“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but usually manages to pick himself up, walk over or around it, and carry on.”
― Benjamin Franklin
According to a recent survey, the average college student’s idea of Tyrannosaurus rex is modeled on Barney the purple dinosaur. Accurate portrayals in movies and textbooks make no difference: students continue to believe T. rex stood upright instead of pitched forward like the real thing.
Once people get ideas in their heads it takes very little to keep them there, and the problem applies to Catholicism no less than paleontology. A veteran professor of history [John Rao] at a Catholic university [St. John’s, Staten Island, New York] notes that despite their terror concerning grades in my courses, almost all of my students completely ignore the pro-Catholic, record-straight-setting information I give them, and recite the dominant errors and mantras aimed against the Faith on tests. As far as I can determine, this is in no way due to deeply-rooted conviction on their part. Rather, it merely indicates the power of the propaganda fed them from practically every social channel since early youth. They simply cannot expel the erroneous and hostile words from their heads. [For more, see comment below]
So how do we drive the historical and philosophical equivalent of fluffy purple dinosaurs out of discussions relating to the Faith when information doesn’t penetrate, discussion doesn’t help, pleading doesn’t work, and nothing we say seems to make any difference? What’s needed, it seems, is shock and awe, or at least their closest literary equivalent: paradox, aphorism, and other forms of pointed statement or questioning that disrupt settled expectations and stick in the mind where they can continue to do their work.
Among their other benefits, such verbal devices could provide snappy responses to anti-Catholic talking points. The assumptions of public discussion presume liberal secularism. They are part of a comprehensive outlook on man, society, the world, and reality itself that most people don’t exactly believe but don’t know how to escape. The result is that Catholics get tongue-tied, or give up points they shouldn’t, because they’ve already accepted their opponents’ basic principles and don’t know how to avoid one objectionable consequence after another. We need the verbal equivalent of jiu-jitsu to turn the assumptions and discussion around. Paradox, aphorism, and pointed inquiry seem to fit the bill.
G. K. Chesterton was a master of the strategy as applied to everyday public discussion, and I think that’s at least half the secret of his popularity. Nicolás Gómez Dávila was another great Catholic aphorist, although one who worked at a less popular level. And at a higher level still, thinkers like Pascal and Simone Weil said things suitable to shock almost anyone out of his torpor.
In an age of memes, tweets, and spin the tradition of aphorisms that transfix and transform seems to have vanished. It’s not at home in a world that rejects boldness and truth in favor of focus groups and what seems likely to sell to this demographic or that. The anonymous English scholar who blogs as Deogolwulf has composed some good aphorisms that debunk the errors of secular progressivism. He doesn’t present himself as Catholic, though, and his recent compositions are all in German, so the rest of us need to step up as well.
A good paradox or aphorism requires imaginative and literary talents, and few of us can match Chesterton in that regard, let alone some of the others I’ve mentioned. Still, as GKC himself said, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” So with that in mind, and to do what little I can to help get things started, I’ll list some snappy questions I included in my book The Tyranny of Liberalism, and append some items a friend gleaned here and there on the internet. Others can and should add their own.
Given where they appeared, mine have to do with secular liberalism, the movement that has given us Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism.” So they don’t cover everything we must deal with, but may nonetheless be useful against a major fortress of anti-Catholicism:
■If liberalism is tolerant, why all the propaganda and reeducation programs?
■If it’s based on consent, why the emphasis on judges, experts, bureaucrats, and theorists?
■If it’s skeptical and empirical, why the demand for radical transformation of all social arrangements everywhere?
■If liberalism unleashes creativity and emphasizes the individual, why does it make everyone and everything the same?
■If it lets people choose their values, how can it prescribe their opinions of other people’s values?
■If choosing my values is good, why does it become bad if I choose cultural cohesion and somewhat traditional sex roles?
■How can “diversity” (respecting differences) and “inclusiveness” (eliminating the effect of differences) be the same?
■What can freedom in private life amount to if government insists on the reeducation of children and radical reform of family life?
■Equal celebration of cultures means that particular cultural standards must be driven out of social life, since otherwise one culture will dominate others. How is that different from the abolition of culture?
■What’s the difference between saying someone has to treat beliefs about God and morality as equally worthy, and saying he has to treat his own beliefs as personal tastes and thus not beliefs about God and morality at all?
A friend has gathered other aphorisms and pointed comments from the web. Again, they’re mostly political, but that can be hard to avoid at a time when secularism makes all things political:
■What gives us freedom of spirit without self-control is disastrous. (Goethe)
■Liberalism bases human dignity not on having a human essence, but on having an active will.
■When liberty is worshipped as an end in itself, it results in the vulgarizing inclination merely to do what one likes.
■The leftist is fashion-sensitive precisely because fashion provides the stimulating novelty that alone dulls the pain and boredom of life in a Godless, meaningless universe.
■In the absence of virtue the soul gorges on imitations of virtue such as liberalism.
■Liberal society—forever trying to turn anomalies into the norm.
■License is no friend to the poor.
■The real dichotomy is not between democracy and other types of government, but between an authority based on the will, and an authority based on something transcending the will.
■The Great Lie is none other than the promise made by the serpent in Genesis 3:22—the promise that by joining the cosmic revolution against God and His order man could become a god unto himself, defining reality itself by will alone.
■As a lie accrues power, it seeks to obliterate any vestige of the truth that could expose it.
■It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. (Upton Sinclair)
■Modern Man is ashamed of innocence and prides himself on understanding evil, while the Christian is ashamed of his knowledge of evil and seeks understanding of Good.
■The faithful believer experiences a deep and abiding inner assurance that cannot be transferred to another person and is thus quite baffling to those without it.
■A coincidence is an event in which God chooses to remain anonymous.
G.K. Chesterton said that “Ideals are the most practical thing in the world.” This is why we still defend the family. This is why we insist on the ideal of marriage as a permanent union between one man and one woman, which creates the only proper setting for bringing new souls into the world, and that this purely natural act should not be interfered with.
The social trends have steadily moved in the opposite direction from this ideal in the last century. It is no longer a matter of a few loud critics getting a little testy at our quaint ideas of morality; we have gone past being attacked to being brazenly ignored. But if the society at large does not understand the moral arguments for the family, perhaps it will gain some appreciation for the practical arguments. And the recent bad news has been good news in this regard. Our arguments have been given a huge boost with the collapse of the world financial markets and the continuing economic fallout.
An economy built on massive lending and spending cannot be sustained. But the reason it cannot be sustained is not merely economic, it is moral. It regards material wealth as the ultimate goal, and people as merely a commodity to achieve that goal. It is selfish and therefore self-destructive.
An economy based on the family is self-sustaining. Its focus is on the nurturing and training of children and not on the mere acquisition of goods. The family ideal as defended by Chesterton is something quite different than the industrialized consumer family, where the family members leave the house each morning by the clock and on a strict schedule to pursue work and recreation and the majority of life outside the home. Chesterton’s ideal was the productive home with its creative kitchen, its busy workshop, its fruitful garden, and its central role in entertainment, education, and livelihood. Unlike the industrial home, life in a productive household is not amenable to scheduling and anything but predictable.
The only thing surprising about this ideal is that it was once shared by almost everyone. Children used to be considered an asset; at some point they began to be seen as a liability.
Chesterton saw the beginning of this problem when he noticed people preferring to buy amusements for themselves rather than to have children. He pointed out prophetically that children are a far better form of entertainment than electrical gadgets. The irony today is that the retailers that sell the electronic amusements are going out of business because there are not enough people to buy this merchandise.
But there is another worse problem why children are now considered a liability. They don’t merely make other material desires cost-prohibitive, they are cost-prohibitive themselves. They must be educated. The cost of educating them is obscene. A college education is the most overpriced product on the planet, and over-rated as well. Parents have the privilege of sacrificing nearly everything to send their children to college, only to have them get their heads filled with doubts and destructive ideas, undermining everything their parents have taught them.
But there are fewer parents because there are fewer children.
When social security was instituted, each retiree was supported by 15 workers. Now each retiree is supported by only three workers. Those of us who are still working spend 15% of our income to support those who aren’t working.
Our lack of domestic life is reflected in the fact that we don’t have a domestic economy. We don’t produce anything. We are suddenly watching massive layoffs, but the people being laying off (no offense to them) were not producing anything. They were either selling things, or sitting at desks and computer terminals, being paid with borrowed money, so that they could also go into debt. Now the financial center of the country has moved from New York to Washington, DC, as Gudge has passed the baton to Hudge,* who has promised that all the problems that were caused by too much borrowing will all be solved by even more borrowing.
But the younger generation cannot pay the older generation because we have committed demographic suicide. We are paying a high price not only for slaughtering our unborn children but for contracepting them. In fact, we have demonstrated that we cannot afford the high price.
We have seen the natural consequences of unnatural acts. We have witnessed a monumental economic disaster that is not the result of inflation or recession but of the devaluation of children.
Chesterton says that every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things. The obvious things are the ordinary things, and we have forgotten them. The modern world that we have created has brought with it great strain and stress so that even the things that normal men have normally desired are no longer desirable: “marriage and fair ownership and worship and the mysterious worth of man.” Those are the normal and ordinary things. Those are the things we have lost, and we need to recover them.
“The disintegration of rational society,” says Chesterton, “started in the drift from the hearth and the family; the solution must be a drift back.”