Stairways circle back to where you’ve been

Stairways circle back to where you’ve been July 8, 2021

This Hedgehog Review essay by Philip S. Gorski — “The Long, Withdrawing Roar: From Culture Wars to Culture Clashes” — is academic, weedy, and dense (in a good way). It’s a conservative screed against the cartoonish nightmare of contemporary “conservatism” as embodied by the 21st-century Republican Party, the smirking bad faith of Fox News, and the freak show of Franklin-replacing-Billy white evangelicalism.

Gorski borrows from French sociologist Pierre Bourdeau in an attempt to make sense of this state of affairs, but his essay isn’t really about analysis or diagnosis as much as it is about lamentation. As such, it’s less concerned with prescribing solutions than it is with just sizing up the massive scope of the problem.

That’s good, because Gorski’s piece is a fine bit of lamentation that does a capable job of outlining the immensity of the problem. But his proposed solutions are underwhelming and unhelpful.

See for example his conclusion:

There are no easy remedies for these multifarious ills, only hard ones. Religious leaders need to retreat from politics and re-establish their authority over the religious field. They should focus on building the Kingdom instead of “changing the culture” — because “the culture” has already colonized their kingdom. Political leaders need to retreat from culture wars and focus on the common good. They should spend more time on governance and less on grievance. And members of the metropolitan meritocracy should own up to the role they and their elite institutions and attitudes have played in creating the very ills they bemoan. They should spend more time on real community building and less on scolding the insufficiently “woke.”

No easy remedies, to be sure.

I suspect Gorski is at least somewhat aware of the ways his “remedies” amount to contradictions. Everything he’s written preceding that paragraph shows that he’s aware of the impossibility of delineating a stark distinction between “politics” and “the religious field.” And the next sentence, advocating a “focus on building the Kingdom instead of ‘changing the culture'” ends with the recognition that “‘the culture’ has already colonized their kingdom” and their understanding of “the Kingdom.”

This remedy, then, is a snake swallowing its tail. People whose understanding of “the religious field” or “the Kingdom,” the gospel, the church, etc., has been wholly colonized by culture and politics are asked to retreat to some imagined pure version of religion/Kingdom/gospel/church that — by definition — is wholly unavailable to them. To whatever extent such a theoretical abstraction as this purely “religious field” exists, their [our] utter inability to identify it is the problem we’re dealing with here.

The same self-refuting contradiction is at work in Gorski’s proposed “remedies” for “political leaders” and for “elite institutions.” He urges political leaders to “focus on the common good,” which is lovely advice in any situation other than the one he’s addressing here — a context in which our understanding of “the common good” is perpetually disputed because our understanding of who constitutes “our” and who does/does not belong to “our” commons is fiercely contested.

Ditto for Gorski’s exhortation to “spend more time on real community building and less on scolding the insufficiently ‘woke.'” There, I would guess, Gorski is less aware of the self-refuting irony of his advice due to his unwillingness to understand or allow any understanding of what he caricatures as “woke.” He is again proposing no solution other than “Stop having this problem.” He urges a higher priority on “real community building” as a solution to the problem of being unable to agree on what our “real community” is or ought to be or how to build it. And any attempt to address the actual matter of contention — who does and who does not belong to “our” community? — he dismisses as “wokeness.”

There’s another bitter irony there, harking back to his empty advice to “religious leaders” — people whom he identifies, correctly, as having been “colonized.” They are, he says, in a state where their perception and their capacity for perception of their true condition is diminished. Which is to say they are asleep. And so his advice to them is essentially that of Ephesians 5:14, “Wake up, sleeper! Rise from the dead.” Rub the sleep out of your eyes, get moving, and don’t lie back down lest you drift back into dreamland.

Or, in other words, Get woke and stay woke. That’s only useful advice if we allow ourselves to imagine what waking up might actually mean. Reflexively mocking wakefulness isn’t a positive step in that direction. It represents only a fumbling for the snooze button as it defies any change in perception that asks us to open our eyes and see more clearly.

If our predicament is what I’ve described above — a dispute over who “we” are and should be arising from our disagreement over who is and who is not to be included in “we” — then I think Gorski and I are essentially on the same side of that dispute. He and I agree that “we” does and ought to include more than just one subset of white male Protestants. I suspect he and I disagree, somewhat, over the implications of that, but we’re still on the same side of this dispute against those who are arguing — explicitly or implicitly — for a more homogenous, exclusive definition of “we” and “us.”

I don’t want to distract from the urgency of that larger dispute by picking on or picking at Gorski’s remedial “remedies.” What I’m trying to suggest, instead, is that a proper focus on the dispute itself as it actually confronts us will have the additional benefit of requiring us to imagine and to work for remedies that actually address that actual problem. Anything less than that is sleepwalking.


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