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Restoring the Idea of Character-Formation

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interview

Restoring the Idea of Character-Formation

City Talk August 10, 2020
Cities
The Social Order

Michael Brendan Dougherty discussed the future of cities, pandemic-era Ireland, the idea of character-formation, and more, with Charles F. McElwee, assistant editor of City Journal. Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review. In addition, Dougherty is a visiting fellow in the Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies division of the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home. Dougherty has written for The Week, Business Insider, and The American Conservative, among other publications.

What do you think the future holds for U.S. cities?

Even with the pandemic raging, I still think many cities like Cincinnati, Austin, Nashville, and Atlanta will see growth. And if working remotely becomes a major trend post-Covid, I do think any smaller city that currently gets tourism can position itself to grow in population, investment, and vitality. Here I think of Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, but also Portland, Maine.

But expensive mega cities seem to have serious challenges going forward. With revenues crashing, social services and police hours will be cut. I live in the commuter suburbs of New York City, and any fear that New York would become like Paris, and push social problems into the suburbs, has died. Instead, the city itself seems to be psychologically committing itself to a return of “the bad times,” as if the last 30 years of progress had only been a deluded dream for the undeserving rich, rather than a boon for nearly everyone in the region.

What does the nation’s present climate portend for journalism?

I think polarization will continue to drive journalism. When journalism was driven by ad revenue, there were powerful incentives for consensus. Now that subscription revenue is the model for the future, I expect news coverage to deteriorate severely, and major outlets to almost skip or never publish reports on major stories that are politically inconvenient.

The QAnon conspiracy worries me because it has demonstrated powerfully how social media can allow opportunists to get millions of people to feel like journalists and researchers themselves, when in fact what is happening is a kind of mass alienation from the national conversation as it is.

How has Ireland fared during this pandemic era?

The Irish lockdown came a little late. Smaller-island countries should have enormous advantages in stopping a pandemic. But when it came, it came on hard, and drew on Irish society’s unique—and sometimes frightening—ability to converge on a national position quickly. Now it is following the trend of opening up large sectors of normal life, with masks, while also targeting further closures. The island has a little less than three times the population of the much denser Miami-Dade County, Florida, and a roughly similar number of cases and deaths. I was very sad not to be able to go “back home” this summer.

What is an overlooked trend in America?

That institutions, and the culture at large, have almost entirely abandoned the idea of character-formation. Character is reduced to mere personality and a nominal commitment to a set of values. And the absence of religious formation deprives most Americans of a way of interpreting, coping, or ultimately transcending suffering and setbacks in life. This is bound to produce adults who are more fragile, less resilient, and more prone to depression.

What is on your summer reading list?

I like to bring Nam Le’s collection of short stories, The Boat, to the beach, though it reminds me that the greatest prose stylist of his era hasn’t finished his follow-up because its more remunerative to play poker. I also recommend Ed West’s new book Small Men at the Wrong Side of History.

Photo: RolfSt/iStock

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