On Monday, reflecting on the latest lunacy to erupt on a college campus (in this case, racist food...), Rod Dreher quoted a correspondent as saying ‘We need South Park just as much or more than we need First Things.’
Certainly, these are strange times. This year has been amazing, for all the wrong reasons. It has seen the practical legal erasure of the history of marriage. It has provided copious evidence that religious freedom and even freedom of speech are now widely regarded as problematic. It has witnessed to the all-round triumph of childish petulance and stupidity among the allegedly intelligent. Above all, perhaps, it has demonstrated the increasingly angry atmosphere that permeates public life.
Nor is this destruction of civil discourse a monopoly of the left and the bien pensants. The relentless moronization of public life is not the exclusive preserve of reality TV shows, movie moguls posing as people of substance, politicians clowning around on talk shows, and students throwing temper tantrums on Ivy League campuses. It is there in the twitter battles, the blog threads, and the childish Facebook face-offs that mark the day-to-day public interactions of so many who really should know better. Indeed, one might be forgiven for believing that there is no matter so complicated that it cannot be reduced to fortune-cookie-style apothegms of 140 splenetic characters or less.
In such times, I agree with Dreher's correspondent. Yes, we do need satire. So much of this is simply ridiculous and in urgent need of being ridiculed. We merely flatter the egos of these people if we take them with the seriousness they believe they merit. Yet satire is only part of the necessary response to the collapse of traditional notions of freedom and civic engagement. Satire exposes and tears down the corrupt and the pompous but by itself it can offer no positive replacement, merely cynicism and misanthropy.
There is thus a need for a polemical engagement with current trends which is not just sharply critical but also thoughtfully constructive. Even as we expose the nonsense and the sanctimonious claptrap which pervades the public square, left and right, religious and irreligious, today, we need to be offering our own careful and coherent alternatives.
This is one of the reasons I read First Things, I write for First Things, and I support First Things. It provides a forum where those who often disagree on some fairly significant issues can yet find intelligent engagement on matters such as human sexuality, personal identity, politics, the nature and purpose of education, and the role of religion in the public square. These are vitally important matters for our society and yet the panjandrums of our culture are increasingly successful in presenting as hate crimes any dissent from the enforced public consensus on such things. To borrow a phrase from the student activists: We need a safe place, but not those safe places that exist merely to support those who dominate the cultural politics of the day. We need a safe place from which we can launch critiques of the dominant cultural consensus, give people arguments against that consensus, and make the world into a more complicated place than the manufacturers of the consensus claim it to be. First Things is such a place.
For that reason, I would encourage any of you who have benefited this year from the work of Rusty Reno, Mark Bauerlein and the team at First Things to consider making an end-of-year contribution to the campaign. First Things has been a beacon of sharp, intelligent, culturally contrarian public discourse for twenty-five years. And as more and more people fall into line with the malignantly illiberal tendencies of the day, a forum which offers fearless and fearsome responses to the creeping cultural totalitarianism is vital. And I believe this is it.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.