Rod Dreher

As I’ve been wrapping things up in Dallas, I’ve had several good conversations with friends and associates about what I’m moving to Templeton to do. Whatever the political orientation of these friends, I’ve detected a common theme in our conversations related to my next job: a weariness of political partisanship and how it has made meaningful discussion and debate about ideas difficult to impossible to pull off. People are so busy defending what they perceive to be their Own Side that they’ve gotten into the frame of mind that sees self-examination and self-criticism as showing weakness, and lack of resolve or commitment.
I had lunch the other day with a staunchly conservative older friend, who said something that surprised me. He said, “I’m so tired of politics. There’s more to life than politics. I don’t care about gay marriage; I care about the cultural ideas that led to gay marriage.” He was saying that as someone who actually cares very much about the meaning of gay marriage, of which he does not approve. What I took him to mean was that he’s lost interest in the terms on which we fight the culture war, and instead is more concerned with foundational ideas at the root of these political struggles.
This morning I had breakfast with an academic friend whose politics I can’t accurately characterize — we usually talk about cultural, literary and artistic matters when we get together — and who expressed excitement that I’m going to be creating and editing a non-political magazine of ideas. He talked about the search for meaning in our culture, and how hungry people are for discussion about how to live one’s life in a meaningful way. Our public discourse has become so poisoned by political partisanship that these discussions either get suppressed, or quickly derailed.
“The English departments are the absolute worst,” he said. “They’re not interested in literature as art, or as a guide to the big questions in human experience. They’re only interested in using literature to carry out political fights.” He went on to express hope that there are plenty of people left in America who are eager to explore ideas without having to feel that they’re smothered by politics. And he wished me luck at Templeton building an online forum where smart people from a diverse number of perspectives can undertake this conversation. I told him that I was having some trouble shifting gears on my blog; so many times in the past three weeks I’ve seen or heard something, and had the impulse to blog about it … only to realize that I can’t blog about that kind of thing anymore.
“What I’ve realized about myself is that blogging primarily about politics and the culture war had taken a certain toll on my thinking and writing,” I told him. “It was easy to respond quickly to the latest news with a pithy comment, and I never did it cynically, just to get page views. But blogging with the news cycle has the effect of making you less thoughtful, because you get into the habit of quickly responding to events and provocations. It’s easy to get lazy, or to get caught up in the emotional currents of an issue. It’s hard getting used to this new discipline, but I think it’ll make me a better writer and thinker.”
After breakfast, I got into my car and caught the tail end of a Diane Rehm Show discussion with Jim Fallows about America’s decline, and possible rebirth. (Fallows wrote the cover story about America’s prospects in the current Atlantic). A caller phoned in and expressed despair that we are capable of holding together as a people and solving our problems politically, given how far apart we are in so many ways. I thought about my earlier conversation with my staunchly conservative friend, who told me he remained optimistic about America, because no year in his life was worse than 1975, re: America’s future, and if we can come roaring back from that mid-Seventies slough of despond, we are capable of anything.
Later this morning, I heard from a journalist who reported a conversation she’d had with a noted liberal writer. She quoted him as saying — this is a paraphrase — that it would be good to have a place to publish where people were less interested in defending their political interests and convictions, and more interested in exploring questions about what life is all about. That point of view resonates with me. I hope it’s not naive to think a magazine like that could thrive, and that there is a hunger among liberals, moderates and conservatives for these kinds of conversations.

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