Playing Notre Dame

I ran across this expression today in an article which claims that conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza once did solid work but turned to the dark side for the sake of money. (As D’Souza himself puts it, “The book industry was changing after Illiberal Education [his first book], and I found out you could make money by not writing for the critics, that book reviews didn’t matter,”)

Already a recent convert to the idea that book sales were not wedded to critics’ judgments, D’Souza decided to stop writing with one eye on the reaction of critics. […] Yet failing to take on the best arguments of the other side—“to play Notre Dame” in the words of Charlie Peters, editor emeritus of Washington Monthly—carries risks. D’Souza’s subsequent books and films testify to the intellectual pitfalls of ignoring the critics.

Pandering to a crowd is sometimes just too lucrative to pass up, regardless of ideology. Here’s Mickey Kaus in 2005 criticizing a Malcolm Gladwell article:

Like many New Yorker policy articles, Gladwell’s reads like a lecture to an isolated, ill-informed and somewhat gullible group of highly literate children. They are cheap dates. They won’t think of the obvious objections. They won’t demand that you "play Notre Dame," as my boss Charles Peters used to say, and take on the best arguments for the other side. They just need to be given a bit of intellectual entertainment and pointed off in a comforting anti-Bush direction.

This was quoted in a blog post by Steve Sailer, who went on to say:

Indeed, there’s a huge market in this country for people who will flatter liberals about how they are culturally and ethically superior to conservatives. Just as there is plenty of money to be made telling conservatives why they are more patriotic, practical, and moral (conservatives are "moral," liberals are "ethical"). Over the years, Gladwell has been perfecting a spiel that might eventually prove the most profitable of all: he tries to appeal to his readers’ capitalist greed and progressive snobbery simultaneously.

“Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We've been eating grass!” —Gary Larson, Far SideNow I love reading Gladwell, but ‘tis a fair cop. Reading his stuff is not only entertaining but makes you feel smart for reading it—a royal road to that feeling, rather than the hard slog of working through all the best arguments on both sides. Back in the 80s I used to enjoy the slick science magazines Omni and Discover in the same way. Except when I occasionally ran across an article on a a topic I knew something about, I invariably found that it was shallow and misleading. Hey!

Probably the longest-lived character building project I’ve engaged in is to stop expecting others to do the hard thinking for me. Not that I ever didn’t think at all. But until my late 30s I used to gravitate towards areas I hadn’t explored, find authorities I found amenable, and devour their writings uncritically.

This isn’t a bad thing at the start. If you don’t know anything about a topic, e.g. good business practice, ethical behavior, Christian thought, then you have to accumulate a lot of basic information before you can begin to evaluate it. There are always temptations not to do that. You can find a comfortable groove, and continue to read “new’” writings on a topic that are really the same stuff repackaged in an inviting way. Or (my weakness) you can fill up on the basics, then move on to another topic instead of diving more deeply into the current one.

I avoided critical evaluation partly because it was comforting to take things on authority (not to mention that it indulged my natural laziness). But it was also partly because I had no clear conception of an alternative. Nobody was there to tell me that I could and should think these things through for myself—certainly not the experts I was reading, whose livelihood depended on me not doing that—much less to suggest that a little bit of hard-won understanding would be far more precious to me than being handed a treasure trove of neatly packaged, pre-digested nuggets of wisdom.

An early inkling that there was another way came one day in a reading group I was part of. We were working through excerpts from Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. At that time I had no particular opinion for or against Freud, regarding him only as a great thinker—or so I’d heard. I went in expecting to learn some things, and I did, but what surprised me was a growing feeling that not only did I not agree with this guy, I thought I could make a pretty good case against what he was claiming—not a scholarly, publishable case, but a personal case, one that would allow me to file Freud’s thoughts in the “important and interesting though wrong” folder. There were many things in that folder, but this was the first time I had decided for myself to file something there, rather than being told to do it by some smart guy I trusted.

I’d like to say that was a turning point, but it was really only a starting point. For the next fifteen years I continued to embrace other people’s thinking, to seek out people whose thinking was worthy of embracing. That led to a string of disappointments. But the episodes were never as lengthy or as damaging as they could have been, because despite my best efforts I could no longer adopt someone else’s thinking wholesale. I knew that I was capable of evaluating ideas and claims for myself, no matter how lofty the source. I also knew that it was lazy and irresponsible not to do so. Somewhere along the way I learned that it was actually a satisfying thing to do. And eventually I had done enough groundwork to discover that I could go wandering through minefields that were less explored but more potent than the well-tended Victorian gardens where celebrity teachers like to graze their flocks.

I can’t exactly recommend that folks set their sights on playing Notre Dame. It’s not a quick fix but a hard slog, life is short and there are other profitable ways to spend your time. And if you take 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 as a life passage (“aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one”), then there are many paths you can walk fruitfully and safely with only a basic knowledge of how God’s ecology is constructed—and that basic knowledge is easily available.

But for those who fancy themselves thinkers (I do) and intend to devote a good portion of their energies to exploring and understanding God’s ecology in some depth (I did, and still do), then I’d recommend making Notre Dame the standard, as a prophylactic against the lures of mediocrity. There are more than enough Christians around to make insularity a temptation, to deny that what goes on outside our circles possesses any value or quality, to think that our own culture is inherently, self-evidently superior, that any apparent weakness when comparisons are made can only be illusions. If we manage to convince ourselves that third-rate thought and action is acceptable and even preferable simply because it is Christian … well, there are a lot of third-rate thinkers and actors eager to cultivate that attitude, even make a comfortable living from it.


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