Elsewhere in the pages of Providence (so far: Parts I and II) Susannah Black and Richard Dreyfuss report on their correspondence about “what’s required of us to survive this strange and challenging time with our cities, civilizations, and souls intact.”
Mr. Dreyfuss laments the present-day absence of civics (“the methods of assuming and practicing citizenship”) in the education of Americans, fearing that this absence will result in a “spiral of civilizational decay.” He yearns for a re-establishment of civic virtue and “the secular faith of the Constitution, the foundational values that let [America] be the protector of all faiths.”
Ms. Black replies with some skepticism about the value of such a re-establishment, in part because she believes that “there was a weakness at the heart of even this founding-era natural law tradition, or at least of some versions of it,” given that “[the] founders knew that virtue was important, but they’d already half-forgotten what it actually was, and why it was important.” She argues for an architectonic critique of American society, revealing how the foundations of the American civil order are weak and flawed. Mr. Dreyfus retorts that it is fine and well to worry about foundations, but not while the house is on fire: “We will not survive this century unless civic virtue is revived. We can discuss its origins all day—if we have the right to speak at all, and aren’t dead under jihad.”
But alarm at the prospect of an imminent civilizational cataclysm is unwarranted. America is not existentially threatened by Islamic jihadism in our time, by conquest or by conversion. The apocalyptic imagination that this moment demands need not so very much resemble a spiritual panic attack. And for all their foundational flaws, America’s constitutional proclamations and arrangements have for nearly a quarter of a millennium afforded vigilance against foreign aggressions, the amelioration of domestic injustices, and the cultivation of a verdant associational and economic life. The American regime has proven remarkably durable despite the human condition. However unsound the spiritual architecture of America, the sheer survival of its amalgam demands something other than radical disapprobation. But, admittedly, although the American house is neither on fire nor about to collapse, it does require maintenance work as well as critical concern in view of the eschaton.
And so, what is to be done? It is not for nothing that Plato considered the banishment of poetry from his ideal political community. In this (as in most things) Plato was wonderfully provocative even though he was wrong. Alongside family life, formal education, and faith communities, the arts and entertainments that engage our imaginations have a powerful and profound effect on popular sentiment, public opinion, and civic virtue. As poetry in song, drama, and spoken word performance moved the ancient Greeks, so are we in our time moved by the songs and stories that we experience through our earbuds, on our screens, and wafting in the air as we go about our lives at home and in our public places.
The scale of our shared experience of games, songs, and stories astounds me. As many as 12 million people have invested upwards of 60 billion hours playing the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. The song most listened to on Spotify, “Lean On,” by Major Lazer (with DJ Snake and MØ), had by November 2015 received more than 526 million plays. Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the most watched YouTube video to date, has been seen by more than 2.5 billion people.
This is a good time to live in with regard to the quality of our popular entertainments, as Christianity Today’s critic-at-large Alissa Wilkinson demonstrates in her writing on television shows such as Girls, Madam Secretary and Scandal, Broadchurch and True Detective. As an avid consumer of movies and television shows, I remain gratefully surprised by the many stories that affect how I feel, what I think, and why I care. Recently, Stellan Skarsgård’s character in the series River made me consider deeply and with empathy what it is like to live with serious mental illness. I’m aware of this story continuing to affect not only my own inner life and friendships, but also my attitudes with regard to workplace practices and labor politics. The television series The Wire, which I watched years ago, continues to challenge my understanding of the way in which various institutions affect the cultural ecology of a city, enabling and constraining the ways in which communities and individuals can live their lives.
The cultivation of civic virtue in America depends—as much as on anything else—on artists and entertainers who imaginatively portray the human condition, honestly question the American regime, and constructively represent embodied civic virtue. Dear Ms. Black and Mr. Dreyfuss: Keep Calm and Make Art.
Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.
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