Whatever else it did, the election of 2016 reignited the culture wars in the United States. That likely means they had never really gone away in the first place, and were simmering below the surface, ready to erupt when a catalyst came along.
Where you find your own place in these wars will likely determine your response to Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Anthony Esolen. A professor of English at Providence College in Rhode Island, Esolen takes a rather dark view of contemporary American culture. And he defines culture broadly – politics, the arts, relationships, education, faith and religion, and even our definitions of beauty and truth.
It’s difficult to argue with him.
The book was written before the election, but it’s as if Esolen anticipated “fake news” and “alternative facts,” otherwise known as lying (or “misspeaking,” the clumsy word invented to cover making false statements). That’s his first critique of American culture – we lie about everything, and we believe what fits our own pre-existing or preconceived beliefs.
Esolen goes on. We’ve lost any concept of the idea of beauty. Public education, and higher education, are disasters. Our ideas of manhood and womanhood have been turned on their heads, if not obliterated. Our understanding of both work and play are seriously lacking, and those lacks have consequences. And out ideas of community participation and involvement are talking to our friends (people of like mind) on Facebook.
“So we need to clear out the garbage, admit our errors, and rebuild,” he writes. “When your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent.” Of course, we have entire industries that depend upon those errors continuing, regardless of the cliff they may be taking us toward.
This is an easy book to read and a difficult book to digest and accept. He speaks hard words, words that will produce outrage, especially among those who might classify themselves as progressive left.
On schools: “…the schools we have built are monstrosities that reflect the government we have built, a government that has taken in an all-eating life of its own.”
On the current crop of students disrupting universities: “It is also something of a mistake to point at the students and laugh at them for being weaklings. The students hold the hammer and they know it. …In our world of inversions, power is granted to people who claim that they have no power and who resent the greatness of their own forebears. They do not seek ‘safety.’ They seek to destroy. The strong man is bound and gagged, and the pistol is pointed at his head – the seat of reason itself.”
In fact, Esolen argues that high education no longer occurs at most of our colleges and universities. It’s difficult to defend higher education when you take a look at what’s being taught in English and the so-called social sciences.
His solutions are radical. Some aspects of the culture will simply need to be allowed to collapse, while alternatives are developed and nurtured. Some of what he proposes may be politically difficult if not impossible.
Esolen is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (2008) and numerous other books, including Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (2007); The Beauty of the Word (2012); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (2013); Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (2014); Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (2014); and Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (2016). He has also translated Dante’s The Divine Comedy and On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
In 2016, Esolen spoke out against what he called Providence College’s “totalitarian diversity cult” in Crisis Magazine and sparked protests and demands for his punishment. The president of the college, a Catholic priest, affirmed his right to academic freedom but publicly criticized his stand on the college’s diversity efforts.
In Out of the Ashes, Esolen looks at culture holistically. It’s not simply a case of one aspect or one area being sick, but all of them. And each affects the others.
The book deserves serious consideration. It is a serious book making its case for fundamental, radical, disruptive change.
Photograph by Brigitte Tohm via Upsplash. Used with permission.