I was reading tributes in various magazines of a well-respected and accomplished social scientist, who had recently passed away. Within those tributes, the word “serious” always crops up —as in, he was a “serious scholar” or a “serious man.”
Indeed, James Q. Wilson (even the name implies it, or the Q, as it does with the F, in George F. Will), was serious. He was cautious in temperament, careful in his diagnosis of contemporary social problems, and meticulous in his use of fact and data to support whatever viewpoint he was expressing. In the end, earning credibility and respect from his recondite audience of academic scholars, policymakers and general readers.
When someone says “serious” in this vein, usually the word starchy is not far behind. Or the image of the above-mentioned George Will, a model in this arena, with his professorial delivery, arch prose style, and overdone bowties and demeanor. It’s okay, George, I know you went to Oxford, and have read Evelyn Waugh. Nevertheless, seriousness is the foremost problem of public and cultural life today; it presenting with devastating precision the trite and tiresome vacuity of how things operate now.
As an issue “seriousness” does not compare to affordable health-care, who’s the next president, war with Iran, or any of the innumerable public questions out there. It’s kind of old-fashioned, out of date, un-hip, and middlebrow, a staple of the black-and-white era of the 50s, when men went to work in gray suits and fedora hats. Perhaps so.
But it seems to be coming back as a legitimate issue of public concern, and not solely as conservative complaint (who generally suffer as the stiff pants in politics and culture). Cultural critic Lee Seigel, affiliated with liberal magazines such as Slate, has written a book on it, titled “Are You Serious: How To Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly” . It’s a lament and how-to-guide. He gives examples of how it works, models for men in such figures as Cary Grant, gets into a wide-ranging philosophical discussion using Aristotle and Cicero (above my head), and gives us examples of how current standards of pop culture childishness is taking us backward.
Generally, it’s good to avoid easy connections, but the low rent quality of our politics may have something to do with the lack of seriousness in the society at large. Let’s admit it: The 1960s cultural cascade, while fun and sexy, daring and bold, but mostly intemperate, with a hint of youthful bombast, is what caused what is turning into a serious ailment.
Plenty of well-meaning movers-and-shakers in commerce, media mavens and politicians, lament the state of civility in public discourse. Yet civility requires common standards, a recognition of important principles and beliefs, the inseparability of passion and purpose, but its tight regulation through courtesy and honesty, not through political bullying and blackballing, or the veneer of false consensus that creates PC squadrons. In essence, a return to normalcy, a standard of adulthood that accepts limits, relishes differences, respects reality, but taking a mature view of them all.
The times require it. This presidential election has definitely clarified the situation for me, especially with the tug-of-war going on within the Republican primary. Or for me what’s really at stake: a national decline through the inertia of our political institutions, and a failed president in Barack Obama. All politics is local, says the late Speaker Tip O’ Neil. Through those great laboratories of democratic experiment, our local governments and associations, things do happen.
A few weeks ago, I attended an event sponsored by the Village Square, in which local elected officials came together to discuss pressing public problems. The discussion was fine, thoughtful, albeit with a few things I disagree with. Still, it was a great interaction between the politicians themselves and citizens. We need such a serious renewal.
The ultra-serious James Q. Wilson, an avatar of careful and rigorous scholarly detachment, a student of the hurlyburly of American politics, personal and professional standard is a great model. So, too, the Village Square’s unstinting belief in the ideal of civility.
I’m so serious, bro.
Chris Timmons shares his insights and conservative sensibilities in a featured blog for The Village Square. (Photo credit)