The Beast in the Living Room
Some years ago, an editor friend who has always advocated my work asked me to comment online about the particular political moment we were in. With his caveat—that the readers of this website were “pretty far out there” (I’d say highly fed and lowly taught, but that would be unkind)—ringing in my ears, I agreed.
Either I did an especially bad job—and one must remain open to that possibility, not all of ’em are diamonds—or the readership was lying in wait for me. An ill-advised scroll through the comments section revealed a chemical reaction I hadn’t anticipated, although I should have. I won’t use the word “attacked,” as I reserve that for physical assaults and combat maneuvers, but sharp disagreement doesn’t quite capture the scathing language I encountered. By the standards of today’s cancel culture, it would be par for the course, but this was the first time something I had written had provoked such a hot stream of personal criticism.
In the piece, I recounted how on Christmas my family had been invited to a friend’s home for dinner. At the table, I didn’t introduce the subject of politics, because even my rough manners are too refined for that, but at some point, I did muse that Donald Trump’s then-quixotic quest for the presidency might find improbable legs. Another guest, a woman I had never met, whirled into such a state of apoplexy, I was afraid she might blow a stroke. Neck-veins bulging, she shrieked at me for voicing such a despicable thought, and then declared the conversation “over.” She had spoken.
On a snowy February afternoon twenty years ago, the host of this gathering and his wife had driven our newborn baby home from the hospital, along with her mother and me. That’s the kind of friend he is. Or was. He hasn’t talked to me since that Christmas, and if it sounds as though my feelings are still hurt, they are, though that’s not my point here. Nor is this meant as a defense of what I said at his dinner or what I subsequently wrote about it.
What I’m trying to say, you may already know: Things have gotten worse since then.
I’d rather not acknowledge the beast in the living room, but his odor does merit a mention. We just endured a wildfire of a political season, and although to my mind the results don’t seem much in question, in many other reasonable minds the resolution remains unsettled. Polls have found that thirty percent of those on the winning side suspect some dirty tricks were in play. The tendentiousness and skepticism, the doubt and anticipated lack of integrity surrounding the election, while predictable, have only swelled the toxic cloud already enveloping what’s left of our common culture.
Any exchange of viewpoints these days, on any subject, degenerates almost immediately into an ideological spitting match. This coronavirus pandemic you might have heard about? The efficacy of mask-wearing has broken down neatly along political lines. Sports? Wildly politicized. Witness the hilarious contretemps over the Washington Football Team, which once carried a name so unutterably foul that it is, well, no longer uttered. Even food is political. There are some delicacies from nature’s bounty that the bien pensant simply won’t indulge in.
The usual suspects are easy to finger—the media, social-media, media-media. Now there’s also the pandemic, which has kept so many people at home, cowering and unemployed, with time to confirm their biases while boiling over behind omnipresent screens, feeding the impression that all is hopeless. That there is no route of escape.
This is false.
I consider myself fortunate to have this platform for my writing; the reason I write is to find out what I’m thinking. And in order to do that, I also listen. I listen to others, or try to, without wishing for them to finish talking, or worrying about what I’m going to say next. And I’ve been listening to myself. Not the cringing, self-absorbed voice that demands to be right (I may have played that Christmas scene differently today), but the aspect of my mind elevated by thinkers I’ve been attempting to absorb, from Aristotle to St. Paul to Aquinas. When that effort falls short, I go outside—light and fresh air change everything—where I listen to nature and contemplate the seasons: what’s growing—daffodils in the early spring—and what’s not—trees barren and dark. I consider the urban fauna, that is, squirrels and dogs.
I am not naturally inclined toward the pastoral, to seek out light or air or the creatures of the earth for solace. Nor am I naturally drawn to a chapel, or to the infinite wisdom that has preceded my rapidly diminishing time here on earth. I struggle to become more than I am. And my success has been . . . middling. But I am encouraged by historical figures who found themselves opposed by significantly more powerful actors than any hysterical academic leftist, and facing more dire consequences than an embarrassing impasse at a holiday table.
The nature of politics is to divide. St. Thomas More, for instance, under the thumb of King Henry VIII, was moved to write his Prayer for Good Humor while—at least I would like to think—he was awaiting the chopping block way back in 1507. Donald Trump’s great-grandfather hadn’t even been born yet. How ’bout that?
More was oriented toward the truth, and so was St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein and murdered at Auschwitz in 1942. In his homily for her canonization, John Paul II said, “Love and truth have an intrinsic relationship. Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love if it lacks truth.”
Countless others, not all of them Catholic and not all of them saints, have sought truth as the foundational principle of their lives. For example, Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick (of whom I was reminded at a family barbeque last summer where politically incorrect food was abundant), found the overwhelming truth of God in God’s creation. Melville, it should be noted, wasn’t trying to get elected to anything.
I do take pleasure in being “right,” and although being right is overrated, all I was suggesting at that Christmas dinner was the possibility that the person doing all the talking—and then telling me, in not quite so many words, to shut up because she didn’t like what I was saying—didn’t know as much as she thought she did. But if my thinking at that moment hadn’t been driven by a need to be vindicated (quite impossible, at that juncture) and a grasping desire to salvage, somehow, what could have been a convivial moment, I would have said then what I later wrote in that piece for my editor friend: I would be at a terrible loss if politics were the most important thing in my life. I’d be holding straw. Daffodils are immune to political spin. Dogs, too. Moby Dick defies political deconstruction. Love defies political deconstruction. And so does truth.