There’s very little surprise in writing today. From the first sentences of most articles, you can tell which of a rather limited collection of categories the piece will fall into: wokeism or anti-wokeism, Trumpism or Resistance, generic secularism or uncritical progressivism or defensive traditionalism.
The Opening of the American Mind, a collection of essays from the first decade of The Point magazine, is a welcome exception. In these explorations of contemporary politics and society, one has the rare and thrilling experience of being led word by word on a journey through ideas – a journey where the destination doesn’t matter as much as the accompaniment, the participation in a process of understanding that is part of what it means to be human.
Some of the anthology’s strongest entries come in the first section, on “the end of the end of history” in the wake of the Great Recession. Etay Zwick’s portrait of Wall Street culture and its downstream effects manages to describe high finance evocatively as the realm of “barbarians” without lapsing into clichéd contempt. (Yes, there is room for compassion even here.) Ben Jeffrey’s review of Houellebecq’s oeuvre recognizes and doesn’t look away from the void of meaning in our secular-materialist culture. Later, Jon Baskin casts a critical eye at the idea-industrial complex on the left (and, implicitly, the right) and finds a culture of the instrumentalization of ideas – and thus of our very nature as thinking beings.
And so, as important as the journey is, the destination is not irrelevant. In their introduction, editors Jon Baskin and Anastasia Berg insist that their project is not relativistic, but rather an attempt to recognize and to nurture the kind of humane and fertile pluralism from which a truth-loving people emerges:
Pluralism does not release the individual from the responsibility to choose or to judge, because it does not assert that all choices are equal, or that judgments of good and bad are futile. It does demand that we make our choices and judgments with humility, in recognition of the fact that other choices and judgments are both possible and defensible.
In this, the editors articulate a traditional liberalism that evokes the teaching of Pope Francis in his recent encyclical letter Fratelli tutti, on the universal brotherhood of man. The editors write that one of The Point’s deepest intentions is “that our social and political commitments are strengthened, rather than compromised, by genuine dialogue.” Francis writes:
Authentic social dialogue involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns. … When individuals or groups are consistent in their thinking, defend their values and convictions, and develop their arguments, this surely benefits society.
I have been, and remain, skeptical that secular liberalism provides a suitable substrate for the kind of dialogue that forms and sustains communities. But The Opening of the American Mind, along with the continued thriving of The Point magazine, provides a hopeful hint of the possibility for renewal – a renewal based on each of us recognizing in others a potential brother or sister in truth.