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Sustaining Habits

March 11, 2018 | (2,224 words)

Is it just me, or does columnist Ross Douthat also strike you as being fundamentally different from other high profile op-ed writers.  His relative youth (b. 1979) is one distinguishing characteristic, to be sure.  He is the youngest full-time opinion scribe The New York Times has ever employed, having started there in 2009 as its “conservative” voice.  As many know, he frequently shares the inside-back-page of the Sunday Review section with the likes of Maureen Dowd and Nicholas Kristoff, a formidable line-up that is today’s editorial equivalent of the fabled 1927 Bronx Bombers.  But his youth alone is not what sets him apart.

Like his distinguished colleagues, Mr. Douthat offers his opinion on the issues of the day in a nuanced style, and can be counted on to provide his fair share of piercing insights.  But the attentive reader will note that unlike those colleagues he does not limit himself to arguing an issue from his designated side of the liberal/conservative dialectic. He doesn’t just crib from a prepared script, content to find creative variations on the same old partisan talking points. Instead he often seems caught up in trying to bring a broader perspective to bear on the matter at hand, which creates the effect of challenging the accepted coordinates of the all pervasive dialectic. To the reader this comes across as his openly wrestling with ideas, almost as if he is working things out in his head as he writes. This is what set him apart.

…more than telling people what they don’t want to hear.

Challenging the liberal/conservative dialectic that dominates all contemporary thought involves much more than merely being a professional contrarian who specializes in telling people what they don’t want to hear. There is perhaps a role to play for the swash-buckling provocateur who relishes being able to alternatively alienate segments on both the left and the right, trashing Muslims one minute and Mother Teresa the next. But the role of the cultural disruptor is not of the highest order, as it tends to bog down at the level of self-aggrandizement.

Properly challenging the dialectic avoids insult, first and foremost, as it tries to gently-but-firmly usher the reader into a broader expanse of thought. In other words, a proper challenge attempts to teach. This is a difficult undertaking in the best of circumstances, and requires reserves of tact and diplomacy to help make the medicine go down.

Considering the complexity of the task before us, it would thus be a serious tactical error for an orthodox believer who may not read The New York Times to dismiss Douthat out of hand as simply a “house Catholic,” being carried on the payroll to covertly promote that paper’s insidious secular liberal agenda. (Did we forget to mention Mr. Douthat is a professed, practicing Catholic?) What makes his writing particularly valuable is the natural inclination he displays for framing the passing scene in the context of a more “universal” Catholic worldview, one that by definition transcends the conventional, combative liberal/conservative framework we are all so comfortable with today. This effort is informed by the intellectual heritage of the faith he and his family converted to when he was but a lad of sixteen. From the available evidence this universal worldview remains his compass north, though he rarely, if ever, mentions it by name in his NYT pieces.


One example of Mr. Douthat’s “principled wrestling” would be his recent piece on the big, new book by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  Sure to be a best-seller, Harvard professor Pinker has given us yet another paean to “reason”, and another debunking of “religious belief.”  In a review that appears under the heading “The Edges of Reason” (NYT, February 25, 2018), Douthat does not question “the material progress modern science and commerce have delivered,” but rather “the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.”

“I’m reasonably confident,” Mr. Douthat writes, “that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his (Pinker’s) definition of the anti-empirical dark.  And therein lies the oddity:  if you actually experienced those worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and ‘health food’ regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.”

Further along in this same piece Douthat shares with us: “…Which is why in many instances the interests that Pinker dismisses as irrational hugger-mugger, everything from astrology to spiritualism, have tended to strengthen during periods of real scientific ferment.  It’s why Isaac Newton loved alchemy and the Victorians loved séances; it’s why charismatic Christianity has spread very naturally with economic development in Africa and Latin America and why the Space Age coincided with the spread of those health food stores.”

“It’s not that there is some quantum of unreason that needs an outlet when reason’s power grows.  Rather, it’s that when people and societies are genuinely curious they are very reasonably curious about everything, including things happening in their bodies and their consciousness and more speculative realms.”

“Which is why if Pinker and others are genuinely worried about a waning appreciation of the inquiring scientific spirit, they should consider the possibility that some of their own smug secular certainties might be part of the problem – that they might, indeed, be stifling the more comprehensive kind of curiosity upon which the scientific enterprise ultimately depends.”

If you’ll notice, the thumbnail sketch Douthat offers in this column (of which the above quotes are only an excerpt) is not simply another carefully worded conservative rebuke. By applying boots-on-the-ground wisdom that is a hallmark of basic Catholic anthropology, it demonstrates why that anthropology supersedes the liberal/conservative dialectic and deserves its recognition as being “universal.”

Along the way it illuminates certain obvious flaws in the conventional “reason-versus-faith” argument one is forever being hit over the head with.  The very argument that reason claims to have won hands down, in this our pluralist-democratic-capitalist society.  Another, even more overt example of what I consider to be Catholic anthropology at large is to be found in Mr. Douthat’s column of January 14, 2018, running under the heading, “Is There Life After Liberalism?”


The subject in this case is a new book by University of Notre Dame political scientist Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed.  The reference in that title is to “classical liberalism,” which should not be confused with our modern-day understanding of the political left.  (While academics may already know what Mr. Deneen is talking about, the rest of us can benefit from this simple clarification.)  Deneen rightly identifies the ideology under discussion as encompassing both the “left” and “right” of the political spectrum.  It was conceived some 500 years ago and went on to serve as the founding creed of the United States.

This (classical) liberalism is based on the emancipation of the individual from what its adherents view as the repressive hold of authority, custom, and tradition, in order for each to “fashion and pursue for themselves their version of the good life.”  Ah, yes, the good life.  The right-leaning conservative version wants government to get out of the way in the economic realm (public behavior).   The left-leaning liberal version, having started as a counter-balance to rampant economic exploitation, now focuses most of its energy on insisting government has no role to play as regards morality (personal behavior).

Ross Douthat reminds us that Patrick Deneen is a serious student of Alexis de Tocqueville, and of the latter’s concern for democracy’s long-term prospects in America.  Such concern is good for us to read about, since the familiar quotes presented for our consideration are limited to expressing de Tocqueville’s undiluted praise for what he thought of at the time (1835) as our faith-based industriousness.

It turns out this famous Frenchman feared that our vaunted guiding principles, steeped as they are in classical liberalism, would one day devolve into a selfish individualism, overseen by a kind of soft bureaucratic despotism.  As Mr. Douthat tells it, “Where it once delivered equality, (classical) liberalism now offers plutocracy; instead of liberty, appetitiveness regulated by a surveillance state; instead of true intellectual and religious freedom, growing conformity and mediocrity.”

According to Douthat, Mr. Deneen’s new book is “classically Tocquevillian” in the way it references the master’s view of how “the liberal-democratic-capitalist matrix we all inhabit depends on its livability and sustainability and decency upon pre-liberal forces and habits, unchosen obligations and allegiances: the communities of tribe and family, the moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion, the aristocracy of philosophy and art.”  This short, incisive passage represents Ross Douthat at his best, and the attentive reader is on respectful stand-by, hoping such thoughts will one day be unpacked in somewhat more detail.

Per Mr. Douthat’s review, the bracing argument of Why Liberalism Failed is as follows: de Tocqueville’s fear that (classical) liberalism would eventually erode the list of magnificent inheritances is now fully upon us.  In Douthat’s words, “It has reduced rich cultures to consumer products, mashed social and familial relations, and left us all the isolated and mutually suspicious inhabitants of an ‘anti-culture’ from which many genuine human goods have fled.”  Regardless of one’s current political preoccupations, isn’t this a strikingly accurate description of where things stand now?

Ross Douthat is ultimately disappointed, though, that Patrick Deneen does not go further in the way of envisioning an alternative political order.  Instead, Deneen calls for a “rededication to localism and community,” which involves “transform(ing) the household into a small economy.”  For some of us this has a very familiar ring, it being a contemporary reprise of the well-known and widely disparaged Distributist model favored by the likes of such towering figures as G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, to grow one’s own food, and the like.

In the end, the sustaining “pre-liberal” forces and habits that Steven Pinker casually brushes aside, and that Alexis de Tocqueville, Patrick Deneen, and Ross Douthat accurately identify as being so necessary for the livability and level of decency we all wish for in our political order, are the very forces and habits we  set aside some 500 years ago, when we began our turn toward individual freedom and away from concern for the common good.


Departing slightly from the prescriptions of the latter two fine Catholic gentlemen, we would suggest the remedy does not necessarily require the envisioning of an alternative political order (Douthat), or having us all go the small household route and start growing our own food (Deneen). To make the world a better place, all we need do is find a way to re-introduce those “pre-liberal” (i.e. Catholic) habits back into our public life, and allow them to inform and guide the existing political/economic order so many have grown so fond of.

It will not be easy.  We all, liberal and conservative alike, revel in favorite aspects of the way things are now.  And conservatives, in particular, cannot bring themselves to admit the “freedom” they champion in the economic realm is merely the flip side of the same freedom they find so reprehensible when it comes to personal morality.  While liberals may not think in terms of “restoring the culture,” conservatives surely do, and the initial step in that process is not what first springs to mind when such a noble undertaking is being considered.

It cannot, for instance, be based on a mass obsession with trying to reverse certain high court decisions liberals have recently applauded.  No one is being forced to have an abortion, or marry someone of their own gender.  Those who do have been seriously misinformed, and should be tended to with concern for their immortal souls, rather than scorned.  Addressing these situations falls under the heading of converting hearts and minds, not imposing an emotionally charged, gerrymandered judicial ruling.  Achieving a different consensus will result in different legal outcomes.  Sorry, folks, that’s the way things work in a pluralist democracy.

It is the economic question that looms over all else, and must receive our immediate attention.  Specifically the way a privileged few have wielded their economic advantage to the detriment of the vast majority of ordinary citizens.   This is true even though admittedly brilliant progressives such as Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now dismiss concerns over the problem of ever-growing inequitable distribution, suggesting we focus our attention on consumption statistics rather than earnings data.  As if being able to purchase a now-inexpensive 50” television makes up for the absence of gainful employment that allows a family to fully participate in the material and social realms of human existence.

It is our political administration of economic behavior that has, as Ross Douthat so eloquently puts it, “reduced rich cultures to consumer products, mashed social and familial relations,” and all the rest of it.  The unexamined, almost knee-jerk acceptance of the economic status-quo by traditional believers has been an unfortunate staple of the cultural equation, and needs to be challenged.

Anyone interested in restoring said culture must first ponder the larger ramifications of how we have allowed our economic model to function, and how that functioning has undermined such desired metrics as “livability” and “level of decency.”

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
March 11, 2018

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