Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Rescuing ideas from the culture war

posted by Rod Dreher

Just got back from a good lunch with a local Orthodox priest who is also a trained physicist, and who has a passionate interest in the dialogue between religion and science. I’m thinking about how one thing I love about the Templeton Foundation is how it’s a place where you can ask the big questions (the Big Questions) about the meaning of life, as revealed to us through science, religion, etc., and be taken seriously. What I mean is that they really do encourage serious, open inquiry, absent a spirit of cynicism, and without a sense that we have to study and talk about these things so Our Side (whatever Our Side is) can score points in the culture war.
Over the weekend I spoke with a politics professor about how burned out I had become on political questions, not because I thought they were unimportant, but because it seemed so difficult to have a meaningful political discussion anymore. So many people seem to be so sold out to their position that they cannot imagine questioning it, out of fear (I suppose) that to admit to a lack of faith or clarity is to confess weakness. We have two ignorant armies of the Potomac, clashing by night. That’s unfair to serious people of the right and the left, who are doing important thinking about where we are, and where we might go. But it’s hard to hear their voices these days, and in any case, I have nothing much to add to that conversation anymore. As real and as important as I think the culture war is, I’ve reached the sour conclusion that it has made it hard to think and to talk about some awfully important things. I’m hoping that with the online magazine I’m helping to create here, Templeton will provide a forum where the big questions can be discussed openly and in depth, from a variety of perspectives, without culture-war baggage conditioning the debate.
Along those lines, I was heartened to read this post by Rufus, a humanities professor who has just signed on to the League of Ordinary Gentleman to blog about the canon. He points out that it’s hard to make the Great Books live for contemporary audiences … but that it has always been hard to rescue the vital heart of great works from academicians’ attempts to commit taxidermy upon them. Rufus says even Erasmus complained about the pedantic ways of scholars, centuries before the first poststructuralist uttered a syllable. Here’s what Rufus intends to do:

I propose to “blog the canon”; from Homer to Hitchcock, Wittgenstein to Warhol, and Plato to Passolini. I want to do is write in a lively, irreverent, and passionate way about “the best that has been said and thought in the world”, and how these works affect me, a relative pisher in many of these areas. I am no expert. (With any luck, I’ll win one of Andrew Sullivan’s “poseur alerts”!) But I do want to write about the Aeneid the way we bloggers write about Avatar- as a living part of our culture.
Here’s what I’d like to avoid if I can:
1.The Casaubon approach: overly-pedantic and treating the great books as a museum piece. This is all wrong for the Internet anyway.
2.The Bill Bennet approach: in which the texts are completely decontextualized and combed over for values we can apply to our lives. “What can Achilles teach us about leadership?” There’s no quicker way to kill these texts than to put them on a pedestal to die.
3.The hyper critical grad student approach: the sexist/racist/hegemonic school of analysis in which classical thinkers are interrogated, beaten, and forced to give up the ghost, reduced to their worst qualities to escape an assumed “triumphalism”. I’m an enthusiast; not a vandal.

I wish Rufus well. I’ll be reading. I’m confident that there are quite a few people all over the political and cultural spectrum who would love to follow these conversations, but who get frustrated by how quickly attempts to explore ideas critically turn into us-versus-them side-taking. Look, I know that sides will get taken, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in principle. What I’m interested in is holding one’s own convictions and prejudices in abeyance long enough to listen to what the others are saying, and to give yourself space to look at ideas and questions with fresh eyes — that is, without rushing to think how this idea can be made to serve one’s cause, or can be quickly dismissed for the sake of serving one’s cause.

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Franklin Evans

posted February 1, 2010 at 4:29 pm

I look forward to reading Rufus’ blog, as well. Two good friends of mine operate a small theater (based in Fishtown, for the local-to-Philly readers), and take a general approach to it as an exploration of myth in a modern context. A few years ago I co-produced with them “Electra” by Eurypides, the only “updating” being the setting. The director remained true to the (translated to English) orginal script.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Rufus could start by refraining from accusations of vandalism. Sounds like he has some very firmly rooted culture war baggage about academia.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 5:13 pm

As Z points out, Rufus is engaging the culture war by pretending his neutral. Traditionalists as victims of academia is a tried-and-true culture war stance. He has a great idea, but let’s not pretend he isn’t a culture warrior.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Looks like it will be an interesting blog to peruse.
I think z and Peter are maybe reading a bit too much into what was said. I don’t think Rufus is making some magesterial claim to transcendent neutrality, or that he’s dismissing any role for academe. I think he’s just laying out what he wants to do–to help moderns reconnect to the great literature of our culture. Heck, anyone who’s sat in a high school class bored to tears over, say, Shakespeare, only perhaps to see a production or actually read the play years later and be gripped by how fresh it is, knows that certain approaches can kill appreciation for something great. Lighten up!

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Fake Fan Base

posted February 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm

This is an excellent but ambitious task. To comment on the original source and maintaining the integrity of intention of that source without modern/biasing interpretation surely demands an individual who can stand outside of their history and personal fetters but also depends on readers capable of discerning the distinction. It also depends on a similarity of view of those texts that are relevant to onlookers. If we don’t have an interest, how can we discern. Perhaps he’s a new Simon Schama, ready to tell a new illuminating story.
I’m looking forward to what he might say about Warhol, having just read Almoldovar on Almoldovar, who calls Warhol’s ‘A to B of America ‘the greatest American Sociological work. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that surely texts already have a context that is greater than the text itself. How will, if he will, treat Foucault given his ’Archaeology of Knowledge’, or bring a refreshing view to Marx, as if he was sat right by in him in the British Library.
The league of gentleman type stance, replete with bowler hat appears to be the position of an intellectual, tongue in cheek, dandy or spiv, so let’s see what happens. He maybe assuming the position of poseur, simply to say, ‘told you so’, and ‘what did you expect anyway’.
It’s also possible that ‘the Enid’, whatever that is, comes to resemble Avatar. If we can discern this, we may be put in touch with the human spirit through the ages. Hopefully it then won’t be demystified – surely even politics is also an unfathomable, despite the fixed responses of participants. Hell is other people.
However, learning and a kind of epiphany might ensue, so I’m game.
Thanks for the introduction.

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Rod Dreher

posted February 1, 2010 at 5:33 pm

What makes you say that Rufus is a culture warrior? It sounds to me like he’s someone who wants to find a way to take a fresh look at the Greats, absent culture war baggage. That is, he doesn’t want to trash them as examples of patriarchal thoughtcrime or to put them on a pedestal as victims of political correctness, but wants to try to look at them with fresh eyes. Do you really not believe that academicians have a way of murdering to dissect? Why is that a politically right-wing (“traditionalist”) point of view? Isn’t it more likely that by trying to paint someone trying to think outside the narrow culture war categories as a culture warrior in disguise, you’re trying to reinforce the ideological categories Rufus says kill fresh, creative thought about these texts?

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posted February 1, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Rufus is a culture warrior because he’s using a rhetorical tactic of inflammatory accusations of physical violence. He seems to think academia has nothing to offer, and wants to trash certain schools of criticism without having to actually rebut their propositions. Probably because he doesn’t think racism and patriarchy are real problems– a culture war position in itself.
I just think it’s stupid to say we’re capable of looking at things without culture war baggage. There are no fresh eyes. If Rufus wants to be fresh, he should stop inflaming the issue and actually engage with the hegemonic critique.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 6:04 pm

The stereotype of academic departments as havens of left-wing, race and gender obsessed loons is definitely culture war baggage. I say this as someone who earned a PhD in the Humanities at a secular university and had to take a lot of the personal and professional nastiness that these places can dish out. Colleagues took the trouble to google me to discover my personal beliefs and informed me I couldn’t be part of the “secular academic project” and it got worse from there. What most critics of “postmodern” nonsense in academia don’t realize is that about 90% of academics still care about rigorous argumentation and careful thinking (even if their premises are erroneous and their overall vision skewed). I really benefited from my exposure to that, even if after finishing my dissertation I realized I would never find employment. Applying that sort of rigorous criticism would go a long way toward dispelling much of the fog of the culture wars.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Sounds to me like he is proposing to revisit these books in a hip, modern approach to make them more interesting and applicable to modern life. Sounds ok to me. Kind of a Living Constitution approach. :-)

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posted February 1, 2010 at 8:03 pm

steve, agreed.
z: Rufus is a culture warrior because he’s using a rhetorical tactic of inflammatory accusations of physical violence.
Ever heard of metaphors?! Puh-leeze!

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posted February 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm

That is, he doesn’t want to trash them as examples of patriarchal thoughtcrime or to put them on a pedestal as victims of political correctness, but wants to try to look at them with fresh eyes.
That’s a culture war position. The “war on the Classics” is a culture war argument.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 11:37 pm

I actually managed to get through undergrad and grad school without ever taking a course from a lit dept – I know some would say that reflects deficits in my education. However – I rather think I escaped the belief that a book – classic or not – needs to have some sort of relevance to modern problems to be worthy. Perhaps a fresh look would be to enjoy the story, the vividness and richness of the words,the new world we enter when we read a book. Isn’t that enough?

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the cat

posted February 2, 2010 at 8:39 am

I totally agree. I read books written or set in different eras or different cultures to enter another world, to see throught different eyes and try to understand other points of view. I find it interesting how women did cope with the overwhelming patriarchy of other times but don’t see that as the point of literature.

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Julien Peter Benney

posted February 2, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Over the decade or so I have been looking at different cultural viewpoints, I have gradully but without a genuine interruption come to the conclusion that the culture wars:
1) can best be understood as a function of differences in resource availability and security of different environments and economies
2) lead to different types of societies which can in certain cases be so psychologically distinct as to make mutual understanding out of the question.
I feel this is especially the case when secularists try to understand the teachings of conservative churches. From the logical, thinking-oriented viewpoint of a secularist’s mind restrictions such as those against female ordination or casual sex are utterly arbitrary, whereas from the tightly and strictly feeling-oriented viewpoint of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches they reflect immutable natural laws.
I see this as played out in the real world via people trying to settle in an environment which best suits their psychological makeup. This explains the continuing “heart drain” from Eurasia to Australia and the more sparsely settled states of the US: a feeling type needs the deep privacy prvided by the housing space only these regions can provide. At the same time, unempathetic, thinking-oriented people will settle in regions where use of the sole natural resource – soils of geologically remarkable fertility – is precluded by simple economics, resulting in the social libertinism of so much of Europe and New Zealand. They “outplay” feeling types in these environments because they are much more efficient at developing new technologies and do not have the emotional difficulties adapting to them and their use.

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