David Brooks makes a weak case for Romney that is, for me, the only persuasive one. Indeed, if I can bring myself to vote for the man in the presidential election (I am fairly certain he will be the nominee), it will be because of the case Brooks makes. Excerpt:
Finally, Romney can be dull. Political activists like exciting candidates. But most people, who have lower expectations from politics and politicians, just want them to provide basic order. They want government to be orderly so they can be daring in other spheres of their lives. Romney is the most predictable of the candidates and would make for the most soporific of presidents. That’s a good thing. Government would function better if partisan passions were on a lower flame.
It’s exciting to have charismatic leaders. But often the best leaders in business, in government and in life are not glittering saviors. They are professionals you hire to get a job done.
The strongest case for Romney is that he’s nobody’s idea of a savior.
That last line contains a profoundly conservative insight, one I was meditating on last night, though from a different angle.
In a phone conversation earlier in the evening with a friend asking about my impending move back to my hometown, I told him that it’s a strange thing with me, but at 44, I find myself wanting to do nothing more than sit on the front porch late into the evening with a glass of beer or wine, talking with friends. What I meant by that was that this activity, which you might call contemplative leisure, strikes me as more spiritually and philosophically fulfilling than all the aspirations I had as a younger man. It’s not that I’m advocating idling; conversation and contemplation are, for me, a different way of exploring the meaning of life, and seeking wisdom that we can use to lift up ourselves and our neighbors. And, of course, I have to write about these things. It’s a compulsion; it’s what I do.
But why? Why should it be that after 20 years of moving around from city to city, working on some pretty exciting beats (e.g., politics and culture in Washington, DC; film and politics in New York City), that I find it so attractive to go back to my hometown to think, and to write, and to talk to people, and to just … live?
“You’re having a reverse mid-life crisis,” my wife said. Most people having a mid-life crisis, she explained, are worn out by the tedium of their lives, and seek something to revive their interest. You are worn out by the busy-ness of your life, and seek rest.
There may be something to that, but not in an obvious way. I thought about what she said, and considered the path I’ve been on for the first half of my adult life so far. Please understand that what follows is a tentative attempt at self-diagnosis, but only that. I’m not making any grand statements about reality. I’m musing on the changes that have taken place within myself and my own worldview.
It seems to me that I have been motivated until now by two great ideologies: political conservatism and organized religion. I don’t mean “ideology” quite in the harsh way Russell Kirk means it when he says:
Ideology does not mean political theory or principle, even though many journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism — and more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning. The ideologue — Communist or Nazi or of whatever affiliation — maintains that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means, though these means ordinarily involve violent social revolution. The ideologue immanentizes religious symbols and inverts religious doctrines.
I was never a fanatic, political or otherwise, but to the extent that I was an ideologue, it was because I believed that whatever was wrong with the world could be largely addressed by political conservatives coming into power, and by the advance of orthodox (i.e., conservative) Catholicism. If only we turned out the liberals in our political system and within the Church, we’d be a lot better off, I thought. I was never that crude about it, because if I had put it to myself that way, I would have seen the folly in that position. So I veiled that position beneath sophistries. But it really was what I believed, and it animated my writing and the passions of my life.
Over the past 10 years, those ideologies died for me. The Bush administration and the Republican Congress shattered any illusion I had about conservative governance and the received wisdom of American conservative doctrine on foreign affairs and the economy. The deep and wide corruption of the institutional Catholic church in the matter of the systematic sexual abuse of children had a similar effect on my religious worldview. Here’s the thing, though: I did not exchange failed ideologies for competing ideologies. I did not become a liberal, in large part because I believe contemporary liberalism is even more wrong than contemporary conservatism. And though I left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy, I did not invest Orthodox Christianity with the same triumphalist idealism that had been so central to my Catholicism. Whenever I see an Orthodox triumphalist, I think to myself: poor fool, he’ll learn — if he’s lucky.
I find myself exasperated, when I’m not bored, by people in our public life who think and act as if all would be well with us if we would just embrace their ideology. I don’t have cable TV at home, but when I’m at the gym doing an hour on the elliptical trainer, I flip around from channel to channel on the screen attached to the exercise machine. I’ve been outside the world of political argument in the mass media for long enough now to watch these talking heads with amusement and despair. Last night, for example, flipping back and forth between Fox and MSNBC, I found some truth-telling on both channels, but mostly I found a thoroughgoing sense of combative certainty that struck me as, well, a big lie. I mean that not to call the talking heads of left and right deceivers, but rather I mean to call them self-deceivers. I will grant that they’re not cynics (I could be wrong here), but men and women who really do believe what they say. It seems to me, though, that they are so given over to partisanship, to ideology, that they are not reliable guides to the truth, but rather guides to what the ideological position of their own side is, and nothing more.
This is just to say that I don’t believe the world will be much better off if the people from either Fox or MSNBC had their way. I don’t believe the people on Fox and MSNBC have much insight into why things are as they are, and more to the point, I don’t believe they really care. You don’t get on TV unless you are absolutely certain that You Are Right And Good, And They Are Wrong And Bad. I know well about how my own unconscious epistemological biases, clouded by ideology of my personal politics and religion, kept me from seeing things that did not accord with the worldview I held to. To live in truth, or to make the attempt, required giving up and ideological way of approaching the world. It is difficult to do that when you live in the middle of it. And you may live in the middle of nowhere, but if you spend your time immersed in cable television or talk radio, you are living in the middle of it.
As my regular readers know, I have come to accept the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s view that nearly all our disputes are not really arguments between conservatism or liberalism, but rather arguments among types of liberalism. He means by that “classical liberalism,” and by that standard, America is a liberal country to the marrow. (Indeed, traditionalists have a big problem in that in America, the tradition is … liberal.) I have also come under the sway of the skepticism of John Gray, the British political philosopher who was once a Thatcherite, but who now sees the conventional left-right distinctions in our political life as unrealistic and unsustainable. Gray is not a religious man — indeed, his “Black Mass” is a fairly chilling examination of how religious utopianism paved the way for secularist utopianism and mass murder in the 20th century — but he respects religion. “It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion,” he writes. “It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human.”
Gray can come across as a cosmopolitan traditionalist. “A modern liberal society cannot function if people are locked into networks of family and clan, and acquire their beliefs and values from authoritarian religious leaders,” he writes. If our economy is to continue in its present form, all that ties people to their families and their places and their traditions must be dissolved, and the family atomized. This is why big-business conservatives and the Republican Party are a threat to authentic conservatism, in my view, and, I think, in Gray’s. Yet this is a radical view, at least in America, where the conservatism is mostly of the libertarian variety. Still, the deep and serious problems that modern market liberalism and its worldview causes for us (Marx was right to say that capitalism is the most revolutionary force in human history) deepen, even as we lack the resources in our tradition to deal with them. Russell Kirk, notably, disagreed that there isn’t much in the American tradition to support traditional conservatism; I shall be reading more deeply into Kirk from my front porch in Louisiana.
Anyway, the religious view of which John Gray is most skeptical is the myth of Progress, in both its secular and religious forms. “No traditional myth is as untruthful as the modern myth of progress,” he writes. And: “Poetry and religion are more realistic guides to life.” I thought of this last night as I settled under the covers with my new copy of Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, which listening to a couple of free MP3 lectures from Yale, available on iTunes, inspired me to buy yesterday. In his introduction, Esolen writes:
For there are three principles regarding created things that I find fundamental to Dante’s view of the world and its beauty; they are also principles that underlie the beauty of Dante’s poem, and that, for our purposes in the Inferno, will help us see the justice that inspired his zeal. They are these: Things have an end. Things have meaning. Things are connected.
I had never thought about it in quite that way before, but Esolen describes, in those last three sentences, my own view of the world. But what does that mean? And how do those convictions apply to the world we live in — not the world of abstractions, but the world of the here and now? I want you to understand that I do not mean at all to devalue the work of professional politicians. Somebody has to, as David Brooks puts it, “provide basic order.” We have to live with the politicians we have, not the politicians we wish we had. But how can we get better politicians? How can we choose leaders who are wiser, more prudent, more competent? How can we ourselves become wiser, more prudent, more competent? I used to think, “by electing more conservatives” and “by converting more people to real Catholicism.” But that’s when I was something of an ideologue.
It would be a mistake to make an ideology of anti-ideology, by which I mean it is also a dead end to get so lost in contemplating what’s wrong with the world, and how very far we are from perfection, that one despairs of ever doing anything good and useful. That is as much a sin against truth and authentic hope as is believing the lie that all will turn out well if only more people came to think and vote and worship like our fine selves. One reason I admire Wendell Berry is his dogged refusal to subscribe to any ideology. He told me once that even though he feels strongly about environmental preservation, he could not join up with the environmentalists because in his view, they made no provision for human community, because they saw human beings as somehow alien to the natural world. I respect that vision, but I sometimes think of what a politically engaged friend of mine said to me once about Berry: that his purity is so rigorous that he makes the Perfect the enemy of the Good Enough For Now. That is a temptation I face.
I encourage you to go into the archives of this magazine and read through the short essays from its 2006 “What Is Left, What Is Right?” issue. One reason I’m so pleased to be affiliated with TAC now is that this journal is where people of a conservative philosophical and political disposition can talk about the challenges of living by the Permanent Things in our time at a certain remove from partisan political skirmishing. Anyway, in Jeremy Beer’s contribution to the 2006 symposium, he wrote about the small successes of the Brandywine Conservancy, a localist preservation group in Pennsylvania:
The tragedy is that the conservative movement cannot take credit for this groundswell of conservative feeling—not here nor, I suspect, anywhere else. These small, local, civic groups, all of them trying to protect goods necessary to human flourishing, do not appeal to the conservative tradition in making their cases, nor do they attract (for the most part) right-wingers to their causes. The more self-conscious today’s conservative man is of his conservatism, the more likely he is to be suspicious of such organizations. He has been taught to think in terms of ideological abstractions. Say the word “conservation” or, heaven help you, “sustainability,” and he merely flips to the flash card in his head marked “Environmentalism: Bad.” Appeal to tradition or inherited rights, and he reminds you that, In This Time of War, Sacrifices Must Be Made. And, besides being the price of capitalist progress, he has been assured that studies actually show Wal-Mart is good for communities; meanwhile, his own town has lost, oh, half a dozen or more locally owned businesses since the Smiley Face moved in ten miles down the road, finishing the community-killing work started by the federal purse and the federal bulldozer. But what does personal observation count in the face of the great think tanks’ official authority?
The conservers, preservers, savers, and protectors—conservatism once stood for such folks, and such folks were at one time conservatives. But they make bad apparatchiks. They aren’t ideologically motivated and aren’t “thinking big.” They are simply concerned, if often locally prominent, citizens. They may also be sentimental saps, but that’s understandable. As normally functioning human beings, they have formed dear attachments to their social and physical worlds. They like their communities, want to see them thrive and prosper, want to see them made or kept beautiful, want to preserve (or reinvigorate) their sense of their places as unique, and prefer to interact daily with people they know and love—or even hate.
Here is where Russell Kirk was truly exemplary. He ought to be remembered not as “the principal architect of the postwar conservative movement,” as the quasi-official adulation has it, but because he went home. There he restored an old house, planted trees, and became a justice of the peace; took a wife (and kept her) and had four children; wrote ghost stories about census-takers and other bureaucrats getting it in the neck; took in boatpeople and bums; and denounced every war in which the U.S. became involved—especially the first Gulf War, which he detested. And he also denounced abstractions because he knew they were drugs deployed to distract us from the infinitely more important work of the Brandywine Conservancies of the world.
If there is ever to be truth in our political labeling, we need conservatives who will go home, or at least make homes somewhere, conservatives who will abjure Washington and New York and pick up the struggle in their own burgs to help (re-)build real communities, work to conserve the land and its resources, and ally with their naturally like-minded brethren in order to revive—locally—the religious and historic traditions that might sustain us. In fact, those are the only conservatives we need.
And he also denounced abstractions because he knew they were drugs deployed to distract us from the infinitely more important work of the Brandywine Conservancies of the world.
Yes. I have a sense that the work ahead of me in helping to reconnect with and sustain my broader family in the town of my birth, and to help our neighbors in the way they helped us through my sister’s terminal illness, and to do what I can to improve, within the limits that naturally exist, the place where my family has been for five generations — I have a sense that this work is more challenging and exciting than anything I did before. I want to read more poetry, practice more religion (both prayer and works of mercy). I want to explore more carefully in light of these convictions: Things have an end. Things have meaning. Things are connected.
From my front porch in St. Francisville, I will be able to see the world in a way that was hidden to me when I lived in these other wonderful places. I know what life looks like from Washington, from New York, and elsewhere. After my conversion experience through the grace abounding in the good death of my dear sister, I see, and want to see, through different eyes now.