Last month The Atlantic published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig entitled “A Culture That Kills Its Children Has No Future.” As a statement of fact, it can hardly be argued. Every child that dies leaves a yawning void in the future of humanity. Every parent who has suffered a miscarriage, watched a son succumb to cancer, or had to bury a daughter killed in her classroom knows the emptiness that opens up forever after. A child’s death is one of the most potent signs that our world is fallen, that something has gone wrong in the order of nature.
As it happens, Mrs. Bruenig’s article deftly addresses much of what is wrong with America today: the apparently endless cycle of violence inciting a few days of social media outrage only to resolve into apathy; the parade of mass shooters with their manifestos and their memes and their body armor; the sense that the dream of American social and economic mobility is quickly becoming a relic and that political influence lies always out of reach; perhaps above all, the feeling that America has lost all purpose, all direction, all spiritual energy in pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. No longer Christian, we are haunted by the Spirit, and the beat of its hovering wings can hardly shake that inmost calm that comes of completely ceasing to care.
It is telling that Mrs. Bruenig alludes frequently to the culture of death as the prevailing force in American life. It is telling, too, that she makes no direct mention of abortion. The nearest she comes thereto is in a brief reference to the disparity between healthcare standards in America and other developed countries and the fact that millennials are having children at the lowest rate on record; abortion advocates frequently cite our nation’s health and childcare standards as compelling reasons for the maintenance of women’s right to “choose.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I am told that Mrs. Bruenig is in fact a faithful Catholic, and it is thus quite likely that her decision to omit the matter of abortion was prudential. Probably her frequent use of the phrase “culture of death” was meant with all the weight given it by St. John Paul II. Such language allows her to bring mainstream liberal politics into conversation with the Catholic tradition. Were it not for this clue, though, I would be inclined by the mere fact of her being in the employ of the Atlantic, which remains among the nobility of the liberal cadre prophesying the doom of woman in post-Roe America, that she adheres to the core set of its dogmas. Such inclinations are unfair, yet they have been programmed into our mode of reading the news.
The fact that our media outlets have become so prescriptive is one of the most troubling aspects of the contemporary transmission of information and opinion. To see that The Atlantic has published a piece under the title “A Culture That Kills Its Children Has No Future” is to know already all of the article’s salient features.
By no means is this limited to the liberal media. An article of the same title, published in First Things or Crisis, would likewise forecast the bulk of its content to the reader. There is a logic to this. News articles are not books or even short stories. The consumer expects his information fast, and if the title will suffice to bridge the gap between writer and reader, so much the better.
Such partisan reportage can little aid the reader in pursuit of truth. The various outlets and their audiences have been, as it were, presorted according to the lineaments of our bipartisan system. Each side of the grand American aisle has become an eidetic echo chamber, reinforcing party doctrine, appealing desperately to common sense (“can’t you see you’re wrong, morons?”), and otherwise attempting to blast, pan, rip, and slam the enemy.
We have learned to evaluate all headlines, indeed all statements, according to their purveyors. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, this is one of the gravest errors possible in the intellectual life. We ought to evaluate all statements, he reminds us, according to what is being said rather than who is saying it.
The present state of affairs is difficult, too, for the writer who wishes to set down truth and to reach an audience. The rhetorical terrain is perilous. So far has America departed from common sense under the influence of partisan power plays, identity politics, and the gospel of Wokeness that to make simple factual observations is often to be accused of radicalism, fear-mongering, and hysterics.
For instance, it’s plain that abortion practices around the world frequently follow in the eugenicist footsteps of the Nazis. Make that observation in print, though, or in casual conversation, and hear the voices of reason and empathy tell you how hideously wrong you are. It’s all very well calling a spade a spade, that is until we find ourselves in a world where everyone’s convinced all spades are clubs or that spades simply don’t exist. In the house of the madman, the sane one seems a lunatic.
Given these rhetorical and logical grounds, the urbane bastions of media liberality, places like The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker, appear at a distinct advantage. Their premises and conclusions are often, as Mrs. Bruenig’s are, quite sound. They hit all the modern moral high notes of concern for the planet, concern for our children, concern for America’s existential health. They transmit the currents of the universities to the nation at large and prepare young minds for life in those enlightened halls.
On the suave page, in fashionable font, they give a supreme impression of reasonability, while the conservative outlets, decrying the decay of family life, the scourge of abortion, the national obsession with violence, seem to wander in a fever through the streets of our cities, “mad-eyed from stating the obvious.” Both sides are awash in the still-roiling floods of the French, the sexual, and the philosophical revolutions unleashed by the Cartesian dream, and with little common anthropological, symbolic, or even causal ground, they continue to speak past each other.
There was a time when it was supposed that there were two sides to every story and that by reading two accounts of the same event from politically divergent sources, one could arrive at a fairly accurate impression of the facts. Such a belief has its drawbacks: the truth, after all, is one, and sometimes it has no facets. Too much tolerance for nuance and sophistication creates nations which erupt in moral outrage (and rightly so) over mass shootings but go blithely about their business as three quarters of a million children are murdered in utero each year.
Nonetheless, past confidence that the truth was out there somewhere in the middle of the media reports sustained a dialectical forum in which something of good faith and basic intelligence could be ascribed to the ladies and gentlemen of the press and their readers. Now our dialectic occurs between those who are right and those who are idiots. Don’t worry about the fools wandering about in no-man’s-land. The cross fire will catch them soon enough.
Reasons to hope remain. Many publications, albeit often smaller ones, offer an experience of that authentic dialectic which Plato saw as one of the chief avenues to knowledge. Many writers in even the most partisan sources write beautifully, and the practice of any craft must always create an encounter with being and thus with truth and goodness. And the universal recognition of the slant of mainstream media gives evidence of a public who may in time grow so generally fed up with propaganda that they demand a revolution in media.
Until then, may we avoid the misery of headlines as much as possible and avail ourselves of the riches of the Western tradition, whose great authors and artists give glimpses of that Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, which is proof against the follies of every age, our own not excepted.