John Derbyshire and Mark Shea both mentioned Peggy Noonan's column this week, and approvingly so. Well, that's a recommendation you can hardly pass up. Mark gets the thanks in this case, because he included the link to her column, which is thoughtful as always.
"Do people fear the wheels are coming off the trolley?" she asks.
I'm not talking about "Plamegate." As I write no indictments have come up. I'm not talking about "Miers." I mean . . . the whole ball of wax. Everything. Cloning, nuts with nukes, epidemics; the growing knowledge that there's no such thing as homeland security; the fact that we're leaving our kids with a bill no one can pay. A sense of unreality in our courts so deep that they think they can seize grandma's house to build a strip mall; our media institutions imploding--the spectacle of a great American newspaper, the New York Times, hurtling off its own tracks, as did CBS. The fear of parents that their children will wind up disturbed, and their souls actually imperiled, by yhe popular culture in which we are raising them. Senators who seem owned by someone, actually owned, by an interest group or a financial entity. Great
churches that have lost all sense of mission, and all authority. Do you have confidence in the CIA? The FBI? I didn't think so.
But this recounting doesn't quite get me to what I mean. I mean I believe there's a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming.
There's a feeling in the air, and we don't quite know what to make of it. It pops up in everyday conversation, and it brings us to silence for a moment and then we move on, just as before but not quite:
I know a 12-year-old with dozens of pairs. They're thrown all over her desk and bureau. She's not rich, and they're inexpensive, but her parents buy her more when she wants them. Someone said, "It's affluence," and someone else nodded, but I said, "Yeah, but it's also the fear parents have that we're at the end of something, and they want their kids to have good memories. They're buying them good memories, in this case the joy a kid feels right down to her stomach when the earrings are taken out of the case."
This, as you can imagine, stopped the flow of conversation for a moment. Then it resumed, as delightful and free flowing as ever. Human beings are resilient. Or at least my friends are, and have to be.
Or take another dramatic example, as Noonan recounts a story from Christopher Lawford's new memoir, as he recounts an evening spent with relatives, including his uncle, Ted Kennedy. Ted's in an expansive mood, talking about how if he hadn't gone into politics he'd have wanted to be an opera singer, singing at la Scala and eating pasta every night. Everyone laughed, and then the mood changed:
Then, writes Mr. Lawford, Teddy "took a long, slow gulp of his vodka and tonic, thought for a moment, and changed tack. 'I'm glad I'm not going to be around when you guys are my age.' I asked him why, and he said, 'Because when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.' "
Mr. Lawford continued, "The statement hung there, suspended in the realm of 'maybe we shouldn't go there.' Nobody wanted to touch it. After a few moments of heavy silence, my uncle moved on."
Noonan doesn't think Teddy was worried about the family falling apart. It was everything falling apart. And she thinks, "If even Teddy knows..."
What do we make of all this? Noonan thinks the elites, the
"educated and successful professionals" who are supposed to take care of these things, have given up. "[T]hey're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it."
Not all the elites are in this boat:
There are a lot of people--I know them and so do you--trying to do work that helps, that will turn it around, that can make it better, that can save lives. They're trying to keep the boat afloat. Or, I should say, get the trolley back on the tracks.
That's what I think is going on with our elites. There are two groups. One has made a separate peace, and one is trying to keep the boat afloat. I suspect those in the latter group privately, in a place so private they don't even express it to themselves, wonder if they'll go down with the ship. Or into bad territory with the trolley.
Peggy Noonan echoes the feelings I've had many times (as a natural pessimist, I'm prone to this bleak outlook anyway). But why do we feel this way? What's behind this apprehension we have? Mark Shea does with it afterward, as he launches into a discussion of Leviticus 26, and the "covenant curses," a fascinating observation that I'd never even considered - at least consciously:
John Paul taught that the mark of original sin was the loss of the apprehension of God as Father. When a culture is dominated by original sin and gives in to the abandonment of God, they don't get nothing--they get the apprehension of God as Master. This applies to believers and atheists alike. The great 19th Century atheists were all working very hard to not believe in God. They weren't at all working to disbelieve in Loki, Apollo or Quetzlcoatl. But instead of banishing God, they simply succeeded in approaching him as Master and Oppressor. We're in increasingly the same bind today. We are busily rejecting God as Father and finding ourselves doomed to face him has Judge and Master. And so the subtext of fear and chaos increasingly undergirds all our daily doing. The apprehension of judgment, rather than fatherly love, increasingly dominates our minds. That's not because God has changed. It's because we are changing into a people who are forgetting our vocation to be human and instead increasingly embracing a false vision of ourselves as clever beasts, tools, cogs, slaves, and masters. It is fitting then, that our enemy is a religious tradition that likewise sees our relationship with God as fundamentally that of Master and slave.
Is this what's bothering us, the knowledge that our nation, our society, has rejected God the Father and now awaits the decision of God the Judge? Is this why so many seem to feel nowadays that nothing matters, that one should live for the moment? Having already rejected God as Father, are we now in such despair and denial that we also reject His divine mercy? In fact, are we so stubborn that we refuse His mercy because acknowledging its existance would also acknowledge His? Are we so desperate to deny Him that we consign themselves to hell in the process?
There's always hope, Mark says; the Christian always believes in the possibility of repentence. But can we really say that we see the signs of such a societal movement? Mark concludes:
Nonetheless, grace happens and the bottom line is that just because we are foolish enough to insist on relating to God as Master instead of Father does not mean that God is satisfied with that arrangement. He's forgiven billions of sin. He will not change. But we had better do so or the fear we're feeling will only increase--and justly so.
And this post is an example of why the blogosphere is so great, for where else could one find two such powerful arguments as Peggy Noonan's and Mark Shea's, all in one place? Thanks for both, Mark.