A recent visit to my Southern, rural paternal roots could not help but nourish reflection related to recent discussions here. Raised a suburban Westerner, I fondly remember childhood visits to what was in effect very much a “front porch” village, where anyone swaying in a suspended swing-chair with his grandma on a warm summer evening could be expected to receive multiple visits from neighbors, most of whom would probably be some kind of relatives. Unsurprisingly, little of that particular custom survives now. While many front porches still exist, and the hospitality quotient is still surely far above what you would be likely to find in places that modernized earlier, TV and air conditioning have taken their irresistible toll, and today you’ll probably arrive in a car (rather than strolling the immediate neighborhood) and have to knock on a door and perhaps talk over a TV in order to pay your visit.

A loss, surely, but also a tradeoff. Maybe the world we have lost was better, but who has the strength to choose it over air conditioning and television? More to the point, who is this “who” who might be the subject of such a choice, who might have the power to make such a choice? You or I might have the capacity rationally to survey the costs and benefits of entire communities characterized either by front-porch swinging or air-conditioned TV watching, but not by both — but how is a whole community going to “choose” one or the other? Such choices are impossible, very nearly unthinkable, precisely because of the reign of individual “choice.” Why shouldn’t I have air-conditioning? My foregoing it won’t prevent others from retreating from their porches to their cool TV chambers. And so I it might seem I really have no choice concerning the basic character of my way of life. We cannot make any wholesale choices because we are free to make a thousand retail choices, or a million consumer responses, the systemic consequences of which are constantly escaping our control. Choice is the great enemy of choice; it is because we are free that nothing important seems to be within our grasp. Politics succumbs to the “market,” to the Spirit of Technology, and everything that seemed solid melts, evaporates.

The conservative sensibility that appeals to “culture” tends to distrust politics even more than the market, Choice even more than choice, and so risks being left with only an impotent aesthetic response to the juggernaut of Technology, this “great machine of pleasure and happiness” (Rousseau) we think we have created and that rules us. But if we are really impotent to oppose this machine, then, truly, all honor to aesthetics, which at least has the chance to open our souls to worlds we have lost and every day are losing, in fact actively rejecting, even we tasteful ones, with every consumer “choice” we go on making, since we really have no Choice. If we cannot really integrate older, larger possibilities into our practical lives and therefore our souls, if it is not really open to us actually to take responsibility for them and thus truly to know what they mean, we cannot be blamed for taking delight in imagining other worlds, science-fiction like. God knows we need some Other.

Or, do we really want to try to re-create a world with more front porches with people actually swinging on them with their neighbors? This of course would require a Grosspolitik that might tempt an eccentric Nietzschean Straussian but that I trust any self-respecting “cultural conservative” would find simply Gross. In fact such a Choice would require command of the whole world, wouldn’t it? — which might even disqualify my Nietzschean Straussian. Only a god can save us? That is, no one or nothing can save us.

No one, perhaps, but God. Returning to what is left of my rural, Southern roots, I find families living to a surprising degree (if you will allow the cliché) “in the world but not of it.” Living perilously so, I venture, but still so living. Life in a conservative-religious, modern technological family is driven almost as much as any by the million choices we never really choose. On the very large, flat-screen TV there is a dance-competition show featuring costumes and gestures that would have made respectable strippers blush not long ago. But look! That girl with the skirt split up to the waist and the vigorous pelvic thrusts is a member of my church, isn’t she pretty, isn’t she talented, I hope she wins! Thus morality has been severed from taste, the “laws of moral analogy abolished” (Tocqueville), and so morals left without any grounding in mores, without, one would think, any real, durable purchase on practical existence. But – cultural conservatives take note — the family watching this lurid exhibition – or allowing it to be seen, as they are mostly busy playing games or checking their Facebook on the various computers in the room – this family has already raised six chaste sons and daughters to become pious husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, raising their own “traditional” families. It is the grandchildren who are most interested in the dancing. This suggests a very depressing possibility: maybe the exhaustion of decent mores that my children’s generation of traditional religious believers has more or less survived will have its full, debilitating, bewildering, morally devastating effect on my grandchildren’s.

Of course we should just turn off the television, if not the air conditioner. I recommend it (more than I do it), and my children, on behalf of their children, seem in fact to be doing it. I also recommend reading Wendell Berry’s novels, I really do, and I really, profoundly long for a day in which we would not need great literature to be reminded of even minimal standards of taste and decency. But I do not see us taking command of the billions of “cultural” and consumer choices that expose us to schlock and even to degradation. I think there are bad things about mass-manufactured globally transported foods, and I stand ready to support any practical projects for not subsidizing such massification. But I agree with my daughter-in-law’s priorities. She has no compunction about shopping at Walmart, but she and my son have excluded TV from their home, though they will watch the big game with me on my TV. Mostly she fears entrusting her children to a public education system increasingly governed by the liberationist idols of the age, if only in the apparently anodyne form, for now, of a mild ideology of “tolerance” for diverse sexual lifestyles. And she fears an impending legal regime that would elevate perversion to official respectability and effectively marginalize those who choose the hard sacrifices of traditional parenthood. (Fifty years ago, in my Southern village, a “fairy” was mildly, even affectionately mocked and marginalized, yet at the same time truly “tolerated” and allowed to go on with his life at the margins. Exceptions were known to be exceptions; no one imagined they could rule.)

And so, while the massification and perversion of the “culture” inspire in me a religious and ontological horror, I find some hope in the fact that religious families seem to be able to keep their bearings, to create moral islands just above the floodwaters. In some ways these religious-familial islands may be more deeply and authentically religious than would have been possible for any but the strongest and most literate souls in a strong front-porch community where taste and piety were mutually reinforcing (hat-tip to Mr. Lawler’s existentialism). It is these ordinary, culturally undistinguished, Walmart-shopping families on their moral and religious islands (where they may or may not watching sexy dancing on TV) may now have the best sense of what Choice is still available to us. They care most about assaults on God and sexual morality. And are they wrong to see this axis as defining the front lines? As far as I can tell, the best job definition now for us learned and cultivated ones might be to help to define and crystallize this Choice as early as possible, before it is too late. So I propose an alliance between high-cultural conservatives, traditionalists, even non-Nietzschean Straussians or post-Straussians, and vulgar religious conservatives, on whatever ground appeals to the last group. They’re the ones in the trenches, and they may see the enemy as clearly as anyone. Culture needs God and Politics. If we can be saved, only God can save us, and, as has been said, (one more cliché, sorry) God helps those who help themselves.

Articles by Ralph Hancock


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