Oh how quickly things can change. Only a month ago, ‘progressives’ were calling those who did not agree with them just plain “stupid” – without any nuance or frills, as this emblematic article (written interestingly enough in 2004 and laying out their 12 year strategy, which has led them to where they are) says; “From here on out, we’re glad red-state rubes live in areas where guns are more powerful and more plentiful, cars are larger and faster, and people are fatter and slower and dumber. (…)Who wants to go to small-town America now? You people scare us.”
These days there’s a nascent thoughtfulness trickling into the progressive narrative. As the #SiPorLaPaz group, the #Remain crowd and the #NotMyPresident mobs go back to their organic weed farms and topless coffee shops, the more astute are starting to look around at a world that has rejected their ideas and are flirting with a blossoming question pushing upwards from deep in the more fertile parts of their consciousness: “Why?”
In a blinding (if fleeting) flash of understanding, Molly Worthen wrote an article acknowledging the possibility that a lack of intellectualism on the part of the progressives could have led them into their insular cul-de-sac from which it appears there is no easy escape. Specifically she highlights “Great Books Clubs” where conservatives read the old works of literature and history in order to try and understand the past, the movement of time and the crash of history over civilizations. This is something that is hard for progressives – because it means rejecting the siren’s call of ‘progressivism’; namely their assertion that the past is a dark place of bigotry and violence without salvation. As Patrick Deenan has highlighted in his viral essay “How a Generation lost its Common Culture”, our ‘progressive’ educational system has worked its absolute hardest to successfully create a generation of ‘know-nothings’. As he puts it, modern students are “…the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture”.
Of course, this creates a problem. Without being able to identify the pillars of our own history and culture and civilization, there is nothing upon which to judge future ideas as valid or invalid – as effective or ineffective. If all that we came from was vicious, then how do we explain the source of the good things, in order to replicate them? If we are banned from our past – lest we find justification for our own ongoing wickedness in the ‘deplorable’ actions of our forefathers – how will we know what was the source of our uncommon prosperity, our ungodly advances in technology or our miraculous curing of diseases? How do we repeat the process of lifting worlds out of poverty, if all in the past is to be shunned as darkness? Naturally, as we’re seeing all around us, this has led progressives to fall sightless into Alice’s rabbit hole (progressives won’t know the reference; it comes from a great book).
I had a discussion the other day with a progressive friend about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize that highlighted to me the differences between these two ways of looking at the world. My contention was, and is still, “Bob Dylan is not a writer. He’s a musician. If they want their own prize, a ‘Nobel in Music’ he very well might win – but it is impossible to know whether, absent the tunes, his ‘poems’ would have had any impact.” My friend’s contention, “It’s good that the Nobel committee is branching out from traditional forms of writing.” “But why?” I asked, “Why is it good?” Could it be that there are no more books being written? Have all the storytellers fallen silent, that we need to look to songwriters now? Has the written word ceased to be a place marker in history, forcing us to turn to music? Did everybody suddenly forget how to read? Of course not – there are more books printed now than at any time in the history of the world – more than four million a year in the US alone. There is no need for Nobel to ‘branch out’, but to stay true in its stated goal of honoring the remarkable written word that “bubbles up” to become the new classics that the students of tomorrow should read; serving as they must as a stepping stone to help us across the tumultuous currents of life.
So why this desire for movement without a map, a compass, a guiding light – not even ‘forward’ because so many times the direction actually takes us back or sideways or down? Molly gives us a hint, inadvertently. Progressives, she says, “…can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy.”
Um, say what?
There really is a philosophical problem, isn’t there? A discussion that we are not having, that the ‘progressives’ won’t let us have, resorting as they do immediately to the use of monikers like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ and ‘bigot’. Words that are so emotionally charged that they immediately poison the well. The problem is the same one identified by Deenan – that is, in attempts (sometimes well-meaning) to make our country more inclusive, we are told that we have no right to our past – to that which makes us, us. ‘History’ we are told ‘is an evil place that we best not visit too often’. This is the progressive agenda.
Conservatives, on the other hand, look back into history with admiration – it’s what defines ‘conservatism’. The “Great books” that Molly thinks are white supremacist are actually the cataloging of the great ideas which, due to their extraordinary power, exist above and beyond the men and women who wrote them as they are preserved as part of our common tradition. Some are wonderful, like the Bible and City of God and Les Miserables and the Iliad and the Odyssey and Atlas Shrugged; some not so much, like Ecce Homo and The Communist Manifesto. But if we have them – these great books – it’s because the process of ‘natural selection’ in ideas has chosen them to exist while all others perished. Without being exposed to timeless ideas – and their impact – how will we identify foolishness? Incidentally the same also can be said for our other “great” disciplines; art, where if we are not allowed to look at Rembrandt we very well might believe that a porcelain toilet superglued to a piece of plywood is beauty; or music, where if we are forbidden Beethoven we might even think that Miley Cyrus is harmonious.
You’ll notice I don’t use the word “liberal” in any of this. I do that on purpose. Liberal comes from Latin and Middle English and means, “of freedom, pertaining to or befitting a free man.” Both progressivism and conservatism have ‘illiberal’ wings, that is to say that which works against the benefit of a free man. In modern America, illiberal progressivism has – at least for the last eight years – created an environment where the free debate of ideas is ‘outlawed’, anathema – banned by the ‘social justice warriors’ from oxygenless ‘safe spaces’ where only a very particular brand of ignorance is tolerated. Naturally, as is the case with all illiberal behavior, this backfired; leading them to their terrifying cul-de-sac of the mind.
At any rate, highlighting the obvious rarely helps. But, for my ‘progressive’ friends reading this – I do have an idea! Put down your copy of “The Stranger” and give your bare breasted barista a big tip. Get in your Prius and drive east until you get to a red state (it won’t take very long, I promise). As you drive, turn off Beyonce and stream this commercial in a loop.
When you arrive at your destination, stop at the first house you see and knock on the door, politely asking to see their library when they open (They’ll let you in, I promise. Red state folks are nice.) Ask your hosts “Which one do you read?” Pick up the book, sit down in the comfy armchair beside an old yellow dog who will wag his tail at you when you pat his head (red state dogs are nice too) and start to read. Let me bet you something – I’ll bet you they invite you to dinner. Maybe, after dinner they offer you ice cream or a piece of pie (you’ll have to save your hankering for a joint till later). Say yes! Accept the invitation as an opportunity to talk with them about their book: about their family and their country and their faith – about their lives. Maybe you’ll even make a red state friend!