19 May 2009

Conservative Barbarism?

As I mentioned yesterday, The American Conservative will become a monthly this summer, each issue somewhat larger than the old fortnightlies, in order to keep publishing. I'm glad that the magazine is still going. While I don't consider myself a conservative, I find many of the writers the kinds of conservatives with whom reasonable deliberation might be possible. They aren't the entrepreneurial ideologues you think of when you visualize Reaganite Republicanism. Their conservatism involves a degree of self-criticism that seems alien to the dogmatic optimists I sometimes call the "Confidence Party."

A case in point is Rod Dreher, the self-styled "crunchy con." He represents a conservative element that embraces environmentalism and the small-is-beautiful ethic. His conservatism isn't concerned solely with making the world safe for entrepreneurs.In "Becoming Barbarians," Dreher critiques a conservative tendency to build defenses against theoretical "barbarians at the gates" while ignoring a decline into barbarism within their gates in which they're complicit.

"Do I need to believe in the imminent arrival of the barbarians to avoid the hard, tedious and not especially rewarding work of trying to come up with a livable conservatism in the present uncongenial age?" Dreher asks. He had believed that conservatives ought to adopt what he called the "Benedict Option," after St. Benedict of Nursia: dropping out of mainstream society and forming enclaves to preserve traditional culture. He now questions this approach because it presumes that "the barbarians" are always on the outside, or can be kept on the outside. It may be no more that "Romantic escapism masquerading as monastic-tinged cultural survivalism." That doesn't mean that there isn't "an astonishing and astonishingly rapid cultural collapse" under way, but that "my frantic concern about the barbarians, and what was to be done about the catastrophe we were living through, was distracting me from the kind of thought that could truly renew and restore a culture lost to itself[.]"

This seems to be the kind of thought Dreher has in mind:

Conservatives have worked so hard over the past few decades to fight for civilized standards against a short checklist of modern barbarisms -- abortion, gay marriage, political correctness, and so forth. What we failed to consider was that we had become barbarians ourselves.
The barbarians of the Roman era wandered and marauded aimlessly. We accepted rootlessness as the modern condition. We defended our unrestrained consumer appetites by spiting those who would counsel limits as freedom's enemies. Despisers of communism, we worshiped capitalism, naive to its revolutionary power to dissolve bonds we ought to have cherished and things we ought to have conserved. Though we like to think of ourselves as apostles of excellence preaching against the depredations of Hollywood trash and academia's political correctness, we have reduced ourselves to sneering at the concept of elitism and celebrating ignorance and vulgarity as signs of authenticity.
We cast aside the sense of temperamental modesty, of restraint and of fidelity to honorable traditions that have been conservatism's philosophical patrimony, and exchanged it for a pot of ideological message.

Dreher may discredit himself for some readers by recounting at length a dream he had in which the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy rebuffs his appeals for advice about the barbarians by asking him to admire the bells of a local church and a bottle of locally-made beer.Before the dream, Dreher had never read Cavafy but knew him as the author of a poem about barbarians. He later found that Cavafy had written: "And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?/They were, those people, a kind of solution." As Dreher reads it, obsessing over "the barbarians" is a way to distract ourselves from dealing with our own decadence. The way to deal with it, he now thinks, is "to retreat from the passions of the moment" and embrace a sort of spirituality rooted in love of local things like church bells and beer bottles. These things are real, while the ideological and partisan obsessions of modern politics are "destructive illusions," according to author Claes G. Ryn. Dispelling those illusions requires not just spirituality but also an artistic temperament dedicated to exposing "the great illusions of our age...for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal."

Since Dreher is a conservative, however crunchy, his approach will probably include Christianity, if not religion in general, more than I'd like. But when you consider what it does not include you may see a purgative process under way in which American conservatives liberate themselves from their anti-communist obsession with capitalism and an idolization of it as the ultimate form of civilization. If that happens, people on the "left" may discover that they can work with "conservatives" on many fronts, regardless of religion. If the ties linking cultural conservatives like Dreher to entrepreneurial fanaticism can be broken, political realignments on a larger scale might be possible. Here's hoping.


Anonymous said...

How dare this bastard or any other conservative who considers themselves an American denounce ideas such as gay marriage as a "barbarism"? It is statements like that that intensifies my inner urges to stomp out, in any way possible, conservatism and those who hold to it. Ignorance, prejudice, superstition - these things are barbarisms. And these are the "ideals" most vulgar conservatives hold close to their hearts. 21st century liberals are the modern equivalents of Voltaire. They may not agree with the lifestyle you choose, but they will defend your right to live it. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more like a modern Inquisition. If you don't life the lifestyle, sexual orientation and religious beliefs they've chosen for you, you are guilty of being a "witch" and deserving of nothing more than death or exile.

Samuel Wilson said...

Some people might say that battles over cultural issues like gay marriage are distractions from the real issues facing the country. Of course that begs the question of who decides what the "real" issues are, but it is suggested that politicians stoke up emotions over cultural stuff so that, for instance, "conservative" working class people and "liberal" working class people won't see the common ground they share on other issues. We all get to choose our own priorities, of course, and if the "culture war" is your first priority, so be it. That may cost you allies in other battles, however.

jpbenney said...

Concerning "ties linking cultural conservatives like Dreher to entrepreneurial fanaticism", a point people with the environmental knowledge that I possess know very well that capitalism encourages exactly those regions which have deep, long-lasting traditions of civilised societies to become the most materialistic.

This is because the material poverty that is natural to farmers on land so fertile it supports population densities higher than many urban areas of Australia and Red America makes it much more economic to sell new technology. People in Australia and Red America who are already very well-off with the abundant supply of usable land are likely to be much more wary of buying something that might effect the deep emotional ties that come from a comfortable lifestyle. Another factor is that those areas with deep traditions of civilisation are where farming will be naturally inefficient in terms of labour used, for they are always mountainous regions where domesticable animals' dominance hierarchies evolve.

It is paradoxically but very naturally only in the regions least suitable for sustained farming and totally incapable of developing domesticable animals or plants that traditional societies can sustain themselves after industrialisation.

Samuel Wilson said...

jbpenney: The tendency you describe may not be as paradoxical as it seems. It would have looked quite familiar to classical thinkers all the way through the 18th century who saw that prosperity created a temptation to luxury that led to decadence. Frugality is a more self-evident virtue in societies where scarcity is a constant than wherever it can be dismissed from the imagination.