Matthew, thanks for your thoughtful critique of my defense of George Bailey . Here’s what I would say:
1) This goose is happy to meet the gander : You ask, “why the implicit confidence that this process, which ‘liberated’ the nuclear family from a number of wider ties, should (or can) cease its sledgehammering with this accomplishment?” I didn’t think such a confidence was implicit in anything I wrote, but if it was, I’m glad to take this opportunity to repudiate it. As I wrote in my piece, all ways of life become dysfunctional over time. The suburban way of life celebrated in It’s a Wonderful Life seemed morally ordered and liberating to Capra, and to millions of mid-century Americans. If it no longer seems so today—-if it has become merely a cynical shell of its former self, and the George Baileys of the 1940s have grown over time into a new cadre of Mr. Potters—-then my hope and expectation is that a new generation of George Baileys will arise to smash it to bits. One thing I’m confident of: There will be no return to Bedford Falls as it was. That social world, like all social worlds, was the product of historically specific forces that cannot be restored.
Cultural vitality is a matter of infusing eternal truths into constantly changing ways of life ; Deneen’s mistake was to identify the (necessarily temporary) way of life with the (permanent) moral truths. Why, just today in On the Square, Steven Greydanus implicitly makes this very point: “Indeed, the one clear effect of Georges actions on downtown Bedford Falls is to prevent it from becoming Pottersville . To that extent, clearly George has not ‘destroyed’ Bedford Falls, but saved it.”
You see? He had to destroy Bedford Falls in order to save it . That’s no joke—-it’s the central point. It’s the same in all times and places: The entrepreneur destroys the old forms in order to rescue and renew the eternal truths they once embodied but no longer do.
2) Yes, I am Protestant—-guilty as charged : You ask: “Why shouldnt the same people who brought us better living through detached houses and car-centric living next turn their attention to ‘improving’ the natural process of reproduction, offering us a pill that allows us to sever sex from reproduction?” As it happens, I do not share the view that birth control is immoral. Since you offer no argument against it here, I have nothing to respond to, other than to say I don’t share your view. (I doubt that there’s much to be gained from rehearsing that argument here anyway: As a Catholic friend of mine once said when we were debating the issues that divide us: “You know all the cards in my hand and I know all the cards in your hand.”)
“Or from re-engineering what the (eventual) children do in their free time, producing an array of electronic distractions?” I use those electronic distractions myself every day, as does my daughter. I think they’re a wonderful contribution to the sum of human well-being, and our lives would be poorer without them. I limit my daughter to one hour of electronics a day, and that seems to work just fine. (Admittedly I use them a little more myself.) Not everyone uses them properly of course—-but perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “the abuse does not abolish the use?” If memory serves, I believe I first encountered it in Thomas Aquinas.
“Or from fabricating and selling any other kinds of products or modes of living that ultimately undermine the community, peoples faith, the natural world, or the bonds of the family?” This is begging the question: That the advance of technology and economic development undermine the community, etc. etc., is precisely what your side of the debate is supposed to be proving. Since you merely assume it’s true without proving it, I again have no response to make but that I don’t share your view.
It seems to me that the real question here is simple: if human beings become more able to shape their own lives rather than having a tiny coterie of elites shape their lives for them, will they destroy themselves? I say no, for the reasons I laid out in my piece, and for other reasons (including theological ones). If you say yes, I’m ready to hear your case as soon as you’re ready to make one.
3) Both sides of the ledger : You complain that my portrayal of premodern life is exclusively negative and my portrayal of modern life exclusively positive. This is merely a side effect of the fact that my piece was responding to Deneen’s piece, which was ridiculously lopsided in the other direction. I was trying to put the other side of the ledger on the table, and argue for why I think the case for modernity ultimately outweighs the case against it; it was never my intention to deny that there are two sides to the ledger.
This question of yours particularly intrigued me: “Do we really attain ‘an increased level of autonomy from the grasp of controlling social elites,’ or does this upending in itself necessitate the creation of new, perhaps more subtle or impersonal, hierarchies, justified in the name of things like ‘merit’ or ‘rational planning’ or ‘health’?” As far as I can see, the people who are advocating new hierarchies of control and power are not doing so in the name of economic advancement. On the contrary, their argument is always that economic development is causing us to lose our moral bearings, and we need these new power structures to restore “fairness” or other moral categories. In other words, the argument that I consistently hear being used to justify the new hierarchies is the very argument you are making. And I think that’s no coincidence, for the reasons I mentioned in my piece.
Where do you see greater power for controlling social elites advanced in the name of economic development? Cuba, perhaps? Or what is it about economic development that you think invites these new, invisible hierarchies that you’re asking me to believe in?
4) Are you groveling? I know I’m not. You ask, “And what makes Forster so confident that, in global capitalism (for which he interestingly feels compelled to put in a good word even while purporting to offer a defense of the humble shopkeeper) we arent simply groveling at the feet of other, more distant Mr. Potters, ones whom we cant even challenge effectively as George Bailey and his friends did?”
The word “groveling” is strong stuff. I used it because we do see people in the movie groveling before Mr. Potter. Now, I cannot speak for you, but I know that I, for one, am not groveling to anyone when I purchase products at Target instead of an overpriced Main Street shop, or get my mortgage from a bank that is financed by the global capital market rather than by a local-monopoly bank like Mr. Potter’s, which will charge me higher rates for the same service, and empower Mr. Potter to control my life in the bargain. But from what you write, it appears to me that you do think you are “groveling” when you participate in the modern economy. Why?
I also don’t know what you’re referring to when you say that I “offer a defense of the humble shopkeeper.” I wasn’t aware that I had. Humility I will gladly defend to the death, but why should the shopkeeper be privileged over the millions of people whose lives have to be impoverished to keep him in business at the expense of Target? Does he own me?
5) Yes, I am Protestant, Part II . You write: “Theres a much longer debate to be had here, but I just find Forsters basic premise—-feting the ‘creative destruction’ of a long-standing way of life—-rather astonishingly wide-eyed for someone who at the same time professes to want to preserve tradition.”
In the classic article that originated the phrase “first things” as a reference to the fundamental commitments of society, C. S. Lewis observed that if you treat things that ought to be second in importance as though they were first in importance, you will not only lose the true first things, you will also lose the second things you were trying to elevate. Second things lose their proper functions if they are treated as first things:
The longer I looked into it the more I came to suspect that I was perceiving a universal law. On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas Causons . (One converses better when one does not say, “Let us converse.”) The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—-glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? . . .
If Esau really got the pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception.
Now, as a Protestant, I believe tradition is the classic example of a second thing—-important, but not the most important. It must yield to what is first, or it will cease to be what it is. Applying Lewis’s rule, then, I would expect that treating tradition as though it were a first thing would cause it to decay and lose its beneficial powers. And, lo and behold, that is what I find. Traditions thrive when they actually do make our lives better; if we try to prop them up by force even though they’re not really contributing to our well-being, they become excuses for the Mr. Potters of the world to hide behind and justify their exploitation. The only way to save tradition is to remember that it is a second thing.
6) What is truly permanent? You write: “I fail to see how a culture that cheerfully turns on its guiding institutions and structures as soon as they begin to seem ‘corrupt’ or ‘outmoded’ with the quick aside that, anyway, ‘permanence in human affairs is always a pretense,’ can long accord anything respect, reverence, or awe.”
Are you saying reverence, respect, and awe are reserved for permanent things? Be careful what you wish for. Our Lord teaches explicitly that marriage is not permanent . Two of the three central commitments of First Things are not permanent: the justice of this world’s politics is not permanent, nor is “culture,” for all these petty princedoms and republics of ours will be swept away when the true kingdom is fulfilled. The work we do in our jobs is not permanent. And, of course, the vision of Bedford Falls’ future without George reminds us that our neighborhoods and communities (Bedford Falls as it was) can’t be permanent, either.
In the twentieth century, too many people in my own faith community—-American Evangelicals—-made the mistake of thinking that nothing in the present world really matters much, because it will all be burned up when the Lord comes. That’s questionable eschatology (the fire at the end may be a “refining” fire rather than an annihilating one) but even with that issue aside, just look at the devastating effect this mindset had on us. Our marriages are no stronger than those of the Gentiles. We produce very little cultural output that has any special economic, aesthetic, or intellectual distinction. We spent much of the last century on the political and cultural sidelines. Justin Martyr argued that Christians should be tolerated because they are such good citizens, they deliver so much good to civilization, that Rome was clearly better off with them even if you think their religion is untrue. I think American Catholics can say the same thing today. Can we?
Penultimate and impermanent things are worthy of our reverence, respect and awe. If we forget that, we lose everything cultural, because everything cultural is penultimate and impermanent.