JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS.  Everyone here seems to pretty much agree that we are in a pickle.  The symptoms are there for anyone to see.  The root causes are perhaps more difficult to ferret out, and may be multiple and varied.  One of these must certainly be the declining standards of rigor and membership which is a social phenomena in need of some steely analysis.

This decline has been a long time in the making during a drawn out historical period of cultural declension and it poses a fundamental threat to any organized, institutional, human structure based on membership.  Today’s bricolage of identity commitments is not long for the world, being overrun by events on the ground, and this realization has spawned any number of weepy eulogies or eye-popping warnings about the end of Christianity or the end of conservatism or the end of what-have-you.

Mostly these expressions serve only to demonstrate that people generally have no idea how membership and identity work as historical and cultural forces.  Consider the rise of group blogs (!), vanity presses, diploma mills, and the like.  By all accounts, the fake qualification business is booming.  Has a star been named after you yet?  How many hits has your blog had today?  Naturally, this is complete excrement.

In a society that has rejected the historical function of meaningful grouping, people begin to confuse the possession of discreet, material objects or opinions (a “book,” a “diploma,” “faith,” or a “political ideology”) with the accomplishment, esteem, and belonging they really desire.  As this breakdown occurs it is driven by a resentment that perceives “faith” or “authorship” or “politics” or even “family” as a kind of exclusive club which they either no longer know how to enter or do not have the chops to do so.  And they certainly cannot accept that they might not be allowed in under any circumstances.

Trading on this confusion layered over with generalized idiocy and low self-esteem, the credentialing industry–including the massive political credentialing industry (this is what Limbaugh really is)–seeks to remedy existential unrest with a set of opinions or beliefs that require anything but hard work and wisdom.  Worse yet, this is how many people view even formerly legitimate communities, faiths, diplomas, citizenships or other indices of human struggle to come to terms with existence.  Legitimate and illegitimate accomplishments and identities collapse in on each other.  Americans do not now know what the fixed standards are for quality, competency, membership, and real achievement in any area of life (certainly not in the area of faith or politics), except maybe facebook.  If you tell them they will deride you as an elitist.

This is now endemic and in fact fundamental to the nation: our citizens habitually dislike and rail against established institutions that are necessarily particularist and exclusive.  When these institutions are healthy they don’t care what outsiders think of them.  They put big demands on those who want in and they remain unapologetically “elitist.”  Well-founded traditional institutions including the Christian church, the family, and the major political parties float in this corrosive ooze which threatens and erodes those institutions bit by bit and has already destroyed many of them.

I suspect most people are mainly concerned with producing a pantomime of respectable religious faith, citizenship, or political affiliation because this is the only way they know to protect an experience of belonging that has not only become very distant but is also largely inaccessible because there is too much effort involved.  This amounts to a complete rejection of the classical model of learning, achievement, and membership which imposes only two rules: 1) accept that you are not the master and not even close; and 2) take your beatings and work harder. 

It is only on such a common standard that men, whoever they are and whatever their station–rich or poor, barber or builder, clodhopper or shopkeeper–can know and experience true equality, for they know and honor the true measure of the other.  They are “equal to their own needs” in Wendell Berry’s terms, which is the foundation of that quaint Aristotelian notion philia politike–political freindship–otherwise known as peace and happiness. 

This kind of friendship subsists in a spiritual and political economy the ancients called amicitia–the loving partnership between God, Creation, and Man.  This experience of political or religious fraternité produces health and wholeness.  Which is to say, it produces the strength to shoulder existence in faith, hope, and love.

Local Culture
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  1. A fine rebuke of the vicarious agora. This is what is to be expected of a depauperate culture that gets everything it knows from a buzzing box of meticulously planned commercial interruptions.
    Perhaps if the U.S. Constitution was illustrated and had a Grand Prize, things would be more gooder.

  2. I empathize with the lament of the anti-institutionalism on which modern individualism seems to thrive (first the church, then the state, now the corporation/or not!).

    But equally deplorable are the institutional reactionaries, Pious Xers being the most extreme example recently (though elements of the Christian Right in America as well as the Roman Curia always seem at risk of it). Rather than define themselves positively, such institutions begin to define themselves negatively against the culture they’re railing against. While you hedge this with noting that “when these institutions are healthy”… but even so, you’re downplaying the fact that in this world members of these institutions have identities that are greater than this institution alone. My membership in the Catholic Church must find some accord with my identity as a member of the academic community, as a member of multiple literary and artistic communities, as a member of an urban community, a regional community, etc. etc. While this is a rather obvious observation, it highlights the soft-underbelly of this juicily polemic post—that institutions are equally responsible to their members, that institutions must be aware of the multiplicity of commitments of their members and therefore must establish standards of membership/quality control sensitive to these commitments, and that the first step to such sensitivity is forbidding total demonizations of “the other.”

    elsewise, cheers.

  3. Substance without accidents and accidents without substance, hoo-boy!

    BD has put his finger on a central tension tearing at our fabric. My favorite example of this is poor young Hadley Waldman, a young penitent gluten intolerant child whose mother would not permit her to receive holy communion due to the substance (or was it accidents) of the wafer.

    Of course, this phenomena has much more serious (or is it silly) manifestations, like the buffoonish Madhavi Sunder who is a legal scholar of some note and expounded her progressive theories not that long ago in the Yale Law Review that the law require “an individual right to construct one’s identity, not just without religious and cultural community, but also within it.” Queer theorists and other metaphysical rebels take note!

  4. As Archie Bunker replied to Meathead after he accused Archie’s club of being a bigots:

    “We aint prejudiced, we’re just particular”.

    Inclusiveness seems to breed as many demons as exclusiveness with the principle problem of the State-Sponsored Inclusiveness today is that when the State attempts to make a souffle, it consistently creates a very expensive mud pie and then tries to promulgate its status as a souffle through legislation. Needless to say, mud futures soar.

  5. I am put in mind, by Caleb’s fine exhortation here, of Neuhaus’s (recently reprinted, but to which I cannot immediately find a link) remarks from an early “On-the-Square” wherein he defined and defends the law he observes: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” (And if it isn’t a law, it is at least an amazingly stubborn illusion.) He refers to the Oxford Movement Anglicans and how after valiantly opposing modernism in, and wrestling for control of what they supposed to be the One Holy (and Apostolic) Catholic Church, English Province, they had, in a span of only about 30 years, been reduced to special pleading (to diversity, tolerance, freedom of conscience, rights as Englishmen, what have you) to protect their very place in that communion at all.

  6. Forget, please, “conservatism.” It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    “[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Recovering Republican

  7. Part of the problem is that organizations have lost their concrete benefits. A hundred years ago, the lodge, club, guild, union and church often included functions that have been usurped by the welfare state. You paid your dues for a lifetime, and got in return some kind of medical insurance, old age pension, or guaranteed admission to an old folks’ home. Or you voted and supported the local political party and got special access to jobs and favors. “Good government”, the welfare state, and antidiscrimination laws have broken these circles. Only the Mormon church still retains some of the old qualities, which probably accounts for its strength and stability.

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