It began when a mostly intelligent, cheeky, and sometimes rabble-rousing group of students I befriended at Wabash College found themselves short on fresh ingredients. Their publication, The Wabash Commentary, was born from the conservative side of the culture wars, the attempted counter-reformation to the 60’s and 70’s. Of course, at Wabash, an all-male liberal arts college founded in 1832, things were running a decade and a half behind — and I consider this proclivity towards the unfashionable to be one of their greatest strengths.
As an early millennial, I was a senior-ranking generation member to these younger millennials born in the late 80’s and early 90’s. On this particular occasion, after our ritual lunch of bad sushi, I stood in line to pay my bill as the editor told me about his latest and greatest idea for an article. It was one of those “what is wrong with our generation, with kids these days?” That sort of thing.
My reply surprised even me. It seemed too harsh. A year would pass before I’d believe in what I said that day. Even more time has passed before I’ve finally begun to understand and digest it and let it affect me.
I’ve grown to appreciate the practical virtue of patience. The art of being patient. Work takes patience. Time. The painstaking beauty dwelling in the deliberation of a creative process. Creativity isn’t always slow. It can strike right away. Sometimes an essay — or even a book — just falls out, uninvited. Pushy and won’t let you sleep or play with your kids.
I wrote my dissertation in less than six months. A total surprise. (I’ve spend the past three years and counting editing it into a book.) A melody will just escape from my fingers without the slightest notice or effort. Improvisation. Poetry starts leaking, so I place a bucket under it and try to catch some stanzas before it goes dry again. Pure folly. These fleeting moments of creativity are not so much rare as they are partial. Only one small part of the process.
I used to think these random moments were all there was to doing my work. Writing, music, teaching. I used to wait around or stall until it showed up. Waiting to catch the Holy Ghost. Or try and force it. But there’s a lot of life in the stuff that doesn’t come right away. There are things worth waiting for. And, many times, as hard as it is to admit, the instantaneous art fades just as quickly as it arrived. Plus, the quick stuff almost always needs the slow attention of editing and practicing and so on. Inspiration is one thing, elegance and taste, oftentimes, are not the same thing.
I’m not a patient person. At least that’s the persona I’ve allowed myself to be most closely associated with.
I once made a distinction in a class where I was invited to give a lecture on the philosophical significance of the life of Malcolm X. Action vs. reaction. I was trying to describe the difference between an activist and a reactionary.
Activism, real activism, takes work and study. Creativity. Homework. Martin Luther King Jr. read more than a few books. Malcolm X, too. And Lincoln. Far too many of today’s so-called “activists” are really just reactionaries. If they do read books, they don’t read any good ones. Maybe most are just clowns, the lowest breed of reactionary: the reactionary who sells cheap reactions.
This distinction is kin to another one. Philosophy vs. philosophers. There is a difference between the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history. The former is primarily about philosophers, their work and ideas. The latter is about philosophy: the work of having an idea, a personal one. Primary literature is philosophy. Secondary literature is philosophery, or something like that. You know what I mean.
It is easy (and often profitable) to be a reactionary. Find just about anything, or nothing at all, and make a fuss. Then come the reactions to the reactions. There are better and worse reactions, but they are still secondary at best. Activism requires more than a reaction. It takes creativity. Something originary and inventive. Many have confused activists with reactionaries and vice-versa, but there is a big, palpable difference between the two.
Cultural warfare is familiar and foreign to Catholics. I don’t think I need to spell that one out. In the United States, it is perhaps more familiar to us, especially for those of you reading blogs. You’re out here, looking for trouble. Me too. I suspect it’s more of an acquired taste than a native one, but then I recall Augustine’s City of God. So never mind.
We’ve been on many sides during the culture wars. Still are. Not easy to match the Church to a pre-fab ideology. Catholic Social Teaching was built for this stuff, right? At the very least it’s useful for culture warring. But there are no real sides in the Church. It’s not a good way of describing what is going on.
War is invoked, in this iteration, for its binaries more than its bellicosity. It divides things into mutually exclusive sides and that is its defining feature. Even a war on binaries does that. Thankfully, perhaps, most cultural warriors held our attention precisely because of their tendency to break the generic mold while saying things convenient to the side that championed and parroted them. The Church sometimes fills this role, too, I think.
There is another breed of iconoclast that was born to engage in cultural warfare, regardless of the side. I don’t count them among these cultural warriors. These ones don’t go out of style. They are sanctimonious, without the sanctimony. There is something authentic about them. Not reactionaries.
“The Culture Wars are over.” That’s what I said to my student and friend a year and a half ago. I recalled this on Christmas. I was incensed, yet again, over a bad book introduced to me on Christmas Eve. A book I found offensive and all wrong. I typed out a scathing, detailed, devastating, line-by-line rebuttal in my mind, on my pillow. On Christmas I was tired from staying up reading and losing sleep blowing up the author in my head. But I was also tired, heavy-hearted, from constantly becoming a self-defeating part of the problems I critique. Tired of this senseless cultural war I’ve been fighting in all my life.
I still believe in deconstructing things. But there’s more. Sneakier. More compelling. Better taste. Simplicity. Less apologetics and how-to books and blog posts about how we need less apologetics and how-to books. More stories and memories. Slower. A little bit weird. Rigor. Not boring but unafraid of tedium, detail, and hard work. Openness to surprise. Religious without forcing it.
One of the first things the New Evangelization needs to do is remove the expression “New Evangelization” from its vocabulary. All easy and quick routes and words and convenient audiences and echo chambers can be toxic to the good news that lives inside the Gospel.
Some people work very hard to convey lesser realities. We ought to be willing to work just as hard. The culture wars have become easy, fatigued and worn, belonging to a recent past that has mostly abandoned us to their old devices. Disenchanted, we long for and must begin the work of working again. The labor of love.