fbpx

Peter Lawler’s Tocquevillian Adventure through Pop Culture

Peter Lawler was a great lover of pop culture because, though often inelegant, it reflects the democratic spirit of America and the complexity of human affairs. His engagement with pop culture, which was an important part of his public activity, expressed his belief in America’s restlessness, dynamism, and optimism.

Last month, Public Discourse honored Peter Lawler, a wonderful and public-spirited scholar and gentleman, with a series of essays on his political thought and the life that issued from that thought, as a teacher and as a writer. In light of that series, I would like to add a reflection on another aspect of Peter’s public activity, the aspect most in tune with the times and which I knew best personally: he was a great lover of American pop culture and a great believer in blogging. He was the informal leader of Post-Modern Conservative, originally at First Things and then at NRO, which is now a Substack and a podcast I run.

Pop culture and blogging are connected in curious ways. We might say that pop culture is little better than the relief of boredom and the sense of often prurient curiosity we find in famous figures, and that blogging is little more than gossip or the pursuit of vanity. There is much truth to this somewhat censorious view of the matter, and it might seem more than a little strange that such a well-educated man as Peter would spend so much time on things often dismissed as shallow or superficial.

But there is a defense: Peter was a Tocquevillian, deeply inspired by the democratic spirit of America, and a Christian. Both these aspects of his thought led him to take seriously massive social phenomena and the yearnings of the human heart for fulfillment, even if they were crass or at least inelegant, since those might be signs of honesty, of the absence of contrived ideologies. America meant something to him both because it was his country and because he thought that the complexity of human drama is on display in popular culture through the statements that artists make.

Peter followed the lead of his favorite novelist in this regard, Walker Percy, who called America’s artists the canaries in the coal mine, by which he meant that they represent the most sensitive and therefore the best early warning system. Whereas other respectable people might be inclined to blame the messenger for bad news, Peter was grateful for the news of troubling developments in American democracy, in the hope that things could mend, at least if elites took a more understanding, less moralistic view of the situation, and took a more demanding, less irresponsible view of their own duties to America.

Popularity and Prestige

Everyone should read Allergic to Crazy, Peter’s 2014 collection of his “quick thoughts” on pop culture, self-help, moral and intellectual education, science, and history. He used this phrase to connect his lifelong devotion to learning to the immediacy of pop culture, which shows us, by popularity and prestige, that people have a lot more on their minds than wasting their time in front of a screen—that they hesitate before the changes underway in America, or that they are dedicated to freedom, but confused by it at the same time. Everything from Catholicism to Straussian political philosophy is on display in that volume, reflecting the sensitivity of a thinker whose soul has the powers required for charity and careful attention to telling details alike. It’s almost impossible to offer something better to introduce readers to the breadth of his thought.

 

Allergic to Crazy is also the volume closest to Peter’s activity as a blogger, as a gleeful participant in America’s ongoing conversation about the cultural transformations to which citizens should be paying attention. His conception of the blog was some combination of the local bar and the college faculty lounge, or his favored Waffle House and Panera Bread hangouts, where the witty and the angry meet and try to make the best of a confusing, if not necessarily bad, situation.

Peter’s politics informed his pop culture consumption. For example, he believed that talented individuals can help sustain community (as with Stoic leaders), or harm and be harmed by community if they succumb to individualism. Indeed, Stoicism was something he often drew attention to, from To Kill a Mockingbird to American Sniper, since there can be no community without leaders. He knew, however, that the culture was dominated by examples of asocial or even anti-social individualism. He pointed out the disturbing success of sarcastic comic figures like Seinfeld and Larry David, the insight of films like Spike Jonze’s Her, where the human failure to love and be loved leads to technological transhumanism, and the warning offered by stories of technological tyranny like Never Let Me Go, a movie adapted from the novel by Nobel recipient Kazuo Ishiguro. Peter even paid attention to unpopular but prestigious productions about the decadence of American elites, especially the Lena Dunham HBO show, Girls, which he took as an honest portrayal of the catastrophic consequences of feminist ideology in the lives of young women. But he preferred Whit Stillman’s romantic comedies for their gentle and often comical portrayal of the troubles young Americans get in when they seek love and friendship, and he wrote with warmth and feeling about movies like Last Days of Disco.

Peter’s most political phrase was: things are getting better and worse at the same time. Blogging and popular culture, then, are barometers of this ongoing transformation. His criticism of the high-minded, as snobs, would be that their learning is not practical enough to deal with the situation as it’s unfolding—they may be scientists, but they are apolitical. A correlative criticism might be leveled at ordinary people who have experience of the American drama, but take it as an excuse to retreat from reflection or artistic refinement, both of which he considered necessary. America, to him, was big enough to include the worldly and the refined, the up-to-date and the nostalgic.

This is not to say that things are always as good. As a conservative—Straussian, Tocquevillian, or Catholic—Peter was worried about the troubling developments of our times, which he astutely called “creepy and creeping libertarianism.” He was worried about the tendency to individualism and he understood post-modernism to be merely hyper-modernism, a love of abstractions that sacrifices human connection. Pop culture and blogging, as opposed to the taste for abstractions or theories, revealed precisely the need for connection at both the intellectual and emotional levels—they offered community and friendship, which was ultimately his theme as a public intellectual.

Nor was Peter’s conservatism deluded about the dangers we are facing. He was the first to admit that one way in which things are getting better and worse at the same time is mere realism: when things get worse in ordinary life, people are less likely to entertain delusions, more likely to face facts, and therefore to become more serious. Good times breed indolence or even arrogance, harder times breed resourcefulness or at least caution. A loss of comfort often means a gain in morality. Or, put otherwise, a gain in luxury isn’t obviously a gain in wisdom. Watching television, Peter felt confident he had the evidence that Americans are rebelling, albeit not necessarily successfully, against the fantasies of radically autonomous individualism (or pure Lockeanism), or the modern desire for authenticity understood as a rebellion against history, against every old idea or institution, in the name of some vague, as yet undefined future.

Signs of Hope

Peter confessed his faith in Christ and, in bearing witness to that faith, always looked for signs of hope in America, which would first emerge in pop culture, because that’s the quickest way for the middle class to speak against elite pretension or against settled patterns of the national conversation. The popularity of certain television shows and movies spoke against elite ideological expressions, giving evidence of a more complicated, restless, and active America, where people want to make the best of things. He was a hopeful man, not only helping fight against the conservative tendency to doom or at least gloom, but also looking for surprises, and eager to find in pop culture expressions of the concern for virtue and the difficulty of cultivating it in middle-class America.

 

Peter shared Tocqueville’s hope that at least some Americans would dedicate themselves to the learning of ancient wisdom, as much as possible in the original languages, in order to add to democracy’s vitality and bumptious enthusiasms the rigor, formality, and variety of experience of aristocracy. His activity was primarily as a teacher at Berry College precisely for that reason, but it also explained why he was an enthusiastic blogger. He didn’t fear or resent ordinary Americans. As a writer, I can tell you that the first rule we learn is: don’t read the comments—that’s where the worst of ill will or ill manners shows up, as though the public attempt to reason together can call forth only contempt and resentment. By contrast, the comments section of the Post-Modern Conservative blog was a model of friendly conversation among people who grew together through the years. That’s where he recruited me to become a writer, and we still keep that enterprise going in his spirit.

Middle-class life as expressed in pop culture shows something similar about the middling condition of Americans, who are not above work or struggle and are not below education or learning about the fundamental predicament of being human. Peter saw there an attenuated version of the nineteenth-century land-grant colleges he admired, which were founded, in religious faith, on the notion that students and faculty should both work and both learn. Such institutions affirm a fundamental human equality which he saw as the only strong safeguard against a dehumanizing individualism which can come through scientific or commercial specialization, which denies to people their longing for community, as the price of their success. He thought true meritocracy was much more alive in sports than in others precincts of the elites, precisely because sports are less alienated and alienating, with teams, fans, and communities simply mattering more there. He liked shows like Friday Nights Lights for their attention to the honor-loving South where Stoic leaders matter and where sports offer manliness and meritocracy a way to shine together. He saw something more than football in the dedication of the team to common action, summed up in the motto: clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!

I’d like to add a final note on Peter’s gentlemanly qualities. Intellectuals and academics can often be too gentle or tentative in spirit. The manliness of the gentleman is rather a different matter than a concern with study or with proving oneself to other learned people—it requires participating vigorously in contests and disagreements, in the rough and tumble of democracy. Pop culture and blogging both have that quality and thus stand as the polar opposite of the kind of elite authoritarianism that seeks to impose its rule on a continental democracy of more than 300 million people.

Post-modern conservatism was and is an attempt to bring the learned closer to their fellow Americans, to bring academe closer to politics, and to offer pop culture, which is a species of poetry, as a necessary complement to social science. In the language of political philosophy, it is concerned with restoring consent as a criterion of prudence, alongside the overused and therefore misunderstood criterion of expertise or specialization. Peter believed that post-modernism—rightly understood—required a partial return to, or learning from, ancient and medieval wisdom, and therefore more respect for practical affairs. Accordingly, he practiced rather than preached, and nowhere more obviously than in his blogging and in his concern for pop culture.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!