Rediscovering the Wheel

Two experiences converged lately to remind me we’ve lost faith in what works. First, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray argues the institutions that encourage and embody the primary values of our culture are purposeful work, a trust community, a strong family, and felt faith. Belonging to these and building the virtues they demand, we consider ourselves “happy.” That’s not new. Franklin describes “felicity” as fulfillment of our nature in productive work, the pleasure of self-respect and the respect of others. That such commitments bring peace doesn’t surprise, but is seldom considered in our cultural conversation. Ignoring these virtues – even as we find the consequences of our cavalier treatment of the old standards – indicates we no longer accept the centrality of human nature. Shucking off millennia of traditions may be our nature – especially our adolescent nature, but history has lessons, voiced by family and faith, the discipline of work and community. It warns that willful pride may lead us to adolescence, but seldom leads us out.

The famously diverse founders got a lot right. So, I welcomed a second intrusion upon my little world: a talk by the charming Os Guinness, brought by our local Christian faculty group (friends who have given me community as well as collegiality). They discussed his The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It. He delights (as perhaps only an immigrant can) in discovering how our founders at once encouraged and dis-established religion. Their genius was the belief man reasons his way to truths; more importantly, perhaps, that convinced belief was stronger than coerced.

Nonetheless, Guinness’ argument seemed plaintive – can’t we all get along. And banal. He defined the “in-between” – above our deepest held (differing) religious beliefs, a meeting ground for civil exchange. His is a politically correct vision (Fred Phelps represents his “religious right”, for instance). But seeking such ground is important. And Guinness is right; for religious thinkers, faith and its tenets are foundational as temporal society is not. Conversation, however, requires a shared vocabulary.

A vague wish for civility just kicks the can down the street. Our context is more freighted than Guinness acknowledged. True, our founders derived peace from centuries of bloody fighting: they forged tools from the bloody spears of long wars. For this group, compromises were influenced by both the Scottish combative spirit of the borderlands and its open marketplaces of the ports. But they shared an understanding. The best mouse trap, the truth about any conspiracy, the facts of science – all, eventually, triumph. Of course, this leads to an unsettling tradition which is always rejecting tradition, institutions. Recognizing the process is endless even if not futile, these men accepted flux, rejected the static. We never arrive but are always headed toward that city on a hill.

Sure, we should all get along. And shared secular assumptions, as the Founders demonstrated, let quite different belief systems speak to each other. But if we do not believe truth can be found (not quickly nor easily, perhaps, but that it exists) nor that man’s reason is capable of evaluating and understanding that truth, what is our purpose in assembling “inbetween”? The ideologically committed who shout down a political speaker or those inspired by their religion to fight over words – theirs are not vocabularies that mediate. Those who believe there is no truth to be known or those who believe there is no more truth to be known don’t welcome discussion. They ask “What’s the point?” and mean it. Whether a post-modernist or a suicide bomber (or, in Solzhenitsyn’s dichotomy, a communist or a fascist), discussion will be an empty exercise, not entered authentically but only to exercise power.

When Guinness arrived, the controversy over Obamacare, its mandate, & religious convictions had just begun. This was not discussed. If our assumptions (about human nature and natural law, the rights of man and those of government) differ greatly, such a debate wanders about in a feckless, if occasionally bombastic, way. But few controversies bring out the banality of the “let’s all get along” meme more than the current one. Perhaps the government will “let” the church “out” of its obligation to provide a service it finds not just distasteful but sinful. This can be spun as those for and against birth control, but we slowly realized that was not the point. Power is implicit in Obama’s arguments (in our grand plan, he says, smoke and mirrors will “allow” the church its exception). Suddenly, those of us with no dog in the fight realized we have one – that is, if we want still think in terms of freedom of conscience. The plane Sibelius described was neither religious nor civil, but an intersection – cramped and hierarchical. Political power “allows” space, but, we argue, that misses the founders’ assumption that that very space was pre-existing.

Edwards and Franklin agree often. Fundamentally they disagreed – one believed in the revealed word of God and the other didn’t, one believed we sinned and the other that we were prone to mistakes, one wanted to lead souls to salvation and the other bodies to political freedom. But, they agreed human nature existed and both believed in natural law; both believed in the importance of work, of community, of family, and of church. If Franklin was famously not spiritual, he gave the church, repeatedly, its due. And if Edwards was less active in the world, he understood well the call of community and practical action (worrying his congregation lost its sense of proportion in slighting daily duties enthralled by the passions of the “awakening”). Consequences happen when we violate our nature. Mere theory? Well, it is not ineffectual because it hasn’t sheriffs The consequences are no less real because we don’t acknowledge them. And we don’t. Murray’s “Belmont,” from an instinct toward felicity (or, we suspect, self-preservation) returned to the fifties, having seen the consequences of the sixties’ upheaval. But if they recognize the consequences, it remains impolitic to acknowledge causes. Murray’s statistics remind us of what Guinness’s generalities obscure. The Founders weren’t just tolerant – they also shared and valued certain traditions.

That children are best brought up in a home with both biological parents and likely to do better if those parents have committed themselves to each other and their community may be obvious. But it is not reinforced by our institutions – entertainment, news, or government. Often, indeed, not by our churches. That meaningful work gives a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment is a fact – underreported perhaps, but real; the softness of our institutions doesn’t acknowledge the virtue of self-discipline, of the discipline that comes from acknowledged consequences. We forget (at our and society’s peril) that faith that requires much of us and that work that challenges us are not only good for society, but for us. Our founders took lessons from history. Forgetting the nature of our nature squanders a great and useful heritage. Ever surprised, we rediscover the wheel.

12 thoughts on “Rediscovering the Wheel”

  1. “And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire — ” Rudyard Kipling

  2. Since we have a mention of Kipling,

    “AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
    I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
    Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

    We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
    That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
    But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
    So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

    We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
    Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
    But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
    That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

    With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
    They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
    They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
    So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

    When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
    They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
    But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

    On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
    (Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
    Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

    In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
    By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
    But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

    Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
    And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
    That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

    As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

    And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
    As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!”

    Sorry for the length.

    I think I would substitute “state” for “market.”

  3. I believe “Gods of the Marketplace” refers to whatever the popular religion or religion-substitute is at any given time…in our age, it would include such things as “self-esteem”….

  4. I believe the contemporary equivalent of the Gods of the Market-Place is whatever is being talked about on Good Morning America.

  5. Seems to me that “gods of the marketplace” pretty is clearly what it sounds like. That is, *doing whatever* one must and can do to make a dollar, a living, that one would not otherwise be doing with one’s time.

  6. Well, it would be nice to say that the comments here prove that the liberal arts and studying literature is actually helpful in understanding human nature and warning us of our not so great tendencies. However, I’s be surprised if any of you read your Kipling in a Brit lit survey of the last twenty years – and if any one did that it was discussed in positive terms.

  7. Michael Kennedy comments: I think I would substitute “state” for “market.”

    I know a young person just graduating with a degree in education. We spoke about his job hunting. Paraphrasing him: “I’d really not rather be a teacher but that is a well-paid option for me and so I will pursue that employment”. A monopolistic agent of the state has, in this case, become a part of the market, to the detriment to all: consumers of education, job-seekers, job-providers, and general national security and well-being.

  8. The world of public education has been devastated in the changes since most teachers were bright young women who had finished college and were either supporting a husband in grad school or waiting to find one. I knew hundreds who fit that description including my own wife. Since women have so many options now, those teachers have been replaced by the bottom quintile of the graduates organized into unions. I pity the remaining motivated women and men who must exist in this mess. Many of them teach in private schools for less money and many fight depression as they struggle on. My wife went back to teaching for 6 months about 20 years ago. She had been laid off in a bank merger. She was appalled at what she found in the blue collar neighborhood school. The teachers ridiculed the kids and had a union attitude to their work. She complemented one teacher who taught the grade before the one she was teaching. She complimented her on the kids’ reading readiness who came from her class. The woman burst into tears. No one had ever complimented her on her work.

    Nursing is in the throughs of a similar transition which has been eased by lower education and language standards.

  9. Michael K….and at the same time that other opportunities were opening up for talented and ambitious women, the public schools were being made much less attractive due to the mandated toleration of chaos in the classrooms coupled with bureaucratic micromanagement. Unions could theoretically have helped had they insisted on high standards coupled with reasonable autonomy, but instead they chose to act like the UAW in its darkest days..indeed, possibly even worse.

    In this climate, the people who go into public K-12 teaching (in most places) are going to be either (a)super-dedicated (always a small minority in just about any field), or (b)people with brittle egos who are obsessed with security, or (c)naifs who don’t understand what they’re getting into.

  10. Actually, this started, I think, a little earlier with the nature of education classes.

    My mother went back to college the summer before I sarted college (in 1963) to renew her certificate – she’d stayed home to raise her four children and I was the first off to college and the last was going into 1st grade. She’d been one of the first Wave officers and was a pretty gutsy woman in a lot of ways. She came home every day bitching about the classes and how much they’d changed from when she’d gotten her degree in the thirties and taken a few classes after the war on the GI bill. And the ones she consistently hated were the pedagogical classes – the teacher’s college ones. She was taking some regular classes to make her more broadly “sellable” – her first degree was in Home Ec that would soon become a lost art but was seen as a scientific if womanly major in the thirties.

    During my first year in college, I noticed that the girls in the next dorm room were (literally and unbelievably) memorizing the base salaries for teachers in different states in preparation for a test in their education major and day after day, I saw the education majors drop the 200 level courses in exchange for the less challenging 100 level ones. Practically no one I knew was willing to get an education major (even though even then – in, say, 1967 when we graduated) a liberal arts major was not going to get a job nor the pay (though it might down the road) that a school teacher would get – and certainly any job we got would require longer hours.

    I would feel sorry for teachers now considering the snotty way most of us looked at education majors, if they hadn’t continued to buy into the most destructive of educational, economic, political, environmental, etc. ideologies and do everything they could to dumb down their majors. What kind of thinking can complain at the same time that the tests don’t really measure anything because they are too easy and that “teaching to the test” requires them to not teach well? And if that weren’t a problem in logic, there is the cheating on the tests by the teachers that demonstrates – what – it is sometimes used to demonstrate that the tests were too hard. Dishonesty has always seemed to me the role model we want for our children.

  11. I have found all the comments interesting and edifying, but I think we have drifted a little off the subject; so, let me offer two comments to what Ginny says in her excellent post. First, while some might argue no one could have known in the Sixties how its “liberating” ideology would lead to the disasters the Belmonters have fled from, someone did predict those disasters, ironically enough, in the context of condemning contraception.

    In Humanae Vitae (1968), Pope Paul VI wrote (and was almost univerally ridiculed for writing) about the consequences acceptance of contraception would bring. To wit: “[C]onsider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. . . . Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.” One might forgive Paul VI, if, looking at conditions today, he said “QED.”

    Second, Ginny is quite correct to say our Churches have not preached the perennial wisdom to which the Belmonters have repaired in desperation. It is especially sad that it was only when their own oxen were about to be gored that the American Catholic Bishops rediscovered the Natural Law wisdom of not only Paul VI but of another Murray – John Courtney. I strongly recommend a (re)reading of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths as a philosophical complement to Charles Murray’s superb sociological study.

  12. Murray has chronicled the cultural changes that western societies are experiencing, but I believe the cultural foment he describes arises in good part from the new realities of our age — long lives, urbanization, contraception, sperm/egg donors, and DNA testing for paternity.

    The impact of most of these factors have been thoroughly discussed, but the implications of DNA testing for paternity have not and yet its impact might be the most profound of that list.
    The sexual relations of all cultures are shaped around men’s efforts to not be cuckolded. At one extreme is women in purdah; at the other is an African tribe in which men support their sister’s children, not their own. Now men can be sure their children are their own, no matter the sexual freedom their women have enjoyed. The cultural impact of this will be revolutionary.

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