One of the themes to emerge from the debates and discussions surrounding the Synod on the Family is the counter-cultural nature of traditional values. Yuval Levin, writing in First Things, takes up one strand of this thought, writing about the decentralization and polarization of our society–which he notes is not necessarily a bad thing. Individuals and families are searching for a sense of community and common purpose to bring some security and order out of the chaos in this time of transition which Levin rightly diagnoses. The counter-culture of yesterday is now the dominant culture of today, and we are the counter-culture of tomorrow.A Handbook for Revolutionaries?
This past weekend, we took the kids to a pumpkin patch for all of the standard fall pastimes–corn maze, hayride, stuffing scarecrows, apple cider, popcorn, face painting, and of course picking out the best carving pumpkin. Although we were surrounded by strangers, everyone was there with a family. As the children slept in the car ride home, exhausted from a glorious afternoon of excitement and wonder, my dear wife observed that we didn’t have anything like this when we were young. For us and previous generations, children were expected to make up their own activities in the neighborhood. Today, parents actively seek out stimulating activities to keep their children entertained and more importantly, to socialize with other parents. This may not sound like a revolution, but it is a sign of things to come.
During the World Cup, there were several articles lamenting the decline of pick-up games of stickball in the abandoned sandlot in favor of organized soccer leagues, but in a way, there is something refreshing about the intentionality of children’s activities today. Contrary to the contrarians’ view of soccer as an un-American abomination, this is not a new phenomenon. Prior to the world wars, parents would go to great lengths to ensure their children associated with the right sort of people to maximize their prospects and advancement. The idea of the self-possessed child capable of finding his or her own way in the world is assuredly a novel and passing experiment which has been shown to be an utter failure by the infantilization and unending childishness of our culture. Instead of treating children as future adults, we treat adults as aging children.
The Baby Boomer generation grew up in a monolithic culture which took its institutions for granted. After decades of neglect and corruption, these institutions no longer server their purpose. Schools are a disaster. Journalists are no longer trusted. Police brutality is everywhere. Health care is unaffordable. Structural unemployment, particularly of young adults, is the new normal. All of this does not mean that we should not be optimistic though. Where previous generations destroyed vibrant and flourishing communities out of ignorance to build brutalist monstrosities and soulless suburban sprawl out of sheer hubris, today we have the benefit of their hard-earned experience and we build not out of foolish pride, but out of necessity. We cannot continue on the current course of atomization and isolation that is driving people apart–and people do spend so much time driving these days, or rather, playing with cell phones when they should be paying attention to driving.The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Raphael, 1515
As Jesus told his disciples, “cast your nets.” As we build a new society from the remains of the one that is now dying, we are all fishers of men. Casting our nets, then–social networking in the original sense, not through the constrained medium of some gadget which traces our every move to maximize advertising revenues, but face-to-face over a cup of steaming mulled cider–is a welcome development. Parents are right to seek out other parents for mutual support and socialization. Whereas in the past communities were formed by people with a shared cultural and ethnic heritage living cheek by jowl in filthy and decrepit tenement slums, today we are building communities based on shared values and common aspirations. The melting pot and the wrecking ball have done their work and the past is gone. We must take responsibility for what is erected in its place.
We must remember that our public institutions–schools, hospitals, police, newspapers, theaters, and libraries–were built by people who came together in the wilderness to create a new society founded on religious freedom and self-reliance. In the wilderness of the decaying and rotten dominant culture of today, we must once again build institutions from nothing in order to serve the needs of the people. Yuval Levin writes of Christian survival in times of persecution, but we must also combine this with the good old-fashioned American pioneer spirit and time-honored Yankee ingenuity. Instead of facing the future with fear and foreboding or being blinded by nostalgia for the bygone past, we have the opportunity to build a new world as our forefathers once did before us. Just as it was then, tomorrow is what we make of it.