Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“But why do you have to be so polemical?”

It’s a not unfamiliar complaint (see, for example, this month’s correspondence), and one that I—and the other editors of First Things—take seriously, any possible appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. We live, by choice and vocation, at the intellectual barricades, and we are fully aware of the dangers and temptations attendant there.

The greatest danger, it seems to me, is ideological captivity, hardening of the intellectual categories. Not that ideology can or should be avoided. Those who engage in regular and systematic reflection on political/cultural issues will, unless they are utterly mindless, come to some set of interrelated conclusions—however tentatively held—as to how the world does and should work. They will, that is, form what most of us would call an ideology. As George Will puts it, “Political ideas cluster and people cluster politically.” Those regularly involved with ideas who regard themselves as without ideology, without some general pattern(s) of analysis out of which they make sense of experience, need either to think more deeply or—more likely—to stop fooling themselves. (Most of those who consider themselves above ideology are, in my experience, liberals who for one reason or another are reluctant to announce that fact to themselves.)

The trick, of course, is to keep ideology one’s servant, not one’s master. Our necessary frameworks of understanding must be kept flexible and self-critical, open to experience, uncertainty, and surprise. Ideology interprets experience—life does not present itself to us simply as one damn thing after another—but ideology must always be subject to revision on the basis of experience.

In any case, it is from ideology that polemics flow. First Things is a journal of opinion, and its editors are necessarily engaged in the perennial conflicts of ideas that mark a democratic society’s deliberations as to how we shall order our life together. That is not everyone’s vocation, and it is not the highest vocation, but it is inescapably ours. It would be disingenuous of us to pretend to an attitude of disinterestedness and neutrality in the culture wars that rage about us. (I take it as self-evident that no one who pays attention to these matters would deny that such a conflict is in fact under way.) And it’s hard to imagine that a journal of opinion that had no opinions would be of use or interest to anyone. Blandness in the pursuit of truth is no virtue.

Ideally, of course, conflicts of ideas should be carried on with civility and decorum, with assumptions between the combatants of mutual respect and good faith. Moreover, those engaged in such conflicts do well to cultivate habits of irony and intellectual humility. I have always thought that Oliver Cromwell’s plea to certain of his opponents—“I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, consider that ye may be wrong”—ought to be directed as much towards oneself as toward one’s opponents. The polemical instinct natural to politically engaged intellectuals needs to be tempered by regular reminders of provisionality and fallibility. Such cautions in fact come naturally to those of us who came of intellectual age in the middle-to-late 1950s—that brief, golden era of consensus, with its prevailing moods of irony, ambiguity, and paradox. Those formed in that age will forever recall it as an idyll of civility and sobriety—however exceptional, however irrecoverable—against which the furies of our contemporary Kulturkampf cannot stand comparison.

But, however regretfully, it is indeed a culture war in which my colleagues and I find ourselves engaged, and it is worth emphasizing that this is a conflict not of our making. In his book The Neoconservatives (1979), Peter Steinfels described those on our side of the barricades as “counterintellectuals,” people who move in the intellectual world but who do not share that world’s dominant sense of alienation and estrangement from the ideas, values, and institutions of the middle-American majority. We are the adversaries of the adversary order, counterintellectuals against the counterculture. (Steinfels placed us in a tradition extending from Burke to de Tocqueville to Weber to such modern exemplars as Raymond Aron and George Orwell. Not bad company, that.) Since the insurgency of the New Left and the New Politics in the 1960s, the values of the adversary culture have, in various guises, prevailed among the nation’s intellectual elites, and ours is a counterrevolution against that gauchiste hegemony.

This is no rarefied battle of the books, no mere esoteric disagreement among obscure scribblers. Ideas, as they say, have consequences, and it is our entirely sober judgment that in this war of ideas the fate of the American experiment in ordered liberty is itself at stake. We make no claim concerning the motives of our radical adversaries, but we do not hesitate to insist that their ideas range from the merely silly to the deeply pernicious. We take no particular pleasure in engaging the militant feminists and homosexual activists, the Nietzschean deconstructionists and relativists, the enemies of traditional morality and religious faith; indeed, the ongoing conflict with our various utopians and Gnostics is dirty business from which no one emerges with entirely clean hands or uncoarsened sensibilities. But we persist in the struggle because we think it is our simple duty to do so, and we frankly do not take it well that so many of our fellow intellectuals—who if they cannot join us in the struggle could at least offer moral support—prefer instead to strike ostentatiously Olympian poses above the fray and to chide us for our combative ways.

But we remind ourselves that self-pity is to be avoided, and we soldier on, armed (we hope) against self-righteousness by the knowledge that the God of history sits in judgment over all the combatants in the wars of the earthly city, siding unambiguously with none, offering his grace to all. Precisely because we know, with the writer to the Hebrews, that we have here no abiding city, we are from time to time tempted to retire from the fray, to set our minds on higher and better things. But the evils of this world, so far as it is given us to discern them, are to be resisted, not merely endured. And there is, we pray, a measure of honor and dignity even in our grim vocation. So restraining our naturally irenic impulses, we return to the struggle with all the courage, wisdom, and ingenuity we can muster. It is, to repeat, a matter of duty.

And that is why—at least on occasion—we have to be so polemical.