Monday, August 8, 2016

A Nation on Autopilot

1776 is one of my favorite Broadway musicals. Sure: The music is sparse and, with a few notable exceptions ("Mamma, Look Sharp" and "Molasses to Rum"), nothing to write home about. But the book? The book is an absolute masterpiece. Not only does it brilliantly inject legitimate dramatic tension into historical events whose outcome has already been decided, but its dialogue is an absolute pleasure to absorb. Of all the musicals I've ever seen, only Hamilton has managed to match 1776 when it comes to richness and depth of language. (And they both tackle roughly the same time period. Odd, that.)

To Kill a Mockingbird, meanwhile, is, for me, the most valuable and precious book I was ever forced to read in high school. As I wrote a few years ago:
My ninth grade honors English class was scheduled to read and analyze this novel a few chapters at a time over the course of several weeks — but I plowed through it in a matter of days. At the time, I strongly identified with Scout; even now, I think she is one of American literature’s finest portrayals of an Odd making her way through childhood. I also appreciated – and continue to appreciate – the classically liberal, Christian values that animate the story. Most people remember Atticus’ honorable choice to defend a black man in a criminal case even though, in the 1930’s segregated South, he was sure to lose because that’s what the Hollywood adaptation focuses on — but beyond that, the novel is about the dignity of the individual and the importance of recognizing the intrinsic humanity of all of our neighbors even if they are different, behave in unpleasant ways, or hold to false views. Tom Robinson’s plight is only one part of the story.
What these two works have in common - besides the fact that they were both written/produced half a century ago - is a certain ethos. It's an ethos that shines through when, for example, Atticus encourages Scout not to judge others until she's been in their shoes. It's an ethos that shines through when, for example, John Adams leads the Congress in giving John Dickinson his due respect before the latter departs the stage in the wake of the vote in favor of independence. It's also an ethos that our current cultural zeitgeist seems determined to destroy completely.

On Saturday, in a reflection touched off by Lloyd Biggle Jr.'s All the Colors of Darkness, Sarah Hoyt lamented the impact our (deliberately inflicted) cultural malaise has had on our understanding of language and history. I would like to amplify that theme by discussing the resultant degradation of our political and social discourse. Once upon a time - as 1776 and To Kill a Mockingbird both reveal - it was possible for many (though not all) writers to behold people who fall on the wrong side of a moral divide and still summon up empathy for them as human beings. But now that Cultural Marxism's control over our education system, our arts, and our entertainment is nearly total, contemplating the flawed nature we share with, say, slave-holders and common racists is verboten. Leftists wish us to react like Pavlovian dogs: A programmed stimulus requires a programmed response -- and damn the context or a target's intentions.

Just the other day, I got to chatting with a couple of my students - whose parents are Cambodian immigrants - about the differences between the Washington DC metropolitan area and the more rural areas of Virginia and West Virginia. The students shared with me that they felt scared driving through the back country because of the number of Confederate flags on display. Boom. As I said, a programmed stimulus requires a programmed response. Now I'm a Yankee transplant, but I have friends who are native Southerners - including one who's a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy - so I know the Confederate flag does not signify support for slavery and racism for every Southerner who flies it. For many, it's a matter of family and regional loyalty. They fly it because their 19th century ancestors fought for the Confederacy to defend their homes -- like Sarah Hoyt's ancestors, who fought for the side backing absolute monarchy in Portugal's civil war for pretty much the same reason. People fall into groups or armies backing objectively bad causes for messy and complex reasons that may have nothing to do with the cause itself. But are our leftist educators teaching this to our kids? Of course not! That messes up the Narrative.

Unfortunately, the left's aggressive training - which shames folks for everything from innocent curiosity (asking where someone is from is now a "microaggression") to humor (comedians have started avoiding college campuses because of those who throw tantrums over racial and gendered jokes -- even if they're obviously meant to highlight how stupid bigotry is) to dressing up as nursery rhyme characters (like the girls who dressed up as the Three Blind Mice and were told they were mocking the disabled) to mere accidents of birth (white cis-males are all evil, you guys!) - has spawned a set of defensive counter-memes that, in my observation, often locks conservatives into equally rigid patterns of argument. And just in case you're wondering, I'm not leaving myself out of this analysis. I know I'm as guilty as everyone else. When certain terms - like "social justice" or "privilege" - are used in conversation, I can feel my hackles go up almost automatically, and I don't always resist falling back on comfortable algorithms instead of using the brain God gave me.

The upshot of all of this? Our intellectual vitality has been attenuated. In other words, we are no longer thinking as a people. Not really. And the reason we're not bothering with that sort of grueling work is that we're no longer united by a common patrimony and therefore have no common frame of reference in which to communicate effectively. Looking back on books and plays written before this hidden apocalypse only underlines the tragedy of our loss.

And now a quick administrative note: For the next two weeks, I will be on the road. I still plan to post photo albums documenting my travels, but if I miss a post or two, I apologize in advance.

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