“Hail Muse! et cetera.” – George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS
“Yeah them my dogs, them my boys.” – Jeffrey Lamar Williams, Not FRS
It is I, Herr Doktorand Chase William Jarid Michael Padusniak, son of Frank and Robyn, likewise grandson of Frances and Chester, Frank and Stephanie, etc.
And I was once a reader of Rod Dreher. More recently, I haven’t visited his page much, but today I returned to find a scathing review of a charitable review of Herr Journalist, Polemiker, etc.’s review of modern society. I stopped reading the gentleman from Louisiana (if I might show deference) about the time I entered graduate school. This is fitting, considering that, if his review and its comments are to be believed, his primary issue with Herr Doktor S. Rocha’s review is its academese, its high expectations for a book of journalistic polemic and general advice.
Perhaps, of course, I am merely a pedant, but this seems very odd to my Chaucer-addled brain. Why?
Why Rod Dreher is So Wise
Wisdom is famously the knowledge of one’s own ignorance, or so quoth the pedant Socrates. In this vein, we must count Mr. Dreher rather wise, for he admits that his book is not intended as an academic work of rigorous analysis. Rather, it is, we are told, polemic. Rare is it that the word “polemic” is used positively, but we shall proceed.
Twilight of Christendom, or How to Philosophize with a Bestseller
Unserer liebe Freund, Herr Dreher, makes it clear that he did not intend to write a commentary on MacIntyre. I defer to his judgment, of course, though it is somewhat odd that MacIntyre (an academic, may we pray for his soul) opined last week at Notre Dame that he grows concerned as more and more is made of a book seeking to philosophize with but a sentence from his magisterial After Virtue.
But fly, little book, fly; thy author is a man of pedantry, whose wisdom is un-wisdom, whose ideas must be made polemical.
“Hear me! For I am such and such a person. Above all, do not mistake me for someone else!” – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Not FRS
Why, then, polemicize?
Why Relativism is a Destiny
I suspect that the gentleman means “popularize.” And this, this is a noble function. We academics, perched as we are atop a limited living after a half a decade plus of training and hours that never end at the office, are bad at speaking to the populus. Yes, culled as we are from the Hispanic charismatics of Texas and the Trump-voting white factory towns of New Jersey, our voices cannot deign to touch the sullied ears of the masses. No, no—for us there is only the intellectual masturbation of the disputatio. Mea culpa, amici, denn mein Leben ist nur academic debate.
And this is true. In the face of a toxic culture we need people to bring the ideas to the people:
Titan! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.”
– George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS
But I ask (silence, academic brain—you question with no thought for the turba!): is there not danger in popularization? Popularization is most successful when it does as little as possible to malform or otherwise obscure the ideas of its predecessor. Is this not a common complaint? Those disciples of Derrida! Those epigones of Marx! Those apostles of Jesus Christ! Would that they were like their masters; would that they thought!Popularization is, in short, a necessary, but dangerous, business. The disciples never quite out-class the master, and, at times, do great damage to the intricacies and subtleties of the original. And the devil is, of course, in the details; those subtleties make all the difference. No one can tell the story of Europe in a few hundred pages, and no one can fault der gute Herr for not achieving such a task.
But what if this was not Sam’s gripe?
Why Rod Dreher Writes Such Excellent Books
I ask (humbly, deferentially, my PhD not yet in hand): what if Sam’s issue, as himself a man of color, a man from a poor background, and an orthodox Christian, is with the failure of Mr. Dreher’s popularization? What if all of his questions about MacIntyre, about “options,” and such were actually attempts to reckon with the problem of popularization? Perhaps, what he was asking was merely: “if this is to help us cope with the problems of the age, ought it not seriously treat the emergence of the aforesaid (ah! an academic!) problems?”
Granting this, it would seem the response to the response to the book misses the point. S.R. did not want an academic tome (many of those exist—and I am ashamed for reading them!); what he wanted was a book popular, yet adequate to the problems it faces. Something that, even if briefly, reckons with the fact that lots of research has been done on modernity and modernization since Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (and who would believe an academic like Weaver anyway?).
If one sets out to popularize, to polemicize, armed with big ideas made legible for a greater audience, one must, inevitably, cut material; one must simplify. Again (and I hate to invoke more philosophers!), this sounds a bit like Johannes Scotus Eriugena: shadow is matter. In other words, what is absent has a presence all its own. One must be very discerning.
Further, how can good solutions, practices, etc. be expected from simplified historiography? We treat issues based upon their causes; we try to stem them and transform them. Can we (dare I ask) so easily separate a self-professedly simplified historiography from the solutions offered?
What if, then, Sam, by beginning with a sort of glad preamble, was trying to show charity in criticism?
An Attempt at Self-Criticism
Herr Doktor Rocha knows he has come a long way, and such is admitted in the piece. There is something of fraternity and self-criticism in such admission.
Allow me, then, dear reader, to drop the artifice for a moment.
Mr. Dreher, we, as Sam said in his review, agree on very much. We all recognize problems in society, and, I imagine, work in our daily lives to fix them through righteous living. We all know ourselves to fail at times, to misspeak, to—dare I say—academicize. As common ground was affirmed, why did you not do the same?
“People who live in an age of corruption are witty and slanderous; they know that there are other kinds of murder than by dagger or assault; they also know that whatever is well said is believed.” – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Not (once more) FRS