Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983
By James Hitchcock
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: David Courtwright
One of the favorite adjectives of American screenwriters in the 1930s and 1940s was “swell,” often used to modify a person or a deed. Swell people were big-hearted, trustworthy, ingenuous types who did the right thing and helped others who were down on their luck. Take the character Wilma in William Wyler’s film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Wilma’s sailor sweetheart, Homer, is a double amputee. The hands he lost in the war have been replaced by metal prostheses lashed to his stumps by a complicated harness. Homer is ashamed and discouraged. Wilma tells him that she loves him anyway and gently urges that they be married, which they subsequently are. Wilma is a swell girl.
The simplest way to summarize these 25 essays by the conservative Catholic historian and apologist James Hitchcock is that people aren’t swell anymore. Instead, they are hedonistic and actively hostile to moral imperatives, to say nothing of the ordinary civilities. Of course, self-centered people have always existed. What concerns Hitchcock, however, is the way in which dominant social classes and institutions now systematically encourage egotism, while discouraging forces that rein in the self, such as religion or traditional family life. Not only has the old morality collapsed, but a drastic transvaluation of values has taken place since the late 1960s, whereby good is declared evil and evil good.
In a character sketch entitled “A Child of His Times,” Hitchcock describes a monster whom he calls Larry. We come upon Larry in middle age, a divorced and negligent parent. Once his obsessions were sexual (he passed around nude photos of his wife at his high school reunion); now he mainly grouses about the impositions of a corrupt and oppressive establishment. Ever vigilant of his own liberties, he nevertheless steals casually and takes cynical delight in beating the “system.” He abhors anything that might proscribe his behavior, including all forms of organized religion. Although Larry’s own sexuality is of the macho variety, he supports militant homosexuals and feminists, insofar as he shares their moral iconoclasm. Larry is “an extreme case of the kind of narcissistic solipsism which has been identified as the besetting psychic disorder of the age…,” comments Hitchcock. “The only world in which he is comfortable is one entirely of his own making, one in which everything external is transformed to his liking.”
That the Larrys of the world are fast replacing the Wilmas is a trend acknowledged by others — Christopher Lasch and Joseph Heller describe more or less the same thing as Hitchcock, although they obviously proceed from different assumptions. The crucial difference is religion. Hitchcock believes the crisis to be fundamentally a spiritual one, rooted in the decline of the principal American churches. In large measure their failure has been self-induced, as the churches have conceded too much in their attempt to come to terms with modernity. A religion that abandons rigorous moral standards and catechesis — giving itself over to therapeutic discourse and political activism divorced from the Gospel — ceases to be a religion at all and soon loses many of its adherents. Hence the plight of the liberal Protestant churches. However, religions that resist accommodationism retain both their spiritual energy and their attraction to converts.
In “Does Christianity Have a Future?” Hitchcock remarks that “Virtually all the notable intellectual and artistic converts — men like T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, C.S. Lewis, as well as near-converts like Henri Bergson and Simone Weil — have been drawn to traditional hierarchical and liturgical churches and have generally opposed all modernizing tendencies within those churches.” When agnostic intellectuals see liberal churches scrambling to effect wholesale changes, they read into these actions a confirmation of their own skepticism, and dismiss the whole business as an unraveling historical fraud.
In “The Dynamics of Popular Intellectual Change,” Hitchcock explains that groups and causes are always rising or falling on the tide of public opinion — there is no moral and political stasis. Rising groups, such as feminists in the 1970s, are energetic, confident, reductionist, aggressive, and intolerant; they brook no opposition on key symbolic issues. Declining groups tend to be confused, demoralized, self-conscious, and credulous; they resort to accommodation and relativism to try to hold on to their defecting members, but end up in a state of capitulation and irrelevance. The point is that the rising groups of the last two decades by and large have been those privileged by the liberal state, as well as those favorably publicized by the media. (They are usually one in the same.) Groups that have not received the patronage of our twin national capitals, Washington and New York, have tended to fade into the background.
Hitchcock offers a sociological explanation for the assistance to culturally liberal causes given by apparently dissimilar institutions. He claims that the mainline churches, the media, the schools, and the government are dominated by what Peter Berger and others have called the “new class.” Hitchcock has the historian’s fine eye for social class and class conflict. There are times when, ironically, his language and categories seem straight out of Althusserian Marxism. In a superb essay, “Abortion and the Moral Revolution,” he points to the conflict between “an allegedly narrow, bigoted, violent, and irrational white lower and lower-middle class and an educated, enlightened, and progressive upper-middle class.” That upper-middle class is the “new class.”
A reporter for the Washington Post recently interviewed abortion-rights activist John Irving about his new novel, The Cider House Rules. The protagonist is an abortionist who must operate in the “dark ages” before everything was Safe and Legal. Asked if he expected to convert readers to his position, Irving said no, he didn’t think he could change many hardened minds with a mere story. “Besides,” he continued, “the people who are so zealously against the right to abortion, I don’t think they can read this book. They’re not educated people.” (I had rather thought that educated people did not read John Irving.)
Hitchcock likes and trusts the people whom Irving dismisses. He thinks that whatever remains of the swellness is to be found mainly in the ranks of the inarticulate white working class. That these people are not as educated as cultural liberals is of no importance to Hitchcock; in fact, it is because they are innocent of college curricula dominated by secular humanism that they still think and act as they do. Despite the fact he is a professor, Hitchcock has little but disdain for the values and agenda of contemporary higher education.
My response to all of this is complicated. I should say at the outset that my education and occupation (history professor) place me sociologically in the new class Hitchcock excoriates. Yet I am deeply sympathetic to the reasoning in these elegant essays. There has been a moral revolution in this country; it has been mainly for the bad; and it has been abetted by the individuals and groups identified by Hitchcock. At the same time I feel that his account is incomplete and one-sided. There are, so to speak, sins of omission.
The first of these involves Hitchcock’s curious disinterest in the fundamental historical causes of secularization and the moral revolution, which are surely as important as what the censor at CBS fails to snip out of a program. Principal among these is commercial and industrial capitalism, the roots of which extended back to the 18th and 19th centuries. As capitalism matured it encouraged individualism in a multitude of ways: by an ever finer division of labor; by relocating and fragmenting traditional farm families; by glorifying and rewarding predatory economic behavior. Contemporaries saw the significance of this early on. In the March 1884 number of the Princeton Review, Samuel Dike, a Congregational minister, addressed a list of social evils remarkably similar to those discussed by Hitchcock: rising rates of divorce and desertion, breaches of chastity, the prevalence of criminal abortion, and the general glorification of the individual at the expense of the family. Dike thought these problems to have several causes, but foremost among them was the industrial transformation. Like many organic conservatives, he was hostile to capitalism, understood as radical economic individualism. Hitchcock evidently does not share this view, although it is hard to determine his position, since the long-term effects of capitalism are simply not dealt with in any systematic way in these essays.
The most important secularizing byproducts of the industrial revolution have been affluence and the related increase in longevity. Christian spirituality thrives on poverty and adversity; people who live relatively long and pleasant lives are apt to become preoccupied with the world. A recent Vatican survey shows that vocations are inversely related to per capita income. Between 1970 and 1982, the number of seminarians in the U.S. fell from 12,750 to 7,180; in Zaire, during the same period, it rose from 459 to 1,935 and in Brazil from about 2,000 to 5,000. The pattern is clear: religion is eroding in wealthy, developed nations all over the world. Hitchcock’s essays are very myopic in this regard; reading them, one gets the impression that this is strictly an American problem, and a post-war one at that. It is not. Secularization is part of a global revolution, intimately linked to economic development and modernization.
Secularization is also linked to the scientific revolution, another large topic that Hitchcock skirts in these pieces. Faith has become harder in the wake of ever-more-refined theories of evolution, subconscious determination, genetic mechanisms, quantum mechanics, and the like.
Hitchcock’s essays are polemical, written to make an immediate moral or political point, and perhaps it is unfair to catalogue their analytic gaps. There is one other failing, however, for which it is harder to find an excuse. That is Hitchcock’s characterization of post-war liberalism as a monolithic death force that has American society in its power. I am no particular friend of liberalism; I am certain that it has been responsible for disasters of grave magnitude and irreversible effect. Yet one must also recognize that post-war liberalism has had its share of creative and successful reforms. Paradoxically, the same people who loosened the strictures against pornography and abortion gave us civil rights laws and childproof bottles. Blacks don’t dangle from trees anymore and toddlers don’t poison themselves as often with aspirin. Hitchcock’s silence notwithstanding, these are good things. I once surprised a Russian diplomat, with whom I had been candidly discussing U.S.-Soviet differences, by asking him what he thought was the best thing about America. He thought for a moment and said, “Handicapped access. We have nothing like that in the Soviet Union.” That too is a liberal reform; it is also just and Christian. It may be, as Hitchcock argues, that the net effect of liberalism has been evil. If so, it has not been unmitigated. Fairness requires something other than a litany of failures.
Put another way, Hitchcock is opposed or indifferent to what I take to be the essential intellectual task of this journal, namely, the creation of a Christian coalition uniting doctrinal and ethical integrity with bold affirmations of peace and social justice — in particular, the creation of a consistent pro-life ethic (i.e., pro-life as regards not only abortion, but also nuclear weapons). Aside from an occasional populist flourish, in the end Hitchcock is pretty much content to support across-the-boards ideological conservatism. Nowhere is this clearer than in his remarks on the 1983 Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace, which he regards with the utmost suspicion. In “The Catholic Bishops, Public Policy, and the New Class” (which appeared in the Fall 1984 issue of This World and is not included in this book, which was published in 1985), Hitchcock gives the impression that the bishops’ letter is at best another political distraction, at worst a Trojan horse for liberalism. “Altogether,” he writes, “the war and peace letter served a number of functions beyond its explicit contents — providing an important test case of ‘new class’ power in the church, ratifying a sharp turn to the left on public policy, and weakening still further the traditional modes of exercizing episcopal authority, and putting some visible distance between the American church and Rome.” Typically, Hitchcock overlooks the “explicit contents,” namely, that it is reprehensible to hold civilian populations hostage to weapons of mass destruction. Well, what is wrong with that? Why is that inherently (as opposed to sociologically) a “left” issue? Is it not a timely message predicated on genuine Catholic teaching for a world hell-bent for the nuclear abyss?
Overall, analytic myopia and a weak sense of fairness and balance mar Hitchcock’s Years of Crisis.
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved
Enjoyed reading this?
READ MORE! GET A FREE 7 DAY TRIALSUBSCRIBE TODAY
You May Also Enjoy
The path of explaining -- let alone implementing -- Catholic wisdom as applied to societal matters is a long and complicated one. It helps to have authentic lay Catholics in high offices.
Death Comes for the Archbishop. By Willa Cather.
So often in life, a person wonders…
The sexbot is a tool that uses us and mocks our weakness. It is a vision of Hell: inhuman, ruthless, mendacious, comfortless, and cold.