05 July 2013

A conservative story for the 21st century

You often see Democrats and liberals lamenting that they've had a harder time recently crafting a narrative to win people over to liberalism, compared to the perceived success conservatives have had with their narrative over the past forty years or so. Rod Dreher is a conservative who must wonder what success liberals are talking about. In the current American Conservative Dreher warns that conservatives need to "master the narrative art." Hadn't they already? Not by Dreher's standards -- and he has a point. When liberals look enviously on the success of conservative "narrative," they mean exactly what Dreher thinks conservatives suffer from: ideological rhetoric. For liberals, the "conservative narrative" is: free enterprise good, big government bad, personal responsibility, etc., etc. For Dreher, "the stories conservatives tell themselves about themselves are exhausted and have taken on the characteristics of brittle dogma." To survive, he argues, conservatives have to learn to tell actual stories instead of making ideological proclamations.

Dreher worries that conservatives may be handicapped in this particular intellectual competition. He's a former liberal who had been liberal because, as a student, it seemed to him that only liberals shared his "passion for creativity." Today, he doesn't sound very convinced that he was wrong. "Over the years," he writes, "I've seen that most of my conservative friends who are artistically inclined become so in spite of their conservatism -- that is, despite the fact that the right-wingers they knew disdained the arts as effete and impractical. A love for art and literature was not part of the conservative story, as they received it." He worries that conservatives might not be comfortable with the fact that "if story is true to human experience, there will be an element of ambiguity in the telling, and this is something ideologues of all stripes ... cannot abide." Yet conservatives ought to have the advantage in storytelling, Dreher thinks, because "the business of a conservative with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature."

As an American Conservative writer, Dreher represents post-Cold War and post-Reagan conservatism. Too many conservatives, he warns, still look to the Cold War for their references and thus fail to see the 21st century as it is. He states the difference as starkly as a conservative can:

The things we cherish are not primarily under threat by statism in either its Soviet or social democratic versions. The more relevant problem is how to preserve authoritative lessons about the good life in an era characterized by triumphant global capitalism and autonomous individualism.

If I presented that quote in isolation few might recognize it as the utterance of an avowed conservative. That's because capitalism and individualism remain the touchstones for most conservatives in this country. For Dreher, the touchstone appears to be "authoritative lessons about the good life." That doesn't mean reading the Bible, as some might justly suspect, but telling a story that "incarnates policy debates in the lives of real people." Conservatives must learn form as well as content. They must "throw off the chains of ideology and teach themselves to recognize beauty in art and talents in artists that don't easily fit our moral and political assumptions."

That recognition of beauty as possibly an end in itself is important to Dreher's somewhat romantic conservatism. He's impressed by a remark from the Joseph Ratzinger, the retired pontiff, that "the most convincing arguments for Christianity aren't propositional arguments at all but rather the art and the saints that the faith produces -- that is, the stories Christians tell and live." If I understand this correctly, the idea seems to be that the production of something beautiful is proof of some sort of virtue. Dreher's own story, which he has made into a book, is of his sister's losing fight against Cancer and how her home community supported her in life and honored her in death. The spectacle of her funeral "did for my wife and me what syllogisms and abstractions could not -- change our hearts and, in turn, our lives," Dreher writes. It inspired them to leave Philadelphia and move to his sister's town in Louisiana.  As one of the American Conservative school, Dreher sees hope in localism. He can be counted as one of the "crunchy cons" who combine "traditional values" with a small-is-beautiful ethos inherited from the Sixties and Seventies. The answer to individualism, from this perspective, is not communism but community -- not radical equality but everyone finding a particular, personal and meaningful place in a community that shapes them through customs, rituals, and so on. Dreher's conservatism favors the particular over the abstract; it assumes, implicitly, that only the particular is real. It's conservative because, presumably in most cases, it will defend the particular against the abstract. He's taken up the challenge of explaining this as a story by writing a book about his sister. He challenges his fellow conservatives to do the same while asking, "why are contemporary conservatives so lousy at telling stories?" His challenge may actually prove whether those he's challenged are conservative or not.


Anonymous said...

"autonomous individualism" is the penultimate form of "divide and conquer".
"global capitalism" by it's very nature is anti-patriotic. It is unaccountable to anyone but the board of directors, who are not accountable to anyone but their bank account.

If this is what conservatism is all about, then what is it's defense?

Samuel Wilson said...

It sounds like a sorting out is needed separating the true "conservatives" from self-styled conservatives who are actually libertarians. Arguably, anyone who isn't libertarian is a conservative of some sort.