If rights are real, and are founded on reality, then perhaps we should also be skeptical of Rod Dreher’s notion of a “Benedict Option.” Being in the world is a necessary condition for not being of it and for generating a genuine cultural flourishing…
No doubt Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, has Imaginative Conservatives talking about the best strategy for liberal learning and cultural renewal. As our own Winston Elliott has noted, political obsession is “one of the great distortions of our time,” especially because of the way in which it can poison arts and education—by relentlessly politicizing culture.
As an alternative, the so-called “Benedict Option” highlights the idea of focusing less on political battles over abstract issues, in order to focus instead on cultivating the sort of local, intentional communities that would be more concretely conducive to human flourishing. But even such local experiments in building community, because they coalesce around rather definite religious convictions, have an implicit metaphysics, whether that metaphysics is consciously articulated or not.
Joshua Rothman’s thoughtful profile of Mr. Dreher and his book in The New Yorker identifies the metaphysical realism motivating Mr. Dreher. Whereas nominalists think that God is free to define as good anything that he wants to define as good, realists think that God can recognize something as good only if it really is good.
The cultural prejudices most operative today stem from this longstanding debate (since the fourteenth century) over nominalism. In short, nominalist thought paves the way for anyone to define as good anything that they want to define as good. On the other hand, a realist will insist that the good is not merely a mind-dependent, socially constructed reality. Some kind of real, mind-independent standard—such as nature or nature’s God—presents to the realist a standard against which all culture must be measured—including politics.
For this reason, it is hard for any local, intentional community to avoid taking a stand—even if it is only implicit—with respect to the larger political debates in our world, especially those pitting “nationalism” against “globalism.” For if a local religious vision carries with it certain definite metaphysical convictions, then this realism will have to rule out the distorting effects on culture of either contemporary political trend, whether it be the distortions from populist “nationalism” or from technocratic “globalism.”
The populist slogan “America First” is the title of the last episode in season six of Homeland, a season that included the brilliant new character Brett O’Keefe, whose fake news program (called “Real Truth”) is part of a larger trend of technologically-manufactured outrage and ignorance. Liberal learning that aims at cultivating humane values is mostly absent from this debased, politicized form of culture, at least as it is portrayed in the television program. Instead, a mostly digital civil war is being fought, in which the nationalist insurgents seek to turn the digital fruits of economic globalization against the technocrats.
As this civil war is being fought, each side begins to mirror the other in its worst aspects. Faction against faction is all that can be seen in this maze of conspiracies, and the truth is the foremost casualty of these political trends. But what can people in real life, who (like Mr. Dreher) seek a community where they would be encouraged by the local culture to be “living in truth,” learn about their options from the artistic reflections in a program like Homeland?
Marshall McLuhan observed, “One of the peculiarities of art is to serve as an antienvironment, a probe that makes the environment visible. It is a form of symbolic, or parabolic, action.” In our contemporary macro environment, which stages a feud between “nationalism” against “globalism,” perhaps McLunan’s reference to Jacques Ellul is suggestive. McLuhan notes that Ellul
sees propaganda not as an ideology or content of any medium, but as the operation of all the media at once. The mother tongue is propaganda because it exercises an effect on all the senses at once. It shapes our entire outlook and all our ways of feeling. Like any other environment, its operation is imperceptible. When an environment is new, we perceive the old one for the first time.… Only the small child and the artist have the immediacy of approach that permits perception of the environmental. The artist provides us with antienvironments that enable us to see the environment. Such antienvironmental means of perception must constantly be renewed in order to be efficacious. That basic aspect of the human condition by which we are rendered incapable of perceiving the environment is one to which psychologists have not even referred. In an age of accelerated change, the need to perceive the environment becomes urgent. Acceleration also makes such perception of the environment more possible.
The dramatizations of information warfare in Homeland’s sixth season perhaps afford us the opportunity to see the environment in which we have been living but not adequately perceiving. But this environment is more than the politicized use of social media (which Homeland effectively portrays). It is rather the wholly pervasive contemporary environment of nominalism that the program brings into our awareness. For if nominalism holds sway, then everything is mind-dependent: Everything is “fake.” Everything is a conspiracy of untruth.
Without truth, there is no possibility of anything other than a civil war in which faction vies with faction for political supremacy. Thus, when there is nothing more “fake” than politics, disgust with the nominalist wars between “nationalism” and “globalism” is felt (i.e., the very real-world environment hinted at by the antienvironment of Homeland). This sick feeling could very well then be the motivation for people to opt out of the nominalist dead-ends of a hopelessly politicized culture. Refugees from nominalism, they seek a more authentic community, one grounded in an un-politicized pursuit of truth.
“You remember what Graham Greene said, don’t you?” Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) says to Saul (Mandy Patinkin) at the end of Homeland’s sixth season. “The secret services are the only real measure of a nation’s political health. The one true expression of its subconscious.”
But might the same not be said concerning the “Benedict Option”? Would not such communities be performing a kind of “secret service” within the nation? They would be “in it” (as realists seeking the best cultural option), but not “of it” (insofar as they avoid the wars of nominalism, in which the nation’s political culture is swept up).
Yet perhaps there is still a valid criticism to be made of any “Benedict Option” that would (even if temporarily) opt to reject all macro political trends as too “fake” for anyone who wishes to live mindfully in a community. That criticism amounts to this: Not all globalism need be “fake”; moreover, not all nationalism need be “fake.” So why then abandon the wider political arena to all forms of nominalism?
History offers some interesting examples of nationalist visions that are decidedly non-nominalist. How can conservatives learn from the proponents of High Tory tradition, for example? A High Tory would see the value in recognizing Canada’s ties to Britain, in order to avoid the errors of a nationalism that would emulate the nominalist aspects of American tradition. The best aspects of what Canada’s political culture deliberately sought to preserve (as part of its British inheritance, rather than as an asserted independence) are arguably an attempt to cultivate a nationalism consonant with metaphysical realism.
“What is Canadian Conservatism?” is the essay comprising Chapter Six of Ron Dart’s illuminating new book, The North American High Tory Tradition. It is one of only four places in the book where the Canada First movement is mentioned. Louis Riel, absent from the index, is mentioned not at all. Yet it is important to note that High Tory tradition is skeptical not only of the political philosophy of American nationalism, but also that of the “Canada First” nationalist movement organized in 1868. “Canada First” sought to promote the British and Protestant elements of Canada, at the expense of the Métis, Catholic, and French aspects. Yet authentic High Tory tradition would rather seek to embrace them all.
As with Mr. Dreher, whose “reading of pluralism as a problem prevents him from seeing it as a gift,” so too the original Canada Firsters (at war with Riel and company) missed the real point of a nation—at least, insofar as a nation should be founded on metaphysical realism, rather than on nominalism and assertion of the will.
On the transfer of Rupert’s Land and thereby of the Red River Colony, without a vote, from the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada, Riel said, “We complain not because we are British subjects merely, but because we are men. We complain as a people—as men—for if we were not men we would not be British subjects.”
Note Riel’s argument here, and examine your own prejudices. Do we have rights only because the state grants them? Or does the state recognize certain rights only because those rights exist in reality, whether the state grants them or not? In other words, are we nominalists or realists about rights?
True, Edmund Burke warned us that abstract “metaphysical rights” easily lend themselves to being redefined by governments to mean almost anything. If we have rights whether or not the state recognizes them, then what do we need the state for? But, on the other hand, if we think we have rights only because the state grants them (for example, to “British subjects”), the state can become like the God of voluntarism and nominalism, inventing things whether they make any rational sense or not.
Given this dilemma, the temptation is to do as Alasdair Macintyre does, to dismiss the whole notion of rights as “fake,” as things that do not exist any more than witches and unicorns do. But if in fact rights are real, and are (as Louis Riel argued) founded on reality, then perhaps we should also be skeptical of Mr. Dreher’s notion (inspired by Macintyre) of a mere “Benedict Option”—even if politics has gotten too nominalist, or too “fake” these days to the point that people with realist principles are discouraged from participating (compare the antienvironment of Homeland).
Riel’s logic concerning rights (he reasons using the valid form of inference known as modus tollens) is unmistakable. His is an eloquent expression not only of injustice, but also of why we should never surrender the arena to the nominalists who want to fight their wars of faction. Being in the world is a necessary condition for not being of it: there can be no genuine cultural flourishing, other than within the very space created by a metaphysical political realism. Truth is not an option.
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 Joshua Rothman, “Rod Mr. Dreher’s Monastic Vision,” The New Yorker (May 1, 2017):
God tells us how to be good—but are the things he deems good actually good in themselves, or good just because God says they are? According to one group, the “realists,” God is constrained by reality: the goodness toward which he points really exists in the world. According to the second group, the “nominalists,” God is totally free: simply by saying that something is good, he makes it so.
The nominalists thought they were doing God a favor, by recognizing his power. In fact, Mr. Dreher writes, they undermined him. Today, most people are nominalists. They doubt that entities like God, beauty, and evil are real in the same sense that the physical world is real. Even if they believe in God, they imagine a boundary between the transcendent plane, where God lives, and our material one. This boundary makes God abstract—a designer, a describer, a storyteller—rather than a concrete presence in our everyday life. By contrast, the early Christians were realists.
 Marshall McLuhan, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in Essential McLuhan, edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Anansi, 1995), 349.
 Father Patrick Gilger, S.J., quoted in Rothman, op. cit.
 Louis Riel, Rupert’s Land, Legislative Assembly, March 16, 1870, quoted in Canada’s Founding Debates, edited by Janet Ajzenstat, et al. (University of Toronto Press, 2003 ), 419.