A submission to F IRST T HINGS came across my desk recently. It was about the excesses of a women’s-studies department at a major American university, and I tried to read it. I really did. I mean, it’s my job to look carefully at all this stuff, but, somehow, I just couldn’t get through the essay, no matter how much I tried to force myself. Finally, I shuffled it to the bottom of the pile of mail, thinking I might come across it later as a surprise. (That was a trick I used to try back in the days when I graded freshman philosophy papers. It didn’t work then. It still doesn’t.)
The cause, I think, is that I’ve increasingly stopped caring what happens on mainstream American campuses. Whether it’s coming from the professors or the students, it’s all begun to seem so silly. My alma mater, Georgetown University, now has more members of its English department with specialties in film-making than it has members with active specialties in any recognizable field of literature. I want to care about this. I want to be outraged. But that would require that I believe there’s anything important about the intellectual life of America’s colleges, which has become increasingly hard to do.
Unfortunately, the pattern extends beyond academia. I’ve begun to skip over the obligatory articles in the New York Times about the oppression of homosexuals or women or racial minorities somewhere in America. I skip over the obligatory articles in the Washington Times about how a radical anti-American agenda is being sold in the name of oppression of homosexuals and women and racial minorities somewhere in America. I ignore everything in the Nation , and I ignore all the pieces in the conservative press that Midge Decter once said should be titled "The World Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket; Let Me Count the Ways." Mostly I look at the pictures, and I turn the pages.
Maybe I’ve just gotten too old to stoke the fires of outrage anymore. The cost of aging, Matthew Arnold once wrote, is not that we no longer feel, but that our emotions are things so much less intense than they used to be. We are condemned to "feel but half, and feebly, what we feel."
But repetition is also a cause of feeling’s decline. Who cares anymore about all that stuff? The culture wars are over, ended by terminal boringness. Oh, there are American campuses, here and there, about which it’s still worth having a fight. And there are degradations of the culture, here and there, that can’t be ignored. But for the most part, the complaint about how bad things are has no purchase left¯and ought, I think, to have no purchase left. No one is left to persuade, one way or the other, and the way things are now is pretty much what we’re going to be stuck with for a long time to come.
Unless, of course, we manage to start offering a better alternative. The culture wars were always only half the fight: the negative critique, as it were, rather than the positive program. Last winter, the Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards assembled some friends to help put together a list of "classic conservative books," and, listening to the discussion, I was struck by how many of the well-known conservative texts of the last fifty years are essentially negative¯jeremiads, grievances, and criticisms. From The Closing of the American Mind on, they are, at root, complaints and explanations about how things went wrong.
That suffices, if we imagine that a kind of natural good sense will force us, when informed about outrageous error, to correct things. But if the solution isn’t apparent, the outrage eventually settles down to a shrug. Or a grimace. Or a yawn.
Of course, the insistence that things be done better isn’t, in itself, a solution. When we’re done moaning about how bad novels are these days, for example, we might go on to say that good literature is the corrective for bad literature. But it ain’t much help to demand that somebody write a good novel. Still, the great conservative complaint of the last fifty years has, I think, finally run its course. Time to move on.
In addition to which :
Enough is enough. Trial lawyers, insurance companies, and activist organizations seem determined to put the Catholic Church out of business. First they come for the Catholics, and then they’ll come for anyone else who tries to maintain the freedom of religion outside the regulatory ambitions of the state. Read the troubling article by Archbishop Charles Chaput, “Suing the Church.” It’s among the lively articles in the May issue of F IRST T HINGS . Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to F IRST T HINGS ?