R. R. Reno’s “Election 2016” (November) succeeds as an analysis of the historical context gestating this cycle’s troubling election, that is, the unfolding collapse into illegitimacy of the post–World War II “regime” that anchored itself in dogmas of economic growth, American exceptionalism, and managerial expertise. But this success is marred by the moral and intellectual failure to confront the actual content of the Trump campaign.
To avoid this confrontation, Reno engages in rhetorical sleight of hand: casting Donald Trump’s campaign as rule-breaking “nationalism” seeking “patriotic reconsolidation” in the wake of the globalist managerial class’s crisis. Presto: Whatever the “dangers of idolatry,” Trump is now representative of “a renewed politics of strengthening.” Any charge that he represents “resurgent fascism” is just the latest volley in the hyperbolic culture wars.
There is only one problem with Reno’s construction of the Trump campaign: That campaign actually is fascist. Empirically. Even if we grant that fascist reference has been engulfed in culture war flame-throwing, that fascists have always been mercurial, eclectic, and idiosyncratic, the Trump campaign nonetheless meets the definitional “fascist minimum,” that is, what Roger Griffin called the “core myth” of the nation as besieged by disastrous crisis that only the strong leader can rectify in a way that rebirths the nation to greatness (“Make America great again”; “I alone can fix it”). We can next use a “checklist” approach to solidify the empirical case. Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric has been replete with images of racism, misogyny, populism, organic attachment to the nation, celebration of violence/torture, and the like. Perhaps most egregiously, Trump engages in the time-honored fascist use of conspiratorial thinking to call into question the legitimacy of democratic elections.
Alas, Reno made a compelling historical argument for why our time is indeed ripe for a resurgent (neo) fascism (a time somewhat analogous to the instability of the long crisis from Versailles to the Nazi conquest of Poland). But instead of following his own historical reasoning, he cut Trump a break and euphemized the Trumpian movement as nationalist and patriotic. I have been delighting in the writings of R. R. Reno for years. But after reading this latest travesty of moral judgment, this willful failure to understand an obvious fascist overthrow of a once proud conservative party, I considered canceling my subscription. Still, I decided to conclude two things. First, despite profound disagreement, reasonable people should do everything possible to remain engaged with each other. Second, David Duke no doubt has a better understanding of Trump than does R. R. Reno.
Rev. Dr. Gordon G. Scoville
R. R. Reno responds:
Perhaps I’m invincibly ignorant, but I was never able to comprehend claims that Trump and Trumpism are best understood as fascist. After World War I, fascism developed in Italy as a mass movement in politics that promised to overcome the failures of the liberal democratic regime with a revolutionary doctrine of nationalistic unity. The same was true in Germany, where the Weimar Republic stumbled from crisis to crisis in the aftermath of World War I. The political scene in both countries was characterized by chronic violence as Communist and right-wing forces clashed in street battles. In 1922, when he marched on Rome, Mussolini’s paramilitary organization, the “blackshirts,” was 200,000 strong. By 1932, before assuming political power, Hitler’s paramilitary backers, known as “brownshirts,” numbered 400,000.
Nothing like this was remotely true about American politics in 2016. Trump was a flawed, hyperbolic candidate able to rev up populist resentments. There were many reasons to criticize the vulgar, demotic, and often divisive tone he brought to his campaign, and there were still more reasons to vote against him. But fascist? Hardly.
Donald Trump did not undertake “an obvious fascist overthrow of a once proud conservative party.” Armed thugs did not storm the Republican National Convention. Quite the contrary was the case. At the outset of the Republican party primaries, Trump was a vanity candidate with no identifiable ideological profile and no organization. Yet he went on to win the nomination handily, much to the dismay of Republican leaders. His success exposed the ineffectual character of the establishment-funded and intellectually certified version of American conservatism on offer in 2016. We may dislike the fact that Republican primary voters are indocile to our preferred policies and talking points. But it’s more than a little petulant to insist that the last twelve months have exposed a latent fascism.
Rev. Gordon Scoville thinks my moral judgment so deeply flawed that I’ve made myself an apologist for fascism. This reinforces my intuition that the political verities of the postwar era are being called into question, leaving us disoriented, even frightened. Neither allows us to move forward. This is the time for a realistic assessment of what we’ve experienced.
Writers and Riots
I found John Johnson Jr.’s analysis (“Read Their Lips,” November) of what one may call a media-government complex a valuable tool in understanding the Trump phenomenon.
Trump’s candidacy, I realized, has a dynamic similar to a riot. Rioters, when railing against an injustice, tend to burn down their own neighborhoods, and not those of their oppressors. Similarly, Trump’s supporters, in calling for Hillary’s imprisonment and doubting the integrity of the vote, threaten the laws and customs that made our republic great in the first place. However, they have not addressed any of the extra-constitutional ways that elites have manipulated the political process.
Examples would include the Commission on Presidential Debates (which was created by and for the two major parties), closed primaries, and other means that the Republican and Democratic parties have used to keep the national conversation on their terms.
I hope that cooler heads can focus this sense of grievance many Americans feel into a more cogent, productive force. And having read this fine journal since 1999, I am sure that First Things would be part of any such movement.
Gerald J. Nora
I agree with John Johnson Jr. that the media played a large role in the rise of the Trump candidacy. However, self-introspection is rarely complete or accurate. While I also agree, for the most part, that journalists of yesteryear tried to practice objective, fact-based reportage, the media’s deviation from that path was not caused by Watergate and the growth of investigative journalism where “everything was fair game.”
I also disagree that journalists have taken on an “adversarial and disdainful attitude” toward everything. It is not the media’s disdainful attitude and probing skepticism toward everything that gave rise to the Trump candidacy. The media’s long-practiced liberal partisanship, their selective skepticism, and their laughable facade of neutrality gave rise to Trump. Oh, that journalists had maintained their professionalism and their skepticism and applied that skepticism fairly and honestly toward everything! If that were the case, we the people would not have to apply a cudgel, such as Donald Trump, to protect our Constitution and our liberties. Shame on journalists, their professors, and their mentors.
south windsor, connecticut
John Johnson Jr. responds:
My intention in writing the essay was to look at the role, unintended but real, that the political media played in the rise of Donald Trump. The media is not the only contributor, but I think modern campaign coverage helped create an atmosphere that could be exploited by Trump. Allegations that the media is liberal, a point made by John Gilsenan and legions of others, are not the point. Of course, the media is mostly liberal. Most reporters I knew got into this not-very-lucrative career because they wanted to make the world a better place, obeying the old saw about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Buy one of us a beer or two and we will happily admit that no one is strictly objective. But I never saw a reporter start out to write a story because the target was a conservative. Ask Hillary Clinton about the press and you will likely get much the same answer as from George W. Bush.
What I was trying to get at was the loss of a kind of modesty and introspection in pursuit of the next big story. Once one barrier has been crossed, it’s much easier to cross the next one. So Gary Hart’s indiscretions led to the pursuit of Bill Clinton’s private behavior, which led to front-page coverage of Melania Trump’s lifting a few stray sentences from Michelle Obama’s speech. To me, that is an embarrassment, an indication that some of us as journalists have lost perspective about what is important and what is froth. Decades ago, primary coverage was confined to the inside pages. Now, every wrinkle, every stray word, every handshake is pounced upon and fed into the meat grinder of the twenty-four-hour campaign industry. The candidates adapted to this environment to survive, issuing ever more banal and pre-masticated statements on the issues, until it became impossible to know what they believed. The entire national tenor of this campaign begs for a bit more modesty on all sides, less psychological analysis of everyone’s motives, and more reliance on what they do.
Do I expect that to happen? With social media barking at the heels of workaday journalists, who have seen their pay stall and their colleagues sent off into exile in the so-called real world, I am not sure. But I remain optimistic. As David McCullough notes in his marvelous biography of John Adams, factionalism in the early United States was so bitter that the second president signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which allowed the president to lock up people for criticizing his administration. Not even Trump has yet proposed anything like that.
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger’s article on assisted suicide laws (“Death Rights,” November) draws a parallel between assisted suicide and abortion in that “a significant percentage of people think it licit, and more think it should not be criminalized, while many others find it immoral.” As a prosecuting attorney for thirty years, I find another parallel between suicide and abortion. In my state and others, police are given statutory authority to take into custody persons attempting suicide, but no one is charged with the crime of “attempted suicide.” There is a recognition that criminal laws do not prevent suicide and that those intent on self-destruction need help, not punishment. While the parallel to abortion is imperfect, there is a similar anomaly: No one, not even the most ardent pro-lifers, suggests laws prosecuting mothers for killing their unborn babies.
We have gone too far down the road of giving women the legal right to abortion (based in large part on an almost universal sympathy for pregnant women who do not want to be pregnant) to easily turn back. Providing medical and financial assistance and moral support to pregnant women, especially the poor, so as to change hearts, is the best and only course now. Neither Planned Parenthood nor the government is forcing women to abort their children (as happens in some nations). It should be possible in this country to pass pro-child assistance laws on a bipartisan basis. Demonizing Planned Parenthood and pro-choice politicians has not worked to save babies.
oak ridge, tennessee
I was appalled after reading Msgr. Hans Feichtinger’s piece praising Germany’s assisted suicide law with faint damnation—and in First Things, no less. What a whimper of surrender to the culture of death, and from a cleric of the Catholic Church who has worked for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Feichtinger is relieved that Germany’s assisted suicide law, passed by its Parliament, doesn’t go as far as Canada’s new Supreme Court–imposed national right to euthanasia. Good grief, that’s like saying diphtheria isn’t as bad as smallpox! He should be utterly opposed to both, vowing to resist assisted suicide and euthanasia in his two countries by all legal means.
Germany’s approach “is better attuned to social realities,” Feichtinger shrugs. Members of Parliament were allowed a free vote, rather than being forced to act by judicial fiat, and so democracy was better served. Germany distinguishes between “commercial assistance” and “individual assistance” to remove “financial incentive that might encourage someone to commit suicide” so as to “forestall the slide from self-chosen suicide to mercy killing.”
These are false distinctions and a rather pathetic grasping at straws. Canada has a single-payer health care plan. The euthanized will be killed gratis. Moreover, euthanasia is usually “self-chosen”; it is just the doctor who takes the last act causing death instead of the patient. Indeed, there is no moral distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide: It is like the left leg following the right leg while walking.
While medical cost-cutting is a cogent concern in debating this issue, the real driving force behind the euthanasia movement is ideological. Jack Kevorkian assisted the suicides of some 130 people during the 1990s and didn’t accept a dime of payment. Assisted suicide is being normalized throughout the West—with people now attending suicide goodbye parties—without any commercial incentive required.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia deny the equal intrinsic dignity of those who die. Not only do they not receive the kind of suicide prevention that often saves the lives of healthy and able-bodied suicidal people, but when society sanctions their deaths by explicitly permitting their facilitation, it validates the suicidal person’s worst fears: that they are a burden, that experiencing disability or the dying process does make them less worthy of being loved, that their lives have lost all hope and meaning.
What is needed desperately in this time of moral crisis is not such grudging acceptance or hand-wringing dismay, but rather, a clarion call to continued vibrant resistance to assisted suicide, euthanasia, and the nihilism these symptoms of a sick society represent. If the people can’t look to a priest for that fortitude, to whom can they turn?
Wesley J. Smith
castro valley, california
Hans Feichtinger responds:
The fundamental problem of suicide legislation in Canada is that receiving assistance in ending one’s life is declared a right. As Jan Hicks rightly underlines, from both a legal and a moral perspective, this “right” is hard to reconcile with the right to life. Quite rightly, the Supreme Court of British Columbia recently stated in another context that “a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.” Moreover, declaring suicide assistance a right comes with highly problematic consequences for health care professionals and institutions: They will find themselves under pressure to offer this service even if it goes against their own ethical standards. This is already beginning.
The German law does not treat suicide assistance as a right, and thus a service that can be offered like any other; instead, the law refrains from prosecuting it under certain circumstances. There is an analogy between abortion and suicide assistance, as both are the taking of (innocent) lives; and in both cases, German law grants freedom from prosecution (under certain conditions) because both are tragedies, not rights. But I would be careful not to overextend the analogy. Abortion is the taking of another life, not your own or that of a person requesting suicide assistance. Protecting ultra-defenseless unborn children with the help of criminal law cannot simply be declared inappropriate.
We need to make distinctions between things that are actually different: on the one hand (Canada), a system that de facto forces doctors and nurses to formally cooperate in taking a life, where pressure is already mounting on Catholic institutions to provide the service of ending people’s lives, and where we all cooperate materially because the state is organizing and funding this service; and on the other hand (Germany), a system that funds and favors palliative care, forbids commercial services of suicide assistance, and explicitly recognizes the tragic nature of these situations, rather than introducing rights-talk. If you run, or work in, a Catholic hospital, you will quickly feel that difference. Distinctions, both moral and legal, are often between bad and less bad, even if they are based on those between good and evil. Denying or denigrating such distinctions is not helpful to people who work in these environments, or in the justice system and in government.
In our secular world, we are often unable to produce laws that offer moral guidance. That is the sad state of affairs. But throwing morally outraged and appalled stones (at pathetic me and First Things in general) from a Californian glass house, as does Wesley J. Smith, is not illuminating or helpful. Don’t shoot the messenger. We have not yet seen the full amount of pressure for euthanasia that the demographic winter will bring upon us as a society and individually, which will include the Church and her institutions. We have to work for laws that both protect and cherish life and protect our freedom from being forced into formal complicity with the culture of death. We have to defend others and help them make the right choices, but we also have to defend ourselves and the Church; otherwise, we cannot help anyone.
Smith accuses me of not having the necessary fortitude to continue fighting against a culture of death. I let him be the judge of that. I would rather be united in a common cause, even if we are using different instruments. In my experience, the culture of life will not come to us by the instantaneous sound of clarions at which supreme courts, parliaments, and governments will embrace the truth. This is not how a Christian society ever came to be. At this point in time, moreover, we should be careful of asking our parliaments to legislate the truth: they might just do that, but it will not be the Truth. Rather, it is a matter of building this culture brick by brick.
For the most part, Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s “Catholicism in an Age of Discontent” (November) displays his solidarity with “the Communio movement” in their common task of evangelizing a culture “characterized by liberal political disenchantment.” But why does he pit Henri de Lubac’s “inclusive triumphalism” against Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Christocentrism?
White recognizes that de Lubac’s Catholicism reacted against “an overly individualistic view of salvation.” But de Lubac also reacted against neoscholastic theories of “pure nature,” which he thought colluded with secularism by imagining nature as if it might be whole apart from Christ. In his unwillingness to affirm that “ontology is always already Christological,” White rightly acknowledges his divergence from Balthasar and Ratzinger—and, we may add, de Lubac.
The Christocentrism of each of these Communio founders is inclusive of human nature and reason. White’s concern that “Balthasar’s approach turns everything into theology” is unjustified. Balthasar’s Christology maintains that creation attains its own fullness, in distinction from God, precisely when it is united to God in Christ. Accordingly, he wrote entire works of philosophy ordered toward the fullness of Christian revelation. For him, the creation of the child in relation to its loving parents (or guardians) is the natural beginning of one’s movement toward the discovery of God. This is a philosophy that naturally opens toward the “Trinitarian monotheism” valorized by White. Balthasar, as much as de Lubac, reminds us of “the natural human capacity for the universal.”
In light of the continuity between de Lubac and Balthasar, we might add to White’s list another task for contemporary theology. White acknowledges the pressing issue of religious freedom: “How is it that Catholicism can claim to represent an absolute religious truth and at the same time defend religious freedom?” De Lubac and Balthasar teach that creaturely freedom cannot be defined in opposition to creation’s destiny in Christ. Catholicism can both represent absolute truth and defend religious freedom because, in fact, the truth of Christ liberates human nature in all of its dimensions. To be sure, philosophy should retain its integrity by tacitly approaching this theological view. And of course genuine faith requires personal consent. Theology therefore should never give the impression that distinctly Christian truth restricts human freedom. Rather, it should acknowledge that human freedom, in its deepest meaning, is the fulfilled desire to know and love the God of Jesus Christ.
jersey city, new jersey
I have a Ph.D. in knuckle-dragging, so take this as the ultimate layman’s attempt to understand a brilliant mind. In his essay “Catholicism in an Age of Discontent,” Fr. White argues that the apologetics of Vatican II are falling on deaf ears in today’s postmodern, techno-pragmatist, anti-rationalistic, individualistic, atomistic, secular-liberal world. Vatican II emphasized the universality of truth, but today that has devolved into the Church giving hugs to progressive programs that sort of, kind of line up with Christian “social teachings” (whatever those are).
In the meantime, the world has grown more hostile to universal claims about human nature. And with good cause! Surely your beer-guzzling, unsophisticated neighbor is argument enough against the claim that all men are capable of religion. Perhaps those Vatican II bishops were a little idealistic about man’s prospects.
Fr. White suggests that we defend universal truth claims, teach doctrinal truths to the faithful, and approach those living disoriented lives with spiritual charity. “When the Church not only preaches but also lives this truth, her universalism shines forth, and her enemies have nothing truly substantial to oppose her with, no matter how powerful they may seem.”
And he’s right. Millions of people were formed by the courageous thought of John Paul II and Benedict. Those same people, to a large extent, cheer when Pope Francis tells them to boldly live those truths.
But White is too optimistic about Catholicism’s coherence. Sure, lots of people are acting like nothing has happened, but most Catholics still don’t know what Vatican II is, besides “the thing where they told the priest to turn around and speak English.” Even Benedict couldn’t fix that, but somehow we’re going to teach them Henri de Lubac? Now Catholics that bought every book Ignatius Press had on offer are suddenly unsure.
Within the Church, the Mass is up for discussion, marriage is up for discussion, female deacons, parish structures, the papacy, etc. What do we teach anymore? Eco-politics and . . . poor people, or something? What is this truth that I’m supposed to live? Did we American Catholics create a religion based on John Paul II and Benedict that quickly died, and we’re all pretending like the New Evangelization is still a thing? I miss the days of reading Hans Urs von Balthasar and smiling about the bright future of us young, orthodox Catholics, but now I’m beginning to think the “world” is far less disoriented than we.
greenville, north carolina
Thomas Joseph White responds:
John Laracy wishes to emphasize the continuity that exists between Henri de Lubac’s thought and that of Hans Urs von Balthasar. His reading is typical of that of a member of the Communio movement and is one that both de Lubac and Balthasar would probably accept. However, the work of de Lubac has been received outside of the Communio movement in ways that contrast with Balthasar’s reception, beginning with Karl Rahner’s especially influential interpretation of de Lubac on the question of pure nature. Rahner followed de Lubac in claiming that human beings are “always already” oriented toward the life of grace in their ordinary life. He also perceived this hidden work of grace present at the heart of ordinary secular culture, including its politically progressive movements.
Neither de Lubac nor Rahner accurately understood the use of the concept of “pure nature” as it was typically employed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, at least by Dominicans of that time period. Scholastic theologians typically used the term to make precisely the point these two thinkers wanted to underscore, that human nature never exists except within a state of grace or a state of sinfulness. Rahner, following de Lubac, seems to conflate this entirely valid point with the problematic claim that the essence of what is human is inaccessible to us apart from theological revelation given in Christ. The sixteenth-century scholastics would never have made this kind of confusion.
This leads to two problems. First, one is tempted to say that due to the effects of grace and the Fall, we have no independent philosophical access to a proper knowledge of what human beings are apart from revelation (a claim Rahner makes explicitly and de Lubac makes with regard to the final end of man). Second, one looks to contemporary secular politics for an understanding of where the grace of man (which always acts in the world) is leading the Church. It is not a sixteenth-century scholastic understanding of grace and nature that threatens to undermine the Church’s mission today and to secularize the culture of the Church from within. The more likely culprits are experimental and one-sided “integralist” theologies of grace from the 1970s, which were propagated by theological revisionists. A return to a careful reading of Aquinas on these questions can help seminarians and theology students today regain a nuanced view of the issues.
More generally, the spiritual life of the Church is not reducible to the system of thought of any one school of theology, nor has it ever been. Neither Thomists nor Balthasarians can claim an exclusive privilege in determining the worth and meaning of de Lubac’s thought for our time, or the meaning of Dignitatis Humanae . . . or even Balthasar’s theology for that matter. Theology consists in healthy debate, especially among those who are fully committed to the Church’s magisterial teaching, and this debate, precisely to be Catholic, must appeal to a plurality of classical sources. Irenaeus, Athanasius, Newman, and others are important for us today as living voices, and not just through the filter of Balthasar.
I take it that Andrew Votipka is objecting to my article on the grounds that the contemporary Catholic Church is subject to serious interior confusion. Consequently, one might despair of any intellectual remedies. I’m not sure how new the problems are that he is signaling. I certainly agree that they are real. However, this state of affairs is not something I’m ignoring. On the contrary, it is a central presupposition of my article. In the midst of a time of confusion, it is important to seek points of orientation. Perhaps Votipka thinks that a new form of Catholicism can survive sociologically after St. John Paul II that is not based on traditional principles of scriptural and doctrinal orthodoxy, and that will in fact be deeply skewed. However, I’m less “optimistic” about the long-term viability of such a thing. This kind of cultural experiment has already been tried and seems destined to fail. Any new attempt at it will eventually perish, and leave in its wake an even more doctrinally anemic and secularized Church.
But the doctrinal “answer” to our problems already exists. Both laypeople and theologians can find an excellent resource for responding to the biblical and doctrinal ignorance of our own era in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Each one has to figure out how to communicate to his neighbor what is found in that volume, but that is the work of practical evangelization, and it is entirely feasible. It’s also our contemporary task, and we should ask St. John Paul II to intercede for us that we might undertake it with both hope and joy.
Ephraim Radner’s thesis (“Whistling Past the Grave,” November) is that a “remarkable extension of life” has led to fundamental shifts in our attitudes and behavior. But are we actually living significantly longer than our forebears? Psalm 90:10 speaks of seventy to eighty years as the normal span of man’s time on earth. 1 Timothy 5 says that widows must be at least sixty to receive assistance. Leviticus 27 similarly marks sixty years as the beginning of old age.
These Scriptures, from 2000 to 3500 years ago, indicate that life spans have not changed so dramatically as the doubled life expectancy statistic might on first glance suggest. Isn’t it the case that higher life expectancy figures reflect dramatically lower infant mortality rates rather than longer lives for those who make it out of infancy?
Ephraim Radner responds:
Richard Gaffin rightly points out that high infant mortality rates significantly lower the gross “average” life expectancy calculated for a given population. Low life expectancy where there is high infant mortality means that there are many people who live longer than the average. Hence, premodern and traditional societies are generationally layered, with children, parents, and grandparents often living side by side.
For example, take one of the most widely cited studies of a discrete population, Sweden’s. Upward movements in life expectancy become more prominent in the eighteenth century, before finally jumping dramatically, as elsewhere in Western Europe, in the early twentieth century. In the mid-eighteenth century, this meant that 37 percent of children died before they reached the age of eight, with the most dangerous time being the first week of life. For the 63 percent who survived, the chances of reaching age sixty were relatively high. But how high? Another 20 percent would die before age sixteen. At that point, mortality rates level off. Then more die around age sixty itself. Many people lived to sixty, then, but not nearly so many as today, and not so many beyond sixty.
The simple figure of a “forty-year average life expectancy” that one can attach to most of human history until recently therefore masks all kinds of details. The one most important, in my mind, is the fact that most living individuals before our era were experientially impressed by mortality itself. Children were raised by parents—if they had parents—who had most likely watched other of their own children die; siblings would not necessarily accompany one into adulthood; generational cohabitation was both common and fragile, embodying created transience in both its gnawing beauty and vulnerability. The scriptural world reflects this, simply because it reflects how most human beings have lived throughout human history. In the end, whether it is twenty, forty, sixty, or eighty years that most of us live, the truths about human creaturehood still apply.
Benjamin Myers, in his attack on sentimentality (“The Sentimentality Trap,” November), displays the taste of the highly educated, but what about that of hoi polloi? Why do they have to be vilified as lovers of pornography for not embracing this Spartan toughness, too? St. Paul recognized that some are more able to digest “milk” than “meat.”
If the working classes prefer Thomas Kinkade and Hallmark cards to loftier art and poetry, why can’t we let them be? Why charge them with embracing pornography? That seems a bit elitist. One of my fondest memories from childhood is hearing my elders, all working-class, sing sentimental love songs at family gatherings.
I admire Flannery O’Connor, but I find it hard to connect, as she did, the sentimental with the pornographic. Surely, her statement was a paradox intended to make us reflect about the ugly reality of contraceptive sex: “Pornography . . . is essentially sentimental, for it leaves out the connection of sex with its hard purpose, and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.”
Anne Barbeau Gardiner
brewster, new york
Benjamin Myers responds:
I thank Professor Gardiner for her thought-provoking response, especially as it gives me an opportunity to address a related question I did not have room for in the essay itself.
Gardiner suggests that my position on sentimentality might be “a bit elitist,” and if by “elitist” we mean only, as is so often the case, the preference for things that are better over things that are inferior, then I am guilty as charged.
What she seems to mean by the term, however, is snobbery, looking down on an entire class of people for their membership in that class. But isn’t it more “elitist” to think the masses are incapable of appreciating better art? To keep Bach to myself while smiling patronizingly at the unwashed and their Britney Spears?
I come from a long line of oil field workers and farmers. My father had only a high school education and, through long bouts of unemployment, often took odd jobs to make ends meet. In short, I come from the very polloi—around here we’re just called “rednecks”—that Gardiner suggests are incapable of eating solid food, and, having spent my life among the rural working class, I can assure her that we are as capable of reading Dostoevsky (whom I discovered on my father’s bookshelf) as we are of reading Chicken Soup for the Soul. If the latter is more often the fare we are discovered eating, that is because it is all too often the only food we have been offered.
Yes, Paul does suggest that some can only digest milk, but he says this is because they are “not yet ready” for solid food. The very purpose of his epistle is to goad them toward better fare. The failure to “put away childish things” can, in its extreme, be a form of perversion and is not a way of life the thoughtful Christian should encourage for anyone.
If followed to its logical conclusion, doesn’t Gardiner’s attitude contribute to the push to remove consideration of the true, the good, and the beautiful from our schools and colleges? Why teach Beethoven to our fifth-grade music students? Just have them sing some Beatles songs, and “Let [them] be.” Or, better yet, get rid of music altogether; they can spend more time in STEM classes. Why keep that difficult, elitist old Shakespeare around our state schools and community colleges? Television studies for all!
It is not, as Gardiner suggests it is, an enforcement of “Spartan toughness” upon the masses to suggest that they eschew sentimentality. It is, rather, an invitation to a more sumptuous and nourishing feast. There is nothing elitist in wishing all people access to truly great art. The human soul is the same, educated elite or hoi polloi, and it, despite all its corruption, is nobly made. I would no sooner “let be” a soul drowning in kitsch than I would “let be” a man on a sinking raft.