Damon Linker has an interesting piece up, asking “What Defines Conservatism Today?”. He writes:
To grasp what is most distinctive about conservatism, you need to dig deeper — and listen in the right places. One such place is the barber shop near my house in suburban Philadelphia. It’s a very old-fashioned business, from a world before discount haircut chains and high-end salons and day spas. Just a bunch of men cutting the hair of other men. At 46, I’m on the young end of the clientele. I usually say nothing and just listen to the conversations going on around me. They often focus on politics, and the prevailing ideology is conservatism. But what kind?
Last week, one customer made the following declaration to his barber, who nodded along in agreement: “You know, at least Trump and Carson and Cruz — they get it. Kids today think everyone on the playground deserves a medal. Parents think every kid should get an A. Their feelings are so precious. Life isn’t like that. You’ve gotta work your ass off, and then you’ll succeed. And if you don’t, you’re gonna fail, and that’s the way it should be. All this babying, it’s gotta stop. If not, the whole damn country’s gonna end up going down the tubes.”
That is the moral-ideological core of conservatism today. It presumes that life is a competition or race, that people are unequal in talent, drive, and ambition, and that those who end up on top deserve their victory and rewards — and those who come out on the bottom deserve their failure and hardships. Any attempt to overturn or even mitigate this moral order — whether through government regulation or changes in habits or assumptions in school or on the playground — amounts to an offense against justice itself.
I think Linker is on to something here, though to be honest, I would have to think through his column before I could say I agreed with it. The piece did make me ask myself what defines conservatism today — not the conservatism of the books we read, but actual conservatism as it is lived out in barbershops and other places. As longtime readers know, I have been drifting away from political conservatism for a few years now. It’s not that I think politics are unimportant, but rather that I do not see that our politics, as they are currently constituted, are capable of answering our deepest problems.
When I see what is called conservatism in America today, the question that keeps coming to mind is, “What does it seek to conserve?” It seems more and more that it defines itself mostly by saying “no” to whatever liberals want (that, and saying yes to most of what business wants, except on immigration). And hey, that is an important function! But it is not a sufficient politics, at least not one sufficient to our needs.
Russell Kirk has said that all political problems are, at bottom, religious and moral problems. What did he mean? That we can only pursue the ordering of our collective life, which is the purpose of politics, if we have a sense of the Good, that is, of an end to which our collective life must be ordered. He has written:
“The twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of the spirit and character – with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”
Does that sound like any kind of political conservatism you recognize? It doesn’t even sound like the political conservatism espoused by prominent Republican-Party-At-Prayer figures on the Religious Right.
In recent years, have become far more interested in religion and culture, not so much out of personal piety, but primarily because I share Kirk’s view. If we are to have any chance at restoring the polis, we are first going to have to restore the ekklesia. This is going to take a long, long time.
An interview Modern Farmer magazine recently did with Wendell Berry got me to thinking about the polis and the ekklesia. Check this out:
MF: What should a modern farmer be instead?
WB: A farmer who has understood the dependence of agriculture on nature. The responsible farmer would not own more land than he or she could know well and pay close attention to and care for properly. Farming has to do with everything. We can’t reduce it to a transaction between a technician and a machine.
A diversified farm of reasonable size—100 to 200 acres of good land here—to farm it well is to solve structural problems of the same nature as a novelist encounters. You have to have a spatial structure, the layout of the fields and so on, and a temporal structure that determines what comes first, what next, and so on. Such problems must be addressed by a good farmer on a good farm every day.
MF: How can you tell a good farm?
WB: The looks of it are satisfying. A good farm is recognized as good partly by its beauty: the presence of trees, grass, good livestock on the pastures. If you go up into Holmes County, Ohio, where the Amish are thriving on farms of 80 to 125 acres, you would be impressed by the flowers in the dooryards, the beautifully kept kitchen gardens, the lawns, the birdhouses, the beehives.
The old way of neighborly work-swapping here involved much talk. Neighbors worked together, a matter of utmost practicality, with a needed economic result, but the day’s work was also a social occasion. Is this a “spiritual” connection between neighbors, and between the neighborhood and its land? I suppose so, but only by being also a connection that is practical, economic, social, and pleasant. And affectionate.
That whole thing of looking somebody straight in the eye and saying something—my goodness. “I love you,” right into somebody’s face, right into their eyes, what a fine thing. Who would want to miss it?
Note this line: “The responsible farmer would not own more land than he or she could know well and pay close attention to and care for properly.” In the same way, the late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas believed that a church could not do what a church is supposed to do if it grew beyond a certain size. It ought to become two congregations.
A half-formed thought: learning how to be a proper local church, in the sense that Wendell Berry meant about the farm, and Archbishop Dmitri meant about the local congregation, is a prerequisite to learning how to be political in the best sense of the term. Learning how to order our own individual lives, and our common life, around the common good, as revealed to us in Scripture and Tradition.
What I’m getting at is groping our way to a more organic understanding of society, and the polity, an understanding in which liberty is ordered by a shared sense of the Good, lived out in community. At this point, all I expect out of the Republican Party is that it fight to protect the space between the State and mediating institutions (churches, schools, and the like), so that we can rediscover and reinstate what has been lost to us in modernity.
Berry says, of farming: “We can’t reduce it to a transaction between a technician and a machine.” The same is true of the life of the polis, and of the life of the ekklesia. (If your local church is little more than a Sacrament Factory, you’ve got big problems.) A true conservatism grasps that, and seeks to reclaim the older understanding, and to re-integrate it into our postmodern lives. This quote from Russell Kirk perfectly encapsulates my own conservatism:
“I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.”
All hail the Battered Gargoyle conservatives, upon whom I suspect much more depends than it now appears, even to us.