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Hitting the books

To follow up on recent discussions of America and Americanism I’ve been reading a couple of books: Tom Woods’ The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era and T. J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 . Both are well-written, well-informed, and well worth a look.

They cover the same period in American life, one in which the issues presented by an increasingly radical modernity became increasingly unavoidable. Some thinkers—pragmatists, progressives, mainstream social scientists and other technocrats—decided to go with secular modernity. Others found the result unlivable. Lears’ book (which I haven’t finished) presents the response of the WASPs among them, Woods’ that of the Catholics.

Lears’ basic point is that the various WASP responses only entrenched the problems by providing new and more subtle variations on the “pattern of evasive banality” characteristic of technocratic culture. Whatever the proposed remedy—militarism, medievalism, aestheticism, athleticism, arts and crafts, the simple life—it always turned into a hobby, therapy or palliative, one more item on the menu of distractions provided by the emerging consumer society.

His explanation of just what went wrong seems a little confused. His residual Marxism tells him that all these things were bad because they were distractions from the fundamental structural change needed for social justice and the abolition of alienated labor. They were bourgeois rebellions based on bourgeois anxieties that naturally ended by becoming new methods of social control. The more basic point, which he also makes, is that none of them reconnected the individual to an objective spiritual order, so they couldn’t challenge technocracy in any fundamental way and so were fated to remain at the level of therapy and the higher consumerism.

Woods’ book shows what a fundamental challenge would look like:
pre-Vatican II Catholicism. He shows that Catholic intellectuals of the
period were happy to discuss things with other intellectuals, and pick
up whatever they could of value, but had no intention of compromising
the Catholic understanding of reality and its proper centrality to
intellectual and social life. In Woods’ view that stance laid the
groundwork for the Catholic intellectual and artistic revival of the
following decades, a revival that ended very suddenly with the practical
abandonment after Vatican II of the view that Catholicism has something
to offer that is fundamental and absolutely necessary.