When the going gets tough, most people take evasive action. We human beings resist accommodating a reality that might challenge our favorite assumptions and the supposed safety and predictability of our accustomed ways. That we might be poorly adapted to our historical circumstances is a profoundly unappealing possibility.
Most of us are not very flexible or creative to begin with. To take full account of a truly disturbing historical situation is to risk a potentially painful reassessment of basic motives and priorities. Nothing is more uncomfortable than having to question one’s moral-spiritual health, to say nothing of having to change oneself.
Evasiveness being a part of life, it is an important task of civilization to counter this misuse of mind and imagination. Conservatives used to pride themselves on being anchored in historical reality and on thus being particularly resistant to illusion. But the reluctance to face facts has become epidemic in America and the Western world, and at present many putative “conservatives” are as prone as others to hiding from troubling historical circumstances.
Just what disturbing facts are being evaded? What human beings avoid the most is the truth about themselves, and it is in large part to keep that truth from surfacing that they look away from—or make light of—potentially disquieting historical circumstances.
The moral-spiritual and cultural roots of our accumulating difficulties have been much discussed. Here, to set the stage for discussing “conservative” forms of escape, a brief list of some of the more obvious symptoms of the crisis of American and Western civilization will illustrate the depth and range of our problems. The phenomena in question are in a way very familiar, but habits of escape keep them from being viewed together and truly registering.
Consider the trends promoted by America’s most influential elites—what, using an Aristotelian term, might be called its “regime”—in the centers of finance and politics, the “name” universities, the media, the publishing houses, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and, to a lesser extent, the churches. This regime—including leaders in many or most of the churches—is hostile to the old Western view of man and society. For example, the universities and “the culture” have virtually abandoned their traditional civilizing function and have become vehicles for self-indulgent desire and trendy, thought-controlling ideology.
In politics, patterns of profound irresponsibility are deeply ingrained. The United States is turning into an oligarchic banana republic pretending to be a democracy. Crony capitalism and unexampled greed are crowding out responsible business. The country is moving fast toward a $20 trillion national debt. States, counties, and municipalities are tottering on the brink of insolvency. The private debt of Americans is astounding. They and their government are routinely spending incredible amounts of money that they do not have. The Federal Reserve and the politicians routinely facilitate this indebtedness and assist in a huge transfer of wealth to those who make money on the indebtedness.
Income inequalities are stark. America’s manufacturing base is eroding relative to those of other nations. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Unemployment is said to be back to “normal” levels, but in many places and in parts of the population those levels are staggering. Millions have dropped out of the labor force and are no longer counted among the unemployed. Many young people live with their parents and cannot afford to marry and raise families.
The country has lost control of its borders. In foreign policy the United States keeps intervening in the affairs of distant countries and provoking tensions with major powers. In the Middle East it has made a complete shambles, causing death and suffering of mind-boggling proportions. As for the enormous financial costs of these interventions, they are, like so many other public expenses, put on the nation’s credit card.
Europe is in some respects even worse off. There, escapism is, if anything, more rampant. European leaders will not recognize that they and people like them have put their nations on a course of precipitous decline and chronic instability. And yet it should be obvious, for example, that the deeds of terror in places like Paris, Brussels, London, and Madrid are skirmishes or guerilla attacks in a simmering civil war in which sheer criminality, pseudo-religion, and ethnic-cultural tensions are prominent ingredients.
America’s instability and conflict look a little different, but the trends of dissolution and fragmentation are the same. Yet simultaneously, the political center is trying to assert quasi-totalitarian control.
These developments are, in a manner of speaking, known to the public at large, and they do, subconsciously at least, bother large portions of the population. But their import for the present and the future does not quite sink in. A kind of somnambulism helps mask what the political, intellectual, and cultural regime has wrought. Even much of the opposition to what is happening evinces escapism and becomes dreamy or faint. To that extent it protects the regime by defusing, confusing, and distracting.
Two putatively conservative forms of opposition exemplify the general phenomenon of denial. Though quite different in appearance, the two are very similar in their practical effects. The one assumes the historical situation to be dark indeed; the other plays down the problems and tries to look on the bright side.
Many Christians are calling for a return to moral and religious basics and for a reinvigoration of family and community life. Nothing would seem to be more appropriate and encouraging or to be more conservative. Are not our problems at bottom moral-spiritual? But here as elsewhere habits of avoidance threaten to turn a sound impulse into self-deluding escape.
It is common for supposedly “traditionalist” Christians to say that the historical situation has become so bad that little can be done to reverse destructive trends. People of faith must resign themselves to retreating into their own separate spheres, to keep the flame alive in their corner of human existence. Has not Christianity always recognized an inevitable tension between faith and the world?
The great appeal of withdrawing from discouraging circumstances is familiar to history. Consider, for example, what Plato thinks of as the posture of philosophers in all but the most propitious circumstances. As the guardians of ideal possibilities, they will in ordinary and therefore dispiriting circumstances hide from the world and “keep themselves unspotted from wickedness and wrong in this life.”
Christians of this kind might be referred to as “catacomb” Christians. The term does not describe members of terribly exposed minorities who are trying to escape ruthless persecution, as in Iraq or Syria today. These people are being realistic in their circumstances. The alternative would be martyrdom. For catacomb Christians, however, retreating from trouble is the default position. When does the world not represent a threat? Catacomb Christians flee the world even in anticipation of a dark age. They consider this withdrawal noble, true to the spirit of Christ. Should not a Christian to the greatest extent possible avoid entanglement with a fallen, perverse world?
Two objections immediately come to mind. It might be argued first of all that what is needed in threatening historical circumstances like ours is not a general disposition of retreat from challenges but a spirit of moral-spiritual toughness, a readiness and willingness to take on the world. In our era of flight from reality there is a danger that in practice a supposed return to moral-religious basics will turn into a combination of trepidation and dreaminess.
Secondly, the mainstream of historical Christianity does not regard a general withdrawal from the world as appropriate to the vast majority of humanity, except in the limited, obvious sense that human beings are to be acutely aware of and protect against sin, especially their own.
Almost from the beginning Christianity discerned two separate, though intimately connected and mutually supportive, paths to salvation. Both paths have the same ultimate purpose but involve different commitments with regard to life in this world. Other religions make a similar distinction. There is the special pursuit of holiness for which Jesus himself set the standard. This is the path for those few who feel personally called to take the most direct but also most demanding route to the Kingdom of God—now, before the end of time. To pursue otherworldliness and the peace that passeth all understanding in the most uncompromising manner, they leave to others the obligations and distractions of an ordinary, worldly life—parenting, enterprise, politics, military service—as the disciples did.
This attraction to an unqualified striving for holiness is what gave rise to monasticism and kindred forms of spirituality. For people on this path, certain words of Jesus are felt to be binding in a special, personal, and literal way: “Take no thought for the morrow,” “walk the extra mile,” “turn the other cheek,” and so on. This path entails a moral and spiritual discipline and commitment far more demanding and focused than that of ordinary Christian devotion and responsibility.
The vision of otherworldliness is not irrelevant for parents, business owners, teachers, engineers, politicians, or soldiers, but they understand it from a distance, as it were, and for them it has a much different practical import. For parents, literally to take no thought for the morrow would be the height of irresponsibility. Their children would suffer the consequences of their lightheartedness. For the commander in chief of the U.S. military or for a general to “turn the other cheek” in the face of attack would be to drag those in their charge with them into defeat and subjugation. It is different with the few individuals who have chosen the path of otherworldliness. They can pursue that path wherever it might lead without detriment to anybody else.
Conflating or blending “world-defying” otherworldliness with the proper way to live in this world breaks sharply with the mainstream of Christian thought. Especially in our era of escapism, turning rules that are intended for monks or other religiosi into a model for those who are to make the best of this world is to invite dreamy escape from large and acute problems.
But who would criticize a return to moral and spiritual basics, to churches, parenthood, neighborliness, community, localism, and charity—and to the front porch? For decades this author has argued for greater moral-spiritual realism, for a renewed emphasis on character as the center of morality, for shoring up families, local groups, and communities—for their own sake first of all but also because, without such reinvigoration, limited, decentralized government and constitutionalism would disappear.
But at a time of rampant moral-spiritual confusion, stressing the darkness of our age and encouraging believers to retreat into their own little corner of the world is likely to generate escapist idyllic dreaming. To associate a return to religious basics with the life of monks who have “renounced” the world risks creating the wholly misleading appearance that there might be but a small step between living appropriately in the world and pursuing the life of the religiosi. It is to suggest the possibility of a moral-spiritual shortcut to otherworldliness. However kindred the two paths may be in their ultimate purpose, they actually involve very different disciplines and roles. Blurring the distinction between them cheapens the notion of otherworldliness and undermines the type of moral-spiritual toughness that life in the mundane world requires.
A romantic, less-than-realistic approach to what needs to be done in the world may, for example, conceal from the believer that the powers that be, including the federal government, may not, or not for long, tolerate religious and communal autonomy. For this reason alone people concerned to return to religious basics must be disposed to engage hostile forces in a concerted and persistent way across a broad front. An idyllicizing notion of otherworldliness induces a shirking of responsibility for worldly matters that urgently need attention.
Realizing the limited reach and efficacy of politics must not become an excuse for a general retreat from the front line of life. Granted, different people must play different roles. Those who have chosen the special witnessing of otherworldliness do, by definition, leave ordinary worldly responsibilities to parents, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers, politicians, soldiers, scientists, et al., although here and there their roles may overlap with those of people active in the world. Most who lead ordinary lives will, and should, give their best energy in family, church, and local community, but these efforts should be influenced as little as possible by sentimental spirituality. What seems most needed is the virtual opposite: a moral-spiritual toughness capable of taking on our historical predicament. We all have a responsibility—small or great depending on our personal gifts and circumstances—to do what might be done to reverse large, dangerous trends. A wish to stay away from potentially painful, daunting tasks, understandable though it is, aids and abets the destructive forces.
Another type of evasion that might be construed as “conservative” and religious is in appearance the opposite of the one just discussed. Rather than citing the radical perversity of the world as a reason not to engage its dark forces, this kind of escape justifies not confronting them by playing down their perversity. It is a form of whistling past the graveyard. The whistler tells himself that our historical situation is not so bad as it might appear. He knows the great power of the regime and dreads the sharp reaction that real resistance to it would elicit. Who wants to pay the price for openly and more than marginally criticizing the regime—getting a reputation as a troublemaker and extremist, being cut off from funding and preferment? Career considerations and greed combine with fear to produce a sometimes barely conscious pandering to the powers that be.
The whistler convinces himself and others that life is always full of problems and imperfections and that we should not exaggerate our difficulties. He persuades himself that a few minor adjustments or additions would make things pretty much what they ought to be. The edge can be taken off threatening phenomena by relabeling them. Traditional terms like “justice,” “virtue,” “love,” “liberty,” “compassion,” “community,” and “God” can be redefined to accommodate current trends. What could be more constructive and conservative?
So no need to pick an unseemly and personally costly fight with the regime. By politely asking it to make marginal corrections, there is a good chance that you will have bestowed upon you that most coveted of all titles, that of being a “moderate.” This is the regime’s reward to those who put up harmless opposition.
Hordes of nonthreatening critics surround the regime. They are ubiquitous in journalism, where Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and New York Times columnist David Brooks might serve as particularly good examples.
From the point of view of the powers that be, minimizing our problems or looking away from them because they seem overwhelming come in practice to much the same thing. The regime is spared any serious challenge. Conservative opposition of this kind is positively useful to the status quo in that it helps disarm and divert potentially damaging criticism. Cautious, tentative critics can expect to be treated kindly, if condescendingly. Even those with little special ability can expect some scraps from the table. The more gifted among the loyal critics can achieve elevated status and become, for example, quasi-official spokesmen for “conservatism.” They become, in all but superficial appearance, integral parts of the regime.
Really to assess and counteract the broad and precipitous decline of our society and civilization requires first of all resistance to sedatives. It demands realism, toughness, energy, and creativity. Such enormous damage has the regime done that even the normally placid and confused general populace is catching on. Despite the air of escapism emanating from the powers that be, popular demands for more than marginal and cosmetic change are growing and intensifying. In both major political parties there is open rebellion.
Members of the regime, including the permanent “Republicrat” government, are reacting to the nascent rebellion with incredulity and indignation. Imagine, questioning their right to rule! People whose careers are intertwined with the existing order lament the extremism and sheer vulgarity of the challenges to the regime. It is as if they did not know that American politics and general culture are already mired in vulgarity and that simplistic, demagogic forms of expression are already dominant in ostensibly respectable media and other public discussion. But for dissent to adapt to the reality of a corrupt banana republic and democracy and to cleverly employ the methods of the regime against it—why, the temerity of it!
Yet another form of evasiveness that might have been discussed at length is ideology, whether of the right or left. Partly under the influence of the British statesman-thinker Edmund Burke, modern conservatism has taken pride in being anti-ideological: simplistic intellectual abstractions must not stand in the way of grasping and dealing with complex, concrete, historical reality. But in today’s America, ideology is one of the most common forms of denial, even on the right. For example, representatives of Conservatism, Inc., rattle off their ready-made “principles,” as if historical circumstances did not matter. For the ideologue, solutions to problems are always and everywhere the same—and here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on down the line. Never mind the facts on the ground.
To repeat, reality can be hard to take in its unforgiving starkness. People who want to make the best of troubling historical circumstances must shake off tempting illusions and other escape mechanisms and employ all available levers and resources. They must avoid the twin forms of denial: retreat and surrender.
Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics at Catholic University and the author of America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire and the novel A Desperate Man.