On May 2, 2013, Rhode Island, the most Catholic of these United States, joined the rest of New England in declaring that the sky is green and the grass is blue—or, rather, that a man can marry a man, and a woman can marry a woman, which amounts to the same thing.
The two main sources of news for many Americans today—Twitter and Facebook—exploded with messages like the following:
Today makes it official! Now ALL of my friends & family in my home state of RI can marry the ones they love if they wish. #LoveIsLove #RI4m
The author of this particular tweet was Erin Saiz Hanna (@erinsaizhanna), the executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference (“A Voice for Women in the Catholic Church”), whose Twitter feed is full of similarly deep thoughts about women’s ordination (of course), gun control, the injustice of the FDA not approving Plan B for sale in gumball machines, and every other liberal cause du jour. From what I can tell from her brief messages as well as her longer writings elsewhere (and her interviews from Rome, where she and her fellow women-priest-wannabes staged “pink smoke” rallies during the papal conclave in March), the 33-year-old mother of a 22-month-old is reasonably intelligent and well spoken—though, of course, completely and utterly wrong in everything she says. Those who wonder why the Church in Rhode Island wasn’t able to convince Catholics there to oppose the legalization of the unlegalizable can find the answer in Hanna’s biography on the Women’s Ordination Conference website: During the years when she taught middle school religious studies for the Catholic Diocese of Rhode Island, Hanna was also in the leadership of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. Church leaders who saw no problem with that are hardly in a position now to convince Hanna (or anyone else) about the impossibility of women’s ordination or gay marriage.
It is easy to blame Twitter and Facebook and other social media for the simplistic modes of thought that we see on display in tweets and status updates. How can anyone say anything worthwhile in 140 characters or less? Yet Samuel Johnson managed to write (and, even more so, utter) many memorable and meaningful lines of less than that length, while Johnson’s slightly younger contemporary, Tom Paine, wrote hundreds of thousands of words that Erin Saiz Hanna would find perfectly palatable, often in individual sentences that could fill an entire pamphlet, and single paragraphs that could fill a small book.
We would make a grave mistake to think that limiting ourselves to older media and traditional forms would, by itself, improve the underlying message. Those of us who defend the value of the written word, and who recognize the fundamental truth of the insights of Marshall McLuhan and Fr. Walter Ong, S.J., must still acknowledge that most of what is printed in newspapers, magazines, and books today is hardly worth sacrificing the life of a tree. And most of the spoken word—speeches and sermons, radio broadcasts and TV talk-show debates—is, if anything, of even lesser value.
The difference between a Dr. Johnson and a Citizen Paine was hardly one of medium or form, though Paine’s style, which seems intricate and flowery to our eyes today, was a dramatic step down from that of Johnson, much less that of Paine’s contemporary and bête noire, Edmund Burke. The deficiencies of Paine’s thought manifest themselves (of course) in his writing, but a modern-day Dr. Johnson could post the occasional tweet without falling into the perversions of Paine, much less the howlers of Hanna, because his mind had not fallen prey to an unrelenting unreality.
The problem is not the medium, but a lack of logic and coherent thought that both flows from and masks our efforts to deny reality. And, especially when it comes to debates like those over gay “marriage,” women’s “ordination,” and the availability of day-after contraceptives for “women” who live with their parents, wear pigtails, and still watch the Disney Channel, the fundamental problem is the lack of any historical consciousness. Or, to be more precise, the problem is a deliberate anti-historicism that regards everything that mankind, and especially Christian man, took for granted in the past not as simple reality but as outmoded tradition, as intellectual shackles from which we must be freed in order to advance into a glorious future where there will be only women priests, and Plan B will be unnecessary because normal sexual relations between a man and a woman will be rare.
One of Dr. Johnson’s great insights, expressed in a mere 70 characters (including spaces and punctuation), is that “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” And, by definition, they can only be reminded of things that they already know, even if they have worked quite hard to forget those things. Making people conscious once again of unchanging reality is, as America’s greatest living historian, John Lukacs, has often said, the chief task today of those who remain grounded in that reality. The problem is that, with every passing day, there are more and more people who need to be reminded, and fewer and fewer who are capable of reminding them. And that, sadly, is true even of professed Christians who have embraced the anti-historicism of the modern world, as Pope Francis reminded us (that word again!) in a recent homily on the Holy Spirit, Who “awakens our memory”:
A Christian without memory is not a true Christian: he or she is a prisoner of circumstance, of the moment, a man or woman who has no history. [Or rather:] He or she does have a history, but does not know how to enter into history.
There are many 33-year-old women today who have forgotten, more or less deliberately, what their own 22-month-old children know instinctively to be true—that what is wriggling around in Mommy’s tummy isn’t a “clump of cells” but a baby, and that the destruction of that baby is an occasion for sadness, not a triumphant expression of progress for women. A five-year-old child, even one being reared by a single parent or two “mommies” or two “daddies,” knows instinctively that family implies a mother and a father and a child or children. It takes years of reeducation for that five-year-old to get to the point where he can convince himself that what he knew as a child is not true, and that the sky is green, and the grass is blue.
Yet the grass is green, and the sky is blue, and the “product of conception” is a baby, and a marriage is between a man a woman, with the purposes of procreation and rearing the rising generation. No amount of intellectual abstraction, of erasing of our memory, can change the underlying realities of nature, nor of our nature. The maxims that Rudyard Kipling memorialized in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” are proverbial precisely because they are true. No matter how vigorously we try to brush aside those realities, they will eventually reassert themselves with a vengeance:
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Over the four-and-a-half decades of my life, I have watched mankind erase its own memory, watched many people I have known convince themselves that they have put aside childish things by embracing the opposite of the truths they knew—not were taught, but simply knew—as children. And yet, in my own children, I see a rising generation that still instinctively grasps the reality of human nature, that knows that the Gods of the Copybook Headings represent the truth. I say that not out of some sentimental embrace of childhood, much less of childishness, but out of the hardheaded (and somewhat daunting) realization that one of my primary roles as father is to ensure that my children do not erase their own memories, that they remember their history, because cultivating that memory now, before it is lost, will be far more effective than trying in the future to remind them of what they once knew.
Twitter and Facebook and instant messaging and TV and radio talk shows and ignorant clergy and even more ignorant politicians play their part in preventing us from reminding others of what they once knew. Yet the problem runs much deeper, and the three centuries between the time of Dr. Johnson and our day have seen mankind as a whole become more literate, in a technical sense, while becoming further and further separated from reality. The road back will not be an easy one, but just as there are no political solutions to cultural problems, there are no technical ones, either.
Editor’s note: In the photo above, Erin Saiz Hanna is pictured holding the banner on the far right.