Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Why I'm supposed to be writing

I apologize for the overload of vertical pronouns in the following post. However, yesterday I got a reminder of why I got into the blogging game ... or, rather, why I'm supposed to be writing. A big, fat message from God saying, "You're doing it wrong."

On Nov. 4, 2012, I published a post here exploding the elitist-left trope that people join the military because they're "too dumb to go to college"

College tuition assistance, I wrote, has been a big draw for the military over the last forty years. You have to have a certain amount of intelligence just to be able to join; and if you don't have the intelligence, self-discipline, and self-motivation to succeed in the armed forces, you're not likely to succeed in college, either. Besides, I explained, you're not likely to have a long or prosperous military career if you don't get an advanced degree along the way — a bachelor's, if you're enlisted; a master's, if you're an officer. Some have even gone on to earn doctorates while still in uniform. The Department of Defense spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year just on paying tuition for the currently-serving, veterans, and retirees. Overall, I concluded self-righteously, the "too dumb to go to college" is long past its shelf life, and needs to be discarded.

Yesterday, I received an email from a Marine veteran:

Sir, two items:

I appreciate your post about servicemembers being well-educated, citing the example of the Grammar Marine on twitter.‎ I'm passing it along to my Marines in grad schools.

Also, thank-you for linking the Drexel University veterans' program. The VA lost my MGIB, of course, forcing me to drop out of my PhD program. Then I'd gotten nowhere with AMU‎ Admissions: It seems that an unacceptable candidate is one publishing multiple internationally-acclaimed works and achieving a GRE of 1220 *after* a major brain injury. So I have just now enquired of Drexel's online graduate school instead .... you've given me hope and, fingers crossed, a way through.

Semper Fi, my friend, and thank you for your service. Please pray for this Marine, and for all veterans facing similar difficulties.

Non mihi Domine sed Nomine Tuo da gloriam. I bring this up, not for any praises, but as an example of one of those moments when God gives you a Gibbs-slap to the back of your head: "Hey, dummy! Wake up and pay attention!" Instead of kvelling with pride, I'm kicking myself in the butt.

When I first began writing back in my high-school years, it was solely for myself. I was never much of a diarist; eventually, my writing became a method of clarifying my thoughts to myself. Even today, I often don't know what I think about X, or why I think it, until I write it out first; to paraphrase St. Anselm, "I write that I may understand." Scriberem ut intellegerem might very well be my epitaph.

But when I began blogging (for the second time) in 2008, I realized dimly that I could no longer write for myself, especially if it were to be in any meaningful sense a ministry. This realization became clearer in 2011 when I read a piece by the late writer and philosopher Ralph McInerny, the author of the Father Dowling mystery (book) series. In the middle of the piece, McInerny said:

The dilettante writes to amuse himself, an easy task, but the serious writer seeks to interest a reader. ... No one owes you a reading. It has to be earned.

In short, my writing had to be for the benefit of others if my blogging were to be more than an exercise in vanity, the most common disease afflicting writers. I reasoned, "If by writing I help at least one person in some way, it won't be a wasted effort."

Over the years, though, I lost track of that understanding. Though I've often rationalized the subjects I wrote about and the manner in which I wrote about them, I pretty much became just another one of thousands of yammering opinionators bloviating on the issues of the day, occasionally contributing my mite to the glowing, fetid slag heap of "outrage porn" I profess to despise so much.

In other words, I became a "culture warrior".

In a recent post on "sanctioned bigotry", Melinda Selmys writes:

The reason that the Culture Wars are rife with sneering, stereotyping and scapegoating is that they serve this basic, tribalistic impulse to consolidate our corporate identities by constructing a common enemy.

Sincere disagreements about how a society ought to be organized, how the concept of family should be understood, how children should be educated, etc. cannot be logically discussed, nor can reasonable compromises be accepted because the goal is not to seek a common vision, but to win. The point is not to engage with the other side, to seek mutual understanding, or even to persuade: it’s to consolidate one’s own forces, to reinforce a common ideology, and to demonstrate that the other is evil, wrong, malicious, stupid and inferior.

Exactly. But what Selmys doesn't say is, writing outrage porn gets us web hits. We feed the monster because it feeds us. Such is the dark dynamic that we benefit from the web hits coming from the enemy, from the people who feel driven to jump into the combox to shame us for our ignorant, hateful, bigoted screeds; we almost beg for trolls, because web hits from the malicious count as much as web hits from the thoughtful. In feeding the bigotry on our side, we also feed the bigotry on the other side. The seduction of this darkness is such that Commonweal's Cathleen Kaveny can't exculpate Pope Francis from causing division without pointing a finger at the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and First Things: "HE STARTED IT!"

Rev. Bill Casey CPM speaks of a bishop who complained to him, "The apostles gave one sermon and converted three thousand souls. We give three thousand sermons and don't gain one single convert." That's because many of us are/have been less interested in converting souls than in scoring points. Earlier in her post, Selmys writes:

[This] of course leads to the question, “Why do conservative Catholic publications publish this shit?” [To be fair, Selmys later accuses liberal publications of trading in the same noisome mess.] It’s always the same tired arguments and tropes wheeled out over and over again. Nobody is converted by it. Nobody is convinced by it. Edification does not take place. When someone from outside of the deep conservative ghetto reads one of these pieces, they are invariably scandalized. If they make the mistake of also reading or (worse) engaging with the com-box, then whoever they are, they come away with their estimation of Christianity and specifically Catholicism diminished. Basically, it’s a form of counter-witness. So why do they publish it?

Yes, it gets tiresome; there are several dead and dying horses I have very little interest in beating anymore. Moreover, as it was recently brought home to me, there's no privacy on the Internet; there's few ways you can be a jerk in cyberspace without somebody finding out and being offended by your assholery.

However, one of my great weaknesses is impatience, especially with people who I think are blind to the painfully obvious. All too often, though, obvious is simply another way to describe the tribalist dogmata we often learn subconsciously and repeat blindly, conclusions whose premisses we've never found time or cause to question let alone dispute. Few writers and publishers have the time, the education, or the word limit to go all the way back to first principles like St. Thomas Aquinas. Often enough, it's too damn difficult to find common ground to start from, to find indisputables that are really beyond dispute.

This makes it far too easy to get sucked into "sanctioned bigotry", to treat people whom I believe to hold an erroneous position as "stoopid". Charity in truth, eh, Layne?

That's not really helping anyone. I could have taken apart the "too dumb to go to college" trope without making fun of the people who believe it. I did help someone, but it was more by accident than by intent: therein lies my shame.

The second reading this last Sunday was from 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned [or "so as to boast" (NABRE)], but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Didn't I just say the other day that without truth charity — caritas, agapÄ“, the love that wills the good of the other — suffers? And that the reverse is also true, that without charity truth suffers? "Physician, heal yourself" (Luke 4:23).

Truth occasionally hurts? So do lies. The worst kind of friend to have is one who hides his malice behind the mask of candor, who excuses his insensitivity by saying, "I'm just being honest." Bluntness is not a synonym for truthfulness.

Now granted, it's possible under the new status quo that I could write a post in praise of ice cream and have one or two people accuse me of a microaggression against the lactose-intolerant. But the appropriate response to hypersensitivity is tactfulness, not insulting, crude insensitivity. 

Besides, it doesn't really matter whether hurt feelings are a valid reason for shutting you off, or whether they're merely a pretext — the fact remains that you've been shut off; the other person is beyond your reach. So you won the argument? That's a Pyrrhic victory in my book: every such victory brings us another step closer to losing the war.

Time to wrap this up:

Shortly before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln said to his longtime friend, Joshua Speed, "Speed, when I'm dead, I want it said of me that I always planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow." Not a bad ambition for a man who was then at the pinnacle of his power and nearing a victory for which he'd spent four years working. And frankly, I think I'd prefer that on my tombstone.

As nice as it is to have helped one person, I could be helping more. Thank you, Marine, for reminding me why I'm supposed to be writing.