For the past two years, I’ve had a passionate love-hate relationship with First Things. When the Best Spiritual Writing: 2010 anthology came out, I counted no fewer than three First Things imports — one by Amanda Shaw, another by Joseph Bottum, and a third by the man himself, FT founder Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Possibly there were more.
The essays were splendid, but they are not exceptional. First Things is one of very few publications that’s unapologetically highbrow. The typical contributor boasts a freight train of postnominals. Very rarely does anyone refer to pop culture except to say how much he despises it. The screen is bare of graphics; the poetry rhymes. One writer bowled me over by using the word smackdown in the title of an article. I’m sure they made him drop $20 in the Billingsgate Jar.
Forty years ago, it would have gone over even better than it has, offering a middle ground for Catholic conservatives who found Buckley’s National Review too compromised, and L. Brent Bozell, Jr.’s Triumph too disconcertingly pure. But I, having come of age long after Alan Bloom declared the American mind closed, can take only so much. After about half an hour, the contrast between the values being plugged and the ones I actually live by grows too sharp to bear. Something’s got to give. One day, that thing could be me — many an FT article has driven me to the brink of throwing away all my shorts, t-shirts and sneakers, growing a mustache like Thomas Dewey’s, and starting a Meerschaum pipe collection. But since I’ve already had more conversion experiences than I can handle, I generally navigate away from FT to You Tube and crank up House of Pain until equilibrium returns.
(Let me add that if no FT writer has dubbed YouTube “a triumphal arch on a culture of instant gratification,” then the lot of them are being overpaid.)
It now appears I’m not the only one with mixed feelings. Today on Seedbed, some young muggins casts a spitball toward the FT editorial desk:
TO: PROF. BIGNOISE
FROM: FT STAFF
CC: MR. AMBITIOUS GRADSTUDENT
Dear Prof. Bignoise,
We have received a number of submissions from Mr. Gradstudent that, while well written and thoughtful, do not fit the parameters of the FT mission. (“Rediscovering Catholic Social Teaching,” “Ten Things More Important Than Opposing Gay Marriage,” “Secularism Is Not A Scary Tentacled Sea-Monster Under Your Bed,” “Why Iraq Is Not a Just War,” etc., etc. I need not go on.) In the future, please ensure that Mr. Gradstudent follows the template EXACTLY. I enclose it again below for reference.
1. I HAVE OBSERVED A THING THAT I DO NOT LIKE, AND WILL DESCRIBE
IT WITH SNEERING DERISION.
2. I WILL EXPRESS “CONSTERNATION” OR “CONCERN”.
3. I WILL PLUCK OUT A FEW WORDS OR OTHER DETAILS FROM (1),
4. AND THEN APPLY ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING:
4.1 SOMETHING ABOUT NATURAL LAW
4.2 SOMETHING FROM CITY OF GOD
He gets it wrong, I’m sorry to say. Following those guidelines would work equally well for a writer pitching to Crisis, or for that matter, America Magazine. What makes FT, FT is not its promotion of an orthodox religious worldview, but its serene certainty that the marriage between faith and society was consummated at some point in the past, and the union violated and forgotten since.
What modern innovation does an FT writer abhor the most? Wrong — the guillotine. Not because it destroyed a perfectly good social order, but because — according to Samuel Johnson — it’s the hangman’s noose that concentrates the mind, and kids these days can’t sit still without Ritalin.
Here are some titles of FT articles. Try to guess which are real, and which I made up just now:
In Praise of the Pillory
In Defense of the Dowry
The Thrill of the Quill
Is Rote Memorization due a Ralliement?
Why I Make the Cashier at Safeway Call Me “Memsahib”
The Stork: A Straussian Noble Lie
Okay, I admit it — I made them all up. Sheer impertinence. But they should give the reader a fair idea of what makes FT unique. A nod to the European side of America’s cultural heritage can only help the aspiring writer’s case; in fact, FT’s about the only right-of-center publication where one won’t get him labeled a screaming fairy. If you know any Stoic philosophers, quote ‘em, the rule goes. Be sure to drop the names Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke — drop ‘em like they’re hot
Last winter, I deposited the following essay in FT’s combox:
Huzzah for the Perruque!
My wiife and I enjoy rituals. Repetition of simple tasks, we’ve found, makes life as thrilling as a minuet. Each morning at seven-thirty, we begin breakfast by cracking the shells of our soft-boiled eggs. Every evening at eight, we polish the toby jugs. And, of course, every hour, at exactly three minutes and forty-five seconds past the hour, we count the tiles on the bathroom floors. But none of these compares in importance to the moment — at eight-fifteen every morning — reserved for the donning of the wig.
“Isn’t Himself forgetting something?” my wife will begin by asking archly as I push myself away from the table.
“Impossible!” I’ll cry, feigning indignation. Then, with a took of tender reproach, she’ll glide into the bedroom and return carrying an oval velvet-covered box. “I should not want you to go abroad bareheaded, like a common jackanapes,” she’ll scold gently, and with that, she’ll produce the wig — auburn ringlets with the lightest dusting of powder — and set it snugly on my head.
My wig has made me something of a celebrity at the office, where I’m know as the Roi-Soleil. (Some of the more waggish interns, I’m told, have shortened it to RoSo. They’re a regular League of Augsburg, let me tell you..) This suggests they know one of society’s dirtiest secrets, appreciate one of its least convenient truths: that the wig makes the man.
Silly, I know. The full version’s even sillier. But all the hot buttons are there: dignity, hierarchy, family, ritual, veneration of the past. Anyone who can play it straight has a decent shot of seeing his name on FT’s masthead.
Me? I’m playing it like England in the 30 Years’ War, and staying out of it.