On the Issues: I Am Not a Camera

Nearly every week since mid-October 2023, I have taken pleasure in writing an essay for McLean County Republicans on a topic of current political or personal interest. It should now be clear to my readers that I enjoy writing. It was not always this way. I once hated to write. It wasn’t until I began to delve deeply into the subject matter that I learned how easy writing is. (To continue reading, click the title above if necessary.)

As a person with a considerable science background, my writing has been influenced to some degree by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the first major English essayist. Bacon was a Renaissance man who pursued dual careers as a lawyer and scientist throughout his lifetime. His most significant contributions revolved around philosophical and Aristotelian ideas, which he applied to defining the so-called scientific method.

In his essay Of Studies (1597), Bacon noted that “Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability,” which is indeed the case. In summarizing, he stated, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” Through my personal experience, I have found that writing indeed does produce a particular type of exactness that comes from organizing and explaining one’s thoughts. As a result, I am delighted to write nowadays.

Rather than writing about a purely political topic today, I want to turn inward and talk about the process of writing, my writing style, and what I perceive myself doing as a political essayist. Please bear with this bit of peregrination as I share some important points about writing essays – especially political essays.

During my years as a university-level teacher educator (1994-2022), I regularly shared an essay with my students titled The Creative Aspects of Science by Jacob Bronowski. You might recall Bronowski. He was well known for his thirteen-part documentary titled The Ascent of Man, which appeared on BBC television in 1973. Bronowski was widely regarded as one of the world’s great intellectuals at the time. I first saw the Ascent of Man series while an undergraduate science major in college. From the start, I was impressed by Bronowski’s thoughts, and his influence on my professional life has been considerable. Most recently, I began to think back to my intellectual mentor to explain myself to the critics of my political writing. What came to mind was something Bronowski had said about scientists not being cameras. It seemed most apropos to my present situation, so I now share it.

Cameras record facts; essayists reveal truths.

Essayists, as you might surmise, are often subject to personal reproach and intense criticism – ad hominem attacks – because they bear their souls in the public forum where people frequently take potshots from the safety of near anonymity. Critics target political essayists in particular. As Bronowski noted about science (and it’s true about essayists, too), scientists are not cameras. Scientists do not merely record information for later playback, as would a camera. Scientists interpret data and reveal truths. So it is with essayists. As such, I am not a camera.

Essayists display their thoughts and feelings about an issue and explain how they process information to draw conclusions. Unlike scientists, the essayists’ work involves the human equation. Essayists consider topics, reflect upon ideas, form opinions about, and comment on what they observe. This requires interpreting facts and making value judgments based on their belief systems, which opens them up to ridicule. If writers want to avoid criticism, they should be cameras—reporters—and not essayists.

The essayist’s work is purpose-driven. Essayists always have one or more goals in mind. Their goals determine what to include, what to exclude, and how to organize the information to be presented. A good essayist never forgets “what it is to be me.” They will not fail to include their values, insights, and opinions. Essay writing is a very personal activity.

At the sentence level, essayists must be careful about the accuracy and clarity of their reporting. They must be concerned that their writing reflects who they are, how they think, and what they value. Their writing styles present themselves as individuals with consciousnesses and personalities who process information. They do not merely record, report, and summarize information as though they are automatons.

Writing is a discovery process in which writers discover as much about themselves as they reveal to others. By selectively citing and weighing evidence and giving and explaining examples, essayists strengthen their points. What an essayist presents is based on one’s values and beliefs. Essayists sometimes write in generalities because they assume they have an informed audience and don’t need to “start from the beginning” each time they write.

With this preface, let’s look at some recent criticisms I have received in three general areas about which I write and that conservative Republicans deeply value: family, faith, and freedom.

On Matters of Family: Sometimes, I am accused of being intolerant and without understanding because I defend traditional marriage and family life from those who would change it. The role of the family in society cannot be understated. Pointing out the importance of traditional marriage and family roles in society does not make one intolerant and unsympathetic to others. The traditional family plays many crucial societal roles based on the marriage of a man and a woman. The family is the primary unit of socialization in society. It provides emotional and financial support for all its members, it provides for health and well-being, transmits values, provides social cohesion, is the basis of education and skills development, and provides for reproduction and continuity of the family unit. Parents are the primary educators of their children. Overall, the traditional family serves as the foundation of society, providing essential functions that contribute to individual well-being, social cohesion, and intergenerational continuity. To be decried as intolerant and without understanding because they defend the unit that undergirds society simply doesn’t hold water. Rest assured that enthusiasm in the defense of the traditional family is no vice.

On Matters of Faith: Sometimes, I am accused of being the arbiter of morality and righteousness when I defend the role of religion and traditional values in American life. Pointing out the importance of faith’s role in society does not make one the arbiter of good and evil or self-righteous. No one can deny the importance of religious belief in our society. There can be no doubt about its many roles. Religion influences our ethics and morality, permeates our cultural practices, affects our understanding of crime and punishment, undergirds our legal system, sustains social beliefs, exerts political influences, provides a basis for understanding art, literature, and history, influences education, influences attitudes toward health and wellness, supports respect for all life from the moment of conception to natural death, impinges our practices of conflict and cooperation, and sustains communications and cultural literacy. Overall, it is fair to say that religion is deeply embedded in the fabric of society, shaping human beliefs, values, behaviors, and institutions in diverse and complex ways. When progressives attempt to secularize society by throwing off the faith of the people or preventing them from practicing it, is it not fair to say they constitute an existential threat to the warp and weft of society? Is it fear-mongering to point out that society will unravel if it becomes secularized, as many progressives wish?

On Matters of Freedom: Sometimes, I am accused of having a complete lack of nuanced understanding when it comes to freedom. That is, I see matters only in shades of black and white. That’s just not so; instead, it’s quite the opposite. For instance, when it comes to gun control, I don’t say “people good – guns bad.” No, the issue is much more complex than that, and I have proffered ideas about how to solve the problem of gun violence that is quite comprehensive. No, I don’t see guns as “just for hunting.” Instead, I see guns as a means of protecting Americans from an overbearing and tyrannical government. Consider the other freedoms with which I have concerned myself: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, economic freedom, property rights, parental rights, and freedom of association. In general, conservatives view progressives as a threat to these freedoms due to their promotion of policies and cultural standards that prioritize social justice and equality over individual rights and traditional values. They value societal rights over individual rights in what is becoming the tyranny of the majority.

These three tensions illustrate the broader ideological context within American society regarding the government’s role, the balance between personal freedom and communal well-being, and the interpretation of constitutional principles. Without a doubt, this is a nuanced understanding of the issues and does not constitute a simplistic understanding or fear-mongering.

When you read the work of essayists, you see the world through their eyes; you are not peering through the lens of a camera. You are privileged to see the world through the eyes of the essayists; you see the world the way they do. You experience the inner workings of their minds and hear their thoughts. Seeing the world through their eyes and sharing their thoughts is privileged. Be thankful for essayists’ work and appreciate that they are not mere cameras.

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