“The use of Fashions in thought,” says Uncle Screwtape the astute, “is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.” So, for example:
We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding.” Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism.
I have been thinking about demonic misdirection in recent days, prompted by something that happened at Providence College, my beloved academic home for more than twenty years, then the place where I was a resident alien for five or six more, and for the last three years a sad memory of goodness and beauty lost.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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For I read that a young African American man took a can of spray paint and vandalized the small college graveyard where Dominican priests are buried. Some of those priests were friends of mine. There’s Father Coskren, with whom I taught in our Western Civilization program, and who helped settle my mind and heart when I most needed a kindly counselor. The sweet old Father Cochrane gave me a set of books comprehending the whole corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature; they are a few feet away from me as I write. Father McGonigle broke the rules by telling me of my promotion to full professor before the president wrote the letter confirming it. Father Fallon, Father Bond, Father Ertle… they lie there in rows, beside simple and identical headstones. A large stone cross stands in the center. Some of the graves are marked by American flags, for the friars who were soldiers.
The young man toppled some headstones. He sprayed them red, along with the cross. He sprayed a red swastika on the wall of a nearby building. When a guard tried to defend the graveyard, he smashed him over the head with a hard object—possibly a crack pipe. (The fellow’s Facebook page suggests as much.) Then the guard tried to holler for help, and the man kicked him in the face. His injuries required treatment at the hospital. City police finally caught the culprit hiding on campus. He does have a prior arrest. One night, a couple of years ago, he entered a woman’s home uninvited and crept into bed with her. She woke up the next morning and ran away screaming. Maybe he was high when he did it. He does not appear to have assailed the woman. But desecrating the graveyard is another thing. It bespeaks a cold, brooding malice.
The local reports I have seen do not mention his race. Nor does the letter of the president, Father Brian Shanley, who imputed to him one motive that he probably did not have, and another that he certainly did not have. Shanley decried “anti-Catholic” bigotry and “anti-Semitism.” The latter charge is silly. Clearly, the young man was accusing the friars of hating the Jews. As for the former charge, I doubt he cares about the Catholic Church one way or the other, except insofar as it is “white” and a thing of the “West.” Nobody in our time smashes headstones over whether Mary was or was not conceived without sin.
The story has been picked up on-line by a few Catholic venues and by one secular venue I have seen. Otherwise it has dropped like a pebble into a crevasse. Nicholas Sandmann, the high school student with the frozen smile as he faced a Native American who was harassing him, could have wished for such silence. His “action,” minimal as it was, unleashed a spree of malice from Americans coast to coast, not without fantasies of blood-lust.
Racism—hatred of or contempt for your brothers because of their race—is a vicious sin, and in the United States it has wrought great destruction. That is what sins do. But let us step back from the heat of the moment and take a frank look at the many ways we now bring fire extinguishers to a flood: ignoring our worst sins, or the worst features of our sins, as destruction mounts.
A nation of lost and fatherless boys and drifting young men is terrified that we have too much patriarchy. Why, it reinforces my belief in the existence of demons: unassisted man could never be so blank and stupid as to fear that fathers have too much authority when boys and girls by tens of millions grow up with none at all. Only Beelzebub can explain it.
A nation of fornicators, sodomites, divorcees, pornographers, and users of pornography, a nation of casual obscenity, erupts in wrath against boorish flirting. A nation of cultural amnesia tears down memorials. A nation that murders a million of its children every year is full of benevolent neighbors who have the social workers at your door if they see your child riding a bicycle without a helmet. A nation of the religiously indifferent, ruled by innumerable and anonymous puppet-masters of bureaucracy, suspects a theocrat around every corner.
What of racial hatred? Fifteen percent of new marriages in the United States are interracial. You are more likely to find them in evangelical churches in the south than in secular faculty lounges in the north. We are rapidly becoming an interracial nation; Catholics have from the first been a multiracial and interracial church. That does not mean that relations between the races are good. It does mean that nobody except for a fat unemployed man in Pickens any longer believes that racism in even its blandest forms is justified. Nor does racism sell, as lust, avarice, ambition, and impiety sell. However you define it, people across our political divides want less of it or none of it at all. It defiles, like slime.
But people do not so generally want there to be less obscenity on television or the internet, fewer divorces, fuller churches, more praise for our forebears, more open fields full of children playing without adults around to supervise, less wrath and vindictiveness in the public square, less tale-bearing and calumny, less ingratitude from each sex for the other, and less of that conspicuous worldliness that drives up housing prices and divides the rich from the poor.
Plenty is at work here: a flood, not a house fire. Political hatred is at work. Father Shanley says that “hatred has no place at Providence College.” Indignation is prone to speak unadvisedly. Banish hatred? Good luck with that. Hatred is the principle and the aim of much of our current education. Whole departments are stocked with people who hate what they hate more than they love what they love, if they love at all. Read the mission statements. (This is as true of Providence College now as it is of the secular colleges down the road.) Remove hate and you cut the social sciences in half. You say you want to teach Plato so that some students will come to love Plato? You will be treated as either a liar or a fool.
The vandal has a college education. He has done graduate work in politics at a local college. Did he come by his hatred naturally? I don’t think so. It’s a fashion: hatred in the cause of the future. It liberates you from decency. You forget the humbling calls of piety and gratitude. You scorn the past. You become the sort of person who would wreck a graveyard, magna cum laude, as your teachers cheer, or turn aside and do not say a word. They help to ruin you, but you and not they will do the time. Many are the fingerprints on that spray can.
Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images