The State of the Discourse
It would seem that, sometimes, we can only laugh or say nothing.
Something obvious, almost banal: The discourse is not very elevated, and has not been elevated for some time. In fact, at no risk of courting much objection, it is gutterish. What to do? If you find yourself, like me, making a living in part by participating in public discussion, you naturally wonder if there’s some leaven you can add to raise the whole thing. The trouble with trying too hard, though, to elevate, is that you’re as likely to be a windbag blowing a lot of hot air as to actually expand anyone’s mind and send their thoughts skyward.
Matthew Walther writes with a charm and thoughtfulness I’m both fond and jealous of. I owe him a debt of gratitude for acting as a sort of proof-of-concept at a previous employer, showing that a certain self-awarely tweedy type could cut it in the newsroom. Over at the Week on Wednesday he wrote about “sitting out the new culture wars.” It’s a good piece and worth your time. It ends like this:
The third possible response is the one that seems to me the most reasonable. It is silence. Never mind the other considerations. The truth is that I cannot change the fact that all of America’s institutions — political, economic, cultural — are controlled by mendacious philistines. But I can ignore these people, robbing them of the only thing that really matters to them: their ability to impose their will upon me and millions of others who belong to an implied audience they do not deserve and which, absent our unforced participation, would not enjoy. Truth and beauty exist in a realm beyond the Twitter troughs of half-literate journalists.
It’s the right answer to the tricky question, a traditional one of philosophic detachment. The would-be statesman can use rhetoric to wield power and change the public, but the theorist or critic? When it comes to some political questions, too heated and too compromised and too stupid, he may have to resign to either noise or silence.
Noise or silence. Sound and fury. Also on Wednesday, TAC ran a nimble little allusive essay by E.J. Hutchinson—whose office hours I used to drop in on in undergrad, though I never took a class with him—on that silly Shakespeare-Faulkner snafu. The discourse is indeed low, but maybe we can laugh about it, and have some fun?
Laboring much to forget our learning, we are now in just such a period of severe cultural amnesia. Though the prognosis for a culture that has been so sick of late appears to have a better-than-even chance of being terminal, from time to time we can console ourselves with gallows humor. After all, if nothing else is permanent, the gallows is; its frame outlives a thousand tenants.
Gallows humor and avoidance sound about right, for me. I can only do my best to write on things that matter, to write in a way that’s confident in permanent things, faithful in the hope that truth and beauty do indeed exist “beyond the Twitter troughs of half-literate journalists,” or editors like me.