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I watched the big game at the home of new friends and neighbors, all folks with Front Porch Republic sympathies. This morning, one of our crew, a Catholic theologian, writes to say:
Every adult in the house last night was a serious Christian who engages with modernity with some degree of circumspection and critical distance. All in that group are at subtly different points on the spectrum with respect to computers, films, tv, cell-phones, diet, schooling, money and all the good life stuff, but everyone there is cognizant that such matters matter. Everyone is reflective and conscientious in making choices about these things. So I find it curious to have watched the Super Bowl together, and have really enjoyed it. You can’t get much more plugged-in to mainstream Americana than that. To discuss The Who, to use the hypercommercial NFL as a vector for expressing localist loyalties (bearing in mind not only Rod’s affection for the Saints, but my animus towards the Colts), to watch the iPhones come out…it was really funny. Whoever wondered aloud “what is Alasdair MacIntyre doing at this moment” pretty much nailed it, as far as I’m concerned.How do lads who enjoy Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, Patrick Deneen, et. al., also find themselves pausing for E*Trade ads? For me at least, there is something here to learn about being in the world but not of it, about embracing my culture and creation, but yet not being fully part of it (because we know how easy it would be to deconstruct all the b.s. we consumed last night too — really, would the lyrics to Baba O’Riley withstand theological scrutiny? “I don’t need to be forgiven, yeah yeah yeah yeah.”). Can you narrate for me how it all holds together? Either put it all in the blog or we need to reassemble everyone for whisky.
After granting me permission to put the question to the room, my theologian pal said that he thinks it all harkens back to Patrick Deneen’s “free riding” post from FPR. Here’s an excerpt from that one [read past the jump for more…]
Among this group here at this electronic outpost and like-minded fellow travelers, there is a fair amount of self-consciousness about the various ways that “traditionalists” (or “paleo-libs??) free-ride on the broader culture that they otherwise criticize, no more evidently by employing a medium that can, at best, create only a “virtual” community (Fr. J. Gassalascas said it best). Farmer’s markets, new urbanism, bike paths, “the Benedict option” – most all of the various ways that community is forged today is less and less a result of organic communal forces required by necessity (e.g., live near water and arable land, don’t live too far apart since we don’t have internal combustion engines), but achieved by our prosperity. In his at-times uncharitable review of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, Peter Lawler nevertheless was correct to note that not a few of the “crunchies” arrived at their destination by a circuitous, often well-travelled path, often ending up far from places of origin (or at least with many stops in-between departure and return), and benefit in oft-unacknowledged ways from the umbrella of security offered by America’s armed forces and the orderly world it largely affords. Few of us would survive very long in Augustine’s world.I feel perhaps more keenly than most this paradox of free-riding, working as I do at an elite mid-Atlantic university where much of what I believe and teach is at odds with the broader ethic of the institution, wed as it is to the ideals of progress, research and deracination. Yes, it’s a full bore strip mining operation, removing largely inert human resources from varying far-flung locations and making them productive in the stream of international commerce. We provide many opportunities for “career counseling” but exceedingly little in the art of living in a place, including that great and daunting mystery, raising a family. I acknowledge fully and without hesitation that I benefit immensely in ways small and large from the position I occupy; and, moreover, that I fully seek to use the benefits, visibility and prestige of my position in an effort to criticize and even undermine the grounds for that institution’s prestige. I would like to argue that, were I successful, my institution could remain noteworthy because it would be part of a changed culture – or would be a major part in changing it – and thus be honored for doing so, but I recognize that the more likely outcome (assuming such a change of institution were likely, which it is not) would be a loss of prestige in a largely unchanged world. It’s likely that any success on my part would lead to a kind of failure.
At the time, I had the following to say about Deneen’s post:
I should say here that I’ve read the Lawler review (unavailable online, alas), and found myself in the odd position of being grateful for it, because though I winced mightily to read his criticism of my book, he really did teach me a lot about the weaknesses of my own position. Patrick highlights one of them: that people like me criticize modernity from a pretty shaky foundation. After all, I live and work hundreds of miles from where I was born, and had I not been given a meaningful choice over whether or not to leave, I might have been a pretty unhappy and unfulfilled man. The mobility that modernity provided me allowed me to hone my craft in Washington and New York, among other places, and to practice it today in a place where I can be generously rewarded for pursuing my vocation. There aren’t many well-paid writers in my hometown. There aren’t many writers at all.
This discussion reminds me also of something Vigen Guroian, the Armenian Orthodox scholar, once said to me: that you cannot choose a tradition (this, in a conversation in which he expressed skepticism over my conversion to Orthodoxy). I don’t think this is true, because if it was, the last Christian would have died on the Cross. Still, he has a good point: there is something phony about promoting tradition in the postmodern world. How can it be anything more than lifestyle advocacy? I see the point, and admit that our historical condition makes recovery doubtful, but I must ask in return: what else is there? Does the fact that I’m something of a phony with all this crunchy-con, neotraditional stuff obviate the criticism I and my fellow travelers make of our rootless society? Is the alternative to just throw up our hands and accept the world as it is, and offer no protest, or try to chart out a more humane alternative? I think not.
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any practical way we can undo the historical, cultural and economic situation we’re thrown into. Emphasis on practical: if one wanted to be like the Amish, that option is always there. But there’s got to be a defensible middle ground between complete refusal (the Amish option) and complete, uncritical acceptance. On Saturday afternoon, my homeschooled oldest son spent an hour on the computer receiving math instruction from a professor in Southern California. I used my iPhone last night to stay in touch with my dad in south Louisiana, watching the game; we got to share some pretty great Who Dat? moments together, thanks to the phone. Technology makes it easier to live out the old-fashioned practice of homeschooling. And technology makes it easier for local farmers to get their wares to market. We could come up with a long list of ways aspects of modernity make it easier to live anti-modern lives. The only people who have no internal conflict over all this are those who have completely refused it (the Amish and their fellow travelers), and those who have completely embraced it. I submit that there are a lot of us in the uneasy middle, who have to do the best we can trying to negotiate modernity with our guilty consciences, balancing ourselves between not letting an awareness of the difficulty of our position prevent us from saying No when No needs saying, but also allowing that difficulty to keep us humble about making sweeping judgments of the compromises others make.
That is not a satisfying conclusion, but it’s the only one that makes sense to me.