Chesterton and the Year in Review
As has been pointed out by many a pundit, 2014 was a pretty bad year for American society. I don’t mean that it was bad for everyone, and I certainly hope it wasn’t bad for you. And I don’t mean it was worse than most years in a grand sense; we live, after all, in a fallen world and every year sees tragedy, famine, natural disasters and unfathomable heartbreak. But, compared to say the last 25 years, 2014 was a pretty bad year for American society in all facets, not just economically.
We lived with the constant reminders that Russia, led by someone who is probably an egotistical maniac, was flamboyantly defying world order and attempting to resurrect the dying embers of a political and social system that was among the deadliest in history. 2014 was the “Year of Outrage” according to none other than the Kings of Outrage, Slate, meaning that 2014 was a year marked by people finding and disseminating anything they thought should outrage other people. We saw another country led by another leader who is also probably a maniac threaten war because of a satirical movie, and then we saw capitulation to the threat. We were reminded by Ferguson and Staten Island of the continuing reality of the discriminate treatment of African-Americans by our criminal justice system (whether or not those specific instances were discriminatory, it reminded us of the reality). In the aftermath, in the protests and the backlashes to the protests and the backlash to the backlash and ultimately in a the reaction to the actions of a deranged lunatic, we were reminded that we perhaps haven’t come as far as we would like to think on the issue of race relations. We were told a story about the prevalence of the rape culture at a specific university, and were forced to confront the reality of the degradation and objectification of women more generally; a sad but entirely predictable effect of the free love era of the 60’s and 70’s and the resulting sexualization of society. Yet then we leanred that the specific story was the result of shoddy journalism and perhaps boldfaced lies, depressing enough in its own way, and the reaction to that reality - a willingness to pretend that the larger issue doesn’t exist either - was depressing in its own way. A plane disappeared. Young celebrities succumbed to their demons. A virus arrived and somehow we all cared less about the tens of thousands dying in another continent than on the possibility that a few could be a threat to us here, mostly because the media cared more about drumming up fear than, you know, anything else. And then there was ISIS.
I could go on, but I don’t want to add to the existential and nationwide depression. How do we respond? An optimist would perhaps respond by arguing that 2014 wasn’t all that bad anyways, and certainly 2015 will be better. A pessimist would respond by opining that all is lost, and even if we could do something to make 2015 better (and we can’t) people have made their bed and they deserve to lie in it. Most distressingly, a synthesis of those two views would say that we live in a fallen world, there is always a mix of good and bad - sometimes one marginally more or less than in other years - and our job is to get along as best we can until Jesus comes back and makes all things new and glorious.
G.K. Chesterton, though, shows us that there is another, and I think better, way. This is a long quote, but it puts the past year in proper perspective and offers an excellent diagnosis and prognosis for an effective engagement with culture in 2015.
“The evil of the pessimist is not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises—he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things. [Conversely], the optimist [it is said], wishing to defend the honor of this world, will defend the indefensible. He is the jingo of the universe…he will be less inclined to the reform of things. He will not wash the world, but whitewash the world…
“We say there must be a primal loyalty to life; the only question is shall it be a natural or supernatural loyalty? Shall it be a reasonable or unreasonable loyalty? Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism (the whitewashing, the weak defense of everything) comes in with the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimist that leads to reform. Let me explain by using once more the parallel of patriotism. The man who is most likely to ruin the place he loves is exactly the man who loves it with a reason…Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love [their country], but a theory of their country….only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy (my note: the parallels to some patriots’ falsification of U.S. history is stunning. Chesterton was prescient.)…A man who loves France for being military will palliate the army of 1870. But a man who loves France for being France will improve the army of 1870…the more transcendental your patriotism, the more practical are your politics…
“This at least had come to be my position about all that was called pessimism, optimism and improvement. Before any cosmic act of reform we must have a cosmic oath of allegiance. A man must be interested in life, then he could be disinterested in his views of it. ‘My son, give me thy heart’; the heart must be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand. I must pause to anticipate an obvious criticism. It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective…I know this feeling fills our epoch, and I think it freezes our epoch. For our Titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle to be stormed, and as our own cottage, to which we can safely return at evening.”
That, I think, is both the proper response to 2014 and the proper perspective entering 2015. We must be irrational pessimists and irrational optimists. The jingoistic, mostly conservative temptation will be to pretend that racial discrimination does not exist very much at all and thus there is nothing to improve in 2015. And the pessimistic, mostly liberal temptation will be to find the U.S. to be an entirely immoral lot, as proven by the results of the midterm elections and the response to Ferguson and Staten Island, and to continue to content ourselves with self-congratulatory and self-righteous outrage and nothing else; it is not worth saving because it is not worth loving. And, to Chesterton, the most distressing option would be the rationalist view, which will be decently satisfied with the good and will continue to endure the bad. But the best response, the Chestertonian response, would be irrational pessimism and irrational optimist. As he would say, we must both want radical improvement because we hate culture so much, and be willing to work hard enough to enact radical improvement because we love culture so much.
We could say the same about any other issue. The jingoist will pretend the Outrage Industry doesn’t exist or, if it does, it’s mostly good, while the pessimist will be so depressed by it that he will not say anything at all because undoubtedly it will make the rounds on social media and he will become a pariah. The rational optimist will endure the ones who get unjustly fired or embarrassed and be satisfied when the one shamed is Donald Sterling. The irrational pessimist/optimist will find a better way. Name another problem and we can continue to fill in the blanks. The jingoist will deny the existence of the rape culture; the pessimist will say #YesAllMen; the rational optimist will shrug and say “boys will be boys” while pointing out that sexual assault is (slightly) declining.
But there is a better way. Let’s be irrationally pessimistic, and irrationally optimistic. Let’s continue to engage with the world and pop culture and seek to improve it not because it (including us, of course) is so good but because it is ours. It’s the world we’ve been given and commissioned to love enough to interact with and preach the gospel to. As Chesterton put it, and so much better as he always does: “No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world; but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to thing it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it? In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds. He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself.”