(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join John Gorke as he examines the principles necessary to fight justly the culture war. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)
The Rev. Dr. Daniel M. Bell, Jr. may declare victory in at least one respect: He succeeded in getting a relatively sedentary homebody to consider afresh the perils of war. Dr. Bell’s book, Just War as Christian Discipleship, argues that to fight a just war requires more than a check list of “do’s” and “don’t’s,” but instead an orientation of character, a predisposition to do good. Virtue is as indispensible in war as valor; piety as indispensible as power. For a Christian going to war, the task is not to do as little evil as possible, but to actually accomplish some good. Dr. Bell laments, and rightly so, the lack of widespread literacy about the principles of just war. The average Christian in the pew, or for the purposes of this essay, the average conservative on the street, cannot explain what is meant by “legitimate authority,” “just cause,” “prior wrong,” “proportionality,” or “right intention.” There is reason to suspect that the average man knows nothing of these terms, or of the ideas designated by them, because the average man is under-motivated, academically speaking.
But perhaps just war is misunderstood because it is misapplied. Sure, in the days of St. Augustine, when military service was as common as food service (perhaps more so), a bishop could speak of war and be clearly understood by his audience. But today soldiers are scarce. We see war on television, but it is nothing compared to the violence to be seen at the cinema. A death filmed by a journalist looks rather tame compared to a death filmed by Quentin Tarantino. The realism of war is seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Even our military personnel may remain removed from the front lines, confined to a local base or an overseas desk, never needing to consider the lived experience of war at all. Yet today, war is all around us if we care to look. The empires of the future have arrived, and they are indeed empires of the mind. They wage war as fiercely as did Greece or Rome, with soldiers as loyal as those of Sparta. Empires of the mind wage war on the plains of culture, and these culture wars need the just war tradition more than anything else.
Being limited by the constraints of energy and attention, I shall limit myself to discussing simply “right intention” in the just culture war. Let me do so in a backwards fashion, by noting the appallingly shrill tone of a few fellow conservatives and what I fear is wrong with it. Should the reader be even more constrained by energy and attention than I, he may happily skip to the last paragraph to find where all this is going. But Ellis Island is more beautiful for having gotten there over the ocean, and I request patience on this voyage to my humble thesis.
I receive weekly electronic mailings from a certain conservative activist group. Knowing the man who sends them, and knowing he is a good man, I shall not reveal his name here. Yet, I will share the subject lines and content of his emails for they capture the problem I am attempting to diagnose. “Stop the repeal of the 1st Amendment!” cries a recent mailing. The email itself contains sentences such as: “That is why we need to act now. Help us stop Senate Democrats from repealing the 1st Amendment.” –or— “Harry Reid and his cronies are trying to take away your freedom of speech.” –or—“If you want to stop Harry Reid from taking away your individual freedoms sign our petition today!”
Being yelled at is exhausting, and this happens all too frequently in emails of this sort. Exclamatory sentences are important, but they are not all that is important. Nowhere in this particular email was the actual text of the proposed amendment cited. (For the record, S.J. Res. 19 seeks to amend the Constitution to allow “Congress [the] power to regulate the raising and spending of money and in-kind equivalents with respects to Federal elections.”) The intent of the email, rather than to provide information, is to incite outrage, the way a bee sting incites outrage.
This is a terrible strategy in the culture wars for two reasons. First: Always inciting outrage has the same effect as always crying wolf. Eventually the outrage subsides to leave only annoyance. To the exhausted ear, the gentleman sending these emails becomes like the man yelling to himself on the bus. That is to say, he becomes a warning about the fragility of human sanity. Second: The tone in which we speak of our enemies determines our success in turning them into allies. Speaking of Mr. Harry Reid as a sort of monster ensures he will find nothing appealing about the conservative position. Mr. Reid strikes me, at worst, as a man wore down by fatigue and as a man abused by his own mistaken political philosophy. Doing wrong is its own punishment, and Mr. Reid looks like a man for whom life is punishing.
Just war involves right intention as a criterion. That is to say: The restoration of peace is always the object desired. We leave home only to return. We remove our swords from their sheaths only to restore them to their sheaths. We criticize opponents only so that they might become allies. On my desk sits Blood, Sweat and Tears, a collection of Winston Churchill’s wartime addresses. In this volume one finds the gems of rhetoric for which the late prime minister is remembered, but also the gems of attitude by which the late prime minister ought to be imitated.
Mr. Churchill is well known for his oft-repeated warnings about the rising aggression of Herr Hitler. Slightly less well known are his repeated pleadings to the German people, and Herr Hitler himself, to rejoin the brotherhood of nations and re-assume the goals of progress and peace. Mr. Churchill may be forgiven for framing his invitations in the terms of “progress;” the point is that he offered invitations at all. What he thought in his head remains sealed by the stone of his grave. What he wrote with his hands is still open to our eyes. At the eleventh hour, Mr. Churchill still hoped the Germans would convert to the cause of peace. We, in America, are not yet in our own eleventh hour, yet any invitations to our opponents have long ceased to issue from our lips.
But invitations are not enough. Sincerity cannot be faked. “Right intention” is not a formula. Everything we say ought to intend the restoration of peace. Explicitly saying so would be a start, but we must not stop there. Dr. Bell insists that virtue must be developed before the war has begun, and I humbly suggest we conservatives in the culture ought to retrace our steps to develop the virtue of magnanimity, of being bigger than the battles we fight.
Take a lesson from a late opponent. Christopher Hitchens received the well wishes and prayers of many theistic thinkers, even as he went to his grave directing his full rhetorical magazine at their various religions. Why? Because Mr. Hitchens had the good sense to care more about the person he confronted than the ideas that person possessed. “I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Craig once,” said Mr. Hitchens before a debate with the well-known apologist, “my brothers and sisters in the unbelieving community take him very seriously. Very rigorous, very scholarly and very formidable…I say that without reserve.” He gave similar reverence to Francis Collins, Larry Taunton, and (to a lesser degree) John Lennox. Aside from Robert George’s friendship with Cornel West, who in the conservative camp can claim to be imitating this large-hearted approach to disagreement? If restoration of peace is truly our aim, this poverty of amicability across the aisle is truly a problem.
What may be the case, however, (and this would be far worse) is not a lack of motivation to act on ‘right intention’ but a lack of right intention at all. I recall a film in which a man broadcast baseball games over the radio, so as to be heard wherever the wayward fan might be found. This particular character took great delight when the team lost, though he expressed sorrow that they had done so. In other words, he lived a philosophy of reserved morbidity and expressed a philosophy of regret. He had “a gloomy pleasure in saying unpleasant things.” The man relishing in this backwards enjoyment speaks: “I am rather sorry the world is going to hell in a hand basket,” yet he thinks: “I am sure glad I get to witness it.”
Should we relish too much in the false glory of finding what is wrong with the world, we may blind ourselves and our opponents to what is actually right with it. Being too eager to explain all things as outcomes of secularism, or of a rising antagonism toward life, we run the risk of drawing our pistols against ghosts. We waste our ammunition on apparitions. Sometimes, we may even catch a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror, and not recognizing the reflection, assume an intruder has come to do us harm. Even an intellect as sharp and a heart as wholesome as Mr. Rod Dreher has fallen victim to this temptation. I single him out not because he is an adherent to the rule of excessive cultural paranoia, but because he is so often the sobering exception to it. Yet, 800 Irish babies were found below the earth and the voice of Mr. Dreher sounded a prophetic protest above it. Fortunately, there was no “septic tank,” and the babies were not victims of a flagrant anti-life philosophy, but rather the beneficiaries of an astounding respect for it. The Dickensian conditions of an orphanage resulted in many lost lives among the young, and the poverty, which supplied those conditions, would not supply the graves for each and every child. No doubt these nuns did the best they could, with what they had, where they were. That was no holocaust, but a proper Christian burial. The example of the sisters is admirable, not abominable. Being too eager to see every dead body as a casualty of the culture of death, we may miss those times when the culture of life shines through. We run the risk of discovering Arlington Cemetery buried beneath the rubble of the world, and upon finding the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we might curse the cruelty of a grave without a name, rather than the honor of sacrifice without reward.
To sum up: “Right intention” means holding to an ideal of peace, to an ideal of the finer things in life. It is a striking feature of J.R.R. Tolkien that the smallest and most vulnerable of Middle-Earth’s inhabitants rise to be the bravest knights and the boldest spies. Hobbits are not warriors by trade; they are plump homebodies who would sooner polish off another pint of ale than polish the edge of a sword. Yet to keep the ale and the cheese and the merriment of a family around the fireplace, these tiny hobbits will outlast even the fiercest man on the battlefield. Even in the midst of war these hobbits sing songs the night before battle. The shrillness of the weekly mailings I have written of above undermines this common sense principle. To speak amongst ourselves in the harsh tones of protest and anger actively undermines the values for which we started speaking in the first place.
To put it another way: if our home camp is nothing but a place of cultivated disease, it will soon cease to be a home camp worth fighting for. These weekly mailings needn’t be so over-the-top, nor so hard on the eyes. Our journalism need not strain itself to reach the apex of moral outrage. Children speak of small things in big and loud ways. Poets speak of big things in small and quiet ways. It is my humble suggestion that we take the latter as our example. Let us stop attempting to bother each other into a frenzy of political outrage. Let us instead stand atop our wagons and recite “St. Crispin’s Day” for all to hear. This may be antiquated and idealistic, but it is for love of the old world and of impossible aspirations that I became a conservative in the first place.
The culture wars are not going away. This is perhaps “the end of the beginning.” Yet, I hope this may be the beginning of the end for the sort of communication I have criticized here. I am a young conservative. Myself and my fellows in the Millennial camp found our political identity in the works of G.K. Chesterton, Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot and Roger Scruton. Theirs was a conservatism of beauty, of passion, of (dare I be cliché) love. I humbly suggest that the conservative principle of the culture wars ought to be this: that we engage our opponents as if they were lovable, despite all evidence to the contrary. For we must bear in mind the principle of Christianity and of the Cross: that we are lovable, despite all evidence to the contrary.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” originally was published here in July, 2014. Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.