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Rod Dreher on Counterculturalism
Living as an observant young Catholic family in New York City is to embrace counterculturalism to a degree that wouldn’t be necessary down South, whence my wife Julie and I came two years ago. It’s not that we’re more observant here than we would be anywhere else. It’s just that the kinds of things that are considered more or less normal in Baton Rouge or Dallas, our hometowns, are thought of here as weird, and maybe even dangerous.
Friends and acquaintances are often shocked to find out we go to church every Sunday. Just last week I was talking to the woman who cuts my hair about the freak spring snowstorm the city had the previous Sunday. “So we dressed for mass, and then . . .”
“Wait, wait,” she said. “You go to church?”
“Like, every Sunday?”
“Omigod. That takes such discipline. You should be so proud of yourselves.”
This is embarrassing, of course, but revealing. To this young woman, the practice of religion is something extraordinary one tacks on to one’s life, like yoga or running, for the purpose of self-improvement. To us, as to all sincerely religious people, it is our life, and it’s done out of love. But I mustn’t be hard on her.
She meant it sincerely, and I was grateful that she didn’t flash me that unguarded look that so many New Yorkers do upon discovering the dark secret of their otherwise normal comrades. It’s a furtive glance of the suppressed shock and stifled disgust that might cross your face at a formal dinner party, upon discovering that the entree you are in the midst of enjoying is in fact kippered wharf rat. We’ve grown used to it, as we so often find ourselves in situations where otherwise good-natured people let fly with unthinking anti-Catholic, anti-Christian bigotry, simply because they can’t imagine that anyone they would deign to associate with would harbor such retrograde and antique beliefs.
When they find out that Julie quit her job to stay home and raise baby Matthew full-time, they typically react as if she’d confessed to having taken up Chinese foot-binding. We’ve both learned to be extremely reluctant to talk about our pro-life views outside the company of religious or political conservatives, unless we’re prepared to endure the swift collapse of social comity. And if even our friends knew that we practiced Natural Family Planning out of obedience to the Church, they’d consider us little more sophisticated than Appalachian snake-handlers.
To be fair, these New Yorkers would find no big welcome of their ideas and beliefs in the places Julie and I come from. The difference, though, is that folks in our hometowns don’t flatter themselves that they are at the apex of tolerance, reason, and human progress. But hey, it comes with the territory. We love the sophisticated charm and cultural energy of New York, and don’t want to live anywhere else. Both impulses—the love we have of city life and the puzzled disdain we get from her natives—came together on a recent afternoon outing in our brownstone neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Julie, Matthew, and I wandered over to the main shopping district, and into our local independent bookstore to browse. The shop is a pleasure to visit because the clerks are all so knowledgeable and quirky, and—rare for New York booksellers—offer no attitude save cheerful eccentricity.
There’s this one clerk, Todd, who seems to know everything. He’s always engaging customers in amusing banter, and has a knack for making you feel clever and popular. I get a kick out of watching and listening to him talk to people. Today, this middle-aged woman had him buttonholed when we walked in—the subject was chocolate—and was still gabbing with him when we left half an hour later.
We walked on to a coffeeshop to juice up on java and peruse our purchases. About half an hour later, we hit the street again, and saw Todd’s interlocutor headed our way with a bag full of books. The lady stopped to smile at Matthew sleeping in his stroller, and said she had seen us in the bookstore earlier. Her name was Reina, and she was an open book, telling us in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail about her only son, who is now eighteen and in his senior year of high school.
“I don’t want my baby to go off to college,” she said. “But maybe my husband and I would get along better, I don’t know.”
She was obviously a very lonely woman, and this boy is her life. She fretted about his friends, the parties he attends, how tough it is to raise a child in the city. He attends St. Ann’s, an expensive private school in Brooklyn Heights.
He goes here with this friend, and there with that friend, and they drink, and she thinks maybe they do drugs a little bit, and she stays up late worrying about him, and you do the best you can, but other parents who don’t care what their kids do raise children who are a terrible influence, and, and . . . on and on like this. She was obviously a well-educated woman, but a total neurotic (Seinfeld didn’t make these people up). And yet, all of her worries sounded entirely plausible.
“Are you thinking about schools for Matthew yet?” she asked. This is not an odd question for New York, where mommies put their children on the waiting lists for the best schools as soon as the little ones are conceived. (You think I’m joking. I’m not.)
“No,” Julie said, “we’re planning to homeschool him, at least for starters.”
“My goodness,” she said, sucking in a sharp breath. “That would seem to be very, very difficult in New York. Unless you were right-wing Christians or something.”
“Well, that’s us!” I said, all chipper. “We’re Catholics, and there’s actually a very well-established Catholic homeschooling network here.”
Julie talked to her about the importance of giving children a strong sense of themselves, and right and wrong, and who they are and what they believe. Of raising a child instead of letting the culture raise him. Of the importance of maintaining their innocence for as long as possible, doing one’s best to avoid the danger of sheltering a child too much.
“My husband and I have fought about this for years,” Reina said. “He keeps telling me we can’t ask too much of the boy, that we have to let him have his fun. I just don’t understand why he’s so permissive. ‘So what if he drinks,’ my husband said. ‘A boy can have a drink, can’t he? So what if he smokes a little pot. Didn’t we?’ I tell my husband that we did that when we were in our twenties, but kids now are doing it when they’re twelve and thirteen. He thinks I’m crazy.”
Raising Confident Children
If I hadn’t made up a reason for us to go, we’d still be standing out there talking to the poor thing. On the way home, I asked Julie if she’d noticed how snidely the woman had said “right-wing Christians.”
“It’s funny,” I said, “but that lady just spent a good fifteen minutes telling us how scared she was for her son, how she felt like she and her husband had been far too lenient with him, and how he has all these friends from even more permissive households who were getting him involved with drink, drugs, and sex.
“You saw how broken up she was about the lack of discipline and morality among kids these days, and how her marriage was troubled because her husband insisted on putting as few rules on their son as possible.”
We talked about how strange it was that all these New York yuppies hate “right-wing Christians,” but it’s the so-called right-wing Christians (and, we might have remarked, strictly observant Jews) who have the confidence to raise children with a sense of purpose, self-discipline, and character.
“These yuppies want to have good kids,” I told my wife. “But they are terrified of being like people who actually do what it takes to raise good kids.”
In truth, I suspect this isn’t so much a New York thing as it is a phenomenon of the educated classes—which means that despite our expatriate romanticization of our native cultures, we’d likely face the same challenges to some degree if we moved back. Not long after our encounter with Reina, we saw a PBS rebroadcast of a documentary about a teenage syphilis outbreak in Conyers, a prosperous suburb of Atlanta. An investigation revealed that a sordid culture of promiscuity, even frequent group sex, had sprung up among well-heeled teens. The venereal diseases healed, but the spiritual and emotional devastation was evident in the dead eyes and long faces of these kids.
PBS interviewed their parents, all of whom appeared to be educated professionals, clearly doing well in their professional fields. Some were divorced, and admitted they didn’t spend enough time with their kids. Others were drawling versions of Reina and her husband, giving their children material advantages and broad personal liberties, and yet shocked, shocked, that the kids would have turned out so badly. And these invincible ignoramuses still couldn’t figure it out.
A couple of teen girls from the same school were interviewed. These kids are Christians who insisted on remaining virgins. They were more or less hounded out of their school, and their parents eventually enrolled them in a Christian academy. The poor kids seemed shell-shocked, but intact, and safe. Their parents had obviously given the girls moral and spiritual backbone, which enabled them to resist temptation and the taunts of their classmates. And the parents took measures to protect them when the harassment became too intense.
Julie and I sat there watching these Christian kids, who suffered for the sake of virtue, with tears in our eyes. We said to each other: There goes Matthew, and there go we. This walk isn’t going to be easy for any of us, and learning early on to bear patiently the scorn of others for the choices we make on our boy’s behalf is, in a way, a blessing.
Rod Dreher is a columnist and editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, where he edits the Sunday commentary section ?Points.? He lives with his wife and two sons in Dallas. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.