Russell Kirk's Concise Guide to Conservatism

Conservatism today is not in good shape. Like Rome in Nero’s day, where the historian Tacitus wrote that “all degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish,” one can find just about any terrible thing you want to in the fringes of the movement. But mainstream conservatism, so-called, is not much better, riven as it is by debates between nationalists and globalists, traditionalists skeptical of modernity and technological triumphalists, advocates of small businesses and massive corporations, family values activists and anything goes social liberals, hawks and doves, and just as many big government porkbarrel technocrats as the other side of the aisle. If Yeats’s famous phrase was “the centre will not hold,” conservatism seems to have no center in the first place.

Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, a formerly out-of-print handbook by one of the twentieth century’s great conservative thinkers, offers one to a movement desperately in need of re-centering. Kirk—a man of letters rather than a strictly political thinker or, worse, the curse of today’s political scene, a policy wonk—helped frame the meaning of conservatism at the time of its American revival in the 1950s, and this book is a refreshing throwback. It’s winsomely written, engaging and even funny, and a brilliant introduction to the true core of a movement that has lost its way.

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Originally published in 1957 as The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (the title being a riposte to George Bernard Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism), Kirk’s book sets out the principles of true conservatism simply and straightforwardly, drawing on the modern tradition from Burke to the 1950s. Anyone who has read the book that put Kirk on the map, The Conservative Mind, will recognize the names of many of the British and American conservatives Kirk invokes there, including John Adams, Orestes Brownson, John Randolph of Roanoke, Tocqueville, John C. Calhoun, Irving Babbitt, and Paul Elmer More, but Kirk also builds support from an even broader group of thinkers ranging as far back as Aristotle and Cicero and up to the 20th century British traditionalist liberal GK Chesterton.

This book also presents a condensed version of Kirk’s concerns in The Conservative Mind: the threat of materialist ideologies like Marxism; the leveling effects of industrialism and consumerism; the danger of totalizing, centralized state power; the collapse of community; the erosion of virtue, discourse, learning, respect for—or even knowledge of—the past; and much more. Kirk passionately explains the conservative views of freedom of conscience; private property; variety and diversity; traditional education in the liberal arts and humanities; the transcendent vision of the world offered by religion; church, community, and the other “little platoons” that make us who we are; and the family.

One of the strengths of Kirk’s book is his handling of the tensions within conservatism, of which we have plenty. I think one of the reasons “conservatism” so-called today has been pulled so badly out of shape is the attempt eliminate these tensions one way or the other, creating a balkanized political movement of simplified, un-nuanced sub-conservatisms. This is an essentially ideological search for a resolution to tension, one that insists on consistency and going to the logical extremes. Kirk avoids that temptation—insisting throughout that true conservatism is properly non-ideological—and retains these tensions.

Kirk deals with the tension between the individual and the community—both objects of immense respect and importance within conservatism—especially well, rejecting both “‘Individualism’ as a radical political ideology” (cf. Ayn Rand) as well as pure collectivism. But the best example, and possibly the best chapter in the book, is his treatment of permanence and change. Call it the tension between stability and Progress, or the status quo and the god Change. “The conservative is not opposed to progress as such,” Kirk writes, “though he doubts very much that there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a [capital] P, at work in the world.” Invoking Coleridge, he continues:

The permanence in society is formed by those enduring values and interests which give us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the deep are broken up, and society slips into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate, and society subsides into an Egyptian or Peruvian lethargy.

Kirk wrote in 1957—the year my dad, now a 62-year old grandfather, was born—but his description of an affluent, technologically sophisticated but hollow society poised between anarchy and stagnation could have been written yesterday. A faithful advocate of what he, borrowing from TS Eliot, called “the permanent things,” he could not have produced a more permanently relevant little book.

Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism also includes a good introduction from historian Wilfred McClay. Coming in at just over 100 pages, this book is a much-needed refresher at a time of crisis. You won’t find much about economic theory or policy—those are all downstream of culture—but you will find a lot about principle, virtue, family and community, respect for the past, and the right ordering of affections that makes up the conservative worldview. I hope it gains a wide readership—both among those seeking to understand conservatives and conservatism, and conservatives in search of a center that will hold.

Weaver on Lee

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

While I’m thinking of Richard Weaver, let me recommend his essay “Lee the Philosopher,” originally published in the Georgia Review in 1948 but available online—with a few glaring text recognition errors—here. Writing at a time when the United Nations was brand new and Stalin and Mao’s project of overthrowing the Chinese government had not yet succeeded, Weaver reflects on what a few of Robert E. Lee’s gnomic sayings reveal about the depths of that most handsome and inscrutable man.

One of the deepest, and most poignant, is Lee’s famous remark—recorded in a few slightly different versions—made from the heights overlooking the battlefield at Fredericksburg: “It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.”

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Weaver in “Lee the Philosopher”:

What is the meaning? It is richer than a Delphic saying.

Here is a poignant confession of mankind’s historic ambivalence toward the institution of war, its moral revulsion against the immense destructiveness, accompanied by a fascination with the “greatest of all games.” As long as people relish the idea of domination, there will be those who love this game. It is fatuous to say, as is being said now, that all men want peace. Men want peace part of the time, and part of the time they want war. Or, if we may shift to the single individual, part of him wants peace and another part wants war, and it is upon the resolution of this inner struggle that our prospect of general peace depends, as MacArthur so wisely observed upon the decks of the Missouri. The cliches of modern thought have virtually obscured this commonplace of human psychology, and world peace programs take into account everything but this tragic flaw in the natural man—the temptation to appeal to physical superiority. There is no political structure which knaves cannot defeat, and subtle analyses of the psyche may prove of more avail than schemes for world parliament. In contrast with the empty formulations of propagandists, Lee’s saying suggests the concrete wisdom of a parable.

Take some time to read the whole essay. You can read it at the link above or a few other places online, or collected in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, an insightful and beautifully written compilation of pieces on various aspects of historical Southern culture, politics, and belief.

And if you’re wondering why, after all this time, people are still invested in Lee and find him fascinating, what strange deeper resonance he has within the mind of the South, here’s Weaver again in The Southern Tradition at Bay, the doctoral thesis that eventually became his first published book:

Military history and autobiography bulk very large in Southern ‘literature,’ and no one acquainted with the history of the South will omit the influence of the soldier. Indeed, an inventory of the mind of the soldier is very nearly an inventory of the Southern mind.

Weaver, Chesterton, and the inside of history

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I’ve been revisiting a few passages from past reading that have meant and continue to mean a lot to me, bridging as they do the two things to which I’ve devoted my life: history and writing fiction.

From GK Chesterton’s 1925 book The Everlasting Man, a passage I’m almost certain I’ve shared here before:

No wise man will wish to bring more long words into the world. But it may be allowable to say that we need a new thing; which may be called psychological history. I mean the consideration of what things meant in the mind of a man, especially an ordinary man; as distinct from what is defined or deduced merely from official forms or political pronouncements. I have already touched on it in such a case as the totem or indeed any other popular myth. It is not enough to be told that a tom-cat was called a totem; especially when it was not called a totem. We want to know what it felt like. . . . That is the sort of thing we need touching the nature of political and social relations. We want to know the real sentiment that was the social bond of many common men, as sane and as selfish as we are. What did soldiers feel when they saw splendid in the sky that strange totem that we call the Golden Eagle of the Legions? What did vassals feel about those other totems, the lions or the leopards upon the shield of their lord? So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may more simply be called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can be better transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel.

That parting shot is there to keep us historical novelists humble. It’s also hilarious.

From Richard Weaver’s essay “Up from Liberalism,” published in Modern Age in 1958:

In the meantime, I had started to study the cobwebs in my own corner, and I began to realize that the type of education which enables one to see into the life of things had been almost entirely omitted from my program. More specifically, I had been reading extensively in the history of the American Civil War, preferring first-hand accounts by those who had actually borne the brunt of it as soldiers and civilians; and I had become especially interested in those who had reached some level of reflectiveness and had tried to offer explanations of what they did or the manner in which they did it. Allen Tate has in one of his poems the line “There is more in killing than commentary.” The wisdom of this will be seen also by those who study the killings in which whole nations are the killers and the killed, namely, wars. To put this in a prose statement: The mere commentary of a historian will never get you inside the feeling of a war or any great revolutionary process. For that, one has to read the testimonials of those who participated in it on both sides and in all connections; and often the best insight will appear in the casual remark of an obscure warrior or field nurse or in the effort of some ill-educated person to articulate a feeling.

Weaver isn’t directly concerned with fiction here, but his sentiments broadly parallel those of Chesterton above. I’m reminded as well of the late great Sir John Keegan’s introduction to The Face of Battle, his seminal examination of that “more in killing,” a heavy influence on my own grad work at Clemson:

Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself. One school of historians at least, the compilers of the British Official History of the First World War, have achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world’s greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Per Weaver and Keegan, you can get a bone-deep understanding from a memoir like Sledge’s With the Old Breed, Fraser’s Quartered Safe out Here, or Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier that you can’t from top-down histories of the campaigns those authors lived through. They are less concerned with how these things happened but are blistering hot answers to the central question: What was it like?

From Cass Sunstein’s 2015 Atlantic essay “Finding Humanity in Gone With the Wind”:

Nonetheless, Gone With the Wind should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy. Mitchell is interested in individuals rather than ideologies or apologetics. She parodies the idea of “the Cause,” and she has no interest in “States’ Rights.” She is elegiac not about politics, but about innocence, youth, memory, love (of all kinds), death, and loss (which helps make the book transcend the era it depicts). . . .

Gone With the Wind is a novel, not a work of history, and what it offers is only a slice of what actually happened. But as Americans remember the war and their own history, they have an acute need for novels, which refuse to reduce individual lives to competing sets of political convictions. That is an important virtue, even if one set of convictions is clearly right and another clearly wrong. In fact that very refusal can be seen as a political act, and it ranks among the least dispensable ones.

To tie these disparate commentators loosely together, Keegan—a great military historian who, because of a childhood illness and resulting disability, never personally saw combat—writes in The Face of Battle that “the central question” of the military historian is “What is it like to be in a battle?” A corollary question is “its subjective supplementary, ‘How would I behave in a battle?’” This question moves the discussion immediately from facts to imagination. While both the rigorous histories—Chesterton’s “official forms and political pronouncements,” Weaver’s “mere commentary of a historian,” Sunstein’s “ideologies [and] apologetics”—and the “psychological” ones built “to get you inside the feeling” of a time and place are both concerned with conveying truth through narrative, one is better at outlining events from on high and the other will convey Keegan’s “central question”: What was it like?

This tension runs right through both academic historical work, especially narrative history, and the creation of fictional or based-on-a-true-story narratives set in the past. Compare what I’ve written here before about the perspective war movies take.

The crucial thing all four of these writers drive at is understanding. They want us to get into—in Chesterton’s wonderful phrase—“the inside of history.” Good fiction performs that role heroically, enlivening the imagination and bringing the reader into a lost world the way nonfiction rarely can.

Note that I’ve chosen to describe this as understanding and not the milquetoast modern virtue of empathy, with its hints of uncritical acceptance, tolerance, and fundamental relativism. This is a fine distinction, but an important one, one that could carry the weight of quite a long essay. Perhaps someday. Understanding is critical; understanding is discriminating; and understanding is compassionate. It can be all of these things because it turns willingly toward what it looks at and receives it as knowledge. It is not the apathetic blind eye of empathy. Look no further than Sunstein’s essay on Gone With the Wind, in which he critiques the novel and its author at length while still holding it up as a window into understanding a different time and place—two different times and places, in fact, viewing the novel as an artifact of Margaret Mitchell’s time.

To understand all may not be to forgive all, but it is to touch brains and to see a shared humanity—common weaknesses, foibles, and, just occasionally, virtues—with people who are deeply unlike us, people we are tempted to dismiss. That applies to both the living and the dead. And if, as I’ve written earlier this semester, bigotry is ultimately a failure of imagination, we need all the good historical fiction we can get.

Stan & Ollie

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) making  Way Out West  in 1937

Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) making Way Out West in 1937

When I was a kid, the rainy day entertainment on offer at my grandparents’ house—a disordered stack of clamshell packaged VHS tapes—included Winnie the Pooh, Humphrey the Bear, the Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen version of The Three Musketeers (strange days for Disney), and an old black and white film called Utopia. This film followed two friends, a dyspeptic fat man and his thin, mostly silent buddy, on a sea voyage gone wrong. They land by accident on an island raised from the sea overnight by an storm, establish their own government, and have to deal with the consequences as adventurers eager to make a buck mob the new island republic. There’s probably a lot going on in the movie that I didn’t get as a kid, but I did enjoy the banter and physical comedy of the two leads—Utopia, which came out in 1951, was my introduction to Laurel and Hardy.

Years later, long after that VHS disappeared, I learned that it was their last film.

Stan & Ollie picks up two years after Utopia and tells the story of Laurel and Hardy’s last live tour, a trip up and down the length of Britain to raise money—and the interest of producers—for their passion project, a Robin Hood comedy. Every incident, every circumstance reminds them that they are past their prime. They draw small crowds in less illustrious theaters and stay in inexpensive hotels. They carry their own luggage and trunks of props from station to station, checking in briefly with their oily promotional agent, whose obsequiousness doesn’t mask his greater interest in the other acts he represents. And they’re aging, taking medicines for their aches and pains and wishing they could have a drink or a cigarette though they’ve given up both.

But the greatest stress on the pair is the unhealed wound of professional betrayal. Years before, Laurel had tried to lead the team out of the studio system, to strike out on their own like other successful comedy acts, but Hardy had not followed. Worse, he went on to make a film—comically but also ominously referred to as “the elephant picture”—with someone else. Even reunited, these old friends step gingerly around this issue—as long as they can. The arrival of their wives, who nurse a cordial dislike of each other, and the revelation that Laurel has not been truthful about their potential Robin Hood deal with a film producer, strain their personal and professional relationship.

These pressures culminate in a tense, painful argument in which the pair air all their old grievances. Seeming to have finally split irreparably, Hardy’s collapsing health means a second reconciliation may never come. Worse, their publicity man begins approaching Laurel with offers to work with other comedians to complete the tour.

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Technically, Stan & Ollie is a handsomely mounted period piece with great sets and costumes and some very nice cinematography. The makeup and prosthetics, worn by both leads but most obvious on John C. Reilly, who wears a heavy fatsuit to play the aging Hardy, are the best I’ve seen since Gary Oldman’s transformation into Churchill in Darkest Hour. The verisimilitude is stunning. The writing is also solid, with a well-constructed screenplay that gives us a poignant window in the last stages of a great partnership rather than, Chaplin-style, trying to tell the whole story in two hours. The tone and pace are light and agile and, despite the subject matter, fun. A prologue set on the backlot of Hal Roach Studios during the filming of Way Out West in 1937 is a riot of old Hollywood iconography, as well as setting up all the conflict and backstory for the rest of the film—as well as a poignant bookend. It’s masterfully done.

But none of this would work without the performances, which are the real glory of Stan & Ollie. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly play the roles of Laurel and Hardy perfectly. These are not imitations or impressions, mere mechanical reproductions of the way the real men performed their sketches, but fully rounded, deft, and subtle performances. Coogan and Reilly’s ranges are perfectly matched, and both handle the broad comedy of the duo’s act and the fine, delicate dramatic scenes equally well, switching from one to the other naturally.

The reception scene in which Laurel and Hardy finally snap at each other is a case in point—anger, bitterness, sadness, regret, and sometimes more than one of these at the same time, all wash through each man’s features. Each is angry, and has a good reason to be; each is hurt, and has a good reason to be; each has the viewer’s sympathy, making their fight all the more painful. It’s excellent.

The entire supporting cast is great, too, especially the wives—Shirley Henderson as the fretful Mrs. Hardy and Nina Arianda as the chronically unimpressed has-been actress now known as Mrs. Laurel. But Coogan and Reilly own this film from beginning to end, not just resurrecting the style and fun of Laurel and Hardy (the comedy bits they reenact are hilarious—I laughed all the way through all of them) but making these icons real flesh and blood men with a real friendship.

By coincidence, just before watching Stan & Ollie I read Kyle Smith’s review of Tolkien, the brand new biopic (which I’ve written about before). Smith begins his review with the observation that, “There must be a hundred films about love for each one about friendship, and yet are the two not equally vital forces in our lives?” Stan & Ollie is a warm, poignant story about not just friendship, but the pains friends must take to remain friends through the difficulties and hurts that inevitably come between people. After their fight and a health scare that threatens to permanently break up the Laurel and Hardy team, the pair begin the process of reconciliation, repairing the trust and respect that friendship requires. Contrary to the accusations they fling at each other at their low point, friendships don’t just happen, and reconciliation isn’t a single magical moment—both come about through purposeful acts of love. So Laurel and Hardy end the film with their priorities reordered: their worldly successes and even their individual health come second to friendship.

Even if the movie weren’t as fun, endearing, and uplifting as it is, the final act makes it worth seeing.

Stories in the End

Just this morning I had a talk with my dad about stress, fatigue, fretfulness, and frustration and their unlikely but surest antidote—gratitude. It was a good reminder, and brought to mind Cicero’s line that gratitude “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the mother of all others.” That line should be this blog’s motto, by now.

I mention this because I think paying tribute, honoring a memory, is one of the best ways to express gratitude. It’s that kind of profound gratitude that pervades Stories in the End, a book just released by my friend Jay Eldred.

Stories in the End is a curious book. It’s narrated by Jay’s co-author, Tom Poole, a US Navy veteran and sportsman who died in 2017 at the age of 98. He tells his story in a series of letters to a young relative named “B.” Tom’s letters to B. take the reader through his life from his boyhood to old age.

Tom was a native of Goldsboro, North Carolina, but moved with his parents to New Bern when he was two and lived there—minus his years abroad in the Navy—for 96 years. There he met and married his wife Amber, a story told with great affection and warmth.

The bulk of Stories in the End covers Tom’s years in the Navy, particularly his extensive and harrowing service in World War II. He joined the Navy before the war and thus was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He saw action at Casablanca and in the Pacific and was part of the Operation Neptune fleet that supported the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944. The day after D-day his ship, the destroyer USS Meredith, struck a mine. She sank while being towed back to England for repairs. “That night was the worst night in my life,” he writes. “Worse even than Pearl Harbor, worse than the day Amber died in 2006. We floated in the water—in the dark and in the fuel.”

He survived all of these incidents and spent another twelve years in the Navy—including what must have been a nice time as head of naval recruiting in his hometown—retiring in 1957 and taking a job first at the New Bern water plant and then Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point as a civilian contractor and hunting, fishing, and turtling. His postwar letters are full of the details of this life—his successful effort to negotiate a pay raise for his employees, the art (and a little of the science) of fishing and trapping, and visits with friends and family.

I mentioned Jay and the curiosity of his project up front because I wanted to draw attention to his accomplishment with Stories in the End. Jay based the book on audio recordings of his conversations with Tom, which Tom permitted on two conditions: that he never know when or how he was being recorded and that Jay not begin writing the book until after he had died. Jay followed both of Tom’s strictures and, consulting boxes of documents and a few written reminiscences left behind by Tom, has produced a book that genuinely feels like conversations with Tom. By the end, I was sad to know he would be leaving, that this would be our last chat.

The narrative voice is perfect—warm, winsome, and by turns funny and profoundly moving. I’ve already quoted his terse summary of the night he spent in the Channel after the sinking of the USS Meredith. Here’s the moment at Pearl Harbor when he emerges from the USS Raleigh’s boiler room:

I’d wanted to make the Navy my career. Of course, Pearl Harbor kind of decided that for me. I think Pearl Harbor was like a bad dream. There was a lot of concussion and a lot of confusion, people running here and people running there, bodies in the water and ships on fire. The Utah was tied next to us and had rolled over. I knew there were men trapped inside.

And later, as the second wave of Japanese attackers come:

The Japanese flew so close I saw one shake his fist at us and could see he was wearing a red tassel. I shook my first back at him and wished I’d had a shotgun. Instead, we were sitting dead in the water. We kept firing though, and were credited with downing six planes. We were the lucky ones, too.

Tom’s memories brim with such details—there are many, many more remarkable moments not only from his war years but from the rest of his life, and I want to leave plenty for y’all to discover.

Tom’s story is simply and extraordinarily told, a credit both to Tom for his storytelling abilities and the incredible life he led, and to Jay for the difficult task of shaping audio recordings into such a solid and compelling narrative. The effort—a sign of the gratitude Jay has brought to this project—has paid off. Stories in the End is a loving, grateful tribute both to a generation—fewer than half a million World War II veterans are still living, the book reminds us—and to an individual man, an exemplar of hard, humble work, duty and loyalty, and faith.

We've all been there, Uncle Screwtape

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My favorite line in The Screwtape Letters comes in Letter 22, as the writer, the demon bureaucrat Screwtape, launches into what Southern moms call a conniption fit over the failures of his correspondent, his nephew Wormwood. A bracketed editor’s note informs us that at this point “the MS breaks off and is resumed in a different hand.” Screwtape, now dictating, begins:

 
In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede.
 

To which I say: Who hasn’t pitched such a fit that they’ve turned into a bug?

I laugh every single time I read this line, not only because it’s hilarious but because I recognize a little of myself in it. A lot of myself, if I’m being honest. Especially since Screwtape continues (now dictating):

Now that the transformation is complete I recognise it as a periodical phenomenon. Some rumour of it has reached the humans and a distorted account of it appears in the poet Milton, with the ridiculous addition that such changes of shape are a ‘punishment’ imposed on us by the Enemy. A more modern writer—someone with a name like Pshaw—has, however, grasped the truth. Transformation proceeds from within and is a glorious manifestation of that Life Force which Our Father would worship if he worshipped anything but himself.

There’s a lot to unpack here, including some pretty dense allusions to Milton and George Bernard Shaw, but what I want to point out for the purposes of this post is the assertion that “transformation proceeds from within.”

A simple sermon illustration that I heard a number of times growing up should be a sufficient gloss: the teabag. Hot water brings out the flavor that’s already there. You can’t ascribe any tea-like qualities, any teaness, to the boiling water itself; all the tea flavor in the end product comes out of the teabag. And if, after boiling and pouring and steeping, something is wrong with the tea, the source of the problem should be obvious. The question always posed by this illustration is, of course, what qualities does the proverbial hot water bring out of you?

This is not a question I would be proud to answer.

Screwtape, of course, perversely tries to claim his transformation as a victory or a show of strength. He embraces this punishment and tries to own it, “a glorious manifestation” of his true nature, which is selfish and all-consuming. And so this otherwise comical moment of high dudgeon ends up illustrating or at least foreshadowing something Lewis argues elsewhere: “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

The Screwtape Letters remains one of Lewis’s best not only because of its insight and the way it provokes often uncomfortable self-reflection—as here—but because it’s so funny. There are several good audio versions of Screwtape, but the best is that of Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, who does comic rage like no one else. You can listen to him read Letter 22 here.

The Highwaymen on City of Man Podcast

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in  The Highwaymen

Kevin Costner as Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in The Highwaymen

 
Used to be, you had to have talent to get published. Now you just have to shoot people.
— Maney Gault in The Highwaymen
 

Last week I sat down to talk with my friend Coyle of the City of Man Podcast. Our topic of discussion was the new Netflix film The Highwaymen, directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson. The film, set in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana in the spring of 1934, tells the story of Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson), retired Texas Rangers tasked with tracking down and killing legendary spree criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

The Highwaymen dramatizes a great true story in (broadly) accurate ways and poses some interesting questions about crime, law and order, the role of force in upholding the law, progressive modern assumptions about crime and civilization, the idolization of celebrities—even criminals—and whether our sins are our own fault or forced upon us by our circumstances. Coyle and I had a great time discussing the film, the history, the themes and questions raised by the story, and more.

The only thing I wish we could’ve dug into deeper was more specifics on accuracy and authenticity. But who knows—I may resurrect Historical Movie Monday for a Highwaymen post somewhere down the road. The Highwaymen is a solid movie and I hope y’all will both watch it and enjoy our discussion of it.

You can find the City of Man Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting platforms. You can find a link to this episode’s shownotes here. I’ve also embedded the episode in a Stitcher player in this post. Please listen in, and I hope y’all enjoy!

Against the news

FAKE NEWS AND FEARMONGERING IN  CITIZEN KANE  (1941)

FAKE NEWS AND FEARMONGERING IN CITIZEN KANE (1941)

After the busiest, most hectic, and stressful semester of my career, I’m coming up for air. I have quite a backlog of stuff I’d like to share—movie and book reviews, especially—but one of the most thought-provoking things to cross my path in the last months is this excellent post by my old acquaintance Will Gray: “What I learned from giving up news for Lent this year.”

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Will decided to give up the news—all news media, even casually observed TV news in public places. The saturation of our day-to-day lives with news is such that it proved nearly impossible but, to his credit, he stuck with it. In the process, he learned a couple other important things: any truly important information will make its way to you eventually, and via more organic, meaningful routes—like, you know, family and friends—and avoiding the constant fever pitch of news consumption is “delightfully refreshing.”

It’s a good post—do check it out.

I’ve never given up the news cold turkey the way Will did this year but I’ve certainly been tempted to. And on the occasions when I have purposefully avoided the news for a day or two, or even a few hours, I have felt that refreshment. A French word for it—fresh on my mind since I’ve just lectured on Nixon and Kissinger—is détente: literally de-tensifying or unstretching. Without the news I find I can relax—I can be lax again.

But it was not ever thus. Détente might have come to my mind on this topic just this morning, but as I first read Will’s post last week I thought of something even more directly relevant: I recalled some observations in Neil Postman’s seminal critique of modern media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’ve just completed design on a new Humanities course on technology and culture—one of the things making this semester so busy—and Postman’s book will be one of the texts for the course.

Amusing Ourselves to Death examines the way different kinds of media make possible—as well as make impossible—certain kinds of discourse, ways of conversing about the world. His primary concern is with the deleterious effect of TV on American discourse (the book was published in 1985), but in the first part Postman examines “typographic” or print culture.

Postman argues that a typographic culture of discourse pertained in the United States through roughly the mid- or late-19th century, and what distinguishes a population raised on print is a long, patient attention span, the ability to focus intently, a store of shared cultural background that can be drawn upon for mutual understanding, and an immense capacity for following and digesting complicated information. His most potent example is the audience for the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858—ordinary citizens of all ages and sexes from seven respectably sized towns in Illinois who not only sat still for, but apparently followed, participated in, and enjoyed minutely detailed political and philosophical debates for upwards of seven hours at a stretch.

For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut.

All that began to change, according to Postman, with the invention of telegraphy. Because the telegraph could transmit previously hard to get information almost instantaneously over vast distances, “for the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut.” Furthermore, the information conveyed by telegraph was unformed, unsorted, “essentially incoherent.” Its speed encouraged brevity, and therefore urgency. It “introduced a kind of public conversation whose . . . language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch.” In the end, one of the most important unintended consequences of telegraphy was “to dignify irrelevance and,” more importantly for my purposes here, “amplify impotence.”

In his post, Will writes: “Many other reports, articles, exposés, and scoops are bound to have rankled you during the past 40 days. Gotten under your skin. Raised your blood pressure. Gotten your dander up.” Something we’re bound to be familiar with. Here is where Postman’s observation about the impotence created by telegraphic news reporting—and only enhanced since—comes in. One of the reasons people get so worked up about the news is that most of what they read about or see on TV they are powerless to do anything about. All one can do is fret or enjoy the show. We are, at best, a whole world of helpless observers; at worst, a world of prurient rubberneckers.

Why is this? According to Postman, “in both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.

Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action-value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became the context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.

The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing.

We’ve come a long way since telegraphy, of course, and from Postman’s era, in which “Sesame Street” and CNN—two of his notable but now seemingly quaint concerns—were relatively new threats to public discourse. The 24-hour news cycle ushered in by CNN is now the norm, and the hour is hardly a sufficient unit of time with which to measure how quickly the news comes in and changes. In the course I designed, I invite my students to conjecture what they think Postman would have made of Snapchat or, especially, Twitter.

But all of this just deepens that feeling of powerlessness. Here’s Postman again, quoted at length so you can see how his examination of this problem accidentally foreshadows even more troubling issues:

You may get a sense of this [sense of impotence] by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous mistreatment of the Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convent them into—what else?—another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

Notably, even the momentous national issues debated by Lincoln and Douglas in front of those raucous crowds across Illinois were debated from the perspective of Illinoisans. Their interest was locally inflected. It mattered to them. And so whatever worry, fretfulness, or even anger the news caused them was finite and open to their doing something about it. They had a good time at the debates, but that wasn’t because they couldn’t do anything about the issues. (I wrote more on this theme, inspired by a great line from Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, here last summer.)

Compare the news we consume nowadays. We probably all have opinions on the Mueller Report or the so-called Green New Deal, opinions we were invited to adopt and defend tenaciously by our news medium of choice. And beyond the irrelevance of our news and the powerlessness it creates in us, there’s the anxiety—which clickbaity headlines are designed to produce. Postman’s description of the kind of conversation favored by telegraphy reflects our culture of catastrophizing, apocalyptic internet headlines better than anything I’ve read from our time.

The news—simply receiving the news in the form and via the media we do now—does more harm than good. I think it’s worth opting out. I mean to, as much as I am able. It will be a discipline, but nothing worthwhile is ever arrived at purposelessly.

For myself, I plan to scale back. Like Will, I’m going to root out and delete that Apple News app just for starters. I may not quit wholly, but I’ll set aside specific blocks of time to be news-free. But as I hinted, there must be a purpose behind giving up the news. For Will, it was a Lenten discipline, “an act of solidarity with Jesus.” That’s a good starting point. Giving up the news will certainly be better for my soul than not, especially given my choleric temper. But giving up the news will also be a means to spend more time, my mind free of distant and ultimately irrelevant current events, with my wife and kids, with friends and family where we can talk about each other and not what’s going on five-hundred miles away in Washington DC or, even worse, 2300 miles away in Hollywood. I can be fully present. And I can work, bit by bit, on improving my wife, my kids, my friends and family, and myself.

Whether that makes headlines or not, I won’t care, and I certainly won’t know—until you tell me.

Piedmont Tech reading and book signing recap

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Yesterday was my reading and book signing in the library here at Piedmont Tech. I read a chapter from Griswoldville—a longer portion from the chapter I quoted a few weeks ago commemorating my grandfather—and took some really good questions about history, writing, and storytelling. We had a good turnout—over a dozen people—and several people picked up books. I sold at least one of everything!

But more important was how heartening the event turned out to be. This has been the busiest, most stressful semester of my career—I haven’t even had time for leisure reading the last several days!—and the kind folks at the library helped buoy my spirits. I’m looking forward to future events there. I also received a lot of kind comments afterward from colleagues who weren’t able to make it for the reading, and my dad even flew over from Georgia to attend. All in all, my second author event ever proved a wonderful experience.

Please enjoy the photo gallery from yesterday. All photos except the first provided by Kevin Croom, an old family friend and colleague of my dad’s back in Georgia. Please take a moment to visit Kevin’s photography page here. And as always, please check out my books either here or on Amazon.

Thanks to all who came out! I appreciate y’all’s readership.

Reading and book signing in Greenwood, SC

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I’m excited to announce an upcoming event. Wednesday, April 3 I’ll be doing a reading and book signing in Greenwood, South Carolina. The main library of Piedmont Tech’s Lex Walters Campus is hosting me. I plan to read a chapter from Griswoldville, my most recent novel, but will have copies of all of my books available. The basic facts:

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Who: Me

What: Reading and book signing

When: 12:45-1:30 Wednesday, April 3

Where: The library at the Piedmont Tech main campus in Greenwood, South Carolina

Sign up on Facebook here. You can check out each of my books here on my website or on my author page at Amazon. Click here for an excerpt from Griswoldville (I’ll read a different passage when the big day arrives).

I’m grateful to PTC for this opportunity and really looking forward to it. Please join us!