vision of a world made perfect through the forceful imposition of secular, modern values. Traditionalists resist war because we believe the world that rises organically out of the human struggle to cope with reality and to safeguard families and communities is superior to one engineered and imposed through force by modernists gorged on abstractions.

This is not to say traditionalists always oppose war. There are instances where, due to the corrupt nature of human beings, large-scale conflicts are unavoidable. However, traditionalists see only defensive wars as legitimate. Wars to defend home and family, to preserve a culture and tradition against a ruthless aggressor are, while still tragic, acceptable.

The widespread use of military force that has characterized American foreign policy in recent decades does not qualify for support from traditionalists. Instead of striding across the world leaving in our wake a legacy of death and destruction all in the hopes of realizing some naive globalist ideal, we traditionalists want to see our nation turn toward home.

Send those soldiers back to their wives, back to their children, back to the towns and lands that birthed them, we say. Let them invest in a craft, in work, in learning to lead those in their charge, and in doing so, engage themselves in those mundane disciplines of life and heart that actually do make the world a better place, or at least a place that is as good as it can be.

We Are Mostly Blind to the Suffering of the World

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Photo via Jerry Ferguson

My wife’s phone rang a couple of times last night. First, it was the pastor of a church in the area asking her to play piano for a funeral later this week. A few minutes later, someone from our own church called to say one member had a friend in the hospital and another had a couple of friends who were suddenly dead.

A little while later,  I bumped into a neighbor whose wife died a few months ago. He told me about a medical scare he’d had that is going to involve long-term rehabilitation.

All this happened in a few minutes on just a single day. Multiply these terrible occurrences by every minute of every day, and you begin to get a sense of what real life is. We all hear stories like these all the time.

Mostly, we ignore them.  In spite of the pervasiveness of such suffering, it’s easy to go through life not seeing how much the tapestry of human life is woven with dark threads. Our culture, with its emphasis on atomistic individualism and consumer hedonism, obscures the reality of suffering and loss from our vision most of the time.

Jordan Peterson is fond of talking about how difficult life is. He repeatedly says this obvious thing because most of us are only half-conscious of it. Most of the time, we are mostly ok. When we are not, the modern salves of distraction are there for us. Very little disturbs our comfortable dream.

One reason for this is that we don’t really know our neighbors. Our family heard all this bad news last night because we have made a concerted effort to live our lives connected to members of the communities we’re part of.  That’s not the case for people living more culturally conformed lives. Our culture encourages isolation. Isolated people tend not to see the sufferings of others.

What isolated people do tend to see is the glowing representation of reality put forward in the media. The average American now is so transfixed by the corporate, consumerist vision of life that he believes wholeheartedly the products pumped out by the unreality machine are maps of the way things truly are.

There is no suffering in the vision of reality these people consume. Instead, it’s all style and cheap laughs, youth and clear skin. There is no room for people who die suddenly or suffer long-term debilitating illnesses. The result is that people caught up in our common, consumerist hallucination cannot see suffering in the real world, even their own. A globally mediated vision of a secular, consequence and suffering-free utopia represses their awareness of the sadness and pain in their own hearts as well as in those of others.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Naturally, we can’t fall into deep grief over every sad story we hear. But, we can stop to notice. We can acquaint ourselves more intimately with the real. We can free ourselves from  false narratives long enough to grasp the actual nature and texture of life and, when we have seen the ubiquity of suffering, respond with a redoubled effort to relieve it through disciplines of  compassion and hospitality. And by accepting these disciplines, lighten our own suffering as well.

American Culture is an Anti-Culture

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 11: Lady Gaga attends Glamour's 23rd annual Women of the Year awards on November 11, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Glamour)

As a child in Sunday school, I learned a song that went:

“Be careful, little hands what you do.

Be careful, little ears what you hear.

Be careful, little eyes what you see.”

The goal, I assume, was to give children a catchy way of reminding themselves of the importance of self-discipline, of keeping oneself free from bad influences.

The message is still relevant. We have reached a point where American culture actively works to undermine any efforts to cultivate self-discipline or any other virtue for that matter. People who give themselves unreflectively to American culture give themselves over to destruction. That is rough sentence containing a sad sentiment. Yet, it’s true.

Those who follow the culturally approved path are almost certain to find themselves beset by all sorts of calamity: spiritual, emotional, relational and financial. The only prudent approach now to the mainstream narrative of the good life is vigorous skepticism.

Without this vigorous skepticism, one cannot flourish. Imagine a man who comes to his doctor and complains of not feeling well. His doctor asks him if he’s changed his habits at all recently. The patient says no except that, for the last three months, he’s gotten up every morning and drunk a thimble full of poison.

Just as the doctor would rightly tell that man to stop drinking poison if he wants to return to health, so the conscientious commentator must now encourage his readers to leave American culture behind. Getting up each day and imbibing it will only ruin you.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say America no longer has a culture. We have an anti-culture. A culture is a set of institutions and practices that inculcate a shared worldview and set of values. When a human being is exposed to a functional, viable culture he comes into contact with the best his group has to offer. The effects of this exposure can’t help but be salutary. While every culture has aspects that aren’t ideal, the thrust of a working culture uplifts the human soul and improves human character.

None of this is the case in contemporary America. Instead, regular exposure to American institutions and culture, especially American popular culture, leads to despair and corruption. The masses don’t see this. Someone is watching those ”Real Housewives” shows. Someone, a lot of someones apparently, is buying music by Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.

Every hour spent sucking up this material is an hour spent in a kind of school. Above all, culture teaches. Sustainable cultures teach people to defer gratification, to cultivate fidelity, to view themselves as a part of a larger community. When a culture teaches indulgence, chaos, and narcissism it has ceased to behave in a way that secures itself a future.  When a culture ceases to secure a future for itself, it has become an anti-culture.

The only reasonable response to an anti-culture is to withdraw from it. This bothers some people. It smacks of defeatism, of giving up. But, a plan to withdraw from our anti-culture isn’t about surrender. It is about survival and long-term victory.

Just as ceasing to start one’s day by chugging a cup of poison is not surrender, but a means of strengthening oneself, so too is withdrawing from a poisonous culture a means of strengthening one’s soul, one’s family and ultimately, one’s civilization.

The question is what this withdrawal should look like.  The answer is necessarily squishy. The contours of cultural withdrawal will vary from individual to individual. The principle that we must cease submitting to the anti-culture is ironclad. How that is carried out will depend on many factors including personality, financial resources, religious background, level of commitment and many others.

For our family, for example, this withdrawal looks like homeschooling and not having cable. It doesn’t mean going full-on Amish. Mostly, it means having a clear idea of what our values are, and of where those values conflict with the dominant narrative. When our values conflict with those advocated by the anti-culture, we do what we can to separate from it. I suppose this is what Rod Dreher has been calling the Benedict Option.

There is too much at stake not to resist. What kind of adults our children will become is on the line. Whatever contentment and peace we have managed to find are put in danger by the values the anti-culture promotes. The cost of protecting these things is that we are rarely among the “cool” people. We are estranged from the mainstream, aliens in our native land. And, it is when we are surrounded by such dangers,that we see it is critical to remember our Sunday school lessons and to be careful what we see, hear and do.

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The Stories a Desperate People Tell

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One reason they call it popular culture is that its popular, really, really popular. The artifacts of our media-saturated and consumeristic society are everywhere. In our time, there is an unreality for everyone. No niche remains overlooked. No lifestyle, no matter how dangerous, no interest, no matter how depraved, goes unserved by the masters of storytelling.

In spite of the splintering of the mainstream, some works continue to gather a mass audience, and these often tell us more than a story. They tell us about ourselves, about the condition of our hearts, about our modern sickness and the possibility of healing.

Many of our most popular stories concern the secret question audiences hold in their hearts, whether they are conscious of the question or not. Many popular stories appeal is anchored in their dealing with the question of whether love and all its accompanying comforts remain possible in a world designed to suppress them.

A few examples.

I mentioned in an earlier post that our family had been watching our way through The Wonder Years . Well, we finished it last week and the conclusion makes clear that the question mentioned above is critical to it.

The same is true for other popular shows. Think “Parenthood”,a show about a family clinging to one another in spite of the panoply of modern pressures trying to drive them apart. Gilmore Girls is a show, not just a19-gilmore-girls-2-w529-h529 couple of girls, but about a whole town built around the hope that love is still possible.

Lately, we’ve been watching a sometimes painfully difficult BBC show called “Last Tango in Halifax”. The same question animates it. The only thing that changes between these shows is the setting. Love is always the theme.

Lest you think that this question of the possibility of love presents itself only in a particular genre, I’d suggest that this question, in an admittedly grittier and darker way, is central even to The Walking Dead. That show simply explores the question in a setting where all the contrivances of modernity have been stripped unceremoniously away. Is love, the show asks, possible outside the matrix of modern convenience.

The argument I want to make here is not really about television. The argument I really want to make is about love.

Nobody wants to come out and say it, but love has always been a scarce commodity in the world and the structure of modern society makes it even more rare. Social structures are built around values. Our society, for example, is built around maximizing individual choice, primarily in the arenas of sex and commerce.

Earlier societies were and ours could be, at least theoretically,  organized around different values. Imagine a society built around values that seek to maximize not individual liberty, but love. We could make changes that build support for families and increased possibilities of love into our social fabric. We could, for example, reform divorce laws to protect children and spouses who want to keep trying.

Outlining the way to a new society is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I will simply point out that a society that structures itself around the individual will can only increase our alienation from one another.  People who live in such a society are destined to be lonely, to have trouble establishing and maintaining connections with others.

The only way out of the problem is to reject much of the surrounding culture. A lot of the pain modern people feel stems from living in a culture that forces upon us this dilemma: we must choose lasting connection or social conformity, must make ourselves either lonely or weird.

The desire for connection and for love is inborn and when it goes unmet, it doesn’t go dormant, it turns into a cancerous need, a throbbing tumor on our souls. Of course, the only treatment our society can provide is denial. “Just ignore that thing,” we’re told, “If we all ignore our cancers, we won’t have them anymore.” That denial of our innermost disease will lead us to health is a truism of our time.

So, what do people trapped in a world like this, a world of alienation and emptiness and denial, do? We tell one another stories of worlds that are not like this one or, at least, not so much like this one. We tell stories that, however their surfaces appear, all whisper to us in the subtext that another world is possible. We tell stories that affirm that indeed the ache we feel is real and that keep alive our hope that, in spite of all the forces arrayed against her, love may yet triumph.

It’s easy to say all this television watching is part of the problem, and that’s right. But for many, TV is no mere escapism. It is life support. People can recognize in narrative what they cannot realize in life. To condemn the need people have for such tales only adds to the burden.

A better way is to encourage, when we can, reflection on what it is in these stories that people love, to invite the binge-watching masses deeper into their hurt so that out of that painful exploration, change might be born. Awake people must engage in this subtle subterfuge: we must take seriously the power of narrative and enlist it not to present imaginary worlds only, but to point us all to a better future for the real one.

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Things Are Just As Fragile As You Fear

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Photo via Steven Duong

For the least several years, I have taken the time to binge watch each season of the “The Walking Dead.” It’s not a great show. But, I’m into it now and I want to know if these people are ever going to get out of the mess they’re in, so I’ll probably stick with it.

One thing the show does well, and one reason for its huge appeal, is its depiction of how easily everything we take for granted could end. It’s a frightening message, sure, but also one a lot of people long to hear. I mean, there’s a reason people love post-apocalyptic narratives of any stripe. Most of us intuit that, in spite of appearances, society is on the edge.

We live in a time where the created social and political order is nearly inescapable. We wake early to corporate music in order to get in our mass produced car and hit the road which is itself part of an enormous network of roads created and maintained by a faceless and indifferent government.

We spend our days laboring as part of a complex system for people up the chain who, if they are aware of us at all, regard us as a fungible resource. When we get home, we lose ourselves in a haze of factory processed food, drink, and corporate media. That’s a normal day for lots of people.

It’s easy to mistake this world, this manufactured, made up world, for the natural one, to begin to think that the structures on which we depend daily have always been there. It’s easy to think they will always be there.

That’s not necessarily the case. Things can change quickly. This is true both on a personal and a societal level. On the whole, we and the society we inhabit are more fragile than we admit.

This brings to mind a recent post by Mark Baxter. In it, Mark wrote.

 We love to read and talk about being antifragile. It is one of my favorite concepts. A fascinating book by Taleb.

 However, in reality, most of us are anything but antifragile. We are susceptible to all sorts of shit.

This is true. We are all fragile to some degree. But, there is a taboo against admitting it. In a bizarre irony, as our culture has become ever more confessional with strangers breaking down in tears on daytime television and others posting every moment of their lives to YouTube, we have become ever more ashamed of our personal failings.

This is in large part because what we imagine to be failings aren’t necessarily failings at all, but simply the inability to remold ourselves in the corporate image sold to us by the cultural establishment. Having teeth that are less than sparkling white is not a real failure. Living a life full of mundane moments does not lower our value. It makes us normal.

The net effect of the millions of images of perfection we are subjected to is shame about our real selves, about our imperfection, about our fragility.

Now, imagine living in the older world, before you had in your pocket a tap into a non-stop stream of commercial images and monetized fantasies. Your guideline for normal would not be the Instagram stream of some minor league model, but your family, your neighbors, the people in your church.

People in the older world were less fragile, less likely to break than we are, simply by virtue of being under less pressure. If they fit in with their community, that was enough.

We are made more fragile both because we live under greater pressure to present a manufactured image of ourselves to others and because the community that anchored previous generations has become, for us, largely extinct. We are a society of unmoored, confused people, fragile and desperate for home.

Amplify this personal situation across a population and you can see the precariousness of our situation. We are not quite yet to a Walking Dead style apocalypse. On the surface, things continue to function.

But, surfaces are never the full reality.

Our society has been filled for years with a shared sense of dread. This feeling does not arise from nowhere. All of us know our own fragility; we know how that fragility is stressed even more by a society that has replaced family and community with images, meaningless pleasure and distraction. We know deep down that others are just like us, that they too are hiding a reservoir of pain behind an increasingly weakened dam of denial.

We sense things cannot go on as they are much longer. In our fragility and weakness, we bluff and posture and curate our online profiles to make us seem stronger than we are. But, all the time, one eye is on that dam holding back the forces of chaos unleashed inside our hearts, and we tremble because we know, that dam, like all fragile things, will sooner or later shatter into a million awful pieces.

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This Culture Makes Family Almost Impossible

Photo via Michael Sweet

Photo via Michael Sweet

Over at Boundless, a web site for Christian 20-somethings, Wendy Alsup writes about the problem of singleness, specifically the problems of women who want to marry but can’t find a man.

She begins by telling the story of how she fell into a deep depression after dumping her boyfriend when she was 25.

I thought we were going to get married, and the break-up sent me into a deep emotional crisis, probably clinical depression in retrospect, that started right before my twenty-sixth birthday and lasted until right before I started dating the man I would eventually marry.

The depression Alsup describes is not unique. She writes about others who experience it.

Another friend told me about her struggle to figure out her future. She thought she’d be at a different place in her timeline at this point. She told me of all the things she would have done differently if she’d realized she’d still be single into her late forties.

After describing the problem, Alsup goes on to give reasonable, if abstract, advice about how to tolerate the loneliness of having no family.

The problems Alsup describes are more than individual. They are cultural. Ignoring the cultural aspects of why people long for families and yet are unable to form them is going to get us nowhere.

Painful singleness happens in the context of a cultural narrative that teaches people to doubt three related and crucial truths and thus inhibits the formation of strong families.

These three truths are:

1) Men and women are different

2) Men and women were made for each other

3) Family is good

A culture that rejects these, as ours does, engenders tremendous suffering. The deleterious effects are everywhere. But that’s only part of the story.

Most people have a deep-seated intuition that the above claims are true; yet find no support for that inner knowledge in society. Instead, they live under a constant barrage of messages telling them that even considering whether such claims might be correct is a kind of crimethink.

Eventually, they buckle and join the masses walking around saying they don’t believe these ideas. Secretly, though they live with the constant shame of knowing that deep down they do believe things all the cool people say are retrograde and ridiculous.

They bring that shame to their hunt for a spouse. This shame manifests itself is as feigned indifference. For most of us, the desire to find someone with whom we can start a family is central to our understanding of the good life, and yet we are conditioned to act as if this question has never crossed our minds.

Young women whose main goal in life is to be a wife and mother conceal these wishes for fear of being shamed. In school and in the popular culture, the career woman is elevated as a role model. Ambition, drive and ruthlessness are all held up as qualities superior to submission, gentleness and a nurturing spirit.

The flip side of the hard-charging career woman is the sexual adventurer. No woman, we are all constantly told, can live a fulfilling life without first sampling the delights of many strange men’s beds. Young women get the message early that the best way to a future of sexual faithfulness is a present of sexual recklessness.

Cultural authorities make it clear that the best women, the most interesting women, are those who sacrifice their deep desire for family to use their sexuality to advance materialistic and career goals. Messages like this shame women for wanting to find a man with whom to establish a traditional family built on tradition sex roles. That shame makes it even more difficult to seek out a husband.

At the same time, shaming young men about wanting to find a wife is only a part of the larger program designed to shame men generally. Young men have imbibed the idea that pursuing goals and girls is wrong. The result is an ocean of feckless young men trying to remodel themselves into something acceptable to our cultural overlords. Once they achieve a high enough level of reform, they believe, rewards will come rolling in. The violent anger that sometimes swallows these guys whole is what happens when they finally see that no reward is coming.

Any young man with even minimal awareness will also have entirely rational fears about marrying in an age when they have few cultural or legal protections from the whims of their future Mrs. A guy can easily think he’s bagged an Elizabeth Bennett only to find out years later he’s stuck with and Elizabeth Gilbert. When his new bride’s “Eat, Pray, Love” spirit emerges, what’s in it for him? Poverty, loss and exclusion from his children’s lives. That’s enough to give a young man pause.

It’s not surprising in this context then, that we have lots of people wondering around lonely and longing for a family. Article’s like Alsup’s are fine to the degree they help people manage their pain, but they do not go far enough.

We must go beyond managing people’s pain to showing them what it would take to reach satisfaction. To satisfy such longings well would require reforming our society from the ground up, changing the culturally approved prescription for the good life. To satisfy the longing for family in a sustainable, reasonable, wholesome way would require ripping up the foundation of the current system. It would require a revolution all for the sake of a little companionship in our dotage and a safe place for children to grow up.

It would totally be worth it.

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