Method Five is: Cast aspersions upon the heroic and patriotic. I love the subtitle on this one: We are all traitors now. It speaks volumes, I think. It’s super cool these days (as evidenced by our Commander in Chief, who loves to apologize for America’s existence) to think little of our country. We do this under the guise of a false humility, but Esolen calls it as it is.
He calls it refusing to honor our father and our mother.
I’ve been thinking about this chapter for a while now.
I thought of it the other day, when I was talking to someone about some problems at a church (not my own).
“They let him go,” she said of one of the volunteer ministers.
“Why?” I asked.
“They hired a new young thing and found a new vision. Whatever that means.”
I know what it means, because I’ve seen it in action at other churches at other times.
It means that the church has decided that Cool will reign, that Cool somehow is the best way to serve God in the world. And so Cool disposes with the old and the antiquated, with the traditional and the remembered. Cool fires the outdated worship minister in favor of some young guy who plays electric guitar. Cool changes the rythms, and even the melodies, of the Old Songs, simply because it can, and New is Better in America today.
Cool doesn’t care that the old people in the church can’t sing the song that way, that the old way is etched in their very bones.
That they will die missing the songs they once knew.
Esolen didn’t talk about Cool a whole lot, but I’m from California, which is more than a state. It’s a Present State of Mind. Cool reigns supreme here, right? Or so it seems.
One of the things that breaks my heart over and over is seeing my beloved locality decide that it simply must be Cool. Cozy old diners with crotchety old ladies behind the counter aren’t enough–we need all the best chains from Los Angeles. Sometimes I think my Place is determined to lose itself in trying to be like LA or San Francisco, or what have you.
And we are taught this in our youth at school, for it is Cool at school to “cast aspersions” on the past. I loved this passage of Esolen’s:
When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannos, it seemed to some in Athens that they had, in their radical democratic reforms, also killed their fathers. The danger, as Sophocles saw it, struck to the heart of the social order. To ignore tradition–to despise the past, to “kill the father”–is to set oneself above those laws that have no past, because they apply to all men, everywhere, at all times. So says the Chorus:
I only ask to live, with pure faith keeping
In word and deed that Law which leaps the sky,
Made of no mortal mould, undimmed, unsleeping,
Whose living godhead does not age or die.
We should prefer instead of Sophocles the spawner of modern education, John Dewey:
Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind–its rashness, presumption, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence–but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages.
It is to Dewey’s credit that he saw that you cannot destroy those old prejudices while continuing to expose pupils to the literature of the classical past. Oedipus killed Laius, but he did not know it. Dewey killed Sophocles, and he did know.
Now please don’t worry that Esolen is in favor of blind tradition. He makes the point that our duty to honor thy father and thy mother is not a duty to “whitewash thy father and thy mother.” As a Christian I must assert that I love my country on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, I desire to see her not as she is, but as the Father would have her. I believe that Jesus truly intended nations to become His disciples–that they will become His disciples in time, and we will see the nations serve Him.
But I do not think that America would better serve the Lord by acting British (as much as I adore the idea of Britain), nor Nigeria better serve the Lord by acting Chinese. Just as the Lord created many different people in my own family, I believe that the grand variety of cultures pleases Him, and He desires to redeem them for His glory.
This desire to see one’s country redeemed is rightly called patriotism. (I’m not making much mention of heroism, but suffice it to say that heroic acts always have at their core some great love, patriotism being among the options.)
Patriotism sparks the imagination, and therefore causes Esolen great concern. Esolen explains that multiculturalism is a great way to destroy patriotism:
[W]e want no patriots. Therefore we want no lovers of their own place. The very purpose of what is miscalled multiculturalism is to destroy culture, by teaching students to dismiss their own and to patronize the rest. Hence the antidote to love of this place is not only a hatred of this place, but a phony engagement with any other place. Multiculturalism in this sense is like going a-whoring. Pretending to love every woman you meet, you love none at all. Nor do you genuinely get to know any of them, since it never occurs to you that there are any depths to learn to appreciate.
Something in this chapter reminded me of Wendell Berry, and it wasn’t just the reference to Jayber Crow. I was thinking more of his essays. Can you see the similarities? For instance, in his essay Economy and Pleasure, Berry wrote:
The idea of the teacher and scholar as one called upon to preserve and pass on a common cultural and natural birthright has been almost entirely replaced by the idea of the teacher and scholar as a developer of “human capital” and a bestower of economic advantage.
In another essay, The Work of Local Culture (which has much that informs a good reading of Esolen here, I think), he talks about the failure of succession. It once was that men rose up and took the place of their fathers.
Throughout most of our literature, the normal thing was for the generations to succeed one another in place. The memorable stories occurred when this succession failed or became difficult or was somehow threatened. The norm is given in Psalm 128, in which this succession is seen as one of the rewards of righteousness: “Thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel.”
The longing for this result seems to have been universal. It presides over The Odyssey, in which Odysseus’s desire to return home is certainly regarded as normal.
[B]y now the transformation of the ancient story is nearly complete. Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return. Young people still grow up in rural families and go off to the cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do. Now the norm is to leave and not return. And this applies as much to urban families as to rural ones.
According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. And this norm is institutionalized not in great communal stories, but in the education system. The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance that it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to say the future, of the child…The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.
Something big, like a healthy patriotism, starts small, with a love for one’s own small place.
I am reminded of a little speech my husband once gave at a meeting of our City Council. I don’t remember the issue, but it seems that perhaps our city was trying to build something big and impressive that it couldn’t afford, probably using federal dollars, in order to attract outsiders, who would come and be impressed and, if all went as planned, spend money in town. My husband’s assessment was that what our city lacked was a love of the citizens for their Place–as evidence by the graffiti and crime problems. Building some great edifice was not a solution to the underlying issue, which had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with heart.
He was quoting someone else when he said, “Men did not love Rome because she was beautiful. She was beautiful because men loved her.”
–Visit Cindy’s blog for more book club entries.
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