It's the new black.
In Conversation With is our new series reflecting on and responding to pieces in the national news. Today we’re considering the nature of cultural authority in “Relationships Are More Important Than Ambition“ by Emily Esfahani Smith for The Atlantic.
I first heard about Rod Dreher in a David Brooks column in December 2011. Since then Dreher has written The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) about his moving experiences with his sister’s death and their small town. Emily Esfahani Smith wrote a piece this week about Dreher’s story in the context of a larger question: are relationships more important than ambition?
As Dreher himself noted, Smith relies heavily on social scientific studies to illustrate her observations. There’s nothing wrong with this; she’d be foolish not to avail herself of research on the topic. Yet Smith’s use of these sources sometimes appears as a reluctance to engage with the philosophies that underpin Dreher’s experience: communitarian conservatism and Christian faith. For me, this reluctance suggested an interesting question about the way journalists consider cultural authorities on metaphysical questions.
In this instance, neither conservatism nor evangelical Christianity have the copyright on emphasizing personal relationships and communal obligation over individual ambition. Smith could argue that Dreher’s experiences have been conditioned by “religious services” as a whole, or “community” as a whole, and not by the particular understanding of religion and community (as expressed in a political philosophy) that he has come to adopt. It is also quite possible that her piece is centered around the mainstream question of “relationships versus ambition,” and mentioning either topic would distract from her subject.
But it seems that conservatism and Christianity are particular elements in Dreher’s story, and I’m surprised that she did not mention either. Smith’s article is entitled “Relationships are More Important Than Ambition.” How does she define Important? Important signifies a value claim, referring to a matrix of fundamental, problem-causing priorities. Dreher seems to define “importance” in response to his personal and public beliefs as well as his experiences. It’s not fair to ignore the former just because the latter may be more palatable to a secular or and/or liberal audience.
It would be poor journalism if our writers snatched a particular worldview and exposited it without analysis or comparison (read: Fox News.) Yet journalists also do readers a disfavor if they ignore the role that these specific belief systems play in particular lives and communities and lump them instead under larger, more neutral categories of “small town culture” or generalized “religion.”
Edmund Burke, that patriarch of classical conservatism, wrote:
I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. – Reflections on the Revolution in France
As writers and cultural commentators, we should celebrate the nuanced analysis of “circumstances,” of specific belief systems, and embrace those who place contemporary trends in historical and philosophical contexts. Instead of leaning exclusively on social-scientific research, we should look to the full breadth of the liberal arts — biology and literature, poetry and religion, art and physics — to come to the big questions in life.
I appreciated Smith’s George Eliot reference at the conclusion of her piece but it would have been a stronger article had it incorporated more of the liberal arts spirit in the body. In order to have a real discussion about relationships and ambition, we must come to questions of authority and values open to considering the spectrum of cultural authorities.
Meanwhile, I’m adding The Little Way of Ruthie Leming to my reading list. – GL
What did you make of the Atlantic piece? Do you agree that journalists often avoid the nuances of particular beliefs or philosophies? Why?