Can we re-learn the habits of polite disagreement, and address each other as rational beings, capable of forming real communities in which differences are respected and decencies honoured? I want to answer yes to those questions. But as someone who has suffered more than most from the prevailing madness I have my doubts.
My own solution — which is to ignore social media and to address, in my writings, only the interest in the true and the false, rather than in the permitted and the offensive — confines me within a circle that is considerably narrower than the Twittersphere. But here and there in this circle, there are people who do not merely see the point of truthful discourse, but who are also eager to engage with it. And I cling to the view that that is enough, as it was for the Irish monks who kept the lamp of learning alight during the Dark Ages. They may have thought they were losing, but they won in the end.
In my youth, I was much impressed with a book by Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. In a spirit of pessimistic despair, he likewise called for “new monastic individuals” to preserve culture through the dark ages of idiocracy. (In hindsight, I suppose this sounds a bit like Ayn Rand for people who prefer reading books to undertaking feats of heroic entrepreneurship.) Unfortunately, Berman’s spirit wasn’t steely enough to contain the acidic bile of his despair, which began spilling out in his subsequent writing to a near-comical degree, and now he’s just a buffoon, too cartoonishly bitter to even laugh at anymore. I still like the image, but Berman’s cautionary example shows us that a monk’s hood by itself won’t be enough to save us. We still have to love the world in all its grotesque folly.
Claire Berlinski reminds me that I belong to a small circle of my own, namely, those of us who voluntarily read for pleasure. “33% of high school graduates never read another book the rest of their lives and 42% of college grads never read another book after college. 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years and 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.” That’s grim, no doubt. I imagine that the circle of people who not only read for pleasure but make some sort of regular effort to write down their own thoughts for the sheer enjoyment of doing so is even smaller still. But I, too, cling to the view that it is enough. I don’t mean that blogs and personal essays will ever become popular again, or that most of us are doing anything of cultural significance in our little electronic gardens. But we can still pay tribute to all things good, true, and beautiful in our own humble ways. A few years ago, I responded to a friend who mentioned being anxious and depressed at the fate of Western civilization after paying too much attention to the news:
“Come on, now, buddy. It’s not as bad as all that. To paraphrase Epicurus, where the death of Western civilization is, we are not, and where we are, the death of Western civilization is not. So why worry? As long as there are even a few hundred of us to play the role of Irish monks or ancient Arabic scholars in keeping the old traditions and values alive, they will have their moment again. If the great things about the West could survive barbarians, plagues and wars galore, they can surely survive an auto-immune flare-up of ressentiment-filled intellectuals. If nothing else, once the baby boomers start to die off (no offense; present company excluded, of course), the malignant ’60s influence should start to fade. What are the odds, I mean, seriously, what are the odds that you and I, two schmucks who just happen to know each other, would be the only two people in this great land of ours who have stopped, done a double-take, and rethought some basic convictions in the last decade or so? You’ve got to keep in mind that media are like funhouse mirrors; they distort everything they reflect. We already know how slanted most journalist/literary types are, but their polar opposites are just as heavily invested in the culture wars as they are. If you consume too much of a media diet, you come away thinking that the whole world consists of ideological fanatics bringing on the apocalypse, and you forget that history almost never turns out according to predictions, because there are countless variables out there that never rise to the level of being newsworthy events, except in hindsight. Like, perhaps, a quiet revolution taking place in the minds of people like ourselves.
As long as there is a place for saner voices to be heard, there’s no reason to despair. And there are still plenty such places.”