The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
9.1 (Winter 2009)
“Era of Change” Brings Little Hope for Literacy
With the reigning conviction (or ought one to say childish faith) that the election to president of a man whose genetic material is significantly African will transform life as we know it, the staff of Praesidium has been moved to ponder the likely fate awaiting literature in a post-literate world. The truth is that the political Left and Right have fundamentally self-contradictory positions on an issue which this journal has probed for years: the challenge posed by electronic culture to traditional literacy. Though the political winds have apparently shifted, the sleek schooner Meditation is still being driven inexorably toward a rocky lee shore.
The classical liberal once sought to advance (and may still do so, if he survives in certain climes) the cause of freedom (libertas) by championing the common man against the privileged elite. Among the favorite targets of his indignation were kings, pampered clergy, and rigid class distinctions. Such impediments to individual initiative and just reward were viewed as the cumulative rust of passing ages, depostied more or less arbitrarily by the human tendency to accept what has gone before. Liberalism aspired to apply acid to this calcification and restore humankind to something like its natural state, wherein people were far happier without burdens of “cultural inheritance” piled upon their shoulders.
Yet the liberal of today (the neo-liberal, as some have called him) is a devoted progressive. The return to nature having proved unfeasible, the next-best thing is an artificial adaptation of nature to the needs of ordinary people, in all their civilized weakness and corruption (viz. Rousseau). The freed serf would probably die on the steppe without some sort of benign patronage: the state, therefore, undertakes to supply affordable housing, running water, and electricity for heating and cooking. Technology becomes the Great Liberator. The contradiction is most laughably apparent, perhaps, in the fairly common tableau of a “green-minded” young bureaucrat loading his mountain bike onto a jet for a nice vacation of pedaling up and down the Rockies without emitting a particle of greenhouse gas (his portion of the plane’s fuel having far exceeded what would have powered a car along the same trip). Liberal academics seem to want intuitively to mistrust computers and the Internet… but they can’t. The aura of progress is too golden, too palpable—think of all the ghetto children who will learn astronomy from their desktop in the “projects”! In his lackluster contribution to the scintillating Sven Birkerts’ anthology, Tolstoy’s Dictaphone, fiction-writer Ralph Lombreglia opines (reflecting jointly upon the computer’s threat and his loathing of conservatives), “Let’s hope we lose something essential to our history and identity. Soon.”
For his part, the conservative is in an equal bind. His mission is to conserve those elements of the past which have survived the test of time and have enriched human beings for generations. Human nature is fixed, and no amount of technology will allow man to escape the toxic effects of his ego-impaired will or to satisfy fully his spiritual longing for the perfect and eternal. Inherited institutions are not flawless—but they have been inherited, precisely: i.e., they have served, tant bien que mal, for some period of relative stability and have revealed their flaws, furthermore, to a generation of heirs that may apply loving, patient correction. A flight of steps with one rotten board that you know well is to be trusted more during a quick exit than another flight never before tested.
The neo-conservative of our day, however, seems more intent upon clinging to the rugged individualism of the private-sector entrepreneur than upon monitoring the impact that this robust superman’s merchandise may have on moral and social values. The electronic revolution is—at least for the time being (and this could change overnight with an alteration in tax policy or the introduction of site registration fees)—a dream-come-true to small independent businesses. The worst of these enterprises traffic in snake oil and pornography; the best of them draw our children away from social interaction and into an image-saturated land of instant gratification. No website does a lively business posting closely reasoned tracts on Christian duty or on classical aesthetic theory. “What’s red is beautiful, and what’s new is bright,” as an ancient Irish saying has it: the latest technological toy will always outsell yesterday’s steady, sturdy clunker. The new conservative, therefore, dedicates himself to conserving nothing but the dynamic (and probably very temporary) freedom of his new media from the straitjacketing regulations of a centralized authority.
When neither side of the aisle can coherently distinguish the spontaneous overflow of strong feeling from multiplied, accelerated exchanges of inconsiderate impulse, we need hardly expect Mr. Obama to show us the boundary. The threat to our cultural life posed by academic “thinkers” and mass-marketing “creators” alike remains in the red, veering toward the redder. Red, alas, is not always beautiful except in ancient Ireland.